Assume you have 2 classes, one group of 30 adolescents in a day-school, and one group of 15 adults who are learning English for business reasons. How do you think these two classes would differ?
It should be understood from the outset that the three guiding considerations in any classroom context are the teacher, the student and the learning environment. These close and sometimes complex inter-relationships need to be taken into account when discussing the differences between a class of 30 adolescents in a day school (C 1) and one of 15 adults learning English for business reasons (C 2).
The most central element in the classroom is motivation: what motivates the teacher, what motivates the student and to what extent do the two coincide in reflection of the learning environment? We know "it's motivation that is the key, not the emphasis on innate ability or personality... it's finding a way to engage every[one] in meaningful activities and helping them to enjoy learning" (Groundwater-Smith, Cusworth et al, 1998). With this in mind, the teacher is undoubtedly the primary motivational influence within the learning environment.
However, to foster this in functional and formative ways, the teacher needs to be aware of his / her own motivations alongside those that find the student in the classroom at the same time. One can understand motivation to be either extrinsic or intrinsic. Extrinsic motivation is external to the actual activity and might be seen by the student to be collaborative or coercive, encouraging or discouraging (or indifferent) and may elicit responses that are in keeping with the particular perception. Intrinsic motivation, on the other hand, is seen as .".. the motive that keeps individuals at a task through its own inherent qualities" (McInerney & McInerney 1998) and often reveals a ."..
joyous absorption in the activity" (Csikszentmihalyi 1975) through "a facility for learning that sustains the desire to learn" (Corno & Rohrkemper 1985). To sustain the desire to learn, the teacher should focus on several fundamental areas. Firstly, in both C 1 and C 2, it is important for the teacher to instil confidence in his / her capacity to teach, as well as the method of teaching. While there is no proven method that is universal to all teaching, students will determine quickly enough in their own minds whether or not a teacher is worth their while. This means the teacher should communicate confidence in himself / herself and the methods s / he adopts. In this way, s / he demonstrates sound knowledge of subject material, represents "a good model as the language user" (English Language Centre, Module 1), creates a positive rapport, is well-organised, purposeful and adaptable, and can ."..
ground learning experiences in real, everyday learning contexts" (Groundwater-Smith, Cusworth et al 1998). Despite bringing all these attributes to the classroom, a teacher is likely to encounter quite different responses from C 1 and C 2, particularly with regard to motivation. For a start, a student in C 1 may well be there as part of a compulsory school curriculum, bringing little or no extrinsic motivation beyond that at all. If this is true, the student is at risk of disengaging from the learning process altogether if s / he cannot be motivated intrinsically in some way. This could be a challenge for the teacher, as "research tends to support the view that motivation is a serious issue during adolescence" (McInerney & McInerney 1998). Having said that, the informed teacher will know more or less what s / he is up against.
There is little doubt that teenagers are involved in a search for identity, autonomy and self-expression and, as Harmer points out, "peer approval may be considerably more important for the student than the approval of the teacher" (2003). Of course, this can lead to disruptive elements in the classroom and this is where it becomes critical for the teacher to find ways to secure an ongoing level of interest, enjoyment and general development in the language. The key is to engage the student with material that is relevant and meaningful in a way that demonstrates use and value. Selecting authentic materials to work with and adapting them to the communicative approach can help to achieve this.
Generally speaking, today's teenagers are particularly media literate and this can be capitalised on in the classroom by teaching from a wide range of materials across the spectrum of the internet, film, television, music, computer games and the fashionable trends they tend to embody in popular culture. It is precisely because teenagers are of the media generation with a more visually orientated perspective, that using visually stimulating texts like magazines, comics and cartoons could also be an effective way to elicit and consolidate interest. The number of students in C 1 is another factor to consider when planning lessons that aim to involve them and occupy their interest. Given that it is a relatively large class and taking typical adolescent behaviour into account, it would be a sensible option to have them learning in pairs or small groups some of the time. In this way, the teacher satisfies a number of objectives: s / he can provide individualised attention if needed; s / he can group students according to strengths and needs; students interact in direct peer-to-peer activity; students enjoy a greater sense of autonomy and control over the learning experience; students strive to attain learning goals within their own capacity and with a feeling of safety and support; and, importantly, students are .".. encouraged to respond...
with their own thoughts and experience" (Harmer 2003). The spirit of intention may well be the same for the teacher when it comes to C 2 but the classroom dynamic is bound to be quite different. The sum of the differences can be captured to an extent by the understanding that whereas the students in C 1 may be inclined to challenge the teacher, those in C 2 are more likely to challenge the method. As Harmer points out, after many years of education of some kind or another, adults tend to .".. form strong opinions about how teaching and learning should be carried out" (1998).
This emphasises how most adults function from a firmly established sense of identity that can become quite rigid in its expression. This means that they may enter the classroom with a whole range of preconceived ideas and expectations of the way things ought to happen and the teacher must be prepared for this. Such expectations might be particularly more evident with the students in C 2 because their immediate objectives relate specifically to learning business English. They are in the classroom of their own volition and very much aware of what they are setting out to achieve. This means they bring a good measure of extrinsic motivation with them, which is likely to help them project and focus on their goals in a way that teenagers with less life experience find more difficult. This makes adults far more cooperative on the whole, less inclined to be disruptive and pose ongoing discipline problems and, generally, better able to concentrate on the tasks and see them through even if they are somewhat bored at times.
Having said that, the students in C 2 can present their own set of problems, some of which are typical to adult learners. Adults offer a lifetime of learning experiences that will impact directly on how they respond in the new learning environment. They carry .".. their own record[s] of success or failure" (Harmer 1998) and, in the latter case, students may experience anxiety about repeating a learning history that appears fixed to them. Harmer points out that "as teachers of adults we should recognise the need to minimise the bad effects of past learning experiences" (2003). Furthermore, older adults may fear that they have lost some of their intellectual capacity when they come to the classroom after an extended period between learning experiences.
Notwithstanding this, the C 2 students will be a lot more adept at engaging in abstract thinking than their adolescent counterparts, which is important given that the teaching of business English will have a more defined approach that may require them to relate beyond their everyday experiences. Students will be much more confident to rely on themselves and may prefer to in many cases. The smaller class size accommodates individual learning or pair-work and allows the teacher to personalise the approach to a greater extent than with C 1. Given the more technical nature of the course, this may be beneficial to both student and teacher. It will support more formal business texts and materials that demand greater understanding within more confined parameters than those of C 1. Despite their differences, there will be many similarities between the classes and, at the end of the teaching day, both should enjoy a classroom atmosphere that is positive and relaxed and a teaching style that is entertaining and enjoyable.
The last word belongs to Harmer when he says "we can diminish the fear of failure by offering activities which are achievable, paying special attention to the level of challenge presented by exercises. We need to listen to students' concerns and, in many cases, modify what we do to suit their learning tastes" (2003). Corno, L. & Rohrkemper, M.
M. 1985 'The Intrinsic Motivation to Learn in Classrooms' in D. M. McInerney & V. McInerney. 1998 Educational Psychology: Constructing Learning, Pearson Education, Australia.
Csikszentmihalyi, M 1975 'Beyond Boredom and Anxiety' in D. M. McInerney & V. McInerney. 1998 Educational Psychology: Constructing Learning, Pearson Education, Australia.
Groundwater-Smith, S, Cusworth, R & Dobbins, R 1998 Teaching: Challenges and Dilemmas Harcourt Australia Pty Ltd, Marrickville. Harmer, J 2003 The Practice of English Language Teaching, 3 rd edn, Longman, Essex. Harmer, J 1998 How to Teach English, Longman, Essex. McInerney D M & McInerney V 1998 Educational Psychology: Constructing Learning Pearson Education, Australia.