Spotlight on Uruguay: Changing Paradigms

by Maria Noel Taranto

Our educational world is changing, and really fast.

It is hence fair and even necessary to ask:

Where do we go from here?

As an experienced EFL teacher in Uruguay – a small, and, culturally speaking, European-minded South American country – and having taught for many years at all levels, I have seen my share of trends and social changes, which have obviously influenced my teaching methods and all classroom behaviour in some general (and also some specific) ways.

I, as many others in my position, have seen many approaches and techniques take us by storm, then fade, and then come back, revisited.

All these changes have been welcomed by most of us, as opportunities to enrich our working background, as it is always healthy and refreshing to reset one’s frame of mind.

In fact, it would be fair to say that language teaching methodologies, and the teaching of English as the main foreign or second language in particular, have always been miles ahead of other curricular subjects in terms of teaching styles in this part of the world.

Workshops, debates, teamwork, presentations, and drama as well as communicative strategies and functional tasks, have been commonplace in the language classroom since the sixties, whereas these techniques and methods are only now beginning to be systematically implemented in other subjects, mostly because new technologies are constantly pushing through the many limits and limitations that pre-existed.

On Uruguay.

Uruguay is very particular in many senses, and, while it is certainly comparable to Argentina in its culture, it is still very different from all “Latin American country” clichés. This small country was founded for regional, political and geographical reasons in the 1830’s and the British had a strong role in defining it. It is no surprise then that some of the biggest industries in Uruguay, the trams and railways, for instance, were initially British.

Truth be told, our origins as a people can be traced back to almost any country in Europe, as we were a land of opportunity back then, and immigrants settled here when they fled war and famine. We also have a Black Community which has provided our local forms of art with unique traces of African-related rhythms and shapes. In terms of education, however, the European influence has been stronger. It is easy to see then that English has always been a relevant language in this area, being to a certain extent intertwined with our own construction as a country.

Furthermore, state school education is completely free in Uruguay and one of its most recent additions, the Ceibal Programme, a law that has enabled each and every state school child in our country to have their own PC, has given children from all over our territory free access to the Internet, including on-line English lessons.

A profound change.

It is clear then that the arrival of new trends and viewpoints is necessary, and experimentation in the CALL field has certainly led to more sense, interest and quality in the content of our teaching materials, thus keeping us aware and awake as facilitators of knowledge, while proving efficient to the learner at the same time.

However, a kind of change is going on right now, under our very eyes, which I feel is putting all of our teaching principles, and even our own profession, under scrutiny.

This change I refer to has little to do with the teaching materials themselves, and is not in any way a local phenomenon; it is, of course, technology-related, and it is definitely a global shift that involves society as a whole, as well as us humans on an individual basis.

New audiences.

Students, learners, pupils, or whatever the label we choose to use, have come up with a completely different attitude towards learning in the last few years, one which is beginning to shake the foundations of education itself as it questions the basis and nature of our work.

Needless to say, a communicative approach to the teaching of any subject is virtually mandatory these days, and learners have gained enormous independence in terms of their chances to access knowledge. It is undeniable that nearly everything can be somehow found on the Internet, as there are tutorials on the web for anything from cookery to astrophysics.

But this easy access must derive from curiosity, or be motivated by the subject matter itself, or else the learner will never really come into contact with the fundamental data. And if the learner does find interesting and relevant material, he or she runs the risk of looking into a “tunnel”, thus missing important connections among varied areas of knowledge.

The problem basically is that, without the kind of help and orientation a teacher can give, students are likely to retain partial and even dubious information which they may regard as true, or what is worse, they could ignore vital information for lack of understanding or interest.

I am absolutely in favour of all technological resources, and I really believe them to be great learning assets in the classroom and in any learning situation. In fact, the Internet has made it possible for everybody to have an education, and this is in fact the underlying principle of the Kahn Academy, to name but one.

But I think we crucially need to discuss the contents with our students and with fellow teachers as well, in order to assist in the processing of the information found, as well as taking full advantage of these new learning possibilities.

We are now confronted with the reality that our students seem to be less and less willing to accept our help, many times simply because they feel empowered by the sheer fact that they have a better command of whatever technology is involved.

And this is my point: students are beginning to feel reluctant to accept, or they even flatly refuse advice, guidance or any intervention on the part of the teacher, as they feel they themselves can deal with all this information on their own. What is more, they believe they can search for anything, and then learn about it if and when they see fit.

Indifference or learning carelessness is a growing tendency in this area, and it is, ironically, making learning slow and teaching repetitive.

Pride vs. progress

It still is true that a friendly, fluent and effective interaction in the classroom is vital for learning to occur. Generally speaking, students respond well to a good classroom atmosphere and an optimistic attitude on the part of the teacher; also, positive evaluation and (realistic) feedback help develop successful skills and motivate.

At intermediate to advanced levels, it is fair to say that learners mostly come to class of their own accord, and so, they know they are expected to take responsibility for their learning.

However, I have lately realized that our learners’ disposition has changed quite dramatically.

We now find ourselves dealing with a new kind of audience, learners who take pride in their own judgement in learning matters, and who most of the time:

a)   are not completely sure we (teachers/tutors) are all that necessary.

b) feel they can access and process any required information at any time without help, just because they master the technology involved.

c) are not at all scared of challenges and minimize knowledge as something to be “taken” when, and if, necessary.

d) sport an excessive degree of (often unjustified) confidence in their own skills at language learning.

This “overconfident” attitude (which often unfortunately involves a lack of commitment to their learning progress and/or a planning fallacy which makes them think they will accomplish any goal in an unrealistic period) often leads to failure, or much poorer results than expected.

Sadly, as much in life is measured by results, this kind of event has a negative repercussion for both students and teaching staff. In fact we are all judged by these parameters, but I suspect that teachers suffer more when this happens, as the quality and effectiveness of their work is questioned, whereas students do not necessarily regard it as defeat.

By providing them with a flexible and independence- oriented environment we might be at the same time inadvertently contributing to their already excessive trust in their capabilities, knowledge and perhaps more than anything else, time management.

Recent poor international exam results may be a warning that our students’ ways and patterns of thinking and learning are changing, and we have not been able to thoroughly keep up with them. These disappointing results may be indicating that we should observe and adjust our methodologies to this new setting, so as to regain our students’ trust in our own relevance, and lead them to more efficient learning.

This can be done by modelling a sensible use of technology as a resource, and by providing our learners with more challenge. An improvement will be noticed if we also communicate more clearly, test more frequently, and thus become the vehicle for a more balanced and better informed attitude towards self study.

Evidently, our role in this case is not only to teach our students, but to help them assess themselves (and their learning processes) more realistically, as well as accept the fact that learning from the web requires just as much processing as any other kind of learning. And we should make sure to present this concept with sense and purpose.

What is there to do?

All in all, the idea is to find out what it is that this seemingly new and less-driven-to-learn kind of audience appears to need in order to gain knowledge and a solid command of English in terms of basic understandable pronunciation, grammatical accuracy and fluency, without losing sight of the effort required and their possible limitations.

In this transitional period, where a command of technology seems to imply for learners that they can deal with language learning successfully by themselves, and our role as teachers is definitely taking new forms, our own challenge is to find paths to reach the learner and deal with these rapidly moving paradigms.

If we simply leave our students alone to face all the intrinsic difficulties of the task in hand, we may be failing them as leaders and guides.

Author’s Bio: Maria Noel Taranto was born in Montevideo, Uruguay, M.N. Taranto (EFL teacher and Associate Diploma in TESOL) has taught professionally at all levels throughout a 30-year career. At present Taranto teaches Advanced courses, and is also a Phonetics and Pedagogical Grammar Tutor at International House Montevideo in the Teacher Training programme (Litti). M.N.Taranto lives in Montevideo and is also a well established singer.