Warming up the crowd at the 40th annual mid-April annual CATESOL conference with examples of English “bloopers,” from the likes of politicians and newspapers, educator H. Douglas Brown shared a San Francisco Chronicle headline that read, “For molesting kids, man is sentenced to English lessons,” and a quote from Gov. Schwarzenegger in which he said that “gay marriage is something that should happen between a man and a woman.”

Brown, retired from teaching in the graduate TESOL program at San Francisco State University, warmly acknowledged the good works of CATESOL since the 1970s, citing the practical, yet creative, hands-on information teachers have taken home from its conferences. He then reviewed the methodologies we’ve experienced in those 40 years, looked at where we were at the millennium (nearly ten years ago now!), and clarified today’s thinking and how we can move forward.

In the 70s, he recalled, ESL and EFL teachers were experimenting with the likes of “Suggestopedia,” through which one would learn English almost by osmosis (now pretty well debunked!), declaring Transformational Grammar irrelevant, and basically trying out methods that were, he said, “…probably too touchy-feely.” However, the concept of communicative competence sprang forth during this time and has endured ever since.

At the millennium, some important theories at the forefront, according to Brown, were corpus linguistics which uses natural language at its base, CALL (computer-assisted language learning), the value of non-NESTs (native English-speaking teachers), and the concept of multiple intelligences. Regarding non-NESTS, Brown said, “The current thinking is they’re probably better than NESTs. NonNESTs have all personally gone through the process of learning a second language very well and thus can appreciate their learners' journeys and issues. Additionally, they usually have a deeper cultural appreciation for both the first and the second language culture. The minor issue of a non-native pronunciation is easily offset by these factors.”

Looking forward to the next decade, Brown declared three TESOL issues and trends to be particularly important: situated language learning; alternatives in assessment; and social responsibility.

Situated Language Learning  Akin to its predecessor community-based learning, in which a community of learners shares goals and outcomes often having to do with using language to better their everyday survival skills, situated language learning, according to Brown, attempts to have learners actually live their curriculum; learners are clearly “people with lives, families, jobs.” Their learning arises from the authentic contexts of their lives, through social interaction and collaboration. Brown admitted that this can be “a challenge to put into practice.” Representative components of situated learning include:

  • Cognitive apprenticeships

  • Authentic contexts

  • Field trips and workshops

  • Problem-solving

  • Cooperative learning

In a follow-up email interview, when asked to discuss “cognitive apprenticeships, Brown said that “the early literature on situated learning came out of community development in underdeveloped countries, and in that context promoted the concept of apprenticeships -- teaching people [things like] agriculture [and] health, but in a hands-on fashion where the learner worked side by side with a mentor/teacher. In education the term ‘cognitive’ apprenticeship, came about, as I understand it, to emphasize the academic context. Lave and Wenger, 1991, were the ones to bring all this into educational circles.” (See sidebar, “Virtual English Learning”).

Authentic Assessment  Long a proponent of authentic, varied assessment both summative and formative, Brown said, “Where would we be without some standards?” Yet, he would like to see educators “bringing more humanity into the assessment process,” and would also like to promote more student autonomy in their own assessment. Believing that traditional assessment fosters extrinsic motivation only through things such as

  • One shot, standardized exams

  • Decontextualized test items

  • Scores that suffice for feedback

Brown advocates assessment that can be “good and beneficial to students,” such as

  • Continuous long-term assessment

  • Contextualized communicative tasks

  • Open-ended, creative answers

  • Formative, interactive feedback,

and that can foster students to be intrinsically motivated to take part in their own assessment. What Brown sees as “challenges for the next decade,” are:

  • Multiple measures of performance

  • Use of alternatives in assessment, such as self- and peer-assessment, teacher conferences, and informal “coaching” assessment

  • Promotion of assessment as a strategic, intrinsically motivating aspect of the teaching-learning process

  • Continuing to influence educational and political bureaucracies away from the myth of the infallibility of high-stakes standardized testing

Social responsibility  Brown concluded his address by applauding the TESOL organization (www.tesol.org) for officially acknowledging TESOL’s Social Responsibility Interest Section. He quoted directly from what was written by this group:
“….The Interest Section aims to promote social responsibility within the TESOL profession and to advance social equality, respect for differences, and multicultural understanding through education.” To this end, Brown suggested we work with “publishers and materials developers to include controversial topics that challenge learners’ critical thinking capacity and continue to be agents for change, but “be cautious in all this, lest our spiritual zeal stifle students’ creative, individual thinking.”

Treated to a well-deserved, rousing standing ovation, Brown joked that he was glad he had agreed to pass up a great weekend playing tennis to speak with his colleagues. And we colleagues were equally, if not more so, delighted.

Sidebar - “Virtual English Learning”  A creative example of a situated learning environment was discussed in a paper by Taiwanese English professor Ya-Chun Shih, in 2008, in which “A 3D virtually synchronous communication architecture for situated language learning [was] designed to foster communicative competence among undergraduate students who have studied English as a foreign language (EFL). …. The 3D virtual reality technology offers an appropriate and appealing context for foreign language learning.  Undergraduate students in Taiwan [were] allowed to communicate with different people over the Internet, construct their knowledge, and develop their communicative competence through an interactive online virtual environment. A 3D campus-like interactive learning environment was designed to help learners develop English communicative competence. Students conducted synchronous communication and real-time interactions in written and spoken format. Moreover, learners were given opportunities for engaging in various goal-based activities and teleporting to other virtual worlds in the target culture.”