Teachers are not problem-solvers – learners solve their own problems, by and large – but they talk a good deal about it.

This morning for example in class we were talking about problem-solving techniques, and tried a bit of brainstorming: one of my student’s thought it would save the Omani army a great deal in overheads if they gave everyone a holiday one day a month, and the risk of being caught napping in the event of an invasion or an emergency would increase only by about 3%; and someone else mused that OISE might save a bob or two if teachers photocopied on both sides of the paper.

To repeat, teachers are not problem solvers, but they do provide the context in which learners can address their own problems, insofar as learning a language is a problem or set of problems, and not a chronic predicament or aggravation which can only be ameliorated by ongoing palliative care.

Once in a while, language teaching does start to look a lot more like problem-solving, however; as this afternoon, when another student, an Italian, told me he had two weeks to prepare to deliver a course in structural engineering at the university of Yaoundé in Cameroon. To state such an aim is very clearly to formulate language-learning not as a life skill but as a problem to be solved, and pretty quickly at that.

I don’t know whether we’ll solve it in two weeks, but we’ll give it a good try; and in the end, experience suggests that the fact of doing the course will be the best full-immersion course imaginable. Perhaps even here we really are providing more of a context: a sense that going a bit wrong here and there is not the end of the world; that there is more than one way to skin a cat (or express an idea); that a few basic tools well-mastered can be more than enough to build all sorts of structures; and that in the end the students will meet the teacher more than halfway – as the student in question has already begun to demonstrate. He is not going to provide solutions to his students in Yaoundé, after all, but tools and contexts with which they can frame them and address them themselves.


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