[xmca] The View From Here

From: David Kellogg <vaughndogblack who-is-at yahoo.com>
Date: Thu Nov 01 2007 - 16:42:33 PDT

Dear DHK:
  I had to smile when I read your letter, because I remember your utter shock when you learned here in Seoul that tracking (or "level-based teaching" as it is called over here) is considered a form of student centred and even personalized instruction in Korea. I was shocked too, and that was well before it actually led to the division of whole classes and the separation of close friends.
  But as you imply in your letter, the political coloration of a great deal of pedagogical bitterness is largely extrinsic, a matter of packaging, and as a result doesn't export well. On our side of the pond we scratch our heads over the bitterness and obfuscation of your phonics/whole language debate. "But isn't it really like the difference between learning Chinese characters, which are logographic, and learning Hangeul, which is phonemic? Why can't you just do both?"
  "Whole Language" really means something quite different (but equally misleading) for us. It means that "the four skills" (that is, speaking, listening, reading and writing) are taught together (but usually in that order). As with the logographic/phonemic dispute I find myself once again external to the debate because I don't particularly want to buy the foreign packaging in which it comes. Just as I never accepted that phonemes existed (and I even doubted the psychological reality of individual words as distinct from utterances), I never believed that there were four separable skills in the first place.
  To me making a clear distinction between "speaking" and "listening" makes about much sense as saying that using your right arm when you swim and using your left arm when you swim are separable skills because they employ different muscles. So we need different swimming coaches and different techniques and different swimming pools in order to teach them?
  The real divisions are inter-mental and not intra-mental. When we try to teach "speaking" and "listening" TOGETHER we find that the teacher uses a register of English that is quite different from that used by the children. Teachers say things like "Let me show you how to play the game" and "What did Peter say when Jinho's Mom asked him if he wanted some more?" Children say things like "Yes", "No", "Wow!" and "Fine, thanks, and you?"
  It's not at all difficult to show that children and teacher are divided by a common language: one of them HIGHLY grammaticized, and the other utterly dependent on context for meaning. The children are actually doing their level best to bridge the gap; the question is, can we teachers learn to reciprocate and create a shareable register within reach of both? (It's our move, as far as the kids can tell!)
  It is THAT sense in which I believe your remarks on "communication" are correct. The problem is that like "Whole Language" and "phonics" and "skills", the word "communication" too bears the indelible marks of ideologies that are basically foreign here.
   For the innatists (the "comprehensible inputtists") "communication" means fodder for the Language Acquisition Device, and can therefore be reduced to information transfer. For the emergentists (the "grammaticized lexicalists") "communication" means fluent use of unanlyzed chunks. Neither "communication" seems helpful, for reasons that YOU of all people can understand.
  I still don't really know if you are principally a mathematics educator, but it's the math professors at our school who really use your work, so it is how we think of you. Of course, the language of mathematics includes a great deal of communication, but it seems unrealistic to say that the main purpose for children to think about math is so they can communicate with others about mathematics.
   Framing it that way is what you would call (using the framework you laid out for us in Seoul) "teacher centred", it demands that children adopt entirely the cultural viewpoint of the mathematician. It makes more sense to me (at least in the context of math class) to say the reverse: the purpose of communicating about math is in order to think about math. I'm not sure foreign languages are so very different; we too are just another school subject: the purpose of communicating in and about English is to learn about English (and also think about Korean). At least that's the view from here.
  Seoul National University of Education

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Received on Thu Nov 1 16:47 PDT 2007

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