Welcome to the BESIG World Blog. Each month we’ve got a different guest author lined up who will be sharing thoughts and experiences on teaching business English from countries around the globe.

  • Learner autonomy

    This month Claire Hart interviews Business English trainer Charles Rei for the BESIG World Blog. Charles is a highly-motivated and engaged trainer who has a lot of interesting ideas to share, which we'll bring you in two instalments.

    Charles ReiCharles Rei is a freelance Business English Trainer in Bavaria working primarily in large multi-national companies. He is currently focused on several embedded training projects which mix courses, coaching, and blended learning. He has been training English since leaving the US military and completing his CELTA in 2009. Fascinated by materials light teaching and focusing completely on the learner, he is constantly seeking to strike the right training balance to help clients improve their international communication.

    Part Two: Learner Autonomy

    Claire - Do you find fostering learner self-reliance challenging? If so, what are the mitigating factors which can hinder learners´ ability to be self-reliant?

    Charles - Yes, I think it is a challenge for all of us.  The key factor to being self-reliant is time.  For most learners the step to sign up for the course was a big one.  A couple hours a week is a significant commitment.  So I can understand why they would want to ‘outsource’ the learning.  But this is not the whole story.

    Let’s look at this in context of the other training employees have received.  Most will have had some classes on computer programs, safety, management training, project management, etc.  Fitting with those (and memories of school), many learners are expecting more teacher talking time, more slides, and some kind of formal assessment with clear right and wrong answers.

    Also, some have forgotten the basic study skills needed to learn a foreign language.  Many have trouble taking clear notes, cannot organize vocabulary, do not know how to review, the list goes on.  So, the first step to self-reliance is reminding them how to study.  In the context of learning styles and some self-awareness, these study skills allow the participants to take ownership of the learning process.  It is certainly not something we can accomplish overnight, but with sustained effort it can work.

    Claire - Do you ever encounter participants who are feeling de-motivated because they just have too much on their plate and not enough time to focus on improving their English? How do you deal with such a situation and what advice would you give to trainers who find themselves in this position?

    Charles - Well, the first thing is burn the syllabus if needed.  Make new one.  All the timelines in Business English are self-imposed.  So if they don’t fit, move them.  If the trainer is under pressure to reach certain training objectives in a certain time, be honest with the DOS or course manager.  Tell them, “Look, these people are stressed out because of XYZ, they cannot keep up with the material.  We need to change our plan.  What do you recommend?”  It takes some courage to do this because we want them to be confident in our abilities.  But most of the training centers I have worked with recognize that I am considering learner retention and properly assessing their progress.  Then tell the students, “I know you are under a lot of pressure. We are going to slow down, do some vocabulary building / review / conversation until things get better.  Stay with the course and we’ll speed up again later.”  The goal is to keep the class intact, and improve where you can.

    For individuals in a group, it is bit more difficult.  Typically the participant will miss a few classes and the doubt starts, “I have already missed two, I won’t know what they are talking about.”  After a few more weeks they begin to think, “Well the class is so far ahead now that I won’t understand anything.”  The participant is naturally avoiding embarrassment.  We need to keep the dialog open, let them know what is happening in class without them, and that they will fit right in when things get better.

    When they do come back, welcome them, let them have a stage if they want to talk about all the crazy things in project XYZ.  Have the learners brief each other on the past lessons.  Include some review in the activities.  Be aware of pairing and groups to offer support.  Let them hide during difficult sections.  Then slowly take away the supports.

    Claire - Do you have any success stories to share with us about learners who have developed self-reliance?

    Charles - I think we all have the ‘model student’.  Mine is a middle aged women who first came for lessons to prepare for a job interview.  We had a few lessons doing the standard job interview coaching and preparation.  Sadly, she didn’t get the job but she decided to continue with the classes once a week.  But she didn’t really have any goals so I had a lot of freedom.

    We started talking about all the resources on the Internet for learning so for homework I started asking her to go out, research something, anything... grammar, vocab in context, skills, etc. and come back and teach me.  The assignments were designed so that she never spent more than one hour per week preparing.  The rest of the lesson was me teaching her how to do intensive and extensive reading and listening.   After a few more lessons we sat down together and organized her notebook for review (still a great review exercise).  For her, the motivation came when others in her department started coming to her and asking for corrections.  When someone came and asked for help understanding a contract I ran down to the gas station on the corner and bought a bottle of champagne to celebrate.  Teams always play better when they have fans.

    Within a few months, we were only having class once a month, which consisted of her asking me questions about similar words, emails from work, contracts, and grammar forms.  I would love to be able to instill that level of self-reliance in all my students, but I am sure she is one-of-a-kind.

    Claire - Thanks Charles.

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  • Role of the trainer within the company where they teach

    Part One: Role of the trainer within the company where they teach

    Claire - Do you think that the English training we provide has a noticeable effect on the approach our learners take to their work—in light of the fact that we tend to encourage listening, critical thinking, problem-solving and the adoption of new methodologies and strategies which they may otherwise not encounter? Is this something that trainers should be embracing and encouraging?

    Charles - We should be encouraging it, but I think our impact is limited. You are right that our courses offer a profound change from their everyday life. In my opinion, this difference is so great that the learners assume different personalities on the way to class and back. Sometimes when visiting my students at their desks I see them struggling to balance these two roles.

    However, their peers have a tremendous impact on their daily work. So while the various critical thinking activities we introduced may not make it back to their desks, the advice, opinions, and approaches they heard from their colleagues will. This is truly where the trainer shines as an agent of change. We bring together colleagues, lock them in a room and have them discuss controversial topics, solve problems, and produce projects. This is exactly what change management consultants and team building consultants do. So, we are not changing the organization, it is changing itself.

    Claire - Do you ever get the feeling that your participants want to draw out the differences between you and themselves and want to protect national stereotypes from your country onto you, even where there´s no basis for them? How should trainers react to that kind of interaction?

    Charles - I am in a unique situation. First, as an American I encounter all kinds of preconceptions and false familiarity. But I was also in the military and served three years in Iraq. I have to be careful about when and how much I reveal. The students are certainly curious about me and my past. The key to this situation is remaining objective, both about the students’ culture and the trainer’s own.

    I have been confronted by a couple of participants in the past on US politics and once it made for a very interesting lesson. I stayed neutral and tried to explain American liberalism and conservatism. I explained that the short news clips here do not capture the complexity of American politics, and so on. But finally I stopped it and turned it into a training opportunity. I stated to the class that we had a conflict, and challenged them in groups to think of sentences to diffuse the situation. After some ideas and refinement, we had an activity where the students started conflicts (about stealing a conference room, not washing their coffee cup, etc.) with each other and then diffused them. By the end we were all rolling with laughter.

    Claire - The boss of a group of German participants I taught in-company once asked me if I could try to make them “less German”—do you see the role of the trainer, therefore, as someone who is there to open the participants up to the world beyond their local community and see the world from a more international perspective?

    Charles - I think what I would have said to him is, “Sure, how are you going to help me?” I believe we have the capacity to really help organizations adopt and accept globalization, but without the assistance of management, we are in danger of causing conflict.

    For example, I was running some presentation courses in preparation for an international product launch. International sales teams were coming to Germany for an introduction, positioning, target customers, etc. When we started reviewing the slides it was clear from the beginning that it was not going to be effective. The communication style was distinctly German (technological advances first, benefits last), the slides had been translated to C1 English, there was complete information overload... a whole range of issues. We started discussing how our international presentations should be different than those for the German market. We made a list of ideas which would have helped them send their message. But management stuck to the traditional way and the international sales teams left bored and confused.

    So, while we can certainly help the organization see itself differently, it is up to management to encourage and embrace the change.

    Claire - Would you say that many trainers tend to feel like they are being treated as outsiders in the companies where they work and that there may even be some resistance to the change they potentially represent?

    Charles - Yes and no, I would say it depends on how much contact the trainer has with the company and how much authentic material he/she works with. I have had the chance to build some lasting relationships with companies and really have an impact. Many learners will naturally think, “That all sounds great, but you don’t know what it’s like here.” Breaking this down takes a lot of listening, research, and engagement. But over time, the trainer must act like they belong. Walk into the kitchen, make a cup of coffee, ask Holger about the solar project in Spain, tell the boss you like his tie, be a colleague. No one will tell you no.

    On the other hand, a certain level of distance is beneficial. We are able to moderate the discussions in class only because we don’t have a vested interest in the outcome. We can ask the tough probing questions without expressing an opinion.

    (The second part of the interview, in which Charles shares his ideas on learner autonomy, will be posted here in 2 weeks.)

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