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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.