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Suggestions are not about judging people (Part I – for learners)

February 10, 2013

In the Framework of Exam Format Practice Month, Intermedio 2 students were asked to write an 150-word email to a teacher suggesting ways in which the lessons could improve. There were three points to mention: 1. Proposal for speaking activities, 2. Proposal for individual feedback, 3. Congratulating the teacher for one of the activities they had done. Surprisingly, there were quite a few exercises where The Student told The Teacher what he or she should do (!), without understanding the implications of the language and ideas the student was using (sounding ignorant/arrogant, lacking respect — human, & professional).

Pleaese, keep in mind these two ideas: the teacher is the professional in charge of the learning situation — and today these professionals are particularly knowledgeable due to scientific research, and the development of democratic ideals — human rights notions. The teacher is not someone who got the job as a result of winning the lottery!, and when a teacher asks for feedback or proposals to improve something that is not because he or she doesn’t know how to manage the learning situation (!), or because he or she does not have enough vigor to do so. People, don’t you think it’s kind of surprising this could ever be interpreted? (Some people have even written “You don’t listen to students” to this poor hypothetical teacher who is actually asking for learners’ ideas on a topic!)

So here are some tips for learners who are required to give feedback, make suggestions, proposals (also applicable to filing complaints or present critical analyses):

Giving feedback (like refuting ideas) is not about judging some particular person, the one you are addressing, but about posing what you would do and why — a reasoned opinion at least! (e.g. In order to improve our spoken English, we could do this or that.)

Listen to yourself, walk in the listener’s shoes: how would you feel if the underlying or the explicit message is that you are asking for feedback because you are incompetent or you fail to impose your will (make adult learners obey?!). How would you feel if somebody said you are not doing things right — milder cases adding: But don’t get upset instead of We could do this or that so as to (in order to)… (Please, read my example and mull over your exercise.)

Getting your message through – while respecting others and ourselves – is about making it possible for the receiver to listen to what you have to say, not because you are being hypocritical or lying, but because you are reasoning why you say what you are saying. For instance, instead of saying “Your lessons are hard and boring” you could say something like “Unfortunately, I go to class in the evening, after a full hard-working day, so I am really tired. Therefore (whichever kind of exercises) are too hard for me. On the other hand, I would really enjoy (whichever other kind). We could also…”.

From this communicative approach I have to say that at least half of the Writings that were handed in by Intermedio 2 students last week would not get a pass mark in a Certificate exam because they fail to comply with something fundamental: the communicative task of suggesting ways in which we can improve the language lesson. Saying what you think is the teacher (Which teachers did you have in mind, holy Molly?! Eek!!) is unrelated to your mission: you had to suggest activities explaining why you think they would be good. You didn’t have to do the rest. Please, mull this over once you get your work back.

About Writing Assignments involving sending teachers suggestions, remember:

About teachers: a) teachers know why they do or they do not do certain things in class, b) not all teachers use the same methodology, and c) they are free to choose how they wish to teach (Many roads lead to Rome) — that is why academic freedom is a Constitutional right in Spain.

About your needs as a learner: You can also avoid sounding arrogant/rude or ignorant/uninformed just by thinking twice before writing something. Express your needs, being aware that those are your perceptions and that you are not the teacher in that specific context. Last but not least important, you do not have to apologize for expressing your views. Instead, use sentences like “I hope these suggestions are useful!” (expressing hopes), “Thank you for welcoming our suggestions! I hope they are useful!” (saying thank you and expressing hopes). You should not use “had better” (that’s a kind of threat!) or “You should do this or that” (are you an expert? The teacher’s angry parents?!)

The ways in which we communicate say a lot about how we see others and ourselves. Learn to be constructive. This will not only improve your knowledge and skills, it will also improve your self-assessment.

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