My view on trial and error


This blog post derives from a conversation on about translation descriptive studies.  However,  it has nothing to do with that area of my research. Anthony Pym published a most interesting article online for a brief period and invited comments on it.  Unsurprisingly, because these academic things such as conference conversations after a talk or round tables tend to digress in this way, one of the threads of the conversation led to criticism around the post method era postulated by Kumaravadivelu and others (for a good decision of this issue, read ‘Method and Post method: Are They Really So Incompatible?’ (2003) by David Bell in TESOL quarterly).

In particular, one of the issues that bothered me was the fact that one of the contributors launched an attack against innovation or subjective teaching approaches that combine different methods on the grounds of student welfare.  She compared students of this type of innovative teacher with victim guinea pigs, subjected to their teachers trials but
Especially errors. 

This online conversation took place a few weeks ago but I’ve been trying to reconcile and understand why it is so alarming for me that this view is supported by many teachers, since there were several comments agreeing with her point of view. Here are my thoughts and as usual I’d love to hear your views on all this.

I must start by pointing out that I agree that a blitzkrieg application of uniformed methods or teaching approaches or whims is ill advised. There are many of us now teaching languages and we can learn from our research, publications, shared experiences, conversations, etcetera before we try something out… Unless we really have no time for consultation and we agree with our students  that we want to try this thing. Given the speed of our teaching years lately, this is the case more often than not.  So by saying this,  I’m adding that I thoroughly support ethical experimentation in the language classroom – and slow and learning,  but I’ll leave this issue for another blog Post.

What do I mean by ethical experimentation? I am referring to innovation and implementation of unapproved or newly developed methods and approaches in consultation with class participants (students, colleagues and curriculum planners), bearing in mind that this consultation could happen afterwards, depending on the purpose and nature of the innovation. For example,  if I want to know what students think of Spaniards, and then show a few Spaniards these views anonymously to record their responses and give them back to students of Spanish; I wouldn’t tell my students that I’m going to show their opinions to Spaniards at first because that would influence their writing.  I must say that I wouldn’t do this exercise with a group of students I’ve just met. I would have had to earn their trust first. This situation and task that I’m describing here serves to show that the outright dismissal of trial and error approaches just because we are dealing with human subjects sets learning in a very corseted sterile environment where only tried and true methods are possible. It also assumes that the learner, not unlike the poor lab rat has no resilience or agency in the classroom, that he or she is a mere consumer of teacher choices.

My own experience as a learner -and as a teacher too, in certain teaching and learning cultures more than in others-proves those assumptions wrong. After all, who hasn’t been the object of the successful communicative language teaching method and had to supplement with old dismissed and new unaccepted learning approaches and strategies in order to lead his/her learning towards his/her learning goals? 

In any case,  my alarm went off because it’d be a very bleak environment, filled with scared teachers and automatic unresponsive students,  if a classroom didn’t allow for play and for mistakes both in the teacher’s and students’ parts. In classrooms as in life, (informed) trial and error all the way.


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