The future of learning and teaching
As a wearer of glasses for short-sightedness, I have never thought of myself as someone with 20/20 vision. But this past weekend I was invited to gaze into the year 2020 at a meeting of language experts from all over Europe (and one from Mexico).
The focus was on "Languages at work 2020", and a number of us were asked to predict the (near) future — a dangerous activity at the best of times. Indeed, as I have said before, it can be tricky enough to predict the past.
The conference, for which Business Spotlight was a media partner, took place in the offices of the European Centre for Modern Languages (ECML), an institution of the Council for Europe whose mission is "to encourage excellence and innovation in language teaching and to help Europeans learn languages more efficiently".
As a Brit, I was discouraged — but hardly shocked — to learn that my home country is no longer a member of the ECML. Clearly, plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose when it comes to the Brits and language learning.
In her opening plenary, ECML executive director Sarah Breslin emphasized the importance of integrated technology, interdisciplinary learning and — particularly important at a time of migration into Europe — an inclusive ethos in language education.
Breslin also provocatively suggested that maybe English shouldn't be the first foreign language that is taught. Her reasons were that (a) English often becomes a barrier to further language learning because many learners think they have "done their bit" for languages once they have studied English, and (b) there is so much English around that people will "learn it anyway".
That last message, if true, would be bad news for publishers of materials for learning English (including Business Spotlight). But it is unlikely to be the case, certainly not by 2020. We often overestimate the short-run impact of change while underestimating its long-term impact.
Indeed, my guess is that language learning and teaching in 2020 will look remarkably similar to the way they do today — although I do accept that there is a (small) chance that we will see a paradigm-shifting breakthrough, in the way that the iPod and iPhone were in their areas.
The role of technology in teaching was discussed in some detail following another provocative presentation, this time by educational consultant Michael Carrier. Carrier pleaded for an open mind on the use of technology in teaching and believes that teachers (and people more generally) will remain in charge, although some education experts clearly fear a technology takeover.
Nothing wrong with that. As I said last week, while we need the pushers for change, we also need the doubters and questioners — and that applies as much to technology in teaching as elsewhere.
So what will 2020 look like for language learning and teaching? My executive summary, despite any changes that come, would be as follows: "As now, hard work, both for learners and teachers. But essential and rewarding for both groups."
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