Bal Ram Adhikari
Mahendra Ratna Campus, Tahachal
Knowledge gap and expectation gap
A gap in our knowledge is natural. It is the gap that makes the process of learning inevitable, our communication meaningful, and living purposeful. In teaching, it is the knowledge gap that brings the teacher and students together in a specific world of sharing and caring. It makes cooperation and interdependence mandatory between them when both the parties strive for narrowing it down. However, before making concerted efforts in bridging the knowledge gap via teaching , we should be aware of another type of gap lying at the deeper level— the gap in the interpretation of the intension, purpose and expectation of the parties involved. The gap of the second type results from our attempts to communicate knowledge without establishing a common ground for understanding. Successful communication of knowledge cannot take place unless the involved parties have understood the purpose of communicating that knowledge and the expectations that bring them together. Against this backdrop, I would like to touch upon my own experience of teaching English grammar course entitled “English Grammar for Teachers” prescribed by Tribhuvan University for the master’s level students. Here I would like to shed light on the nature of the gap in expectations of the different parties who are directly involved in the production, communication and consumption of the course.
The major parties involved in the communication of grammar knowledge are course designers, teachers, students and examiners. At the deeper level, the threads of communication among these parties are intricately interwoven. However, at the surface level we can specify who communicates what to whom where and how. In our context, this communication is almost one-way. In this monologic communication one party communicates to the other without establishing a sufficient ground for understanding each other’s purpose and aspirations. Regarding this, I would like to refer to a fundamental question: Who wants what? raised by Chalker (1994) in designing and implementing an appropriate pedagogical grammar. The effectiveness of a course depends largely on how we answer this question.
Course designers and teachers
What do course designers want? What do teachers want?
Course designers are the major architect of the course. They decide not only what to teach, but also how to teach and how to assess what has been taught and learned. In our context, they are the people who assume the role of experts and communicate vertically with the teachers who they think are the people to translate their expertise and expectations into practice in the classroom. Whenever any problem arises during the implementation of the course, the common practice is to come up with the conclusion that the teachers lack adequate knowledge in the subject matter and teaching methodology. On other hand, the teachers criticize the course designers for not taking into account of their views, and situational and institutional constraints. Students criticize both course designers and teachers for demanding too much from them. Such a culture of blame has become commonplace in the Nepalese context, and it is mainly because there is lack of communication among the stakeholders during decision-making process, before launching, during and after the implementation of the course. The expectations of different parties are often taken for granted.
What is missing?
Knowledge of subject matter and classroom pedagogy are necessary, but not sufficient for the successful implementation of a new course. The questions are: Have the course designers taken into account of classroom reality by involving the teachers in the decision making process? Have both the parties shared what they expect from the course? Did both the parties have enough understanding of what they were going to achieve from the course and how? In fact, “these are the questions of negotiation”, and “typically, not enough time is spent on these kinds of questions” (Dragger, Clintok and Moffit, p. 8, 2000). The lack of negotiation has caused a rift between what course designers want and what teachers want.
Based on the cursory observation of the course content and methodology (Adhikari, 2012), what the syllabus designers seem to communicate to the teachers is that the course is:
- detailed, comprehensive and exhaustive ( for it deals with four broad areas of grammar teaching: Basic Concepts of Grammar, Grammar in Practice, Grammar and the Language Teacher, Pedagogical Grammar),
- contemporary and in line with the recent research finding and practice of grammar teaching (i.e. the course deals with task-based language teaching, lexical approach, discourse-based approach, processing-instruction, etc. ),
- pedagogical and practical.
In terms of classroom pedagogy, the designers expect the teachers to adopt the following procedures:
- Have students read the lesson before they come to the class or have them read in groups.
- Give reasons not rules.
- Engage students in problem-solving activities.
- Have them prepare and present lesson plans (maybe as mini-project work).
What have we teachers made of the course?
What follows is based on my own experience as teacher, and personal communication with the grammar teachers like me who I came across during my visit to some of the TU campuses in an out of the Kathmandu Valley:
- The course is lengthy. I do agree with the complaint that the course is lengthy. At the end of every session I have the feeling that I am unable to go into the depth of the course. Every year I manage to scrape through it with my epilogue “Yeah, I somehow completed the course.”
- The course is difficult to teach. Obliviously, a course becomes difficult to handle for want of sufficient orientation, group discussion, workshop, and training. Except of the one-day course dissemination program that took place once during the formal launching of the course, the concerned authority has not organized any formal/informal programs for teachers and course designers so far.
- The course is not well-contextualized. By whom and where the course materials were produced? It is a crucial question. The course is universalist in its approach. The foreign books are adopted as course materials without taking into account of what Kumaravadivelu (2001) has to say about the parameters of an appropriate pedagogy: the parameter of particularity, practicality and possibility. There is no single academic work prescribed as a reading material that deals with our local/national context. Take for example, the problems that ESL/EFL students face while learning English grammar. All the evidence discussed in the textbook “The Teacher’s Grammar of English” (2009) are from Chinese, Korean, Japanese, German, Farsi and French speakers learning English. These decontextualied examples are very difficult to understand for teachers, let alone their students. Even if understood, what could be their relevance to our context? The course designers have not justified why we need to discuss with our students the firstlanguage-specific problems faced by the speakers of the languages other than those spoken in our context. Nor are the teachers provided with practical guidelines for contextualising the universalist materials to fit the local Nepalese contexts.
What do teachers want? What do students want?
There is another layer of gap that I have experienced in my grammar class. To align myself to what the course expects me to do in the classroom while communicating grammar knowledge to my students, I have tried to follow the procedures mentioned in the course— the procedure of discovery-oriented and collaborative. But what I often feel is the resistance from my students by remaining absent or showing their low involvement in the classroom activity. I often have the feeling that I have failed to communicate my agenda to my students and I have failed to understand their agenda.
At the end of the class, I tell them what the coming topic will be and how it will be discussed. If the topic is theory-based, the next class will see the increase in the number of students. Most of them turn up with the prospect of listening to lecture and getting notes and summary. If the topic is practice-oriented and the mode of learning is interactive, the number of students thins out. During the class, some students show ‘open opposition’ to use Holliday’s (2010) term, by murmuring or not working out the solution or not showing keen interest in collaboration and sharing. As I read the face of my students, some of them seem to have the feeling of not learning anything new as they find their notebooks without any notes or summary.
My teaching agenda:
- How to make their learning discovery-oriented and collaborative so that they can work out the rules for themselves from the available linguistic evidence. As it is widely believed that such learning is meaningful and memorable. If so, it will certainly help them secure better marks in the examination.
- How to help them read the theoretical portions from the prescribed reading materials under my guidance and supervision. I want them to read extensively for general understanding of the text.
- How to help them envisage the wider application of their knowledge of English grammar to other fields such as copy editing, translation and creative/free and academic writing.
- How to take them out from the confinement of examination.
Let me present my students’ agenda that they have expressed in and out of the classroom verbally or through their behavior:
- How to pass examination.
- The most frequently asked questions are: Sir, what types of question are asked from this unit?
Sir, is this topic important? No questions were asked from it in the previous exams.
- How to get notes for the theory portion from the teacher.
- How to get ready-made answers and grammar rules for the problems given in the textbook.
Who should read the text for whom?
I want my students to read the assigned chapter before they come to the class. They get the following handout before I make formal entry into the course “The Teacher’s Grammar of English”:
- To succeed in class and examination both, you should have a good command of the material presented in the first section.
- Read the first section before you come to class.
- Your teacher begins each class going over the exercises. You are expected to answer the questions given in each chapter. The methodology will be “Give Reasons, not Rules”.
- From the second section of the chapter, your teacher picks out some typical errors made by the learners with different L1s. He will briefly discuss the possible causes of these errors and engage you in a short discussion of whether these errors should be addressed through pedagogical intervention.
- Your teacher will summarize the first section relating it to the second and third sections, which will be the reading assignment for the next class.
- The next class begins with problems and teaching suggestions. While reading the problem section at home, examine the types of errors and explore their causes as proposed by the writer. So far as the suggestion for teaching is concerned, examine and evaluate the activities proposed and discuss your ideas with your friends in groups.
Very few (sometimes not more than two or three out of forty or so) students do home reading. This makes the discussion of salient points from the chapter challenging and sometimes waste of time, for my communication with the students turns out to be monologic, not dialogic. Contrary to my expectation, my students want me to read the text and summarize it for them. On the other hand, they may find what I want from them being contrary to their expectations.
The challenge that I have been facing is how to wean my students from dependency on me and how I can become progressively unnecessary for them. Despite my attempt to act as a guide to walk on their side (as the syllabus designers want me to do), my students’ expectations push me back to take up the traditional role of the teacher as a sage preaching from the stage.
The expectation gap has widened the gap in the communication of knowledge. So it is imperative that the concerned parties negotiate with each other about their expectations from the course. The course designers should sit with the teachers to find out how they have taken the course. Also, the teachers should think of possible ways of bridging the gap between their teaching agenda and students’ learning agenda.
Adhikari, B.R. (2012). English grammar: Views of student teachers
and communication of grammar knowledge to their students. An unpublished mini-research. UGC.
Chalker, S. (1994). Pedagogic grammar: Principles and problems. In Bygate, M., Tonkyn, A. and Williams, E. (Eds.) Grammar and the language teacher (pp. 31-44). UK: Prentice Hall.
Cowan, R. (2009). The teacher’s grammar of English. Cambridge: CUP.
Curriculum Development Center (CDC). (2009). English grammar for teachers. Kirtipur: Tribhuvan University.
Dragger, N., McClintok, E. & Moffit, M. ( 2000). Negotiating health development: A guide for practitioners. Conflict Management Group & World Health Organization.
Holliday, A. (2010). Appropriate methodology and social context. Cambride: CUP.
Kumaravadivelu, B. (2001). Towards post-method pedagogy. TESOL Quarterly, vol. 35, No. 4. 537-560.