Whole-person growth, key abilities stressed at TESOL assembly

Gong Yafu, president of the National Association of Foreign Language Education (2001-2017) with more than 30 years of experience as a teacher. [Photo by Gao Erqiang/chinadaily.com.cn]

English education should include not only language training, but also forming one's character and key competencies for the development of a "whole person", experts said during the 2018 TESOL China Assembly which concluded Sunday.

The three-day event was the first time for the US-based English-teaching organization, TESOL International Association, to hold an assembly in China. It drew more than 1,800 teachers from across the country to listen to language-teaching experts' speeches and panels, and participate in discussions.

Gong Yafu, president of the National Association of Foreign Language Education (2001-2017) with more than 30 years of experience as a teacher, said in his keynote speech Reconceptualizing Communication — Going Beyond the Language and Culture that the focus of China's English education should shift from language ability to whole-person development.

"Good communication depends on not only what we say, but also our value system and behaviors," he said. "Therefore, as a teacher, we need to think about what character strengths and virtues do students need, and what mindset and thinking skills do they need in the future."

"Maybe it's high time for TESOL to change its name from teach English to speakers of other languages to teach English to students for the orientations of life," he jokes.

Gong suggested a change in content, approach and assessment in language education to integrate teaching problem-solving skills and good behaviors, as well as helping students form virtues and good thinking dispositions.

And the change has already started, with the publication of the new English Curriculum Standards for General Senior High School by the Ministry of Education in January.

Mei Deming, a professor at Shanghai International Studies University. [Photo by Gao Erqiang/chinadaily.com.cn]

Mei Deming, a professor of Shanghai International Studies University and chief designer of the standard, said the new curriculum aims to develop students' key competencies in areas of language ability, thinking quality, cultural consciousness and learning ability.

"The key competencies are the abilities to meet complex tasks, rather than artificial ones, in real-life situations," Mei said. "Because we are now confronted by a globalized world, we included Chinese compassion, world vision and cultural consciousness into the curriculum, and hope it will help students and teachers to be concerned about different states, histories, cultures and communities in the face of worldwide challenges."

Mei said the largest English-learning population is in China, where the State-enforced curriculum requires all third-graders to start learning English, and estimated the number may amount to 300 million people.

"These students will learn to live and work with people from diverse cultural backgrounds in the global village, embark on the same boat named Earth, and tackle issues -- such as poverty, epidemics and climate change -- facing humanity today and tomorrow," he added.

Ester de Jong, president of TESOL from 2017-18, agreed that teaching should be student-oriented with a holistic approach.

"It always starts with knowing your students, and your instruction comes out of that," she said. "It makes a lot of sense to say language learning is part of a person's being, so how you teach and what you teach will have to connect to them and their life."

Cui Wenjie, a graduate student majoring in language teaching at the University of Florida, said the concept of whole-person development is already a practice in the US.

"Whole-person development is already something imbedded in their daily teaching. If a kid is answering question, but other kids are noisy, the teacher will calm down the classroom, and teach them to show respect and pay attention to others," she said about her one-year practicum of teaching English to kindergartners and second-graders in Florida.

Yao Guizhao, an English teacher of Gannan Normal University in Jiangxi province, said the concepts brought up by Gong and Mei are really useful for her teaching.

"I am a teacher and also a mother, and whole-person development with real-life key competencies is really what I would want my students and children to learn," she said.