Should we always be encouraging learners to manage transitions?

Carol Irvine, the Steering Group Co-Ordinator for the BALEAP PIM at the University of Glasgow in November 2016, reflects on how she found the inspiration for the conference theme: learner identity – managing transitions.

The inspiration for the first part of the theme, ‘learner identity’, came from a much- admired colleague, Dr Naeema Hann, of Leeds Beckett University, whom I met many years ago through a shared interest and involvement in the adult ESOL sector. In March 2015 she came to Glasgow University to give a talk on “Learner Strategies Outside the Classroom – mining L2 environments”, to members of SATEFL (Scottish Association for the Teaching of English as a Foreign Language). In describing her research into the strategies that good learners use to improve their English speaking skills outside the classroom, she identified two barriers:  their feelings of inferiority and helplessness, and their doubt about being ‘legitimate speakers’.

This led me to reflect on notions of an identity that appeared to be withheld from some learners, and granted only after a protracted period of stumbling through various obscure tasks, often unaided.  It could be argued that the learners in our context, international students in HE, at least have clear pathways indicated to them, regarding their ‘target’ identity as members of a specific academic community, via our rigorous, intensive pre-sessional and year-round EAP/ESAP courses. Despite the considerable challenges the students face, this can be mitigated by our efforts to create an environment where we encourage them to recognise the need to make adjustments to their learning approaches and behaviours, and guide them appropriately , i.e  ‘managing transitions’, in pursuit of the prize that awaits them.

However, Clare Furneaux added a new dimension to these musings at the March 2015 PIM on Reading at the University of Reading. In referring to departments who crush Pre-sessional  students’ desire  to have the course reading lists in advance, and to see models of good and bad essays, she urged  us to “send students out into their departments to act as landmines!”. The risk that we may be ‘disciplining’ our students into an academic discipline should prompt us to consider if we are promoting assimilation, empowerment, or transformation.

So the caveat lies in the final prompt question in the publicity “Should we always be encouraging learners to manage transitions?

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