Preferences, approaches and aspirations

The oth71be3-mc5a02bdorter day I went over to Steve Wheeler’s blog and watched a short interview recorded at the INTED 2015 conference in Madrid, Spain. I highly recommend watching the video, in which Steve talks about the importance of technology in education. The progressive, yet moderate view on technology resonates with me but what really struck a chord with me was the following line: Every student has different preferences, approaches and aspirations. Nothing new under the sun, right? Yet, it got me thinking and inspired me to write this post. When I heard the line, I immediately thought of learning styles and the heated debate they have recently inspired, and I realised that it’s much better to think of students’ differences in terms of their preferences, approaches and aspirations than in terms of the looked-down-on learning styles, which, to me, represent a rather narrow perspective. However, as you’ll see, it’d probably be more comfortable and easier to deal with just seven learning styles than with a plethora of different preferences, approaches and aspirations.

It’s obvious that each and every student wants a different thing – hence the different preferences. When learning English, one student prefers grammar tables; another favours picking up the language through reading books. You don’t need to prove this scientifically because you can tell what your students want – they show you, implicitly or explicitly, or they just tell you if you ask. Also, it’s beyond doubt that each and every student deals with school work in a different way. You can observe this directly, provided you give your students some choice and control over their learning approaches. For example, some like learning vocabulary by underlining words and recording them in their notebooks; others use apps on mobile phones to memorise and revise lexical items. As for aspirations, it’s unlikely that you’ll find two students who aspire for the very same thing. Few students will do without English when they leave school, but there might be some in the end. Maybe they’ll need German or Russian instead – not English. Not all students will need to be able to speak the language at a high level; some will get by with passive knowledge of vocabulary since they won’t use the language to communicate orally. For instance, they will only read texts for academic purposes. Others won’t have to do a lot of writing, so they won’t have to panic about spelling and linking words a big deal.

Now, if you take into account that there are at least 3 constants – preferences, approaches and aspirations, which, by the way, can be highly variable – and you have a class of, say, 25 students, then it’s really difficult to adjust your teaching to satisfy every student’s needs. You’d have to have an inventory of up to 25 times 3 different teaching approaches/methods/techniques/styles/magic tricks, which you obviously can’t perform all at once. i e. in one lesson. Plus you would sometimes have to be a fortune teller to be able to tell what exactly you students want on a particular day, in a particular lesson.

What is the solution, then? Individualisation? Yes, but there are 25 individuals with various preferences, approaches and aspirations in your class, remember? Personalisation? Yes, but there are 25 persons sitting in front of you ready to start talking about what concerns them. Making your teaching learner-centred? Absolutely! However, there are 25 learners to be focused on. Give them tasks to complete? Yes, but what if they prefer to absorb knowledge through listening and taking notes, and it bugs them when they are forced to learn through completing inauthentic tasks. Dogme? Well, yes, but imagine how much variety would suddenly emerge at one point if you were really liberal; would you be able to handle it? Let them use technology then? Good idea but there are some who prefer to see things on paper and they hate looking at the computer screen. The matter is complicated by the fact that I, too, have my preferences, approaches and aspirations, and beliefs.

I’m not exactly pessimistic but whenever I enter the classroom and see those 25 little heads, I can’t help feeling I’m not doing enough – I can never do enough. What is my role as a teacher then? Mind you, this is not a philosophical question; this is a question I ask as a practitioner with some experience in the classroom and I bit of theoretical knowledge. Can we do anything at all or would the whole system of schooling have to change completely, as some argue? Before this happens, I guess I’ll just be there for my students trying to do what I believe is best for them …

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Hana Tichá

I'm an EFL teacher based in the Czech Republic. I've been teaching English to learners of all ages and levels for almost 30 years. You can find out more about me and my passion for teaching here on my blog.

6 thoughts on “Preferences, approaches and aspirations”

  1. Hi Hana!
    Very interesting post. There is a lot of math here and loads of 'styles', preferences, and aspirations to consider. I do not think it is possible to satisfy everyone in every single lesson. Mixing and matching works I guess. I think some of the research about how people learn can be applied when lessons are one to one or small groups. In a large classroom though, I am not really sure.


  2. Hi Joanna, I agree that teaching one-to-one is much easier in this respect, and this type of teaching context actually came to mind when I was writing the post. I mean, you can easily adjust to one learner, can't you? Ironically, I never really enjoyed teaching one-to-one classes as much as I love teaching groups. To be honest, I never did much one-to-one teaching to be able to delve into the reasons why I didn't actually like it, but it could be a great topic for a post. Anyway, thanks for stopping by and dropping a few lines. I appreciate your thoughtful comments.


  3. Hi Hana
    I completely agree with you, learners do have different preferences, approaches and aspirations. At the end we cannot provide a magical solution, this needs conducting more research and investigations, but we can always try and never give up.


  4. Hi Hana, I understand how you feel and I've asked the issues you are raising in your post so many times before. How about asking this one in particular to your 25 little heads and see what they say?

    “What is my role as a teacher then?” What would you like to learn? What do you expect from me?

    Then, after that ask yourself again all these questions and see if some get answered and more questions come up. I'm sure you won't receive 25 different answers to each question you ask. It naturally narrows down to a few of them if you ask them orally. I'd prefer getting them to write it down, collect and then group their answers.

    The other day in a group of 8 students, one said that he hates English. Each one of them were there with, like you point out in your post, different expectations and aspirations. But they are there and I'm there. As we are there, we gonna have for a start, 1) share responsability to whatever happens there and 2) understand that it's not about pleasing one another.

    The student who said that hates English seems to have serious difficult in even understand a word is said in English and unable to write it down like the others. He is repeating the same book again. Does his attitude affect the whole class dynamics? For sure. Is there anything we can do to help him overcome this? I will try the best I can. I have already refered him to my DOS and I'll work together with her to understand how we can help him. At least he is kind to me and I'm kind to him as we should be to each other. Are the other learners kind to him? Not at all. We had trouble this week because of that. Each group is a group in its own macro (the whole group) and micro (smaller groups or individuals) dimension.


  5. Thanks for stopping by, Hana. A nice name, by the way :-)) You're right, it's always worth trying to do our best, even when the conditions are not ideal. We can't provide a magical situation but sometimes magic does happen and these are the moments we should cherish.


  6. Dear Rose,

    I think you hit the nail on the head when you implied that asking the right question is the key. I actually did something similar last week; I wanted to have an informal chat with my class and I decided to ask them to reply to my questions in writing (I’m their homeroom teacher but we don’t have much time to talk informally and this format is really fruitful and saves a lot of time). I asked five simple questions: What are you struggling with and what can you do about it? In what areas are you doing particularly well? Who do you get on well with in class? What was your most significant success recently? What are you looking for? I collected their answers and read through all of them at home. I learnt lots of interesting things about each kid and the whole class in general. In the next lesson I asked them to sit in a circle and share some of the answers publicly in an informal discussion – but only those issues they felt comfortable with. It was interesting to see what they decided to share and what they wanted to keep to themselves. It added a new layer to the discussion and it gave me a new perspective as well.

    I really like the way you deal with the boy in your class who hates English. In my class there is one student who admitted he struggled with English. His honest answer encouraged me to create a new action plan because I really want to help him. Actually, lots of students talked about their academic success while a few focused on relationships. It’s amazing to see how different every child is and what priorities they have in life.

    Thanks for your thoughtful comment and for sharing your own struggles.


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