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The Three Most Critical Factors in ELT
by Neil McBeath
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The Learners

Unfortunately, learners do not operate in a vacuum. Learners are products of their societies. They come with baggage attached, and Abu-Rmaileh.(2006/2007; 327-8) writing about the different factors that can affect students’ “disposition to learning” (P. 327) reminds us that some of the elements include “parent involvement, teacher enthusiasm, rewards, peers, the learners’ environment, personal experiences, the personal interests of the students, and self esteem and self image” (P. 328)

This last factor may be particularly important. In October 2003, I met a Canadian of Bangadeshi origin who was teaching at a school in Ras al Khaimah. He asked me “How do you motivate a 14 year old boy who informs you ‘al lugha ingliziyya al lugha shaytan’?”

This is a powerful statement. It leaves no doubt of the strength of the boy’s feelings. It manages to encapsulate his economic, political, religious and social beliefs in a single sentence. Neither is there any doubt about the boy’s self image. He is a defender of Islam, and of a rather uncompromising interpretation of Islam.

Even so, these are the beliefs of a boy of 14. He has learnt these beliefs from somewhere (probably outside school) but unless the beliefs receive constant positive reinforcement, they are likely to alter and, probably, moderate.

Far more worrying, I feel, is the next quotation, from the Saudi Gazette of November 25th 2006. “A father defends his son’s poor performance in English, saying: ‘This is the language of the others. We do not need to learn all languages people speak. I need my son to learn religion and Arabic.’” (Al Kinani; 2006)

What is particularly chilling here is how the father denial of his son’s voice – “We do not need….I need…….” He abrogates the decision making power entirely to himself. He ignores the fact that his son’s Saudi school teaches little more than religion and Arabic anyway, and is clearly unaware that this education policy does nothing to produce Saudis who can assist the development of their country.

Sadly, there are other instances of equally obtuse stakeholders. Nick Thornton (2005; 69) quotes a teacher, working in Canada, whose Anabaptist students are unable to continue their education beyond their fifteenth birthday.

Even in this situation, however, there is a slight cause for hope. Two students were interested in continuing their education, despite the pressure from their inward-looking social group. There is resilience here, in the face of external pressure, and there is a desire to learn. This desire to learn can be tapped.

The most difficult circumstances under which I ever taught were with the Royal Saudi Air Force in Dammam. RSAF cadets have to rise before dawn so that they can attend compulsory Dawn Prayer. After prayer, they are forbidden to sleep. They start classes at 0615 hours, and then have seven consecutive fifty-minute classes, with a twenty-minute break between the third and fourth classes.

After lunch they do drill or sports, and even when they finally go to bed, they can be roused from sleep and disciplined for minor infractions or almost at the whim of senior classmen.

As a result, the cadets are permanently deprived of sleep. They are constantly exhausted.
On several occasions I saw cadets fall asleep while standing up and answering questions. Had I observed this while I was serving as an officer in the Royal Air Force of Oman, I would have taken the man concerned to a Medical Centre and I would have demanded that the Medical Officer admit him for observation.

Yet even in these conditions, some of the RSAF cadets were able to study and do well. I remember some of them with affection and respect.

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