Have you ever wondered why when you run into a student that eagerly answers all of your questions in class, gives creative details and personal examples to illustrate her unique point of view then, in the big picture of real world communication, chokes on, “Hello, Teacher,” and fumbles the question, “How are you?” with, “I am going to the cafeteria”? I was stumped on that one until I became a student of Chinese and hiked a mile or a mountain in her boots.
There is actually a lot going on in this encounter and while we’ve got a lot of excellent theory to explain it, some of it has to do with our shared humanity.
Like the student above, I tend to be a field independent language learner. That means I will make easier, more, and faster progress in a traditional books-and-blackboard environment than in a “natural” environment where all the world’s a classroom. Field independent students take the cake with carefully designed classroom tasks, even communicative ones, and exams. So, train me for a standardized Chinese Speaking Test. I’ll come home with a tidy proficiency certificate that proves I know Chinese. But send me out into a crowd of people and I may walk away discouraged that I fumbled a simple conversation.
If you are more field independent, when you look at the forest, you spot the owl watching you from the tree before your more field dependent companion.
My companion here at Master Teaching is a more field dependent learner. Field dependence is the tendency to perceive the total field as a unified whole rather than the parts embedded in the field. Put Melissa into a books-and-blackboard classroom, and she’ll do everything she’s supposed to but with a lot less concern for the details. She will emphasize the meaning of a passage, for example, and may focus on a disconnect–Why is the woman making that unwise choice?–rather than the details of the vocabulary or grammar in the passage. Field dependent language learners have a corner on face-to-face language transactions because field dependence correlates highly with empathy, which is central in effective communication.
If you are more field dependent, when you look at a forest, you see nature.
Whether you are more field dependent or field independent is a matter of orientation interestingly influenced by the social environment in which you were raised, your personality, and even your age and gender. Like most opposites, these two orientations are best understood as poles of a continuum. Context is also an important factor because when faced with a certain challenge or fear, we may draw on whichever element will serve us the best in that situation.
In the context of faith, this continuum may help us to grasp a fuller truth. When we read Scripture, it’s a human tendency to focus on the particular phrases or verses that move us and support our beliefs. This is an important work of the Spirit opening the Word to us and showing us how it intersects with our lives. And we cannot settle there without also striving to see the whole redemptive picture. This, of course, is best done with companions stirring one another to love and good works because in us and through us Yahweh is making all things new.
This stirring is one of our purposes as teachers. I’m not offering the easy, “that’s just the way I am/they are,” excuse. Teachers and students alike are not stuck in their contexts and orientations. Awareness of our own and our students’ orientations can help us to compensate for holes. We can encourage our students to benefit from classmates who are different. We can cultivate flexibility in ourselves and our students. We can focus on our shared humanity, with empathy.
H. Douglas Brown (2007), Principles of Language Learning and Teaching.