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Respecting Student Development, Differences Through Adaptive Language Classes

By Erica C. M. Coutrim and Gustavo Fuga dos Reis
 | Nov 03, 2016

ThinkstockPhotos-478407994_x300In recent years, educational software developers have offered the adaptive method as an innovation in language learning, but the concept of internal differentiation emerged decades ago. This response to the behaviorist approach considered that all students learn in the same way, but the development of new theories has changed this idea.

In the case of English as a foreign language, the assumption that students have different learning characteristics was influenced by the nativist, cognitivist, and interactionist theories.

From the nativist perspective, language learning is a biological mechanism regulated by the language acquisition device that processes input in the foreign language. Cognitivism, in turn, considers that learners act, construct, plan, and analyze their learning on the basis of internal and mental processes. The interactionist theory assumes the learners’ heterogeneity, meaning that mediated interaction among individuals with different knowledge levels, is the key to an efficient learning process.

All of these theories (and more) have guided the development of new methods and teaching practices, but using the same method with different learners within a group counteracts the importance of heterogeneity.

Despite the effort of language courses and schools to create an environment that uses methods to respect differences, choices made exclusively by schools become contradictory. Not only surrounding cognitive aspects but also cultural, social, and ethnographic elements that have singularized the way people behave which, in turn, affects how they learn a foreign language.

Furthermore, the massive use of Internet tools and other technological devices in the classroom also demands the development of different literacies and the consideration of the constant differentiation during the learning process.

The use of technology emerges as an efficient way to account positively for the differences among learners to promote self-identification, autonomy, and motivation. Therefore, technological devices and the Internet can be useful in developing individual courses for singularized individuals who are in constant transformation. But it needs to be authentic. The application of some social and ethnographic data to the same foreign language course (with modifications), the difference in progress, or the possibility of teachers determining, through technology, what and how students learn cannot be called truly adaptive. Adaptive learning must take into account all differences to create different courses with varied methods and content according to the needs of each student. Not only this, but it is necessary also to consider we are all individuals in constant development. An adaptive course must be modified according to student development during the entire process.

It is complex but possible and promising. Adaptive learning will help create new learning environments (online or face-to-face) where learner differences are not only respected but an underlying concept in the foreign language learning and teaching processes.

erica coutrimgustavo fugaErica C. M. Coutrim is a PhD student in Languages and Education at the University of São Paulo, Brazil. Gustavo Fuga dos Reis is an honoree on ILA’s 2016 30 Under 30 list. He is the CEO and founder of 4YOU2, a self-sustaining social entrepreneurship-focused venture that has served more than 5,000 language learners in Brazil.

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