Dealing with Difficult Situations : Negotiating Course Content

In this, the first in an occasional series on Dealing with Difficult Situations, we look at a common situation – the one-to one student who has different ideas to you on how the course should be structured. How do you react if you’re convinced that what the student wants is not what they really need? Do you insist on doing it “your way” and almost certainly lose the student’s belief in the efficacy of the course? Or do you give them what they want although firmly believing it will do little to advance their learning? This article looks at a response which worked well with one student.

I once had a client who came to Britain to do a two week, six hour a day, one to one course at the organisation where I was working. We had a clear statement from his company of what they expected from the course and, as always, before his arrival we did an extensive language audit and needs analysis, including analysing typical reports he would have to read and write, the minutes of the type of meeting he would have to attend and so on. He was at a lower intermediate level, with a grammatical, functional and lexical competence which was clearly inadequate for the high level job which he had. He needed to reach a level in which he was capable of attending meetings, giving presentations and negotiating in English, as well as writing complex technical reports. His two weeks with us would be the first step in a course which would then be continued on a non-intensive basis on his return to Venezuela. I spent much of the week before his arrival working on the course objectives and syllabus, and putting together the course materials.

On the first morning of the course, immediately after meeting him, I explained how the course would be structured, and how we had arrived at those specific objectives based on the information we had collected. He then politely, but firmly, stated “No, I don’t want all that. I just want to talk.”

This left me with a dilemma. First of all, I was convinced that, at his level and with the specific needs that he had, “just talking” was not going to help him very much. Secondly, that was not what his company (who were paying and who we had to report to) had asked for. And thirdly my heart sank at the idea of trying to plan 60 consecutive teaching hours of the type of chat he clearly had in mind in a one-to-one situation.

However, it was also clear that if I just refused to take his wants into consideration, it would have a negative effect on his attitude towards the course, which would mean that it was unlikely to be successful. There was also the possibility, however minimal I considered it, that he was right and I was wrong. On the spot, I therefore proposed a verbal teaching-learning contract : he would try it “my way” for the first two days of the course, after which we would switch to “his way” for the next two days. At the end, he could decide which approach or which activities had led to the most successful learning, and from then on we would follow that approach for the rest of the course. I also made it clear that he would have to play an active part in the “conversation” part of the course, thinking of and introducing topics as well as just waiting for me to do so. But both of us undertook to “give it all we’d got” for the full four days, temporarily putting aside whatever doubts we each had about the other’s methods.

We thus started working on the course materials which I’d prepared, and at the end of the two days I was starting to see results. But as he hadn’t changed his mind, we then switched. The first morning went well – he was a nice guy and he had plenty to say about his job, his life and his country. By the end of the afternoon he seemed to be starting to flag a bit, but he went away with both of us having agreed to think of various new topics for the second day. The next morning we kept going, but after lunch he came back and said he’d already made up his mind how he wanted the course to continue. He felt he had learned far more in the first two days than afterwards, and could we go back immediately to the programme that had been planned.

Despite the fact that we had “wasted” nine out of the sixty hours and the programme had to be adapted slightly, the course overall was extremely successful. From that point on, the student participated actively and enthusiastically, showing full commitment to the approach and to reaching the objectives which had been set. I’m convinced this wouldn’t have happened if I had just tried to convince him I knew more than he did about his needs and had imposed my syllabus on him. He needed to experience the difference in order to convince himself.

Have you experienced a similar situation and found another solution which worked well? Leave a comment telling us about it. Or if you’ve found a solution for a different type of difficult situation, why not send us an article describing it?

Photo provided under Creative Commons Licence by DavidQuick via Flickr

No comments: