Grand Challenges and Great Potential in Foreign Language Teaching and Learning

By Hlas, Anne Cummings | Foreign Language Annals, Spring 2018 | Go to article overview

Grand Challenges and Great Potential in Foreign Language Teaching and Learning


Hlas, Anne Cummings, Foreign Language Annals


1| INTRODUCTION

A curious truism is that innovations always lead the field long before the results, impacts, and implications of them can be understood. This was the case with moveable print (McLuhan, 1962), the automobile (Flink, 1990), and the mobile phone (Ling, 2004). This has been the case with many breakthroughs in history; new ideas are welcomed as a novelty, as a labor-saving device, as a more efficient version of some previous innovation, or as a novel reinvention of an essential element. It is only with time and perspective that one can begin to assess just how the new innovation has actually affected the society that welcomed it.

The same holds true in the field of foreign language education. A review of research from the last 50 years related to classroom practice attests that new ideas dominate the profession long before there is a clear consensus as to how they will affect the language classroom. In the 1940s, for example, the use of drills became a dominant methodology focusing on grammatical accuracy. Almost 75 years later, drills are still prevalent in our profession even after numerous calls for new perspectives in the classroom like Wong and VanPatten's (2003) article, "The Evidence Is IN: Drills Are OUT." In a sense, we seem to continue asking the same questions about the same topics without learning from our past.

Adding to our historical amnesia, we seem to focus more on the now rather than the future, lacking a unified ability to predict and examine factors that are driving change in our field and thus spurring areas for innovation. Since 2012, ACTFL has begun to organize a research agenda focused on priorities to improve foreign language education (ACTFL, 2016, 2017). Albeit a step in the right direction, these research priorities could benefit from more forward thinking. Our colleagues in Teaching English as a Second Language (TESOL), for example, have organized their research agenda around future directions and influences. The TESOL Research Agenda Task Force (2014) identifies the change drivers for their field as "a) new theoretical perspectives on the nature and learning of language(s), b) technological support for learning and c) agency of teachers as advocates of change" (p. 2). As noted by the field of TESOL, research priorities must consider the changing nature of the discipline.

For these reasons, I argue that for research in teaching to move forward, it must start asking the right kind of questions, ones that change the public perception of foreign language teaching and learning. We must begin to coordinate and focus our research efforts to address our field's Grand Challenges, which are unsolved problems that have the potential to lead to significant advances in our field. In an ever-changing educational and political landscape, now more than ever we need to identify our challenges and move forward with a united effort that is aligned to the needs of society. For these reasons, Grand Challenges call on "students, journalists, the public, and their elected representatives, to develop a sense of the possibilities, an appreciation of the risks and the urgent commitment to accelerate progress" (Omenn, 2006, p. 1696). The areas that deserve focused development have the potential to yield the greatest rewards for language learning, language teaching, and society as a whole.

2| GRAND CHALLENGES

The historical roots of Grand Challenges began with the German mathematician David Hilbert. In 1900, he outlined 23 "mathematical puzzles" and reasoned that the solutions of these problems would lead to the furthering of the field of mathematics. Hilbert explained,

Who of us would not be glad to lift the veil behind which the future lies hidden; to cast a glance at the next advances of our science and at the secrets of its development during future centuries?... As long as a branch of science offers an abundance of problems, so long it is alive; a lack ofproblems foreshadows extinction or the cessation ofindependent development. …

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