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The Language Clinic:
The Teacher as an Agent of Change

by Dr. Andrew Finch, Kyungpook National University


This paper suggests that the (language) teacher has an important role as learning-physician in the classroom, helping students to identify their cognitive and affective ailments, and suggesting courses of treatment. In view of the destructive potential of modern society, and the humanistic learning goals espoused by official government policy documents, this paper also proposes that the teacher is an agent of social change, and has a responsibility to model society in the classroom, and to promote an ethical learning curriculum in addition to cognitive and affective ones.

1. Introduction

Let us step back from the chalk face for a moment and consider "who" the language teacher is in the classroom:

This last description of the language teacher's role might seem a little strange at first, prompting us to ask in what way our students can be described as ailing or sick; what is it about them that needs identifying and healing? This paper suggests that in fact our students are suffering from a number of primarily affective ailments, and that the teacher has the opportunity and the responsibility to deal with these in the manner of a caring physician-figure. In addition, it is proposed that it is the responsibility of all teachers to model and to foster appropriate social behavior and social skills.

2. The symptoms: affective filters

Returning to the question (above) let us attempt to answer it by looking at some aspects of learning that have emerged in the last thirty years. Research during this time has identified various affective filters that affect learning considerably, both in a positive and in a negative manner, prompting Stern (1983:383) to claim that affect is more important than cognition in the learning process. Some of the component factors of affect are as follows:

3. Diagnosing the sickness

When the situation is expressed in these terms, we can see that any learning that occurs in class is subject to a wealth of affective barriers and filters. Here, then, is the sickness with which our students are afflicted. They have multiple intelligences and learning styles, which are not being addressed; their cognitive attention is taken up by anxiety, fear of failure, lack of confidence and lack of motivation; their learning energies are diverted by unrealistic beliefs and negative attitudes to learning. Furthermore, society demands of our students that they develop cooperative team skills and critical thinking abilities, so that they can be creative and competent colleagues and co-workers when they begin a career. However, the evaluation system that is all too prominent in second and tertiary education focuses on competition and individual success, according to intellectual criteria. Those who do not fit in to the "education from the neck up" (Rogers 1951) approach to education are labeled as "failures" and stop trying to learn, even though they might have excellent potential in terms of non-intellectual abilities and social responsibility.

Mass education has thus tended to ignore affective factors and to emphasize the cognitive aspects of learning. As a result, we have politicians, managers, parents, even educators, who have not been taught how to manage their emotions and how to act responsibly in society. They have not been shown in school how to make the best of themselves in cooperation with others, and they have not been put in positions of responsibility in which they can learn the social skills that are so necessary in life. The teacher-controlled environment which prescribes every aspect of life in school, in fact stifles creativity, and encourages students to abdicate decision-making and problem-solving to an authority-figure who prescribes, restricts and evaluates. However "benevolent" such an autocracy might be, and however much this might be deemed to be in the students' "best interests", such a situation cannot be expected to promote and develop critical thinking skills, or a responsible attitude to life and society.

4. Finding a cure

Having identified the symptoms and the sickness, the question arises concerning the cure: what is to be done about this situation? It might seem at first that the only recourse is to abandon learning content in the classroom, until all the filters and barriers to learning have been dealt with. However, there are ways in which we can ease the situation and promote learning. If we take a look at the conditions for learning that were researched and identified by Rogers (1951) over half a century ago (Appendix A), it is interesting to note the key words that appear: active, personal meaning, subjective nature of learning, difference, the right to make mistakes, tolerates ambiguity, cooperative, self-evaluation, openness of self, trusted, respected, accepted, permits confrontation.

In other words, we can focus our attention on making the classroom into an environment that is conducive to learning. Irrespective of teaching method or lesson content, we can make our classrooms into places where students are confident, respected, and motivated. As can be seen from Kelly's (1996:96-96) macro- and micro-skills of language counseling (Appendix B), this environment will require of the teacher that he/she becomes an affective and cognitive counselor. Once more, exciting keywords appear (Appendix B): introducing, promoting, helping, reduce uncertainty, enable, offering advice, suggesting, demonstrating encouragement, reinforcement, constructive reaction. We thus have now a revised view of the teacher as a learning counselor, helping students to feel good about themselves and to maximize their learning potentials. The learning physician is now someone who identifies negative affect and its cause, and encourages the student to take a course of treatment which will provide some sort of solution in the long and short term.

5. Agents of social change

An approach which respects the students and places them at the center of learning has an inevitable impact on the lesson content and on teacher/student roles. Thus (Appendix A) the teacher loses the teaching function, a large variety of activities can occur simultaneously, and the ability of the student to become concerned and committed is an important gauge of growth. Once we start looking at education in this way, however, various problems arise. For example, how are the students to be assessed in terms of personal growth, when they have to pass competitive exams in order to "succeed", i.e. to get into a "good' school, and then to find a "good" job? Having reached this point, let us pause to consider once more. We have been looking at the teacher as a physician who treats the students for emotional and cognitive disabilities. Let us now go even further in terms of role-change.

It is not unusual to see the results of man-made disasters on television or in the newspapers. We see man's inhumanity to man, lack of consideration, selfishness, stupidity, etc. We see the earth being ravaged and destroyed by greed, corruption and narrow-sightedness, and we feel that there is nothing we can do. We are simply pawns in the process; we have to meet the criteria we are told to meet, and that is our lot in life. However, the technology that began the industrial revolution and that inspired mass education, is now showing destructive potential, and we can no longer watch mutely. As H. G. Wells remarked early in the 20th century: "Civilization is a race between education and catastrophe".

Teachers can actually make a positive contribution to this situation. We are the people who can model the skills and characteristics of responsible citizens, and we can use the micro-society of the language classroom as a model for the greater society that students will meet when they leave school. We can focus on the sort of problem-solving skills and critical thinking skills that students will need when they enter that society, and we can manufacture situations in which students can experiment with the social skills that they will need to develop. In short, we can promote the sort of positive qualities that are needed in society; we can help our students develop the moral strength to refuse bribes and to say "no" to drugs; we can give them responsibility for learning and assessment and help them learn how to use and respect that responsibility.

Humanists, philosophers and educationalists (e.g. Bruner, Dewey, Krishnamurti) have been making these points for more than a hundred years, and it is noticeable now that a number of government-based policy statements cite holistic and humanistic principles as educational goals. The definition of the educated person offered by the Ministry of Education in Korea is significant enough in this respect to quote in its entirety:

The Ideal Profile of the Educated Person:

The objectives of Korea's education are, under the ideal of hongik-ingan (contributing to the overall benefit of humankind the founding spirit of the first kingdom in Korean history), to assist all people in perfecting their individual character, to develop the ability to achieve an independent life and acquire the qualifications of democratic citizens, and to be able to participate in the building of a democratic state and promoting the prosperity of all humankind.

On the basis of the stated ideals of education, the well-educated person targeted by this curriculum is defined as follows:

  1. A person who seeks to develop his/her own individuality on the basis of well-rounded and wholesome development
  2. A person who demonstrates creative ability on the basis of a solid grounding in basic knowledge and skills
  3. A person who explores career paths on the basis of broad intellectual knowledge and skills in diverse academic disciplines
  4. A person who creates new values on the basis of an understanding of the national culture
  5. A person who contributes to the development of the community where he/she lives on the basis of democratic citizenship. (http://www.moe.go.kr/eng_26/)

In the light of this policy statement, it is it is evident that the role of teachers in the classroom (as defined by the government) is to promote the development of students according to the above humanistic criteria. If we find ourselves frustrated in attempting to follow these goals, then it is the people who restrict us by imposing counter-productive teaching methods and goals who are rejecting government policy. Humanistic teachers thus have an important ally – the government. If we pursue truly educational goals in our classroom, then the government must support us in our endeavor. As Appendix C shows, the American Association for Supervision of Curriculum Development (for example) has also being saying such things for some time.

6. Implications

6.1. The non-threatening learning environment

At this stage, there is another question to be posed: If (language) teachers are agents of social change, then how do we apply this in the classroom? The first point to make here is that we can do the things we always do, but we can put them in the context of humanistic goals through promoting a non-threatening learning environment (Finch, 2002, in press). Thus language teachers can:

  1. develop a stress-free climate;
  2. develop peer-support networks;
  3. promote self-confidence without focusing on competence or performance;
  4. examine hidden agendas (our own and those of the students);
  5. offer unconditional trust, inspiring confidence, motivation and independence;
  6. reflect on our assumptions;
  7. reflect on counseling skills and management of affect;
  8. reflect a holistic, affective, student-centered view of language learning;
  9. act as learning resources.


6.2. The project syllabus

A humanistic approach to learning will have inevitable repercussions in the classroom, in that students, being given the freedom to determine and assess their learning, will want to study language which they find meaningful and relevant to them. Thus, they will ask to learn presentation skills, public speaking skills, TOEFL skills - whatever form of language study that they see as important for their future. Such a situation can lead to the project syllabus, which can be seen as a special application of the process syllabus, exemplifying process and task-based ideas by being collaborative, avoiding competition, and promoting decision-making, critical thinking and responsibility for learning (Skehan 1998:273). Project-based syllabi are also notable for the product which emerges from the process (e.g. oral presentation, drama, written report). This product is seen as part of the process continuum (a means rather than an end), useful for the feedback (and therefore opportunities for assessment) which it gives to the learners concerning their progress, as well as functioning as a "sort of public record of the project, of which the participants have ownership, and which will give the project some durability" (Skehan 1998:273, cf. Willis 1996). 

6.3. Alternative assessment

The day-to-day management of a humanistic, project-based learning environment will involve looking at means by which language teachers can fill their classrooms with learning resources, provide learning opportunities for different learning styles and preferences, cater for differing language levels and ages, and assist students to identify and pursue their learning needs. Alternative assessment (ongoing personal needs analyses, portfolios, learning diaries, self-assessment, peer-assessment) can be used as a means of consciousness-raising, goal setting, reflection upon learning achievement, and further goal setting. In this setting, learning can be personalized, and learners can be encouraged to make choices for themselves regarding what and how they learn.

6.4. The teacher as physician

Teachers can empathize with their learners, getting to know them as individuals, and seeking to understand the ways in which they make sense of the world. Such an approach to the language classroom can be facilitated by training learners to acquire learning skills, by respecting their learning preferences, by engaging in learning projects in which students have the freedom to define what and how they learn, by encouraging them to use alternative assessment, and by treating the classroom as a doctor's clinic, in which the teacher acts as guide, counselor and learning physician. This view of the teacher provides some interesting analogies, in that the teacher/doctor:

7. Conclusion

To conclude, teachers have the opportunity and the responsibility to expand their role to that of cognitive and affective physician in the classroom, diagnosing learning and social ailments and offering courses of healing. Such an approach to teacher/student roles focuses on the learner as a potential responsible member of society, and concentrates primarily on helping him or her to develop the critical-thinking and problem-solving skills necessary if he/she is to make a positive contribution to that society. Humanistic goals (for example those exemplified by the Korean Ministry of Education) must therefore determine everything that happens in our classrooms. If we treat our students with love and respect, then they will learn, and we will be initiating social improvement. We cannot "sit on the fence" and let the world look after itself. In short, teachers are agents of social change, and must respect themselves as such. They must also take on the responsibility that this involves.


Allwright, R.L. (1984b). Why don't learners learn what teachers teach?: the interaction hypothesis. In D. M. Singleton, & D. Little (Eds.). Language Learning in Formal and Informal Contexts. Dublin: Irish Association for Applied Linguistics. 3-18.

Finch, A. E. (2002) The non-threatening learning environment. Korea TESOL Journal, 3/1 (in press)

Griffiths, R. & Sheen, R. (1992). Disembodied figures in the landscape: a reappraisal of L2 research on field dependence/independence. Applied Linguistics, 13/2, 133-148.

Horwitz, E.K. (1986). Preliminary evidence for the reliability and validity of a Foreign Korean Ministry of Education website: http://www.moe.go.kr/eng_26/

Language Anxiety Scale. TESOL Quarterly, 20, 559-562.

MacIntyre, P.D., & Gardner, R.C. (1989). Anxiety and second language learning: toward a theoretical clarification. Language Learning. 32, 251-275.

MacIntyre, P.D. & Gardner, R.C. (1994). The subtle effects of language anxiety on cognitive processing in the second language. Language Learning. 44/2, 283-305.

Rogers, C.R. (1951). On Becoming a Person. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.

Skehan, P. (1998). A Cognitive Approach to Language Learning. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Stern, H.H. (1983). Fundamental Concepts of Language Teaching, Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Tobias, S. (1980). Anxiety and instruction. In I.G. Sarason (Ed.) Test Anxiety: Theory, Research and Implications. Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum.

Willis, J. (1996). A Framework for Task-Based Learning. London: Longman.

Appendix A: Conditions that facilitate learning (Rogers 1951:p 122)

Conditions that facilitate learning:

  1. Learning is facilitated in an atmosphere which encourages people to be active.
  2. Learning is facilitated in an atmosphere that facilitates the individual's discovery of the personal   meaning of ideas.
  3. Learning is facilitated in an atmosphere that emphasizes the uniquely personal and subjective nature of learning.
  4. Learning is facilitated in an atmosphere in which difference is good and desirable.
  5. Learning is facilitated in an atmosphere that consistently recognizes the right to make mistakes.
  6. Learning is facilitated in an atmosphere that tolerates ambiguity.
  7. Learning is facilitated in an atmosphere in which evaluation is a cooperative process with emphasis on self-evaluation.
  8. Learning is facilitated in an atmosphere which encourages openness of self rather than concealment of self.
  9. Learning is facilitated in an atmosphere in which people are encouraged to trust in themselves as well as in external sources.
  10. Learning is facilitated in an atmosphere in which people feel they are respected.
  11. Learning is facilitated in an atmosphere in which people feel they are accepted.
  12. Learning is facilitated in an atmosphere which permits confrontation.
  13. The most effective teacher creates conditions by which he loses the teaching function.

Appendix B: The macro- and micro-skills of language counselling (Kelly 1996:95-96)

Macro Skills Description Purpose


introducing new directions and options

to promote learner focus and reduce uncertainty


helping the learner to formulate specific goals and objectives

to enable the learner to focus on a manageable goal


offering advice and information, direction and ideas, suggesting

to help the learner develop alternative strategies


demonstrating target behaviour

to provide examples of knowledge and skills that the learner desires


providing encouragement and reinforcement

to help the learner persist; create trust; acknowledge and encourage effort

Giving feedback

expressing a constructive reaction to the learner's efforts

to assist the learner's self-awareness and capacity for self-appraisal


appraising the learner's progress and achievement

to acknowledge the significance of the learner's effort and achievement


connecting the learner's goals and tasks to wider issues

to help establish the relevance and value of the learner's project


bringing a sequence of work to a conclusion

to help the learner establish boundaries and define achievement

Micro Skills   Description Purpose


Giving the learner your undivided attention

to show respect and interest; to focus on the person


Repeating in your own words what the learner says

to check your understanding and to confirm the learner's meaning


Simplifying the learner's statements by focusing on the essence of the message

to clarify the message and to sort our conflicting or confused meanings


bringing together the main elements of a message

to create focus and direction


using open questions to encourage self-exploration

to elicit and to stimulate learner disclosure and self-definition


offering explanations for learner experiences

to provide new perspectives; to help self-understanding

Reflecting feelings

surfacing the emotional content of learner statements

to show that the whole person has been understood


identifying with the learner's experience and perception

to create a bond of shared understanding


surfacing discrepancies and contradictions in the learner's communication

to deepen self-awareness, particularly of self-defeating behavior

Appendix C: Ways in which to help pupils to expand the self (American Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development: Individualizing instruction, 1964:161-162):

  1. Observing and listening to learners with care and concern.
  2. Achieving openness in pupil-teacher relationships, to permit improved response and interaction.
  3. Helping learners toward the objective of personal relevance.
  4. Recognizing and accepting different ways of responding, according to learners' individualized styles and needs.
  5. Stimulating creation and recreation of self-image that encourages further development.
  6. Questioning, probing, and responding in ways that lead learners to assume responsibility.
  7. Standing aside judiciously to let the learner discover and exercise his own resources.
  8. Making development of the learner the chief goal in teaching subject matter.
  9. Achieving free affective responses and seeing its relevance to intellectual development.
  10. Achieving free and constructive communication with learners.
  11. Helping learners sense the living dynamics of man's creations, as revealed by history and the current scene.
  12. Clearing the way, by whatever means, for stretching learners' minds and abilities in creative, self-fulfilling endeavor.

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