Recognising and dealing effectively with student goals and aspirations
by Katie Evans & Seth Atkin

When an individual accesses a learning programme, there are numerous pressures and interests involved, many of which are external to the individual and the learning programme itself. These may include the labour market, requirements from other educational institutions, and a world that demands updates to understanding on a regular basis. With the complexity of demands brought by every individual learner it is becoming harder to immediately identify what their learning and longer terms needs and aspirations may be, particularly for courses such as initial and further acquisitions of the English language.

The needs of language learners are a global discussion, involving focus on the status of English in relation to local languages. Whilst in a café in Berlin I was party to a discussion about the needs of language learners in Slovakia. At the heart of the discussion was the local requirement in Bratislavia for people who work in the service industries to speak English. This provides a brief focus on the local demand; in order to work in a café in their own country a person needs to speak English. Here we see the demands of the employer which have serious implications for the person trying to access that employment. As educators we need to ask, why should this be the case in a country where the national language is Slovak and not English, and is also a language understood by several neighbouring countries? This discussion took place just before May 2004. O 1st May 2004 Slovakia, among several other Eastern European countries, became part of the expanded European Union. As the EU expands, travel opportunities grow, with several budget airlines opening flights to a range of new EU destinations. Therefore, local language can no longer be defined by state boundaries alone; there are now para state blocks which enable travel and provide challenges to the more geographically confined language groups. It is not now enough just to be able to speak your mother tongue when applying for a job in Slovakia; the English language has risen to international prominence through travel and migration opportunities as well as the further spread of electronic communication via the Internet. The Internet poses further challenges to the geographically confined cultures and languages, whilst at the same time potentially making them more accessible. Thus there are demands placed on the local provision of services to the public as it is quite likely that a broader spread of people will access these services, and thus broader language knowledge is required. Media has also shaped the common language for communication over the past few decades, with American dominance in media and mass communication. Therefore the global pressure on local services has come to bear weight and English has become a requirement for jobs with public contact in countries where English is not a commonly used language and where previously it was not needed so much. Ease of travel and the development of mass communication have been accompanied by the spread of huge multinational corporations and the opportunity to work in these money-making organizations means that people in different countries have to attain a similar level of qualifications to compete with each other. With the local job market bowing to global need, the need of each individual student should not be assumed to be that of the traditional local market. The learner may well have much more complex needs than that, relating to wider issues of employment and working within the global context. As a result, demands for education services may increase and place extra demands on the education service provider. Education may then be seen as more lucrative and as services develop more competition may emerge.

This increasingly competitive world of education means that tutors will be faced with learners with a myriad of learning and long-term, wider, more global aspirations. It can also mean that students could be placed on courses for which they are not really prepared. This mean they may either have gone straight onto a course without the correct preparation or they have tried to prepare well but have been given inadequate advice as to the appropriate learning route to take to reach their learning and longer-term goals. It is imperative, in the now-demanding world of education that a tutor and learner can realize the learner's potential to ensure that the most suitable learning route is taken.

So, as a tutor, how much do you know about your learners when you first meet them? Do you assume that because a learner is applying for a certain course, then they are doing so for certain, quite obvious reasons? Do you also assume that each learner who applies for a course will have exactly the same learning needs as the next learner, whose needs will mirror those of the learner next to them? Do we take learners as an individual case-in-point, or do we throw a blanket over them all and put them in the same needs basket?

It is very easy to assume that learners have chosen to follow a certain learning route because they wish to work towards similar, almost pre-determined and assumed learning outcomes. It is easier for teachers to have a group with the same learning goals, in order to plan, prepare and deliver lessons and courses; there is an overall aim for the students to work towards as a whole group, and the method of teaching and learning in order to achieve those aims are created to cater for everybody. Yet, this is precisely where the issue lies: we can be seen to be disregarding individual learning needs and instead assuming learners' needs based on our own assumptions.

Take the ESOL assessment scenario as a case in point. If your prospective learner seems to be struggling to understand the basic questions you ask them when assessing their speaking skills, then it is very easy to immediately assume that this learner needs everyday English; traveling on the bus, going to the supermarket, because they have not been able to respond very well to your (quite simple) questions in the initial assessment setting. You will complete that learner's initial assessment record and immediately place them in your Entry 1 class and move on to the next learner.

However, the initial assessment or initial interview for a course needs to be seen as the very beginning of the whole learning process, whatever the course may be, and that learner need cannot be judged or guessed at in this one, usually brief meeting between tutor and prospective learner. It takes time to really get to know your learners, and this first meeting may create a situation where you are going to gain anything but a true picture of your prospective learner and their needs. It may be, for example, that the learner is not very forthcoming in responding to your questions during the initial interview or assessment. In an ESOL setting obviously language can be the barrier to communication, but it may be other issues as well which also apply to any learner accessing any course. It may be that they are not familiar with an initial assessment or recruitment process, and fell very uncomfortable in that environment. The actual room that the assessment or interview is taking place in may be intimidating or unfamiliar for the learner. They may not be comfortable completing forms or exercises. Also, in most instances, the tutor is sitting on the opposite side of the desk, and learners can feel that they are being watched or intimidated as they complete forms or exercises, which can be very off-putting and will thus affect their performance. Alternatively, you may find yourself assessing or interviewing a very confident, outgoing learner who is able to take the interview or assessment in their stride. It is still as easy to assume the needs of these learners and it is all too easy to make the assumption that those with higher level English skills, for example, must want to apply for a higher education course eventually, so they will be placed in the IELTS class. However, the reality may be that they need to improve their English to be able to apply for a café job in Slovakia, but because of a tutor's assumptions that is missed. If, during a course interview a learner is giving details of their education background for example, it is all too easy for the tutor to begin guessing at why they then want to be studying on this particular course and what they want to achieve from it.

There are, therefore, other issues which arise during an initial assessment or interview that can have an impact on how learners do actually perform during that session, and which do not allow the learner to reveal their true abilities or needs to the tutor. However, this one session often determines which level class the learner is to be placed in, what sort of learning programme will be devised for them, what particular areas of work they will need to look at over the course in order for them to achieve what the tutor thinks they need to achieve. Learners' needs and aspirations cannot truly be recognized in one assessment or interview session. The interview or assessment of course does need to happen; there has to be a starting point in the learning process and this is a necessary thing. However, it cannot be the only opportunity within the learning process for tutors to find out about their learners' needs. Rather, this session is just the very beginning of a large and comprehensive learning process, and learners' true aspirations and needs will be revealed as that process progresses. And this is what the tutor should be aware of: their learners could turn out to be completely different characters to the ones they met in that initial assessment or interview stage. Learners' true skills and aspirations can be revealed through class work, homework, tutorial sessions, tests or examinations which will then allow the tutor to identify learners' true needs and aspirations, and ensure they are met during the course of study, so then if a learner is able to take a job in a café in Slovakia with sufficient English language skills, then their true aspirations have been realised and met.

There are many different activities that play a vital role in the overall learning process. In order to identify learners' needs fully there has to be more than just an initial assessment or interview. Individual learning plans are one part of the make-up of the learning process, and allow the learner to record in more detail both their short and long-term learning aspirations and gives the tutor the chance to gain a greater insight into the immediate and long-term goals of their learner. These immediate and long-term goals are intrinsically linked, as the immediate learning process is key to achieving longer-term aspirations and being able to function effectively in the wider, global context. This is the stage where a tutor may realise that the assumptions they made about their learner's needs when they first met them were not a true reflection of their learner.

In order, then, to ensure that the learning plan is working as practicably as possible in order to realise and meet learning aspirations, tutorial sessions should take place at regular intervals, ideally every four weeks or so. As previously discussed, the tutor will gain a better idea of their learners' needs over a period of time, and a tutorial session is a perfect opportunity to gain this knowledge. Tutorials should be conducted on a one-to-one basis, therefore allowing the learner the privacy and reassurance of confidentiality for them to discuss any issues they have that are affecting their route to achievement. It is important to stress to the learner that this is a support session, designed for them not only to receive an update on their progress from their tutor, but also for them to make the tutor aware of any problems they may be having with their learning, whether they are unhappy with the class, whether they feel the course is enabling them to work towards their goals. As time goes on learners will get to know their tutor better, and ideally will then feel more able to confide in them, unlike they felt able to do in that very first meeting at initial assessment or interview stage. By looking at the learner's progress to date during a tutorial, the tutor and learner can together identify what is working for the learner, areas for improvement as well as looking at wider issues that may be affecting their performance. By a second or third tutorial session a learner may report that they do not feel they are on the right course, or that the work they have been receiving, the make-up of the lessons and the course as a whole are not enabling them to achieve their goals. This is crucial information that a tutor has to be aware of if they are to ensure that their learners are working towards their learning goals which in turn will allow them to achieve their goals in a wider, more global setting, and that this is able to happen through the work the tutor is planning.

Another way to ensure learners' needs are being met, and to give them every opportunity to realise their goals is to offer a wide range of courses, with the option to access different genres and arenas of learning as part of their entire learning experience. While a learner can gain invaluable skills through one particular course, it may be that that course alone cannot meet their ultimate, long-term aspirations. However, by then moving onto other, more diverse courses where their skills, including language skills, can be transferred, will allow the learner to widen their learning experience and achieve their ultimate goals which may be set beyond their immediate learning aspirations. While the initial course that a learner applied for may have allowed them to achieve immediate learning aspirations, they then need to be given the opportunity to access other learning opportunities. This widening of learning will bring the learner into contact with resources in a global context, not just resources limited to text-book or classroom handout as their initial course may have provided them. Ideally, through the learning plans and tutorial sessions previously discussed, a tutor may begin to form an idea of their learners' wider aspirations, and be able to advise them of which courses or learning routes they should or could move onto.

Facilitation of the learning process then, and meeting learners' needs, begins before the learner walks into the learning establishment. It is crucial that the teacher is aware of the wide range of demands that lead to student need, such as the need now to be able to speak English to work in a café in Slovakia, in order to assist in the construction of a meaningful and appropriate programme of learning. Without this awareness, the teacher is liable to the changing nature of society and of not understanding the diversity of demands that the learner attempts to respond to by accessing education. This lack of understanding can, and perhaps in some cases does, lead to outdated learning programmes, which in the end serve neither the learner nor the learning establishment.

In order to provide and help establish a suitable programme of learning it is crucial that the person or persons with responsibility for the learning programme are aware of external demands that learners are under and devise appropriate means for them to meet these demands. Of course, the single learning programme is not functioning in isolation. It may be that one programme of learning needs to be followed in order for another to be pursued effectively afterwards. Take for example a non-British native who wishes to pursue an academic route but has not got the language or the initial qualifications in order to do so. There are a number of things that the learner has to accomplish prior to realizing this end goal. While it may not always be palatable for the learner to have a longer learning route mapped out that originally envisaged, a clearly mapped process would enable the learning route to the end goal to run smoothly and effectively. Learners being set up to fail because needs are not realised and therefore a suitable learning route is not mapped out is counter-productive in all its parts. By focusing on what can be taken up on route to the longer-term goals, the teacher is able to truly facilitate the learning process in response to learner need. The focus on long-term goals can assist the tutor in follow-up and subsequent guidance for the learner. This enables supported progression directly following entry onto an initial course. With multiple, global demands pressing in on learners and the resulting complexity of their needs, the challenge for effective initial guidance and information for subsequent support cannot be underestimated. Tracking of achievement, passing notes to similarly concerned professionals, or others involved in a learner's learning programme, as well as a clear mapping of progression routes are the basic key elements in this pursuit, and one that can be undertaken and communicated the world over.


Katie Evans is currently involved in a project working with asylum seekers, and is setting up and running ESOL classes in local community settings. She also works to place asylum seekers in volunteering opportunities and trains volunteer ESOL tutors. She has previously taught ESOL in the further education sector, both at main sites and in community settings.

Seth Atkin is an Equality and Diversity Manager and runs a variety of projects working with various student groups. He is also a teacher trainer, and was previously Team Leader of a large and successful ESOL provision in the Further Education sector. He has also taught English in Malaysia for many years.

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