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Why Language Labs and the so called “Smart Classes” never work for English learning

Updated on May 14, 2014
A prophesy that came almost true
A prophesy that came almost true | Source

Smart Class and the Teaching Machine

A cartoon that appeared in 1901or 1910 “Future School” was almost prophetic in tone. It was about classrooms in France in the year 2000 with gadgets that allows professors to somehow turn books into electrical pulses that are sent to pupil’s heads. Old timers might have chuckled at what they saw in the cartoon, but for the students of this generation, it is not so.

Language labs have been in vague for quite some time now. In fact, a language lab had already started working at the University of Grenoble, when the cartoon mentioned above was drawn. Early language labs used tape recorded dialogues. Later, computers took the place the place of the cumbersome tapes and reels. But the essential design of a language lab has not changed much.

After World War II, language labs played a major role in the field of education, mainly in the United States. During the War, American military began a training programme for its soldiers to learn foreign language quickly. Later, on its results gave credibility to the Language Labs. Audio recording and play back methods became much more reliable. Educationists also started supporting the Audio-Lingual Method, were importance was given to the repetition of sentences and ‘Programmed Instruction’. Government funding and support from private agencies ensured the future of language labs.

Soon, language labs mushroomed in every corner of the world. Along with audio, video was added through the use of slide projectors and taped videos. This laid the foundation for the smart class that we now find in most classrooms.

In relation to all this advances, B.F. Skinner, a renowned Educational Psychologist of that time, created a “Teaching Machine”. It was a machine that could show a list of questions and the students were rewarded when they gave the correct answer.

However, there was a catch, the proverbial fly in the ointment: IT SIMPLY DID NOT WORK. That is why we talk about Skinner’s language machines now using the Past Tense. Educationists soon realised that the Audio-lingual method was an insufficient tool for language learning. They started looking elsewhere for better teaching methods.

But why did they fail?

Any marketing executive for Language Labs and Smart Class will say that these technologies are multi-sensory and hence quite effective. But they conveniently paper over the fact that learning is not a passive response. Learning is all about getting inspired. I remember how a history teacher inspired us students by telling stories about the Indian freedom struggle, using nothing but the power of storytelling. Within days, dates, and names were forever etched in our memories.

Plutarch had once said: “The mind is not a vessel to be filled, but a fire to be kindled.” There lies the problem. The idea behind language labs and smart class is to cram in knowledge which is made into a capsule form (they call it modules). It never works. Students are not bean bags waiting to be filled up with terabytes of information. They want to question things.

Language Labs and Smart Classes have another inherent problem: they are not reliable. Most of them need an expert who can handle the software and troubleshooting. Teachers can use these devices, but they are not the experts. Often there will be a computer geek in the school, but then valuable time of the class is lost when something does not work.

A few months ago, I was giving training to some teachers in Conversational English. I had prepared a great video and presentations before. But when I switched on the Smart Class projector, the ubiquitous blue-screen of death was flashed onto the projection screen and that was the end of that class. Of course I never had a backup plan.

The summer afternoon was taking its toll and I had to conjure something up. I quickly came up with a stupid nonsensical story that I made up and asked a random teacher to complete it. Then another teacher took her place and by the end of that very lively class, everyone had spoken at least a sentence.

An Impromptu Learning Environment

Classes should be spontaneous. By spontaneous, I do not mean, that the teacher should teach without a plan. They should have a plan. They should have the competency. But, beyond all that, they should realize that students are not robots. They should be prepared to face the unexpected. What works for one person need not work for another. Teaching is a continuous experiment.

Some students are slow learners. They should be allowed to learn at their own pace. This cannot work in class that is hops from one module to another, unmindful of the students who fall down along the way. The problem with such programmed instruction is that they are not flexible enough to accommodate the different types of students.

So should we ban Language Labs and Interactive Whiteboard from our classrooms?

Smart Classes and to a certain extent, Language Labs, do have their place. In English you can use, PowerPoint presentations to quickly elicit answers. You can start a class with a video clip. But, the teacher should have control over the entire programme. Room should be given to the teacher to innovate and build upon. Often, in Smart Class the teachers themselves cannot add anything to the content provided. This is done deliberately.

Smart Class is good option for teaching science subjects. It can help students to visualise abstract concepts. In English, the same can be used to improve vocabulary by showing images of things. I am not against the use of technology in teaching, but I am dead against the way it is used in our classrooms.


Language Labs and Smart class are huge business opportunities. School can justify the high fees that they collect, project it as great achievements of their school and also conveniently conceal the lack of competency of some of its teachers. But, if only, the management of our schools spend the same money on teacher development, the student will stand to gain a lot.

Interactive Whiteboard and Language Lab in a Language learning classroom

Do you believe that an interactive whiteboard is mandatory in a classroom?

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