Do NOT piss on my soapbox!
After last week’s unintentionally contentious posting that resulted in accusations of elitism and poor writing, I am going for a less controversial approach this week. But be warned: despite the exhortations of one of my critics to write for the readers, I am writing primarily for myself. There is an appropriately vain hope that some of you might find something of use in what I have to say, but this is really a crucible for my own thinking. To be honest, the fact that I am choosing to self-publish on the…ummm…worldwide web makes me wonder about the sanity of the reader who felt that it is incumbent upon the writer to consider their audience. Apologies in advance (and feel free to disagree as vehemently as you can muster).
The Easter break has meant that time has become stretched and distorted. I am now able to do things such as read and think. I am away from distractions both welcome and unwelcome. This is how I picture life post-lottery win. And I have been reading an awful lot about education. I have invested in Dylan Williams’s book about formative assessment, John Hattie’s book about Visible Learning, Tom Bennett’s book about teaching; I have subscribed to some fantastic blogs such as Pragmatic Education, Tabula Rasa, Scenes from the Battleground. I have discovered some great people on Twitter such as @tessalmatthews, @tombennett71, @philbeadle, @oldandrewuk. I’ve been on holiday for less than a week.
The bubble that ELT finds itself in (at least which I think it finds itself in) has long fascinated and frustrated me. It is a bubble that isolates it from our colleagues in the wider teaching profession: those people who went off and trained to become real teachers, members of a professional organisation and are invariably subject to all sorts of prying eyes and poking fingers. I know that these teachers would probably swoon with envy were they to be aware of our relatively unmoderated existence; just as I am aware that for many practitioners of ELT (is there such a thing as a practitioner of Maths teaching?), this relatively unmoderated existence does not exist for they are primarily teachers and then language teachers (and possibly then English language teachers). Indeed, there was a time when I was teaching in the UK that I yearned to break free of the freedom imposed by EFL and to jump feet first into the regulated, inspected universe of ESOL: public accountability gave ESOL practitioners (that word again) a national curriculum, a set of targets, a series of expectations, a coherent narrative that would speak out to the rest of the world and say THIS IS WHAT IT MEANS TO TEACH LANGUAGE! My efforts were frustrated, however, and I remained in EFL where the coursebooks provided the narrative (This is what it means to teach language) and my personal and political beliefs provided the coherence (this is actually what it means to teach language).
As a language teacher, I knew next to nothing about the world of Modern Foreign Language teaching – the name given to those colleagues of ours who teach French, Japanese, Mandarin, Spanish, German, Italian, Spanish etc. And the debates that raged in the world of education were virtually unheard of in the world of ELT. Until this week (for me). And now I am discovering just what it is that I have been missing. And now I am learning about just what it is that has been missing from my teaching. And I stand upon the threshold of the new! Because educationalists have been discussing for quite some time just how we go about determining if students are learning and what we do if we discover that they are not. Some educationalists have sought to describe what learning actually looks like. Some educationalists have talked about creating the right environment for learning to develop within. And they have based their theories upon thousands and thousands of educational studies.
It might just be me, but I don’t think that ELT has done this. ELT has pretty much based its practice on theories that have escaped much in the way of critical examination. And we are left with the abominations of the communicative approach, infogaps, skimming and scanning, listening for gist, guessing from context, conversational gambits, pair work, group work, note-taking, vocabulary learning etc etc etc. And you would be hard pressed to find, in my experience at least, one teacher who can point unwaveringly to a body of research that serves as a bedrock for their personal practice.
Our debates our passion-filled polemics about one thing or another: is technology any good? Does dogme work? Should we teach grammar? Rah-rah-rah! Why don’t we try and answer the more visceral questions: what the hell is learning? How the hell can we make it happen? Or how about the questions can reading be taught? Can listening be taught? Should language have ever been broken down into component skills? These questions, I think, are much more fundamental that whether technology impedes or impels learning. Let’s talk about how to harness the power of twitter once we’ve determined what we need to harness it for.
In my experience, fundamental questions are usually met with impulsive answers. I have sat in many one-to-one explorations of teaching with colleagues and tried to help them formulate questions about their practice. Many times, whenever I suggested a question, they immediately replied with an answer along the lines of, “Yes – but we can’t look at that because this happens or this is the case or the students are this way.” In other words, questions were considered to have been answered definitively or to be beyond answering. All that was left was what the teacher already knew. And there was no point in exploring these questions because they already knew the answer. This state of wilful ignorance, I cravenly suggest, is a microcosm of ELT. Of course the communicative approach rocks: language is about communication. Of course skimming and scanning are useful tools: try reading without them. Of course we need to teach learners to listen for gist: are they ever going to be able to understand 100%. Of course language should be broken down into the four skills…how else would you teach it?
There are wonderful bloggers out there who are questioning this received wisdom. Educationalists who are railing against the idea that education is about equipping people with skills and who are rallying behind the idea that education is actually about equipping people with knowledge. And I am in the process of trying to determine what that might mean for my own practice. What knowledge is the English language teacher expected to be able to embed in the minds of English language learners? Was this what made Michel Thomas the success that he was? Had he uncovered an answer to this question? Was this why they killed him? OK…I’m being facetious now…If the knowledge is there, do the skills follow on behind it? Does ELT favour the teaching of skills because it lacks a knowledge base? Is grammar teaching our knowledge base? And this is only the start of my list of questions. Some questions are too opaque for me to be able to put them into words. But I hope to be able to explore them through my reading of blogs and literature from the world of teaching.
For now, I am happy to consider that everything that I have learnt about teaching over the last twenty plus years might be wrong: perhaps it isn’t about getting the students to talk; perhaps there is room for explicit grammar instruction; perhaps it isn’t enough to tell learners that language improvement will come from language use; perhaps language teaching isn’t about skills enhancement; perhaps the depersonalised curriculum provides a framework for knowledge-sharing rather than skills development.
One thing remains clear to me: we do our profession a disservice by divorcing ourselves from our colleagues in the wider educational milieu. We are teachers first and foremost. Our job is to teach. Research has shown that we are the single most important variable in the success or otherwise of this endeavour. More important than the learner; more important than the materials; more important than the environment; more important than the assessment. It is our work that is most likely to have a lasting impact upon how successful our learners are. There was a time when I took refuge in the words of Noam Chomsky who argued that learning has to come from the learners; this may have been a convenient untruth. Research would seem to suggest that learning is dependent upon good teaching. Good teaching, I am beginning to suspect, is not facilitated by the well-intentioned sharing of web-based games and activities, but upon a hard, critical examination of practice and a daily introspective struggle session.