Today I want to publish my bold manifesto.
Today I want to publish my bold manifesto. I want this to be the Secret equivalent to Scott Thornbury’s 2001 Vow of Chastity. From this day forward, I want to have inspired debates where people rubbish me, build me up, knock me down. I want to be the catalyst for change. I want…I want…I want…how did that Rolling Stones song go again?
So, what is my big manifesto? It is big. It is going to incorporate all of my resentment to published materials, teacher training, professional development, ELT, testing, IATEFL and you name it. It is going to provide the framework within which all ELT dichotomies can be resolved: techno or luddite; dogme or coursebook; grammar or no-grammar. And yet it is going to be quite simple. My one big idea (quite possibly thought of already by anybody with half a brain cell) is that ELT needs to focus more on knowledge and less on skills.
I can hear you groaning and recoiling in horror. Am I really urging a return to black-gowned teachers, stalking the corridors between rows of desks, lost in their own recitations of grammar rules? Not exactly. You see, I believe that it is possible to do dictoglosses, role plays, projects, games, songs,…in short, all that might be regarded as fun and yet, at the same time, be guided by the question: what will my students know at the end of today’s lesson that they didn’t know before? It strikes me that at the moment, the world of the ELT goldfish bowl is presided over by a rather muddle-headed wizard who encourages us to ask the question, What will our students be able to do at the end of the lesson that they couldn’t do before? And the problem with this is that, to me at least, it seems as if there are many more variables that need to be taken into account. Not least is the variable of context: when we say do what context are we talking about? I have been speaking my L2 for years. In some contexts I am bloody marvellous at it; in other contexts, it’s as if I have been whacked in a very tender spot just before I start speaking. To make matters even more confusing, there are some contexts in which I perform as if I have just been whacked in a very tender spot despite this typically being one of the contexts within which I perform bloody marvellously. And vice versa. And the problem with classrooms is that they tend to limit themselves to a pretty small handful of contexts.
No- join me in swearing allegiance to knowledge and embrace the argument that skills are just applied knowledge. We will take as our motto ὁ δὲ ἀνεξέταστος βίος οὐ βιωτὸς – the Socratic affirmation that the unexamined life is not worth living. We examine our lives to gain knowledge about what we can and cannot do. Our quest, brothers and sisters, is k-n-o-w-l-e-d-g-e. Which is not to say that skills are consigned to the midden. The skills that somebody exhibits provide some insight into the knowledge that they have or that they have yet to have – and, as such, provide a more motivating method of evaluating the depth and extent of the knowledge of our students. Let us turn to that most illustrious footballer, Lionel Messi. I think we would be hard pushed to find, even in the changing rooms of Real Madrid, anyone who would deny the obvious footballing skills of this diminutive Argentine(an). Now, suppose we were to define what knowledge constitutes an advanced state of learning in the field of football. Messi’s skills would allow us to assess the depth and extent of his knowledge: does he understand the offside rule? It would appear so. Does he understand that the ball is to be touched, for the most part, with his feet? One has to conclude that this does seem to be the case. Can one say with any degree of certainty that Messi realises that the objective of the game is to cause the ball to move to the other side of the line underneath the crossbar of one’s opponent’s goals? Yes. With some considerable degree of certainty we can make this assertion. In short, were Messi to take a footballing exam, he would rock da house.
But the argument is put forward by the Skills Camp that knowledge does not always transfer across into skillful practice. A student may well know the finer details about the form and function of the future perfect continuous passive but may be quite incapable of applying this knowledge in a meaningful and appropriate manner. This is usually the killer argument for abandoning all focus on teaching as the cultivation of knowledge and making it all about the cultivation of skills. And yet it is based, it would seem, upon a highly spurious definition of what is meant by knowledge. Is knowledge synonymous with awareness? Or is it more fairly synonymous with practical awareness? When we ask a child if they know what to do if a stranger approaches them and offers them a lift in the car, are we really just asking them if they are aware of the best course of action or are we checking that should such an event occur, they will act in the most prudent fashion?
The art, skill or science of teaching is knowing how to create knowledge in engaging ways that allow students to develop their own skill base. In the past, teaching was so primitive that there was a belief that knowledge was a commodity that the teacher had and that the learner did not. The teacher could impart knowledge by telling. The students would receive knowledge by learning: a simple enough transaction that required very little introspection. We seem to have progressed beyond this rather naïve epistemological fairy tale. We now know that knowledge is a social act and that it is constantly being created and re-created. We (think we) know that reflective practice is particularly good for cultivating knowledge. We (think we) know that dynamic activities allow it to burst forth. This manifesto calls for all of us to be imaginative in how we define knowledge, how we create the knowledge and how we assess the knowledge.
But aren’t I just promulgating another dichotomy? I don’t think so. I am not advocating abandoning skills – I am advocating abandoning our focus on skills and calling for it to be re-diverted towards knowledge. What follows is my limited imagination about how this might re-frame ELT (and the grounds for my list of wants that began this manifesto).
- A focus on knowledge requires teachers to ask themselves at the end of each class, What will my students know at the end of this class that they didn’t know at the beginning? Of course, this could quite validly be rephrased as What do my students know… or even What have my students told me that they know… This refocusing on knowledge rather than skills makes it a lot easier to come up with strategies for formative assessment. Formative assessment is one of the very few strategies that has been repeatedly shown to increase student learning.
- A focus on knowledge will frustrate any teacher who tries to do a listening. It will therefore encourage teachers to think more about the purpose of such activities. In my experience, teachers tend to turn to writing when talking about learning objectives and such things. This is because they feel that there is a body of knowledge that underpins good writing: we can analyse texts and make bold claims about how paragraphs should be structured around a main idea. Genre analysis allows us to make claims about how certain texts are most appropriately structured. But because we focus on skills, the body of knowledge that underwrites listening, reading and speaking is less clear. Meaning that teaching tends to be a polite way of saying forcing you to practise without any real input on how you can improve. Or, as I prefer to think of it, not really teaching at all.
- A focus on knowledge will pour oil on the troubled waters of dogme/coursebook/technophilia/technophobia. We don’t need to sweat the small stuff and these debates most certainly are the small stuff. Research by Hattie concludes that “When teachers claim that they are having a positive effect on achievement, or when it is claimed that a policy improves achievement, it is a trivial claim because virtually everything [95%+] works” (Hattie, 2012). It’s what you do and not the way that you do it that we need to be exploring with so much fervour.
- A focus on knowledge would force (…should force) a change in coursebook content. I have two well-known coursebooks in front of me that are pitched at Intermediate level. I have turned to the contents page and will list the contents of the reading skill: read about basic emotions, read about a BBC programme, read about the best way to give bad news, time-saving tips: lists. The activities associated with these reading exercises are pretty uniform: some sort of personalisation activity, some sort of comprehension activity, some sort of vocabulary expansion activity and some sort of grammar-focussing activity. A knowledge focus would not allow this kind of drivel to see the light of day. It would force the publishers to commission texts that could be exploited to develop students’ knowledge about genres, textual development, etc.
- A focus on knowledge will require teacher training to be re-thought. What passes for much ELT teacher training is, quite frankly, lamentable. It is largely based around teaching teachers about grammar, pronunciation etc. This would appear, on the surface, to make sense. After all, if you don’t know your subject, you are unlikely to be able to teach it. Yet this rather intuitive assumption is, rather counter-intuitively, not borne out by research. Garet et.al (2008) found that developing teachers’ knowledge about evidence-based approaches to developing reading skills did not have any noticeable effect on student performance. Rather than focussing on subject knowledge, the manifesto calls for teachers to be taught why certain knowledge is valued over other types of knowledge, techniques for imparting this knowledge and for measuring the uptake of this knowledge. Put in a less smarmy manner, trainee teachers would be taught about teaching and the assessment of learning.
- A focus on knowledge will require assessment to take on a much more predominant role in what we do. Skills-focussed teaching provides a get-out clause because who’s to say when the skill will be acquired? Who’s to say, indeed, what the skill actually consists of? Does the skill of reading come about through reading magazine-style texts? Does the skill of listening emerge somehow from “listen[ing] to a radio programme about therapies”? We are allowed to assume that these activities are somehow legitimate because we are focussed on skills. But what knowledge is the learner expected to learn from the experience? How can we know if they have learned it? How will we know how well they have learned it? These are all questions that must be answered if our focus is on knowledge. To be able to answer them, we need to know about assessment strategies. Research suggests that the amount and quality of formative assessment is a particularly strong predictor of student success. Skills-based teaching –which seems better placed to encourage the mindless and blind pursuit of opportunities for practice- does not encourage the accumulation, assimilation and application of knowledge and does not, therefore, lend itself so easily to meaningful and purposeful formative assessment.
Mick n Keef told us that if we can’t always get what you want, we should try some time. We just might find we get what we need. Do we need more focus on knowledge? I’d love to know what you think.