The elephant in the room
I want to begin by writing, “There is one fact that seems to me to be entirely absent from the mainstream literature on teaching English as a Foreign Language and yet which is, at the same time, a truth universally acknowledged.” The problem is, however, that I find it almost impossible to believe that nobody has highlighted this singular truth. What kind of disservice are we doing to the teachers of tomorrow if we fail to acknowledge this one vital verity? Have we universally adopted a pledge of omerta? So, before I release the hounds, let me apologise to one and all if today’s rant is far from original; or let me stand adjudged by my peers if it should be that today’s vitriol is inspired by a phenomenon which is unique to my classrooms and my experience alone.
The counsel for the prosecution…Teachers, new and old, but especially new, it is to you that I direct myself on this lacklustre Thursday morning; it is to you that I signal the pachyderm parked in the parlour; it is to you that I raise one finger skyward and declaim this singular truth that I consider to be absent from the literature that claims to teach you how to teach; hear my words, ye wise ones; listen to me, you that are schooled. And try my words with your ears-stroke-eyes as you try meat (or soy-based substitutes) with your palate. This truth I speak, I lay before you now, that you might teach in a way that is more consistent with the ways of learning. It is this:
Most students have no interest whatsoever in learning English; their apathy towards learning English is the only thing that stops them from hating it with a passion.
There is a corollary: To counter this apathy and undercurrent of hatred, ELT recommends Making Lessons Such Fun That Learners Forget Where They Are or What They Are Doing.
Which in turn, gives rise to another corllary: And this is the source of all of our evils.
In short, the proposition which I seek to defend today is that ELT does teachers, students, learning and teaching a great disservice by not acknowledging that a great many of our students are in our classrooms today because they have been coerced.The younger ones may be there because their parents, governments or other authority figures have decided that they need to learn English and they will bloody well learn English whether they like it or not; the older ones may be there for the same reasons or because they “know” that they will “need” English because English is apparently a global language that everyone needs to know if they are to lead happy and fulfilled lives prior to departing from this world and moving on to the next.
When I trained, if it can be called such a thing, this simple truth seemed to be absent from the world that was presented to me as a wannabe teacher. It may be that in those days, people were desperate to learn English because they wanted to better understand the cultures, traditions and literature of this small island nation. But this is something that I doubt with as much doubt as I can muster. In my coursebooks and lessons, there was much implication that the teacher who failed to ignite the passion of his or her students was a teacher who was worthy of vilification and in need of much introspective self-castigation. For the joys of a student were the responsibility of their teacher. Grammar needed to be fun; lessons had to sound with laughter; communication had to be achieved through games; let music sound and songs be sung; let learning be fun though the heavens may fall, if I may paraphrase Kant and the Kants who taught me.
I was young and foolish then; I’m old and wiser now.
You see, it is my feeling that in the drive to make lessons more lively, we took our eyes off the prize. Before we knew it, we were no longer teaching people how to learn English; we had sold our soul for a few scattered smiles. Slowly, what it meant to be a teacher was eroded. We were now responsible for entertaining our charges; charged with making the short time they spent in our classrooms that little more bearable; beset with jazz chants, communicative games, listening activities, and other such artifices that were focused primarily on sweetening the spoonful of medicine that needed to go down. And, quicker than you can say homeopathy-is-a-scam-regardless-of-all-the-anecdotal-guff-that-is-spouted-in-support-of-it, we started shoving spoonfuls of sugar down people’s throats and forgetting the medicine that it was supposed to sweeten.
Teaching, it seems to me, is for many people about sharing activities that are Great! That are Fun! That Get Students Up and About! En breve, teaching is no longer about teaching. It is more like being a redcoat at Butlins.
Learning, it seems to me, is for many people about being entertained. Do you like learning English? is often met with a bashful smile and an implicit Are you out of your freaking mind? If you push on with your investigation, you are likely to be told that the person you are waterboarding finds English a little boring.
Materials, it seems to me, are for many people expected to be Engaging! Motivating! Engrossing! No longer are they primarily sought out for their educative potential; they are prized for their ability to sucker students into using them.
And I want to say that I think things need to change. I want to say that I aspire to a classroom where learning is a sufficiently motivating force in itself ; where participation is coerced through a sense of responsibility to the community that is sat, corralled behind the desks; where students engage with the subject, perhaps out of sense of duty to their classmates, perhaps out of a sense of respect for the teacher, perhaps because they can see that something worth having is worth working for.
I want to work in a profession where students are prepared to engage in rather dull and uninspiring activity that may quite easily be characterised as hard graft and where teachers are primarily focused upon delivering the rewards that come from blood, sweat, toil and tears (although the first one is intended to be most definitely metaphorical) and any entertainment is happily accidental.
I want to see more widespread recognition of the fact that students don’t actually like learning English and that this is OK! It does not mean that we have to try and discover ever-more demanding ways of entertaining the masses; it just means that we need to be sympathetic to their plight and help them focus on the end goals. It doesn’t mean that we need to sweeten the bitter pill of learning; it means that we need to explain the benefits of hard work and celebrate the joys of the jejune.
I raise the banners in support of rote-learning; of listening to the teacher; of sweating your way through a drill; of engaging in a conversation and then picking it apart; of listening to the same audio time and time again until its familiarity renders it unfamiliar; of sitting own quietly and reading; of asking and answering questions and of listening to the questions of others. I advocate the processing of long difficult texts and the forensic examination of how they were formed; I champion the benefits of oratory, or rhetoric, of frustratingly challenging tasks that stretch learners out of shape and which are utterly at odds with the world where Boring is Bad and good is measured by how instantaneous the gratification is. Let us revel in how hard it is to learn a language and how rewarding our efforts can be! Let’s be confident that learning is its own reward and recapture a concept where English is learnt to communicate well and effectively, not to pass an exam or to serve some instrumentally mundane gate-keeping role.
In summary, let’s be upfront about the fact that most people hate learning English and recognise that, unfortunately, this is their problem, not ours. We don’t need to alter our ways of teaching to accommodate the prejudices that other people have: they need to alter their behaviour to recognise that their prejudices might not be shared by all of the students in the class and are likely to interfere with the effective learning of the community that they have sought entry to. We should be mindful of the challenges that they have set themselves and seek to help them overcome their challenges through engaging them in learning-focused activities that are relevant and demanding; and we should always take time to praise and point out where the learning is happening. That, I think, is quite often the most respectful kind of motivation we can offer the students; and it is one, I hope, that students respect more than any other.