Do Lines Need Drawing

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Over the last couple of weeks, a lot of my communication online and offline has been about English language education and the status, stage and purpose it occupies, for teachers as well as students. There are the usual gripes of coursebooks, which I am not going to get into here because I have looked at it before (on more than one occasion), and also the state of the industry/profession and the definitions of ELT, (T)EFL, (T)ESL, (T)ESOL (and Steve tweeted that maybe this is not actually the case now).

So, a bit of background out of the way, on to Mordor!

Us and Them

Most English teachers are, like most people, nice and just trying to go about their day. I’m not going to talk about the outliers who are just unpleasant. This is for the rest of us, and I’m going to talk about a few types of people and it gets political, actually. Sorry, but I’m not sorry.

English teachers generally tend to be a bit bleeding heart. English teachers generally need money to feed themselves and do nice stuff. We can kid ourselves that we are helping make the world a better place. However, why not indulge me and just consider the following questions.

  • How much do we dripfeed the subliminal message that English makes the world go round and anything else just is a bit substandard?
  • We need work, and if Chain Language School can offer enough work to ensure one doesn’t end up homeless even though they drive down wages by aggressive undercutting, is this a wise choice?
  • Do you teach people or content? I’m not even talking about methodology here.
  • Are we, as teachers, being enabled to use a book in a pedagogically sound way and being enabled to deliver content in a standardised way?
  • Are we thinking about how to enable language acquisition to take place?
  • Are we thinking about how to enable acquired language to be used to perform tasks or even speech acts appropriately?
  • Are we given time and resources to provide the best teaching possible?

While a lot of these questions have answers that seem obvious, I am going to say that a lot of us say one thing and do another – and I am holding my hands up here and saying I am not perfect but I try to be good. Eating requires money and so on. Luckily, I don’t require a fast car or designer clothes to feel good about myself. I do have a child and this means the earning of money and the teaching of language.

The problem is that other forces, basically capitalism/neoliberalism manipulate the environment and how easy it is to make wise choices all the time. I’ll go out on a limb and say that several of the larger publishers even obfuscate what a wise choice would even be, because it would actually cause the teachers and administrators who buy/order books to see that buying more books that are pedagogically unsound is, well, unsound and so they would stop ordering and the publisher would cease to exist.

The differences between us

Look, I don’t  want to be a snob (actually, even an anti-snob), nor do I want to be telling anybody how to live their life, but if people can’t actually see what’s at the end of their noses when somebody is pointing it out, I would have to say they’re wilfully blind.

  • Deskilled teachers.
  • Unskilled ‘teachers’.
  • Edutainment.
  • Marketisation of standardised tests of reading and listening used as a benchmark for communicative skills.
  • Use of a standardised test to assume someone can do a job when there are no similar instances of domain-specific language.
  • Book as syllabus.
  • Book as content.
  • E-‘learning’ of multiple-choice questions.
  • Making everything about jobs rather than edification.
  • Making everything about financial return for companies rather than value for money for students, teachers and education providers.

We have a whole culture of spending a month to do a course to get a credential to prove you can be in a classroom and not have chaos ensue. We have companies who will take bachelor’s degree holders and have them provide lessons and have essentially the same credential experience without the credential. This is seen as enough. This is seen as the terminal qualification, the furthest one needs to go, in a lot of commercial language education providers.

We have a culture of needing to move out of the classroom to make adequate money to raise a family. Time in the classroom is not rewarded. Unfortunately, this culture is being passed from commercial entities to schools and colleges. Teaching ‘only’ requires navigating content, providing it, and are we back at audiolingualism yet, because we have presentation of language, practice with behaviourist gap-fills and behaviourist CALL/MALL? Nothing moves on or needs to move on if money can be made.

We have experts and ‘experts’. We have people who have looked at learning, looked at other people’s studies of learning and tried to apply the findings. We also have people who have paid lip service to these studies, dismissed them because they don’t fit with what is convenient or what they have always done. We have providers of continuing professional development who are providing merely orientations to their products.

By any means necessary

You can’t fight cash fluid market leaders with merely a better lesson. You cannot provide lessons to everyone. What can be done is to show what you are actually doing. If you do good work, show it. Somebody might nick your idea. This is actually a good thing because this will raise standards. I mean, yeah, get pissed off that the idea thief didn’t do the legwork to be original or even helpful, but if the idea disperses, good stuff comes. If you have a better alternative to coursebook ELT, you need to have a tangible version of this. People are busy and they need, sadly, to just be able to print something, see what to do, and do it (I am working on something about this).

Standing on the other side of the line

I think we, as the critical wing of English teaching, need to define ourselves in opposition to the dominant idea and practice in English teaching, which usually gets called ELT (I’d say ELT Research Bites is far out of this dominant idea). As nothing bloody changes for the better and Silicon Valley gets lionised in society more and more with poor-quality MALL becoming more prevalent, we need to draw the line to stop frankly awful quality pedagogy in language education becoming the norm, stopping poor pedagogy being acceptable in language teaching, and stopping the rot. You can’t do this by just accepting it, doing your own thing and hoping that others will somehow see what you are doing and do it. We need to speak about the poor side of stuff when it dominates. We can see the rubbish – it’s in every bookshop, every catalogue you get sent, every commercial presentation at a conference, every pointless app that gets recommended for students.

Show your good stuff. The good will out. Now let’s change things.

 

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Teacher or Teacher

Demotivations in Language Teaching

Uber cynical post warning. Consider this warning a warning and your last warning.

So, I’m back after the holidays at one of my places of employment and freelance me has already been out on the road and in cyberspace. This post is mainly looking at the institutional side of language teaching and the demotivations from my point of view as a serial part-timer.

“CPD? Computerized Personal Data? I don’t know.”

There is no continuous professional development on offer; a DIY approach is essential, there are no books available except my own personal collection and that of one of my coworkers. There are limited discussions about teaching, pedagogy or learning of languages, just firefighting conversations about students who do things they ought not to do or teachers who basically can’t teach.

Contrast this with one of my universities that has a fantastic library just for the teachers and a decent library with English books about language teaching and learning in it for the English majors and another university that cries a bit hard up but has kept subscriptions to TESOL Quarterly and a few other journals. Something always beats nothing.

“Align the tests with… the tests.”

I make the tests. This is in my contract. I make the tests and then show them to the head of English for the year group and he (or she depending on the year, but mainly he) approves it. Or not. There was one year that my coworker and I decided to be idealistic and actually attempt to assess the students by assessing what we teach. This is, clearly, madness. What is the most logical idea is to give an essay topic one week prior to the test periods for a speaking course and have students write a page on one of the topics. The week after that they will answer questions or formulate questions based on a list of questions the teacher/assessor will ask and a list of answers from which to formulate a question, provided with the essay topic. After that, there will be a paired conversation based on an everyday situation except that all students will have half-arsedly memorized a script instead of reacting to questions, leading to such gems as:

S1: What are you going to do tomorrow?

S2: I am going to Disneyland?

S1: Where are you going to go?

S2: I am going to go with my friend.

This is purely because language is expected to be taught as a content-subject, not a skills subject. Recalling facts about morphology and syntax, but we are employed to teach “natural English” and “help the students communicate naturally”.

“Oh, can you proofread this?”

This is in the contract. I don’t mind doing this, actually, because it is interesting, English teachers essentially having a fetish for odd points of grammar, pragmatics and semantics. Except I don’t like the one person who gives something in the break between second and third lesson and expects it to be done by lunchtime. So in ten minutes. Or 8 if I am teaching far from the teachers’ room. The same person, who is usually considerate except for this time. I do not wish to become overly curt, I bite my tongue, but there is a veritable cesspool of swearwords waiting to be expelled on the walk between the school gates and the convenience store.

There are lovely things about the job, mainly the time off and the bonus (kerching – except actually it could just go on the monthly pay, couldn’t it?) but I would love a bit more of a free rein. Perhaps the worst thing is knowing I have free rein at university and then back at school.

At university there are only a couple of demotivators:

“How many times have I been absent?”

Too many for B but you’re probably OK for a C if you’ve made it and found me.

“I left my homework in El Segundo. I got to get it back. Can you come to university tomorrow to get it?”

No, but there was this amazing invention in the 20th Century called email. Use it!

 

Paleontology and Fossil Gathering

A brontosaurus diagram from the 1880s. Factually inaccurate.

I was involved in a serendipitous exchange today on Twitter, that started with my friend James musing about yetis possibly being a kind of undiscovered polar bear. I said that given the evidence of polar bear distribution of polar bears and yeti sightings it would be unlikely but not impossible for it to be a kind of bear. One of his followers, Helen, joined in and said something about dinosaur skeletons being reassembled in weird ways to make monsters and it got me thinking about Second Language Acquisition (SLA) and language teaching.

SLA is a relatively new science, much like paleontology. We know some things from observing evidence (if how people appear to learn or not in SLA; of typical anatomical arrangements in paleontology) and making hypotheses to test in order to go on and construct theories.

We also have language teaching. Some language teaching is informed by SLA and some is not. Some fossil gathering is done by people who read up on paleontology and some is done by people who are interested in finding cool stuff, and some is done by accident.

What’s the point? Well, have you ever heard of a brontosaurus? Of course you have. It’s a massive thing with a long neck and a long tail. And the wrong head for years. And endless debates about whether it is the same as an apatosaurus. There is mainly scientific agreement to say the brontosaurus is a kind of apatosaurus. There are still some who say it warrants a distinct genus.

There are plausible ideas in language teaching. Grammar can be learned in a linear way from simple to complex, that massive exposure leads to massive gains. Unfortunately the evidence doesn’t hold up. Grammar (or actually morphology) appears to be learned in a sequence of acquisition with a lot of gaps in the evidence, rather like the allegorical dinosaur skeletons. Some people will go with what we know from science and hold out for the gaps to be filled before making bold claims. Others may try to put a pile of bones together to make a “Harryhausen Cyclops” (thanks Helen) and hoping it’s so, despite a lack of evidence or even overwhelming evidence to the contrary.

There’s also overplaying what science says and making conjectures look like fact. What colour are dinosaurs? Green, yeah? Lizards are green. But not all. There are lots of different coloured reptiles. The skin colour of dinosaurs is conjecture, based on evidence, but taken as fact, per se. Babies are exposed to loads of language, babies get fluent in a language therefore exposure equals acquisition? Perhaps, but there are more factors than that, as any migrant language teacher knows from colleagues who are exposed to the local language but never acquire it (and often never bother to try and learn it).

So what? Well, I think that, no shit Sherlock, getting more SLA literate and informed would help the profession to be less like would monster makers but more like people putting a stegosaurus together. Or having a collection of ammonites, which, while not sexy, are important to natural history.

On stuff about research and conferences

Happy New Year everyone. I am not going to do a yearly reflection because 2017 was a mixed bag and quite stressful.

On ELT Twitter and across ELT blogs there is some murmurings about research (usually on teacher beliefs) and hidden in a paragraph somewhere is a mention that this is in preparation for an IATEFL talk. This got me wondering about whether people would do such research if they didn’t have a conference proposal accepted. I suppose what I am trying to say is that if you had a rejection, at least one person thinks your idea matters (you), and the big conferences are not the only way to get such research out. Local teachers associations and chapters of them want speakers at meetings. If that doesn’t work, it might even be useful as a magazine article or blog post. For all the hand wringing about teacher research, it would be a good idea to follow through on a good idea without needing a conference committee to say something is a good idea.

Speaking of conferences, how many of them are affordable for people without research budgets? Seriously! JALT’s conference is quite expensive for four days (without considering the fact that most working teachers in Japan can’t take Friday and Monday off). IATEFL is expensive, too. Pretty much anything with ‘International’ in the name of the conference is expensive. When ExcitELT came to Tokyo, it was cheap. There were no tote bags filled with university press-branded pens or anything but that’s a weird thing to want from a conference. Could we have more for less? Easy, if commercial entities don’t join in and demand their perks.

I suppose what I am saying is ELT doesn’t have to be a spending spree. What the CPD could be is a lot cheaper, a lot more grassroots and perhaps more relevant. Let’s see more of this from this year.

Teaching Strategy Chains for Listening (or not)

This is a small research project I did for my MA. It was my lowest mark on the course and I totally tried to do more than was feasible. I will address the limitations below.

Teaching strategies

An approach to using strategies in listening isn’t new, although there is more to it than the advice given to new TOEIC teachers of “Get them to predict based on what they hear and then think about the gist.” What interested me was whether the strategy chains that learners build up, according to Rebecca Oxford (2011) could be instructed.

I put together a class at the local community hall for 6 weeks, with 7 women. The first class let me see the strategies that the learners were already using and give a questionnaire (the MALQ by Vandergrift et al., 2006). The last class involved no instruction of the strategy chain but allowed me to see whether it was being used. Most used a few simple strategies. I derived a chain of potentially useful strategies based upon learners’ answers to the MALQ. The class was a massive mix of levels, from A1 to B2 on the CEFR. I used a mix of authentic texts (reality television) and inauthentic texts (from elllo.org). First I used one text to teach the strategy chain. Learners listened twice and transcribed what they understood from the text in English or Japanese. They wrote what strategies they used in English or Japanese.

The chain

I derived the following chain for instruction: schema activation (through focused thought or speaking to other learners about the topic), plan how to listen based upon their schema activation, relax in order to reduce cognitive load issues and regain focus when attention has been lost. The reasons for this particular chain was that the learners reported little use of these strategies in their listening yet I believed that the learners would benefit from them, particularly the relaxing and refocusing.

So, what happened?

Well, all the learners went along happily with the teaching and said they used the strategy chain in weeks 2-5. In week 6, the assessment week, not a single learner reported use of the chain.

Now, this is not the end of the world. It showed me that teaching is just teaching. Whether learners decide to do something in a classroom is another thing entirely. You cannot force a way of working onto someone. It also comes down to comfort and experience. For some of the learners, they were quite proficient in communication but claimed to be uncomfortable with listening. I used schema activation in the chain and perhaps this was something that they did unconsciously. For the lower-proficiency learners, perhaps the relaxing and refocusing needed more time to be practiced effectively. Whatever the case, strategies are used, in tandem with one another, but perhaps rely more upon learner evaluation of the strategies’ value in combination than teacher evaluation.

Another aspect of the course was that it was 6 weeks which was all the time fast was feasible for me after handing out leaflets on the street and asking friends to share on Facebook (when I was on there). Potentially, with a longer course it might have resulted in learners using this chain in the assessment week. It might not have, and I am going to say that it appears unlikely. Still, it’s good to know what is unlikely to work, isn’t it?

In all likelihood it appears that teaching strategies helps learners, but the chain of strategies used depends entirely on the individual learner. It might be useful to carry out the MALQ in class, see what isn’t being used and teaching successful use of particular strategies.

References

Oxford, R (2011) Teaching and Researching Language Learning Strategies. London: Routledge.

Vandergrift, L, Goh, CCM, Mareschal, CJ, & Tafaghodtari, MH (2006) “The Metacognitive Awareness Listening Questionnaire: Development and Validation” Language Learning 56:3 September 2006, pages 431-462.

What’s changed? Let’s do stuff!

Three years of writing this bloody blog and what’s changed, really? I have, but that’s not what I’m talking about. How has the profession changed? It hasn’t. Not a bloody single thing as far as I can tell. Glacial. Maybe a few people have cottoned on to the learning styles myth. That’s it.

So, am I going to just continue glowering at the internet or do something about it? Well, there has to be a balance between working for nothing for a worthy project or cause and getting compensated fairly. So what can I (we?) do?

We can complain about how shit things are (like in Jeremy Slagowski’s great post about a listening syllabus here) and/or put forward an alternative.

We can moan about stuff that doesn’t work and/or see about fixing it. Now, my name is not Answer Man. It’s not even my alter ego. Sometimes, when you find something doesn’t do what you think it’s supposed to do, you ask an expert. Sometimes it’s somebody who works in a shop. Sometimes it’s a book. Sometimes it’s your friends. By talking about stuff, we surely get closer to an answer, at least one more step forward on the path to enlightenment.

Doing stuff, though. This is what I think I need to do. It doesn’t always come off right, but it’s going to be, usually, only as bad as inaction, especially if you think hard about potential risks before acting.