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.

 

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!

 

You can lead a horse to water…

This is a post that has been fermenting for a while, a lot of it coloured by long-term experience, but much of it much shorter term. The stimulus for getting it out was this great post about teacher beliefs by Mike Griffin.

Teaching EFL can be a weird thing. We look at our classes and wonder about how to make our classes better and reminisce about our students who did something notable. It’s all rather insular. To develop, often we need to see outside, if only to see the inside again but from a different perspective.

Some people don’t want to see the outside, though. Comfort zones are difficult to push through. Unfortunately for me, in one of my teaching situations, my work depends upon somebody who needs to be forcibly removed from their comfort zone.

Harsh, Marc.

Remember this blog started as a mission to make my little freelance corner of TEFL a bit more conducive to being better. Making myself better. I suppose I am lucky in that most people I work with share this orientation. Unfortunately, the one person who doesn’t has a knock-on effect on my work.

I have observed. I have been observed and team-taught. I have supplied a file full of materials and an unwanted copy of The Practice of Teaching English. Yet things have not changed.

We have a grammar syllabus with carrier topics, which I fudge by choosing ‘structure trapping’ tasks (Skehan, 1998). I wouldn’t care if my partner teacher taught PPP, Test-teach-test or even Suggestopaedia. Instead there is a 20-minute warm-up about something strange and unrelated to the topic or grammar of the lesson. It’s highly teacher focused. When the part of the lesson comes to deal with the topic/grammar it basically involves students taking notes in Japanese and resulting in poor output all round. I shall make the point that our remit is speaking and writing, but mainly the former, and all English. There is no effective monitoring of students or elicitation of correct output after error treatment. There is no rationale behind the chaos, just a smile and knowing that this has always seen them through every lesson.

When challenged, my partner gets defensive. “I’m a great teacher!”, “I’m a good person.”, and “The students like me.” have all been used to defend their position.

Myself and another colleague have attempted to engage them in conversation about teaching and learning but this has been shot down. I don’t know if the problematic colleague has any beliefs beyond ‘Students must be motivated’. I would agree to an extent, but how they are motivated by chaotic lessons unrelated to their tests or ordinary situations puzzles me.

I know that teachers have to want to develop but what about if they have to develop but just don’t want to? Help has never been requested, though offered several times. Lesson plans and materials supplied have been ignored in favour of “Which Disney princess should I fight?” and “Do I look more like a cat or a dog?” where ‘I’ is the problematic colleague.

Should I attempt to talk about teaching beliefs and philosophy? I have no idea. I only know I’ve done almost all I can.

References

Skehan, P. (1998). Task-Based Instruction. Annual Review of Applied Linguistics, 18, 268-286. doi:10.1017/S0267190500003585

On (being off) Twitter

In the past I have described Twitter as ‘my living room’. It was a place (and we can go on about paradigms of representing networked digital media as actual media or as de facto pseudogeographical sites but I would like to keep the word count down and avoid a reference list, so feel free to think of the internet however you want) I enjoyed being in. Unfortunately, I didn’t own it and therefore I had little way of guaranteeing an environment that would always be pleasant.

In an essay for my MA, I wrote about why Twitter was not a particularly useful website for learners of English (or other languages) and that it would be unwise for teachers to recommend people with vulnerable senses of self – in part due to to the way L2 learning affects one’s identity – to use Twitter. I said that Twitter was good for language teachers’ CPD.

I now disagree with myself. I now think that Twitter is becoming an ever more toxic venue, with ranting being an ever increasing form of discourse. This makes sense for people selling advertising. The more ranting, the more tweets in argument, the more promoted tweets you can insert into the time lines and the more money you can get.

However, what is the effect on our mental health, individually and collectively? When our phones vibrate in our pockets to give us a dopamine hit, does it really help us to build community or does it build dependency upon likes, retweets, confirmation and identity politics dumbed down to hectoring people who operate under different beliefs? I don’t have answers, but anecdotally, I’d say I disliked the person I became when participating in the Twitter ELT community.

So I left with a rant (see a pattern?) of asking people to not be awful to one another and actually try to be nicer. Perhaps this was wrong. The people who are always nice came out to be nice and imploring me to stay (some while carrying on skirmishes created on/made bigger by Twitter). One user asked if it was something he’d tweeted. I was furious and righteous BUT! I knew I had seen something from a perspective that I’d never appreciated before. I could have said, “Yes, it was,” and been correct; but I would have been equally correct had I said, “No, it wasn’t” because while a particular hectoring series of tweets back and forth made me decide that, yes, finally it was time to delete my account on a website that totally sees Nazism as an acceptable point of view but won’t happily tolerate ordinary users tweeting the words ‘fuck’ or ‘shit’ to its verified users, it was simply one incident building up to a sum of many. I then saw more hectoring, gathered email addresses from my direct messages and deleted my account. I never replied, perhaps rudely. But would it have been ruder to call that person an obscene name in the heat of the moment? I think I feel OK being a bit rude instead of being a shitbag, actually.

What makes it worse is that much of the ranting was and is probably still being done by people I respect immensely. Unfortunately, I am too knackered to be able to read much more of it.

So, Twitter, it’s not me, it’s you. It’s your cynical manipulation of people by boosting controversy (hot topics, or things to get irate about) and having absolutely shit community guidelines.

You can find me on Mastodon until that succumbs to the darker side of human nature.

All Talk & No Action in ELT?

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Hamstrung by Money

This weekend was the TESOL Summit in Athens, and like many an ill-advised corporate venture, it was hashtagged to encourage (token) engagement from stakeholders to give (the illusion that) teachers have a say.

The problem is, the last time I looked Pearson isn’t a teacher, nor is Cengage: they are materials developers who make money from coursebooks and so have an interest in keeping teachers deskilled so that language-teaching organisations can implement a Fordist-Taylorist employment structure where any worker is immediately replaceable. If you will, it’s taking the skilled craftsperson and putting them at the same level as someone trained to tighten four bolts with a ratchet 75 times a minute. The British Council, a corporate entity masquerading as a quasi-governmental body (or the other way around) is one of the sponsors. The same British Council who implements observations of various language centres across Britain but also competes with other language centres overseas. (I’m not anti-BC teacher, by the way. There are great people work for the organisation. I’m anti-BC corporate operations. Why are they corporate when they are a branch of the British government?)

There’s a lot going for the TESOL organisation: they do come out and try not to sit on the fence about matters that concern teachers. To what extent are they hamstrung by their need to rely on sponsorship to gather large numbers of people together? That’s not for me to judge for you but for me to judge for myself.

An alternative to the talking shop?

So what can we do apart from have big groups like IATEFL and TESOL pretend to advocate for us teachers but actually advocate for people working for corporate interests that sponsor their grand events?

  • Direct action, as much as you can muster. I’m not saying drive a manure truck into the lobby of Pearson but there is a lot that can be done on a teacher-to-teacher level.
  • Subvert the notion of top-down training by organising your own CPD sessions. This can be meetings carried out the next time you have a free lesson, it could be a meeting over a coffee or beer. I’d go for the taking down time at work – it might be the only paid CPD you have the chance for. Pool skills. What are you good at and what are your colleagues good at? What do you need to help yourself as opposed to helping your bosses (not that bosses are always bad but their interests are not always the same).
  • Ask uncomfortable questions about the rationale of the materials that Oxford, Cambridge, Macmillan, Pearson, Cengage and other reps try to sell you in your own workplace. Can they talk about the psycholinguistic benefits of the way the lesson is designed to flow? Can you show that you have greater knowledge of the principles behind their products? Can they give any rationale at all? Can it be backed up by theory? Has the salesperson ever taught? Just because someone works for a company that is seen as an arbiter of what English is, doesn’t mean they talk sense. Question them as much as you would question me or any other ranting voice on the internet.
  • Talk about wages. Talk about how crap wages are and how they are being driven to the floor. Talk about your wage and your colleagues wages. Talk about how qualifications don’t always result in higher wages. Talk about how the grass is greener elsewhere. If you can find something better, go and tell your colleagues to accept better. Demand High of institutions, as it were.
  • When bullshitted to, don’t take it. If you need to like it or lump it, perhaps you grit your teeth and work to rule. Maybe you look for things you can do yourself or with a group of like-minded colleagues. It’s often a last resort but do you want to teach how you want to teach or teach how somebody in an office 300 miles away who did a degree in business studies and looks at footfall by metro stations as the primary factor in their operations wants you to teach?

Talk is cheap. Talking among teachers, is cheap. If we all talk to each other we can make the grassroots louder than the astroturfing of corporate ELT. Don’t let corporate interests treat you as a replaceable part. You and I, we are not cogs. I’m pledging to not just talk but to make simple actions to help reduce the bollocks in ELT. Who’s in? (And if you are, there’s also TaWSIG).

Real Alternatives Need Alacrity

It’s that old Corporate ELT is killing me slowly trope. Hang on to your hats, comrades, it’s going to be a bumpy ride.

So, the coursebooks palaver came up again on Geoff Jordan’s blog. I have written on this before. The main change in my ideas is that instead of Dogme or Task-Based Language Teaching (TBLT) being the utopia we should all aim for, what is needed to get teachers to go with something better than a textbook is an alternative.

In the aforementioned post, Steve Brown said that what is needed is not any other kind of alternative but for teachers to take agency: choose what the materials are, or choose to choose with the learners, or whatnot. He is right, but I think there needs to be a bit of handholding to get there.

I’ve seen comments saying that it takes bloody ages to plan a TBLT lesson, and it does when you first start. Similarly CELTA-type lessons take bloody ages when you first start. No qualifications? Think to your first week on the job. Lesson plans took forever. Anything takes ages when you first start.You need to think about whether the initial time investment will pay off or not. You are reading a blog about teacher development, so ostensibly you are open to this seeing as you are reading this instead of playing video games or trolling Trump supporters.

So, let the handholding begin. Or the push to start.

What can I use instead of a coursebook?

Have a think (always a good idea) about what your learners need. Asking them is often a good idea, though teenagers might tell you they need about 3 hours in bed and that they need to do gap-fills of A1 vocab. They don’t. Assess. What can they do? What can’t they do? What aren’t you sure they can do? The answers to this should rarely be “They can’t do the past tense with regular verbs” or something. Maybe “They can’t answer questions about the weekend” is better. Cool. That is something we can chuck into the syllabus, if we think that our learners need this. If they don’t, don’t put it in. But why did you bother assessing it otherwise?

With all this information, you can create a syllabus/course. Sequencing it is a bit of a bugger because you want to think about complexity, what is likely needed toward the start and middle to get to the end, recycling language and such. However, you and your learners have control. This is not the kind of thing to put on a granite tablet. If it seems to need a bit of something else, do that.

But what do I do?

Teach the skills you need to teach. Potentially this is all four skills of reading, listening, writing and speaking. There are books about ways to teach these. You might want to browse Wayzgoose press. Also The Round minis range has some very interesting stuff, as does 52. If you get a copy of Teaching Unplugged, I find it useful.

You and your learners can then source texts from the internet (which a lot of textbooks do anyway so you are cutting out the middleman), edit for length (nice authentic language) or elaborate and spend longer with (that is, put in a gloss at the side or add clauses explaining the language). You can create your own, too, which sounds time consuming but might not be the pain in the arse you think it is. You can also put in some stuff that is rarely covered in textbooks like pronunciation and how to build listening skills, microlistening, and more (a bugbear of mine).

There are also lots of lesson plans on blogs (including here). If you have some good lessons that have worked for you, they might work for others, who can then adapt them. With a book, there are sunk costs and learners will want to plough through the lot if they have bought it. If you have a lesson plan to manipulate, without having sunken money into it bar some printer paper, you and your learners get more control and hopefully smething more suited to them than something chosen by an anonymous somebody in London or New York.

If I’m going to use texts, I might as well use a textbook!

You could, but think of all the pages of nonsense you have to skip. Think of the time spent with learners focussing on pointless vocabulary like ‘sextant’ (thanks Total English pre-intermediate). You have an idea. You know your learners, or at least the context. There is also a ton of stuff on the internet. May I point you to the Google Drive folder at the top of this blog. All the stuff in there is Creative Commons Licensed so you can change it if it isn’t perfect, copy it for your learners, and because I already made it and was going to anyway, it’s free. There is also Paul Walsh’s brill Decentralised Teaching and Learning. There are also ideas to use from Flashmob ELT.

So

You have these ideas to use, modify, whatever and put into timeslots. You can move them around. You have the means, now, if you decide it’s worth a go, stick with it for a few weeks at least, so you can get into the swing of it. If you like it, leave a comment. If you hate it and I’ve ruined your life (and be warned that not all supervisors, managers and even learners are open to this at first. Check, or at least be aware of this. If your learners say they want a book they might just mean they want materials provided and a plan from week to week) leave a comment.

If you think I’m talking nonsense, I’d seriously love you to leave a comment. Tell me why.

If you want help with this, I’m thinking of using Slack for a free (yes, really, at least initially) course type thing, say an experimental three weeks, where I help you sort out how to go about things (together; top-down isn’t how I do things), help with any teething troubles and so on. If you’re interested, contact me.

Well, Sunday night, eleven o’clock and 1000 words. I’m going to bed. Let’s sleep on it.

Foolish Utopianism in Teacher Development?

img_1991Prologue

I was going to go to a conference relatively recently but at the last minute I decided not to because I hadn’t actually looked at the price. I thought that because it wasn’t the JALT (Inter?)national conference (nor was it a JALT event at all) that it might be relatively cheap, also seeing as it was at a university campus.

I nearly vomited in my mouth at the price when I saw it. Seeing it there, I hope the keynote presenters were paid for their time, especially seeing as it was unlikely that major publishers would have been paying for them.

1. Possibilities vs. Practicalities

I know that space with nice chairs and decent coffee doesn’t come for free but I also know that some of the teachers who give a damn about their CPD or lack of it can’t afford to pay the equivalent of US$200 to see someone give a talk or workshop that may (or may not) be useful for them in their context.

I’ve never really been that interested in any of the ‘name’ ELT people bar Scott Thornbury and Luke Meddings because what seems to be the case at IATEFL is that facile reinforcement of (perhaps erroneous) beliefs is what draws the attention on the internet, with the exception of Silvana Richardson’s NNEST plenary and Russ Mayne’s Myths in ELT presentation. Geoff Jordan complains about the IATEFL palaver, with big names. To justify a large cost I suppose they need names, but why not cut the costs?

I’ve never been able to get to big conferences due to work but the ones I have made it to have been highly participatory and kind of grassroots. I have also loved many of the webinars I’ve attended and some stuff that might fly might be a hybrid of the two.

2. The Interzone of Cyberspace and Meatspace

Imagine 20-odd people gathered in a space with a mike, a projector, a webcam and several others watching online,  feeding questions for the speaker into a public Google document or Twitter hashtag. Imagine 20-odd others in another space in another country watching on a projector, while one of them has the familiar stomach-cramps related to their upcoming presentation-come-workshop.

Google already allows live streaming on YouTube and there are other providers, too. Electronic Village Online has already done web conferences. What about face-to-face with an electronic function? The live-tweeting phenomenon points in this direction, as people seem to want it.

You get to have the communal experience, with networking breaks, yet also have people presenting that you’d never see because they would never normally be able to make it due to time/money/family.

3. Outreach

What good is a conference when it is an echo chamber? Why preach to the choir? In Japan, we need chain eikaiwa teachers and dispatch agency ALTs to come and listen but, more importantly, make their voices heard. Do you know why there is little action research or exploratory practice done in eikaiwa? It isn’t the companies, because people could be taking notes on their regular students, and often do in the roll books. It’s because the teachers know that nobody outside is reaching out to them. Nobody gives a monkey’s. Yet these people do ditch the book, do try out-there things with their students from time to time. I know it would help more of them (as it helped me) to learn more about SLA without it seeming high handed. It would help them if they saw principles put into practice in a workshop. If they could hear people like themselves elsewhere, and also unlike them, with new ideas and alternative perspectives, it would help massively. If it were made accessible, through technology, at cultural centres or coworking spaces, this could easily happen.

4. What could this be like?

It could be like Lesson Jamming.

It could be like Edcamps.

It could be like Electronic Village Online, the ToBELTA web conference, iTDI’s summer webinar season.

It could be like JALT Saitama’s Nakasendo, or Michinohe MEES linked to different locations, available on mobile phones and laptops and projectors and TVs.

If you are interested, message me on Twitter.

Cottage Industry as CPD


Working as a teacher gives you opportunities to have interesting conversations with people and have fun with language. Sometimes, though, you just feel stuck in a rut and want to change things. This could be the start of something beautiful.

You can look at what you might make better instead of having a moan. Are your materials crap? Make some. Turn yourself into a cottage industry within a larger industry. You might learn a bit about what makes good materials. If you do decide to make your own materials, I recommend Powerpoint as opposed to Word, because you can get your layout aligned more easily. Test your materials and refine them (Eric Ries lays out this process in The Lean Startup as Minimum Viable Product [and you don’t have to sell your products for money. Kudos is currency sometimes]).

You might also do a bit of action research. There is a lot of high-faluting imagery about this but what it comes down to is this:

  1. Have a think about something you want to change or want to understand the effect of.
  2. Think of one thing to change in your practice so you can observe it.
  3. Record it.
  4. Keep doing it for a bit so you know if you are fluking it or whatnot.
  5. Reflect.
  6. Maybe have another go.

This might lead you to new ways of working that are better for you. I would think so. Otherwise you might have other like-minded souls join you. However, some see things like this as too much work, rocking the boat or otherwise undesirable. Do it for yourself, not for gratification from others, else you will never see it through.

If you have a blog, why not show your work?

Stuff I’m working on at the moment is a beefed-up version of my TBLT board, and simple materials that can be used easily and widely for useful tasks. This will be coming up soon. But not very soon, so don’t hold your breath. I’m talking at least Summer.

On ‘That’ Annoying Benjamin Franklin Quote

Somewhere on the internet you have seen it, probably in a ‘viral’ image. It’s attributed to bad-weather kite flier and slave owner Benjamin Franklin, and goes like this:

Tell me and I forget; teach me and I remember; involve me and I learn.

“Ooh, Marc, can you please tell us why this gets on your nerves so much?”

It would be a curmudgeonly pleasure!

  1. It is used by teachers to talk about ‘learner centredness’ but dismisses teachers.

  2. While my wife may tell me to clean the bathroom and I may forget, remember that this is not a classroom situation. The classroom is a place for learning. It may be a social construct but it is one that has been reached by some kind of social consensus based on an agreed location. People go there to learn, whether by listening to teachers or watching them or whatever. This whole “Tell me and I forget” essentially negates anything said by anybody in a classroom or anywhere else.

  3. It smacks of the dreaded Learning Styles hydra that refuses to die.

  4. “Tell me and I forget” suggests that Ben Franklin was not an auditory learner. So perhaps he was a ‘naturalistic’ learner, or an ‘experiential’ learner, what with the story of the kite and the thunderstorm. Absolute rubbish! If a bloke is clever enough to wheedle his way to the top of a puritanical yet hypocritical wealth-driven society he’s clever enough to pay attention to what someone is telling him.

  5. “Teach me and I remember” tells us nothing about the method.

  6. Are we teaching through mime? Diagrams? Song? Guided instruction? Ben, someone just told you what to do. Couldn’t you have taken notes? That would definitely help you remember. While multi-modal instruction is useful to really hammer home a point, there is not always time for it.

  7. “Involve me and I learn” is just baseless.

  8. I’m all for learner-centredness and even moderate a Google Plus community about it. The thing is, you can involve learners in any activity but if it isn’t thought out in a principled way to develop emergent skills (language use or skills in reception) then learners are only learning that busy work and jumping through hoops pleases teachers. It’s why I hate unprincipled use of games in teaching. It’s pure filler!

  9. It is also a mistake in attribution and a poorly summarised translation.

  10. Like the struggle against pseudo-Einstein by Russ Mayne, the Franklin quote is likely not to come from Franklin at all. It’s just a snappy soundbite badly translated from Chinese.

So, that’s why. I must state that this is not a post to say that you are a bad person if you have shared this quote. You may have used it to support an argument about learner-centred classes versus a droning teacher and a PowerPoint. However, you’d be better of not supporting your argument with an incorrect attribution when there’s a perfectly good Chinese quote to support your view.

Coursebook Palaver Rechurned

I was going to stay out of it but I think I’m going to have to jump into it. The coursebook thing has reared its head again. Thanks to Liam T, Steve Brown, Brad Smith and Hana Ticha for drawing me back in helping me to think about this.

I think I need to set out my thoughts first.

Global coursebooks are, with few exceptions, rubbish because they try to teach everyone but few actually learn what’s in the book in a meaningful way, mainly but not only because of a focus on grammar and lexical sets.

They are also rubbish because they are bland. There are the odd few with the odd reading passage I’d read for interest. Generally it’s just in there because it’s a carrier topic and in global books those topics have to be inoffensive, thus bland.

Coursebooks are rubbish because everybody speaks the same way. Completely unrealistic speech patterns, too slow and with a script that focuses heavily on presenting grammar points. Business coursebooks are usually more natural than general English coursebooks but that’s sort of like comparing death by hanging and firing squad; the result is the same: students find natural speech difficult to decode and it is difficult for them to anticipate problems with natural speech.

Not all coursebooks are terrible. Mainly business or ESP books are good. Unfortunately, people studying for specific purposes have plenty of motivation which would aid their learning. General English is often English as a School Subject and learners often learn through obligation with no clear idea about why they are studying other than because they need to.

Business coursebooks usually have more explicit discourse-level communication present than general English ones. Both are usually sorely lacking in pronunciation or phonology (even help for teachers to mine texts or audio for this in the teacher’s books is woefully absent).

What’s better than coursebooks is a good set of resources, ideally the kind of stuff with no copyright or with a Creative Commons license, or at least permission to photocopy so you can be sure there are no legal issues. These don’t usually focus on isolated grammar points but when they do they are not in a suggested sequence based on the hunches of someone completely unfamiliar with your learners. You might say that a load of these downloaded onto a USB drive or uploaded to cloud storage is a 21st century resource book.

I still haven’t found a book of resources I truly love because there are too many word searches and crosswords in some but I continue to live in hope. The execrable coursebook I have to use as a syllabus for the university I teach at for an agency does have a workbook with some great activities.

Objections to what I’m saying

  • Coverage/pacing of material is necessary because my boss says so.
  • I pay sufficient lip service to the book to say the syllabus has been taught. Usually it’s one reading done quickly with some vocabulary checks or retellings, else I do the listening as a listening skills mini-lesson,  but the rest is a task that might result in the language in the book being used. If not, that’s fine. Correct the language, reflect and probably trying the same task or a similar one again.

  • Students like books.
  • Fine. Are you a teacher or a bookseller? Is it necessary for them to use the book in a lesson or could it be used at home?

  • Teachers like books.
  • Great. If teachers find coursebooks useful then that’s awesome. I do find it difficult to believe that the same book can work across contexts to provide a sufficient footing for language acquisition to take place.

    Thinking about how to use a book is not the same as being on auto-pilot, plotting a course from page 4 to page 117 over 20 weeks. I think it’s fine to present the grammar for exposure. However, don’t expect it to be ‘mastered’ and beat yourself up or question student motivation or work rate if they can’t use it just because it’s been taught.

  • My students want me to teach the book.
  • They might want you to use it but have you asked them why? Who is the language teaching professional? You might ask how long they have used this method of study and whether it appears to be working. Sometimes you might use the book in ways that are different but as long as they are learning, I expect most students would be satisfied.