The luxury of the long game in EFL

The conflict between short-term and long-term goals is a big one for ELT.

In most subjects, teachers work with a batch of students in something called a “course” in 3- to 5- month intervals.  We tailor our expectations of the course to that time frame, generally not asking students to do something impossible like master the complete works of Puccini or lose 20% body fat in the 18 weeks between handing out the syllabus and proctoring final exams.  Instead, we find a way to subdivide the task that we know we want them to have mastered within the next 4 years into semester-long segments, and call that our course. Not all the works of Puccini, but 2 of them.  Not 20% body fat, just 5%.  Not all of a foreign language, just 500 words and the first 10 grammar points.

There is a problem that many language teachers see in taking that approach to planning a foreign language curriculum, which is that learning another language is less like learning musical scores and more like learning to walk (or in anti-evolutionists’ favorite gambit, evolving an eye) – there are no sensible partway points at which to divide the long and error-ridden process into 4-month units.  Like walking and eye-volution, all successes are prefaced by many more instances of clear failure, and progress may look exactly like failure until it suddenly doesn’t. Half an eye doesn’t do its owner 50% of the good of a complete eye, and there is no reason to think that 2 years of college Spanish is 50% as good as 4 (or 1 year 25% as good, or a semester 12.5%).  Assuming (yes, assuming) a full college Spanish curriculum does its job of producing competent Spanish speakers, chopping it into semesters may work against this goal rather than helping students towards it by inducing short-term-goal myopia in course planners and students alike.

human-eye-anatomy

(I recognize that evolutionarily intermediate eyes actually did have utility – but half of a modern human eye certainly doesn’t.)

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Teacher Identity, pt. 2 – idolatry

Why not keep the ball rolling here?  (part 1, if you haven’t read that)

What teachers from your own education do you see as role models?

Two stand out, for very different reasons:

  1. Mr. Madrid, my HS history teacher, for translating interest in the subject matter into interesting presentation.
  2. Mr. Knox, my HS math teacher, for making presentation an art form in itself.

Not to diminish either’s way of doing things, but I’m not sure Mr. Madrid was very keen on identifying and analyzing different teaching approaches and I never got the sense that Mr. Knox really loved calculus.  They managed to make their classes interesting with a large degree of what the other lacked, or at least didn’t need.

Mr. Madrid came to class with a menagerie of characters and stories in his head that he couldn’t wait to share with us, and we reciprocated his obvious enthusiasm.  History, as we were to discover, is full of odd folks and high drama (also check out the Hardcore History podcast for plenty more of these).  Not to take anything away from his accumulated professional experience, but especially in the early years when he was teaching my generation, I’m not sure if he brought much more into the classroom besides lots of content knowledge that he personally found interesting.  But this led to his naturally wanting to tell it to us and bring us into the fold of people who knew these interesting things, and that was almost always enough.  His infectious level of enthusiasm managed to bridge the gap between his brain and ours.

Although what I teach is not content-heavy in the same way as history, and I can’t tell students very interesting stories which also happen to be on an AP test, I do find my approach to ELT influenced by Mr. Madrid quite a bit.  My rule of thumb is, students will find what I say more interesting if I also find it interesting.  It’s better to talk with passion about something they might not know yet than feign interest in something generally considered more important.  That said, I happen to be the kind of person who finds grammar and words very interesting, and I happen to believe that students’ attending to meaning is important for their language learning success.  (I have to say that I think this inclination to find your subject matter interesting and naturally wanting to share it is much more influential on teaching success than sheer volume of content knowledge).  So whether I am talking about technical aspects of language or just sharing anecdotes with students, I know that my interest in the topic carries over into my presentation and encourages students to listen to what I have to say.  Mr. Madrid is the teacher who reminds me that doing this will result in memorable classes, many of which (“GULAG!”) I and my peers still remember.

Mr. Knox dressed up abstract mathematical concepts in comedy routines and self-consciously silly puns (example: looking out the window at a tree outside, Mr. Knox says: “Symmetry? Isometry.”)  In doing so he turned what could be the very driest subject in public education into a laugh-fest.  We usually weren’t hanging on his every word because we wanted to understand logarithm functions, but we wanted to get the next joke, and the next joke was in a sentence about logarithm functions.  So he got eyes and ears through jokes, and while he had them, he also fed them math.  He turned a drive through the open desert into the scenic route.

Interestingly in retrospect, I think Mr. Knox worked this way because he didn’t consider his subject inherently interesting.  This makes his approach, in my mind, the polar opposite of Mr. Madrid’s.  It also seems much more difficult because it doesn’t hitch its success on the teacher’s interest in the subject matter (which, because teachers previously studied the subject themselves, can be assumed to be present in at least some amount), but rather his/her dedication to the pure craft of teaching as a species of performing art.  Mr. Knox might be best described then as a natural performer who happened to have a Mathematics degree.  I can imagine Mr. Knox teaching almost any subject with a lot of success, once he has a few years to build up a stable (insert horse joke) supply of puns on that subject.

Mr. Knox is (was?) a serious Christian as well, a fact which everyone knew but was never mentioned in class.  This is, of course, in accord with the rules.  It also reminds me that while my other model teacher, Mr. Madrid, was always bringing more of himself into the classroom, Mr. Knox carefully left himself out of it.  I find this much more difficult.

(I’ve had a lot of great teachers I’m not mentioning here, just in case one of them reads this.)