On Tyranny in the ESL Classroom: 20 Lessons from 20th Century Pedagogy

(Pace Timothy Snyder – originally this post was going to be “Democrating Backsliding in the ELT Classroom”, but I haven’t actually read the relevant materials for that.  The point is the same, though – a series of semi-political tips for not letting classes or institutions slide into tranmissive dictatorships.  The usual caveat applies:  I certainly don’t apply as many of these rules as I’d like, and in fact wrote this partly as a warning to myself.)

Do not obey in advance

Let’s assume your students have shown a pattern of reluctance to choose input for themselves or engage in self-directed learning, which is common in language classrooms around the world.  Do not assume that this pattern will continue forever, and do not change your teaching methods in anticipation of this reluctance even before it happens.  Do not treat your students as unready for communicative or other modern methods simply because previous classes may have been.

Defend institutions

Defend modern ELT in principle.  Many classes slide into teacher-domination because expedience seems to demand it – because teachers accept the unilateral authority that the forces of student expectation and curricular deadlines seem to require.  Temporary suspensions of student-centeredness in favor of transmission-style teaching should be resisted, not just because they do not work, but because they encourage the view that  researched and rigorous concepts such as interlanguage are inconveniences standing in the way of truly efficient impartation of knowledge.  In reality, of course, that efficiency is more a path toward perfunctory teacherly role-playing than toward learners’ mastery of English.

Beware the one-party state

Many classroom dictatorships arise not because a teacher arrogates power but because his/her pupils choose to cede it when given the option.  Do not take opportunities that students give you to take full control of the classroom, and do not use your authority as a teacher to consolidate attention and legitimate authority around yourself.

Take responsibility for the face of the world

The appearance of the classroom should not reflect the will of a single person.  The only writing on the whiteboard should not be the teacher’s, the only printed text used should not be from the teacher, and the only voice heard should not be the teacher’s.  Classrooms should physically manifest the priority given to students’, not teachers’, expression.

Remember professional ethics

Oftentimes, a teacher-centered class emerges because students feel pressure to play the part of the student as they understand it.  This part, which is often defined by passive receptivity and obedience, is not simply unconscious habit – students may see it as an affirmative moral value in itself.  That is, the job of the teacher may not be just to present a more interesting alternative to silent absorption of information, but actively discourage students’ preconceived ideas of “how to be a student”.  Students have their own professional ethics of classroom conduct, and teachers would do well to acknowledge their existence.

(Yes, this is the opposite of Timothy Snyder’s point on this subject.  Bear with me.)

Be wary of paramilitaries

Clusters of students that are apparently sympathetic to the communicative, egalitarian, task-based curriculum that the teacher is trying to effect may appear and begin to dominate classroom activities.  The existence of these seeming allies among the student population is welcome to a degree, but can begin to create a hostile environment for students who are reluctant to engage to the same degree for reasons of identity or ability.  Remember that the job of the teacher is not to give more advantage to students who are already advantaged because of a higher starting point or previous experience with modern ELT classes, or to signal a preference for those students.  The creation of a privileged minority of students within the classroom should be avoided.

Be reflective if you must be armed

For students: Being appointed, being selected, or volunteering to be group leader means that you are responsible for the maintenance of communicative norms within that group.  When you have power over your classmates, maintain norms of discourse that do not privilege particular viewpoints – yours especially – or consist only of participation by students who are already fluent speakers.  Some students will take the reduced numbers of eyes on them when working in a small group as an invitation to dominate the conversation or to shrink back into individual study.  As the local authority, your job is to prevent either of these from happening.

Stand out

Taking a modern, communicative approach may distinguish you from your colleagues in ways that are mutually uncomfortable.  You may feel that you are passing judgment on your colleagues’ or institution’s way of doing things by breaking from it.  Indeed, some teaching milieux may have norms so deeply established for so long that trying something new is seen as synonymous with questioning everyone else’s competence.  Be open about trying new techniques and approaches and be honest about their success or failure.  Be prepared to justify them with reference to research.  Above all, be honest about why you teach the way you do, and do not acquiesce to unjustifiable pedagogical norms no matter how many people with pages-long CVs are pushing them.

Be kind to our language

Do not adopt buzzwords needlessly, and certainly do not use them without understanding them.  “Learning styles” were a litmus test for being a modern teacher for 15 years or so, during which many teachers described their classes and students with the vocabulary of what turned out to be a false theory of educational psychology.  Many still use the terminology of “learning styles”, describing an activity as “ideal for kinesthetic learners” when they could just as easily call it “less boring than sitting still”.  By adopting this terminology, teachers have appeared to endorse a theory which was debunked.

Believe in truth

In some teaching contexts, a long career is seen as a substitute for reflected-upon experience and confidence in one’s methods as equivalent to knowledge of their efficacy.  Foreign language pedagogy is a field with a long history and plenty of research.  This body of research is mature enough to offer at least some tentative answers to long-standing questions in our field, such as how central formal grammar should be in classes and how much of a difference input makes.  Access to the current state of knowledge on questions like these, and more importantly, believing that the questions have answers that can’t be ignored in favor of a local or individual long-practiced method, is a step toward more effective and more justifiable pedagogy.

Investigate

That said, the answers to pedagogy’s big questions may not come in an obvious form.  Sometimes a teacher will have great success with a method or technique that appears to come from the middle ages.  Commit to trying to understand how different teachers have success with different class styles and the principles underlying that success.  Above all, do not accept pedadogical prescription or proscription without the application of your critical faculties.

Make eye contact and small talk

Humanity can be brought to the classroom by simple engagement with learners as people.  Some one-on-one or small group interaction with the teacher not as a fount of wisdom but just as a person, and with the learner not as a receptacle of knowledge or target of remediation but as another person, can bring much-needed humanity back to the classroom.

Practice corporeal politics

PhD researchers who don’t teach and chalk-faced teachers who don’t reflect on practice or theory are a perfect recipe for each other’s stagnation.  Take theory that comes from people who haven’t set foot in a language classroom in years with a grain of salt.  You cannot realize good pedagogical theory without contact with learners.  I mean this in two ways – your theory will be useless if it doesn’t survive contact with actual people, and putting your theory into practice with your own students ensures that at least some people will benefit from it.

Establish a private life

You do not need to share as much with your learners as they share with you.  There is a happy medium between sterile professionalism in the classroom and complete shedding of boundaries.  Affective factors certainly do affect achievement, and that entails at least some rapport and sense of community beyond a shared interest in skillbuilding.  However, oversharing runs the risk of reducing the teacher to merely an affective variable and not an expert in either the subject or how to teach it.

Contribute to good causes

A local, institutional professional culture may fall short of maintaining pedagogical standards.  Sometimes, a national or international group, formal or informal, may function better as a community of practice for a teacher hoping to grow and keep up with current wisdom.  In any case, join (i.e., send money), attend, and especially present.  If a group of which you are a member is failing to provide something of value, you should provide it instead.

Learn from peers in other countries

ELT and especially SLA are worldwide fields, and different cultures, countries, and institutions around the world often practice radically different pedagogy.  Staying in one milieux for too long threatens to particularize your skillset; working in many countries or at least communicating with fellow teachers and learners in other countries exposes you to different sorts of problems to be solved and ways of solving them.  A frequent stumbling block in your milieux may have an extremely commonsense solution elsewhere in the world – and you may be surprised by the depth of thought that goes into an issue you thought only had one answer.

Listen for dangerous words

Pedagogy can be circumscribed a bit too cleanly by the words used to describe it.  “Syllabus”, “material”, “instruction”, “grammar”, “participation”, “master” and even “know” are all words that language teachers have good reason to take with several grains of salt.  If you hear these words being used as if their meanings were obvious, and especially if they are being used with obviously mistaken meanings, don’t be afraid to ask, “what do you mean?”  Often, the most useful discussions with colleagues and students occur over supposedly commonsense terms.

Be calm when the unthinkable arrives

Emergencies and exceptions are dangerous times.  The last day before the test might seem like a time when the norms of student-centeredness might best be suspended in favor of teacher-led review sessions.  This might even be presented as the only responsible option.  Of course, if teacher-centeredness is the most responsible path right before an exam, another exam will come soon, and the exceptional circumstance might be stretched a bit longer.  In fact, every lesson contains something of vital importance which seem to deserve priority over the luxuries of free student participation and self-directed learning.  There are always circumstances that would seem to make every class session a temporary exception or an emergency and cause the teacher to resort to a more “efficient” method.  Be very suspicious of exhortations or enjoinders because of the supposed unique circumstances of the present class period.

Be a patriot

Be a teacher, not a deliverer or keeper of information.  You can take for granted that you know the subject matter better than your students.  Knowing the metalanguage around your subject matter, including serious-sounding terms like “adjective clause”, makes it easier for you to convince other native speakers that you really earn your paycheck, but of course you will never catch up to Google search in your grammar knowledge.  Your job is bringing other people to a more complete understanding (see “dangerous words”) of the subject matter, not just knowing it yourself, and certainly not impressing your students with how much more than them you know.

Be as courageous as you can

If none of us is prepared to work for our betterment, then all of us will labor under mediocrity.

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A River Runs through Summer TOEFL

To repeat a theme touched on in a few previous posts, my hypothesis is that schools are basically made up of the self-selected cohorts of students that run through them, more than their curricula, methods, or teachers.  (A fun metaphor for this is a river, whose constituent water molecules just happen to be guided by runoff and geography to go all the same way, which gives rise the the emergent property of being a “river”, much like students and staff in a school at any moment give it an illusion of durable existence)  All of these factors can influence the kinds of students who enroll and what the students do when they’re taking classes, of course.  In the ESL world, you have free Adult Education, unit-bearing Academic ESL, private ESL, and various less formal arrangements.  Some classes at the higher levels of private ESLs, as I experienced over the summer, are made up of students who have very advanced abilities and little-to-no motivation to study, making it a river with an action-packed but unpredictable course.

(I started this post this partly to distract myself from my first class of the semester, to begin in 30 minutes.  I slept fine last night but started getting the heebie jeebies as the countdown clock reached T minus 1 hour.  I’m revisiting it midway through that semester now, intending to publish it before I forget the summer)

An advanced degree itself being insufficient legal tender to pay the rent, I took evening classes at a private ESL over the summer.  My class was the TOEFL test prep class, which seemed relatively up my alley since I had done TOEFL for college students hoping to study abroad back at my school in Japan.  (I also used some TOEFL questions as a diagnostic exam for ESP classes of engineers, but I don’t think they knew this.  Perhaps they wondered at some point why so many listening questions involved students and teachers talking about planned renovations of campus buildings.)  Anyway, the summer TOEFL classes ran from 5:45 to 10:15 every weeknight except Friday, which accommodated the community college lab hours I had managed to arrange.  Obviously, the pay at private ESLs isn’t as good, but I figured it was a better use of my time than ruminating even more about the upcoming fall, which promised to be extremely busy.  It also offered a kind of class I’d never taught before: extremely high-level but low-motivation.

The omens started coming pretty early on: the coordinator warned me that many students in TOEFL are only there for lack of other options (having matriculated through all the regular courses but still needing visas), teachers joked about students not bringing their books for the entire term, some students smelled pungent in the particular manner of an AC/DC concert, none of the staff I talked to had been there longer than a year, and my first class had 20% attendance.  I quickly jettisoned my and my coordinator’s planned curriculum in favor of some loosely planned activities, the kind which allowed for participants to come and go midstream.  One of the first days I made the mistake of doing a bunch of questions in the first hour to be deconstructed, analyzed and played with in the second.  My plans came to naught when the class doubled in size for the second hour.

I learned quickly that demanding what might loosely be described as “student-like behavior” was a waste of time and effort.  I mean that in two senses: students didn’t want to play the apple polisher, and if I wanted them to do something, “demanding” was the wrong way to go about it.  My very first interaction with the students was telling them to sit closer to the front and having them openly reject the suggestion.  Not just refusing to move, but a lot of other officially and informally discouraged behaviors, like coming in late, leaving early,  missing random hours in the middle, and absolutely refusing to do homework seemed not to be stigmatized at this private ESL.  By this I mean you not only see these behaviors, but people, students and staff openly discuss them as expected.  This is something it seems a new teacher has to learn to live with or be constantly frustrated.  I managed to put the “meat” of the TOEFL lessons into periods 2, 3, and 4, leaving the first and last for review activities and improvised Dogme-style classes (which, true to form, provided the most memorable moments of the summer, outlined below).  Still, some more of value might have been found if this norm of nobody taking the classes seriously hadn’t had such deep roots.

The students and I found ourselves midstream in a river that started long before us and would probably continue for years afterward: a set of legal realities (hourly requirements for visas), economic incentives (the school didn’t want to lose customers just because they don’t do classwork, or as I was to find out, because they loudly berate a teacher in front of her class), and local norms that narrow the scope of outcomes that can be expected for any class. All the students in my class were veterans who knew how things worked – on more than one occasion I looked the fool for not knowing little bits of insider information like the fact that the 80% attendance requirement meant they could skip one full day a week, and that all the other teachers knew and accepted this.  For some reason at the beginning I thought I could change the course of this river by paddling really hard.

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In community of practice terms, almost every member of the group has peripheral participation, demanding little of and giving little to the group, and this ironically is what marks them as insiders.  Sustained investment in the group is norm-breaking behavior, for both implicit and official reasons: people maintain a pretense of being at the school for purely instrumental reasons (even when they do make friends), and trying to involve other students in longer-term projects would interfere with their 80%-attendance-threshold-meeting plan of regular absences.  The kind of long-term or team-oriented activities (reading circles, for example) that are normal in college ESL courses are not only unexpected but clash with the explicit goals of the group as a CoP.

What success I had with the group was in seizing random topics of interest for whatever selection of the class was there that hour and inventing a justifiably TOEFL-related activity just for that hour or two.  The book almost always fell flat, if only because like most TOEFL books it viewed the best way to teach English as subdividing the skills necessary to read, write, speak, and listen on a subatomic scale, with sections like “Inferring a Conversation Topic from Pronoun Repetition”.  I ended up with a stable of activities that I used at least once per day.  Short articles printed from Vox or NBER with reading circles that were meant to be resolved within 2 hours worked sometimes.  (One student was positively offended that female MBA students understated their desired incomes when they knew their male classmates were watching.)  Vocabulary activities like Apples 2 Apples with TOEFL nouns, verbs (students had to nominalize them) and adjectives were surprisingly fun.  A version of Telephone (Chinese Whispers in the UK – yes, they have offensive names too) where each student had to give a TOEFL-style 45-second speech, their partner outlined it, that partner delivered the same speech to another partner who also outlined it, and finally that partner gave the speech to its originator and we saw how durable the topic sentences and supporting points were was reliably engaging, useful, and interactive.  But my favorite activity for the entire summer emerged Dogme-like from a conversation on why meat in California is so bland compared to that of South America and Eastern Europe (the homes of the two students present that hour).  We drew up a list of the competing concerns that chicken growers and buyers have, based mostly on their experience with a little input from me, and then they roleplayed a negotiation between them.  The South American student, playing the buyer, was a stickler for uniformity and quantity, and the Eastern European student, playing the grower, insisted on letting the chickens grow at their natural rates to their natural sizes.  The difference was resolved when the grower agreed to only raise one kind of chicken, under implied threat to lose the sale altogether.  I’m sure these two students will remember this activity long after they’ve forgotten what kinds of stars emit intermittent bursts of electromagnetic radiation (the topic of one of the practice reading sections).

Not every class was successful, as I have pointed out more than I probably should have, but I can’t really hold my frustrations against the institution or the students – again, private ESL needs students to stay in business, and the students themselves were the most fluent I’ve ever taught, which sort of implies that they are doing more right than wrong ESL-wise.  Next time, I will be better prepared if called upon to jump in this particular river again.

My Knowing You Has Moral Value of Life and Death

I’ve been pushed for the first time since the early weeks of this blog to comment on vegetarianism, thanks to a thoughtful post by Wandering ELT.

Like most of the strongly held opinions that made up my identity when I was in college, such as the utility of taxing custom rims or the superiority of Megadeth over Metallica, vegetarianism has turned into from ideology into mere habit.  It still exists like an old UCI sweatshirt as a vestige of the intellectual life I used to have.  I still practice it (and still listen to Megadeth) more because it’s what I did yesterday and not because I am a consistently, mindfully moral person.  Obviously, no completely moral person can listen to Megadeth as much as I do.

Most of this post will have the odor of long-dormant dogma reactivated.  If I begin to sound too strident, just be glad you know me now and not when I was 22.

The moral crisis that fomented the change in my life from meat eating to not began with the death of one of my dogs in the summer of 2001.  I felt suddenly aware of how much his admittedly simple life had meant to me, and how distressing it was to think of his last moments of suffering.  I suppose almost any pet owner in the same situation feels the same things.  This time, for some reason, I was also very aware of just how few beings in the world would be capable of drawing this kind of reaction, and as weeks went on afterward, this took up more and more of my thoughts.  I was still feeling the loss itself, and some odd guilt as well for feeling this so selectively.  I began to notice that the gap between my overriding preoccupation with my dog’s well-being at the end of his life and my complete ignorance of the well-being of every other animal on earth said something very bad about how my moral circle of concern applied to the world outside.

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The way I thought my moral circle was

My dog’s death that summer, and the terror attacks soon to come after it, made very salient in my mind the inhumanity of how I drew my moral circle.  Many of us have heard “expanding circle” arguments about morality, in which we treat the things that are close to us as valuable, and further things less valuable, until we are basically indifferent to things that are very distant or different from us.  What my dog’s death made very clear to me is that 1) my moral circle where animals were concerned had a monstrous gap between the animals I cared about and the animals I didn’t, and 2) the center of my moral circle was quite small and was only justified by my own ego.

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The way I saw it after summer 2001

The way a circle of moral concern is often understood is that we simply don’t care about the things/beings outside it; we don’t wish them harm, but we also don’t actively try to improve their lives.  In my case, the momentary suffering ending in death of one creature debilitated me for some time, which is an inevitable and even healthy response for pets and family members near the center of one’s circle of concern.  The creatures outside of my moral concern, however, weren’t simply benignly outside of my attention.  I paid people to emiserate and kill them, albeit indirectly.  I enjoyed the fruits of their deaths and considered the savings from not giving them comfortable lives a bonus for my wallet.  In short, I wasn’t indifferent to them; I actively participated in their torture and destruction.  The revision of the outline of my moral circle from a slow fadeout into a sheer cliff was intellectually jarring.

And the center of my moral circle was me, just me and all my coincidental associations.  I don’t think things enter or leave my life for cosmically meaningful reasons.  My dog was adopted by my family, lived with us, and was loved by us because we happened to choose him that day when I was in fifth grade, not because he was made of clearly superior stuff and the universe especially wanted him to have a good life.  Through the accident of his association with us, in addition to having been born a domesticated dog rather than a pig, chicken, or cow, he was granted a life of gentle leisure rather than one of neglect, prolonged discomfort or constant agony.  His death would be seen as a tragedy rather than a transaction because he happened to come into contact with us.  In other words, my family and I were the center of a bizarre moral universe in which only the few animals near us had human-like moral value, and all others deserved to die to make our sandwiches tastier.  Our circle of concern wasn’t based on logical or universal criteria like the capacity to feel, consciousness, or a complex nervous system, but was transparently based on whether you happened to be lucky enough to know us.  It was a solipsistic moral circle, and as I mentioned earlier, the edges were dropoffs into moral worthlessness.

So by becoming vegetarian I convinced myself that my moral circle was something I could justify.  Now at least I wasn’t basing the moral value of animal life on its proximity to me, and deeming those animals who failed to meet that arbitrary criterion subject to slow torture and death.

I don’t completely agree with this point of view now, since the suffering of animals outside of human society is arguably worse than that of animals living in countries with decent animal welfare laws, even if they are being raised for meat.  If I had the choice between a meat meal from an actually happy cow (the ones from California regrettably aren’t) and a vegetarian meal of 100% imported and processed rainforest-grown grains, I might really need to think about my choice.  Of course, we don’t live in a country with decent animal welfare laws, so I’ve never had to resolve that conundrum.

(FYI, my last meaty meal ever was chicken soft tacos from the Del Taco on Campus Drive.)