The Holliday Trap in ESL

Holliday’s Appropriate Methodology and Social Context has stuck with me mostly in the form of a single anecdote: A PhD teacher in an Egyptian university tries to implement current communicative methods, which to him are the fruits of his advanced degree, but is stymied when students, feeling honored to have a teacher with such a glittering CV, do their utmost to sit and listen to the transmitted wisdom that they feel should be forthcoming.

I have elected to call this the Holliday Trap, not because Holliday himself experienced it (although he probably has, because I think most language teachers have), but just because it appears in his book.

The trap is that teacher education tends to focus more and more on inter-student communication as it gets more advanced, and teachers with more credentials tend to be more immersed in the communicative norms that currently animate ELT.  At the same time, students tend to value the class and value the teacher more when the teacher is highly credentialed, and show it by adopting a respectful, deferential student role.

The details of the student role vary from culture from culture, but it rarely aligns with the degree of student-centered, student-led communication that a modern language teacher is likely to believe in.  In the country where I taught for 12 years, Japan, the default student posture is silent downward gazing, and the deferential version of that is silent manic scribbling.  In the US some degree of speaking is polite and shows interest, but students in foreign language classes still much prefer the abstraction of talking about the TL rather than in it.  In neither case does the “student role” coincide with ELT best practices.

To illustrate, let me walk you through some familiar cases.  A neophyte, diploma-still-warm teacher in a private language school (eikaiwa, hagwon, etc.) will find plenty of opportunity to apply a communicative curriculum, such as he understands it to be a curriculum at all.  He will likely find students who see the teacher as their equal (or inferior) and are willing to converse and engage in meaning-focused communication.  Conversely, attempts to break out the grammar terms that he remembers from grade school may be met with some disappointment or bemusement.  Meanwhile, a colleague in the middle of her MA may find theoretical justification for much of the classroom give-and-take.  She may develop a repertoire of conversation-based activities to scaffold the particular skills that she is becoming more aware of, and find students refreshed by the additional rigor in her classes.  She may miss the easy exchange of views and camaraderie when she moves on to college-level EFL, where students are inexperienced with communication, in numbers and in seating that make egalitarian rapport harder, and in thrall to the abstract and academic rather than the applied.  She finds that lectures on grammar are the smoothest parts of lessons, as everyone knows what to do or at least pretend to do.  Her department head, who occasionally receives complaints that the young lecturers ask students to use grammar without teaching it first, has a PhD and a research focus on “teachability of pragmatics and strategic competence”.  She rarely takes non-major courses anymore, preferring to skim the cream by taking upper division electives.  She is comfortable lecturing in CLIL-style classes to students capable of benefiting from that class style.  She has been frustrated when trying to apply a similar class style in non-major classes.

In ESL, we have many similar rungs of the ladder of prestige I have out outlined above, from private ESL (often perfunctory exchangers of tuition for visas) to Harvard University’s ELP and other programs designed to prepare students for undergraduate and graduate programs.  At community colleges, a single classroom may be used for both purposes on the same day: tuition-free, 0-unit adult ESL in the morning followed by academic writing for international or transfer students in the afternoon.  At the beginning and intermediate levels, adult ESL and credit ESL may even share most of their student base.  Where they differ most significantly within those levels is often in prestige.

(To set the stage more completely, let me say that the teachers in both the non-credit and credit programs have the same minimum qualifications and the two programs often share materials as well.  Credit classes, however, cost money, have closed enrollment (students can only add for the first few weeks), and have explicit matriculation goals in their course descriptions.  Adult ESL, being free, fills up faster, leading many students to take credit ESL although they do not intend to matriculate.)

Broadly, adult ESL is meant to serve integrative goals and credit ESL to serve instrumental goals, although both purport to be working toward long-term life goals such as employment and acculturation in a broad sense.  That said, it’s not unusual for students to take credit ESL to its highest level (or even highest non-writing level) and then stop before transferring, indicating to me at least that not a few see credit ESL at beginning and intermediate levels as a more expensive, more rigorous, “premium” version of adult ESL.  This has interesting implications in light of the Holliday Trap.

First, students are more likely to adopt a “traditional” listening-and-notetaking student role in credit ESL.  If I am right that they see it as basically a more “serious” version of adult ESL, they will prefer lectures to tasks and tasks to conversation.  It has certainly been my experience that it is much easier to get everyone in class to look at a projector screen than to talk amongst themselves, although talking with peers is the more intuitive human activity.  Students might expect to “receive” more knowledge rather than explore or co-construct it in a program that they perceive as more prestigious.

Second, students will approach even similar topics a more orthodox way.  My experience is that it takes much more prefacing and justification before introducing input-heavy methods in intermediate credit ESL than in either ESL writing (also credit) or especially in eikaiwa.  Students quite often see conversation tasks as a break rather than a task, and that is after a first-day PowerPoint and frequent reminders throughout the semester that, as Thornbury put it, “conversation is language at work”.  Not 100% of the class rejects communicative or input-focused methods, of course, but some pushback from most students and a lot from a few students is normal.

Third, students will regard the teacher as more of a source of knowledge and less of a peer. I’ve heard students’ opinions on other teachers in the credit program, and they tend to focus on the clarity of their grammar explanations rather than their rapport with the class or the chances for communication that they offer.  I’m not sure what students say about adult ESL teachers, but the few times I’ve seen them interact they’ve seemed much more egalitarian than what I’ve seen of credit ESL teachers (I’ve seen many, many more credit ESL teachers, as an assistant, as a sub, and at meetings).

The irony of this increased seriousness is that it doesn’t help credit ESL teachers to achieve their arguably more difficult goals.  As the Holliday Trap would imply, teachers tend to adopt more communicative and less pedantic methods as they accrue more education because these methods are supported by research.  An adult ESL teacher freed from the expectation to “teach” in the traditional sense is probably a more effective teacher overall as his or her modern methods have to wade through less of the tall grass of student expectations.

I suppose the ideal position is for the students to be in a rigorous, demanding course but not to realize it.

Losing my mind

What follows is a long, student-unfriendly version of a 3-paragraph paper (not an essay) on a 30-day challenge that I did with an intermediate integrated skills class.  The paper has to have an academic paragraph on the time before, the time during, and the time after the challenge.  Originally, the paragraphs had to use the past tense, present tense, and future tense (with any aspect), but I haven’t followed that rule faithfully here.

Getting lost in hectic thought was the default mode of my mind before I started my 30-day challenge.  The challenge, which was to meditate 10 minutes a day for 30 days, came at a time when I my mind was almost constantly in a state of emergency.  Every thought of grading, making new assignments, or updating a class vocabulary list was a red alert in a long line of red alerts.  I would be exhausted at the end of a day of classes, but unable to take a nap without thoughts of all the papers I had to grade rushing in and beating back my attempts at rest.  As a result, I was often in a sour mood and was inclined to greet any attempts at contact from colleagues or students as yet another demand on the limited resources of my attention.  When I had a minute, or just a desperate need to pretend that I did, I spent it with value-free distractions (the App Store specializes in them), afraid to glance back at the wave of paperwork threatening to crash over me from behind.

Since I started meditating, I haven’t ceased being distracted, but I have been better able to incorporate distraction into my workflow, i.e. to be mindful of distraction.  In the interior of my mind, thoughts of work have begun to appear less like photobombing tourists in the lens of my attention, and more like part of the shot.  I have become better able to take a long view of my own time and attention and to refuse to devote my full mental resources to every problem, incomplete task, or request that jumped into frame.  What is called “mindfulness” is key to this.  While I meditate, thoughts still appear, and I still think them, but I am aware of the process, and that awareness prevents me from identifying with them completely.  I become something of an observer of my own mental life.  I see how this could be described as being “mindful”, as it does in a sense feel like an additional layer of abstraction has been placed between my stream of consciousness and the thoughts that usually occupy it, but in a sense more important to me, something is also taken away.  That thing is the formerly irresistable urge to load that thought into the chamber of my executive-function pistol and start manically squeezing the trigger.  It is also the need to build a spider’s web around each thought, connected to all my other thoughts, and claim it irrevocably as mine.  In these senses I believe “mindlessness” is just as good a term as “mindfulness” for what occurs in and as a result of meditation.  In any case, disassociation from my thoughts, most of which are proverbial red circles with white numbers in them, has helped me to control the way that I react (or not) to them.

This brief experiment with meditation has given me a good deal of perspective to take with me into future semesters.  I can now see the regular rhythm of the waves of classwork as something other than a renewed threat.  Now, they seem more like tides, dangerous if unplanned for but predictable in their rises and falls.  Importantly, I also see the high water mark and know that as long as I keep my mind somewhere dry, it will recede without doing much damage.  In the future, as long as I refrain from doing something crazy like teaching 20 units, I think I will be able to maintain calm with the help of this perspective.  Also, in a more specific sense, I will be better able to resist the call to distract myself from my work.  I can recognize the formerly irresistable need to latch onto an interesting task, and this recognition enables me to prevent YouTube or WordPress (except for right now) from hijacking monotonous tasks like grading or… well, mostly grading.  Next semester and into the future, I will feel less threatened and better able to deal with inbound masses of schoolwork.

Success under/over coopted ELT

Geoff’s recent post got me thinking about my time in Japan trying to teach against or around a system that saw English as one of many quantified and commodified skills to sell.  Like a lot of discussions involving Japan, it triggered some vestigial indignation somewhere in my gut which had to be purged.

The process of quantification of the skill we call “English” for the purpose of rational allocation of workers to jobs has proceeded to an extreme level in Korea and Japan, who may represent the high-water mark among numerous other societies where English skill as represented by a single number or a blank space on a resumé is a matter of life and death for millions of test takers and job seekers.

As you might expect given the overwhelming importance of that blank space, the skill that it is supposed to represent often gets relegated to the background in favor of easily understood and common-currency heuristics like a TOEIC score or a university degree.  Tricks for gaming that number or raising it through brute force proliferate. “English teaching” at least in Japan and Korea is widely understood to be synonymous with standardized test preparation, and “washback” with connotations of dutiful responsibility rather than regrettable side effect.  Because the blank space for “English skill” is of extreme importance while there are no corresponding spaces for “average hours of sleep” or “happy childhood”, young people spend much of their adolescence in classrooms preparing to give the market what it wants.  This video brought back a lot of memories for me, including the sight of bicycles outside cram schools that I passed on my way home from work at 10:30 pm.

Geoff winds up concluding that because English teachers will find themselves serving this inhumane system, they should not go to work in Korea.  I disagreed with this point at first, mostly because it’s exactly the countries with these hegemonic, neo-liberal (two words I never thought I’d use after finishing my BA) English testing regimes that seem to have jobs for English teachers without MAs; that is, a lot of good teachers’ careers wouldn’t exist if they hadn’t gone to work in one of these countries in their 20s.  Therefore, I thought, these systems actually end up contributing a lot indirectly to global ELT.  Also, I believed that good teachers doing honest work within those systems could still have positive effects on students’ lives beyond tests.  My conspiratorial brain and my fondly-remembering brain disagree on this point.

A decent metaphor for the role of an anti-establishment English teacher in such a system is Daniel Kaluuya’s character from the 2nd episode of Black Mirror.  This character similarly feels righteously indignant and rebellious in an inhuman system, but sees that rebellious energy coopted and ultimately used as a piece of the same system.  If you haven’t seen it or don’t remember, Kaluuya’s character Bing has a musically gifted coworker at their grind of a job (hilariously, pedalling stationary bikes) in a vaguely dystopia future society where intrusive attention merchant-style media is omnipresent.  This coworker takes a chance at using her genuine, pristine vocal talent to audition for a TV talent show.  At her audition, instead of being made a popstar, she is coercively recruited to act in adult films instead, in a grotesque example of matching talent to market.  Bing, distraught, returns to the talent show later under the pretense of auditioning, and in the midst of a seeming dance routine he suddenly holds a shard of glass to his own throat and uses the captive TV cameras to deliver a searing, authentically emotional speech into the TV cameras.  The judges, suitably moved, declare his performance extraordinary and proceed to give him his own show where he delivers regular similar speeches, always with his signature shard of glass, for a devoted fanbase (still pedalling their bikes).  The episode ends with Bing living the high life thanks to having found a market for his talent due to his successful “audition”.

To give my Black Mirror-like take first, even with the most stridently anti-test, integrative, teaching-the-whole-person way it can possibly be practiced, ELT in Japan or Korea ends up feeding the system of commodification, just stuffing it with ever-more-valuable commodities.  Any attempts to break out of that single space just end up putting something all the more precious in it, as truly sincere and irreplaceable things are, like Bing’s speech, ultimately just rarer and accordingly more valuable products.  Those “genuine articles” in our case can include communicative competence, international perspective, study abroad experience, and above all, a real feel for English not only as an academic subject but as a living tool of communication.  All of these signify a truly high-quality English education, and to an HR office, a superior version of an in-demand skill.  A sincere and genuine English education also raises the mean on everyone else, making still more inhuman grinding necessary from those not lucky enough to have a truly outstanding, break-the-mold teacher or opportunities for international education.  A worldly, proactive, SKY’s-the-limit English learner represents inflation from the perspective of hiring or college admission boards.  As Bing’s judges declare, That is, without a doubt, the most heartfelt thing I’ve seen on a resumé since ELT began.

That is what I fear my legacy of 12 years of English school ownership will be: a few  former students with outstanding enough scores in a saleable skill to get salaries and bonuses 3% higher alongside hundreds more with only a vague memory that they once went to eikaiwa. Premonitions of this fate were common throughout the life of our school, as some of our star students reliably quit every year to devote more time to Center Test studies (our Suneung), made clear their intentions to drop English after getting into college almost as a rite of passage, or visibly stopped caring about any classroom pursuit that didn’t have a clear test payoff.  Mind you, it wasn’t every student who gave us this feeling, and we always had enough students to live, but once 2 or 3 of the students that you’d really been seeing bright things in the future for tell you that they’re quitting because their juku (cram school) teacher told them eikaiwa is a waste of time, a bit of the shine starts to come off of every student.  Parents even in some of the best cases tended to cement the impression that everything led back to tests – the most heartfelt thanks we usually got from parents was that they really appreciated how our passion and genuine connection to their kids had helped them increase their test scores.  The students themselves sometimes echoed these sentiments, which didn’t please us as much as they seemed to think it would.  Trying to beat the test or go above and beyond it only made us more successful at teaching the test.

That’s the dark take, and when I need some reason to feel better about my move to the US, it gives me some comfort, grass-isn’t-greener style.  On the other hand, if I need to remove the shadow that that view casts over my time in Japan and the genuinely warm memories I have of my students, I need to accept that not everything that is part of a “system” is inhuman or corrupt.  My former students making 3% more money doesn’t stop them from being complete individuals or having the same warm memories that I have.  In many other circumstances, I would view the reduction of a complicated construct to a single value to be very useful, given of course that no such value will ever be free from questions of validity.  A society-wide preference for quantifiable skills to an extent reflects a need to fairly and quickly evaluate millions of people a year, which isn’t a sin in itself.  Maybe what is needed is not an end to commodification but more commodification – a line on college applications for “average time spent on non-school pursuits” to be weighed alongside TOEIC scores.