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.

The Devil’s Dictionary of Correction Codes

Awk.

Wrong in ways I can’t be bothered to specify.

G/I

Everyone from your junior high English teachers to your ESL instructor has tried to explain the differences between gerunds and infinitives to you using logic and rules of thumb.  We were just trying to make ourselves sound smart.

M

You accidently requested that the reader commit a human rights violation instead of informing them that one had happened.  I don’t have time or space to explain that, so here’s a single letter instead.

Frag/RO/CS

Please stop writing according what 99% of your input implies are the rules for native-like English.

Num/#

The teacher is willing to treat this as a language error, but secretly believes you wouldn’t notice if you suddenly had 3 cats instead of 1.

SV/Agr.

Wait 100 years or so until the 3rd person singular dies out and this will no longer be a problem.

VT

In English clauses, you don’t need to show degrees of formality, gender, intention, or whether the information in it was learned directly or indirectly.  However, you must always be clear when it happened (roughly divided into the past except when it’s relevant to the present, the present which isn’t really the present, and the future except in subordinate clauses) and remind the reader of that with each finite verb.  We’ll just assume you know what a finite verb is and which ones they are.

//

As an ESL student, you are expected understand and apply metalanguage that native speakers need to complete at least 2 years of post-graduate work in linguistics for.

TS/Concl

I won’t let you transfer or get your second Master’s degree in engineering until you show respect for conventions of writing that are present in only 0.01% of natural input.

P

Just giving you the answer would save us both time, but making you do the work allows me to claim that my marks are student-centered.

MLA

Your teacher consulted Google and confirmed that this comma should not be here.  It might belong somewhere else.  Google it.

Conn/Tran

We expect your use of conjunctions to be more correct than the New York Times.

 

(I hope it’s clear that I’m making fun of teachers including myself here and not learners)

Counties in California and community college jobs

I’ve been wondering about where I can possibly live in California on an adjunct’s salary.  I currently live in one of the more expensive parts, where you can only assume everyone besides you is a lawyer or a doctor judging by the home prices Zillow mockingly spits out at you.

That’s why I got to thinking of whether adjuncts in other parts of the state, where home prices are about what people pay for cars here, have things a little easier.  Then I went about gathering data from real estate sites, Wikipedia, community college district listings, and job listings from those districts.  For now, I didn’t bother with 4-year universities or private ESLs – you’ll have to do that research yourself.

In case you didn’t know, as far as TESOL is concerned community colleges usually offer a mix of non-credit classes for their communities to learn English for life and for-credit English classes, usually for transfer to a 4-year university.  Unlike 2-year universities in a lot of countries, they are not considered status-bearing institutions and are funded by tuition (cheap for residents) and state taxes.  I hope that’s right.

california_county_map
These are the counties in California.  Apparently San Bernardino County is as large as many of the smaller entire states put together, although no one lives anywhere in it but the bottom left corner.

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The professional unprofessional

I regard myself as the most professional when I’m acting in ways that are seen as vaguely unprofessional.  Contrarily, if everyone from administration down to new students seems to be regarding me as a consummate professional with everything under control and nothing left to chance, I feel as if I must be doing something wrong.

Part of this is unambiguously a result of modern training in language teaching with all its student-centeredness, communicativity, and insistence on relevance to real needs.  Not many teachers educated since the Krashen days see language teaching as a matter of verbally transmitting the rules of grammar.  But students often want teachers who appeal to their conscious and rational minds, and teachers respect each other for their grasp of effete theory and ability to maintain control of a room.  On the other hand, asking a class to generate discourse by itself or choose topics close to them, taking long stretches of class time simply to listen to students negotiate with each other, is seen by many students and some teachers as abandoning your professional authority and objectivity.  Ironically, greater professional investment in the current field of TESOL, which correlates with greater commitment to student-centered norms, leads students and colleagues to expect to gain more from you simply by listening, leading to still more disappointment when you seem to cede the floor to someone still figuring out “are” and “is” (see Holliday’s Appropriate Methodology and Social Context for a specific example of this effect).  Here, our training seems designed to disappoint anyone who comes into a classroom to “learn” in a traditional sense.  I believe most language teachers come across this conundrum often in their careers, more if they lean heavily to the Dogme side of CLT and especially more if their students see didacticism as a sign of seriousness.

With fellow teachers too, I feel a need to have conversations go slightly awkwardly to confirm to myself that I am taking an appropriately circumspect distance from the norms of my field.  Besides the list of expressions the ended one of my recent posts, I find that their are surprisingly few terms that language teachers use that I can accept exactly as intended, because I don’t think the term accurately describes what people usually take it as.  For instance, one that came up in a bit of downtime discussion with a colleague in the language lab today was “grammar teaching” (which we agreed should always be surrounded by scare quotes).  In my view, “teaching” can only practically mean doing the things that bring cause people to improve in the area whose noun premodifies “teaching”.  E.g., “surfing teaching” most intuitively means teaching people skills relevant to being able to surf, not some other skill tangentially related to surfing, such as musculature or the physics of erosion.  Since the endpoint we want to reach with students with respect to grammar is (mostly) unconscious application of the rules, such as they are, in real-time or at least real-world situations, how can we call the explicit teaching of grammar rules “grammar teaching”, when that is the thing we are all trained in our MA programs to know doesn’t demonstrably lead to that endpoint?  I’m not convinced that my answer to this question is the only acceptable one, but I’m far less convinced that the term “grammar teaching” should be tossed about as if we all agreed that teaching metalanguage and focusing on formS were the way to go.

So when I hear someone use this arguably commonsense term, I often ask what they mean, which in professional language teaching situations is sort of the equivalent of a volleyball player asking what you mean when you say “serve”.  I think I leave a lot of colleagues with the alternating impressions that I know a lot and that I don’t know anything (sometimes this impression requires little effort).  I do this because I have professional pride in not taking terms and practices for granted, especially if they are as common as “grammar”.  My unprofessional inability to smoothly carry on conversations on language teaching is a point of pride for me as a professional language teacher.  As is my ability to recognize but not care about split infinitives.

In the classroom, there are ways to work around being seen as unprofessional, and they will placate some students.  I found that with my ESL students last semester, if I took a significant piece of class time to explain (with reference to research) why I don’t see much merit in going through the grammar textbook chapter by chapter or stopping to explain every new word in a reading textbook written at the i^2 level, they would generally come along for the ride, bumps and all (as opposed to before, when what I thought were interesting tangents were generally seen as undisciplined diversions from the coursebook).   And the bumps are much more important than a smooth but unremarkable ride.  I tend to think that in a few years the bumps are all they’ll remember.

Ironically in a field (ideally) focused on creating unconscious and automatic mastery, I often feel I’m in the business of making memories, albeit memories of a particular type and as a scaffold for particular things I want them to know.  If I don’t have their attention and they won’t remember what we did that day, I feel like I wasted their time, even if a random passerby peeking into the classroom would have seen something that strongly resembled “teaching”.  I seldom find that the way to create memories is by rigorously following a PPP lesson plan (or “teaching grammar”).  In order to fulfill my duties and see myself as a teacher, I sometimes need to look conspicuously unlike most people’s conception of one.

 

JALT vs. CATESOL pt. 2

A few weekends ago I attended my second major CATESOL event, and I noticed a few more differences from my last teaching organization, JALT (the Japan Association For Language Teaching – yes, they capitalize “For”, meaning the acronym really should be JAFLT, or ジャフルト).  I’ve come to notice what I think is a bit of a drawback to CATESOL’s highly dedicated and professional members.  I’ll dance around it for a little before I finally get to it later on.  Or maybe I’ll nestle it between body paragraphs so you’re not tempted to just skip to the bottom.

One thing you find when moving from one culture to another is that you frequently find yourself waiting for things that never happen, seeing social cues that are invisible to the rest of the population and waiting for a conditioned response that is curiously not forthcoming – a “bless you” after a sneeze, a door held open, or a formulaic conversation-ending phrase before your coworker leaves the break room.  In CATESOL and in my first semester in ESL in California I’ve had this feeling very often.  I keep expecting some hot-button topic to be mentioned, even gratuitously, and then it’s not.  Or I expect the speaker to drop an author’s name just to let the audience know he/she knows his/her stuff, but he/she just moves on.  In their place, sometimes things I’m not familiar with get name-dropped instead, or sometimes (this is most alienating) nothing happens at all.  I find myself oddly unable to follow professional conversations in a natural way.  Many conversations here seem like the first time I heard a telephone conversation in Japan, where nobody says “bye”, they just hang up when they’re done talking.

I’ve written down a few things I found myself waiting for and didn’t see – things that are conspicuously absent from my CATESOL/ESL experience.  For reflection, I’ll follow them with some things that I hear regularly in CATESOL or ESL but I rarely or never heard in Japan or JALT.  And for the record, I still haven’t lived in California for even half a year, so feel free to take my claims with as much salt as you need.

MIA in CATESOL

Native Speaker.  I have heard this just once here, from another teacher from Japan.  On the other hand, at least 2 of my superiors have been non-native speakers, and many more coworkers wouldn’t have fit the NST mold in Japan (i.e., they are not white).  I have heard a bit about the advantages of learning from teachers who have experience learning English as adults, in that they understand where the students are coming from or are former ESL students themselves.  Interestingly, this was not couched in a NST/NNST dichotomy, but rather the firsthand ESL experience of those teachers.  I kept expecting the words “native” and “non-native” to be used, as they often were in Japan, to discuss the stereotyped strengths of the NST/NNST groups (in Japan, “foreign” and “Japanese”).  Even more surprisingly, but I haven’t heard any talk of the supposed advantages of NSTs, whether for authenticity, correctness, or anything else.  It’s almost as if people here believe that NS status isn’t as salient as qualifications or experience as a language teacher!

Interlanguage.  This troubles me.  The way I understand our profession, interlanguage is the ball we are always trying to move down the field, and everything else we do is just indirectly trying to do that.  If I don’t hear any acknowledgment of interlanguage in discussions of what we do, I fear I may not understand the rules of the game we’re playing.  By “acknowledgment of interlanguage” I mean recognizing that some aspects of students’ mental representations of English may have to come in a certain order (not the order that grammar textbooks present them in), that the representations we care most about aren’t always amenable to explicit teaching (i.e., “knowing” a rule won’t necessarily lead to its incorporation in IL), and that grammar terms are not necessarily the currency of the classroom, useful as they might be for other reasons. Way too often in CATESOL I hear people talk about “grammar teaching” as if its only possible form were “explaining grammar in metalanguage”, and “grammar syllabus” (or worse, “coursebook”) as a stand-in for “syllabus”.  I see some indirect evidence that people think about IL, and in many cases it could just be that they think they’re too mundane to talk about.  On the other hand, I’ve heard people dropping grammar terms as if they were celebrities they once met, and it seems taken for granted that lower-level courses are “grammar-based”.  My brain threatens to abandon ship whenever someone describes lower-level ESL as “teaching basic grammar forms”.

I haven’t figured out what this lack of mentioning is evidence of, but a bit of open discussion on old staples input, intake, uptake, interaction, and natural order would go a long way toward putting my fears to rest.  I feel a bit like I’ve been admitted to a prestigious medical school, but all I’ve heard discussed are 1) holistic ways to lengthen life and 2) the head bone’s connected to the (beat) neck bone.

Extensive Reading.  I suppose this follows from the last one.  A few colleagues at my current institution have talked about this, and I’ve heard rumors that it was once attempted.  My school does in fact have almost a full bookshelf of graded readers (more if you include other languages), organized by one of the full-timers, so it may be ahead of the curve.  I haven’t heard ER mentioned in presentations though, especially to the gratuitous degree it’s mentioned in JALT, even in presentations on totally different topics.  To the contrary, I have seen a great many reading textbooks here, most intended for close reading as a class, with the more unfamiliar vocabulary the better.  My fear is that the lack of concern for interlanguage is what drives the lack of focus on ER, or that people are making assumptions about their students’ exposure to English outside the classroom (potentially obviating the need for a focus on input in the classroom) that aren’t coming true.  See next point.

Free conversation.  This is generally a term of abuse in SLA, and many people would take it as a sign of quality that ESL teachers seem to avoid it.  However, and this surprised me as much as anything about ESL, most teachers here also seem to understand that their students remain ensconsed in their L1 communities when not in the classroom.  This being the case, and considering how infrequent cases of successful L2 acquisition that include no unscripted interaction are, we really ought to look for ways to actively encourage free conversation, even at the expense of stuff that is actually in the curriculum.  I recognize that not everyone is willing to jump on the Dogme train (another term I haven’t heard in SoCal – Dogme, not train.  Actually, train too) but if our students have little to no interaction, negotiation, opportunity for recast, etc. on subjects of their choosing, and instead have 5 hours of controlled grammar practice per week, we’re sacrificing probably the most important predictor of L2 learning for something 4th or 5th on the list.  It seems very odd to me that teachers can see how close many of their students’ day-to-day lives are to EFL rather than ESL and continue to focus on form as if input and interaction were taken care of.

To recap, my main concern is that the lack of IL discussion that I’ve seen evinces a lack of knowledge about what really builds L2 competence, and that grammar books and dense reading activities have filled the gap that that knowledge should occupy.  Again, some people seem to talk in a way that implies IL is a central concern and simply haven’t used the word, which is fine – they don’t feel a need to name-drop it.  The thing is, I’m not convinced everyone is on the same page where this is concerned, as evidenced by the abundance of synthetic syllabi and grammar jargon.  Many folks seem to think that their job is explaining English grammar, and that this will result in students being able to use it.  I hope to be proven wrong.

On the other hand…

行方不明 (whereabouts unknown) in JALT

Credit/non-credit.  By this term I mean the distinction between classes which lead to transfer and those that don’t.  I’m willing to chalk some of my opinions on this topic in Japan to the fact that I spent almost all my career there teaching at my own school and later to non-English-majors at university.  However, I’m convinced that almost all ELT in Japan is low-stakes, and no discussions on credit/non-credit classes are a symptom of this.  Let me qualify that – almost all ELT that conforms at all to international norms is low-stakes, because ELT that is not test-prep is almost by definition irrelevant.  If you are doing anything other than helping students cram in pretertiary settings, you are giving your students more “cultivation” and “character” than real opportunity to advance in society.  The apparent lack of communicative English in the public school systems is a bit more complicated than I’m making it seem here (briefly, the high-stakes tests most parents think they’re preparing their kids for by teaching them grammar-translation don’t actually have much or any grammar-translation on them), but the point is that 20th-21st century approaches to SLA like CLT are on the losing half of a “serious/unserious” dichotomy, grammar-translation being cartoons from the New Yorker and CLT being Larry the Cable Guy.  If you want to be treated as a professional, teach like it’s 1890.

JALT, an organization aligned much more with international ELT than Japanese public education, has a membership who sees grammar-translation as stone-age pedagogy (which sometimes makes it appear to old-fashioned grammar teachers as a professional organization of unprofessionals).  Its ranks are full of highly intelligent and passionate teachers working in stigmatized “oral communication” classes, desperate for their work to be taken seriously.  As with a lot of ELT in Japan, the closeness to international norms of any teacher’s approach seems inversely proportional to the seriousness with which society takes them.  If you are a JALT member, your greatest achievements with your students are almost invisible to the machinery of social advancement.

In contrast, “credit” teaching in community colleges in the US is playing for keeps – you’re teaching students who more often than not plan to transfer to American universities, and the skills they get with you help them in immediate ways.  What they get with your help will lead them to get along better with their classmates, make sense of a lecture, or understand what exactly about the latest Trump quote everyone is so alarmed/amused about within the very near future, not on some hypothetical far-off study abroad or business trip.  Even “non-credit” students still have to live here, and in my experience are motivated in a way that seems less conducive to narrow-minded grammar study.  If you teach in Japan you’ll have a few students who need English to achieve their heartfelt goals, and make inspiring use of their language skills – but my point is that if you teach ESL, they’ll be the majority in every class.

I don’t mean to say that ELT in Japan would be improved by the addition of more credit classes – but the prevalence of discussions of “credit/non-credit” classes in ESL (along with various other terms you hear bandied about, like “SLOs” and “transfer”) shows how much edifice is built around the idea that people in the US really need English education.

Immigrants get it done

As I said in an earlier post, a whiff of desperation and a nagging feeling of inadequacy can sometimes be a great motivator.  Maybe teachers in Japan are overcompensating with their high-minded discussions of when output leads to noticing the gap, but their students are almost definitely better off for it – even if the circumstances that produced such passion for the details of SLA are unhealthy overall.  Also, maybe being somewhat isolated socially, particularly from the norms of ELT in Japan (which, again, date back to the advent of village horticulture in the Yayoi period) allows JALT members not to be co-opted as much by an industry that would much prefer you just use a coursebook than plan tasks or have conversations.

I realize now one of the most essential aspects of JALT – it is composed of immigrants and deviants.  The NSTs in JALT are mostly members of racial and cultural minorities, and the Japanese JALT folks are people who like to hang out with visible minorities.  They would not blend in in a crowd of average citizens and gain little social capital from their careers.  Of course they lack the youthful energy of CATESOL; very few of them went straight from their BA to grad school and then right into teaching.  I suspect most of them (like me) had years of teaching experience before they got their first qualification.  They also have an immigrant’s healthy skepticism of mainstream culture; a decades-old tradition of teaching one particular way has no meaning to an immigrant NST.  They have little use (or little chance of establishing) institution identities around their places of work; they need professional identities established among other people with shared experience and expertise to take pride in their work.

Maybe I’m romanticizing the immigrant experience in Japan a bit.  Still, I think “institutionalization” is my new favorite word for capturing the differences I’ve felt between CATESOL and JALT.

Appendix: Phrases that causes my jejunum to undulate violently

“when you get to that point in the curriculum”

“the present simple” (particularly in Chapter One of a grammar textbook)

“transfer errors”

“master a grammar point and continue on to the next one”

“workbook”

“extra-credit reading”

“reduced adjective clause”

“_________ clause” (when spoken to a beginning learner)

“too high-level”

“know the meaning exactly” (meaning “know the accepted translation in Japanese”)

“University of Lye-chester”

jejunumlabelled
Highly sensitive to neglect of interlanguage.

 

Skyhooking pt. 2: Interlanguage punting

Here’s a question pre-MA Mark would have never thought to ask: Under what circumstances is explicit grammar teaching justifiable?

I have taken on weekly “grammar workshops” for intermediate-to-advanced ESL students at the community college where I work.  The students are self-selected from the final 3 semesters of the academic writing sequence which eventually lands them in Writing 1 with the NS students, and are usually a fairly broad mix of skill levels and stages of interlanguage development.  Running these workshops is a lot of fun, as I can choose any grammar point and present it any way I like.  The process of choosing has made me consider in a new light some of the things I’ve said in the past about grammar teaching.

Before that, I should point out that interlanguage development is often not a part of what makes an ESL student “advanced”.  Self-editing, mostly as a function of explicit grammatical knowledge, is.  The highest levels of ESL are not necessarily the most fluent or accurate in real time, especially in speech, but they are able to catch their errors at some point between rough and final drafts, understand a good amount of written vocabulary and recognize formal register.  They have also encountered almost all the canonical “grammar points” that are part of ESL/EFL curricula at all levels formally at least once, including the hypotheticals, hedging techniques, and participial adjectives that have been the topics of some of my workshops thus far.

The fact that I’m working with advanced ESL students means that I, in theory at least, am not “presenting” material so much as focusing on form for grammar that they should already be using in almost-college-level reading and writing.  In actuality, however, I am mostly re-presenting material that was first skyhooked in before they were ready, when they are slightly more ready.  I am still front-loading grammar before I can be sure that their internal representations of English can make a home for it, but with the expectation that the metalinguistic presentation of this grammar should have at least a ring of familiarity.  For most students, I am not exploring the reasons and relationships behind a way of putting words together that they’ve heard dozens of times before, which would be more current pedagogy. Instead, I am shoring up a bank (is that a mixed metaphor or a deliberate pun?) of explicitly formulated grammar knowledge that is meant to allow them to transfer to universities, where they will use that knowledge to deal with the huge quantities of high-level input.  That is, I’m skyhooking in the anticipation of soon-to-come contextualizing input.

That means that my concerns are less “draw attention to patterns they’ve already seen but haven’t formally defined” and more “create entertaining and memorable lessons that have an incidental point”.  I have to take a rain check on things like noticing (Schmidt, 1994 – I think I shall remember that one forever) and teaching in the Zone of Proximal Development and hope that months or years from now something will click and they’ll say to themselves, “oh, that’s what Mark was talking about”.  That is why the lessons are rather heavy on memorable fluff and light on formal exploration of grammar – if I can’t find a place for my lesson to stick in their interlanguage, I need to find another way to make it stick through sheer entertainment until interlanguage catches up.  I call this interlanguage punting.  This is different from garden-variety skyhooking of grammar, which is more of a shot in the dark as far as usefulness for interlanguage development goes.  In interlanguage punting, I have good reason to expect their interlanguage to catch up to the formally presented grammar fairly soon.

So I’ve come up with these guidelines for interlanguage punting:

  1. Lessons should be memorable.  The rule for most of my classes is that if I don’t have their attention (on me, on their classmates, or on a task), I don’t have anything.  In this case, if they don’t remember the lesson for years, they might as well forget it tomorrow.  For example, I used the trolley problem in a class on causatives.  The students might forget the word “causative”, but they will definitely remember choosing people to save and to kill in grammar class.  (Or to the point of the lesson, people to cause to die or allow to die.  My favorite quote from that class: “I’m not killing him; I’m preventing him from living more.”)
  2. A few good quotes that exemplify the grammar point, rather than an abstract pattern, should be students’ main grammatical takeaway.  I think this is generally a good principle for teaching grammar, but is especially important as the time students are meant to remember the lesson grows.  This principle is well-grounded in current SLA thinking: first, students care more about what their peers say in actual conversation than perfunctory characters say to illustrate correct grammar; and second, a memorable quote facilitates situated and chunked grammar (what a jargon-heavy phrase that is).  A live, wild-caught specimen of grammar is better than an illustration in an encyclopedia.  Again, I’m sure most students have forgotten my PowerPoint slides already or will forget them soon, but they’re unlikely to forget the student who said he/she would move back home if Trump won again (the topic of that class was hypotheticals).
  3. Because these should be points that will become salient to the students soon, it’s better to avoid issues of style that are purely matters of explicit knowledge even in native speakers.  Issues like the subjunctive mood (which one of my textbooks for some reason lumps in with all other noun clauses), split infinitives, dangling participles and others that native-speaking pedants use as shibboleths should be left for another day.  You want to avoid creating Frankenstudents whose explicit knowledge is better than most of their native-speaking peers while their interlanguage development languishes at pre-third-person-s levels.

 

Student-centeredness and fake news

“Student-centeredness” is a word whose weight is much greater than its clarity.  It carries very high value for signalling one’s dedication to teaching without saying almost anything about how one teaches.  It is a high-value token in the currency of a country no one can name.

As such, it invites co-opting.  Any teacher can describe his or her style as “student-centered” and reap the benefits using that word by appearing serious and dedicated, while simply describing the way he or she has always taught and would teach even if they had never heard that word.  This seemingly selfish guiding of the definition of the word doesn’t have to be conscious; the term is defined flexibly enough that any teacher could hear it and think, “That’s what I do! I had no idea I was so forward-thinking”.  As long as there is at least one student in the room (or the CMS), almost any teaching style could feasibly be called “student-centered”.

It shares that imbalance between rhetorical power and precise definition with “fake news”.  Some people define “fake news” as news that reports objective lies, others as news that frames stories in ways that guide the audience toward an ideological objective, others as news that works against what they see as American interests.  Depending on one’s definitions of the words “fake” and “news” (also “American interests”), any of these are plausible interpretations of the two of them put together.

Putting aside the flagrant attempt to tie this idea to today’s news, I have attempted to categorize four interpretations of “student-centeredness” that I’ve seen in my first month as an adjunct ESL instructor at a community college as well as in my career in Japan.

(Incidentally, ESL teachers are especially equipped to see through the top-shelf word choice of “adjunct” as opposed to “part-time” when referring to inessential staff: “adjunct” in grammar refers to a word or phrase after a verb that is not part of its argument structure, like “on the table” in “put the bowl down on the table”.  I.e., it is a part that is usually expendable.)

Ideologies-of-education student-centeredness

Some instructors are very dedicated to giving the students what they want.  In my classes, my students want me to pick the chapters from our reading textbook (the book itself being a concession in my mind) and read through them line by line, explaining the content in detail.  I tell them every new unit that I’m not going to do that, but many instructors are happy to, and if asked would probably justify it with reference to “student-centeredness” in that they are giving the students what they very clearly ask for.

If you read this blog on and off, or just if you got your MA within the last 20 years, you’ll know that I don’t think that this serves the students’ real interests.  It does, however, give the students the dignity of choosing their own way of studying and treats them as rational actors whose wishes and educational cultural norms need to be respected.  That sounds student-centered to me.

Outsourced student-centeredness

On the other hand, some teachers show their respect for students by assuming that they have the resourcefulness and dedication to work through difficulties on their own.  This often takes the form of the teacher enjoining the students to work hard and never give up, often in the place of offering the kind of explanation or class work that would obviate the need to work quite so much.  Like the above definition of “student-centeredness”, it strives to treat the students as independent rational actors.  Unlike the above, it places the burden of improvement much more on the student’s rather than the teacher’s contributions than in “traditional” education in most countries, and is likely to result in wildly different contributions from each student than passive reception of information.  In that sense respects their independence as well.

I call this “outsourced student-centeredness” simply because it makes learning the student’s responsibility rather than the teacher’s.  If that implies that the teacher is shirking his/her duties, I believe teachers who teach this way would say that giving students a sense of responsibility is their biggest duty of all.

Anecdotally, there is a strain of teaching traditional arts in Japan that places all of the onus for improvement on the student, while the teacher is mostly there to provide proof that success is possible, as well as discipline and structure.  This fine article by Neil Cowie explains how this affects some language teachers’ class styles as well.  It is conspicuously absent for the most part from the language classroom, for better or worse.

System-dependent student-centeredness

I once put the topic of student-centered teaching forward to a JHS English teacher who was coming to me for conversation classes.  She described her classes as student-centered in that she always did her best to help her students succeed and stuck around to answer questions or just be there for them after class.  From what I understand, this view of student-centeredness as doing everything to help students to succeed in a system with preset rules and goals, as well as helping them with life in general, is widely held in Japan.  The view that language education should be highly personalized at the level of content was not.

This is a feasible motivating strategy as well; students (and their parents) greatly appreciate a teacher whose goals are aligned with their own and who they feel will help them contribute to an ongoing life project.  In Japan, the goals (university) and means (attentive and diligent study) implied by this project are shared by almost all of the stateholders and gatekeepers in mainstream education, and teachers are expected to be selfless in their dedication to helping students succeed.  Students see teachers’ dedication and reciprocate.  At least, that is the ideal.

For many teachers this dedication extends to helping them cope with the strenuous demands that the testing regime places on them by being a confidant or playing counselor.  These are still, after all, mostly scared teenagers.  The teacher that I talked to saw friendly rapport before and after lessons as part and parcel of a humane, student-centered education in the context of a high-pressure academic environment.

Content student-centeredness

If you pay attention to trends in education, this one will be familiar to you.  The theory goes: attention is the currency of the classroom, and nothing elicits attention like talking about yourself.  Talking about your peers is a close second, and talking about the teacher a distant third.  Nobody cares about the made-up characters in a textbook.  Student-centeredness to teachers under 35 or so (or who got their certificates/degrees later in life, like me) re-orders content so that abstract principles and mass-produced materials go from near synonymity with course goals to hindrances or signs that your course outline isn’t sufficiently modern.

I assume most of you already agree with changing content and class style to give students more chances to co-construct knowledge (I normally balk at using words like that, but here they honestly seem like the best description of what I want to say).  I will just say though that none of that is obvious to teachers who only encounter these terms in passing and tries to find a home for them in the ELT world as he/she understands it.  As with fake news and its ability to describe almost any news the speaker wishes to paint as bad, the phrase “student-centered” can be applied to things already within any teacher’s repertoire.

Teacher Identity, pt. 3 – fellow travelers and possible selves

This post will draw somewhat heavily on Markus and Nurius’ (American Psychologist 41, 1986) possible selves, which I mostly learned about via Dörnyei.  Briefly, the ideal self is the best possible future version of yourself according to your own goals, the ought self is judged well by one’s peers and works to avoid shame and other negative outcomes, and the feared self is a failed, to-be-avoided future self, the opposite of the ideal self.

What coworkers from your career do you see as role models?

A lot of the teachers I worked with seemed to have something like professional Shark Syndrome (which may or may not have a real name in psychology), in which a need to always be in forward motion propels them to devote every weekend to professional development, and every Facebook post is from a train or plane en route to some international TESOL convention or another.  I actually don’t see this as realistic for people who (hope to) have families, or even friends, but their level of commitment to PD and to each other is inspiring.  Unlike me with my occasional metal posts, every thought that occupies their minds seems to be a reflection on practice or a new lesson idea.

The presence of coworkers and fellow ELT writers around me tends to cattle-prod me into following a similar path at least some of the time, leading me to do things like publish, make presentations, familiarize myself with common jargon, change the toner in the copy machine, etc. more than I normally would.  This effect seems to me much bigger than providing a role model in the same way as my high school teachers, possibly because my relationship to them was quite different and I’m seeing high school through 20 years of rose-colored fog (per recent EPA research findings, this is not a mixed metaphor).

As such, my coworkers usually inform my ought self rather than my ideal self, in that I associate my interactions with them more with the minor feeling of panic that comes from not keeping up than with feelings of wanting to be just like them when I grow up. The fear of not understanding some term (often an acronym, MBOH) that my coworkers are apparently all familiar with, or not having read some book or attended some conference strikes me as more characteristic of my interactions with other teachers.

This is in addition to the actual job requirements of knowing how to use that district’s chosen LMS, how they fill out time cards, what medical checks are necessary to begin working, how assessment is required to be conducted, and what acronyms the district mandates we use for things like “wrong preposition before indirect object” (WPBIO).  These threaten not just my ought self but my employed self.

Of course, doing all the PD and training that my ought self tells me to do is responsible for most or all of the career growth I’ve experienced, so I do owe my coworkers a lot for letting my ought self facilitate my ideal self.  It’s hard to be an inspirational and universally lauded senior tenured faculty member if you don’t know the procedure for adding and dropping students.

As for a feared self, the prospect of resigning myself to a lifetime of teaching uninterested students while my superiors only grudgingly tolerate my presence because they need Native Speakers, while making payments on a 30-year mortgage on a house that is never comfortable to be in except when I’m in front of my computer complaining about my life functions for me as a skeleton in a cage hanging at a crossroads.  Yes, I’ve seen shades of this in coworkers before and I shall be sure never to set foot on that path (again).  That is the feared self I hope I left behind when I quit my Japanese university gig.

For Californian ESL, my feared self is only just now starting to take shape, but he looks to be a functionary of the credit system, a servant of the district-wide synthetic syllabus funneling reams of immigrants through an established program readying them for transfer, relegating high-minded notions of interlanguage development to the trash heap of the un-rigorous and un-academic.  Check in periodically to see if I’ve managed to stave this boogeyman off.

daikini_crossroads
If you see the greatest swordsman who ever lived in a cage on the path you’re meant to take, don’t take that path (even if it leads to tenure).

What about students?

Well, students don’t usually represent any of my possible selves as a teacher of course, but certain types of students are associated with the types of people I imagine interacting with as my possible selves.

(Actually, a few students of mine have been teachers themselves, and they were admirable in their willingness to continue learning their subject matter.  What stops me from considering them inspirations for me are the motivations they had for coming to me.  In one student’s case, she saw her classes with me as hobby-like, completely irrelevant to the mandatory English classes she taught at a local (Japanese) JHS.  The fact that she made this distinction speaks to the problem-to-rule-all-problems in Japanese ELT, the dichotomy of “communication/eikaiwa vs. grammar/eigo“, which rules that education from NESTs is a priori inapplicable to the serious business of public schooling.  In her mind, I taught the former to hobbyists and she taught the latter to real students.  Actually, this describes my problems with the second JHS teacher I taught as well, although in her case “communication English” wasn’t even a hobby, just a cosmetic concern for her application essays for the EAP programs that she needed to graduate college with a teacher’s license.)

Anyway, some other students have greatly informed the choices I make in teaching milieux these days, as I imagine what types of students I may interact with in those schools and how closely they will conform to my “greatest student hits” of the past.

I’ve had students who from day one embraced communicative methods and were able to draw discrete points from indiscrete (hmmm…) presentation, building a rich statistical and formal interlanguage system.  Until 2012, I didn’t know what “focus on form” was anyway, and my students who succeeded with me up till then mostly had to make do with either grammar classes or communication.  Demographically, these were generally socially deviant but intelligent people who were actively trying to succeed at a common goal through alternative methods, i.e. eigo innovators (see the strain theory post above).  Nowadays, I would incorporate more formal grammar into classes like those that we had, but these early encounters showed me what my MA would later feature as a major theme, that language learning must be a process of building implicit knowledge through some means, and purely implicit methods can be one of them.

On the other hand, I’ve had students who really needed the trappings of teacher-centeredness in order to feel comfortable in the classroom, and were quite eager to absorb formal grammar, practice it, and try to incorporate it into a living interlanguage system.  That sounds like I’m describing “all Japanese students”, but in actuality most students in Japan skip the 2nd and 3rd steps.  Sometimes, this yielded fruit in the form of insights that were worth having and probably couldn’t have come about but through metalinguistic means.  The most memorable example of this for me is when a hobbyist English learner in her 60s articulated the difference between 「ほとんど」hotondo and “almost” in terms I hadn’t heard before, that hotondo was fundamentally a positive word while “almost” was a fundamentally negative one.  I think this kind of summary can only come from a lot of conscious reflection on language, not merely acquisition.

Addendum: Since I started writing this post I’ve realized that a lot of my ESL students are completely starting their two-decade educations over.  That is, they sometimes have advanced degrees from countries that US universities don’t recognize, and are essentially doing university and graduate school all over again in a new language.  Until now I’ve been almost entirely teaching people who had less education than I do.  Teaching this new (to me) demographic of student is inspiring and humbling.  It still doesn’t inform my ideal self but certainly tells my ought self to do a good job.

What other people have directly influenced your classroom style?

I’ve been very influenced by the evolutionary arguments against “traditional” classroom styles, the type that point out that it’s totally unintuitive for us to sit quietly with non-kin, face the same direction, and listen to someone 5-20 meters away impart information verbally for hours at a time.  Some people have the knack for doing this, but most of us don’t, and it’s absurd for us to make it a prerequisite for all academic success from age 7 onward.  Like the printed word, it seems justifiable mostly for the neat bell curve it produces in achievement, which makes sorting students into careers relatively simple, not for being the most effective means to put ideas into the heads of millions of people at the same time.  So being a good critical thinker, I have to consider other contexts in which people put themselves in these unintuitive circumstances, and wonder why they would seem to do so happily, even paying for the privilege, in certain cases.

One of these is stand-up comedy.  Almost every argument one could make about “traditional” education could also be made about comedy, and sort of has been made by Louis CK.  People sit for hours with strangers listening to another stranger.  Yet they not only pay attention but pay money in order for the privilege to pay attention.

louis-ck-quotes-phone
Not the quote I was thinking of, but a good one.

The point is, transmission-style education isn’t a sin if you really can hold people’s attention and bring them on a journey with you.  Even if it’s not immediately relevant to their lives, there is power in rhetoric and public speech that can negate all the artifice of the “traditional” classroom.

That said, if you adopt that teaching style and DON’T keep the students’ attention, you’ve failed just as much as a comedian who can’t get a laugh.

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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