Nudgework

With my teacherly black robes in mind, I’ve been giving my students a particular type of assignment recently that maximizes use of the teacher’s ability to give orders. This type of homework, which I think is worth exploring as a new teacher- and student-friendly homework paradigm, has a few qualities in common:

  • It places students in situations where input is likely.
  • It does so with directions that on the surface have little to do with language learning.
  • It involves minimal paperwork.
  • It requires little or no reporting or reflecting.

This kind of homework is ideal for low-intermediate students, particularly in a place like Southern California where it is very easy to spend one’s entire life surrounded by L1 speakers (of Chinese, Korean, Spanish, Arabic, Farsi, or what have you), and a little nudge is all that might be needed to gain practically unlimited meaningful input or interaction. The goals are increasing input, building confidence, and setting up habits which will facilitate language learning throughout the students’ lives.

banking business checklist commerce
Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

As an example, one of my recent homework assignments requires students to get a tutor’s signature and then draw (not take) the tutor’s picture (our college offers a variety of tutoring services). There is nothing in the homework assignment that requires them to seek a specific lesson from the tutor or even to ask a question. The point of the homework is just to put the student in a situation (talking to a tutor face-to-face) where their instincts will lead them to inevitably have some kind of interaction, as well as give them the experience of having talked to a tutor and thus taking away some of their reticence to do so in the future.

This kind of homework tends to rely on human instincts to interact or to latch on to things that are interesting to them in any given situation to be effective for language learning. If a nudgework assignment is to “sit at a café for 30 minutes without your smartphone”, it’s very likely that their trip will include a conversation with a barista and incidental input from Auto Trader or Healthy Living magazines. It’s the kind of thing students could feasibly do anytime, but a directive from someone standing in front of the white board makes much more likely.

The downside is that input is simply likely with this type of assignment, not guaranteed. A much more straightforward language assignment, along the lines of “read this and then prove you read it with a detailed report”, makes input practically inescapable (and makes it much easier to talk about it as a class if everyone read the same thing). The downside of a traditional assignment is that the input will probably be of less interest to the students, and a large part of the time taken for the assignment will be devoted to proving to the teacher that the input happened rather than getting more input. Krashen isn’t the last word on these things anymore, but I still tend to think input is superior to reporting when it comes to moving the interlanguage ball forward.

In my teaching career, this nudgework idea evolved out of my Language Logs, which are a regular type of assignment I give that follow the format: “Find examples of grammar point X on the Internet or in real life. Copy and paste/post a photo on the discussion board and describe the grammatical form.” The Language Logs are still a regular part of all of my classes, but particularly in my lower intermediate classes, I wanted a kind of assignment that would facilitate more natural interaction/input and have less emphasis on metalinguistic analysis.

As a last perk, there isn’t much to grade.

input-reporting

The affective issues cliff

Some issues that exist in students’ lives affect their academic performance in ways that are unfair and impossible to ignore – kids and jobs are two massive time-sucks that interfere with schoolwork, but everything from mental illness to changing bus routes in the city mediate how well students do academically. Particularly at community colleges, which exist specifically to serve non-traditional students, teachers have a duty to incorporate some treatment of what we call “affective issues” such as anxiety, work or family obligations, or negative self-image into our courses. The duties can be written into law, as with mandated reporting of suspected abuse (a legal obligation) or simply commonly accepted but not required “best practices” such as accepting late work or generally making yourself available to meet with students outside of class. Then there are the students who don’t have anything that has been recognized as an “affective issue” but are clearly affected away from classwork and towards League of Legends, and not much in our training says we owe these students’ issues any particular redress at all.

In American healthcare, there exists a phenomenon known as the “Medicaid cliff”, which is an income threshold below which you are provided with cheap and reliable healthcare, and above which you are required to buy expensive, complicated private insurance. A lot of people decry the existence of this drop-off in public coverage even if they support Medicaid in principle (that principle being that people who cannot afford health insurance still deserve to live). The cliff comes about because our definition of “poverty” has to end somewhere, and once you’re out of poverty, the government no longer takes an active interest in how you afford to stay alive. Thus, you could have an income of 130% of the federal poverty line and qualify for single-payer health care in the form of Medicaid, or get a raise to 140% of the federal poverty line and suddenly have to buy a private health insurance plan with a $7500 deductible. Pass the magic line and you transform magically from a victim of forces beyond your control to an upstanding and responsible citizen.

Read on if my point isn’t obvious enough yet.

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Photo by Danne on Pexels.com

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Best class ever, except for gathering statistics

I just turned in grades for the summer intermediate skills class I had over the summer, and set out to compile some useful statistics just as in previous semesters. Unfortunately, the data doesn’t* say much… because the scores were too high. Every assignment category, from attendance to final exams, was higher than the same class in spring semester, sometimes by ridiculous amounts. For example:

Attendance

Spring 2018: 90.09%, standard deviation 12.9

Summer 2018: 95.85%, stdev 7.5
(including one student who was out of the country for 2 weeks in a row – otherwise it’d be 97.17% and stdev 3.97)

Homework

Spring 2018: 84.36%, stdev 14.0

Summer 2018: 96.19%, stdev 7.9

Grammar quizzes

Spring 2018: 83.9% stdev 15.5

Summer 2018: 87.95%, stdev 9.7

As the standard deviations imply, there wasn’t much spread between the highest- and lowest-performing students, and even less between the many varieties of average-performing students. This was basically a good thing – there is no upside to a large spread of homework scores for pedagogy or validity. It’s not as if my homework scores failed to validly** track some educational construct because everyone was doing uniformily well.

Summer classes have a lot of perks. They meet twice as often, 4 days instead of 2, letting you take 2 days out of the week for something like student presentations without creating a yawning 2-week gap between instructional days. The students are more dedicated – only 20% of my students in summer were taking any other classes. The class meetings are shorter too, which probably helped my students, about half of which worked. Of those who worked, 19% had morning shifts, 73% had afternoon shifts, 64% evening, and 30% night (between 10 PM and 5 AM). Despite these fairly high numbers, almost everyone did almost all the homework and did about equally well on projects, quizzes, and tests.

It’s a bit of a shame for data collection, because although I haven’t cracked the statistics textbook I was convinced to buy, I did start the term with a much more complete questionnaire on my students’ jobs, as you can see. In the end, presumably because of the narrow spread in grades overall, this yielded some correlations (evening shifts were most negatively correlated with final grades) but no significant differences between working and non-working students, even at p<0.05. Scores were too similar to yield differences among different types of students.

This didn’t confirm my big hypothesis, that working students are at an unfair disadvantage given that community colleges exist specifically to serve non-traditional college students. I have, however, narrowed my hypotheses for future work surveys a bit because “hours spent using English at work” was about as negatively correlated with final grades as “total weekly working hours” (-0.46 vs. -0.39). Next semester, I will have to compare hours of English use at work to overall hours of English use to see if working students have more opportunity for input and output, and if this is so, ask why this doesn’t yield significantly higher performance on at least some types of assignments. I can anecdotally see that students who use English at work benefit from doing so. I need to plan my classes so that this is reflected in their grades, or at least not reflected negatively.

If future classes continue to find a difference between working and non-working students irrespective of whether they use English at work, it may be that the type of competence fostered by having a service industry job where you use your L2 doesn’t outweigh the necessity of somewhat narrow means of assessment in an academic ESL class. For example, it’s inevitably my working students who have the most natural grasp of which modals can be used for formal and casual requests, offers, or requests for permission, but unless they can carve out time between the end of their shift and taking care of an elderly parent to show that grasp in an assignment, their homework scores won’t be commensurate with their abilities. The lens of assessment is only focused on students when they do assignments, not when they practice modals for hours at a time every day at work.

It may help make my classes more equitable in this regard if I minimize the amount of “assignment” they have to do to prove they’ve been getting input, while still being hard enough to fake to prevent cheating. I have a type of assignment that is aimed at dragging along as much real-world practice as possible for a minimum of “assignment”, which is sometimes very close to “go get some input, then check a box when you’re done”. An example is a book report where the students choose any graded reader from our library and then turn in a pretty perfunctory worksheet that they could probably do in 5 minutes. To me, this type of assignment is justified by 1) the high ratio of interlanguage-developing work to product, 2) the promotion of available outside resources, and 3) the high motivation levels of my intermediate students, which reduce the odds of cheating (also, the low grading time). If a similar assignment said “start 3 conversations and fill out a perfunctory report afterwards”, this could reward the time my working students spend talking without pandering specifically to them.

Maybe the future of all ESL homework is “get input, and prove you got it”. At least at the intermediate (i.e., not academic writing) level, this probably maximizes opportunities for interlanguage development while minimizing what are in my view the less valid aspects of the grading process.

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*”Data” is an uncountable noun, unless you are writing for an academic journal or have a mobile datum plan like Titus Andromedon’s that just comes with the one.

**Now that we’ve split the infinitive, the only question is whether we’ll be able to fuse it in a stable way and provide unlimited, grammatical energy for the entire world.

Stereotype threat and ELT

When they speak their L2, our language students are undertaking something mentally taxing while monitoring themselves for mistakes and in the presence of people who expect them to struggle. This is almost a perfect recipe for stereotype threat.

What is stereotype threat?

In case you’re behind on your liberal intelligentsia required reading, stereotype threat (ST) is “subtle reminders of stereotypes that presume the incompetence of certain groups. This ‘threat in the air’ can cue a concern with confirming these stereotypes that can impair the ability to perform up to one’s potential” (Schmader, 2010, p. 14). In short, fear of confirming negative stereotypes about one’s group takes up mental overhead and reliably and demonstrably hurts performance, and triggering this effect is as simple as reminding people of the stereotype before giving the test. This effect is real and has been replicated many times with many different groups – men and women most often (Johns et al, 2005) , but also White men and Asian men (Aronson et al, 1999) – even tracking implicit bias scores on a national scale in a study with hundreds of thousands of subjects (citation too long – click here).

The precise psychological mechanism behind this is apparently under dispute, but general anxiety along the lines of an affective filter (I don’t think I need a citation for this) seems not to be it. Rather, mental resources seem to be taken up imagining ways to fail. Working memory available for the task is reduced in favor of monitoring oneself for mistakes and spontaneous, intrusive negative thoughts (Cadinu et al., 2005; Schmader, 2010).

What’s it got to do with ELT?

I think it should be clear that our students, to varying degrees, are under ST almost all the time. Less obvious is the fact that many teachers are, too. Learners and teachers alike may be facing a penalty to their language use that has a cause besides incomplete knowledge or acquisition.

If placed in a context where stereotypes are known and especially when ELLs are implicitly being compared to NSs, we can expect ELLs to perform worse than otherwise at language-mediated tasks (I’m reminded of this article in which the author recounts having found solace in the relatively language-free world of math in her teenage ESL years – the Asian math stereotype probably didn’t hurt either). We can expect NNS teachers also to make more errors when they know they are being evaluated by NS teachers. Performance is likely to be worse both for input and for output in both cases. As Rydell et al (2010) write, “At least in the present task setting, we see that overt emphasis on the existence of the stereotype both prevents learning … and, to a significant degree, prevents expression of learning that has already occurred” (p. 14046) (Yes, that is the real page number). ST is likely to affect students in the ELT classroom as well – an ESL class in the USA where everyone thinks “Asian students don’t talk” is probably worse for Asian students, all other things held equal, than an EFL class in Asia taught by a NNS.

These conditions follow NNSs outside the classroom, too. Even well-known ELLs like Arnold Schwarzenegger and Melania Trump have jokes made at the expense of their intelligence – mostly based on accent, the hardest part of NS speech to adopt. It doesn’t seem to have discouraged Arnold, but whenever he speaks in public he is one error away from confirming everyone’s perception of him. I have certainly experienced this feeling myself, and I didn’t have Arnold’s fortitude. Our students’ lives are replete with conditions in which they will be judged on their language use and stereotypes about their national group or ESL students in general are known.

The mechanisms of ST appear especially designed to vitiate SLA. Working memory is probably as relevant as a danger to language acquisition as it is to math, but hyperconsciousness of mistakes is clearly more relevant to language use than many other subjects. Teachers may be instructing students to do exactly that as an effort to encourage noticing (Schmidt, 1993), usually thought of as a good thing, while ST holds self-monitoring to be an inhibitor of performance (Schmader, 2010). It is possible that while noticing facilitates acquisition in the long run, it distracts from other essential processes (e.g. understanding the intentions of one’s conversation partner) in the short run.

In fact, one effect of ST has been described as reduced ability to sort relevant information from noise, which would clearly hurt students’ ability to notice and turn input to intake. One such experiment used Chinese characters to test women’s “visual processing”, and found a ST effect of clear relevance for language teachers (Rydell et al, 2010).

Questions for study

If you haven’t noticed yet, I haven’t done any research to back up my suspicions that ST is an extremely important future topic for SLA. I do have a few ideas for research questions:

  • Assuming ST for SLA is real, how will we know? Grammaticality judgment tests seem the most analogous to the mathematics-based research on ST that has been the most common so far, but wouldn’t real-time processing skills (like participating in a conversation) show a larger effect?
  • What constitutes a “trigger” for ST? Is the presence of NSs enough, or the possibility that NSs will read/see the students’ output, or just a box for “nationality” at the top of the test?
  • For that matter, how would you avoid triggering ST or creating a control group? ST-inducing instructions often look something like Candinu et al’s: “recent research has shown that there are clear differences in the scores obtained by men and women in logical-mathematical tasks” (2005 p. 574) (Interestingly, they left it to the test-takers to infer that women did worse, not just different, on these tests.) Non-ST instructions either simply leave that part out or explicitly negate it, along the lines of “… that there are no differences in the scores…”. How would this condition be accomplished plausibly on a language test of NNSs? Would it be believable to preface a test with, “This grammar topc shows no measurable differences between American and Chinese test-takers”?
  • What groups have relevant stereotypes that could trigger ST? Is “ESL student” enough of a stigma? (Many students act as if it were.)
  • Are different ELT classes more threatening than others? Can interventions by the teacher mitigate ST, for example by making explicit the fact that students will not be judged by NS norms?

References

Aronson, J., Lustina, M. J., Good, C., Keough, K., Steele, C. M., & Brown, J. (1999). When white men can’t do math: Necessary and sufficient factors in stereotype threat. Journal of experimental social psychology 35/1, pp. 29-46.

Cadinu, M., Maass, A., Rosabianca, A., and Kiesner, J. (2005). Why Do Women Underperform under Stereotype Threat? Evidence for the Role of Negative Thinking. Psychological Science 16/7 pp. 572-578. Available at: http://www.jstor.org/stable/40064271

Johns, M., Schmader, T., & Martens, A. (2005). Knowing is half the battle: Teaching stereotype threat as a means of improving women’s math performance. Psychological Science 16/3, pp. 175-179.

Rydell, R. J., Shiffrin, R. M., Boucher, K. L., Van Loo, K., Rydell, M. T., & Steele, C. M. (2010). Stereotype threat prevents perceptual learning. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, 107/32 pp. 14042-14047. Available at: http://www.jstor.org/stable/25708852

Schmader, T. (2010). Stereotype Threat Deconstructed. Current Directions in Psychological Science 19/1 pp. 14-18. Available at: http://www.jstor.org/stable/41038531

Schmidt, R. (1993). Awareness and Second Language Acquisition. Annual Review of Applied Linguistics 13, pp. 206-26.

The Ramadan penalty?

Spring semester ended ten days into Ramadan, and a quarter of my evening advanced academic reading & writing class was fasting. This means that they took their finals after not eating or drinking anything for about 12 hours. Did this affect their scores? Should we care, since this is a nominally optional practice?

The short answer: it depends/possibly/needs further study, but we should definitely care.

This class makes a decent model to study this question for 3 reasons: a relatively high percentage of the class was observant Muslims (at least as far as fasting and refusing candy that contains gelatin goes), there are 6 big tests (3 reading and 3 writing) during the semester which are similiar in format to one another, and 2 of those tests (1 each of reading and writing) are in finals week – that is, during Ramadan. If fasting students were hurt academically, it should show up on those last 2 tests.

Without posting my students’ actual test scores here, I will just say that on the reading test, fasting students faced a 12% drop compared to the previous reading test, while the rest of the class had only a 2% drop. That is, the final reading test was harder for everyone, but much harder for fasting students. On the other hand, fasting students did 1% better on the final writing test than on the previous writing test while the rest of the class did 5% worse. All of this should be taken with a heaping tablespoon of salt, since the sample size for the while class was 22, producing a hilariously high t (significant at p<1).

So before any conclusions can be drawn, someone with access to administrative-level amounts of data should take a look at whether students who fast during Ramadan suffer disadvantages on tests or assignments offered during that time (the mid-May to mid-June, prime exam time at many schools).

And yes, we should care about this, first since a demographically specific disadvantage during a certain time of the year reduces the validity of the test. We don’t want to assess how well our students know a subject at 7:00 pm during Ramadan for the same reason we don’t want to assess the average temperature of an area at 3:00 am during January. Also, as I pointed out in my last end-of-the-semester statistics post, community colleges exist specifically to allow access to higher education to nontraditional student populations, including working people, older students, and immigrants (who are often older, working, and with family obligations as well). Obviously, this applies even moreso to ESL. If a quarter of the students our departments specifically exists to serve have a reliable disadvantage on certain tests because of factors that we can change, we should probably change those factors.

Image result for eid mubarak
From Etsy

N-identities in Manzanar and Love Wagon (あいのり)

The last day of class, instead of having the potluck that my students were probably hoping for, we did a very quick analysis of the book we had just finished reading (Farewell to Manzanar) using Gee’s NIDA identities.

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To briefly summarize what those are:

N-identity (nature identity) is the part of identity which is supposed to come from nature. It often includes visible traits like gender and race and the palette of traits and abilities that are thought to stem from them. As the Rachel Dolezal controversy shows, what is N for some people is I or A (see below) for others, and people can be quite unforgiving when they think an N characteristic is being wrongly taken on or rejected. My students were astute in noticing that even N identities change when the people around to perceive and interpret them change – the main character in Farewell to Manzanar has different N-identities when surrounded by other Japanese-Americans than with other Americans..

I-identity (institutional identity) comes from institutions of which one is part. For example, my ability to pass as a teacher comes mostly from my employment by schools, and not many people would accept the legitimacy of a “teacher” identity without it. It can be fun to imagine which kinds of jobs require institutional recognition to be considered a legitimate claim to identity – to me, “artist” is not an I-identity, but “animator” is. “Philosopher” is not an I-identity, but “researcher” is. My students said many characters in FtM lost their I-identities (in most cases, fishermen who worked together) when they were forced to move into the camps.

D-identity (discursive identity) comes from interactions with other people wherein one comes to be known as a certain “type” of person. This tracks what most people call a “personality”, but unlike “personality” has no implication of permanence. That is, one can have different D-identities among different groups of people. The Papa character in FtM is a bit of a stereotypical alpha in the way he interacts with others, which shifts from comforting to ironic as his life circumstances change from independent businessman to unemployed drunk.

A-identity (affinity identity) is similar to I-identity in that it relates to larger social groups of which we consider ourselves part. Unlike I-identity, A-identity doesn’t require any kind of actual membership in a group, only affinity for it. One can have an A-identity as a Premier League fan without any formal affiliation in the form of membership in a team or fan club. Notably, and as some of my very clever writing students mentioned, A-identity can be almost entirely imaginary – Papa from FtM imagines himself to be the inheritor of a samurai legacy, although the samurai ceased to exist before he was born and are well on their way to being more a cultural trope than a social class at the time the story takes place. One student mentioned this aspect of A-identity in a presentation, which was a great example of critical thinking.

What I like about these categories of identity is that they make clear both that identity is a multifaceted and context-dependent phenomenon and that it depends on other people and society. That is, you can have multiple identities, and none of them are purely a result of you choosing the type of person you want to be after doing some deep thinking alone or “finding yourself”.

My students did a very good job applying these on short notice to a book they’d probably grown quite sick of on a day when many people were already mentally on vacation. What they said reminded me of some things I’d been seeing on Netflix recently.

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Correlations with final grades, spring 2018 edition

Every semester I throw a bunch of survey data, biographical data, and assignment scores from my classes into an Excel sheet and see what pops up.  This semester, like the last one, yielded some interesting information.

The tl;dr version is:

  1. Work is a huge predictor of low grades
  2. I should continue to push the importance of drafts in writing
  3. I need to be careful not to evaluate students too much on their familiarity with my style of class
  4. Perhaps I need to design better questionnaires

Read on for the details.

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Job hurdles in ESL and EFL #3 – Foreign degrees

Here’s something I bet you hadn’t thought of: a foreign degree, even from a country whose degrees the US recognizes, may disadvantage you in the hiring process simply because of the extra step it takes for employers to process your application. You will probably not know this is happening, because it results, like every other failed application, in simply not hearing back from the hiring board.

(A bit of background: I got my MA while living and working in Japan from the University of Leicester, and now live and work in California. Most of my colleagues have MAs from public universities in California, something I didn’t realize the significance of until after the episode described here.)

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Random reflections on economics

For some time now I’ve been lucky enough to have a professor of economics as one of my private students, and helping this person put together presentations, papers, and whatnot has exposed me to a field of inquiry that is quite different than SLA.  It’s been refreshing and somewhat zen-like to see the extreme quantification of social forces and psychological phenomena and to hear the thoughts of people dedicated to to that enterprise.  The following are some thoughts on what I’ve seen over the last year or so.

Quantification is not reductive

The stereotype is that economists view people’s loves and lives as “mere” numbers, which has earned economics as a field the nickname “the dismal science”.  I never got the feeling, though, that economists view quantification as taking away some quintessential human elán from the thousands or millions of people whose behavior they are analyzing.  To the contrary, it seems to be a common understanding of the field that numbers are just the only way to deal with data points that number in the millions; it would be impossible to describe something like a national gender wage gap qualitatively and still be fair to each individual.  It’s certainly not true that economists view that number as the inarguable conclusion of a research question; validity and how to test for it are problems that animate much of the literature (it seems). In short, quantification of human behavior is a necessary part of looking at data sets this large and doesn’t “reduce” people if you have an appropriately skeptical attitude toward what the numbers really mean.

Conservatives tend to place free will at the base of questions of economic justice

A basic assumption of the field which has come under question since the 1980s is that people, when presented with a field of choices, will choose correctly and consistently according to their mostly stable preferences.  It would be hard to find a bedrock principle more at odds with either modern psychology or any adult’s lived experience of other adults.

It follows from this ideology that humans make rational choices based on stable preferences that human choice is above reproach, that whatever people decide given a set of options is a priori proof of justice. Any attempt to “nudge” people into a better choice or to force certain choices will produce warped and economically unhealthy outcomes. If people seem to naturally separate themselves into different groups, it must reflect a natural, stable preference within those groups.  Such is the explanation often deployed to dismiss the gender pay gap as the result of women’s free will rather than any kind of injustice.

You see the basic logic at play here in many areas of public life – certain politicians seem to see no motivation for human behavior that is not economic, and the main or only purpose of government is to encourage (or at least not punish) good economic decisionmaking. When people, either individually or as a group, seem to display an affinity for factors other than income (e.g. family, conformity, culture, or community) when choosing a career, that choice is accounted for in their reduced income. The last thing the government should do when people make uneconomic choices is to reward them economically with nutritional assistance, hiring quotas, or tax credits.

Luckily, I am at a healthy remove from both the ideologies of free will and the prosperity gospel, and I therefore don’t think people’s choices (particularly economic choices) are self-justifying.

Glass ceilings vs. sticky floors

The glass ceiling is probably the most emblematic phenomenon from economics to make it into popular culture. Loosely defined, it is an income gap at the top of the income distribution. In practice, it is often interpreted as a man getting promoted to an upper management position over an equally hard-working woman, who unlike the man is expected to perform childcare and other domestic duties in addition to working full-time.

Of course, I don’t know many men or women in upper management of anything. I do know many men and women in jobs that pay by the hour, and many more who used to have those jobs.  Every week when I went shopping at my local MaxValu (Japanese chain supermarket), I would notice the people stocking the shelves, men and women, the cashiers, almost all women, and the mounted pictures of the store managers, all men. There are, obviously, many more people in jobs like this than in jobs like the last paragraph in any developed country.  But for some reason, there isn’t a metaphor in common currency to describe the observed income gap at the bottom of the income distribution.

Where it is discussed, it is called a sticky floor.  As I understand it, in economics, it is simply a parallel phenomenon to the glass ceiling, but one that concerns vastly larger numbers of people. In my mind, discussions of glass ceilings sometimes have the false-consciousness character of waitstaff on their break debating whether a 39.6% tax on the top bracket is unfairly high. Yes, it matters that Sheryl Sandberg has few peers in the Forbes 500, but it matters more and to more people that men in the bottom 10% of incomes out-earn women in the same bracket (I would include a source here, but it would reveal the identity of my student).

Because all my posts now include mandatory COCA data, The phrase “glass ceiling” occurs 465 times in the corpus, vs. 20 for “sticky floor” (only 3 of which seemed to be about economics rather than literal sticky floors).

A salary scale in a company that isn’t growing

This will strike any of you who have formally learned economics before as shockingly ignorant, even if the rest of this post hasn’t. Basically, when things stop growing, it’s not as if they settle into a flat but stable equilibrium. Sometimes, growth makes the system stable.

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This graph, drawn for me at least 2 weeks in a row by my student, shows the salary of a worker in the sort of company that hires people for life compared to that worker’s level of contribution to that company (y axes), over the career of that worker (x axis).  The salary is in blue and the level of contribution (I believe it was called “human capital”) is in green.  There are two periods where these lines are very far apart: at the beginning of the worker’s career, where he/she contributes far more than he/she takes in, and past mid-career, where he/she takes far more than he/she contributes. This graph was drawn for me mostly to explain the phenomenon of mandatory early (sometimes as low as 55) retirement ages, the rationale being that companies want to shorten the length of time that workers can draw more salary than they’re worth. It also helps explain why companies may want more and more recruits every year; it is these recruits who contribute the most to the company. As each cohort ages, larger and larger new cohorts are required to pay for the older cohorts’ increasingly opulent salaries.  This is a stable system as long as each cohort is larger than the last.

When the cohorts stop growing, it starts a chain of events that potentially results in the death of the company. First, without the contributions of new workers, the company can no longer afford the salaries of its older workers.  Older workers may take early retirement or salary reductions (and grouse mightily about today’s youth). New workers and potential recruits notice that the formerly guaranteed high late-career salary is no longer guaranteed and start to question the benefits of accepting such a low early-career salary. The company therefore has an even more difficult time finding large enough cohorts of new workers.

Call me naïve, but I hadn’t seen this clearly before, nor had I seen the implications for national pension systems. Now that I do, I am even more glad to be in ESL rather than working for Toshiba, and I definitely hope all my students have lots of kids who all pay their Social Security taxes.

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.