Success under/over coopted ELT

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


The simple present, unsimplified

Since I started my hobby/rigorous research pursuit of conducting Google Forms surveys on grammar, I have been thinking about the big one.  The one that combines the most assumptions and nuance and the simplest form into a wad of meaning with white dwarf-like density, which is maximally unbalanced in its complexity and the earliness and brevity with which it is treated in grammar textbooks.  The big one is, of course, the present simple.

This is going to be a long post.

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My black robes, pt. 2

Whatever a teacher’s job is now, it’s not knowing a bunch of things.  Everyone carries a device that immediately connects them to almost all human knowledge in his or her pocket.  Given that everyone also knows that this is true, why do people still show up in classes?  It may be that hearing a teacher talk vs. reading a Wikipedia page or watching an instructional video may be analogous to seeing a concert vs. watching on on YouTube.  I think it is also because listening to a teacher motivates you to do things that you wouldn’t do otherwise, even if they were still available.

In the last post under this title I posited that a major role of language teachers may be facilitating learning by simply stepping into the teacher role and using its authority to make students seek and attend to language input that is already all around them.  In this sense it was similar to the ability of judges to coerce (convince? cause? I’m not sure how relevant volition is to this effect) their charges to follow treatment programs, take medications, or enact behaviors that are available without the judge’s involvement but are more likely to be used with it.  In this post I mean to look into what exactly might be comprised in a teacher’s black robes, accepting for the sake of argument that we do indeed wear them.  What gives us our unique ability to influence students’ actions?

Insider status.  A teacher is more intimately acquainted with the culture that speaks the target language, with the school system, and with the educational culture than the students are.  If not, he/she knows how to fake it.  Seen through a Communities of Practice lens, a teacher is a knowledgeable insider that it behooves outsiders to listen to and adopt the practices of.  This overlaps somewhat with a judge’s insider status in the criminal justice system, although it should be said that a teacher’s black robes could depend more on students wanting to join a group that the teacher represents than drug users want to join a clique of criminal justice elites alongside their judge.

Positioning.  A judge sits apart and higher from everyone else.  A teacher is not usually different in this respect – even if the teacher isn’t always physically in his/her seat, that seat is usually at the front of the room, ready to be occupied.  The teacher also has the only desk with a computer provided by the school (sometimes) and the projector controls at his/her fingertips.  All of this says to students “we have to listen to this person”.  Something about the teacher facing the opposite way as everyone else cements this impression.


Timing.  The teacher is often the first and last person that students see on their way in and out of the classroom.  More than anyone else, a teacher seems to be a permanent fixture in the classroom.  I’m sure many of my students think I pull a futon out of the supply cabinet after they leave.  This may enhance the teacher’s ability to represent the institution whose classroom it is and may dovetail with the teacher’s status as a target culture insider.

Age.  Some of us are lucky enough to “look the part” naturally.  While this certainly isn’t fair and to an extent is a phenomenon that we should actively try to fight, looking like stereotypical conceptions of a “teacher” or just an “authority figure” can help make students listen to you.  Much like black robes incline people to listen to a judge, a paternal or matronly appearance might help give a teacher’s words some extra weight.  Extra weight itself might also help in this regard.

In the same vein…

Clothes.  Teachers may facilitate students’ dedication to studying simply by dressing like someone who is in charge.  Like the black robes that a judge’s authority metaphorically and perhaps literally derives from, a teacher’s clothes might give his/her words greater power.  Unfortunately, this is not simply a matter of moving a slider of formality more towards the funerary end, but means wearing a costume which may only be available in a Men’s L or XL.  Consider how much easier it must have been for Donald Trump to choose clothes that looked authoritative than it was for Hillary Clinton (and how her team but not his might have dwelled on whether “authoritative” was even a good look for her).

I have made recent modifications in my wardrobe partly for pedagogical reasons.  Because I used to work in a context where a paramount concern was getting students to relax enough to speak, I deliberately chose shirts and ties that defused any spark of threatening masculinity. Towards the end of my time in Japan you might have termed my style of dress “technicolor dandy” or “waiter at an upscale clown-themed restaurant”.  I have muted the colors because, as it turns out, students here could sometimes stand to be a little more respectful of the teacher’s authority.

Being male.  Here’s where it gets officially unfair.  In ESL or EFL, part of the rich melange of cultures present in the classroom may be some unreformed chauvinism.  Students are, broadly speaking, doing a very brave thing by living in a new country with a foreign culture and language, and even those who sometimes express opinions you would politely call “parochial” are clearly open to some new experiences and ideas – they’re here, after all.  Still, some resist suggestions, commands, and even assignments from teachers that they somehow don’t feel look the part, and a sizable chunk of looking the part is looking more like their dad than their mom.  There are disadvantages to being stereotyped “a male teacher”, sure, but getting students to give weight to your words is not usually one of them.

(Side note: There is an argument sometimes made against the effects of systemic oppression and in favor of individualism that really strong people can always succeed and do as well as anyone else.  It goes like this: Sure, life is hard and unfair, but that’s why you gotta tough it out, and if you don’t make it, it’s your own fault.  It’s usually true that especially strong people can find success when average people don’t, but the point is that non-oppressed people don’t have to pass that inner strength test or even think about it.  As it turns out, having to spend time and energy thinking about whether everyone thinks you’re legitimate creates significant drag.  Not having to even entertain the thought that anyone might consider you illegitimate in your position is a privilege.)

Being NS.  The conventional argument against native-speakerist hiring practices is that asking NSs to teach their language is like asking a fish to teach you how to swim.  That argument is persuasive to many people (mostly other English teachers), but neglects a major reason that students become interested to learn languages in the first place – they have some idea of what the target language community looks like, and they want to be part of it.  Failing to match the NS stereotype, even if the stereotype is incorrect or unjust, may make getting them to listen to you harder.  Yes, students can be brought around to accepting a NNS teacher, and some of them know the advantages and actively seek them out.  The point is, more of them will listen to a NS teacher and not need any convincing to do so.

At least the above is probably true in many contexts.  I found that in Japan my authority on what people actually said in English was usually considered more valid than any NNS, no matter how qualified (another example of NS privilege – our mistakes are considered features, examples of real-world usage), although students would be more likely to accept directions to study outside from my NNS peers (of course, both the students and NNS teachers were Japanese, which undoubtedly played a part).  I also heard from female teachers that students would accept their directives if they came as “support” rather than instructions.  I’ve seen many more female teachers openly disrespected by students than male, and in one case seen one openly accused of incompetence by a male student, who later seemed unable to understand why other people held her in higher authority than him.  Most teachers in the US seem not to dress up much, and this doesn’t seem to hurt their authority, while teachers in Japan generally wore formal officewear as part of looking the part (in both university and eikaiwa, although I suspect it served different semiotic functions).  I think in my case my demeanor might require some compensatory formality.  It is probably safe to say that what makes students take the teacher’s enjoinders to attend to ambient input and take their medicine varies from teacher to teacher and context to context, but the effect is one that it would behoove most teachers to recognize and use.

Fire alarm effects in ELT

I didn’t expect such a great metaphor for the ESL/EFL classroom to come from a writer on artificial intelligence.

In his article “There’s No Fire Alarm for Artificial Intelligence”, Eliezer Yudkowski uses the metaphor of a fire alarm to explain situations in which people act strangely without it being a faux pas.  His version of a fire alarm is a public messaging system that would give people permission to act with what in his opinion is the correct amount of urgency in the face of dangerously advanced and amoral (at least by our standards) AI.  A fire alarm, he postulates, is not simply an indication that danger exists (the other main indication being smoke), but a signal that it is acceptable to act as if it does in front of other people.  The acceptability comes from the fact that (actual and metaphorical) fire alarms are heard by everyone, and one’s knowledge that others also hear it enables one to take part in behavior like descending the stairs and paying a visit to the parking lot in the middle of a workday knowing that coworkers will not hold it against you.  Like many widely-shared messages, a fire alarm turns insane solo behavior into acceptable, even encouraged, group behavior.

(I heard this for the first time on Sam Harris’s podcast.  Yudkowski sounds exactly as you might expect someone with his job description to.  Incidentally, I have some basic disagreements with a lot of what Harris says, but still enjoy listening to his interviews.  I will be more specific in a future post.)

It’s pretty close to universal knowledge that speaking one’s L2 in front of other people is face-threatening behavior.  Consider the range of situations where reproach or shame are possible results – besides the obvious ones (sitting alone on the bus), you may be considered rude, stupid, foreign, pretentious, or just strange for suddenly bursting into French at your pâtisserie or watching Chinese soap operas on your phone.  Naturally, the number of “safe” contexts to speak your L2 increases if you move to a society where most people speak that language, but it is still not close to 100% of them – at the very least, you will mark yourself as a foreigner by “practicing” in public, and in the worst case, people can just be unbelievable assholes around 2nd language speakers.  Of course, there are learners who don’t feel threatened at all by speaking their L2, and maybe those are the same people who would immediately perform a fire drill alone at the first hint of smoke in the air.  Most people need acknowledgement that they won’t be judged negatively for trying and often failing to make themselves understood in a new code – they need a public signal that legitimizes it for everyone.  Something in the ESL/EFL classroom is necessary to transform society’s gaze from judgmental to facilitative.

This may turn out to be another black robe effect.  That is, the teacher might be the variable that turns language practice from face-threatening to the group norm.  The inverse is clearly true – teachers can definitely act in ways the discourage open practice or make students ashamed of failed attempts at communication (or worse, ashamed of imperfect grammar).  Teachers can also strengthen the norm of practicing English within the class by spelling it out explicitly and practicing it themselves.  I suspect though that a lot of the legitimization of language practice is due to the physical edifice of the classroom and the rituals one must go through to join a class – signing up, visiting the bursar’s office, carrying a bookbag, etc.  You can test this by walking out of your classroom during a task and secretly observing how much of the communication in your absence is still in English, and compare it to what happens when a waiter who shares an L1 with the cook is done taking your order.  As in the experiments that Yudkowski cites to make his case, students’ shared understanding of what behavior is validated is essential for any of that behavior to actually take place. Whatever it is that is acting as a fire alarm in language classes, its effects depend as much on the people as on the signal.

Grammar Mining (and the collected Mark SLA Lexicon)

Many of us agree that teaching “at the point of need” (as I believe Meddings and Thornbury put it) is an ideal context for formal grammar teaching.  Students’ trying to communicate something provides clear evidence that they need the grammar that would facilitate communicating it, and depending on how close they come to natural expression, evidence that their internal representation of English is capable of taking on this additional piece of information.

In interlanguage punting, I conjectured that taking a guess at grammar students may need in the future and organizing a lesson around a particular grammar point was justifiable if the lessons you used to introduce that grammar would be memorable long enough for a “point of need” to be found before the lesson was forgotten.  At the time, I was teaching weekly 1-hour grammar workshops with rotating groups students at different levels, and as I could not teach reactively I had to justify my grammar-first (formS-focused) approach.

Read on for the last post before the new semester starts.

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The urinal cake principle

Imagine yourself pushing through a crowded train station during rush hour.  As you pass a certain doorway, you detect hints of lavender and hibiscus coming from within.  Do these smells evoke:

  1. just flowers, or
  2. first flowers then toilets based on your prior knowledge and experience regarding the likelihood that lavender is blooming within 100 feet of a subway platform, or
  3. just toilets?

This is the best way for me to understand the principle of dead metaphors.  A dead metaphor is a process of cutting out a semiotic middleman. The process of a metaphor dying is a powerful and inevitable one that affects culture and particularly language in some subtle ways, as I hope to illustrate in as colorful a way as I can.

The process, in dense and unfriendly language, is this: The definition of a symbol over time changes from the first thing (flowers) to the second thing indirectly through the first thing (toilets via floral-scented deodorizing discs), and finally just comes to stand for the second thing (toilets).  This can be true even if the form of the symbol does not change – e.g. if the deodorizer continues to have a floral scent.  The reference stops being indirect and just goes straight for the thing that it was always eventually getting at.

I’ve been trying to think of more real-world examples of this principle in action.  Here are a few more:

A clothing brand (say, Members Only) is associated with rich people.  Poor people start to buy that clothing brand on sale or used because it evokes rich people.  The brand comes to be associated with poor people’s desperation to look rich.  (Louis Vuitton in Japan is rumored to head off this effect by buying back their used bags and burning them to prevent them going to the secondhand market)

“Political correctness” is a recognized phenomenon in polite discourse.  Reactionaries vocally dislike it and use it as a stick with which to beat their cultural enemies.  It comes to be much more widely known for its rhetorical value in reactionary discourse (specifically, their hatred of it) than as a phenomenon within polite discourse.

A famous person with an idiosyncratic name (say, “Zoey”) appears.  People who have kids during the zenith of that person’s career name their kids after him/her.  That name comes to be associated with that generation of kids rather than the famous person.

Taboo concepts have euphemisms invented to avoid direct reference to them while still maintaining the ability to refer to them indirectly if necessary.  Subsequent generations come to think of the euphemisms as simply the names for those taboo concepts, since those are usually the only words for those concepts that they ever hear.  Those generations invent new euphemisms to replace the no-longer-thought-to-be-indirect old ones.

When I was studying Japanese before moving there, we learned 便所 benjo (“convenient place”) as “bathroom”, when practically nobody alive now still uses that word.  Sometime between the 50s and now they were お手洗い otearai (“hand-wash”) or 化粧室 keshoushitsu (“powder room”). Now they are called トイレ toire, presumably until the next generation starts calling them something like ルーム ruumu.

Hipster beards are destined to go from “modern guy” to “guy who still thinks beards are modern” to “guy who doesn’t know that nobody thinks beards are modern” and in 20 or so years “guy who affects not caring that hipster beards are not considered modern” and back to just “modern guy” again.  Believe me; it happened to skinny ties.

Most words unless they were invented very recently are dead metaphors or have changed meanings through some other process.  A word’s history is like the miles of junk DNA we carry around with us in our cells, only using a small portion to form proteins, transmit messages or enjoy an inside joke.  Words like “give up” (my favorite example, a clear dead metaphor), “Wednesday”, or “cranberry” have stories behind their present forms and usages that are very interesting, but also very optional.  Each living word has untold numbers of lost meanings (in addition to its likely numerous current meanings) which we don’t have and don’t need access to in order to use it.  The process by which a word’s meaning changes isn’t always the middleman-eliding of the dead metaphor, but the idea that one doesn’t need all the information about the past referents of a given token to understand it in its current context is the same.

We language teachers often pride ourselves on the elaborate stories and setups that we use to explain usage of one language item or another.  One time I attended a presentation that asked us straightforwardly, “Why do you use on for buses but in for cars?”, to which several teachers laid out the possibly-made-up-but-convincing stories that they give their students.  These stories can definitely be useful for appearing to give students stage-by-stage mastery and “permission” to use a particular language item, things I definitely wanted in my early stages of Japanese learning.  Nowadays, I tend to think of these as a bootstrap or a foot in the door (are those dead metaphors?) than understanding itself, more affective factors than what we would usually call L2 competence.  Naturally, the end goal of most language learning is to have a grasp of the language similar to the fluent speakers in your target community, not to have complete explicit knowledge of the target language (although many learners confuse these two – some teachers as well).  One does not need to know the origin of a word or the logic behind its present form to use it correctly any more than one needs to have smelled fresh lavender as a reference point to know what that same smell means at the train station.


My black robes

According to The Impact, a judge has an unusually strong effect on mental health patients in causing them to follow treatment plans.  This phenomenon is called the black robe effect, based on perhaps a metaphor for and perhaps the real, physical source of the judge’s authority.  After only on listening to the episode and googling the term “black robe effect” once, this is my understanding of the effect:

  • The effect on the patient is due to the outward signs of authority that the judge carries;
  • The effect is in causing otherwise uncooperative patients under the judge’s purview to follow advice/orders already known to those patients (i.e. the judge is not the orignator of the advice/orders);
  • Most of the effect is realized in the judge’s absence as an indirect effect of his/her authority (e.g. when the patient takes a daily medication at home);

The basic outline of this effect is something I’ve found to be a major part of my job as an ESL or EFL teacher.  I’m often in the position of telling my students do things that they could feasibly do without anyone’s saying anything, but they’re much more likely to do when I tell them.  This is probably the one way in which I most reliably assume the “teacher role” and exercise my authority.

In fact, this is probably one of the best justifications nowadays for teachers existing at all.  We are great at causing (or forcing or allowing or facilitating; I’m not picky on the causal metaphor) people to do things that they could always do for free, and ideally creating norm-governed communities where success at those things is celebrated.  We definitely aren’t the only ones in the room anymore with access to the right information – students have all the human knowledge in the world in their pockets.  We have authority and an agreed-upon role as an arbiter of the values of our in-class community, and not much else.

Reading circles are a good example of the black robe effect in my classes.  This semester, one of my classes has read a non-fiction book over the course of a couple of months, and every 2 weeks during that time we’ve done reading circles that cover the chapters we read in the previous week (for the curious, here are the roles that I use).  Now what is my role in “teaching” the weeks that we share our reading circles sheets?  It’s pretty much the black robe effect without the gavel:

  • The effect on the students is due to the outward signs of authority that the teacher carries; (i.e. they do it because the person in the front of the room told them to)
  • The effect is in causing otherwise uncooperative students under the teacher’s purview to follow advice/orders already known to those students; (i.e. the book we’re reading has always been available to buy, as are millions of other fine books – “uncooperative” here means “wouldn’t do it by default”)
  • Most of the effect is realized in the teacher’s absence (e.g. when the student reads at home – and although I’m physically present in the classroom when they’re sharing their reading circles, I’m not participating, so then too).

One of my staple activities is even more of a textbook example of a black robe effect – I give students something called a Language Log, which is basically a blank sheet with spaces for English input (things they watched or read or people they talked to) outside the classroom and what they noticed.  Nothing about the sheet requires some deep knowledge on the part of the teacher to design or implement – it is a kind of educational MacGuffin that furthers the goals of language development without containing anything meaningful itself (the educational MacGuffin was a staple of my classes back in Japan too).  Still, if some non-authority or even one of the student’s family members gave them the same sheet and instructed him/her to keep track of input, it would not work – family members, in ESL and in mental health treatment, don’t get to wear black robes.

I’ll post again at a later date about what exactly my black robes comprise.

End-of-semester Quantitative Feedback

(Written to give my mind a rest from grading)

Introduction and Pedantry

At the end of the semester I like to use a survey to gauge what students found valuable in my class.  The survey is just a list of class activities from the semester and then two columns with spaces for scores – an “I like it” column and an “It helps me learn” column.  There is a Likert-style scale of 1-5 to be used with both columns across the top of the sheet.  So for example, a student who really enjoyed our reading textbook but doesn’t feel like it was useful for learning would give it scores of 5 (in answer to “I like it”) and 2 or 1 (in answer to “It helps me learn”).

Screen Shot 2017-12-15 at 12.32.42.png
More or less like this.  Screenshot of MS Word with fun, colorful red and blue underlines kept intact.  In the future I will probably make this more intuitive-looking – some students opted to fill in the blanks with full written critiques.

I plan on standardizing this survey across my classes in the future, but this semester everyone had a different list of activities.  I know from their survey, for example, that my intermediate integrated skills class enjoyed their grammar book more than their reading book, but because I referred to these by name in the survey, I can’t really compare their answers to those for the reading and grammar books in my academic writing classes (naturally, the books themselves are different in structure and approach as well, which limits how comparable they are).  All of my classes did have a few items which were worded the same and were similar enough in practice to warrant comparison.

Those items were reading circles, Kahoot!, at-home writing, language logs, and teacher-fronted grammar lessons.  Before we get to the meat of this post, let me just make sure everyone knows what those are and explain how I do them.

Reading circles, in a nutshell, consist of reading reflection groups where each member of the group has a different “job”.  A group of 5 people in most of my classes might have had a Summarizer, a Vocabulary Enricher, a Grammarian, a Connector (who had to, for example, find articles on similar topics to the reading on the Internet), and an Artist.  On a reading circles day, everyone would have read a section of a book or an article over the weekend, and completed half of the sheet at home.  They would then gather in “expert groups”, consisting of people with the same job, and compare answers.  Some versions of my reading circles worksheets had a part of the worksheet that had to be completed during this time.  After a decent amount of time, they would meet with their reading circles group members, all of whom had different “jobs”.  All of my reading circles sheets had short sections that had to be completed during this time by listening to the other group members.  Much of this is standard for this kind of activity.  In practice, not everyone would do their homework, and 3 or 4 people out of a class of 25 would be hurriedly filling in the parts that they were supposed to have done over the weekend in their “expert groups”.  I noted who didn’t do the assignment for grades but let them do this so that they would have at least something to show their reading circles afterward.  Students always seemed much more engaged during reading circles than any teacher-fronted activities, but as we shall see, that isn’t necessarily reflected in the answers they gave to the survey.

Kahoot! is an online game-show-like platform that seems pretty well-known, although I’d never heard of it before my first CATESOL meeting last December.  I mostly used it to review readings (the same ones as the reading circles), about 3 times a semester, with Jolly Ranchers candy as prizes for the winning teams.

At-home writing comprises paragraphs and essays, any of which had at least 3 drafts.  Students turned these in on paper, Canvas, or all of these at once.  As I found out a bit late, the steps for submitting work electronically or viewing feedback are not obvious for many students, and as in my time in Japan, there is a strong pro-handwriting bias among ESL students – some students view typing it out as the very last step in completing a paper.  Anyway, this was one of the few times in the semester that students would get individual feedback on their writing from me.

Language logs are simple scaffolds for out-of-class input.  They look more or less like schedules organized by weeks with spaces for students to write what they read and what they noticed (for writing classes – “noticed” here could mean content or form) or what they read, what they watched, and who they talked to (for integrated skills classes).  The spaces are intentionally kept small to keep the focus on input rather than rigorous and thorough reporting.  For me, these have a lot of room for improvement – I personally kept forgetting that students had them (I had planned to check them every 2 weeks, but it ended up being more like every 4 weeks), and the students reciprocated.  I also had to remind students quite a few times that the purpose of the logs was to record their extra input, not to record the homework that I had assigned them, and that conversations with their spouses in their first language didn’t count as language log material.  Also, the “I noticed…” sections were often filled with verbatim quotes rather than reflections.  Still, a number of students rose to the occasion and read, watched or talked voluminously.  I remember seeing written on language logs entries like “I talked to a woman at the supermarket about expensive eggplants” “CNN – California wildfire – scary!!” “Breitbart – Anti-Trump conspiracy” and plenty of other windows into my students’ intellectual lives.  Yes, I’m proud of the student who reads Breitbart – I suppose in terms of acculturation it’s somewhat analogous to Americans in Japan who become ardent supporters of the Imperial system and all of its apologia.  A sure sign of language learning progress, albeit also a phase I hope they grow out of.

A confounding factor for measuring how much students liked/valued the logs themselves is that I also had them share them with classmates before turning them in.  The discussions that arose from this were almost always lively and engaging, and it is certainly possible that some students answered positively for Language Logs while mostly thinking of the enjoyable conversations around them rather than the input that is their main purpose (at least from my perspective).

Teacher-fronted grammar lessons are probably familiar to most readers of this blog.  Mine are not particularly unusual, I think, except that I tend to give absurd examples and lots of analogies to food (an independent clause is a burger, a dependent clause is fries, and adverbials are drinks and toppings).

Numbers and stuff

On to the data.

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For all 3 classes, the most popular class activity was Kahoot! followed closely by grammar lessons.  The one most viewed as helpful was at-home writing, followed again by grammar lessons.  That’s a bit interesting.  The other values on the table are a bit more interesting.

The second column, consisting of t-values, shows basically how meaningful the differences between the “I like it” and “It helps me learn” are.  t-values, if I recall correctly from the last time I googled them, are roughly the odds that a difference between 2 populations (or a change in 1 population) could have been coincidence even if the populations themselves are actually not different with regards to the value you are testing.  Generally, the null hypothesis (that there is no significant difference between the populations tested) is rejected if t is below 0.05 or 0.01.  The computed value of t depends on the differences between the populations’ answers and on the size of the population.  I only computed t for “I like it” and “It helps me learn” scores for the same activity, and the numbers in the center column are those t-values.  As you can see, the only one that would pass a conventional test for significance is at-home writing, although grammar on the whiteboard is close.  This tells us that the different values for “I like it” and “It helps me learn” for at-home writing are probably large enough for us to assume that a difference would be found even if I taught thousands of students instead of about a hundred.  I find this interesting mostly because it shows how large the gap is between enjoyment and valuation of paragraphs and essays – a gap which might generally be found among students who feel that some things that aren’t enjoyable are nonetheless good for your brain, which might call the eating your vegetables effect.  (I would be tempted to conclude that the relative lack of enjoyment causes the feeling that it must be useful except that Language Logs have an even lower enjoyment score and a correspondingly low usefulness score.)

The last column is standard deviation, or how widely answers are dispersed.  As you can see, “at-home writing helps me learn”‘s answers are the least dispersed of any item, meaning that there was higher consensus around the usefulness of at-home writing than, say, Kahoot!.  This means that not only was the mean higher, showing that on average more people found it useful, but people agreed more on how useful it was.  Language logs, on the other hand, had wide disagreement on their usefulness (and enjoyability).  It seems that students are much more unanimous on some questions than others.

Last, I have the correlations.  Not too much to say about this, except that liking/valuing Kahoot! is negatively correlated with almost everything else.  The positive correlations between reading circles and Language Logs could be explained by the social nature of both (see the confounding factor of the Language Logs above).  I have no idea what could be behind valuing reading circles and valuing grammar on the whiteboard/projector.

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Discussion and hedging

One must keep in mind that students are likely judging the usefulness of activities based on changes in their abilities that they can detect; a very long-term effect or a subconscious one will be mostly invisible and may feel useless, while one that gives the rush of endorphine that comes from solving a puzzle may not be as effective in long-term acquisition but will seem to have led to some understanding.  This is a circuitous way of saying that we can’t trust students at the end of a 4-month course to know what actually helped them learn.  I tend to regard the Language Logs as the most beneficial, because they 1) facilitate large amounts of input, 2) are student-directed and therefore more likely to keep their interest, and 3) are the most likely to be continued outside of class.  Of course, stuff that seems pedagogically useless to students is not likely to lead to re-registration in the spring, and if students don’t sign up for classes, it’s hard to say I served them well by insisting on nutritious but unrewarding educational broccoli.  Activities like Kahoot! may be worth the time and effort if only to provide the hit of pure enjoyment that keeps people looking forward to the next serving of ice cream when they’ve finished their vegetables.

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.


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.

Dead quantitatives, revived by “grammar”

A bunch of teachers have taken my grammar test.

Or is it… a bunch of teachers has taken my grammar test?

Why does the second sound so bizarre?  Is the frequency with which we match apparent subjects like “a bunch” with “have” or “are” a lamentable pattern of grammatical laziness or is “bunch” just a special kind of word, rather than the noun it appears to be?

An interesting transition appears to have happened or be happening to English partitives and quantitatives, phrases like “a piece of”.  Under certain circumstances, they seem to lose their grammatical class as noun phrases and are instead interpreted like adjectives, modifying a noun to come rather than being nouns themselves.  You know the most common of these – “a lot of”, which appears to be a noun phrase with an indefinite article (“a”), a single noun (“lot”), and a prepositional phrase (“of ~”).  In practice, “a lot of trees” is interpreted as a noun phrase about “trees”, not about a “lot”, which can see reflected in in the verb conjugations in sentences like “a lot of trees are in the park”, wherein “are” conjugates to match the plural noun “trees”.  Needless to say, different noun phrases with a similar forms to “a lot of”, e.g. “a room with” or “a shot in”, are not treated this way – “a room with windows” is not a noun phrase about windows.  I’ve never heard a sentence constructed like “a room with windows were open to let in the breeze” – have you?

You probably think I’m about to condemn a lot of the English teachers who took my survey for having bad grammar.  No, I’m not.  Instead, I’m about to propose a semi-regular change in grammatical class that most people’s (including my) notion of correct grammar hasn’t caught up with yet.  I name this below the jump.

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