Quick fixes, ELF and dumbing down in ELT!

In his 2009 book, Outliers: The Story of Success, Malcolm Gladwell claimed that around ten thousand hours of deliberate practice makes a superstar. Failing that, at the very least, 10,000 hours of practice is the key to mastery – and putting the hours in is far more important when it comes to creating – or realising – success than any innate talent. As you’d expect, Gladwell provides plenty of pop culture examples – The Beatles played together in Germany for nearly 10,000 hours before they emerged seemingly fully formed to conquer the world; Tiger Woods had put in his 10,000 hours on the golf course before he was even old enough to learn how to drive a car,  and so on.

Now, I have no idea how valid the research Gladwell bases his claims on is, nor any way of – or interest in – counting the exact number of hours The Beatles spent playing to drunk seamen on the Reeperbahn, but there’s surely something in this claim: the notion that nothing comes of nothing, and that any degree of success in anything requires a considerable amount of hard graft!

Yet how counter to much of our contemporary culture such claims run! We live in an age of instant gratification, of the belief that money buys us access to whatever it is we most desire, of shortcuts and of blagging. You see it everywhere, from the Pop Idol wanna-bes who crave fame for simply being themselves, and hope for a career in music without first having done the long hard hours learning their craft and gigging out on the road, to the folk who’ve learned a bit of Photoshop and think this makes them a graphic designer and in the desperate CVs we get sent at work from people who’ve not even done a CELTA but have instead done a two-day taster course somewhere and yet who think this entitles them to teach English in a university (I’m reminded here of the applicant a few years ago who, on being informed that we usually only took on teachers with DELTAs as a minimum requirement, spat back at us with “But I don’t want to be a teacher trainer or anything. I only want to teach!”). Examples are easy to find almost everywhere.

And the English Language market has been quick to capitalise on the myth of instant success. The web is full of courses that promise that you too can learn English in ten days – or effortlessly or even in your sleep! Published material and even schools are also quick to make such rash promises in search of student dollars. Naturally, students themselves are desperate to buy into these quick fix ideas. We’ve all met the students who think that simply working through Murphy’s English Grammar In Use (often for the third of fourth time!) – or translating and memorising random lists of single words – will unlock the door to fluency, or the students who arrive at Pre-Int level demanding IELTS 6.5 by the end of the term, and who are very very resistant to the message that increasing just 0.5 in the exam will take a MINIMUM of 150 study hours!

And when the industry is not busy promising the world, we as teachers are all too often simply downgrading our standards and hoping that getting by with less will become the new fully fluent! As I’ve already said elsewhere, I think the roots of this are complex and socio-culturally and historically rooted, but I do also feel that much of the debate around Globish / English as a Lingua Franca (ELF) over the last decade or so has inadvertently fed into a latent laziness on the part of many (frequently native-speaker) teachers! How can it be that such a well-intentioned (but I would argue misguided and flawed) project can have had such an impact?

Well, by attempting to list the elements of speech which are deemed to be non-essential to international communication (the third person -s, say, or the different /th/ sounds in mother or theoretical) and by stressing the fact that much use of English in the modern world will be between non-natives, the ELF theoreticians have inadvertently created a monster, feeding directly into the ‘why bother’ school of thought that afflicts teachers for whom teaching still sits awkwardly with their sense of self. Why bother correcting grammar if I can already understand what students are on about? Why bother with idioms or awkward sophisticated bits if lexis I’m not sure of myself if they’re only going to be talking to Greeks or Chinese or Germans? Why bother with the endless corrective drills of /th/ sounds? Let’s just focus on acceptable communication and activities and fun and be done with it. So the cries go up! And so the goals and targets that we teach towards go down!

I’ll be blogging more about ELF and the pernicious influence the whole debate surrounding it has had in the week to come, but hope there’s enough here to spark at least some kind of a debate.

I’d like to know how YOU feel about the value and purpose of the ELF project, the degree to which you think it’s been harmful / beneficial to the field and whether or not I’m right in my paranoid assertions that students are becoming more desperate in their hunt for shortcuts to success.


3 responses

  1. Lewis Richards | Reply

    The 10,000 hours idea is spot-on, I think, and really important, because it emphasises the notion that EFL teaching is a craft and a profession, and we as teachers need to put time, and thought, in over a long period; in fact there’s no end to the process, even after you’ve done your 10,000 hours (which I think works out at about 10 years full-time teaching?). One of the best pieces of advice I’ve ever been given as a teacher was my CELTA tutor saying to us at the end of the course something like ‘Whatever you do, don’t expect to be much cop at teaching for at least the first five years’- and although it seemed a bit of a brutal thing to say at the end of an intensive course, he was dead right..The fact that you can always improve and do things better is what makes it such a fantastic job, and certainly what keeps me interested and inspired after 15 years of doing it.

    I was talking to a new-ish teacher recently, and he’d been finding his pre-int class a bit tricky, so I observed the class, and we had a chat about some ideas to teach the class a bit differently. One of the things I suggested was to finish the book he was teaching (you’ll be pleased to know it was ‘Outcomes’!), and then get another class, and teach the same material again, but with a view to thinking about what went wrong and what was good, and how to improve it. And then maybe do it another time, and another time, and keep improving and refining what you do over a long period. It’s worth the time and effort, and students too can sense how many years work have gone into a class, and will appreciate it.

    As well as doing lots of practice and reflection, in terms of teaching the same material several times in order to do it better, I also always think when a lesson doesn’t go very well that it’s down to the teacher, and my responsibility to think (and discuss with the students if necessary) why it wasn’t so good, and how I can make the next lesson better. I hear a lot of teachers saying things like ‘this class doesn’t talk much’, or ‘this class is no good’, but this is nonsense – it’s down to the teacher to provide opportunities for meaningful speaking, for example. It’s definitely up to teacher-trainers to emphasise the long-term view, and to encourage experimentation and the pleasure of putting in the hard work.

    Definitely teachers who take this approach are much better than those who try to find short-cuts, the blaggers, and those who just get by on being young and charismatic (although we’ve all been there once!). Great post – totally agree.

    1. Thanks for posting Lewis.

      I hadn’t been thinking of the 10,000 hours in direct relation to teaching, but it makes sense. I think we all underestimate quite how much reading about teaching and language we need to do, how long developing our own awareness of language takes us and how many classroom hours we need to put in before we’re comfortable in our own skins. I did a talk a few years ago in Poland called something like ‘Where do language teachers learn about language?’ which was kind of about this – and was particularly about the way CELTAs certainly DON’T teach you anything like enough about language to be able to deal with the kinds of questions you’ll get asked. Sure you learn through doing, but I still feel we should be preparing teachers better and working more on mindsets and frameworks.

      I do think you’re right, though, that one of the things that keeps us all interested in our subject is the fact we’re all still learning more about our actual subject matter. It’s always a great feeling when students ask about an aspect of language you’ve never thought about before!

      Great to hear your teachers are using Outcomes. Hope they’re enjoying it. Think you’re right on the importance of teaching the same material a few times and getting better at doing it each time. I think actually that part of the problem is that teachers often try to reinvent the wheel and interpret the material in their way, chopping and changing and supplementing, rather than just teaching the material as it stands, working the hell out of the language and creating more opportunities to use students’ ideas. I often think the lessons I do best these days are using material I know the back of my hand and can thus focus more on the language (which I’m already comfortable with, having explained and exemplified it before) and work it with the class more, meaning more spin-offs and sidetracks as well. Good advice on your part, I think, anyway.

      Think you’re also very wise to emphasise the fact teachers need to look at what they can change, rather than moaning about classes. A bad workman and all that!

      As for having once been young and charismatic . . . well, who knows where the time goes?!

  2. I often see the call for ELF as a call for English for Lazy F*ckers.

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