Working exercises hard
Last weekend at University of Westminster, we held our first one-day Lexical Conference. This will hopefully now become an annual event, and we were greatly encouraged by the fact that it sold out and also by the wonderful speakers we had. Alongside myself and Andrew Walkley, we had Leo Selivan, Philip Kerr, Nick Bilbrough, Luke Fletcher, Richard Paterson and Katie Mansfield, Muralee Navaratnam and as special guests of honour Michael Hoey and Michael Lewis.
I did two sessions – a plenary entitled Teaching Grammar Lexically – and a workshop called Working Exercises Hard. I had a couple of folk email me to ask if I had an online version of the sessions, which I didn’t, but due to popular request (well, ONE request at least!), I’ve trained myself how to use a great site that allows you to upload Powerpoints and narrate them and below is the fruits of my labour.
Thought it’d make a change as a blog post and if it is well received, it may be something I try and do again.
Hope you enjoy watching this and look forward to your comments and questions.
Dissing Dogme: Part Six – the mystery of the missing syllabus
Many moons ago, when I was first trying to get a foothold in the publishing game, I sent off a series of lessons I’d co-written with a friend I made on my DELTA course, Darryl Hocking. We felt that coursebooks didn’t begin to do enough to teach natural spoken English and had spent the best part of a year recording endless conversations, transcribing them, and analysing them searching for common themes, patterns and chunks. What we ended up with were a series of lessons with titles like TALKING ABOUT YOUR VIEWS ON THINGS, TALKING ABOUT YOUR FAMILY, ENCOURAGING PEOPLE, TALKING ABOUT WHAT YOU’VE BEEN UP TO, TALKING ABOUT WHAT YOU PREFER and so on. Each lesson had a scripted listening, some sound chunking pronunciation work (very influenced by David Brazil), some vocabulary and collocations, some spoken grammar, some conversation strategies and so on. We were very proud of our efforts and convinced of their revolutionary nature. We sent a few sample lessons round to different publishers and sat back and waited for the phone to start ringing. To cut a long story short, this all eventually led to our meeting with Michael Lewis and Jimmie Hill, which in turn led to a book deal with what was then Language Teaching Publications – better known as LTP. During our first meeting with Michael – in a pub in Hove (!) – he spent some time flicking through all our samples before turning to us and saying “Well, there are some nice lessons here, but I don’t see a course! Where’s the bridge, the arch, the umbrella?”
I’m often reminded of this conversation when I browse the Dogme blogs that abound: nice lesson, where’s the course? And that is, of course, because there isn’t one. A course, that is. Just a series of lessons that may or may not follow up on from each other and that may or may not recycle or develop what’s been covered earlier.
As part our the preparation for our own five-yearly British Council inspection at University of Westminster last year, I was in charge of getting together a presentable syllabus for each level of the General English classes. Our courses are predominantly coursebook driven, and in essence the contents of the book forms the bulk of the syllabus at each level. I made discrete enquiries about whether or not it would acceptable to the BC to simply type out the menu of contents for each level, and was informed it would not. I then spent a fair bit of time liaising with a friend who works at the BC Madrid and who’s done some astounding work on syllabus for all six levels defined by the Common European Framework, including a very thorough mapping of a range of coursebooks onto the stated CEFR goals for each level (which I’m very pleased to say INNOVATIONS scored particularly well in). What resulted from this was a 6-page document for each level we teach at Westminster based very much of the CEFR. The way I see it, if the CEFR defines, say, B2 in terms of can-do statements across a whole range of skills, then this means that in order to be placed at this level, the student must’ve spent the time at B1 acquiring these competencies, so the B2 can-do statements become by default the B1 syllabus. The BC ended up commending us on the syllabi we’d produced and the inspection went without a hitch.
Luckily, as it turned out, none of this work was in vain or was just simple window-dressing designed to smooth our passage through the inspection because as it happens, almost every week we have potential punters and sponsors calling, emailing or visiting and asking us not only what’s special about our centre, not only what qualifications do our staff have, not only the fees and dates, but also – crucially – the course content. We explain some of what we offer will be determined by our perception of what students need, but are also able to provide detailed descriptions of course goals and content.
As a coursebook writer myself, as well as a teacher on General English courses, syllabus is absolutely central. What has driven Outcomes first and foremost was a desire to teach towards CEFR communicative competencies. Sure we felt we had to try to cover the grammar expected at each level and found in the vast majority of competing titles, but what we wanted to drive the car was the pursuit of can-do statements, whether they be to do with speaking, writing, listening or whatever. We also spent a lot of time working out how we could incorporate as many of the core 3000 words into the syllabus as possible, a task which simply cannot happen by accident and which, even with the best will in the world, is nigh-on impossible to achieve with any degree of comprehensiveness.
So where does Dogme fit into all of this? What does it have to say about syllabus apart from let’s wait and see what happens? How does it sell its vision to the BC or to punters keen to do what they’ll get out of the course? I’ve seen two possible answers to this questions from those within in the Dogme camp, both of which struck me as woefully inadequate. Firstly, I watched a Dogme talk which mainly seemed to be about how the teacher in question had constructed a ‘student-generated’ course (see my earlier post for my thoughts on that little myth) by asking his learners to bring texts in every day, work around which would form the bulk of each lesson. To counter any accusation of lack of syllabus, the teacher announced that every time he ‘covered’ (it wasn’t explained what ‘covering’ might mean in this sense) a grammar item, it’d be ticked off the list, so that if any parents or sponsors wanted to know what’d been going on he could point to the structures already dealt with. Now, not only is this based on an outmoded way of thinking of syllabus (i,e: competence = the ticking off of discrete structural items) that I would’ve thought anyone with any interest in pushing for a greater focus on spoken language would’ve been resistant to, but it’s also only possible retrospectively.
The second approach I encountered came dressed in many intellectual garments and garnished with plenty of scary quotes, but in essence boiled down to an ’emergent syllabus’ – or one that was ‘negotiated’. In the end, this turned out to be little more than a kind of simplified version of old-fashioned needs analysis, whereby the teacher asks the class what they want to do and constructs some (or, in this case, all (!!)) of the course around these desires. The killer for me was the first thing students said was that they wanted to go to the park – and so a park visit was pencilled in for Friday afternoon! Superb. Maybe another day could involve a pub lunch and then maybe Monday mornings could just be a lie-in! Genius.
When I first started teaching, I used to do needs analysis for my General English classes. I’d give them a long list of topics and ask them to mark their top three, count up the votes and prioritise that was round. Usually, there’d be 8 votes for food, say, 8 for sport, 7 for holidays, 7 for family and so on, and I’d have to make executive decisions on this basis. Now I’ve come to realise is that one of the things students pay us for is to KNOW what input they most need to take them to the next level. So much work has been done – by publishers, by the CEFR, by the BC – to define level that it seems plain arrogant not to take account of this.
How’d we ever get this way?
He may well not remember this, but a long time ago, when I was first starting out on the great merry-go-round that is the ELT talks circuit, Jim Scrivener – the esteemed author of Learning Teaching, as I knew him then – once called me a Thatcherite. Well, to be more precise, he called my ideas Thatcherite!
To those of you lucky enough not to have been living in the UK during the reign of That Bloody Woman (as my grandfather insisted on calling her till his dying day!), this may not strike you as much of an insult, or even as an insult at all. However, where I come from, that’s fighting talk! Punches have been thrown for less. Having pointed this out to Jim, the ensuing discussion clarified what seemed to me to be some kind of generational fault lines. Jim felt that my talk – about the importance of teaching fixed expressions and collocations if we really want our students to become more fluent (and, I’d venture to add, accurate) – was crassly commercial (in his defence, the talk may well have ended with passing mention of a book I had out at the time, INNOVATIONS!), utilitarian and focused on outcomes and results, and was thus lacking poetry, creativity and soul.
The reason I mention this scurrilous piece of EFL gossip, apart from to simply hook you in, is because I was reminded of it during the debate which seems to have emerged of late about the many failures of Brit-centric, CELTA-rooted Communicative Language Teaching, and also when watching both Jeremy Harmer’s recent talk that I blogged about earlier this week and Jim Scrivener’s talk up at Glasgow IATEFL recently (incidentally, you can read many of Jim’s stimulating recent thoughts over on HIS blog – http://demandhighelt.wordpress.com). We seem to be hitting a moment where teachers of a certain vintage are reassessing their careers, thinking about where things might perhaps have gone slightly astray and posing questions for the rest of us to ponder. Here’s my take on all of this – and on how it connects to my recent post about focus and testing.
Much of what has become ELT orthodoxy has its roots in the late 1960s counter-culture. At his recent talk at my university, Jeremy Harmer said quite clearly that he was a flower child back in the day (and anyone who’s seen such Youtube clips as this one will testify that he was most certainly of the paisley-shirted and hirsute persuasion from a young age). The late 60s and early 70s was the cultural and political environment out of which many of The Grand Old Men (and they do tend to mainly be men) of TEFL emerged, and from which, in many ways, ELT as a globalised profession grew. This was a time of challenging authority, of the realisation that the powers-that-be were not always straight-forward and honest, of utopian daydreams, of free love, of experimentation, of screwing the system and standing up to The Man. And out of this developed a pedagogy rooted in caring and sharing in the language classroom, in humanizing the classroom (with the implications being, of course, that all classrooms before must have been neither caring, nor sharing nor even very human!). I would argue that what also developed was a generation of teachers – often wonderfully funny, warm, witty, creative (and, lest we forget, influential) teachers, it must be said – who felt vaguely uncomfortable about actually being TEACHERS; who preferred to be seen as facilitators or mediators or unlockers of inner excellence or guides, and so on. Anything but the dreaded T word.
Now, don’t get me wrong, I have nothing major against the 1960s. As anyone who knows me well will attest, a large chunk of my ever-expanding record collection derives from that very decade. Indeed, the title of the post comes from a ’68 pop hit by the wonderful and very underrated Andy Kim.
That said, I am not, and never can be, a child of the 60s in the way that Jeremy and Jim and Adrian Underhill and that generation are.
Whether I like it or not, I was formed as an adult during The Thatcher Years (or the post-punk years, as I prefer to remember them!).
I am also the product of the comprehensive school system, and the first from my family to go to university, and all of these things shape who we go on to become and what we go on to believe.
My feeling is that the 60s generation have shaped an ELT pedagogy in their own image for a long time now, and are finally starting to have doubts about where it’s got us. The simple dichotomy (I feel a Henry Widdowson moment coming on) of 60s = freedom / 80s = authoritarianism at worst, hard-headed pragmatism at best may be an oversimplification, but it’s one which contains a fair few grains of truth, not least in terms of the way that the 60s generation – and all those they have influenced so deeply – have come to see things, as evidenced by the story with which I began this piece.
CLT – and its close cousin, Task-Based Learning – has created a generation of teachers who think of lessons solely in terms of activities. The number of times I’ve sat down with teachers and asked what their goal is for the lesson they’re planning to teach only to be told what the teacher and students will be doing. On occasion, when I’ve said “No, that’s WHAT you’re doing. I want to know WHY you’re doing it”, it’s got so bad I’ve been told that I must be a bit slow and that the goal of the lesson is obviously – as any fool can see – TO DO A LISTENING. Or a reading, Or a speaking.
This has all been exacerbated by the tyranny of four-week CELTA courses, the easy entrance into our noble profession for the vast majority of native-speaker teachers (present company included: Westminster College, 1993). Given its ridiculous time restrictions, the CELTA is unable to help trainees learn much more about language than the names and basic functions of a fee grammatical structures – and how to find one’s way around a dictionary and the grammar notes at the back of the book. As such, the main focus falls on faking it: we end up pretty linguistically ignorant, but highly adept at manufacturing that magical quality, FUN! We may not know much about how language works, but we’re dab hands at a bit of TPR, we know good games for Friday afternoons and we can knock up a gap-fill based on almost any song you’d care to name.
And we wonder why non-natives are starting to distrust our infinite wisdom!
We have come to a point where teaching has become a dirty word, where FUN has become the be-all and end-all, where teachers are all-too often little more than automatons able only to string recipes, games and activities together, where testing creates terror (and has come to be seen as some kind of weird anti-educational cult-like behaviour indulged in by those crazy authoritarian Asians, whilst we in the Free West (TM) see ourselves as creative libertarians. We have come to a point where the hard graft and discipline required to learn not just language, but almost any kind of serious skill are in short supply. We now pin our hopes on shortcuts: technology will save us by facilitating a sufficient amount of meaningful exposure; DOGME will save us by freeing us from actually being teachers and having to make informed decisions abut syllabus, word choice, topics and themes, testing and assessment, and so on and instead will allow us to exist in Gurdjieff’s perpetual now.
And all the time we fail to get better at the one thing we’re all supposed to be doing: teaching language.
When I first read The Lexical Approach by Michael Lewis, as part of my DELTA reading, one thing that hit me hard was just how much language there is out there. Just take the word blog. We read and we follow blogs, we post on blogs, we maintain blogs, we upload stuff to our blogs; indeed, we BLOG. We talk about bloggers and the blogosphere. It goes on and on. And each word and each collocation has its own colligations – grammatical patterns it’s often used with – and its own co-text (words often used with – or around – it). There is a LOT of language out there – and students really need to start getting to grips with it.
Students know this.
Examination boards know this.
Employers know this.
University entrance panels know this.
It’s about time we all woke up to this harsh reality too and started to think about whether or not what we’re doing in our classes is getting enough of it to our students. Are we covering a broad enough range? Are we honestly covering the 750+ words needed to lift a student from one level to the next? Are we revisiting and recycling them? Are we testing how much our students are retaining? In short, are we making the teaching and learning of new language the absolute centre of our practice? And if not, then why not?
To wrap up this rambling ranting post, I’ll go right back to where I started from.
I am proud to call myself a TEACHER first and foremost. I am also, however, a man of The Left, hence my annoyance at the Thatcherite tag. I would argue all day long that having clear goals which can be stated before a student buys into a course, having high expectations of what my students can achieve in terms of language load, and giving students regular (soft AND hard) tests in order to help them see how they’re doing and what they’ve got for the money they’ve invested are acts of The Left as well. They are rooted in a desire for collective improvement and in a belief that the powers-that-be have a duty of care to those entrusted to them. These beliefs also, though, come with a clear-eyed acceptance of the long hard route to competence – and see little point in hiding this reality from students. To insist on the process over the product is to deny this reality, and to me is little short of professional irresponsibility.