Last week my university – University of Westminster in Regent Street, in the centre of London – had its inaugural session for what we hope will become a series of teacher development talks by various TEFL celebs. Jeremy Harmer came down from Cambridge and did a session called The Myth of Multi-Tasking and the Force of Focus. Knowing – and liking – Jeremy from the conference circuit, I was both amused and intrigued to see he’d chosen such a title, as one of my abiding images of him is as a man singularly unable to focus firmly on a talk, preferring instead to tweet, retweet and so on throughout, a trend which seems to blight almost every talk I ever go to these days. Whatever happened to the good old days, you hear me asking, when none of this used to happen, and we all just whispered bitchy comments into the ears of whoever had the misfortune to be sat next to us?!
Anyway, after a fairly rambling first half-hour (or ‘discursive’, if you’d rather), the talk really got going and Jeremy started connecting his theme to the language classroom. He did something which I found very interesting: showed three teachers from different backgrounds and working in different contexts either teaching or talking and teaching and posed some key questions about one.
I’ll come to these questions in a moment, but first the three teachers: there was a young Irish guy working with (presumably – and, let’s face it, hopefully (!!)) an Elementary class of multilingual students. He got the students up and stood them in front of the class, and then gave each one a piece of paper with a word on it, a word the class could see but they could not. The words were Marianne’s / was / wedding / Yesterday / anniversary. The class has to shout out instructions to move the five students around until they stood in such a way that the sentence was complete. First they went for Marianne’s wedding anniversary was Yesterday – but then the teacher pointed out that Yesterday had a capital letter. After a lot more faffing around, they finally got into the correct positions and the sentence read Yesterday was Marianne’s wedding anniversary.
Next up was a very bouncy young Mexican teacher who talked about a web quest she’d been doing with her class. She asked the class to imagine they were going on holiday to Europe for a week and asked them to use the web to research where they wanted to go, and what they wanted to see and do while they were there. They had to find out where they’d stay, how they’d get about, and schedule each day’s sightseeing and activities. They also had to try and sort everything out on a very tight budget. They did all this at home and then next class, had a big discussion based on what they’d found out.
Finally, there was a German teacher who simply said that every week she gave her students four pages of vocabulary to learn and then every Thursday there was a test. The test might involve writing examples or definitions, giving synonyms or antonyms, or even giving translations.
The first thing Jeremy asked for was a show of hands for who really liked each idea, who quite liked and who didn’t like it. The first exercise got a fair few really likes and likes, and I was in the minority for not liking it. The second one proved the most popular, and I was very much in the minority for not really liking it very much. The third and final one was the part that stunned me though. Jeremy asked who like it and – in a room of over one hundred people – I was literally the only person who raised their hand!
We’ll come to the train of thought that this weird moment set in motion in a few minutes, but what was most interesting for me was the next question Jeremy asked: Now think about focus. Which of the lessons do you think was most FOCUSED. Tell a partner.
Now clearly, the first lesson had some kind of focus – syntax and possible options for word order in simple sentences. Watching it was fairly painful though, and brought back bad memories of the way one-month CELTA courses taught me to come up with long-winded and slightly infantilising ways of doing basically pretty simple things, all in the desperate name of FUN (in big screamy neon capital letters!) The second had a communicative goal, sure, but in terms of focus ON LANGUAGE, there was nothing transparent in anything the teacher had said to suggest this occurred. The third one, however, was surely by far and away the most focused in terms of language and goals and outcomes. Students were given a clear target, fixed times by which they were expected to have learned this by and a regular routine to provide a sense of progress. Now, I mean quibble about the exact nature of the tests used, especially with what sounded like an over-emphasis on single words / word lists and on the use of synonyms, etc. but as a general principle, it’s one I like and am down with.
What followed was a fascinating, but ultimately fairly depressing, exchange of thoughts around the audience. What seemed to emerge was two things: (1) a general belief that ‘fun’ is motivating and that tests, by definition, could never be and (2) a sense that progress in a language was better measured by simply being able to DO things, being able to achieve some kind of communicative task (no matter how badly!) than by acquiring new items. In fact, several comments seemed to almost suggest that learning for tests was a bad thing. “just because you can reproduce something in a test,” went one response, “it doesn’t mean you can use it in practice.” now obviously this is true, but as I pointed out, it also doesn’t mean you definitely CAN’T. And I’d bet the student that remembers the language for a test is more likely to later to be able to use that language than the student that fails to remember and reproduce it under test conditions.
I was reminded of a not-uncommon response I had to a talk I did last year called Activating memory in the language classroom (or, in the soft sense of the word, testing!) Anyway, I was talking about a technique I’ve been doing for years, where I get students in pairs to re-tell texts we did in previous classes and then elicit the texts from the whole class. Usually students remember content but forget language and what I try to do is interrupt this process of forgetting by forcing them face to face again with the actual language the meaning came wrapped in. I told a story about an amazing Chinese student I once had who became known as The Memory Queen in my class as she had a remarkable ability to remember texts almost word for word.
When I told this tale, there were always folk in the audience who saw this not as something to be admired, but somehow dangerous. “Just because she could parrot learn” they opined, “it doesn’t mean anything.”
Well, except of course that it does!
It means she’s not afraid of – and actually embraces even – the one hardest, truest and most unpalatable fact of learning a foreign language: progress is achieved word by word, collocation by collocation, chunk by chunk . . . and given this, surely one of the teacher’s main responsibilities is to make students aware of this harsh reality and to (first TEACH them and then) test them (in both a soft and a harder way) day after day after day to ensure progress is attained.
Over the ritual post-talk pint I had a lengthy and sometimes quite heated discussion about all of this with an old friend of mine, Simon Kent, whose coursebooks (Market Leader and Language Leader) both feature double-page spreads which are loosely task-based and in which the communicative goal takes precedence over a focus on specific linguistic items in every unit. Simon seemed appalled – and shocked – that I was advocating testing, and seemed to somehow see such notions as authoritarian, controlling, anti-student even.
I was left wondering where we have gone so wrong – and when and how did testing (and the structured continual acquisition of discrete pieces of knowledge it implies) become so despised.
This seems plenty long enough for a first real post, so I’ll leave it here for now. In coming posts, I’ll write more about how I think the current state of affairs came into being – and about signs of a slow sea change that I think are appearing. I’ll also post about ways in which I try to activate / test memory in my day-to-day teaching as well.
In the meantime, I’d really like to read your thoughts on anything I’ve written here.