Technology and principles in language teaching
Over the coming months, I’m going to try and start blogging about a whole range of different websites and technologies that I’ve been looking at and experimenting with in the classroom, and to offer up a critical eye on their usefulness.
To get started on this particular strand, though, here’s a guest post by my co-author on the OUTCOMES And INNOVATIONS series, Andrew Walkley, which draws heavily on a talk he did at Glasgow IATEFL this year and which frames where I think we both feel the whole discussion about technology in teaching should be headed.
“Technology won’t replace teachers, but teachers who use technology will replace those that don’t!” At least that’s what I was reliably informed by a rather stern and serious ex-colleague of mine about ten years ago. Now many of you reading this may well share her evangelical faith, whilst perhaps some may even believe tech WILL ultimately replace us all. We live in an era in which teachers are regularly pigeonholed as digital non-natives or as digitally illiterate, whilst British Council inspectors visiting schools in the UK often comment negatively on the lack of technology being used both within and outside of the classroom.
The aim of this post is to question these ideas – not out of any inherently anti-technology tendencies, but as a way to consider general principles of teaching – both WITH technology and without – and also to support good low-tech teachers, of whom there are many.
I’m going to be making six main points: using tech in and of itself means neither good nor bad teaching – and in a sense the discussion about the rise of technology has detracted from any wider discussion of principles; technology has created a burgeoning cult of the amateur – and the pseudo-democratic rhetoric that has facilitated this has the potential to ultimately backfire on us all; tech has ushered in a glut of so-called authentic texts – videos, websites, newspaper articles and so on – and I’ll be arguing that this isn’t necessarily a good thing; fourthly, I’ll ponder the problem of price. Even if you believe that tech and content CAN be welded together well, the issue of who pays – and how – is a huge one. Next up, I’ll be suggesting that technology isn’t INHERENTLY motivating. Any of you believing it to be so may well be better off developing other, broader, approaches to motivating your students! Nor, sadly, is technology any kind of magic bullet. It will not cure all our students’ ills – and can never hide the harsh reality that there are NO short-cuts in language learning and teaching! Finally, I’ll be suggesting that while we clearly DO need to find ways of increasing interactivity, Interactive Whiteboards (IWBs) are often NOT the solution. I then hope to round off with an overview of some principles that can aid and assist our pursuit of hi-tech classes, but which can also be used to justify the NON use of tech as well.
So let’s begin at the beginning and state that simply using tech does NOT mean good teaching – and, similarly, NOT using it does not mean bad! Bad teachers can be tech users! The tech-obsessed teacher that provided me with my opening quote was on more than one occasion described as ‘cruel’ – an astounding adjective for a teacher to be labelled with, if you stop and think about it! I’ve seen classes suffer slow death by Powerpoint and plenty of examples of students interacting with technology, but NOT with each other! Positive interactivity is in no way tech dependent! Indeed, tech can even get in its way!
The bottom line is that we are LANGUAGE teachers and should, by definition, ensure that first and foremost it is language we are teaching! We shouldn’t be teaching digital literacy because it’s a life skill any more than we should teach cooking. Teaching LANGUAGE to help students use facebook or to send texts in English IS our role, but there’s no essential need for use to be using to technology any more than students have to make dinner in order to learn language for talking about cooking.
Part of the problem is that the vast bulk of new technologies for ELT are based on OLD – and I would argue discredited – theories of language. Many of the sites recommended by gatekeepers such as Russell Stannard and Nik Peachey focus very much on grammar rules and lists of single words and their meanings. Now, whether it’s intentional or otherwise, there are hints of a theoretical approach to language implicit in such sites: grammar and vocabulary are generally seen as being separate; usage is relatively unimportant; lexical sets abound; skills are at least as important as language itself; learning should be ‘fun’! There’s a very restricted view of language and usage inherent in these sites, often predicated on a desire for – and a focus on – creativity. Technology fits this well. It also falls into the trap of believing that more means better: here are fifty-six vocabulary exercises for my students to do online. They’re fun! They’re free. Surely if they do them all, they’ll get better, won’t they? Well, not necessarily.
Part of the problem of course is that ANYONE can write stuff and stick it online. Indeed, it is the two-way relationship, this reciprocity, which is at the heart of Web 2.0’s appeal. Web 2.0 blurs the boundary between user and creator. As a result, all manner of material is written, uploaded and then downloaded and used. Even sites that we tend to see as more reliable feature material that’s clearly been neither edited nor critiqued.
This creeping amateurism is infecting all areas of our profession. Now, of course, you may well believe that none of this matters; that the benefit of this natural abundance is that the cream will float to the top. However, such a view is naive. At best, what this all leads to is a lack of course coherence, an absence of in-built grading and recycling, a bitty-ness, a poverty of materials: all in pursuit of a magical dream, the dream of a free coursebook infinitely malleable and tailored to each individual teacher’s and student’s needs. But let’s get real. A book with the staying power and influence of, say, HEADWAY will NEVER be free. There’s too much labour and craft and research and investment that goes into any coursebook for it to ever be gifted away – and perhaps we would all do well to be more appreciative of what we have, whilst we still have it!
Similarly, as dictionary sales continue to plummet year on year and more and more if us are happy to rely on online amateur knock-offs based on plagiarism and Wikis, we run the very real risk of inadvertently killing off real lexicography for good! To sum up, whilst dictionaries, corpora and – to some extent – coursebooks focus on the most frequent words and collocations in the language, and on how these items are used, web sources are inevitably ungraded, whilst vocabulary tools either give no indication of frequency or else lead students to learn vocabulary extremely inappropriate to their level. Furthermore, pressure for ‘currency’ means template-written exercises rather than crafted materials for learning. Limited training often means unfocused use of web sources and bad learning. So, in short, the cult of the amateur can undermine: expertise, the publishing process, course coherence AND language and learning principles!
The focus on grammar rules + words + skills is not new, of course, and it’s not too far-fetched to suggest that this is one of the reasons why the Web has been embraced. When you focus on rules, interesting contexts and ‘variety’ become more important than possible usage. When skills are separated from language, any text deemed ‘interesting’ will do, irrespective of language. practising the skills become the goal, but as Jim Scrivener pointed out recently, doing things is NOT the same as teaching. The Web is just an infinite range of stuff to do!
One final point to make here is that just because a text is taken from the Web it’s not necessarily any more useful, real, motivating or ‘authentic’ than a text written specifically for language learners. Henry Widdowson and Guy Cook, among a great many others, have questioned the still dominant view of authenticity that exists within ELT. A specially written text that supports language learning and promotes discussion, such as those often found in coursebooks, can be at least as authentic to learners are something sourced online before tomorrow morning’s class! Rather than thinking about texts as authentic or inauthentic, we’d be better off thinking about how we intend to get the class we’re teaching to authenticate texts we are using: using texts to teach language is, in a language classroom, an authentic use; we also need to consider the degree to which the language we are focusing on is relevant – both in terms of its frequency and in terms of the outcomes we are trying to achieve; do students get the chance to exchange ideas and feelings around the text and does it encourage them to relate to culture and / or diversity – and finally, do they get the chance to authenticate (or personalise) the language taught via the text. If so, then all is well and good.
Now, let’s move on to consider time and cost. Sadly, all too often, the time invested in learning about new sites that could be used, in setting things up on them and then running them – which may well involve also training students how to use them – is very much the teacher’s own. I saw a presentation by a young teacher at Spain TESOL last year in which she talked about her blog projects with classes. When questioned, she admitted she only found time to do all of this astounding work by sitting up late into the night and by working weekends. Now, it may well be that these Herculean efforts were met with enthusiasm and gratitude from students, but they nevertheless set all manner of unhealthy precedents: schools take it for granted that motivated teachers will do this stuff in their own time; teachers set themselves high standards they will have to continue to match time-wise to gain repeat satisfaction, and colleagues who DON’T want to invest these hours in tech are made to look bad in comparison – or, even more insultingly, are labelled technologically illiterate!
We need to be clear and vocal about the fact that in order to use tech, teachers need to be trained and need to practise. Writing good materials takes time and expertise. Extending learning outside the classroom often leads to an extension of the teachers’ working day! Advocates of tech often appear to be more or less workaholics, happy to do this for free. Are we really saying that a ‘good’ teacher is only one who is prepared to work overtime for free? On top of all that, there’s the issue of the use of classroom time. Time is often needed to set students up and get them running with tech. Tech breaks down and takes time to fix. These issues are often underplayed in discussions about the use of tech in teaching – and I would argue that we need to be asking whether this precious time could not be put to better use!
Next, I’d like to consider the suggestion that tech motivates. We’re frequently told we’re teaching screenagers, but our students are only screenagers when using facebook to sort out a meet-up with friends or to post comments on recently uploaded photos. They’re NOT screenagers twenty-seven / 365. Indeed, some recent research has questioned even our most basic assumptions about the so-called Net generation. In a report funded by the Economic and Social Research Council, Dr Christopher Jones from The Open University, claimed – and I quote – that “there is no clear link between the use of technologies for social and leisure purposes, and the ability to use them for educational purposes. Neither is there a clear link between using universal technological services, and the ability to use the particular services that students are required to engage with at university. Essentially, being able to use Facebook does not necessarily mean that you’ll be able to effectively search for a journal article. Things that students might do in their social lives do not easily translate into an educational context.”
Some argue that the use of tech is motivating in itself, but the fact that many students simply won’t use a tool or learn online unless it’s assessed suggests otherwise. There’s obviously also no evidence to suggest that students who make use of tech wouldn’t have been motivated to use non-tech solutions to learn in previous lives! Motivated students are motivated full stop.
Regardless of any of this, students do still need to make time to study if they are to learn. And we have a responsibility to ensure they are aware of this. Learning words from a notebook is no more or less easy than accessing them on a mobile. The choice still needs to be made to sit and learn as opposed to doing something more pleasurable or urgent to the person concerned. We might also ask why students come to class at all if technology is really so motivating. Why not just skip class and stay at home and use tech? I’d suggest it’s because they want to set time aside to learn, to have guidance to learning useful things and to have the opportunity to exchange ideas and feelings in English!
Disturbingly, plenty of recent research seems to be suggesting that our increased use of the Internet is actually hindering our attempts to learn better. In a 2011 paper, Betsy Sparrow from Columbia University claimed Google is altering the way our memories work as we increasingly tend to recall location rather than content. Whilst there may be advantages to this in some fields, in language learning it’s clearly a definite downside! In a similar way, DeStefano and Lefevre, in a 2005 study into reading and recall found that students reading articles online or via Kindle-type devices scored significantly worse than those reading old-fashioned paper versions, both in terms of recall of content and also in terms of noticing of language. They argued that this may well be down to the fact that hypertext serves as a distractor and increases cognitive load. In short, we need to be very wary of assuming fun and easy = better and more effective!
Finally, there’s the myth that somehow technology makes our classrooms more interactive. The great hope has been that the optimistically entitled Interactive whiteboards will facilitate greater interactivity. yet far too often, in classes I observe, IWBs are simply used as giant held-up coursebooks, as another form of crowd control. Interactivity in the classroom has to happen between teacher and students – and among students themselves – not through technology! Partly we can achieve through asking interactive questions!
So there we go. This seems to be where we currently are – and if you’re happy with the status quo, then that’s fine. However, things don’t have to be this way. I’d like to move on to suggest that rather than worrying about tech or non-tech per se, we’d do well to first consider what our basic principles as language teachers are – and to use tech (or, of course, reject it) accordingly.
The Common European Framework suggests some eminently sensible core principles for language teaching, as you can see here. We need to teach towards the business of everyday life, to help students exchange ideas and feelings – and to understand other cultures better. In addition, we need to define worthwhile and realistic objectives, base teaching and learning on the needs, characteristics and resources of learners and develop appropriate methods and materials.
When it comes to principles for learning, I’d suggest there are essentially only five steps that are compulsory: you need to understand meaning, you need to notice language – both form and usage, you need to hear new language, you need to do something with it and then you need to repeat these first four steps!
This leads us on to some core principles for thinking about vocabulary: real usage is important; grammar and vocabulary are inter-dependent; vocabulary is ultimately more important than grammar; better skills come from a better knowledge of language; students’ wants, needs and current abilities should determine level, not a canon of grammar; and frequency and thought about outcomes should determine vocabulary input, rather than just convenient ‘sets’!
Out of all of this, we can extract some kind of mission statement about teaching. At University of Westminster, our ethos is as follows: we need to ensure our classrooms are language rich; that this language is useful; we try to use our students as resources; we encourage the exchange of ideas and feelings; we help students recognise and understand diversity and we make links to continued learning.
And finally, we have some principles for the use – or non-use – of technology: focus first on language and on outcomes; leave space for students; explore tech options, but always ask yourself if the results really merit the time spent on them and if a non-tech approach might not just as effective, if not more so – and don’t let workaholics be our role models.
There is, whether you realise it or not, more to life than teaching!