It really isn’t that hard to learn how to teach. Or should I say, a teacher can be trained to stand in a classroom without making an absolute idiot of themselves within about a week, from a standing start. For something which is only actually relevant for a very small proportion of a teacher’s career, training seems to generate a disproportionate amount of discussion.  The pre-service teacher or the teacher spending the first few months in the classroom needs to be drilled in ‘the fundamentals’*, but beyond that the teacher is largely in need of development rather than training **. Guidance or mentoring from senior staff, advice and hints from colleagues in the staff room, encouragement from peers in formal or informal communities – development rarely takes place alone, but it is often initiated and directed alone. After the first year or two this often becomes a practical necessity, but I suspect is also what most of us prefer.

As so many of us plan our own professional pathways, we need to know what we are aiming at. Something of which we are infrequently reminded is that we will stumble off the path on a fairly regular basis. Teachers fail. For example.

A new class is misjudged early in the course and the teacher gets stuck in a cycle of student demotivation.

A teacher changes context (new institution, new country, new…) and finds his or her hard-won expertise meaningless.

After attempting to implement too many innovations, a teacher burns out with exhaustion.

Many longitudinal studies by mainstream education specialists and sociologists have followed teachers to identify developmental patterns and life cycles. ELT has its own too, notably Rose Senior’s “The Experience of Language Teaching“. This blog has been up for nine months now, and I have been promising a review of the book after which it is named – Michael Huberman’s “The Lives of Teachers“, a study of 160 secondary school teachers in Switzerland. If you were at IATEFL 2010 you will know that Tessa Woodward has done the job for me. If you weren’t, or you missed the plenary, or something, you really ought to watch it here.

What I particularly like about Huberman’s study is its recognition of failed outcomes, dead ends and dangerous trajectories. Self-doubt, personal crisis, lassitude, disenchantment, apathy… all possible or even likely stages in the life of a teacher. Stability can be rewarded with stagnation, rather than harmony and satisfaction. Expertise is not a permanent state, and teachers can easily slip back to previous stages of development. Everyone ends in disengagement. If you are lucky, it is serene. If not, bitter.

These are not the little failures of the novice who forgets to set up a listening, or speaks too quickly, or doesn’t know how to field an unexpected question. After a time (and given a full teaching schedule) such mechanical issues are resolved and many of the processes of teaching become automatised. If they don’t, this may spark a crisis, not uncommon after the first two years of teaching. In ELT the teacher/tourist may quit before reaching either proficiency or crisis – without, even, the concepts crossing his or her mind….

For those who continue in the profession, and reach a certain level of expertise, the next danger area is in the eight to ten year bracket. Stagnation, exhaustion or a full-blown existential crisis are all possibilities. The potential stimuli for difficult periods change as one goes through life as a teacher, but are always there.

If you are new to the profession, or in a sticky patch at the moment, I apologise. But this post is not supposed to be a negative one (or a patronising one). My point (via Huberman) is that by accepting the inevitability of difficulties, by being aware of the danger zones in the career cycle and how particular vulnerabilities manifest themselves, we have a far greater chance of reducing their impact, getting through them more quickly, and perhaps (just perhaps) avoiding them altogether.

“The teacher who had not experienced one or more difficult periods in his career was very rare…. In effect, the ‘fickle’ nature (of triggers) meant that teaching moments of exhilaration are just as fragile and ephemeral as moments of distress…. ” (p. 257)

Or shall we say, the distress is just as ephemeral as the exhilaration?


* Although even this can be approached in a more self-directed fashion. A nice link here with Tessa Woodward, too – the unplugged CELTA concept has a flavour of loop input to me.

** This refers largely to EFL or ESL teachers, who I believe are largely responsible for their own development from the very beginning – financially and practically. If we consider postgraduate degrees or diplomas to be formalised development rather than training, then I can only count five weeks of training in ten years of my own career. However, I would be interested to hear from UK ESOL, which I understand to have a much more standardised system as part of mainstream education. I would also love to know about training programmes in larger institutions such as International House and the British Council.

A guest post by the mysterious Sputnik of The Tesla Coil, on A Book You Should Read.  Number two in the series, then, is a little book about chunks…..

‘Most people would succeed in small things,’ observed Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, ‘ if they were not troubled with great ambitions.’  This may certainly prove to be the ultimate fate of Michael Lewis’s classic 1993 work The Lexical Approach.  It was certainly not untroubled by great ambitions, as it proclaimed in its subtitle: The State of ELT and a Way Forward.  Such hubris, of course, grated with a few of the initial reviewers, for whom the subtitle announced an implicit condescension towards the existing ELT status quo, as if it really said, Everything is Wrong and I’ll Show You How to Make It Right.  Anca M. Nemoianu, for example, writing in TESL-EJ, complained of ‘the signs of distrust, and sometimes even disregard, for language teachers attitudes, knowledge, and classroom practices’ (August 1994, 1:2).  For me, however, the appeal of the book lies precisely in its vaunting ambition, its avowed purpose to lead us from the valley of professional darkness and into an enlightened state where we know what we are supposed to do, how we are supposed to do it, and why.

The first part of the book is nothing short of a relentless series of prompts.  Penned in the fiercest interrogative mode ever seen in the genteel and generally windless world of ELT field manuals, it is a quasi-cavilling, probing, harassing sort of questioning which compels the reader to undertake an anxious self-examination.  If Descartes famously holed himself up in the snug confines of a giant oven in order to arrive at the founding principles of Western philosophy in Discours de la Methode, it is not difficult to imagine Lewis composing his masterpiece in the more rebarbative circumstances of an infantry trench or a North Sea trawler.  It is deeply uncomfortable.  Assuming the guise of an Old Testament God, Lewis heaps scorn on the unprincipled teacher (yes, imagine – an unprincipled teacher), chastises the unthinking, and laments the fortunes of those whose classroom practice does not mirror ‘the values they claim to espouse’ (p.32).

Should the reader wish to become principled, he has to submit to a kind of coruscating doubt not dissimilar to the process adopted by Descartes.  With the combined admonitory talents of a  worried parent and a sergeant-major, Lewis asks us to reconsider some of the most cherished assumptions in ELT.  Don’t we, he urges, over-value explanations, structure, product and speaking?  Do we know why?  Shouldn’t we, perhaps, stress the importance of exploration, lexis, process, and listening just a little more instead?  In fact, shouldn’t we ask more questions, and stop rehearsing answers for which we can provide little or no philosophical or empirical underpinning?  Eh?

This, then, is the crux of the book.  It espouses a willingness, like all great dialectical thought, to attend to details and, by so doing, see in them the bigger picture itself.  This bigger picture is the approach of the title.  An approach , he remarks, ‘is an integrated set of theoretical and practical beliefs, embodying both syllabus and method.  More than either, it involves principles which in the case of language teaching, reflect the nature of language itself and the nature of learning’ (p.2).  It is not, in other words, a set of recipes for the classroom; rather, it is an elaboration of the precepts by which you might make them and the syllabuses in which they are contained.  The depth of this approach can be measured by its attention to the very tropes we utilise to describe language.  Lewis rails against the ubiquitous atomistic metaphor of the machine which governs our understanding of linguistic phenomena, and implores us to adopt an holistic one of the organism in its stead.

But, again, this book is so much more.  It is a wholly intemperate and inabstinent beast, immoderately invoking and provoking so many ideas it exceeds the summarising brief on the first few pages.  Lewis makes the case for this ideational largesse very explicitly, but was it too much for a profession which countenanced a four-week course as its entry qualification?    How did he hope to persuade the entire teaching nation with such a principled stance?  Nearly two decades after its publication, many of Lewis’s ideas have entered the mainstream – chunking, collocation, and a focus on sub- and supra-sentential grammar have all, to some extent, been adopted for use in textbooks and classrooms.  However, many more have not.  For example, how many of us have disregarded his reproof that teaching the conditionals, will as the future, reported speech, and the passive is ‘neither more nor less than nonsense’ (p.146)?  Of greater primacy is the failure of the lexical approach itself to change the manner in which we think about and teach language.  It has undone none of the suasiveness of the grammar-based syllabuses which still predominate in class and text.  Nor has it retarded the exam juggernaut.  And how many NESTs would retain their positions if they abandoned speaking as the central feature of their classes?

This raises the question of the role of thinkers like Michael Lewis in ELT.  Forming a nexus between teachers, textbook writers and more abstract university researchers in linguistics and education, such free-wheeling intellectuals or ELTerati are a rare but precious breed.  They have not only to amass an empire of research but also to find a practical expression for it and then persuade the teaching masses to use it.  Persuasiveness in teaching often has more to do with instinct and practicality than ideas.   Perhaps Teaching Collocation: Further Developments in the Lexical Approach, published in 2000, was a recognition of this problem and an attempt to address it so as to make it more likely that the lexical approach would achieve a kind of teaching critical mass.  It is certainly a more amiable read, and more practical than its elder sibling.  However, for a bracing encounter with a blazing mind working at its most acute, The Lexical Approach  is hard to beat.

Thanks Sputnik… and over to the mob to answer your question. Whither the thinker in ELT?

And I’ll throw in another for luck. Where is the line between grammar and vocabulary these days? Cheers!

Some eye-openers….

In 2003 an estimated 1500 Master’s programmes were offered in English in countries where English is not the first language.

In 2005 about 20,000 American schoolchildren were receiving e-tutoring support from India.

More than 60% of transnational companies see China as the most attractive location for R&D

A study in 2000 found that over 300 languages were being spoken in the schools of London.

74% of interactions in English do not involve a native speaker of English.

More of a report than a book, Graddol manages to cover an incredible breadth and scope of  research and uses it to provide pithy and well-considered analysis. If only more academics could be so concise….

The mobility of people, money and information has been increasing since the nineteenth century. Are we reaching a point at which English becomes ubiquitous, and it’s teaching unnecessary?

Several basic assumptions are challenged as Graddol tries to make sense of the state of the world now and in the past, in order to posit his predictions. One is the accepted history of English as a hero, battling the French and coming out triumphant (history filtered through the lens of the nineteenth century empire builders). Another is the modernist idea of history as constant change – he suggests that we are in a transitional period, a shift, which started with the industrial revolution and is still underway. These ways of looking at globalisation, as both a cause and effect of international English, help us to see where we are going. This is a debate which needs the heat slapped out of it with the cold hand of reason.

In the next section, Graddol focuses on the past and present of English teaching. The EFL tradition, he informs us, is designed to produce failure; pedagogically in it’s unrealistic aims of native-like pronunciation and grammatical accuracy, and socially and politically as a gate-keeping device to keep people ‘outside’. ESL, ESOL, CLIL, and especially ELF, all get more favourable feedback in the acronym soup race.

For teachers, Graddol’s policy implications are sobering, terrifying, exciting and / or liberating. But they are perfectly believable. Native speakers are a hindrance to the growth of English. By 2050 there may be very few English learners at all, besides the very young or those with special needs. Bilinguals will not be at an advantage; Rather, monolinguals of ANY language will pay the penalty.

The conclusion is this – this is a time of great opportunity, which could just as easily be buggered up by those shaping decisions. The time is certainly done for old fashioned quibbles about which variety of English we should be teaching. That ship has sailed, mate!

Don’t take my word for it. Two great things this book has going for it before you crack it’s metaphorical spine. First off, it’s short. But better than that, it’s free to download. Go and read it now and come back and comment when you are done.

(Update – 26/4/2010: Comments disabled due to huge spammage! Please email if you have anything to add!)

Despite the pleasures of the blogosphere and the twitterverse, I generally prefer to take my literature in paper form. A cup of tea, a digestive biscuit and a good book. The quiet hush of the library and the musty aroma of slightly damp academics. The per-lunk of a freshly-minted journal as it drops through the letter box.

I took to writing book reviews a couple of years back, partly for the free books, partly to get a few things published and on the CV, but mainly to motivate myself to read more and read more critically. It is a different experience to read a book from front to back with a highlighter pen, a biro and a scrap of paper to make notes, and generally I find it very rewarding.

However, published reviews are generally limited to the current… books which are not more than a year or two old. So, I’ve decided to start an ongoing series of reviews on this blog – old books, books which didn’t quite hit the mainstream, books which can start fights, books which deserve a wider audience, books from outside the field of ELT which are nevertheless pertinent, or books which you really should just read!

I have a little stack of books in my office which I intend to attack over the coming weeks and months, but I would also love to hear from YOU. This seems a ripe series for guest postings – pick a book off your shelf that we all need to know about, write your reasons why in as few or as many words as you feel appropriate, and send it to me…..