George Siemens’ recent post on this topic was a thought provoking one. I am not a man who holds particularly firm convictions (if you were feeling uncharitable you might call me a flip-flopper, but I prefer to say I am open minded). I don’t think Siemens is suggesting that these questions should be locked away and never re-examined, but it seems useful to take a step back and figure out what you have learnt. As I write, I am pretty sure about the following things.

  1. Teachers need to find a personal voice. There are many ways, but not all of them work for all teachers. Your own style must be congruent with your (sub-concious) beliefs.
  2. Students also need to reflect frequently on what they are doing and why. Indeed, it is their primary responsibility.
  3. You try it first, then I’ll help you fix it. I’m not going to tell you how to do it from the beginning.
  4. I would rather tailor my classes to allow the most enthusiastic students to flourish. Setting passing criteria drags everyone down. If you ask students to read five books, they will all read about five. If you ask them to read as many as they can, some of them will read twenty five.
  5. Education is a very dangerous treadmill, because students and teachers alike quickly forget why they are on it. Tests, textbooks and syllabi are supposed to serve learning, not the other way round.
  6. Technology is providing teachers and learners with all manner of marvellous opportunities, too fast for large institutions like publishing houses, universities and governments to keep up with. Too bad for them.
  7. English doesn’t belong to native speakers. I still don’t get how regional native varieties are considered ‘correct’ yet non-native varieties need to be fixed. If you can be clearly understood, your English is correct.
  8. Even the best teachers have bad days.

Now I am halfway through the second semester and I figured the students should know me pretty well. I put together this Teacher Beliefs discussion activity for some of my more advanced classes to find out. It was quite pleasing to find out that, generally, they do… and that in most regards we were in agreement.

Is there anything that you truly believe? Are you and your students aware of one another’s beliefs? Don’t take anything for granted…..

In the first, a tousled woman peers out of a darkened room into the bright sunlight, martini glass in hand, sunglasses shielding her eyes from the glare, stocking hitched, a bored socialite drenched in ennui. Her children will populate the early Bret Easton Ellis novels of the 1980’s, deadened by money, neglect and sex.

In the next picture, we see a beautiful woman on a city street. She looks concerned. Maybe she has $30,000 in her briefcase, ‘borrowed’ from the office safe. She might be worried about her lover (James Stewart, perhaps?) who has been acting strangely recently. It’s possible that she is being followed by a portly gentleman with a distinctive profile. Whatever, she’s a smart woman in trouble.

These are 8 x 10 stills from B-movies you have seen before. At least, you’ve seen films like them. You won’t have seen these particular films because they were never made. They are a part of a sixty-nine frame series created by the artist Cindy Sherman in the late 1970’s, each of which she starred in herself as heroine, starlet, woman in danger, sex kitten, sophisticate, ingenue…

Sherman has continued to use herself as a subject, transforming herself into ridiculously-breasted virgin mothers, sinister clowns and fairy tale goblins. This not-quite-first series, however, is her simplest and most direct – both visually and thematically. The artist is an actress, and she plays ‘types’…. vaguely familiar, known but unknown.

Korean artist Nikki S. Lee has gone a step further in her immersion, as a guerrilla method actor, like Sherman not a photographer but an artist who uses photography to capture her conceptual or performance art. She places herself entirely into her context and collects snapshots as an archetype archaeologist.

That’s archetype rather than stereotype. Whilst the stereotype is cliched, oversimplified, tired, the archetype is the quintessential embodiment of an ideal. The archetype represents a universal, instantly recognisable to anyone. One might say it’s just a question of positioning. Nevertheless, archetypes are common features in literature, in psychology, in cinema, as shorthand to help us understand and connect to narratives. The Child, The Shadow, The Devil, The Sage, The Mentor.

Lately, I’ve noticed archetypes emerge in my classroom. I have been teaching some of the same classes for three years now, and although the students change every year…. in many ways they don’t. Classes from the same department have a familiar charater and chemistry year on year. I am wary of allowing this to become a self-fulfilling prophecy, but as far as curriculum development goes (the narrative of teaching) I can work my story around certain archetypal characters before they actually arrive in my care.

Is this dangerous? Are there archetypes in your classroom? What are they, and do you use them to your advantage?

About a week ago I wrote about an experiment in silence with a class, and promised to come back with a report on the students’ reactions. It really was quite enlightening. This is what we all learnt.

1. A particular result may not mean what you think it means
Looking back through the many comments on my previous post (which was one of the most commented upon I have posted) it is interesting to see that we, as teachers, slightly misread the whole situation. As professionals, committed to our students, caring about them deeply, we all assumed that the end result (constant discussion in L1) springs from the joy of freedom, the taking up of responsibility and other positive emotions. Actually, according to the students, they were terrified.

“We actually thought that you were angry at us and abandoned us because we use too much Japanese in class.”

“I took it for granted that you were angry and you didn’t want to give our class.”

I don’t know where this leaves Krashen. Despite the cause being the negative emotion of fear, the result was very positive.

“To do task without your help was difficult for me. However, I were able to hear much English. And I could speak more in English than usual!”

“…if we have no teachers, we must think how we should study. However,this situation is very important to us too I think. Actually we try to look for the answer more harder than usual. I spoke in English more ,moreover I heared more opinions of them than usual. Though we had much difficulties, it was very interesting to me.”

Of course, anyone who has met me in real life will find this fear highly amusing. Teaching teenagers we do sometimes need to wield a big stick. However, I don’t want this to be the dominant motivating force in my classroom, which leads us onto our next point.

2. Although mystery can be effective, we must ultimately provide transparency

When the students realised what I was trying to do, they were very happy. This was a vital step in the experiment – revealing the mystery.

“But I read your comment , you tried to see our class from all kinds of directions.”

“After reading this article, I noticed you care about us more than I expected. So I’m happy that you are our teacher!”

“We were so puzzled! Me, K., M.,and M. were discussing about ゙what’s happening!?゙ through out the whole class.
K. and I were even talking about it the rest of the day!”

So had I left the class cold, with no feedback or no discussion of what had happened, the positives of confusion may have caused longer-term damage to the rapport we have been building. I kept the next class very light, and the students kept up their good habits from the previous class.

3. Perceived teacher beliefs do not always reflect actual classroom practice

If you had asked me before this class if I believed in learner autonomy and a hands-off teaching approach, I would have given you an emphatic yes. But what I was actually doing in the class belied this. It was only by removing myself completely from the lesson that I could see how students had been relying on me to prompt them, feed them and cajole them into using the language. In the last week, I have given many of my classes similar opportunities and they have all surprised me by speaking fluently in English for as longer than I expected.  Had I been unwittingly restricting learner autonomy by doing too much, by jumping in too soon, by shutting down an activity simply because I was ready to go on to the next one?

This is why I think reflective practice has never been done properly in mainstream ELT literature. The questions we are prompted to ask ourselves are always the same, and we end up giving the answers we think we should. What was good and bad about that lesson? Why did that activity succeed or fail? We will never really know unless we break the mirror and try to rearrange the pieces.

An invitation to experiment, then. This weekends homework – choose a class and do something you never usually do. Then report back and tell us how it went and what it revealed.

Two days after I first arrived in Japan, on my first day of a week-long training period, I was awarded the title sensei. You are probably familiar with the word, which is usually loosely translated as teacher in English. In Japanese, it can be used to refer to any professional or expert in a particular field. A doctor, an artist, a poet, all can be a sensei. So, what made me a sensei? My passport, my eye colour? In a private Japanese language school, basically, yes. Having said that, there were some fine teachers there – they were kind, friendly, smart… and with no official teaching qualifications whatsoever they were able to help their students learn.

When I returned to the UK, I was qualified to teach at a university thanks to my CELTA certificate. This time, I had colleagues who were not native-speakers of English. Of course, English Language instructors are not necessaily afforded the same wages and conditions as teachers in other university departments… people who have never studied teaching at all, not even for four weeks.  A historian, for example, just has to demonstrate that they know a lot about their subject. They are not required to prove they can teach it. So a teacher has to have subject knowledge to be considered a true professional?

Now I am in the higher education system in Japan, and the entry level qualification is a masters degree. It used to be unimportant what that degree was in, but now more and more schools expect it to be in English, Applied Linguistics or a related field. Competition is such that a doctorate is increasingly useful, and it is expected that teachers publish and present fairly regularly. A DELTA, whilst handy, is not well recognised. In order to call oneself a teacher, then, research is a high priority.

I don’t know enough about the UK Further Education sector, but from what I can gather there are an incredible number of hoops to jump through in order to qualify. Every ESOL teacher I have ever met, as well as being very nice, has also been in the middle of some nationally standardised training course or another. Perhaps standardisation is the key. We need to be sure that our teachers can fit into a qualification structure?

So what gives someone the right to call themselves a teacher? Because the last one was so much fun, I’ve made a poll… but this time you can vote for as many as you like. The real game is in the comments box though, so get stuck in! I’d also like to know what you have to do to be called a teacher where you are.

(By the way, I never worked at the school advertising above! My company employed teachers of all races, as long as they were native English speakers, or proficient Japanese speakers of English. Click on the picture to read more about the dodgier side of the industry)

You may not be in such a slump as poor George Costanza, but why wait? The life of a teacher is characterized by peaks and troughs, by breakthroughs, epiphanies, bad days, difficult classes, critical incidents and culture bumps. But these things are GOOD things, because the worst thing that can possibly happen to a teacher is stagnation. Early on in our teaching life, we are too busy figuring out the basics to worry about anything else. But after that? As Frances Fuller (1969, 1974) describes, our concerns change… from self, to task, to impact. We start by asking “Am I adequate?”, move on to “Is this activity working?” and (hopefully) end up with “How are the learners?”. Achievement of a state of stability is a  both a blessing and a curse, however.

Trainers spend so much time with pre-service or novice teachers that those of us later in our careers (and I speak as someone who has actually only been teaching for ten years) are left to our own devices. Which is fine. I am happy to direct my own development… why would I be sitting here writing this, otherwise?

Part of the way we can continue working happily as a teacher is by shaking things up before we get bored. In my research into teacher development during changes in context, I was very interested to see how often ELT professionals moved on – from one institution to another, from one country to another – to fend off the impending stagnation. Any anxiety and difficulty created by the change was compensated for by the invigorating power of ‘the opposite’.

I recognise the fact that TEFLers don’t always get a choice in these matters. But I would tenetively suggest that some of us are grateful for the chance to wipe the slate clean and start anew. Do those of us attracted to the industry have shorter attention spans than teachers in mainstream education?

But if you don’t fancy moving to a new continent, or you have ties and responsibilities that make that difficult, how do you avoid getting into a rut? Well, George’s advice still holds good. Try the opposite. If you usually stand up, sit down for your lesson. If you are a great whiteboard artist, leave it blank next week. Don’t give any homework, or set loads. Teach a class without a textbook, or fire-up a laptop.

But, whatever you do, don’t let yourself get bored!

A serious question on twitter this week, which I couldn’t answer in 140 characters. So, here is the full answer.

Don’t you just love being pigeon-holed? I’m a gen Xer, who grew up on three kinds of video – game, nasty and pop. Before me, the baby boomers. And after? Generation Y – the millennials. Students in university now, and young teachers in training, are the so-called ‘digital natives’. For them, traditional teaching methods are boring and inaccessible. We need to reach them differently, through the technology they are used to. Otherwise, we are doing them a disservice.

Or are we?

Don’t get me wrong. I love a good gadget. I’ll happily tinker with internet tools for hours on end. I am not afraid of technology. I agree that, in general,  “the youth” are more techno-literate than the old. But not all of them. And more importantly, not necessarily in the ways that we understand.

The myth of the generation gap

I know, I know… you can prove anything with statistics. And who knows how reliable these are? But it does seem that a lot of online social networking is being driven by those who should be old enough to know better. A third of tweeters are over 45 years old. The largest single group of facebookers are in the 45 – 54 age group. And yes, we can see that the very young are becoming more involved… but the so called digital natives who are supposed to be permanently plugged in? Not so much….

Where are you?

Of course, it could be that we digital immigrants are looking in the wrong places. We are getting all worked up about our brand-new web 2.0 when the kids are already on 4. The statistics which are most easily accessible are for North American teens in mainstream education contexts. But that is not who I am teaching – and if you are reading this, probably not who you are teaching either. Facebook means very little to my students. Twitter, even less. That is not to say that they are not using technology, but they are unlikely to be using the same technology as English speaking teens, or old people like you. In Japan, the most popular social software is mixi, and there is probably something similar in your local context. However, that in itself is a very limiting view of “digital nativism”

What does it even mean to be comfortable or proficient with technology?

Being comfortable with technology and willing to use it spreads far beyond internet tools, and the boundaries are blurring all the time. As online applications become more difficult to categorise (what is a ning?), so does the hardware which supports it. If you can watch movies on your computer, listen to music through a usb in your dvd player, and send emails from your mobile phone, what kind of crazy mixed up world are you living in?! But the mistake we make is to assume that all young students will be equally capable across the gamut of technology. This is simply not the case, either on a global to local scale, or within a classroom.

On a global to local scale, Japanese students do not react to technology in the same way as (for example) British students. I have never seen an interactive whiteboard (in use) in Japan. Wireless access is still quite uncommon. The mobile phone is quite a different animal, and the true technological and communications hub for the average Japanese person.

Critics of the technophiles often point out the unfair disadvantage that poorer nations have in educational technology, but Elwood and MacLean’s (2009) comparative study of Cambodian and Japanese students and their attitudes towards technology demonstrates that the relative strength of the economy does not necessarily correlate to techno-proficiency. Although availability and opportunity and age are factors, they are not the only factors.

Within the classroom differences are equally marked. In the academic year just gone, I had students who routinely recorded class discussions on their mobile phones for review, and used their phones to post to the class blog. I had students who put together very impressive powerpoint presentations without my input, and some who independently uploaded documents to the internet for classmates to check between classes. We made videos and animations together, and wrote online book reviews. On the other hand, I had students who could not format a word document correctly, who couldn’t send an email online without help, who couldn’t download pictures or comment on blogs. I thought the young people were supposed to be fluent… aren’t I supposed to be the one speaking with an accent?

A quick look on google scholar will toss up a number of interesting articles about “digital natives”, and the uncritical acceptance of the idea that “all kids are good with computers, so we should cater to them”. To be fair to Marc Prensky, who coined the concept in the first place, he himself has more recently talked of a cross-generational “digital wisdom”. Perhaps the best of the rebuttals is Bennett, Maton and Kervin (2008), who talk of the ‘moral panic’ of this generation gap. Teachers who don’t join in are lazy, out of touch or scared. True? Some of them, yes. But not all of them

So why use technology at all?

It is fair to say that not all young people are comfortable with all technologies. We might assume that they will become so after time, and as teachers we need to keep up. However, the rate of technological change and the demographics of uptake suggest that, now and in the future, most teachers and students will adopt new technologies at about the same time – when they make the mainstream TV news. People who are more adept at new technologies, and absorb them into their lives, may have an edge…. but why is it my responsibility to introduce such tools? I am an English teacher. Just an English teacher.

In a tweet? My answer is this.

It is wrong to assume that my students can only respond to technology, just because they were born in 1990 in an economic powerhouse.

Bennett, S., Maton, K. and Kervin, L. (2008),  ‘The ‘digital natives’ debate: A critical review of the evidence.’ British journal of educational technology Doi:10.1111/j.1467-8535.200700793.x

*extra points if you can place the title

I am a sucker for an analogy. Only this week I got contorted in a lengthy comparison of the plight of Southampton Football Club, starting the season on minus ten points but now powering up the third division, to a student who had missed the first few lessons and homeworks but had buckled down and caught up. I sense it went somewhere north of the head of my American colleague but no matter… I’m with George Lakoff when he claims that pretty much all human thought is expressed through metaphor.

It’s time for the mid semester reflections, to look back on what we have learnt, to reassess goals from the beginning of the semester and to galvanise for the final push, and I’ve been organising my materials ready for class. One of my favourite questions, and most enlightening, is the simple metaphor tester I open with. “A teacher is…. “, a “A learner is….” and “Language learning is…”. Unlike Dede Wilson (whose excellent article just dropped through my letter box wrapped up with a bunch of other good stuff in English Teaching Professional) I give the students no options, nor guidance. Nevertheless, regardless of level, the students have no problem grasping the concept and running with it … metaphor is a universal, after all.

Oxford et al. came up with a detailed taxonomy for these metaphors, but I’ll place them into just three categories. These are all common examples from previous classes.

1. Nuturing. Teacher as gardener, parent etc. Student as flower, child….

2. Controlling. Teacher as dog trainer, god etc. Student as dog, disciple…

3. Utility. Teacher as map, encyclopedia etc. Student as traveller, researcher…

There are a few things we can do with this. The first is to see which students match with our own metaphors as teachers, and which don’t. How are the students who see things differently performing? Are there discipline issues? Can we adjust our teaching to meet the needs of those students, or offer them support which fits with their beliefs about the learning process? I speculate that there is a strong correlation between metaphor choice and learner autonomy, for example.

But deeper than that, I wonder if the beliefs or the metaphor are the driving force. Can we, simply by reframing a metaphor, adjust the learners whole approach? If nothing else, it is the most immediate and direct method of raising the learners’ awareness of their own inner feelings about what they are doing.

Further Reading

Lakoff, G. & Johnson, M. (1980) Metaphors We Live By. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Oxford, R., Tomlinson, S., Barcelos, A., Harrington, C., Lavine, R.Z., & Saleh, A. (1998). Clashing metaphors about classroom teachers: Toward a systematic typology for the language teaching field. System 26(1), 3–50.

Wilson, D. (2009). Learning language is like… English Teaching Professional 65 (November), 18-19.

(and if you still want to know what a gift from a flower to a garden is, meditate on this)

Are all the debates about the best way to teach driven by the needs of individual teachers? For example, if a particular teacher can’t get out of bed in the morning, thinks youtube is an emergency plumbing service, and is fluent in the learners’ L1, what are the odds that the class instructions will be given in Spanish and taught with pencil, paper and whatever the teacher can find in his pockets? For the sake of balance, I should point out that his colleague down the hall can’t speak a word of the local lingo and stayed up till three last night playing “Xylagore IIX – Revenge of the Gigamarths” online, and that’s what his students will be focusing on today (and woe betide anyone who utters a word in “the foreign”).

Both teachers can find research by the bucket load which shows they are pedagogically sound. But perhaps they (and I mean we) ought to admit that they are working backwards. That is, they teach how they LIKE to teach and then select the information that supports them.

But here is the big question*. So what? Doesn’t a happy and enthusiastic teacher beat one who is fighting to teach against type, against her inner beliefs? Is it more important to be comfortable, than “sound”? Do the debates over the use or non-use of certain techniques, methods or tools actually matter?

*I know, there are four questions. But basically it is one question written four times for dramatic effect.