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Demand-High in the FE Sector

January 20, 2013

When I was in Malaysia I met an American who had previously worked as an English teacher in a community college in New York. On moving to Kuala Lumpur he found work in a private language school, but quickly became disillusioned with attitudes to teaching and learning there. He felt that teachers in this school were expected to entertain their students, rather than teach them. “It should be about the students pleasing the teacher, not the teacher pleasing the students”, was his comment.

In Malaysia I was also making the move back from the public sector to a context where the primary aim of English courses was income generation. Sure enough, my colleagues seemed to be teaching lessons that were full of “find someone who” activities and running dictations. Their students seemed to do a lot of moving about, shouting and having fun. Even the management seemed to be concerned solely with making the students happy. Success of a programme or course was not measured by achievement or progress, but by what the students thought of it. As most of the students were young adults being sent to Malaysia for a short time before starting work or university, their opinions were largely guided by whether or not they had a good time in the class.

Now, I enjoy a good laugh as much as the next man, and I’m all for education being an enjoyable experience. But there’s a lot more to language teaching than having fun and keeping the customer satisfied. I think this is where private language schools have lost their way; they have started to regard student wants and student needs as the same thing. Students may say that they enjoy mingle activities and competitive games in the classroom, but what are they actually learning? What are they achieving?

I know there is plenty of pedagogical value in kinaesthetic activities and games, but many English teachers seem so concerned with making lessons pacey and fun that this takes precedence over actual learning.

But it’s not just about an overkill of fun activities. Teachers seem to be scared of their students – scared to do activities that aren’t fun, scared to tell students that they didn’t do an activity very well, scared to be anything less than positive and encouraging. Maybe this is the legacy of humanism in language teaching, but it may also be because teachers know, and students know they know, that if a student doesn’t get what they want they can complain.

It is presumably as a result of this situation that Demand High ELT has been born, and also why it is starting to gather momentum as a movement against what Jim Scrivener calls “going through the motions teaching”, this enjoyable but not very productive classroom environment that students seem to like, where teachers smile a lot and students always get the answers right – or if they don’t, it somehow doesn’t matter.

My American friend left teaching altogether and became a journalist. Me, I went back to working in Further Education in Scotland. The FE sector often gets a bad press in terms of the quality of its teaching, and teachers in private language schools tend to dismiss FE ESOL as being different from EFL, and therefore inferior. But FE teaching is unconstrained by the need to keep the students happy all the time. Student satisfaction is important of course, and we have systems in place to ensure students can give their opinions on all aspects of the learning experience, but this is not what drives the curriculum. Courses contain clear learning outcomes, and course content focuses on giving students the language (and study) skills they need in order to pass their course. The success of a course is measured less by whether the students enjoyed it, and more by what they achieved.

Lessons tend therefore to be focused on getting students closer to where they need to be in order to be successful. This doesn’t mean we can’t have fun along the way, but students on my courses quickly realise that there is a lot more to language learning than just turning up and playing games.

I know that many private language schools have courses very similar to those I have just described, and to compare public and private sector language teaching in this way is really over-simplistic. However, the point I am trying to make is that Jim Scrivener and Adrian Underhill have felt the need to establish Demand-High ELT to address a problem they have identified with ELT in private language schools. I wouldn’t quite go as far as to say that Demand-High ELT is already thriving throughout the FE sector. However, in Scotland at least, the college ESOL classroom is an environment that lends itself very nicely to Demand-High teaching. Private sector take note, please.

[Check out Jim Scrivener and Adrian Underhill’s blog: %5D

  1. Interesting post, and, having worked in FE and the private sector as an ELT/ESOL teacher and teacher educator, I agree that being freed from the constraints of having to keep the students happy (i.e. entertained) at all costs is a big plus to FE. I wonder, however, if there isn’t also something of a culture within ESOL: that focus on language is somehow something that belongs to ELT? Clearly, that’s nonsense (in my opinion anyway), and, while we certainly might not want to run a lesson ‘on the present perfect’, we should be helping ESOL students to express themselves accurately and effectively, so a demand high approach is perfectly compatible. I have, however, frequently observed ESOL teachers who swerve away from dealing with language and accept anything so long as the message vaguely comes across, and feel that this is not just avoiding something they don’t feel confident about, but the ‘right’ way to teach ESOL. What are your thoughts on this?

  2. Hi Rachael, and thanks for the comment. I know what you mean, and when you’re teaching students who are long-term residents in an English-speaking country I think there probably is a tendency to focus mostly on communicative competence rather than linguistic accuracy. However, I also think that this is a phenomenon that exists more in England and Wales than it does in Scotland. As I understand it, there is a history in England and Wales of segregating ES(O)L and ELT, and regarding them as two separate subjects. If you mention ELT in England people tend to think of short intensive courses for fee-paying students, while ESOL conjures up images of part-time classes for settled minority communities – am I right?
    In Scotland, this ELT/ESOL dichotomy doesn’t really exist. In one of my other posts (“Is it all about the money?”) I mentioned that we have students from all kinds of backgrounds – fee payers, fee waivers and bursary recipients – all studying together in the same class. We call the whole thing ESOL and, whatever the learning environment (private language school, community centre or somewhere in between) in Scotland it’s widely regarded as the same subject. Many people who work in ESOL in the public sector also have a background in private sector “ELT” or “EFL”, so they are familiar with skills and techniques that focus on, clarify and practise language. Not all of them, of course, but there’s a general acceptance across the FE sector in Scotland that learners need to develop and employ a degree of language awareness. Personally I feel that this ELT/ESOL distinction is a false dichotomy and I will probably rant about it in a future blog post.
    If teachers do, as you say, avoid teaching language, this could either be because they are not confident about the language themselves or because they don’t feel it is necessary for their students. Either way they are doing their students a disservice and not demanding highly enough. I agree that this may well happen in FE, but at the same time there are plenty of teachers in the private sector who lack confidence in their own language awareness and/or don’t correct errors often enough.
    Maybe it goes back to this issue of being afraid of the students. In the FE ESOL context you describe, teachers may not be so afraid of complaints from their students, but they may be afraid of upsetting them. There’s a lot of sensitivity about the learners, their backgrounds, barriers to learning etc. Perhaps this can result in teachers feeling they have to be nice to them all the time, and equate that with avoiding correction or “serious” language work.
    What do you think?

  3. I think you’re spot on..
    For sure,there are plenty of private sector teachers avoiding language, but this difference is that this isn’t seen as a deliberate methodological choice! (Of course, I’m certainly not talking about all ESOL teachers) I think you’re right about sensitivities, and have often found myself suggesting that the teacher is perhaps the only person a student can rely on to give them feedback on their language, so it shouldn’t be seen as a negative.
    Interesting that the situation is so different in Scotland. You’re right that historically in England the two have been separate and, as someone who came into ESOL through the ELT route, there often seemed to me to be quite a bit of suspicion and division between the two, even in the same College. I agree though, that they have far more in common than they have differences and, in fact, there may be more differences within an ELT or an ESOL class than between two students with these different labels.

  4. I’m not familiar with the FE sector, but I have worked for private schools, which to varying degrees try to please their students. I think big problems arise when the happiness of the learners is paramount to the happiness of the teachers. I see schools offering lower priced courses with more facilities and resources to the students, but demanding high of teachers in terms of time and energy and without a healthy paycheck to compensate. Yes, we should demand high of our students, just as they should demand high of their teachers. If only we could also demand high of our schools, our employers and administrators. I’d like to point out that I’m making this comment as a general trend I see in the industry and not on personal experience.

    • Yes, there are unscrupulous employers around, just as there are with all industries. I suppose the fact that there are accrediting/affiliating bodies allows prospective students and teachers to get an idea of the credentials of a school before agreeing to work/study in it. Supply and demand dictates that there is a lot of competition among schools to attract students, but it’s relatively easy to find teachers straight off the CELTA and desperate for work. As long as this is the case, conditions for teachers will only improve if students somehow start demanding it. As improved conditions for teachers would inevitably drive costs up for students I don’t really see this happening. Of course, all of the above relates to the private sector.

Trackbacks & Pingbacks

  1. Demand-High in the FE Sector | stevebrown70′s Blog | adammatthias
  2. Two Interesting Demand High links | Demand High ELT
  3. Implementing DHELT – Trainer Powerpoint and Session Notes (from Steve Brown) | Demand High ELT
  4. What have I learned? | The Steve Brown Blog

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