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21 questions for language teachers

December 8, 2013

In this post I am simply going to pose some questions. My own ideas for how to answer them keep changing, and you can find some of these ideas in the other posts on this blog. But really, I would like to know what others think:

  1. Is language an academic subject or a practical skill? 
  2. How do you turn learning stuff into being able to do stuff?
  3. How do you know if you’ve taught a good lesson?
  4. If your students like you, does this mean you’re a good teacher?
  5. If your students don’t pass the tests, does this mean you’re a bad teacher?
  6. Is a detailed lesson plan a pre-requisite for a successful lesson?
  7. How do you measure successful teaching?
  8. Does being a teacher automatically give you a professional identity?
  9. How do you know your students have learned anything from your lessons?
  10. Can students learn language without being taught grammar?
  11. What is it that managers don’t understand (or have forgotten) about teaching?
  12. Are teachers automatically accountable for their learners’ progress and achievement in learning?
  13. Do different students have different learning styles? If so, does this mean anything?
  14. Is it OK for teachers to have different teaching styles, or should we all teach the same way?
  15. Does the learning process actually matter, or is it all about the achievement of outcomes?
  16. How does your answer to 15 impact on the way you teach?
  17. How often do you worry that you’re not a very good teacher?
  18. If your answer to 17 was Never, does this mean you’re not a very good teacher?
  19. Why do so many teachers want to become teacher trainers?
  20. Is it true that bad teachers often end up as managers?
  21. Is our role simply to teach our subject, or do all teachers have another, more wide-reaching responsibility?

Over to you.

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17 Comments
  1. Is language an academic subject or a practical skill?
    It’s both, of course. These days we seem to live in a world where the most banal things can be turned into an academic study. But language use is a practical skill.

    How do you turn learning stuff into being able to do stuff?
    I think that only the learner has the power to do this. Teachers can provide opportunities, but thought and action are under the control of the learner.

    How do you know if you’ve taught a good lesson?
    You get a very clear definition of what is meant by “good” and you objectively identify the criteria that lead to such qualification. Then you obtain a range of opinions about whether or not these criteria were present in the lesson to a degree that allows the lesson to be so qualified.

    If your students like you, does this mean you’re a good teacher?
    No – it means your students like you. It also raises the potential that you have to be a good teacher.

    If your students don’t pass the tests, does this mean you’re a bad teacher?
    No, it means that your students didn’t pass the tests. A good teacher will want to explore the possibility that this might be because they’re a bad teacher.

    Is a detailed lesson plan a pre-requisite for a successful lesson?
    Not at all. I don’t think that there is any correlation between lesson planning and the quality of a lesson. Rigid adherence to a lesson plan suggests poor teaching.

    How do you measure successful teaching?
    Successful learning! Less tritely, engagement in the lesson: students participating, responding, directing and querying.

    Does being a teacher automatically give you a professional identity?
    Is teaching a profession?

    How do you know your students have learned anything from your lessons?
    I ask them. Self-reporting is hardly a rigorous form of research, but I figure that if they say that they are, then they’re still open to learning. If they say that they haven’t, then the affective filters might be being raised.

    Can students learn language without being taught grammar?
    Of course. Can they learn to talk about a language without being taught grammar? Probably too. But grammar helps when we want to talk about a language.

    What is it that managers don’t understand (or have forgotten) about teaching?
    In my case, that teachers generally think that they are doing a great job and that they don’t like any intimation that they might do a better one.

    Are teachers automatically accountable for their learners’ progress and achievement in learning?
    Yes. Accountability means being able to give an account for it. It is not the same as responsibility.

    Do different students have different learning styles? If so, does this mean anything?
    Learning styles do not exist. The question should be “Are different students different?” The answer is “yes”. Does it mean anything? It means that they are different. What’s the teacher to do? Try and explore these differences and work with them.

    Is it OK for teachers to have different teaching styles, or should we all teach the same way?
    It’s not a question of whether or not it’s OK. It’s inevitable. We should all try and teach in the same way if our parameters are fairly broad: try to make sure that the lessons are demanding; try to make sure that you are tesing progress; try to make sure that you are communicating non-stop with the students about their progress; try to be approachable etc.

    Does the learning process actually matter, or is it all about the achievement of outcomes?
    The process leads to outcomes being achieved. The process is all we can work with. If you are in a college being measured on how well your students are doing, it takes a large leap of faith to understand that you don’t need to teach to the test. The test is supposed to measure proficiency, so it follows that by making your students more proficient in language use, you increase their chances of performing well in whatever test they are subjected to.

    How does your answer to 15 impact on the way you teach?
    I teach what I think is most useful and what is easiest to teach!

    How often do you worry that you’re not a very good teacher?
    Whenever I walk out of a classroom.

    If your answer to 17 was Never, does this mean you’re not a very good teacher?
    No. If the question had been, “How often do you think critically about your teaching?” and the answer had been “Never”, then I would say that it suggests that you’re not a very good teacher.

    Why do so many teachers want to become teacher trainers?
    Do they? I suspect that there are as many reasons for this as there are teachers wanting to become teacher trainers.

    Is it true that bad teachers often end up as managers?
    Teachers are managers. I actually think I was a better teacher than a manager and I think that I was given my post based upon this appraisal. Being a manager of teachers does wonders for your teaching.

    Is our role simply to teach our subject, or do all teachers have another, more wide-reaching responsibility?
    It is impossible to teach our subject in isolation. Especially if you’re an English language teacher. Language is a very ideological tool and is used to manipulate people on a daily basis. Anyone who sets about teaching it without due regard to this is contributing to the exploitation of their students.

    • Wow, I wasn’t really expecting someone to answer all 21 of these in one go, but you can always count on the Secret DOS for quantity.
      You’ve given very astute answers, as ever, and have quite justifiably pointed out where you think my questions weren’t particularly well-worded. I’m not sure I agree with all of your points though. Your answers to 8 and 14 in particular have made me feel like I need to post a bit more on those areas.
      I’ve also been wondering lately about criteria for measuring things like learning and teaching. There are so many variables that I’m not sure any quantitative research on classroom practice can be truly reliable. But maybe I just haven’t read enough, or enough good stuff, to see how it can work.
      Thanks once again for your response.

  2. Aidan @leedsacademy permalink

    Some thought-provoking questions here. The most difficult of which was “How do you measure successful teaching?” I’m going to have to think a bit longer about that one.

    But as for the others…

    1. Is language an academic subject or a practical skill?

    Both, but it’s not a 50/50 split.

    Seeing as language can be learnt through immersion, with little or no instruction, I’d say that it is more of a practical skill. While it’s possible to become knowledgeable in many academic disciplines through reading alone, I don’t believe that this is so with language; you may learn a lot about the language but your ability to produce it, manipulate it and use it depends on the amount of time you spend practising it. I guess it’s like sculpture. You can read study a lot about the history and techniques of sculpture but without actually using your hands and a chisel, and making a few mistakes first, it’s highly unlikely that you will be able to sculpt something beautiful.

    I’ve written a couple of posts with the rest of my answers on my very new blog. I hope it’s ok to put a link to them here. If it’s not, please feel free to remove this one. http://bit.ly/IXNL2x

    • Hi Aidan,
      Thanks for this. Of course it’s fine to post links to your blog here. I’ll have a look at your other answers in a minute, and I’m looking forward to seeing other posts from you there as well.
      I like your sculpture analogy to describe language learning. It kind of goes without saying that you need practise to actually be able to do it, but I suppose what I’ve been wondering about lately is where the value lies in terms of the theoretical side. If that’s all we do then effectively we’re teaching linguistics, but (particularly for adults) I’m wondering if there is a place for just brazenly doing that, as part of an otherwise highly practical course.
      Thanks for adding your ideas.
      Steve

      • You said “If that’s all we do then effectively we’re teaching linguistics, but (particularly for adults) I’m wondering if there is a place for just brazenly doing that, as part of an otherwise highly practical course.”

        I think there is.

        I suppose the sculpture analogy can be put to use here again. If you give somebody only a hammer and a chisel and without looking at the background/history and theory behind sculpture expect them to produce something beautiful, there’s slim chance that they will be able to do so.

        Parts of my lessons (at all levels from Beginners up) are used to explicitly analyse language. How effective this is can depend not only on learners’ styles of learning (some are more analytical than others) but also on their educational background and their L1 literacy levels. But it’s important to realise that just because learners have beginner English doesn’t mean they have beginner brains.

        If we reduce our lessons to purely Communicative Language Teaching, then we are not providing for the more analytical minded learner.

  3. 1. Is language an academic subject or a practical skill?
    Language can be an academic subject, but learning to use a language is a practical skill. The academic bits are things that teachers bolt on to make themselves feel like teachers.
    2. How do you turn learning stuff into being able to do stuff?
    Go out and give it a go. In Spain this year I found myself pre-rehearsing certain exchanges. Later I would do a little thinking and try a little differently next time.
    3. How do you know if you’ve taught a good lesson?
    I’m not sure, but I think every lesson should have a time where students and teacher experience ‘Flow’- http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mihaly_Csikszentmihalyi
    4. If your students like you, does this mean you’re a good teacher?
    No, but if your students don’t like you, I don’t think you can be a good teacher. I’m not sure if ‘like’ is the best word here. Respect? Trust?
    5. If your students don’t pass the tests, does this mean you’re a bad teacher?
    No, but no matter how good a teacher you are, you have to give the tests some thought.
    6. Is a detailed lesson plan a pre-requisite for a successful lesson?
    This one is your wee joke, right?
    7. How do you measure successful teaching?
    Nobody cried.
    8. Does being a teacher automatically give you a professional identity?
    A self-identity or one within a community?
    9. How do you know your students have learned anything from your lessons?
    As another respondent said – ask them.
    10. Can students learn language without being taught grammar?
    Yes, and for some students who have learned to a high level without learning grammar, it can be quite damaging to start on this path.
    11. What is it that managers don’t understand (or have forgotten) about teaching?
    Teachers don’t need to be micro-managed.
    12. Are teachers automatically accountable for their learners’ progress and achievement in learning?
    They need to be able to say why (they think) a learner is/is not progressing and some of the cause of that may lie with them, but they are not responsible for it all – if any.
    13. Do different students have different learning styles? If so, does this mean anything?
    If learning styles actually are a thing, then we have to get better at identifying them. I don’t think giving a student a bunch of questions they answer themselves is ever going to get close to what their (probably dynamic mix of) learning style/s is/are. It shouldn’t mean too much anyway as the normal variety of a series of lessons should cover it quite nicely.
    14. Is it OK for teachers to have different teaching styles, or should we all teach the same way?
    Everyone should teach like me! What a disaster that would be! There could, however, be a bunch of basic ideas that we all more or less agree on.
    15. Does the learning process actually matter, or is it all about the achievement of outcomes?
    Process does matter in relation to non-formal learning outcomes. We do have a responsibility to make sure our students achieve the outcomes they need.
    16. How does your answer to 15 impact on the way you teach?
    I will sometimes ‘teach to the test’. I have learned to live with the shame.
    17. How often do you worry that you’re not a very good teacher?
    Quite often. I am confident that I have very good teaching techniques, but I am never sure that they are being best employed in the larger scheme of things
    18. If your answer to 17 was Never, does this mean you’re not a very good teacher?
    Possibly not. You could be a very well balanced individual, confident that you are doing your job to the best of your ability. On the other hand you are probably a diddy.
    19. Why do so many teachers want to become teacher trainers?
    I’m not sure so many do. Like being a policeman, perhaps the desire should be an automatic disqualification. Except for me and thee, obvs!
    20. Is it true that bad teachers often end up as managers?
    Sometimes. I’m not sure it’s a big issue, though.
    21. Is our role simply to teach our subject, or do all teachers have another, more wide-reaching responsibility?
    It depends.

    “Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try Again. Fail again. Fail better.”
    Samuel Beckett
    I double checked the absence of question marks.

  4. I am going to answer these before I read any of those who have already commented, so as to to influence my thoughts! But I will read them afterwards and hope to be influenced!

    1. Of course both, but I would say it is often seen as a practical skill by students, which they have to acquire in order to be able to study an academic subject in a different disciplne. English language is rarely an end in itself.

    2. Wasn’t this the intention of PPP?

    3. I think before asking if we had taught a good lesson, we would first have to ask what a good lesson is. If we know what a good lesson is, we have more chance of recognising it when it occurs. I would imagine different teachers would have different ideas of what a good lesson is. I would argue that if students can do something at the end of the lesson, or know something at the end of the lesson, which they didn’t at the beginning, then it has been a good lesson….but as for how we would know that…

    4. I am tempted to say that if your students like you, it is more likely that you are not a good teacher! But most of my students seem to like me most of the time, so I am not sure what to say!

    5. No, it doesn’t necessarily mean that. It could mean they are bad students, or the test is a bad test.

    6. Do I really need to expand on a simple ‘no’?

    7. Should the real question be how do we measure successful learning?

    8. I am not quite sure what ‘a professional identity’ is….

    9. Ah, so this was my question 7…and my answer would be my answer to your question 3.

    10. Yes, but I think it depends on what you mean by ‘taught grammar’. I would suggest that they certainly need some sort of exposure to patterns of syntax, but I don’t think we would necessarily call that being taught grammar.

    11. That’s a good one! I can’t wait to read what Secret has written to this, but I won’t yet! I have known some managers of whom I would say that they have just simply forgotten how hard teaching is, both mentally and physically. But then there are no doubt many aspects of managing which teachers have not forgotten, but never known in the first place.

    12. I think there should be some accountability, but the teacher is far from the only factor.

    13. I know this has been very much discredited lately. I do think people have different preferences when it comes to study methods though. However, unless a lesson was a one-to-one, there is nothing a teacher can do other than ensure a variety of activities, which is more to do with common sense that anything else!

    14. Wouldn’t it be impossible to expect all teachers to teach the same way?

    15. Another interesting one! My instinct is to say that it matters, but I am not sure what you/we mean by ‘matter’ or what we would do with the information. Oh, that’s basically question 16, I’ll bow to the views of others.

    17. I often think that, but I don’t think I would describe it as worrying. It would be dangerous to not think that, because that could mean there is no critical thinking and questioning of one’s practices.

    18. No necessarily, but potentially (see answer to 17).

    19. Do they?

    20. Anecdotally, I have known managers who have explicitly stated that they felt they weren’t good or didn’t like teaching, so moved into managing. Conversly, I have known great teachers who have been lost to managing. So, no answer to that one.

    21. I would say there are other responsibilites…especially when teaching kids, immigrants and other vulnerable people.

  5. Tullia permalink

    Is language an academic subject or a practical skill?
    Both.

    How do you turn learning stuff into being able to do stuff?
    With difficulty.

    How do you know if you’ve taught a good lesson?
    You’ll never know for sure.

    If your students like you, does this mean you’re a good teacher?
    No, but it also doesn’t mean you aren’t.

    If your students don’t pass the tests, does this mean you’re a bad teacher?
    No, but it also doesn’t mean you aren’t.

    Is a detailed lesson plan a pre-requisite for a successful lesson?
    No, but it sure can help – especially in the early years of teaching.

    How do you measure successful teaching?

    Does being a teacher automatically give you a professional identity?
    No, you have to work at it.

    How do you know your students have learned anything from your lessons?
    Assessment, which is not the same as testing.

    Can students learn language without being taught grammar?
    Yes. Can they learn it well? I wish I knew…

    What is it that managers don’t understand (or have forgotten) about teaching?
    Too bloody much.

    Are teachers automatically accountable for their learners’ progress and achievement in learning?
    Yes – to an extent. But only to an extent. Learners should be accountable too.

    Do different students have different learning styles? If so, does this mean anything?
    Yes, but not to the extreme some people think they do.

    Is it OK for teachers to have different teaching styles, or should we all teach the same way?
    If we were all the same, that would be pretty boring, especially when we all teach different things. In fact, I’d say we shouldn’t even teach in the same way every day ourselves. That said, there are elements of best practice we should all try to include, adapted to what we and our students need.

    Does the learning process actually matter, or is it all about the achievement of outcomes?
    You can’t split the two up.

    How does your answer to 15 impact on the way you teach?
    To many ways to mention.

    How often do you worry that you’re not a very good teacher?
    Every single day, multiple times a day. When I stop worrying I’ll know it’s time to stop teaching.

    If your answer to 17 was Never, does this mean you’re not a very good teacher?
    No, just a lucky one.

    Why do so many teachers want to become teacher trainers?
    Because if you love your job enough, you want to have the biggest impact possible and teacher training offers you that.

    Is it true that bad teachers often end up as managers?
    Yes, but not enough of them. Better there than in the classroom.

    Is our role simply to teach our subject, or do all teachers have another, more wide-reaching responsibility?
    Of course we have a wider responsibility, but then again I believe every adult does.

  6. Thanks very much to all of you for answering and commenting on these questions – it’s great to see other perspectives on these issues. In my latest post (what have I learned?) I give a kind of summary of my opinions on many of these issues, so please have a look and let me know what you think.

  7. A very thought-provoking post Steve. Thanks. I wrote something similar a few weeks back: 10 nagging EFL questions. Wonder what your take on them would be. http://teflreflections.blogspot.nl/2013/10/10-nagging-efl-quations.html

  8. thanks so much for helping me to teach well as I am ATeacher in Egypt but my question is how to deal with trouble maker

    • Hi Rehham,
      If you are working with younger learners, I’m probably not the best person to ask as I have more experience working with adults. But speaking generally, I suppose the first thing to do is to consider why a student might want to cause trouble or disrupt your class. Usually this happens if the student feels disengaged from the lessons. Maybe the lessons are too easy, or too difficult, or maybe the topics don’t match their interests or needs. It would also be a good idea to try and identify why the student is in your class in the first place. Are they forced to be there? Motivation for learning will also be a factor.
      There are things you can do to deal with disruptive behaviour when it happens, but I would suggest the first step should be to try and identify what is provoking this behaviour in the first place. If you can engage a student in some way, they will start to value the lessons more; this might make them feel more involved and reduce the feeling that they need to disrupt things.
      Good luck!
      Steve

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