Don’t blame us: the real problem with ELT
There’s been a little flurry of blog posts about Demand High ELT over the past week. I think it was Geoff Jordan that started it with two posts in quick succession, prompting me to write one of my own, but there have been some other interesting posts like this one from Luiz Otavio Barros and this one from Mike Harrison. There seem to be quite a lot of people with criticisms or reservations about Demand High – what exactly is it, is it anything new, do we actually need it anyway, that sort of thing. In this post I’m going to try not to write too much about Demand High itself, and more about the interesting questions that it is raising. Presumably one of the reasons some teachers are reacting negatively to Demand High is that it is based on the premise that there is a problem with our profession. Not just that there’s a problem with our profession, but that the problem lies in the way we teach. A natural reaction to this would be to ask “Who says there’s a problem? What evidence is there?” Then, if we focus on the “solutions” being offered by Demand High ELT, a lot of teachers seem to be saying “This is what I do anyway. You’re telling us to solve a non-existent problem by doing what we already do. It’s all a big fuss about nothing.” Now, it’s true that there are a lot of very good teachers out there, people who care about their students and do everything they can to maximise the classroom experience. They understand the need to individualise learning and to identify opportunities for language input as they occur in the lesson. They realise that students acquire language in different ways, at different speeds, and in different orders, and they plan lessons that take all of this into account. They appreciate that the materials they use and any plan that they take into the classroom are subsidiary to what happens with the learners during the actual lesson itself. For these teachers, Demand High is a bit of a non-event. They don’t need it. It is natural then that a lot of teachers around the world, good teachers, are a bit put out by the suggestion that they are doing it wrong when they are quite clearly demanding as highly of their students as Scrivener and Underhill suggest they should – if not higher. But how did these teachers get to be so good? Was it because the world is awash with materials that facilitate this type of teaching? Was it because they did a training course that gave them the skills to do this? I would suggest that in most cases the answer is no. In our profession good teachers become good teachers in spite of the system they work within, not because of it. Let’s look at the initial training courses on offer, the most reputable ones being the Cambridge CELTA and the Trinity CertTESOL. OK, I know that these courses vary a lot from centre to centre, and it’s possible for a centre to interpret the criteria in a number of different ways, but these courses still tend to contain these characteristics:
- A candidate’s teaching ability is assessed on the basis of their ability to teach one-off lessons for a maximum of 60 minutes.
- Within these 60 minutes a candidate needs to demonstrate a range of techniques.
- Candidates need to provide a very detailed lesson plan in advance of an observed lesson.
- This lesson plan needs to state the candidate’s pre-determined aims.
- A key criterion to measure success is whether or not the lesson achieved these pre-determined aims.
The first problem with these features is that they create a construct for lesson observation that doesn’t reflect real teaching situations. In real life most lessons are more than an hour long and time available for planning is a small fraction of the time trainee teachers tend to spend writing their observed lesson plans. What happens on these courses then is that a very artificial and unrealistic situation is created, and trainee teachers are assessed on their ability to meet pre-existing criteria within this artificial situation. But the other problem is that these courses lead trainees to assume that lesson success is all about stating clear aims in advance and then going in there and achieving them. There is a presupposition that all students learn the same stuff at the same time – all you have to do is create a meaningful context, clarify the language and then give them an activity that shows them using it. This is what trainee teachers become competent at, and courses like the CELTA and CertTESOL allow them to believe that this is all there is to it. Good, experienced teachers know different. They know that the furious pace and the multitude of stages that they crammed into those 60-minute observations can’t be maintained throughout a three-hour lesson. They know that good lessons can only exist within a good course, and that the most wonderful lesson is worth very little if it doesn’t build on prior learning and lead on to something else of value. They know that teaching a piece of language once does not mean that your students have all learnt it, and that a single lesson observation cannot be used to determine whether the students actually learned what the teacher wanted them to learn. Not only that, but they also know that it’s folly to expect all the students to learn the same thing at the same time. They know that their own aims are a lot less important than their learners’ aims, and that some of the most successful lessons are the ones where any pre-determined teacher aims are shelved completely in favour of learning opportunities that they identify after the lesson has started. Basically, what I’m saying is that initial training courses in ELT do not prepare their candidates to become effective teachers. They provide a lot of low-level classroom management techniques, and maybe that’s as much as anyone should expect from a 4-week course. But they also instil beliefs that have widely been discredited in the world of applied linguistics. Languages are not learned in a linear fashion, which basically means that a lot of what trainee teachers are encouraged to do is completely out of step with received wisdom about language acquisition. If you are a teacher trainer you may well be reading this and thinking “That may be the case on some courses, but mine aren’t like that. I produce good teachers.” Which is great. I know that it’s possible on a CELTA or CertTESOL course to get trainees to understand that language learning is a chaotic process, to value learner input and to encourage them to react more to their learners rather than just teaching the plan. But it isn’t easy to be one of those trainers, because you still have to work within the confines of the course, and the course is not designed to facilitate this type of teaching. Again, you are a good trainer despite the course you are teaching, not because of it. Once people finish their initial training course and start teaching, they find that they can’t spend all those hours planning their lessons, so thank goodness the school they’re working in gives them a coursebook to follow. That reduces planning time and allows them to pretty much get away with doing a full-time teaching job armed with a rudimentary understanding of the subject and a few strategies for setting up activities and clarifying language. But hang on, what does the coursebook do? It provides a structural syllabus, presenting language items atomistically in order of linguistic complexity. Again, it presupposes linear, lock-step learning. Not only that, but it presupposes that the same content will be of equal interest and value to all learners across the world. Surely that’s preposterous, and yet it’s still seen as a perfectly acceptable idea. So, if we go back to the original questions that people are asking in relation to Demand High, I would argue that yes, there is a problem in ELT. But teachers aren’t the problem. It’s not our fault that we were trained to teach in a way that contradicts how people learn. It’s not our fault that our managers make us teach courses using books based on outdated principles. Telling teachers to demand higher might help to turn a few not-very-good teachers into slightly better teachers, but they will still be teaching within this ineffectual and potential damaging construct. It’s not the teachers that are the problem, it’s the system that they have to work within. Of course, nothing that I am saying here is new. A lot of the problems with coursebooks were exposed by Scott Thornbury and Luke Meddings back at the turn of the millennium. Jane Willis was railing against atomistic language teaching even longer ago than that. And yet task-based learning and Dogme are still on the fringes of ELT, with the global coursebook still dominating the content of most language courses. Perhaps this is the most worrying thing of all; that the hegemonic forces (Cambridge, Trinity, Oxford, Pearson, MacMillan etc.) are still managing to control what we teach and how we teach it – not because it’s the best way to teach (on the contrary – it very obviously isn’t) but because they have made a lot of money and they want to continue to make a lot more. That’s not a good enough reason – not for me, and not for any teachers who want the best for their students.