Mar 16, 2009

aimless teaching

"Japanese learners, who otherwise seem to be stuck with a choice between schools offering either grammar-cramming or largely aimless (and endless) conversation lessons." Hmmmmm, could aimless be a code word for callan? (comments 'long distance interview")
George Machlan

Hi, GeorgeGood to hear from you again: you sound like you've been pretty active in the meantime. Just to qickly address a couple of points you make.

Firstly, 'aimless' was in no way a reference to the Callan Method; in fact 'aimless' is one thing it is definitely not, although how well-aimed it is is open to serious doubt.

I think if you talk to students on EFL courses in general, one of the most common complaints would be a sense of aimlessness. I think this is largely a result of the wishy-washy thinking that seems to pervade the influential circles in global EFL, especially among teacher-trainers, and as a result becomes standard in classrooms where Communicative teaching is the orthodox approach. This is an overgeneralisation but a lot of 'trained' teachers come out of their four-week TEFL course with a veneer of basic grammar and a set of principles about teaching which are presented by their trainers as 'truths'. As far as I have been able to see, some major practical issues are simply not addressed: they are trained to teach in a little bubble. Teaching mono-lingual classes is seldom given more than a brief nod, although it's where many teachers will end up. From what I can gather, the difference between teaching working students on part-time courses, rather than students on full-time courses is not an issue that is addressed but again, many teachers will be encountering this reality and are not prepared for the different demands or expectations.

To cut things short (as you can see, this is an issue I think counts), many teachers' focus is on the 'single lesson' as a self-contained entity, whose success comes down largely to how much communication was prompted. How beneficial (or interesting) those communication acts were and how they fitted into a broader strategy of 'learning' are points that are often not in the foreground of the teacher's mind but they may be very much what the learners feel are important. This separate-episode approach that can, if things work out, make for an 'entertaining' lesson today, is what I mean by 'aimless' teaching.

While in Japan I heard about a popular type of course (and very profitable for the organisations that run them). The student phones the 'school' and arranges a rendez-vous with a 'teacher' (often untrained and unqualified) at, usually, a cafè for a 45-minute 'lesson'. The 'schools' arrange it so that the student gets a different teacher each time. This assures that the student gets to talk to different people (good) but also allows the teacher to not have to teach anything, as with a bit of practice they become quite skilled at stretching the introductions out to cover most of the lesson-time. This is important because your student might ask you about some tricky point of grammar and that could be a place you don't want to end up going.
Teaching is often aimless because teachers like to think that learning is such an unpredicably personal and creative experience that imposing aims and frameworks and so on is for narrow-minded, bean-counting philistines. I have a feeling this is a topic we may touch on again.



George Machlan said...

OK, I can accept your premise that by-and-large, ESL teachers tend to digress, regress and generally not focus on the ultimate task at hand "Teach me English!"

I have felt a genuine animosity by the Callan Method literature with the established academia. Callan seems to be genuinely against the laissez fair attitude that the student has a right to expect a results oriented teacher.

It does seem that the teaching guilde has some ingrained problems. So what is your solution?

Anonymous said...

I don't think that by and large ESL teachers prefer to digress: I do think there is a widespread fuzzy-thinking and relativism in ESL that makes it easy for teachers and students to become disorientated.
Why is it so easy for unscrupulous schools to sell 'courses'of tiny value? Largely because students are kept in the dark: they don't know the questions to ask when choosing a school and they don't know how to assess learning' or 'teaching' in the way they feel able to assess other services. Why, for example, do teacher-trainers on TEFL qualification programmes so often tell trainees to discard tried and tested published courses and do everything themselves, even though they have no experience? I think because they see 'teaching' more as an experience for the teacher than a service to the student.
Of course there are incompetent and lazy individuals in teaching, just as there are in any other field, but the problem lies in a too frequent lack of professionalism, fairness, and accountability at higher levels.


Canada said...
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Canada said...

As a teacher in Japan, I'd like to add some support and perspective to Iain's point.

The 'ESL Café' style lessons are indeed unscrupulous, however the practice of using teachers with absolutely zero experience or training is widespread throughout the majority of independent English schools in Japan, whether they have a premises or not. These schools, run on the whole by Japanese entrepreneurs, seem to consider their staff to be more of a material commodity than professional teachers, meaning that they are reduced to vessels of 'native' english, which need only be tapped and presented to customers in order to facilitate learning.

Honestly, I cannot complain too loudly, as if it were not for this attitude, I would not likely have gotten my first job. Unfortunately as someone who is fairly passionate about English and teaching it well, I was soon to be underwhelmed by the expectations that I was held to in the classroom. I suppose that even then I was lucky in a sense, for if I had been at a more 'serious' school then there would probably have been a Japanese English teacher on staff who would have taught the students' grammar while relegating the native-speaking staff to the role of a human workbook.

So it seems that what most administrators of ESL schools in japan believe (and/or have marketed successfully) is that just being in the presence of a friendly foreigner will improve a student's English dramatically, and as such there is no need to worry about the teacher's qualifications beyond the lack of a criminal record or a strong accent.

Aimless. The ESL industry here is large and crowded, yet if you talk to any Japanese person about their experience in a private ESL school (and almost all of them have tried at least once) they will express dissatisfaction with their lack of progress. What is surprising to me is that schools do not seem to care that their students leave unhappy, and that new students keep coming through the door. I suppose it is for the lack of many other options.

-Jesse (now much happier and using SyM in Tokyo)