Nov 24, 2011

TESOL conference Rome: Mr Perez, pens and Tunbridge Wells

TESOL conference Rome: Mr Perez, pens and Tunbridge Wells

Last week I went to the TESOL conference in Rome: probably the major teaching event in the annual calendar. Attended primarily by English teachers at high school and middle school, there are nonetheless a fair number of representatives from private schools (PLS’s to use publisher’s jargon as I learnt). Over the two days there is a wide and varied programme of presentations and workshops -- around 60 in all.
We were present with a stand in the exhibition area, along with the big-boy publishers and examination boards. It was our first public outing and although attendance at this conference was worryingly down on previous years, it proved to be a useful experience.

On the whole it was very encouraging to see so many teachers’ curiosity and interest in something different. There was fairly general acknowledgement among teachers that, for several all too well known reasons, getting a good job done in prevailing circumstances proves arduous and elusive far too often. We had to point out that SpeakYourMind is currently available only through associate private schools: not because teachers at private schools are ‘better’ than those with in the education system, but simply because, in theory at least, private schools are able to establish better conditions for successful learning - primarily in terms of class size and in terms of streaming classes for level and, ideally, ability.
Talking there to teachers I did perceive a sense of predictability: the publisher's new products tended to be not much more than new marketing. New ideas were only new to the people who hadn't encountered them yet: certainly in the few presentations I was able to attend there was nothing particularly original. Corpus linguistics is extremely revealing and helpful but it’s also a popular and spacious bandwagon: some of the conclusions I heard drawn from corpus ‘evidence’ were open to different interpretations, and I think that reliance on these sources can be distracting to teachers in the front line. ‘Authenticity’ and ‘motivation’ were other popular themes, although it’s disappointing when speakers and writers cook up the evidence to suit their own menus – such as presenting examples from out-of-date Peruvian course-books to highlight the demotivating effects of ‘artificial’ language (“I am Mr Perez – are you Mrs Perez?”) and therefore the advantages of using ‘authentic’ language (“… and she’s like, ‘why did you do that?”).

Back to the exhibition area and our encounters with teachers: among the interest and curiosity there was naturally enough a more critical voice. I had been expecting this but was surprised by the vehemence when it happened. I can't help thinking of this teacher as ‘disgusted of Tunbridge Wells’ – she did rather fit the stereotype. As we spoke (spoken preliminaries, rather than ‘discussion’) and I was looking for a student book to illustrate how the course was organised and the content presented, I could see her eyes guiding her towards the beginner’s course-book - and instinct guided me towards deflecting this move: I had a premonition of the ensuing confrontation. “This looks like a Berlitz book from the 50s,”' she scoffed. She had me at an unfair advantage here, not having taught then myself. I began to explain that the course incorporated ideas and procedures from different traditions and approaches and reworked them in the light of newer thinking, but she would have none of it.
Flicking to the opening pages she found the food required to fill her outrage: “Pen, clock, table! Haven't you people heard of communicative teaching?”. “Yes of course - and we have moved on from there.”
“Have you indeed! How can you teach ‘pen’ and ‘book’?” “It depends what you have in mind - in a classroom teaching situation it can be a useful way to get things started.” I tried to engage her in an exchange of views but her raised hackles got in the way. “I'm not interested, I'm not interested”, and off she marched, her sensibilities thoroughly offended.
Well, being addressed as ' you people ' hardly creates the rapport that allows the kind of communication that this teacher was such a stern proponent of in the classroom. Also the suggestion that ‘we people’ had been living in some sort of cave for the last thirty years was a bit objectionable too.
However, I knew where she was coming from. I am not a diehard fan of pens, pencils, clocks, phones, doors and windows; but at the same time this long-standing Situationalist approach to teaching beginners is not as harmful as some teachers believe. They formed the basis of drills used to ‘imprint’ structures in the 50’s - because structures were the key to language, so the thinking went. Of course, now we know that mastery of structures does not automatically lead to communicative autonomy, but that, in turn, does not mean that structures or sentence patterns have no place in language learning.
In the SpeakYourMind course we are very clear about recognising the limitations as well as the uses of starting in this way. There are advantages of teaching the words for the things that occur in your physical surroundings, learners can see them and touch them - it's very direct and immediate. In the initial set of objects and words that our beginner learners encounter they come across almost the complete range of phonemes, as well as beginning to learn about stress patterns - so important in English – so it’s not just ‘structures’.
Teachers and students are aware that starting in the classroom with classroom objects is purely a convenient way to get going – it kick-starts the language learning. As language quickly grows, the confines of the physical classroom dissolve, and more likely and plausible interaction can emerge. Even the very early lessons involving pens, watches, phones, switches, tables and so on can, in reality, become challenging and fun in the hands of a talented and informed teacher - it's not a question of some brutal taskmaster squeezing the life out of language and chipping away at the poor learners’ brains to engrave words and structures indelibly and inalterably.

But I think the most important point to dispel is the idea - common among many teachers - that when we are teaching language we are in some way reliving the learning experience that occurs in growing individuals as they learn a language.
Of course, no one would set about teaching their toddler in such a formal restrictive and disciplined way. Children ‘discover’ language in all its complexities and subtleties, and learn over the course of years and through hundreds of thousands of different types of experiences and encounters.
We cannot try to replicate this experience - and we certainly don't have the time to do so - in the classroom. When adult or teenage learners come to a classroom, they come with the benefit of many learning experiences with different degrees of formality and modality, and are well equipped to cope with learning strategies that do not correspond exactly to what might be described as ‘natural’ or ‘real’. But of course, a classroom is a classroom and not the ‘natural world’ or the ‘real world’ (but ‘real worlds’ have classrooms too).
To assume that an approach which is evidently contrived and artificial will somehow necessarily impair learners’ receptiveness, or ‘damage’ them in some way, is to do little justice to their intelligence.
Of course if a teaching programme continues to present a language in a lifeless and implausible way, learners will lose interest and motivation, and as experience has shown, will not provide learners with the skills required to become confident and effective language users.

Yes, we have heard of the communicative approach and we well appreciate and approve of its aims, and we recognise the advances and benefits that it has brought. Communication is at the heart of what we teach, although we would make a distinction between communication as the exclusive ‘means’ and as the ‘end’. Communication is a consequence of what happens in the classroom more than being the starting point of what happens at all costs.
This is what I meant when I said to disgusted of Tunbridge Wells that we can move beyond CLT, which so often seems to end up becoming trapped in a hall of mirrors. So I am genuinely sorry that pens and books figure in our first lessons, but we do not live in caves and we do not use the pens to club our students into submission.

1 comment:

FunSongs said...

Excellent and interesting blog post. Some teachers can be incredibly narrow-minded and quick to condemn! There's a lot to be said for a simple tangible approach for beginners based on what's to hand. I can still remember the standard "British School" course used by the Italian chain in 1970s and 1980s and the rumpus in the staffroom when management (Howard Scott) in Via Montenapoleone, Milan (1985) decided to "upgrade"to the latest Longman series of "Strategies" coursebooks. All of the older teachers had been quite happy with the basic "This is a pen. What's this?" materials which had worked well for years. Just goes to show how language teaching (often more motivated by the commercial needs of big boy publishers to sell more books) can be almost as prone to fashion (in the sense of what's in and what's out) as something really ephemeral like hair style or pop music!