Thursday, 5 March 2015

I'm a social learner (except when I'm alone)

I've come back to this fabulous talk by Russell Mayne a number of times now. It is a joy to watch someone taking shots at sacred cows with such abandon (though as someone who gobbled up the learning styles approach, I find myself cringing quite a bit (gobbled up......does that make me a gustatory learner?)). Without wishing to simplify, Russell's point is that ELT seems to offer a warm welcome to dubious theories and unsupported practices (e.g. Brain Gym and NLP). This leads to classroom activities like watching the direction of your students' eyes to determine when to start and stop activities.

Apart from silly lessons (nothing terribly wrong with a bit of silly), one of the main problems Russell highlights is the damage to the professional credibility of ELT. Russell's targets are not teachers on the ground, but those a little higher up the chain - teacher trainers, ELT writers, course book publishers. Those who influence the kinds of ideas and methodologies that make their way into the classroom. 

What I find interesting to consider (as Russell does in his talk) is why it is that there is such acceptance of theories that seem "intuitively true" but which lack any evidence to support them (and evidence that suggests they are in fact bogus). Why is it that in EAP we teach critical thinking, but don't really practise what we teach?

I don't wish to be an apologist for teachers but I think the straight answer is mostly practical. Time. Most teachers I know are paid by the hour and have little or no access to ELT journals. If they want to get any sort of professional development, they have to give up a Saturday, unpaid. Their outside class time is spent preparing classes, correcting work and fretting that they are not effectively helping students maximise their learning potential. If they go to a talk by a charismatic so and so who espouses the wonders of NLP, then chances are, come Monday, their students will be closing their eyes and visualising childhood memories.  

As Russell says, if we want professional credibility, we need to be more professional. I have taken this as a bit of a mantra lately. I figure if we want to be considered on a similar level to university professors, then we have to act like university professors (i.e. publish, give talks, look startled when approached by students in the corridor). However, I am fortunate to work for an institution that gives access to journals and support to do research. I am conscious that not everyone is so fortunate. Thankfully, with ELT Ireland we have a great resource in helping to make things here a bit more professional. 

Essentially, this brings me round to continuing professional development (CPD). Challenging accepted wisdom, engaging in the debate, should be a part of our CPD. But for many of us, it is not. According to the Medical Council, doctors are expected on average to do 50 hours per year on CPD. But there is a framework, a support system there that helps doctors to fulfil their obligations. As far as I know (and I may be wrong), there is no such system for ELT teachers. It mostly seems ad hoc. Wouldn't it be great if there was such a system and support for teachers to carry out their CPD? Perhaps then we may be better positioned to critically evaluate current pedagogical trends (fads?).  


  1. Very interesting - what can we do though! How do we get teachers in the circumstances you describe to have access to the information they need?

    1. Thanks for commenting. For a start, I think blogs are a great way to share ideas/current debates/theories etc. But I'm not sure what percentage of teachers read them - and the teachers who do read them are perhaps already actively seeking out new perspectives and challenges to existing wisdom. I think the people it would be most beneficial to reach would be the DOSes and Academic Managers. I went to two great talks recently at ELT Ireland: one by and the other by ATC dos (language school here in Ireland). Both showed how a DOS can help teacher get active in their CPD.