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Feb 2019 - Year 21 - Issue 1

ISSN 1755-9715

Values and Beliefs: Constants in a Changing World

Rod Bolitho is a freelance ELT trainer and consultant.  He has worked in both state and private sectors in the UK and abroad, and from 2007 – 2015 was Academic Director at Norwich Institute for Language Education (NILE). He has directed and taught on Masters programmes at NILE and at Marjon in Plymouth. He has worked on projects in curriculum reform, textbook writing and teacher education in India, Romania, Russia, Belarus and Ukraine, and remains a long-standing consultant to the ELT Reform Project for the British Council in Uzbekistan.  He has written articles and chapters in a number of journals and edited collections, and has co-authored books, including  Discover English (with Brian Tomlinson), Trainer Development (with Tony Wright), Continuing Professional Development (with Amol Padwad), and The Internationalisation of Ukrainian Universities (with Richard West).  Language Education in a Changing World: Challenges and Opportunities (with Richard Rossner) is scheduled for publication in 2019. 

 

The last twenty years have seen a ramping up of corporate interests in ELT, with the increasing dominance of the ‘big four’ UK-based publishing houses and the continued emergence of the big exam providers as powerful influences over teachers and learners.  The British Council, too, driven in part by the need to pay its own way, has become more corporate in its vision and practices, and has focussed increasingly on global policies and products rather than building on the reputation it used to have in ELT for developing sensitive local solutions to local problems.  This is partly a result of wider trends, often lumped together and identified as globalisation, but it is also partly just the culmination of the gradual consolidation of vested interests in the multi-million pound language teaching industry.  This ‘commodification’ of ELT has had an influence on teachers, learners and institutions alike.  Whether in state or private sectors, many language courses are exam-focussed and results-driven.  The approach that many language schools and state schools take is increasingly narrow in focus, and many learners, worried about academic or career advancement seem to buy into this.  The equation between available time and the pressure to succeed is in evidence everywhere. Numbers taking the IELTS test rise year on year.  Textbooks are more and more focussed on the achievement of exam success.  Teachers now ‘deliver’ lessons, courses and programmes: the verb is significant for its connotations.  And more and more of this ‘delivery’ is now done in distance or blended mode, thus reducing the amount of human contact involved.   Initial teacher training courses in many countries are tied closely to the demands of a state school curriculum with little scope for a broad-based approach to teacher education.   All this has gone hand-in-hand with the gradual demise of the liberal thinking that characterised much of our field in the seventies and eighties, when ‘humanistic approaches’ were all the rage for a while and language teaching seemed to have escaped from the shackles of direct method and audiolingual teaching.

Let us look at some of these issues in more detail, starting with the publishing industry.  Mainstream textbook publishing is immensely profitable.  English language textbook publishing in the UK is now dominated by the ‘big four’: Macmillan, Pearson, Oxford University Press and Cambridge University Press.  All these companies have fairly conservative, low-risk publishing policies when it comes to textbooks.  All market their books globally and bid, often against each other, for adoptions in state education systems.  Their products are generally popular with teachers and learners, who prefer their materials to have been written by native speakers.  These teachers may or may not have been exposed to modern methods and approaches such as task-based learning, lexical approaches or project work, which usually means that the publishers take few risks in the content and underlying methodology of their books, preferring to stick to tried and trusted formulae, with only limited concessions to innovative ideas.  This has a stifling effect on creativity among authors, who are now usually required to write to a prescribed formula and often paid a fixed fee rather than sharing in royalties.  For much more on this, see Zemach’s address to the IATEFL Conference in Brighton (Zemach 2018).  But there is inevitably a knock-on effect at classroom level.  Textbooks written to a formula will inevitably encourage teaching and learning to the same formula, thereby squeezing creativity out of language lessons.  While this may suit some teachers and learners, it is easy to see why voices have been raised against it (see, for example, Meddings and Thornbury 2010).   Publishers often provide training courses and seminars for teachers in their target markets, thereby creating and reinforcing interest in their products as well as providing professional development opportunities which may not be available in the state sector.  They also sponsor native speaker authors to speak at conferences and undertake lecture and workshop tours in countries around the world.  All this lends them enormous power and influence in our field.  At best, they have helped to professionalise the business of materials writing.  At worst, they have ‘infantilised’ teachers through making them dependent on their materials and the step-by-step sequences in their teachers’ guides, and they have also contributed in some contexts to the process of deskilling local authors who would have the close contextual knowledge needed to write for their own teachers and learners.

Examination providers such as Cambridge Assessment and Trinity College are also major stakeholders in the global industry of ELT.  Their influence is felt in classrooms around the world as they offer well-tuned suites of examinations in English and qualifications for teachers of English.  Their products are based on thorough research into testing and assessment, and their language examinations are linked to international standards as exemplified in the Common European Framework of Reference.  Students around the world aspire to success in these examinations and are ready to pay the going rate to try.  Profits, which in some cases are huge, can then be ploughed back into further research and development.   However, teaching to examination requirements can have a limiting effect on the breadth and quality of language education.  This applies even more closely to the examinations used in some state education systems, where research into modern trends in language education has been limited and exam procedures focus on knowledge of the language systems rather than on language skills.  In many of these contexts, testing has not kept pace with developments in methodology and materials.  The results of a narrow focus on exam success can be seen in countries such as Greece and Turkey, where ‘cramming’ institutes make their money by narrow-focus exam preparation and by claiming to compensate for deficits in state school classrooms, often through resorting to rote learning.  All this encourages in learners and teachers a utilitarian view of English as a subject rather than as a living language used for communicative purposes.

Interestingly, both publishing houses and examination providers, while mindful of the markets they cater to, are almost entirely self-regulating, and this enables them to set trends rather than follow them.  Schools, whether in the state or the private sector, are subject to regulation through inspections, the demands of the curriculum and various other quality control mechanisms such as annual appraisal.  This may further cut down the options open to teachers, leaving them even less room for manoeuvre in their practices.  In many contexts, particularly in state schools, teachers do feel the pressure that all this brings to bear on them, adding an extra layer to the discipline, motivation and resourcing problems that many of them have to deal with on a daily basis.  Small wonder that so many of them take the line of least resistance by focussing their efforts on getting through the coursebook and preparing their learners for exams.  But how many of us went into teaching in order to spend a career doing that?  What do we value about being teachers and what do we really believe about teaching and learning?

Sooner or later, most teachers confront these questions.  The moment for this may come at any point in a teacher’s career and the answers are not always easy to find within ourselves or to put easily into words.  Some of the answers are best pursued with the help of others, which may account for the growth of the Teacher Development movement in the seventies and eighties, the founding of Humanising Language Teaching, and more recently for the rise of the Creativity Group.  All of these developments have arisen and thrived as a result of dissatisfaction with what is happening in the ‘mainstream’ of our field and they all give teachers a voice and a sense of belonging to a tribe they can identify with, in much the same way as readers of ‘Private Eye’ and ‘Charlie Hebdo’ find in these publications an outlet for their frustrations with the political order and public life.  They help us to feel less isolated in a profession which can at times be lonely and demanding.  But ultimately we have to find answers that we can live with and which translate into action in our classrooms.  I’m the first to admit that I have not always found this easy, yet there are, I believe, things we can hold on to.  I offer them here as food for thought rather than as solutions.

First of all, it’s about being oneself in the classroom.  I have heard teachers say that they wear a ‘mask’ when they go into a lesson, and others who maintain that teaching is like acting and that we are playing a role in the classroom.  I don’t buy that.  For me, teaching is just an extension of self, not a display of a different self.  Learners of all ages are very quick to spot any lack of genuineness in a teacher, and they will not respect her for it. 

Secondly, I try to think about how I see my learners and the teachers who attend my courses and seminars.  Here, I am helped by recalling Carl Rogers’ core conditions in counselling.  If we see the classroom encounter as a meeting of people of whom I, as the teacher, am just one, it is easier to be empathic, to seek congruence with learners and to maintain unconditional positive regard (Rogers 1980).  What this means in practice is that teachers need to be listeners, to be ready to enter dialogue with learners and to involve them in decision-making.  Long ago, I had an adult Swiss learner – Karl - in one of my classes.  He told me he had learned his basic English, ‘on the road’ and after a few lessons he told me he was turned off and even a little scared by formal classes.  He asked me if he could tell the class his story in one lesson instead of working from the textbook.  I agreed, and also offered to sit beside him in case he needed language support.  He was the oldest learner in a class made up largely of teenagers and he brought a good deal of his own personality and experience of travelling the length and breadth of the USA into his story.  His classmates were spellbound, and the lesson gradually changed into a question and answer session between them and him, to which I (equally charmed by his account) added my own questions and comments.  The lesson finished with agreement that it would be good to find a map of the USA and to annotate it together with a report on incidents in his story.  Needless to say, this whole language-rich event boosted his self-esteem as well as contributing enormously to the sense of community in the class.  We need to know how our learners prefer to learn and to make time and space for them to speak up and have a say in classroom processes.   We should never forget that our learners are often the best resource in our classrooms and that the interplay between everyone in a class situation can yield so many opportunities for learning.  This is, of course, a core message of Dogme proponents.

Faced with demands for exam success by learners, however, we do need to draw on our own experience to help them to see how that can be achieved.  While some schools and teachers may go for an ‘all-protein’ approach, focussing on past exam papers and exam practice, that may not guarantee success.  Years ago, a colleague and I taught parallel classes towards the Cambridge Certificate of Proficiency in English.  They had achieved the same level as each other in the placement test.  One class chose to be very exam-focussed and was taught by traditional methods, including memorisation, drills and repetition.  The other class, offered a choice, decided to embark on a series of projects, with the teacher playing a facilitative role rather than structuring the lessons rigidly.  This second group took a mock exam towards the end of the course, just to familiarise themselves with the requirements, but otherwise concentrated on preparing presentations of their projects.  When the results of the CPE exam were published, the scores in the two groups were more or less the same.  To me this was a useful reminder of a belief that I had long cherished – that learners can be motivated in different ways and that listening to their preferences and acting on them almost always pays off.

As teachers rush headlong through busy days, weeks and months, following a textbook, marking homework, setting tests and preparing lessons, they understandably have too little time to reflect on their practice and to consider whether what they are doing is compatible with what they believe and value.  I have been through frantic spells of this kind of activity when we may not have enough time to listen properly to our learners’ voices.  But there is a voice that is available to us all and which refuses to be silent.  I’m sure readers will recognise this voice in themselves, too.  It is the one that talks to us during a lesson and points things out to us as we go along, and then after a lesson it’s the one that scolds us for not finishing an exercise or for neglecting a learner at the back of the class.  This inner voice is one of the greatest resources that we teachers have available to us.  Donald Schön identifies the processes of reflection-in-action and reflection-on-action (Schön 1983), and the carrier of reflective messages is often this inner voice.  I have always engaged in inner dialogue with this messenger and it has often helped me, amid all the other pressures on me and my time, to see more clearly what I do and what I might do better.

As we are constantly confronted with the supposed need to sign up to corporate values, imposed materials, omnipresent technology and ways in which society now defines success, it really is important that we, as teachers, still need to focus on the value of the unique interpersonal encounter that characterises every single language class and to share and talk about what underlies our teaching and our learners’ approach to learning.

 

References

Meddings, L. & S. Thornbury 2010  Teaching Unplugged  Peaslake, Surrey: Delta Publishing

Rogers, Carl R. (1980). Ways of Being. Boston: Houghton Mifflin

Schön, D. (1983)  The Reflective Practitioner  New York: Basic Books

Zemach, D. 2018 Sausage and the Law: how ELT textbooks are made (Plenary address at the IATEFL Conference 2018), available at:  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xI-OLoBxENI  (accessed October 2018)

 

Please check the How to be a Teacher Trainer course at Pilgrims website.

Please check the English Course for Teachers and School Staff at Pilgrims website.

  • How Do We Embrace Change?
    Malu Sciamarelli, Brazil

  • Values and Beliefs: Constants in a Changing World
    Rod Bolitho, UK