Recently two of the best-know names in our business, Adrian Underhill and Jim Scrivener, have started a new blog where they challenge what they see as the contemporary tendency for teachers to settle for good-enough. I haven’t watched enough classes lately to agree or disagree with Underhill and Scrivener’s observation that these days many teachers do
little more than a series of announcements to start up and close down exercises and activities. There is typically a lack of “up-close” teaching skills, no “hands-on” work with language and little or no engagement with the process or experience of learning. Much of traditional “teaching” is devolved to the coursebook. And coursebooks are now so good that they can take that strain.
…but I do welcome any blog that challenges us, as teachers, to do the best job we can.
I wonder if this good-enough teaching, if it is really a thing, relates to a shift in teacher identity from teacher as professional, where teachers are expected to be skilled and knowledgeable enough to teach in whatever way is required by the needs of their students, to teacher as technician, who is required to teach only what is set down by a strict curriculum or to the needs of a standardized test.
Chia Suan Chong’s blog includes a fine video explanation and detailed examples of how to do her version of materials-light teaching, walking into the classroom “with nothing but a pen” as she describes it, based on Scott Thornbury’s concept of Dogme EFL. Even if, like me, you feel that going completely materials free all the time is kind of drastic, Chia’s ideas are very useful for those times when you’re forced to do without your usual planning and resources—when you have to do a last minute substitution for a sick colleague for example.
I suspect that her methods are easier for an experienced and confident teacher than for one new to the profession, but I can’t help but be impressed by how well she incorporates truly learner-centred conversation with a great deal of lexis and grammar work. She seems to not to do very much writing with her students though, which seems a shame as the reduce preparation times her approach allows would let the teacher spend more time giving useful feedback on students writing.
To add to my occasional attempts to get my math skills up to speed, I’ve just started taking two more online courses: an introduction to programming, and a course on using modelling techniques (that’s economic and social sciences models, not my normal mode of standing around looking beautiful…or something).
So far (the first week of both courses) the introduction to programming hasn’t taught me anything I didn’t know, but I’m pretty sure it will soon enough and will certainly serve to consolidate what little skill I already have.
The course on models looks like it will be very interesting and will give me new techniques for thinking about complex subjects—I’m looking forward to it.
(It is a bit ironic, however, that the website for the modelling course feels as if it’s better programmed than the one for the programming course, but these are early days and there is a lot more money I think behind the modelling course)
So I’ve been teaching students in China via Skype for a little while now and I have to say it is quite a learning experience for me.
Lesson planning is not that different from what I might do in a regular class: I find something interesting for them to read, compose some conversation questions, maybe a bit of vocabulary…nothing earth shattering, except that I do it all on PowerPoint slides instead of on photocopied paper. They see these slides through some screen-sharing / meeting software, which also allows me to draw on the screen and them to draw on my screen too, if I turn on that option.
One advantage over the classroom teaching I’m used to is that we have access to the entire internet: we play games online, I can instantly find pictures if they have vocabulary questions, this sort of thing. Of course this sort of thing can be done in a regular classroom with a laptop and projector, but few of the places I’ve worked have had the budget for that sort of technology.
I have to say though, that I really miss the physicality of a regular classroom. I’m a great believer in a connection between the body and the mind and numerous times I’ve found that the direction of a class can be dramatically improved just by inserting an activity that gets people standing up for a few minutes.
I have mixed feelings about the Khan Academy, or at least some of the reactions to it. It is being hyped by some as the answer to our failing school system (a premise I have doubts about to begin with).
It seems to me that it is more or less a simplified textbook in video form, made available for free. Now this is not a totally insignificant thing: free textbooks are nice, and some learners will surely learn better from watching videos than from reading a book. It does seem to leave out some pretty important aspects of learning such as motivation and teaching the reasons and ideas behind why we solve math (and other) problems the way we do. It also seems to be, other than its medium, pretty much the opposite of innovative, in terms of educational theory.
Nonetheless, for an adult independent learner who wants to brush up on some long-forgotten high-school math…someone a bit like me, for example…I can see it being pretty useful. So I’m giving some of its lessons a try.