If there was a support group called CBWA (Course Book Writers Anonymous), I would stand up and introduce myself as follows:
“My name is Ken Wilson and I’m a course book writer. I’m a native speaker, I was a full-time English teacher for about ten years and a part-time teacher for about another twenty. I spent most of my teaching life in London, mainly at International House. During that time, I mainlined on classes of 14 students maximum.
“The students were seated in a semi-circle so they could all see and hear each other. They were, generally speaking, young, bright, motivated twenty-somethings and they had paid big bucks to be there.
“After class, they had enough money to go to pubs, clubs, gigs, movies and theatre shows fairly regularly. They swam in a warm-ish pool of English outside the classroom.
“And yes, I admit it. When I first wrote materials for students… (Pause) … I … I .. I wrote only with those students in mind.”
I get a round of applause from the other members of CBWA for managing to make this confession.
As the years have passed (Cue honey-coated background music), I’ve discovered that there are other teaching and learning situations out there. Classes of 30, 40, 70 (normal in China), even 200 (normal in many college and university situations). All over the world, there are students learning English who have no hope of ever communicating F2F with a native speaker, and TEACHERS who are in much the same position.
And because this is the case, something consistently bothers me…
I see a new course book at a publishers’ exhibition. I open it, flick through, and my eye falls on a really nice activity. And I think: this would be SO good to use with a class of 14 bright young things in Central London.
I go to a conference, attend a workshop and see a great classroom activity, which involves the students communicating with each other in an exciting, almost uncontrolled way. And I think: that would be SO good to use with a class of 14 bright young things in Central London.
And then I think: but most students aren’t studying and most teachers aren’t teaching in those circumstances.
So I decided to try to work out what I actually know for sure about the classroom. And teaching. In a worldwide context.
To do this, I decided to invoke the spirit of René Descartes and see if the old boy could shed any light on this teaching lark.
Descartes wrote Discours de la méthode in 1637. In it, he attempted to find a fundamental set of principles that could be known to be true beyond any doubt.
To do this, he employed what is generally referred to as ‘methodological skepticism’, a method of rigorously examining anything he thought he knew.
To begin with, he decided that the only thing he could be certain of was that HE was a thinking being (he wasn’t sure about anyone else at this stage). He expressed this in his famous principle cogito, ergo sum – I think therefore I am.
He wrote an alternative version for pigs – I’m pink, therefore I’m spam. Sorry. Will be serious from now on…
So, with another year of conferences about to start, I’m going to be methodologically skeptical about what I think I know about teaching and learning English and see what I finish up with.
Ten (plus one) things I think I know about the realities of teaching and learning English. Coming soon…