Coming soon – ten things (I think) I know about teaching…

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.

René Descartes, or possibly an International House London teacher circa 1974

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…


36 thoughts on “Coming soon – ten things (I think) I know about teaching…

  1. Oh this sounds terrific, Ken. I have written stuff and then travelled to places and found that the audience I envisaged using it with is so different from the audience that’s actually using it. Trying to put a finger on some sure fire essentials will be really useful. Grreat idea!

  2. This has always been my biggest complaint about conferences and coursebooks. They rarely fit the classroom contexts I teach in. I’ll be interested to see what you have to say on the subject.

  3. Happy New Year to Ken and all! Could course writers ever get away with just providing the materials, and let teachers fill in the instructions later? A big book of just texts and dialogues and audio and video in thematic units? I think I would buy such a book.

    1. Hi Alan.

      interesting idea. It may not be too long before most material provided by publishers could be on-line, so I think your idea would work well in that situation. If you imagine that there will be the equivalent of 100 pages for every topic/lexical set/grammar point, or whatever the nexus of a unit is, then there’s certainly room for DIY approach to activities.

      1. Hi Ken (and Allan).

        First of all, Ken, another great post with a good laugh and some nice chewy bits underscoring your overall points. I like your confession and the idea of CBWA that I’m ready and willing to join and make my own confession at some point!

        Addressing Alan’s point, I think this is sorely needed in ELT materials design, but it will probably happen purely online (as Ken points out) with independent providers and probably not through the hands of major publishers, who are under a lot of (admittedly self-generated) pressure to create materials that are an entire detailed language course unto themselves and a sort of teacher’s guide for the voluminous number of teachers out there who are inexperienced and relatively untrained. Publishers who went with ‘raw’ materials along the lines you’ve suggested would get more complaints (and hence less sales) from teachers wondering what the point of it all is than compliments from experienced eclectic teachers ready to interpret and apply such materials off their own bats. And let’s face it, such teachers are becoming increasingly resourceful and can find a majority of the things you mention straight off the Internet, if they are willing to put the time in.

        Great ideas, though…

        Personally, I’m keen to try and nudge Ken into taking off his publisher-logoed caps and doing more of his own independent stuff… I know he’s a publisher’s dream, and loves working with publishers, but the real gems will come out for us all to enjoy once he becomes Ken “Unfettered” Wilson! He’s started a blog, so I harbour a hope that the ball has commenced rolling…

      2. Thanks Jason!

        I love Ken ‘Unfettered’ Wilson – sounds like a really useless wrestler! Reminds me of Steve ‘Interesting’ Davies the snooker player, who actually enjoyed the nickname, even though it came from a Spitting Image sketch.

        In fact, I think we all leave a trail of unfettered material in our wake by blogging, tweeting and doing workshops – most of the things you pick up at workshops are idiosyncratic ideas that would never make it in published form. And there ARE publishers who are willing to take a few risks, you just have to hunt them out (and accept that they won’t sell many books).

  4. I too am looking forward to what you have to say. I think it’s extremely important to constantly reassess our beliefs and what we know (or think we know). I often learn most from people I vehemently disagree with, although I’ll admit that I’m rarely humble enough to admit as much to their faces!

    All learning begins with the simple phrase, “I don’t know”

    Not sure who is responsible for this quote but I think it’s apt.

  5. This sounds very interesting, Ken. I wait with bated breath as to what your going to say.

    From what you’ve said above, I would say considering the student’s or students’ motivation is a key for English Language teachers. You mentioned that the ‘bright, young things’ you were teaching paid a considerable sum to be there. In my current teaching situation, students have to pay for their ESOL course (a nice development under Labour – free ESOL for a while, then take it away). Some students still have their fees waived (those aged 16-18 and those on certain benefits). The strange thing is there doesn’t seem to be a clear correlation between whether they pay for their course or not, and their motivation to be in lessons (as proved by their attendance).

    Sometimes it seems as though they think: ‘I have paid for this course, so I’ll turn up if I feel like it’ and other times: ‘I didn’t pay for the course and it was free, so does it matter if I don’t attend’. It’s a tricky one, especially since we depend on student performance to secure funding.

    Almost makes me want to be teaching in Spain again (where I was at an IH affiliated school), but then I remember Spanish teens and how motivated they can be!

    1. Not sure what you mean by the end of para 2 ‘The strange thing is … no correlation’ and para 3 turning up/not turning up if they pay. And I’m not sure if you’re being ironic about Spanish teenagers (I really enjoyed teaching teenagers in Seville).

      I certainly want to hear more about circumstances like these, but I’m going to go for global issues, and how they relate to materials. As usual, however, I’ve no doubt the most important thoughts will be in the comments.

      1. I’d better try and clarify what I want to say. I wanted to say something about the problem of student attendance (or lack thereof) and possible reasons for it. I would have thought that if learners had to pay for their course they would be more motivated to attend (i.e. to get value for money). I suppose I am being a bit narrow-minded there, as there are many reasons why (our particular) students might be absent. I don’t know whether this is something that is different in public (in FE/community colleges) and private EFL/ESL.

        Regarding the Spanish students, I was talking about my particular students in Pamplona. No problems with them per se, and there were a number of fun lessons; I just found them very hard to motivate.

      2. I certainly think there is a connection between payment and motivation. Particularly if the parents are paying and want to see some results. 🙂

  6. In first few paragraphs of your post I saw myself a few years ago… I was there doing all that stuff. Exactly the way you described it. Unfortunately you weren’t my teacher.

    1. Agata, I’m not being very bright these days and not following my esteemed readers’ comments very well. What did you see yourself doing? Sitting in an International House-style class in London? Or teaching a small group of highly-motivated students?

  7. If there was a support group called CBWA (Course Book Writers Anonymous), I would … not tell anyone online because it’s anonymous 😉
    Seriously, thanks Ken for this post – let me echo Vicki and the others’ sentiments about looking forward to finding some teaching essentials from your thoughts and those of your readership.
    Something interesting I read over the holidays was the idea of the doubting game and the believing game (I read it in Larsen-Freeman’s book on Techniques and Principles in Language Teaching). She quotes another writer, Peter Elbow, who says that we often play the doubting game with methodology but that equally important is the believing game – seeing ideas not as true or false but as tools. I like this idea as a way of exploring methodology.

    1. Hi Lindsay!

      thanks for dropping by.

      The doubting game looks very interesting – I will give Peter some Elbow room and read up on it. 🙂

      1. Lindsay – that is just freakish! During one break on the sofa over the Christmas break I for some reason opened up that very same book (Larsen-Freeman: Techniques and Principles in Language Teaching), and read that very same section about the doubting and believing game, and went “hmmmmm….”

        I was actually referring to the book because I wanted to see if there was some way Dogme ELT could be illustrated in the same way Larsen-Freeman documents real lessons and links different elements to various principles and techniques, but I got stuck in the intro on that section about doubting and believing.

        Amazing stuff!

  8. Methodological skepticism sounds very good. This past year I was amazed to follow the debunking of learning styles, a concept that was a central in my teacher training. I’d love to learn more about the pitfalls of roleplay, again one of those things I learned are essential, yet don’t always work out quite the way they should. So I’m hoping you’ll be dipping into your experience here.

    1. Hm…

      the Cartesian system will stick to basics, I’m afraid, Anne!

      People seem very surprised when I say I’m not a great fan of ‘role-play’. Aren’t I biting the hand that has fed me for so long? My main gripe is that teachers tend to flag an activity with ‘We’re going to do a role-play!’ which, in the wider world outside the IH-style students I described above, tends to induce panic in the class rather than excitement. And there seems be to SO much faffing about before anything happens – certainly in the classes that I have observed.

      In fact, lots of speaking activities can turn into role-play without you having to make a song and dance about it.

      As soon as I’ve met this weekend’s deadlines, I’ll get down to the ten VERY BASIC thoughts I have….

  9. Ken,

    It’s motivating that you are a continuous learner which probably is what makes you such a great presenter and blogger. Sometimes, we forget the audience even in presentations or when writing. Blogging is great, because we get visitors from everywhere with different experiences that it makes us reflect more about the audience. Thank you for reminding us of such an important point. Glad we had some of this conversation in person, too!

    1. Hi Shell…

      thanks for the ‘continuous learner’ compliment. I suppose it’s because I didn’t really learn much first time round, having done an IH course before it morphed into the CELTA and a DELTA in its infancy (although my trainer WAS the best in the business – Lizzie Soars).

      It’s people like you who keep people like me on their toes and determined to find out more. 🙂

  10. Like everyone else, I’m looking forward to learning from your experiences, yet again!

    The main thing I’m sure of is that I know much, much less about teaching than I did 20 years ago 🙂

    1. Oh, that’s SO true, Barbara! The certainties of youth! I’m sure it’s the same in all walks of life, but especially in teaching and acting.

  11. Damn right, Ken – courses for horses, and all that. I can remember trying to teach the idea of pair-work to teachers in Kazakhstan – ‘piece of cake’, I thought to myself.

    Until one day one of the teachers asked me to visit her class and watch her students doing some pair-work … which consisted of two students standing nervously at the front of the class, reading a dialogue from the course book … and the teacher correcting them.

    Back to square one, eh?

    1. Thanks, Sandy.

      You really have to pity both the teacher and the students in the scenario that you describe. In what truncated form did the teacher pick up the idea of doing pairwork, and what long-term negative effect would an experience like that have on the students and their desire to study English?

  12. Here in the French college system, I am ‘twixt and ‘tween. Certainly I have better conditions than those you mentioned, but I am teaching to students who are required to take English and who have wildly varied English levels, not to speak of motivation, which goes from high to “total lack thereof.” I will look forward to your post.

    1. Hi Betty…

      first twitter, now blog – how many more ways can we communicate on the same day?

      I’d better get this post finished, hadn’t I? It really is simply an attempt to scrape away the topsoil and see what happens in the majority of English classrooms round the world.

      Will go back and add a few more words now, but it’s far from finished.

  13. Hi Ken,

    You’ve made me think about what I know for certain about my various classrooms. One thing I know for certain is that if there is no rapport, either between the students themselves or with me, then we are going nowhere, no matter how great the material. If it were there and breaks down for some reason, I need to do everything to fix it. Once great rapport is established, then we go way beyond where we had expected to get.

    Will be analysing how rapport is developed in my classroom. I’ll be thinking about my own and my students’ behaviours and will consider how the coursebooks I use both help and hinder!

    Looking forward to hearing what you know!!

    Best wishes
    Amanda 🙂

    1. Hi Amanda,

      rapport, motivation, engagement … these key words are probably in the second tier of what I will be talking about in my back to basics post. In fact, in all probability, they will come up in the comments, first. It always seems that blogposts set off a chain of responses, and this is where all the fresh thinking is.

      We shall see (each other on Wednesday).

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