Readers with reaaaaaaaaaally long memories may recall that sometime back in the last millennium, I started a blogpost called ‘Ten Things I Think I Know’.
After two posts, I only managed to arrive, coughing and wheezing, at Number 8.
For a while, it felt as if this ‘Ten Things’ was going to become a reverse version of Nigel Tufnel’s amplifier in Spinal Tap which, unlike other amplifiers that only went up to ten, went up to eleven. It certainly felt as if my ‘Ten Things’ was going to stall on número ocho.
But I’ve had a second wind, and here are the last two things I think I know about teaching. Actually, only one of them is about teaching – the other one is about writing teaching materials.
And there’s a small problem with the first one. I’m not even sure that I think I know it.
It’s about technology.
9 “Most teachers don’t live there.”
What I think is this – most teachers don’t know how to make maximum use of the classroom technology possibilities that are available. That part is easy. My thinking about this gets a bit foggy when I go into it more deeply.
There are teachers who have embraced the possibilities of new classroom technology, and there are others who haven’t. This isn’t a generational thing – there are young and old teachers in both camps.
What worries me a bit is that the teachers who effortlessly use web2 technology can’t understand that there are others in their profession who don’t understand/use it, either because they can’t or – much worse – because they don’t want to. And the teachers who do want to convert the teachers who don’t. In the nicest possible way, but they want to convert them.
Not only do they (the converters) think that the others are missing out on untold riches, they think they (the unconverted) are short-changing their tech-savvy students if they stick to old-fashioned classroom practices.
I had never really put this thought into words until I read one of Jason Renshaw’s thoughtful and immensely readable blogs.
In December 2009, Jason posted a blog which was entitled “Ditched course book deal means Raven’s Nest reopens for business”
In it, he expressed in a very colourful way his distaste for writing ‘more of the same’ course material. The implication was that, with the fantastic technical advances available now, we should be able to abandon the current course book format and move on. Twenty-first century teachers deserve something which takes advantage of what is now possible, thanks to Web 2.0 etc etc…
Here’s a taste of his coruscating thoughts on the matter:
With this latest project in particular, I actually began to loathe the whole idea of writing a course book. Sitting down to write each day, I would have to force an increasingly bad taste in my mouth back down my throat, hoping my stomach acids would consume it quickly and pass it along to somewhere more appropriate in my digestive system.
I often found myself staring out the window of my office, thinking in despair, “Is this what it has all come down to? Is this what ELT writing is all about now?” Despite the blue skies outside, what I saw there was becoming increasingly bleak. Full of details and features, but essentially barren.
Gripping and colourful stuff. You can read the whole post here: http://tinyurl.com/ygrpby4
I felt a great sympathy with what Jason was writing, and yet I couldn’t agree with him. After much thought, I replied. This is part of what I wrote:
The problem for you and for most authors with good ideas is that there are a whole lot of teachers out there who want to use your book, but who don’t and/or can’t operate in your world.
For example, you and me live in blog/tweet world. For teachers who spend time there, blog/tweet world is like King Solomon’s Mines, full of riches and constantly replenished with new ideas and links. But most teachers don’t live there. This is sad perhaps, but it’s the truth.
The wonderful Shelly Terrell lifted the Most teachers don’t live there quote and ran with it in her excellent Teacher Reboot Camp blog. (http://teacherbootcamp.edublogs.org)
In her very thoughtful response, Shelly wrote:
After attending several conferences in the US and in Europe, I have seen that many educators do not visit blogs regularly, have not joined a ning, and will not join Twitter. Even if they have visited a website, how many actually visit these websites once a week or once a month? As an educator, I feel passionate about learning and I believe that all incredible educators feel the same!
After listing ways in which tech-savvy teachers can help their less favoured brethren, Shelly continues:
Technology is not the enemy and ignorance is not bliss. If we don’t show students how to use social media and technology, then we cannot complain when they use them in unhealthy ways.
You can read the whole of Shelly’s post here: http://tinyurl.com/yhcdwhp
When the dust settles on all of this, I still believe that a sizeable proportion of the educational community hasn’t got a clue about the technology which is available to them, and these teachers are much less tech-aware than the students they are teaching.
But.. and here is finally what I think…
Their lack of interest in new technology doesn’t matter if they have other ways of making their lessons effective and/or memorable.
As a post-script to this, here’s a conversation that I was involved in a couple of weeks ago.
I went to a hush-hush meeting in a hotel in a forest to talk about a new course book project. The participants included publishers, editors and writers, and various other people who put in an appearance to give of their wisdom.
I was particularly interested in the input provided by two people, the managing director and marketing manager of a company which provides summer school English tuition in small cities around the UK. They are a small-ish player in this competitive market, but they seem very successful. They cater for students aged between 14 and 21, and they had 16,000 students last summer, a sharp increase on the 12,000 they entertained five years ago. The company’s aim is to break 20,000 students in the next five years.
We talked about the kind of materials their clientele like. Eventually, the subject of technology came up. I asked what kind of technology was available to the teachers who worked on these courses.
The managing director was clearly uncomfortable with this line of questioning. He seemed to think that I thought his teachers were under-resourced. I had to persuade him that this wasn’t where I was coming from. I simply wanted to know what the teachers could provide and what the students liked.
“The students aren’t bothered about technology in the classroom,” he said flatly. “They do computer stuff in their own time.”
Then came his killer argument.
“As long as the teacher is young, the students are happy,” he declared. When everyone around the table expressed shock and/or surprise at this, he went on.
“I’m sorry, he said. “I’ve employed teachers of every age from 21 to 60. At least on summer courses, students prefer to be taught by someone who isn’t much older than they are.”
So now you know…
10 Most course book writers need to get out more.
I hope this doesn’t come across a smart-ass way to finish.
Like most course book writers, I enjoy the planning stage of writing a course almost more than the actual writing. The promotion phase is also great, with its varied and exciting travel possibilities, but there is always the chance that some sharp-eyed teacher will spot a typo (or worse, a factual error about the country you are in), which rather takes the shine off the occasion.
Back to the planning stage. Visiting schools and watching classes is essential to planning a book. Seeing how teachers and students deal with existing material is very informative.
I know I go on about the classes I’ve visited, but I’m very pleased that I’ve taken the chance to visit so many over the last 20 years. In that time, I’ve sat in on more than 500 classes in 30 countries. About a third of these class visits were part of English Teaching Theatre tours rather than book-oriented research, but I learnt a lot from attending them.
I co-wrote my first series of course books in the early 90s. The first place I went to do some research was Italy, and the first class I saw was in a Scuola Media school in Torino. It was conducted almost entirely in Italian.
I was shocked. The kids loved it, and so did I, eventually. I’m pretty sure I learnt more Italian that day than they learnt English, though.
The point is this: if I hadn’t done the research, I wouldn’t have discovered that lots of state school teachers teach English through their own language. And not just in Italy.
I feel strongly that anyone who has ambitions to write course material should go through this rite of passage. And not just before they write their first book. They should do it again and again.
And yet I have good friends who are full-time course book writers who never do this kind of research. Some of them don’t do any author travel at all. They are happy to accept what the marketing and sales people tell them about local conditions. And they also feel uncomfortable about ‘parachuting in’ to a conference, and telling local teachers how to teach when they don’t know anything about the local working conditions.
My argument is simple. They should go, they should talk at conferences, and they should sit at the back of classes. The teachers will be pleased to listen to them, and they will learn lots from watching teachers who are working in circumstances that are completely different from the teaching conditions they (the authors) were used to in the good old days at International House.
That’s it. We can all get on with our lives now.
Comments please, especially about point 9.