Are we avoiding talking about learning? (Why we really do what we do Part 5)

It’s recently struck me how many of the things us TEFL teachers say and write about our jobs, students and classes seem to have little or nothing to do with student learning. There are many examples of this on the internet, in teachers’ room conversations, in TEFL magazines and in our classroom, (some of which I’ve been responsible for) including:

– Most writing and speaking about teacher development

– Books, articles, blog posts and workshops organized by activity, resource, kind of technology etc rather than learning produced

– Most speaking and writing about interest, fun or student happiness (all too often without linking from that to the wider goals of learning)

– Many conversations recommending or recommending against particular worksheets, activities, books etc

– Most TEFL job interview questions and things on our CVs and LinkedIn pages (How often does learning get a mention on yours?)

– Most teacher workshops, and even most of teaching qualifications

– Most meetings between managers and teachers

– Most publicity and other information for students

– Most publicity and other materials about new EFL materials (Have you ever seen one that stated scientifically-tested improved student learning?)

– Most questions on student feedback questionnaires (with the few questions about student progress usually given no more weight than other less fundamental factors like punctuality and friendliness of the teacher)

– Most reviews of EFL materials

– Most things we say and write about students (“confident”, “takes part well in speaking activities”, or even “a pleasure to teach”)

– Many examples of teachers obsessively sharing their ideas and materials (as if the learning in their own classes isn’t enough)

– Most of the time that we talk about students as customers

– Most questions when we ask students what they want to do (e.g. negotiated syllabi, and much needs analysis)

– A focus on professional-looking materials and teachers

There are also kinds of classes and materials which seem to have little or nothing to do with actual student learning, e.g.

– Most use of warmers

– An obsession with tying things together and smooth transitions (my chief crime)

Teaching things we know to be unteachable like intonation patterns and turn taking

– Most text-based conversation lessons, e.g. read a newspaper article and talk about it

– Sticking to the textbook

– Syllabi where students “learn” one thing and quickly move on

– Equal amounts of time spent on wildly varying language points (Why are units all the same length and how often could one lesson be exactly the right amount of time to spend on something??)

– New editions of textbooks that scrap everything from the previous edition (meaning treating things which led to much learning and those which didn’t equally)

– Some CLIL lessons which focus on the content not as a way of teaching language but in a “at least they learnt something” kind of a way

Focusing on things other than actual learning might actually seem like quite a good idea in situations like weekly teachers’ meetings, given how controversial, heavy and/ or philosophical such a discussion could become. However, we can easily get into the automatic habit of quickly skimming over student learning to give time to more “important” or “urgent” things, perhaps unconsciously going from understandably not mentioning student learning in a discussion on split shifts for teachers to less forgivably giving a workshop on fun activities for FCE classes without even mentioning improved scores (as I have been guilty of).

So, is it possible to have a sensible discussion about language learning without stand up rows, ten-hour meetings, agonized navel gazing over each worksheet we recommend to other teachers or edicts from management on ways to teach (probably based on theories which will be go out of fashion the week after next)? It will always be a delicate balancing act, for example between:

– Quick decisions/ Taking everything into account

– Confidence in our knowledge about what we know about language learning/ Not getting too dogmatic

– Focusing on learning/ Letting the ideas flow before we scrap the ones which don’t lead to (too much) learning

I’ve also come up with a list of fairly obvious tips to help us all take learning more into account without the discussion getting out of hand, be it in class, on our blogs or during in-service training:

– Focus on what we agree about language learning rather than what we disagree on ( e.g. a workshop where teachers try to find a list of statements about language learning that almost everyone agrees on)

– Starting or ending workshops with discussion of the connection between the things discussed and student progress

– Teacher development focused on how we can improve student learning, including when trying to stretch yourself and experiment

– Talk about technology in the classroom usually being integrated into the teaching of listening, grammar etc rather than being dealt with separately (e.g. mentioning technology in each TEFL course input session rather than having a specific input session on technology)

– More prominence given to student learning in progress reports, handover notes between teachers, student questionnaires, etc.

– More mention of actual student learning in reviews of TEFL materials (but with enough information about the students etc for readers to be able to judge how relevant that information is to them)

– An end to the ban on negative reviews that some publications have (based on our confidence that we can at least notice no student learning)

– Pacing guides that take into account how useful and learnable the things on the syllabus/ in the textbook are

– TEFL job interview questions mainly about student learning

– More revision in class, then more tips on how students can really learn the language if they can’t remember it

– More input from the teacher when students discuss self-study advice, say what they’d like to study, etc

The rest of this series (perhaps my favourite way of thinking about TEFL as it actually exists) is here:

Why we really do what we do Part One – error correction

Why we really do what we do Part Two – games

Why we really do what we do Part Three – culture

Why we really do what we do Part Four – worksheets

This entry was posted in Linguistics, applied linguistics and SLA. Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to Are we avoiding talking about learning? (Why we really do what we do Part 5)

  1. Would you say that this is about students?

  2. alexcase says:

    Things based on descriptions of good language learners have a complex relationship to this question. Talking more about learning certainly includes giving students more tips on how to learn, especially outside the classroom, and more teachers telling students what works rather than just or getting them to chat about the topic or other kinds of “consciousness raising”. However, it is far from clear from the research on good language learners how teachable those good habits are, linking to what I’ve said about teachability above.
    Good book on the topic, including for showing realistically how much doubt there still is about how much we can learn from the area:

  3. Thanks Alex, I’ll get the book. As for teachability – SEL – social and emotional learning are neglected topics because academics can’t seem to relate to ‘soft skills’ as such, in my opinion. But the psychology of learning, relationships etc, are key to how student feel about learning.

    For me, this ‘teachability’ is all about relationship, atmosphere, respect, modelling good listening habits, rapport-building – story-telling, music and poetry can teach the unteachable, I think – because students get to express themselves through creativity. There IS a science behind that!!

    So we wouldn’t define it as teachability – but maybe natural, experiential development – which also leads to language acquisition – as in the way children learn and grow at home with their parents.

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