Teaching beliefs & Teaching Style

19 Jan

Go on then – what do you truly believe when it comes down to it?  It’s quite a difficult question – and it can make a great lesson when you ask your class to challenge each others’ beliefs (see lesson plan for reason to believe).

The problem I have with the question is that I’m not sure something that is so fundamentally important as education should be left up to something as vague, wishy washy and ethereal as “belief” – educational research has quite an extensive background and language teaching research is at the forefront of this – shouldn’t we have some solid data on this by now?  Not that data always helps – belief trumps rationality every time and it is not only in education that a refusal to accept alternative suggestions is based solely on “belief”.

This blog post came out of a response to Mike J Harrison’s exploration of teaching beliefs, which was partly prompted by his Delta and partly by Brad Patterson’s blog challenge to find a quote that defines your teaching style.  Brad  quotes Khalil Gibran: “The teacher who is indeed wise does not bid you to enter the house of his wisdom but rather leads you to the threshold of your mind.”  Tyson Seaburn suggests “Knowledge is a social construct, never absolute; it must be continually questioned and challenged if it is to continue to be valid.”

Originally, when I started thinking about this the quote that sprang to mind was B.F. Skinner’s

“Education is what survives when what has been learned has been forgotten.”

I like the way it speaks to the ephemeral nature of education and the ultimate futility of what we do as teachers, and how it reminds us not to worry too much about it – it’ll probably be alright in the long run.

That at least is a surface meaning – there is a deeper meaning when you consider who Skinner was and his position in the history of ELT.  Skinner was a behavioural psychologist and a lot of his ideas related to the “stimulus-response” theory of behviour.  For every action there is a reaction.  In this view, language is just a quesion of pushing the right button to get the correct response.  Language learning is therefore a question of making the processes automatic – teaching set formulae like “Hello, how are you?” / “Fine thanks, and you?” .  In this sense the quote actually means that what we need to do as teachers is ingrain set behaviours until such time as the production of language becomes an unconscious process.  Which is not what I believe at all and which Chomsky demonstrated was rubbish anyway.

So on further reflection the quote I’m going to go with is a Thornbury edict from way back in 2001, at the dawn of dogme, and before I started teaching:

“Slavish adherence to a method is unacceptable.”

And this one I do believe – though I have no data to back up my belief!  To only admit one possibility is to reject a wealth of alternatives – many of which may be useful and relevant.  I think we owe it to ourselves to constantly challenge our viewpoints and to admit new possibilities and above all else – to avoid ending up doing the same thing day after day.

There is also a corollary to the quote – slavish rejection of a method is also unacceptable.  Don’t knock it till you’ve tried it!  There are features of many methods in existence today – aspects of drilling for pronunciation and chunking language arose out of Skinners’ behaviourism and it’s language teaching cohort “audio-lingualism”.  Use of texts to highlight target language points has its basis in grammar translation methodology.  Asking learners to talk together in pairs or small groups is a key tenet of the communicative approach.  None of these ideas should be discounted or used to the exclusion of each other.

We are language teachers – all is grist to our mill!


17 Responses to “Teaching beliefs & Teaching Style”

  1. Brad Patterson Thursday 19 January 2012 at 12:52 #

    Very balanced, community-oriented and interesting reaction to the topic. Thanks, David. I do agree that we have to have a great number of experiences, both positive and negative to hone in on what works for our students and ourselves. Chomsky wrote: “Read widely and read critically” which has always guided me when seeking “truth” be it in Education or simply a day-to-day life experience.

    By the way… since you mention the word “slavish”, I’ll challenge you to see where that word comes from… wild etymology that ties in with the word ciao !


    Cheers, Brad

  2. Tyson Seburn Thursday 19 January 2012 at 13:16 #

    Nice. Thanks for the mention too, David. I particularly like Scott’s quote (“slavishly” is such an underused word; I look forward to your discovery about its origins.) and wholeheartedly agree with his sentiment.

  3. David Petrie Thursday 19 January 2012 at 14:37 #

    Brad & Tyson – Thanks to you both for the comments! I’m guessing that slavish is just a derivation of slave, which has obvious visual connections to the word “slav” – were the original “slaves” all, in fact “slavs”? If “slave” is latinate, then probably!
    Am I right?

    • Brad Patterson Friday 20 January 2012 at 15:01 #

      Read about it in a fun new etymology book that came out recently, The etymologicon. You’re right but it’s later than latin to some extent and then popped into “ciao” from shiavo in the venetian dialect of italian… ah words !

  4. Simon Thomas Thursday 19 January 2012 at 15:29 #

    Hi David

    Thanks for another great post!

    There is some evidence to back you up, actually (or, at least, a discussion of why your idea seems a reasonable one) – see this article by Michael Swan: Legislation by Hypothesis: The Case of Task-Based Learning. It’s ostensibly about the poverty of task-based learning styles when it comes to teaching or introducing new vocabulary, though it reviews the evidence for meaning-based/collaborative instruction more generally and concludes with an appeal for a balanced approach between form- and meaning-based teaching methods (another way of looking at Swan’s article is an argument that direct instruction and collaborative learning are not mutually exclusive, but each appropriate in different circumstances – something I’m writing notes about now, for a future article on my own site).

    Scott Thornbury also has an interesting post reflecting on Swan’s article, here: I is for Input.

    All best wishes from a slightly hungover


    • David Petrie Monday 23 January 2012 at 15:47 #

      Hi SImon,

      Swan seems not to like TBI very much – “the claim that TBI is a superior approach …. cannot be sustained.” Which would make the continued view by many people that it is superior a matter or belief?
      There’s an idea brewing in my head for a new blog – ELTatheist – tilting at the teaching windmills Don Quixote style? Interested in joining in?

      Swam cites a few of Anthony Bruton’s work – have you seen the IATEFL 2010 talk he did on “Task – a panacea for too much”? Worth watching, especially for the Q&A session at the end!

      All the best,

  5. Stephen Greene Thursday 19 January 2012 at 23:57 #

    Hi David,

    Great post that sums up a lot of my feelings about ELT at the moment.

    I would just like to add that a ‘good’ teacher at the moment should be aware of all the different approaches, methods, strategies and techniques available and choose the most suitable and appropriate for the particular class or context they are in. It is almost as if we have an extensive menu from which to choose what is best for us.

    On the one hand this is quite daunting because there is so much available. On the other hand it is quite liberating as we are free to use whatever works.


    • David Petrie Friday 20 January 2012 at 15:38 #

      Hi Stephen,
      Thanks for the kind comment and yes – I agree about being aware of all of the different tools in the toolbox – and equally that there’s way too much information out there to easily digest. Actually, this came up in #eltchat the other day and there’s now an ongoing blog challenge dedicated to it.
      I think the trick is in making sure you have the right tools for the right job!

  6. Torn Halves Friday 20 January 2012 at 07:42 #

    Like Mr Seburn, let me pick up your reference to the slavish and risk suggesting that the essence of slavishness is not to care about the ends that are being pursued. The slave just does his job and does not think about how this fits into the larger scheme of things. In philosophy the greatest critic of slavishness is our old friend Nietzsche, and for me he reminds us of an aspect of teaching that is too often forgotten. He says that the greatest teachers have the greatest conscience – a social conscience that feels the weight of history on its shoulders. In other words, even when planning the minutiae of a lesson on the finer points of the passive voice we need to have – if only in the back of our mind – an understanding of how everything that goes on in the classroom fits into the larger historical scheme of things – a scheme, of course, which we have to struggle to interpret and understand as best we can.

    • Stephen Greene Friday 20 January 2012 at 23:01 #

      Hi Torn,

      You are so right about fitting everything in to a wider context. The best teachers of any subject are not only interested in their own subject but also in language, politics, economics, philosophy, literature, TV, films, music, history, physics….

      My own area is ELT and unfortunately, I see a lot of teachers who haven’t got a clue about what is going on in the world around them, unless it is on a very basic level.


      • David Petrie Monday 23 January 2012 at 15:51 #

        Torn & Stephen,

        Not sure I agree about the nature of slavishness, – the slave might well care about the ends that are being pursued but be powerless to enact alternatives.
        As far as the wider context goes – I am constantly amazed by how much my learners expect me to know as a teacher! All is grist to the language teacher’s mill – in terms of content as well as pedagogy!

  7. Dave Cosby Monday 23 January 2012 at 15:16 #

    Hey Dave,

    What do I believe in as a teacher? What style is best? Whatever works… and whatever doesn’t annoy me too much (i.e. involve lots of tiny pieces of paper to be moved around and paired/matched/juggled/eaten).
    We have heard lots over the past few years about learner styles… I came across this (slightly disconcerting should it prove true) article that you might like to take a look at.
    My preferred method of teaching, based on nothing other than hunch and inclination, is a ‘shotgun’ approach. In the age of electronic, easily acquired media, just fire as much of the target language at the student as possible. Some of it’ll stick. Rinse and repeat.
    Horribly unfashionable I think.
    I am your slave (Ciao)


    • David Petrie Monday 23 January 2012 at 15:59 #

      Hi Dave,

      Coincidentally, I read the study referred to in the Chronicle article the other day – you can get hold of it here: http://laplab.ucsd.edu/articles/Pashler_et_al_2009PSPI.pdf.
      They don’t suggest there is no evidence for learning styles – they suggest there is no proven benefit to teachers matching their classroom activities to meet their learners learning styles. There are a number of reasons why this might be – not least that learners views or beliefs on the learning process are about as data / evidence driven as most teachers beliefs are.
      I was struck by your comment “some of it will stick” – another etymology challenge for everyone: “throw enough mud at the wall and some of it will stick” – answers below please!

  8. Are You a Teacher? Saturday 25 February 2012 at 15:43 #

    Another method to develop a teaching style is to increase students’ interest by changing the environment of the class room. New ideas, picture, colour scheme, arrangement of furniture may be good way to change the environment. Involve students in educational games; assign targets, held small competition.


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