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!