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5 Highly Effective Teaching Practices

21 Mar

Earlier this year, a piece from the Edutopia website was doing the rounds under the title “5 highly effective teaching practices”.  I automatically question pieces like this as I doubt somewhat whether the purpose of the piece is actually to raise standards in the profession and develop teachers – or whether it is simply to get a bit more traffic to the website.  But perhaps I am being unnecessarily cynical?

To be fair, the practices the article suggests are generally quite effective:

  1. State the goals of the lesson and model tasks, so that students know what they are going to do and how to do it.
  2. Allow classroom discussion to encourage peer teaching
  3. Provide a variety of feedback, both on an individual and a group basis.  Allow students to feedback to the teacher.
  4. Use formative assessments (tests the students can learn from) as well as summative assessments (tests that evaluate student ability, mostly for reporting purposes)
  5. Develop student metacognitive strategies so that students can become more aware of their own learning and how to make it more effective.  (Learner Training)

What surprises me though is that these practices are considered novel enough that they need to be put into a blog post?  CELTA tutors may correct me (please do!) but aren’t these things considered essential on a CELTA?  Aren’t we meant to be doing all these things anyway?  I suppose it speaks to the audience of the Edutopia website, which is not primarily language teaching.  Maybe language teachers are just more responsive and methodologically up-to-date than mainstream education…..

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Image Credit: Pixabay

The piece is based on a book by John Hattie, who is the director of the Educational Research Institute at the University of Melbourne.  He has made his name in the field of meta-analysis, effectively taking in all the data from studies that have looked at educational attainment and looking at it to see what patterns emerge.  In 2008 he published “Visible Learning”, which was based on 800 meta-studies from around the world and which identified positive and negative processes in classroom learning, such as the long summer break that has now led some schools to adjust their school calendars to teach over the summer and provide more shorter terms punctuated by more, shorter holidays.  In 2011 he published a follow up book “Visible Learning for teachers” that looks at the practical implications for teachers and suggests strategies they can employ to maximise the learning that takes place.  The article is based on this latter book.

I don’t disagree with the suggestions made in the article – but it made me wonder what my five “effective teaching practices” would be.  This is what I came up with.  I can’t claim that I do all these things all the time, but I generally try to do them most of the time!

(1)  Have fun.  Obviously, it doesn’t necessarily follow that if the teacher is having fun the students are too (“Dance, my minions!  Dance!”), but if you’re bored and pissed off then the students probably will be too.  You can’t be happy all the time, and some activities and goals are more serious than others, but fun should always be there, like a background harmonic.

(2) Make it valuable.  Time is precious to everybody, young and old, and we’ve all sat through too many meetings where at the end of it we walk out thinking “That was three hours of my life I won’t see again” that we should probably make sure our students don’t feel the same way about us!  Again, difficult to achieve with ALL the students ALL the time, but possible to do with MOST of the students MOST of the time.  And if you have a student who is getting nothing out of it at all, then they’re in the wrong class.  I had a 15 year old CPE student whose main school teacher used to send him to the library to look up words in the dictionary because she felt it was a better use of his time than being in her class….

(3) Make them DO stuff.  We’ve been having this discussion in the forums on another post, and again, it isn’t something that you can do for every language point or for every skills focus, but my everlasting bugbear with the majority of materials is that the students aren’t required to be active producers of language, but that they are mostly seen as passive receptacles.  There is room for both aspects and indeed, both are needed to give the students time for input to become intake – but I don’t believe that is where it should stop.  Involve tasks and activities that ask the learners to USE whatever language they have.

(4) Know your students.  This ties in a bit to the first two because if you don’t know your students well, then you probably won’t have as much fun or make it as valuable as they need.  But essentially as a teacher, your job is to help the students get from where they are, to where they want to go.  If you don’t know them, you won’t know either of these things and won’t be able to help as effectively.  I am a big fan of needs analysis, in particular using google forms for this process, and I do this with all my adult and exam classes.  I haven’t yet come up with a decent needs analysis form for young learners, so if you have – please share!

(5) Teaching not testing.  The majority of summative testing or formal assessment is completely pointless.  The majority of tests don’t do what they are actually meant to do, which is measure what the students can do with the language.  Very often in a language learning context what they measure is the learners ability to manipulate a grammatical structure under controlled and guided conditions, so I do wonder what getting seven out of ten in an exercise where the student has to put the verb into the past continuous tells us?  Given the choice I wouldn’t bother with it.  Including a test in a course makes a mockery of the idea of needs analysis and student centered learning, because as soon as you put a test in the course, it becomes about test centered learning.  Alas I am not in a position to follow through on this idea completely, mostly because other stakeholders in the process want to be able to reduce an abstract concept like “language ability” to an easy to read number on a report card.  But there we go.

So – these are my five!  I’d be interested to know what other people think.  It is a largely subjective process (despite all the research that John Hattie put into his ideas), so do feel free to share your thoughts in the comments section below.

Image credit: Pixabay

Image credit: Pixabay

The TEFL Blame Game – redux

16 Feb

So we take a look around us and we see that everything in the world of TEFL is not good.  We ask ourselves, how did we ever get into such a sorry state? Who is to blame?  Who can we rant and rail against?  Who can we throw cream cakes / pies / rocks at?

So here are three scenarios:

(1) Francis pays 150 euros and gets online access to a TEFL training course.  He completes the assignments and is awarded a TEFL certificate.  He uses the the website jobs boards gets a job teaching in Asia and off he goes.  The school he works at pays him €800 a month with an immediate start and a ten month contract, but deducts part of that salary for accommodation costs and makes him pay a materials fee deposit, which he probably won’t get back.

(2) Hadley pays €1500 euros for a 4 week CELTA course.  She completes the assignments and passes the teaching practice.  She has a few issues during the course and has to resubmit once or twice but comes out of the course with a C grade.  She talks to the tutors at the centre and gets a job at a language school in bailout Europe at €1000 a month (on probation) on a nine month contract.

(3) Andriy did an undergraduate degree in English with his university and went on to do a Masters in linguistics.  He applied for a language teaching job but was then told he needed to do a CELTA (or equivalent) which he did.  Total cost is somewhere around €10,000 – but it’s difficult to be precise.  Andriy is now on the equivalent of a zero-hours contract at a rate of €10 per hour.  He probably works around six hours a week on average – at least in that particular school.

Which of these people would you hire?  Now take a look around your teachers’ room – what proportion of these people can you see in your staff room?

(Caveat – all of these scenarios are set within the private language sector and don’t consider the millions of people who teach English within their state sectors.  Sorry.  It’s not to exclude you exactly, and if you’re reading this and want to let me / us know what it’s really like for you – please do!  I would welcome the input and insight.)

Alex Case identified a quite considerable set of people who are to blame for the state of ELT in his original post “The TEFL Blame Game“.  And in so doing prompted this post….   (so you know who is to blame…!)  But he in return was reacting to the discussion that followed on from an ELTJam post about the state of ELT.

The ELTJam post was provocative.  Basically it said – don’t bother doing proper training to be an ELT teacher, you probably don’t need it anyway and it’s not worth it unless you’re sure it’s what you want.  It generated quite a lot of comment from quite a lot of people who think a lot about ELT.  Guys, you got suckered.  You were the wasp’s nest and you got poked with a stick.  But also – fair play to ELTJam for actually calling us all out; we are the emperor and we are not wearing very much!

What neither ELTJam nor Alex Case mention is “the market”.  And it is the market that is ultimately to blame for all of this.  We can argue from here to eternity about whether a native speaker has the same value as a non-native speaker.  We can argue about the value of standards and the extent to which qualifications are important, but because we are talking about the private language school sector, we are talking about market forces.  And as such, none of our much vaunted professionalism matters.  What matters is supply, demand, price and quantity.  This is economics, not education.

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If my school does not have enough students walking through the door and signing up for lessons, then I have no job.  My school wouldn’t be able to afford me.  Schools brand and market themselves based on the product they seemingly deliver.  I have been in a teachers’ room, planning lessons and have been interrupted by the school director showing potential clients around.  The message on the surface was “And this is where our teachers work” but the subtext was “look, they’re all English!”.  We were being branded as high quality, professional language teaching provision (we were wearing ties).

There are any number of reasons why the TEFL game is unfair.  Probably, chief amongst them is the erroneous belief that we are a profession.  We aren’t.  When a school markets what it provides – what do you see on the advertisement?  We are the product – not the classes we teach, but us.  The teachers.  And if we are the product, then this helps to explain the shocking lack of parity between the highly qualified Andriys of the world and the Francises.

Like many of you reading this, I find this realization somewhat depressing.  I quite like the idea of myself as a highly qualified professional.  I believe I have a value beyond that of my salary.  I believe that I give extra value to my students as a result of my years of experience and training.  But the sad truth is that I could quite easily be replaced tomorrow.  Actually, my DoS might need a week or so to find a suitably qualified (CELTA +min. 2 years experience) candidate, but they would be cheaper than I am and they would probably have more to prove.

To go back to our original scenarios:

The school that hires Francis isn’t interested in the quality of his teaching.  What they want is a native speaker who knows just about enough not to damage the students and who doesn’t know enough to be able to complain about the working conditions or materials.  One former colleague who was freelancing told me that the only question he ever got asked by some of the schools he worked at was “Do you have your own materials?”  His reply was “Yes, do you have a working photocopier?”.  This is the “pile ’em high and sell ’em cheap” model of language teaching.  Offer lower prices, don’t market the quality but market the foreign teacher, get enough students through the door and milk all concerned for as much as you can for as long as you can.

Hadley is probably luckier in as much as the school that has hired her clearly has an interest in the quality of language teaching that they provide.  As such, they have an interest in helping her to improve the quality of her teaching and no doubt she is subjected to observations, development courses and regular seminars.  Hadley is an example of the attempt that TEFL makes to be professional.  The industry found it had a problem with too many people teaching English without any idea of what that entailed.  Schools that believed in delivering high quality language provision came to realize that this meant they had to train their teachers to teach effectively.  Thus in 1962, John and Brita Haycraft launched the International House Certificate, which eventually became the CELTA.  But make no mistake, what is now a “professional standard” has its roots in quality control.  What the CELTA offers is not necessarily any better or worse than any other language teaching qualification, the content of the courses is probably mostly the same, though delivery modes might vary.  What the CELTA offers has nothing to do with the teacher holding the certificate, because the certificate isn’t for the teacher.  It’s for the Director of Studies who wants to employ them.  The CELTA is a guarantee of standards – it says that the bearer knows these things and can do those things.  It meets tests of validity and reliability that other qualifications might not.

It is Andriy that you have to feel sorry for.  Andriy started learning English when he was ten and went on to dedicate six years of his life to learning all about English – he can parse a sentence in a heartbeat and can describe the sociolinguistic appropriacy of a rogue collocation at the drop of a hat.  All this knowledge doesn’t let him teach English though, for that he needs a CELTA.  So having sat through four weeks of native speakers not knowing the difference between “must” and “have to” and having passed the course, Andriy then finds that because he’s not English, he can’t get a full-time job anywhere within the private sector.  For the record, I would like to categorically state that if you have the qualifications and experience then I see no reason why the nation of your birth should make any difference.  However, I have yet to see that in practice.  Mostly, I see non-native speakers either co-teaching classes with native speakers or only teaching lower level classes.  Non-native speakers get a very raw deal in the private language sector – to find out more about how you can help change that, visit http://teflequityadvocates.com/.

Andriy and Francis are opposite ends of the scale, but both point to the reason why TEFL has no right to call itself a profession.  No matter how professional people within TEFL try to be, it is a business, it is an industry, and it operates according to economic principles, not pedagogical ones.  And as long as students pay money to come to classes, that is unlikely to change.  So if you really want someone to blame for the state of ELT?  Blame the market.