Matt Smith

The dog and pony show

Demonstration lessons in the Korean public education system


As you’d know by now from reading my articles, I’m not in Thailand at all at present, but am in fact teaching at a public high school in South Korea. Which isn’t too bad at all; admittedly, teaching 40 adolescents at a time, 20% of whom, when I surveyed them, said they didn’t want to be at school at all, let alone in a conversational English class, isn’t perhaps the easiest job one can select from the buffet, but it has its compensations. Firstly, as in the public education system back in Australia (the way I experienced it, anyway), most of my colleagues and the school’s administration are thoughtful, well-educated individuals, who veer well away from the purely economic towards the more humanistic side of things, and who care in legitimate ways about their students’ and societies’ welfare – they all seem, to put it more simply, fairly cool to me. There’s been no expense spared in terms of the equipment purchased by which to deliver English education at my school – I work in a special ‘English Zone’ which has desks for group seating, a computer workstation sequestered within each desk, a touch screen whiteboard, a digital projector, and in fact every item of electronic trickery one might imagine, and quite a few besides. And the students are (as long as one isn’t making the ‘imposition’ of asking them to expend too great a mental effort in learning the English language) reliably lovely – while the occasional admonition as to what constitutes acceptable social practice in any society (for example, greeting someone in a friendly and casual tone of voice, as opposed to screaming ‘hello’ at one’s maximum volume in my face and then turning around to laugh at one’s mates) is necessary, my overwhelming experience is that I am treated with courtesy and respect, and have been received with genuinely welcoming arms, by the student population. How could I not find, in fact, the way the students all smile and wave to me every morning, and indeed open the windows of their classrooms to do so – especially in a society where such effusive displays of kinship with one’s fellow human beings are such an absolute rarity – particularly endearing?

Indeed, while South Korea has, in ELT discourse, been painted particularly black, and while, as numerous examples of this within my own society demonstrate, the perpetuation of old world social hierarchies isn’t something that can be achieved without retaining something of the unpleasantness of the days of kings and slaves, genuine vexations are something that can be counted on the fingers of a single hand. It worried me a bit how, despite there being no mention of this on my contract and with no other explanation given whatsoever, the government removed more than a thousand dollars from my pay over a couple of months as a deposit against me doing a runner on my contract. I was a bit bummed out how, instead of being an Assistant Language Teacher (also as per the conditions of my contract), it turned out that as well as working the high number of contract hours of an ALT I was in fact responsible for the development, with the provision of no resources whatsoever, of the syllabus for all my conversation classes – doing the research necessary to pinpoint what’s necessary and successful in a new environment, as well as just putting the effort in to create a well conceived, thoroughly organised and effective syllabus in general, is very time-consuming, and the plain fact of the matter is that this particular project has been my companion into the late hours of the night on numerous occasions (which doesn’t even count the hours necessary for materials preparation). And I found the initial attitude of the students towards conversation classes, that, as Ted Powers puts it (he calls it the ‘joke atmosphere attitude’), English ‘is an effortless game one needs only to observe’, fairly non-conducive towards learning – I’m not, I like to think, a stick in the mud, but I like my students to harbour at least some expectation that when they come to my class there might be a need for a pen and notebook to write down something interesting, and that they’re actually going to have to practice and use whatever conversational language it is we happen to be examining (that this atmosphere is present is something else I established via survey, it’s not just my ‘jaundiced view’ of the matter).

Even these things, furthermore, have been by no means problems to which I am unable to reconcile myself; I get my money back at the end of the contract, and fair enough a lot of people do do the runner, so the unauthorised extractions from my pay don’t make me lose too much sleep at nights. I chose to be a high school teacher this time around because it was a domain of ELT in which I had no hands on experience; being so immersed in this particular aspect of ELT is certainly providing me with the insight I crave. And I am, after all, supposed to be a teacher, so teaching the students the perception of language learning that is going to allow them to derive maximum utility from their lessons isn’t really superficial to the job. Moreover, when I take into consideration all the other tremendous experiences my life in Korea offers – the new physical and cultural environments to experience, the new language to learn, the many lovely people I meet, the generally fantastic way in which I get looked after, the fantastic food, the fish I catch (just to name a few) – it would be particularly unfair of me, I think, to fall short of providing a heartfelt recommendation to anyone to come and experience this country.

There is one thing, however, to which I find it difficult to reconcile myself, and it is that which I wish to talk about this month. Part of my duties at the school, or part of my contract conditions, including the following provisions; twice a year, I have to put on a demonstration lesson for my colleagues and peers in other schools (showcase what I’m up to with my students), and on more than a few occasions I have to travel to said other schools to see said peers putting on theirs. Which, in principle, is something to which I am not averse whatsoever; it’s the way it works out in practice I find a little bit disturbing.

Let me begin then, with why I like the principle of putting on a demonstration lesson. In my time teaching, one thing I have been short of is the opportunity to see other teachers teach; watching other teachers teach, moreover, in the same circumstances that I myself have to negotiate, I find especially compelling – this, on account of the fact that I rationalise things as follows. Every teacher must have at least one good idea. Therefore, by simply watching ten other teachers teach, I acquire at least ten good ideas that I myself can utilise. Other people come to the job with different knowledges to my own; having unfurled, therefore, from a different platform to my own, their inventiveness, or the way they meet their circumstances, must usually include something that, for me, there would have been no spur to think of on my own. In addition, I get moral support, or feel less despair about things, when I see we are all confronted by the same dilemmas (thank heavens, I feel, it’s not just me being hopeless, this is something that everybody is coping with); at demonstration lessons, I also get to meet other teachers working in the ALT programme (not just wheregooks, but Korean teachers too), or to form professional relations. Indeed, the other wheregook teachers with whom I liaise here in Korea, and with whom I’ve become friends, were all met at these performances.

That’s just my take on the matter too; I’ve been conducting research into demonstration lessons, and to these advantages the Korean scholars and bureaucrats from the Board of Education add the following. Demonstration lessons facilitate the osmosis of Western methods of EFL education into the Korean sphere – personally, I find the Korean teachers to be far more au fait with contemporary theory than any of my generally minimally educated peers (surprisingly so, try talking to the Koreans about theory), but there you have it (that, furthermore, from the head of the International Relations Department of my province in Korea). This osmosis operates between wheregooks as well; it is a well-conceived plan for the professional development of everyone, or neatly diminishes the risk that perhaps wheregooks don’t have as much to offer as everyone might be expecting, to provide this type of channel for ideas. Here’s the opportunity too for the Board of Education to conduct research into the effectiveness of the programme into which they’re investing such serious money from the taxpayer – we might presume that, as well as giving them something to crow about, on the other side of the coin there is the opportunity for quality control (something, surely, that the many Korean people who think the money could be better spent in other ways would surely be demanding). All told, in other words – and there are research papers in the Western world, particularly in Australia and New Zealand, that loudly applaud this policy – what we’re dealing with in demonstrations lessons is, at least, as I said, in principle, a fairly sound idea.

So what’s the dilemma? Well, this is what worries me. Basically, there are two ways in which you might go about putting on one of these demonstrations, or two approaches that people generally take. The first is the ‘authentic experience’ approach; in this instance, one develops a lesson along the lines of the lessons one usually organises for one’s students, or just schedules a regular part of the schedule to be showcased on that day, and puts this on for the assembled peers and dignitaries (I forgot to mention, as well as one’s peers and colleagues, of course observers from the Board of Education come to monitor as well). On the other hand, there is the ‘rehearsed performance’ approach; in this case, rather than being spontaneously conducted for the students, the class that will be put on show goes through their lesson before the day, and then, on the day, does everything on cue. The advantages of the former approach, for me, in terms of why I like to go and observe these demonstration lessons, and in terms of the research conducted by the Board of Education, far outweigh the advantages of the latter; amongst them, I would list the following. Firstly, I want to see how the lesson that has been contrived works in real practice; if I’m going to learn methodology that I myself can apply, how do I know the success of a lesson has actually been achieved by methodology, and not simply had its bugs removed via the process of rehearsal? Secondly, I am gratified, as I said earlier, to see teachers confronted by the same real life problems that I myself experience; it’s perhaps trivial, but rehearsed performances are denying me this crutch (and all of us, I would say, one of the mainstays of our solidarity). Finally, what on earth is the use of conducting research on a rehearsed performance; sure, you can test whether teachers know enough theory to be able to stage a model lesson, but what does it tell you about the effectiveness of the ALT programme in practice? Perhaps I should articulate what it tells us, lest there be any doubt about the matter; it tells us jack, that’s what! One of the greatest ironies being, perhaps, that the rehearsed performances I’ve seen invariably include a lengthy treatise on the theoretical validity of the lesson plan on offer; this emphasis on theoretical validity, as we might rest assured will be the case if we subject what I’m talking about here to scrutiny in the academic forum, completely goes out the window when it comes to the purposes that decent recent is intended to achieve.

Still, we might at least try to see things the other way, and consider the advantages of a rehearsed performance. Firstly, it’s kind to teachers in terms of performance evaluation; you’re not going to find your job on the line through a bout of simple stage fright, or on account of a bad day with your students, if it is acceptable to rehearse your lesson beforehand – I can go with that. Furthermore, in a society where social status, or not diminishing your projected status through any lack of personal preparation, is paramount, rehearsing prevents you being subject to the ‘indignity’ (in inverted commas because it is of culturally subjective importance) of losing any face. In addition to these two major advantages, as I heard a Korean proponent of the rehearsed performance approach put it (at out teacher’s conference a couple of months ago), the rehearsed performance approach still necessitates that teachers ‘go through the process of creating a model lesson’, or in that it forces everyone to gain firsthand experience in how to do it, as well as showcases (for the purposes of osmosis) what a model lesson could be – fair enough, you won’t find anyone disputing that. In other words, in all truth we can come up with a bit of justification for why a rehearsed performance approach might be preferred.

And is it preferred? Well, I’ve been researching that too. Let’s begin with the Korean teachers at my school. In private, many of them hold the rehearsers in contempt – as for why that might be, along with the reasons already offered, we can get to that in a second. Some of them think that the concept of saving face is highly important – they don’t really feel that their jobs are ever in jeopardy, per se, but on these cultural grounds they think it’s important that the rehearsed performance approach be admissible. Amongst wheregooks, I’ve heard it fairly unanimously said that rehearsed performances are an outrage; the stress involved in making sure that the performance conforms perfectly to the expectations of (preserves perfectly the face of) the Korean teacher who will co-teach the class (who, ironically enough, rather than simply saying this is what we’ll do and allowing the wheregook teacher the provision of mutely following instructions, instead usually asks the wheregook teacher to prepare a lesson which they then ‘modify’…), let alone the loss of the genuine advantages that the authentic experience approach offers, judging by the views I heard aired at the aforementioned teachers conference and around the traps leave wheregooks not at all well disposed towards the adoption of this strategy. In terms of the Board of Education, it would appear there is no official set of guidelines; I contacted them on numerous occasions in regards to this, and ended up with zip. Although, anecdotally speaking, there appears to be genuine conflict of opinion; at one demonstration lesson I went to, I was explicitly told by the representative from the Board of Education, when I raised concerns that I had missed out in terms of methodology by watching a demonstration lesson that had been overly staged, that ‘a demonstration lesson is a demonstration lesson’ – that is, that it should be a show, and that there was no expectation whatsoever by the researchers from the Board that they would be seeing anything but a show. Whereas on the other hand, the head of the Department of International Cooperation in my province speaks so logically and sensibly of the aims and aspirations of demonstration lessons whenever I see him orate (and seems to be such a sensible bloke in general) that, while he has declined to directly comment on this, I get the distinct impression that he too holds rehearsed performances in disdain.

Now, before we make up our minds on this, there is something else I should perhaps toss into this morass – the reader might be imagining that a rehearsed performance is simply the same as the authentic experience I described earlier, albeit that the lesson has been practiced with the class beforehand. Which, at the very least, it can be, and which isn’t really too bad. There’s a bit more to it than that, though; rehearsers have usually, in my experience, taken the following tack. Firstly, they make a special lesson, which we can only presume from the time spent on its preparation in no way accurately reflects the run of the mill lesson they’re preparing for their students; this involved, in one case, a twelve page inclusion at the beginning of the lesson plan that, in very dubious grammatical fashion, theoretically justified the rather obvious and for some time now much belaboured point that EFL teaching should include some explanation of the cultural context in which communication occurs (the lesson was a simple lower intermediate lesson about such things as the fact that Koreans take their shoes off when they enter the house, while Westerners sometimes do not – talk about superfluous!). Then, they hand pick the students who will perform in the lesson – what we get to see, as observers, is not a genuine sample of the students we typically get to face, but in fact the best English speakers at the school. Finally, the regular teaching schedule is, for weeks beforehand, thrown to one side – instead, the demonstration lesson is practiced again and again until it meets the standards of a Hollywood production. Furthermore, it has not often been, with these rehearsed performances, that the observer in fact gets to see actual instructional methods being utilised (after all, for me the central focus of the activity); instead, we just get to see the students showing off the English they have learnt. We get to see, in other words, students speaking perfect complex English – the inference we are left to draw is that the teaching methodologies employed were, without mention of whether or not they fell within the realms of what is realistically possible according to the constraints of time and effort, similarly perfect!

Now, let’s just go back to the arguments for the rehearsed performance approach. Firstly, it’s kinder to teachers in terms of performance evaluation – could this not be achieved, however, by having the observers of the mindset that, realistically speaking, not everything works out perfectly, or that the best laid plans of mice and men, through no fault of the teacher, sometimes come unstuck? Even were the students non-responsive on the day, do the observers lack the nous to distinguish for themselves between what lies at fault in the lesson plan, and what can be put down to either the observer’s paradox or the weather? A good lesson, I feel, will always be a good lesson, and even in the most adverse of natural circumstances should continue to appear so. Then, there’s the saving of face – while it would be a bit obtuse to say that someone else’s culture isn’t important, the question we should be asking ourselves is whether, in the face of a lot of agreement with this point from the Koreans themselves, the advantages of an activity designed to maximise the benefits of public education for the young people of a nation should be compromised because someone wants to make sure they look good? The other point was that the rehearsed performance takes teachers through the process of producing a model lesson, and makes sure that a model lesson is on show – taking into consideration the fact that we’ve all presumably read the same ESL textbooks and thus know full well what a model lesson is, and would much prefer to see how they have to be adapted to cope with authentic situations, this isn’t really an argument against the authentic experience approach anyway; the authentic experience approach offers both these advantages and more.

Leaving one, all told, suspicious that the real impetus behind rehearsed performances is not a logical impetus, but indeed one with a far more sinister and unacceptable nature. I can’t help wondering, in fact, if the genuine advantages of the rehearsed performance approach, as they were explained earlier, aren’t superseded in the case of many rehearsers by the taking of the opportunity to indulge in a bit of narcissism – to show off, as it were, to everybody in one’s captive audience what an absolute champion one really is. And, whether the approval for this approach isn’t evidence of the fact that being the Jones (as in the Jones who everybody is trying to keep up with) doesn’t altogether remained un-frowned upon in Korean society. To imagine that this was predominantly the case, of course, would be to overlook the contempt that it seems the majority of ordinary Koreans feel for this mentality; to say that this mentality, even were it upheld by a purely a minority, couldn’t dominate a capitalist democracy would be to overlook the lessons of my own. At any rate, with this suspicion niggling at the back of my mind, imagine my feeling when, at our teacher’s conference, it was the lesson that was the most deplorable of staged performances (the one with the previously mentioned theoretical overkill) I’ve seen yet that was put on as the ideal towards which it is expected we aspire – this, despite that the very wheregook who was involved in its production wrote a letter stating that that his feelings of empty falseness about the whole deal were a principal reason why he, the showcased talent, would for his next term of employment be moving out of the public sector!

The thing is, anyway, that it makes little sense for there to be no official policy either way – if both the authentic experience and the rehearsed performance approaches are deemed acceptable, who would take the risk of not meeting the more overt expectations of the Board of Education and putting on a demonstration of more tangible benefit? There is little incentive, in other words, despite the overwhelmingly strong arguments in favour of an authentic experience approach, to make this attempt. Might as well just state officially that rehearsed performances are the go – the problem being, of course, that, as the studious avoidance of any statement that the rehearsed performance staged at the teachers conference was indeed of this type, there would appear to be a bit of discomfort intrinsic to this admission. Like I say though, trying to have things both ways isn’t doing any good, because there’s really only incentive to do things one way – my school and I, because we’re all in agreement that the ethics of teaching drive us to do things in a rational way (or at least the way we rationalise things), will probably soldier with the authentic experience approach, but there’s no doubt that do so leaves a little bit of a sour taste in our mouths. Ideally, because this is probably one of those situations also spoken of at our conference where the problems inherent to a good idea haven’t been thoroughly worked in practice, it would be good to see more honest dialogue about this situation in the Korean educational forum, and see the movers and shakers of the system come to some sort of an informed decision.

What do you reckon about demonstration lessons? I’d love to know.

PS: You may well be wondering from where the title of this article originates. It’s simply because, when I was talking about this article with the teacher from the school next to mine, he laughed and said ‘yeah, sure, everyone is thinking along these lines – but, there’s no doubt they prefer the dog and pony show’. Which I found to be both amusing, as well as particularly appropriate. Another interesting addition to make here that stemmed from similar such discussion, this time with one of my Korean teacher friends, is that she told me that a lot of the people with this explicit preference know full well that, under close scrutiny, they haven’t got a leg to stand on. But, that they don’t have to suffer the penance of any guilt in the matter, because it is such widespread, or culturally endorsed behaviour (reminds me of the belief in creationism in my own society). She in fact compared it to the practice, which she said is similarly widespread, of plagiarising your university essay in Korea; she said everyone knows it’s wrong, but that it’s OK because everybody does it.

It certainly is, I think, an interesting old world in which we live.




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