Matt Smith

The root of all evil

A return to the subject of student materials

I wouldn't mind returning to the subject of materials this month. What puts this topic at the forefront of my mind is that I was teaching out of this book the other day, and I noted that its listening and speaking lessons prominently featured topics of conversation like Feng Shui, what it is like to attend a spiritual retreat, and, in its apparently sincere ‘First Aid' section, the advisability of drinking eight glasses of water a day (which I understand is the archetypal urban myth). I would add, too, that this book was published by a well thought of Western institution. My argument being, simply, could we not admit that such a book would be improved by having students think and talk about something a bit more meaningful? In fact, that's what I want to say here this month, if you do introduce things that get students' brains going through the motions that, if they choose to work on it, might one day turn them into a creative or scientific genius (if you do give them the basics we can provide on the road to perhaps one day being something better), then really, unlike the book I just mentioned, you kill two birds with one stone - not only do you have the students practicing their language skills, you are also training their minds in the ways of thinking that are the true font of good learning, or that will really enable them to get the most out of their English lessons.

Although it belittles the true benefits of getting students to practice their logical, linear, rational thinking skills, and of fuelling their imaginations in this way, of course, to say that the only advantage gained is in terms of their English education - do I really need to spell out the benefits of sticking to the aims of enlightened education, while rational thinking (which can be applied in some ways and not others) has certainly made the traditional exploitation of people and the environment in many ways far more efficient (leading to the ironic situation where the followers of tradition ward off the challenge posed to many aspects of their beliefs by science by saying ‘look, you can clearly see scientific thinking isn't universally a good thing'), is it not also responsible for all the true and wonderful improvements that have taken place in the way people live their lives, and is it not the light at the end of the tunnel in dealing with our woes? All I'm saying to begin with, I mean, is that the human species wasn't born with knowledge, we were born with a capacity to manufacture knowledge (which is, in its ideal form, simply an inner working ‘model' of ourselves and of our universe we possess that allows us to tell the future, and to figure out useful relationships between things, and to put things in our world together in ways that give us marvelous technologies, and so on), and so there have been stages in the development of the neural ‘software' that allows us to construct this ideal form of knowledge - the latest ‘update' comes from what scientists call the ‘great leap forward', or from the scientific revolution, it's the ability to think mathematically/scientifically, if we had the opportunity to in some way cultivate this ability in students, why would we pass up on the opportunity? (In favour, furthermore, although I'll not head down this particular road any further, of encouraging the kinds of ‘harmless' silly beliefs that can legitimise the presence of much more damaging ones?)

At which stage I can hear the groans of people saying why does learning have to be so serious, which is their way of saying why can't it be ‘interesting' and ‘fun' (by focusing on ‘real life' and so on, as if this needs to be perpetuated) - this is the typical argument of people who don't have very well developed abilities for rational thinking, or much of a repository of contemporary scientific knowledge to rely on (knowledge that derives from all the enlightened sectors of all academic fields), quite naturally its difficult to appreciate something you know little about and really do not understand. I'm not saying that I am much of an intellectual giant either, far from it you don't have to talk too long to me to find out about all the things I don't know about - this just adds weight to what I'm saying, however, the fact that someone who is nowhere near the ideal I'm aspiring to can see this much surely indicates we're talking here about something that is intrinsically fascinating. The point is, in other words, that it denigrates the wondrousness of our universe, and of the intellectual achievements human beings have made, to suggest that scientific thinking, and the knowledge that scientific thinking has brought about, are not interesting, or are not what normal human beings would find engaging - the people who think this probably had teachers who didn't know much scientific knowledge, and who didn't cultivate much scientific thinking themselves, because it is when the tool-user is unfamiliar with their equipment that its uses go unappreciated, and its implementation becomes a failure. The question becomes, I mean, is there no topic of conversation that will develop students' scientific knowledge and scientific thinking (get them to marvel at and try and understand the wonder of their world) that is as interesting or more interesting than talking about Feng Shui? If you say no to that, or if you say the time your students spend studying at an educational institution couldn't be spent more productively overall by taking such a question into account, then perhaps you really need to think things over.

I'm not suggesting shoving feminism or environmental issues down five-year olds' throats, either. But what I do want to say here is that if given the choice between teaching some kids some simple nouns by getting them to name the items out of fashion advertisements that are going to make Ken and Barbie look best, or, as was the case in a lesson given to me to check by one of our Thai postgraduates recently, by collectivising wonderful pictures of the insects of our region beneath their appropriate ‘bug, grub, ant' heading, I'd definitely go for the latter kind of lesson (it had been made to be terribly fun, and at the heart of all the games and frivolity the students were using real-world pictures and information to practice their powers of description and classification). Furthermore, in terms of my own students, I like my courses to feature genuine academic issues, and to focus on key contributors in each field - rather than giving them material that is designed for younger people than themselves, or that is drawn from the mass media and representative exclusively of mainstream consumer culture, I have this funny little dream (in keeping with the principles behind my own education, why would I dish out anything less here) that making real academic material accessible and enjoyable to them will somehow be better for them. We perhaps need to take the attitude, I mean, that stuff that increases the powers of students' intellects is interesting, or at the beginner end of things can certainly be made very interesting, and that if students are off it it is not perhaps the content's fault - there are other settings you have to tweak to make it all successful, it might be necessary to turn our attention to those instead.

Here, too, is why I think choosing content that encourages students to think in scientific ways facilitates their English language acquisition. Learning a language is actually a very scientific process that involves the application of logic, and that is enhanced by advanced analytical skills - we don't call the breakthroughs we make when learning other languages ‘eureka moments' for nothing, this is when you at last figure out the rationale for how some pieces of a language you have been given actually go together. Which, of course, means that making breakthroughs entails logical, rational thinking, and that the better you are at this, or the more trained your mind has become at doing this, the more rapidly and frequently breakthroughs will presumably be made. I could put it another way, too, although it is a lot more indirect (the connections aren't as obvious) - if you can encourage your students to start thinking like a scientist about language, or to look at it like a device that has a purpose (to communicate and activate thought processes), and that is made of working parts that go together to achieve that purpose (giving you the kind of scientific description of language that a linguistics text contains), they will see that to be competent in a language actually involves having a repertoire of knowledges and skills (information you need to have downloaded in your mind, and things you have to be able to do with it). When they understand this, they will see what they have to actually get from lessons, thus giving them something tangible to focus on, and thus leaving them better equipped to appreciate the value of your teaching - because contemporary lessons are based on this view of language, and aim to facilitate the acquisition of the necessary skills and knowledges in pointed ways, they will better be able to understand the rationale of their design, and participate in them more effectively. To get them thinking like a scientist about language, we could either get them to think rationally about things in general, or to rationalise their world more in general, which we hope will rub off onto English, or which we hope will naturally get them to start subjecting it to this kind of introspection (which is what I have been arguing we should do at every level via an auspicious choice of content). Or, we can explicitly teach the scientific view of language and language learning, or raise their metacognitive and metalinguistic awareness. Or, because the point of doing this diminishes in proportion to the age of the students, perhaps most importantly of all we can make sure that each and every student goes through each of the steps, and can successfully complete the steps, in good contemporary lessons - their design does stem from the desired view of language, and by doing this we are thus putting all the pieces in place that will allow them to intuit this desired understanding, via repetition (of the teaching and learning method), for themselves.

I think, actually, that this is what lies at the heart of the problems I have experienced with ‘passive learning', because as Phil Roeland pointed out last month there are many schools that have good syllabuses in place in Thailand, that my students don't put a lot of importance on paying attention to what I am saying, and on doing learning workouts properly, when first I get them cannot be blamed on a lack of proper planning - rather, there is a lot of evidence to suggest that teachers haven't made students go through the motions in the way they should enough to make them familiar with what their lessons are trying to accomplish, and thus enthusiastic about doing them. Nor have they helped students who were otherwise willing to do this, but couldn't, with very much the same outcome, if you can't make it through the motions successfully you're similarly denied the sort of understanding of English language learning that is conducive to its success. A lot of what lies at the heart of what stands between my students and being successful learners, in other words, I feel now is that their teachers at school didn't put them under the sort of compulsion to engage with lessons that quells disruptions and creates a good communicative learning environment, as well as that coerces those that are stricken with anxiety to actually get those brain cogs turning and get over it (wherever I have been, it's more like pay attention if you want, but I'm not going to make you if you don't, in fact I don't care less if you sit there without saying anything, or even make phone calls, or have a sleep, or run riot up the back) - they also teach from out the front, often with a microphone, and fail to head around at all and see how everybody is going. Like the students, I would say, they don't have much of a scientific understanding of language in general, let alone English, and thus much of an understanding of contemporary English language teaching methods (this is the country, and a shortage of teachers means they are often teachers of other subjects, along with other contributing factors we might see to add here) - thus, as Phil said, they don't really appreciate very well what they are actually setting forth to achieve, or therefore how to apply them most effectively.

Whatever way you want to look at it, I want to return to the point I made a couple of months back, in conclusion here, that there are two things that definitely helped me enormously in making my teaching more successful. Firstly, we implemented at our university a set of behavioural rules, backed up with substantial punitive measures, that carefully articulated what students had to do to be effective learners, and to create an effective learning environment (not too much to expect at all, or by no means an unreasonable expectation) - I didn't start out with much of an emphasis on codes of behaviour, look at my email address for heaven's sake, but I can definitely say now that they are a tremendously important part of making teaching here successful. Which probably doesn't help a lot of you, I know, I think that is definitely one place where EFL school teachers get cooked, the institution gives foreign teachers no power whatsoever to affect their students' behaviours in this way, half the time the native teacher who is supposed to look after that end of things for you doesn't show up and you're left in the worst of predicaments. The other thing I did, along with making the students get with the lesson in the way they are supposed to via some rules, was make sure that every student was being given equal opportunity to participate in class, and that each and every one of them was given the help they needed to do so successfully (which involved me speaking to every one of them in equal quantities, and making the others have the patience to be quiet and give strugglers the opportunity to get a feel for what they had to do to respond correctly, as well as constant individual consultations both during and outside classes - walking around when I said to do something and checking they could do it were most important here, because I found they don't tell you if they can't) - if I was to give you two things to do in Thailand, these would be them, while it certainly wasn't easy to apply either of these solutions the outcome for me, personally, and I feel for my institution in general, was certainly very worth it. I enjoy my job so much more now that my students are interested and engaged, this and the fact that their exam scores have become what I hoped for are the most tangible benefits that have been derived from the experience.


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