Time to Get Real?

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There is something about the way we talk about our industry that has been really bothering me of late. It seems to me that we often seem so pre-occupied with throwing whatever part of SLA (second language acquisition) theory that we deem relevant to the topic, we often forget to deal with what is really happening in our classrooms, what the real hurdles are that are stopping our students achieving both their maximum potential and the goals we have set for them.

I don’t think this is any fault of ours, anyone who has done much reading regarding the theoretical underpinnings of the EFL/ESL industry will have been swamped by SLA theory, as if it is the answer to all our problems, most academic courses and journals seem to indicate that if we apply relevant chunks of SLA to our lesson planning and activities, our students are miraculously going to start acquiring the target language at a rate of knots (o.k. this may be a slight exaggeration on my part!).

My point isn’t that we should do away with the theoretical knowledge, that it isn’t relevant or that is shouldn’t enter our discussions and influence our planning, but I believe there are fundamental, day to day issues, that we need to admit to, discuss, share and deal with before we worry about how closely our activities intertie with SLA.

I’m going to provide an example here, I am only providing this example because it is fresh in my mind, I think the point I want to make can be applied to the majority of chats, journal articles, books and so on that we engage with in the pursuit of professional development; myself and some good friends (who I know won’t mind me using this example) were discussing how we can build our students fluency (yes I know, I must be a VERY exciting person to go to the pub with!), and the chat very quickly became a SLA enthusiast’s paradise, and in part rightly so, it’s important that as professional educators we are aware of how research and theory has shown our students develop fluency. But, when we had moved and gone home, I didn’t really feel we had gained anything that would, on Monday morning, really help me deal with the issues I face in improving my students’ fluency. You see, for me, the problem was that even with all the knowledge of SLA in the world, I knew a number of my students would come into class tired, not interested or engaged in developing their own fluency. SLA was not going to help me with this, and I really think this is the real situation most teachers are facing. Maybe we don’t want to admit it, maybe we feel that admitting our students aren’t engaged in what we are doing makes us look like a bad teacher, but it is the reality.

To provide another example, I was recently involved in a chat on how we can use students feedback in our classrooms, much of the chat focused on the theoretical side (and I, by the way, was moderating/hosting the chat) of when, where and why we should use student feedback and we shared the usual theoretical reasons as to why we may not have used certain forms of student feedback (or any at all), and then one teacher admitted to the group he simply hasn’t done it because he is worried about what the students might say. Now that is a real practical problem that I am sure he is not the only teacher facing, these are problems that if we don’t admit to, share and help each other with, renders the rest of the theory useless. Thanks to that teacher’s honesty we were able to deal with this issue, offer practical advice from our experiences, and that teacher probably gained a lot more from the chat that any other. I really think discussing such practical problems needs significantly more focus, attention and respect for the teachers identifying them in their own classrooms.

Such situations, I believe, are the stark reality that most teachers face. We just don’t always have students that are going to sit and do every task we ask them exactly how we ask them to do, we all face different problems within our teaching contexts and I really think it’s time we weren’t afraid to admit that half our students come in and sleep, or they just want to play games, or they are used to different, often somewhat traditional teaching styles, or that they are just not getting it. Some of us teach public school kids that just want to get to the end of the lesson, or we teach in academies with kids whose parents are forcing them to attend, or we have business persons whose company is sending them to learn English, or we teach students from cultures that SLA just wasn’t developed on or for, and in all these situations, I’m sorry, but I just think being told the relevant part of SLA theory is often very much not what we are looking for or what we need.

A good friend suggested to me this is all well and good, but we can talk about motivation all day long, however I don’t think this is necessarily about motivation, I think every topic, every aspect of language teaching, carries with it inherent problems we face in the classroom. Motivation is just one type of problem we might face, teaching, just for example, an activity practicing listening for details, for one teacher, can carry all sorts of other practical problems besides motivation, just as developing fluency can.

I really feel it is time we started talking about what is really happening in our classrooms and institutions, the real problems we face, as it is through our shared experiences that we can really start to help each other.

SLA, textbooks, journals and research just don’t always provide the answers we need, but our shared experiences often do, so let’s not see experiences and real life problems as any less important than the theory that underpins our industry. It’s time we got real and encouraged the admission of the day to day problems ourselves and our students face, and not always respond to it with a barrage of theory that, quite honestly, is often not what we are looking for.

Comments

26/09/2012 01:18

Hallelujah!

Bang on as usual Alex! I will say this to start, I love thinking, studying and learning about SLA. I am super interested in how people acquire language. BUT! There is a long, long road between academic theory and real world application. As a young teacher, theory is all well and good, but what is better is actual, practical applications that can be used on a Monday morning when the students are still half dreaming from the night before!

I wholly agree that there needs to be more discussion about what actually happens in the real classroom. More to the point, much more openness about failures and successes and how each occurred. It’s one reason why I have latched on so strongly to the RP bandwagon here in Korea. I think we are extraordinarily lucky to have that on offer here, and it has helped me immensely.

In regards to theory vs practice, I’m now in the middle of writing a blog on dogme theory and how I am actually able to apply it to a middle school classroom; with the demands of the school, co-teachers, and students included. The end product is certainly nothing like the rosy picture painted in all the books, but hey, that’s life. Life is messy. But if we are able to have more real discussions about that mess, maybe we’ll all have just a bit better ability in organizing it. In doing so we will be able to give the gift we try so hard to bestow upon our students; retained, usable ability.

Thanks for shooting straight as per usual.

Reply
John
26/09/2012 01:22

One other point I forgot to mention. As a newer teacher who does not have the experience or credentials of so many in my field, it can be supremely dispiriting to constantly hear how well everything goes in someone else’s classroom. Knowing that others struggle at times too, even far more experienced teachers, truly helps! It’s what helps me be honest about my failures.

Reply
AlienTeachers
26/09/2012 01:38

HI John!

First thing I want to say mate is thank you so much for all the comments you leave, it really is appreciated and it really makes me want to keep on blogging. Thanks!

Regarding your comment, I think the work you’re doing regarding dogme in your middle school classes (which is an awesome project btw) demonstrates a great example of when theory positively influences our teaching practices, but just as you say, we often need a little bit more than theory to get through the ‘mess’.

Also, I agree we are extremely lucky here to have the likes of Mike, Josette and Manpal making RP so open and accessible to us here.

All the best mate,

Alex

26/09/2012 03:47

I’m all for keeping it real. As with a lot of theory, it’s lovely until you get to the actual classroom. As you rightly point out in the sixth paragraph, many students are intrinsically unmotivated, that is, any motivation to learn does not come from within, but from external factors – such as parents. In terms of the reality – I firmly believe that the actual context you find yourself in can not be understated. Having just finished a master’s degree which included a module on Second Language Acquisition, I am of the opinion that until you look at your actual students you can’t begin to formulate a plan of teaching. That is not to say you can’t bring this theory or that theory into play, but it starts with the learners. To a certain extent, chat forums which discussing this or that are general and, despite relevant anecdotes, provide little more than general experience and opinion. It is up to the individual teacher, not their colleagues, to make a difference and make things ‘real’ for their learners. Phil

Reply
AlienTeachers
07/10/2012 18:29

Hi Phil!

First of all please accept my apologies for how delayed this reply is, things have been a tad hectic of late!

I think you raise a very important point that as teachers it is our responsibility to take what we can learn from forums and chats and apply it to our classrooms and our students. Although I also agree it is not the responsiblity of our colleagues throughout the world to do this for us, I think we can help each other by changing how we use SLA in our conversations, in a way I believe many people in our profession over rely on and talk about SLA as a solution in itself.

Thanks for taking the time to read and extra thanks for taking the time to comment, it’s appreciated,

Alex

Reply
29/09/2012 05:23

Evening Walshy,

Lots to think about here. Firstly, I think it’s probably a good idea to draw a distinction between ELT theory and SLA theory. The first deals with teaching language, generally in classroom settings, and the second deals with the process by which someone learns a language by whatever means. I have huge problems with SLA in that it often attempts to reduce a multitude of cultures, skills, personalities and desires to a single concept of a “language learner”. However, I don’t think you can underestimate the effect that it has had on ELT methodology, especially CLT and whatever we’re doing now.

I tend to see the role of the teacher as a bit if a mediator between theory and practice. As you say, it helps to be informed and understand what may be taking place in our students, and also to recognize that at other times that it may be totally irrelevant.

I read somewhere the other day about quite what a personal space the classroom is for an educator, and how it’s often incredibly diffcult to reveal it for fear of criticism, or not looking like a ‘real’ teacher. I think a lot of theory based discussion actually discourages teachers from sharing, as it does often paint a rather rosy picture of what goes on in the classroom. I think the nature of teaching public school classes means that as a teacher you have far more pressing problems that theory. When I was a public school teacher, I felt that my blog didn’t really fit anywhere, and #eltchats were a world away from what I was doing in my class (this also applied to my MA). Now I teach in a setting that’s more akin to a classroom, and theory feels a lot more applicable. I think this perhaps explains the theoretical bent of recent online discussions 🙂 I think it also shows what an incredible job you’re doing with this blog and your work in general.

It’s increasingly my opinion that the Korean education system unwittingly sets native teachers up to fail, by not usually including them in the (examined) curriculum, and limiting contact time to once a week, which is in itself not exactly motivating for the students, as they don’t have much chance to progress even if they want to. Sorry if this is a bit negative nancy, but having a small group of students with exam pressure that I see three times a week allows for real progress, and has opened my eyes a bit about my previous role. You yourself have pointed to the fact that in general ELT teacher training (all of which is based on theory) does nothing for public school teachers. Perhaps it’s a branch of theory that you should start 🙂

However, you’re right that experience should still play the major role in our teaching, but as it is so personal and varied it’s often not particularly applicable to our own contexts, hence the general nature of chats that Phil points to above. I think that chats often provide a space in which you can reflect on your own experience, and equip yourself with a few more tools to help in your own classroom, or a new way of looking at a problem.

Anyway, this is way too long already. I hope there’s something of some use in all that.

Alex

Reply
AlienTeachers
07/10/2012 18:48

Breathy!

First of all thanks for your awesome comment mate!

I think you are absolutely right to draw a distinction between ELT theory and SLA theory, however I think both are often used, discussed and seen as solutions in ways they perhaps shouldn’t be.

Your point regarding the discouragement of sharing what is happening in our classroom is extremely valid, I wonder if this pressure actually increases with the more experienced we get, as if by getting more experienced our students are magically going to turn into English language angels?!

I also don’t think you’re being overly negative, NETs in the public education system are overwhelmingly set up to ‘fail’. Often they are then blamed when they do fail.

Although experiences are personal and varied I think that if we spent more time sharing our experiences we would often find common ground, that often contexts worlds apart might overlap in ways we never knew or expected, but unless we start analysing what is really happening and seeing theory as a ‘get out clause’ this will never happen.

Thanks so much for your awesome comment mate,

Alex

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