Steve Darn | ELT
(with Özgür Köseoğlu & Laura Cruse)
Introduction – The good teacher
When questioned, the majority of teachers will tell you that such a thing as the ‘teaching personality’ or the ‘born teacher’ exists. Most will be unable to define the terms, and few will even try, but, particularly in the case of experienced teachers, there will be the inference that ‘some have got it, and others haven’t’.
There is surprisingly little written about what constitutes a good teacher, possibly due to the fact that any writer on the subject would automatically be labelled presumptuous, and possibly because of the subjectivity of the issue. In many countries, where teacher training involves high professional standards, ‘those who can’t’ are often weeded out in the pre-service stage, or leave the profession early. In recent years, as institutions have become judged purely by results, teachers have become increasingly content to have their performance measured by examination grades and student assessments. Consequently, teachers have become isolated and competitive in their work.
Language teaching is different from content-based subject teaching in many ways. Language is a means to an end, not an end in itself, and an examination grade is a poor indicator of a teacher’s success, given the extent to which the knowledge may be retained and used once a learner’s formal education has finished. To build the bridge between institutionalised learning and life outside and after the classroom requires the skill of making language memorable, retrievable and useable, an asset which may well be linked with personal associations and the ability to sustain motivation.
English language teachers are a different breed. The drive to export the English language created a demand for large numbers of teachers, met by two-day to one-month training courses, designed to enable survival in the classroom. These courses were accompanied by the often-erroneous assumptions that native speakers of English ‘knew’ the language, and that the ‘starter pack’ would be followed by on-the-job training. The outcome of supply and demand, together with the appeal of a passport to travel and an unregulated employment sector has led to a ‘profession’ populated by a wide variety of exponents, some benefiting from more comprehensive courses designed to qualify practising teachers retrospectively. Notwithstanding the variety of qualifications and experience, however, there are clearly those who have an ability, which is lacking in others.
Methodology and technology
There have been two developments in language teaching over the past decade or so which have brought the teaching persona back into focus. The first is a recession in what had appeared to be relentless methodological progress. Gradually, innovation has subsided, leaving us with the communicative classroom, an umbrella of humanism, and the eclectic teacher. Either methodologists have run out of ideas, or we have come to accept that little is known about how languages are learnt. Interestingly, recent incursions into the standard repertoire, such as multiple intelligence theory and neuro-linguistic programming, focus on the individual and the learner as a person rather than being a set of teaching techniques. The second notable development has been in the use of technology in language teaching and learning. Computers have added an extra dimension to self-study and project-based learning, both in the classroom or institution and at home, but the major advance has been in the delivery of online courses, enabling learning for those previously hindered by the factor of distance. The repercussions are enormous and there are question marks regarding not only the quality and validity of information imparted over the Internet, but also the tendency for computer-based learning and teaching to enhance trends towards isolation. The obvious manifestation is the partial replacement of the teacher by a screen which has little association with time, place or person. The following extract from an e-mail from a teacher at a community college in Iowa which not only voices an obvious concern but also hints at some of the pedagogical issues behind distance learning:
‘In your discussion of Information and Communications Technologies, you state that “ICT is a tool for community building, not necessarily learning, and certainly not teaching or training, where teaching is defined as something more than the diffusion of information and the facilitation of learning through task-setting.” Could you elaborate about the “more” part of teaching, or would you direct me to books and/or articles that provide greater explanation of the “more” of teaching? I teach in a small community college…… I’m very curious about this view of ICT, because I teach two courses through an online platform each semester. All of the pedagogical training I have received has come from the company that develops the software we use for course delivery, and almost all of our training in online instruction and course design has been centered on diffusion of information and facilitation of learning through task-setting. In the classroom, I gain the sense that there is more, but I have not read any articulation of what the “more” consists of. Once I could pinpoint what the additional face-to-face elements are, I would like to try to experiment with incorporating them in the online classes, if it is possible to do so.’
There is a clear message here regarding the loss of an indefinable element in the distance learning experience, but also an interesting insight into teacher training, which in this case has come from a software company. Logically, pedagogy to the software provider is about information provision and tasks for the learner to complete on line, which of course is all distance learning can simulate, even with webcams and microphones. At the current state of technology, the virtual classroom is still something of a myth.
The personal touch
All of this begs the question ‘does the training make any difference?’. The essence of the issue is really why only some teachers, whether from ESL or EFL contexts, and whether proud possessors of MA or MSc, CELTA or DELTA certificates, actually make learning an effective experience. The answer is unlikely to come from teachers, since comments about qualifications, training and classroom success tend to be coloured by defensiveness, pride, jealousy and other powerful emotions. The learner provides a clearer perception, not only of why some teacher-learner encounters are positive and memorable, but also of the connection between those encounters and the retention of knowledge. The following is a verbatim MSN Messenger conversation between a teacher (Steve) and an ex-student (Oscar) who remain in contact:
People respond to different teachers in different ways.
true. but it more about creating emotional notifications for students to remember conversations, phrasel verbs, vocabulary during teacher-student interaction.
most of them will respond positively to this.
it was that way in celta
and i think you shouldnt restrict the personality matter in only lessons..it more like outside the classroom
i know some teacher who made me inspired to learn english.
although i didnt receive any course from them.
i knew them at school.
but they were so interesting people that i was able to think that i could learn that language
one of them was a lovely singer. he used to sing frank sinatra songs with perfect american accent
he gave me some sinatra cassettes.
i remember myself memorizing the lyrics
personality is something extending over classrooms
i mean personality is a good motivator for students
Oscar’s message is clear and simple. For learning to become permanent there has to be an attachment to an experience, often a memorable person-to-person encounter. NLP has come close to recognising this, prompting ELT/NLP practitioners to use the power of the mind to conjure up images of the past – tastes, smells and images, to anchor current learning. We continue to cater for the left and right brained learner, the visual, auditory and kinaesthetic learner, and an ever-expanding variety of intelligences, possibly without fully appreciating that learning is an emotional experience. The adage ‘You can lead a horse to water’ remains true, except that we are now beginning to understand that to make the horse drink, he has to be thirsty. It is the thirst that we are sometimes not good at creating. Perhaps the EQ (Emotional Intelligence) people are beginning to point us in the right direction.
Oscar brings home his point in these reminiscences of a CELTA course he attended as a volunteer student some five years ago:
‘I still remember the lessons in CELTA course although years have passed. Because I remember teachers. I remember their personalities. And small conversations we had in the breaks. I remember what they wore. I remember buying Eleonara some ayran and giving her a newspaper clipping about reading coffee cups. Some teachers made no effort to communicate with us. I remember Leo telling us about baseball in the breaks.’
Eleanora and Leo, five years on, are teaching somewhere on the globe, but they, and the knowledge they imparted, remain fixed in Oscar’s mind. Oscar is telling us that Eleanora and Leo had got it right in that they had, perhaps unknowingly, discovered that education is a two-way process, and that our learners, particularly in these times of the ever-widening generation gap, have as much to teach us about their worlds as we do about ours. Thirty years into the great English language export drive, it is perhaps time that linguistic imperialism and neo-colonialism stopped and we, as teachers, started to listen. Perhaps we need a new definition of the learner-centred classroom, given that learner-centredness involves not only classroom interaction patterns, but also statements from learners about what, and perhaps who, they respond to best.
Concerns for the future
Having heeded Oscar’s words, and realised the importance of the personal learning experience, something disturbing has begun to happen involving the relationship between technology, attitudes to learning, and society as a whole. The following is an extract from an e-mail from the same teacher in Iowa, received a few months after the first:
Something new has happened this year, at least with our online consortium, and I think it is becoming more important than ever to distinguish differences between online learning and face-to-face learning. We have had an explosion of enrollment in our courses, and many of the students are not prepared to learn independently. A sense of ownership of learning is one of the traits of successful online learners, and I feel concern that students are signing up for online classes out of convenience, without any understanding of the trade-off they are accepting for the benefit of convenience. I have also been talking to some of my students (who meet in a classroom with me) about their expectations of online courses, and they have told me that they don’t want personal contact with their instructors. They have stated that they want to “be left alone” to merely complete assignments and get the work out of the way.
There are frightening implications here, at least for those who, like Oscar, have experienced the ‘more’ of classroom teaching. In part, this trend towards depersonalised learning is a product of the availability of ICT for distance learning and its sheer convenience. The point that advocates of such technology seem to miss, however, is that distance learning is designed to overcome the obstacle of real geographical distance, not the short bus ride to school or the amble from dormitory to classroom. Internet and the Web provide us with alternative, supplementary and sometimes unreliable information. They were not designed to replace human motion or herald the demise of the kinaesthetic learner.
Of greater concern is the demand side of the coin, rather than the supply. Cynical, yet pragmatic colleagues are heard to dismiss the concept of the ‘good’ teacher in the face of changes in social rules and expectations. Teachers are expected, by something like ‘force of personality’ and ‘self-confidence’, to ‘classroom manage’ rowdy children, when the family and the social structure have failed to do so. Any powers attributed as ‘in loco parentis’ have been eroded by fear of litigation and parental pressure, and undermined by management structures that leave teachers to their own devices in dealing with problems, but which are all too intrusive when it comes to performance appraisal, professional development and paper-work. In short, the modern learner is difficult to teach.
The situation, according to research-based prognoses, is unlikely to improve. The ‘Generation Y’ learner, already with us, exhibits unprecedented characteristics. Having been raised with cellular ‘phones, DVD, instant messaging and PCs requiring few keyboard skills, the new learner responds best to visual stimuli, has excellent hand-eye coordination and is able to multi-task, yet has a concentration span of less than ten minutes and a poor sense of real time. Their favourite chunks of functional language are ‘I’m bored’ and ‘Sorry I’m late’. Of course these are generalisations:
‘I do teach students who adamantly insist that they only want to take classes face-to-face, because they feel that the interpersonal interaction is essential’
However, it is not the skills of the new learners that pose the greatest challenge. While functioning at relatively low cognitive levels, these learners have worked out that the teacher actually doesn’t have much power in the classroom and, as a result, is a target for negotiation. This, along with a view of education as a commodity to be purchased or at least passively acquired, leads them to believe that they are entitled to good grades and to benefit from educational administrators’ obsession with published statistics and consequent ‘grade inflation’. Generation Y learners do not like school.
‘I’m just beginning to tackle understanding the changes in education that this implies, if our students don’t want to be bothered with human relationships in the learning process.’
The postmodern paradox
The learner is at the centre of a postmodern paradox. While forward looking-educators are busily planning reforms to transform schools and colleges into ‘learning institutions’ and emphasising breadth of knowledge, the development of higher-order thinking skills and life-long learning, their clients are demanding disposable education which can readily be supplied through technology. Whether the learners or technology are the chicken or the egg is immaterial. We have a new educational scenario for which we seem to be unprepared. Other trends indicate that we need to approach our learners in a differnt way.
‘In my face-to-face classes I am encountering increasing resistance from students to take notes. The current expectation from my students is that I upload I a set of powerpoint slides before I teach a lecture. They want to be able to print them off and bring them to class so they can follow along, and some students (maybe 5%?) jot notes on the powerpoint printouts. For the other 95% of students, they don’t take notes at all, but count on using my powerpoint notes as their study notes for class. From the standpoint of effective learning, I really question this trend. First, it puts off the time when students engage with the material, and I think, overall, it reduces the time they spend in taking knowledge in. Second, study after study shows that “listening” is one of the least effective ways of learning. Learning accompanied by activity generates much better knowledge retention..’
‘Learning by doing’, ‘active learning’ and ‘task-based learning’ have long been accepted in ELT circles as approaches which consolidate and reinforce the basic reeptive skills, while we have developed techniques and activities which encourage learners to interact with a text, but what we are seeing here is a change in the nature of the text itself, the way in which material is presented, and the way in which learners engage with both language and content.
‘We are being trained to publish lectures in MP3/Podcast formats, because students are requesting that their instructors make lecture recordings available so students can, theoretically, listen to them over and over again.’
‘Also, computer technology seems to be moving increasingly towards icons and symbols, away from thinking through logical linguistic constructions’.
‘It seems that we’re so worried about falling behind the curve of what could happen with the technology, that we’re not asking ourselves how much better students are educated by our adapting to how they want to learn. There is a significant difference between the development of thought when a person sits down with a book, reads full sentences, and reflects on meaning, than when a student skims a website, and no one (I have met) wants to talk about the differences in these intellectual performances. We are talking about how to develop activities to engage students, but I’m not hearing much discussion about what is happening intellectually to the students once they engage.’
Technology, one suspects, is merely adding pace and direction to a trend which had already begun and which we are reluctant to admit to. We have been slow to define learning outcomes, continued to use assessment techniques that demand only the recall of memorised material or low-level comprehension of concepts, clung on to traditional classes, academic processes and products and set short term academic goals. We have tended to teach as we were taught, and have been overtaken by a generation of learners which has emerged, along with technology, much faster than anticipated. As a consequence, the new learner exhibits some or all of the following characteristics:
•Poor analysis or application skills
• Poor problem solving and reasoning skills
• Poor memory and reasoning
• Poor language skills
• Focus on performance goals over learning goals
• Surface learning over deep learning
• A lack of general and global knowledge
• Poorly developed higher level cognitive skills
As yet, we are unaware of what, if any, positive attributes may replace or counter these trends, but action is required if we are to accept future changes in society that the Generation Y learner may be blissfully unaware of. We already know, for example, that Generation Y learner is not guaranteed a job for life, will need to be retrained at least once, be the victim of pressures of internationalisation, and, in Europe at least, be able to function in at least two languages. It comes as no surprise that this generation is also characterised by an unwillingness to take on adult roles, and a consequent ‘protracted adolescence’.
While Generation Y does not want to grow up, educators are faced with the problem of filling an extended education with meaningful learning which will meet the deamands of the mid-21st century. This is a situation where Einsten’s assertion that ‘the significant problems we face cannot be solved at the same level of thinking we were at when we created them’ rings true. In the face of new learners’ traits, expectations and demands, it is still our task to find out what will serve students best in the real world, but also make them into independent thinkers. To this end, we need to rethink not only our methods but also our attitudes and beliefs and our role in managing and adapting to change. We need to do this not only for the sake of education, but also to avoid currently endemic conditions such as teacher burnout and teacher isolation. As well as making methodological and structural changes, we might also think about how best to personalise learning using the technology that confronts us, though attempts to do this have encountered a variety of unexpected difficulties:
The BIG problem with images in courses is the whole right-to-privacy issue. There is at least one lawsuit pending by a student against a school and an instructor because the instructor required everyone to upload an image of him or herself into the online class, to personalize the course. The student insisted that the policy was a violation of the right to privacy.
Change and the teacher’s role
We have come a long way since it was suggested that language teachers should have the capacity to perform a limited number of roles in relation to their learners. The teacher who could successfully be an informant, facilitator, manager, social worker and friend in the 1980s and 90s was doing a good job. 21st century teachers not only have to manipulate a vast range of methodological options as an informed eclectics, and know their learners, their strategies, intelligences, wants and needs inside out, but are aso required to be masters of technology and cater for wildly divergent learning styles. Many of us are willing to scaffold our curricula, embrace Csikszentmihalyi’s concept of ‘flow’, and adopt the reflective cycle as a personal development tool. However, if we are to go by the prognoses of researchers into Generation Next, we, as mere educators, are expected to manage wholesale changes in student-teacher relationships, student and teacher responsibilities, the students themselves and the teachers role in the education process. In order to overcome the obstacles confronting us, we are seemingly required to:
• Change teacher beliefs and behaviour
• Identify external goals
• Diversify instructor skills
• Create student ownership of goals
• Offer learning options
• Concentrate on higher levels of learning
• Provide a variety of learning methods
• Increase activity in learning
• Provide environment and technology
• Train learners
• Act as a resource
• Assess against external criteria
• Give meaningful assessments
Individually, each of the above is sensible, even partially manageable and achievable, and often what we do anyway. Nevertheless, on top of watching our teacher talking time, giving meaningful feedback on tasks to learners, adopting appropriate attitudes to correction and the use of the mother tongue in the classroom, the sum of the parts represents a tall order and more than enough to reflect upon.
Conclusion – The good teacher revisited
Perhaps we are over-complicating the issue. To quote an ex-US military instructor on a recent CELTA course: ‘All you need is KSA. Knowledge, Skillsand Attitude’. There are some teachers who could read every behavioural education book ever published and yet would still not be able to achieve effective classroom management, while there are others who achieve instant rapport without producing much in the way of learning outcomes. However, it is the concept of attitude which brings us back to Oscar, who manages to communicate effectively and on a personal level with Steve using e-mail, MSN Messenger, mobile ‘phone text messaging or whatever technology is available. What is questionable is whether Oscar and Steve could have developed such a relationship without initial face to face contact.
Often, particularly in the face of change, teachers revert to the behaviour and teaching styles of their role models, the teachers they remember, respected and learnt from. We read of learner-teacher relationships forged through journal responses and learner diaries in current journals and research projects, but none of this is new. The following are extracts from a letter to Oscar from his English teacher during his undergraduate years:
‘You keep underestimating yourself as a student of English………Above all, stop judging yourself from others’ points of view….…the English you hear on BBC should be a challenge for you, not a torment. That’s not fair. The ‘best’ is what is best for yourself only. You’ve got your very special opinions, feelings and imagination to express in your writings. Naturally, you have and will have some grammatical errors. They’re okay as long as they don’t hinder the meaning….….Once you’ve mastered it, you’ll express yourself more freely, efficiently and effectively. You can then play on words. Then, you start using dictionaries……and won’t ever be satisfied with the first words that come to your mind. That’s how your writing becomes refined.
Why do you think I’ve told you that you write well?…… By the way, can you keep a secret? I go through exactly the same stages as you when I write…..
Clearly, the lexical approach had not arrived in Oscar’s teacher’s time, and it would seem that Oscar was not an easy student to please. This letter conjures up a wealth of unforgettable images, associations and emotions for Oscar, which are key components in his learning. The lesson here is a reiteration of Oscar’s own perspective that it is humanistic behaviour and attitude, whether seen as a components of personality or separate facets of teaching, which encourage, stimulate and motivate the learner. This, one suspects and sincerely hopes, will never change.
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Özgür Köseoğlu is a research assistant in the Department of Public Relations and Publicity, Faculty of Communication, Ege University, Izmir, Turkey. His interests include interpersonal communication skills, word-of-mouth marketing and cross-disciplinary issues such as emotional intelligence. He is a lifelong language learner.
Laura Cruse is an Instructor of Communications at Northwest Iowa Community College Sheldon, Iowa, USA, where she delivers the majority of her courses by distance learning. She is concerned with the development of ICT-based education and the future of classroom-based teaching.
first published 08 August 2007 http://www.hltmag.co.uk/jul07/mart03.htm