Does Lao pass the Ashman Test?
The top man, @ebefl, recently retweeted a link to a wonderful blogpost by @greg_ashman. As I hope you will see if you click the link, Greg posts five questions that are worth asking of those who presume to tell us how to teach.
As I am precocious enough to suggest that Lao Tzu is telling us how to teach, I thought I might try to answer those questions on the Old Master’s behalf. That said, this is not a carefully thought through analysis of tao and teaching; it is a coffee-fuelled first draft of something that quite possibly should never have been written. I reserve the right to do as many volte faces as I wish. Don’t like it? Don’t care.
1. What are you actually suggesting that we should do?
Essentially, abandon all conceit that there is such a thing as effective teaching of languages. There is effective learning – and “effective teaching” is nothing other than allowing effective learning to take place. Effective learning takes place when people have a desire to learn or a commitment to learning. It doesn’t happen because somebody has dreamt up a wonderful game or has the dog’s bollocks of a PowerPoint presentation.
That said, there is such a thing as an effective coach of language teaching. This coach can harness the power of experience and knowledge about language learning and put this to use in helping people adopt better language learning strategies. These strategies are always simple, rather uninspiring and straightforward. They require only those materials that are used by people who have never set foot in a language classroom and any of the paraphernalia that is confined to the language classroom militates directly against the effective learning of languages.
2. What problems do your proposals solve?
Principally, the problem of stress that I suggest many teachers suffer as a direct result of the feeling that they are the catalysts for learning within their classrooms. But also the stress of the search for the Holy Grail of teaching: the methodology that defeats all others. I also think that a view of education informed by taoist teaching can be liberating for students: there are no “poor” language learners – just ineffective approaches to language learning. Language learning is not hard work, but it can be unpleasant work and it does require some commitment. What makes language learning appear hard is language teaching and its repugnant habit of classifying everything and everyone.
3. What would convince you that you are wrong?
A random controlled test that showed that when compelled to attend a small room with fifteen other people of mixed abilities, and taught for 20 hours a week according to a predefined syllabus from materials that took one particular view of how languages are structured, by somebody who felt that they were qualified to direct what was being taught and how it was being taught and what constituted effective learning, an individual would score higher in any test of language than somebody who regularly chose to attend regular meetings to use a language that they were committed to learning and who asked questions when they were uncertain or were interested in receiving input about how they might “improve” what they had already said and where they were less concerned about being labelled as they were about seeing progress in what they could actually use the language for,
I find it hard to believe that a sentence of that length and complexity could ever be understood by anybody.
4. Does adopting part of the approach give part of the benefit?
You might abandon the view of the teacher as responsible deity and relieve yourself from stress.
You might abandon the view of the learner as X, Y, or Z and relieve yourself of any deluded expectations.
You might abandon your view of materials as the driving force of learning and relieve yourself of the demand to find the “right” kind of materials.
You might abandon your view of teaching as something that must be perfected and relieve yourself of the stress of having to compete against lists of competencies.
5. What are the negative effects?
You swim against a very powerful tide.
You have been drilled into believing that this approach is wrong. Labels are right.
Learners have also been drilled in these beliefs.
Your confidence in the way(s) of the world might falter and you might stumble through some messy lessons.
Everything that surrounds you (materials, colleagues, managers, learners, their parents, exam boards, employers) has a vested interest in proving you wrong.
Many people don’t want to learn English and resent you returning the responsibility for their learning to them. You are supposed to be the whipping girl/boy for their failure to learn.
Should people ever rub the sleep from their eyes and wake up to the reality that languages can be learned without “T-E-A-C-H-E-R-S”, we’re all out of a job.