As SMART as riding a bike. 

English, remember, has no future tense. For example, what does the following sentence mean: a future intention, a fixed future arrangement, or a decision about the future made at the moment of speaking? 

“In September, I am cycling from Leeds to Manchester to raise money for charity.” 

It is, of course, a fixed future arrangement. I booked my place on the ride last week, so it has moved from an intention (“I am going to cycle…”), and has long since ceased to be a spontaneous decision at the moment of speaking (New Year’s Eve, slightly slurred: “F-ck it, this year I will definitely do that ride I’ve been meaning to do for ages.”). The key lexical verb does not change (as it does for past tenses, for example, or as it might in many other languages) and instead it’s all present tenses and modal verbs.

Lecture aside, and what remains, however, is that I am doing this crazy thing, which will cause much amusement for the folk of Yorkshire and Lancashire as I wobble down their roads. Now, aside from being an opportunity to patronise English language teachers,  this also presents a fine opportunity to go back to my second favourite bete noire in ESOL teaching: target setting. 

Riding a bike, on an amateur level, is a fairly straightforward process. You sit on the saddle, spin the pedals and off you go. It’s an entirely artificial process, (the bicycle has only really existed for 150 years or so) and therefore something which everybody consciously learns. Nobody is born a cyclist. And of course, as everyone knows, you never forget how to do it. Riding a bike over long distances is also a straightforward process: all (!) you have to do is persuade your leg muscles to keep spinning the pedals for a long time. That’s a very big all, I have to admit, but it’s fairly uncomplicated. 

 Using a language, however, is terribly complicated. Look at the rules around how we talk about the future, for example, combining vocabulary and grammatical structures with subtle shades of meaning that native speakers sometimes abandon in order to avoid repetitiveness. Even the most apparently monosyllabic of language users uses a complex interaction of lexis, grammar, discourse knowledge, social awareness and paralinguistic features, an interaction which, as yet,  even the best minds in the field don’t agree on. Learning a language  is not much better: science has yet to comprehensively nail the processes involved, except that we do know that children are uncannily good at it, and it gets harder as you grow up. 

So, here’s a question: which one of these two processes can be most easily, meaningfully and effectively  broken down into discrete stages? 

I could probably do the ride tomorrow. It would take me ages, and I’d be a total mess afterwards, but I could do it. What I want to be able to do is complete the journey in a respectable time and be able to walk when I get home. So I need to execute some sort of lifestyle change/training plan.  As I am in a fairly post-beginner state, and cycling between 30-50 miles a week already, the training element is going to be about endurance – longer rides, gradually increasing over the weeks. This is easy to set up in terms of a target: by the end of week 1 I will ride for X hours. I can set myself meaningful goals like “ride the long commute to work at least once a week” and hopefully get a bit fitter. I also need to look at my own diet and weight loss: the cycling will take care of some of that, as will any other exercise I do. However, I suspect that my sugar/cheese/bread addiction will have to be limited, and again, a number of targets can be used to monitor this and motivate me to engage. 

So far so neat. I can identify some clear specific goals there: ride X minutes longer each week up to X hours by the end of August. Investigate potential ideas for off bike exercise. (And start !). Reduce sugar intake by X amount each week until weaned off (or something, although I might have to get back to you on that one). 

These are clear things which are understandable to anyone who wishes to engage with a programme like this. Most of this falls within the realm of general knowledge (more exercise + better diet = improved health and athletic performance). Even something slightly more technical like following an exercise plan off the web is still fairly straightforward in terms of understanding the stages: “move body like this for this long”. If I focus those goals down a bit more and mark them off I should gain a sense of achievement to boot: they are my goals, and I fully own them. All good. 

 In theory, then, this is applicable to all areas of human development and achievement. You can apply it to a business setting very effectively: increase output X to level Y, that sort of thing. Everyone involved usually understands the process and stages, enabling them to get on board and have some sense of ownership of the goals. 

So does this work for learning? A crucial aspect of the SMART target is that it focuses on observable performance only. You can’t measure thought and understanding except through observing what an individual can do as a result of that understanding. This raises a challenging question: at what point can “use present perfect to describe my experience appropriately in 4 sentences” be said to prove anything? I could, for example, demonstrate something similar in German with only the minimal amount of effort and absolutely no learning. I’d be happy to apply this to any area of learning, I think. Evidence of this sort may mean a learner has learned how to do it to an extent that they can reproduce said act on demand, but it may just as easily mean that they will not be able to repeat that goal any time soon. 

A little of this is down to the phrasing, the insistence on the sacred SMART. To tick all five boxes, we end up with language based competency measures like “be able to write five sentences about my daily routine using present simple by the end of February.” The very specificiness, measurability and relevance of this target mean that all we are measuring is not the student’s ability to use present simple for daily routine in general, nor a student’s understanding of that grammar (which is what the teacher is probably aiming at ), only their ability to produce, yes, five sentences about… (Awkwardly, this also applies to SMART learning outcomes. No teacher ever believes that a learner who reads a text and answers five questions about it has actually learned how to “read a text and extract five details”, but that’s what the outcome will be for that lesson because the product focussed quality assurance system of FE demands it. But then, no lesson observer or manager would really believe that either, which raises all sorts of tricky questions. It’s probably one of those Best Practice things.)

Setting targets for riding a bike over distance is not learning a language. The former is fairly straightforward and easily understood by the participants, meaning that ownership of the targets is possible, the target is meaningful, and therefore motivating. None of these apply for language learning. But then I’ve been saying this for years now and nobody seems to be listening or wishing to engage in dialogue. Certainly, despite a move towards a world of evidence based practice and practitioner research, being critical of the notion of target setting remains verboten because, presumably, it provides neat, trite performance data which can be presented to an auditor.  

Sighs. I suppose I’d better go for a ride. 

A Standing Invitation to @David_Cameron 

I broached the ESOL for Muslim women debate yesterday in class. I had planned it as a post exam discussion, with a bit of a listening task. Here’s the plan:1: look at still of David Cameron and discuss “who is he? What does he do? Etc.” Deal briefly with anything that comes up.

2: listen to the interview once. Discuss in groups what the general gist is. 

3: read questions, try to answer from memory, then listen again. 

4: check the meaning of key vocabulary and discuss why certain expressions were used. Feedback. 

5: general discussion of the whole thing and reactions to it. 

I had planned an hour for this, as we had some other bits and pieces to deal with, but the first task already started some interesting and challenging discussions. “My English friend told me he doesn’t think the Queen is necessary.” I put on my proper dutiful government servant hat, and we elicited different types of government, the way laws are made in the UK, had comparative discussions about government in different countries, that sort of thing, and established, as per the Life in the UK Test, that the UK is an awesome hotbed of democracy because of the Magna Carta. 

Anyway, we got back on track, and we had a listen. At certain key points, like when Cameron is reminded that his government cut the funding to ESOL, several students raised their eyebrows at me, and you could feel the irritation of the students rising already. The recording finished and before I could open my mouth…

“Why only women?”

“Why only Muslims?”

“What happens after two years?”

“What about the people who are already here?”

“He’s wrong about Islam.”

I had to knock it on the head to begin with. I wanted to be sure the students had the appropriate listening practice, and could explore the meaning and gain a full understanding of the text (although I thought it would be churlish and cheap to point out the PM’s own garbled syntax “women who don’t speak hardly any English at all”).
We pressed on with the listening, and listened again for detail. In feedback, we did n’t get any further than the apparent numbers of Muslim women not speaking English, at which point I had to abandon my facilitator role, and revert to something closer to a classroom Oprah: helping to make space for every student to contribute as opinions became more heated and passionate. 

I love this class. I really really love this class. I’ve had maybe just two or three groups of students, over the years who I have enjoyed teaching this much, and they are a blast. They can do focussed and dedicated, and they can do relaxed and chatty, and swing between the two states quite easily. They are hugely diverse, representing at least 10 countries spread over 3 continents, with strong opinions and the language with which to express them.

And express them they did. My word, did the express them. You may be surprised to learn that there was an absence of universal pleasure at the Prime Minister’s announcement. The word “discrimination” was almost the first thing said: discrimination against Muslims, against women, against men, against non-Muslims. In fact, the arguments that broke out were about precisely who was being discriminated against, with some students feeling that her religion was being attacked and singled out unfairly. 

There is a temptation here to wonder if this division wasn’t part of the intention, and I wouldn’t like to say. Certainly, it’s hard to imagine what would have happened had Mr Cameron been passing. Therefore, I would like to invite him to my class: a standing invitation, should he be interested. I invite him to do more than a token visit to a low level community centre class not far from the main London train line, and come and talk about his ideas to some students with the language to talk back. 

Except. Or “why £20 million is an insult.”

Let’s start with the good news. The Prime Minister has announced today an extra £20million funding for ESOL. Terrific news.

Except, well, except everything.

Except that this comes off the back of years of cuts to ESOL funding, and a specific cut to ESOL last July of £45million, giving us, according to Martin Doel of the AoC, a total cut of £160 million since 2008.  The money will also come with conditions attached, no doubt around project “sustainability”, i.e. doing more with nothing. As with DCLG “competition” a couple of years back, the money will be used to briefly prop up small voluntary organisations until the money runs out and they are abandoned.

Except that this money is targeted for Muslim women to learn English – about 228,000 people, if we borrow the government’s numbers (38,000 with “no English” and 190,000 with “limited English”. So, if I get my calculator, that means there is about £88 a head for these women, and based on a very conservative estimate, that would be enough for between 10-20 hours of lessons. Which is nothing at all, not really, with even the most highly motivated learners.

Except that this money is targeted at Muslim women to learn English. This is direct discrimination against women of many other faiths and backgrounds, surely, even if we could get past the challenge of anyone proving that they are Muslim? It would be the work of a second for a non-Muslim to say “I’ve converted” – you cannot prove anything. There are no certificates handed out when you start to follow any given faith, there are no badges, no special marks tattooed on your nose, and by the same measure, neither is there any sign that you are no longer of that faith. And what is there that makes Muslim women more susceptible to extremism or less likely to integrate? Repression occurs across all religions, and without them. 

Except that this money is targeted at Muslim women. Because men are not involved here? The Prime Minister’s statements acknowledge every negative stereotype of a Muslim man, of Muslim culture. “Some of these people have come from quite patriarchal societies and perhaps the menfolk haven’t wanted them to speak English.” Weasel words ahoy – he takes his racism and dresses it up in vagueness: “some” and “perhaps”. Take those words out and it might as well be an anti-Islamic diatribe from the 1920s. And what of support for men? Are men not educable to the mighty white mindset? All these claims demonstrate a lack of understanding of a complex issue – to lay the blame at the feet of men and a “patriarchal” culture is a sweeping and possibly inaccurate statement – there are many issues which contribute to women not being able to engage with ESOL classes. I would say the biggest barrier is a lack of access to the classes – courses in communities are often the first to go when money gets tight, the big colleges and organisations pull out, and the charity and voluntary organisations simply don’t have the resources to compensate (again, £20 million won’t even touch this).

Except that this money is the (shabby, threadbare) velvet glove on the iron fist. Smile at my munificence, says Mr Cameron, look how giving and loving I am. Oh and by the way, he continues, if you fail to engage with this after two and half years, we will take this as a sign of not wanting to integrate, and we will add it to the deportation charge sheet.

I’m not sure which bit of this makes me crosser. I think that it’s the insulting nature of the £20 million, the arrogance of it, as if the whole ESOL community, teachers and learners, are now meant to fawn over the generosity of the government. It’s a cheap and tacky token payout from a government antithetical not only to immigrants, but also to humanity. But then, I’m hardly surprised.

Hidden CPD

There’s a lot of audit noise made about CPD. To prove anything you need to log hours spent, declare the aims and the outcomes of the activity, evidence the impact, and so on. All of which encourages a model of CPD, and therefore of learning, based around measurable input leading to evidenceable output. There’s nothing wrong with this, and lots of formal, planned CPD is valuable and valid. With the audit hungry culture of education which prizes evidence of performance over the performance itself, this kind of CPD all fits rather neatly.

So yes, do the formal training events, the workshops, the conferences, and so on. Absolutely. Let me be very clear on this: these things can be very very useful indeed. Get out there. Find time. (They can be abysmal, as well: my pet hate is the overpaid consultant – i.e. most of them – who talks at you for two hours about how you should be interacting with learners and active learning, or who bores you rigid with a bunch of stuff you already knew about stretch and challenge). 

However, today I would like to speak in praise of the CPD that dare not speak its name. There is no evidencing of impact, no formal reflection model, no performance managed process at all. The CPD I mean is responsive, tailored to meet individual teachers’ needs, practical, often quickly applicable, and so achieves high levels of teacher engagement with the process. If this were a teaching methodology it would be awesome.

It goes like this: teacher A comes into the staff room: 

  • Teacher A: “oh man, that was terrible, the students were totally flummoxed by that, and I need to revisit it again tomorrow. But I can’t do it the same way… Nightmare!”
  • Teacher B: “yeah, I know what you mean, I tried that and it went like that too. But then I tried [gives explanation] and it worked really well.”
  • Teacher C: “You know, maybe you could try it this other idea [explains]?”
  • Teacher A: “I tried that too, but this happened. Any ideas?”

This could continue for some time, by the end of which, teacher A has a bunch of practical ideas for the next class, and probably a few others, as do the other teachers involved in the process. Many of these ideas will be used, and learner experience is improved and teachers develop. 

The impact of this kind of CPD is pretty profound and immediate, but I think that if we were to try and performance manage the process, you would lose some of the benefit brought about by high levels of engagement. Creating online staff social networks, for example, and saying that you have to engage by posting a certain number of times a week may have an impact, but it doesn’t recreate the spontaneous giving and taking of the staff room conversation. Imposition of a system more or less automatically creates barriers, because it becomes a thing you have to do whether you feel so inclined or not. The very fact that the staff room discussion is self-monitored and self-managed, not to mention unrecorded, is part of what creates the engagement. Certainly online activities will only really be taken up by those who already engage: online chats via Twitter, for example, can be brilliant and informative, but these are on an opt-in basis, and engagement is unenforced.

Formal “open” workshops could go some way to creating a managed version of these: something like the community of enquiry approach where questions are posed by participants, before being categorised, democratically selected, and discussed. This could work, but still won’t quite capture the immediate practicality of the staff room discussion.

All of which is fine. Because, if you’ll forgive the pretentious metaphor, by pinning down the butterfly of learning, (and let’s not forget that CPD is learning) you preserve some aspect of its value, but much of that value is lost. I don’t want to have to log every developmental discussion, or be forced into a developmental discussion that I don’t want to have. Enough of my professional life is performance-managed into disengagement already, thanks. I value those spontaneous conversations above and beyond most other CPD interaction, and so I want to keep them that way.

I’ll close with an entirely true anecdote which I wanted to use somewhere here, but simply couldn’t find a place. It links to the notion of evidencing impact. I had an email from our staff development team last week saying I had an “outstanding reflection” on a training event, which confused me somewhat. After all, I hadn’t written one yet, so how could it be Outstanding? 


I have a whole bunch of anxieties and grumbles going round in my head in the whole work related department, mostly to do with exams and the filthy murk of exam backwash. However, there’s a time and a place for that, and anyway, I’ve blogged about it before. So instead let’s talk about a nice lesson what I taught yesterday. It was a game of two halves, with the beginning being a session based around a listening task on following instructions from the lovely folks at ESOL Nexus, followed by one of my favourite fun filler lessons that just happens to link to the notion of instructions and sequencing.

I need to put my hands up and admit that it is a total steal. The idea first appeared in a book called Ideas which was published in 1984, and written by a gentleman called Leo Jones. It’s a speaking and listening activity book; the kind of book you can pick from as and when you feel the need. Naturally, for a book over 30 years old, sections are dated: the technology chapter, as always, is a corker, but the methodology and the ideas are all generally sound. This task, ironically, comes from the technology section, and is devastatingly simple.

The essence of the task is this. You set up the tables so they are one metre apart from each other. You’ll need one pair of tables per pair or group of students. Each pair gets the items below and have to use these to successfully transport the ping pong ball from one table to the other. They can’t carry, lift or throw the ball.

 Yes, that is a box of matches…

I like it for lots of reasons. It’s fun, and a bit silly, and probably as a result, the students usually get into it. It’s also highly flexible. Low level students can just do it and perhaps prepare a simple report on what they did, or simply do it as a straight speaking task, following on from prepositions of place, sequence markers. High level students can give a formal presentation of a proposal for their project, for example, before building it. Or afterwards, describe the stages in instructions to another group. Yesterday, I used it with what is probably a mostly Entry 3 group but which various local, national and institutional policies dictate can only be called Entry 2 (another of those grumbles), and it properly flew. It was the last hour of the afternoon, and the students spent most of that time discussing, arguing and collaborating to build assorted bridges.
Woah, I hear you say, but weren’t you only the other week bitching about the pointless time wasting of posters and the such? Isn’t this just the same? Well, yes, it is. It’s exactly the same, but as I’ve always said, and if you had been reading properly you would have noticed, I’m not automatically opposed to stuff like projects, posters and displays. What I’m opposed to is doing it for the sake of the wall display, not for the sake of the learning and language development. And that is exactly what this lesson activity was about. The bridges, while excellent, were pretty much incidental. Instead we had students practising their instructions, their prepositions, their arguing and discussion skills and generally using English to communicate. It was also interesting to see some of the practical engineering/design backgrounds of some of the learners coming out; interesting and also pleasant, I hope, for them.

So there it is. I’m not sure I’d use this with younger learners, at least not with the matches, but it was a jolly enjoyable way to practice some speaking skills. I’ll leave the grouches and the grumbles for another day. But for now, let’s say, we had a good lesson.

Well, at least it gets you out in the open air.

In the late 1990s I had the pleasure of working in what we can officially call a dead end job. Properly dead end, hourly paid, no prospects, no nothing. Then I became a teacher, and everything went downhill from there. 

I jest, of course, and the job wasn’t that bad: it was indoors, it paid the bills, but oh my goodness, it was boring. I worked, and I share this to add a little colour to my extended anecdote, for a department of British Telecom that dealt with the sale of equipment to businesses, and I was a temp. My first task most days was to open a bunch of envelopes and scan in scores of handwritten order sheets, then to make sure that the file name was recorded on each sheet, before carefully filing them in a drawer somewhere. Done with the right care and consideration, this job could easily take the whole morning, but I never made it last that long. As a task, it somehow managed to be frustratingly close to mindless: you needed to be vaguely aware of what you were doing, but not so much that you were involved in the task. You couldn’t just switch off. Once done, of course, there were other, similarly not-quite-mindless tasks that needed doing around the office. 

After a month or two of this, and shortly before my brain imploded, the office took on another temp and I moved up a metaphorical notch and around a literal corner to a different part of the office. There were still some tedious jobs to do, of course, many of which involved scanning documents, but I was finally unleashed onto the computers to do stuff. This being 1998, of course, this meant Windows NT and an order management system that looked like Ceefax. Briefly, however, things became slightly less boring. I had colleagues, people I could talk to, some of whom I still occasionally see rushing through the train station. For the most part, however, it wasn’t a fun job. It wasn’t challenging. It was barely mentally engaging. The very best thing that could be said about it was that I learned a bit about computers, and that the tediousness spurred me to take the Trinity Cert TESOL in late 1998. 

Here’s the thing, however. This was a job which I disliked. I disliked getting up in the morning to go do it. I disliked that I couldn’t really work out what to do instead. I disliked the place, the walk to work, the walk home, the whole lot. I’m not sure I would say I hated the job: it was tolerable enough. But I woke up more or less every morning horribly despondent about spending the next eight hours trying to give two shits about a load of BT phones and cabling. 

It’s important that I remember this, because tomorrow I’m going back to work after the Christmas break, and I’ve got the same sort of “oh no” feeling, and I need some perspective. I get this maybe two, three times a year, usually after some sort of absorbing holiday, and Christmas is the most absorbing of all: no time to stop and worry about work, only to spend time with people, eat, drink and generally be merry. The feeling of gloom is not because I don’t enjoy my job, or even that I don’t want to do my job: only that I am human. It’s a psychological jarring that comes when you have to switch pace from home to work: a gear change, if you like, and it’s a tough one, like climbing a hill and the chain has jumped from the big ring to the small. It’s not unprofessional to admit that you like spending time with your family and other loved ones more than you like your job, after all, although that’s a balance of priorities preferred by some, it’s just normal. Every job feels a bit lame after Christmas, even one you enjoy. 

So when I go to work tomorrow, I have to keep that job for BT in mind. Things could be far far worse, after all, and I get to ride my bike there. Which reminds me of a scene from the Life of Brian.

CENTURION: You know the penalty laid down by Roman law for harbouring a known criminal?


CENTURION: Crucifixion.


CENTURION: Nasty, eh?

MATTHIAS: Hm. Could be worse.

CENTURION: What do you mean, ‘could be worse’?

MATTHIAS: Well, you could be stabbed.

CENTURION: Stabbed? Takes a second. Crucifixion lasts hours! It’s a slow, horrible death!

MATTHIAS: Well, at least it gets you out in the open air.

Merry Christmas, and a Happy New Year

It’s been a long old term. I’ve just finished for the Christmas break, or as I like to think of it, The Best Festival of the Year. I don’t know why I like Christmas over and above all the other festivals of the secular and non-secular year, but apart from the summer break, this is the holiday where I properly switch off: a brief burst of glory and feasting in the middle of winter, where there is no time at all to think about work. Like Bede’s account of the story of the sparrow flying across the mead hall, the Christmas break offers a respite from the darkness without. My only concession to Scrooge is the weird pointlessness of Christmas cards, both traditional and “electronic”, which I rarely send to more than five people. (No, really, why?)

It is in a break with tradition, then, that I write this: my Christmas card to ESOL, or perhaps thanksgiving. But either way, dear old ESOL, thank you. Thank you for giving me a job and a focus and a thing to be passionate about. I didn’t get into this subject on purpose, but I don’t think I would have got this passionate about journalism or the restaurant business, both of which I contemplated for a time. I’m not even sure I would have got this passionate about primary teaching, another briefly considered career. I can’t put my finger on it: something about that intersection between the personal, the social and the political, perhaps, or perhaps it’s just that now, after over a decade of doing it, I’ve met so many interesting and wonderful students. 

Thank you, then, to all those students who make my life fascinating, complicated, difficult and fun. Occasionally all at the same time. Thanks for challenging me, for giving opportunities to share in your lives, and for letting me experiment on you in the hope that it works out better. I’d say, on balance, that it has, but just in case the lesson that sticks with you is the naff one, thanks for bearing with me. Thanks for making an effort, for working hard, for remembering to value a bloody English class when you have a tonne of other stuff going on in your lives. Thanks for doing amazing things, like becoming student governor (as one of my students did just this week), having a baby and then coming back to college mere days later, coming to class in spite of depression, PTSD, and goodness knows what else, not to mention passing exams, and jumping through some of the random hoops we set you. Thanks for all that, and more.

Thanks also to colleagues, present, past and soon-to-be-past as the funding cuts begin to bite at work. You can, of course, be a right royal pain in the arse at times, but nevertheless I do enjoy working with you. On balance, of course, I can no doubt be infuriating, useless, unreliable and flighty, so I would like to say thank you for your patience and continued support. I love that I can shamelessly steal your ideas, or argue with you on points of practice (both soberly and otherwise, as long as you recognise that I’m right about learning styles). I love those times when you ask me about something just as I am about to go and teach, and that you don’t mind when I do it to you. I really really love that you challenge and question and support me, and that you do the job you do. 

It’s great, as well, to be part of that much bigger community of teachers, through NATECLA, through connections online, through random meetings and conferences. It’s great to be a part of that, and to know that your own worries and fears, and your own loves and passions, are shared by someone else, and that you can have that conversation with those people. Let’s keep it up, shall we? 

Thank you as well lovely readers, all 3 of you, for continuing to read the drivel I post here. It sounds odd, but I like having an audience: call it ego, call it purpose, call it what you like. Sometimes I post with a particular person in mind (no, don’t start trying to guess), but usually it just helps to know that someone somewhere is reading it. As any English teacher can tell you, audience is crucial as knowing who you are writing for gives voice and purpose to the text. So knowing that maybe there is a reader out there reading this helps give voice and purpose to the blog. Thanks for that, you. 

I know I don’t do positive as well as I do critical, but I’m having a go, for a change. It’ll be business as usual in a few weeks. In the meantime, however, have a lovely Christmas, and a fabulous New Year.