Dealing in absolutes

If I had a pound for every time I have been asked about the “best” or “correct” or “standard” way to do something I reckon I could comfortably retire and never have to be asked such a frustrating, even stupid question again. Some things in life can indeed be said to have a best method: brushing your teeth, for example, or choosing a computer password. However, the vast majority of things don’t, and are instead susceptible to a whole raft of minute personal interpretations, like making a cup of tea with milk. (For the record, I drink black coffee, and have no idea why anybody cares.) 

Teaching a class fall decidedly into the latter category. If anything, the number of variables around a given lesson are so vast that it’s possible to say that everything works, and nothing works. Everything works somewhere for some people some of the time, yet nothing works for everyone all of the time. As a result, the answer to any “What is the best way to..” question is almost always “it depends.” 

If you are reading this from a first language medium generic education setting, let me just make something clear – I do not share a first language with any of my students, therefore literally anything you have to say to me about evidence based practice in your setting must take this into consideration. Sure, direct instruction might work, but not with an ESOL beginners group because they don’t understand you. Goal setting might be awesome for a vocational course, but it’s bollocks where the students can’t interact linguistically and analytically with the thing being learned. And any notion of measurable learning outcomes has to be considered very very carefully indeed.

However, even if I keep within my more comfortable field of English language teaching, we still have plenty of black and white demarcations that don’t always work.

Take, for a simple example, dear old Presentation-Practice-Production. In this sacred cornerstone of CELTA (and, if I’m honest, probably at the root of most of my language focussed lessons) students are presented with the new language, either directly or inductively, before being given chance to practice this in a controlled, or restricted manner, then trying to use it in as communicatively accurate an interaction as possible. But it’s not always right, is it. Take the lesson I taught last week, for example, in which I contorted the procedure, starting with a dictogloss activity, which led to some error correction, followed by language analysis and the start of a piece of writing. So we had a listening task (no gist or detail to the listening, mind you) followed by a writing task, then a language “presentation” followed by a review of the writing and error correction. The lesson was successful in the sense that the students could apply the language at the end of the lesson, and had had a range of practice in speaking, writing, listening and reading. But try squeezing that into the tidy boxes required by CELTA and the dour and officious cult of the measurable learning outcome prevalent in FE: these things don’t fit into “standards”. 

Take students working at an interactive whiteboard. For some groups and some resources, this can be an exciting and engaging way to loft an activity from the page. But the same activity with another group of students could die a long slow horrible death of pace and interest, indeed, probably will. It’s a rare group of students now who are buoyed up by the false glamour of the interactive whiteboard after all. But who knows, it might work. 

Think about lateness, and dealing with late (adult) students. Do you berate them, usher them in and let them settle down before having a quiet word, or do nothing at all? It depends. There are so many possible things that could influence how you behave at that point. 

But none of this helps novice teachers, or those who like things to be neat and tidy, black and white, and cut and dried. We feed new teachers lies, flogging an image of “best practice”, just like we feed beginner learners of English the lie that we use some with positives and any in negatives and questions: it’s easier to get your head round simple explanations, and when you are trying to assimilate so much new knowledge, then to go in all “grey areas” and “it depends.” There is a downside to this, of course, just as there is to the over-simplification of grammar rules – as the novice becomes the journeyman, the rules start to weaken, and questions need to be asked of these things. A process of resetting some of this knowledge occurs, and, it is hoped, a critical faculty develops. Of the many important qualities a teacher needs, right up there with the ability to quaff coffee of any stripe or quality as long as it’s coffee, is the ability to look at something and say “yes, but…” If a developing teacher, or indeed any learner, fails to develop this ability, and spends their time in blind acceptance of top down diktats of “best practice” or “standards” or whatever, then you have to wonder about their ability to question their own practice. That’s not the same as blindly hitting out at “management” either – I’ve known dedicated anti-management unionistas who have been incapable of subjecting their own practice to the same degree of challenge and criticism. Indeed, if you have a healthy criticality of your own practice, you will be much better at being critical of those who would tell you what to do. A teacher who can question their own practice and the practice dictated to them is always going to develop better than the person who simply accepts. If they accept that what their manager tells them without questioning, then where is their ability to question anything?

It would be nice if everything was simple in teaching, just like if present perfect just had one use and meaning, or if the difference between be going to  and will  was that the former is “more certain” (I have spent far too much time unpicking that particularly stupid explanation with students “but Teacher X said…”). Teaching, like grammar, just ain’t that simple: there is no right nor wrong. There just is, and you need to be able to evaluate everything critically. 

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