Policy and practice

Standard Non-Conformity

As I’ve blogged about before, language standards are somewhat problematic: my definition of right can vary significantly from your definition of right, and the term “standard” is very often a lazy discriminatory euphemism for prestige: essentially “if you don’t speak like the rich and powerful, then there’s something wrong with you.” Language is a bugger to control, particularly when the standard being sold is fairly arbitrary, like the finally disappearing rule of not splitting infinitives. To dictate a specific form requires a belief in absolute definitions, incontrovertible rules, even while these things become quickly abandoned by most people using the language. Even leaving aside the question of who makes the decisions, and the power issues involved there, in order to persist, the rules have to function for all the users of that language.

Now, I have to admit to being a bit of a contrary devil when it comes to standards: there’s something about the concept of “standard” that makes me want to push back, or at least to question. Tell me to not split an infinitive and, in the face of a continued absence of evidence, I’ll split them down the middle at every available opportunity. I replace a /t/ with a glottal stop whenever I can, mainly to annoy people, and, like, I’ll be like, “like is perfectly ok” whenever asked. So when it comes to standards in teaching, I have the urge to resist just as much, mainly out of habit. Even something as relatively genial as the professional standards from the Education and Training Foundation made me want to pick them apart. I get the same reaction when confronted with “best practice” or checklists of things to do to embed whatever thing we’ve been asked to embed.  I think it’s the way that these things draw a line in the sand, on one side is good, the other is not good. Such things often leave little room for “but what about…” discussions, and, despite anything the originators claim, make clear statements about what should and shouldn’t happen in the classroom.

Part of this, I have to be honest, comes of being a teacher of adults, and a teacher of ESOL, in a setting where general standards of good practice are based not in a part time, adult learning context, but in a vocational / academic full time learning for people between 16 and 19. Factor in the language barriers of an ESOL setting, and whole swathes of what is deemed best practice in FE can often be abandoned as irrelevant or unworkable. Things like stretch and challenge through higher order questions where higher order questions require a much greater command of grammar? Tell me how that works with low level second language learners, again. Things like writing learning outcomes using Bloom’s or SOLO taxonomies language learning takes place across several levels of the taxonomy at the same time at all levels. Things like trying to apply goal setting theory through SMART targets when this is an entirely language based process, with scant first language evidence, and where students find it hard to conceptualise what they need to do (because to understand what you can’t do in terms of grammar and vocabulary, for example, requires knowing what said grammar and vocabulary is in the first place.) Punitive lateness measures in a community centre class where most of the students are parents who have to leave their children at the crèche, but the crèche doesn’t open until the same time the class begins? Banning everything but water in class for all students, despite the fact that said students have been at work all day, finished at half five, and have just arrived at 6, after a 25 minute journey in the rain? A push for blended learning where many learners have limited skills or limited access to technology in order to participate with it (even though when they do they engage with it far more enthusiastically than young people). The problem is that stuff which is relevant for young people, studying in their mother tongue, in preparation for work is not necessarily relevant for adults on a part time course which may or may not be employment related. (Let’s just assume I’ve won that argument about whether all FE is about employability, and say that it isn’t.) This situation is exacerbated when the students are doing it a language they are also learning.

I get told quite a lot that I’m “too much” of a specialist, but I have long since stopped caring. Sure, being a specialist may not get you far in terms of career progression, because career progression in FE inevitably means becoming more of a generalist, but I have no eye on the greasy pole. I like, and am proud of being a specialist in ESOL, and working with adults, and I like that adult learning teachers are often asking difficult questions like “yes, but how does that work for me, in my context?” I suspect that adult learning and especially ESOL teachers have a bit of a reputation in wider FE circles as being awkward, always asking for things to be done differently and challenging standards. Good. This is exactly as it should be. A general FE institution has a responsibility for the education of all aspects of its community, but a clear political government emphasis on employability and apprenticeships for under 19s means that adult learning can get a bit lost. So now, more than ever, adult learning and ESOL need to be strident, difficult voices not only nationally and politically, but also within our own workplaces. If there is a standard or a system in the workplace that doesn’t suit our context, then while we should perhaps not reject it a upright, neither should we immediately contort our own practices to conform. Rather, we should challenge that system.  I have a suspicion that some standards and systems exists not for the benefit of those who have to apply and make use of them, but for those who set the standards and devise the systems, so we should ask questions, find out why these things are is there, and if they can be altered, if not rejected outright.

I am absolutely sure, however, that this doesn’t just apply to adult learning. I have no doubt that colleagues in foundation learning, in creative industries, and those quick vocational stereotypes of the FE sector, hair and beauty and motor vehicle engineering, would often want to level the same accusations. It is just that adult learners in an FE setting have different needs, different contexts, and are a very different fit, and so the need for challenging standards is at its most acute, perhaps. The desire is not to be different for the sake of being different, but to do the best for our learners. If standards do not benefit our learners and their learning in our classrooms, then we should always be pushing for change, always be challenging, and always, always, be awkward.

 

Discrimination as a foreign language

I saw something which shocked me a little last week, which, given my tendency towards the placid, is quite an achievement. The offending item was a website for students containing spoken examples of language for “guys about girls” and “girls about guys”. It was quite astonishing really, that a publicly available website for the benefit of learning English would include examples of language which appear to have originated in the less attractive corners of a men’s changing room. I wondered if the “girls on guys” section might be a nice balance, but no, girls linguistic needs when it comes to relationships are apparently centred around their need for a sensitive man.

Let’s not pretend, however, that these attitudes don’t exist out there. I’ve encountered plenty of students with similar or worse attitudes, not to mention the occasionally medieval mindset when it comes to race. Which begs a question, really: if we are “just” teachers of language, do we have a duty to explore the language which allows our students to express all their views, even if they are offensive or discriminatory? After all, “student led” is the order of the day, and we are on hand to teach students the language they need to fulfil their ambitions, live their lives, and if our students’ ambitions and needs are to be bigoted asshats, then who are we to argue?

I’m going to leave aside the easy answer to this: that as someone who teaches in a publicly funded college in the UK, I have a legal duty to promote equality and diversity. This is too glib, too lazy, and fails, as is so often the case with top-down arguments, to really explain anything properly. As an explanation, it’s barely better than “because I say so.” I have a legal duty, so what? It doesn’t necessarily make the problem go away. And anyway, there’s a much more interesting argument here.

At the root of it all is simply the notion that language is one of the primary carriers of culture and therefore social attitudes. It’s how we rage against the machine (and the dying of the light). It’s the key weapon in a politician’s armoury. And it’s the way we share our values and our ethics. Whether language is inherently discriminatory is a complex discussion, but whether or not language embodies social attitudes in and of itself, it is definitely the means of expression. Even if language is not in and of itself offensive, it can easily be weaponised to hurt.

This places responsibility on the users of that language, and on those who would teach that language. It’s not just how you say something, but what you say, and indeed why you say it. Many owners of bigoted views know that what they believe is not generally seen as acceptable, and know to moderate expressions of that view, and it is this side of things where language teachers come into it. We probably can’t change students attitudes or morals, but we can remind them that those attitudes are likely to cause censure in the wider language community. To learn a language is also to buy into the values of the people who use that language, which, even in a setting of English as International Language, is dominated by what we might loosely call liberal western ideologies.

I make no claim to know what these are, beyond my own instinctive reactions, and that, at the end of the day is all we really have to draw on. I am shocked by the discrimination inherent in those resources above (there are more, by the way: “Who would you take, Jessica Simpson or Liv Tyler?” and “I like obedient girls” particularly stood out for sheer awfulness) and as such would never consider allowing students to talk about others in those terms, regardless of what they wanted. While there are almost certainly pockets of male-dominated nastiness in every society and at every level of society, that doesn’t make it right by my standards, and by the standards of a public majority. At the core of all discourse around equality is simple respect, and “She needs to go on a diet” is entirely lacking in that.

The Cost, and the Value, of Professionalism

So the ETF, or rather the SET have recently announced an extension to QTLS to be called “Advanced Teacher Status.” 

Cracking, I thought, that would look terrific on the CV, and the content also looked, well, positive if not overwhelmingly exciting. And I like the idea of some sort of formal accepted status to show that not only are you a teacher in the post-16 sector, which is awesome in itself, but also an Exceptionally Awesome Teacher in the post-16 sector.

Except, and this is the clincher, it’s a lot of money.

What follows now involves some maths, which is not a great specialism of mine, so do bear with me. It’s mostly adding up, so we should be ok.

Becoming a teacher is not, by anyone’s measure, a cheap business. We’re going to leave aside things like vocational qualifications and achievements like first degrees which are outside the sphere of education. Of course you need them to help become a teacher, but ultimately they are fairly generic, so let’s concentrate instead on those things you need to do the job.

For a start, you might go and take a Level 3 Award in Education & Training, what was once called PTLLS, and which gets your foot in the door. The going rate for that course is in the region of £450, perhaps a little less if you do an online version (although really, I’m deeply sceptical about doing a teaching qual, which is all about human interaction, online).

So that’s £450, then, just to get started. From there, the usual option is some sort of two-year Level 5 Diploma course, or a Cert. Ed / PGCE. Suddenly the numbers start to get bigger. These full teaching qualifications can cost anything from £1500 to £3000 per academic year, possibly even more, depending on the institution. If you teach a subject specialism which isn’t catered for by qualifications outside of education (for example, ESOL, literacy and numeracy) then you might want to add another £1000-£2000 to that.

Before indignant teacher trainers go off on one about knowing the cost of everything and the value of nothing, this is no way meant to belittle the qualifications and the learning those qualifications represent. I am not suggesting that these qualifications are over-priced or valueless. And I am most certainly not suggesting that payment deserves achievement. I value each and every one of the qualifications that have formed me as a teacher, and regret neither the effort nor the money spent on them. Without the qualifications I have earned I would not be here today blogging about how important it is to be a qualified teacher, and I despise the notion that since deregulation, colleges and training providers can legally pull in a random off the street and give them a job with no qualifications at all. However, there is no getting away from the fact that this is a substantial outlay for anyone, and this does have an impact.

So now, having paid anything between £2500 and (potentially) £7000 for all this, you think hooray, I can relax and get on with my job.

But no, wait. There’s more. Perhaps you need to maintain your professional status in your vocational area, which may mean a yearly membership subscription and professional training costs to ensure your practice is up to date. Based on a (rough, conservative) guess of £60 a year and a teaching career of 30 years, that’s £1,800.

So against this backdrop, then, comes the costs of membership of the Society for Education & Training. This costs £69.90 a year, which isn’t too onerous, as costs go. You can (finally) pay by direct debit monthly which makes the cost barely noticeable, in fact (although this apparent loveliness is let down by an arcane payment system which seems to suggest that if you join in, say, February, you have to pay for the full year up to the following April, even though you have only been a member for a couple of months of that year. So, join in March, or don’t bother). So, anyway, that’s £2,097, again based on. 30 year career.

You can then apply for QTLS, a useful status if you ever want to make the sidestep to teaching in schools – all for £485. This is an astonishing cost for what I remember as being a fairly insipid process of writing a whole bunch of stuff about myself  (which I can do for free as much as I want), getting a pdf certificate and the opportunity to head off to London for lunch and a handshake (I didn’t bother with the London bit, because, well, it’s in London, which is somewhere I only visit if I absolutely have to).

After, and only after, you’ve done this comes the option to apply for Advanced Teacher Status. This, the website says, is ” a deserved and highly sought after badge of recognition” (although I’m not sure how sought after it could actually be, given that nobody really knows what it is yet). The blurb also says that achievement of ATS “allows you to:

  • demonstrate to employers and colleagues your mastery in teaching or training
  • advance your career in terms of progressing to more senior roles
  • use ATS as a designation in your signature and profiles.”

I’m unconvinced. “demonstrate to employers and colleagues..” really? How? My employer knows all about my mastery (or lack thereof) because they talk to me, as do my colleagues. And career advancement? I’m not sure that that will be a thing because again, the status doesn’t yet exist, and I’d be willing to bet that someone with the the right experience and the right answers at the interview will get the job over someone with the ability to write ATS at the end of their name.

But whatever you think about recognition at this level, is it really worth £750? I have a long list of things I would rather spend £750 on than just recognition. It would be a chunk of the fees for an MA, for example, or the mid range mountain bike I’d quite like to get, both of which would get priority, based on the highly unlikely premise that I actually have the money handy. I might be making the wrong decision, and the status might be brilliant – it might well help me become a better teacher, although I am sceptical about this after my QTLS experiences, but it  might. However, I probably won’t find out because that’s a lot of money for “might”.

I’m sorry, I really am. I like the notion of recognition and reward and I like the essential concepts behind the professionalism. I am genuinely considering (next March) rejoining the SET because I think that will be useful, in terms of ongoing support, and, I think, my old IfL QTLS status will get reactivated. It helps, as well, that it’s not a massive personal layout on a monthly basis. But will I go for ATS? No. I simply don’t have the available cash.

And this is what worries me most about the creation of all these statuses and memberships – the cost becomes prohibitive, rendering them accessible only to those who can afford it, not necessarily those who deserve or want it. I have a full time, permanent contract, and would certainly not describe myself as scraping along. Indeed, I probably could, if I really wanted it, pay for it through a loan or some other means. But that’s not the same for so many of my colleagues who are on term-time only, or casual part time contracts. A badge of recognition like ATS might well be a useful edge for those rare occasions when the powers that deign to offer half a permanent contract, but the chances are that young teachers on barely-there contracts simply can’t afford to pay for it. Thus this “mastery of teaching” becomes nothing more than a divisive badge; gaining ATS becomes a symbol not of effort, or skill, or merit, nor of recognition, but simply of individual wealth.

 

 

Adults

Thercycle-sticker1e are, in this world, many things which annoy me. Things that irk me. Things that get my goat, wind me up, rattle my cage and downright piss me off. Things like muttonheads in cars speeding and/or playing crap music loudly (on no level cool); things like people who just have  to check Whatsapp in the middle of a film; things like driving 4x4s in an urban setting; things like the stupid excuses people have for driving a 4×4 in an urban setting; things like the phrase “I’m not a racist but…”; things like close passes and left hooks; or things like the “Cyclists Stay back” sticker (and not just because of the random approach to capital letters).

However, this is not just me letting off steam about the things that annoy me, although I could really go on about these for some (probably quite cathartic and therapeutic time). Even if I just focussed on professional level things, it would be a long and depressing list, headed up by the disastrous acronym SMART, but really, what is particularly niggling me today is the question of adults. You see, I teach mostly adults, and I love teaching adults. This is not just because I am categorically useless at authority and dread the prospect of serious behaviour management. Well, a little bit. But really, I love teaching adults because adults are so much more interesting and curious than young people. With the obvious exception of my own children, I have only limited patience for other people’s: they are OK, in small doses, when considered individually, and if they have had a shower. But adults returning to, or engaging with education, whether it’s for the first time, or because it’s a second chance, are without doubt some of the most interesting people I have met, so often with worlds of experience far beyond my own.

This is why, then, I get really narked when the discourse around FE completely ignores this huge chunk of the FE learning population, often by those who know better. Sure, it’s a lot less sexy than it was a few years ago, and as the adult skills budget gets more and more squeezed, it’s less attractive a consideration than the more financially dynamic cohort of 16-19 year olds and apprentices. And this group also forms the majority group in any FE college, which again is fair enough. But lets not forget, shall we, that an FE college has a responsibility to its community through its adults as well. 

Adults are important; not just the ones that I teach in my adult esol classroom but also the adults that I watched last week sweat through their GCSE English exam, or the ones who sign up to basic literacy and numeracy, or the ones who pay for evening classes in flower arranging, or the ones who pay for themselves to achieve a vocational qualification, or do an Access course to get to university. They are important because they are important learners themselves, even if they are a minority, and because they will have children, nieces, nephews, siblings, friends or neighbours, and maybe these younger people have become a bit lost, and who might see Dad, or grandma, or uncle, or big sister having a go at learning something, maybe just for the sake of it, or maybe to get their lives back on track and into focus, picking up on opportunities that they missed, or even actively avoided as teenagers. 

The austerity mentality has sunk in deeply now. There’s not enough money to go round, apparently, even if we can afford to spunk off millions on a vain political gamble of an election, or on negotiations for an EU agreement which will probably end up being not that different to what full membership offers, or on dropping bombs on people. And maybe the cost of these things is cumulatively a lot less than the adult skills budget, but the gap is narrowing: the adult skills budget is now about half of what it was in 2010. I’d be interested to know if the country now has half as much money for everything, or if it is simply prejudice and discrimination against adult learning at the highest level in government and the recently merged Education and Skills Funding Agency? Certainly adult learning is way off the list of priorities at that level, but it’s profoundly disappointing (and that is something of a euphemism) that it so easily gets disregarded. It is perhaps indicative that much of the discourse in FE is run and managed by those who are no longer in real contact with students, if they ever were. 

The Casey Review & the APPG Interim Report on Social Integration

It’s like waiting for a bus – seven years with pretty much no concern for ESOL from government and their advisors, and suddenly we have two. Shortly before Christmas we had the Casey Review, which highlighted the lack of language skills and the barriers to integration this represents for individuals and communities, with the clear recommendation that government should “improv[e] English language provision through funding for community-based classes and appropriate prioritisation of adult skills budgets”. (At the same time, it suggested as well that there be some sort of “integration oath on arrival for immigrants intending to settle in Britain” which is all a bit Lord of the Rings to my mind, but there you go). Then just this week a cross-party group of MPs (an APPG: All Party Parliamentary Group) announced the imminent publication of an interim report on social integration that this time argues that speaking English is a “prerequisite for meaningful engagement with most British people” and therefore “all immigrants should be expected to have either learned English before coming to the UK or be enrolled in compulsory ESOL classes upon arrival.”

Hey ho. Here we go again. I used to be course tutor for a level 5 ESOL teacher training course, and one of the sessions I taught then was on the history of ESOL in the UK, with links to the various reports and recommendations for immigrants when it comes to learning English. So we had the follow up to the Moser Report (1999) called Breaking the Language Barriers in 2000, which observed ” Lack of fluency in English is likely to affect individuals’ ability to secure employment or advancement in the workplace, to gain benefit from further education, to access community and social services and to participate in community life”; we had the report of the team led by Ted Cantle following the race riots in Bradford & Oldham in 2001, recommending that “it will also be essential to agree some common elements of ‘nationhood’. This might revolve around key issues such as language and law.” (my italics); and we had More Than a Language published by what was then NIACE in 2006, which said “ESOL provision has a key role in promoting social inclusion.”

I’ve no doubt missed a few more, but the message for years, decades, even, has been that language is an essential aspect of social integration and should remain as such. It’s an argument which makes sense: language is integral to communication and therefore vital to enable interaction with social, political, cultural and economic systems. A part of me is a little sceptical, mind you: it seems a bit too “common sense”, stating the obvious, and very neat. Certainly language alone is not enough: as the APPG report argues, there is more to integration than simply learning English. And I have to admit to having a vested interest in any argument in favour of ESOL,  as it is what I do for a living, after all. However, I think I’d be prepared to stand by the claim that learning language aids integration, although perhaps less than commentators (and ESOL teachers) would like to think. This is just a hunch, mind you, borne out of a wariness around “common sense” ideas.

It’s not all “same old, same old” however – in the APPG report they do actually make an explicit request for funding: “The APPG would, therefore, urge the government to markedly increase ESOL funding as well as explore innovative policy ideas to increase the availability and take-up of English language classes” although this has been quickly spun in the BBC article claiming that “The government said it was spending £20m on English language provision” – this may be true, but the APPG were arguing for an increase  in this funding. And the APPG appears remarkably uncritical of the cuts to funding made over the last ten years or so. I’m wary of “innovative policy ideas” as in my experience “innovation” is usually a guarded synonym for “cut costs” or at least “do on the cheap” which, in this case, is likely to lead to yet another call for volunteers.

The biggest problem with both the Casey Review and the APPG report is that ultimately they are just reports. Nothing in them is guaranteed to become law, nor even be debated in parliament. Anyone remember “A New Approach to ESOL”, a civil service report from 2007? Admittedly that suffered from being written under one government then rejected under the next, but it’s pretty typical that reports like these get read, if they are lucky, and ignored. They are thousands of words and hundreds of civil service man hours which the government is free to ignore. “We’ve reviewed it,” they can say, “and maybe we might think about acting on them in a couple of years.” That doesn’t mean that they won’t do anything, of course, and it is good that work is being done at government level to support the needs of immigrant communities and their language learning. But still, whether anything comes if this remains to be seen.

Stooge

Just recently I found myself looking up synonyms for “stooge”. So I found lackey, servant, vassal, and, my personal favourite: myrmidon. I liked it so much I almost named this post after it.  A stooge, or lackey, or myrmidon, for the record, is an unthinking, perhaps powerful, follower of a person or regime, often, but not always, “just doing their job” as in “the OFSTED inspector/immigration officer/storm trooper/concentration camp guard was just doing their job.” I wonder, sometimes, to what extent we could be considered government stooges: it’s hard not to think this when you reflect on things like the link between ESOL and terrorism through the Prevent strategy, for example, or the notion of British Values as a thing to be enforced (or embedded, exemplified, whatever. You say tomato…). Safeguarding aside, however, one perennially heartbreaking aspect of my work comes around this time of year when we are enrolling new students onto courses and the question of fees comes up.

I met two students this week, for example, really keen to fill places on two currently undersubscribed courses. They were, however, asylum seekers, and as such would have had to pay fees for their courses. And as asylum seekers from a less than wealthy background, the fees they would have had to pay was simply impossible.

I explained that they would have to pay fees, and managed to get the notion across to them. Naturally, their response was roughly “But why?”

Good question. Because let’s face it, I’d have happily let them join the course. I knew one of the students as a hard working, dedicated student, who had enjoyed funding in the previous year as a 16-18 student, and had really progressed.  Now, betrayed by age and a fairly arbitrary governmental line, no funding was available to support them.

So how to funnel this into post-beginner English? “You have to pay because the government won’t give us the money for your course.” Credit where credit is due, right? It’s still a crappy answer, mind you, because in many ways, when I’m interviewing and enrolling students, I am the government. When we interview students, screen them for suitability on the course, discuss the issue of whether or not they can or will have to pay, then we are another one of those faces, sympathetic or otherwise, that our learners must confront, along with the council clerk, police officer, solicitor, job centre adviser, and immigration officer. It’s a little stark, perhaps, to compare what we refer to as Information, Advice and Guidance to the mental brutality of the Home Office asylum interviews (not to mention the physical brutality of the police) but these contexts do sit on a continuum of official information exchange, of power and of control.

Indeed, it would be easy to think that I’m being a bit melodramatic, drawing a connection there. Perhaps I am. After all, the consequences of not being granted asylum are easily more severe than not getting onto an ESOL course, at least in the short term. Nevertheless, both processes involve a person wanting to achieve something that could have a profound impact on their futures, and sacrificing time and personal information in order to do so. And in this particular interaction, and as far as the other person is concerned, I am the one with the power over their future. Even where a person can access funding in some way to join a course, there is still a power play during initial assessment. However accurate and benign my intention, if I declare a student to be Entry 1, then I could be seen as restricting that student from progressing as quickly as they might want onto a vocational course, or from having a chance at passing the SELT for their imminent citizenship claim. I could be the one who stops that student from getting that job, from accurately filling in that benefits claim, or from understanding that court summons. Inability to access something as apparently minor as a part time English language course for adults could potentially be as damaging in the long term as a failed asylum claim. 

All of which goes some way to explain why, in these situations, it’s hard. At best you are merely the bearer of the message, at worst, and you believe the official lines you are fed, you are the lackey, the stooge, the seneschal at the gate, whose job is to filter out the unsuitables which your government, by setting limitations, has taken the decision to exclude.  

Because we have to

It’s that induction time again, meaning icebreakers, getting to know you activities, tours of college, diagnostic assessments, various cross college missives that need to be translated from edu-managementese into something that your entry 1 ESOL students can understand (any document with the word “inclusive” in it is likely to be anything but). This latter includes various policy statements: IT usage policy, behaviour standards, equality and diversity, and, of course, British Values.

I know I’ve blogged before about this topic, and my apologies for any repetition: but to summarise, basically, the notion of British Values comes from the Prevent strategy, a somewhat politically suspect attempt to cut off extremism and its consequences at the root. Of course Prevent by its very nature is unlikely to ever prove conclusively that it’s working: there is no way at all of knowing that a person identified under the Prevent strategy as being at risk would have gone on to become a terrorist, for example, because either the strategy worked and they didn’t, or the strategy didn’t work and they did. Or perhaps an individual wasn’t identified, was briefly drawn into something but then realised what they were doing and decided not to. Seriously, has nobody seen Minority Report?

Anyway, the fabled British Values are: democracy, the rule of law, mutual respect and tolerance for those of other faiths and those of no faith, and individual liberty/freedom of speech. Said values are to be not only promoted but “exemplified” (tricky that one, as I fairly regularly break one or two laws). There are also issues with the “British” bit: it’s a word and a concept I find increasingly repellent, particularly with the post-Brexit rise in racially motivated attacks, and the claim that any of these values are peculiarly British, or that they should have precedence over any other general values, is frankly bizarre. So what if the French have the (admittedly euphonious) liberte, fraternite, egalite or the Americans “liberty, equality and self government”? Lucky them. These are all spurious nationalistic claims on a bunch of relatively accepted western values. They’re also so broad as to be pretty meaningless, not to mention totalitarian in their impetus (“to be a citizen, these are things you MUST believe…”)But that’s not the point.

No, what I’m really thinking about is how, given this kind of dislike, at best apathy towards the whole thing, these things are ever going to be effectively embedded into teaching practice. For something like this to really work, you’ve really got to believe in it. I believe, for example, in the notion of equality and the legal framework around the equality act, and that the 9 protected characteristics should absolutely be protected by law. I believe that embedding English and maths into teaching and learning is a good thing, and developing those skills in FE is important. So it’s easy to get behind these things: I’ll berate students for random sexism or racism, or I’ll try and explain “square kilometre” to an entry 1 ESOL student. But whenever I try to embed British Values, and refer to them explicitly (so that students can duly parrot them back to OFSTED at the appropriate time), I’m doing so with my fingers crossed behind my back. I just don’t believe. 

Belief is important. Teacher belief in an interventions worth or effectiveness (or not) is a powerful thing, to the extent that I sometimes wonder if it could even function as a kind of placebo to render ineffective practices effective. By the same measure, if you don’t believe that something is of value, then you are never going to convincingly put it across, regardless of how effective or valuable it is. So this is the challenge faced by promoting British Values. Unlike similarly top down initiatives like health and safety, safeguarding, and equality and diversity, British Values is starkly political in its origins and its purpose, and therefore is a much harder buy in: and if a teacher can’t buy in, then how can their students?

Another part of the problem, especially for me, is that I can’t help but want there to be a “proper” language learning aim. Teaching British Values, and to a lesser extent equality and diversity, is really just going to be a lesson on vocabulary, or reading, or speaking. Any British Values stuff is going to be a subordinate consideration: a happy accident. Students will read for gist and detail, focus on vocabulary in the text, develop speaking and listening skills, participate in a discussion. In the process, they might also learn about British Values, but that bit probably won’t go on my internal lesson plan. 

I guess, ultimately, this is about ownership. To what extent do teachers feel that they own British Values, and have had a say in developing them? Not a lot, I suspect. Like my official citizenship status, they are nominally “British” but I don’t recall anyone asking me about this. British values, more than anything else, are a top down imposition, and for that reason, more than anything else, I wonder whether they will ever move from “doing it because we have to” to “doing it because I believe it’s important”. 

New Literacy Standards, Old ESOL Problem.

What a difference 15 years makes. Prior to 2001 ESOL curriculum design was a bit of a straggly, weirdly funded, mess. Then along came Skills for Life, and as well as lots of money, came a rather enormous Core Curriculum. It’s an interesting thing to look at, charmingly dated (“Now, we are going to listen to a tape of Amir paying for a CD-ROM with a cheque.”) but otherwise it sort of almost works.

It was never brilliant. It was too tied to the Literacy Curriculum, for one, and was a bit of a botched attempt at shoehorning language learning descriptors onto a literacy framework, i.e. one designed for first language users learning and developing, mostly, reading and writing skills. It was a decision presumably made from a policy / funding perspective, rather than an educational one, and suffered as a result. Rather than using an already well defined standard, such as the CEFR, the policy decision was made to start this from scratch so that it could be more easily aligned with the funding for the other bits of Skills for Life.

All of this, however, is by the by, as the Education and Training Foundation have recently been running a consultation on a draft set of standards for literacy and numeracy. All of which looks familiar – numeracy, of course, is there, as is literacy, and, oh no, wait, English for speakers of other languages is notable by its continued absence in this. I’ve done my bit, and consulted via the survey on the web page, and I’d encourage you to do likewise, whether you teach ESOL or otherwise. It’s interesting to read the draft – as with the old adult literacy curriculum and the functional skills standards, we are not concerned with lexical development, grammatical complexity at word level, tenses, and the rest, but rather with the development of sentence complexity (clause structure, discourse markers, that sort of thing) and an understanding of text types, register and formality. Not that this sort of thing isn’t useful, nor that it isn’t necessary, just that there is a marked difference between the learning needs of a native speaker and a second language speaker. There are other things an ESOL learner has to learn which are specific to ESOL and these are simply not adequately covered in this sort of “one size fits both” document.

But if I was in charge, what would a “good” ESOL curriculum look like? That’s a huge question and by answering it I’ll no doubt raise even more questions, not to mention a whole heap of disagreements from everyone.

For one, it probably wouldn’t look much different, at least not superficially. Perhaps because I’ve worked with the current curriculum for so long, I’ve got used to it. As a means of level description for ESOL, however, I think I’d like to promote grammatical structure and lexical development to the forefront. This isn’t to say that I think these should be the primary consideration when designing a course plan, mind you, but for me at least, the assessment of a language course should be significantly based around the ability to handle the structural elements of language: grammar, lexis and phonology.

With these structural elements in place I would then want to look at the building up the skills elements. Being able to read for gist is all very well as a skill, but how do we select a text that an Entry 2 learner might be able to read for gist, if not by linguistic complexity? By the same token, we wouldn’t mark an Entry 3 learner down for inaccurately trying to use a third conditional in a piece of writing, but would be critical of a Level 2 learner failing to form a structurally accurate past simple question. However, both the old curriculum and the new are driven by these skills elements, with language relegated to a subheading, if at all, and this imbalance, to my mind, is what needs redressing.

Usually this rebalancing act is done by tutors when they design their course, or by exam boards looking for concrete distinctions between adjacent levels. These latter often place the responsibility for language item selection on the assessor by using conceptually fluid statements such as “language expected at Level 2“. I would expect, for example, a Level 2 learner to be able to use a second conditional with confidence, for example, but only if the context required it: I’d also expect them to know when not to use it. Present simple would qualify as “language expected at Level 2” if this were the most appropriate language for the job at hand. Either way, the only place we have is the list appended to the back of each section of the core curriculum document, and it is to this, I suspect, that the majority of teachers refer when designing their course content, if they refer to anything at all.

The impact of the skills-driven core curriculum is seen in other ways. Now, this is not another excuse to take a pop at the Skills for Life materials, although it is tempting, but certainly the general tenor of the ESOL core curriculum (and indeed the literacy and numeracy curricula) was one of deficit and disadvantage – the focus was, and is, on what the learner cannot do, rather than looking at what they are capable of and how best to expand upon that base. (Remember that this is a system which encourages us to start by “diagnosing” language needs, like not speaking English is an illness to be cured). There is that tendency in resource design by publishers, governments and teachers (I’m as guilty, to be honest) to cast learners in deficit roles, as passive consumers, as employees and patients, not professionals, not people with power. This is because we look at those contexts where learners are, rather than where they might be, or could aspire to be, and because we look at the skills they need now rather than the language that may enable them to move beyond that point.

OK, so that was a bit of a loose association, tenuous at best, but there is definitely something in that whole functional language / skills-driven curriculum which promotes the drive towards “practical” language, and this too easily situates learners into a deficit narrative.

I don’t think the new literacy standards are about to redress any of this, mind you. They are clearly, blatantly, written without ESOL learners in mind. And perhaps that is OK, because perhaps there will be a new ESOL curriculum developing soon. That’s a big perhaps, I know, but it might happen.

Capture

 

The comment I had from  the Education & Training Foundation seems to suggest that there might be something in the pipeline for ESOL, although I hope it’s more than “maths literacy” (not that that isn’t needed, mind). I’m also a little concerned by the vagueness of “support” for ESOL, rather than a promise to develop something specific. It’s a shame, really, because if we are talking about developing new curricula, then this is an ideal time to make a proper ESOL curriculum. Sure, ESOL is distinctly politically unpopular, now more than ever, but it’s still needed, and if there is a need for ESOL, then there is a need for a real ESOL curriculum.

An Adult’s Learning

bicycle

 

I finished traditional formal education at the age of 21. In that time I attended primary school, secondary school and university, plus a brief incomplete stint at my local FE college. It’s hard to quantify the impact of that learning on the rest of my life, with most of my memories of those experiences being social and interpersonal rather than but in the intervening years, I’ve learned a lot of stuff I can pin onto direct educational experiences.

For one, of course, there is my entire professional learning. Learning how to be a teacher, and developing as a teacher. All of that process occurred fairly late on, as I did my Cert TESOL at 24, the DELTA aged 26, and then turning that into a formal FE qualification at the ripe old age of 31. There has been a whole bunch of other stuff as well – the e-guides training which I did back in 2007, the various funded research projects I’ve been involved with, various conferences and workshops, training days and other such things all of which have conspired to contribute to my development. Tracking that, of course, is a more challenging task – a straight course is nice and easy to fit into a measured pattern of development but the reality is that with the exception of the Cert TESOL & the DELTA, my main development as a teacher has been incremental and ad hoc: learning which occurs in little snippets on a need-to-know or perhaps on a want-to-know basis.

Much more interesting, however, is all the other learning I’ve been doing in that time. I’ve learned how to wrangle a computer, and developed a fairly high level of brazen confidence, if not actual skill, in using various forms of digital technology. I’ve learned to be a passable baker of bread, and can knock out some pretty decent biscotti (although like my fellow former resident of Wessex, burning cakes is a bit of an issue.) I’ve learned confidence and road skills on a bicycle that make many of my nearest and dearest wince when I mention them (“Yeah, obviously there’s room and time to get through that gap and beat the lights”), not to mention a developing skill set in the actual repair of bicycles. This last is the most surprising – I am pretty inept when it comes to practical things, so the fact that I am developing an ability to do something like bike repair is pretty impressive.

What unites all of this learning is motivation. Sometimes this is “professional”, in the sense that I want to know more about how to do my job, or how to do it better, or exploring an aspect of my work.  Sometimes it is a combination of frugality and curiosity as it is with the bike maintenance, extrinsic motivation that I can save a bit of money, along with the satisfaction of being able to do a thing which I would have previously considered to be beyond my skills and abilities. Sure, it’s not rocket science, but for someone as maladroit as I, it’s incredibly pleasing that I have stripped a rear wheel hub and put it back together (and been able to ride it for a while too), removed and refitted a bottom bracket, and a number of other tasks. I’m certainly at a point now where I will consider doing a job myself rather than taking it to a bike shop, including even stuff with cables, although they still unnerve me. In short I want to learn those things either in and of themselves, or as a means to a specific end, and for me that is one of the things which typifies adult learning.

The other interesting thing is the absence of formality in much of this. This is learning without planning and often without, or in spite of, teachers (we’ve all had those training events, right?). The formal input for much of the learning, including the “professional” stuff has been primarily self-selected, using things like books, websites, and online videos as demonstrations, and in some ways the self-selection has been more effective than if the content had been selected for me. When you learn on a need-to-/want-to-know basis you ignore the non-essential information and focus much more closely. If you come on a course, inevitably, some of the content will be taught but not immediately applicable, and therefore unlikely to stay fresh. (As an aside, consider this: if I attend a training session and “achieve” the learning outcomes within that session, does that mean I have permanently learned those things? Unlikely, I think, unless I can apply or re-practice those skills. Otherwise that learning will only remain temporary and within a short span of time, perhaps even only a week or so, I will no longer remember how to do it. So the point of the learning outcome was what, exactly?)

Learning informally on a need-to/want-to-know basis does have its drawbacks, mind you. For one you end up with gaps in your knowledge – my IT knowledge is made up of lots of little bits of very precise, clear understanding mingled with whole chunks of stuff I have no clue about: I can knock out all sorts of crud in MS Word, but give me something like Publisher and I’m floundering. 

Sometimes the inevitable trial and error process means that things can take longer (even if you perhaps learn them “better”) and that sometimes that sense of success doesn’t happen. Sometimes the source of learning is flawed or inappropriate – I almost destroyed the threading that held the bottom bracket cartridge inside of my bicycle frame because I was following the wrong instructions, which would have very possibly had to lead to some very expensive work by a professional. Certainly the brakes on my old bike are decidedly dodgy as a result of incompetent fiddling.

Whatever. The fact remains that adults do and will continue to learn, and this is very often in spite of considerable barriers. Formal bike maintenance is not currently offered at any price at any of my local FE colleges, although there are bike shops in the area who sometimes run courses at a cost. Formal, certified training would cost upwards of £300. To be fair, this is pretty niche, but if I wanted to gain formal training to bring my IT skills up to a more acceptable level, then I would be looking at significant cost in both money and, of course, in time. These are, of course, among the toughest barriers for an adult to overcome when it comes to learning. If I want to do an MA to advance my career, for example, I’d be looking at a huge cost which is simply impossible for me to imagine. Would any potential benefit justify the debt? Unlikely. Is there a course that is intrinsically motivating alone for me to do? Not that I know of. But learning to fix a bike can be wedged in around the rest of my life, and indeed has immediate positive benefits.

The benefits of riding a well maintained bike are easy to see and predict, as are the benefits of a specific training course, but the benefits of adult learning are far more than the base and pathetic economics of current FE priorities. When I can learn something I relax, I switch off: bike repairs and baking are fundamentally different to my professional life, so participating in those things helps me to switch off in a much more profound way. Learning to repair a rear hub was frustrating and fiddly, but the total engagement with working it out and then doing it was absorbing in a way that even the best entertainment can manage. Entertainment helps you block it out, but it’s so often a transitory sensation which merely masks rather than refreshes. Learning something new and different helps you to reset completely. 

This sort of impact is hard to see and to evaluate because it is complex. But naturally when the current education system is controlled and managed by those who see FE, indeed all education, as a simple input-output system creating wealth for the wealthy, something as complex and socially beneficial as adult learning doesn’t stand a chance. 

A Long Ramble on Evidence and Change. No, really, it’s long. 

I read with some interest a post on “Six Useless Things Language Teachers Do.” I like this sort of thing, and it’s why I read Russ Mayne’s excellent blog not to mention several other blogs, and numerous books around a general theme of evidence based practice, and on the theme of challenging sacred cows. I particularly enjoyed the “six useless things” post because it challenged some of my own holy bovines: recasts, for example, being largely ineffective. This error correction strategy is something we teach on CELTA, although not, admittedly, as a key one, and it’s definitely one I apply. I think that if I do use it, mind you, it’s as an instinctive, automatic response to a minor error, rather than a planned or focussed technique. 

More of a challenge for me was the second point: not so much the dismissal of direct correction of written errors, as this more or less chimes with my own stance on this. I’m not sure it’s totally useless, as the piece suggests, but I certainly don’t think it’s much good. The challenge to indirect error correction (using marking codes, etc.) is more of a tricky one. I agree, for sure, that students can’t be expected to know what they have done wrong, but I wonder if there are perhaps one or two errors that a student can self correct: slips, silly spelling mistakes, “d’oh” moments which they know on a conscious level but perhaps forget when focussing on fluency (present simple third person singular S for higher level students. I mean you). I wonder, as well, if there is a pragmatic aspect here. Most teachers are working with groups of students, not individuals on a one to one basis, and using an indirect marking strategy, combined with making students do something about it inside class time, means that you, as a teacher, are then freed up to go round supporting students with the mistakes that they can’t self-correct. Context also counts for a lot here: a groups of beginners is radically different from a group of high intermediate students not only in their language level, but also in their meta-language level. Often, but not always, high level students have been through the language learning system a bit, have an awareness of meta-linguistic concepts,  and, crucially, are used to thinking about language. 

I could go on, but this isn’t about trying to pick holes, or a fight! It’s a naturally provocative piece, with a title like that, how can it not be? It’s also, as far as I’m concerned, correct in many of the other points, learning styles, of course, learning to learn, etc., although on that latter one I’d be interested to know how much time should be spent focussing on learning strategies: I’ve got 90 hours, tops, to help my students gain a qualification. How much of that time can my students and I afford to spend on it? If a one of session is minimally impactful, then I think I probably won’t bother.

What this shows you, and me, however, is that as a teacher I am terribly, horribly biased. I come to the job now with many years of courses, teacher training, reading, research, conference workshops, observing teachers, being observed, getting and giving feedback, in-house CPD, and, of course, a bit of classroom experience. This is bad. Bad bad. Because I have developed a set of routines, of practices, of “knowledge” which are, in fact, very hard to change. Oh, I may make lots of noise about research, about innovation, about challenges and being challenged, reflective practitioner, blah blah blah, but a lot of it, I worry, is so much hot air. 

Take one of my favourite bug bears: SMART targets for ESOL learners. Now let’s imagine that some university somewhere funded some formal research into SMART targets. And they did a massive study of second language learners in a multilingual setting which showed, without question, that students who used SMART targets to monitor their learning achieved significantly higher levels of improvement when compared to those who did not. Let’s imagine that a couple more universities did the same, and found very similar results. In fact, there developed a significant body of evidence that setting SMART targets with students was, beyond a shadow of a doubt, a good idea. Pow! 

Now, in our fictional universe, let’s also imagine that I read these reports and am struck by the convincing nature of the evidence which runs entirely at odds with my opinions, beliefs and understanding. I have to wonder that even, in spite of this, I would be able to make the massive mental leap of faith and accept that I am wrong and the evidence is right. Could I do it? On a similar vein, if it turned out the evidence was all in favour of learning styles; that technology is, in fact, a panacea for all educational challenges; and that there is a fixed body of objective Best Practice in Education which works for all students in all settings all the time, if all this turned out to be true, could I align useful with all this because the evidence told me so? 

Probably not. 

For one, if all these things turned out to be true, I’d probably have some sort of breakdown: you’d find me curled up in a ball in the corner of a classroom, rocking backwards and forwards muttering “it can’t be true, it can’t”. More importantly, however, what this shows is that evidence and facts can say what they want, but the pig-headed stubbornness of a working teacher is a tough nut to crack: it would take a long time for me to adjust, to take on the changes to my perceptions and to work them into what I do. It might not even happen at all: even in the best case scenario, I think I would probably want to cling on to my beliefs in the face of the evidence. 

Unless something chimes with our beliefs about our practices, unless we agree in our professional hearts that something should be true, then short of a Damasecene epiphany in front of the whiteboard, it’s going to be extremely hard to embrace it. Let’s not beat ourselves up about it, mind, because that’s not going to help. And don’t let’s beat up others either: we are, after all, only human, and I have a suspicion that, regardless of our politics, one of the things that professional experience leads to is some form of professional conservatism. How do we get past this? 

Expectation, probably, would be a good place to start: it’s too easy for leadership and policy makers to declare that a new practice, with an evidence base, of course, is good and should be enforced. How effectively that gets taken up depends on the size and the immediate visible impact of that practice. When I am leading a training session, I start with a very simple expectation: that everyone go away with just one thing which they can use with immediate and positive impact. It’s u realistic to expect more, and if an individual takes away more than one thing, then that’s a bonus. To expect more than this from any kind of development activity is probably unrealistic, and actually, so what? If someone takes on a new idea and puts it into place, then that’s a success surely? We can apply this also to evidence based practice: make small changes leading up to the big change, and the big change will much more likely happen. This is often not good enough for some leadership mindsets, who demand quick, visible changes, but that is a whole other barrier to teacher development which I’m not going to explore. 

Time, of course, would help, but given that FE in particular is financially squeezed and performance hungry, this time will need to come at the teacher’s own expense. No time will be made for you to read, discuss and understand research (and God forbid that you attempt to try anything new during formal observations) so that time must be found elsewhere. Quite frankly, however, even I would rather watch Daredevil on Netflix of an evening than read a dry academic paper providing evidence in favour of target setting. (Actually, I think I would read that paper; so, you know, when you find the evidence, do let me know: because I’m sure that ESOL manager and inspectors have seen this evidence and are just hiding it for some random reason. After all why would such a thing be an absolute requirement?)

Deep breath. 

I’m sorry this has been such a long post: it’s been brewing quietly while I’ve been off and I’ve been adding bit by bit. But there’s a lot that bothers me about evidence based practice. Things like the way learning styles hangs on in teacher training courses, and therefore is refusing to die. Things like the rare and to easily tokenistic support for teachers in exploring evidence and engaging with it. Things like the complexity of applying a piece of evidence based on first language primary classrooms to second language learning in adults. Things like the way the idea of evidence based practice gets used as a stick (“You’re not doing it right, the evidence says so.”) while at the same time being cherry picked by educational leaders and policy makers to fit a specific personal or political preference. Not to mention the way that the entire concept of needing any evidence can be wholeheartedly and happily ignored by those same stick wielders and cherrypickers when it suits them. An individual teacher’s challenges with evidence which runs counter to their beliefs is a far smaller one than when this happens at an institution or policy level. A far smaller challenge, and an infinitely less dangerous one.