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Fluster

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I must not fear.

Fear is the mind-killer.

Fear is the little-death that brings total obliteration.

Frank Herbert, The Litany Against Fear in Dune.

I had my formal observation this week, and my feedback. It was, as has generally been the case, a pretty accurate evaluation of the lesson, and, as any observation should, picked up on a couple of bits that I missed, or perhaps was in denial about (like “do the differentiation which you planned.” which is an improvement on “plan differentiation”)

One of the other, less formal bits of feedback was an observation that I fluster, which is interesting because that’s something I’ve seen in other people and commented on as having a negative impact on the lesson. That same fluster and nerves was really the impetus behind my last post about planning as well: frustration, being unhappy with the ideas for the lesson, never mind anything else, all of which was compounded by nerves. The nerves beget fluster, the fluster begets mistakes, the mistakes beget more nerves: the little death becomes the total obliteration.

A bit of nervous energy is not always a bad thing, mind you. If I plan in too much detail, and too far in advance, for example, I get complacent about the lesson, and forget what it is I have planned, treating it as “done”. I plan more or less day by day because I find my brain works better that way, and part of that is nerves: a sense of pressure that acts as a motivator, and I have a hundred better ideas in the house before the lesson than I do in the preceding week.

However, when it comes to formal observation of lessons, why fluster?

A part of it is simple lack of confidence. I was reading the other day about “imposter syndrome” which is where despite being good at something, you lack confidence in that ability and as a result you are convinced that you are about to be outed as a fraud.

Sometimes the fluster cycle occurs simply because something goes wrong that you weren’t expecting: it’s why we get trainee teachers on CELTA to think about things that might go wrong. Mistakes beget nerves and suddenly we find ourselves trapped once more in the nerves-fluster-mistakes cycle.

In this particular case, a small part was to do with something outside the lesson: it would be indelicate of me to comment on what the was, but I was distracted by this and had dropped a bit of professional focus. Partly, I think, it was relief at being somewhere familiar for me, and settling into overly comfortable patterns, and really not following through on it.

But whatever. These things are all well and good. They’re  not the real problem with teacher fluster during observation. In another conversation this week, there was a sense of dismay that teachers should feel nervous at observation, or feel worried about the process.

This simply demonstrates a complete lack of understanding of the process in which teachers are being involved. Teacher observation for quality assurance purposes is, essentially, a high stakes summative assessment, like a GCSE exam or a degree dissertation. Whether the lesson is graded or not, if there is the potential for punitive consequences for the individual, then there will be nerves. It’s ignorant and arrogant to suggest otherwise. Never mind the official “don’t forget it’s also developmental” cant, because if it all goes south, a quality assurance observation can be the little clatter of stones that precedes the landslide.

The irony, of course, is that this awareness is more likely to lead to it happening. Almost, I think, something like the rational meditative state implied in the less well known half of Frank Herbert quote is the only answer.

I will face my fear.

I will permit it to pass over me and through me.

And when it has gone past I will turn the inner eye to see its path.

Where the fear has gone there will be nothing. Only I will remain.

A little dramatic maybe, but it gets to the point – you have to try, somehow, to get past it and work through the nerves. You have to consciously acknowledge the consequences, but also rationalise them. It may be the clatter of small stones, but the landslide may still not happen.  ‘ve only seen the landslide a few times, so to speak. As  awfully new-agey as it sounds, perhaps the answer does lie in some form of meditative reflection before the lesson, an opportunity to rationalise and clarify, and to focus on the important thing – the learning in the lesson. Don’t deny the negativity, or try to gee yourself up, forcing yourself into some manic pixie state of rabid positivity, just let it pass over and through you.

Teach the students, make them learn. Everything else can wait.

 The things students say

Or, as in this case, write. When you teach high level ESOL classes you get used to a certain type of discourse. Students can express profound and challenging concepts with confidence, they can argue and hold their own with you in a conversation, and you can argue subtleties that might be lost on a goup of students whose language is far less developed.

There’s a danger to this, however, particularly when talking to lower level students, and that is the easy temptation not so much to consciously assume that students are somehow childlike, or innocent, perhaps, but to unconsciously react as if they are. So you keep things simple and straightforward, reduce the linguistic complexity, of course, but also sometimes also the cognitive and emotional complexity: it’s almost a kind of linguistic relativity in that you can’t express those complex or “adult” concepts, therefore you can’t think them. Of course, not all students want to express such things, or are able to do so emotionally or psychologically, and neither should we force them, but for whatever reason there is a tendency to step lightly round more profound issues, knowing that you are going to struggle to communicate, as are the students. 

All of which may explain why you feel a sense of surprise when a student writes a sentence like “they are protesting to change the government” in an otherwise apolitical lesson on present continuous, or “all humans have to have ethics, because ethics is everything” for a homework task on conjunctions. Even a statement as initially innocuous as “I love my home because it is my first home in U.K.” takes on a whole new meaning when you think about the turbulent background of the student who wrote it. 

The reality for ESOL learners is that they can, of course, feel and express these adult realities of religion and war and sex and death and love and politics, just not in the same language that I speak. And whichever way I want to play it, however uncomfortable I may feel with talking about some of those things, there is still a space for these things to be made. Why not teach present continuous in the context of political protest? Sure, it might not have the bland universality of describing an image of models from a magazine, but what otherwise untapped depths are we missing? Contrary to the mainstream political rhetoric of ESOL, my job is not just enabling neat economic integration, but a much more careful task of unpicking what people want to say, and giving them the tools to say it.

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.  

What I did on my holidays.

I have, for the first time in ages, been on holiday to Abroad. The lucky place was France, and in particular to the fine city of Paris, enabled through free movement within the EU, and an astonishingly swift train journey that took us from Leeds to Paris in mere hours. Naturally, of course, being the parent of two under-10s, a trip to Paris naturally meant a payoff of 6 days city, 1 day of Disneyland. It also meant a severe dusting down of the secondary school French, for which the word “rusty” doesn’t even come close: it wasn’t entirely moribund, but certainly took a lot of effort to revive. Very rarely is anyone truly monolingual, instead we have degrees of multilingualism: but my own language is distinctly towards the monolingual end of the spectrum. This rustiness and the general novelty of overseas travel (expense, hassle, and just not being all that bothered, if I’m brutally honest), meant that being in Paris was an instructive and illuminating experience,  particularly when filtered through my ESOL teacher brain. 

For one I was gratified to learn that lots of fragments kept coming back. This is not least in part down to the massive amounts of crossover between English and French. Vocabulary is an obvious candidate here: English and French have a large number of shared words, thanks mainly to the Normans and the Church, not to mention the global impact of English as an international language. There is also a lot of shared grammar: sentence level word order is broadly similar, and as a tourist your grammar doesn’t generally extend beyond simple present tenses and a lot of very functional structures: Je suis…. Nous avons… Avez vous…? Je voudrais… Ou est…? and so on. 

For me, most of these structures are now lexical chunks, rather than built out of systemic grammatical knowledge. I can just about parse some bits of present tense verbs etre and avoir but it’s a mental challenge, and mainly based on translation of similar lexical items rather than the application of a rule. Put simply, I remember that He is translates as Il est, rather that remembering the rule that the third person singular pronoun is il, and that the third person singular form of etre is est. My current productive knowledge of French is essentially just knowing which set of words to apply when, combined with a bit of first language transfer. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, mind you, and perhaps this is what it’s like to be a beginner: you simply don’t have the grammatical and lexical resources to draw upon in order to start making extensive grammatical connections, but it doesn’t mean you can’t do this at all. Certainly this technique enabled me to negotiate whether it was possible to extend a three zone metro Paris Visite pass into a five zone metro pass, roughly “J’ai un Paris Visite carte pour les zones une à trois, mais c’est possible acheter une carte pour zones quatre et cinq?” Not brilliant, and both carte and zone sound distinctly dodgy, but it was a fair stab at a compound sentence with an infinitive of purpose, and crucially, it worked. 

The was one rather massive problem. Having managed to express a fairly complex concept, and create, on the fly, a pretty decent chunk of second language, this then generated a reply. Who’d have thought that asking a question might result in a reply! Crazy stuff, no? The gentleman behind the counter forgave my dubious grammar and pronunciation, and proceeded to explain in a fair amount of detail not only that it was not possible to extended or to buy a two zone pass, and instead if I wanted to go to Disneyland I should use the pass to Vincennes or Nation stations, then leave the train and buy a ticket for the remainder of the journey. (I include this detail should you find yourself in a similar situation). Luckily for me, he picked up in my helplessly blank expression, and using far better English than my French, managed to negotiate meaning. 

So another thing I learned , then, is that listening is bloody difficult. Really really hard. Even in less challenging contexts where the language was slowly spoken and mostly within my very limited range, all it took was a couple of unknown words and I was thrown. And sure, there are skill elements to listening, but actually any misunderstanding on my part was down not to a lack of listening skill, but to a lack of grammar and vocabulary. Take, for example, travelling on the metro. French metro announcements are efficient and unburdened with superfluous information like being instructed to read safety notices, have a pleasant onward journey, or buy something overpriced and unpleasant. Rather there is a simple list of stations, and only the occasional section of information about, for example, the fact that the RER line A between La Defense and Nation is closed. (Again, handy travel info in case you are headed to Paris in the next couple of weeks.) I used some top down listening skills to work this out: predicting what vocabulary and grammar I should be hearing from the context I was in, and with the support of the written station names on the metro map, I was able to follow, if you like, the detail of the discourse, then to reapply this when travelling on an unfamiliar line. So far, so textbook. 

However, in more complex interactions, it was far far harder to keep up with what was being said and to apply any of this top down knowledge. After my masterpiece of functional French at the metro station, I was flummoxed by the reply, perhaps inevitably. However, even in a simple shop context I couldn’t always follow the numbers when told what the price was, relying instead on two pre-listening strategies: 1) read the till, and 2) try to add up the amount you are spending before you get to the till. Then there were things like being asked whether I wanted a bag not to mention various interactional elements that confident speakers put into functional conversations, d’accordbon, smiles, other incomprehensible bits. Mostly, however, the problem was that I simply didn’t have the bottom knowledge which you need in order to effectively process anything. Ye gods, I thought, is is what my beginners have to do every single day. 

Unlike many of the beginners I teach, however, I have a fair degree of literacy, and used this extensively to decode and support my understanding and application of spoken language. I am probably slightly stronger at reading French than I am at speaking, and certainly more confident at it, and could use simple written integrations to sidestep more complex spoken ones: maps, signs, and ticket machines, for example, until I worked out that these latter could be used in English. These strategies also reminded me of the the importance of affective factors when it comes to language use. I felt much more comfortable reading and interacting in a written format than I did in a face to face spoken setting simply because speaking to someone in a second language is terrifying. I’m generally quite shy, as well as acutely aware of the importance of at least having a go at using the language out of respect. My strategy, then, is to avoid situations wherever possible. An absence of personal confidence can be challenging at the best of times, but with the potential to be positively crippling in high stakes interactions involving your son’s very pressing need to use the toilet. 

What this all really bright home to me was the realisation that a second language is not a simply a dualistic process of reception and production, as it is often presented on training courses, and certainly how the skills are traditionally broken down for exams and so on. Rather it is a process of negotiation. When you enter into an interaction in a language you don’t fully understand or have full control of, both you and your interlocutor have various resources to draw on: your knowledge of their language, their knowledge of your language, shared knowledge of the world and how it works. A regular morning international relied firmly on contextual understanding that at least one person (me, the customer) wanted to get something from the conversation (4 croissants) and that the other person (the boulanger) was in a position to facilitate that in some way, but would also benefit from said interaction being successful (he got paid).You negotiate meaning through whichever resources you have at hand, whether they are “proper” target language resources, or “cheating” by using other methods. In this sense, a language classroom is an essentially false setting: we discourage first language use, and insist that learners use only the target language, when in reality this is not always how people function in a second language interaction. Even in a classroom setting, “real” language, that is language which occurs in the classroom because of the classroom context (instructions, explanations, clarifications, passing on of administrative information and so on)  is often similarly negotiated using various resources: first language between peers and sometimes teacher, a reduced form of the target language, and various metalinguistic strategies such as sign language, facial expressions, tone of voice and so on. The target language is borne out of the essential falseness where the outside experiences and needs of the learners dictate language which cannot occur naturally in the classroom. So this falseness isn’t necessarily a bad thing: after all, a classroom is in many ways about creating a pretend language environment, but the reality should at least be acknowledged, rather than denied.

***

A slightly darker, sadder, postscript to this was that I very quickly also learned to understand the meaning of Votre sac, Monsieur? as we entered just about every shopping centre, museum, or major attraction. Due to terrorist events in France over the last year, security was on a particular high: armed police and soldiers were very visible and present, the base of the Eiffel Tower protected by a security fence and bag search upon entry (this is before the queues to actually pay to go up the tower), and one or two places, including the Louvre, had a full airport scanner for bags. By way of defiance to any kind of victory felt by terrorist organisations at this, this mild inconvenience in no way lessened our enjoyment of Paris. No, any sense of danger or fear was almost entirely due to the frankly terrifying Parisian motorists. 

Episode VI: Return of the Teacher

Everyone likes a trilogy, right? So this is my third post on the theme of observation, in particular my own: if my last post was the Empire Strikes Back, with the empire triumphant, then this my Return of the Jedi. Hopefully not Revenge of the Sith.

Anyway, it occurred to me that meek and weary acceptance and passivity is very possibly the very worst way to approach lesson observation feedback. After all, grade or no grade, judgement will be passed, and the comments will go down against your name somewhere, probably on a spreadsheet. So time, instead, to gather my big guns, my justifications, arguments and my “yeah but no buts”. Not defensive: if there is something wrong, I’ll be the first to admit it, but definitely veering towards being on the offensive. Proactive, not reactive, for those of you who like things a little less martial.

First the lesson. That probably deserves a capital letter: The Lesson. Essentially three stages. The first stage was homework feedback. The students had been set homework to write advice using “should” for a hypothetical learner of English. I’d marked this ready to give back. To lead into this, I did a bit of a board based task on using the definite article to describe a unique item: something which many of the students had made mistakes with, along the lines of “You should use library.” It was the Queen’s 90th birthday too, so, swallowing my darker republican tendencies, I asked the students to talk in pairs and write down why they thought today was special. This led to the students writing sentences along the lines of “today is the Queen’s birthday.” Sort of. Then I gave the homework back: the majority of students had completed it, so I asked them to work in groups to discuss the errors and suggest changes. They did this remarkably well, with guidance. This probably lasted about 20 minutes in all.

Naturally, of course, students were still making mistakes with should, so I’d planned a longish recap activity. It’s also good to revisit language in a different context, so using the theme of health (linking to the theme of the rest of the week) we briefly (and somewhat unsatisfactorily, I have to admit) revisited parts of the body, and (equally unsatisfactorily, to my mind) revisited ailments and illnesses. This then led to a series of PowerPoint slides with different illnesses on: “I have a cold.” Students worked in pairs to write advice on mini whiteboards “you should….” I monitored this, used peer checking of good sentences, asked for group feedback or suggestions on sentences with errors on, and so on. The eliciting and practice here took a second slot of 20 minutes.

The final stage was meant as a free practice activity: students received a slip of paper with one of the problems on and had to ask each other for advice, at least three times, and decide which was good advice. This closed with a brief group discussion on the advice given, followed by a fragile and tenuous link to the next half of the lesson. At this point the observer left.

I liked the tripartite structure. It flowed neatly and made sense. There was no shoehorning of awkward bits and pieces. I liked that I had students working in pairs to compose sentences, and using the mini whiteboards gave me a chance to use peer correction by getting students with correct sentences to show them around the room. This then allowed lots of self correction (call it peer and self assessments if you like). This also made it very easy for me to check students and to go round monitor it. I enjoyed giving students the chance to self correct, and the subtle shaming (for want of a better word) encouraged a couple of students to sheepishly dig out their homework and hand it in, which presented later opportunities to feedback. I thought my lead in was a fairly engaging bit of fun, with a serious purpose to it.

But. But.

As I mentioned in my last post, I used the five minute lesson plan, and I was feeling less than well-disposed to the whole process. Aside from the overall structure, there was nothing much else in place until about 45 minutes before the lesson began. Even then, I spent most of my time checking resources and marking the last bits of work. I essentially took the decision that I would take the hit in the formal lesson planning document, rather than on the content and structure of the lesson. There was a lesson plan, and it was all there; it just wasn’t very good. The outcomes were fairly “rigorous” (i.e. completely false representations like “be able to write five sentences…”) but not differentiated to the different skills and levels in the group, with the exception of one student in the E1 group who is definitely a beginner writer.

And I’d say that this was where the lesson was shakier. It’s a big group at E1 and as such covers a pretty huge ability gap, with students doing all sorts of different qualifications. Because of the hurried planning, mostly, none of this came out particularly in the plan, nor especially in the lesson. So I could have moved students round into ability groupings, for example, giving me chance to push those stronger students, or tailor activities to the exams they will be taking (after all, we all like differentiation by negative backwash).

Would this have made a difference to the students’ overall learning? Probably. Not significantly, maybe, and the lesson would have run the risk of becoming dour individualised workshoppy bleurgh at one point. I am sceptical of the individualisation priority, but that’s not an excuse (although it does sound like a spy novel). I know that this is not the official view, and my own opinion is mostly a hunch, not an evidenced stance, and as such, doesn’t pass muster. And if I had spent an extra half an hour on the lesson plan, using a full lesson plan, I probably would have included this kind of detail. I’m not entirely convinced by the five minute lesson plan, I don’t think: but then perhaps I’m just an all or nothing kind of guy.

More time planning would have probably nudged me to remember things like formal reviewing of the learning outcomes. Again, I’m sceptical about this as a universally applicable practice, but I know that it’s generally expected, and takes no time at all to do with minimal negative impact. However, at the end of the two hour lesson, I did do a formal review: grouping the students into small groups I asked them to think of things they had learned in the lesson: groups of 3 had 3 things, 4s had 4 things to think of. This elicited, yes, that’s right, giving advice with should, and using the, as well as the work from the second half of the lesson. The brief plenary closed this lesson nicely, and would have been good to do in pairs at the end of the observed section before moving onto the writing half of the lesson.

So if we are casting around for blame, where do we look? It’s easy to say “the planning form”, but that’s not really true. I think it could work for someone else. Time management outside of the lesson? Definitely. Absolutely. Let me be clear, as well, I am fully responsible for this. I had some time in the week, and as such I mismanaged it. Mea absolutely culpa.

And it wasn’t a bad lesson. I’ve observed far worse, and taught worse. Students learned some stuff, and proved it to themselves and to me. So all in all, nothing to be ashamed of, not really. I’ll see what the feedback brings.

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. 

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.