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Principled Decisions & Practices
by Costas Gabrielatos
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5. I use the most modern methodology.

Such an attitude is problematic, as it implies that the selection was made uncritically, solely for reasons of novelty. The practices of teachers who adopt the latest word in language teaching methodology are not expected to be consistent with (and may well contradict) what the methodology actually stands for.

What is more, 'modern' does not necessarily mean 'better'. It is true that the word 'modern' carries connotations of 'improved' and 'developed'; it is as a result of such connotations that methods presented as modern have an intuitive popular appeal. What I would like to stress here is the other side of the coin: 'modern' can also be interpreted as 'not thoroughly tested yet'.

Finally, what is presented as modern may well be reheated old ideas. This point is illustrated by the following quiz (Gabrielatos, 1996, 1998):

Read the excerpts below and decide when they were written
Extract 1. Methods
"… but none of these methods retain their popularity long - the interest in them soon dies out. There is a constant succession of them ... They have all failed to keep a permanent hold of the public mind because they have all failed to perform what they promised: after promising impossibilities they have all turned out to be on the whole no better than the older methods. The methods I have just mentioned are failures because they are based on an insufficient knowledge of the science of language, and because they are one-sided. … A good method must, before all, be comprehensive and eclectic. It must be based on a thorough knowledge of the science of language ... In utilizing this knowledge it must be constantly guided by the psychological laws on which memory and the association of ideas depend."
Extract 2. Grammar
"When it comes to foreign language teaching, the generally accepted view is that the same mistaken approach based on the written language, the same kind of school grammars, will be able to work miracles and teach a new language. They never have, and they never will. And even if you actually succeeded in stuffing the pupils' heads with the best grammars ... they still would not know the language! ... Language, moreover, is formed and moulded by the unconscious action of the community as a whole, and like the life of the community is in a constant state of change and development. Consequently, we cannot compress the grammar of a language into a series of rigid rules, which, once laid down by the grammarians, are as unalterable as the laws of the Medes and Persians. On the contrary, grammar is what the community makes it; what was in vogue yesterday is forgotten today, what is right today will be wrong tomorrow. ... Even if we further know all the rules of the grammarians, we shall find ourselves unable in actual practice to get very far in stringing our words together or in understanding what is said to us in return."
Extract 3. The role of learners
"Every individual [has an] ability to instruct himself. The function of a teacher [is] to respond to the learner, not to direct and control him by explaining things in advance. ... Students should look for similarities and differences, generalize their observations, form and test hypotheses, and discover how the language work[s]."

For the answers

The excerpts above touch on some of the central attitudes in contemporary ELT, such as learner-centredness, focus on actual language use, the importance of communication, data-driven learning, noticing, awareness-raising, and the influence of social context. I find it extremely interesting (and educational) that so many of the 'modern' attitudes in language teaching were actually proposed up to a century and a half ago (if not even earlier than that). What I find disturbing is that it took so long for these attitudes to start finding their way in mainstream ELT thinking and practice.

6. I use the methodology advocated by the experts.

First of all, there is no unanimous expert opinion. ELT professionals who have reached expert status disagree, either because they come from different theoretical and/or methodological schools, or because they simply need a niche to maintain their 'expert' status. Which of the different expert recommendations are teachers of that attitude to follow? Different views aside, there are more reasons why it would be wise for teachers to be sceptical and critical of the wisdom of experts.(2)

They may not be practising teachers. In order for expert advice to be helpful to the ELT practitioner it has to be not only based on a theoretical and research foundation, but also rooted in current and ongoing classroom experience and reflection. Unfortunately, since being an expert is a full-time job, experts tend to be divorced from the classroom, or at best have minimal contact with language learners.

They may not have experience of specific contexts. Even in cases of ELT professionals who are practising teachers and have reached a high level of knowledge and skill, their ideas may not be helpful as they stand. Their ideas come from their particular experience in specific contexts, which may have little in common with the contexts in which other teachers operate.

They have their own filters. Experts cannot be expected to be entirely objective; their interpretation of theory, research and experience is bound to be influenced by their own beliefs and views.

They may not be entirely sincere. ELT has developed into a multi-million industry, the popularity of one methodology being translated in increased sales of materials. Experts can be instrumental in their successful promotion.

They may not be truly experts. It is not impossible for ELT professionals to have made a name for themselves for reasons not directly proportionate to their actual knowledge and skills.

It is important then that teachers do not accept or reject expert opinions wholesale, but are in a position to review and interpret expert suggestions critically and adapt them to their own contexts.

7. I apply proven theories and conclusive research findings.

There are three problematic concepts here:

The utility of theory and research does not lie in their application to practice. The function of theory and research in ELT is not to provide recipes and dictate practical applications, but to construct informed and coherent frameworks for principled interpretation of experience and discovery of implications. Theories are helpful because they provide a framework for gaining insights "into the 'why' of experience" (McLaughlin, 1987: 14). What is more, no theory can claim to have all the answers and offer the only true set of explanations. This is probably why all methods which purported to apply a specific theory of language and/or learning to ELT ultimately failed the test of practice.

Theories cannot be proven. McLaughlin (1987: 16) states that "the successful theory is tested and escapes being disconfirmed. … Theories can be confirmed only to a certain degree. That a theory is validated does not mean that it is true, but only that it is more probable, at present, than other explanations."

Research evidence cannot be conclusive. Teachers should keep in mind that "the classic position of the researcher is not that of one that knows the right answers but of one who is struggling to find out what the right questions might be!" (Phillips & Pugh, 2000: 48-49), and that "researchers who claim that their theories have been definitely substantiated by research are misleading practitioners" (McLaughlin, 1987: 16). A case in point is a recent study (Marinova-Todd et al, 2000: 9-34), which re-examined and re-interpreted the data from past research studies that had concluded that children learn more quickly and easily than adults. The study discovered that past studies had misinterpreted the data, and had under-emphasised cases of successful adult learning. The recent study attributes the differences in the speed of learning and the final proficiency levels attained not to neurobiological factors, but to motivation and expectations. The study concludes that "children learn new languages slowly and effortfully - in fact with less speed and more effort than adolescents and adults."

I have used this example not to propose that we change our attitude towards teaching children and adults, but to illustrate that what is the accepted doctrine today may be laughed at as old hat tomorrow. My point is that research conclusions should be treated with care, and compared and contrasted with other sources, as well as one's experience, because "statistics are tools for thought, not substitutes for thought" (McLaughlin, 1987: 5). Uncritical acceptance of research conclusions may result in teachers imposing self-fulfilling prophesies on learners, or creating unrealistic expectations. For example, teachers who are convinced that adult learners cannot hope to attain a high level of competence may not challenge their adult learners enough and rob them of opportunities to realise their full potential.

It seems then that teachers are faced with three options, as regards theory and research: to ignore them altogether, to rely on 'experts' to translate theory and research for them, and to acquire the knowledge and skills which will enable them to discover the implications of frameworks and findings themselves. The first and second options result in teachers falling into the pitfalls described above and becoming reduced to mere 'materials operators'. The third option results in principled teaching.


Answers to the quiz above:

Extract 1 - From Sweet (1899, reprinted 1964).

Extract 2- From Wilhelm Vietor (1886) ‘Der Sprachunterricht muss umkehren’ (‘Language teaching must start afresh’), translated by A.P.R. Howatt and David Abercrombie, with Beat Buchmann. Translation printed in Howatt (1984: 340-363). Excerpt from p. 347.

Extract 3 - Excerpts from the discussion of the method developed by J. J. Jacotot between 1815-1830. Reprinted in Howatt (1984: 150-152).

(2)Through my reading of ELT periodicals I have become increasingly aware of the following pattern: the more a publication is directed at teachers (rather than teacher educators, theorists or researchers in ELT), the fewer the references either to frameworks or to other people's ideas, and the higher the reliance on the authors' experience and expertise.

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