A Confession

This is something I need to write. I’m not just filling in and updating my blog. I’m confessing something that I’ve been guilty of. I’m confessing something all us “English language teaching professionals” are guilty of. I want to describe the wrong wave we all ride. We ride it honestly, most of us not knowing we are doing something wrong, the wave just pushing us along.

Ever since I can remember, as a teacher, I’ve been looking for the goose that would lay the golden egg of language learning. Much of that search has been through creating technological solutions to help students and teachers “manipulate” language, play with language and thus, hopefully, learn language. And of course, with the online tools and platforms I’ve created – ranging from karaoke to bots to prompt generators to voice recognition feedback, teachers are helped in their teaching and students are helped in their learning. So, hey, what’s the problem? Well, let me outline it, let me confess.

Whatever you do in the classroom, there will be some learning. Thus, you’ll always be able to justify whatever approach, whatever content, whatever method you use. If you use it, you can rationalize that it works. Same too with research. Anything from gap-fills to memorizing sentences to repeat after me has some set of research supporting its use and place in our teaching toolkit. So many pieces of research, 30 students in group A, 30 in group B, tested as an outcome and X happens thus Y approach works. But as I just said, whatever you do in class WILL work to some extent. The real question is – Is there are better, more effective way of teaching language than the one I’m using? My answer to that question is – there usually is if what you are doing is “manipulating language”, examining it, playing with it in part and not as a whole. Is your class, are your students learning language wholistically?

Now my confession. Phil Kerr recently wrote about a tool like the ones I described above. He concludes that ed-tech tools such as “IdiomsTube” are really just cosmetic, built and done because we can not because it improves student learning. Bells and whistles. I quote his conclusion in full –

“IdiomsTube is interesting, not because of what it tells us about how technology can facilitate language learning. It’s interesting because it tells us about the limits of technological applications to learning, and about the importance of sorting out theoretical challenges before the technical ones. It’s interesting as a case study is how not to go about developing an app: its ‘special enhancement features such as gamification, idiom-of-the-day posts, the IdiomsTube Teacher’s interface and IdiomsTube Facebook and Instagram pages’ are pointless distractions when the key questions have not been resolved. It’s interesting as a case study of something that should not have been published in an academic journal. It’s interesting as a case study of how techno-enthusiasm can blind you to the possibility that some learning challenges do not have solutions that can be automated.”

Philip Kerr – Learning formulaic expressions: the challenges of automation (a review of IdiomsTube)

I would extend his conclusion to include not just ed-tech but so many other approaches, and activities we partake of in class and that we do just to provide students with time “manipulating” language. Yes, a focus on form will always have some benefit but again – is there something more beneficial?

I commented on his article saying,

My confession is thus – we waste so much time pretending to offer magic bullets for our teaching guns. So much waste with the explicit teaching of linguistic forms, so much waste of textbook page-turning and churning, so much waste cramming things into brains.

We need a more naturalistic approach to language learning and teaching. We should think about how it is that for 10s of 1,000s of years of pre-history, homo sapien sapien was an accomplished language learner, a polyglot, living in multilingual communities. All this before idiotstubes, dudelingua apps, ofcoursebooks.

The key, the natural key is to use language to understand things you really want to understand. Watch, take in, read, and consume target language that has messages you really want to understand. Don’t force anything. Be fiercely open and communicative in approach.

And for teachers? Provide that natural environment where students will be more likely to relax, take in, and enjoy language content that they are truly interested in. You are firestarters. Once you start that fire, your job is mostly done. It’s for students to keep the fire burning.

Throw away all the “toys” you’ve become used to as concerns language teaching. The gadgets must go into a plastic bin in a dusty corner.

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