My issue with the one-size-fits-all approach

I have spent most of my teaching career working in the private sector. When I received an opportunity to get involved in a programme aimed at Colombian public schools students, I decided to give it a go and try something new. It proved to be a good decision because I was given a chance to work with some brilliant teenagers who are full of ideas and enthusiasm. It was also my first experience with being asked to deliver pre-planned lessons.

My issue with the one-size-fits-all approach

From what I understand, all teachers participating in the programme were given the same materials. What sounds like a convenient solution that is meant to save time on lesson planning can actually lead to some issues. I mean, you can’t do exactly the same things with all groups of learners. For example, activities that are appropriate for students with a high English level most likely won’t work well with beginners, which is just common sense.

Even though my lessons were pre-planned, I was glad to hear from the trainers that there was room for adaptation. There were some pretty cool activities the students were asked to do, such as building an eco-friendly house in Minecraft and creating a TikTok video, and each lesson was built around a main goal. I liked those tasks, so I kept them in my lesson plans, but of course I couldn’t resist supplementing the lessons with my own ideas and activities while abandoning those that I didn’t consider beneficial for my group of learners. The students’ reactions were very positive, so I believe that everything worked out perfectly fine.

When I started my teaching career, I quickly realised that I find it very difficult to follow lesson plans designed by someone who has never seen my group of students. The idea of going through pre-planned activities makes me feel like I’m in a straitjacket. I have a similar reaction to those coursebooks that expect me to follow the PPP lesson framework. Good morning! Our topic today is the second conditional. The second conditional is used for hypothetical situations. Its structure is if + past simple… Maybe it’s just some trauma caused by being taught foreign languages using this framework at school, but I really can’t think of a more boring way to deliver an English lesson. If I were a student attending such a course, I’d rather save my money and watch funny videos on YouTube instead of signing up for more lessons.

I understand that throwing away the coursebook isn’t a viable option for many teachers. In fact, some of the books actually have useful stuff in them and learners enjoy doing those activities. It’s also necessary to consider the fact that the students have paid money for the coursebook and expect to use it. I just don’t see following the book to the letter as an ideal teaching approach. When I plan my lessons, I always look for opportunities for tweaking the coursebook activities or completely skipping them and doing something more meaningful.

Speaking of the second conditional, I believe that nothing bad will happen to the learners if they aren’t told explicit grammar rules at the beginning of the lesson. I prefer it when the students have a real conversation about what they would do in case of winning a lottery, and then we focus on form and deal with grammar structures that come up. There are also other options such as the test-teach-test framework or using relevant authentic texts to analyse the language. I know that PPP lessons are easy to deliver, but I feel that my students deserve to be taught in a more stimulating way even if it means I have to spend much more time planning my lessons.

I have already mentioned on this blog that I can’t imagine myself working for a ‘method school’. In short, the teacher’s role in those institutions is to follow a script and deliver pre-planned lessons. Well, I’d rather change my profession than work like that. I presume that students learn English because they want to use it in the real world, so it makes sense to make the classroom a place where interesting things happen. Also, the teacher should be allowed to have some fun as well. Mindlessly going through a lesson plan following the same lesson structure again and again with no possibility of making any detours at all? Nah, you’re alright.

There are some really good websites with useful lessons plans, so it’s very easy to find inspiration for your own lessons. However, I think that it’s always necessary to remember that there is more to teaching than just using high-quality materials. First and foremost, we always work with real people who have their own lives outside the classroom, so it’s a good idea to find out why they study English, what their hobbies and interests are, which activities they enjoy doing, etc. Following a random syllabus imposed from the outside seems like a missed opportunity to me. I believe that building rapport with the learners and personalising the course content will lead to a generally more pleasant experience for everybody involved. Showing your students that you care about them and take them seriously is much more important than if you use the materials provided to you by the institution or not.

Six talks worth watching

Professional development is often associated with attending conferences. In my experience, you can usually tell within the first five minutes if the talk or workshop is going to be any good. The positive effect of moving such events online is that you don’t need to worry about being spotted while trying to sneak away from a lecture that you find excruciatingly boring. To be fair to the speakers, it’s impossible to please everyone when you are talking to a group of teachers with varied experience, qualifications, interests, etc.

Fortunately, there are recordings of some useful education-related talks available on YouTube. I have already mentioned a couple of them on this blog, so I thought it would be a good idea to select a few more videos, write a short summary of each of them, and point out some moments I found humorous. If you’d like to recommend any other talks, let me know in the comments section.

Scott Thornbury: What’s the latest method?
You know that you can always rely on Scott Thornbury to deliver an engaging talk because he is an experienced presenter and skilled public speaker. This talk is an entertaining overview of teaching methods used throughout the years. There are plenty of references to literature and hilarious examples from obscure books for students. I think this talk serves as a pretty good argument against strictly adhering to a magic method that promises amazing results. The talk ends when some guy tentatively walks onto the stage to tell Thornbury that he has run out of time, which shows that issues with timing don’t affect only Delta Module Two candidates.

Stephen Krashen: The power of reading
Everyone remembers Stephen Krashen for his hypotheses related to second language acquisition. He later became involved in educational policy activism, and one of his priorities is improving access to books. In this talk that focuses on the benefits of reading, Krashen refers to relevant research and provides pretty convincing arguments for free voluntary reading. He states that reading influences more aspects of life than just academic results. The talk also includes a Bill Cosby reference, which is something that most likely wouldn’t happen these days.

Russ Mayne: A guide to pseudoscience in ELT
I wonder what strange contraption was used to record this talk because the video definitely doesn’t look like something made in 2014. Anyway, I highly recommend that you ignore the poor audio and image quality and watch this gem of a talk. It has everything you’d want from a guide on myths on ELT. Russ Mayne mentions horoscopes, refers to Sagan’s Baloney Detection Kit, and provides a helpful slide with names of major organisations and authors who are complicit in spreading nonsense. Brilliant stuff!

If Karl Pilkington’s superhero idea ever gets made into a movie, I will personally contact film studios with a pitch for a spin-off. Imagine that: He’s just a normal guy who doesn’t need a special costume. When he hears someone somewhere in the world promoting the use of learning styles and multiple intelligences in the classroom, he flies in and…

Philip Kerr: The return of translation
This is a very useful webinar for teachers who work in places that ban using L1 in the classroom. Philip Kerr makes it clear that we should be more open-minded when it comes to using translation because our students can actually benefit from it. I like the fact that he shows practical examples of translation activities that you can use in your teaching practice. If you watch the whole video, you will be rewarded with a funny swear word and the speaker’s heartfelt Christmas wishes. Nice one!

Rod Ellis: Using tasks in language teaching
This webinar will provide you with basic tenets related to using tasks in the classroom, including focus on form. It was nice to see Rod Ellis confirm that TBLT can be used in the online environment because the theory of language learning isn’t affected by the fact that you’re talking to your students through Zoom. There is nothing revolutionary in the webinar, but it’s good to hear everything straight from Rod Ellis’ mouth. By the way, that body part features quite prominently in the top right corner of the video because Cambridge University Press forgot to include the upper half of the speaker’s face in the recording.

Luke Meddings: 3-2-1: A classroom for everyone
One of the main proponents of Dogme gave this thought-provoking talk on the approach twelve years after its creation. Luke Meddings makes some interesting comments about this alternative to coursebook-driven teaching. He briefly mentions learning styles and multiple intelligences. I guess Russ Mayne wasn’t in the audience that day because I didn’t hear any audible groans in the recording. To his credit, Meddings says that we should try to build a community and include a variety of task types rather than pay attention to those theories.

Follow-up post: Six ELT talks raising important questions