Six ELT talks raising important questions

In my previous post on education-related talks, I selected six videos dealing with topics directly associated with teaching. Of course, there is much more to discuss when it comes to the ELT industry, so I would like to share more talks I found thought-provoking. When you work as an English teacher, it’s easy to say that you focus only on teaching the language and the rest is irrelevant. However, I believe that it’s important to be aware of some issues in our profession even if you aren’t directly affected by them.

Six ELT talks raising important questions

Nicola Prentis & Russ Mayne: Where are the women in ELT?
The speakers point out that while women represent the majority of English teachers around the world, most speakers at ELT conferences are male. In fact, I was guilty of overlooking women in my previous article because I focused on the most visible names in ELT, who happen to be men from English-speaking countries. Prentis and Mayne explore reasons for this phenomenon and provide some potential solutions. I recommend that you visit their blog Gender Equality ELT for more information on this issue.

Silvana Richardson: Professionalism in English Language Teaching
This talk deals with the fact that ELT isn’t always considered to be a serious profession. Richardson provides relevant examples of threats to professionalism in the industry and states that English is often taught by people who should be nowhere near the classroom. The main problem is that it’s extremely easy to get into TEFL because some employers feel that a £49 certificate from Groupon represents a sufficient qualification to become a teacher. As a consequence, they hire native speaker conversationalists without pedagogical skills or teachers whose own English is not good enough. The speaker emphasises the role of CPD in tackling this issue.

Charlotte Williams: Diversity and inclusion in an ever-changing world
Most published ELT materials are rather bland and don’t accurately depict what happens in the real world. Some topics are simply ignored by the majority of coursebooks. Charlotte Williams highlights the importance of making the classroom an inclusive space and suggests ways of promoting diversity in a workplace. She says that we can do much more than some standalone lessons on one narrative. The speaker also provides tips for handling prejudice and microaggression in the classroom.  

JPB Gerald: Decoding and decentering whiteness in the ELT classroom
This topic isn’t easy to discuss, but it’s something that needs to be done. At the beginning of this talk, Gerald defines relevant terms related to whiteness. The issues of race and language are inextricably linked, which leads to individuals’ ethnicity playing a bigger role than it should. The talk includes suggestions for dealing with the subject on both structural and individual level. In addition, the speaker addresses tokenism and the problem with images in published ELT materials in the Q&A part of the session.

Jo Krousso: Paperless teaching
According to the speaker, ELT is a backwards industry when it comes to using paper in the classroom. The pandemic forced teachers to digitalise their materials and teach without the use of paper, but the question is whether we can learn lessons from that when we start teaching in the physical classroom again. Krousso argues against going back to piles of worksheets and other paper-based materials. She provides a lot of useful tips for paperless teaching, which is beneficial not only for the environment, but it may also lead to more engaging lessons for the students.

Vijay Ramjattan: What does an anti-racist pronunciation teacher do?
This talk focuses on the topic of prejudice associated with speech accent. Listening isn’t just a passive activity, and we sometimes make stereotypical assumptions based on someone’s ethnicity. Ramjattan points out that even some native English speakers are perceived as foreign-sounding just because of their appearance, which affects their employability. Ramjattan also criticises accent reduction services and the way intelligibility is defined. He suggests that teachers make students aware of these issues when teaching pronunciation.

There is no magic bullet

A new academic year is upon us, and I can’t wait to teach again! It remains to be seen if or when we will return to physical classrooms, but I feel cautiously optimistic about 2021. It can’t get any worse than the previous year, right? The unexpected switch to remote teaching inevitably caused huge issues in the ELT industry. A lot of students decided not to join online courses for various perfectly understandable reasons, which inevitably led to economic problems and job losses in many institutions.

Private language academies now have to convince potential students that paying for English classes is a good idea. Colombian economy has been hit hard by the pandemic and many people need to think twice before spending their money. Businesses are looking for ways to dig themselves out of a hole, and those involved in education are no exception. Some may consider copying their competitors’ practices or even trying something completely new. When it comes to ELT, I have encountered a few ideas that definitely wouldn’t represent a step in the right direction, and I’d like to write a few words about them.

There is no magic bullet

Hiring unqualified teachers
Giving a teaching job to someone whose only qualification is being (or looking like) a native English speaker is usually a recipe for disaster. If you want to avoid the risk of poorly delivered classes full of incoherent rambling, you should hire someone with relevant teaching qualifications. I mean, this is just common sense.

There are plenty of experienced teachers in Colombia looking for work right now. They are ready to hit the ground running, and they deserve to be given a chance to do so. Local teachers are the backbone of any ELT community, and that’s why supporting them should be their employers’ priority. In fact, I believe that providing existing teachers with incentives to get their CELTA, Delta, Master’s degree or other qualifications would be a better long-term strategy than looking for quick fixes from abroad.

Relying on a magic method
I can’t imagine myself teaching from a script. Schools that claim their unique method is the best way to teach aren’t my cup of tea. It’s certainly useful to be familiar with different teaching methods and techniques, but having to use only one of them seems like a missed opportunity to me. Why would you restrict yourself to repeating the same thing again and again? It must get boring pretty fast.

I really don’t think there is just one way to teach. It is imperative to take your teaching context and students’ needs into account instead of applying global solutions. Building rapport and personalising your lessons is much more useful than following some random ‘method’ imposed from the outside.

Peddling debunked myths
I spent most of my life believing the theory that says the left side of the brain controls logic and the right side is responsible for creativity. I heard about it at school and accepted it as something that is true. When I started teaching, I noticed the theory again in some coursebooks, so I decided to read about it a little more. It turns out that the whole thing isn’t true and there is hard data to prove that.

While the left/right brain myth is relatively harmless, some theories are actually applied in teaching practice, and that’s where problems arise. The theory of multiple intelligences is quite attractive, but even its Wikipedia page says that it isn’t supported by evidence. According to the article Each to their own, which was published in The Guardian in 2005, Howard Gardner himself made some damning remarks about using his theory in teaching.

The Harvard professor never intended his book on multiple intelligences (MI) to be a blueprint for learning, but he was aware that many educationalists were adapting his ideas. The shock came on a visit to Australia.

“I learned that an entire state had adapted an education programme based in part on MI theory,” he says. “The more I learned about this programme, the less comfortable I was. Much of it was a mishmash of practices – left brain and right brain contrasts, sensory learning styles, neurolinguistic programming and multiple intelligences approaches, all mixed with dazzling promiscuity.”

One idea that always seems to pop up is called learning styles. Again, I understand the theory’s appeal, but the problem is that it has been debunked many times. Asking your students to fill in a learning styles questionnaire and then building your classes around the results could actually have detrimental consequences. I recommend that you read The ‘Learning Styles’ Myth: Don’t Spread Fake News by James Egerton. It’s time we stopped wasting our time with this.

It would be unfair to blame the people who came up with these ideas. They thought that they were onto something good, but their theories turned out to be incorrect. That’s quite common, so we should simply move on and focus on something more useful.

Adopting fads and hoping they work
There are some ideas that need to be researched more in order to determine how effective they are. Take growth mindset, for example. I can’t deny that its premise sounds good because self-improvement is undoubtedly a good thing. The issue is that it still isn’t completely clear how growth mindset can be used in the classroom. It all seems to be based on wishful thinking. You should read Philip Kerr’s post A measured approach to mindset interventions for more details. I am not in favour of utilising new ideas in our teaching practice just because they are popular at the moment. Shouldn’t we be primarily concerned with finding out if our students will actually benefit from them?

I understand that it’s tempting to look for simple solutions, but that can lead to losing track of what is truly important. If you want to provide high-quality classes, you have to support your teachers. They need to have access to books and academic papers and be encouraged to read them. They need to get relevant training, be observed, and receive individual feedback on their performance in the classroom. Professional development is a long-term commitment, and I don’t think that taking shortcuts is likely to produce positive results.