Yesterday, I had the opportunity to do some work with a group of around thirty volunteers who give their time to Cidadão pro Mundo, a non-governmental organisation that seeks to increase equality of opportunity through the teaching of English. I heard about the organisation at the Cambridge Day last week, and offered to help out.
‘Great,’ they said. ‘We have a training day next week. You can do 90 minutes with the veterans.’
‘Great,’ I said, suddenly feeling a little apprehensive. Who were these ‘veterans’? I had an unnerving vision of a hard-bitten group of volunteers, with tattoos and eye-patches, comparing the scars earned from their battles to empower learners through English.
Happily, it turned out to be a very enjoyable experience. The ‘veterans’ are a group of friendly volunteers who are already teaching, but who have little or no formal training. We were mainly covering some very basic classroom techniques for elementary students, and reflecting on the components of the language learning task: what your learning goals are, different types of input, the activities that the learners are engaged in, the diverse roles of teacher and learners, and how to vary the pace of classes through the use of different settings, from individual work through pairwork and groupwork, to whole-class activities. We covered some supplementary grammar and dialogue activities, and then we looked at a listening and reading activity, using a poem as input. And we finished off with some ideas for intercultural projects as possible homework: exploring how English is used in the local community.
The morning took me back a few decades to memories of my own initial teacher training. Like many British EFL teachers I came through the equivalent of the Cambridge CELTA course, which in my day was called the Royal Society of Arts Preparatory Certificate in TEFL. I still think it was one of the best things I’ve done – like the volunteers, I had no previous teaching experience and the four-week crash course gave me a set of practical skills and, most important, the confidence to go to Italy and work in a language school for a year. That was the role of these four-week crash courses, after all: to provide fodder for the commercial language schools that had sprung up over Europe, particularly Italy, Spain and Greece.
The course was intense, and in the early 1980s, the teacher was, still, very much the focus of classroom activities, though that was just beginning to change. We drilled, we chorused, we mimed, we marshalled our pairs and groups, we transferred information and we made damn sure authentic communication occurred (at least in the final stage of our ‘presentation-practice-production’ cycle). We tried to cut down on our ‘teacher-talking-time’, though for me that has remained a serious challenge. What we didn’t realise at the time was that we were coming to embody a particular type of teacher in a particular type of classroom. It hardened into the stereotype of the teacher as a kind of game-show host, or even stand-up comedian … at teachers’ conferences, now, I see the most accomplished educationalists of my generation doing extremely polished routines on the stage, in front of hundreds of fellow professionals who have come to expect entertainment as much as education.
But how many of our assumptions about ‘the good lesson’ and how much of our understanding of ‘professional skills’ really do transfer to different teaching situations? One of the best – and most honest – accounts I know of professional development is Adrian Holliday’s ‘Appropriate Methodology and Social Context’, which reflects in part on his failure to be an effective teacher-trainer in Egyptian universities. He came to the conclusion that the problem was not that Egyptian and British teachers had different expectations about teaching. It was that the university system and the commercial language school system (that gave birth to the ‘communicative language teacher’) were culturally miles apart. Egyptian universities shared with British universities rather conservative assumptions about status, hierarchical authority, the supremacy of disciplinary knowledge and the appropriate behaviour of professors and students. Egyptian commercial language schools had embraced the ethos of the teacher as facilitator, even as the servant of the learners, the primacy of skills over content, and the idea that learning might be fun, all concepts that those in universities (both students and professors) saw as trivialising. When Holliday tried to take the insights of the commercial language schools into the university system, his success was limited – and he realised over time that, to effect educational change, he had to begin to understand the values of the system in which he was teaching.
Over the past 30 years I have taught in commercial schools and – mostly – in the universities, and I’ve enjoyed both systems. Each educational culture is still quite distinct – though there are tensions within each and overlaps between them. University language departments still uneasily negotiate the tension between the teaching of skills (= low value) and content knowledge (= high value), while commercial schools still generally privilege skills over content.
The slightly scary 90 minutes I spent yesterday with the folks from Cidadão pro Mundo was my first, hesitant, engagement with the voluntary sector in Brazil. I’d like to do more, but I realise, like Adrian Holliday, that to be more effective, I need to become an educational ethnographer. I need to loaf and lurk around some classes and do some observation, and actually meet some of the learners. I need to find out what they want, how they work, and what they value. Then I can begin to rethink what appropriate training for this particular set of learners and volunteers might be.
Holliday, A. (1994). Appropriate Methodology And Social Context. Cambridge University Press.
For more information on Cidadão pro Mundo, see: http://www.cidadaopromundo.org.br