Classroom cultures

Classroom cultures

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:




On Friday, I was fortunate to be part of a day of events organised by Cambridge University Press for 700 lively English teachers in São Paulo. My fellow ‘international speakers’ were Professor Mike McCarthy, who has been applying the analysis of Cambridge’s vast learner corpus to textbook development, and Mike Tomlinson, who has written course materials for younger learners: ‘Kids’ Box.’ The event took place in a cavernous theatre on the top floor of a shopping mall in the city centre, and I came away with a renewed sense of awe and gratitude for the seemingly inexhaustible ability of Brazilian teachers to engage enthusiastically with professional development. I arrived at about 8.30 am to find the teachers already standing, chanting and singing along to ‘warm up’ exercises, and they were still standing, singing along and happily impersonating lions, snakes, sharks and bats when Mike Tomlinson closed the proceedings around 5pm. I’m not surprised that people like coming to present here.

My topic was intercultural language activities, and Mike McCarthy was talking about corpus-informed insights into fluency and advanced grammar use: what allows us to negotiate informal conversations in a second language and give the impression of ease and linguistic mastery in our conversational contributions or ‘turns’? On the face of it, the two topics are only tenuously related. Mike’s work in recent years has focused on using corpora to identify linguistic features associated with what he calls ‘confluence’, the ability to participate readily and fluently in conversational interaction. As such, he focuses on language. Intercultural language education is more people-oriented: as Alison Phipps used to tell me, ‘We don’t teach skills, we teach practitioners to be skilled.’ In our engagements with intercultural language education, our focus is less on the language and more on the attitudes, beliefs and behaviour that the language mediates. Mike Tomlinson echoed this sentiment in his presentation about teaching younger learners: the focus in the lower age levels cannot be on the language, or even the four skills; the focus of teaching has to be the child. This is probably true with older learners too.

And yet there is a definite value – and a constant fascination – in exploring how communication works. This kind of knowledge is endorsed by Mike Byram (why is nearly everybody called Mike?) in his formulation of the intercultural ‘savoirs’, that is, the kinds of knowledge that learners need to acquire in order, for example, to be effective intercultural speakers. One of the savoirs is ‘knowledge of how interaction occurs’. Mike McCarthy’s presentation on ‘confluence’, then, spoke directly to this necessary aspect of intercultural communication. What is the nature of our contribution to conversational interactions?

The term ‘confluence’ was coined to suggest that conversation was a joint effort: two or more speakers collaborate in the joint production of a conversation. A fluent learner will give the impression of using the spoken language ‘readily’ and with ‘ease’: these are, in fact, characteristics expressed by the Common European Framework of Reference’s standards of assessment, at the B2 level. But what exactly do ‘readiness’ and ‘ease’ consist of?

Mike McCarthy suggested, amongst other things, that speakers have to be fast. The pause between conversational turns varies between cultures – Finns and Native Americans are notoriously tolerant of silence between turns; Brazilians, equally notoriously, often begin their turns before their conversational partners have ended theirs. But the average for English is about 0.5 seconds. So longer pauses are signs of lack of ease. And order to respond readily, the learner has to aquire discourse markers that indicate appropriate reactions to that the speaker has just said (e.g. ‘yeah, well, wow,mmm, I know…’). To give yourself time to think, you need also to master ‘chunks’ that you draw upon appropriately and say quickly to fill possible silences (e.g. ‘if-you-know-what-I-mean’, ‘kind-of-thing’). And you can also listen to and repeat chunks of what your conversational partner has said (e.g. ‘I’ve just got a new dog.’ ‘A dog! How lovely! What kind…?’). Most of these markers come at the very start of a conversational turn, but others routinely pop up in second position, like ‘basically’ and ‘actually’ (e.g. ‘Well, basically….’ and ‘Mmm, actually….’).

It is clearly helpful to draw learners’ attention to these linguistic features. But the intercultural language educator also asks why the spoken interaction is happening in the first place. Is the encounter transactional – to achieve some explicit goal – or is it interactional, that is, is its main purpose the implicit goal of expressing, confirming and challenging cultural attitudes and identities?

Fluency plays a part in both types of exchange. As Mike McCarthy suggested, one of the indicators that a learner is a fluent speaker is that he or she uses little discourse markers to manage social distance in transactional conversations. For example, there is a difference in perceived fluency between a receptionist who says to a visiting client, ‘Can you wait five minutes, please?’ and one who says ‘Can you just wait five minutes, please?’ The simple use of ‘just’ manages the transaction by playing down the amount of waiting time imposed on the client.

Interactional talk is in many ways more difficult to do, and I devoted an entire chapter to it in ‘An Intercultural Approach to English Language Teaching’. Casual conversation whose implicit purpose is to negotiate, affirm and challenge the speakers’ feelings and cultural beliefs might well include tricky features like irony, understatement and humour. Key to this kind of conversation are the informal stories, anecdotes and jokes that people tell to dramatise the kinds of attitude and belief that are to be affirmed or questioned. My favourite conversational exchange of this kind is the ‘second story’, whereby one person tells an anecdote about something that happened to him or her, and the second and third speakers follow this up with a more exaggerated or extreme version of a similar thing that occurred to them. A very brief example is:

‘I got a new sensor fitted to my car – you know – one of those things that beeps when you’re reversing. But it’s a real pain, it keeps going wrong and I’ve been back to the mechanic three times now.’

‘Wow, no, that’s terrible. Three times. The same thing happened to me when I bought a new car a while back. A warning light kept flashing when there was nothing wrong. I went back to the dealer again and again – at least five times – but they never did fix it.’

This kind of conversation bonds the speakers by showing that they have experienced similar things and reacted to them emotionally in similar ways. They are therefore able to be genuinely sympathetic to each other.

In order to perform ‘second storying’ routines fluently, then, speakers need to listen carefully, and to be aware of the kinds of cultural behaviour expected of them and the linguistic resources at their disposal. It helps to know that you should be listening to your partner’s contribution and repeating chunks in a sympathetic or shocked tone of voice (‘Three times!’). It helps to have a range of chunks that express appropriate emotions and that you say quickly (‘Omigod!’). It helps to have a range of initial discourse markers that you can mumble or drawl to give yourself time to think of your own story (‘Wow…well…whoah…you know…’). And it helps to know that, as your speaking partner is telling you his or her story, you are going to have to tell a similar one that somehow exceeds it in drama or interest. No good conversational partner tells a story that is less interesting than the one before it, or worse, denies that the first story is interesting at all, e.g.

‘It’s terrible, you know, I’ve had to take my new car back to the dealer three times to fix a fault with the sensors.’
‘Really? I’ve never had that problem.’

Mike McCarthy ended his presentation on Friday by acknowledging that the term ‘confluence’ came to him during an earlier visit to Brazil, when he was presenting in Manaus. There he went on a boat trip, to see the merging of the Rio Negro with the mighty Amazon river. As all tourists to this region will know, the black waters of the Rio Negro remain distinctive for miles as they slowly merge with the brown waters of the Amazon – and it occurred to Mike that this was a wonderful metaphor for fluent conversation. Two partners contribute distinctively to a single, flowing process. And it’s a beautiful thing to behold.


Byram, M., Gribkova, B., & Starkey, H. (2002). Developing the intercultural dimension in language teaching. A practical introduction for teachers. Strasbourg: Council of Europe.

Corbett, John (2003.) An Intercultural Approach to English Language Teaching. Clevedon: Multilingual Matters.

Corbett, John (2011) Intercultural Language Activities. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

McCarthy, M. (2006). Fluency and confluence: What fluent speakers do. In Explorations in Corpus Linguistics, 1-6.



There is a popular misconception that academics are paid only to research and teach their subject discipline; that is, engineers research and teach engineering while linguists research and teach linguistics, and so on. In fact, academics are called upon to address a variety of issues in university life. Among the recent agendas that university teachers across many countries and cultures have been asked to face are the related issues of ‘employabilty’ and ‘graduate attributes’. The ‘attributes’ agenda has been asking what qualities graduates of any discipline might be expected to acquire as the result of a university education. The ‘employability’ agenda asks how these qualities might be of benefit to a society, often imagined reductively as a market economy. Thus, one of the ‘attributes’ graduates in the UK are often encouraged to acquire is a sense of entrepreneurship.

In a past life, I remember being in a Senate room full of middle-aged professors who were droning on at great length about the value of developing in our students the kind of entrepreneurial and ‘soft’ skills that clearly had passed each and every one of them by, me included. In another one of a series of equally interminable meetings that were dedicated to identifying a set of cross-disciplinary ‘attributes’ that would be a unique selling point for the same institution, a mischievous sociologist happily punctured the platitudes by observing that, if you looked around campus, the defining attributes of the student population were that they were predominantly ‘white, middle-class and male.’

And yet, I am drawn to the dangerous waters of graduate attributes for some of the same reasons I am attracted to intercultural language education. Intercultural curricula, in general, focus less on specifying linguistic knowledge, as in identifying those attitudes and knowledge-acquiring skills that are valuable in navigating different cultures and languages – what Mike Byram calls savoirs. In general, then, my slightly guilty attraction to the graduate attributes agenda lies in a preference for curricula that are not wholly defined by subject matter. Engineers do not just teach engineering; doctors do not just teach the clinical specialisms of medicine; English teachers do not just teach language skills and knowledge. There are human qualities at stake too. The question is, who decides what these qualities are, and how they should be acquired? Arguably, this question lies at the heart of what traditionally were called ‘Humanities’ subjects, like literature, music and art.

Research into academics’ views of the ‘graduate attributes’ agenda in an Australian university by Simon Barrie, an educationalist, discovered, not very surprisingly that different individuals, often in the very same discipline, often had quite different ideas about what generic. By analysing interviews with university teachers from different disciplines, Barrie devised a hierarchy of graduate attributes that sought to explain the different perspectives, and enrich the concept. With a slight adaptation in labelling, the increasingly more complex hierarchy can be described as follows:

Level 1: Basic skills in numeracy and literacy; the kind of skills that university teachers would like all undergraduates to possess before they enter university, but which they increasingly recognize that undergraduates may not have.

Level 2: Complementary skills that go along with the discipline-specific knowledge and skills; e.g. the knowledge how to write a well-formed argumentative essay on a general topic; or the ability to work effectively in a group that has been charged with performing a particular task. Generally these can be seen as ‘bolt-on’ skills that can be taught, or at least addressed, irrespective of any specific subject discipline.

Level 3: The ability to communicate discipline-specific knowledge to a non-specialist audience and to apply specialised skills to more general contexts. In this case, we might imagine someone who is studying languages applying their knowledge of linguistic ‘false friends’ to a situation where there has been a breakdown of communication between speakers of different languages. Here the skills involve relating subject knowledge to the everyday domain. We might see entrepreneurship, defined as the ability to identify a commercial utility for a set of specialised knowledge, and the skills to take the responsibility to turn it into a marketable commodity, as a combination of Level 2 and Level 3 competences.

Level 4: Higher order skills and attitudes that are necessary to acquire disciplinary knowledge – or any kind of knowledge – in the first place, e.g. curiosity about the world, reasoning and decision-making skills; an ethical orientation towards the gathering and evaluation of evidence; etc. These skills are not ‘add-on’ competences, as in Level 2, but are integral to any form of educational process.

According to Barrie, generic graduate attributes involve all four levels of the hierarchy, but any conception of them that does not reach Level 4 runs the risk of downgrading the concept – such attributes should not be viewed as ‘just’ teaching literacy and numeracy, or ‘just’ teaching entrepreneurship, or any other set of skills that is additional to the subject discipline. In the case of intercultural language education, I think the hierarchy raises a provocative set of questions at each level:

1. What is the basic language competence that is required for intercultural communication? What kinds of language skills and knowledge are necessary to operate in cross-cultural situations, and how can they be acquired?
2. What are the general communicative tasks that will promote intercultural learning? What kind of listening, reading, writing and speaking tasks in the classroom are transferable to intercultural language situations?
3. How can intercultural communicative competence actually be applied in everyday contexts? How can it be utilised to understand the complex world we live in, and communicate effectively and empathically with people of diverse cultural backgrounds?
4. Perhaps most crucially, how might our reflection on the way we have acquired specific competences in intercultural communication enhance our understanding of the highest order of thinking and learning skills and attitudes. Will teaching intercultural communicative skills result in the education of better engineers, better doctors, better linguists, better literary scholars, better historians?

I am concerned with these questions, in part because, in the second half of this year, I should be helping develop a general English curriculum for Brazilian university students across a variety of disciplines. Barrie advocates a holistic approach to teaching graduate attributes, which suggests to me that the cross-disciplinary English for Academic Purposes classroom (which addresses literacy skills that he locates at Level 1 of his hierarchy) might equally operate as a site for exploring the highest order of skills that must be acquired by successful university graduates. The challenge, as ever, will be to put this into practice.

Barrie, S. C. (2006). Understanding what we mean by the generic attributes of graduates. Higher Education, 51(2), 215-241.

Going Underground

Going Underground

Circulating on Facebook over the past week or so have been three maps: the Underground or Metro systems of London, New York and Sao Paulo. Compared to the rich networks that characterise the other two cities, the Sao Paulo Metro system today looks sadly meagre: a few coloured lines serving a metropolis of some 20 million inhabitants, twice the population of London. The Sao Paulo Metro is closer in scale to the Underground that serves Glasgow: a double loop of garish mini-trains known locally as ‘the clockwork orange’. The contrast between the three maps is a further rebuke to the Brazilian state and civic administrations that have spent a fortune on football stadia and under-invested in basic urban infrastructure. Anyone who has spent a few hours stuck in a Sao Paulo traffic jam will know how just valuable a good Metro system would be.

Metro systems are valuable in other ways: they are another useful site for loafing and lurking, observing local behaviour in public spaces, and comparing it with that found in similar spaces in other cultures. In the past, with colleagues in Glasgow, we sent students to observe public behaviour in Underground stations and on trains. The students’ task was to build up a ‘grammar’ of rules governing behaviour in the Underground railway system. The participant-observers were given a rough schedule to guide their observations:

• Who used the system?
• How did the passengers organise themselves when waiting for the trains; how did they enter the carriages and negotiate the (usually insufficient) seating areas? How close to each other did they sit, or stand? Did anyone give up their seats to the old, or young, or to females?
• How did people spend their time on the platforms or on trains – did they chat, or text, or read? Did they make or avoid eye contact?
• Were buskers or informal entertainers allowed onto the trains? If so, what did they do and how did the passengers respond?
• What official notices attempted to regulate passengers’ behaviour on the trains? Was this official advice heeded? Have some key phrases (e.g. ‘Mind the Gap!’) migrated to other contexts, like tourist mugs and t-shirts?
• Were there official or unofficial means of communication apparent on the train – e.g. advertisements, graffiti, poetry? What was advertised or proclaimed?

I’ve now travelled on a number of Metro systems around the world, and I’ve noticed some of the similarities and differences. Strangers in most places tend – when there is ample space – to organise themselves at comfortable distances from each other; they do not cluster in groups unless they are acquainted. On the other hand, when there is not enough space available, different cultures respond differently. I remember being swept off my feet and onto crammed trains in Moscow by tides of fellow passengers, but in London, people who were faced with a crowded carriage would usually step back, make ‘tutting’ noises, and wait for the next train to arrive. Many people will have seen videos of Tokyo, where uniformed attendants in white gloves physically push passengers onto trains at peak hours. In a quieter moment, some decades ago, I remember an elderly woman seated on the Moscow Metro, a string bag of groceries at her feet, and a heavyweight literary journal – ‘Novy Mir’ – in her hands. Everyone seemed to read on the Moscow Metro in those days. Now, I suspect, as in most other places, they check their phones, text their friends and family, and listen to music.

Some Moscow Metro stations are famous for looking like art galleries; sculptures of heroic workers peep from niches; mosaics of heroic fighter planes glitter from the domed ceilings. Commuters thus have a chance to appreciate Culture with a capital ‘C’, on their daily trudge to work, and they are invited to recall key moments in their country’s past. The London and Glasgow Underground stations sometimes feature poetry posters; some Underground poetry has been published in book form. And I associate the Paris Metro with music: mainly buskers, moving from carriage to carriage at each stop – playing for a few minutes and then collecting money from passengers. Those passengers who did not wish to contribute would avoid watching the buskers’ performance, explicitly indicating their non-engagement with a studiedly blank expression. Urban intercultural learners today can observe their own Metro or Underground system, with the fresh eyes of an ethnographer, and then, if they are part of an online intercultural exchange, they can swap their observations with learners in other cities.

The maps of Underground or Metro systems are themselves, of course, a form of fiction. The template of Underground maps was established by the London Tube in the 1930s, when the designer, Harry Beck, devised a layout that did not correspond strictly to the subterranean geography of the Underground system, but presented to the viewer an abstract, colour-coded layout that was relatively easy for passengers to read and use. It has since become a design icon, a recognisable work of art in itself.

Indeed, the London Tube map has been appropriated by the British artist, Simon Patterson, in his work ‘The Great Bear’, which uses a modern version of Beck’s map, but replaces the familiar stations on each line with sequences of names that have a personal meaning for him: film stars, football players, saints, artists, politicians. The result, as the name of the work suggests, is a constellation of personal connections, the Underground map as cultural autobiography. If you look at it closely, you can infer Patterson’s age, his education, his religious upbringing, his leisure interests … even his pretensions. The map is also intriguing in the way it prompts us to make all sorts of intercultural connections: if you get on the train at Kirk Douglas and change at Gary Lineker, you can get to Plato. And ‘The Great Bear’ is full of whimsical jokes: the Circle line is composed entirely of philosophers, who, of course go round and round and round in circles.

‘The Great Bear’ offers other another possibility for a Metro-themed unit in an intercultural language class. Taking their local Metro map, learners can re-purpose it, like Simon Patterson, and use it to display their own cultural interests and connections. Then they can present the maps of their personalised Underground, first to members of their class, and then to participants in online intercultural exchanges.

So: some simple ideas for an intercultural language activities. Open your eyes, open your mind, and go underground on a real or imaginary train trip…


Simon Patterson ‘The Great Bear’ (1992)