Feedback, the Pandora’s Box

Something happened today. But I must warn the reader in advance – this is not going to be a self-indulgent post. I don’t know if I feel like writing it up at all, let alone publishing it. It’s about something nobody wants to experience – the feeling of failure, guilt, bitter disappointment and despair. But deep inside I feel that putting it down may help in the end. Because nothing else is helping.

Today I had my penultimate lesson with my final year students. For the last couple of months they’ve been preparing for their school-leaving exam which they are going to sit next week. This exam has two alternatives – the state version and the school (profile) one. Nine out of 13 students have been preparing for the state alternative, two for the school one and two are not taking an exam in English at all. I know they’ve been under a lot of stress recently (and our lessons have been terribly exam-oriented), so I wanted to make the last lessons as relaxing as possible. So for today I had planned to play a nice video about London, which we finally watched. At the end of the lesson I asked the students what they wanted to do in the final lesson and they suggested we could go for an ice cream the next day (i.e. tomorrow). I didn’t see why I should disagree.

By coincidence, earlier today my colleague had asked me if we could do a short feedback questionnaire before we watch the video. This is something all final year students do before they leave school. In this questionnaire they answer general questions concerning the overall atmosphere in the school and comment on the equipment, subjects and teachers. It’s anonymous but students write by hand so obviously it’s not difficult to find out who wrote what, especially in a class of 13. So the students know that everything they write may be traced back to their names. I don’t want to judge the quality of such a questionnaire but that’s the way it is and it’s not terribly important at the moment.

My colleague, who teaches the other part of the same class, had already collected the questionnaires on Friday in her group. Every teacher has the right to see the answers related to his/her subject and all the results are finally processed, evaluated and discussed. So yes, today we finally did peep inside…… and we opened Pandora’s Box……

I can’t cite all the answers literally but some of the comments were really nasty and rude, definitely far from constructive. Just a few examples:

What would you improve? I’d slap around the head teacher and sack X and Y because they are snitches….. (my name included, probably because of an incident when I caught one student playing truant).
Who was your favourite teacher? X and Y because they weren’t bastards.
Which lessons didn’t you like? X because it was crap and especially the teacher was a bugger.

One of the comments addressed explicitly to me: All the lessons were totally useless and if I didn’t attend an evening course, I would be totally lost….. Plus ‘the teacher ignored the two students preparing for the school exam and worked exclusively with those preparing for the state alternative’.

Well, wondering why my heart aches?

First, I thought I had a good relationship with all the students.
Second, I thought I did my best to prepare them for the final exam and because both versions of the exam overlap a great deal, I didn’t worry about those two (brilliant) students taking the school exam.
Third, I thought none of them would be capable of writing such rude comments. Why, they knew we would read them. Yes, I know what you think ….. they wanted us to read them.
Four, although most of the comments were neutral and some were positive (a nice teacher, interesting lessons), none of the students mentioned they had learned something at all!!!!!

Now, there are a million questions swirling in my head. First of all, is this kind of malicious feedback of any value to me and other teachers? And as Mike Griffin mentions in one of his posts: should any students be excluded from the opportunity to give feedback? What does this approach to feedback say about the students, myself and the society in general? Shall I dissociate from all the emotional impact it’s had on me? Should I analyse the situation and take it strictly rationally?

And the most acute question ……how shall I handle the situation tomorrow? We are going for an ice cream, remember?

RP5 – The Generalisation

“Skipping generalisations stage means being ‘locked’ in what we already did and might do again, and never seeing a ‘bigger picture’, or the reason for acting this or that way.” Zhenya Polosatova in her RP5 post on John Pfordresher’s blog.

Whenever I see the abbreviation we use to label the Reflective Practice Challenge (RP1, RP2, etc. or anything related to it, such as #RPPLN), it somehow reminds me of the Star Wars sci-fi series. I think it’s because my favourite characters C3PO and  R2D2 immediately spring to mind. So for me this RP Challenge, on a very subconscious level, always points to the future, even though I first have to go through several stages to be finally able to look ahead, a few steps forward.

So far I’ve taken the following steps:

1) I came up with my RP mission statement.
2) I remembered a negative interaction I’d experienced in the classroom.
3) I described it in full detail.
4) I analysed this single interaction (see this post).

Now I’m going to generalise the results of my analysis.

As Zhenya suggests, for the Generalisations stage, there will be focus more on our learning, or conclusions from that experience, or beliefs we could notice or discover based on the preceding stages of the Cycle (description + analysis). Here are some questions Zhenya proposed that may help me see that learning (or generalisations).

What did you learn about yourself (as a human-being, as a teacher, as a learner, etc.)?
I learnt that we all have plans and expectations – teachers and students. When our expectations clash, problems occur. I’d say that the ideal situation is when our expectations are identical with the students’ needs. But let’s be honest; this is just a beautiful dream. On a more pragmatic note, we need to be realistic about our expectations and always be prepared that our plans may fall through.

What did you learn about others?
The others don’t know what I want unless I tell them. So I think it’s a good idea to reveal what I expect, explicitly, on the spot, to avoid misunderstanding. And vice versa, I can’t be sure what the others want unless I ask them. Students are often in a position when they don’t feel it’s appropriate to say what their needs are. Thus it’s good to create an atmosphere of honesty and acceptance. But once I allow my students to be completely honest with me as the teacher, I have to be prepared to face their honesty without feeling offended if the truth hurts.

What did you learn about communications?
This question is related to the previous one. The fact that we often, for various reasons, hide our feelings and some aspects of the truth from others, hinders our mutual communication. In other words, what I think you think may not be what you really think.

What did you learn about class atmosphere?
I can spoil a pleasant or neutral classroom atmosphere by just allowing misunderstanding to happen. By wrong interpretation of a student’s expectations, I invite all sorts of negative emotions into our classroom. This, in consequence, hinders the learning process and finally spoils our relationship, not just with the student in question but with the whole class.

What did you learn about … [my role as a teacher]?
I’m not there primarily to make my dreams come true = to realise my lesson plans meticulously (in a way I am, of course but…). Most of all I’m there to foster learning. Learning can only happen if there is a minimum of obstacles (physical or emotional). By feeling the way I did during the incident I may have hindered the students’ learning. At least I distracted their attention in order to heal my wounded ego. I may have not but this is quite difficult to prove now, so next time I’d better avoid this.

This is my take on this part of the cycle. I’m looking forward to reading yours because that’s the best part of the challenge – the sharing.

Proving the validity of my Teaching Philosophy?


Recently there’s been a lively discussion on SOLE (Self organized learning environment). I don’t want to expand on this because a huge amount of ELT bloggers have already done so. And by no means do I want to pour my heart out and tell the reader which side I’m on regarding Sugata Mitra’s predictions about the future of education. But I must admit that my post was initially inspired by what I’d heard and read about this controversial issue.

I’m a practitioner; I like to experiment in the classroom and I enjoy reflecting on my experiments. When reflecting, I don’t usually work with any concrete data; I observe and make subjective assumptions about my observations. I think I’m very lucky to have the opportunity to teach across different levels of proficiency. I used to teach adults but since I moved into the state sector, I’ve been dealing with young learners aged 11-19. What I like about this variety is the fact that the progress and the changes are striking – not just in the language but in the students’ behaviour.

Right now I’m halfway through Emma Crawley’s presentation and I’m pondering the merits of group work and the implication that kids work efficiently if they are allowed to randomly choose their partners when working on a project. My students love pair and group work but not always and not from the start. Based on my observations, when the eleven-year-olds come to grammar school, they don’t have the slightest intention to share their knowledge with their peers. They want to tell ME – the teacher. Whenever I ask a question, they, quite naturally, tend to call out the answer so that I can hear it. I’m the only one who matters to them at that moment. I seem to be the only important listener and judge. I have to admit that I sometimes find their addiction to the teacher a little irritating. Thus I stop them and ask them to talk in pairs for a while before they tell me. I do it for an obvious reason – I want to increase student talking time and prevent the strongest and most confident learners from dominating the activity. But I can see the disappointment in their eyes and I know that they can’t wait for the moment of being allowed to speak up – that’s the climax, the real sharing, the real proof that they KNOW. And then, when approved by the teacher, their achievement is virtually immortal.

Luckily, this self-centredness and dependence don’t last forever. Each time my students come back after the summer holidays, they are different. And they are less surprised when I say: “Ok, tell your neighbour first” or “Get into groups of four and talk about this for a while….” And later, aged 17, they don’t want to stop chatting in pairs – they even continue when the lesson has finished.

This gets me thinking… are kids natural team workers or are they a little unsocial at the beginning and they have to be taught to enjoy company of others during school work? Or do they become team players naturally and gradually? Is it the artificial and inauthentic nature of school work that generally discourages young learners from the desire to cooperate?

This post was originally supposed to be about the initial reluctance of young learners to share knowledge with their peers. However, there is going to be a post script; just a couple of hours ago, after I had almost finished writing this, I came across a post What’s My Teaching Perspective? by Vedrana Vojkovic, and things took a slightly different course for me. Vedrana inspired me to take the TPI Test, an inventory which helps teachers to identify their perspectives on teaching. This is a graphical display of my results.

To cut a long story short, my scores generally fall into the 30s, which means that my individual perspectives are moderately held. Although my score is highest on the Apprenticeship perspective (the blue zone), my profile looks somewhat flat. No matter how meticulously I tried to keep a single, specific educational context and a single group of learners in mind throughout, sometimes it was difficult to select the right answer. I want to believe that it was because my approach to teaching is holistic, which means it is so hard for me to exclude an option utterly. This reflects how I usually see things – I’m always willing to accept new, multiple ideas, even though they seem opposing to the older ones.

What’s the point? Why the post script then? Looking back at what I had written before I took the test, I must smile when I realize how beautifully my ideas presented above sit with the most dominant perspective on my teaching. According to the test results, the Apprenticeship viewpoint means that for me effective teaching is a process of socializing students into new behavioral norms and ways of working. Good teachers know what their learners can do on their own and where they need guidance and direction; they engage learners within their ‘zone of development’. As learners mature and become more competent, the teacher’s role changes; they offer less direction and give more responsibility as students progress from dependent learners to independent workers.

Some things just seem to fit in ….

Why not (to) blog in my native language?


The idea that I should (at least occasionally) blog in my native language has crossed my mind quite a few times. I’m a patriot and I believe Czech language is beautiful. However, I’ve never had the courage to try. There are several reasons for this:

First, haven’t written anything longer than a few lines since grammar school. My final exam essay had to be at least four A4 pages long – written on the spot, from the top of my head; something today’s students can’t even imagine – and honestly, neither can I anymore. All I produce in Czech nowadays is e-mails, messages, various applications and forms. The longest piece of text I’ve written in the past two years was my MA thesis summary. It was a tremendous challenge and it took me longer than a whole chapter of my paper. As I haven’t had enough practice, I’m not very confident in Czech grammar. Czech is an inflectional language with complex and complicated rules which drive every school child crazy (nouns, adjectives, pronouns and numbers are declined, seven cases over a number of declension models, and verbs are conjugated…, you name it).

Second, I honestly don’t know what I would write about in Czech; even if my grammar was perfect, I can’t think of a topic that I could elaborate on in my native language. This has probably something to do with the fact that I mostly want to write about ELT-related stuff. I want to share my everyday experiences from the classroom – that is the L2 classroom. Moreover, I can’t write about ELT-related stuff in Czech because all my training has always been conducted in English, so I simply don’t know the terminology. As a result, as odd as it may seem, a normal sounding English sentence about teaching English sounds totally inappropriate in my mother tongue. The same happens if I want to translate something I learned in my psychology course, for example, into English – it seems so unnatural and even trivial.

Third, 99.9% of all the stuff I read about ELT is in English. As I often get inspired by other people’s blogs, it would be difficult for me to suddenly switch from English into Czech. When I think about it, I permanently live in an L2 environment (at least the virtual environment). I think and dream in English. Not that I think it’s not possible to write great stuff about ELT in Czech; I remember a wonderful ELT-related post in Czech I read a couple of months ago which made me laugh out loud all along the line and I thought: this is it!

The next point is connected with the previous one; my PLN mainly consists of EFL/ESL teachers or English-speaking educators who don’t speak Czech. There are a couple of Czech teachers I follow on Twitter and Facebook, but that’s just a drop in the ocean. As blogging is about interaction and reading each other’s posts, I suppose I would end up writing for myself. But also; those Czechs who are interested in ELT stuff can speak English anyway. Yes, there are loads of universal edu-topics to write about, but I don’t think that anyone but an EFL teacher would want to read a Czech post about teaching phrasal verbs or functional language, for example. Then, what’s the point in blogging in Czech?

The truth is that the fact that I’m a non-native speaker of English my mother tongue is Czech is a perfect excuse if something goes wrong. I’m not a sloppy writer and I hate making mistakes but I subconsciously hope that a wrong collocation or an inappropriate word will be generously overlooked by native speakers more proficient speakers of English and careful readers.

Finally, and this will sound like a paradox, blogging in English helps me stay less exposed than if I blogged in Czech. This has nothing to do with the number of hits, though. Ironically, using English as the means of virtual communication helps me feel more secure or less vulnerable. This may be due to the fact that, as some argue, you can only express your real, deep emotions through your mother tongue. So I may well be hiding behind the L2 (even though I try to be completely honest and sincere on my blog).

When I look back at all the reasons why not to blog in my native language, I realize that I’ve just prepared a kind of challenge for myself. At first sight my post looks like an excuse why not to try but in effect, the opposite is true; all the above actually gently pushes me to have a go. We’ll see what the future holds for me. Keep your fingers crossed for me.

Go and ask a native speaker


Just a couple of hours ago I participated in a conversation that took place on Facebook. A Czech teacher of English as a foreign language asked a question concerning a certain language feature. She wasn’t sure she could use a certain phrasal verb in a specific context. She was looking for hard evidence, which she could present to her EFL learners in order to support her surmise. The thing is that she exclusively addressed native-speaking members of the FB community.

At first I felt a little offended sad that being a non-native speaker, I was implicitly excluded from the discussion (conceited me!). By the time I stumbled upon the post, three native speakers had already responded saying that they would never use the verb in question in that particular sense. However, the inquirer was surprised saying that she’d come across some examples in online dictionaries claiming the opposite. Meanwhile two non-native speakers had also joined in and commented on the post. After having overcome my initial grievance, I decided to take the bull by the horns too.

Whenever I have a question which I think could only be answered by a native speaker (and there’s none around at the moment), I consult a corpus. Dictionaries are great and I have a pile of them at my disposal, but they don’t always provide exhaustive information. They say what is correct but they don’t necessarily include the ‘incorrect’ though frequently used examples. Google is another amazing tool which I use when I want to verify something or I need to fill in a missing word or find a suitable collocation. It’s an enormous, quickly accessible corpus, as well as a helpful prompter. But as Google can be somewhat unreliable, it’s always good to double-check elsewhere.

Although nowadays it’s not fashionable to draw a distinction between native speakers (NSs) and non-native speakers (NNSs) in the field of ELT, people do so anyway. The NS will always be the ultimate stop, the god in possession of all the knowledge we turn to for help if we are lost and helpless. I confess I’ve also done that many times in my career and I don’t think it’s intrinsically bad. On the contrary, it can prove helpful, especially if I need to understand the function of a certain language feature, or if I wish to avoid a cultural misunderstanding. Take this sentence, for example: “I can’t agree with you more, Hana. I couldn’t have put it better myself.” When I heard this utterance for the first time, I found it a little arrogant and I thought: Well, this person tries to show me that he knows better than me. How pompous! Since then, though, I’ve heard this phrase many times in many different contexts, so I’ve inevitably come to the conclusion that it’s perfectly all right. The function of this chunk is to express agreement – nothing more or less.

So I’m not trying to imply that we should avoid consulting native speakers. All I’m saying is that we should be careful whenever we feel in awe of the native speaker’s linguistic knowledge. Ironically, we, NNSs feel offended when we suspect that we’re being discriminated on the ELT job market, and we are ready to bravely fight for our rights. But isn’t it us, NNSs, who also contribute to the NSs’ aura of exceptionality? Many Czech students (and their parents) still feel that it’s better to have a NS teacher of English because they believe they know more. And we, invariably, support this conviction by giving up and asking for evidence served on a silver plate, instead of trying to look for answers ourselves.

Shouldn’t we (NNSs), of all people, demonstrate to our students that if they come across a problem they can’t solve on their own, there are loads of tools they can use without sulking about the fact that they will never possess the extensive knowledge of L2 a native speaker does. I’ve just remembered a situation I experienced at a workshop I recently attended: during pair work I worked with a native speaker of English and when talking about my holidays I mentioned we had stayed at a campsite where we had hired huts. She told me that it sounds really odd to say huts in this context. I don’t deny that I will never be able to feel the oddity unless a native speaker draws my attention to it. But there’s no point in concentrating on unachievable goals. What we need is as much autonomy and independence as possible – for our students but also for us, teachers.

As I see it, the sentence: “Wait, I’ll go and ask a native speaker” implies some kind of ownership. Luckily, English is no more owned by its native speakers. There are many Englishes and what sounds all right in one part of the world sounds odd in another. I dare say it doesn’t even matter what a native speaker would say and how they would say it. Not anymore. What matters is that we manage to get the message across but most importantly, that English is a medium of connection and diversity, not a means of division and uniformity.

Fear less hope more

As an EFL teacher I have a lot of intuitions and hunches about what is right and wrong. But I also have a lot of doubts and suspicions. Every day I ask myself if I’m on the right track or if I do enough to help my students do better.

I’ve had this suspicion for some time now: I’m not convinced that I’m entirely responsible for my students’ progress in the L2 development, even though I’m supposed to be. I believe that most of the time I’m there just to watch if they develop (or stagnate). The thing is that the majority of my students don’t learn the majority of the matter in the lessons. They pick up a great amount of the language outside the class. I have no control over this. But it’s a huge advantage: I have someone to turn to when there’s something I don’t know. Of course, there are some learners who are only exposed to English at school. You can recognize them immediately – they are the weakest and the least motivated ones. They aren’t doing well because they don’t do extra work outside the class and they don’t do extra work because they feel they are too weak to try. I don’t want to over-generalize but that’s the vicious circle I witness in everyday practice.

This brings me to the point of this post. As Scott Thornbury argues in his conversation with Jeremy Harmer at the IATEFL conference in Harrogate, with the restricted time we have on our hands in the traditional EFL classroom, it’s vital to find a compromise between the grammar and the lexical approaches to teaching the language. We can never replicate the way languages are acquired outside the L2 classroom. A classroom will always remain just a classroom. We need to focus on the system and the structure but the L2 classroom should primarily become a special place where all the knowledge is brought into and activated. It should be a place where things are sorted out. That’s how I’d love to see my classroom; unfortunately that’s not what I’m paid for.

On the other hand, I’m pleased to hear my A1 students repeatedly (and voluntarily) use a structure I drilled them in the previous lesson. I’m excited to read a description of their school trip which includes the following sentence: Judging by their voices, they were twenty years old. I’m happy to hear that whenever my young learners say numbers, such as 853, they stop and add ‘and’ (eight hundred ….and fifty-three), because I told them and they remember.

One way or another, all the above implies that learner autonomy is the most important thing we should bear in mind. Above all, we need to train our students to go and get exposed to the language out there – on the internet, on the radio, on TV, etc. We must start doing this at a very early stage, though. But we also need to teach them what is important out there – what to focus on. We need to show them how to take notes, record vocabulary, keep learning diaries and so on. And it’s never been easier with all the applications and gadgets available now.

So let’s hope that some day our classrooms will become the special places Scott Thornbury talked about. Let’s hope we won’t have to fear that our authority will be threatened once our students become totally autonomous, i.e. responsible for their learning and development.

How inauthentic materials promote critical thinking


Although I would describe myself as an open-minded teacher, I must admit that there’s usually ‘the’ answer (not ‘an’ answer) I expect to hear from my students. Not that I utterly reject an ‘incorrect’ response but I usually imply (more or less explicitly) that the student might consider changing or re-structuring the sentence (to fit my expectations). I do this because I honestly believe that this type of control is for the sake of students’ linguistic development.

However, most of the time I’m truly amazed at all the unexpected ideas and objections my students come up with in the lessons. The other day we read about orphan bears in our Project 4 coursebooks. It’s all based on a true story (which I’m discovering now as I’m typing this post) but I suppose the text itself was invented (or simplified) for the purposes of the EFL classroom. The leaflet, in the form of a letter, is followed by a commonplace matching exercise (words and their definitions). Surprisingly, two of the definitions almost caused a riot among my students. The word fur is described as a bear’s hair and den is defined as a bear’s home. These are perfectly acceptable definitions for me and there’s no reason why I should doubt their correctness. But in the class of 13-year-olds there is a keen biologist (let’s call him John). This boy has an enormous knowledge of all the flora and fauna and when I don’t know how long a bear hibernates, I ask him. After finishing the exercise, the boy suddenly puts up his hand, outraged. I’m not surprised; it’s his usual way of disagreeing with facts. Here is a shortened transcript of the conversation.

John (in an excited way): I’ve never heard a bigger lie! The author of the book tries to deceive us.
Me (amused and curious): Really? Why do you think so, John?
John: The definitions are completely wrong! Or at least incomplete!
All the students look puzzled but amused. This is like John.
John: A den is the shelter of any wild animal, not just a bear’s! And fur is not just a bear’s hair!
Me: Hmm. An interesting point.
Students: But, John, we’re talking about orphan bears, that’s why the definitions are so specific.
John: I don’t care. The definitions are incomplete. What a disgrace!
Me: You can write a letter of complaint to the author. Really. Here’s the template (I point to the letter in the book).
Students: Yes! Tom Hutchinson. You can write to Tom Hutchinson. But the problem is that there is no address.
John seriously starts looking for the address at the back of the book.
I am speechless because I’m amazed at his critical thinking skills and his courage to speak up in front of the teacher and all the classmates.
Finally, John calms down. However, later on during the pair work, he stubbornly changes the two definitions to fit his idea of what fur and hair are, stressing the underlined words: this is a mammal’s hair…. and this is an animal’s home ….

I should add that most of the conversation in the transcript was conducted in English (I only slightly paraphrased it) and it makes me think: isn’t this is an excellent way of turning an inauthentic material into an authentic activity? Teaching ‘plugged’ can suddenly change into teaching ‘unplugged’. However, it was not me who incited this change. It was John’s courage and his need to air views. Now that I think about it, we might try to write the letter together after all, no matter if we eventually send it or not. But I’m sure Tom Hutchinson would be pleased to learn about John’s little observation because this incident shows that kids can think critically, even with a coursebook.