Flirting with syllabus design

200220153614Although the academic year is over here in the Czech Republic, my enthusiasm hasn’t dipped yet and I still keep myself occupied with the ELT stuff. I’m currently grappling with the syllabus for the next year senior students.

Let’s be honest; the coursebook always comes in handy during the planning stage. However, it’s different with this particular course, mainly because we don’t use a coursebook anymore. This is not a popular move I have suddenly decided to make – it’s simply the way it always is.

The main goal of the syllabus is clear – to prepare my students for the final state exam in English. This limitation predominantly determines the content of the course, but it also gives me, the teacher, a lot of freedom to choose 1) the order of the items that will be covered throughout the course, 2) the scope of the content 3) what exactly will be tested and how 4) the materials and 5) the tools that will be used to present the material.

There are 25 topics in the oral part of the exam, which need to be covered by the end of April. Although most of the exam is regulated by the Ministry of Education, these particular topics were agreed on a long time ago by the then members of our English Department, and they include general areas such as travelling, hobbies, reading, films, as well as factual topics, such as basic facts about English speaking countries.

As a rule of thumb, it’s good to cover 3-4 topics each month. It’s quite a challenge because there are other things that need to be practiced, such as certain written styles and forms (formal/informal letter, e-mail, invitation, description, article, narrative, etc.). Also, throughout their final academic year, senior students need to practice listening, reading, and the Use of English type of exercises, which are part of the B1+ exam too.

All the aforementioned objectives basically constitute the framework I’m limited by. While creating the syllabus, I first consider the order of the topics. As I said, it is totally up to me which topic I start with. Nobody cares about the order in which we cover the topics, but once I produce the syllabus, I should stick to it. Thus, I find it important to carefully think things through in advance. I obviously try come up with a logical order, i.e. after the summer holidays, we won’t discuss Christmas traditions, but we’ll do Travelling because the students will have visited various places around the world so there will be a lot to share. Although I’ll provide my students with texts and materials to study from, the content of this unit will largely be created by the students’ experience and their own, personalized input.

Another topic that is closely related to Travelling is the Czech Republic and a separate topic – Prague. I assume many students will have traveled around the country as well, so they’ll be able to come up with loads of personalized content. Finally, we’ll slowly proceed to a slightly more demanding topic – the Education System. We’ll talk about the Czech education system first and then go on to discuss schooling in the UK. I find it highly beneficial when students are encouraged to juxtapose. Thus, while planning the syllabus, I try to create as many opportunities for comparison and contrasting as possible.

It’s no exaggeration to say that Czech teenagers don’t generally read a great deal. Luckily, they do have to read quite a few books for their Maturita Exam in Czech. Based on my observations, many of them postpone the compulsory reading till the very last minute. Thus, I have included the topic Reading, my Favorite Books, and Writers at the end of April. By then, the students will have read some fiction and they’ll feel awkward when I ask them about the books they’ve read.

This was some of the basic reasoning behind the order of the topics. As far as the written styles are concerned, most of them will be tightly related to the topics. For example, to practice narrating events, at the end of September, when we’ll have talked about holidays and traveling, I’ll ask my students to write a story about their best holiday experience. As soon as we’ve talked about friends, family, and relationships later in October, we’ll go on to practice writing invitations.

In my plan, there’s also a column for grammar, which I also need to consider during the planning stage. To be honest, this is the hardest part for me. Most of the B1 grammar has already been covered. However, some of it has been forgotten and needs to be revised. Again, I look at the topics and estimate which grammatical features are likely to emerge at each stage. To put it simply, when talking about holidays, it is likely that we’ll most often come across the past simple/continuous and present perfect simple. This is what I have included in the plan, but I can’t obviously predict what other grammatical features will pop up and which will have to be dealt with. This is the emergent part which I look forward to most.

At the moment, I don’t really care about the vocabulary section of the plan. Vocabulary will always be determined by the topic and the materials we will use. It will emerge along the way, so to speak. I use several specific online resources to download the exam-related materials (this one is my favorite), but they keep updating the sites so I don’t know exactly which text or visuals I will ultimately choose for a particular class. Also, I have already a thick folder with assorted photocopiable materials from previous years, so I’ll decide on the best text when the time comes. Plus I don’t know what the students will finally come up with. Based on my experience, it’s not good to plan every detail in advance anyway because each class is different – some classes are faster, some need more time to process the content. Some classes will do with basic facts while others will appreciate a more challenging input.

Well, this was my sprinkling of wisdom about syllabus design. Next year, I’ll do my best when implementing what I have planned, but I’m too experienced to assume that things will go strictly according to plan.

Goals vs. habits

track (1)I recently came across an interesting pdf by James Clear called Transform your habits.  It’s a guide that aims at helping people who wish to make progress in health, business, and life in general. The author argues that when people want to make changes, they usually do it the wrong way. According to Clear’s theory, which is a blend of academic research and real-world experiences, concentrating on long-term goals is not the best we can do. The trouble is that to achieve a long-term goal, we need to keep the level of motivation high for a long time. This is a tough task, as we all know. A momentary lack of motivation may cause the lack of will, and it may ultimately prevent us from achieving our goals. Clear suggests that it’s better and more efficient to stick to everyday habits rather than concentrate on one defining moment in the distant future.

I really like the idea that the process for achieving goals is just as important as whether or not we achieve them at all. In the world of education, we are obsessed with setting objectives and one example that immediately comes to mind is the Common European Framework of Reference for Languages. This guideline describes long-term achievements of learners of foreign languages. But how does it actually help the teachers and the students? In other words, does it tell us what habits our students need to form in order to reach a particular goal? Isn’t sticking to such a framework doing things the wrong way?

Take this statement, for instance: A proficient user (C1) can understand a wide range of demanding, longer texts, and recognize implicit meaning. Once I start teaching a B1 student who wants to reach a C1 level, most importantly, I should consider the habits this student needs to form in order to achieve the goal. I dare say that most learners don’t know what it takes to reach a specific language goal. It’s the teacher who has already been there and knows all the tricks. So in order to achieve the aforementioned goal, the learner first needs to create a habit of reading. This means that he should read suitable texts regularly and frequently. Time can be the worst enemy so it’s really important to get small doses rather than attempt to read something longer once in a while. The learner needs to read a variety of texts, and thus he needs to form a habit of searching for suitable English texts. This is easier said than done, but the teacher is there to tell the student where to look for texts and how to work with them.

To be able to recognize implicit meaning, the learner will probably need to read texts rich in metaphors and idioms. The learner should then create a habit of storing these language items and revising them. The teacher can make things easier for the learner by showing the tools available and demonstrating how to deal with metaphorical and idiomatic language.

I’m not sure we teachers always do it the right way. Mind you, we do our best to bring engaging materials and we focus on our flawless classroom management and perfect timing. But we only tell the students what to do at one given moment: Now, read this text and then do the comprehension check exercise. Then work in pairs and share your answers. But do we help our students form useful habits that would help them learn autonomously?

When I think about my own classroom, I’d say that basically, most of my students obediently do what I tell them to do. However, once they leave the classroom, many of them forget about English completely. Apart from listening to English songs, watching movies and playing PC games, I don’t think they have any habits related to learning the language whatsoever. Every day, they reluctantly complete their homework, because they are required to do it, but that’s all.

For many students, the goals we have set for them are unattainable, which inevitably demotivates them. For others, on the other hand, the goals are not challenging enough and this demotivates them too. One way or the other, it seems that the goals are the problem. Although most students don’t really care about the long-term goals some bigwigs have invented up there in the ivory towers, we teachers have a bad habit of mentioning them all the time. What if the students only concentrated on forming good learning habits and forgot about the CEFR rubbish completely? I believe they might as well be much more successful in the end. Or at least much happier.

Closure and a new start

11428562_10205230245008770_8145717557143461695_nAnother school year is over. I’ve experienced this moment many times before but this time it’s a tad special because, since September 2014, I’ve been a homeroom teacher to a class of 23 fourteen-year-olds.

I don’t remember studying any manuals on how to be a good homeroom teacher before I became one. I just remember I decided to take it easy right from the beginning. I started slowly, with caution, trying not to be too emotionally involved. I didn’t want to make any radical changes or come up with some drastic measures. I didn’t bang my fist on the table claiming: ‘Now that I’m here, everything’s going to be different’. Instead, I decided to observe and adjust along the way. And it’s turned out to be the best tactic.

It never ceases to amaze me how different each class is. Each class is a unique living organism and one tiny change can affect the whole dramatically. I love to watch these little changes. For example, back in November, a new student joined our class. When I first saw his exotic features, I was worried that his appearance may incite some negative comments. However, he turned out to be really easy-going, friendly and natural, and the class accepted him immediately. Earlier today, I was proud to see him publicly receive a prize for the best ICT student.

Next year, my class will undergo another test of tolerance. We’ll have a guest student from Hong Kong, who doesn’t speak a word of Czech. This means that apart from the fact that he comes from a totally different cultural background, the rest of the class will only be able to communicate with him in English. It’ll be a linguistic challenge for everybody – the class, the new student, and all the other teachers. But it’ll be demanding from a psychological point of view as well. My job will be to make sure that everybody feels safe and happy.

The number of students will actually increase by two since another student will join our class in September. It’s a girl who’s just moved from Germany. Although she’s Czech, she’ll inevitably come with a very different type of education and personal experience. I’m very curious to see how her presence will influence the class dynamic.

Well, there are lots of important cha(lle)nges ahead of us so keep your fingers crossed for us.

Out there in the wilderness

1503387_10205230041323678_8172998152055828656_nWe English teachers like talking about Dogme or teaching unplugged. Some of us are attracted to this approach while others are somewhat skeptical. A recent experience made me wonder whether people are generally divided into the dogme types and non-dogme types, i.e. people who treat things as they emerge and people who plan a lot and like to have control over every single detail.

On Thursday, my class of 21 students, my colleague and I went to a nearby locality where we stayed overnight at a place called The Hunter’s Cottage. It’s a beautiful resort far off the beaten track, amidst the woods that constitute a nature reserve. Right next to the cottage, there are horse stables and a mini zoo – a home to a handful of domestic animals: two sheep, a goat, a fat pig, and two funny wild boars constantly snoring or guzzling the kitchen leftovers. In front of the cottage, there’s a large patch of grass, where kids can play football, badminton or just chase each other. There are all sorts of swings and slides, a mini golf course, and a trampoline, where even teenagers can fool around. Further on, behind the patch, there is a paddock, where you can watch horses graze in the day. Behind the cottage, there’s a cozy, sheltered place, where you can sit around a wooden table playing board games, and there’s a campfire ring too. All in all, it’s a fantastic spot for a dogme school trip. By a dogme school trip I mean a trip where the teacher makes sure that the kids have a roof over their heads, that they have something to eat, but the rest is up to the emergent circumstances.

As soon as we arrived, the kids immediately seized the place. It was all theirs from the very first moment. My colleague and I sat on the bench watching the kids frolic. And this watching, free of any interventions, brought some of the most interesting pedagogical observations. Everybody chose to do something different. Some kids created large groups while others stayed in pairs. There were a couple of loners too. It was easy to see who liked whose company. Some of the kids were very active, running around like crazy; others sat quietly on the grass, chatting or just watching the others. Some kids looked as if they expected somebody would start entertaining them or telling them what to do. Some of them even disappeared in the cottage and stayed inside their rooms to enjoy the privacy.

In the afternoon, we went hiking. My colleague and I decided to walk to a nearby place – an ecological center – where the kids are going next year for a compulsory excursion. It was a beautiful, sunny day. We knew the destination, but we were not sure about the way. In other words, we knew the goal, but we were not quite sure how to  reach it. So we asked the people we met on the way and the watched the signs. But the signs and the people’s advice mislead us and we got lost. Now and then we stopped to discuss our next moves. At one point, the kids took out their phones to check out Google Maps, but they turned out to be totally useless in the middle of the fields.

It was very interesting to observe the kids’ reactions at this stage. While my colleague and I considered this stage very adventurous, some kids found it rather upsetting. Some of them looked upset regardless of the fact that we reassured them that it was just a matter of minutes and hundreds of meters before we got back on the right track. It’s not a place where you can get lost and die of hunger. Some of them even wanted to give up and go back without reaching the destination. Many of them were just grumbling and complaining all along the way. A few of them didn’t care and seemed to be enjoying the uncertainty. A couple of them tried to come up with a solution.

Later on, we discussed this with my colleague. We realized that it is not the kids’ fault that they fear uncertainty. We are to blame because we are part of the education system, which has taught them to rely on minute-to-minute plans. It’s the system which tends to exclude everything which is open to doubt. It’s the system that teaches them that those who get lost will lose points. Also, they are told that the teachers should always know all the answers, but the truth is that sometimes they know as much (or as little) as the students.

Outside the classroom, out there in the wilderness, things are different. However, if you are observant, you can tell a lot about your students’ educational attitudes and preferences. And maybe it’s a great opportunity to adjust the way you treat your students while they sit behind the desks. You can teach them to appreciate adventure and uncertainty. You can convince them that not everything can be thoroughly planned and sometimes their voices are as important as the teacher’s opinion.

Game over!

010920142684Towards the end of the school year, I’d like to share a couple of activities that you can use in class when you’ve already ‘done’ the coursebook or covered all the material you planned. Alternatively, they can come in handy in the first lesson after the summer holidays to activate your students and revise vocabulary.

Both activities are very simple and your students won’t need anything but a pen and paper. They are adaptable to any level and age and there is no preparation needed. Once you instruct your students what to do, you can withdraw completely and see the magic happen. Both activities are suitable for groups and larger classes (the minimum would be 4 students), especially if you want to increase student talking time and help your learners improve speaking fluency. Although I’m sure the activities won’t be completely new to you, each of them includes a tweak you haven’t probably considered before.

Activity 1)

Give each student a small piece of paper. Ask Ss to choose a certain number of English vocabulary items from their notebooks/vocabulary lists at the back of the book/whatever (ideally 12 -15 words). Each student will presumably end up with a totally different set of words, which is desirable. Ss stand up and start mingling, playing a game similar to Bingo. The aim is to get rid of all the items on the list. Student X meets Student Y and describes one word from the list. When Student Y guesses the word, Student X can cross it off/tick it. They change roles. When Student Y crosses off one word too, they swap the lists. At this point, student X has Student Y’s list and finds another player, Student Z, for example. Ss could obviously play without constantly swapping the lists, but they would only see the words they have chosen. It’s more challenging if they are encouraged to describe the words other Ss have picked plus the vocabulary revision effect is much bigger. The one who ticks the last word on the list they’re currently holding is the winner and shouts ‘Bingo!’ Sometimes Ss are excited about the fact that they’ve ended up with their original lists, which is fine.

Activity 2)

Ask Ss to get into pairs. Give each pair a large piece of paper (A4). Demonstrate the activity with one student at the board. For starters, describe a simple word, such as cat. When the student at the board guesses the word, he writes it down. Now, it’s his turn to come up with a word but it must start with the last letter of the previous word, i.e. the letter t. When you guess what the student means, you write it down. The game goes on for a certain amount of time, which is totally up to you. The winner is the most productive pair in the class, i.e. the pair with the most words recorded.

As a follow-up activity, I usually ask Ss to look at their lists again and put the words into categories (or invent a category for each item). This is very useful because it actually increases the amount of vocabulary practiced. For a simple word like chair, Ss will find categories such as furniture, wooden objects, things to sit on, etc. and thus will revise even more lexis. Lots of useful connections will be created during this stage. Remember that all the input has been generated by the students, not the teacher. One student’s output becomes another student’s input.

The fact that students can choose their own words to work with is highly motivating. Another motivating factor is the game element, but your students will quickly forget that it’s a competition because they will fully concentrate on the task, i.e. to grasp/find and define a word. Also, they need to find strategies which help them define a word as quickly and effectively as possible. Although in Activity 1 they play individually, the opponents actually become allies. For instance, when talking to a weak student, a strong student will have to adjust the definition to make it easy to understand. In other words, they all need to cooperate with one another in order to successfully complete the task.

Go light!

feather (4)Everybody would probably agree that material light or material free lessons often turn out to be the best ones. I don’t know why it is so but I suspect that the feeling of not being pressed by the material one has (decided) to cover in the lesson is what makes this type of teaching so fresh and satisfying for both the teacher and the student. Maybe it feels so fresh to me because I don’t teach unplugged on a daily basis, so it’s a nice tweak to my regular teaching techniques. And my students can obviously sense the freshness too.

I’d say that any material – provided it’s in the centre of the teacher’s attention – can be a hindrance rather than an aid. The material lying there on your desk ready to be used diverts your attention from your students – it makes you constantly think of the timing and it often forces you to interrupt your students in the middle of an exciting, fruitful activity – just because you have another fabulous plan (read: material) up your sleeve.

The truth is that you can design a successful lesson in less than a couple of minutes and all you and your students need is paper and pen. This is something I did earlier this week and I’d like to share my little success here on my blog.

Czech students of all ages and levels generally struggle with determiners. Articles are undoubtedly the most notorious linguistic troublemakers belonging to this group. However, I don’t really panic if my students use them incorrectly because I consider this type of error just a cosmetic imperfection, so to speak (with some exceptions, of course).

However, quantifiers, for example, can be more important for the intelligibility of the message and/or they can completely change the meaning of it if used incorrectly. For instance, the difference between a few and few is not trivial. Yet, my students keep messing these two up. For some reason, they also struggle with each (of us/person)every (one of us, person) and all (of us/people/of the people). No matter how many exercises and gap fills we have done and how much extra homework I have assigned, they keep making the same errors.

Earlier this week, I suddenly felt desperate about my Ss’ inability to grasp determiners, so before the lesson, I quickly scribbled the following 10 sentences.

  1. Every Czech person should be able to speak some English.
  2. Few people like poetry.
  3. Most Czechs are fat.
  4. Every student should read a few books a year.
  5. Some people in the class are very talented.
  6. It’s better to have no siblings.
  7. All teenagers should get a little pocket money.
  8. Pupils should get little homework at school.
  9. Each of us can achieve anything in life.
  10. There isn’t much to do here in Šternberk.

I decided to go really light and although I felt the temptation to give students printed copies, I finally did not type the statements. Instead, I divided the class into A students and B students and I dictated the sentences one by one – the A students recorded all the odd number statements and the B students took down the even number statements. This shortened the writing stage, but at the same time, it made the students concentrate much more than if they just had to look at a handout. An A student then got into a pair with a B student and they shared their statements. Their task was to say if they agree or not and why.

I was surprised how lively the discussion got in a matter of seconds and what great ideas Ss kept coming up with. They were discussing commonplace statements, after all, which I had created in only five minutes. I don’t really know why some conversation activities go well and why some topics are totally uninteresting for my students. After so many years of experience, I can never quite estimate in advance whether Ss will like the topic or not.

Nevertheless, I stopped the chatter after about 15 minutes and we went through all the statements together. Each time, I asked one student to express his/her opinion and the others could react briefly. This was also interesting and more useful language as well as new ideas were generated throughout this stage.

Finally, we focused on the determiners a bit. I got Ss to change the determiners to make sentences that would express their real opinion, e.g. It’s better to have a few/many/some siblings. Some/many Czechs are fat.

I should stress that although the activity was originally designed and tailor made for a group of 18-year-old B1/B2 students, and it was supposed to last up to 10 minutes at the most, I also did it with two lower level classes later on, despite the fact that according to the syllabus, we were not supposed to ‘be doing’ determiners. Obviously, the groups came up with different language outputs, made different errors and expressed different ideas, but the activity worked equally well in all groups.

This brings me to a thought that it’s perfectly possible and pretty easy to design meaningful material light activities/lessons which are adaptable, versatile, recyclable and save the teacher a lot of time and energy. And I believe it’s worth putting some effort into such activities.

A sweaty moment

round objects (4)Have you ever had a lesson that was your worst lesson ever? This is a question Joanna Malefaki asked in one of her recent posts.

Well, I’ve definitely experienced quite a few fiascos throughout my teaching career, but there’s one that happened quite recently.

I think I have already said it here on my blog that I’m not someone who normally plans for hours. Nevertheless, I always need a couple of minutes before the lesson starts to sort out my ideas and gather the materials. Now and then, though, something unexpected happens and I’m robbed of the time slot that I need to be able to think my lesson through and to mentally prepare for what comes next.

Every day, I normally arrive at least 30 minutes before the first lesson starts and I quickly check what’s ahead of me. Last Monday, however, I was late, for reasons I’m going to analyze here, so I only managed to quickly grab the coursebooks before I clamorously rushed into the classroom. No preparation, no lesson notes, no idea what we did last time.

I should add that it was an exceptionally hot day; it was sweltering, even though it was only 8 in the morning. Thus, I entered the classroom red in face, sweat dripping all over my body. Yeah, the way I felt was as disgusting as the description of it. Anyway, when I finally sat down to take attendance, the only thing I could think of was the annoying perspiration; I was visualizing the huge drops moving slowly down my spine, my forehead, and my temples, some of them ready to fall down and splash on the class book lying on the table in front of me. I must have looked completely worn out and totally ridiculous.

I couldn’t concentrate on anything whatsoever. My mind was occupied by how terrible I looked and how embarrassing the situation was. As I desperately needed to cool down in order to pull myself together, I apologized and ran back to my office to rinse my hands and dry my forehead with a paper towel. However, this movement, in combination with my nervousness, made me sweat even more. Anyway, when I came back to the classroom, I sat down again and asked my students about their homework (I didn’t have a clue if I had assigned any in the previous lesson).

Luckily (for me), there was some homework to check. We slowly opened our workbooks and started going over the exercises. I normally try to exploit every coursebook exercise to the fullest – I add extra vocabulary items and collocations and ask additional questions. This time, I didn’t even stand up to put some of the useful language items on the board; I was afraid to turn my back to the class because I suspected that there might be wet stains on my cotton T-shirt. Sitting there in a stiff position, I wasn’t even paying attention to what the students were saying, and when somebody read an incorrect answer, I didn’t even notice.

While I was cooling down, the atmosphere in the classroom got equally chilly. The students looked bored and uninterested. I wasn’t surprised. I didn’t manage to activate them or warm them up at the beginning of the lesson. Even a single idea of the word ‘warm-up’ added a few more degrees to the temperature in the stuffy room.

To cut it short, it took me at least 15 precious minutes  before I finally recovered from my embarrassing condition and started to act normally. Needless to say, the lesson was a total failure and an absolute waste of time.

If I had had those thirty minutes before the first lesson, everything would have been different. I wouldn’t have been thrown off balance so easily. Had I checked out my notes from the previous lesson, I would have been able to make a rough lesson plan at least. Alternatively, at the beginning of the lesson, I could have asked the students to write a short report about their weekend, for example, so that I could chill out a bit and think about the next stages of the lesson.

The moral of the story: Never be late on a hot day!

Some of my long-desired experiments

020520153817I can’t help feeling that most of the debates happening in the ELT world these days revolve, directly or indirectly, around evidence or a lack thereof. For example, some people argue that non-native speakers of English are as good teachers as the native ones. They say that there’s no reason to believe that NNS can’t do the job as well as NS. Perhaps the Chomskyan idea that NS represent the authority on the language in terms of grammaticality is deeply rooted in our psyches, and thus we constantly feel the need to disprove everything remotely related to it.

Although the research strongly supports the claim that NS and NNS are equally good teachers, I sometimes wish I could carry out my own experiment. I wish I could ask a qualified native-speaker teacher to volunteer for my experiment. We would both get a class of, say, 12 students of the same age and language proficiency (beginners would be ideal), and we’d teach them for, say, four years. Then, their language proficiency would be measured via various tests and this would prove which one of us did better. Or would it? I have my doubts. I suppose it would only prove that one group of students, or the other, have achieved better results, which could be totally unrelated to the teacher’s mother tongue. I dare say it could even have nothing to do with the teacher at all.

There’s another problem, though. Tests can measure many things, such as grammatical accuracy or the number of vocabulary items learned throughout the course, but there are things which would certainly be overlooked by such as test, e.g. the enthusiasm with which the target language is perceived and learned, the motivation to carry on learning, the level of learner autonomy, etc. These qualities may not seem very important at the given moment, but they may be vital for the future of the language learner.

Secondly, if we wanted the results of our experiment to be 100 % accurate, we would need to teach the same groups, which is virtually impossible, of course. Also, we would have to make sure that we are both equally qualified and experienced teachers of English. This is also easier said than done plus there are many variables at play – the knowledge of Ss’ L1 (or a lack thereof), our different cultural backgrounds, different personal beliefs and attitudes to learning and teaching languages acquired throughout our careers, etc. We are not clones of the same person and neither are our students, by the way. And the last but not least, the two of us would prove nothing simply because it’s too small a sample to draw any conclusions.

But even if we made the experiment much more extensive and asked more teachers to participate, the results could be equally unreliable due to all the variables mentioned above. My conclusion is that the hypothesis that NNS are as good as NS (or vice versa) is very difficult to prove because overall, it’s quite difficult to prove and measure the quality of any teacher.

Also, take learning styles. Lots of people in the education world are skeptical about them; whether they exist is a longstanding debate among the ELTs. I can’t even count how many times I have wished I could experiment with this concept. I didn’t get very far with my ambition, though. Once, I handed out a simple, classic questionnaire whose aim was to find out about the students’ learning styles. One thing that I discovered was that although the theory of learning styles might be questionable, students just love doing quizzes about themselves. Thus, it turned out to be one of the best speaking lessons ever, even though the scientific potential got lost in translation, so to speak.

And finally, I mustn’t forget about the anti-coursebook mania. Is it better to teach with or without coursebook? Again, to be able to draw any conclusions, one would have to prove their hypothesis, which is not really feasible. The fact that students don’t learn a grammatical item at the moment of instruction is a well-known argument against coursebooks, but what does it prove? The coursebook is not my administrator and thus I’m not answerable to my coursebook or its publisher. If students have not mastered a grammatical item, I will do something about it, but why on earth should I blame a coursebook grammar page or the publisher of the coursebook?

The only irrefutable argument against coursebooks I would accept at the moment is that they are terribly expensive, at least here in the Czech Republic. This is a fact measurable beyond doubt. So I secretly hope that this debate will be useful in the end and publishers will think of reducing the prices and make their masterpieces more accessible and affordable. In consequence, lots of the naysayers may finally become less interested in criticizing them.

Reasons and excuses

on the road (1)In this post, I’d like to reveal some of my vices. I’d like to explain and justify these weaknesses in the hope of being forgiven or understood by all those who don’t share the same imperfections. Here they are, in a completely random order:

1) Like every modern housewife, I have a mixer. I know I could easily do without this commonplace kitchen utensil because, as my grandma would argue, I might well do the stirring, whisking, beating and kneading manually using a fork, a beater, or a wooden spoon. However, there’s no need to make the process of preparation unnecessarily arduous, right? Most consumers of my dishes are interested in the outcome anyway – the yummy soup or the delicious sauce I prepare – and they don’t really care how I actually achieved the result. So, the mixer just makes my life easier and it saves a lot of my energy and time while I strive for excellence and perfection.

2) I also have a car. I confess I use it every day to get to work, even though my workplace is within a walking distance from my house. I feel it’s not quite right because it actually turns me into a lazy person, plus it’s not exactly environment-friendly. Also, I would probably be much fitter if I walked or cycled, but where on earth would I put all the heavy shopping bags? It’s simply comfortable and practical for me to drive, especially because I have a big family to look after.

3) I plead guilty to using a GPS when driving. I know that driving unplugged, i.e. reading a classic map and then watching the road signs and landmarks, would be more interesting and beneficial for the development of everybody’s navigation skills, but having an additional aid as a backup helps me feel safe on the road.

4) To my shame I admit that I sometimes visit a fast food restaurant and shamelessly enjoy all the unhealthy food and drinks they offer there. I’m well aware of the fact that consuming too many burgers, chips, and McNuggets can make people fat and malnourished because the quality and the nutritional value of these products are not exactly high, but I simply can’t resist. Sometimes I’m even forced to eat there (my sons are to blame cause they’re loving it). The thing is that the food is prepared and served quickly – by a standardized method – it includes tons of addictive content, and all the packaging’s so colorful and bright. 

5) I feel a little ashamed that unlike many of my friends, I rarely make birthday cakes for my children. Instead, I have them made by someone who is more experienced in making them. I know it would be nice and more personal to make one myself, regardless of the seemingly imperfect outcome and lots of mess in the kitchen. I also know that when making my own cake I could choose all the ingredients and content according to the birthday people’s needs and wishes, but maybe I’m not confident in making cakes yet, and I just want to shift some of the responsibility in order to make everyone happy. 

6) Oh, and I use coursebooks – for all the reasons and despite all the flaws highlighted above.