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.


About Hana Tichá

I'm an EFL teacher based in the Czech Republic. I've been teaching English to learners of all ages for more than 20 years. I love metaphors and inspiring discussions concerning teaching, learning and linguistics.
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3 Responses to Some of my long-desired experiments

  1. Hana, thanks so much for setting out in such detail why it’s impossible to “prove” one particular method, one type of teacher is better than another. It’ll be so useful to be able to refer people to your post when I need to to make the point – which I quite frequently do.

    As far as coursebooks go, it seems to me the onus is on the defenders and publishers of the books to prove they’re worth the money. If they can’t or don’t, surely I’m right to keep my money in my pocket and use to buy something more fun?

    When I was a young teacher it wasn’t “proof” that led me to abandon coursebooks. I just disliked using them so much I looked round for an alternative. I can’t prove that due to the way I taught that students learnt better – but just think of all the money I saved them! Collectively, it must come to a tidy sum.


    Liked by 1 person

    • Hana Tichá says:

      Thanks for stopping by, Glenys. I’m always happy to see your comment on my blog. I’m glad we’re on the same wavelength on this – the impossibility to prove one particular method. I’d say many of my posts revolve around this somewhat philosophical issue. Unfortunately, I rarely provide a solution. I just ponder and wonder … 🙂 At least I keep my brain occupied, right? As far as coursebooks are concerned, I fully understand your dislike for them. I mean, I use them because there is no other option (this is not an excuse but a fact), but I think I know how to exploit them to serve my students’ needs.

      Liked by 1 person

      • I do realise, Hana, that the majority of EFL teachers have no choice but to use a coursebook and often do not even have a say in which one – it’s imposed by the institution. I recognise I was in an extremely privileged position where I worked because I was totally free to choose my pedagogical approach. I didn’t have the support of my hierarchy, the pay wasn’t great, I didn’t get tenure until nearly the end of my career, out of class most of my colleagues seemed to do nothing but gripe and backbite but all that counts for nothing in the balance compared to freedom.

        As I wrote on Geoff Jordan’s blog I do think things are getting better just because there is now open debate about things such as coursebooks, NNS vs NS, gender parity… Not so long ago it was just taken for granted that NS were “better” than NNS teachers, men should get the top jobs, etc. Now they’re discussed even in such bastions of the establishment as IATEFL.

        Do keep on wondering and pondering… that’s the way forward especially when you write as well as you do.

        Liked by 1 person

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