IATEFL 2015 – Opening Plenary – Donald Freeman

Frozen in thought? How we think about what we do in ELT

How we use ideas to explain and justify, make sense out of what we do as teachers.

Reasoning has two sides to it. We can reason about something – reason as a verb – and we can give reasons for something – reason as a noun. To reason about something focuses internally, you making sense of something, whereas giving reasons addresses other people. So reasoning has both internal and external dimensions.

Reasons can be seen as ‘myths’ –  they connect us and help us justify what we do. The ‘myths’ we use are anchored in experience. They aren’t right or wrong. They have a grain of truth in them, there are elements of usefulness but also those that are misleading.

In this talk, Donald will look at a set of myths that organise our work.

  • The myth of direct causality
  • The myth of sole responsibility
  • The myth of proficiency as the goal

There is the one dimension of myths which is the shared-ness of the meaning, but they also create communities of people who accept them and consider them reasonable. In this way, they may also freeze our thinking.

The myth of direct causality

This is the myth that teaching causes learning. It’s like a pool shot, one ball propels the other towards the pocket. Not that straightforward. But there is a problem with this problem: we organise schools and teaching as if this myth is true. Teachers are evaluated based on how their students perform. Yearly progress is measured and teachers are evaluated accordingly. Then we aggregate this information to create league tables. The element that is true in this myth is that the opposite also is not true. Teaching and learning are connected but it is not a direct causal relationship. Teaching influences learning, a relational connection. A teacher’s move connects to a student’s move, which connects to a teacher’s move etc. So teaching does connect to learning, but the question is how we understand that connection – as influence rather than cause and effect.

The myth of sole responsibility

The myth that as a teacher I am solely responsible for making learning happen in the classroom. We do act often as if we are responsible for what is going on in our lessons, making critical decisions about what is to be taught, planning, materials preparation. So we view teaching as our responsibility. But the moves that we make open up moves that students make, and these moves re-shape the possibilities of the next moves we can make. And the game of the lesson progresses. Responsibility is distributed. It’s organised in a way that one move/decision/action shapes the possibility of what comes next. This interplay between moves we can think of as opportunities – to teach on the teacher’s side and learn on the students’ side. These opportunities when they line up seem almost seamless. When they don’t line up, things go wrong, the idea of sole responsibility resurfaces.

These two myths could be summarised in a single statement: “As a teacher, you have to manage what you can’t control.”  The question is, how can we thaw our way of thinking about these myths?

The myth of proficiency as a goal

The myth that the goal of classroom teaching is student proficiency. Donald would argue that this is the myth that fundamentally has us in its grasp. What’s right about this? Clearly what we do as teachers in the classroom creates opportunities for students – to learn language. What’s frozen is not that but the relationship between what we do in the classroom and the way we think about how it travels outside. Proficiency has us in its clutches as language teachers. The idea of proficiency is grounded in an assumption of nativeness. That the world of language users divides itself between those who are native users and those who are non-native users. Proficiency is something that those who are born with and use the language a lot have, and those who meet the language through school are striving for.

The problem is that both ideas – proficiency and nativeness – are misleading. Nativeness is geopolitical not linguistic. Similarly, proficiency – an intuitive and appealing idea – is conceptually problematic. A usefully wrong idea. “Usefully wrong” – a practical heuristic from Lee Scholman. Teachers use a particular form of knowledge when they teach – usefully wrong ideas. 25-30 years ago David Nunan pointed out that proficiency is like the ghost in the machine. “assumed to exist because the concept is intuitively appealing” –  Nunan, 1987. How do you actually define that stuff that people get good at in language, when language is so flexible, permeable, like water not like ice? And when getting good at is a function of place and circumstance, not something general and universal? Proficiency is a function of time, place and experience.

Proficiency freezes our thinking because we use the concept of general language proficiency which does not admit to a clear set of boundaries but instead covers a lot of territory. If students can do something in the classroom, in an exam, we assume they can do it on their own in a place of their own choosing. What happens in the classroom is not a reflection of the larger whole. It is part of it, but not a reflection. Horizonal knowledge: What you have to know in the moment and how you project it out into the future. In the language classroom, it is the suitcase problem. In order to capture language and bound it, we have to give it attributes that it doesn’t have and didn’t ask for. Grammar. Four skills. etc. They allow us to chart the relationship between what is inside and what we hope will happen outside. “The strange this funny things happen to language when it comes to school.” Language gets attributes because of the fact that we need to teach it, not because of what it actually is.

In place of this myth of general proficiency a a goal, what we need is proficiencies as a plural. All of us are multi-literate, we use different ways of accessing meaning in text. We are more literate in some ways than other ways. As plural, they are always situated in particular contexts. This would apply to proficiency. Then we need to think about how these contexts are bounded, to understand what it is we are proficient in. When we think about proficiency from this point of view, we can recognise that it is an interesting, intricate dance.

How do we create a version of English that teachers can use as they teach so that the boundaries are clear? Donald created a list of ‘teacher tasks’ – e.g. taking attendance, collecting student work, make announcements, discipline. A panel looked at the tasks and looked at how each task could be grouped into functional areas, how they are enacted in routines and what language accompanies them. So this defines classroom language proficiency from the point of view of the teacher. From task to language. If we wanted to help teachers become proficient in this context, general proficiency wouldn’t suffice. This is a very specific proficiency. By bounding it, setting parameters, identifying what it is, we can clearly identify that it isn’t about general proficiency.

Bringing it together

If these are some of our myths, how can we think about them differently? Think about skateboarding. If you watch people skateboarding, you will see there is a relentlessness about it. They practice again and again and again, on and on. So there is direct causality in what they do. They have sole responsibility (for the practice and outcome). It is clearly bounded, you become proficient in specific areas. This gives us a sense of learning but what about teaching? We need to think differently about what teaching is and might be. Learning driven by the learner. Teaching is part of it but the question is how? We know teaching is central but that doesn’t mean we have to think about it in the same way. If we reframe our myths in this way, then we can look at learning from a slightly different point of view.

Caleb Gattegno – “You can be lived by your preconceptions, which will make you a bad teacher”

Eleanor Duckworth – “It occurred to me, then, that of all the virtues related to intellectual functioning, the most passive is the virtue of knowing the right answer”

Think of the myths as our “right answers” – they impinge on our ability to think actively.

“What you do about what you don’t know is, in the final analysis, what determines what you will ultimately know” – Eleanor Duckworth.

Phew! A lot to digest and think about! What an interesting opening plenary. 🙂


4 thoughts on “IATEFL 2015 – Opening Plenary – Donald Freeman

  1. Pingback: IATEFL 2015: All my posts indexed! | Reflections of an English Language Teacher

  2. Pingback: IATEFL Day 1: Trojan Horses and Mouth Gymnastics |

  3. Pingback: #KELTchat on “The myth of proficiency” May 10th, 2015 | #KELTChat

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