Wednesday, 27 June 2012

Who Needs Theory?

This was the title of a recent OUP webinar I attended.  It was presented by Keith Morrow, the editor of ELT Journal and was about the role of theory in language teaching.  It also addressed the question of how theory contradicts practice in the classroom.  What follows is a summary of this very informative webinar.

What is Theory?

Theory can be defined as 'the fundamental or abstract principles underlying a science or art'.  There are three types of theory:
  1. A supposition or a system of ideas intended to explain something, especially one based on general principles independent of the thing to be explained.  Examples of this type of theory would be the theory of evolution or the theory of relativity.  These are very abstract, very powerful theories put forward by the likes of Darwin and Einstein and not particularly relevant to us as teachers.
  2. A set of principles on which the practice of an activity is based.  An example of this would be music composition theory as proposed by J S Bach.  This kind of theory is less abstract than that of Einstein and is more relevant to us as teachers - applying and developing principles to create a set of beliefs on which we base our classroom practices.
  3. An idea used to account for a situation or to justify a course of action.  An example of this would be the famous fictional detective Miss Marple, saying, 'My theory would be that the murderer got in through the window'.  This is a much more concrete type of theory and is very relevant to us as EFL teachers.  It is about trying to explain individual events and is something which we do for ourselves everyday when we reflect on what has happened in our classrooms. 
What do we ask of theory?

According to Chomsky (1965), when it comes to theory, there are three things we are looking for:
  • Observational adequacy (Miss Marple)
  • Descriptive adequacy  (Bach)
  • Predictive adequacy (Einstein)
What we need to do is to take observations and turn them into principles.

Where does theory come from?

Theory comes from two sources:
  • Rationalism: truth can best be discovered through reason and rational thought.
  • Empiricism: emphasises evidence, especially as discovered through experimentation.  All hypotheses and theories must be tested against observations of the natural world rather than resting solely on a prior reasoning, intuition or revelation.
Characteristics of theory

Theory is:
    J S Bach
  • General - it aims to discover general or underlying truths.
  • Top down - academics and researchers produce the theory and hand it down to practitioners.
  • Prestigious
  • Disconnected from practice - in her 'Focus on the teacher' article which is to be published in ELT Journal in October this year, Carol Griffiths argues that classroom issues, such as student motivation and classroom management, are the biggest worries for teachers.  Her findings are based on research conducted with teachers in Istanbul.  She writes that what happens in the classroom usually clashes with the theory.  Because theory comes from the top down, there is a disconnect between the theorists and the practitioners.
Why is there this disconnect?
  • Theory usually focuses on 'competence' rather than 'performance' and teachers have to perform.
  • Theory is usually based on introspection or experimentation.  Neither of these are real.  Classrooms are real.
  • Theory aims at capturing general truths.  The classroom is a very specific situation.  Specific situations are very difficult for theory to handle.
Because there is this very real disconnect, many teachers believe that we don't need theory.  After all, linguists are not in the classroom day in and day out.

A way forward

For initial/pre-service teachers' courses:
  • move away from the 'theoretical input model'.
  • make explicit connections between the procedures and techniques used in teaching and the underlying theory.
  • help trainee teachers to 'theorise' for themselves and explore what is happening in their classrooms (what works and what doesn't?).
For in-service teachers' courses:
  • help teachers to bring their implicit theories and underlying principles into the open, to challenge them and to facilitate change.

'It's an important function of theory formation to advance from a naive and unreflecting realism to a more conscious understanding of the principles and concepts underlying one's actions'.
(Stern 1983)

Who needs theory?

So, what is the answer to the question posed in the title of this webinar?


Without theory, experience has no meaning.
Without theory, one has no questions to ask.
Hence, without theory, there is no learning.
William Edwards Deming

Miss Marple

It has to be Miss Marple's type of theory so that we can learn and develop as teachers and, to be valuable, it must come from our work, from our experience and in our context.

Saturday, 23 June 2012

Fads, trends and robots taking over the world! - an #eltchat summary

This is a summary of the #eltchat held at 12noon BST on Wednesday 20th June, 2012.  The full title of the chat was:

'The Next Big Thing - what is it?  Is ELT becoming a fad-driven profession?'

I have to admit that I wasn't particularly inspired by this topic and I certainly didn't vote for it, but, as often happens with #eltchat, as we got going, it turned out to be a fascinating discussion with lots of interesting and thought-provoking ideas being put forward.  It was expertly moderated, as usual, by @Marisa_C and @Shaunwilden.  This was particularly important on Wednesday as it was quite a confusing chat with several threads running simultaneously.  I'll do my best to make some sense of it!!

Defining Terms

The discussion began with several of us opting to 'lurk', unsure as to what we were actually going to be talking about.  What exactly did we mean by 'fad-driven'?  Indeed, what is a 'fad'?
  • @cerirhiannon suggested that a fad is a new idea that quickly gathers a lot of followers, but questioned whether the word 'fad' implies a degree of mindless fashion-victim like behaviour, taking things on but not really thinking them through.
  • @GenkiSarah said that, for her, 'fads' are the things she leaves conferences excited about trying.
  • @theteacherjames said that, to him, the word 'fad' suggests 'here today, gone tomorrow', but wondered whether one person's fad is another person's innovation.  I agreed that it has a negative connotation.
  • @trylingual asked whether fads are all style and no substance.
  • @JoHart suggested that often an established pedagogic approach in another field is picked up by ELT, given a new name and becomes a fad.
So, if 'fad' is not the right word, what should we be using?  The concensus was that 'trend', 'innovation' or 'fashion' were preferable terms. 

What are recent and current fads (trends) in ELT?
  • It was agreed that technology per se can no longer be considered to be a fad, but that tools within it can be.  @bcnpaul1 suggested that some stick and some don't and that the ones that do tend to be those that encourage student-generated content.
  • @MellynEducation asked whether tweetchats, including #eltchat, could be a fad.  #Eltchat devotees quickly quashed this idea and insisted that we are here to stay!
  •  Apps were put forward by @cerirhiannon.
  • Could @Shaunwilden's dreaded d-word (aka dogme) be a fad?  Perhaps not, as it's been around for some time!
  • Corpora, task-based learning, return to translation, extensive reading - all proposed by @michaelgriffin.  (The latter was disputed by @theteacherjames who felt there was too much evidence to consider it to be a fad.)
  • @Marisa_C suggested edtech, but as a trend, definitely not a 'fad'!
  • Audiolingualism was suggested by @GenkiSarah, but others thought it had been around too long to be considered a fad.  As @trilingual pointed out, it is still being used in some teaching contexts with new technology being used as a vehicle for it.
  • @teacherphili said that he would put flipping under the 'fad' heading, leading to a discussion as to whether the flipped classroom was indeed a fad, an innovation or the 'next big thing'.
  • mlearning put forward by @trylingual - an excuse for students to use their phones or genuine engagement?
  • @kevchanwow suggested grammar flooding where the teacher picks a grammar point and then gives loads of authentic input, something which many of us probably already do without giving the technique a name.
  • The Silent Way was put forward because, even though it has been around for over fifty years, it has recently attracted new proponents and has been given fresh credence in the classroom, although, as @JoHart pointed out, being silent is very difficult in today's virtual classroom because students just think there's a problem with the audio!!
  • Pecha Kucha suggested by @JoHart and seconded by @michaelgriffin as meeting all the criteria for 'faddishness'.
And what might the 'next big thing' be?
  • @RoyaCaviglia suggested that it might be the introduction of interactive course tablets to replace coursebooks.  Indeed, several contributors thought that we might be heading towards a coursebook free classroom.  This idea is supported by the amount of work publishers are doing on online resources, including digital coursebooks which are editable by the user.
  • @ElkySmith asked whether it might be English Profile, a corpus-based description of what learners should and shouldn't be able to do at different levels.  He suggested that it could have a big impact on what we teach, and when and how we teach it.
  • Self-directed learning via technology was put forward by @trylingual though @cioccas pointed out that she's already been doing this for years!
  • @Marisa_C suggested that the study of how the brain functions and acquires language might change the way we teach, as put forward in Zull's talk at IATEFL Glasgow 2012.
  • 'Pick 'n' Mix' blended courses were put forward by @fionamau.
  • Webinars were suggested by @BrunoELT as the 'next big thing' in PD, something I wholeheartedly agree with - in fact, I was taking part in a webinar shortly after #eltchat finished.  @bcnpaul1 went on to explain the use of webinars in the flipped classroom where they are viewed pre-class and then followed-up face-to-face in the lesson, offering input and freedom - the best of both worlds.
  • @harrisonmike suggested game-based language research and teaching.
  • @kevchanwow hoped that the 'NBT' might be valuing teachers, but realised that this was probably too radical an idea!
  • @michaelgriffin wondered if robot teachers might be the 'next big thing'!  We hear that they might already be a reality in Korea!
Nominated for the 'best tweet of the day award', from @ij64:

NBT will be the iFad!

So is ELT 'fad-driven'?
@esolcourses suggested that teaching has always been driven by 'the next big thing' to some extent. @bcnpaul1 agreed, but felt that this was no bad thing as it moves things on, to which @esolcourses responded by saying that sometimes we just go round in circles! @bcnpaul1 agreed, but argued that the circle gets it a bit more experienced each time it goes round!
Several of us pointed out that, because things move so quickly in our profession, we are still trying to catch up and learn about ten year old 'fads'!
'Fad-driven' or not, I pointed out that it's human nature to be curious about developments in your professional field and that we pick and choose the best of them to use in our teaching context. As @trilingual reminded us, we are an outward and forward looking profession, always seeking new and effective ways to teach. The key is to find and use a combination of all the best things out there, which, as @bcnpaul1 said, is what good teachers do!

Potential problems arising from being 'fad-driven'

As pointed out by @bcnpaul1, one of the main problems is that the 'next big thing' often mocks what came before, even though what came before is still valid in the present.  There's a danger that we throw the baby out with the bath water (@cerirhiannon).  In the constant quest for the 'next big thing' we sometimes dismiss tried and tested techniques as being 'old hat' which I think is a shame. 


I'll give the last words to @kevchanwow who said, 'I think we need to keep ourselves fresh.  The teacher must be the number one learner in the room and that means trying out new things', and to @JoHart who said, 'we should always embrace the possibility of the new, but we need to be discriminating and use what our professional judgement says works for a specific group'.