Random thoughts in the hot winter


June 18, 2011 by Willy Cardoso

My English language learning experience was not transformative, critical, task-based, experiential, democratic, dialogic, constructivist, or anything like that. So what? I learned it anyway. Am I a superior being? Of course not! Hundreds did it too, same school, same method. And, yeh, other hundreds didn’t. So… I guess lots of students out there are not learning substantially either through say, a learner-centred approach?

Have you ever failed big time trying to be ‘learner-centred’ ?

I have. Maybe I don’t know how to do it, but then I’ve also been successful with my learner-centredness, many times. So…

I don’t know what I’m trying to say here, exactly. Sorry if you expect a grand conclusion, but no.

Principled ecleticism? – boy, how I dislike this term. For me (so don’t be offended), it’s like saying I don’t have an opinion, but that’s justifiable because I have a principle that supports my not having a position and instead I can have all of them. Okay… it works for many people, but it’s still not what I’m trying to say.

erm… let’s see…

What if a school had like 5 different classes for the same level, age, or however they group students; 5 different teachers, of course, but veeery different; and then students choose what they want, where they want to go. Or first week they have a lesson with each teacher, and then they choose one, after a month they can again decide if they want to keep that one or change to another.

The same way that teachers test students and classify them and judge them good or bad. Students should be able to test their teachers and all.

I think that would be more learned-centred…

until then, it’s still teacher-centred, material-centred, owner-of-the-school-centred.

the centre is where decisions are made, I suppose.

I was talking to a friend the other day, in Sao Paulo, he’s the director of the school I used to work with, they’ve been working on a new course which he told me students are liking a lot (yes, are liking), it’s even a more expensive course focusing on speaking skills and at some point he was telling me that in a certain conversation with a potential client they asked him and what’s the material?, and he answered the material is you! the material comes from you! and my friend was telling me this with a look of yeah, isn’t it awesome! And I was, alright that’s it, man! There ain’t no better way than this, the material is the student, why should it not be? And it’s just weird to me that after years and years in the business of English teaching many people realize that it’s not what you use, not exactly how you do it, but more than anything is who is there, WHO, the teacher, the students, even the administrators, like my friend who make the important decisions and now has been increasingly okay with having courses that have no coursebook, no strict syllabus, and which the most important thing that will determine their success are the people and their materials, the materials that come from them… oh well, or something like that.

I always feel things are too similar. I visit a school, I talk to people, school administrators, teachers, young learners and rarely do I see sparkles in their eyes when they’re talking about going to school. Very often I hear them say the word method, who said methods are dead? or post-method era? Are you kiddin’ me? Yesterday I was asked if I knew a method for bilingual education, for the little ones, a method meaning prescribed syllabus, curriculum, whatever you call it, plus books, booklets, everything the whole package. the whats and hows — and c’mon they forget the whos, who’s gonna be there?

Driving around my hometown I see there’s The street of English schools, about five or six, or more, they’re all there, lined up ‘cos y’know it’s easier for folks to choose one, they just go to one place, walk in and out and choose one. And you know what? they all have methods, their teachers all follow a book of how to teach, regardless of who is in the classroom.


I don’t want to choose from one method over another. I want the option of not having a method at all, is that possible?

I want the option of extrapolating learner-centredness, if such a thing really exists. If it does, for me it would be something like, you walk into the room, you see who is there, and then everything else takes shape.

the end.

oh, and the title – it really is hot in here, in the winter, where I am at the moment. That kinda messes up with your thoughts y’know, especially the random ones. See you!


20 thoughts on “Random thoughts in the hot winter

  1. I loved this post, Willy. Not just it’s down-to-earth, stream of consciousness style, but its profound understanding of what (language) teaching should be all about: the people in the room.

    I might use it with my methodology course that starts next week. Hope you don’t mind.

  2. Tony Watt says:

    It’s interesting to hear you say that Willy. I have been researching the concept of principled eclecticism and the death of teaching ‘methods’ and I find teachers usually drum out some bland comments along the lines of being ‘learner centred’ and ‘communicative’ without really knowing what that means, or how to teach following those principles. Mostly I have observed teachers reacting to situations, comments, attitudes, people. There is more human interaction than teaching and learning principle.

    I would like to know how this changes with teacher training… I suspect teachers just describe their activities differently but the end product is usually the same.

    • Hi Tony
      I’m glad you mentioned teacher training. If I were to generalize, I’d say it’s even worse in this area. When it comes to teaching (learners) at least there’s an increasing awareness of learner-centredness, whatever that is and with all its misconceptions, but at least we see we’re going somewhere less mechanistic I guess and also we can see some movements, like Dogme for example, trying to raise some consciousness of focusing more on the people and what they can bring to the classroom instead of packaged instruction. In initial teacher training, I rarely see anything more like Dogme for example, it’s still very, very grounded on behavioristic ideas of learning, from the point of view of the teacher as a learner, what happens is that teachers in training are told to be ‘learner-centred’ when in fact the very course they are taking is not doing that with/for them, as learners. Not sure if what I’m trying to say is clear at this point.

      Regarding the idea of your first paragraph, have you recently heard any teacher say their practice is not learner centred? I haven’t. So, is it already a given? If so, it’s is indeed espoused-theory most of the times as Richard said below.

  3. Sharon Hartle says:

    I love the idea of a school where students get to choose the class they go to etc. Wiziq( http://www.wiziq.com) is a bit like that, in fact, I was thinking, cos learners can go on the site suss out the trachers and what’s on offer, watch the videos of past lessons, and then sign up if they’re inspired. It’s a step in the right direction, anyway.

  4. A footnote: the book I’m reading (called Values, Philosophies and Belieifs in TESOL, by Graham Crookes, CUP, 2009) just threw up this (I think) relevant quote (from Covalskie, J. 2004. ‘Philosophical Instruction’ in Kincheloe, J.L., and Weil, D. (eds.) Critical Thinking and Learning: An Encyclopedia for Parents and Teachers, Westport, CT: Greenwood Press ) where the writer argues that it is not always the case “that teachers teach according to their beliefs. Far too often, teachers’ practice is shaped by other people’s beliefs about the world, humanity, value, and knowledge. These beliefs are embodied in curriculum design and/or textbook content given to teachers. Teaching is an activity-oriented profession, where the ability to deal with problems of practice swiftly is highly valued; ‘too philosophical’ is a condemnation… This often leads to an instruction that is based in technique rather than in philosophy, technique that is… the reflection of someone else’s philosophy, not the teacher’s” (p.327).

    The situations you are reacting against, Willy, seem to be those that reflect ‘someone else’s philosophy, not the teacher’s’.

    • yes… interesting quote and comment, but I see some gaps there.

      I do not thing teaching can ever be devoid of a teacher’s beliefs, even in the most restricted, top-down, anti-democratic sense, in the end it’s a person there, it’s the teacher as a person who is transmitting everything, and this person has a history that makes him/her unique, so I say teachers always teach according to their beliefs, even if a little and even if their beliefs are other-regulated, which is also always the case (not exclusively, but complementary). In fact, if adopting a sociocultural lens to discuss teachers’ beliefs we can find that it’s impossible to separate a teacher’s beliefs from his/her cultural baggage (language and other mediation tools), including the one that precedes his activity, all that turns out to compose his/her beliefs whether he/she is conscious of that or not. So, his beliefs is also someone else’s too, at least partially.

      It says: “teachers’ practice is shaped by other people’s beliefs about the world, humanity, value, and knowledge” – isn’t everything like that? It can be argued that not only do these things shape teachers’ practice but that they are the practice itself.

      But as the quote suggests now I’m philosophizing, a condemnation. I will argue that this shouldn’t be a dichotomy though, philosophy vs technique. There’s no teaching without philosophy; there’s only teaching whose philosophy is left unexamined; both the teacher’s and someone else’s philosophy – which more often than not will overlap (but they won’t know it unless they examine it ;-))

  5. Richard says:

    Great stuff Willy. I think it’s really interesting to get into thinking about the philosophical ideas behind our teaching, the values that affect us and how these ideas inform what we do in the classroom. I think it is arguably the most important area for personal and professional development, yet it is overwhelmed by the constant provision of activities, resources, methods and techniques. Teachers cry out for ‘ready-made activities’, so publishers, conference speakers and bloggers provide more and more resources, which are simply not needed if teachers focus on what the students can provide or create. Our beliefs and our understanding of them is a key to improving ourselves as teachers and should be a central part of reflection, but in terms of development it is often ignored, unwanted or under-valued.

    What Tony says above is true, labels like ‘communicative’ and ‘learner-centred’ are often worthless, an interesting area of teacher cognition is the idea of espoused beliefs – saying one thing and doing another.

    At the same time however, teachers are often restricted by institutions, curricula and course books which leave little space for the teacher’s individuality to influence the classes. It’s almost like teachers are expected to be an objective conduit for knowledge that passes through them into the students, which I think fits in with the quote Scott has shared (thanks!).

    • Great stuff Richard!

      I’m often ticked off by the ‘can I do it on Monday’ attitude of trainees, conference goers, ah and conference organizers also, and everyone else. It needs a place, the very practical idea, the 10 activities to motivate your students type of thing, it’s fine, they need a place but not all the place. I for one would really like to have seen a session on philosophy, sociology, anthropology, etc, at IATEFL for example. There are so many -logies that teachers could benefit from, why is it always the method- and the techno- that gets the biggest space?
      They are easier to sell?
      I don’t think it’s all a market behavior thing.

  6. DaveDodgson says:

    “the centre is where decisions are made” – great point. I’ve tried to be more learner-centred in recent times, offering students choices of which activity to do, how to do it, who to work with etc but the fact remains that the choices are usually made available by me. Is that then learner-centred? Probably not… I remember a point Rod Bolitho made at ISTEK that more important than being ‘learner-centred’ was being ‘learning-centred’ – nicely put but I’m sure many people would put their own spin on the phrase to apply it to pretty much anything.

    I’m with you on the dislike of ‘principled ecleticism’. To me, it suggests “I don’t really know why I do what I do in class and I can’t explain or justify it”, in which case it’s difficult to reflect, find direction and improve.

    • Richard says:

      Hmm. I’m not sure I agree on the criticism of principled eclecticism. Surely the idea of it being ‘principled’ is that the teacher is in control of his/her choices and understands why they are doing what they are doing, isn’t it? The fact that many teachers are eclectic without being principled doesn’t make it a bad label, but it could mean there is something wrong with teacher education.

      • DaveDodgson says:

        Thanks for the comment Richard as it leads me (CD style) into a clarification – you rightly say the ‘principled’ part implies the teacher is in control and knows why they make certain choices. My problem is with those who use the term without really understanding that part as if the term is a justification in itself.

        I guess it’s the same as the issue I have with people saying their lessons are ‘communicative’ because there is some guided pair-work speaking activity or ‘interactive’ because they used Powerpoint for a teacher-fronted presentation.

      • interesting…
        the idea of it being principled suggests that it should, well, be principled. But what I often see is something like this:
        – I do drills because it’s proved to work with beginners.
        – I believe in low affective filter because everyone (likes to) cites Krashen, so it should be true.
        – I base my lesson around conversations because I’m a Dogme teacher. (although I have never read anything about its underlying principles, I don’t know why I’m doing it, but it seems like the best thing to do, also because Scott Thornbury is pretty famous so he should know what he’s talking about) [with all respect Scott, for the sake of the argument, and to keep it light-hearted 🙂 notice the ‘so he knows…’ whereas I usually say ‘and he knows…’ ]
        – Don’t ask students to read aloud because I saw Ken Wilson at ISTEK saying this is not good (true story, but Ken explained why, based on his classroom observations, etc)
        – etc, etc, etc

        So I see that Krashen, Thornbury, Wilson and the audiolingual guy are all principled, in their own ways, they are, whether you like their principles or not, they can even write whole books about them! – so in my understanding that’s principled – but that doesn’t make the teacher who does all these things above principled too! This teacher need his own examination of things, it can be based on what others say, but it should become his/her own principle in the end.

  7. Richard says:

    Good point. At the same time, however, teachers are often restricted by institutions, curricula and textbooks, that leave little space for the teacher’s individuality to influence the classes. It’s almost like teachers are expected to be an objective conduit for knowledge that passes through them into the students, which I think fits in with the quote Scott has shared above. The idea that a teacher actually has a choice in the matter is anathema in some institutions; the furthest personal choice comes into it is ‘adapting the textbook’.

    There is always a search for answers in all walks of life and I think that following what the ‘big fish’ say is perfectly normal, though arguably ‘wrong’. Critical reflection should be a part of teacher learning and perhaps it isn’t a big enough focus in teacher education at the moment. Wallace (1991, Training Foreign Language Teachers: A Reflective Approach) talks about ‘applied science’ and a ‘craft’ models in teacher education, contrasting them with reflective practice. It would seem that the first two are the commonly followed modes: ‘read the book and apply the theory’ or ‘watch the expert and copy’. The next stage should be to reflect on what you’ve learnt and adapt the ideas to fit in with your own beliefs, context and teaching personality, but that is so often the bit that is missing.

    The fault for this doesn’t necessarily fall on the teacher though. It wasn’t until I started the MA that I learnt about reflective practice, so that’s 8 years, multiple courses, training days, conferences, journal articles and teaching books before I found out.

  8. Enjoyed this post, Willy, as I did the comments.

    I too have struggled with focusing on learners, and not ‘making them laugh’ or pushing what I thought would be interesting to talk about in class. A very dynamic environment and it’s a shame that we don’t welcome a bit more ‘chaos’ and ‘individuality’. Cheers, b

  9. David Warr says:

    As Scott says, a great stream of consciousness, the heat must be getting to you.

  10. Rob says:

    Nice post. Hope you keeping making the ‘right’ mistakes, Willy.


  11. Lu Bodeman says:

    Very interesting post, and comments.

    At the beginning of every term, I always find parents or students who come up and ask “what will you be teaching them this semester?” Or the students themselves, at the beginning of a lesson asking “teacher, what are we doing today?” I almost feel like I should have a menu to show them… things just don’t feel right.

    Although firmly believing in a “learner-centred approach”, and totally in favour of allowing lesson content to emerge, this is quickly shot down by the curriculum we need to follow, which is very tight and exam-oriented. It really is discouraging, especially when we had a good thing going with the students …

    We have tried to redesign the curriculum but what happens sometimes is that there are teachers who are comfortable with this step-by-step approach, who have been teaching for a high number of years and would prefer to leave things alone. Dynamism is something they no longer understand. It truly is sad, and makes things harder for those who wish to construct new methodologies that embrace an environment where students take a more active role.

    Oh well…my two cents, I guess.

    Anyway, thanks for posting / sharing!

    • Hi Lu

      I think one of the biggest challenges of teaching is dealing with people’s expectations, sometimes even more than dealing with the curriculum ‘expectations’. I seldom meet a student who doesn’t want to know in advance what is going to be taught; the only thing I can do at first is to talk to them about what their expectations are and how I think they (or we) can meet them; I also try to explain what I think is an interesting way for me to help them get what they want; I often tell my students what I believe is good ‘classroom time’ and ask them what they consider to be productive as well.

      Something I’ve learned over the years is that the product (passing exams, etc) should not always command the process. I’ve helped students pass IELTS exams for example without sticking to an exam-oriented syllabus; while they were highly motivated to learn English, increasing their scores on IELTS was sort of a consequence of the more authentic things they did, like reading ungraded books and watching BBC iplayer, for example. I also learned that there are ways of ‘bending’ the syllabus, for the sake of students’ learning. I am short of stories on this here in the blog, but yesterday I read a blogpost by Jason Renshaw that complements well this one. Maybe you already read it, but here is it: http://jasonrenshaw.typepad.com/jason_renshaws_web_log/2011/06/confessions-of-a-pre-set-curriculum-chuck-outer-part-1.html

      Teachers need to see an advantage, a benefit, a reason, to change. It is not that some people won’t change, it is more that these people don’t like change to be imposed on them. How could you help the teachers in your team to ‘see’ that dynamism is a good thing? It’s a tough job, I know, one which I myself failed many times.

      • Rob says:

        Lu, I agree with what Willy writes and would add one crucial note about people and change. Sometimes it is top down change that people resist. More often, I find, the obstacle to change is lack of imagination. I don’t mean that parents, students, and teachers cannot imagine at all. It’s that we don’t often imagine because our hearts and minds are filled with patterns for “learning” that are set so deeply we don’t think to question or re-vision them. Like Willy, I spend a fair amount of time negotiating with students about what constitutes learning English and how we should go about it in and out of class. Some students know intuitively what they enjoy and how they learn, others just want bread and circus but not much challenge. The most difficult for me at times are the students who imagine learning to be about ‘suffering’, whether by castigating themselves for the tiniest mistakes – and expecting me to do the same – or by be constantly called out to recite and reply in a structured manner. I have sympathy for them all, and I do my best to give them what they want while providing what experience and knowledge tell me they need. Usually, we all come to the end of a course having learned a good deal about ourselves, each other, and language learning. And it is through reflection that we can see how what we had imagined as learning/teaching was a box if you will; how, only by climbing out of that box could we stand up, stretch out our arms and embrace new ideas and ways of being learners and teachers.

        Hope that helps.


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