Wednesday, February 04, 2004

One of my various identities is that of teacher of English as a foreign language (EFL). Now, I have an MA in applied linguistics, which is basically general linguistics with an emphasis on second language acquisition. I was in grad school between '92 and '94, at the height of the touchy-feely years. The whole point of touchy-feeliness is to disprove all obvious traditional ways of doing things that are just too old-fashioned and judgemental and the like.

Well, the standard way we'd always thought of EFL was that the enemy to overcome is interference. The definition of interference is that the student's original language affects his competence in English: e.g. "I broke my shirt" instead of tore because the two words break and tear in English are just one word, romper, in Spanish. Another examlpe would be Spanish-speakers unable to distinguish between the J sound and the Y sound in English, because the two sounds are "different" in English but "the same" in Spanish.

The problem here is that a really good teacher of EFL must know not only the target language but at least something about the students' native language. That is hard to do. There aren't that many people who are really bilingual at an academic level. Teaching often doesn't provide enough money to satisfy these people, whose expectations are often high.

What the foo-foos tried to do was come up with a magic formula to make EFL easy. See, teaching EFL correctly is hard. You have to know the grammar inside-and-out, you have to understand vocabulary nuances, you have to be able to correct writing for content and style, you have to model appropriate English for your students, you have to provide them with large quantities of reading and listening input, and you have to do it over and over because they're not going to get it the first time. Also, you have to know how to manage a class. There's not a magic bullet. You have to write dozens of compositions and have thousands of conversations and do hundreds of dumb grammar exercises (which are nonetheless very useful because they demand that a student follow a standard model and learn to imitate it), and the teacher has to be competent enough to be able to teach all this stuff.

Problem: The educational system in America attracts many people of only modest talents, since it doesn't pay that well compared to the amount of crap you have to put up with.

Solution: Raise teacher pay in order to attract people who might otherwise become lawyers or get MBAs.

Problem: Right now we've got a bunch of incompetents holding down jobs in the public schools. We're gonna pay these losers the same sixty grand a year as these really competent people we're trying to attract?

Solution: Very strict competence exams in which you are required to demonstrate your competence and ability in your teaching field.

Problem: The teachers' unions won't stand for that.

Solution: Fire the lot of them on June 1 and advertise for college graduates to sign up at sixty grand a year. (Of course, we allow fired teachers to compete for the new jobs open, and I imagine we'll hire all the good ones back since we'll be paying them a lot better than before. As for the incompetents who can't pass the test, let 'em look for work in the growing field of 7-11 cashiering.) We oughta be ready to go by the end of August. Set up a new system in which a teacher needs a BA in his field and what we'll be generous and call an MA in education, a one-year course in which you learn mostly practical shit, like say the extent they can hold you responsible if you're on bus duty, you turn one way because little Billy is pushing little Johnny around, and little Keisha walks in front of a bus while your back is turned.

(That should be Education 101; not "Basic Curriculum and Instruction" but "What Can They Sue Me For?")

Failed Solution: Look for teachable formulas that will allow even the biggest idiot to somehow make it through el-ed on sheer effort and nastiness to successfully impart knowledge to students.

In EFL there have been dozens. One is called audiolingualism, in which you fire questions at the students in the target language so that they get to be able to reproduce the answers automatically. This actually has some value at basic levels, especially when you come to a point which just has to be memorized, like irregular verb forms.

Some are a lot weirder. There's one where you break out a box of colored rods of different length. Then you ask all these retarded questions like "Jose, tell Paco to put the black rod on the red one," or "Paco, which is longer, the black rod or your, no, the blue rod you're holding..." This can apparently be combined with this one from Bulgaria, in which you sit learners down in comfortable chairs, turn the lights down, and the teacher speaks reassuringly in the target language. Apparently you get the students into a stupor and they learn unconsciously or something.

What all the methods have in common is that they can be picked up fairly quickly by not-too-bright people, who are then considered to be fit as teachers when they know no grammar, nothing about writing, and have read nothing. You just teach according to the formula.

(The formula always includes a lot of group work, which I am in favor of for about a third to a half of class time, as long as everyone's speaking in English about a topic I give them, and using the grammar or vocab that we're working on. The problem here is you have to ride herd on group work to make sure they're really working and not just dicking off. I take notes on errors and answer questions and then take five minutes to correct them as a class at the end of each conversation group activity. Lots of folks just sit down at their desks, though, rather than monitoring. The formula also tries to minimize correcting, to the point at which some teachers don't correct their students' errors, in speaking or in writing. In addition, the formula de-emphasizes grammar. I have seen new teachers just out of college who had never heard of what a freakin' verb tense was, for Chrissakes. Supposedly doing grammar exercises doesn't help students learn, and it's a drag anyway, so we can just sort of skip over it. Yeah, right.)

I'm sorry. There's no magic formula for teaching or learning anything. The brighter the student, the quicker he'll learn, and the brighter the teacher, the more his students will learn. It's kind of like journalism: the best ones are those who studied something other than journalism at college. And the only way you'll attract the above-average people we need as teachers is giving them above-average pay and considerably better working conditions. I bet we wind up saving a lot of money in the long run. Imagine if even only half the time spent at school were useful! What a miracle that would be!

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