LOOK RIGHT, KEEP LEFT for Conversation
You know how you get a new car, married, break your arm… and suddenly you notice how many people around you are driving that car, getting married, sporting casts…? It’s like that for me now about the real job of English teachers. Confirming conversations, published articles, innovative education programs… are popping up all over the place now that I understand the real job of teachers is not to stuff students’ heads with boring senseless information that doesn’t make a difference, isn’t accurate and forgotten as soon as tests are completed. My job is to teach the patterns that are always true which empower students as quickly as possible to USE THE ENGLISH THEY HAVE comfortably in authentic situations. My job is to prepare them quickly and competently to support their success and continued learning in the real world.
I was trained to teach letters, numbers, vocabulary, grammar, reading and writing to English learners. It didn’t take long to notice no matter how much students studied, they never spoke English confidently. Most never spoke English outside the classroom at all.
From Rita Baker’s first book Brain Power http://amzn.to/19OFwgh I learned human brains are pattern seeking, meaning making machines. We don’t process or retain details. Burdening learners with exhaustive nuances of spelling, grammar, phrasal verbs, word order… is the car-analogy equivalent of teaching Newton’s Laws of Motion and expecting them to drive. It doesn’t work. All I had to do was discard everything I had been trained to teach and find the patterns that are always true.
It wasn’t nearly as difficult as I had expected. And loads of great minds have cottoned on to the process of learning languages and the language teachers’ role in the process.
Jason West English Out There
Benjamin Constable: How People Really Learn Languages
Benny Lewis: The Secret to Learning Many Languages
A great way to start looking at this innovative approach to learning is to see the whole picture and decide how to proceed from there. You probably never looked at the critical parts of successful conversation in this way before so I’ll walk you through it.
Vocabulary, Context and Participation are Given
- Vocabulary: Words are really helpful in conversation.
- Context: Context is everything, more so than words because people convey messages using only context and body language all the time.
- Participation: Fluency is only attainable by actually speaking to others.
Clockwise from the top:
Intelligibility is composed of Word Stress and Pausing. English is a stress-based language. Native speakers have unlimited tolerance for individual sound omission or substitution and grammar mistakes don’t even register but if the word stress is missing or in the wrong place English speakers can’t guess what a non-native speaker is saying. Frequent tiny pauses are necessary for the brain to process what is being said and to form responses.
Grammar is relatively insignificant, probably a smaller wedge than indicated in the pie chart. If grammar is wrong or totally missing, conversations are still successful. (Native speakers’ grammar is terrible.)
Confidence can’t be underestimated. Some cultures are naturally unselfconscious about making mistakes and these people learn to speak English the fastest.
Culture is the unwritten rules of behavior that underpin any social group of people. Including but not limited to: Good manners. When is it my turn to talk? How long do I talk? How much information is appropriate to share with strangers?…
Strategies are what to do when things go wrong. Rita Baker counselled me to Look Right, Keep Left and control my instinct to turn right in a crisis. This was my survival strategy if things went wrong.
Expressions and Humor are true indicators of fluency not tests. English is idiomatic and abstract not linear or concrete as grammar suggests.
Non-Verbal aspects of conversation, for example, gestures, body language, tone of voice… are stronger indicators of meaning than words any day of the week. Some say up to 80% of the message.
Listening and Watching are the cornerstones of successful learning and successful conversation. It can’t be emphasized enough that learners MUST listen to and watch hundreds of hours of a new language in order to be successful using that language.
Look Right, Keep Left is the least amount of information I needed to successfully drive a left-hand drive car in a left-hand drive country. Word stress and pausing are the least amount of information an English learner needs to make themselves intelligible in an English speaking environment.
Listening, Watching, Word Stress and Pausing cover 50% of the elements required for Speaking Fluency. Someone should tell learners they have enough vocabulary and information to speak English successfully now. As soon as you do you’ll start to notice the way we teach English is evolving all over the place!
Yours in ESL,
p.s. Are you looking for Accents as a feature? For the most part it isn’t. Everyone has an accent. When Accent interferes with Intelligibility then you have a problem that needs to be addressed. The best accent coach (also a pattern thinker like Rita Baker) is Peggy Tharpe. www.americanpronunciationcoach.com
The Future of Education Belongs to Unemployed Teachers
The education systems in native English speaking countries are badly in need of updating (Functional Literacy Rates) which they probably aren’t going to get. To make this real, if my university degree was in Computer Programming I could accept that the material I learned in my first year would be out of date by the time I reached my fourth year, but my training was as an English as a Second Language (ESL) teacher. The training I paid for was at least 30 years behind the times when it was taught to me, twenty years ago. If math is not your strong suit we are up to 50 years out of date. And that stale, ineffective, teacher-centered, grammar-based dogma is still what is being taught to ESL students today. Thanks to the internet, this unfortunate situation spells o-p-p-o-r-t-u-n-t-y for many teachers – maybe you.
Here’s the Catch:
Employed teachers can’t learn better systems for their students not because they are bad people but because adult humans can’t learn new things even if they want to. The phenomenon is called conformation bias. It is just the way adult humans are wired.
Confirmation bias , also called confirmatory bias, is the tendency to search for, interpret, favor, and recall information in a way that confirms one’s pre-existing beliefs or hypotheses.
Look it up then let’s look at how confirmation bias shows up in a variety of different fields.
Here is a great talk Dare to Disagree by Margaret Heffernan that showcases doctors who x-rayed pregnant woman causing cancer and death in their babies for 20 years after it was proven that x-raying pregnant mothers causes cancer and death in babies. Whatever medical practitioners internalize in school (even if it was wrong) they can’t let go of in the face of irrefutable proof when it doesn’t heal their patients. 20 years is a generation; bad practices can’t stop until the people in the power positions (administration) die or retire. Doctors don’t kill babies/patients because they are mean or stupid, they kill babies/patients because they can’t perceive themselves as baby killers.
Margaret Heffernan , Management thinker The former CEO of five businesses, Margaret Heffernan explores the all-too-human thought patterns — like conflict avoidance and selective blindness — that lead organizations and managers astray.
I’m Canadian. I hate Trump, so does my country. We followed the American election in the media and were still blindsided by the results because of our confirmation bias. We chose to watch programming that confirmed our pre-existing beliefs about Trump as a sociopath and a buffoon. North Americans have no domestic real news because News programs forfeited facts for ratings a long time ago. (I watch BBC for real news). Real news sold out for rating$ and we are left with opinion programs erroneously called News that tell us what we like to hear.
The Turn of the Screw by Henry James is a classic 19th century story that smacks of evil wherein the character of the young governess is interpreted as everything from innocent victim to ambitions, self-serving opportunist. How can there be such a wide range of hotly defended interpretations of the same character? It’s simple. Henry James understands human confirmation bias implicitly. The interpretations of the governess are reflections of the readers themselves. There are as many interpretations as there are readers. James’ story is timeless and brilliant. What did the Turn of the Screw reveal about you?
The boys in Boyzone have long since grown into men but the lyrics of their famous hit No Matter What are as true today as when they were written. Check out these selected lines:
No matter what they tell us No matter what they do No matter what they teach us What we believe is true….I can’t deny what I believe …
This is confirmation bias in a nutshell.
Really? You want me to go there? Jews have Jewish parents, Muslims have Muslim parents, Christians have Christian parents… It isn’t about religion, love, intelligence, education or informed choice, it is about putting the ideas of the previous generation into the heads of children as if they were the truth. Confirmation bias will take it from there. We take our conformation bias very seriously. Humans justify killing others in the name of whichever random belief system they happen to be born into. This isn’t what religion is about, it’s defending what we were told to believe.
What does all this have to do with education? Teachers preach all kinds of stupid things in good faith. Despite mountains of evidence some material is destructive or ineffective teachers can’t politically, intellectually, emotionally or financially abandon what they have been taught to teach. I never met a teacher who didn’t honestly believe they were a good teacher. If you are an English student and your teacher is using a Grammar Method or IPA – get out. They can’t do anything for you but take your money and waste your time.
Employed teachers are honest, compassionate, hardworking people with no tools to help learners. They fervently believe they are making a difference and they aren’t. The pension, benefits, holidays, job security, feckless administration and lack of accountability in the industry don’t help either. 40% of people in native English speaking countries are functionally illiterate yet each educator firmly believes they are a good teacher. Teachers are not bad people, they are just humans given by what they want to believe.
“If one were to attempt to identify a single problematic aspect of human reasoning that deserves attention above all others, the confirmation bias would have to be among the candidates for consideration. Many have written about this bias, and it appears to be sufficiently strong and pervasive that one is led to wonder whether the bias, by itself, might account for a significant fraction of the disputes, altercations, and misunderstandings that occur among individuals, groups, and nations.”
– Raymond S. Nickerson
Is your school or institution waiting for you to die or retire before students can have access to a 21st century education? Probably.
Unemployed teachers are honest, compassionate and hardworking too but they are something employed teachers are not – motivated.
Q:With the world demand for good English programs increasing everyday why the dramatic drop in attendance in traditional language schools?
A:Students get better information faster online.
If you are an unemployed ESL teacher the future belongs to you. Find one of these modern, effective methodologies online and throw your support behind it. You will always have a job if you have a computer, an open mind and can honestly help students with their language goals.
I’m at the Lydbury English Centre in Shropshire England for two weeks learning the Global Approach from the incomparable Rita Baker. I’ll post about it soon. Today I just want you to know you if you are an unemployed English teacher you can be 20 years ahead of the curve by doing your homework and taking the road less traveled. If you are an employed English teacher don’t worry, teaching the way we have been teaching is unsustainable and soon you’ll be unemployed and have the opportunity to chose to learn better teaching methods too.
Yours in ESL,
If you SEE something SAY something
I’ve been away from ESL for a while. I bought a little church in Niagara Falls and spent a few months renovating it. It is fantastic and fun. Now I have taken the opportunity to escape Canadian winter and visit friends in beautiful Mobile, Alabama on the Gulf coast. There is a slogan posted all over this part of the world IF YOU SEE SOMETHING, SAY SOMETHING encouraging everyone to speak up when they encounter something not right in the world around them. I love it.
Was it just a coincidence that the first few files I encountered when I finally opened my work computer were from people who SAW something wrong with Education and had lots of suggestions to SAY to address it? The first one is by Dr. Peter Diamandis. Reinventing How We Teach Our Kids . Here is part of it:
Here in L.A., it’s kind of insane that a great kindergarten requires a competitive application and tuitions that exceed most colleges.
I started asking myself, given the fact that most elementary schools haven’t changed in decades (maybe longer), what do I want my kids to learn? How would I reinvent elementary school during an exponential era?
This blog covers five subjects related to elementary school education:
- Five Issues with Today’s Elementary Schools
- Five Guiding Principles for Future Education
- An Elementary School Curriculum for the Future
- Exponential Technologies in our Classroom
- Mindsets for the 21st Century
Excuse the length, but if you have kids, the details might be meaningful. If you don’t, then next week’s blog will return to normal length and another fun subject. Let’s dive in…
Five Issues with Today’s Elementary Schools
There’s probably lots of issues with today’s traditional elementary schools, but I’ll just choose a few that bother me most.
- Grading: In the traditional education system, you start at an “A,” and every time you get something wrong, your score gets lower and lower. At best it’s demotivating, and at worst it has nothing to do with the world you occupy as an adult. In the gaming world (e.g. Angry Birds), it’s just the opposite. You start with zero and every time you come up with something right, your score gets higher and higher.
- Sage on the Stage: Most classrooms have a teacher up in front of class lecturing to a classroom of students, half of whom are bored and half of whom are lost. The one-teacher-fits-all model comes from an era of scarcity where great teachers and schools were rare.
- Relevance: When I think back to elementary and secondary school, I realize how much of what I learned was never actually useful later in life, and how many of my critical lessons for success I had to pick up on my own. (I don’t know about you, but I haven’t ever actually had to factor a polynomial in my adult life.)
- Imagination – Coloring inside the Lines: Probably of greatest concern to me is the factory-worker, industrial-era origin of today’s schools — programs so structured with rote memorization that it squashes the originality from most children. I’m reminded that “the day before something is truly a breakthrough, it’s a crazy idea.” Where do we pursue crazy ideas in our schools? Where do we foster imagination?
- Boring: If learning in school is a chore, boring or emotionless, then the most important driver of human learning, passion, is disengaged. Having our children memorize facts and figures, sit passively in class and take mundane standardized tests completely defeats the purpose.
An average of 7,200 students drop out of high school each day, totaling 1.3 million each year. This means only 69% of students who start high school finish four years later. And over 50% of these high school dropouts name boredom as the No. 1 reason they left…. And continues with concrete curriculum suggestions.
If you have any interest in Education Reform you have probably heard about Will Richardson. If you haven’t google him and get a coffee. He is a true pioneer in education reform. Here’s a new article from Will Richardson and Bruce Dixon. Ten Principles for Schools of Modern Learning.
I used to feel like a complainer and anti-establishment whistle blower. Now I feel like part of a movement that is growing exponentially and changing the way people learn. Together we are making a difference.
Until next time,