Hey, everyone. Below I have posted some of my observations and strictures regarding TEFL and education in general. It is a part of a wider survey of both experts’ and non-specialists’ opinions on the issue. It looks more like an article than a discussion point, still I do hope you will spare some time to go through it and share your opinions and suggestions. I truly believe the matter is relevant to all educational theorists, teachers, students and non-professionals regardless of their nationality or the educational system they are subject to – everyone is invited. I realize I have raised several issues; feel free to comment on any, not necessarily with reference to the others.
I have been teaching English to teenagers for fifteen years now. It is a common conviction (at least here, in Poland) that after about seven years of teaching, you are likely to experience professional burnout. Personally, I would not go that far – it is more like disillusionment, or, more precisely, the time when one fully realises the discrepancy between the theory and practice of this job. I was not an exception. More or less at the time scheduled, I woke up with the feeling that either I am not suitable for that job or there is something wrong with the educational system. I was not quick to decide which option is the case, but after a careful consideration, I came to the conclusion that, despite my numerous weaknesses, I still managed to perform my duties. The natural consequence of that finding was a closer look at the work context and environment.
After a year of investigation (I must have been really naïve if it took so long), I was terrified to discover that the officially proclaimed, binding interpretation of the educational theory and its application belong to different worlds. Providing teachers with the results of their work, researchers frequently forget that schools are not the research units where new ideas can be analyzed, applied and developed in the way they would be if they operated in perfect conditions.
Perfect conditions, ideal schools, ideal teachers, ideal students, they all do not exist. No one claiming to be reasonable will question this truism; still, those unfamiliar with teaching practice tend to imagine the teacher’s job as a set of extraordinary techniques that almost magically solve all problems. They evoke the popular stereotype of a teacher out of this world coming to a school in a socially and/or ethnically difficult area, taming and educating a vicious gang of teenagers who misbehave and do not want to learn anything just because nobody cares about them. Even though most teachers do not face such extreme situations, their actual work is much more complicated than such a schematic movie plot. Scenarios like that may happen occasionally, but, even if some of us could remember a teacher like that, there would still be too few of them to become a rule.
Education cannot be based on exceptions. Hence, we need a well developed (and well applied) theory of education which does not neglect external factors. We should stop pretending that such exotic phenomena like infrastructural difficulties, overpopulated classrooms, working time limitations or shrinking curriculums do not exist or occur only in the third world countries. We should also allow the assumption that growing aggression, mental disorders and deficiencies, social maladjustment, parental negligence, cultural backwardness, ignorance and plain laziness are school routines rather than the domain of special education. Curriculums should be written by practitioners who know that the real use of lesson time is in the range of 50%. It is also high time we took into account that although teachers deal mostly with the sphere of ideas and do not contribute directly to the growth of gross domestic product, their motivation, engagement and efficiency remain in connection with their income.
The postulates above may not seem visionary, however, their frequent rejection results in institutional split personality: Theorists do not believe practitioners and vice versa, school boards do not trust headmasters who pretend to share their assumptions, teachers treat headmasters with suspicion which is reciprocated, trainees do not believe what they have learnt ignoring their supervisors and, finally, students do not care about all those peoples’ efforts as they clearly see they are vain. Going into specifics, I say that, according to my own meticulous research and observation, teaching effectiveness is significantly poorer than indicated by the official optimism powered by gradual lowering of standards. Of course, I mean average results obtained by average students prepared by average teachers in an average school. In my humble opinion, regardless of inevitable cases of teachers’ failures or mistakes, it happens due to the detachment from reality that has come to education.
Arts and Humanities (including educational theories) at all costs try to justify their existence. In part, this is due to the tradition, or rather the lack of it, because, as relatively young branches, they have not settled the image of something absolutely necessary yet. The other explanation may be the tendency to identify humanistic approach with the ideology of postmodernism.
Scientific approach to the theory lies in its falsification, while the ideas of postmodernism in education can be quite easily reduced to absurdity, if you go from the abstract to the everyday practice of education. At first glance, the functions of education in terms of post modernity look great, and no one really concerned about students should question them. Few educators would disagree with their undisputed humanism being copied en mass to the statutes of modern schools. But if you look closer, it turns out that they are just a bunch of politically correct platitudes. Like all generalizations, they melt in newspeak and lose their contents. Few people are bothered with the fact that the majority of them are not, because they cannot be, implemented in an average school. This is obviously not the fault of the theory itself; still, the concern about its application should certainly be of interest to theorists. The reality is different – it is practitioners of education who are to make the reality fit the theory. The consequences are dire, but nobody seems to care.
Literal interpretation of the postmodern methodology brings to mind the mountain that gave birth to a mouse. What does a theoretical physicist do, when his calculations result in infinity or zero? He either states that he was wrong or revises his calculations and, if the result is still the same, announces that the theory, which he was going to prove, is incorrect or incomplete. This gives rise to further research and investigation that may lead to the development of knowledge, even if it conflicts with the intuitive perception of the world. What’s does a postmodern theorist do in the same situation? He recognizes that he has reached the limits of knowledge, because the world (especially human relationships) is too complicated to explain. Should science be guided by such recognition of the problem, the theory of relativity, wave-particle duality, or even the whole quantum physics would still remain in the circle of vague metaphysical considerations. Humanities often seem to drift towards fashionable ideologies and notions like “loss of causality logic”, "lack of robust reality" or "ontological dualism", whatever they mean. Why should such extravagance be eligible to theories of education?
The implications of this question are detrimental to the teaching process. If we accept that educational theories operate on other rights than sciences, in the long run, we risk drowning schools in gibberish, impotence and inefficiency. On the other hand, concentration on theoretical assumptions leads to unification, generalization and unrealistic expectations. In fact, education in general, and TEFL in my case, suffers from both disorders.
What is even worse, this state of things is endorsed by consistent denial characteristic of all subjects involved. Let me use a true school example (one of tens of this kind that I have witnessed) to illustrate the status quo: A young teacher is supposed to teach English to a group of 24 thirteen-year-olds. She knows in advance that her work will be ineffective as the group is twice as large as it should be, some of the pupils suffer from dyslexia and other deficiencies, many of them cause educational problems and, last but not least, the national curriculum provides 1 (one!) forty-five-minute lesson a week to teach foreign languages to beginners in junior secondary schools (in comparison to 2 lessons designed to RE!). She realizes that teaching the language will be her last issue. At the same time she is aware that she will be the only one to blame for her students poor performance on final exams. When she informs her headmaster about his concerns, she is treated to a mixture of threats and formal babble. She finds out that there are people wiser than her who have carefully and thoughtfully prepared curriculums, teaching schedules and textbooks. She also learns that her professional preparation must be invalid if she cannot come up with adequate methods and techniques as well as cope with “the requirements diversification” to meet her students’ expectations. Confused, she revises her knowledge and, to her dismay, concludes, that none of her own teachers, textbooks and other sources has ever analyzed analogous situations. Certainly, during her studies, she dealt with various obstacles disrupting the teaching process, but only in isolation and in an incomparably smaller scale. She knows how to teach children with dyslexia, but she is also aware that it is a time-consuming process, hardly possible within the time-table proposed. She knows how to teach at two different levels of requirements, but nobody has ever told her she will have to do it at five ones. She is aware that the teacher’s job is not only explaining the differences between tenses, but she has never thought she will have to give it up at all. She knows that she is expected to use “modern methodology”, work “by the project” and incorporate as much of “communicative approach” as possible – it looks so good in classroom demonstrations; still, she is sure that, with a herd of rowdy teenagers on her hands, without any binding agreement between the student and the teacher, devoid of the traditional model of authority and all the “tools of oppression” constituting the politically incorrect attributes of a traditional school, the only students’ skills she can dream of are naming colours and counting up to ten.
Isn’t her supervisor familiar with these objections? Of course, he is. And so are the decision-makers in school boards and ministries. Still, they do nothing to analyze the problem. And they all try to convince one another that there is nothing wrong with it. Theorists are happy because their approaches prove highly effective with groups of ten bright, curious, open-minded, task oriented, middle-class children. Politicians and managers are happy because they are given a nicely wrapped and labeled argument to convince their electorate and subordinates that they may have foozled many things, but education is cheap, easy, effective and accessible to all. Even students are satisfied (until they start looking for a well paid job) because the state itself guarantees that they will graduate with flying colours no matter how true their involvement and knowledge are.
What happens to teachers like the one exemplified above? After several years of struggle, they either quit the job or “grow up” to become a part of the universal conspiracy of silence. The “grown-ups” finally learn that their efforts are hopeless and the true meaning of their work lies in glossing their reports over. Paper is patient.
At this point I would like to stress that it is not my intention to depreciate or discredit any modern, student oriented theory of the second language acquisition. The only thing I would like to draw attention to is the fact that theorists, driven by some kind of inferiority complex about sciences, seem to forget that their findings are not supposed to operate in a laboratory only, or, even more frequently, led by pride and ideological doggedness, they try hard to attribute theoretical deficiencies to the specificity of education. I suggest that the contemporary educational methodology needs revising. I do not mean revolution. Other emphases, a slight change in the ratio of purposes and means, coming to terms with time and economics as well as restating the expectations would be enough. Unfortunately, modern theories of education have reached the point where the professional discourse is dominated by a surprising coalition of doctrinarism and mythology. It is time we stimulated it before it is replaced by ideology. Otherwise, we should start to seriously consider whether or not we are witnessing the beginning of new Middle Ages, the time when, despite all the appearances, knowledge will be rationed and available only to the chosen ones with the tacit agreement of the few fully conscious.
Interesting observations – thanks.
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