Friday, 4 March 2016

Conforming to the paradigm

Something bugs me from time to time. I'll call it "conforming to the paradigm". This is what I mean:

In education an expert, educational body or government quango will come up with a new framework for looking at language teaching or education in general. Teachers, who are generally an obedient and occasionally unquestioning lot, take on board this new framework and buy in not only to its tenets but to its language.

In England the obvious example is Ofsted-speak. Teachers now describe lessons as "outstanding" without using the quotation marks. They post requests on social media for ideas for an "outstanding" lesson, as if anyone (including Ofsted) knew what such a thing actually were. A school is described as "good" as if we knew and all agreed what this actually means.

In the USA, since 2012 when the ACTFL published its guidelines for language teachers, teachers now refer to "interpretive" listening (without the quotation marks) and "presentational mode" (without quotation marks). (The ACTFL uses the term interpretive to mean, in effect, comprehension.) The ACTFL, in their justifiable desire to push for a greater emphasis on fluency and communication ("proficiency") produced a neat framework (they could have done it differently) which many US teachers now seem to view as gospel.

These two examples may not, in themselves, be particularly harmful, but in language teaching conforming to the paradigm can be more damaging. The history of language teaching is littered with methods which, whatever their limitations, well-intentioned teachers have taken on board and swallowed whole. Pure audio-lingualism and some versions of communicative language teaching spring to mind.

What bugs me, just a little, is the fact that teachers buy into a new lexicon and, by using it without the quotation marks, are failing to question its whole validity and, by implication, closing their minds to other perspectives.

We do need ways to talk about the craft of teaching. Frameworks are useful. I wouldn't mind betting, however, that in twenty years we shall no longer be talking about "outstanding" lessons or "interpretive" listening. Perhaps the ephemeral nature of a lexicon reveals its true validity.

In the meantime, we might consider not playing the conformity game, think for ourselves a bit more and try to choose a more objective discourse about education and language teaching.

Addendum: it has been pointed out to me that the ACTFL was using its categories back in 1998.

- Posted using BlogPress from my iPad


  1. Guilty. Confirmist. But not to the old paradigm!

  2. There'll be another one coming soon! The another...

  3. Well said. I have suffered a lot from this.