Skip to main content

On progressives and traditionalists

I was reading a blog post by Greg Ashman in which he listed six ways to know whether you are a progressive teacher. Among them was this:

"You believe that learning should be natural.

This is probably the fundamental tenet of progressivism and it leads to some of the others. Have you ever noticed how children effortlessly learn to speak or walk? Have you noticed how they figure out how to play with a new toy? Do you think that education should be like that; joyful and natural?

If so, you will be suspicious of activities that look forced and unnatural such as drill and practice. You will be skeptical of phonics instruction in reading, not because you think children shouldn’t learn letter-sound relationships but because you don’t think they should be drilled in them. They should instead pick this up by reading real, authentic books; a more natural method."

This, of course, will ring a bell if you are interested in debates about language teaching approaches. Supporters of natural, pure comprehensible input methods à la Krashen and TPRS often say how easy and painless the approach is for pupils. If you get interesting input nature takes its course and language learning ceases to be hard work. That sounds progressive.

I must confess I had never looked at this particularly from the perspective of the progressive-traditionalist argument, but it did get me thinking. Yes, learning grammar explicitly, doing drill practice, translating, doing form-focused teacher-led question-answer - all of these have a more traditional feel to them than telling stories and doing purely meaning based tasks. But this just shows that what is progressive can change over time.

When I started out in teaching, grammar-translation was traditional and audiolingual and teacher-led adapted direct method ("death by question-answer") was considered progressive. I was quite "progressive" then. By the 1980s, as communicative teaching was imported from TEFL, teacher-led QA, even when largely in TL, was getting a bit fusty. Functions, notions, information gaps and pair work became the name of the game. Meaning was beginning to trump form.

By 2016, in some quarters, CLT (Communicative Language Teaching) is now a bit old hat and only natural approaches would be considered progressive. When you read second language acquisition research you can see where this trend stems from - many theorists and researchers value input more highly than explicit grammar teaching and practice.

It goes to show that the idea of progressiveness, at least in terms of language teaching, is a moving feast. It may also go to explain why language teachers are a little reluctant to get into the whole progressive-traditionalist debate. Most language teachers are not at all dogmatic about methods. They use a mixture of approaches and techniques, more or less successfully, influenced largely by the way they were taught themselves and with some influence from the current zeitgeist. It's a minority of evangelists who these days argue for a "best method".

Successful teachers deliver their eclectic mix efficiently, with some idea of why they doing what they do. Other less successful ones may not have thought through the reasons for their approach, may not put in the effort, spend too much time having fun or doing unproductive activities, maybe follow fashion too much or may just not relate that well to their classes.




- Posted using BlogPress from my iPad

Comments

  1. Great post Steve and very balanced. I am one language teacher who just wants to be more effective and being polarised in one camp or the other just seems to be a missed opportunity as there positives and negatives with both depending on the multitude of needs of students in my class. The wise teacher knows how to select from the whole range depending on the objective, student and situation. Thank you for another very thoughtful and honest post. Barri

    ReplyDelete

Post a Comment

Popular posts from this blog

The latest research on teaching vocabulary

I've been dipping into The Routledge Handbook of Instructed Second Language Acquisition (2017) edited by Loewen and Sato. This blog is a succinct summary of Chapter 16 by Beatriz González-Fernández and Norbert Schmitt on the topic of teaching vocabulary. I hope you find it useful.

1.  Background

The authors begin by outlining the clear importance of vocabulary knowledge in language acquisition, stating that it's a key predictor of overall language proficiency (e.g. Alderson, 2007). Students often say that their lack of vocabulary is the main reason for their difficulty understanding and using the language (e.g. Nation, 2012). Historically vocabulary has been neglected when compared to grammar, notably in the grammar-translation and audio-lingual traditions as well as  communicative language teaching.

(My note: this is also true, to an extent, of the oral-situational approach which I was trained in where most vocabulary is learned incidentally as part of question-answer sequence…

A zero preparation fluency game

I am grateful to Kayleigh Meyrick, a teacher in Sheffield, for this game which she described in the Languages Today magazine (January, 2018). She called it “Swap It/Add It” and it’s dead simple! I’ve added my own little twist as well as a justification for the activity.

You could use this at almost any level, even advanced level where the language could get a good deal more sophisticated.

Put students into small groups or pairs. If in groups you can have them stand in circles to add a sense of occasion. One student utters a sentence, e.g. “J’aime jouer au foot avec mes copains parce que c’est amusant.” (You could provide the starter sentence or let groups make up their own.) The next student (or partner) has to change one element in the sentence, and so on, until you restart with a different sentence. You could give a time limit of, say, 2 minutes. The sentence could easily relate to the topic you are working on. At advanced level a suitable sentence starter might be:

“Selon un article q…

Google Translate beaters

Google Translate is a really useful tool, but some teachers say that they have stopped setting written work to be done at home because students are cheating by using it. On a number of occasions I have seen teachers asking what tasks can be set which make the use of Google Translate hard or impossible. Having given this some thought I have come up with one possible Google Translate-beating task type. It's a two way gapped translation exercise where students have to complete gaps in two parallel texts, one in French, one in English. There are no complete sentences which can be copied and pasted into Google.

This is what one looks like. Remember to hand out both texts at the same time.


English 

_____. My name is David. _ __ 15 years old and I live in Ripon, a _____ ____ in the north of _______, near York. I have two _______ and one brother. My brother __ ______ David and my _______ are called Erika and Claire. We live in a _____ house in the centre of ____. In ___ house _____ …

Dissecting a lesson: using a set of PowerPoint slides

I was prompted to write this just having produced for frenchteacher.net three separate PowerPoint presentations using the same set of 20 pictures (sports). A very good way for you to save time is to reuse the same resource in a number of different ways.

I chose 20 clear, simple, clear and copyright-free images from pixabay.com to produce three presentations on present tense (beginners), near future (post beginner) and perfect tense (post-beginner/low intermediate). Here is one of them:





Below is how I would have taught using this presentation - it won't be everyone's cup of tea, especially of you are not big on choral repetition and PPP (Presentation-Practice-Production), but I'll justify my choice in the plan at each stage. For some readers this will be standard practice.

1. Explain in English that you are going to teach the class how to talk about and understand people talking about sport. By the end of the lesson they will be able to say and understand 20 different sport…

Designing a plan to improve listening skills

Read many books and articles about listening and you’ll see it described as the forgotten skill. It certainly seems to be the one which causes anxiety for both teachers and students. The reasons are clear: you only get a very few chances to hear the material, exercises feel like tests and listening is, well, hard. Just think of the complex processes involved: segmenting the sound stream, knowing lots of words and phrases, using grammatical knowledge to make meaning, coping with a new sound system and more. Add to this the fact that in England they have recently decided to make listening tests harder (too hard) and many teachers are wondering what else they can do to help their classes.

For students to become good listeners takes lots of time and practice, so there are no quick fixes. However, I’m going to suggest, very concisely, what principles could be the basis of an overall plan of action. These could be the basis of a useful departmental discussion or day-to-day chats about meth…