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

Delayed dictation

What is “delayed dictation”?

Instead of getting students to transcribe immediately what you say, or what a partner says, you can enforce a 10 second delay so that students have to keep running over in their heads what they have heard. Some teachers have even used the delay time to try to distract students with music.

It’s an added challenge for students but has significant value, I think. It reminds me of a phenomenon in music called audiation. I use it frequently as a singer and I bet you do too.

Audiation is thought to be the foundation of musicianship. It takes place when we hear and comprehend music for which the sound is no longer or may never have been present. You can audiate when listening to music, performing from notation, playing “by ear,” improvising, composing, or notating music. When we have a song going round in our mind we are audiating. When we are deliberately learning a song we are audiating.

In our language teaching case, though, the earworm is a word, chunk of l…

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…

Responsive teaching

Dylan Wiliam, the academic most associated with Assessment for Learning (AfL), aka formative assessment, has stated that these labels have not been the most helpful to teachers. He believes that they have been partly responsible for poor implementation of AfL and the fact that AfL has not led to the improved outcomes originally intended.

Wiliam wrote on Twitter in 2013:

“Example of really big mistake: calling formative assessment formative assessment rather than something like "responsive teaching".”

For the record he subsequently added:

“The point I was making—years ago now—is that it would have been much easier if we had called formative assessment "responsive teaching". However, I now realize that this wouldn't have helped since it would have given many people the idea that it was all about the teacher's role.”

I suspect he’s right about the appellation and its consequences. As a teacher I found it hard to get my head around the terms AfL and formative assess…

Five great advanced level French listening sites

If your A-level students would like opportunities to practise listening there are plenty of sources you can recommend for accessible, largely comprehensible and interesting material. Here are some I have come across while searching for resources over recent years.

Daily Geek Show

I love this site. It's fresh, youthful and full of really interesting material. They have an archive of videos, both short and long, from various sources, grouped under a range of themes: insolite (weird news items), science, discovery, technology, ecology and lifestyle. There should be something there to interest all your students while adding to their broader education. Here is one I enjoyed (I shall seriously think about buying tomatoes in winter now):




France Bienvenue

This site has been around for years and is the work of a university team in Marseilles. You get a mixture of audio and video material complete with transcripts and explanations.This is much more about the personal lives of the students …

Sentence Stealers with a twist

Sentence Stealers is a reading aloud game invented by Gianfranco Conti. I'll describe the game to you, then suggest an extension of it which goes a bit further than reading aloud. By the way, I shouldn't need to justify the usefulness of reading aloud, but just in case, we are talking here about matching sounds to spellings, practising listening, pronunciation and intonation and repeating/recycling high frequency language patterns.

This is how it works:

Display around 15 sentences on the board, preferably ones which show language patterns you have been working on recently or some time ago.Hand out four cards or slips of paper to each student.On each card students must secretly write a sentence from the displayed list.Students then circulate around the class, approaching their classmates and reading a sentence from the displayed list. If the other person has that sentence on one of their cards, they must hand over the card. The other person then does the same, choosing a sentenc…