Teaching: a guessing game

Summer in the Alps, July 2018

As far as I can tell, after spending so much time watching people who supposedly know what they’re doing and being formally educated on the topic – teaching is mostly guesswork. Once you start reading into anything at depth you realize how little evidence there is that any technique actually works.

Coming from a scientific background I go searching for evidence

And for the criticism. Any evidence seems inconclusive and there seems to be bucket loads of criticism all over the place for every technique going. There seems little in the way of a benchmark of how fast anyone picks up a language. There’s a lot of beliefs about how people learn and a lot of assumptions.

Students ask me how long it will take them to get to a certain level and this is a reasonable question, to which I have no ready answer. In secondary school Spain, the students took two years of English classes to get to A2 on the common European framework then another two years to B1 then another two years to B2, but the only students who would achieve all that were ‘la crème de la crème’ (the best).

And there are all these students, stumbling around in fits and bursts

Like two-left-footed dancers missing the rhythm but bouncing along nonetheless, the luckiest of whom can laugh their way through, and somewhere along the line they learn that having your feet pointing in the right direction is more of a metaphorical need than a literal need: sometimes we sideways shuffle into success.

The truth is that the teachers themselves stumble through too, guessing how much input to give their students, balancing the accidental overwhelm with the pursuit of progress, trying to make things natural but wanting to demonstrate a learnt skill using specific language.

This talking to one another thing can get a bit tangled at times

In classes, we try to keep things structured and organized, but all that ticking little squares and faff that I detest is merely a tidy imitation of the language in action. Communication isn’t a checklist. Memorizing the dictionary won’t make you eloquent. My mother designates my father as the ‘putter upper’ of the umbrella and suggests hiding something in the ‘out-of-the-wayest’ place and my sister whom she is speaking to doesn’t even blink. This, despite being slightly unexpected, is still all English.

English is not a tick-box exercise. English is a living, breathing, sweating language with a uniqueness in every mouth it escapes. And that’s more than a billion mouths the vast majority of whom are using English as an additional language. There has to be a balance between analysing the language and developing a gut feel of what works.

So teaching is intelligent guesswork

It’s a game of balancing between too much and to little. With too much correction, the student becomes confused and demoralized. Too little correction, and they don’t progress: their errors become set in stone. And every student is going to have their own point of equilibrium and that point, from Monday to Friday, is going to change.

It keeps me guessing.