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We celebrate our third anniversary podcast by inviting six of our favorite guests to tell us what they’ve changed their minds about in language teaching over the course of their careers. Over the course of 35 minutes, Carol Lethaby, Dave Weller, Karin Xie, Matt Courtois, Paul Nation and Simon Galloway discuss grammar teaching, teaching roles, the Dunning–Kruger effect, communicative language teaching and more.
What Have You Changed Your Mind About? With Carol Lethaby, Dave Weller, Karin Xie, Matt Courtois, Paul Nation Simon Galloway - Transcript
Tracy Yu: Hi, everyone.
Ross Thorburn: Welcome to the podcast. This, as you probably noticed, is our third‑anniversary episode. To celebrate, we're doing a special long podcast, the longest one we've ever done. We've got six special guests for you, and all of them are going to answer the same question. That question is, "What have you changed your mind about?"
Tracy: First, we've got Dave Weller and Simon Galloway. Dave currently works as an online diploma and TESOL tutor and blogs at barefootteflteacher.com. Simon runs his distance learning courses for teachers and managers. Both of them have been on our podcast multiple times before.
Ross: The second up is Paul Nation, emeritus professor in the School of Linguistics and Applied Language Studies at Victoria University of Wellington, New Zealand. Paul's one of the most influential writers and researchers in vocabulary acquisition in the world. You'll have heard him before in our second‑anniversary episode about reading last year.
Tracy: The third is Matt Courtois, who currently works as an academic director in a young learner language school, and Karin Xie, who works as an academic manager at Trinity College London in China. You might remember Karin from our previous episode about applying learning, and Matt from episodes about observations, minimalism, and also teaching writing.
Ross: In the fourth segment, we'll hear from Carol Lethaby, who's a teacher, a teacher trainer, and materials writer based in the US and Mexico. You might remember Carol from our episode about neuroscience. You can learn more from her on her website, www.clethaby.com.
Tracy: Finally, Ross and myself will talk about what we have changed our minds about over the years.
Ross: Great. Enjoy the podcast, the longest one ever.
David Weller & Simon Galloway
Ross: Dave Weller, Simon Galloway, you've both been involved in English education for what, 12, 15 years?
Dave Weller: It's 15 years for me.
Simon Galloway: Same, pretty much.
Ross: What have you changed your mind about? There must be one thing, Dave.
Dave: You're talking about since the beginning of my teaching?
Ross: It could be at any point at all.
Dave: The biggest thing I've changed my mind about since I began ‑‑ for myself, and for students, trainees, and everything ‑‑ is I used to think in quite a fixed mindset. I used to think, "Well, some teachers are good, some teachers aren't. And some students are smart and some students are not."
The more I do this the more I realize what it's really about. Attitude and effort are going to be the things that make the difference. It's a bit of a cliché because I know everyone starts to think that way these days. Is it a bit of a...
Ross: I don't know. I think that's still true to an extent, isn't it? I'm not sure. I ultimately do think in those terms that, for trainees for example. You find some at the beginning of the course, and you probably think these guys are the stars, the A‑People, the B‑People, and the C‑People.
I almost think that fixed mindset, growth mindset is one of those things that I know as a fact but I'm not sure the extent to which I'd genuinely apply it or really believe in it deep down. Have you seen courses where people who you thought they were the weakest people at the beginning, ended up becoming the strongest at the end?
Dave: I don't think the courses long enough for that, but there are definitely teachers that start at about that level and end about that level because they're not really trying to grow. There are other people that actually use the effort.
I can see that through my distance learning courses, too. There are some people that start with a pretty bad first assignment and by the end, they're way up here. There are other people that just...
Ross: I think of people on diplomas that we run. We, for example, observe them at the beginning before they got on the course. Some people that we thought, "They're not good enough to get on the course." There was a big kerfuffle. Eventually, they got on the course and they did really well.
I've also seen the opposite of people that we said, "Yep you'll have no problems on this course," and the people go on to fail.
Dave: Yeah, and I wonder if actually what we're saying to them is even affecting that. If we tell them, "You're going to do great," then that actually fosters a fixed mindset in them.
Simon: It goes back to what we were saying earlier about praising the effort. If you tell someone, "You'll have no problem in this course" you, in a way, set them up to fail. Maybe they won't put the effort in as much because they think they're intrinsically or naturally intelligent enough or they're already at that skill level ‑‑ they won't need to put as much effort ‑‑ and they struggle.
Dave: It certainly happens with some people.
Ross: It's almost like there's an unspoken assumption that these people are going to put in X amount of effort. That's the bit that doesn't get said. "You'll be fine. You're going to do really well in this course."
Dave: Assuming that you spend 10 hours a week?
Ross: Yeah, but a lot of people don't know. Dave, let me guess. You didn't used to believe in learning styles but now you do?
Dave: No, actually. I think that when I was a new teacher, perhaps one year or two years in, I was always so certain of everything. On my original course, I took everything as gospel. I held my opinions so strongly, and I was so sure about everything. I knew I had a lot to learn, but what I did already know, I was certain that this is just the way things are.
Since then, I've changed my mind and been exposed to new ideas, new evidence. I've changed everything so many times over the years. I can't remember who said it, it was something like, "You have strong ideas, held lightly," something like that. The longer I'm in this industry, the more I fully agree with that.
I fully believe in what I do and how I do it, but if you show me some evidence or a compelling study, or show me a different way of doing things, I'll willingly change and try something new. That willingness to change, I guess that's [inaudible 06:13] . My willingness to change and to be shown to be wrong, I actually welcome now.
Ross: That sounds like a perfect description of the Dunning‑Kruger effect. After your cert course, you believed a hundred percent in everything, like it was the gospel. The more you learned, the less confident you've become in those things.
Do you think there's a problem then in how we present information to trainees on cert courses? I always find that maybe it's at diploma level that we maybe encourage people to think critically about the things that are being shown to them. The emphasis on introductory courses is, "Here's what you need to just be OK in the classroom and survive your first year."
Maybe we're giving people false confidence. Maybe the more effective learner autonomy, long‑term strategy to teach people is, "I'm going to show you these things, these principles, but you also need to be able to question them."
Simon: That goes back to something I've said before. You can take it to the wider education industry as a whole. In the language class, should we even be teaching language? Should we just be teaching skills and applying motivation? If you give someone the motivation to learn and the skills to be able to do so independently, then they're inevitably going to be able to learn a language.
It's the same with any course, almost. I think the days of the tutor being gatekeeper to information are long gone with the advent of the Internet. Sure, a curated course is much easier to work through step‑by‑step because you can trust the authority of the source. It's broken down and spoon‑fed to you in a certain way.
I do think that, in most courses that we run, there is that lack of teaching meta‑skills at the beginning or teaching to think critically. I think every course assumes that a course before has done that, even going back to initial education from 5 to 18. It's something, I think, missing in that, but that's a much larger issue.
Dave: Yeah, we assume that everyone's got a degree or whatever, so they must know this. Then the university course, "They must have learned it before."
Dave: At secondary school, "They must have learned this at primary school."
Simon: They thought, "Oh, parents must have...
Dave: "The parents must have taught them that."
Simon: It might make a flip‑side argument. We're saying this from a position of 10, 15 years in the industry. As a new teacher, I can still vividly remember going, "Just tell me what to do next. I just want to get through my next lesson. I want to survive."
I think it is a responsibility for initial teacher training courses to be able to provide that to teachers, so they can go into the class with the confidence that the learners will probably learn something. If you just give them a bunch of meta‑skills to work with, and then throw them into a highly pressured environment, they're going to fall to pieces. They need to have something to fall back on.
Ross: Maybe there's an advantage of the Dunning‑Kruger effect. If you know almost nothing and you're really confident in it, that will overcome your lack of skill. If you're a new teacher and you said, "I'm telling you all these things, but maybe they're true. Maybe they're not."
You maybe go into the classroom, and you wouldn't have the confidence to make up for your lack of skills. Maybe that Dunning‑Kruger effect, maybe there is some benefit to having that and believing in something even when you don't know much about it ‑‑ as a new teacher.
Dave: It is to some extent, but every time, just keep on reminding the trainees that they can make their own...
Simon: "This is the best way to do something. Or is it?
Dave: Just keep on pushing for deeper questions, like, "Was that effective in your lesson today? How do you know that? What real evidence were you going on? I saw the student do this. Why do you think that was? Do you think the same thing would work in another class?"
Simon: What's the point of life? Why are you here?
Simon: Yes. Is anything even worth it?
Ross: It's interesting. There must be a point where it would become counter‑productive and you just end up with...
Dave: Yeah, there's in so much doubt.
Simon: No, it's true. Again, as a good trainer or a good manager, you should be able to spot when your teachers are ready, if they're not been challenged. When I was at [inaudible 10:14] you could see teachers that are ready to be pushed to the next level. People reach plateaus, and you could see when somebody goes, "Well I know everything now."
Ross: That's a good point.
Simon: "Actually, you don't. [laughs] Let me introduce you to some new ideas, like differentiation in the classroom or some of the higher‑level teaching skills." They go, "Oh wow! I had no idea you could do this." When their ability to implement what they know reaches what they know, then that's the time to give them more knowledge so they then turn that knowledge into skill.
Dave: I like this idea of that plateau. If someone's already on like a slope, you don't want to stick them on a much steeper slope just for the sake of it.
Dave: ...just pick a Sisyphean boulder something. But if you're on a plateau already, you've got to get them on the slope.
Ross: If you've had a trainee at the beginning of the course who's really struggling to give instructions, and you're like, "OK, here's a three‑step way of doing it," tell them in simple language, model it, and then ask questions.
Dave: Show them, tell them, ask them, give them, Ross.
Ross: Right, but then you wouldn't want to do afterward, "Well, when would that not be effective?" Do you know what I mean? You're just trying to get that person to that basic level.
Simon: When you're observing them, you wouldn't want to sidle up to them and, "Sorry, um, you know that, according to Vygotsky, that's actually [inaudible 11:27] what you shouldn't have really done that there. This kid's ZPD is way off.
Ross: That might be too much.
Ross: Hi, Paul. Welcome back. You published your first paper on language teaching in about 1970. You've had a very long career as well as a fascinating one. Can you tell us what's one thing that you've changed your mind about during your time from being a teacher all the way up to the present?
Paul Nation: First of all, I like to think I always got it right from the beginning, [laughs] but I guess the main change that has occurred to me is the idea of the roles of the teacher and how the role of the teacher as a teacher becomes an important role but not the major role of the teacher.
I say there's four or five roles of the teacher, and I always forget one of them. You know the number one role is the planner. The number two role is the organizer of activities and opportunities to learn. The third role's something like the trainer who trains the learners in strategies to learn, vocabulary and strategies to deal with the language learning.
The fourth role would be the teacher as the tester who's giving learners feedback about their progress and showing them how much vocab they know and so on. The fifth role is the teacher as the teacher who actually gets up in front of the class or guides them through an intensive reading passage or something like that.
I think that those roles are sort of ranked in the order of planner, organizer, trainer, tester, and teacher. That probably would be the major change I've come to during my reading of research, doing research, and so on. On the other hand, I also have to say that just about every PhD student I've had, and I've had a lot, have proved me wrong about the topic that they were working with.
That's virtually without exception, sometimes proved me spectacularly wrong. I remember, for example, Teresa Chung doing research on technical vocabulary. I'd said in the first edition of "Learning Vocabulary in Another Language" that technical vocabulary probably made up about 5 percent of the running words in text.
When she did her research, she found it made between 20 and 30 percent of the running words in the text, which is quite a bit different, one word out three compared to one word out of twenty. [laughs] That was sort of major changes, once people have done the research, to say, "Wow! I think I'm going to step back and change my ideas about that."
I would say that the biggest one is the idea of you need a balanced approach to vocabulary learning and you need to see that teaching is a part of that, but only a part of it. You've got to make sure that the others are there. I would've given a much greater role to teaching very early on in my career.
Ross: Matt, what's something that you have changed your mind about, and why did you change your mind?
Matt Courtois: What haven't I changed my mind about?
Matt: Looking back to my first year in Korea compared to now, I don't think there's a single belief that I still have that I had then. The biggest underlying thing that has changed in me was, at first when I was a teacher, I kind of thought the more knowledge I had about the language I could acquire, the better teacher I would become.
I actually don't think that's really necessary. Being able to discuss any grammar point at the drop of the hat to me is not what makes a good teacher anymore. Having some of the skills to draw that from people, to run a good activity, and to facilitate improvement is much more essential to being a teacher than just knowing the subject matter.
Ross: Can you remember when you changed your mind about that? Was it a long process?
Matt: It was a really long process. I taught in Korea and Russia, and probably my first year within China, I looked at teaching language in this way. Within my first year of teaching at my last company, there's a job opening for a content developer, content writer, something like that.
I remember I took one of my favorite grammar skills lessons ‑‑ I think it was about the passive voice ‑‑ and I submitted it to the manager of this department. He sent me back an email that was three pages full of criticisms. The most positive things he said were basically about some of the animations that I had in my PPT...
Matt: ...not about the content of this deep analysis of the passive voice. He was just saying, "The method in what you're doing it, it's not about the grammar itself. It's how you present it," and stuff like this. I think I improved so much when that manager sent me such a critical feedback.
I started approaching teaching grammar from, "What context am I going to use?" rather than having this giant scope of understanding the passive voice, every tense in English, rather than looking at myself as somebody who analyzes language. That's not my job.
So many English teachers talk about how being prescriptive is so bad, but they're teachers. That's what they're doing. They're not writing dictionaries. They're not contributing to the corpus. We're not describing the language here. We're taking what those guys have and then presenting it to students in a way that they can practice it.
Once I got over that mindset that, "I'm holding the key to the language, and I'm the person who's defining the language," and said, "No, I'm coming up with situations and facilitating situations in which they can use it," I think I improved a lot as a teacher and a trainer.
Karin: Teachers used to just think, "Well, my English is good, so I can teach English," or "I'm not confident in teaching English because I'm not confident in my English." Language awareness, like your knowledge in phonology, lexis, and grammar, they are important and are very helpful. It's just the teaching skills, they are very important, and they should be emphasized more.
Ross: You need both, don't you?
Ross: If you don't know any English and you're the best teacher in the world, you can't teach English. Equally, if you're amazing in English and you can't teach at all, that's not going to work, either. You need a bit of both. At some point, especially for lower levels, the knowledge of English becomes less important than the skill to put it across.
Karin: Because I was trained in the CertTESOL, DipTESOL way, I always believed that I need to build the classes around the learners, and I need to train teachers a reflective coaching way. I believed that was more effective than any other ways.
Recently, I just come to realize that not necessarily, and use that as good challenge or good chance for me to try out different things, or give people different options and see how things goes. It's not one way better than the others. It's just there are different ways of doing things.
Ross: This is one of the dangers of just working in one environment for a very long time. You're often only exposed to one way of doing things. You get transposed to another place, and you automatically just assume, "Well this isn't the right way to do things. This is wrong. This isn't the most effective." But is that true? Is there any evidence?
Karin: Exactly. I think all the things that I've tried out shaped how I do training and classes now. They're definitely not the same as when I was in the old environment for such a long time.
Tracy: Hi Carol
Ross: Hi Carol. I think you're very well known for integrating ideas from research into your practice. We'd love to hear from you about what was one of the most important or the most interesting things that you've changed your mind about over the years.
Carol Lethaby: I think the example that came to mind here certainly was not using the mother tongue in the classroom. I did my PGCE in the UK in learning to teach French and German. This was mid‑'80s, and the communicative approach in foreign language teaching then had a big hold on the profession.
We were explicitly taught not to use English at all when we were teaching French or teaching German. Of course, I carried this on when I started teaching English. I did my Delta and the same thing, it came up all along the way. I remember it seemed to go against my intuition, but as I know now, don't always rely on your intuitions, because they might not be right.
I actually did some research into this as a part of my master's degree here in Mexico and found out that, when you ask learners, one of the things I asked them in a piece of research I did, was, "Do you want your teacher to have English as their first language? Do you want your teacher to be a native speaker of English?" a list of pedigrees.
The one that came out top at all levels, especially at beginner level, was they don't care if their teacher is a native speaker. They want a teacher who can speak their first language, who knows their first language.
It made me think about, "Why then are we telling people you don't need to speak the learners' first language, you don't need to know the learners' first language, and you don't use the learners' first language. It's better not to"? Obviously, I was reading the history of English language teaching, Phillipson's Linguistic Imperialism.
You realize how this happened and how this idea was transmitted and perpetuated. Now, knowing more about the brain and how we learn, I really don't believe that. I am convinced that we need to use the learner's first language in order to teach them another language.
Ross: How would that look like in the classroom then, Carol? Do you have any examples of what that might look like with a group of students?
Carol: I remember trying to teach the difference between first and second conditionals when I was teaching the younger Mexicans in Guadalajara here. There was this explanation that I was trying to work with them with levels of probability. It depended if you were an optimist or a pessimist whether you would use the first conditional or the second conditional.
How confusing that was and how unsatisfactory that was for a learner, I'm sure. Now I would just tell those learners, "This is how you say it. The first conditional corresponds to this in Spanish and the second conditional corresponds to this in Spanish."
Spending ages trying to define a word or an expression when just a quick translation could really help in that case, using the learners' language for effective reasons.
I remember I didn't speak a word of Spanish when I first arrived here. I was given beginner's classes precisely because it was the idea that this would be a genuine communication situation, etc. I couldn't get to know my students.
It means I couldn't ask them, "How are things going? How are you getting on in these certain situations?" Or, "What things are worrying you about learning English? Don't worry about this [inaudible 23:43] . It just means this. I can help you with this later."
All these kinds of things that really enhanced language learning, I wasn't able to do because the idea was that we couldn't speak each other's language and only think in monolingual situations. It's just ridiculous not to take into account and use the learner's mother tongue.
Ross Thorburn & Tracy Yu
Ross: We heard there from a bunch of our favorite guests over the last couple of years about things that they have changed their minds about. Tracy, to finish the podcast, what have you changed your mind about?
Tracy: There are a lot of things I have changed over the last few years. One thing is how I can connect on education‑related either theories or practice and into what I'm doing, my work in context. In the past, I remember when I started being a trainer, I read a lot of books about teaching, training, and theories in ESL, TESL, exactly related to this industry.
Then, I realized maybe I just focused too specific to this industry, to this area. When I listened to podcasts and watch TV, or read other books, magazines, or journals, sometimes I realize that actually something that relates to this industry could really help what I'm doing. I need to give you an example, right?
Ross: Give us an example, yeah.
Tracy: I read a book about how marriage works. The book is "The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work." When I started reading this book, I didn't expect any connection to work, but the more I read about it, I realize actually there were a lot of principles [laughs] can apply to work, to manage a team.
For example, there's one thing mentioned about criticism versus complaint. You can see the difference between these two. You can say...
Ross: What's the difference? Do you want to give us an example of each?
Tracy: A complaint, you can say, "Oh, you didn't do this very well," or "You didn't complete this on time," for example, at work. Criticism, it's like, "Oh, you always did this this way. You're not able to do this," something like that.
Ross: It sounds like more you're talking about the person rather than the actions that they've taken or not taken.
Tracy: Yeah. Of course, people can complain. You can give constructive feedback to the other person. You can talk about the facts, you can talk about the behavior, but you don't jump into conclusion and say, "Oh, this person is not able to," or "This is always like this." You're not giving the person another chance to reflect and then to make things better.
When you're working with colleagues or you're managing a team, it's really important to distinguish the difference between a complaint and a criticism. Another thing is super, super useful, when I had a difficult conversation or tried to give feedback to our staff, just try not to have a harsh start‑up when you're having a conversation.
Even though before you start a conversation, you knew it's probably towards some kind of a conflict or uncomfortable situation, still try to avoid a harsh start‑up in a conversation. Maybe you want to ask this person how they feel, what's going on, and what happened, and find out more information.
Then provide more specific information to the person. Then give the feedback and then action plan, rather than at the beginning is said something very negative. It's difficult for the person to receive your feedback.
For you, Ross, you work in different roles for the last 12, 13 years. You were a civil engineer, and then you work in education. Anything that you've changed over the last few years?
Ross: Something I'm in the process of changing my mind about is a lot of the things that we talk about here and we do on teacher training courses in materials design and management is we concentrate so much on what goes on in the classroom as that's where the learning and everything takes place. That's fundamentally the most important thing.
I used to believe that, but I'm coming to believe more that what happens in the classroom might not be the most important part of their learning process. What might actually be more important is what happens before the class and what happens after the class.
I found a nice quote yesterday from someone called Ausubel, hope I'm pronouncing that correctly. He says, "If I were to block out and reduce all of education's psychology to just one principle, I would say this. The most important single factor influencing learning is what the learner already knows. Ascertain this and teach them accordingly."
That was really cool. How much time do we ever spend actually finding out what students already know? I would guess, generally, not very much time or not a lot of time. Certainly, on this podcast, we don't talk about that very much.
I think the same thing for what happens after class. We tend to assume that things finish once the students walk out the door. We know from memory curves and things, if students don't revise what they've already learned, then they forget the vast majority of things that happen in classroom.
That's something I've changed my mind about. I think we need to spend more time focusing on what happens outside the classroom every bit as much, if not more, compared to what happens inside the classroom.
Tracy: How can you do that then, to find out more information before the class about the students?
Ross: I don't have all the answers to it, but I think it's more important that we think, like ascertaining what students already know before lessons, finding out what problems do they have, and designing our lessons to try and solve specific issues that students have.
What normally what happens is students get placed in a certain level. Then they just work through a course book, which roughly approximates what they know and what they don't know.
We don't go into enough effort to find out what are the holes and the gaps, or the peaks and the troughs, in students' current ability and knowledge, and try and smooth over the troughs, to make sure what we're doing in class fills those in.
Tracy: Have you ever seen any examples or some teachers who were able to focus on what happened before the class or after the class?
Ross: Some things, like the whole flipped classroom principle, goes towards that. Some educational technology works towards aiming to find out what students know before the class. It has them answering questions and makes sure that they reach a level of mastery before they move on to the next topic.
I don't think that's the norm in most scenarios. It's something that we don't talk about enough, and I think those things are every bit is important probably as what goes on in the classroom and deserve our attention a lot.
Everyone, I hope that was interesting. I presume for a lot of people that the reason that you're listening to this podcast in the first place is so that we can change your minds about some issues that are important. Hopefully, it was useful hearing how some of our favorite guests have changed their minds about different things over the years.
Tracy: Thanks very much for listening.
Ross: For the last three years, thank you. Good‑bye.