Tag Archives: english language teaching

Dispensing with the education and technology bullshit

2 Jan

A recent Tweet from Scott Thornbury led me to paper written by Neil Selwyn (Monash University, Melbourne) on Minding Our Language when it comes to education and technology. The refreshingly no nonsense sub-heading reads:

why education and technology is full of bullshit … and what might be done about it

I have a professional interest in education and technology (or Ed Tech, as it loves to be known), particularly in the context of language teaching. However, what really drew me in to reading Selwyn’s paper was the ‘bullshit’ in the sub-heading. In all aspects of life, bullshit irritates me, and this irritation grew a few months ago when I had the dubious pleasure of dealing with both estate agents and used-car sales people at around the same time. These two professions, in the UK at least, have embraced bullshit to such an extent that the patter flows straight out of sales people’s mouths with no apparent engagement from their brains. I picked one of the used-car salesmen up on this and he managed to cut out the nonsense for all of about two minutes, before slipping back into sales mode, managing to cram ‘one careful owner’, ‘trouble-free motoring’ and ‘handles beautifully’ into one convoluted sentence.

Now whilst I have little hope for these professions (the vague, meaningless language is almost seen as part of the selling and buying game) I’d like to think that anyone working in a profession with links to education would take the time to engage their brains and think carefully about the language they’re using. I challenge anyone involved in English language teaching to attend a conference in 2015 where education and technology isn’t either the main focus of the conference or prevalent in the vast majority of talks being given. I’m not suggesting it shouldn’t be on the agenda, but the language being used in presentations and discussions needs to be clear and meaningful, as there’s way too much bullshit creeping in. Rather than reading any more from me on this, I urge you to take the time to read Selwyn’s paper as it’s a far better researched and persuasive effort than I could manage. Here’s a short extract:

Ed-Tech Speak is highly political in both its nature and its effect. These should not be treated simply as benign or neutral words, terms, phrases and statements. Instead, these are powerful means of advancing the interests and agendas of some social groups over the interests of others. As such, this limited linguistic base is a serious problem for anyone concerned with the democratic potential of digital technology in education.

If you find yourself agreeing with the argument being presented, I have made my own small contribution to the call for cutting out the bullshit, with an Ed Tech Bullshit Bingo card. Print it out, share with friends, take it to conferences and meetings. It’s not going to solve the problem, but it may go some way towards raising awareness. Suitable for ELT professionals of all ages.

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Watch out, it’s the Grammar Police!

6 Aug

I shared this in a few different places recently:

To me, at first glance, it seemed harmless. The world’s cutest grammar police politely pointing out celebrities’ grammar mistakes on Twitter and improving their own knowledge of English in their process. Yes, there may be an element of poking fun, but I can’t imagine Daniel Radcliffe crying himself to sleep because Gabriel from Brazil spotted he’d made an error with his tenses:

Gabriel

The only thing that irritated me slightly was that the promo video had clearly been put together by a school that knew a thing or two about self-promotion. But hey, it’s a cut-throat world out there for language schools, so who can blame them for a bit savvy marketing? They’ve actually done such a good job that the story’s been picked up by the media as far afield as Australia, and I’m sure it hasn’t done any harm to student numbers at Red Balloon schools in Brazil.

With media attention, however, comes the inevitable backlash. There are, as far as I can see, two key reasons why these pint-sized grammar police, or more precisely, the teachers encouraging them, have upset a number of people. These criticims have appeared in a number of places, including a LinkedIn group where I posted the above YouTube video:

1. You make a grammatical error on Twitter. Who cares? There are times when grammar matters, and there are times when it doesn’t. With its immediacy and 140-character limit, Twitter is clearly a place where grammar rules and careful spelling are likely to take a back seat. So it’s wrong to nurture grammar cops who insist that grammar must always adhere to prescribed ‘standards’.

2. Teaching children that unsolicited criticism is acceptable is not a great life lesson. Or in other words, no one likes a smart arse. As a six year old, pointing out an adult’s poor grasp of grammar could, maybe, in the right place and at the right time, be quite funny. But is a public forum like Twitter the right place? Continue dishing out opinions in that way as an adult and you’ll find yourself very short on friends.

So are these fair criticisms? They certainly made me think again about whether or not the video I’d shared was really a bit of harmless fun. And I’m no fan of prescriptivism when it comes to grammar, so my feeling is that there well may be a case for questioning what these young students are being taught indirectly.

There are of course always those who will argue that Twitter (and digital communication in general) is responsible for declining standards in written English, and that this is bad. However, quite apart from the ‘language evolves’ counter-argument, I think most people are perfectly comfortable moving from one form of written communication to another. To form the opinion that a person firing off a Tweet and not worrying about spelling and apostrophes can’t in a different setting write a professional, grammatically correct email is to assume most people are stupid. And that’s a pretty sad view of the world.

However, to suggest that the teachers at Red Balloon have this same world view  is reading far too much into what I’m sure they just saw as a fun way of engaging young kids in English grammar. It would therefore be grossly unfair to write them off as hardcore, blinkered prescriptivists.

On top of this, in the same way that I believe the majority of adults can move comfortably between formal and more ‘relaxed’ attitudes to written grammar, I have faith in the intelligence and common sense of (most) kids.  This reassures me that the the grammar cops from Brazil understand the difference between classroom activities and real life, and that they will not strut around Rio de Janeiro spouting unsolicited criticism at those who cross their paths. In fact, for their sake, I very much hope they don’t. On the contrary, I strongly suspect that their controversial, temporary status as the Twitter grammar police will have no adverse effects on them and they will all grow up to be balanced, polite and well-mannered individuals (more than likely with an excellent grasp of English grammar).

Always judge a book by its cover?

17 Mar

You may not realise it from looking at what’s on offer, but ELT publishers really care about the covers of their books. And why are covers so important? Well, let’s start with the wider world of books, films and music. From a personal point of view, I feel that great pieces of work deserve to be wrapped with care and style, be that London Calling or Call of the Wild, and in fact, the exterior artwork is as much a part of that work as the inner content.

londoncalling

I miss the days of looking through artwork and reading lyrics that have been carefully put together as part of a double LP that I’ve had to hunt down by spending hours digging around in record shops (really showing my age now!). Similarly with books, if I’m going to be reading something over a course of time, and it’s going to be sitting up on my bookshelf, then I want to enjoy looking at it. Or at the every least, have a cover that does justice to the content. The fuss made over Faber’s recent anniversary cover of Plath’s The Bell Jar illustrates just how protective people are of works of literature that they love, and how misjudging the artwork on the cover of your book can seriously backfire.

belljar

Now I’m not suggesting that English in Mind is to Cambridge University Press what Nevermind is to Nirvana. Let’s be honest, you might love your faithful old copy of Oxford’s Advanced Learner’s Dictionary or Cambridge’s English Grammar in Use,  but would you feel compelled to fire off an email of complaint if the covers of these titles were to be substantially changed?

EGiU fourth edition

So if we agree that ELT products are never likely to sit alongside the film, literature and music that we love and cherish, do the covers matter at all? Essentially these are learning tools, so if we were to go down the route of what’s being planned for cigarette packets in the UK  (by which I mean blank packaging, not images of rotting lungs) would it matter?

Yes, it probably would matter. For a few reasons.

1. The flick factor. Whether you’re a language teacher looking for a new course book or a student hunting out some supplementary self-study materials, you have a lot of choice. Too much choice perhaps. So publishers are fighting for your attention, and whether that’s online or in a bookshop, the front cover is one of the first things you’ll notice. If it fails to catch your attention, you’ll never get as far as flicking through the content (which, incidentally, also needs to be attractively designed and well laid out). Many people do judge books by covers.

2. You’ve got to live with this book. It may not be as close to your heart as Pride and Prejudice, but as a teacher you’re going to have to live with certain books day in, day out, possibly for months, maybe even for years. You could also be the person presenting a new set of course books to your students, and ideally you want them to be pleased with your choice. Rightly or wrongly, the front cover of a book can be the first step in engaging students in the content.

3. Good covers show the publisher cares. Well, sometimes. If a publisher has given little thought to the front cover, or even if a lot of thought has been given but the end result is awful, what does that say about the actual content of the book? To be fair, those who designed the covers are unlikely to be the same people who wrote and edited the content, but a shoddy front cover or typos on the back cover are often an indication of  standards inside the book as well. Conversely, beware of books where all of the investment has been thrown at design. The same is true online, where slick websites are all too often masking the fact that the learning materials are dull and uninspiring. Particularly for course books, get samples and trial before you invest!

In short, book covers are important, and ELT publishers know this. As we move towards more digital content, those who are really on the ball will be adapting new covers accordingly. Where once the spine of the book was important because that’s the first thing many people would see in bookshops, now it’s key to ensure that the covers work well as thumbnail images. Increasingly, designs will also need to be optimised for tablets (no matter what way up you’re holding the device) and the covers themselves may soon become animated, interactive and/or customisable.

So, does a bad cover mean a bad book? Well, no, not necessarily. Does a good cover mean a good book? Definitely not. It is an indication though and I don’t think anyone’s going to stop judging books their covers any time soon.

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