400 Project – Listening class with Victor

As part of the Project 400, I visited Victor who was doing a listening class at the college.

Victor was doing a listening exercise about a woman from Finland applying for a job at a British restaurant. The students were first taught 36 new vocabulary words and then listened to the dialog five times.

It was very informative to learn how the lesson was conducted and how the students responded to it.

Project 400 – What is it?

What do students need to learn? What are they learning in school? What are we teaching? What is the best way to teach them? What is working and not working? Answering those questions is the objective of Project 400.

Project 400 is a research project to study:

100 English language classrooms in China to see how English is taught and how students learn.

100 of my former English students who now have jobs. What kind of jobs do they usually get.  How do they use their English in their jobs? What English did they learn in school that they use in their jobs? What English did they not learn in school that they need for their jobs? What English did they not learn in school that they need in their jobs?

100 bosses of my students who are now working as well as other managers, HR managers and business leaders. What kind of English do new employees need in their jobs? How important is English?

100 students in their dorms. How do they study? How much homework do they do? How do they feel about their studies.

At the conclusion of this research project, I will have a better understanding of students, teachers and English study.

>Total class participation

>Sometimes a few sharp students will answer all the questions I put to the class while some students want to space out, read or chat. To force total class participation I ask all the students to stand up. Then when I put a big question to them like “Give me some words about [whatever the subject we’re studying].” Each student who replies with a satisfactory word can sit down. In this way everyone has to participate.

>Does China have the worst English teachers in the world according to international test results?

>Some teachers tried to tell me that China has the worst teachers and students based on the international test results of the Cambridge BEC tests. Is that true? Can we use those tests results and other tests like IELTS and TEOFL to see where the best and worst English teaching is being done?

Here are the statistics for 2004 sorted from lowest pass rate to best pass rate, or you could say from worse to best.

As you can see, China did indeed score the worst of all the other countries. Does this mean China’s teachers are the worst? There is an easy test we can apply to find out the answer.

If these statistics show us that China’s teachers are the worst in the world then they should also help us to see which teachers are the best in the world.

China, People’s Republic of 40%
Indonesia 41%
Vietnam 45%
Brazil 58%
Hong Kong 59%
Italy 67%
France 68%
Spain 70%
India 71%
United Kingdom 74%
Argentina 78%
Bangladesh 79%
Czech Republic 79%
Switzerland 80%
Croatia 81%
Poland 81%
Russian Federation 81%
Germany 84%
Austria 86%
Portugal 89%
Canada 93%
Slovenia 95%

Is it true that Slovenia has the best teachers in the world? They scored a 95% pass rate! Incredible! Even better than Canadian teachers. How did they do that?

And what about British teachers? Is it true that Argentinean teachers are better than British teachers?

I’m afraid we can only use the pass/failure rates of the BEC (and also the IELTS) to show us the rates of those who took the test and passed or failed. It does not reflect the language ability of students in general and the teaching ability of teachers in general.

People take this test for different reasons, different goals at different ages. Only if the BEC was given to ALL High School graduates or at least a true random sampling of students who were ALL at the same level could we use them to try to interpret teaching quality. These statistics from the BEC do not answer the question on the English teaching ability of teachers in China.

But this does not mean Chinese English teachers are good. It only means these particular statistics are not going to be useful in the question.

As I said, it doesn’t really matter if China came in last in the BEC tests as this sort of test is not going to tell us anything about the teaching or learning skills.

>Academia resists change

>Xiujuan Zhang and Hongna have pointed out the challenges that they’ve faced as teachers in China. If there were more support or at least tolerance for change it would not be so difficult. Changing academia is one of the hardest things in the world to do. How do you tell the teachers that they don’t know?

A couple years ago we were having our annual Communicative Approach (CA) vs. Grammar Translation (GT) debate. A teacher said that although she believed CA was more effective she had to teach GT because their school expected them to do it that way. The teachers had to act against her conscience and against what she thought was in the best interest of the student in order to please their employer. And in this case this was an American teacher in New York, USA! So we can only have sympathy and admiration for our Chinese colleagues who struggle to do something different in their schools.

It was the end of my last class when she came in. She unloaded an armful of books on the desk and asked me if I had any videos or films that she could borrow to help her learn about business. I assured her I could help her and offered to leave them with one of the students to pass to her. She asked me to not do that. She explained that although she has been an English teacher for many years, she just passed a special training to allow her to teach business English but now she doesn’t want students or her superiors to know that she doesn’t know a thing about business. She felt very badly about being so covert about the whole thing but made it clear that showing any kind of weakness in professional skills was risky.

Teachers feel bad about inadequacies but at the same time the necessity to cover them up. It is likely they are covering them up from superiors who also are covering up inadequacies from their superiors who are also covering up inadequacies from their superiors, all in the politics of academia.

This sort of situation, which happens in certain academic situations in many places around the world, can be like that children’s game where everyone makes a circle and slowly sit down until they are sitting on the knees of the person behind them while at the same time providing their knees as a seat for the person in front of them. They can even march, although, only in a circle. Lots of action but not getting anywhere. But if one person stands up then everyone falls down. The dynamics are that there is more common interest in perpetuating the system and strong risks in challenging it or rocking the boat.

Dynamics like these cannot last an instant in business where it is sink or swim and constant change and real progress are the keys to survival. Academia does not have to play the survival game.

>Why it is difficult for Chinese English teachers to use the communicative approach

> [Photo: Professor Li Xiao Ju and Dave]

There was tremendous resistance to the Communicative Approach (CA) when it was first introduced in China in 1980 by Professor Li Xiao Ju at a conference at the Guangzhou University of Foreign Studies. In fact I was told, only one young teacher at the conference welcomed the idea. Even though the Ministry of Education later accepted it as the approved way to teach it seems they had to back down a bit later due to some pressure.

For those who embrace CA it is an uphill battle to spread its acceptance in China. Why? Perhaps there are two reasons. Before I discuss them I’d like to set some definitions. I believe ALL teachers want their students to learn grammar. The question is how? Grammar-Translation (GT) advocates believe rule learning and a direct understanding of the mechanics of the language are essential. CA advocates believe language mechanics study is an extra step leading to complicate and even frustrate the learning of the language. They believe the best way to learn the language is to use it and the grammar will be learned internally. But in the scope of CA advocates is a range of extremities. Many hold Krashen as the most extreme.

Back to the reasons, first, there is not complete acceptance of CA amongst western teachers. Many teachers in the west believe GT to be a required part of language teaching. This has been witnessed on this list with the subject of GT vs. CA flaming up about once a year. But what I think is more interesting is what I consider the second reason of why CA has not spread around China more easily. Can Chinese teachers do it?

The question was “Can Chinese English teachers make use of the Communicative Approach?”

The skill level of Chinese teachers varies widely. With some teachers you forget they are not native English teachers because their English is flawless. But some teachers have very poor English. It is difficult for them to communicate in a conversation. They are hard to understand and it is hard for them to understand you. I’m not sure how to quantify the number of teachers at these various levels of skill. Another thing is that we must factor in some cultural factors and the politics of academia. After all of that I would guess that less than 25% of Chinese teachers could operate in a CA classroom without losing face and my guess is probably very very generous.

On the other hand, GT is a much more comfortable way of teaching. Rules are laid out, memorized and recited. Drills are given with structured sentences that require only one correct answer. The teacher does not have to score a sometimes convoluted mass of words that the student has used to describe something. The teacher has to check if the correct word is filled into the blanks. Certainly I’m over-simplifying this but I use it as an illustration.

This leads us to a bigger question. What do you do in a country with 100 million English students to teach and only a small percentage of your teachers have near native English skills themselves? Is Grammar-Translation the answer?

>Comments after the Beijing TEFL Conference

>A teacher attended a TEFL Conference in Beijing and reported back on the key points (in italics below) with my comments.

1. The emphasis throughout was that students, not teachers should initiate most of the work.

Students can do this only if they are given some direction and training how to do it as well as the power and the freedom. What kind of work are they supposed to do? Preparing for exam work? That doesn’t give them much leeway.

2. Don’t go to extremes. All new and no old usually causes problems. Add the new to the old and discard some of the old.

This is fine as long as they don’t use it as an excuse to have all old and no new. Professor Li Xiao Ju introduced the communicative approach in 1980 and they nearly stoned her as a heritic. Around 1990 the Education Ministry accepted the communicative approach but had to back down over stiff resistence. Now they have the “eclectic clause” which means they pick and choose what they want from communicative approach often picking nothing.

3. Listening – Xian Medical College. Listening plus is the answer. Teacher of Listening is regarded as a ‘button pusher’ for a machine. Isolated skills impair learning. Each teacher, half their classes were left as normal and half the classes were given the new program. They used the same text book. Students in LISTENING PLUS listened in the normal way, and then listened seeing the text, with some words or phrases removed. In pairs (or small groups) they then discussed what the missing words were. They were also given exercises from the CCTV series ‘Let’s Talk’. The students discussed and so listening had a context, conversation, discussion.

This may be a good way to start off with new or lower level learners. It focuses intense concentration on one word rather than teaching the student how to glean meaning from a recorded conversation or lecture. Because some students try to do listening word by word it makes it difficult when such a strategy is impossible and they have to get the gist from the recording. The former is considered the “bottom-up” strategy of the traditional approach and the latter is considered part of the “top-down” strategy of the communicative approach.

4. English is imbedded solidly when a person is exposed to English for 90 minutes without a break. IMPLICATIONS: Whenever we interrupt the English learning with Chinese, we break the 90 minutes and thus the students’ chance to learn well. (Classes thus should not have a break.)

Interesting. Did they support this with research? You cannot just make a statement like this without some research behind it. Normally no one would assert such a thing unless they did some testing. Did they say anything about the long cherished habit of teachers explaining meaning of words or grammar in Chinese?

5. Essential to include tasks in learning, but not to overdo it. Task should come after the language has been learned, not before. Not TASK BASED LEARNING but TASK SUPPORTED LEARNING.

Using tasks before teaching, an alternative to the old PPP approach, is a way to stimulate the students’ mind and get them engaged in the subject. Authors, movie directors and gamesters use the technique constantly. Throw out a challenging idea. “What is the one common characteristic all millionaires have that you may have, too?” “Can you connect the nine dots with only four lines without lifting your pencil?” “When she got out of the taxi she handed the driver a copy of an Email instead of the taxi fare. The driver objected but when he began to read the message he couldn’t stop his tears.”

This is the appetizer. It makes the student hungry for the answer. This gets the student activated on a certain subject. He calls into service all of his mental faculties, ideas, understanding and experiences. He sorts all of this and focuses everything he’s got on the problem. When the teacher later offers more vocabulary, gambits, phrases and grammar it all gets added to the student’s personal resources before all getting filed away again at the end of the exercise into the student’s mind.

8. Computer testing; don’t just put the paper questions on the computer.

To fully use the computer the program should be designed to take the students’ answers and analyze them.

CALL is Computer Aided Language Learning. But ICALL is Intelligent Computer Aided Language Learning, using the computer to guide the student a little more intelligently. ESL Blue on the web is a good simple example of this. The BULATS test, made by the same people that did the IELTS test, is a smart test which changes itself according to the perceived skill of the student allowing the test to more closely zero in on the students level of skill.

9. “Currently the standard expectation for College English is too high.” Prof. Wen Qiu-fang. L2 speakers should be the model for L2 learners, not L1 speakers. Since 1880’s it has been advocated that L1 should not be used to teach L2. It is not new.

Interesting idea. This touches on the idea of Global English and the fact that the communication partner most students will have when they join the workforce may well NOT be a native speaker of English.

I have found, from learning some French, that I can communicate best with non-native French speakers who also learned a little French. It seems that we know the same vocabulary and our grammar is very simple and possibly primitive even to the extent of being incorrect but easily understood by those like us.

10. Grammar is essential AFTER the language is known, not to teach the language. Learn the words, the form, the context (internal as well asexternal) before you learn the grammar. Grammar is to allow the student to go on and develop the structure in other situations.

Right. That’s similar to what Krashen says. Grammar instruction is more like repair work.

11. Obstacles to overcome. Fear of teacher; teach students to question. Fear of standing out; teach students to be original and, whether you agree or disagree, respect the opinion. Allow others to question it without degrading it. Learn to agree to disagree in many situations.

Very good. One big problem is the exam which reduces all comment, reaction and idea to “right” and “wrong” answers. Many of my students cannot accept a comment like, “Well, in American we would say…” The student answers, “On the test it has to be right or wrong.” Since many teachers are getting judged by how well their students do in exams it remains to be seen if teachers will find a way to shake loose from the shackles of “teaching to the test”.

Another teacher issue is the respect teachers customarily and traditionally receive. This is kind of nice and a great change to some of the attitudes some students in the west display towards teachers. Although many of us foreigners are casual or even too casual with our students, I think it will take time for this to change with our Chinese colleagues.

>To my colleagues who think Chinese are idiots

>Some of my foreign colleagues in China shock me with their attitude.

I would like to ask my colleagues to:

1) To remember we are guests in this country. Many of the members on our list are Chinese. The way some of us talk on this list is highly disrespectful and at times downright offensive to our Chinese hosts and colleagues.

2) To remember we may not be as great as we think we are. Some of us are entertaining illusions that our own countries and cultures and education systems are perfect or certainly beyond the problems that China has.

Cheating, plagiarism, the evil exam system and more are all well represented in our own countries so we shouldn’t be shocked to see it here as well.

It is the attitude that some of my colleagues have voiced that has been shocking. And such attitude has caused some of us to balance the argument with reminders that things are not so rosy in the west.

If I said that American teachers are good for nothing and that American books are only good for wiping our bottoms I suspect my message would not be well received by foreigners. It is bad enough that a couple of my fellow foreign colleagues say this about Chinese teachers and books but to make it even worse other foreign are not shocked or do not even notice.

Certainly we may have different viewpoints on methodology and certainly some teachers are better than others. But when you go to Chicago to get your visa that Chinese consulate employee you are conversing with so well behind the counter probably learned English the Chinese way. You’ll be surprised how many millions are speaking English pretty well without ever having a foreign English teacher. The fact is, the Chinese English teaching method works. It’s just that we think some of our western methods work better.

China is struggling under the double burden of huge population and relative poverty. I think we should cut China a little slack and quit complaining that they are not as great at things as we think we are. I think we should wake up and realize that we are not as great as we think we are and, frankly, some of us foreigners are idiots.

>Education reform or education revolution?

>I am not faulting him. I’m sure he’s a great guy, especially after your commendation. Your assessment of his situation is where lies the problem:

“However in the field of Chinese academia he realizes he must have the paper background (degrees) to support his theories in developing new and better teaching methods in the Chinese university system.”

It is this “change the system from within the system” idea that is the death of many a true reformer. What kind of degree did Mao receive to qualify him to start a revolution? What degree did Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak have to qualify them to revolutionize technology? What degree did Li Yang have to qualify him to launch a new English teaching methodology in China?

And of those highly degreed individuals who are in China, what new thing have they brought into academia? I am currently using a book to teach a college intermediate-level English class which was written recently by an American PhD who lives in China. It is the most complicated thing I have ever used. You have to be a native English speaker just to understand the explanations. There is no hope for my students to understand it.

Every Chinese person today who is involved in business has gone out and got themselves an MBA. Great. Now there’s a million MBA holders. Everyone is doing the same thing. No one is thinking differently. They are all marching lock-step in the same direction.

I knew a couple Americans who came over to China after graduating from a University of Texas course on Entrepreneurship. They were going to start a business here. They lasted six months. Haha! By the time universities start teaching it, it is not revolutionary. It’s too late to go back to Jobs’ and Wozniak’s garage and start Apple again.

I felt a spark in his message. There was a spark of someone who is not afraid to do something different. I wanted to fan the flame a bit. But you cannot be different by doing things the same. I am not criticizing him, I’m pushing him.