Yeah, but…? Finding, asking and answering the important questions about teaching

When Professor Michael McCarthy visited here recently to promote his new Cambridge University Press course book, Touchstone, he gave us a presentation on his spoken corpus research.

It was interesting to learn about but almost completely useless for teaching purposes. I used to go to these conferences and take notes. Now I go to these conferences and write questions. As I listen to them, I’m thinking, “Yeah, but what about this?” “Yeah, but how do you account for that.”

I had no notes but I did have ten questions ready for Professor McCarthy when he got to the end of his presentation. Then the organizers announced they were only going to take a couple questions and only one per teacher. I had one question.

Course books authors always believe in the power of their course books to teach students. So let’s question that.

“Professor McCarthy, thank you for visiting us and your presentation. I can’t say I know so much about teaching but I’ve been doing some research. In January I gave a speaking test to 400 Chinese students who have studied English for nine years. I asked them a question. ‘Tell me about your mother and father.’  In China we have no pronoun of gender when speaking, no ‘he’ or ‘she’. Students have to learn this English grammar which is perhaps the easiest grammar rule to teach. What percentage of the students do you think made a mistake calling Mom a ‘he’ and Dad a ‘she’?”

With many years of experience and study into spoken English corpus, he didn’t want to offer any guesses, saying, “Umm, well, ah, you did the research. Tell us.”

“Seventy-two percent of students, after nine years of English study, made a mistake with ‘he’ and ‘she’,” I told him.

So what did the course book author say to that? Two wrong things and one right thing. He said,

1. This was a fossilized error that the students were making.

Yeah, but… something is fossilized when you don’t learn it correctly or learn it wrong. But no student learns “he” and “she” incorrectly. It is the easiest grammar to learn.

2. We should reteach “he” and “she” every six months.

Yeah, but… something that is so simple to teach and can be taught in one minute and everyone knows the grammar rule, how is teaching it every six months going to help.

3. Students need more input, read more English and listen to more English, more English input.

Yeah, but… you know, you don’t need a course book for that!


7 Secrets of Great Teachers

Recently I gave a lecture for Cambridge University ESOL and Higher Education Press at a conference attended by 150 teachers. I told them the 7 Secrets of Great Teachers.

1. Seeing. Don’t always focus but always see. Sometimes we get so busy that we miss what is important. See this video

2. Action. Great teachers use minimal action to achieve maximum result. Sun Tzu and Bruce Lee examples.

3. Independent. Be on guard against the power of conformity. See this video

4. Creative. Capable of outside the box thinking. Can you solve the problem below?

5. Limit. Know your students’ limitations and your limitations. See this video

6. Target. Teach what will be used. The story of Lisa and the year of lost words.

7. Quadrant Two. Live and work in the zone where you can calmly do important non-urgent things and reflect on what you do. See below.

Puzzle: Draw 4 continuous straight lines (without lifting your pen) to connect all the dots.

.     .     .

.     .     .

.     .     .

Quadrant Two:

>Why another CALL symposium?

>I am wondering if we are seeing the end of these conferences. Computer Aided Language Learning (CALL) conferences should be the first ones to flee the brick-and-mortar model and hit the Internet airwaves.

Sitting down here in Guangzhou, I often wonder, should I try to go to one of these things? I use my computer a lot in my teaching. I’m sending Emails and SMS to my students with my computer, I use PowerPoint’s in all of my classes. I have a website to teach my students and a website to share my views on teaching. I have started an Open Source Coursebook free for all teachers to use and contribute to as a way to give us dynamic customizable coursebooks better suited to our needs. I use the computer to analyze the corpus of many of my lessons and texts by computer.

Long ago I decided to put all my teaching work into the computer and now I have years of lessons and courses in my machine. I have over 400 video clips, about 100 news clips in English/English and two feature length films in English/English inside my notebook ready to be called on when needed.

So I am certainly interested in the ways computers can aid language learning.
I suppose it would cost me at least $500 in plane tickets, hotel and meals to go there and about another $500 in lost work. And I ask myself, will I get $1000 of value out of it?

The International Symposium of CALL in Beijing just finished and I am wondering if I made the right decision in not going. Teachers who went had little to report.

Of course, it would be great to get out of the house and get out of the school and get out of the city to have a change of scene. But if I want a change of scene I think a beach on Sanya would be more enjoyable. Often we are given very little information about the exact content of the conference. One list member seemed to suggest that the meeting wasn’t as practical as he was hoping it would be. offers more information on a $5 book than conference organizers do about a conference. At Amazon you can read the publisher’s blurb describing the book the way they want to put it. You can read parts of the book or even a whole chapter to see if you like it. Then you can read comments, reactions, criticisms and praises of the book by people like you and me and they often suggest other books or even better books. It is not a perfect system but do conference organizers give you a sample of the presentations? Is there a place where you can hear the positive AND the negative reactions of people who have heard the presentation? You may ask how can we hear reactions when the conference hasn’t even happened yet? Well, I did a search on the people presenting at the symposium and they have been giving the same presentations all over the world.

They should just blog it, film it and post it or podcast it. Maybe it adds to their mystique if you can only catch them in their rare public appearances. I could not find much content of what they were going to say on the Internet, just references to them giving talks around the world.

Lots of big names have put their stuff on the Net free for the world. Stephen Krashen does conferences. Mert met him in Russia recently. You don’t have to chase him at symposiums. He also has his own website at where you’ll find tons of his articles explaining everything he believes about English teaching.

I’m a real fan of Jack Richards, author of New Interchange. He has a website that explains his views, theories and research on language teaching at I don’t know if he is on any lists.

Many of the people who go to conferences have their trips paid for by their schools or companies but I pay out of my own pocket and have to really justify the costs. I usually hear from people that attend these things that the biggest benefit they get out of it was to meet new colleagues in the teaching profession, make some friends amongst peers, network, etc, and it often seems the main attraction was not the main benefit. I never hear anyone say that what they heard was worth $1000 (although I’m positive it must happen, maybe.)

For $1000 I could probably buy 15 or 20 good books and a ticket to Sanya and a beachside hotel room. I feel I would certainly learn something from those books while watching the sunrise over an espresso or cooling myself on the beach with a Budweiser.

I learn a lot from the Internet. I’ve been learning a lot about corpus and have also been exploring a side interest in complexity theory and Schelling. Often experts leave their Email addresses and I write them. I write professors and experts all over the world. (TIP: Make your first Email to them a short simple thanks for writing something that helped you. After they thank you for your thanks you can ask your questions.)

I wrote Ronald Gray about his paper on Truscott’s grammar correction ideas, John Milton who wrote an amazing writing marking program, Ben Szekely at Harvard about his paper on intelligent ranking systems, Zane Berge at the Universtity of Maryland about his studies into motivation in online training, Ricard Zach at the University of Calgary about some ideas in using Excel to develop a CRM for students, and that is just in the past few months.

Anyone can do this to seek out answers from experts who are great people and very helpful.
The Internet is getting better everyday. More and more professors and experts are sharing their best stuff on the Internet. Knowledge is getting freer as in “no money” not just ease of access or availability. MIT is working as fast as it can to put all their courses and lectures up on the Internet free for anyone with at least a dialup connection. Every month I get an Email from them telling me about the latest video I can watch of some IT CEO talking about the future of technology or NASA manager talking about the heavens. I love those things and what I’ve learned from Semler, Friedman, Drucker and others have changed the way I work and think about work.

And of course, the computer enables us to communicate with each other like we do on mailing lists. Peter Neu posted some things about social constructionist theory. This is the idea of people bringing their knowledge together to interact and learn together rather than simply being told what to do by a teacher. Hmmm, sounds like the mailing lists we’re on or blogs and what we’ve been doing for the past several years. I have learned so much here and have made some great friends. And you and I are all networking and communicating with each other and with our colleagues and peers just like people like to do at those conferences.

Thank God for the Internet. Thank God for the computer. All of this is, literally, at our fingertips.

Isn’t it curious that we are sometimes tempted to travel to the other side of the country to listen to someone tell us how to use a computer to do our job?