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Elt j 2007-bell-135-43

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Elt j 2007-bell-135-43

  1. 1. Do teachers think that methods are dead? David M. Bell Downloaded from http://eltj.oxfordjournals.org/ at Periodicals Dept., Hallward Library, University of Nottingham on November 16, 2012 This paper examines Block’s (2001) claim that whereas the notion of method no longer plays a significant role in the thinking of applied linguists, it still plays a vital role in the thinking of teachers. In order to assess Block’s claim, four sources of data on teachers’ beliefs were examined—two direct sources of data: (1) interviews with questions directly addressing teachers’ opinions on the concept of method and (2) discussion board postings on the topic of post-method, and two indirect sources: (3) language learning/teaching autobiographies and (4) teaching journals. The evidence from the data suggests that teacher interest in methods is determined by how far methods provide options in dealing with particular teaching contexts. Rather than playing a vital role in teacher thinking, teacher attitude towards methods is highly pragmatic. In the light of this evidence, implications for teacher education are considered.Introduction The last 15 years has seen ELT methodology disavow the search for the best method (Prabhu 1990), move ‘beyond methods’ (Richards 1990) to the ‘post-method condition’ (Kumaravadivelu 1994), and even proclaim the death of methods (Brown 2002). However, more recently the alleged demise of methods and the concept of post-methodology have come into question (Larsen-Freeman 2001; Bell 2003). Block (2001: 72), in his analysis of the popularity of the teaching methods of the foreign language teacher Michel Thomas, has argued that: ‘while method has been discredited at an etic level (that is, in the thinking and nomenclature of scholars) it certainly retains a great deal of vitality at the grass-roots, emic level (that is, it is still part of the nomenclature of lay people and teachers)’. This paper seeks to verify Block’s claim by examining teachers’ beliefs about methods. I leave aside for the moment the vexing question of just what is meant by method, allowing the varying definitions to emerge in the course of the paper.Data My data on teacher beliefs about methods were collected from four sources—two direct sources: interviews with questions directly addressing the teachers’ opinions on the concept of method and discussion board postings on the topic of post-method, and two indirect sources: language learning/teaching autobiographies and teaching journals. Each data source came from a different group of teachers. E LT Journal Volume 61/2 April 2007; doi:10.1093/elt/ccm006 135 ª The Author 2007. Published by Oxford University Press; all rights reserved.
  2. 2. Most of the teachers were on an MA programme in applied linguistics at Ohio University, although the language learning/teaching autobiographies and teaching journals also included teachers on a pre-service certificate programme. On the face of it, this suggests a highly homogenous and particularized group of teachers. However, the teachers here represent a diversity of age, gender, experience, nationality, and first language, which may be more representative of the teaching population as a whole than a group of teachers situated in a particular work setting. Because the Downloaded from http://eltj.oxfordjournals.org/ at Periodicals Dept., Hallward Library, University of Nottingham on November 16, 2012 relationship of researcher/subject overlapped with that of teacher/student there is a danger that the data here have been biased. However, my experience with this population of teachers is that they come to the programme as independent thinkers and are certainly encouraged to continue so. Further research into teacher beliefs certainly needs to be situated in diverse global teaching contexts beyond the rarified environment of teacher education institutions, but it is hoped that the present data represent a chorus of teacher voices that hopefully reveals their thinking about methods and will give some clues as to the thinking of the profession as a whole.Results Thirty teachers on an MAprogramme in applied linguistics were interviewedInterviews prior to taking a methodology course. The participants comprised 13 NES T (native English speaker teachers) and 17 NNE ST (non-native English speaker teachers). Twenty teachers had more than two years of English language teaching experience. All teachers had had some teaching experience whether language teaching or otherwise. The interview prompts consisted of three open-ended questions that addressed teachers’ beliefs about notions of method and approach and 12 statements, derived from the literature on methodology cited above, with which participants indicated their agreement or disagreement. The prompts were given to the participants in advance so that they could think through their answers and provide written responses, which formed the basis of the interviews. In what follows, I report on those questions and statements that provoked the most salient responses. In response to the question: ‘How would you describe your teaching methodology?’ 21 teachers either explicitly or implicitly described their teaching as eclectic. n I am very eclectic—ALM, GT, C LT, humanistic, a little bit of everything depending on the context. n Perhaps eclectic is the best word that can best describe my teaching method. n I don’t want to stick to one thing. n I have an eclectic method. I like to take a piece from here and a piece from there and just combine them all. n I teach according to the situation. I feel it’s important to vary the approach especially when you spend 24 hours a week with the same class. Six teachers identified their methodology as within the paradigm of C LT (Communicative Language Teaching) while three teachers described their methods as imposed either by their institutions or by the textbooks they used.136 David M. Bell
  3. 3. In response to the question: ‘How do you define method?’ teachers mainlydescribed method as goal-oriented, systematic, and concerned withtechniques. Seven teachers described method solely in terms of techniquesas in the first three examples, eight teachers talked in terms of a systematicset of behaviours, as in the fourth and fifth examples, and seven teacherstalked about an underlying set of principles as in the last example:n a way you teach with techniques,n a set of techniques with a focus on something, e.g. grammar, Downloaded from http://eltj.oxfordjournals.org/ at Periodicals Dept., Hallward Library, University of Nottingham on November 16, 2012n a way of teaching which is supported by different techniques,n a technique, a way of doing something, that has to be planned,n a systematic way of presenting the material,n a conjunct of techniques and ways of teaching based on systematic principles and procedures carrying something out according to a plan.A further seven teachers gave definitions which paraphrased Richards andRodgers’ (2001: 20) definition: ‘A method is theoretically related to anapproach, is organizationally determined by a design, and is practicallyrealized in procedure’. One teacher referred to Anthony’s (1963) definition:‘techniques carry out a method which is consistent with an approach’ (p.63). Although one teacher talked of the restrictive nature of method, none ofthe teachers defined method in the narrow and pejorative sense that post-methodologists define it. For example, Kumaravadivelu (1994: 29) saysthat a method ‘consists of a single set of theoretical principles derived fromfeeder disciplines and a single set of classroom procedures directed atclassroom teachers’. This defines method as primarily theory driven andtherefore context insensitive. Teachers, however, were far more ready to seemethod as emerging from practice and sensitive to context, as these twolonger teacher definitions suggest:n Method is a way of arriving to one’s teaching goal, method is a manner in which a system is implemented to complete a specific task—a method applies to a structured idea that a teacher follows—combining theory and practice that best suits their learners’ needs.n The constant use of cleverness, which disarms the barriers the student wants to put up, which gets us from point A (the student’s current knowledge or ability) to point B (the desired knowledge or ability). Given the fact that students may be in class at 7 a.m. and at 9 p.m. So they didn’t always have the required energy. So it’s trying to give them the required energy.The question: ‘Do you distinguish between method and approach?’ wasintended to assess teachers’ response to Richards and Rodgers’ (2001)definition in which method subsumes approach, design, and procedure.Ten teachers felt there was no distinction between method and approach.One experienced NE ST teacher saw the so-called distinction as politicallymotivated: For me it is a difficult distinction. I think the words are adopted along a historical time-line and created just for the reason of wanting to depart from a certain era. Really, on a fundamental level they are the same thing. Approach is a political term to distinguish the departure from previous methods.Teachers’ views of methods 137
  4. 4. Of the remaining 20 teachers who felt there was a distinction between method and approach, they were evenly divided as to which was the superordinate term: 11 teachers agreed with Richards and Rodgers and felt that method was the larger term while nine felt that approach was the larger more theoretical term and methods derived from it. Whatever the theoretical intention of distinguishing between method and approach, in practice the distinction appears unclear and, for many teachers, unhelpful. In the next part of the interview, teachers were asked to respond to various Downloaded from http://eltj.oxfordjournals.org/ at Periodicals Dept., Hallward Library, University of Nottingham on November 16, 2012 statements, most of which were made by the methodologists cited above. Here, I sample just a few of those statements and teacher responses. In response to Brown’s (2000: 170) definition— ‘Virtually all language teaching methods make the oversimplified assumption that what language teachers ‘‘do’’ in the classroom can be conventionalized into a set of procedures that fits all contexts’—five teachers agreed, but most teachers responded by talking about the uniqueness of each teaching context (17 teachers) as in the first two examples and the individuality of the teacher (8 teachers) as in the last two examples: n Every class is unique. n When I use the term method I am not suggesting that this method applies to all contexts. n As a teacher we don’t just have to choose one method. n The way we use a method depends on the teacher. One teacher spoke of a dialectic between the simplification of method and the complexity of the classroom: I do think there is a dialogue going on where teachers are trying to address these concerns. You do have to simplify your views on language learning when you go into a class. It would be very difficult to address every student’s individual needs in a multi-level, multi-lingual classroom. Teaching makes you simplify things, makes you conventionalize them. But I do think that most teachers are aware of that problem. In response to a similar pejorative definition of method by Richards and Rodgers, (2001: 245): ‘A method . . . refers to a specific instructional design or system . . .. It is relatively fixed in time, and there is generally little scope for individual interpretation. Methods are learned through training’, four teachers agreed while 24 teachers disagreed, especially with the notion of ‘fixed in time.’ Most teachers again stressed the mediating role of teachers in how a method is put into practice: n I think there is always room for interpretation and adaptation. n I do think that some methods have built into their philosophy that teachers will ultimately put their own interpretation on the method. When teachers were asked to respond directly to the statement: ‘Methods are dead. In our current practices we have gone beyond methods’, 28 teachers disagreed in some way with the statement. Teacher responses again reflected a non-pejorative judgement and the view of methods as eclectic resources for teachers to solve the demands of particular teaching contexts.138 David M. Bell
  5. 5. n Knowing methods helps teaching—more options. n Knowing methods is useful to decide our practices. We need to know methods in order to make our choices. n Not dead. Certainly there is no one answer. We are more selective. n I don’t think methods are dead and that we have gone beyond them. I think there are pieces of methods which are incorporated into most teaching practices. n I don’t think methods are dead in that they are no longer useful. I don’t Downloaded from http://eltj.oxfordjournals.org/ at Periodicals Dept., Hallward Library, University of Nottingham on November 16, 2012 know anyone who will say: ‘This is my method and I will subscribe to no other.’ Most teachers will say, well I like this from this method and this from that method. Some teachers agreed that we have gone beyond methods but nevertheless did not equate that with the death of methods: We’ve gone beyond methods but they are still there, we can still refer back to them, we can still incorporate them. At the same time, some teachers took a more realistic rather than theoretical understanding of the death of methods: n I agree but it’s not the reality in Mexico. n I don’t think methods are dead. Some should be dead. The insistence on the uniqueness of each teacher and by implication the impracticality of applying a one-size-fits-all method was borne out by the passionate response to the following statement advocating a best practices approach: ‘We don’t need methods. We need to study what successful teachers do and copy them’. For 27 of the teachers, the notion of ‘copying’ touched a nerve. The following was a typical response. I don’t think we have to copy what other teachers do. What works for a particular teacher may not work for me in a particular context. From the evidence of the interviews, most teachers see methods not as a set of restrictive practices but rather as useful resources.Discussion board My second source of direct data comprised 21 electronic discussion boardpostings postings drawn from two sessions of a methods course. The discussants were all masters students and consisted of 14 NES T and six NNE ST of whom , 10 teachers had two or more years of teaching experience. One major theme that ran through the discussions was whether in fact the post-method macrostrategies of Kumaravadivelu (1994) or the principles embraced by Brown (2000) constituted a method in themselves. Although some felt that they could be construed as a method, as in the first example, most felt that post-methodology was not, as in the second: n I think that post-method is another method in itself. The teachers think that they won’t be stick (sic) to one method/approach and use the one that is the most suitable for the learning situation. I think this is also a teaching method. n I think that a post-method approach is not another method but just a freedom of combining all and any methods in their most incredible and, still, practically most effective combination in the teaching-learning Teachers’ views of methods 139
  6. 6. process. This allows teachers to think of their objectives and productive procedures for specific situations rather then analyze whether their techniques coincide with those of famous founders and supporters of a particular method. This latter view is similar to that of Bygate, Skehan, and Swain (2001: 2), who argue that the Communicative Approach ‘was explicitly a post-method approach to language teaching . . . in which the principles underlying different classroom procedures were of paramount importance, rather than Downloaded from http://eltj.oxfordjournals.org/ at Periodicals Dept., Hallward Library, University of Nottingham on November 16, 2012 a package of teaching materials’. Although most teachers did not equate the Communicative Approach with post-methodology, they did equate post- method with eclecticism: n I think what it means by beyond method is what we will encounter in the future as the recycling and mixing of methods already proposed so far. n Some methods work for some students and other methods work for others. The teacher’s job is to learn the students and find ways to incorporate the necessary methods into one larger method, and this larger method is likely to change from class to class. The predominant view of post-method is that it confirms the already established teacher practices of eclecticism, if on a more informed and systematic level.Language learning/ My first source of indirect data consisted of 82 language learning/teachingteaching autobiographies (206,000 words) written by 43 NES T and 39 NNE ST .autobiographies Thirty-five of the teachers had two or more years of teaching experience. The autobiographies, collected over a five-year period, were written as an assignment for a methods course with the aim of promoting self-reflection on the teachers’ own language learning/teaching experience. Almost half of the 191 uses of the terms ‘method(s)’/‘methodology’ were used in connection with established methods—the Grammar Translation Method and the Audio-Lingual Method accounted for 74 instances. In comparison, there were only 63 instances of ‘approach(es)’, over a half of which were used in connection with particular approaches—the Communicative Approach and the Natural Approach accounting for most of those occurrences. The largest occurrence of ‘method’ (when not used to name particular methods) was in connection with notions of eclecticism, teacher autonomy, and context sensitivity: n My reversion to a method I once abhorred may seem counterintuitive, but I should reiterate that my aversion to CLT was not a result of the method itself but rather of its exclusive use. I am confident that as long as I do not pin myself down to any one method in particular to the exclusion of others, and instead maintain a dynamic relationship with my students, changing and responding to their needs, I will remain an effective teacher. n The teacher should use a teaching method or group of methods that suit his/her personality, the classroom atmosphere, and the student’s proficiency and interests. There are no good or bad teaching methods, instead there are better methods. The successful teacher usually organizes and makes a blend of methods he/she thinks are appropriate.140 David M. Bell
  7. 7. Each method has its value and uniqueness on one side and its difficulties and disadvantages on the other side. The evidence from this indirect source suggests that the concept of method is not a significant topic in teacher thinking. When method is discussed, it is again seen as a potential eclectic resource to solve particular classroom problems.Teaching journals I looked at 29 randomly chosen teaching journals, which consisted of Downloaded from http://eltj.oxfordjournals.org/ at Periodicals Dept., Hallward Library, University of Nottingham on November 16, 2012 180,000 words written by 16 NES T and 13 NNE ST on a practicum in general English with international students in a university setting. Eighteen were beginning teachers and 11 teachers had two or more years of teaching experience. Thirteen journals were by teachers on the masters programme and 16 were on a pre-service certificate programme. What was most evident was the almost complete absence of the term ‘method’ and discussion of methods in general. The word ‘method’ occurred only seven times. And when it was used, it was used in the sense of technique as mentioned earlier in the discussion of the interviews. Two teachers talked about using the tape recorder and human computer procedures from Community Language Learning, another used a visualization technique from Suggestopedia, while another used a Silent Way approach to error correction. On all these occasions, the methods were mentioned with respect to particular techniques rather than underlying philosophies. The absence of discussion of methods seems to indicate both an acceptance of a larger paradigm, namely an eclectic, CLT-based approach, and a concern with the daily exigencies of the chalk face. So teachers’ journals were concerned with issues of teacher talking time, the use of pair and group work, the use of L1 and translation, etc. In short, teachers were concerned with creating and structuring learning activities and how activities could be strung together into lessons. Teachers were overwhelmingly focused on the local rather than the generic aspect of language teaching or what Murphy and Byrd (2001: 4) refer to as the ‘situated nature of language teaching’. In this way, the findings here agree with Richards and Ho’s (1998) study of journal entries, which suggested that, with regard to methods, ‘teachers’ focus was primarily on classroom experience, and there were few references that went beyond the classroom to the broader contexts of teaching and learning’ (p. 160).Discussion Few teachers define methods in the narrow pejorative sense used by post- methodologists. Most teachers think of methods in terms of techniques which realize a set of principles or goals and they are open to any method that offers practical solutions to problems in their particular teaching context. Given this degree of openness, it is not surprising that when asked to describe their own methodology, teachers overwhelmingly use the term ‘eclectic’. Teachers’ eclecticism appears to be based on an awareness of the existence of different methods and a willingness to draw from each of them. Eclecticism is most often connected to notions of teacher autonomy and context sensitivity. A knowledge of methods is equated with a set of options, which empowers teachers to respond meaningfully to particular classroom Teachers’ views of methods 141
  8. 8. contexts. In this way, knowledge of methods is seen as crucial to teacher growth. So is Block (2001: 72) right in claiming that method ‘certainly retains a great deal of vitality at the grass-roots . . . level’? To a certain extent yes, but it would be wrong to describe teacher affiliation or disaffiliation with methods on the same level of intensity of theoreticians, whose goal is to create or cremate them. Adamson (2004: 617) has argued that ‘Methods are still useful props for teachers in constructing their own pedagogy’. And that Downloaded from http://eltj.oxfordjournals.org/ at Periodicals Dept., Hallward Library, University of Nottingham on November 16, 2012 pedagogy, as Cummings (1989: 46–7) has described, is highly personalized ‘based on unique experiences, individual conceptions, and their interactions with local contexts’. The evidence here suggests that teacher attitude to methods is highly pragmatic. Their interest in methods is determined by how far they provide options in dealing with their particular teaching contexts. In this way, the voices of teachers we have heard through the data in this paper most readily support the intuitions of Diane Larsen- Freeman: People who say we are beyond methods are making more of a political statement than anything else. I think they misconstrue what a method can be. They’re saying there is no room in language teaching for formulas, for prescriptive practices to be imposed on teachers worldwide. Certainly I have no quarrel with that. But I think it’s a big mistake to mix up method and its implementation or how a method is used. I wouldn’t want to impose a method on anybody, but it seems to me the more methods we have, the more we see the variety of human experience, the more we have a bigger palette from which to paint our picture. We have more choices . . .. It is a question of expanding, revising one’s thought-in- action repertoire. (2001: 5) So methods are best understood as both potential and realized resources. As potential resources they may be loosely or tightly linked to an established pattern of beliefs and procedures. As realized resources, they appear in the individual teachers as an emergent set of regular practices which may be more or less identifiable with a more widely held set of practices. What essentially gives life to the meaning of methods is teacher choices as solutions to particular contextual needs and the resulting set of practices.Implications and There are three implications for teacher education that emerge fromconclusion this data: 1 Theorists have tended to underestimate teacher autonomy. Teachers are far more intellectually discerning than applied linguists give them credit for. Just as proponents of designer methods often doubted that teachers left to their own devices would teach systematically, post- methodologists fear teachers will slavishly follow whatever method they have been trained in. The evidence here suggests that the pessimism of both sets of theorists underestimates the intellectual autonomy and discernment of the practitioner. 2 A knowledge of methods can be seen as essential to the foundational knowledge all teachers should have. Teachers’ interest in knowing about methods both as a source of options and a basis for eclecticism in the142 David M. Bell
  9. 9. classroom suggests that the history of methods should be a key component of a teacher education programme in addition to opportunities which allow teachers to reflect on the appropriateness of such methods to their particular teaching context. 3 Methods, however that term is defined, are not dead. Teachers seem to be aware of both the usefulness of methods and the need to go beyond them. Post-method need not imply the end of methods but rather an understanding of the limitations of the notion of method as it is narrowly defined and a desire to transcend those limitations. In this sense, the Downloaded from http://eltj.oxfordjournals.org/ at Periodicals Dept., Hallward Library, University of Nottingham on November 16, 2012 evidence here suggests that teachers have always been ‘beyond methods’, as this final ‘teacher voice’ suggests: I think that teachers should be exposed to all methods and they themselves would ‘build’ their own methods or decide what principles they would use in their teaching. We cannot ignore methods and all the facts that were considered by those who ‘created’ or use them in their teaching. We need a basis for building our own teaching. Final revised version received August 2005References Kumaravadivelu, B. 1994. ‘The postmethodAdamson, B. 2004. ‘Fashions in language teaching condition: (e)merging strategies for second/foreignmethodology’ in A. Davies and C. Elder (eds.). The language teaching’. TES O L Quarterly 28/1: 27–47.Handbook of Applied Linguistics. Maldon, Mass.: Larsen-Freeman, D. 2001. ‘‘‘The joy of watchingBlackwell. others learn’’. An interview with Diane Larsen-Anthony, E. M. 1963. ‘Approach, method and Freeman by William P. Ancker’. English Teachingtechnique’. English Language Teaching 17: 63–7. Forum 39/ 4: 2–9.Bell, D. M. 2003. ‘Method and postmethod: Are they Murphy, T. and P. Byrd. 2001. Understanding thereally so incompatible?’ TES O L Quarterly 37/2: Courses We Teach. Ann Arbor: The University of325–36. Michigan.Block, D. 2001. ‘An exploration of the art and science Prabhu, N. S. 1990. ‘There is no bestdebate in language education’ in M. Bax and J.-W. method—Why?’ T ES O L Quarterly 24/2: 161–72.Zwart (eds.). Reflections on Language and Language Richards, J. C. 1990. ‘Beyond methods’ in J. C.Learning: In Honour of Arthur van Essen. Amsterdam: Richards (ed.). The Language Teaching Matrix.John Benjamins. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.Brown, H. D. 2000. Principles of Language Learning Richards, J. C. and B. Ho. 1998. ‘Reflective thinkingand Teaching. White Plains, N.Y.: Addison Wesley through journal writing’ in J. C. Richards (ed.).Longman. Beyond Training. Cambridge: Cambridge UniversityBrown, H. D. 2002. ‘English language teaching in Press.the ‘‘post-method’’ era: toward better diagnosis, Richards, J. C. and T. S. Rodgers. 2001. Approachestreatment, and assessment’ in J. C. Richards and and Methods in Language Teaching. Cambridge:W. A. Renandya (eds.). Methodology in Language Cambridge University Press.Teaching: An Anthology of Current Practice.Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. The authorBygate, M., P. Skehan, and M. Swain. 2001. David Bell is Assistant Professor of Applied‘Introduction’ in M. Bygate, P. Skehan, and M. Swain Linguistics at Ohio University. He has taught E F L in(eds.). Researching Pedagogic Tasks. Second Language Britain, Italy, Japan and the U SA. Besides TES O LLearning, Teaching and Testing. Harlow: Longman. methodology, his research interests are listeningCummings, A. 1989. ‘Student teachers’ conceptions comprehension, language and movement,of curriculum: towards an understanding of pedagogical grammar, and pragmatics.language teacher development’. TE SL Canada Email: belld@ohio.eduJournal 7/1: 33–51. Teachers’ views of methods 143

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