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Curse books?

October 5, 2010 22 comments

Sometimes in Brazil, when we want to poke fun at someone who’s struggling to get a computer to do something he or she wants we say that the problem lies in a piece that’s between the keyboard and the chair. Sometimes it takes a while for this to hit the listener, but it’s a good laugh once it does. It’s just a tongue-in-cheek remark to lighten up the situation, and we move on to help the friend in need. Could we apply the same saying to different situations? Well, I guess so. We can also say that there’s a problem with the thing between the steering wheel and the driver’s seat, for instance.

Photo by Patrick Correia

When I think about coursebooks, and whether they’re good or bad, I sometimes find myself at a loss for words. On the one hand, I have always studied in an educational setting that has in coursebooks the determiners of the syllabus and the curriculum. I can’t remember any of my classes, in any kind of class, where the teacher abolished a coursebook. The same is true for grades, but I won’t go there on this post. Ergo, thinking of a classroom with no coursebooks has always been hard for me. It’s definitely not something I’d never conceive of, far from being unfathomable, but, if I may say so, it always felt like something was missing.

On the other hand, if there’s one thing that I’ve learned throughout these years as a teacher, it is that learning is what counts in the classroom. And it’s a lot easier for learning to take place when you’re engaged in what’s going on in the classroom. And it’s a lot easier for you to be engaged if what’s going on is relevant to you, if it’s something you can relate to. In a nutshell, relevancy and personalisation might lubricate learning. And it is a lot easier for teachers to make learning meaningful, relevant, and personal if they come to the classroom without a set agenda of what’s going to be covered during the whole semesters, with the examples already chosen and ignoring any kind of contribution that may be uttered during the lesson. It does make a lot of sense for us to truly listen to our learners, and it’s paramount that we learn how to react accordingly.

Now some may argue brilliantly against coursebooks. Even though I agree with pretty much everything Karenne says in this series of hers, I still believe the main problem actually lies between the students and the chalk, white, or interactive board. Until very recently, I still had some of the coursebooks I studied with more than 15 years ago, which means I had the chance to compare them with today’s coursebooks. Yes, almost all coursebooks are still structurally organised, and have imprinted examples of grammar McNuggets in them. They’ve come a long way, though, to place more importance on vocabulary and lexical chunks. I’m also happy to see some coursebooks going beyond segmental features when it comes to teaching pronunciation. I still believe pronunciation, careful and consistent teaching of pronunciation, is ignored by many teachers for myriad reasons. It’s nice, then, to see that some authors made sure to include such features in their coursebooks and had in mind that teachers needed time to teach it.

I don’t believe in extreme views, and I definitely don’t think that coursebook authors only bear profit in mind when writing a book. Competition is stiff, and if a book hasn’t got sound principles behind it, it’s bound to be a failure. I like to think that publishers have already noticed that too. I obviously am not so naïve as to think that book writers have got freedom upon what to include in their texts, as publishers do have to make a profit. It’s business, and that’s what businesses do – they profit. Anyhow, there’s got to be some give and take – perhaps even a lot more give on the part of the writer – in the process of creating a coursebook. But I digress…

The view that coursebooks as a one-size-fits-all format isn’t what I have in mind when I work with one. What I have in mind is that it’s been written to help a large number of learners in their process of uncovering the language. However, no coursebook alone will suffice. It’s up to the teacher to make good use of the tools he or she has at hand. And this is what I’ve come to see coursebooks as. They’re yet another tool that can’t be overused nor misused by the teacher and the learners. I usually say that the coursebook is not the bible. It’s not supposed to be followed as if it’d been written on stone. It’s a guide. It’s there to help, and sometimes it will get in the way of what your learners really need. However, I don’t think it’s fair to believe that’s always the case. Many learners enjoy using a coursebook and can’t possibly imagine how they’d study if they didn’t have a coursebook. Heck, many teachers out there would have major problems if they were to devise a syllabus and implement a curriculum without using a coursebook.

Jason Renshaw asked on one of his blog posts about our approach to language teaching. I myself like the term Dogme to describe mine. However, this doesn’t mean against materials and technology. Dogmeists aren’t the Amish of ELT, as I see it. I just like thinking first and foremost of my learners and how to best help them. This means focusing on emergent language, it means using conversation to drive language, and it means only using the tools that are really necessary at any given moment. If a coursebook is needed, I’ll definitely use it. Once again, it’s not what you use in class, it’s HOW you use it that counts.

Coursebooks and technology

August 17, 2010 5 comments

If you ask me, nothing good can come out of too much or too little of anything. If we go to extremes, we’re bound to miss out on one or two (at least) good things from the other side of the argument. I’ve been thinking about this because of a couple of things I’ve been reading and reflecting about. I guess we should always try to live life to the fullest, but we can never forget or simply let go of our obligations. If as people we understand this, this is also something we, as teachers, should try to pass on to our learners. I don’t think any of this is news to anyone, but I’d like to add my two cents on this specific topic.

One of the first things people usually say upon hearing that I like the principles of Dogme is, “How come? You love all of these new tech things, and you do use a coursebook with your students.” Well, to be fair, most people I have the chance to talk to in person either have never heard anything about Dogme or know too little about it and never cared to actually find out the truth by themselves. Dogme celebrated its 10th anniversary, and yet there wasn’t a single presentation about it in the last National Conference I attended. Had I known I’d be attending, I guess I’d certainly submit a proposal on the matter. But I digress…

We can’t simply put things on a good / bad table and either swear by them or shun their use. I honestly believe that, even behind the “evil purpose” of publishers of making money, they hire authors who are committed with  learning. Coursebooks which are written based on Corpus research, which have got activities that have been thought of in terms of rational and principles that keep the learners’ best interests at heart do exist. The problem, though, lies in teachers using the coursebook as if it were the Holy Bible. Coursebooks are flawed as well, especially if they’ve been designed to be used all around the world. It is up to teachers (and teacher trainers/developers) to understand that not everything that’s written there has got to be done in class. Teachers should know when there’s a lack of something that needs to be supplemented by means of extra materials or activities, or when something is just useless for his or her learners. It’s not the coursebook that’s good or bad, it’s the use you’ll make of it that will turn it into good or bad.

The same thing is true for use of technology. We can’t expect teachers to be forced to use technology simply because it’s there. Technology is a tool, not and end in itself. If we understand that people learn differently and that teachers should try as hard as they can to cater for the different learning styles in the classroom, we must come to terms with the fact that this will hardly ever be achieved by the use of one tool only. Slips of paper, debates, pictures, social media, books, magazines, Internet… these are all examples of tools available for teachers to use. I’m in favour of using all of them – but using them wisely. What I don’t agree with is teachers using the same PPT over and over again with different groups, with different backgrounds and all the other differences that come with each group of ours. This, if you ask me, is laziness. Do you really think you can have one magic PPT that will suit all of your learners, no adaptation or change needed? Just like the use of coursebooks, technology should also be used conscientiously.

Finding balance is essential in any part of life, and it certainly shouldn’t be any different when it comes to teaching. Being able to hold a conversation and truly listen to your learners and identify needs is paramount when dealing with people.

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