Thursday, June 01, 2006

Speed vs Depth

This morning I read a very interesting post by Teacher in Development, which was itself a comment on another post by AJ. The main idea was that in striving to teach as quickly as possible we try to cover as much ground as possible in the language we are teaching, be it syntax, functions or lexis. However, such breadth of teaching is not matched by student achievement. That even after a year of lessons often students have made very little progress in the language.

To anyone who has taught in Greece this all sounds very familiar. In most schools there is obsession with covering as much material as possible. As a result teachers are required to squeeze 300 to 400 hours of teaching material into a maximum of 180 classroom hours. The outcome, as you can imagine, is a whole lot of half-finished books, harassed teachers and dazed students. Learning, of course does take place, as it does under any system, no matter how flawed, but a massive amount of time, money and effort are wasted.

So why does this system keep on reproducing itself ? Basically, I would argue that this depends on three things; Fear, ignorance and greed.

Fear. The competion between frontisteria - small, private language schools here is fierce. The number of schools has grown whilst the number of students has dwindled. In such an atmosphere everyone is looking to outdo their neighbour. So if school x teaches a course using four books, then we can tell the parents we are much more serious about learning as our students get through five books. And so on and so forth. Each school afraid that if it doesn’t follow this trend then parents will take their kids out of the class and enroll them elsewhere.

Ignorance. Unfortunately, this is widespread. The majority of school owners who have little or no teacher training. Teachers are often chosen on the basis of cost rather than aptitude or experience. It costs less to hire a younger, inexperienced teacher than an older one, like me. In addition with the wages paid, most experienced teachers get out of the system as quickly as possible, if they can.

Ignorance also extends to the parents who are often kept in the dark as to their children’s real performance in class. Year after year, the schools tell parents that their kids are doing fine, or if not fine, all that is needed is a little more effort on the part of little Maria or Yiannis. It is only when the students have to do external exams such as the Cambridge FCE that that truth comes out. By which time the owner has already made thousands off the hapless parents.

Greed. The big winners in all this tawdry story are the publishing companies, both Greek and foreign who make enormous profits from selling unnecessary, often badly thought out books to students. An average student preparing for exams here typically has to buy;

a course book
coursebook companion
one or two skills books
two or three exam prepartion books

Anything from four to eight books!

When you realise that each of these costs between 20 and 30 euros then you can see how much money is being spent each year, and most of it to little or no effect.

Once again fear of not appeasing parents and ignorance of alternatives drives schools to keep on pushing methodologies and approaches which fail half the students. That the others do learn enough to get some kind of qualification is testiment to Greek student’s determination to succeed rather than a glowing testimonial to the education they’ve had.

So where does that leave teachers who want to break out of this vicious circle? As Teacher in Development mentioned in his experience of preparing students for interviews, “depth” is the answer. I would, however, add that this “depth” is the stuff that touches students, that has meaning in their lives. We need to make that the starting point of what we teach them. To others this may seems very narrow but I would argue that such focus allows students to learn much more quickly and effectively.

I'm lucky enough to work in school that has both knowledge and integrity, where professionalism and experience are both recognised and appreciated. However, They are the exception rather than the rule, as I have often found out to my cost in the past.


kassandra said...

I agree wholeheartedly. In fact, I've had similar experiences learning Greek. My teacher is generally excellent, but when it comes to grammar we cover a topic in one or two lessons, and as soon as she sees that I've "got it" (meaning I can at that time complete a few simple gap fill exercises correctly) we move on to something else entirely.
However, just because I've "got it" enough to complete some exercises does not mean that I've got it enough to use it in a real way in conversation - and since we don't come back to it but move on to something else immediately, within a few days I've forgotten whatever it was that I had.
The only hope is that most of the crappy textbooks are extremely repetitive - when you move up a level you're really learning most of the same stuff over again, so hopefully the second time round a bit more of it sinks in. But since there isn't that much building on prior knowledge going on, the best possible result is that, by the time s's finish an intermediate level coursebook, they've just managed to consolidate and implement what they learnt in the beginner one - so I think many s's are far behind their 'level' in terms of actually being able to use the language.
Unfortunately explaining this to some teachers is like talking to a brick wall.

teacher dude said...

Thanks for the great comment, Kassandra. I'm a great believer in not teaching too much grammer . I think it's like learning the highway code in order to get your driving licence. If you don't get out and practice then it's a waste of time learning it. The same is true for language, if you don't practice it in real life, then all the rest is a waste of time.

Nobody ever learnt to drive, play a sport or master an instrument just by reading a book.