Does your school have a teaching philosophy?

having a bit of a ponderOne of the questions I often ask participants on the IDLTM course is whether their school has a teaching philosophy and, if so, what that philosophy is.  I haven’t kept accurate records of the responses, but in probably about 15% of cases the response is that there is one and that is stated somewhere (usually in the marketing materials). And in the vast majority of other cases the response is that there is nothing written down, but there is something unwritten which is understood.

We then, usually, get into a discussion of how it is understood, by whom, and how something like this which is unstated can be adhered to (and monitored).

So, what about your school?  Do you have something written down?  If so it’s likely to be somewhere in your marketing materials (or possibly, but rarely, in your mission statement(s)).  It probably uses words and phrases like “student-centred” and “communicative”.  There may be something in your brochure/website that says that classes will involve group work or similar (for the benefit of students so that they know what to expect).

If you don’t have something written, then do you feel like you have a teaching philosophy?  If you observed a teacher delivering a 30 minute lecture on some finer point of meta-language for example, how would you respond? What would tell you (and the teacher) that this was going against the unwritten rules?

So, if you’ve bothered trying to answer these questions, then you’re probably responding that the adherence to and the understanding of the teaching philosophy comes from some combination of the recruitment policy, the professional development that is offered, and observations.  It’s possible that the coursebooks or other syllabus and curriculum documents come into this process as well.  Is that about it? (Please leave comments if I’ve missed something out).

But let’s question this. Not because I think the student-centred, communicative, etc etc approach that we all sort of accept is the wrong one.  But because Senge et al in the various work on the learning organisation, ask us to unearth our mental models and challenge them.  And it seems to me that there is no more pervasive mental model in ELT than this one. (Though obviously, having held your mental models up to the light and examined them, you can decide that they are still good).

It’s probably not the work of this blog to start coming up with alternative methodologies and teaching philosophies (not least because I wouldn’t know where to start), but the biggest single factor in perpetuating the current way of doing things through language schools (as far as my conversations with DOSs and the like show) is the hiring policy.  And the way hiring decisions are made is very often dominated by one single acronym: CELTA.  Which is to say that the CELTA (especially) is so ubiquitous as the dominant entry level qualification for EFL teachers, that the cycle is constantly perpetuated.

Now I’m going to start attacking the CELTA here, that’s been done elsewhere, and I think it (the CELTA) does what it does pretty well. But because it’s the de facto pre-service qualification, its influence on “the way things are done around here” is very deep-rooted. And I’m not sure if that’s a good thing. New teachers come into the profession through CELTA and in time, down the line, as they become managers, they look to hire CELTA qualified teachers.  [Though to be clear it’s not every job market which is so dominated – in many countries hiring foreign teachers is out of the question financially, so it tends to be local university qualifications that hold sway]

As managers, when we’re looking for new teachers, particularly in a market where there is no shortage of teachers looking for work (which for many schools is currently the case), we are going to look at people we can trust to do the job. In a perfect world we would have a lot of time to review candidates and interview at length with various different techniques to really get at whether that teacher is going to be an asset to the school and fit in to the staffroom culture.  But we don’t live in that world, we live in this one.  The one in which we tend to have to make fairly quick decisions on new staff without a great deal of information.  In the instance, the CELTA is invaluable – if we’re looking at a relatively new teacher those 5 letters tell us that he/she can probably survive in the classroom and engage the students.  The trouble is that our lack of time, and need to do these things quickly, means  that other qualifications get overlooked, because perhaps we don’t have the time to investigate and discover what having such and such a qualification tells us about the teacher we are looking at.

So,  your school probably does have some form of teaching philosophy, and it is, by default, the one articulated on the CELTA.  So, what is that philosophy?  Well, I’ve just been on the Cambridge English website to see if I could find out, and actually I can’t. The marketing materials all promise that, among other things, the CELTA will “teach you the principles of effective teaching” (page 4).  The syllabus is a little more detailed as you might expect, but still doesn’t really nail its colours to the mast.  I should stress that I don’t have a problem with this, as it seems to me that the course really should be making teachers reflect and question and think critically, rather than telling them that there is one way of doing anything.  But I think we are all basically aware that regardless of the openness of the presentation, most teachers emerge from the CELTA with a view of effective English language teaching which is contained within certain limits of general belief in what is effective and what is not effective.

I’m not a second language acquisition specialist, nor am I steeped in research into effective teaching methodology.  I too hold the CELTA (or the RSA Certificate, since I’m old), and the DELTA (or DipTEFLA, because, well, ditto), so I come from the same tradition, and believe the same things broadly.  And of course this is also true of the majority of people making those hiring decisions, and curriculum and course development decisions.  I’ve worked with Cambridge English (or UCLES as it was then) on the IDLTM, and I know they put a massive amount of work into these things and are constantly updating them as they go.  So, like everyone else, I do tend to assume that a CELTA qualified teacher is likely to be one who can succeed.   

So, should we challenge that? And how, given the pervasiveness of the CELTA in everything we do and everything we are, could we even start doing that?  I’m not sure I have an answer to this (well, I do believe we should challenge it, because I believe we should always seek to challenge the mental models we take for granted, but I’m not sure how we could do that)

I feel like this is going round in circles and getting nowhere, party because it’s moving into an area I don’t know enough about to comment with any authority on (though that hasn’t necessarily stopped me before), and partly because I feel like this is all getting lost somewhere in the interesction on the Venn diagram between teacher training, language teaching and learning theory, ELT “policy”, and language school management.  And it is in that latter area where I want to address this and not the others (though of course they are all connected).

To focus though on ELT management: How can we challenge some of our assumptions, how can we unearth those mental models?  And what does this mean for our recruitment policy, our PD offerings and our course and curriculum management?  (Or to put it another way, you’ve read all this way, only for me to repeat the questions I started with)