Learning locally in Devon and and Central Europe
One of the big debates in English language teaching (ELT) in recent years has focused on globalisation. The rise of the course book format in the late 20th and early 21st century, new ways of looking at the English language as a lingua franca, and the fact that learners and teachers are now able to connect with each other over the world via the internet have all contributed to the globalisation of ELT. Of course, these particular areas of our profession have been or even still are very much under debate, and this piece will not attempt to address the idea of the global versus the local by looking at them. Instead, I will attempt to describe two recent experiences I have been fortunate to have in the UK and Central Europe.
During my teaching career, it has become apparent to me that a lot of language teaching, particularly in the private sector, has been sold as a package. Students come to study in the UK, for example, are taught from course books and maybe prepare for internationally recognised English exams. This is not to say there is no value to this approach to teaching or learning English, or to put down language schools that are run to this model, but there is, I believe an alternative.
Visiting Sharing One Language, SOL, a small language school based in Barnstaple in North Devon last month was a refreshing experience. I used the adjective ‘small’ and it is true that the school operates with just 3 classrooms in its main premises. There are other centres that are used during the peak months of the summer, but there is an intimate feel to SOL. Luckily, the size of the building and accommodation isn’t matched in the welcome of the place. These are people, from the management side of things to the teachers, with a huge amount of heart.
In contrast to the typical language school model described above, students not only stay in host families in Barnstaple, but are also very introduced to the local area, both immediately in the town itself and around the wider area of North Devon. They visit the beach at Woolacombe and Ilfracombe, truly a novelty for some from landlocked countries like the Czech Republic who may never have seen the seaside, visit Tintagel, a location associated with the legend of King Arthur, eat North Devon’s best ice cream, and pet donkeys, among other activities. Being able to observe one of the morning lessons on the last day of a course at the end of October, it was evident how tied in with the local context the teaching at SOL is. Full use of the surrounding area of the school, in and around Barnstaple is made as a stimulus for discussion in lessons. And this is true right from the most contemporary (when I was visiting, a storm that had hit the south of Britain was being talked about) to the examples of the trips mentioned above.
The lesson I was lucky to observe involved using these different topics as the basis for discussions that were turned into opportunities for learning by the teacher. Different words and phrases were written on the board to help students notice the language they and their peers were using or could have used. Situations for role plays and other classroom activities were derived from the discussion (I saw students pretending to be journalists interviewing someone about damage caused by the recent storm). This style of teaching is very personalised, based on the students experiences while they stay in Devon, and task-orientated, so they are actually pressed to use the language they have at their disposal and grasp for language that they want or need to use. This approach is beneficial as it can allow the students to access the language and activities at their level. There is no hiding behind gap fill grammar worksheets in this classroom.
Indeed, there is little to no use made of published materials such as student course books and self-study workbooks. As one teacher mentioned, ‘what is the point of them coming to Britain to study a book they may already have done in their own countries’. I would go further to suggest that course books and other published materials can rarely be useful for truly meeting students’ different needs – how can they when students may have differing levels of experience and linguistic ability. A task-based approach drawing on, ideally shared, personal experiences emphasises the positives of a language course.
That is the power of avoiding a global approach in the classroom, in favour of a more local one.
The dichotomy of the global versus the local is something that also applies to professional development in the form of language teaching conferences. An interesting contrast that I have come across while attending various conferences in Europe has been in the make up of the audiences and in the presentations offered by international speakers compared to those given by people working in the countries where these conferences take place. It struck me during recent visits to Poland and Hungary for their respective associations’ annual conferences how many of the delegates were teachers working in and from those countries. In my previous experience at other conferences of an attendance largely made up of expat teachers, from the UK, USA, Australia and so on. It was truly interesting as a speaker delivering a workshop to experience such a different kind of audience.
Another interesting feature of the conferences in Hungary and Poland was the liaison between associations in these and other nearby countries. As far as I understand it, they often have partnership agreements where members of one association can visit the other’s conference for the same price as if they were a member of that second association. I think that this looking outside of their immediate context is a great way for these associations to build up their networks and collaborate on various projects and endeavours.
Of course, this should not be to the detriment of focusing on the associations’ work in their own countries. It was heartening to see that there was a session in Budapest that allowed for space for discussion about what IATEFL Hungary could do to establish or reestablish local presences around the country. Local association work is something that I have been interested in since the spring of 2012 when a group of us at NATECLA (the National Association for Teaching English and other Community Languages to Adults, a language teaching association in the UK) got together to reestablish a branch in London. The association work I have done with NATECLA in London has been one of the most rewarding and interesting things I have done,and I believe that when teaching associations focus on the local area in this way, supporting teachers and providing events where they can get professional development and network, it is such an invigorating experience.
It can also be said that local branches form the lifeblood of a teaching association. Following various discussions relating to teaching and associations on Facebook recently led me to a comment where a colleague mentioned how one teaching association took a slightly different approach to supporting its members. Instead of spending a large amount of money on plenary speakers at their annual conference, this was spent on providing transport for teachers around the country to get to the the conference venue, which was located in one of the bigger cities. Surely a teaching association that does this kind of thing for its members will benefit its members greatly and in turn they will be steadfast in their support of the association.
To sum up what I have been writing about, I would argue that it is vital to take a local approach to the things we do as teachers and other professionals involved in ELT. From teaching to professional development, from national to local association work, focusing on the environment around us has the potential to reap rich rewards.
This was originally published in the IATEFL-Hungary publication, mELTing pot Extra, in December 2013