This is the second part of my review. In the first one, I shortly described what this cause was about and what I liked about it. This post is for ‘the other side of the coin’.
The course brought a lot of new questions to me and the need to look into new concepts and theory, which is kind of frustrating because now I will have to spend quite some time to do it and clarify how reasonable my doubts are. I had hoped to understand how to apply neuroscience to language learning, but now it seems I’ll have to find this answer on my own. But this is not the only problem.
By the end of the course I was mentally exhausted, which was strange given the slow pace, low workload and absence of home assignments. I blame it on the constant ‘How are you feeling about that?’ question. I’m a Thinker, not a Feeler, so when I need to keep giving feedback on my feelings, it’s tiring and at times confusing. I get overwhelmed.
It’s the same with large amounts of positivity and positive atmosphere. Dopamine. I understand that it’s essential to learning. But I also think and feel that too positive an atmosphere clouds one’s critical judgment. Because, to be able to evaluate ideas, a calm state is needed, not excitement. Excitement leads to making plans and dreams about the future, especially with coaching – come on, think big, the sky’s the limit, we believe in you! So a person gets pumped with high motivation and strong positive feelings.
But the reality is often different. Those feelings can’t last forever. Just as physiology tells us: excitation is naturally followed by inhibition in the nervous system. There might simply be not enough inner resources for all those ambitious goals. No room for them in life. We’ve tried it several times with fellow teachers – we coached each other and got to the point of feeling excited and making an action plan. But it didn’t happen or didn’t stick. Often there wasn’t enough energy for that plan.
I’ve read this is the reason people get addicted to trainings and inspirational speakers. They are mesmerised by that wonderful feeling of excitement, elation and empowerment they get from trainers, but they lack the skills, energy or discipline to maintain their own motivation and keep going towards their goals. So after the training they start doing it, but can’t continue. And go back to trainers, hooked.
Becoming addicted to anything is my personal nightmare, so I’ve decided I don’t like a very positive atmosphere or anyone intervening in my brain chemistry. That doesn’t seem natural to me. Maybe it’s different for other people.
Attitude to ELT
During the course I got a very strange feeling that the trainer didn’t know much about the ELT world, common methods and approaches. That puzzled me a lot. I checked several times what I could find about her background, but it didn’t mention anything like CELTA, TEFL, Applied Linguistics or Education, only 20+ experience in teaching and language coaching.
I don’t care much about certificates and the like. But she kept repeating that teaching is all about doing grammar and translation exercises and a teacher being an authoritarian figure who critisises learners and dominates in the class room. So, compared to this, her method was something completely different, next door to revolutionary. But was it?
Goal setting? I had an input session about SMART goals at CELTA. Together with Needs Analysis and Learner Autonomy.
Break down the goals into smaller chunks? The manual even suggested how to chunk down the grammar. Wait, that’s how course books and grammar books are organised. Level to level students are given grammar topics from the most basic and frequent forms to the most nuanced ones. Learners are given just enough new grammar to help them speak about a new topic. And variety.
Don’t dominate, listen to the client and be equals with them? But isn’t this authoritarian style long gone in ELT, especially outside public schools? There’s a whole chapter on Being Teachers in the classic book by Jeremy Harmer that decribes in detail the questions of rapport and various roles teachers play in the classroom. Not one of them mentions any type of dominating.
Take into account the client’s learning style? Same. It’s there, in the book. The concept of Multiple Intelligences has also been around for almost 40 years now and widely used in education.
Conversation as the main principle? Isn’t is similar to teaching emergent language or teaching unplugged? Or the lexical approach? Scaffolding? And what about the other three skills – writing, reading and listening? They too need to be taught, don’t they?
The learning journey is described according to the ‘Four Stages for Learning Any New Skill‘, a theory by Noel Burch developed in the 1970s. But what about language learning? Doesn’t it have some specifics? What about the latest research in applied linguistics and second-language acquision? Surely, it has moved on since the 1970s?
And there are many, many things like this. There was also an idea to separate learning grammar (supposedly involving the thinking brain) and free talk (the performing brain). But what about the intermediary stage? How to help the learner to switch between them? Like something that is done through the so-called controlled and semi-controlled practice in the communicative approach?
So I’m confused. And I can’t understand how what we were given is so special. Or was it about neuroscience?
I studied anatomy and physiology of the central nervous system at universty – several subjects for two years. I remember how difficult it was. I didn’t manage to learn it really well, but I got the gist that the level of complexity of the human brain is far beyond our understanding and will remain so for many years to come. That’s why it was so interesting to find out what the course was going to say about applying neuroscience to language learning.
I should probably mention here that I regard neuroscience as a biological science first of all, meaning that it is a serious field with measurable and reproducible experiments, albeit a relatively young one. It requires at least some knowledge of chemistry, biology and anatomy to just understand research papers and books on the topic. So I take it seriously and expect references to scientific studies and scientists.
However, what we were given at the course was not just too basic. I am not sure it was correct. For example, the brian anatomy was presented within the Triune brain model (lizard brain, limbic system and neocortex). But Wiki says the model was created in the 1970s, is an oversimplification and has been subject to criticism. That is what I read about it in on the net as well. However, the course is promoted as bringing ‘the latest neuroscience’ to the future coaches. So if we start with an outdated model of the brain, where does it lead us?
Then we were told about different areas of the brain involved in learning, but nothing was said about Broca’s and Wernicke’s areas involved in language processing. Not a word. But there was a lot about the thinking brain and the performing brain concept, adopted from the “the Inner Game” methodology for coaching developed by W. Timothy Gallwey. In the 1960s. And he didn’t write about second language acquisition. So I can’t understand why language acquisition is compared to learning to drive, play tennis and swim. Aren’t they very different skills processed differently by the brain? If there’s a whole branch of science – neurolinguistics – that deals specifically with language, why are we talking about motor skills and not even cognitive skills?
Most other references given during the course and in the manual lead me to other coaches exploiting the concepts of neuroscience, like David Rock, Joe Dispenza or Bruce Lipton whose ‘claims have not received attention from mainstream science’ (Wiki). But not to neuroscientists, or scientific journals, or textbooks on cognitive neuroscience, which I found later and in large quantities.
So maybe I had wrong expectations, maybe there’s a particular version of neuroscience used by coaches, maybe these are all just marketing tools, but I find it hard to trust the information about neuroscience given at the course. I only feel that there’s still a lot for me to learn about real neuroscience of learning and language learning to be able to claim that my methods are ‘brain-friendly’, or that I ‘facilitate brain connections’ in my clients, or that I’m aware of my own ‘impact on the learner’s brain’. How is that possible anyway, I wonder? How can I know what’s going on in another person’s brain (not mind or thinking) unless this person is connected to electrodes and other equipment that shows their brain activity?
Attitude to psychology
It is something that is difficult to put into words, but during the course I could feel the trainer’s wish to stay as far away from psychology as possible. I sometimes see this attitude in people who say that psychology is a not a science and substitute it with biology, physiology or coaching. As if psychology is solely about analysing one’s past and and looking for reasons for one’s ‘negative feelings’ in childhood. But this is not psychology. This is phychotheraphy, and only some of its branches.
Psychology is a ‘an academic discipline of immense scope, crossing the boundaries between the natural and social sciences’ (Wiki), with which I totally agree. It’s a difficult discipline to study because there so many sub-disciplines in both basic and applied psychology: cognitive, behavioral, affective, developmental, educational, social, personality, the list goes on and on. We did a lot of them at university. Coaching itself draws from psychology, so why this attitude? Why discard psychology and keep talking about the brain and neuroscience when what we have access to – our thoughts (our mind), our feelings and our behaviour – is studied by psychology. We can’t observe our brain processes directly, can we?
To me, honestly, the whole idea of brain-based coaching sounds a bit fishy but very marketable (and I’m not alone – see this and this). The thing is, everybody knows that there’s probably nothing else more complex than the human brain. So when this ‘brain talk’ starts, it gets people interested and gives more credibility to the person starting this talk. And when learners are said ‘You need to repeat this (whatever it is) many times so that new circuitry grows in your brain and it goes on autopilot’, they are more willing to do the repetitions because ‘this is how the brain works’, shifting the responsibility from themselves to the brain. Whereas in reality, it’s hard to know what actually happens. How can we even separate one process and monitor it when everything is so intertwined in the brain? Especailly with language?
I will probably read more about brain-based coaching but I don’t think it will change my attitude to it much. Definitely not to a degree where I can say that I successfully provide ‘brain-based’ training. But I do like and respect psychology as a scientific field, and I dislike it being attacked by those who have little understanding of the subject matter.
Then there was a question of using coursebooks in language coaching. We were recommended to stay away from them and encourage clients to bring their own materials. ‘Let them create their own book’, it was said. While it makes sense short term, I can’t for the life of me imagine how to go without them long term.
Obviously, books are not the end in itself – they are to be adapted to a particular learner. Nor are they enough to become a proficient and fluent speaker. But without them, one easily gets lost. Lost in the enournous amount of the English language existing in the world. It is also easy to get stuck with language which is either not challenging enough or demotivatingly difficult, and therefore stop feeling progress. Long term.
To me, books represent a very clear roadmap for language learning with syllabus specified and language sorted for each level. Books usually give a nice structure, useful exercises for drilling and freer practice. They are made to present to a leaner a variery of text types, listening practice and accents. There’s a logic going from one level to the next. There are materials for revision and progress checks.
Without books, I think, it’s impossible to learn the basics properly or push oneself to learn low-frequency advanced language. And what about all those wonderful vocabulary and grammar books written by renowned authors with the use of language corpora and available research findings? I don’t think a teacher can substitute books whatever knowledge of the language she has. Articles, videos and the like won’t give a structure. But, maybe, not everyone needs it.
Anyway, I like books. I don’t impose them, but usually my students agree to use them at least 50% of the time. The rest goes to the materials of their choosing.
Being a service
Finally, there was an idea that a coach is a service. We are there to support the client, to accompany them, to ask questions and prompt them to speak. To ask for permission for every our input. To be in touch with them to clarify their doubts about language issues. To offer them packages and discounts, bonuses and whatnot.
But I don’t want to be just a service. A service is where the client is always right. The provider is there to serve the client’s needs and to make profit from it. I can’t connect it to the the process of acquiring new knowledge.
I like to share ideas and my knowledge and my view of the world, to contradict my students and to make them think. And I know that my students value that. I’ve always strived to be an expert so that people come to for my expertise and advice, and they are interested in my opinion. I’ve always seen a teacher as a very knowledgeable person who opens the doors to other fascinating worlds and instills the love for their subject and possibly values of a higher order.
The same goes for me when I’m taking lessons. I want a teacher who is an interesting person to talk with. I want to have a discussion and exchange opinions. I want to find out new things from my teachers, new ways of thinking maybe, or new perspectives on the world. I don’t want them just to agree with me, shower me with positive feedback and push me to my goals. My goals change with my mood after all. So I want a meaningful conversation, person to person, and not a service provider to a client.
Well, maybe that is the reason I’m not a successful business person and don’t have tons of clients. But I like talking to my current students. That is something real. I learn from them, they learn from me, and that goes not only for the language issues.
Summing up: how the course changed my teaching
I came to the course to understand how I can rearrange my teaching practice to move on from regular lessons to something like consultations. Now I know the way to do so. I liked the idea of language coaching. I even started to value my background in psychology, and it’s obvious now how I can benefit from it.
I got a boost to learn more about neuroscience and refresh my knowledge of teaching and learning theory. I’ve already found many interesting books and hope to start sharing my reviews of them here.
I’ve introduced some changes to my teaching practice as well. And changed my style a bit. Here they are:
- I started listening to my students even more carefully and suggesting fewer ideas. Actually, I’m probably the best person for brainstorming sessions, as I absolutely love generating new ideas and finding solutions. But now I see that by doing this I don’t give my students enough thinking time and space to experiment with their learning. So now I ask more questions, listen to them more and let them check out with their own ideas however imperfect I see them.
- I also handed over more responsibility and control over the process to them:
- For example, previously I’d filled in a table with lesson summaries and homework assignments for my students to keep track of what we did. So I decided that it was their responsibility to do so, as well as choose what they wanted for homework. Very convenient, I should say. Even my Elementary student started doing it in English.
- For the same reason, I stopped looking for materials for my students as well (except for some activities that go with the Teacher’s pack) – they choose by themselves which texts, videos, audios and even exercises to work to.
- I also tried SMART goals with my students but it didn’t stick. Maybe because we had been together for a long while and had already got used to a different style of work. Instead of chasing goals, I chose to let my students decide what they wanted to do next time. So now I don’t have to create a lesson plan – they create it for themselves. They learn to combine using a book for explicit learning with exploring topics they like in English for the implicit one. Then they come back and surprise me with their findings. Very interesting!
- I also introduced more talk more about how to do things with my students – how to memorise words, how to read texts, etc. So we identify different techniques and strategies, then my students try them out and choose what works for them better. It involves a lot of reflective practice to find out how make their learning more effective and efficient .
Not bad, in general. It’s a lot of load off my shoulders because I struggled with making plans that don’t work if I listen to my students carefully and do what they require for a particular lesson. I don’t do any preparation and my students are getting more and more autonomous. I mostly help them talk about what interests them and reflect on their learning journey. I also monitor how their language is developing, do error correction and help them to balance out language skills and systems.