Mark it: A quick story and then some tough questions

So I had this student a while back. Let’s call him Mark. That was not his name, nor was it even his English name. He was a Korean student in his very early 20′s and I thought he was extremely bright. Some, just some, of the reasons I thought this were because his major was something that made rocket science sound simple and because he went to one of the best universities in Korea. Mark was also a very nice, if perhaps socially awkward, dude. I enjoyed working with him.

I was working in an intensive English program attached to a university in Seoul and Mark was taking a bit of time off from his university studies to brush up on his English. Actually, brush up is not the right word. He came to learn how to use English. Even though he went to one of the best unis in Korea (and had the test scores to match) Mark really couldn’t make a sentence, any sentence, when he joined the program. By the end of 20 weeks he was by no means fluent but he could do a lot in English and he looked pretty comfortable doing it. At this point I am willing to admit that everything I am talking about is directly related to simply an increase in confidence. Before Mark came to the program he’d had around 12 years of (mostly, I assume) grammar-translation teaching that helped prepare him for the college entrance exam. He did very well on that exam but could barely speak English at all.

The above is why he was registered in the lowest of all 15 of the groups in the intensive English program. In this program students took 30 hours of class and in doing so took courses from 5-6 teachers. I was the teacher that Mark spent the most time with, teaching “Learning to Speak” (which could be considered something like a fluency focused basic discussion course tailored to lower-levels). The other classes, which he took with 10 other students,  included “Practical English” (for the purposes of this post we can consider it to mean a more form-focused class following a coursebook), Listening, Reading (maybe), and Writing.

I was continually impressed, and indeed thrilled, with the progress of Mark and his classmates. I was especially impressed with the dramatic improvement Mark showed. I know that he was highly motivated and worked very hard. Perhaps it was (semi) youthful hubris but I really believed at that time that my magic mix of support, kindness,  and opportunities to use the language coupled with fantabulous feedback were some of the main keys to his success. Now, with the passage of time and a bit of maturity I realize that there were likely factors other than his aptitude, intelligence, and diligence coupled with my mad teaching skillz and overall brilliance. With some time, distance, and humility I am also wondering about the implications of this tale, if any, for my future teaching (or others for that matter) I am having a hard time isolating what might have helped Mark improve so dramatically and so rapidly. Maybe this is all beyond the scope of a 600 or so word blog post.

Questions that come to mind:  

  1. What kind of data (replace date with words like proof or evidence here if you wish) would people need to see to believe Mark improved so much?
    (Besides, of course, some shmuck blathering on about it 5 years later)
  2. (How) Could we measure, quantify, or even explain Mark’s progress in terms of SLA?
    (I mean now, or even at the time)
  3. Could we really say the intensive program was all that helpful considering all the time he had spent in English classes prior to ever setting foot in the intensive English program?
  4. Is there something to be said for spending 12 years being talked at about English?
    (Perhaps not fair. Sorry everyone.)
  5. (How) Could we consider measuring the impact of each of the various courses he and his classmates took at that time?
  6. (How) Could we consider measuring the impact of the previous 12 years of schooling?
  7. Are there any lessons to be drawn from this besides “it helps to be clever and studying 30 hours a week after 12 years might work?”
  8. What am I missing?
  9. Are these questions useless or otherwise beyond the point of what we need to consider as language teachers?
    (I am a big boy, ready to read any responses here )
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  1. heyboyle

    Great questions, none of which have easy answers. I’ve often wondered about the successful learners among my students. What were they doing that made such a big difference? (I know it wasn’t MY work that made the difference.) The one thing I think I know is that motivation, confidence, and effort really matter, perhaps as much or even more than the instructional methodology or techniques the teacher uses. The question for me is: How much can a teacher improve a student’s level of motivation, confidence, and effort? And how can this be measured in a way separate from measuring the “outcomes” or “results”?

    • mikecorea

      Hey Heyboyle (Mike),

      Thanks very much for the comments. You wrote,”The one thing I think I know is that motivation, confidence, and effort really matter, perhaps as much or even more than the instructional methodology or techniques the teacher uses.” I think this is a great point and I think the questions you ask are great ones and I surely don’t have easy answers to them and I am not sure who does (if anyone).

  2. tomtesol

    Month after month and year after year I get more and more convinced that you can’t measure great teaching any more than you can measure great art — teaching is an art form. Hence the increasing popularity of qualitative research forms: narrative inquiry, exploratory practice, etc. Personally, I find these formats far more useful to me as a teacher than the majority of quantitative studies. How Mark blossomed during his time with you is down to so many things, many of which you’ve mentioned, but also including, I suspect fairly significantly, the way in which you, consciously or not, allowed Mark to co-negotiate his identity and relationship with you and his classmates such that he could make such strides. For me this is all about your use of the power/leadership granted to you by your students, institution, and Culture, as compared to how it is used by others in similar positions. AN interesting line of questioning you don’t pursue so explicitly here: Was Mark the only success story in that class? Why could he respond so positively, but others had more difficulty, and to what extent did your relationships with the power structures in the class impact their success/failure?

    • Ebefl

      Hi tom.

      If good teaching can’t be measured, do you think there is any point in the DELTA/CELTA or doing classroom observations?

      If teaching is an art, and art is subjective why bother with qualifications etc?

    • mikecorea

      Thanks for the comments, Tom. Much appreciated. A few things jumped out at me here. You wrote, about the way I “consciously or not, allowed Mark to co-negotiate his identity and relationship with you and his classmates such that he could make such strides.” I think this is always important but perhaps even more important in this particular case. This is to say that I think he was in a very supportive group who were there to improve and didn’t mind (and in fact embraced) his slightly awkward ways.
      (This is of course my speculation after more than 5 years)

      Thanks for highlighting the other students as this was something I wanted to get into more. They actually made (what I saw as) remarkable strides as well in that time. I chose Mark because it was memorable and dramatic but I think the whole group improved so much.

      I don’t want to be too cynical but I think a lot of it was just doing stuff related to English for 30 hours a week after 12 years of public school study. They were at a very low level in terms of using English but they had a lot of passive knowledge (and also took the time off from school and paid the money and put in the time and work of course)

      I don’t want to say that I actually did so much (contrary to what I might have thought 5 years ago) especially because only 20% of his/their time in the program was with me.

      Thanks again for the thoughtful and thought provoking comments!

      PS– thanks also for mentioning “the power/leadership granted to you by your students, institution, and Culture, as compared to how it is used by others in similar positions” As that gives even more to think about.

  3. Ebefl

    you would need to specify what you were measuring before you could measure it. Fluency? Word rate per minute? How did he improve? In all areas? Did he actually improve or did it seem like that. For example was he shy around new classmates/teacher to art with and then came out of himself. I guess you would need to measure something at the start (words per minute) and then again at the end. Problem is maturational effects mean it’s hard to separate that know if his improvement was down to you or to him. Though if the effect size is big enough…

    • Tom Randolph (@TomTesol)

      Hi EBFL,

      Can I infer from your question re CELTA/Delta (and presumably MA/MS), that you don’t think the Royal Academy of the Dramatic Arts, The Actor’s Studio,Juliard, or Painting classes are of no use to a student of those arts? Since when is art something that can’t be learned/acquired? I was interested in your comment about measuring spoken words per minute as a way to gauge improvement. if you’ve got a reference, I’d love to see a study that pinpoints a universal optimum word-per-minute rate for speakers of English. I always thought speech speed depended largely on the situation?

      • Tefl skeptic

        Hi Tom,

        It’s a non-sequitur for me as I don’t think teaching is ‘an art’. I should add I don’t think it’s a science either. I’m not at all sure I know what saying ‘teaching is an art’ is supposed to mean? Does it mean there is a knack to it? Or does it mean it’s subjective like art, so I could think your panting is wonderful while someone else thinks it’s terrible…is teaching like that? If it is like that then observations seem pretty pointless, don’t they?

        I think there probably are some absolutes in teaching and it’s not completely subjective so we can teach things to teachers which will make them more successful.

      • mikecorea

        Interesting discussion here gentlemen.
        I won’t answer the questions you have directed to Tom (and I hope he does answer them) but I did just want to say that the whole idea of observations in my mind is not predicated on there being absolutes in teaching. I believe that observations could potentially be very helpful even if people don’t share the same assumptions about what “good” teaching.

      • EBEFL

        Hi Mike,

        Stimulating stuff as always. With peer observations i think you’re right, but when you’re observed by your boss, isn’t there an implicit assumption that he (it generally is a ‘he’) knows better, is in a position to watch and pass judgement on you and can make your teaching better? I’m not sure if I agree with these things.

      • mikecorea

        Hello again EBEFL,

        Thanks for the exchange (and yes, interesting as always). LOL at generally a he, though I don’t disagree. I am glad you are not sure you agree with the implicit assumptions with being observed by a boss…

        My take: while that might be the case with many bosses or in many places I don’t think it is the case everywhere.

        Sometimes I think it is just about “this is how we do it here.” Like, the boss isn’t saying they are better or know more or anything like that, but just this is the way we choose to do things in this place in this specific context. These are the expectations that we have and so on.

        Sometimes observations with a boss are more reflective and more about helping the teacher see what they didn’t see or helping the teacher match their beliefs to what they are doing, or help uncover beliefs or any number of things. This might be rare but I have seen it with my own two eyes.

        I’d also like to point out that in my view observation for development and observation for quality control are necessarily different even though they are frequently mixed up.

        Well I guess that is all for now. I hope this makes some sense.

    • mikecorea

      Thanks Russ/EBEFL,

      I appreciate the thoughts here. I really think in this case it would be hard to separate much of anything because he (they) had lots of classes and even if I could prove an improved fluency there are so many possibilities for how it happened.

      You wrote, “Did he actually improve or did it seem like that. For example was he shy around new classmates/teacher to start with and then came out of himself” and I actually think this getting comfortable was a big factor in what looked and seemed like a major improvement. At the same time I am also as convinced as I will be about anything that he improved a lot. :) But yeah, I don’t really think it had so much to do with one teacher of this 30 hour weeks of classes (and his self-study and years of English previously).

      I paused when I wrote the word “fluency” as I wasn’t sure if this is exactly what I was talking about or wanted to focus on. Hmmm. I am sure there would have been a dramatic improvement in words per minute but I think this would only capture one small part of the improvement.

      (Suddenly thinking again that all this might be why even flawed tests like TOEIC are so popular..there is a number to start and end with)

      Thanks very much for taking the time to comment. This gave me something to think about.

  4. tomtesol

    Are EDEFL and TEFL Skeptic the same person? Either way, I’d like to see the term ‘evidence’ expressed. Beyond that, I think we’re on similar ground: I think there are some absolutes (e.g. interaction, meaningful repetition) that are not context-dependent, but that and everything else attempted in a classroom depends entirely on the quality of classroom life for each of the participants. This in turn puts the onus on the designated leader in the classroom to facilitate the negotiation of relationships in the classroom such that as many students as possible feel the quality of classroom life is optimal for them. I think the process is necessarily entirely subjective, and I think it’s exceedingly similar to non-traditional non-”4th wall” theater work, in which actors and audience members are all participants, but the actors understand a lot more of what is going on, and they lead the participants towards a useful, positive, learning experience while they are together in the performance space.

    In this light (and in many others) collegial ‘observations’ would of course provide rich opportunities for reflection and development of the aspects of this profession that are more ‘artistic’ than ‘scientific’, though I would encourage relatively discrete video rather than an extra role of ‘observer’ in the learning space.

    • EBEFL

      Hi Tom, yes it’s all me. :)
      I agree with you that there are some absolutes and some stuff is context-depedent. I also agree with you that teachers should make the class enjoyable for students. I’m not sure it’s entirely subjective though…I might say, for example, if the teacher yaps on for hours and the students just sit there listening, they’re probably not going to enjoy it. Again, we can’t be absolutist in this, but it’s not completely subjective either. I think what we’re probably looking at it percentages. So, teacher talking all the time would probably not be enjoyable for 90% of students in most contexts. Thus we can safely say that in most contexts, a teacher talking non-stop would [inset claim here].

      • tomtesol

        Hey Russ,

        I never used the word ‘enjoyable’ — and I think that’s a dangerous ‘dumming-down’ as it were of what I was getting at. I used ‘quality of classroom life’ in the sense of Allwright and the Exploratory Practice crowd. Elsewhere in these comments I’ve used identity negotiation, interaction, and context in the sense of James Gee’s Discourses, and Ron Scollon’s Mediated Discourse, and Vygotsky’s Mind in Society.

      • mikecorea

        Now c’mon Russ….
        A quick recap as I see/remember/paraphrase it.

        Tom: We need to consider quality of classroom life…..
        Russ: I agree with you, it needs to be enjoyable.
        Tom: That is not really fair. I never used the term “enjoy” and meant something different.
        Russ: So you don’t think learning a language should be enjoyable?

        From my view, it looks like you’ve gone and put words in the man’s mouth (again).

  5. tomtesol

    Moderatin’ Mike — I share your point of view, and decline the opportunity to be irritated ;-) I merely invite said EBTEFL to scan my website ( for answers to his questions before he asks them. I’ve read most of his, after all. Then, more interesting interaction might BAMF! into existence right here on this very page! :-)

  6. thesecretdos

    Some great questions, Mike. And a great discussion emanating. My two cents (note how culturally obliging I am): we are hairless chimps born with the blessing/curse of spotting patterns in chaos. We can spend a lot of time looking to see whether or not we are having a positive effect and much debate ensues. Or we can spend much less time ensuring that we are not having a negative effect and, presumably, we will get much closer to an answer.

    To my mind, teachers should work towards a hippocratic resolution to do no harm. Language learning will take care of itself, given enough data to process and motivation to process it (part of the blessing of the pattern-spotting). Teachers can work to motivate or to demotivate. Usually the results are a lot more visible.

    The problem with asking questions like this is that it all depends. The evidence that leads to better practice is usually found in studies of group learning; studies of individual learners would have to take into account all of the variables that the individual was subject to. Activity theory provides a useful model for showing just how complex these variables can be. In a class of 30, one would need to do at least 31 models and I suspect that this would lead to a diagram that was as populated as the Milky Way. And, once complete, the findings would be pertinent to that particular situation and probably no other.

    In summary: don’t look to see how you helped; look to see that you didn’t hinder.

    • tomtesol

      Really enjoyed these thoughts, secretdos. You describe an invigorating perspective on the role of the teacher. The educator’s hypocratic oath reminds me of one of the first questions I normally ask both trainees and new hires, which usually comes out something like, “What are English teachers for, these days?” Or, “Is there any point in being a language teacher in a brick and mortar classroom with 16 or more students?” My other response to your comment is a follow-up on your (IMO) quite right summation of the practicality of applying activity theory to institutional language teaching. That said, language teaching DOES all depend, so I wind up reading a lot of qualitative research: peer-reviewed teacher-penned narratives, teacher-penned blogs, and honing my reflection skills. I’m quite happy with the contribution of this research on my professional development, consider it valid, and a path I encourage novice teachers to take as well.

    • mikecorea

      Thanks very much for the insightful response here. I appreciate you adding your two pence. What you wrote regarding the hippocratic oath is a nice and clear way of expressing something I was thinking as I wrote the post (and as I thought about this Mark situation for years). I was thinking something like, “It doesn’t really matter which specific techniques were used on a specific day but the whole general trend is more important.” In this case as I mentioned students were studying English with teachers and each other for 30 hours a week. There were a lot of improvements. I am thinking that pretty much whatever teachers did in good conscience without completely taking the piss would have been helpful.

      Another thing that occurs to me know as I re-read your comments is that at that time I was extremely passionate about what I was doing (note to potential future employers: I still am usually) and truly believed in what I was doing. Of course I made plenty of silly decisions but I did it with the naive innocence of someone who believed in what they were doing. I still can’t help but think this was a positive for the students.
      (Again, I am not really thinking that their time with me actually had such a big impact on their overall experience).

      I think your point about “it depends” is pretty much where I am at the moment.

      One thing I am considering good news is that I am not really trying to crack any sort of code and I am happy enough with “it depends.” As for “don’t hinder” I think that is a good starting point (and a good finishing point for this response). Thanks again for sharing your very helpful thoughts.

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