Doing it the right way in the subway station and in class

If you are like me, seemingly inconsequential events repeatedly pop into your head and somehow come to take on much greater importance in retrospect.  There is one “event” I think about nearly every day as I go to work. To call it an event is probably far too strong. It is really just a thing I saw and heard one day and it pops into my head every time I use my electronic card to use the subway.

Without further ado, here is the event that inevitably comes to mind as I swipe my card at the subway station.

Picture it, Seoul, 2009. Jegi-dong Station.
An older man, let’s say early in his 60’s, is accompanied by a younger man.  I assumed that it was a father-son combo. The son was explaining to his father all about the subway and what to do and how to use it. I assumed at this point that the father was from the countryside and was unfamiliar with the subway and all the intricacies of public transport in a major metropolis. Aside from this being a very cute and presumably rare scene I was also happy because I managed to work out what the son was saying in Korean. He instructed his father that we must always use our right hand to swipe the electronic cards in order enter and find our way to the tracks.

Don’t even think about using your left hand.

You might be wondering a few things at this point. Things like, “Why does Mike think about this every day?’ And, “Why is Mike blogging about this?”

I can’t really answer the first question. I hope that maybe blogging about it will exorcise this event from my mind and I will think of something new tomorrow as I swipe my card.  Also, maybe I can’t answer the first question because the event  just randomly pops into my head. Please note that I don’t always swipe with my right hand.

As for why I decided to share this story, it reminds me of teaching and learning how to teach. We learn all these “rules”  and just accept them because  someone told us. Perhaps it was a tutor on a training course. Perhaps we read these ideas in a book. Perhaps we heard them at a conference and decided they were good rules to follow. Perhaps we saw our teachers do it when we were students and decided that it was a rule that we needed to follow. Perhaps the principal or other person outside of our classroom or context set this rule.

As I mentioned, I sometimes use my left hand to swipe my card.  I usually smile when I do this because I imagine I’m breaking some sacred rule. I wonder what other rules I follow in life and teaching without thinking them through as I just accept the wisdom of others.

I should admit (?) that using one’s right hand is probably generally preferable because the machines that check the cards are always on our right side, whether we are entering or leaving the station. I think “use your right hand to swipe your card” is pretty good advice but just I don’t think it is or should be a rule. Sometimes we need to carry something in our right hand, no?

In a previous post about “The Cult of ICQs” I mentioned the idea of “Tools not rules” (thanks J-Dogg ).I think this is an incredibly important idea for teachers to keep in mind.  It seems to me that what  teachers learn as “rules” in training courses simply being good practice or good advice.

I find myself wondering a few things:

  1. Are there actually “rules?”
    If so, what are they and where do they come from? (My answer on this at the moment  is no, but I am willing to read attempts to convince me otherwise)
  2. *Should teacher trainers emphasize  they are not telling rules but simply helping with tools?
    If yes, how can this be done?

I also wonder about the father and if he has ever used his left hand to swipe his card.

Finally, those interested in “Breaking Rules” might be interested in checking out #iTDi’s excellent collection of blog posts on rule breaking.


  1. Kristina

    To answer your question #1 — The first rule is: there are no rules!
    To answer your question #2 — Absolutely yes! Teacher trainers/educators should announce it on day 1 and keep reminding the trainees of it throughout the course if necessary. I make my declaration during the syllabus review on the first day with a brief explanation that the only thing I want them to follow is their own counsel and desires. Then we discuss those hopes and I create a list of them on the board under 2 headings: “My name” (the course facilitator) and “Participants”. I emphasize the word hopes, and never use the word expectations because expectations can lead to disappointment, but you can always keep hoping!

    One final note: You RULE, Mike!

    • mikecorea

      Thanks so much for the comments and thoughts and sorry for the delay in responding. I am with you on reminding trainees/participants about things not being rules. My perception is that in the context we are working in (Korea I mean) teachers might hear rules when we are simply meaning suggestions or ideas so I think it is especially important to be clear on this. Thanks again for stopping by!

  2. Carol Goodey

    This is such an enjoyable read, Mike! I particularly love how you smile when you use your left hand to swipe your card 😀

    I think it’s very important to question ‘rules’ and to be clear why you’re following them if you do. We’re never going to find better ways of doing things if we always do what we’re supposed to and we could also be missing out on ways to address individual students’ needs if we adhere too rigorously to the rules.

    That said, though, if rules are essentially good advice for the most effective and efficient way of doing something based on research and experience (although I don’t think that’s always the case), then it’s probably a good idea to give them a go before trying something different, all the while keeping the learners you’re working with in mind and adapting as necessary!

    Through my experience of working with, observing and listening to adult numeracy learners, I’ve heard of the effects of sticking too rigidly to the rules and expecting everyone else to do the same. Not everyone thinks or acts in the same way. To expect everyone to do so can have detrimental consequences for their learning and self esteem.

    So, perhaps we could see a rule as one (probably quite good) way of doing things, but we should always be open to people’s preference to work/teach/learn in different ways, and help them to reflect on the effectiveness of those ways for them, and, if applicable, their learners.

    One last thought.. Without rules, you wouldn’t be able to break them, and have such fun doing so! 😉


  3. Sophia

    You officially have one of my favourite blogs ever. Thanks for letting us take a trip on your slightly odd train of thought here 🙂 And good questions as ever. Here’s my rambling tuppenceworth for the evening:
    1. No…but yes, sort of? Social practices are established through an unspoken agreement that this is ‘how it’s done’ by particular people in a particular context – sometimes people start calling this a rule, but that’s thinking about it back to front – there’s just what people do, and what *looks like* a rule emerges from that. So it’s not a rule to swipe with your right hand, it just looks like it is because that’s what everybody except you and one-left-armed people do. So, er…I’d say there aren’t rules as such, just things that most people do at a particular point in time. It’s really hard to start thinking about whether these things are actually ‘right’ or not, or just something you have been conditioned into but culture and circumstance (eg having the swipey thing on the right side, having a whiteboard the front of a class etc.)
    2. Yes! I love the “tools not rules” catchphrase. I always have tried to emphasize this as a trainer on pre-service courses – at least I’m sure I have used words like “toolkit” and “flexibility” and “learners’ needs” a lot. But I feel like most trainees can’t hear me. The assessment process requires them to demonstrate that they can do particular things – so of course they just think about what they ‘have to’ do to get a particular box checked. I think it takes a while to gain enough confidence to realise that they do have a toolkit after all which they can use any the hell way they want! Anyway, I wish I’d had the “tools not rules” catchphrase before – catchphrases are REALLY helpful cos they stick, and this might help people ‘hear’ me. I’d love more emphasis on flexibility and responding to learners’ needs than bloody ICQs or what have you – but at the same time I really believe trainees can only hear what they are ready to hear. Pre-service Ts tend to jump on frameworks they can follow – even if these are perceived as “rules”, it’s still useful. To go back to social practices again, at any age, in any context in life, first you learn the practice – then you learn to play with it and make it your own. When you are comfortable breaking the rules, it’s a sign you are a competent user.
    Anyway, thanks again for an entertaining, thought-provoking post that has completely ruined my (relevant) essay writing for the night 🙂

    • mikecorea

      Hello Friend,

      You have no idea how long I spent trying to figure out how to include a one armed man in my post.
      Thanks so much for the comments. They really got me thinking. (Sorry for the delay in responding, as you likely know I have a few things going on at the moment). As I believe you are already aware, I loved your comments!
      As you are also likely aware I am a believe in specific feedback so.. in order to specific about what I loved about your comments I will mention that I think the point about “hearing” is a very good and important one. You also said that trainees are only ready to hear what they are ready to hear and I can’t disagree with that. I guess a key question is what can trainers do to get trainees thinking beyond the box checking and/or realizing that the box checking is only important here and now on this particular training course and that out there in nature it will be different.

      You wrote (quite persuasively), “To go back to social practices again, at any age, in any context in life, first you learn the practice – then you learn to play with it and make it your own. When you are comfortable breaking the rules, it’s a sign you are a competent user.” There is not much I can disagree with here except to wonder that if we learned the “why” at the early stage it is more likely to stick. Perhaps this is just me? I guess I feel like being told what to do is helpful just in the short term but I want to develop my own beliefs and ways of doing things.

      Thanks for the kind words, support (not just here), and thoughts. Much appreciated. You know what? Next time I decide NOT to write something really random like this I will plug away and write it on the chance that my odd train of thought might go somewhere. I thank you for that as well.


  4. Tyson Seburn (@seburnt)

    My question while reading this story about the right arm in the subway turns out to be your first: Is this actually a rule? No is the obvious answer. It’s advice based on experience. I’d hearten to suggest that teacher training is also this, not rules. So yes, I believe it is important to emphasise to trainees that what they learn are guidelines based on experience, but not rules with no choice.

    • Willy Cardoso

      yes, Tyson, but when you get a below standard on your CELTA assessed lesson, or whatever, because you didn’t do a CCQ. Doing a CCQ is not advice, is it? Nor are they guidelines.
      Moreover, I’ve seen many teacher trainers admit the way they train is not the way they teach. Why? There are rules to follow in order for your training to be accredited by Cambridge or whoever; apart from other factors of course.

      • Tyson Seburn (@seburnt)

        Hmm. You’re right: there are rules for accreditation when that accreditation doesn’t allow flexibility. One issue with doing a CELTA or other like training courses for such a short time and at the beginning of your career is the almost-certain fact that what you learn won’t end up be how you decide to teach (though it may influence it). If we had a longer training process, and did it after we’d done some trial and error ourselves, we’d have a basis for accepting (or criticising) the rules given for accreditation. Then a healthy dialogue could occur between trainee and trainer, which would be a great thing, right?

        I, Tyson Seburn, do not teach the way I was taught in my training course. It was a very limited, beginning approach to teaching, but only advice. 😉

      • mikecorea

        Thanks for the thoughts (and admission!) Tyson.
        I am responding to both your comments here. I guess the son sounded like he was telling his dad it was a rule…maybe it just sounded this way to me but I think we often turn *shoulds and “we usually” into rules in our heads. So, while the hand thing wasn’t a rule it sure sounds like one and i think the same thing often happens on training courses.

        I love your admission. I think it is very interesting that you wrote, “it was only advice.” I think this is fantastic because my sense is that many teachers don’t get beyond the stage as taking it for rules or gospel Perhaps I am not being fair… dunno that is just my impression.

        You wrote, “One issue with doing a CELTA or other like training courses for such a short time and at the beginning of your career is the almost-certain fact that what you learn won’t end up be how you decide to teach (though it may influence it). If we had a longer training process, and did it after we’d done some trial and error ourselves, we’d have a basis for accepting (or criticising) the rules given for accreditation. Then a healthy dialogue could occur between trainee and trainer, which would be a great thing, right?”

        I am right with you the healthy dialog being a great thing! I guess my belief is that while 120 hours (or whatever) is surely short it doesn’t mean that trainees cant’t think and articulate and evaluate their own beliefs. I believe they can base these on their previous learning experiences as well as their learning experiences while teaching and studying on such courses.

        Thanks once again for the thoughts and sorry for the delay in responding.

      • mikecorea

        Thanks for adding your thoughts here Willy! I think you helped bring the CCQ checklist aspect out in the open.
        From my view it is very normal for teacher trainers to admit that they way they train is different from the way they teach because of the rules that you mentioned. I guess my curiosity centers around if they admit this in front of trainees or not. I think that (as I guess I allude to below in my response to Sophia) this is something I would personally like to hear as a trainee. Something like, A) “Hey guys this is how we do it on the course because _____ (insert home office) says so.” For me, this would be a lot easier to take than, B) “This is the way it is done.”

        This is not to say that I think A) is better than giving trainees time and space to come up with their own conclusions but just that it would be much, much better for me than B)

        Thanks again for the thoughts and sorry for the delay in responding.

  5. Rachael Roberts

    I don’t think that any trainer on a CELTA course should be telling CELTAees that there is only one right way to do anything. I would always say that this is a technique that can work well, this can be an effective way of doing something (and why) etc. However, while I was reading the post, and especially the comments, I started thinking about something I read recently about a Buddhist term, ‘expedient means’. These are teachings designed to reach learners at their current level of understanding. As they progress and expand their worldview, they discard the teachings and replace them with a more sophisticated view, which is then in turn replaced again. Of course, this kind of assumes there is an ultimate truth- which I’m pretty sure isn’t true of ELT 😉 – but I think the idea that on a four week initial course tutors might over-simplify a bit isn’t such a bad thing, is it?

    • mikecorea

      Thanks for the comments, RR.
      Much appreciated as always. You certainly gave some food for thought here.

      Expedient means is something that I will keep thinking about!

      I guess I am stubborn in thinking that oversimplification is fine as long as the student/trainee/whatever is “in on it.” Perhaps I am scarred (ok fine that is far too strong a word) by working with teachers that were drilled and grilled on “The way” and never really saw beyond that.

      Speaking of scarring….Perhaps when I took the CELTA I was scarred (and scared) by the impression that the trainer was telling (and forcing) “the way” on us and not leaving room for other ways. In any case, I think it was a great learning experience in some different ways as I saw the type of trainer I didn’t want to be 5 years later when I started working as a trainer.

      Maybe I wasn’t ready for the lessons that particular trainer was trying to offer at that particular time.
      Yet, I have been blessed with so many mentors and teachers (yourself included) so I am very pleased how things have worked out.

      “When the student is ready the teacher will appear” is a thought that comes to my mind quite frequently.

  6. Ratnavathy Ragunathan

    One way or the other, your posts always makes me smile. I love the way you interlace humor and ELT in you reflections, always leaving a very personalized touch to each post. Takes quite some reflection there to relate ‘swiping of the card’ to ELT rules.

    I don’t have much insight to say for this post. All I can say is, I’m left-handed, which means that I constantly break the rules in my classroom…if there’re anything called rules….:)

    • mikecorea


      Thanks so much for the comments. I am very happy that you enjoyed the post! I was surely smiling to myself as I wrote it thinking about the windy road I had to take to make the connection! Thanks again for the comments and see you soooon! 🙂

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  9. ALiCe__M

    Again, a very enjoyable post. I particularly enjoyed your talking to yourself while travelling, and allowing us to listen. To me, your post is about how ideas come to life in the mind, and how they are closely intertwined with the outside world, and how memory does its miraculous job everyday, reminding us of details, triggering off another train of thought. Thank you.

    • mikecorea

      🙂 Thanks! As I mentioned, this was one post I was feeling a bit strange/nervous about posting.

      I love your thoughts on this (sounds much deeper than some clown thinking about teaching whilst in transit!)


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