[Guest Post] The Upside of English Language Teaching

It’s with great pleasure that I share this guest post. I first became acquainted with Jeremy on Twitter (where he is @jdslagoski ) and I’ve enjoyed his wit and scholarship. His blogs offer a lot of food for thought. Sojourning English Language Teachers caught my attention with its name and kept my attention with the posts. In Dr. J’s Blog of ELT Praxis Jeremy shares his efforts “to bridge the research-practice gap in English language teaching with a focus on curriculum, instructional technology, and intercultural communication.” Jeremy has been in the field of English language teaching for over 20 years and has experience as a teacher, teacher educator, and administrator in Japan, Korea, Russia, and the United States. Jeremy earned his PhD in Teaching & Learning (Foreign Language & ESL Education) from the University of Iowa.

I was lucky enough to meet Jeremy at JALT in 2016 and we had dinner and a nice chat. We had some chances to talk about our shared interest in Behavioral Economics and the potential influence on English teacher.

Earlier this year on Facebook I saw Jeremy sharing some quotes from “The Upside of Irrationality” by Dan Ariely and we discussed the possibility of him writing a guest post on this very blog. What you can see below is the result of that discussion. I hope you enjoy it (and get as much out of it) as I did. 

The Downside of Education Labor

“Why do you try so hard?” a coworker asked me in the spring of 2015. This question confirmed that I was making the right decision to leave a job that I both loved and hated. This scenario came to my mind while reading Dan Ariely’s 2010 book The Upside of Irrationality, specifically a passage on page 72:

“If you take people who love something and you place them in meaningful working conditions, the joy they derive from the activity is going to be a major driver in dictating their level of effort. However, if you take the same people with the same initial passion and desire and place them in meaningless working conditions, you can easily kill internal joy they might derive from the activity.”

This passage comes from the second chapter titled “The Meaning of Labor” in which the author describes why and how people find their work, their job, and their career meaningful. Ariely describes several meaningful and meaningless working conditions. The big difference between the two is that people witness your achievement for work to be meaningful. In the meaningless conditions, the work is put away or destroyed before anyone can see the results. There’s no acknowledgement. It’s like Sisyphus rolling his boulder up the mountain with nobody watching or caring.

sisyphus

I was beginning to feel like Sisyphus in a job I left a few years ago. Incidentally, during my last department meeting at that job, we were asked to write a word that describes our work on the board and I did indeed write “Sisyphus.” I spent the past two years on a faculty development initiative that was gaining momentum and traction across the college. I was meeting and exceeding the goals that we set for this initiative every year. When the project was small, I received ample praise which motivated me to work harder and better. When the project grew, the praise within my department ended and was replaced with either criticism or indifference, a stark contrast to the praise I was getting from the rest of the college.

When the project was beginning to make noticeable positive changes, I was told to remove my name from the project but encouraged to continue working on it. The rationale for this was that the project belonged to the college and not to me. This cut deep because it was implied that I was doing it for myself when in reality the project was completely collaborative and wouldn’t have been successful without the faculty and staff who volunteered their time to see it come to fruition. Finally, about a month after my coworker asked why I was trying so hard, the head of the department, my supervisor’s supervisor, strongly suggested that I move on to another project. A few weeks later I announced that I’d accepted a job elsewhere.

Those last few months at that employer were bleak because I felt my meaningful working condition become meaningless. My situation was becoming a lot like those experiments in the chapter where participants were asked to build something out of Legos. After completing their work, they had to watch their creations get disassembled before they left the room. To further illustrate, this project resulted in a task force that was asked to create a report for the college. After one year, the report was presented to top administrators of the college and then shelved with no further actions or reactions. I got to witness firsthand the frustration and disappointment of each member of the task force, including myself, before I left. The initiative died about six months after I left, leaving many faculty and staff demoralized concerning collaborations with my former department. Now I know what some people have warned me about: places that suck your soul.

This was not an English language teaching position. Fortunately for me, I have found most of my English language teaching jobs in meaningful working conditions. I have been able to witness the fruits of my labor as my students’ English proficiency improves. And for jobs in the United States, I also take pride in my students’ ability to integrate into the community and eventually matriculate into university. Thanks to social media, I have been able to witness my students succeed in their university courses and beyond.

The IKEA Effect in ELT

Unfortunately, this feeling of pride takes me to chapter three of Ariely’s book: the IKEA effect, in which he identifies four principles of human endeavor:

 

  • “The effort that we put into something does not just change the object. It changes us and the way we evaluate that object.
  • Greater labor leads to greater love.
  • Our over-evaluation of the things we make runs so deep that we assume that others share our biased perspective.
  • When we cannot complete something into which we have put great effort, we don’t feel so attached to it” (pp.104-105).

The object in this context must be external, so one can’t interpret it as your teaching because that is a part of you. Instead the object can be the lesson, a certain activity, or materials you developed for learning. As an experienced teacher and curriculum coordinator, I have often had the opportunities to create my own lessons, whole courses, and whole programs. If they positively affect student performance, then I love those lessons, courses, and programs forever. I used to assume others would too, but other teachers love their creations more.

ikea products

As an ELT curriculum coordinator and project manager, I sometimes cannot enact the courses or activities I designed because I am not always the instructor or facilitator. When someone else gets to facilitate my design, I have learned to let it go and celebrate the collaborative effort when the project is successful. If the instructor follows my lesson plans exactly the way I designed them, I still feel attached to them. However, I’ve been in reversed roles where I had to follow a lesson plan strictly, and I do not feel attached to them unless I was able to tweak it to better meet the needs of the students. If I was given a little leeway to tweak, then I loved the lesson more.

I expect the facilitators or instructors of my curriculum to feel the same. Most of my lessons were designed for experienced teachers, so I purposely left a lot of wiggle room for teachers to make the lessons their own. I call this my “secret sauce” because I am able to accommodate for the strengths of my teachers, which is directly tied to assessing the day-to-day needs of the students. In this case, my labor of love is no longer the curriculum itself but the collaboration of curriculum development between me, the instructors, and the students. If the teachers and students are happy and successful with the outcomes, then I do not care if certain activities I designed were out of sequence or even dropped. This “greater labor” is shared and leads to a greater love of not only the curriculum but the relationships forged through the successful joint effort of designing and facilitating the courses.

The Not-Invented at Our School Bias

All that pride in teamwork takes me to the fourth chapter in The Upside of Irrationality, which is about the not-invented-here bias or “if we didn’t invent it, then it’s not worth much.” I recognize this as the rigidity of a school’s curriculum because it represents the hard work of the whole school. When I started my job as curriculum coordinator at another former job, I learned that I threatened this strong bias of the many of the teachers. Why would I want to change anything about this wonderful curriculum that has served us so well over two decades?

Two sentences stood out for me in chapter 4. The first captures my leadership philosophy very well:  “If you understand the sense of ownership and pride that stems from investing time and energy in projects and ideas, you can inspire yourself and others to be more committed to and interested in the tasks at hand” (p.121). The second describes what I encountered in my last two working environments as a change agent: “Once we are addicted to our own ideas, it is less likely that they will be flexible when necessary. We run the risk of dismissing others’ ideas that might simply be better than our own” (p. 122). One of my greatest achievements as curriculum coordinator was not taking the dismissal of my ideas personally. As a leader of a team, my ideas work best when they are integrated with the ideas of the other team. Within the past few years, I have learned that it’s important for a leader to maintain his or her vision, but it’s not as important to have all or most of his or ideas enacted by others.

Finally, this bias is easily seen in the proprietary nature of English language programs, especially private ones, that have administrators and faculty who believe their curriculum is superior to others or they market it that way. It’s the “secret formula” of ELT that will never get shared on social media or published in any journal. As a curriculum designer, the key to a “most successful formula” is its transparency to all stakeholders involved (students, teachers, administrators, and parents) because a strong curriculum is flexible enough to use “evidence-based” approaches to an extent that meet the goals of the program and the needs of the students. A secret formula also suggests rigidity or a one-size-fits-all approach, which may be cheap and easy for the school but it does not serve the students. So I urge teachers and administrators to share your curriculum, lesson ideas, and activities. If your school or program successfully improves students’ language skills, the “magic” that is difficult to replicate is more likely to be the expertise and winning dispositions of your teachers who are able to make the curriculum accessible and meaningful to the students.

More recently, I have been able to incorporate many of Ariely’s ideas and suggestions in a program I designed for English language teachers in Brazil. First, I was put in a meaningful working condition both physically and mentally. The program was based in Chicago and Iowa City, two cities that I love and have a long history and strong familiarity with. Additionally, I set the standards of my working conditions, designing my schedule and workload, maximizing my time to learn about each teacher’s needs and strengths. Second, I put all my effort into this especially during their two-week visit when every waking minute was dedicated to the success of the program. My love for this project was amplified by the joy and excitement I saw expressed by many of these teachers.  This project was purposefully collaborative with two non-profit organizations and the United States Embassy in Brasilia. Our collaboration helped the program run smoothly every single day. Lastly, to reduce the not-invented-here bias I posted the entire program publicly online. The nuts and bolts can be reproduced by any competent and coordinated group of international exchange and English language teaching experts. However, the “magic” was I loved this work and the participants and it took place in the backyard of at least my twenty years of my life.

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Although opportunities are like this are rare, the upside of English language teaching is 1) working in meaningful conditions, where one can work in a school and/or culture that you cherish, 2) being able to complete and find closure to your great efforts, and 3) being able to find that the secret to success in teaching and learning is intangible, that your effort, expertise, and enthusiasm are worth more than the lesson plans and curriculum you create. The tangible parts of your work are the product and not the source of an enjoyable English language teaching career.

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4 comments

  1. Tyson Seburn

    Great article, Jeremy. Not having read Ariely’s book though, I`m a bit lost on the connection to IKEA even though you mention the four principles included from that chapter. IKEA seems cheap, industrialised, and highly recognisable as IKEA, yet often good looking and easy for mass public to build. The four principles, however, don`t quite match up with my perceptions.

    • mikecorea

      Hey Tyson,
      Thanks for reading and commenting. Jeremy might jump in here at some point but I figured I’d explain the IKEA effect as I see it. When you shared your perception of IKEA I think you touched on an important aspect of the IKEA effect. People feel more more attached to what they’ve built and worked on. So, even if the desk (or bookshelf or whatever) is not that great people will have more attachment to the one they built (and invested time and energy into) than one made by someone else.

      Getting a bit away from the original post here, sometimes I find myself more attached (and more likely to use) materials I’ve made than other materials. If this is because of the IKEA effect I might want to step back and think about which materials are actually a better fit for my students.

      A memorable example from the book was something like:
      Study participants constructed their own origami cranes valued them 5 times as much as another group of participants thought they were worth.

      I hope I have cleared things up a bit on this. I wonder if any examples of this come to your mind?

    • jdslagoski

      Hi Tyson,
      I believe Mike answered your question quite well, especially in regards to the first, second, and fourth principles. The third principle refers to liking something more because you build it and assuming other people like it more because you built it. This is what may make websites like Etsy popular for creators who believe they knit awesome scarves. As for our teaching materials and lesson plans, one reason that you may like your own is that you made them. Hopefully, there are more objective reasons for you liking them. My experiences and observations have shown me that teachers rave more about their own materials than those made by others, although I’ve run into a high number of teachers that love using Keith Folse’s books in class.

      • Tyson Seburn

        Thanks guys. This makes sense of course. I think I really just didn’t quite get the IKEA connection clearly because it has negative connotations (at least for me). But now I generally get the drift.

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