[Guest post] The Most Important Question in ELT?

When Rob Sheppard (@robshpprd ) sent me a DM asking if accepted guest posts I jumped at the chance. I appreciate him taking the time to share the post! I was quite familiar with his writing from places like the New School’s Uncharted TESOL blog, TESOL International’s blog and TEFL Equity Advocates I knew about Rob’s work as founder of Ginseng English . I’ve since learned that Rob is co-chair of the Adult Ed Interest Section at TESOL. I think Rob really needs to get his own blog but for the meantime I am happy to share this thought-provoking post. Over to Rob…

 

There’s a brilliant scene in A Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy in which, after eons of computation, a city-sized supercomputer spits out the answer to Ultimate Question of Life, the Universe, and Everything. That answer is 42. This is a comedy joke.

Well, ELT is a microcosm of the galaxy itself, so it’s only fitting that we have our own answer to the Ultimate Question of ELT. Turns out it’s, eh, roughly an 80:20 ratio. Yeah, you can go ahead and cancel those conferences and call off the research studies, cuz we got it figured now. It’s, uh, roundabout 80:20.

“Is this not the most important question in ELT?” asks Geoffrey Jordan.

Y’all don’t worry: I can field this one: No. Fuck no. here i come

No, this is most the fuck certainly not the most important question in the field of English language teaching. If the answer to the most important question in the field of English  language teaching were a number, then Christ Almighty have we been doing it wrong.

End of blog post.

 

 


 

Oh, you want I should elaborate? No worries, I got you.

Firstly of all, this question of a specific ratio of student talking time to explicit instruction is entirely meaningless until you specify the learners and the context. Let me share a few learner profiles from my experience to illustrate.

Profile 1: Me. I spent a year in Taiwan, surrounded by Mandarin. My motivation was high. I had plenty of free time to study and a background in languages. I read a grammar textbook, talked with my coworkers every day, paid careful attention to text in subway signs and advertisements. By the end of a year, I could use the language to meet all my daily needs and could make complex sentences, though my vocabulary was limited. If you’ve got a classroom full of students like me, in an ideal context like that, the proportion of explicit instruction that the classroom full of mes need is asymptotically approaching 0. What students like that need is as much interaction and comprehensible input as you can give them.

Profile 2: In a recent job, I ran a program serving adult immigrants, most of whom fit a very different (but much more common) profile. They mostly came from rural areas and had on average a 6th grade education. They worked 50+ hours per week, had kids, and our program was only 7.5 hours per week. Most had been in the US for several years before finally being admitted to our program (see The ESL Logjam) and in the interim most had learned enough English to easily meet their daily needs. They field your questions without trouble. They can tell you about their plans for this weekend or the problems they had with the clerk at the DMV two weeks ago, yet the English they use to express these ideas is riddled with errors, many of which are fossilized. When describing complex scenarios, they still manage to be highly communicative, using pidginization strategies to get their point across. These are talkative students. Give them the entire period to talk, and they’ll do so enthusiastically. In fact, when they have the chance, many to the free conversation sessions at the local library. Do these students—whose English already meets their communicative needs, who have ample access to CI outside of the class, who because of their shared linguistic backgrounds and learning contexts share mostly the same fossilized errors—do they need the same proportion of student talking time to explicit instruction as students with different backgrounds and learning contexts?

Profile 3: How about highly educated, low-motivation multilingual students in a 30-hour-per-week, target language-embedded academic IEP?

The conclusion that the Perspicacious Reader will no doubt come to is that, no, students of different backgrounds, in different learning contexts, do not have the same needs, and this most certainly applies also to the ratio of student language use to explicit instruction. Students with more L1 education, metalinguistic awareness, motivation, and study time outside of the classroom need less explicit instruction. Those with limited literacy, time, motivation, with lots of fossilized errors, need more explicit instruction. If those students have access to a teacher for only a few hours per week and access to comprehensible input every waking hour, that ratio might be dramatically different.

Now let me be clear: My beef is not with The Big Important Question itself. I’m familiar with the Question, as well as the proposed big important 80:20 answer. In fact, I have recommended this ratio to my teachers at times and used it as a benchmark for objective classroom observations. It’s not a bad question. But treating it as though it has some grand importance is just silly. A reasonable re-framing is this: the amount of student talking time should generally far exceed the amount of explicit instruction. The main import of this precept is that it can have a corrective effect on the novice teacher who fancies himself a lecturer.

The ratio itself is meaningless. A 10% difference in what you do during your teacher talking time or how you structure student talking time can be far more consequential than a 10% variance in the ratio of teacher talking time to student talking time. All other things being equal, a student in an 80:20 class 9 hours per week is still going to progress slower than a student in a 60:40 class 30 hours per week.

I’m not interested in positing my own Biggest Importantest Question; I’m not fishing for attention or keynote slots. But I’m guessing most of the big questions will be qualitative and situated: What should we be doing, how should we be doing it, how is it getting these learners from where they are to where they want to be?

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38 comments

  1. Geoffrey Jordan

    Hi y’all!

    Having a great day? I just love the weekends, don’t you? Sorry to interrupt your play time. I wonder if it would tax your attention span too much to read these 3 questions and answers:

    1. Is how much time teachers spend talking about the language and how much time learners engage in using the language the most important question for ELT? Maybe not, but it’s an important question.
    2. Is it possible to talk generally about how classroom-based, General English courses are run all over the world using coursebooks? Yes it is, although we have to be careful not to ignore different local contexts.
    3. Are there interesting research findings concerning the roles of explicit and implicit instruction and learning in classroom-based SLA? Yes, there are.

    Well that’s enough of the boring serious stuff. Let’s get back to the fun and games; let’s all climb down and join Rob in his ribald, shoot from the hip, riotous little playpen. OK. Now, in answer to the questions above, you can shake your rattle, dribble down your bib and scream along with him: CHRIST ALMIGHTY, NO! NO, MOST THE FUCK CERTAINLY NOT! NO, FUCK NO! Don’t you feel so much better now! A nice warm feeling coming from your nappy, as all that pent-up aggression flows away. And you’ll no doubt be very grateful to your good buddy Rob for fielding these hard questions so deftly for you, because you most the fuck certainly couldn’t have done it for yourself, now could you!

    I tweeted a question and gave a simple answer to it. Whatever motivates Rob Sheppard’s hysterical response here, it does nothing very useful in terms of answering the questions. Rather than pick up on a few tweets, Sheppard could have chosen to properly engage in the discussion by dealing with the arguments I set out in my blog, where I devoted considerable effort to pointing out what I see as the weaknesses of coursebook-driven General English courses (where the teacher is forced by the materials to spend most of the time talking about the language) and the strengths of TBLT (where students spend most of the time talking in the L2 about matters of real concern to them).

    In the tweets, I was referring to the millions of classroom-based, General English courses, where I suggested that 80% of the time should be devoted to learners engaging in using the L2 for communicative purposes. And Sheppard himself says: “My beef is not with The Big Important Question itself. I’m familiar with the Question, as well as the proposed big important 80:20 answer. In fact, I have recommended this ratio to my teachers at times and used it as a benchmark for objective classroom observations. It’s not a bad question”.

    So why does Sheppard feel the need for all this vulgar pantomime screaming and arm-waving? His answer is: because “treating the question as though it has some grand importance is just silly”. Why is it silly? Let me re-phrase the question:

    “In the context of classroom-based General English courses, is it silly to ask what proportion of the time should be spent on explicit instruction and what proportion of the time should be spent on using the L2 for communicative purposes?”

    In my opinion, it isn’t silly at all.

    • Rob Sheppard (@robshpprd)

      1. My central points remain unaddressed: Context and learner differences matter when determining how much time should be spent on explicit instruction. If there is a meaningful definition of “classroom-based General English” programs, please point us to it. My students in Boston are in a program that matches that description to a T. Are the students around the world in these millions of programs all fundamentally the same? Do they all have similar access to English outside of the classroom? If the answer is no—and the answer is no—then no, you cannot make this 80:20 generalization in any meaningful fashion.

      2. If you have any objections to or questions regarding my tone, I kindly refer you to the entirety of your internet presence, laden as it is with comparably hysterical ravings and unwarranted ad hominems.

      • geoffjordan

        1. In reply to your request for “a meaningful definition of “classroom-based General English” programs”, examples are those offered by the British Council, International House, Bell School, Pearson, and the Global Education & Technology group. Between them, they offer classroom-based General English programmes in more than 1,000 centres in more than 80 countries. All of them offer a range of General English courses at levels at Beginner, Intermediate, and Advanced levels, corresponding to the 6 CEFR levels, and all use grammar-based coursebooks.

        There are important differences in the ways the teaching is carried out, but there are very important similarites too. To see these similarities, all you have to do is read the literature published by the British Council, IH, etc..This literature describes the different General English courses which they offer, giving details of their grammar-based, synthetic syllabuses, and sometimes of the coursebooks they use to implement them. And if you read the CELTA and Trinity College teacher training course syllabuses, you will see how teachers all over the world implement these General English courses.

        Your “central points” notwithstanding, in tens of thousands of ELT centres around the world, there are courses of General English being taught by teachers using a grammar-based syllabus laid out in a coursebook. In these courses, more classroom time is spent talking about the L2 than is spent engaging in relevant communicative activites. And I think it’s at least worth arguing the point that, if their goal is some degree of communicative competence in spoken English, students would learn faster and better if 80% of the time were spent engaging in relevant communicative activites.

        Of course students of different backgrounds, in different learning contexts, don’t have exactly the same needs, and the ratio of student language use to explicit instruction can legitimately vary. But that doesn’t warrant your frenzied reaction to the argument that in coursebook-driven General English courses too much time is spent on explicit instruction, and that it would be better if around 80% of the time were spent engaging students in relevant communicative activites.

        Rather than address this point, you choose to parody it, and that’s your prerogative. But you could at least be consistent. One moment you ridicule the “80-20” suggestion as a mad fantasy comparable to Douglas Adam’s “42” and the next you endorse it as “a useful benchmark for objective classroom observations”. Still, given your attempts to be serious, it’s not surprising that you opt for burlesque. In an attempt to demonstrate that talk of a ratio between explicit instruction and implicit learning is “meaningless”, you say:

        “All other things being equal, a student in an 80:20 class 9 hours per week is still going to progress slower than a student in a 60:40 class 30 hours per week”.

        Even if you can’t appreciaite how ridiculous this argument is, I hope other readers will.

        2. I don’t object to your ridicule, or to your infantile tone, or to your suggestion that, unlike you, I’m fishing for attention and invitations to conferences. But I do object to your suggestion that my “entire internet presence” is , “laden with comparably hysterical ravings and unwarranted ad hominems”. That is simply false.

      • Rob Sheppard (@robshpprd)

        Had you simply forwarded an “argument that in coursebook-driven General English courses too much time is spent on explicit instruction” we would not be here. Scroll to the top of the page and refer to your own words. You can put your finger over the bad words if you don’t like them and find that there is a very cogent argument in my frenzied, ribald, bib-dribbling, hysterics (Speaking of which, what happened with the CricketELT. Axed by the Man? Is there a reboot on the horizon?)

        Reading your post, it sounds like you are under the impression that the for-profit IEP industrial complex is synonymous with ELT. It is not. Not by a long shot. We laugh at the number of acronyms we use in this field, but they exist for a very good reason. There are dozens of contexts and they have serious implications for how we spend our time in the classroom. The definitions of “general English” provided by, say, the British Council, are so broad as to encompass programs that span a variety of learning contexts and learner profiles. My immigrant learners here in Boston are in a “general English program,” and so are a group of Taiwanese businessmen meeting once a week for a class in Taipei. This is exactly my point. You are insisting on language that elides the very differences—differences in learners and context—that I am saying are (a) more important than the ratio, and (b) the conditions on which any ratio depends.

        There is no inconsistency: I don’t ridicule the 80:20 ratio. I ridicule your preposterous elevation of this number as the answer to “the most important question for ELT.” This does not preclude me from maintaining that it’s sometimes a useful benchmark. That’s sort of the point of the joke. 42 is the actual answer to lots of questions. For example, “What is 40+2?” or “What was Jackie Robinson’s number?” But framing it as the answer to the most important question in the universe—that is when it becomes a comedy joke.

        Regarding this point—“All other things being equal, a student in an 80:20 class 9 hours per week is still going to progress slower than a student in a 60:40 class 30 hours per week”—there is nothing ridiculous about this argument at all if you have a waiting list of people who desperately need to learn English right now for their daily lives. If you need to build an English program within real-world pressures, you don’t have the leisure to research what truly is the maximally efficient ratio and the resources to monitor whether that ratio is being applied consistently. If you have new funding and can either spend it on researching and tweaking a ratio or doubling the weekly course hours, you double the weekly course hours. You can maximize efficiency later (whether you realize it or not, your question is about efficiency, not effect).

        I’m interested in building and improving English programs under real-world conditions, not just decontextualized academic speculation. Saying that students need mostly communication and CI to learn English is a reasonable context-spanning generalization in ELT. Saying that this translates to a particular proportion of class time is not.

    • timothyhampson

      Imagine writing a post where you spend more than a paragraph describing how someone (who is much younger than you) is a baby pooping their pants and then in the same post complaining about ad hominem attacks (that aren’t even there as far as I can see). 🤔

  2. Neil McMillan

    So you basically agree, Rob, that “the amount of student talking time should generally far exceed the amount of explicit instruction”. Wasn’t this the point of the 80:20 generalisation in the first place? I’m not sure anyone, except you, took it as a prescription that immediately over-rides any particular local context.

    I’m just struggling to see where the beef really is here.

    • Rob Sheppard (@robshpprd)

      I agree with the general rule of thumb that access to communicative situations and comprehensible should exceed instruction. Yes. As I said.

      But, as I said, I do not think that this is an observation of any great importance, most certainly not the most important question in our field. Any ratio should always be considered with direct reference to teaching context (which translates to access to target language outside the classroom) and learners (which has implications for how much acquisition can actually be extracted from CI alone).

      You imply that I’m here arguing a strawman of my own imagining. I am not. Geoffrey said outright in his tweets that he did not think that learner differences or teaching context had a significant impact on that proportion. They do. That is precisely what prompted me to write this response. That is my point. Therein lies the beef.

  3. Geoffrey Jordan

    You agree with the general rule of thumb that access to communicative situations and comprehensible input should exceed instruction, but you don’t think that this is an observation of any great importance.

    If, in General English courses, the proportion of time spent on communicative activities went up to around 80%, this would amount to a complete revolution in ELT, as teachers like Thornbury & Meddings and academics like Doughty & Long recgnise. The ELT industry today is based on an interlocking teaching, testing and publishing hydra which, along with coursebooks, produces teacher training courses, teacher certification, and English language proficiency exams. By aligning assessment and training with coursebooks, a range of easily-recognised ELT products can be manufactured, packaged and marketed throughout the world.

    The demand that 80% of classroom time be spent on relevant communicative activities challenges the current ELT paradigm to the extent that the the whole edifice would come crashing down. Coursebooks as we know them would be vanquished, teacher training would have to be completely re-designed, and a new student-centred, locally-responsive, communicative-based paradigm could emerge. That’s why, in my opinion, the question I asked is an important one. I think that it speaks to the most important question in instructed SLA – the question of the mix of explicit and implicit learning that results from the syllabus which is implemented.

    I said, in reply to your “Fuck no!” tweets, insisting that learner differences and contexts made the question “meaningless”, that, IMO, they were not of major significance. Of course they are significant, but they don’t make talk of a general global model of coursebook-driven ELT, where de-skilled teachers talk to passive students, meaningless.

    Once again, of course, like any generalisation, the paradigm of coursebook-driven ELT has to be more carefully defined and properly discussed, as do possible alternatives. I see no indications in your post that you’re willing or able to make any real contribution to such a discussion. I quite agree that my tweets didn’t pay much attention to the details of particular learners’ needs, or to contexts. If therein lies the beef, then your tasteless kids’-advert-for-a-Big-Mac.seems an appropriate format.

  4. Neil McMillan

    If that was your point, maybe citing Geoff saying that learner differences/teaching context do not make an impact would have helped? I don’t see that tweet cited. It seems to be all about the 80:20. So it’s hard to accept that it was another tweet that was “precisely what prompted you to …” etc.

  5. Geoffrey Jordan

    In 1 Tweet, I said this in reply to Sheppard: “How much time should teachers spend talking about the language and how much time should learners engage in using the language? My opinion: around 15% & 85% respectively. Context / hrs per week / learners’ educational background are not critical factors IMHO.”. Twitter is probably not the best place to do it, but Sheppard could have taken me up on that, and argued that learner differences/teaching context deserved more serious consideration. Had he done so, I would have agreed. Instead, Sheppard mounts his fucking pantomime attack, complete with insults and ad hominem jibes, based on the “80-20” suggestion.

    In the comments, Sheppard tries to deny the existence of a global ELT industry (worth $194 billion in 2016 according to Pearson’s Global Report) where tens of thousands of teachers give General English courses every day, using coursebooks which ensure that students spend little time engaging in relevant communicative activities, Sheppard says “The definitions of “general English” provided by, say, the British Council, are so broad as to encompass programs that span a variety of learning contexts and learner profiles.” Yes they do, but that does not make it “meaningless” to speak of what the British Council’s courses have in common. Nor does it do anything significant to challenge the view that coursebook-driven ELT dominates global ELT. As Akbari (2008) said, communicative language teaching has been so completely replaced by coursebooks that CLT is now “part of history”. The results are, in my opinion, disastrous. If somehow we were all to agree that most of classroom-time should be devoted to students engaging in real communicative activities,and if, somehow, such classroom practice were widely adopted, we would be on the road to recovery. .

    Akbari, R. (2008) Postmethod Discourse and Practice. TESOL Quarterly, 42, 4, p 641-652.

    • mikecorea

      Hello Geoff,

      I am (mostly) enjoying this exchange.

      I wondered if you could give me an example of the “ad hominem jibes” you referred to. I tried to make sure the original post didn’t have any. I suspect you might have objected at times to the tone or style or something but from my view there were no insults or ad hominem attacks in the original post.

      When I read the “I’m not fishing for attention or keynote slots” I didn’t think it was directed at you at all.

      I guess I am sort of off topic here but my questions are sincere.

    • Rob Sheppard (@robshpprd)

      I would love for you to show me a quote where I deny the existence or scale of the ELT industry. Please point me to that.

      The argument that if everyone followed the 80:20 rule, it would revolutionize the industry, well, that’s a far more interesting argument than you’ve made so far. I agree. Give me 5 years, and I hope to have that solution.

      But that’s not an argument that it’s the most important question in the field, not by a long shot. There are dozens of ideas that, if we could snap our fingers and apply them across the industry, would amount to a complete revolution in ELT. In fact, that’s tautological. That’s just what “revolutionize” means in that sentence.

      Would that be a change for the better than the 30:70 you see in lots of programs? Of course. As I’ve said, une-motherfucking-quivocally from the beginning, that is not, and never has been my issue. A much more effective finger-snap industry-wide revolution would be to connect learners with the CI and interaction that they need in light of their learning situation.

  6. Geoffrey Jordan

    “I’m not interested in positing my own Biggest Importantest Question; I’m not fishing for attention or keynote slots” This surely insinuates that I’m fishing….

  7. paulw (@josipa74)

    Rob I suggest that starting a critique of someone’s views from what they say on Twitter is like mending a wristwatch with a hammer; especially seeing that after all this, you’re basically in agreement with what Geoff says.

    And your position, at root, seems to be saying that CONTEXT beats STRUCTURE. That is, the fact that contexts are different ie that we all have different teaching situations means that the structures are also different in some major way, or less meaningful, or less powerful than Geoff alleges. (Or even that they don’t matter.)

    But context doesn’t beat structure in this case. If it did, no one would be able to make any meaningful, or critical generalisations – which I suspect is the real intellectual thrust of your post: to strangle such critical generalisations at birth.

    The result of this structure-denialism, which functions much like climate change denial, is to diminish the power of any critical generalisations of Global ELT or to divert these critiques down intellectual blind alleys. Such denialism is also often accompanied by accusations that people are ‘weaponising’ ELT and its objects (coursebooks) and pseudo-methodologies, or that people are ‘just playing politics’ (as if ELT was apolitical). Of course, it’s far simpler to just plug your ears with CONTEXT cotton wool and refuse to listen to those who demand change.

    The coursebook ‘debate’ is another good example of this tendency ie ‘we all use coursebooks differently, we all have different learners, you can’t generalize…blah-blah-black-sheep-context-cotton-wool’. See also learner styles, technology in classroom, and so on.

    • Rob Sheppard (@robshpprd)

      Hey Paul,

      Your point about critiquing someone’s views based on their tweets is a fair one. But I’ve witnessed enough of Geoff’s tweeting and blogging to know that I’d rather just write my own account than sustain an engagement.

      I know that you think that I am in some kind of denial about neoliberalism and structural problems that need to be addressed. I am not. I believe completely in dramatically restructuring our industry (indeed, I’m in the early stages of a massive project that I ambitiously hope can decentralize the industry, circumvent publishers, and create a truly student-centered/CI-based curriculum). But I have also had lots of jobs that require me to work within real-world constraints, and I get frustrated when discussions about teaching tend toward the purely academic. Yes, we need to work toward ideals and make radical changes. We also need to wake up tomorrow and do our jobs effectively until then.

      Back to the question at hand, I think I’ve already addressed your points. I have no idea why I would want to “strangle critical generalizations.” That’s a fun phrase, but it’s way off the mark. I don’t think context trumps structure. I think that Geoff’s statement was far too specific to serve as a generalization across the field. As I said, “interaction that far exceeds instruction” is a perfectly acceptable (and meaningful, and critical) generalization. 80:20 is not. It’s like saying “a $15 minimum wage should be mandatory in every country in the world.” No. A minimum wage that affords a certain standard of living is an idea that can be legitimately framed as a universal. But you put a dollar amount on it and you tie it to a context.

  8. paulw (@josipa74)

    I didn’t even mention neoliberalism in my comment.

    My point is that if you accept the existence of structures and therefore power, then how that power is exercised surely becomes a question. It follows that how TESOL (who you represent), IATEFL, and other institutions exercise their power is both important and affects teachers’ lives. It even affects how we attempt to ‘do our jobs effectively’. How can it not?

    It’s also far from being ‘purely academic’; structures are meaningful both at an epistemological level (who gets to produce knowledge and distribute it) and how that ‘knowledge’ is operationalised in the classroom.

    “interaction that far exceeds instruction” is a generalization, but not a critical one. It says nothing about the problem: the nature of instruction itself.

    • Rob Sheppard (@robshpprd)

      I did not say or imply that discussions of power are academic or unimportant. I have no clue where you’re getting this from. Obviously institutional power affects teachers’ lives and our abilities to teach effectively. Nothing I have ever said or will ever say will contradict that. At TESOL I’m organizing a panel on advocacy for next year’s conference. So, yeah, I agree with everything you say here, and I don’t really have a clue how it relates to the discussion at hand.

      • paulw (@josipa74)

        That’s the whole problem. You say: ‘most of the big questions will be qualitative and situated’ – BUT you omit to mention that power is also situated, and mediated through pedagogy – or a lack of pedagogy. And this happens everyday, in every classroom – not at some grand general level. You don’t mention power at all. I’m saying that the fact that you omitted this relates to the discussion at hand.

  9. paulw (@josipa74)

    Susan Leigh Star: ‘it is both more analytically interesting and more politically just to begin with the question, cui bono? than to begin with a celebration of the fact of human/non-human mingling’ (1991:43)

  10. Geoffrey Jordan

    It looks as if Sheppard’s argument is running out of steam. He begins by reacting to my question “In ELT, how much time should teachers spend talking about the language and how much time should learners engage in using the language? Is this not the most important question for ELT?” by saying “No fuck no!”; “The question is meaningless!”; etc. Now he says 80-20 is “far too specific”, but doesn’t mind agreeing that interaction should “far exceed” instruction. I don’t see much wrong with the suggestion of 80-20, but I certainly didn’t mean it to be taken as a strict mathematical formula, and I’m quite happy to take the statement “interaction should “far exceed” instruction” as a good starting point.

    The gist of my argument is that despite the differences that General English Courses have, they share common features which makes it possible to talk meaningfully about them as part of a coursebook-driven ELT paradigm, where too much classroom time is devoted to teachers talking about the language.

    As I’ve tried to show, the reason the question about what proportion of classroom time should be spent on instruction, and what on relevant communicative activities is so important is that it addresses the crucial issue of the relative importance of explicit and implicit learning. That’s what underlies the question, and that’s why the suggested 20-80 ratio is made. I might be wrong about my answer to the question, but I don’t think there’s much merit in responding to it in the way Sheppard does.

    Sheppard says “there are dozens of ideas that, if we could snap our fingers and apply them across the industry, would amount to a complete revolution in ELT”. I wonder what ideas he has in mind. I think the idea of devoting 80% of classroom time in General English courses to relevant communicative activities is a good one because its consistent with research findings in instructed SLA research, and because it allows a political critique of current ELT practice. I’ve explained elsewhere how analytical syllabuses (egs: those that are implemented in Dogme, CIT, TBLT, and Breen’s 2001 proposal) would use classroom time and why I think they would produce better results. All of them have in common that they devote very little classroom time to explicit (grammar) instruction, and all of them have very little chance of being put into practice while coursebook-driven ELT retains its hold.

    Finally, Sheppard makes the usual appeal to “real world” considerations, and to the frustration all “real teachers” (i.e., you and him but not me) feel “when discussions about teaching tend toward the purely academic”. My argument about how classroom time should be spent is practical, although supported by evidence from research. I’ve got more than 40 years ELT experience and I know all about working within real-world constraints. The “we need to wake up tomorrow and do our jobs effectively” argument doesn’t mean that shouldn’t fight for change. “Let’s be practical” is too often a lame excuse for doing nothing. I think change begins with a critical understanding of our situation. By discussing our work and by confronting the limitations that coursebook-driven teaching places on us, we can appreciate how we’re being de-skilled and exploited, and how our students are being cheated by the increasing commodification of education. Then we can organise and fight. .

    • Rob Sheppard (@robshpprd)

      My argument has neither changed nor run out of steam. The answer to whether or not this is the most important question in ELT remains a firm fuck no. The answer to whether in certain contexts 80:20 is useful remains fucking obviously. This is exactly what I said in my original post. This is becoming tiresome, so forgive me if I’m cursing at you with less vigor than I began, but I assure you, the animus endures.

      You “don’t think there’s much merit in responding to it in the way” that I do. That’s nice. You can read the scores of other blog posts I’ve written, and you’ll find that I pretty much never employ this tone. You do the math.

      I absolutely did not use the phrase “real teachers” so you can go back and delete those quotation marks. That populist nonsense is absolutely not what is implied by my words. You’d be far more persuasive if you didn’t misquote or misrepresent my words at every turn. You say, “The ‘we need to wake up tomorrow and do our jobs effectively” argument doesn’t mean that shouldn’t fight for change.'” No, it doesn’t. And it is entirely clear in the context of my original paragraph that I am not arguing for anything like complacency.

  11. ddeubel

    Yes, it is the most important question – the over focus and overkill of “form” and direct instruction. Teacher control and pomposity to boot. Explicit instruction is what has led to such poor results by school instruction. If I had a business and it got such poor results as classroom instructed language learning – I’d be the first to fire any and all. And we do know the cause. Too much time spent on instruction and too little on purposeful exposure to the language by students. We in ELT live in a fish bowl. We need to grow some legs and get to land … I’m perplexed that we haven’t moved an inch further to dry land since the days of Jacotot and Ranciere’s Ignorant Schoolmaster centuries ago.

  12. Geoffrey Jordan

    Sheppard’s few moments of rational argument were too good to last. Having made a few attempts to engage in real debate about the issues, he reverts to type: the answer is fuck no, and that’s that. He sounds truculent now; things have become “tiresome”; as if he’s lost some of the baby joi de vivre that made his first remarks so enjoyable to write, if not to read. Perhaps Sheppard’s delight in taking the piss, in swaggering and swearing and generally acting the clown has been just slightly dampened by the dim realisation that indulging in absurd caricatures and screaming profanities is a lot easier than taking part in an adult discussion of a serious issue.

    Having set the tasteless tone all by himself, Sheppard now whines that in the scores of other blog posts he’s written, he “pretty much never” stoops so low, as if I should take the blame for this spectacular lapse. He goes on to complain that I have misquoted and misrepresented his words at every turn, as if he, the honest Joe, has scrupulously reported mine. Right at the start Sheppard says “If the answer to the most important question in the field of English language teaching were a number, then Christ Almighty have we been doing it wrong”. In typically elegant prose, here, as elsewhere, Sheppard shows little concern for fairly representing what I actually said. .

    I’m out of here. I haven’t enjoyed this encounter, but I hope I’ve managed to wipe the smirk off Sheppard’s face for a few seconds, and to persuade one or two people that any close examination of this self-indulgent post reveals little in the way of interesting content.

  13. Geoffrey Jordan

    Why do you ask, Matthew?

    You “Love it” when Sheppard writes all his stuff about my tweets and when he implies that I’m motivated by attention-seeking and appearing at conferences. You don’t ask Sheppard what the hell is going on with him when he says that the entirety of my internet presence is laden with comparably hysterical ravings and unwarranted ad hominems, and you don’t feel moved to make any comment about any of the attacks Sheppard makes on me, or point out any of non-sequiturs in his arguments, or the irony involved in his accusing me of misrepresentation .

    But when I borrow a bit of Sheppard’s enduring animus and do a bit of vigorous cursing at him, you react with shocked faux concern for my sanity. What’s sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander, as they say.

  14. timothyhampson

    Thanks for this post, Rob; thanks for making it available, Mike. It’s a shame so many people have decided to make this a conversation about coursebooks and ‘Neoliberalism’ when what you wrote has nothing to with that stuff. I think it can be very easy for teachers to not realise just how diverse contexts are. I get increasingly frustrated with teachers in the West telling me what my teaching context is like. I’ve taught groups of 4 two-year-olds, I’ve taught groups of 60 unmotivated college students and I’ve taught groups of 20 students at an immersive English medium instruction university. The idea that an someone can sit at their laptop in Europe and dictate an 80-20 ratio to me deserves ridicule.

  15. Matthew

    Ah, you’re still here Geoff! Ok, ok…we all get to do that thing every once in a while 😀

    “You “Love it” when Sheppard writes all his stuff about my tweets and when he implies that I’m motivated by attention-seeking and appearing at conferences”

    Please lose the quotes above: my love for Rob is pure. 🙂

    I heartily disagree with you (whom I also love, but have never met in person so it’s a little different) that Rob intended that line to function as an accusation; you protest much too much while extending zero benefit of the doubt to most others. Rob’s post overall, unlike so many in your now-deleted blog, will certainly not read as attack-laden by its readership (you’ll note no reaction to Rob’s writing similar to yours online – get back to me if you find any).

    No, this post is much, much less about you personally than you are taking it as, and this comment thread was humming along nicely when you persisted in reframing everything (including my tossed off comment above, for fuck’s sake!) to be all about you (that is, mostly your opinions of others).

    Please, please try to step back and get some perspective. Perspective: the kind you seem to have come to after your entirely inappropriate response to the previous guest blogger here. The kind you displayed when you acquiesced to my request that you delete content in which you savaged an ELT person based on a classroom teaching video they shared online. The kind you’ve demonstrated at other times after well-meaning, common-sense ELT allies who do not tweet from work in the ELT Deathstar but are out here all over the planet doing our best to affect change put energy into helping some perspective descend and sink in.

    Doing our best to affect change while agreeing with your overall critique of the industry.

    Doing our best to affect change while very occasionally distracted by normally productive online debates that get…a little weird.

    Geoff, there’s a *verb of your name* in ELT circles online.

    At the very least you, of all people, should be capable of reading past a *hint* of flavourful combativeness in an online debate, and yet it seems you are the hysterical one.

    “You don’t ask Sheppard what the hell is going on with him when he says that the entirety of my internet presence is laden with comparably hysterical ravings and unwarranted ad hominems”

    That’s right, I don’t. That’s wrong, it is (let’s not get hysterical over the word ‘entire’). Or rather was before you deleted your blog.

    I asked what the hell is wrong with you not as an attack but a sincere gesture of concerned interest – and not for the first time. YOU are the ELT blogger who has, over years, consistently trudged along and very often hopped right over lines representing each aspect of Rob’s post you seem to be taking issue with here and more. One cannot help but be reminded of American right-wing culture warrior trolls who denounce SJW “snowflakes” and then freak the fuck out once even the lightest blowback comes their way. Rob’s post is incredibly rich for those with an open mind. You seem like a dude listening to a erudite, witty, and eloquent Obama speech and screaming “Kenya! Michelle’s a MAN! Muslim!”. One can only really sigh and try to move on, hoping you can find your safe space.

    I’m sure that’s not you. I’m sure you don’t really see this in such black and white, obtuse terms. But you sure have been reading that way.

    So yeah, I asked if you are okay because I’m so confused and concerned about a comrade right now…here you are, after typing “I’m outta here!” and summarizing your response in 8th grade bully terms, aggressively proclaiming and policing the “politics” of this discussion itself – how others should respond, who others should ask what to, etc. on Michael Griffin’s blog, a wonderfully real, non-profit, organically grown space for discussion amongst intelligent and committed teacher-allies who ALL agree that ELT must change (and have proven their commitment to this beyond the keyboard in numerous ways as you have, I must add) instead of offering the slightest benefit of the doubt and engaging in debate. Instead, from the start, you’ve made it clear that you believe Rob and others are sitting at the children’s table and couldn’t possibly engage in adult conversation with you.

    You want I should ask Rob what the hell’s up with him, right? Well..I do talk to Rob often elsewhere and don’t you worry Geoff – I’ll give him a piece of my mind in private when he deserves it. If you really want I can report back.

    “You don’t feel moved to make any comment about any of the attacks Sheppard makes on me, or point out any of non-sequiturs in his arguments, or the irony involved in his accusing me of misrepresentation”.

    Geez, I’ll be writing reports all day. As for Rob…Rob’s check really ought to be in the mail by now for his first semester of Geoff Jordan School of Blogpost Writing. I’m sure by the time he graduates he’ll have such a potently revolutionary and deletable blog.

    I am now the one who is out of here, and you can be ABSOLUTELY SURE I won’t on this thread post again. I hope you do find perspective. I assure you, it will do no harm to the greater cause. Even the most hardened front line soldiers need the mental balm of a comedy joke every now and again. I hope my “attacks” above are taken in the spirit in which they are intended by the very one who taught us all just how flavourfully combative the ELT blogosphere can be.

  16. paulw (@josipa74)

    ‘Rob’s post is incredibly rich for those with an open mind.’ Come on Matthew – Rob’s original post is full of swear words and slags off Geoff’s 80/20 comment – which was ITSELF shorthand for saying that we should focus on implicit instruction; something which Rob subsequently agrees with. Rob’s post is a polemic designed to get people talking – nothing more. (And I suppose it succeeded in its aims…) And to imply that anyone who disagrees with Rob’s post has a ‘closed mind’ is daft.

    So I don’t see any richness there. And like many of these online tussles – it’s degenerated. Let’s go back to the original post and what it actually SAID:

    ‘“Is this not the most important question in ELT?” asks Geoffrey Jordan.
    Y’all don’t worry: I can field this one: No. Fuck no.
    No, this is most the fuck certainly not the most important question in the field of English language teaching.’

    Notwithstanding your comments on Geoff’s past blog posts Matthew (which you might have a point granted, but they aren’t the topic here), I would argue that it isn’t the best tactic for Rob to start a blog post with a tweet from a teaching peer which he then rips apart with swear words.

    His post basically made a cartoon out of Geoff’s tweet. We all love a good cartoon. It makes us feel virtuous. It stops us from answering some pretty basic questions about ourselves. But is it fair?

    • mikecorea

      I really thought I didn’t have much to say here but I guess I will jump in with a thought (which is actually not my own).
      Someone mentioned to me that perhaps it was all the F-bombs that caught Geoff’s attention and that perhaps there were cultural differences there. I (as the host of this guest post) honestly had no idea that the word fuck repeated a few times would gather such attention.

      So if Rob had written, “Geoffrey Jordan asks, ‘Is this not the most important question in ELT?’
      Don’t worry everyone, I have an answer to offer. From my view it’s certainly not the most important question in the field of English language teaching” then we wouldn’t be here? I guess I could have had a stronger editorial hand but I am honestly surprised about the response.

      If we take a look at the use swear words (which apparently is the cause of much pearl clutching) they seem to be mostly just for emphasis. If “fuck no” turns into “heck no” do your points still stand?

      Geoff and I had a different interpretation on Rob’s line stating, “I’m not interested in positing my own Biggest Importantest Question; I’m not fishing for attention or keynote slots” and it seems to me that the name calling (and degeneration?) started in the comments.

  17. paulw (@josipa74)

    It may have been all the ‘F-bombs’ yes Mike. When have you every said ‘Fuck. No.’ against someone’s opinion or argument, in a public forum, and something good has happened? But it’s also the cartooning or mischaracterisation of Geoff’s position.

    • mikecorea

      Thank you for the response, Paul (and the chuckle). I suppose I have never said (or heard) “fuck no” in a public setting with positive results.

  18. Geoffrey Jordan

    Hi Matthew,

    Thanks for this. I’ll try to explain.

    I take Sheppard’s post to be a personal attack, since he makes no attempt to fairly represent my tweets or my long-standing argument that teachers of General English courses spend far too much time talking about the L2. My suggestion that 80% of classroom time should be spent on relevant communicative activities is not fairly summarised as “the answer to the most important question in the field of English language teaching is a number”.

    But that’s the point, isn’t it. Sheppard isn’t trying to fairly summarise anything: he’s using what might pass for scatological burlesque to deliver the message “I protest in the strongest possible terms against the nonsense spouted by Geoff Jordan. He makes meaningless generalisations, and wildly exaggerates the importance of a relatively unimportant question”. The final jibe “I’m not interested in positing my own Biggest Importantest Question; I’m not fishing for attention or keynote slots” can, I think, reasonably be interpreted as an ad hominem slur.

    I responded to Sheppard’s post by first taking the mickey – him down in the play pen screaming and cursing – and then in a series of follow-ups by trying to explain what lay behind the tweets he had chosen to misrepresent.

    Now let me reply to a few of your comments. I use the word “fair” in the sense of “marked by impartiality and honesty” and “unfair” as the opposite. My replies come after the ***s

    1 You protest too much while extending zero benefit of the doubt to most others.
    *** How do you know this? Seriously, how can you make such an accusation? I hope to put a copy of my CriticElt blog back up so that those who have asked can refer to it. When it’s available, I challenge you to find evidence that supports this unfair accusation.

    2. Sheppard’s right to say that your entire internet presence is laden with hysterical ravings and unwarranted ad hominems.
    *** My tweets are there for examination, and there isn’t one example of hysterical ravings or unwarranted ad hominems. Once the blog is up again, you’ll see over 100 posts with more than 1,000 comments which are not fairly described in this way either. There are lots of posts which offer plainspoken criticism of the public work of leading people in ELT; those who publish badly-written, unscholarly baloney, and it’s these posts that have led to my being accused of personal attacks. (Just by the way, my attacks on these people’s published work has often led to very personal attacks on me.) On precisely 4 occasions, I’ve made personal remarks about people that were hurtful and unfair. That’s 4 times too many; I removed the posts and apologised at the time, and I apologise again here. But it’s wrong and unfair to characterise what I’ve written in tweets and blogs like this.

    3. Try to get some perspective. The kind you displayed when you acquiesced to my request that you delete content in which you savaged an ELT person based on a classroom teaching video they shared online
    *** I didn’t “savage” Dellar based on his classroom teaching video. I pointed out that he spoke most of the time; that’s all. I made an effort to make sure that absolutely no offensive remarks or any harsh criticisms whatsoever appeared in the text before I published it. I posed the question “Should teachers spend this much time talking about the language?” I believe there are still copies of the post I deleted out there, so go and look for yourself. I made it clear at the time that I’d deleted the post out of respect for you, not because, as in 4 other cases, I thought the post was unfair.

    4. YOU are the ELT blogger who has, over years, consistently trudged along and very often hopped right over lines representing each aspect of Rob’s post you seem to be taking issue with here and more.
    *** That’s not true either. I haven’t “very often” hopped over those lines, and, once again, I challenge you to give evidence that supports this false, unfair accusation. And, again, just by the way, to respond to my criticisms of Sheppard’s post by saying it’s a case of the pot calling the kettle black does nothing to challenge the criticisms themselves.

    5. One cannot help but be reminded of American right-wing culture warrior trolls who denounce SJW “snowflakes” and then freak the fuck out once even the lightest blowback comes their way. Rob’s post is incredibly rich for those with an open mind. You seem like a dude listening to a erudite, witty, and eloquent Obama speech and screaming “Kenya! Michelle’s a MAN! Muslim!”. I’m sure that’s not you. I’m sure you don’t really see this in such black and white, obtuse terms. But you sure have been reading that way.
    *** There’s a good deal of craftsmanship on display in this defamation, adroitly followed up as it is by the disclaimer. You compare Sheppard’s incredibly rich post to an erudite, witty, and eloquent Obama speech, and compare me to a racist, American right-wing culture warrior troll. Nice going.

    6. this comment thread was humming along nicely when you persisted in reframing everything (including my tossed off comment above, for fuck’s sake!) to be all about you (that is, mostly your opinions of others).
    *** Again, that’s not true. I think any impartial review would acknowledge that the several long comments I made, trying to explain what I was getting at in my tweets (implicit learning is the default driver of instruction-based SLA; and it is choked by the explicit instruction required by coursebook-driven ELT) can’t be fairly described as “persistent attempts to reframe everything to be all about you”.

    7. here you are, after typing “I’m outta here!” and summarizing your response in 8th grade bully terms, aggressively proclaiming and policing the “politics” of this discussion itself – how others should respond, who others should ask what to, etc. on Michael Griffin’s blog,.. instead of offering the slightest benefit of the doubt and engaging in debate. Instead, from the start, you’ve made it clear that you believe Rob and others are sitting at the children’s table and couldn’t possibly engage in adult conversation with you.
    *** There you go again. What does it mean to say that I refused to offer anybody the slightest benefit of the doubt? I most definitely did not refuse to engage in debate. Nor, when, in response to your question, I said that a rule that applies to one person should apply to others is this fairly described as aggressively proclaiming and policing the politics of the discussion.

    So, Matthew, I’m afraid that your comments, genuinely well-intentioned as they may be, strike me as generally unfair. In stark contrast, I expect they strike most readers as generously understated. When I try to deconstruct the things people say in the blogosphere,those concerned prefer to call me names rather than deal with the criticisms rationally. I understand that people don’t like having their bad writing, poor scholarship and bullshit pointed out to them in public, but what I don’t understand is that so many people rush to their defence and want to shoot the messenger.

    Despite all that you and others say, it’s not primarily HOW I say things, it’s WHAT I say that gives such offence. I say that the work of many top-selling influential ELT authors is a disgrace to good writing, to good scholarship, and to high standards of education; and I say that those in charge of ELT publishing, training, accreditation and testing are exploiting their workers and cheating students. Few intellectual workers get as badly treated as English language teachers, and no other subject in the curriculum at secondary or tertiary education gets such dismal results as those recorded in ELT. What explains this situation? And, more importantly, as Paul Walsh asks, Who benefits from it?

    You say that here in the ELT blogoshere we’re all trying to make things better in our own ways, but I’m afraid that’s not my opinion. In my experience, there’s a dominant culture of acquiescence where teachers are encouraged to demand higher (i.e. use coursebooks with more energy), where members of IATEFL and TESOL defend the status quo, and where a few radical views are tolerated, but nothing much changes. There are too many charlatans pulling the wool over too many uncritical eyes for me to fit in well to this community, so I’m going to make a real effort to butt out. I’ll pay more attention to my academic work, and work with local teachers in the SLB cooperative to change things here in Catalonia.

    I wish you well, Matthew, and I thank Mike for publishing all this. When, in the not so distant future, everybody communicates in their own language and a microchip translates it, when just about all ELT bloggers find themselves jobless and living off the Worlwide Minimum Wage, Mike Griffin’s ELT Rants Reviews and Reflections will be there for them, generously refraining from even the slightest suggestion that it serves them right.

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