Dear members, colleagues, and friends,

I frequently deliver workshops to teachers around the world. More often than not, the organisers will tell me that teachers are not interested in theory, they want new ideas; they want ‘how to’ examples, not ‘why to’ information.

And yet: knowing something about why we are doing something can often be so useful, don’t you think? I spent my teaching career avoiding course books, creating my own tasks and activities and using my intuition to deliver the best lessons I could but without a kind of skeleton of theory, who knows where I would have gone and what a mess I might have made. Later, as a trainer of new teachers, I introduced some basic Second Language Acquisition (SLA) notions and concepts when other courses mostly didn’t do that. As a matter of interest, I also trained new teachers to create their own lessons rather than relying on course books, something which was quite controversial in those days – maybe it still is.

Having a basic understanding of some of the most seminal research can help us to create our own approach (see January’s Letter) based on experience in combination with training, CPD and of course, intuition. This combination reflects the nature of teaching in my view, since teaching is a mix of science, art and sensitive insight. It’s difficult, therefore, to eliminate one aspect of that amalgamation while maintaining the balance which makes a good teacher into a brilliant one.

I wonder if SLA is often delivered in such a boring and dislocated way that teachers have had enough by the time they are able to choose. And yet, it can be fun, insightful, swiftly presented and most importantly very useful indeed.

Let me give you a quick example: students rarely learn (in the true sense of the word) what we teach them immediately and one explanation for that phenomenon can be found in what is known as ‘U-shaped learning’. U-shaped learning suggests that it takes time for learners to assimilate a new language feature into their interlanguage (another SLA reference); for a while it may even disappear from view to later reappear. This little insight could be so useful to teachers who justifiably get frustrated when their learners don’t seem to be able to produce whatever has recently been taught.

So I advocate combining useful and interesting SLA research into each and every CPD session along with practical information which aligns with that research. In this way we can work to maintain that crucial balance between art and science.

This is not to say that research has all the answers for practitioners, it certainly doesn’t. In fact some of the most experienced researchers I have met wouldn’t make good teachers at all, they can be far too remote. And some research is so esoteric as to be best ignored by practitioners but there is plenty of applicable (applied linguistics, right?!) research which can feed directly into the classroom, not to be followed slavishly but to act as a pointer in our quite isolated professional world. Isolated because unless we are lucky enough to have a great staff room where teachers share ideas, a good quality CPD programme and the possibility to do peer observation, we are working in a bubble.

Happy teaching and learning.

May 2018
Steve Hirschhorn
Chair of Gallery Teachers Membership Committee