Reflections on “Authority” in PALT


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First, a few words of grand historical perspective. Notwithstanding my disastrous experience with the head of the History Department at Hampton Grammar School (this for a later post), let me make — and with no supporting empirical data whatsoever — the following historical assertion.

The demystification and weakening of authority from above in all spheres of life, and the corresponding empowerment of individuals — the strengthening  of individual and personal authority — is  an important element in the long-term overall process of “globalization” (defined here as humanity’s realization of its unity).

I am of course speaking here in a much much broader timespan than that, say, of global trade treaties or the internationalization of universities through student and faculty exchange programs.


And now some words on how this grand brush-stroke of history is reflected in my own modest career.

I am today, at the age of  65 — but not because I am this age — more mature, self-aware and honest.  But greater wisdom has not removed  my discomfort with or my inclination to question the authority of mainstream thinking in the field of applied linguistics.  For simplicity, and in the hope of avoiding as much as possible  the distraction of quibbles over definitions,  I’m going to replace this term  with one of my own invention: Professional and Academic Language Teaching.  PALT.

My own self-indulgent discouragement and frustration with PALT’s misplaced emphasis on specialisation and expert authority, and the concomitant  befuddlement of practitioners, has prevented me from articulating clearly the understanding that I have been wanting to share.  Without the illusory need to express frustration, it is surprisingly easy to begn to see — not merely predict — the emergence of a new paradigm.

As the first strikes of the chisel onto the academic rock before me — inevitably clumsy ones — I’d like to explore in this post some reflections on my relation with authority within the context of my career.  The issues touched on will be elaborated on in subsequent posts, but for now I will just throw out some anecdotes and reflections, without requiring myself to be rigorous in making explicit the connections between them.

I remember an encounter at a conference in Japan with the distinguished and widely respected Peter Strevens, shortly before his untimely death at another language teaching conference in this country in 1989.   Despite the story that I  am about to tell, I have no reason to doubt that these words from the end of his obituary in Applied Linguistics (Volume 11, Issue 2 Pp. 113-s-11) were deserved:

But Peter Strevens’ special qualities were his courtesy and unashamed empathy, which gave confidence to all who knew him. He made no distinction between scholar and teacher, statesman and student, businessman and researcher. 

This description, especially coming as it does after a list of his considerable achievements in the field of applied linguistics, is very consonant with what I mean when I say (as I frequently do) to colleagues and students: “We are human beings first, teachers and students second.”

Strevens had been speaking about four general ways in which language programs could be strengthened.  His talk made sense and was interesting, but I only remember one of the four recommendations. Based on his experience as the Director of the Bell Educational Trust,  he wanted to promote project work as a very useful way of providing authentic communicative language experience.  He cited in particular the case of a group of language students at the Bell Educational Trust’s school, in Bath (if I remember correctly).  They had produced a guidebook in English to help wheelchair users get around comfortably in Bath.  As an educator this sounded to me like a wonderful project, and one that I could have enthusiastically thrown myself into if I had been teaching in the UK.

This  “state-of-the-art” professional recommendation was being made at a time when the communicative movement was establishing itself, a time when many today would consider there was a dogmatic insistence on narrowly-defined “authentic” communication and materials.  I had a vague sense that there was a need to separate what was helpful in the communicative movement from what was dogmatic, and I had already experienced, in Japan, that project work in this country brought with it particular limitations and problems (which I will explore in other posts).  I raised my hand and asked Strevens if he had had any experience of doing project work in Japan.  I can’t remember if I added anything else to the question, but I do remember being startled by his reply and by the ferocity with which it was delivered.  “You’ve got to be able to use your imagination.”   This angry putting me in my place was reinforced when members of the audience, feeling safe in expressing themselves thus (now that the assumption that I lack imagination had been given the stamp of authority)  somewhat condescendingly turned to me to reassure me that project work is very doable in Japan.

Relatively trivial though it was, this experience was extraordinary to me for the fact that  it was led  by someone whose basic kindness and decency I don’t doubt.  I can only speculate on what was going on with Strevens at that moment. My guess is that he must have encountered in his career academics, teachers, administrators or even students who frustrated him with their close-minded resistance to  worthy innovations that he was backing.  Without wishing to be personally critical, I cite this experience because it gave me a whiff of academic group think: it is a very minor example of unconscious mainstream or “orthodox” intimidation: unintended but nevertheless a bullying form of political correctness in the context applied linguistics.  Ordinary people feel safe following the leader.

Other than an opportunity to reflect on authority, Strevens also unintentionally gave me a lesson that has served me well whenever I have been speaking to a group of people: when someone asks a question, try to answer it simply, honestly and respectfully without making assumptions.  He could have simply said, “No, I don’t have any such experience,” perhaps with a smile and then following through with a question of his own.   To be fair,  it is possible that something in my voice revealed an attitude that was questioning of his authority.  I was already, at this early stage in my career, a little skeptical of the attention and weight being given to the ideas of members of the profession who were regular invited speakers on the international conference circuit, but who had little or no experience of working in a teaching environment similar to that of their audiences. If there had been a hint of this skepticism in my voice, it may have struck him as impertinent.  But the ego-chiselling standard that I set for myself, perhaps partially owing to this experience with Strevens, is not to see impertinence as an excuse for such an angry response.  I have learned, sometimes painfully, that when a student or colleague occasionally causes me to be angry, it is almost always a sign for me that I have something to learn. However much at fault the person may in some respects be, and however much I may have been making effort on behalf of that person, I have to take responsibility for rising above my own anger. As Prem Rawat once said, “Anger is when you let someone else’s stupidity get inside you.”

This was one of many occasions when I have clumsily and unintentionally offended authority and I have found myself reflecting on the subsequent “punishment,”  Perhaps, when one gains a reputation as a so-called authority in a field, or simply stands in front of a group of people as a teacher, it is easy to unconsciously become defensive of this status and of one’s professional knowledge and thinking.  Perhaps, too, the mantle of authority is a temptation to take oneself too seriously or to put too much pressure on oneself.  I myself feel “comfortable” — I am using this word here and at the end of this post with a very special meaning — and confident that I am not abusing my own “authority” as my students and colleagues may see it — if I use this authority to encourage them to question — but not disrespect — authority in general, and in so doing to look for their own authentic voice.

Authority does not of course have to be given a face as I gave it in the Strevens example above.   It can also be implicit in the ways in which the  paradigm of the day regulates and attempts to ensure its survival, which my comment about “group think” hints at.

In my first university job — I have only taught at universities in Japan — I became acutely aware that the one-year combined Diploma in Teaching English Overseas and PGCE course that I had taken at Manchester two years earlier had provided me with little that was of direct use to me in approaching the professional problems I was facing.   This was not simply a matter of the absence of certain courses that would have been helpful.  Rather, it seems to me that it was a paradigmatic emphasis on analytic or additive — as opposed to holistic — thinking.   It is the kind of thinking that primarily looks at learning in terms of the content of the different subjects of a curriculum,   pays relatively little or no attention to the learning engendered through the processes of study,  and does not conceive of the different subjects as creating, in their synergistic relationship with each other, something greater than the sum of their parts.  In analytic thinking 1 + 1 = 2.  In holistic thinking  1 + 1 = 11 and you can choose to see it simultaneously as  1 + 1 = 2.

Outside the classroom there were problems communicating with colleagues in a very hierarchical and group-oriented professional environment, and knowing how to read the meanings behind words (especially those of colleague much older than me). I was becoming aware that there was often a huge gap between what was said by older colleagues and what I was expected to understand from their words and actions.

Inside the classroom, the famous shyness of Japanese students — and their much bemoaned reticence to speak in English or engage in discussion — appeared to be the most immediate problem I faced.  I was able to respond to this by drawing on my own creative abilities, often creating entertaining impromptu situations to illustrate language points, and having considerable success at making students laugh.  Always  predisposed to trying new things, and with an excess of imagination (not obvious at first sight, it seems, to professional authority), I spent considerable energy devising new activities in order to avert or at least counterbalance the onset of passivity and boredom that conventional materials and activities tended to invite.

I knew, however, that my teaching style  was a major departure from what students were used to, and that it was hard for them to regard it as real study, even if they loved it.  This had been  brought home to me most clearly when one girl wrote in her English diary about a certain professor, in a way that has had a lasting impact on the way I think about teaching.   The professor in question had a reputation for pushing students too hard, for scolding them when they made mistakes or did not exert enough effort, and for generally creating a stressful learning environment.  It seemed that he was universally unpopular, as I had never come across a student who spoke warmly about him.  But this one girl wanted to correct my impression of him.  She wrote, in a diary, that this professor “is the only professor who makes us feel that we are really university students.”

Important lessons that I took from this include an increased awareness of the need to look at students “multi-dimensionally.”  There are often contradictions and inconsistencies (actual or perceived) in the behavior and psychology of learners, as of course is the case with people in general. Exploring and reflecting on these, and being open to seeing new connections between them, is a characteristic of holistic or multi-dimensional educational thinking.  The experience also contributed to my sense that it is important to look beyond and not take at face value that which stands out most obviously, as the students’ widespread complaints did about the professor in question (and also as my apparent lack of imagination did to Strevens). It also helped me to become aware of the need for curricula to build on rather than dismiss the processes that have characterized students’ prior approaches to learning, even when those processes may seem very inappropriate.

It was around this time, in 1986, I think, that I attended a lecture on “The Communicative Approach” in Okayama, by Dr. Keith Johnson, who was then a lecturer at Reading University.  I remember him taking aim in the lecture at Chomsky’s language learning “black box” or “language acquisition device” (LAD) concept and the attention it was garnering in applied linguistics.   Johnson was arguing that it was much more fruitful for teaching and research to focus instead on the similarities between language learning and the learning of a skill such as skiing.   This sounded sensible to me, and the lack of academic pretension in the lecture as a whole appealed.

After the talk I took advantage of the chance to chat with Johnson.  I told him, by way of introduction, that I had been using his textbook “Writing for communication” (Longman, 1981).  He expressed mild surprise that the book  had been selling well in Asia, but I did not know how to follow through on this point. I suspect now that its success derived from many writing teachers primarily finding the book interesting and useful for their own learning (as it was to me), and secondarily reasonably easy for me to use in the classroom. I was therefore using it for reasons that were hardly learner-centred and communicative, though that was what the book itself was clearly intended and thought to be.

I did not tell him that I was learning more for myself about how to approach the analysis of language for pedagogical purposes than the students seemed to be learning by going through the exercises.   These exercises did, however, have the virtue of keeping students reasonably engaged and busy, challenging but not overwhelming them.  The major drawback was that the points that stood out for me in their written completion of the exercises were far more numerous, varied, complex and in need of learner attention than the list of discourse-level study points that were the basis of the textbook’s approach.

I was starting to think about, but not yet articulate, a questioning of the assumption that a “one size fits all” textbook approach is inevitable.  I was also beginning to think about what I had read by Henri Holec on the need for “learner autonomy” a topic which was the focus of my first published paper.  I was also getting my first inkling of how helpful it would be for teachers and learners to have access to examples of the language used by learners writing or speaking in response to the tasks or exercises of a particular textbook or lesson.

This was when I first began to clearly sense the need for learner corpora, a subject that I was beginning to write about in the mid 90’s.  The direction that I took with learner corpus work was to see learner corpus development and the use of learner corpora as closely integrated with the processes of language teaching and learning.  Today’s field of learner corpora is top-down, trying clumsily andwith very modest success (in my assessment) to find ways to support teaching. Primarily the domain of researchers, it is a field that illustrates the process — undesirable in the long term — by which young researchers, naturally wishing to advance their career prospects,  follow authority and in so doing reinforce the analytic and top-down paradigm.

I sense, however, that with the time needed to gestate and articulate a multi-dimensional approach and the potential therein for learner corpora, the many as yet unrecognized possibilities for learner corpora will come to the fore.  Indeed, a multi-dimensional approach to PALT offers new ways of looking at and using all of the familiar tools of the profession.

Instead of discussing the textbook, I asked Johnson to comment on my feeling that by studying the methodology of language teaching in the conventional way, we seem to end up not trusting our own intuition sufficiently as a tool for responding with appropriate flexibility to students within an overall coherent “system” or methodological approach.  (A happy fusion of apparent “chaos” (or spontaneity) and carefully conceived structure are at the heart of a multi-dimensional methodology). He seemed very thoughtful for a moment, and then responded that he thought that the single most important task for teacher training was to develop in prospective teachers the ability to think for themselves and flexibly apply their methodological understanding.  When I asked him why he had not made this point in his talk on “The Communicative Approach” he said, “That’s not what I was asked to talk about.”  Hmm… There seems to be more to think about here.

My reply was to say, referring to the Japanese educators who made up virtually all his audience (and implicitly separating myself from them,) that they tend to take methodological theory too literally.  If I had been more mature, self-aware and honest I would have simply made the point that it was I who found it difficult to apply in my own way what I had studied of methodology, and that this problem of a gap between methodology and practice had not been adequately addressed in my educational studies and training (a point that is still pertinent, of course) .

Whether it is the localized version of “mainstream” that is concerned with English language teaching in Japan, or the international mainstream of PALT (or any hybrid version of these), it seems to me that the following  question, so far virtually ignored in PALT, has the potential to turn the field on its head by making it intelligible and attractive  to its foot soldiers, farmers and tax payers: ordinary teachers.

The question can be expressed thus:

How can we ensure that language teachers are “comfortable” in their work, to the maximum extent possible?

Placing this scientific ugly duckling right at the top of the research agenda — and notice that it appears — on the surface at least — completely at odds with the current international orthodoxy of placing learners first — could be catalytic for a real paradigm shift.

Simplistic as it may seem, and devoid of linguistic implications though it may at first sight seem to be, this is a serious proposal and prediction for PALT, and one that I intend to explore later in more depth.

How, I ask myself, dare I be so bold?

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