Many years ago, when I was just starting out my career as a part-time university teacher, I was given some advice by an older colleague who was already well established in the profession. He told me that I needed to do two things in order to work my way up the career ladder. The first of these was to publish as much as I could, as quickly as I could.
“It doesn’t matter what it is; publish your diary and your shopping list if you want, but get published,” he told me.
The other thing he advised me to do was to find a “thing” – a niche; something that I would become known for. Basically, he was telling me to create a name for myself as The “XXX” Guy.
Looking back now, I realise that both of these pieces of advice were extremely useful for a young university teacher. Over the intervening years, however, I have come to realise the damage that has been caused (and continues to be caused) by people following the second one.
A few months ago, I spoke to a teacher who is researching the use of mobile phone technology in language learning. This is an exciting new field, and most of the things he told me made a lot of sense. He mentioned, however, that he was facing a problem in implementing his ideas: “My boss is a big ‘CALL’ guy,” he said, “and we have these really expensive computer labs that have to be used, so we can’t really do much of anything else at the moment.”
To be fair to this teacher’s boss, he probably genuinely believes that using computers is the best way for his students to develop their English skills, and no doubt there are many advantages to that methodology. In this particular case, there was also the problem of staggered adoption of technology, with around half of the students using the new generation of smartphones, and the other half still using the old “Galapagos” machines. There is, however, a much more fundamental question that underlies the debate, which is the issue of what happens when a teacher/researcher (especially one in a position of authority) becomes so focussed on one particular aspect of language teaching that their students’ learning becomes skewed by it. The result is that the students miss out on finding out about a whole host of other resources that could have been just as (and possibly more) useful to them.
There is also, of course, the problem of financial investment. In many cases, the huge cost of people’s “pet” projects leads to situations where students have to follow a particular course of study simply in order to justify the money that their institution has spent on it. One university I worked at spent a ridiculous sum on an e-learning program that none of the students (and few of the teachers) wanted to use. Once the money had been spent, the course had to be used in all our classes just so that we could produce lists showing how many students had accessed the site. I have heard of other places where students are forced to plough through a mountain of graded readers whether they want to or not simply because the person in charge is “The Extensive Reading Guy,” and I’m sure there are similar situations all over the country. (Incidentally, if the claims made by many proponents of extensive reading were justified, you would expect to see students coming out of these programs with far superior language skills to those in other institutions who have not had the benefit of all that input. Speaking from personal experience, I cannot say that I have found that to be the case.)
A couple of years ago, I went to a JALT CALL conference to promote my books, and I was amazed at how many people’s first question was not “How does this book work?” or “What kind of students would this be appropriate for?”, but “Can my students do this online?” My response was always, “Why is it so important for them to be able to do it online?” The answer, of course, was that those teachers were “into” computers, and therefore wanted to combine their teaching with their personal field of expertise. If their desire had been based on a solid body of evidence showing that learning a language by using a computer is the most effective approach, then their enthusiasm would have been understandable. When the primary reason is that computers just happen to be their own personal area of specialty, however, it becomes considerably less justifiable. Just because you are a “computer person” doesn’t mean that CALL is the best way to learn for all (or even any) of your students.
If you go to conferences, you will see that most well-known speakers have a “thing.” To some extent, this is unavoidable – after all, that is how they become well known. To become a true expert in something requires a huge investment of time and effort. We need specialists, and no one can be a specialist in everything. Luckily, many of these experts are aware of the problem. Paul Nation, for example, is widely known as “The Vocabulary Guy,” but if you listen to one of his presentations or read any of his books, you will notice that he is always careful to promote vocabulary learning and instruction only as part of a balanced program of language study. Unfortunately, not everyone is quite so humble, and the result is that we end up with a stream of fads and crazes, each purporting to negate everything that has gone before it and claim its rightful place at the very base of a language learner’s pyramid of needs. This can be extremely confusing for new and inexperienced teachers, especially if they happen to work in an institution that has an “XXX” guy.
Of course, applied linguistics is not the only field that suffers from this phenomenon. I saw a TV drama the other day where a medical examiner was found to have over-diagnosed as a cause of death a syndrome in which he happened to be a renowned expert. This was only TV, but it is easy to see how human nature will naturally lead people to favour their own areas of expertise. It seems that the more time and effort we invest in researching or promoting a particular thing, the more difficult it becomes for us to objectively assess its relative importance in the bigger picture.
Whilst it is obviously a good thing in any field to have experts pushing the boundaries in specialist areas, in the case of language education, the findings of researchers need to be presented to practicing teachers in a balanced, objective way. Equally, researchers who find themselves in a position of authority within an educational institution need to remember that not everyone is going to be as interested in (or convinced by) their area of specialty as they are. Whether you are talking about CALL, extensive reading, e-learning, dictation, content-based teaching, task-based learning, or communicative activities, it is important to remember that whatever your “thing” is, there will have been thousands (if not millions) of people throughout history who have learned to speak a foreign language successfully without it. None of our “things” can ever be either necessary or sufficient in language learning, and any claims to the contrary should be treated with a great deal of suspicion.
Anyway, the reason I decided to write about this topic was to remind myself not to become the “XXX” guy, and I hope that the topic might strike a note with some other teachers. If you have any stories about “The CALL Guy” (or any other “XXX” guy), I would love to hear them.
Note: I used the word “guy” in the title of this entry because I was thinking of the old TV series “The Fall Guy.” In the article, I used the word “guy” to cover both genders simply because I cannot think of a better word. Talking about “The CALL Girl,” for example, might attract an entirely different kind of readership! If anyone has any better suggestions, please let me know.