Wednesday, April 30, 2014

My Journey in Training Methods

I received some constructive criticism about my post on Business English in 2014 and it sent me into reflection.  One of the points was that we do have a working methodology for Business English training.  The author was promoting a BE certification course which I cannot currently endorse.  This is not to say certification courses (including the one the author promoted) are bad, just that I cannot clearly judge the value from the marketing material.  I am always a bit skeptical of business models which leverage the value chain (i.e. profit from teachers/trainers).  You can read more about this in my post about the value chain.

I continue to believe that existing methodologies of BE training are unsuitable to the realities of our clients.  It is helpful here to reflect on the methods I have tried and the results I have found.

Welcome to ESL!

I was politely indoctrinated in the communicative approach.  My CELTA course was at the Berlin School of English.  I had excellent teacher trainers and a wonderful education.  They taught me how to effectively survive a course.  There is no doubt in my mind that it was extremely helpful.  But, I took the good with the bad.  I learned that ESL lessons have a specific structure (generally according to Jeremy Harmer).  I learned how to manage time, select activities and how to create space for expression.  I also learned how to worship publishers and how to professionally photocopy.  Occasionally, I still find the citation strips of paper stuck in my library of course books, and I clearly remember how I broke the paper cutter at my first employer from overuse.

It was a valuable experience and I am thankful to have had it.  But it also became clear that it didn't work exactly as advertised.

I was immediately placed in Business English because of my background, my personality and I looked good in a tie.  But when I tried the methods from my CELTA, something was missing.  First, course books work on a grammar syllabus.  I haven't found one which doesn't (despite their claims).  If you know one... please let me know.  They work on a grammar syllabus because the CEFR is grammar based.  I'm sure that the authors of the CEFR would disagree but the words "routine" and "everyday" appear quite often in the lower levels.  In practice, books still take a grammar-based approach (typically under the cover of functions).

You're in the Army Again...

I realized that ESL wasn't working.  I was happy because I always knew what to teach - ESL told me.  But I wasn't really making a difference.  So, I made the transition to performance-based training.  I was well aware of tenants of PBT from my time in the army (see my post Lessons Learned from the Military).  Basically, we looked at the expected performance, broke it into concrete steps and then we trained and tested it until the performance met the standard.

This required a change in needs analysis and assessment (I have posted about this transition often).  I made the switch and things were good.  I could clearly identify the skills gap and train to fill it using ESL-structured blocks.  Performance and confidence improved dramatically.  My students reported exceptional improvement.  I was training to task using ESL-structured lessons.  But then things began to change.

Bite the Dog

The problem with all of this was that it was taking too much time.  I wasn't profitable.  I could not sustain a fully needs-based course.  It took 45 minutes to think about and prepare an hour of training.  My blended approach of fully needs based (customized) training with ESL teaching techniques generated much higher progress and high customer satisfaction and progress, but was still unsustainable.  Then I discovered Dogme which essentially said that if I could spontaneously create pedagogical activities, I was good.

I embraced and switched my focus from planning to recording and reviewing what happened in the lessons.  My post I Only Have One Lesson Plan is the essence of that approach.  It works, no question for me.  I saw immense progress, validated by real world performance, and my clients were extremely happy.  I was now incorporating everything into my training... the communicative approach, performance-based training and Dogme.  But then it changed...

The Patient has Complications

With greater customer satisfaction, I began to get closer to the organization and the real needs of the learners.  Suddenly, I had jumped into a deeper pool than I had imagined.  The problems were glaring.  It wasn't the language which was holding things back, it was cultural and communication skills.  In other words, speaking better English was not equal to higher efficiency.  In some cases the bottleneck was the language, but often it was only a contributing factor.

I remember speaking with some BESIG members a few years ago that our clients often equated a communication problem with a language problem.  The simple fact is that in the mind of the client language = communication.  I feel my mandate is to solve communication problems with a focus on language.  But as I moved, the situation became more and more complex.

Everything is Nothing

So, here I was... faced with an universe of methods and ideas.  I needed to teach the English language through the communicative approach, clearly understand the performance gap, let the learners direct the training and understand the real barriers to communication.  The result was not good.

  • The ESL approach is long, boring and often useless.  Following a prescribed set of activities may be useful for mastering certain concepts, but we often don't have the time to fully complete the activities or the learning objective does not match the need.  The ESL approach is overly sterile and reflects a notional reality.  
  • The communicative approach is right in creating a communication gap, but what happens when communication is no longer a problem (higher levels)?  ESL doesn't really have an answer to the image needs of BE students other than restrictive language exercises.
  • Performance-based training works great with the communicative approach as long as there is a performance gap.  In other words, it is nice as long as there is a clear need.  It doesn't work when the need is reached or when the learner is striving for an intangible ability.  Then we have to revert to something like the CEFR.
  • The trainer cannot sustain Dogme for more than a 50 hours of training.  It works great in short-term courses.  Dogme relies on the immediate recognition of need and spontaneous input and task creation to fill the gap.  I have difficulty keeping such a variety of task contingencies in mind.  The result is repeat task types which nullify the entire approach.
  • Dogme kills vocabulary development.  The most critical piece of feedback from my learners is that I do not help them produce new vocabulary.  I have tried my best through review and in-lesson note taking to improve this aspect, but vocabulary retention is still less than 10% per lesson.  ESL methods and course books are better at this.  It is also a vital part of their needs.
  • Office communication is unbelievably complex.  I have had the chance to read countless authentic emails, documents, reports, etc. as well as observe meetings and telephone conferences.  There are pragmatic, semantic and cultural issues at every turn as well as linguistic.  I have no doubt that clients attempt to solve communication problems with language training.

First, I think the complexity of our mandate is higher than our clients realize.  I sincerely believe that we are hired to facilitate communication not just that someone masters the Past Perfect.

Second,  I do not think existing ESL methods (including existing ESL-derived BE teaching methods) fulfill this need.  ESL prescribes a certain learning plan which does not fit with the immediate or medium-term needs of the learners.

Third,  Dogme is too loose.  It fails to fulfill the steps of Bloom's Taxonomy (as I implemented it) because it relies too heavily on the learner's sense of dedication to complete self-study.

So, I have tried all of these and they are not the complete solution.  Parts of them are valuable and I recommend a teacher development package which presents new trainers with challenges, but the solution is not in the book or on the internet.  We need to take BE further.

I'll present my work in Graz at the BESIG Summer Symposium.  It will be the culmination of a year of training with an entirely new approach which better fits the realities of BE training.  So far, it solves these dilemmas and provides the balance my participants and I need.

1 comment:

  1. Thank you for a really reflective post, Charles! You raise many important issues here, and I'm only sorry I can't make it to Graz this summer to see you present.

    On the specific question of vocabulary development: I agree several course books can be very helpful in this regard, but would suggest authentic content can be motivating and get just that bit closer to business reality if teachers base good lessons on it: all the more so if learners have to evaluate it.

    I'll concede the endeavour may not be so profitable if you're going solo with this, but in a team environment can a case not be made for sharing lesson plans? This might make the effort a lot more worthwhile and generate returns on investment.

    Best wishes,