Are infographics taking over the world?

infographic-us-facebook-statistics-demopgrahic-data

KPI -key performance indicators – a set of quantifiable (my emphasis) measures that a company or industry uses to gauge or compare performance in terms of meeting their strategic and operational goals. KPIs vary between companies and industries, depending on their priorities or performance criteria. Also referred to as “key success indicators (KSI)”.

From Investopedia.com

 performance:

  1. The act of performing; carrying into execution or action; execution; achievement; accomplishment; representation by action; as, the performance of an undertaking of a duty.
  2. That which is performed or accomplished; a thing done or carried through; an achievement; a deed; an act; a feat; especially, an action of an elaborate or public character.

    From wikipedia

When I was at secondary school, my friend, John, would often receive 50 or 60 christmas cards from friends every year. John was often invited to parties, he was well liked and was never without a girl at his side (very often a different one each month). John was funny, but something of a class clown and was often at trouble at school. He liked sport more than study, he would hang out with his friends after school rather than do his homework. Sometimes John would fail to turn up, have other engagements, he would drop friends just as quickly as he would make them. And the girls were interchangeable. My other friend, let’s call him Jack was not a popular guy at school he had few friends and only one girlfriend all through secondary school. He was quiet, not much fun at parties, in fact hardly ever invited. He was conscientious and loyal, though, and we’d often have long conversations about books, films and music. The friends he made at school remained his friends well into his adult life.

Now lets talk about KPIs. A KPI is a key performance indicator, a way of measuring success, and there are two main types – quantitive and qualitative. If we measure John’s success at relationships on a purely quantitive basis, then he is obviously more successful than Jack – he has more friends. This simple kind of mental arithmetic is what Daniel Kahnemann calls system 1 thinking, it’s quick, surface thinking and it’s the kind of thinking we do most of the time. It’s also a convenient shortcut to the concept of success, e.g. If your business makes more money at the end of the year than you had projected at the beginning of the year, your business is successful.

System 2 thinking, however, is deeper and slower. Lets take an example from Daniel Kahnemann’s book “Thinking Fast, and Slow”. Let’s do some mental arithmetic:

2+2 = ?

How long did it take you to come up with the correct answer? Hopefully not too long. Alright, a more difficult one now:

7×5=?

Still not causing you too much of a strain, is it?

How about:

36 x 312?

Can you do it in your head? Do you need a pen and paper or a calculator? If, like me, you were not able to do this in your head immediately, you are using a different kind of thinking – what Kahnemann calls system 2 thinking, or slow thinking.

Let’s take another example – when you are walking down the street and you see someone coming the other way – he has his hood up, he looks pretty big, and he’s swaying a little bit, he might be carrying something in his hand, could be a beer bottle. What do you do? Probably you put your head down and walk a little more quickly, you might cross the street to avoid him. You might scan the environment for exit routes or other people. What you don’t do is sit down to think about it, you probably don’t waste time wondering if he is a university professor down on his luck. You use your fast and intuitive system 1 thinking to stay out of trouble. Using system 2 thinking here would slow you down and may result in injury or even death.

What about a job interview? Which system of thinking should you use and which do you actually use? If you want the right person for the job you should probably weigh up the pros and cons of each applicant carefully, you should go through their applications with a fine toothed comb, interview them rigorously to find out what kind of people they are, are they right for the job, right for your organization? But you have 2000 applicants, so you go through the applications and immediately throw out all the handwritten ones – you figure, if someone couldn’t be bothered to type it why should I bother to read it. You’re now down to 1500. You then throw out any that don’t meet the exact specifications of the job, maybe they don’t have the requisite number of years experience, have a bachelors degree rather than a masters, etc. You might read a few in more detail, but your more likely to disregard people whose schools you haven’t heard of, or who studied subjects you don’t have much interest in. You might value team sports above solitary pursuits such as reading, and so on until you have your shortlist. So far so easy – all we’re really doing is matching candidates to our pre-defined perfect candidate – so far, so system 1.

Surely the recruiter will take more time and thought over the interview. According to many studies on heuristics and biases, however, most successful candidates are chosen within the first few minutes of an interview, regardless of their qualifications or experience. A lot of people are chosen because of their socio-economic background, their race or gender, the way they talk, how confident they are, how much they fidget, or even how tall they are (over 60 percent of CEOs are well above average height, apparently, not to mention, white, middle-class and male). Even when we should use system 2, we use system 1, and even when we think we are using system 2, we are, in fact using system 1. This is because system 2 thinking is slow and lazy (and works in the background) – it’s our fallback position and we only use it when we absolutely must, whereas system 1 is our default position, it’s what gets us through the day, it’s faster and more convenient.

Back to John and Jack. Who is the better friend? Who would you like to be your friend? Do you base your decision purely on the statistical data? If lots of other people like John, then surely he’s the safer bet? And in fact, John will have a lot of friends, purely because he has a lot of friends, irregardless of his personal qualities. And here is where it gets difficult and where we have to start using our system 2 thinking. What is a friend? What qualities are important to us when choosing friends? Is it always consistent? Do we want a fun-loving friend? Do we want our friend to introduce us to lots of other people? Or do we choose someone who is loyal but who might be moody, someone who probably doesn’t really want or need us as a friend? These are difficult questions – questions which require a deeper level of thinking – but how many of us actually choose our friends – Jack and John are both friends of mine, but when you ask me why, I can’t really say. I’d probably have to sit down and think about it.

The point I’m trying to make here is that quantitive data, such as how many friends I have, how much income I generate, how many students I get in my class on a regular basis, or how many likes I get on Facebook, are all easy to measure and appeal to our quick and convenient system 1 way of thinking. Quantitive data, the kind that is appearing more and more these days in metrics, infographics, on spreadsheets and colourful graphs, provide us with a convenient shortcut to a success story, a shared definition of success. Anybody, and I mean, anybody, can look at a graph and see immediately what success looks like, even if they don’t exactly understand what the numbers mean. More often than not, the presenter of this information has carefully selected the data to present a clear narrative of success with obvious causes and effects.

Qualitative KPIs are much more difficult to analyze and present – they cannot be turned so easily into colourful visual aids (although many companies try and turn this information into something quantitive – this is the purpose of scorecards), and their causes and effects are not so readily available or explicable. They require system 2 thinking both to collate and present the information and it requires system 2 thinking to process it (and ask questions about it).

Obviously we need to look at both types of KPI to judge whether something is successful or not, especially when we are talking about abstract things such as education.

Let’s take an example from our context and test it out. Let’s say that we run a large scale teacher training program – we have 2,000 teachers on the program and they all get something that they probably haven’t received before, some training in learner-centred teaching, for example. The Ministry of Education pays about 2,000 pounds per teacher. When we measure the success of this project we can look at the reach, we can look at the return on investment, we can look at income generated, in other words, the numbers, the quantitive data. Purely in numerical terms, this is a successful project, especially if the contract is renewed.

Let’s take another example. A teacher has a difficult student. Instead of giving up on this student, the teacher takes extra time to counsel the student, s/he gives the student extra homework, extra support, etc. S/he listens attentively to this student, finds out that they are having problems at home and offers some guidance for how to turn their life around. The student starts to perform better at school and the student is very happy and buys her teacher a gift at the end of term. In purely qualitative terms, this is a success.

Now let’s go forward in time, let’s say 10 years. Let’s revisit the teachers on our large scale teacher training project to see if they transformed the way they teach. Now let’s be honest here, I’ve been training teachers on projects like these for the past 8 years and I can say that I may have helped a few teachers transform the way that they teach (I hope), but let’s give it a number to help our system 1 thinking, let’s give an optimistic estimate of 30%. That’s 70% of the teachers that I have trained on such a project who probably didn’t transform the way that they teach. That’s a pretty poor return on investment, isn’t it? It won’t look very good on a graph.

Let’s revisit our problem student. Instead of dropping out of school, she went to university and completed a PhD, she became a Minister of Education, and helped transform the education system in her country. The return on investment here is massive, but how much of it is actually due to the teacher’s involvement? We don’t know how much of this success was due to other factors, there’s too much “noise” surrounding the data. This kind of success is too difficult to measure, and most of the time we don’t bother, especially as it takes a long time for this success to manifest itself. The teacher and the teacher’s manager will not even be aware of this long-term success.

So the next time you read an article about success, ask yourself how they are measuring this success. It’s highly likely that, in order to appeal to your system 1 thinking and to appeal to your sense of narrative, they will “show you the money”. They will talk about numbers, they may talk about transformation but not in qualitative terms, only in numerical terms, and you should be very skeptical of this.

You should be skeptical when your manager only talks to you about quantity and not about quality, especially when talking about your performance. Ask your manager to watch you teach, to assess the quality of your materials, to get feedback from your students, but don’t just rely on your manager to do this – remember that he will probably be using his system 1 way of thinking (he might be busy managing lots of other people, for example). The onus is on you to swing the conversation back to quality – and in order to do that you need to use your system 2 way of thinking and you’ll also need evidence to support your claims, because our system 2 is lazy and slow and often in need of a convincing argument.

ingredients of a transformative large scale teacher development program

registered-blogger-150x150-banner

One of the more interesting talks on day 2 of the conference (not a particularly inspiring day, to be honest) was about a large scale teacher development program in Bangladesh run by the Open University (with a number of partners, including BBC).  The program is called English in Action and the presenter’s name was Michael Solly.

Here are the ingredients for a successful and transformative project –

  • ongoing teacher support (sustainable model)
  • we need to go to them, rather than get them come to us
  • video observations: need to reflect the actual environment, not shot in a BC classroom with 5 or 6 students.
  • Peer guidance, counselling and mentoring is vital to success of a long-term project
  • video clips of authentic classrooms
  • linked to the curriculum
  • EIA’s videos have a narrator who describes what’s going on in the classroom – this would be a good idea for our videos – videos are made available on a SD card (for mobile devices) (we could use viddler and smartphones for this)
  • importance of peer observations, reflections and discussions – teacher journals
  • incorporates language development as well as teaching competencies development
  • provide teachers guides, self access material and coursbooks, linked to the curriculum

Some provisos

EIA is involved in all aspects of pedagogy, including the creation of a course-book and a teachers guide to help teachers with the curriculum – i think this is a major factor in the transformation of pedagogy in a country.  EIA were given pretty much free reign by the ministry of education.  They had lots of financial backing.  They had a very long time frame in which to tinker with the program (about 10 years!)

Check out the EIA website – http://www.eiabd.com/eia/ for more details

digital schmigital

registered-blogger-150x150-banner

As I walked into the auditorium for Penny Ur’s talk on on technology in ELT, a Cambridge representative pushed a promotional brochure into my hands. This immediately turned my bullshit detector up to 11. Was Penny Ur going to be plugging a new online course or a her new book entitled “100 great ways to use Ipads in your lessons”. My heart sank. Thankfully once Penny started speaking it became clear that she was not pedaling the latest digital snake oil.

Her major worry is not that technology in the classroom is bad, in fact she does use moodle and other digital tools to supplement her teaching, and neither does she advocate the use of technology per se, but rather she advises teachers to be cautious about its use.

During the presentation she cited a recent study (Macaro et al, 2012) stating there is little evidence to support the conventional wisdom that technology is inherently a good thing and that there is no evidence to suggest technology has any long term effect on motivation or on learning.

She is rightly suspicious of politicians, publishing companies and producers of digital software and hardware as they have a vested interest in promoting the use of expensive, shiny digital products in the classroom. Their decisions are not based on pedagogy but on political popularity, and generating revenue streams.

Digital is sexy, no doubt – we are all in thrall to our ipads and kindles, but do they belong in the classroom? This is the main point of Penny’s presentation. We ought not to use digital tools for the sake of using them, we ought not to use them simply because they are novel or because everybody uses them in real life – we should only use them when it improves the learning experience.

We have been too keen of late to jump on the digital bandwagon, just as we were when laptops became affordable, when video recorders allowed us to show movies in the classroom or when tape recorders became portable. Technology is not new for long – I remember when I introduced IWBs to my teen class in 2004 – it was the first time they ever gave me spontaneous applause, but within the space of a couple weeks the IWB had lost all of its allure and I was faced again with a stroppy bunch of 14 year olds. Technologies come and go but some things remain constant – the quality of the relationship between a teacher and his students probably has a greater impact on learning than any gadget.

When I set up CELTA courses I deliberately put restrictions on the use of technology in the classrooms, not because I’m a technophobe, but because in my experience I found technology often gets in the way of real classroom dynamics. When I have allowed teachers to use technology I find that their lessons become overly teacher-centred (or IWB-centred), that students are passive and that they don’t use higher order thinking skills, but most importantly technology has an adverse effect on student interaction. Ipads and computers are great for self study, but the fastest way to a teacher-centred lesson (or a lesson with little to no student interaction) is an overly prepared lesson that relies on flashy powerpoint presentations (or IWB flipcharts) at the expense of human interaction and communication.

Furthermore, the inordinate amount of time that teachers spend putting together lessons that incorporate the latest gizmos, do so at the expense of interaction, responsiveness and communication. Teachers who spend 3 hours planning a 90 minute lesson that does not take account of these essential components is getting a very poor return on their investment.

We do need to be more cautious about how we use technology and it about its long term effects – it may be doing more harm than good. Parents often worry about their children spending too much time watching TV or playing computer games – do they really want them to be staring at an IWB or playing on an Ipad with their in loco parentis teachers? Using computers may improve their digital literacies, but might it actually impair their higher order thinking skills – their ability to be creative, to discuss, to evaluate, to think for themselves?

Despite being an ICT co-ordinator in the past, despite being a technophile (owner of various shiny digital playthings) and despite investigations into digital solutions at work, I remain deeply skeptical of blended learning, mobile learning, e-learning, etc. There is only learning , and our job is to find the best way for students to learn in a particular context. What might work well at home or in a small group of 4 or 5 students may not necessarily work well in a classroom of 10, 20 or 30 children – a story book can be more engaging than an ipad, a song played on the piano can be just as much fun as watching a you-tube video, and a teacher who listens and understands his students is always going to be better than a computer.

IATEFL live

registered-blogger-150x150-banner

IATEFL live

many of you probably couldn’t make it to Liverpool this year – especially teachers from further afield – but you can still attend virtually – there are interviews and live video links to keep you in the loop

day one at IATEFL

registered-blogger-150x150-banner

day one at IATEFL

this is my first visit to IATEFL and David Crystal is up first.  So many people are here for the plenary – glad to be here after a really long trip yesterday – missed our connection from heathrow to manchester – manchester flight was delayed due to a technical fault, when we finally arrived at liverpool our driver managed to get lost and drove in circles for half an hour.  I’ve got pretty severe jet lag, but will surely manage to stay awake for the plenary and fade away by about 2pm. Okay, David is about to about to speak, so…hushed reverence.

situational leadership – is your manager mature enough?

The theory of situational leadership (Hershey, Blanchard) is simply thus – if you have employees with low maturity (M1), i.e. they are new to the job, then chances are they need a leader to show them the ropes, a leader who can tell them what to do (S1).  Conversely, an M4 person is capable, knows what to do, can be left alone to get on with the job and so requires a leader who can delegate, a person who trusts (S4).  However, there’s a major flaw in this theory, as far as I’m concerned – it assumes that the leader himself has progressed through the maturity ranks from M1 to M4 and and can alter his leadership style to suit the situation; it requires a mature manager to delegate, after all – but management and leadership, like anything else is a set of skills that one acquires over time.

Managers don’t automatically become mature when they put on a suit and learn how to use Excel (despite what they might think) – i’m pretty sure that managers go through the same experiential learning cycle as any other employee.  When I started teaching I was pretty hopeless – I know because my student (actually my girlfriend at the time) told me so.  I also knew that I wanted to get better at teaching, so I took the Diploma, got a job as a Director of Studies and became an M2 teacher and M0.5 DoS.  I got better (I hope) and after 13 years (or over 10,000 hours) of teaching and training I feel fairly confident that I’m an M4 teacher and maybe even an M4 teacher trainer. This competency and level of maturity took time, trial and error to achieve.

So, what happens when M4 teachers are managed by M1 or M2 managers?  Well, the M1/M2 manager has some choices to make (we’ll talk about M4 teachers’ choices later) – either he gets mature real quick so that he can support and delegate and set targets and do all the things that mature managers do, or he doesn’t, i.e. he simply tells people what to do – the M4 people under his supervision might not like it, but so what.  Another thing our M1 managers can do is to get rid of the M4 people – the primadonnas, the moaners, the ones who ask for autonomy, for support, for more training, etc and replace them with M1 employees, eager to learn, eager to please and who don’t complain and who don’t know any better.

But what about the poor M4 teachers?  What choices do they have?  They can of course, moan about it -they can go to the pub with all the other M4 teachers and whinge about their managers, how crap they are, how they don’t know what they are doing, and so on.  But there is another way to think about this – you M4 teachers (you know who you are) – aren’t you the mature ones?  Flip this situation on its head and demand S4 leadership from your manager – get him up to speed, teach and train him how to be mature, how to delegate and set targets.  Don’t just assume that he knows that’s what he should be doing.  Remember what it was like for you when you started teaching – how many of your students went to the pub after your lesson and complained about how crap you were? But you got better, didn’t you.  You got better because you kind of knew you were crap and you wanted to change, but you also needed help, you needed feedback and training and so on.  And so it is with your manager – your manager needs your help, not your animosity.  Give your manager the kind of feedback that you would like to receive from him – honest, forthright and constructive – use the same tools that your managers use to evaluate you.  It is your only recourse, your only weapon.  Oh, I nearly forgot, there is one other choice.  Find yourself a job where there are no M1 managers – good luck with that.

Those of you who’ve read Outliers (Malcolm Gladwell), will already be familiar with the Matthew Effect (the rich get richer), but for those of you who are not, let me give you an example – A couple have stopped off in a town they don’t know and they are hungry.  So they go looking for a restaurant.  They haven’t read any reviews and they don’t really know what they want to eat;  how do they make their choice?  They walk past 9 restaurants, all of which look quite empty, when they come to the 10th restaurant they see that the restaurant is half full and the people inside look fairly content.   Which one would you choose?  Most of us, I think, would instinctively choose the restaurant with people, we would use our system 1 thinking (Kahneman), to make an assumption – that this restaurant is better than the others.  But how many of those people in the restaurant made the same assumption as you.  Is this restaurant really so much better than the other 9?   This phenomena, also know as accumulate advantage, happens in many walks of life – it explains why cities like Seoul are growing at an exponential rate, (more jobs attract more people, which creates more jobs), it explains why facebook has one billion users and how Psy got so many you-tube hits (it surely can’t be because he’s a million times better than Radiohead,can it?).  In the case of the restaurant it might be that the “best” restaurant is slightly better than the others,  and this slight advantage is enough to start an avalanche.  

Nowhere is the Matthew Effect more visible or pertinent than in Seoul, and especially in Gangnam.  Until the 80s, nobody of note lived in Gangnam, its reclaimed swampland was decidedly not des res, but then the development came, and then the money, and then the nightclubs, plastic surgeons and hagwons.  Today, property in Gangnam is twice or three times as expensive as anywhere else in Seoul  and therefore some of the most expensive real estate in the world – it’s almost impossible for a “normal’ person to buy property here.

Now, those of you who know Seoul and have travelled around it, know that each district, or gu, looks very much like another one.  It can be quite disorienting when you travel on the subway to enter at one station (with its dunkin’ donuts and starbucks) and come up the escalator to find yourself in out almost identical locale half an hour later.  It’s not like New York or London with it’s distinct boroughs,  architectures and ghettoes.  The apartments in Gangnam are no bigger or better than in other districts.  Gangnam is near the river, granted, but have you been to the river?  So what’s the attraction?  Simply that other people want to live there?  When I ask Seoulites where they would most like to live, they often say, Gangnam and when pressed to say why, they don’t mention house prices (which are exorbitant), and they certainly don’t mention the beautiful architecture (there’s none to speak of in Seoul, unless you count the palaces).  No, the number one, and only reason is, they all want their kids to go to school there.

One of the most interesting things about my job as a teacher trainer working in Seoul is I get to visit English teachers teaching in the state schools.  I help them plan their lesson and then I come to their schools to observe their classes, to evaluate their teaching and to give them “constructive” feedback.  I’ve seen some great lessons in the 4 years that I’ve been working here and I’ve seen some real stinkers.  I’ve been all over Seoul and been to all sorts of schools.  But, just like the apartments, the restaurants and the cars, the schools are much of a muchness.  In fact I’ve been to some pretty grotty schools in Gangnam (and some really nice ones).  Teachers on the other hand, are much more diverse thanks to Korea’s progressive policy of moving teachers from post to post every 5 years.  I would guess that most teachers, given the choice would prefer to teach in Gangnam too, but they are not allowed to choose which school they teach in (as far as I understand it).  So how did Gangnam earn its reputation as the centre of educational excellence and why does everyone want to send their kids to school there?

I have to admit that the lessons I saw in Gangnam were “better” on average than in other districts.  But why?  If you take away the school and the teachers, what are you left with? The answer is straightforward enough –  the students.  Gangnam’s reputation for being the best place to be educated has nothing to do with education in the way we normally think of it.  It’s got to everything to do with the people sitting in the desks (staring out of the window) and with their affluent jet setting, middle class parents.  Future prime ministers, high court judges and CEOs, most of whom have spent some time in the US, Australia or the UK, study in Gangnam schools, a high proportion of these kids attend the prestigious SKY universities (Korean IVY league schools) and once a person graduates from one of these Korean Ivy League institutions, they, like their Oxbridge and Harvard cousins, are set for life.  This is accumulated advantage in action.  The rich get richer.

This is not fair, is it?  In fact it makes my blood boil.  Why should a person’s future be decided by something as arbitrary as a post (zip) code?  But what can we do about it?  The answer may lie with the internet.  If everybody attended a school in the cloud, wouldn’t that level the playing field?  One of the most inspiring TED talks I have heard is this year’s winner – Sugata Mitra.  You should check out the talk yourself

But if you don’t have time to watch it I will give a short summary – basically, he offered poor kids access to the internet and, with minimal supervision (or teaching), poor kids taught themselves how to use the computer, they taught themselves how to use English so that they could learn how to use the computer and access the internet and they used the internet to find out the answers to some very big questions such as what DNA is and why people live on Earth and not on other planets.   His SOLE initiative is truly inspiring and offers the very real possibility of education being accessible to everybody  regardless of where they live.  But there are rather large caveats to this utopian future  – firstly answering big questions such as why is grass green is not how intelligence is currently measured in standardized testing, so those kids unlocking the mysteries of the universe on the internet may lack the necessary skills (culturally acquired) to do well  in traditional forms of testing and fall behind their rote-learning friends.  Secondly, cloud learning requires some fairly sophisticated equipment, including a computer and internet access (but these things are very quickly becoming ubiquitous) and thirdly,  the internet , like everything else in this complicated life, is itself subject to the Matthew Effect, so the schools of the future might reside in the cloud but that cloud may well be owned by Oxbridge Harvard Inc.

“For everyone who has will be given more, and he will have an abundance. Whoever does not have, even what he has will be taken from him”

English: The Language of Extremistan

In Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s book “The Black Swan” he talks about two very different worlds – Mediocristan and Extremistan.  We like to think that we live in Mediocristan where people are rational, where the future is predictable, where Gaussian bell curves can be used to plot out a safe and predictable future.  This is the world as we would like it to be, and where experts in a myriad of well-paid jobs, such as in the world of economics make their fortunes reading the tea leaves with their arcane financial instruments.  Unfortunately for us, however, we crave the knowable future – we pay good money to experts to tell us what the future holds t but as Taleb says in his book – an expert’s predictions about the future are no better on average than a cab driver’s.  The unknowable is terrifying, so we will happily plonk our life savings into that one sure thing because doing something is better than doing nothing.  Right?

Some numbers plainly belong in Mediocristan – we know that a person cannot be over 8 feet tall and we can safely predict that there won’t be any 8 feet tall people in the near future, certainly not 9 feet tall people.  But a lot of numbers belong in Extremistan – 20 years ago it was probably inconceivable that one person could have a personal wealth of billions of dollars (more than the wealth of some countries).  But whose to say that in 20 years time we might not have trillionaires buying up property in London?  Equally there may be a world revolution where all the wealth in the world is redistributed (a humanist’s dream).  Who knows?

This is also a world in which English is spoken by over half the population, a language which originated in a small wet island off the coast of Europe – English is a black swan – it is the language of Extremistan.  Those of us who work in the ELT industry are the fortunate benefactors of this black swan – it could as easily have been Spanish or Chinese that dominated the globe (and how many Latin teachers do you know?).  Those of us who teach children should beware of forecasting English as the future language of the world.

Millions of children around the world are currently being forced to learn an alien language and their parents (and politicians) are investing massive amounts of money in English language education policies, because it is currently the language of the world.  But let’s stop a minute and think about the forecasts they are making. They are supposing that in 10, 15, 20 years time the world will still be speaking English, hence the need to train kids to speak English.  But why pour all this money into kids now to see  it squandered in the future?  Why not spend it on the people who need it now?  Governments are currently falling over themselves to teach their 3 year olds to speak English – to what purpose?  Do 3 year olds need to speak English now?  Of course not, they are betting on an uncertain future where English will continue to expand (and they might be right) and that in 20 years time their country will be competing with other countries in an English speaking world.  But we don’t live in Mediocristan.  We cannot know the future.  We live in Extremistan.

We are also making a massive assumption about the language learning abilities of our children.  I’ve been to plenty of seminars and lectures telling me that children have elastic minds, that they are like sponges.  But I don’t subscribe to this idea of  “blank slate” style education.  I don’t think it’s reasonable or efficient to treat all children the same and assume that all children can or should learn languages, especially one specific language.  Asian culture is particularly susceptible to this blank slate way of thinking.  They hope that cram schools will stuff their children’s brains full of English which will be stored away until it is needed in a scary futuristic world where everybody is hyper- competitive and speaks only English – no parent wants their child to be left behind. And who fuels this fear? Anybody who makes money out of teaching children English has a vested interest in this fallacy, so don’t expect to hear your local hagwon owner telling you that they’re just a glorified baby sitter any time soon.

We now know that brains aren’t empty vessels and not all brains are equal (if you don’t believe me I advise you to read some of Steven Pinker’s work) – some brains respond well to mathematics, some are artistic,some are particularly sensitive to language and some are, lets face it, more cut out for cleaning toilets, beating panels or teaching P.E.  Not all brains are built to sit (or run) through hour long lessons with a jolly English teacher and a story book.

When I moved from teaching to training  I spent 4 years observing English being taught in state schools in Korea.  I’ve sat at the back of over 100 lessons watching young children being taught English in Elementary, Middle and High Schools.  Some of those lessons were inspiring, some of them truly dreadful, but in all of them there were kids who simply didn’t want to study English.  I could read it in their body language (slumped over the desk), I could see it in their inactivity and i could hear it in their obstinate determination to talk to each other in own language.  The absurdity of watching a big Korean person telling lots of small Korean people to talk to each other in a funny foreign language,  was at times, overwhelming –  I helped where I could, with better classroom management, with more interesting activities, etc.  I hope that those kids enjoy their student-centred lessons a bit more, but I won’t lose sleep worrying about whether they’re learning English more effectively.

I’d like to end this post with a positive – I don’t have the same feeling of powerlessness when I teach or watch classes of adults.  I see people whose brains have developed cognitively and who can process a second language.  I see people who can make a conscious choice about what they learn, who are learning English for a reason they understand.  I can see the results of their learning, but I can also tell an adult to stop wasting his time, that he will never learn English.  I prefer a “just in time” approach to teaching and learning rather than a “just in case” approach, because it’s more practical and less wasteful, because I’m sceptical about the future.  

Remember – we live in Extremistan, where anything is possible and the future is unknowable – let’s invest in the here and now rather than put all our eggs in one future basket.  Lets teach the adults and let the children play, while they can.

Why good teachers make good managers (but don’t become managers) and why bad teachers make bad managers (and become managers)

What is a teacher and what is a manager?  Are the two things necessarily different?  The more I study current management theories, about motivation, performance management, the more I see direct correlations between good teaching practice and good management practice.  But  what does it mean to be a good teacher?

First and foremost, I am a humanist.  I believe in personal growth, self-actualization, autonomy and these are the things I value in education.  I am not a dogmatist, nor am I an autocrat (i hope).  I value what my students bring with them into my classroom.  Good teachers are not necessarily the ones with the most knowledge, nor are they the funniest, nor are they the most gifted orators (or bullshitters).  Good teachers listen.  Good teachers believe in autonomy and empowerment.  Good teachers set up achievable tasks for their students, they make sure that students have the necessary language in order to achieve these tasks.  Good teachers monitor their students discreetly, and only step in when they are needed.  Students achieve because their teacher trusts them.  A good teacher believes in the abilities of the students, sets high standards and expectations and gives them the know-how, the wherewithal to meet them, and most importantly of all, gives them constant feedback, both positive and constructive.  Does it sound familiar?  These are also the qualities of a good manager, but perhaps you don’t recognise these qualities in your management team, perhaps you are surrounded by bad managers.  

What is a bad teacher (bad manager)?  Well, simply put, it is the opposite of the above.  A bad teacher has low expectations, a bad teacher thinks that he students are lazy, incapable and need to be told what do while they are doing it.  As a matter of fact, a bad teacher will not even know if his students are capable but will merely assume that they aren’t.  A bad teacher will micro-manage your learning, he will not give you the tools to your success, he may even take credit for your work and say things like “I’m responsible for the success of my students”.  His students will be utterly dependent on him.  Sound familiar?  Chances are you are managed by such a person.  

But why is this?  Surely those of us who work in education, those of us who teach should be surrounded by Y-style managers – democratic, humanistic facilitators who value humanistic approaches to teaching, but more often than not we are managed by X-style managers – autocratic and didactic bullies).

The answer to this conundrum is simple and depressing.  Good teachers like teaching and want to remain in the classroom where they think they belong.  Bad teachers often know that they are bad teachers and look for the first opportunity to escape the classroom.  These people, and we all know instinctively who they are, have two options, one is to leave education and the second is to move into “educational management”.  Given that ELT teachers have often tried to survive in the real world of cutthroat business and failed, we cannot be surprised that bad teachers choose the simpler but less noble option of moving out of the classroom and into the meeting room.  Or, to put it another way, those who can’t, teach; those who can’t teach, move into educational management.

I’d like to finish this post with a call to arms.  If you are a good teacher and you look around your office and see only bad management – instead of leaving the organisation in the hope that you’ll find a good manager somewhere, become a manager.  If you are a practicing humanistic teacher, good at getting the most out of your students at making them feel 10 feet tall, then you will be an excellent manager – your organization still needs you to manage your students, but it also needs you to manage your colleagues.