On My Philosophy of Teaching

I’ve worked as an educator of some kind for almost fifteen of the last sixteen years–and as an instructional content developer during the short time when I was not teaching–I have had a great deal of time to consider the work from a philosophical angle. My deepest belief is that teaching works best when students are motivated, passionate, and excited about the subject matter of their studies, to the point where they view and experience learning as a shared adventure in itself.

However, it’s also true that, at the same time, there are basic skills and structures that you need to master–particular structures and patterns you need to be able to use anytime, and particular expressions and words you’ll need to memorize. The problem is that people usually focus on these things, and not on learning how to actually speak. Why is this?

I think the biggest problem is our learning environments. Classrooms and the systems they’re built around push aside and minimize what helps us learn. Where students ought to be fascinated by (and learn from) their mistakes, they are instead afraid for their grades; where language ability ought to be seen as a means to the end of greater self-expression, it becomes an end in itself; where motivation ought to be harnessed from within students, it often is imposed instead from without by explicit grading rubrics.

But, of course, we can’t easily get rid of grading systems, classrooms, and classes… so we have to find a way to work around these limitations.

Creativity, Motivation, and Performance

The biggest mystery about creativity is why some people act in creative ways, and others don’t. Most of the serious research into creativity shows that the real reason for this is motivation, since when we look at what’s going on in the brains of people creatively painting pictures or writing music, we see the same kinds of brain-activity as we see when people are problem-solving everyday, normal problems.

Many things make it seem like motivation makes the biggest difference. People who are motivated from within to explore and experiment–with a musical system, a form of dance, a literary form, or a language–tend to make greater and broader progress more quickly than those whose whose motivation is external–in the form of, say, graduation requirements.

This is important for language teaching. Language isn’t just “words and rules”: it’s also communication. So if you want to learn a language, you can’t just learn the words and the rules: you need to get better at using the language to actually communicate, too. So it’s important to be open to taking risks and experiencing failures, to learn to master your performance anxieties, and to “have something to say.”

So I think the following things are necessary for successful language teaching:

  • Student-Centric classes: What are students interested in, or excited about? If we can use those things to help motivate you, if you–your passions, your interests, your life–are part of the class as a student, and if those things are related to your study of English, you have a lot stronger reason to actually master English. So I structure my class so that your interests and passions will be expressed and explored in the classroom.
  • Language and “Performance”: I’m a trained musician, and have taught music in the past. One thing I’ve noticed is how a lot of EFL teachers don’t think about language as something we “perform” in the way we perform music. But there are many, many similarities, and I think we’d be better English teachers if we understood this. For example, “performance anxiety” (stage fright) is almost universally ignored in the field of TEFL; in my classroom, we talk directly about performance anxiety, and I teach some techniques music studies to help students master anxiety.
  • Tools, Not Rules: Students who think of languages as sets of “rules” usually think that if they don’t break the rules, they’ve speaking well. This misses the point: in my class, grammar does matter, but it’s not a set of rules you have to follow: it’s a set of tools you can use to express yourself more clearly and effective. Thinking about it that way helps you focus on communication, on results, on your goals in any English communication you’re attempting. If you’re not expressing yourself, you’re not “doing it right”… even if your grammar is perfect.
  • Deliberate Practice: You can’t master the tools–the grammar and structures of a language–without consciously practicing, especially in the earlier stages language learning. In my class, I’ll push you to abandon memorizing and start consciously “practicing” using specific, fundamental grammar strictures in a conscious, deliberate way so that you will be able to use those rules creatively to express yourself.
  • Creativity and Problem-Solving: Half the problem with English class conversations is that they’re pointless: you’re talking to people who aren’t your friend in “real life” about things you don’t care about, in an unnatural setting. It’s really hard to be motivated to communicate in a setting like that. So part of my job is to give you problems you need to solve, especially problems that can only be solved through creative speech or writing.