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The Swing of the Pendulum (by Márcia Lima)


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photo: sylvar

Having been in the TEFL field for a number of years now, I’ve witnessed the ELT pendulum swing a number of times (back and forth and sideways) when talking about methods and approaches. Throughout all these years, I have seen teachers simply ‘throw away’ all they knew and believed about a certain method or approach because a new, trendier one had just made the market. I am talking specifically about the time in Brazil when the Communicative Approach swept away the Audio-Lingual Method and its (then considered) controlled, grammar-based use of the language in a way which didn’t foster real communication. It was believed that students needed to be given every chance they could get to communicate (even to the detriment of grammar).

Time went by and teachers began to realize that yes, students seemed to have become more fluent in less time, but the quality of their communication seemed to have decreased due to poor mastery of grammar structures. Such awareness caused teachers to rethink their practice and as a result, the pendulum swung again: teachers started to draw from the ‘old’ methods the techniques which they found beneficial to help students gain a better command of the structures.

Dogme is the buzz word now. From what I have been reading, some people seem to support Dogme as a key to authentic communication while others seem to suggest that it is just a new disguise for under-planned lessons. I imagine that Dogme will enjoy its golden days for some time; however, the laws of physics are unquestionable. A time will come when the ELT pendulum will swing again, and take us all in another direction. At times, I get dizzy from the extremes, and I wish that the pendulum would stop in a middle location that would encourage us to combine the best features of the methods and approaches we have used.

How about you? Do you enjoy the pendulum swings, and immersing yourself in new teaching methods? Or do you prefer to watch from the sidelines, picking and choosing from new methods those ideas that appeal to you? Do you like the destination or the journey?

Marcia LimaMárcia  Lima has been involved in TEFL for over 25 years and currently teaches and trains teachers at her own language school in Brazil. She is also an Associate with the International Teacher Development Institute (iTDi). Her passions include teaching (very) young learners and using technology in the classroom. She blogs at Where English is Fun and her Twitter handle is @bamarcia.

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14 Comments

  1. Barbara says:

    I remember first hearing about pendulum swings one of my courses about teaching literacy (phonics vs not-phonics), so apparently these swings aren’t limited to ELT!

    Wonder what it is about us that causes us to react to the problems inherent in one way of teaching by shifting 180 degrees in the opposite direction?

    Guess I’m a fan of the journey, since I never seem to reach the destination any more :)

  2. Matthew Spira says:

    I think the perception of the pendulum is essentially a reaction to “what’s in front of you.” Are you for or against whatever pedagogical something? How do you identify, define and explain what you are doing and why? Maybe that does matter on some level, but day-in-and-day out what I suspect is truly important to our students is something else: essentially the sense of self and them we bring to the class.

    A shorter-winded way of putting it is I strongly believe it’s not really the specific method employed that makes a learning session successful.

  3. Now (thanks to experience) I’d rather watch from the sidelines, pick and choose from new methods ideas that might meet my students’ needs, fit available resources and my teaching context. I love changes (new methods and all), but sometimes they are fleeting, overly promoted for some reason (commercial?), oriented to ideal group of students (e.g. students in developed countries or multicultural groups) and teaching contexts or keeping in mind a native speaker as a teacher and not an NSS. So I hear-read-explore what’s new. If it works, welcome! If it doesn’t I go back or keep on using my old, adapted (no adopted) teaching tricks (methods, approaches, techniques).

  4. Hi Márcia,

    Good point, but I’m not so sure that the pendulum swings are quite as obvious as they used to be. There’s a lot of knee-jerk ‘boxing’ of things, which in turn supports neat appearance of pendulum swings. For example, personally I’ve found unplugged teaching (or Dogme, for those who absolutely insist on using that ugly word for it) results in as much specific focus on language structure as it does on open communication. If there is a pendulum swing there, it is towards the humanistic and cognitive elements of language teaching more than anything else.

    Still, some people try to box it as being teaching ‘on the fly’ without preparation or planning, which I think is inaccurate.

    You’re right, however, that an eclectic mix and match approach is probably most desirable. Funnily enough, I’ve found unplugged teaching was probably the first overall ‘approach’ that allowed me to mix a whole range of positive elements from GMT, ALM and all the other traditional or hip 70s methods…

    Cheers,

    – Jason

  5. Vladka says:

    Dear Marcia

    thank you for your lovely post. I have to say that somehow I have always been in the middle somewhere. What I want to say is that I like anything new that comes to education but I believe the most important should always be -student- and so we, teachers and those who are aware of all those trends, methods and techniques, are there to help each student to find their own way of learning, help them, support them and motivate to go on. We need to be thoughful and rational and sensitive to the needs and expecatations of our students, not just blind followers of some trend. And that’s why I like anything new as well as old – it gives us more opportunities/possibilities in the class and beyond.

    Thanks again for great post Marcia
    and thanks to Barbara as well for such a wonderful guest :-)

  6. Kevin Ryan says:

    Dogme is (not just) a new face on Community Learning (Look up Charles Curran, Counselling Language Learning (CLL) also known as (aka) Community Language Learning. Dogme brings you back to your roots, like a Buddhist priest. Get the book (Meddings and Thornbury) . It is short, but assumes you can think and extrapolate. Well worth the investment.

    And yes, we swing back and forth, but in different rhythms.

    English teacher mode ON
    “Having been in the TEFL field for a number of years now, I’ve witnessed the ELT pendulum swing a number of times (back and forth and sideways) when talking about methods and approaches. ”
    When your profile says 25 years, the “a number of” gets old. As well as a “number of” times for the pendulum. Be specific.
    English teacher mode OFF

    References
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Community_language_learning
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dogme_language_teaching

    I really appreciate your thinking about these issues. So few teachers do.

  7. Torn Halves says:

    A comment about dizziness: I guess the antidote to that is for each of us to work out a clearer idea of what we think education is all about and should be about, bearing in mind the culture that we are in and the people we have to deal with. If we think that education is only about liberating the individual, then we are likely to find Scott Thornbury and the Dogme movement persuasive. If we think that education needs to delicately balance the liberation of the individual with a preservation of a local culture (albeit an evolving culture) then we might give some lesson time over to Dogme activities, but we won’t be jumping on the bandwagon.

    Really, I think that what we need is an anti-methodology – a critique and a rejection of the idea that there might be one right way to teach English. Teachers then discuss and develop ways of teaching English which seem best in their particular circumstances.

  8. seburnt says:

    I’ve heard of this infamous pendulum, but not in terms of ELT. It seems that ELT approaches continue to morph from one into another without fully returning back to any previous incarnation. However, I hear your suggestion that some may ignore one style altogether for a time only to reintroduce it mixed with their current joy later on.

    Personally, I haven’t spent too much time being cognisant of the ins and outs of this or that approach. I focus more on what will work with one group of students learning one particular thing. Beyond that, something different needs to work.

    It’s like the argument that coursebooks are a one-size-fits-all situation and cannot be as good as Dogme. Both, actually, are pidgeoning students into being those that work best in one system or another. Both have principles of a one-size mentality, just one is disguised with the banter of authenticity, true or not. Best, I believe, is to do exactly what you suggested earlier, mix and match for a realistic differentiation.

  9. Randy Poehlman says:

    Marcia,
    Thanks for a great observation piece.
    I think that being an effective teacher requires one to play with methods and approachs and develop a “teachers toolbox” of sorts. Learning new approachs and building them in when they fit best to the situation has helped me over my last few years as a teacher. Refreshing your lessons and programs and assisting in the facilitation of both achievable long and short term goals for your students that will provide a balanced approach- is my two cents.
    Cheers.
    Also to the group, What academic journals do you recommend to learn more about various approachs and methods? I am interested in reading up.
    Randy

  10. Sabrina says:

    Great post, Márcia!
    I also think we should not limit ourselves to one methodology or another as if they were mutually exclusive. It’s important to integrate and adapt whatever works best for our students so they become not only fluent but also able to speak correctly.

  11. Tarun Patel says:

    Hi,

    How are you. I am glad to discover your blog through freeeslmaterials.com.

    I run englishteachingdaily.com, a portal that offers a summary of latest ELT blog posts from the blogosphere, event updates, articles and more.

    This site has been launched on October 7 and in the first 20 days of its launch it received 5500 views,

    We would like to reprint your articles on my site. We will give appropriate credit to you for your works and link to your profile and the website.

    Kindly have a look at my website at englishteachingdaily.com and let me know if we could work out together.

    Thanks,

    Tarun Patel

    email: tarunjpatel@gmail.com
    skype: tarunjpatel

  12. Berni Wall says:

    Finally got here Marcia. Great post! I can sympathise with you on this. My blood often runs cold at #eltchat when all these new things come along in the discussion and I panic thinking that I have got behind somehow! I’m at the stage also where I’m not sure that I want to learn all the new tricks being a bit of an ‘old dog’! My own personal viewpoint is that as long as I stay focused on the learner, what they want, how they are progressing and whether or not they are enjoying and interested in what they are learning then the inputs will come in whatever form is appropriate. I trust my own experience and try not to be complacent. I hope I keep enough of an eye on developments so as not to become too fuddy duddy! I believe that just as there are a number of learning styles there are also a number of teaching approaches all of which are valid if they get the job done well. At the end of the day the relationship of teacher-learner is key to success and a good teacher will be in tune with the learner’s way of learning and this, in turn, suggests the methodology.

  13. Clive Lovelock says:

    I started teaching English in 1965 and am still at it, having picked up useful ideas along the way from a dozen or so pendulum swings, while finding others less applicable. I noticed, after about the third swing, that what Matthew calls “a reaction to what’s in front of you” tends to cause them, and that this way of thinking (or rather of not thinking) is faulty in at least the following two respects.
    “This method/approach is not working very well, so:
    a) let’s replace it with a new one — instead of modifying or adding to the old one to make it work better;
    or:
    b) all aspects of the old method/approach are tainted with failure, so let’s not retain any of them,” though even the least attractive methods have their good points.
    I suspect that there may also be a bit of iconoclasm working there too, when the inventor of a new method deliberately tries to thoroughly diss the new method from the old, so as to attract attention to the new one.

    Nevertheless, I still find it refreshing to read about new ideas (or are they just ideas that haven’t been widely used for a century or two?) and try them out if they fit into my existing way of doing things. But whatever methods one adopts, they should not conflict with sound principles about the nature of language and learning.

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