David Mainwood has been teaching EFL /ESL for nearly 25 years. He has experience in teaching in Spain and the UK, mainly in private language schools but also more recently in FE colleges. He got into EFL teaching after travelling around Europe on inter-rail in the mid 80s and living for a short time in Copenhagen. He had always been interested in languages and found the experience of learning languages vital in thinking about how to teach his own and empathising with students. He still believes that EFL teachers are a kind of “special breed” after noticing that many good EFL teachers have artistic, musical and dramatic talents as well as an innate sense of presentation and “show business” entertainment skills that they often put into their classes. This ensures that good EFL classes are always varied, fun and student oriented. With these aspects in mind he has enthusiastically taken up the use of e-learning in his classes as he believes it expands the possibilities of language presentation and aids teachers to ensure that students are both entertained and inspired.
Owing to professional demands and spaces of time, this interview is presented in a transcript. David has however, agreed to participate in a video interview once both our schedules allow for more flexibility.
Ana Cristina: What have you perceived to be the main differences between teaching in Spain and in more recently, in the UK?
David: Well I can talk about 3 areas really, working in private language schools in Spain and the UK, and working at an FE college in the UK.
To start with Spain, classes are obviously taught in a Spanish context and with the students’ first language as an ever present factor. What one does about this seems to be down to the individual academy or teacher. A flexible approach is probably the best as knowing the language can be a considerable aid to teaching beginners, very young children and for checking. One had to be a bit stricter with teenagers but with tired adults who were coming to classes at the end of a working day one had to allow for some lapses. Usually this was something that one negotiated with the class and the benefits that 100% English were usually obvious to them.
Obviously one was aware that language schools are also business that had to keep their customers happy. It was my experience that provided students were attending and happy, parents were happy and everyone was passing their exams in school or college then the teacher was pretty much left to get on with it. Responsibility for running the class, choosing a course book or materials and discipline were the teacher’s. Advice and help is often on hand from other experienced teachers and I must say that I personally found this the best way to learn how to teach (I only had the 4 week TEFL Cert when I first went to Spain). One can be experimental, choose materials which suit and interest classes and develop the reflexes that teachers need on the job.
Anyway, there you have it. I’ve always been interested in using technology in class but I think working for the state has afforded me opportunities to explore and innovate with IT that I don’t think I would have had in a smaller language school. That doesn’t mean to say one couldn’t do this in a private school. Nowadays one can set up a laptop with a projector and with a wifi connection one could present ideas and language in more or less the same way as you could with an IWB.
Ana Cristina: David, you have several great teaching websites – both curation and The Lecturer’s EFL Smartblog. How do you see the increase of e-learning impacting students and teachers over the next couple of years? Well, seeing that it’s not simple to make predictions, how would you see this development over the coming 3 years?
David: You’re right it’s difficult to make predictions. I think what is going to happen is more student choice and empowerment, plus the ability for teachers to personalise what they offer.
I suppose the best way to start is to look at the last 3 years and see if there are any trends that may continue.
If I look back to 3 years ago there was already a wealth of EFL resources available online on various popular websites. We used moodle and blackboard, youtube, many grammar sites and there was also facebook which could be used for teaching purposes and personal study. I think what’s happening now is that some teachers may be noticing that moodle and blackboard (notoriously clunky) may not be the best means to manage and supply students with content and are coming across alternative ways of doing this. There is now a proliferation of free programs, blogs and online facilties and one of the things that has surprised me is how much facebook is now being used by students to learn English. There are a huge number of pages on facebook dedicated to learning English and students can join a group and chat, post or follow links when it suits them and do it pretty much as a relaxing hobby. All it needs is a dedicated page administrator to build up a community and I know at least one student who has achieved a pretty good pre.int > int level just by using facebook. This means students now have a wealth of grammar, listening, exam oriented materials which are available for free. Therefore students now can obtain free entry into learning English. This of course may have rather strong repercussions in the EFL book publishing world. I do think that a large amount of English learning will take place online and this will continue to grow in the foreseeable future. It seems to me to be a fairly obvious consumer led demand. It could also be that organisations will need to use free content and something like facebook as marketing tools to attract fee paying students into their classrooms and courses.
We are presuming of course that everyone has access to a computer and the internet which is patently untrue especially in certain parts of the world. However I do think that the idea that resources and material are being made available for free is an important one. It does give English students the freedom to choose how and where they want to study. Three of the skills can be practised online but will students still want to go to a class to practise speaking and perhaps have contact with a teacher who can act as a guide and learning manager? I think so. I have often asked students whether they would like to learn English solely online; chatting, using skype or in conferences and so far all have said that they like being in classes with a teacher. There is a social aspect to being in a class that is not to be underestimated. They get to meet people and do fun stuff together in English. I think there will always be a demand for that.
It could mean that blended learning, therefore, is going to be the popular way forward. Students get their “homework” to do online and come in to class to practise speaking skills and build on whatever they’ve been doing online. Teachers will have to be trained to manage this new way of organising learning. That’s one of the stumbling blocks to progress here I think. Many colleges or institutions are quite happy to invest in the hardware but then seem unwilling to give teachers the time to get familiar with it resulting in a loss of potential. Teachers do need to get to grips with this stuff but they also need the training and the time to learn how to use and manage them. Computer literate teachers are still a minority (at least where I work). However if teachers are able to provide quality differentiated online content for students it does mean that the future teacher is going to be part graphic designer and web page administrator. This could be fun for those who enjoy the creative aspects of IT and teaching but is this true for all teachers? Will good teachers be “techers”?
So where does this leave colleges and institutions? I think there will always be a demand for a teacher or a guide / learning manager and this will take place in a class in a school or college. Learning a language is communication and people need to communicate in pairs and groups in a physical space managed by someone who is directing and co-ordinating the learning activities. This may be an area where a teacher’s presentational and “showbiz” skills come to the fore.
A lot of grammar and writing practise can take place online and I think people will want to pay for that access and immediacy which online learning can bring. It may mean though that the student is going to have to take a lot more responsibility for their learning. They are going to also have to be their own learning managers to a greater extent than now. Although I’m not sure how realistic that is with younger learners.
We are heading into a very interesting time. Everything is opening up. The internet and social media have been seen recently to be very powerful tools for social change. The top down managerial approach could be weakening in many areas. A revolution is happening. This goes for education too. Teachers and students can both be empowered by social media. Would it one day be possible for students and teachers to get together online and create a learning space which dispenses with the bureaucrats, pen pushers and politicians? We can leave them to send their never-ending emails and directives to each other in their ancient ivory towers while students and teachers, ordinary people, are freed up to do what they need to do – learn.
Unlikely to happen in the next three years though.
Thank you David for your thoughts and contribution!