Those of you keeping up with New Movements online and off in the World of EFL will know of Jim Scrivener and Adrian Underhill’s relatively new endeavour, Demand High ELT. In their own words, this movement asks:
- Are our learners capable of more, much more?
- Have the tasks and techniques we use in class become rituals and ends in themselves?
- How can we stop “covering material” and start focusing on the potential for deep learning?
- What small tweaks and adjustments can we make to shift the whole focus of our teaching towards getting that engine of learning going?
Just before Christmas there was a new post from Adrian entitled ‘Demanding Higher in a Conversation Class’. In this post he argues for employing the tool of minimal interference during a student discussion, to allow for teacher upgrades to student performance. At one point he says:
Let me play devil’s advocate for a moment: These students have not paid their time/money to come and have that debate on public transport. If that was their overriding focus they’d go elsewhere for such a debate. They have come to learn English, and they don’t want me tiptoeing round a mediocre conversation about transport out of desperate fear of stopping the flow. (my emphasis)
The point is clear enough and the post is somewhat of a challenge to what might be considered standard practice in fluency-oriented TEFL tasks, but the phrasing here suggests a phenomenon that I see almost everywhere in EFL: a separation of language and content. I don’t mean to single out this post particularly, of course, but it provides a useful springboard into why this matters for EAP.
It seems that notions of language use in EFL represent largely the development of language-as-system, not the development of language-as-reflector-of-personal-meanings. In the view expressed in the post above, aboutness appears not to matter. Content (‘a debate on public transport’) serves merely as the (essentially unimportant, replaceable) container for system and skills work.
For the EAP context I think it is misleading to construe language as separable from context and content. Three decades of work from the likes of Mike McCarthy & Ron Carter (e.g. 1991; 1993) and, in particular, Michael Halliday & colleagues (e.g. 2004) show us that language and context are co-constituting. In EFL, we seem to get away with ignoring this, perhaps because future communicative needs tend not to be as clearly defined as for students heading to university departments. In EAP, however, I think making the same mistake is dangerous and risks turning EAP into what I call chEAP – a form of teaching practice that underserves students as preparation for the Academy.
During the summer, I was sitting in on a seminar discussion class with students heading ultimately to the Law School. The theme was the death penalty. The teacher did a wonderful job of warming up the students, eliciting some foundational ideas, creating a spidergram of these on the whiteboard and then getting people started on the debate. What happened, however, was that the students quickly latched onto a famous case in China with which they were all familiar (it was a monocultural group) and this become the basis for most of the discussion that took place.
In a language-as-system view this is unproblematic. Students have been ‘practicing their fluency’ and the teacher might have Demanded Higher by intervening sotto voce to provide some on-the-spot pronunciation and word choice refinement (etc). In a very short time, however, when students are in their academic departments, it will not be nearly enough simply to speak; students need to have something contentful to say. Contributions cannot just tread-water comfortably in the safe terrain of personal anecdotes. Collective contributions should, in principle, advance the awareness and knowledge of the group. Seminar participation, like academic reading and writing, needs to be about knowledge building (Scardamalia & Bereiter 2003, inter alia).
I strongly believe we need to be (re)creating a climate of knowledge building in the EAP classroom. For this very reason, the students in the class I was watching had all been required to read 2-3 academic papers on the death penalty. They had encountered ideas that may well have gently rocked and challenged some of their existing awareness, such as the suggestion that the capital punishment system in certain parts of the world is inherently racist. Yet none of these notions or examples emerged in the discussion. I think the students themselves thought their job was ‘just to speak’ and not to co-construct and co-extend understandings in the service of collective knowledge building. They didn’t think that content mattered much beyond staying on topic.
The teacher and I talked about these things after the class and we came up with a visual way of representing what had happened. We drew a simple graph like this:
EAP seminars as knowledge building
In knowledge building terms, the students had ended up plateauing very early (red line). We agreed, however, that if they had brought in ideas from reading and had worked on these together, they would have engaged in plenty of ‘language practice’, but would also perhaps have pushed their academic knowledge forward (blue line). We also agreed that drawing a variation on this graph might actually be a useful activity to do with the students (‘How far did our discussion advance our understanding of the issues? What more could we have done?’).
Like Adrian, I think there’s also a time to interfere minimally during a spoken discussion, but for a different reason to those he lists. I think we can Demand Higher in EAP by pushing students towards more challenging content. In the class above, the teacher needed to interrupt to remind students of a theme, a case study or a theory from their reading. Challenging ideas (central to academic practice, of course) force students to stretch the linguistic resources they have to fit the new requirements of context.
Once students start truly engaging with ideas beyond collective everyday experience, however, accuracy is likely to break down – and I think this may be a time to contribute as a participant, but it is not a time to interrupt. The skill of the EAP teacher needs to include recognising that systemic work on language should probably happen in the moment only where content is fairly familiar – where cognitive load is relatively low. Where students are actually battling with ideas, wrestling with concepts (as they should be), we need to refrain from interrupting, except perhaps where misunderstanding is taking students too far down the wrong path.
I got the impression that most students left this particular discussion with essentially no more awareness or knowledge of the death penalty debate than they had before the session started. While procedurally everything the teacher did would have ticked all the boxes in a DELTA observation, I think this session partly underserved the needs of the students.
Most people would agree with me that EAP should always be demand high. EAP teachers need to be thinking in their planning about appropriate levels of challenge, not just their Use of The Board or degree of Student Centredness. The mistake, I feel however, is to see ‘demand high’ only in linguistic terms. EAP should be demand high in academic and conceptual terms too. Merrill Swain, writing about advanced language use, helps us think in this direction:
[I]t is too simplistic to think of language as being only a conveyor of meaning. Rather we need to think of language as also being an agent in the making of meaning. (Swain 2006: 96, emphasis added)
By taking content seriously (e.g. in a seminar class), students are able to engage in what Swain calls languaging – speaking for thinking and knowledge building (not just for language practice). Our students need to be placed in supportively scaffolded situations where they are using language to mediate problem solving, to talk over data, to co-extend their awareness of a theoretical notion, or to share their understandings of a conceptually challenging text.
Drawing original inspiration from Vygotsky, Swain summarises:
Speaking and writing […] do much more than convey a message. They serve as tools of the mind, mediating the cognition and re-cognition of experience and knowledge. (Swain 2006:106)
I think it is crucial that we see EAP practice in these terms. This, for me, is appropriately Demand High EAP (and, in fact, the overarching ethos of Demand High ELT would appear to allow for this view). Such an approach helps avoid what I have, here and elsewhere, dubbed chEAP. This term is knowingly pejorative, because I think our learners deserve better. It is our responsibility to aim for a teaching & learning preparation that engages students in forms of academic participation that are broadly consonant with those they may encounter in their departments. Crucially, this means putting content at the centre of EAP practice.
Content should not be an empty container for language work, but rather the driver of its development.
Scardamalia, M., & Bereiter, C. (2003) ‘Knowledge Building’. In Encyclopedia of Education. (2nd ed., pp. 1370-1373). New York: Macmillan Reference, USA.
Swain, M. (2006) ‘Languaging, agency and collaboration in advanced second language proficiency’. In H. Byrnes (Ed) Advanced Language Learning: the contribution of Halliday and Vygotsky. London: Continuum.