Archive for February, 2012

personalization can be too personal: ESL experiences

February 15, 2012

In almost every unit of almost every ESL textbook, there is a part where students use the grammar or vocabulary to describe themselves or their experiences.  Even without a textbook, teachers quite properly, try to elicit personal statements from their students.  Usually, this is a good idea.

On his blog, “An A-Z of ELT, Thornbury discusses where these discussions could take you:

In his novel, The Folding Star, Alan Hollinghurst (1994) recounts how the protagonist, a young Englishman recently arrived in a Belgian town, sets himself up as a private English tutor. One of his pupils suffers from asthma, and our hero idly asks him if he knows how he got it.

“I didn’t quite make the story out at first, I was chivvying him and making him repeat words without knowing I was taking him back, like some kinder and wiser analyst, to the scene of a childhood tragedy” (p. 20)


Most of the most personal things I have learned from my students have come from Exam questions and particularly from speaking exams.  At least this is more private for the student.

However it works out, it is often information I don’t really want to know.

“Surprises [no, my students don’t really call me that], my girlfriend and I learned everything about each other’s body that it is possible to know.”

“My boyfriend and I have an intimate relationship.”

“I play Maple Story after school.”

“One goal is to make fantastic love.”

“I like Super Junior.”

Granted, some of these points are not as titillating as others, but none of them do I want to know – and some I disapprove of – fandom of Super Junior, especially!


Back to Thornbury:

When I first encountered personalization it was of the type: “Write 5 or more true sentences about yourself, friends or relations, using the word ago“.

This is taken verbatim from Kernel Lessons (O’Neill et al. 1971), one of the first coursebooks I taught from. The fact that the sentences had to be ‘true’ was regularly ignored or overlooked by both teacher and students. The point was not to be ‘truthful’ but creative. Creative and accurate.

This little personalization task invariably came at the tail end of a sequence of activities whose rationale was the learning and practice of a pre-selected item of grammar. The personalization was really just a pretext for a little bit of creative practice, as well as serving as a first, tentative step towards translating the language of the classroom into the language of ‘real life’.

It’s hard to explain to a student that the truth is not required, only that English production is.  And even when that may be understood, sometimes the english is a little off, so you need to ask questions to clear up the meaning of words and phrases.  Now, I am requiring the student to continue and complicate their possibly made up story.  Is this english or interrogation class?

Thornbury makes only a limited conclusion and finishes with a question:

…Arguably, by foregrounding ‘what really matters to a person’, personalization both motivates and scaffolds these adaptive processes.

So, how do we accommodate the need for personalization into our classes? And – more importantly – how do we deal with learner resistance to it?

Perhaps we need to encourage and explain the option of creating a story.  Instead of, “What does your home look like?”, we should ask the student to “Describe a home that you would like to live in.” or ask students in the dorms -which we already have some knowledge of – to describe them.



three laws of future employment

February 9, 2012

Daniel Jelski at Newgeography discusses his three laws of future employment.  What I got from the article was ‘more of the Red Queen problem’.  Everyone is running faster so you have to run as fast as you can just to stay in the same place.

Let’s start with the three Laws of Future Employment. Law #1: People will get jobs doing things that computers can’t do. Law #2: A global market place will result in lower pay and fewer opportunities for many careers. (But also in cheaper and better products and a higher standard of living for American consumers.) Law #3: Professional people will more likely be freelancers and less likely to have a steady job.

He goes on to discuss how STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) fields are not good bets for the future.

Laws #1 & 2 predict that there will likely be fewer STEM jobs in the future – they are both easily computerized and tradable. People will always be employed in STEM disciplines, many of them highly paid, but they’ll be paid for smarts rather than education. The disciplines will be much more competitive, with older and less talented workers left on the sidelines.

So if computerized, tradable skills won’t create much new employment, if any, what will? Clearly, it will be non-tradable skills that can’t be computerized. At their most valuable these jobs depend on human-human interaction – empathy. Counseling (of any sort: psychiatric, financial, weight loss, etc.), sales, customer service, management, and personal services all rely on empathy, as does waitressing. While much teaching can be computerized, what remains will depend more on empathy than anything else. “They don’t care what you know, but they will know if you care,” is a maxim future teachers should take to heart.

I’ve already quoted extensively.  Please read his conclusions.

You could also read Tabarrok’s response (He is quoted in the article) at Marginal Revolution.

My own concern on the subject -without disagreeing with him- is that the service industry is not profitable.  Wait staff can earn significant amounts in tips but (I admit I’ve been away for a while so I could be wrong) not that many people receive tips.  Service jobs do require more empathy  than skills jobs, but fewer people can perform the skilled work.  I fear the end of any sort of middle class and a sort of hereditary nobility and serf class.

Teacher’s pay

February 7, 2012

One of my aunts has long been a critic of teacher’s pay.  Well, we haven’t discussed the subject in years, so let’s say she was a critic.  She felt that Canadian school teachers only work a few hours a day and have all summer off plus large breaks during the year.

There are rebuttals, chiefly that school teachers often have homework to mark through their evenings and professional development during their summers.  There are many extra tasks that come with teaching that add to the total workload, so their salaries amy not be so high per hour as my aunt suggests.

This does not apply to me so much.  I work a university professor’s schedule but am not threatened by ‘publish-or-perish’ or research expectations that teachers with many initials after their names are.

I think I can admit my pay per hour is relatively high but that I don’t work enough hours and the university contract makes it difficult for me to work more hours off-campus.  One problem at Korean universities for ESL instructors (in English, they call me “professor” but the Korean word is closer to ‘instructor’) is that the university wants F- visa holders (married to a Korean citizen) because we are more likely to be here for the long-term.  On the other hand, a large number of F- visas holders have families and are looking for a higher salary to support a family.

I have been investigating giving private lessons and have acquaintances who have quoted fantastic pay per hour.  It’s work I would like to do but honestly don’t feel I am worth the money they are getting per hour.  I don’t know these people, or their teaching habits and abilities, very well, so let me careful to say I am not sure that any teacher is worth 50,000 won per hour, a sum they they regularly exceed.  They might be that skilled and capable, but I am not sure how.  I am uncertain of their abilities but figure that mine are comparable.  I would love to be paid that much but is it reasonable?

Alabama State Senator Shadrack McGill (via Friendly Atheist) would say no. He starts the quote below by discussing why legislators deserve more pay but why teachers don’t:

McGill said that by paying legislators more, they’re less susceptible to taking bribes.

“He needs to make enough that he can say no, in regards to temptation. … Teachers need to make the money that they need to make. There needs to be a balance there. If you double what you’re paying education, you know what’s going to happen? I’ve heard the comment many times, ‘Well, the quality of education’s going to go up.’ That’s never proven to happen, guys.

“It’s a Biblical principle. If you double a teacher’s pay scale, you’ll attract people who aren’t called to teach.

“To go in and raise someone’s child for eight hours a day, or many people’s children for eight hours a day, requires a calling. It better be a calling in your life. I know I wouldn’t want to do it, OK?

“And these teachers that are called to teach, regardless of the pay scale, they would teach. It’s just in them to do. It’s the ability that God give ’em. And there are also some teachers, it wouldn’t matter how much you would pay them, they would still perform to the same capacity.

Giving a teacher more money would attract lazy teachers, ones who are only in it for the money.  Giving a senator more money reduces the danger of corruption and acceptance of bribes.

Now, there have been reports of school teachers accepting bribes in Korea so maybe that is an argument for their receiving better pay.

One argument for fighting for higher pay is the uncertain nature of work in Korea for Native Speaker English Teachers.

The Seoul Ministry Of Education is thinking about getting rid of all it’s NSETs.  It wasn’t that long ago that they were hiring native-speakers-with-heartbeats.

A Geek in Korea made public a remark from John in Daejeon about Teaching ESL in that city.  Here is an excerpt:

I hope you have some backup plans just in case something happens that affects your position.

I bring this up because, over the holiday, my old boss informed me that 20% of the hagwons in the his association here in Daejeon are close to shutting their doors due to low enrollment, and that this was the first year in his 10 years of being a member that no new directors joined the group. So there happens to be quite a bit of nervousness even among those members whose academies are still doing well as to the “up in the air” future of education in South Korea. Some directors have even started using part-time native speakers who are married to Koreans to save money on E-2 visa processing, airfare, housing, and whatever other benefits that they can get away with not paying them to help save money.

At least at the university level, foreign (Chinese) students can be enrolled in greater numbers to justify keeping teachers. However, if there are fewer and fewer students enrolling in elementary schools due to the low birth rate here, what justification is there in keeping the current levels of public school teachers and hagwon teachers? […]

Seeing as I am morally troubled by asking for a high salary, perhaps I need to change my teaching strategy.

Yoo Soo-youn earns a billion won a year (about a million Canadian dollars) teaching TOEIC

…TOEIC English  proficiency test, which is still widely taken in Korea. “I leave home around six-thirty in the morning and give TOEIC lectures from 7 a.m to 2 p.m. I teach about 1,000 people, 200 in each of the five classes,” she says. “After the lectures, I head over to the Yoo soo-youn English Center, which I established, around 2.30 p.m. When I’m done there, I head back to my classes and lecture from 5 p.m. to 10 p.m. I usually handle three classes of 200 people. My day officially ends when I get home around 11 p.m. I usually go to sleep at 1.30 a.m. in the morning after I check online posts and comments related to my lectures. I haven’t slept for more than five hours a day since I became an adult.”

She lectures to 1600 people a day.  That’s a lot but it could be more.

Sebastian Thrun taught an Artificial Intelligence course online for Stanford and had an enrollment between 60,000 and 160,000.  He is now trying to run a course for 500,000 students at a time.  I’m straying off topic here because I have no information on Thrun’s salary.

“Having done this, I can’t teach at Stanford again…It’s impossible…there’s a red pill and a blue pill and you can take the blue pill and go back your classroom and lecture your 20 students. But I’ve taken the red pill and seen Wonderland.”

Now teaching isn’t the same as learning.  I happily accept that these two teachers, with their huge numbers of students, work hard to offer as much help to their students as possible.    Still, working with a thousand or more students a day seems too impersonal to me.

So I will finish this post as I started: wondering if I should be working at a high per-student rate for a small number of students or a small per-student rate for many.