Will robots replace teachers?

On the 90th anniversary of Fritz Lang’s dystopian film Metropolis – one of the earliest to include a robot – we ponder the role of robots in education.

In 2004, IBM executive Charles Lickel was eating in a restaurant when he noticed his fellow-diners abandoning their meals and heading towards the bar. Why the desperate scramble? They were rushing to watch Jeopardy!, a long-running and addictive quiz show. Seven years later, after Lickel had repeatedly fought for it, IBM built a machine called Watson to compete in Jeopardy!. It was to be a grand test of computing capabilities: a machine that could answer general knowledge questions about any subject at any time in history. Watson at first had some problems. When asked a question about 19th century British literature, the computer came up with the Pet Shop Boys – an English pop group – instead of Oliver Twist. But after much tweaking by its programmers, it eventually beat its human competitors.

The struggle between man and machine is nothing new. Back in the 15th century there were complaints that Gutenberg’s printing press would make monks lazy (part of their job was to copy manuscripts by hand). In 16th century England, William Lee presented his newly-invented knitting machine to Queen Elizabeth I in order to get a patent. She was so worried that hand-knitters would lose their jobs that she refused.

Half a millennium later, the world of work has changed drastically because of automation. Fritz Lang’s vision of workers slaving away in cavernous factories, as seen in Metropolis, has largely come true in developing countries. But has the world of education changed, too?

If you look at pictures of classrooms around the world over the last 150 years, the surprising thing is how little they have changed. There’s a teacher at the front with some kind of screen or board on which he or she writes. There are children in rows or clusters. Only in a few societies – notably in South Korea – has the paradigm occasionally been challenged by replacing the teacher.

In 2011, news came out of South Korea that the country was piloting a robot-teacher program for Elementary students. The robots, called Engkey, were controlled by remote teachers in the Philippines. The program helped to make up for the shortage of English teachers in the country, and while the robots were apparently motivating for the children, the idea was not to replace real teachers.


Engkey. Image from https://www.slashgear.com

The fact is, automatons – by which I mean robots and any form of artificial intelligence – are extraordinarily good at some tasks and extraordinarily bad at others. When the parameters of the task are limited, such as knowing the finite possibilities of a chess match or doing calculus, automatons are brilliant. (In 1997, IBM’s machine, Deep Blue, beat world chess champion Garry Kasparov, who promptly accused IBM of cheating.) But other simple-sounding tasks are beyond them. While trying to build robots to do housework, inventors realized the biggest problem was teaching the robots to walk. In fact, most household chores are tricky for robots. In 2010, a team of UC Berkeley researchers built a robot that could fold towels. Unfortunately, each towel took 24 minutes to fold – fine if you have all week to do the laundry.

Ask any educator if robots will ever replace teachers and they’ll say no. Teachers have multiple roles: guides, mentors, facilitators. They do the soft skills – motivating students, explaining nuances of language, and building rapport – that machines can’t do. Most importantly, robots can’t inspire us.

Tucker Balch, associate professor of Interactive Computing at the Georgia Institute of Technology, says, “I don’t think a robot will ever be better than a person. Teaching is probably the most challenging role for artificial intelligence. It is a creative role and to teach well you really have to understand the person you’re teaching.”

Similarly, Daphne Koller, president and co-founder of Coursera, identifies three reasons why human teachers are essential: creating content, answering tough questions and providing inspiration.

Replacement of human teachers, then, seems unlikely. Having said that, what teacher wouldn’t appreciate a robot to help with the menial tasks machines excel in – checking attendance, grading homework, cleaning the board? Or perhaps our model should be a movie robot, but not the one from Metropolis, which ended up getting burned at the stake. In Star Wars, C-3P0 was designed by Anakin Skywalker as a translation machine, “fluent in over six million forms of communication.” Now that might be useful in a language classroom.

A Wish List for the New Year

1. I hope 2016’s madcap political manoeuvers in the UK and the USA won’t result in drastically reduced numbers of foreign students in 2017. In Britain, about 5.5% of all university students are from EU (European Union) countries. After Brexit, these learners will be classified as international students, which means they pay more. Opportunities to study in Britain might be reduced for all but the very wealthy and the tiny minority who win scholarships. The UK’s ELT industry – currently worth £1.2 billion – will watch nervously as the Brussels bureaucrats get the Brexit wheels spinning.

Image from The University of Sheffield International College

Image from The University of Sheffield International College








2. Wish no. 2 concerns my own specialist field: materials writing. I hope the onward march of authenticity continues. The alternative – Fake English – has been exposed and denounced, as the ubiquity of the internet has left it behind.

These days, barely a conference goes by without some grammar guru recalling unlikely sentences from ancient textbooks. My own comes from a Spanish language-learning program which recently taught me how to say “I am a penguin” – “Yo soy un pingüino” – not a sentence I expect to say in this lifetime (or in the next, assuming I’m not reincarnated as a Spanish-speaking penguin). While Fake English has its uses, I hope the more ridiculous examples disappear and the phrases our students learn in the classroom are at least similar to what they encounter outside the classroom.


3. Talking of conference speakers, what do they say into a microphone to make sure it works? “Testing, testing, 1, 2, 3.” For the big publishers, this phrase isn’t just for tech run-throughs; it’s their modus operandi, the mantra that makes the money. Persuade a government to implement your tests countrywide; publish the books that prepare students for those tests, and watch the cash roll in. Testing, testing, 1, 2, 3.

I hope in 2017 we de-emphasize tests, not just in ELT but in all education.

Image from britishcouncil.org.nz

Image from britishcouncil.org.nz


4. Testing’s big brother is measurement. By measurement I’m talking about Big Data – the type that parses your facebook page, your tweets, and your emails, and decides you’re a suburban, sixty-something vegan even if you’re really a meat-eating Millennial mountain-dweller. Your computer then starts advertising products based on its calculations of who you are.

In education, Big Data has Big Potential. Adaptive learning programs give us the tools to measure how students are progressing and then the program adapts the sequence of work for that particular student. In other words, we’re no longer guessing about things we’ve guessed about for centuries.

Image from viewfoo.com

Image from viewfoo.com

The catch is this, a quote attributed to Einstein: “not everything that can be counted counts, and not everything that counts can be counted.”

I hope in 2017 we still have room for human interaction as the main driver of learning. There’s nothing more powerful, not even Big Data.



5. Ed-tech is the genie that jumped out the bottle. But the wishes it promised haven’t all come true. There’s no magic bullet to language learning, and tech tools are just that: tools. To get them working properly, educators need more training and more motivation to master them. There’s a good reason interactive whiteboards have become interactive white elephants in many schools. The money went on the tech and not on training the teachers.

I hope, this year, ed-tech evangelists continue to offer increasingly wise counsel about their products: that their platforms, games and apps represent small, incremental developments in language learning, and that the tools themselves – like all tools – are ineffective unless they’re in good hands.


6. Finally, in 2016 there was much talk about native vs non-native speaker teachers. I hope to see all teachers valued for their professionalism and ability, regardless of their first language. I also hope conference organizers will offer more plenaries and keynote talks to non-native speakers and to that other underrepresented majority: women.

A Happy New Year to all.







Cremated Coffee and Ax-Girlfriends: The Mysteries of Error and Error Correction

Students say the funniest things.

“Do you want your coffee cremated?”

“My sister is having three cats.”

“My relationship with my ax-girlfriend was very painful.”

“When I was six I went to primate school.”

“The cat was hungry because we forgot to eat him.”

And teachers do the funniest things to correct them.

One teacher keeps a large plastic snake in her desk. When the students forget the third person s, she pulls out her snake, whirls it above her head, and says “sssssssssssssssssssssssss”.

The latest teaching tool. Image from www.hawkin.com.

The latest teaching tool. Image from http://www.hawkin.com.












Another class kept making errors with prepositions. The teacher labeled the walls (AT, ON, IN), moved the tables and chairs, and got his students to run to the correct wall according to what he said. If he said “2 o’clock”, they ran to the AT wall; if he said “Monday”, they ran to the ON wall.

Another teacher, after her online student kept making mistakes with of, copied and pasted fifty emails (that’s not a typo) and asked her student to highlight all the examples of of so he would see how it’s used correctly. The student attempted the task but died of boredom before he could finish.

Error correction. Does it work? And are there any good ways to do it that don’t involve plastic toys, humiliation, exhaustion, or death?

Student Expectations

Let’s start with the student. Some students say they want to be corrected every time they make an error. Try doing this for five minutes. They’ll be miserable and you’ll be exhausted. The teacher needs to find a balance between helping the classroom community function happily, i.e. without constant correction, and fulfilling students’ expectations that they’re being monitored.

Interlanguage and fossilization

The other aspect to constant correction is that it ignores a simple fact: errors are an inevitable part of language learning. They are evidence of learners attempting to activate L2. While experimenting, students produce an intermediate form of language that typically falls between their native and target languages. This is called interlanguage. It’s the equivalent of those transitional hominids in evolutionary biology, like Australopithecus, that were somewhere between our ape ancestors and bipedal humans. Interlanguage is somewhere between L1 and the target language.

Fossilization occurs when interlanguage becomes permanent. Image from thefossilshop.com

Fossilization occurs when interlanguage becomes permanent. Image from thefossilshop.com

And while we’re on the subject of evolutionary biology, we should mention fossilization. Fossilization occurs when a student is no longer developing in proficiency and her errors become a permanent part of her language repertoire. These days fossilization is being replaced as a concept by stabilization, a more positive term, but either way it’s usually associated with automatized errors – errors the student doesn’t know are errors and which she produces regularly and consistently.

Student makes an error; teacher makes a decision

When a student errs, teachers decide on at least four things. Is it really an error or just a slip of the tongue? What type of error is it (grammar, pronunciation, etc.)? Is the error worth correcting? How should it be corrected?

1. Is it an error?

Errors and mistakes are different. Errors occur when a student doesn’t know the rule/vocabulary and uses a non-standard form instead. Mistakes are performance problems, sometimes known as slips. They may be caused by tiredness or lack of concentration, as when an Advanced student forgets third person s. She undoubtedly knows the rule, but forgets it momentarily.

2. What type of error is it?

On hearing an error, teachers mentally categorize it. Many errors are caused by first language interference; others by students simply not knowing enough vocabulary or grammar. Other errors appear to be caused by one thing but aren’t. I once had a German student who wrote “The house had no ear conditioning.” This looks like a spelling error, but it was connected to her Germanic pronunciation of air.

3. Is the error worth correcting?

If the activity is accuracy-focused, we should correct errors. If the purpose is fluency, then we may ignore an error or write it down for later. Only when a conversation stalls, and speaking partners are forced to negotiate meaning, might we interrupt a fluency activity to make a correction.

4. How to correct (and who corrects)?

Students must be made aware of the standard form but not made to feel stupid or self-conscious by the intervention. Here are several common techniques:

Explicit correction is when we say something like “No, you can’t say ‘I have 20 years old’. We say ‘I’m 20 years old.'” Sometimes explicit correction includes metalinguistic terms: “You have to use the Present Perfect there.”

A recast is when we repeat the student’s words but include the correction. Student: “He from Spain.” Teacher: “Oh, he’s from Spain.”

We may use a request for clarification: “Can you explain what you mean by that?”

We may also solicit the correct form from the student or other students. Student: “Yesterday I go to town”. Teacher: “Can you try that again? What’s the past of go?”

All of these techniques are useful, but the best form of correction is self-correction. It’s always more memorable for the student when he or she works it out for herself.

The Last Word

Error correction is a tricky area. Krashen and Terrell recommend no error correction at all. David Willis says it’s a waste of time. But a host of other researchers say it’s necessary, in part for psychological reasons (“I’m being listened to and someone cares if I make a mistake.”).

But maybe we’re on the wrong track altogether. Maybe instead of using the c word (correction), we should just use the f word. Feedback. So, after a speaking task the teacher points out really good examples of language use – phrases, idioms, verb constructions the students used – as well as useful phrases the students could have used; and attempts at language use that weren’t quite right.

And finally, we must remember not to get disheartened if the students don’t appear to learn from their mistakes. Why? Because the effects of teaching are always delayed. I remember a conversation with a student some years ago:

Student: I’ve went to the Tate Gallery yesterday.

Me (teacher): Oh, great. You went to the Tate Gallery.

Student: Yes, I’ve went to the Tate Gallery.

Me: What did you think?

Student: It was fantastic. Tomorrow I am go to the National Gallery.

Me: Ah, you’re going to the National Gallery?

Student: Yes, I am go tomorrow.

And off he went, happy to have communicated his meaning and totally oblivious to my attempts at correction.



Thinking critically about critical thinking

"The Thinker" by Auguste Rodin_Image from metmuseum.org

“The Thinker” by Auguste Rodin_Image from metmuseum.org














I recently attended an excellent workshop about critical thinking in the ELT classroom. The presenters discussed what it is and isn’t, provided references to Bloom’s taxonomy and relevant literature, and concluded that we really need to teach it. Everyone nodded in agreement. No one questioned this statement. No one raised a hand to ask why. In other words, no one got critical about critical thinking. Including me. (I had my reasons: I’d just delivered the plenary presentation at the conference, and I was afraid of undermining the presenters.)

Education is abuzz with critical thinking. It’s frequently cited as one of the three Cs of the so-called 21st century skills, the others being creativity and collaboration, and it has begun to appear in mainstream coursebooks. But it’s problematic, for several reasons.

Problem 1: Who can teach it?

Which of us is qualified to teach critical thinking? In the CELTA and DELTA courses that I took to become a language teacher, there was no mention of critical thinking, or indeed critical anything (pedagogy, literacy, theory …).

Critical thinking is more than just getting students to question things. It relates to epistemology: the study of knowledge – its sources, structures and limitations. It requires a mindset of openness and an understanding of alternative possibilities. Are language teachers, generally, equipped with these tools? Some are, some aren’t. Some may think they are, but aren’t. Already we’re on shaky ground.

Problem 2: Which students need to be taught critical thinking?

What if our students are already critical thinkers? Over the last two decades, countless students have taught me enormous amounts about the world. I’ve been the recipient of impromptu lectures on American foreign policy, the media, the Swiss banking system, the work of writers I’d never heard of, etc., etc., all from students speaking English as a Foreign Language. No one can tell me these students didn’t think critically. They were teaching me how to think critically.

Perhaps the idea is that we teach critical thinking only to children or teenagers who are still learning how to read the world. But that leads us to another problem …

Problem 3: Whose belief systems do we espouse?

I lived and taught in Egypt in the 90s. Every day I witnessed things that were culturally alien to me: the place of religion in society, the treatment of women, the political environment. I thought about these critically, but realized that my views were a result of my biases and background – the western liberal tradition that, in theory, values democracy, openness, and equality.

Who was I to impose my critical views on traditions that stretch back thousands of years? Was it my vocation to be a savior of the souls of these poor little rich Egyptian kids I was teaching? And did I really want to be a disruptive influence in the school where I was paid to teach English?

Educational traditions vary enormously in different nations. It’s often noted that in China, rote memorization is a much-lauded practice. It represents respect for wise souls who came before us and ordered the world. Plagiarism, too, is more acceptable in China as it is seen as a rightful acknowledgement of authority. In the West, memorization is regarded as trivial and plagiarism criminal. To call for critical thinking in many cultures is seen as a disrespectful challenge to established knowledge.

Confucius, Chinese teacher, philosopher, politician. Should we question his teachings?

Confucius, Chinese teacher, philosopher, politician. Should we question his teachings?









Problem 4: What’s the purpose of our profession?

Michael Swan once gave a presentation called “Language Teaching is Teaching Language.” His point was that our profession isn’t about teaching pragmatics or culture. It’s about teaching language. This means grammar, vocabulary, pronunciation and the four skills: reading, writing, speaking, and listening.

Language teachers reside in a strange place in education. We simply have no content to teach. The syllabus is the components of language: words. The medium is the message.

And finally … does critical thinking have a place in ELT?

My answer is that it depends on the students. Learning is about two things: opportunity and motivation. Will it motivate the students to delve more deeply into a text? Will questioning the material enhance their engagement with it? Will problematizing a statement in a coursebook lead to extended speaking opportunities?

If critical thinking will motivate the class, then, for me, it’s a good thing. But I don’t believe language teachers should be on a mission to develop critical thinking. We aren’t paid for it, we aren’t qualified for it, and judging by the workshop I attended last week, most of us can barely define it, let alone teach it.

Conflict in class: three scenarios

Conflict: the engine of fiction, the ruin of the world, and the bane of teachers’ lives.

Here are three conflict scenarios with three different types of student, plus some attempts to manage the situations.


Scenario 1: Kick it out

I coach kids’ soccer (“football” to us Brits). Recently, one of my 8-year-olds was proving to be recalcitrant, to say the least. The other kids followed instructions perfectly and seemed to enjoy themselves, but this one child — I’ll call her “P” — whined frequently and did her finest teapot impression: hands on hips, pout in place of spout. P was sweet most of the time, but clearly needed attention.

Commentary: I guessed that something wasn’t right at home and, sure enough, P’s parents were going through a messy divorce.

Action: I praised P a lot and refused to lose my temper despite the provocations. Whenever P began demanding too much attention to the detriment of others, I temporarily ignored her. I also used P for “special” roles, emphasizing that I thought she was the perfect person to hold the cones or roll the balls back or demonstrate how to do a throw-in.

Result: P seemed to respond well to being made to feel special, and the whining decreased.

Conclusion: I found it best to stay calm and get to the bottom of the problem. It turned out to be nothing to do with me or the group. It was a personal issue.


Not P’s team


Scenario 2: Netiquette failure

A colleague, who is a tenured professor in the School of Education at the university where I teach, received an abrupt message from an online student: “I don’t understand how to access the module. I need help.”  No greeting or sign-off, no please or thank you.

Commentary: The student was a practising teacher who was studying for her Master’s. She should have understood the effects of language use and the importance of respect.

Action: I suggested that my colleague send a link to an article about email etiquette between students and professors. He did so, but he also modeled a polite response, including a greeting and closing phrase.

Result: The student apologized and explained she’d been stressed and short of time and just hadn’t thought through her message, instead reverting to “textspeak.”

Conclusion: It may be a “Millennials” thing. Some say Millennials have different ways of communicating and different views of hierarchy. In any case, the teacher needs to set the tone and emphasize what is and isn’t acceptable. This particular professor provided a model of respectful communication rather than responding in a similarly rude manner. His response was much better than my suggestion because it illustrated civil discourse rather than just referring to it.


Scenario 3: Who’s the boss?

A female colleague was teaching EFL to a class that included an older male student. He was from a country in which women’s roles are extremely restricted. The student was unable to give any female the “final word” in a discussion and he sometimes belittled the teacher’s views. For him, the authority figure should never be a woman; for her, the student should never question the teacher’s credentials.

Commentary: The teacher had already modified her teaching methods to avoid pairing this student with a female. Now she felt that any more modifications would work against her communicative teaching style.

Action: The teacher provided a reading about cross-cultural values and initiated a discussion with the whole class. The text looked at gender roles in society, belief systems, and ways of negotiating across cultures. She taught vocabulary such as beliefs, tolerate, and diversity.

Result: The student’s behavior changed perceptibly, and two weeks later he was able to move to a class with an older male teacher.

Conclusion: It’s difficult to question our deeply-held beliefs. They are part of our make-up. But when faced with a radically different worldview, we have no choice. We need to bring the issue into the open, which may involve engaging in dialogue, referring to articles and other texts, or using role plays to bridge the cultural divide.


And finally …

Anyone who watched the Clinton-Trump presidential debates on TV will see one extreme way of dealing with conflict: keep interrupting and shout down your opponent.

A better way might be to question the roots of the conflict — how and why did it start? — and then add further questions: what aspects of the conflict are negotiable? What is beyond your control and what aspects can you change? How much of the conflict is due to personality and how much to context? And if all else fails, philosophize. Here’s author Terry Goodkind on conflict: “Knowing when to fight is just as important as knowing how.”



Rio Olympics: Love, Live and Learn

OK, I’m not going to suggest that a global, multi-billion-dollar, once-every-four-years spectacle like the Olympics is comparable to an English lesson. For starters, in my classes at least, there are no fake robberies or gold medals for best student. But look hard enough and we can all learn a thing or two. Here are six points that occurred to me:

1. Preparation beats adversity

Rumor has it, an Olympic kayaker was practising in Rio when he crashed into a submerged sofa. This story may be apocryphal, but in the lead-up to the Games, the media’s focus was clearly not on Olympic glory. Brazil’s woes took the headlines: the Zika virus, the failing economy, the impeachment of the president, and the unfinished facilities. But in the end, the Rio Olympics were a triumph.

What’s the lesson for educators? We worry constantly about how our lessons will turn out. Human interaction always involves an element of unpredictability, but if we prepare well, the chances are we’ll avoid disaster.

2. Being there means you’ve won already

In Rio, there was a Refugee Team from countries including Sudan, Syria, and the Democratic Republic of Congo. Having fled their homelands, these athletes were effectively stateless. Several of them had lived in refugee camps, and one of them had crossed the Mediterranean in an inflatable boat. The Olympics is child’s-play to them. Their triumph was to be there at all.

Refugee Olympic Team, YASUYOSHI CHIBA/AFP/Getty Images

Refugee Olympic Team, YASUYOSHI CHIBA/AFP/Getty Images

We don’t always know our students’ life stories – what they’ve suffered and sacrificed to be there. Particularly in ESL contexts, some students may have escaped great danger to reach the host country. For them, obtaining any form of ongoing education is an achievement.

3. It’s about the participant

There are coaches and fans and journalists and sponsors. But the Olympic Games are about the athletes. In Teddy Roosevelt’s words, “The credit goes to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood.”

Education involves teachers and managers and institutions and publishers, lesson plans and materials and tests and equipment. But ultimately it’s about students. Experienced teachers understand that the focus isn’t on themselves; they realize the limitations of their lesson plans. Learning takes place inside the student’s mind and there’s only one person who can control that.

4. Try something new

The Rio Olympics had two new disciplines: rugby sevens and golf. These were an unqualified success. Fiji won its first ever gold medal (for rugby) – a great achievement for a small, underfunded country. At the Tokyo Olympics 2020, five more sports will be added, including skateboarding, surfing and baseball.

Fiji Olympic rugby team - image from www.theborneopost.com

Fiji Olympic rugby team – image from http://www.theborneopost.com

Educators, try something new! It might be a game; a role play; a change of classroom set-up (put the furniture against the wall!). Get the students to do a 10-minute teaching slot; combine classes to team-teach; bring in a speaker; take the class to a gallery or museum or park. You never know how it will go, but breaking free of routine often pays dividends.

5. Uphold the spirit

Many of us recognize that elite sport is tainted by corruption, commercialism, and performance-enhancing drugs. So forgive us our cynicism. But the Olympics always has feelgood moments and heartwarming stories, too. Usain Bolt secured his legacy as the greatest ever sprinter, but he also volunteered to guide a handicapped athlete in the upcoming Paralympics. In the women’s 5,000-meter race, Nikki Hamblin and Abbey D’Agostino tripped, crashing out of contention, but helped one another up and over the line.

Abbey D'Agostino and Nikki Hamblin, photo by Ian Walton/Getty Images)

Abbey D’Agostino and Nikki Hamblin, photo by Ian Walton/Getty Images)

Education is about people coming together in an act of transformation. Students collaborate, work together to complete tasks, and develop a classroom culture. These factors are as essential as good sportsmanship is to the Olympics.

6. Involve the community

Several reliable sources claim that communities in Rio were displaced in order to secure the Olympic site. And just how involved were the people of Rio in decision-making about these Games? While the favelas (shanty towns) were represented artfully in the Opening Ceremony, no one actually from the favelas would have been able to afford a ticket to see it. At least one Olympic superstar knew this. When U.S. basketball player Carmelo Anthony had a day off, he went to a favela and played ball with local kids. He later posted a message on Instagram: “I discovered that what most people call creepy, scary, and spooky, I call comfy, cozy, and home.” Anthony had been raised in a rough Baltimore suburb, so he could empathize with those kids.

Carmelo Anthony in Rio favela, Getty Images

Carmelo Anthony in Rio favela, Getty Images

Education is always more powerful when we do two things: (1) go into the community, and (2) bring the community into the classroom. The most effective learning isn’t separate from the outside world; it’s part of it. Wherever you are, investigate the possibilities for involving the community in your students’ learning. It enriches both.



From Socrates to Recycling: Are We Asking the Right Questions?

“Computers are useless. They can only give answers.” (Pablo Picasso)

Kids’ questions

Image from en.wikipedia.org

Image from en.wikipedia.org

Belvidere, Illinois, 1990, a first-grade classroom (6-year-olds). A student looks out of the window and sees a dumpster below. He asks the teacher where the garbage goes. The teacher arranges a field trip to a landfill site. The students are so shocked by the size and contents of the landfill that they start a recycling campaign in their school. Over several months, their efforts take hold and recycling becomes the norm.

And it all started with one question: “where does the garbage go?” One question, one answer, one concerted effort to take action: some say that’s how we change the world.

Children are natural questioners. They ask things like, why is snow cold? Why did my dog die? Where did my baby brother come from? Years ago a friend of mine overheard one of his sons asking, “Is Daddy older than God?” A tremendous question, and like all good questions, it leads to other questions: How old is Daddy? How old is God? How do we know? A good question is always an invitation to think.


Classroom questions

Questioning has a long history in education, stretching from Socrates through Dewey through Bruner through Freire and beyond. It’s a vital technique, but it’s not always used well. The researcher Forestal found that when teachers talk in class, 60% of the time it’s to ask questions, but the vast majority of these are ‘display questions’ – questions for which there is only one answer, which is already known by the teacher. Years ago I read an exchange in a language class that went like this:

Teacher: Is it an elephant?

Student: No, it’s a pen.

Teacher: Very good, Paola!

And, apparently, back in the 1980s something called the British Rapid Method, used in Italy, was based entirely around meaningless questions for the sake of practising form at beginner level.

Not elephants

Not elephants








Forestal also found that the average ‘wait time’ in U.S. classrooms – the time between the teacher asking the question and getting or providing an answer – is one second. What kind of question can be answered after one second’s thought? Probably one with low cognitive demand.

Good questioning is both an art and a skill. The psychologist Csikszentmihalyi says that many Ph.D candidates drop out not because they have trouble answering the questions set by their professors – this is easy; they’ve done it throughout their lives – but because when it comes to doing research, they don’t have the creativity to ask the right questions.


Questions in ELT classrooms

The right questions can be the basis for an English lesson. They can be simple autobiographical questions about the students’ backgrounds or they can be more task-like. Here are some examples of the latter:

1. Look at this map. Where would you go if you could take a round-the-world trip visiting only ten countries and traveling only eastwards?

Students plot their routes, do some research on the countries, and present their ideas in groups, explaining their choices. Follow-up stages include choosing three travel companions (one friend, one historical figure, and one person to document the trip, i.e. a writer, musician, artist or film-maker).

2. Apart from family and friends, who is your hero?

Students prepare a talk on a person they admire. They hear a model of someone doing the same task; study useful vocabulary, e.g. personal qualities; do some factual research; and then describe their hero.

3. You are on a desert island. What five objects will you take with you and why?

Students come up with a list individually, then work with other students to come up with a better list, this time of seven objects. Finally, they present and justify their list to the class.

Each of these tasks lends itself to extended vocabulary, grammar, and skills work at any level above Elementary. The secret, of course, as mentioned above, is that these questions lead to other questions. “Who is your hero?” really means, “what did they do, and what problems did they overcome, and when/where did they live, and what did they stand for, and why do they matter to you?”


Professional development

I’ve mentioned the questions our students ask and the questions we ask our students. A third type is the questions we ask ourselves. For teachers, the act of questioning is central to our development as professionals. As we become more experienced, the focus shifts from the lesson plan and what the teacher is doing to what the students are doing, and, more pertinently, who the students are. We ask: what is their background? What do they know? What do they need to know? How can we build on their knowledge?

As an extension of this, experienced teachers constantly question themselves: What is my identity as a teacher? What qualities do I possess in the students’ eyes? What are my deficits? How did I become what I am today and who influenced me? How will I be a better teacher tomorrow?