Teaching English in Difficult Circumstances: A Conversation with *Dr. Richard Smith

Dr. Richard Smith is a Reader in ELT and Applied Linguistics at the University of Warwick, UK. He is also Deputy Chair of the A.S. Hornby Educational Trust and ‘Key Concepts’ editor of the ELT Journal. He co-founded the Teaching English in Large Classes (TELC) network (http://bit.ly/telcnet-home) with Dr Fauzia Shamim in 2008 – it now has around 2,000 members internationally. In recent years, he has given workshops and been involved in projects with teachers from Cameroon and Chile as well as Bangladesh, India, Nepal and Pakistan with a focus on issues connected with teaching in difficult circumstances, including at the NELTA conference in 2013 and two Hornby Regional Schools in Kathmandu, in 2013 and 2014.  This is the interview our NELTA ELT Forum member, Laxmi Pd. Ojha took with Dr. Smith virtually.

Laxmi: Could you please tell us about your career as a teacher of English and teacher educator in brief?

Smith: My first real English teaching job was in Japan, where I taught in high schools and universities, and also taught some private classes of children, teenagers and adults. I first got involved in teacher education at a university in Tokyo, where I was helping prepare Japanese students for teaching in secondary schools and at that time (in the mid-1990s) I also got involved in giving workshops for practising teachers. Since moving to the UK in 2000 I’ve been teaching MA students from Asia and elsewhere, including a few from Nepal but mainly from East Asia (China, Japan, Korea). Some of my students have had no experience of teaching before, while others are more experienced. I’ve also been working with teachers in developing countries, including the Hornby scholars at Warwick and participants in workshops and projects in Chile, Cameroon, India and, quite recently, in Nepal, of course.

Laxmi: We know that you have been researching and giving workshops on teaching in difficult circumstances – what inspired you to have an interest in this area?

Smith: Yes, this has been an interest of mine since I became aware that far too little research has been carried out into some of the important challenges that most teachers in the world have to deal with. I’m referring to what could be called ‘difficult circumstances’, including large classes, few material resources, and extremes of heat and cold. I think it was my own experience in Japan, initially, which made me realize that ideas developed in comfortable western language school type settings aren’t necessarily appropriate in classes of 45 or more senior high school pupils (and of course in some countries and contexts class sizes are much bigger – even over 200 in some primary schools in Cameroon, for example). But ‘difficult circumstances’ became even more strongly present in my mind as an important issue when I started teaching students from developing countries at Warwick, including Hornby scholars like Harry Kuchah from Cameroon (now a lecturer at the University of Bath), who I’ve been sharing ideas with quite a lot since then. I see my role as being that of a kind of mediator or facilitator of collaborative work, not as an expert, though – obviously I’m not teaching in difficult circumstances myself any more, and I see teachers as the main experts about their own situations, anyway.

Laxmi: What does ‘difficult circumstances’ mean for language teachers?

Smith: Well, Michael West came up with the phrase in 1960 – he used it in the title of his book Teaching English in Difficult Circumstances – and that’s as good a starting point as any. I’ve put some extracts from this book on a website, as it’s difficult to buy the book these days. He talks about a mixture of factors including high student numbers, congestion in the classroom, mixed ability and multi-grade classes, teachers who lack confidence in their English proficiency, high temperatures, and high drop-out rates (for example, due to needs to work to support their family).  He doesn’t directly mention lack of textbooks or other published learning materials, but that’s another factor in many contexts of course.

In fact, I’m not entirely happy with the phrase ‘difficult circumstances’ or with West’s definition of them since the phrase can be taken as implying that there is some kind of ideal, northern/western state of affairs – in other words, a situation where there is ‘no difficulty’ versus a southern/eastern state of affairs characterized as problematic. Of course what’s important is whether teachers and learners themselves perceive their situation as difficult, not what a western ‘expert’ thinks compared with his or her view of ‘ideal’ conditions. If we use the phrase ‘challenging circumstances’ that might be better – or even ‘Iow-resourced classrooms’. Labelling a situation as problematic (‘difficult’) means we may not see what’s positive in it, or ‘normal’ about it – we may be ‘pathologizing’ it, in other words. Of course it also masks the real diversity in classroom situations in developing countries.

For the moment, though, we probably do need some kind of label to continue to draw attention to the kind of conditions faced by the majority of teachers in the world, conditions which aren’t at all taken into account in most writing about ELT / TESOL that you come across in northern/western journals or books, which often tend to assume a hi-tech, small class environment. We need some kind of phrase to keep the circumstances in developing countries in focus (otherwise they get neglected) – but ‘difficult circumstances’ isn’t a perfect label.

Laxmi: What are the most pertinent issues in teaching English in such circumstances around the world, and what are some possible solutions?

Richard Smith: Teachers report a number of issues specifically to do with large classes, by which I mean classes of over 40, including burden of homework, not all students participating, noise level, getting students’ attention, difficulties of building rapport and so on. Together with Rajapriyah Anmpalagan, I’ve made a list of commonly cited large class teaching challenges, with possible solutions on a website that I maintain for the Teaching English in Large Classes (TELC) network, and we’ve been doing research to see what teachers’ own responses are to these challenges worldwide (some findings are on the same website). These responses include ideas like forming teams of students, each with their own leader, peer assessment to help with the marking load, and getting students to write brief notes to the teacher to share the difficulties they’re having. One of my PhD students, Mais Ajjan from Syria, found that English lessons considered most effective by university students in classes of 400 or more in her country were ‘interactive’ ones – not necessarily ones that involved a lot of verbal participation but ones where teachers asked questions to the whole class that all students had to think hard to answer. I shared some of these findings in my keynote talk at the NELTA conference at the beginning of 2013, where I referred also to some research carried out by another TELC committee member, Prem Phyak. After that I gave a talk at the CAMELTA conference in Cameroon, where I started to take a different approach, that is, asking teachers themselves more directly what issues and practices were important for them in their teaching situations, rather than necessarily ‘pathologizing’ their circumstances by assuming they were facing problems. Within CAMELTA, Harry Kuchah and I subsequently made a questionnaire to get more detailed information. We’re going to reflect these ideas back to CAMELTA teachers at their annual convention in August and will make them more widely available, but in the meantime Harry has written an interim report here.

Laxmi: What else can a teacher do to meet the challenges of teaching English in a large under-resourced classroom?

Smith: Rather than providing quick-fix solutions, you’ll have seen that we’re keen on research, and especially on researching how teachers themselves view their situations and whether they have insights of value which they can share with other teachers. This is because there’ve been too many quick-fix so-called ‘solutions’ imposed onto teachers in the past which don’t work because they came from other, quite different contexts.

What we can’t do, I think, is assume that what’s good in one context is going to be good in another. That attitude has been surprisingly common, and it’s why I favour a more bottom-up approach, starting with identification of strengths in what teachers already do, and sharing those – rather than coming from outside and making recommendations.

What’s really important I think is for teachers to share ideas with one another locally, for example via teacher associations like NELTA. In fact, maybe it’d be good if NELTA members got together to do some ‘TA [Teacher Association] research’ into Nepali teachers’ successes, problems and solutions like what we’ve been doing in Cameroon. We will be happy to help if you decide to do this! One of the biggest problems teachers in developing countries face is demotivation due to all the problems confronting them, and one thing we are trying to work towards is seeing how teachers can gain a sense of agency, and of self-confidence. I’ve come to realize these can come through sharing of successes as well as problems, as I think you’ll recall from the Hornby Regional Workshop in Kathmandu in November 2013, when we first met.

Laxmi: You are familiar with ELT situations in Nepal as well. What do you suggest to overcome the issues that schools and teachers face in Nepal?

Richard Smith: I’ve been really lucky to visit Nepal three times and to interact with Nepali teachers like you, Laxmi. I can’t claim to be really familiar with the Nepali context, though, and  – sorry to keep repeating the same message! – I think identification of issues and solutions really has to come from teachers themselves, since you really are familiar with the context! How I’ve been able to help, perhaps, is by providing some opportunities and tools or workshop processes to help teachers work things out for themselves, for example in the two Hornby Regional Schools on Teaching and Learning in the Low-Resource Classroom that I directed, working with Dr Amol Padwad and Dr Jovan Ilic, in 2013 and 2014 in Kathmandu. Some video and written material from those workshops is going to be put on the British Council’s TeachingEnglish website later this year, which is great, as some really good, contextually appropriate ideas were shared by participants from Nepal as well as Bangladesh, India and Pakistan. Actually, two sample videos from that workshop are already available here. I remember that some important issues for Nepali teachers in particular were how to deal with classes which are very diverse due to the multilingual and multicultural realities here, and how/whether to incorporate use of students’ mother tongue(s). We heard that, instead of diversity being viewed as a problem, a multicultural classroom can offer opportunities to enrich learning and that, via tasks of mutual interest on topics of citizenship, equality and justice to promote mutual respect, students and teachers can learn from one another. I’ve also been impressed recently by an article in the NELTA ELT Forum titled ‘Teaching English in Post-disaster Situation’ by another of the School participants, Janak Pant. Of course people like Janak, yourself and other NELTA members are the best people to share suggestions for the current very difficult circumstances relating to the post-earthquake situation, from your own experience.

Laxmi: Any other ideas you would like to share with our readers?

Smith:  Well, I’d just like to explain again why I’ve been focusing in this interview mainly on research and on needs for teachers to share ideas with one another locally, rather than offering many solutions myself.  That might seem not very practical, but I think finding out what challenges teachers face, from their perspectives, and what solutions they can imagine, is actually much more worthwhile in the long run than coming in with quick-fix solutions. Unfortunately, it’s not done enough so teachers are always the victims of other people’s ‘good ideas’ and policies. And I wanted to say also that teachers can get involved in research themselves, in a very practical way. That was the theme of the two Hornby Schools in Kathmandu in fact – how teachers can identify areas of concern for themselves, then ask questions to other teachers – and, just as importantly, consult their own students to find answers. Even children can themselves get involved in researching classroom issues, as we’re finding currently in a project with my Warwick colleague Dr Annamaria Pinter and Professor Rama Mathew of Delhi University, working with Indian primary school teachers. Again, these are forms of bottom-up exploration and improvement that can be quite useful and empowering. Teacher-research is something I’ve been looking into also with secondary school teachers in Chile, who themselves have quite challenging circumstances of more than 40 students per class and up to 40 periods of teaching per week. Based on that experience, with Paula Rebolledo I’ll be bringing out a practical Handbook of Exploratory Action Research for teachers that will be freely available on the British Council’s website, hopefully next year. I’ll be sharing more information about these publications and initiatives on the TELC network website and TELC Facebook group, which I invite anyone with an interest in teaching English in challenging circumstances in developing countries to join!

Laxmi: Thank you very much for sharing your ideas and these resources.

Richard Smith:  Thank you very much for giving me the opportunity to talk about my work in this special issue – I hope it’s been useful, and hope we keep in touch!

(* Dr. Smith can be reached via Email: R.C.Smith@warwick.ac.uk / Twitter: @RichardSmithELT. Further information: www.warwick.ac.uk/richardcsmith)

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2 responses

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