Teacher Competence & Textbook Design

The interesting thing about textbook publishers in Korea is that they need to consider the competence of the people who will be using their books. As anyone who lives in Korea can guess, thisis most crucial for the TEFL industry; despite the fact that there are hundreds of thousands of native English speakers teaching English in Korea, there are also hundreds of thousands of non-native speakers teaching English.

And since the method for selecting people for teaching jobs doesn’t seem to prioritize skill or ability in the subject they’ll be teaching — at least not when it’s English — and especially since many, many nonnative speakers teach English “outside the system,” in hakwons where qualifications and ability seem to matter almost not at all, textbook publishers are faced with an interesting problem.

That is: how to design a textbook so that an incompetent teacher can use it to teach a class, without losing face and without feeling completely lost.

Yes, yes, the best solution would simply be to try get everyone to ensure that competent teachers only are used. Licensing and accrediting hakwons, with accreditation being dependent on the qualifications and evaluations of instructors, for example, would be a step — not unproblematic, but a step. (Especially considering how much money Korean parents spend annually on hakwon instruction!)

Still, textbook publishers have to take the situation as it is. The solutions as far as I can seethem are as follows:

  1. Ignore the problem, publish books that assume teacher competence. This is the easy solution, but also the one that will kill your sales. You’re writing for an audience, and ignoring it will not help your sales. You’ll likely produce better textbooks, but nobody will use them, and what’s the use in that?
  2. Design the book so that rote repetition of “correct” answers is all that’s required, so even a robot could teach from it. This is a horrible method too; not only is it hard to kill language to the point where no variation is possible, but it’s also hard to designn a textbook that does this effectively, while still giving students even the smallest illusion of having learned something usable.

    Unfortunately, this method seems to fit best with the Korean style of pedagogy: friends studying Korean have told me that they were told their answers to questions on reading texts were “sort of right” (because they had rephrased their answers, in Korean — at one of the top Korean language programs in Korea, no less!) and then witnessed students who repeated the “answers” by rote being told, “Perfect! Excellent! That’s exactly right!”

    Of course, anyone who’s seen the effects of language pedagogy on the population in general can attest to the fact that it’s not working. So, this approach isn’t a suitable answer either.

  3. Implement stopgaps, to minimize embarrassment and confusion among the incompetent teachers — especially when they are faced with students whose English is better than theirs — while facilitating a little creativity in the classrooms of teachers who are reasonably competent. This is the most frustrating approach of all, for a textbook author. It probably is, in the end, the most logical and sensible approach, but it means designing really creative and interesting questions for students, and then having to write “sample answers.” Any textbook that solicits student opinions and provides “sample answers” for those opinion questionsis a self-contadiction.

All of this makes me think of textbooks I myself have studied from in the past. One thing I’ve found particularly interesting is that the Korean-language textbooks have almost never solicited anything creative from me. It was all a case of Read the Text; Answer Questions About the Text;Do Some Grammar Exercises; Do More Grammar Exercises; Read Another Text; Answer Obvious Questions About the Text. What was missing from those books was any attempt to solicit something of me in the language-learning process.

And, yes, I’m also reminded of textbooks that I studied from in my education more generally. I seem to remember French textbooks being a bit better. I also seem to remember elementary schoolteachers telling me that my answers were “wrong” because, of all things, they didn’t match the sample answers. The saddest thing is that the teachers were treaching other subjects, not langauge, and they were just too lazy to think  about whether my answers made sense subjectively.

The capacity for people to think of and say things you haven’t anticipated is so great. Once I participated in a psychology survey, and when I reached a question which didn’t make sense — one where none of the answers was a sensible response to the question — I pointed it out the woman who’d designed the test. She, the older sister of a friend, resisted my point till I explained why it made no sense. (And pointed out in addition that the test’s underlying purpose seemed obvious and would be easy to game.) She ended upquite annoyed, as she had to redesign the survey and start over, since she (and her advisor) had never anticipated someone reading the question “that way.”

I’m not talking about The Freelance Project That Refused to F***ing Die, not at all, not at all.


4 thoughts on “Teacher Competence & Textbook Design

  1. While there are exceptions, I find a lot of Korean college textbooks to be really problematic. First, they concentrate too much on theory, and pay little attention to empirical validity of those theoretical models. Comparing them to US undergraduate college textbooks, US textbooks have hundreds of pages on real world problems and real world applications of these models. In a sense, the textbooks are trying to convince the students that these graphs and equations actually represent (roughly) how the world works, and can be useful. On the other hand, most Korean textbooks just seem to take it for granted that these economic models are “holy.” Further, many textbooks seem to deliberately try to make things harder to understand, using too many technical terms and complex sentences. (To be fair though, things have gotten a lot better in the last ten years. I remember my first Korean economic textbook – in 1984. It was utterly incomprehensible).

    A real problem I see with most of my Korean students is that they are very weak when it comes down to taking what they are taught and breaking it down into chunks which are easy to understand, and build it back up again. I try to break it down for them in class, and some of my students said they find these breakdowns very helpful.

    The ability to break down what you have learned and put it back together again is crucial if you want to apply what you want to learn to other situations. Many of my students do not seem to have had any training in that. It shows in the tests and reports I assign them, and IMO it is a critical failing in the Korean educational system.

    1. Junsok,

      That’s pretty much what I’d heard around. The problem is, I guess, people who know better are not writing the new textbooks? My brief foray into the textbook industry (TEFL, but anyway) impressed upon me that nonsense is routine for the people making such books.

      As for the problems in Korean education and how they manifest in students not well-trained in breaking down big ideas into modular chunks, digesting, and then putting them back together again… yes. Definitely a critical failing of the system overall. And it brings about some bizarre classroom situations…

  2. “One thing I’ve found particularly interesting is that the Korean-language textbooks have almost never solicited anything creative from me.”

    I felt similarly about the textbooks we used in the Korea University program, but the teachers, at least, took time to allow us a chance for discussion and presentations.

    Presentations don’t reflect the sort of unpredictable discursive elements you referred to (“people… think of and say things you haven’t anticipated”), but they do allow the presenter a chance to speak somewhat creatively, without following a rigid template.

    So now I’m curious. Just how rote were your classes?


    1. Kevin,

      Oh, I haven’t taken Korean classes. Ever. Just worked with tutors, who filled the gaps. But the books seemed never to seek anything creative on my side, a definite failing.

      My friend, though, did indeed experience the case I mentioned at one of the big programs in Seoul (Yonsei? Korea University? I’m not sure): responding to a reading question by rephrasing was “kinda sorta right”, and then the Chinese student across the room who’d just memorized the text and spouted the pertinent bit word-for-word was praised as being “exactly right”.

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