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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.


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