The Golden Rule of ELT: a thought experiment

As fallible creatures, but ones that generally tend to strive for the good, we sometimes overcomplicate things. Thanks to nature, we’re not bad at spotting patterns, but as our societies have become more complex, has our propensity to neglect the simple approach in favour of Byzantine ‘systems’ not also become amplified?

Still, I think we are still able to understand well the general conception of a ‘Golden rule’: to treat others as we would like to be treated.

Most of us are also fairly familiar with the idea that if we are not getting the results we want from a particular approach, that we can rethink the way we do it and see if we can improve the outcomes.

But how well do these ideas apply to ELT? What happens if we simply teach others the way that we would like to be taught? And do feedback loops exist that are transparent and intelligible enough for us to be able to improve outcomes in the classroom by making the appropriate tweaks?

Let’s consider these questions by thinking about the preferences of the student; the relationship between the student and the teacher; and the means (or materials) and method used to bring about learning.

Firstly, think of yourself from the point of view of a student. Think about what communicative functions you’d like to learn, about the methods of presentation or guided discovery by which you’d like to learn them, and what kinds of activities you’d like to engage in to practise those elements of language.

Secondly, consider how you (as a student) view the teacher. How involved do you want them to be with your learning, and in what ways? Do you want them to lead you by the hand, or nudge you at a supportive distance? Would you like them to push you hard towards your purported goals or be indifferent to your success? And, perhaps most importantly, what do you see as their chief role: as facilitator and assistant to a process of learning that you take ownership of and responsibility for, or as a didactic downloader of information into your thirsty mind? 

For me, the only real question that remains is how the learning is going to take place. You’ve already thought a little bit about how the student may have some preferences in this regard, and these should not be neglected. But as professionals, we do also perhaps have slighter greater insights and may have some ideas to share that the learners might not come across by chance. We might, for example, be of the opinion that listening to a text 20 times is defeating of learning rather than encouraging it. There are countless other points on which we may think (not know!) that we have a better idea than the student of what would be the best way to learn.

This, after all, is why we’re considering the way that we would like to be taught, and not (only) the way that the student wants to be taught.

What happens if we’re wrong? Well, this is the most theoretical point of our experiment, at the moment anyway. But it’s also an area with practically unlimited practical application and empirical testability. 

Being a big believer in provisional approaches (Popperian falsifiability, if you will), I think that all you really need to do is give this approach a try and you will be rewarded with a wealth of information about your learners, yourself as a teacher, and about the quality and appropriacy of your materials and method.

Before we draw too hasty a conclusion, let’s consider a not-so-great case scenario.

You decide that traditional PPP is far too vilified and is in fact probably the most useful way of structuring your sessions. You come to the genuine belief that this is a way that you would like to be taught. Perhaps you even have SLA experience to back up that belief. So you apply it in your teaching practice and monitor the results.

What might you be able to see? Do we have sufficient metrics to be able to directly compare tweaks we make in our work? 

And this, I think, returns us to the premise on which we entered this thought experiment: that it says a lot about a person how they apply the Golden Rule in their life. And it produces another question by which we can extend the experiment: how to judge the results.

In other words, what if we apply the rule even to the question of how to measure success? 

As a learner, what discernible criteria would you like the success of a learning session to be judged on by the teacher and/or the school management?

Personally, I would advocate an answer to this question that combined affective considerations like enthusiasm and increased conscientiousness in private study with communicative competency: something similar to the CEFR’s ‘can-do’ statements.

So what is the point of all of this? Well, I’m not saying that professional development, observation, and a greater understanding of English won’t help us to be better teachers. All of these things have their place, of course.

But maybe we can also apply this relatively simple tool as well: it may generate a lot more insight than we initially imagine.

What do you think?

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