I sometimes feel guilty when I go on the TES resources pages or the #mfltwitterati. I am frequently struck by the time and effort that teachers must have put in to create the glossy powerpoints, the marking grids, the self assessment sheets. Often it seems to be teachers teaching in really challenging schools, categorized by Ofsted as inadequate or requiring improvement, that have produced some of the most elaborate work. Much of the material is examination focussed and the tips and strategies suggested contain a lot of good sense. Many of the other activities suggested are promoted as facilitating pupil engagement and in this respect they have obviously succeeded, judging by the many appreciative comments. One cannot be anything other than impressed by the creativity and ingenuity displayed.
Yet a warning bell sometimes tinkles at the back of my mind. Having been around a fairly long time, I was reminded of a teacher exchange which took place in the 1990s between the head of French at Lord William’s School in Thame, Oxfordshire and a French school located near Toulouse in France. The exchange was filmed and the teachers concerned were asked to comment on the language lessons they had observed in each other’s country. The French teacher’s comments ran something like this (unfortunately I have tried in vain to find a reference online):
The teacher I was working with was very good and I had tremendous respect for the way the lessons were planned and organised. I couldn’t have done it. But as far as the content was concerned, I couldn’t help but feel that some of it was a waste of time.
I suppose my question is, “Are we trying too hard?” Let’s take a common idea which I have seen recently for help with translations. Pupils are given a text and then given 3 different translations of it. In groups, pupils decide which is the best translation and justify their answer. Not, in itself, a bad idea. But the question arises, is this more effective than simply practising translation in class? And does any possible benefit justify the cost in a teacher’s time and effort?
Equally, when I see complex grids of “can do” statements for pupils to tick off and then stick into their books, which must have taken considerable effort to draw up, I cannot help but wonder whether this is the most effective use of classroom time. For example, a child giving themselves a red, amber or green rating for “I can talk about a past event”. Almost immediately the questions arise. What past event? In how much detail? With what degree of accuracy? Using which verbs?
One of the hardest things I have found as a head of department is having to tell a student teacher or NQT that they have simply tried too hard – that although the activity was fun, very little language was used. This is where I am grateful for my experience observing teachers teaching English in schools abroad. I can state categorically that in every lesson I observed abroad, I felt that the pupils were working harder than the teacher. This does not mean that I never observed pupils off task. Nor does it mean that the teachers never did any “fun” activities. But the focus was always on how much language the pupils would use and whether they would be able to use it accurately, rather than reinforce mistakes.
I was therefore interested to see the recent report on the teaching of MFL in the UK. One of the things I particularly liked was the warning against the rigid division of MFL study into listening, speaking, reading and writing. However, reading the report, I think an opportunity was missed to warn teachers of overdoing it. Sometimes, the simplest things are best.