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CHAPTER 2: The Problem with Schools


My teaching experiences in different parts of the world convinced me that something is wrong with English education. Everywhere I went, it was the same situation. he students were bored, frustrated, stressed, and nervous. Most students, even after years of studying English, failed to speak the language fluently. You are not alone, be- cause it’s a global problem.

One of my students, Seiko from Japan, described this combination of failure and stress as “English trauma.” Seiko said that she hated English. She felt that learning English was boring and stressful and speaking English was even worse. In fact, the thought of speaking to a native speaker immediately made Seiko feel extremely nervous and shy. Seiko felt she had developed a psychological problem with English and had named it “English trauma.” A “trauma” is a deep wound or injury. “How sad,” I thought to myself, “that so many people now think of English as a kind of injury or mental disease.”

Throughout my teaching career I’ve met many students who had similar feelings about English. I discovered that Seiko was not alone. Rather, “English trauma” is a global epidemic. Though most people feel they must learn to speak English, very few seem to enjoy it. Most who learn the language struggle with the same feelings of nervousness and frustration that Seiko had.

As I encountered this problem more and more, I began to look for the root causes. I realized that before I found a solution, I needed to understand the problem. Just as a doctor must first diagnose a disease before treating it. Think about it. What is the cause of all this misery and failure? Why do so many people fail to speak English effortlessly despite years of study? What is wrong with English education?

The first and most obvious problem I found with schools was the way in which they teach English. Most schools, everywhere in the world, use the grammar translation method. As the name implies, the focus of this method is on grammar analysis and the memorization of translated vocabulary. his method breaks English into an endless series of grammar formulas to memorize. Of course, each grammar formula has exceptions and these must be memorized too. 

Schools like the grammar translation method because it appears to be serious, academic and complex. The grammar translation method its the way schools teach most subjects — with textbooks, lectures, notes, memorization, and tests. The only problem, as you know, is that it doesn’t work. In real conversations, there simply is no time to think about grammar formulas and their exceptions. The failure rate for this method, therefore, is absolutely horrible. Despite the failure of most students to speak English fluently, schools continue to use this method. his is an epic failure of our education system. 

Recently, because students ind the grammar translation method so boring, some schools have added “communication activities” to their curriculum. Occasionally, the teacher puts the students into pairs or groups. he students then read or repeat dialogues from a textbook. Sometimes they might answer a few questions from a worksheet. Of course, these activities are unnatural, nothing like real English conversation. Consequently, the failure rate of “communication activities” is just as bad as grammar translation. 

Obviously the English teaching methods used in schools do not work. hat was easy to see. I knew it. he students knew it. And many teachers know it too, though few will admit it.

However, as I continued to investigate the problem with schools, I found even deeper problems in the education system. These problems are less obvious, but in many ways far more damaging to the students. I call these problems “the hidden curriculum” because they are the hidden lessons taught by schools. 

The Hidden Curriculum

Most schools, everywhere in the world, share a similar hidden curriculum. One element of this curriculum is student passivity. In schools, students are trained to be passive, not active. They sit in chairs, in rows. When they are young, they are told to be quiet and obey the teacher. As the teacher lectures, the students take notes. Later, they are told to memorize these notes in preparation for a test. he message is clear — learning is a passive activity. You listen to the teacher, you take notes, you memorize the notes. 

The problem is that speaking English is not a passive activity. You must connect with other people. You must constantly ask and answer questions. You must communicate ideas, emotions, and descriptions. You must be ready for the unexpected. You must be spontaneous. You must actively interact. English is not something you passively study, it’s something you do.

Related to the problem of passivity is the issue of energy. Sitting for a long time is a low-energy activity. The longer you sit, the more your energy drops. And as your energy drops, so does your concentration. What’s worse, we know that some learners need physical movement in order to learn effectively. These people are called “kinesthetic learners.” The truth is we are all “kinesthetic learners” to some degree, because we all benefit from physical movement. Schools stick us in chairs and drain our energy. Eventually, an inactive body leads to an inactive mind. 

The One Right Answer Mentality

One of the greatest laws of school education is the idea of “one right answer.” One right answer is a powerful part of the hidden curriculum. It is a result of using textbooks and tests.

In school, you are frequently taught that there is one, and only one, correct answer to a question or problem. For example, you may be asked to choose the correct verb tense on a test, or you may be taught “proper” English greetings. he hidden message is that the teacher’s way is always right.

Real life, and real English, is not this way. For example, sometimes I will tell a story using the present tense, even though the events happened in the past. This is a technique commonly used by native speakers. However, when English learners hear these stories, many are confused and upset. They are convinced that the past tense is the “right answer” and the only correct way to tell the story. Some get quite upset and even argue with me about it. These students are so convinced that there is only “one right answer” that they will argue with native speakers! 

These students have been trained to believe that there is only one correct way to say things in English. he truth is there are always many ways to say the same thing. We can change verb tenses in order to change the feeling of the story. We can use different  vocabulary and different phrases. And we even break grammar rules all the time! ‘One right answer’ thinking limits and confuses English learners. Effective communication requires flexibility while the “one right answer” mentality trains students to be rigid and unimaginative.

Connected to this problem is another dangerous part of the hidden curriculum — fear of mistakes. his is one of the most negative and traumatizing messages taught in schools. How is the fear of mistakes taught? Through tests and corrections. In nearly every school all over the world, teachers regularly give quizzes and tests. The teacher asks questions and the students must provide the one right answer. Of course, the one right answer is always the teacher’s answer. 

What happens if the student provides a different answer? They are punished with a lower score. Students are smart, and they quickly understand that in school, mistakes are bad and must be avoided. hey also understand that truth is unimportant and the best way to succeed is to simply give the answer that the teacher wants. Even worse is when a student, already feeling nervous, tries to speak English with the whole class listening. hey are just learning, so of course they will make mistakes. When the teacher corrects these mistakes, the student is embarrassed and becomes even more nervous. Eventually, most students try to avoid speaking English because the situation is so painful. 

By punishing and correcting mistakes, schools punish risk taking. Little by little, they train students to avoid risk and avoid doing any- thing they can’t do perfectly. Yet there is no perfection with English speaking. Even native speakers make mistakes. We make grammar mistakes. We mispronounce words. We forget vocabulary words. It doesn’t matter, because we are focused on communicating, not on tests and grades. 

Of course, the fear of mistakes goes far beyond English class. After years of school, most people learn to avoid risk in most parts of their life. School trains them to be passive, rigid, timid, and obedient. his not only hurts your English speaking, it also harms your career and limits your success in all areas of life. Fortune favors the bold. Those who are active, flexible, and passionate are the ones who achieve the greatest success in life. he passive and obedient rarely live their dreams. 

You will make many mistakes as you improve your English speaking. There is no need to be upset by this. The truth is, most native speakers don’t care. They don’t care if you make grammar mistakes. They just want to communicate with you. They want to share thoughts, ideas and feelings. They want to communicate with you as a human being, not as an “English student.” To communicate effectively, you must forget the idea of perfection and learn to be flexible. 

The Dirty Secret of English Teaching

If the hidden curriculum is so bad, why do schools and teachers continue to follow it? The truth about our education system is that the curriculum exists to benefit the schools, not the students. Teachers use these methods because they are easier for the teacher, not because they are good for the student. The hidden curriculum creates passive students. It creates obedient students. Passive and obedient students are easier to control, making life easier for teachers and school administrators. 

Textbooks, for example, make the teacher’s job much easier. By using a textbook, the teacher doesn’t have to plan new lessons for every class. Planning lessons is hard work, and a textbook makes it much easier. The teacher can simply follow the textbook with minimum effort. Many teachers are little more than textbook readers. Every day they read the textbook to their students, slavishly following the lessons. In my opinion, they can barely be called “teachers” at all. Perhaps we should call them “textbook readers” instead. 

Another benefit of textbooks, for the schools, is that they standardize learning. By using a textbook, the school ensures that every English class is learning exactly the same thing. School officials like this because it makes testing and ranking students easier. Schools are like factories, the bosses want everything to be the same. 

The same is true for tests and grades. These provide little to no benefit to English learners. In fact, as we have discussed, tests and grades increase stress and create a fear of making mistakes. Tests and grades are a primary cause of “English trauma.” On the other hand, tests and grades are a powerful tool of control for teachers. When students fear bad grades, they obey the teacher more. They learn that the teacher is always right, because if they don’t agree with the teacher’s answer they are punished with lower scores. 

Grades are a means of ranking students. Most teachers and administrators are focused on ranking students rather than helping all succeed. In many schools, the official policy is that a certain percentage of students in every class must get poor grades, a certain percentage must get “medium level” grades, and only a small percentage can be given excellent grades. In other words, the system is designed to create failure for a large number of students. 

While working at a university in Thailand, I was told directly by my boss that too many of my students had high scores. My boss insisted that I fail more students in my class. I was shocked and angry. I quit the job rather than purposely fail dedicated students. Sadly, this mentality of “designing for failure” is present in most school everywhere in the world. Schools benefit from ranking and controlling students.

The grammar translation method also benefits the teacher but not the student. By teaching grammar rules, the teacher can simply lecture from the textbook. Because linguistics is a complicated subject, the teacher appears knowledgeable and thus establishes a position of superiority over the students. Even if the teacher is a non-native speaker with terrible English ability, he or she can pretend to be an expert by teaching complex grammar from a book. The shocking truth is that many non-native English teachers, in fact, speak English very poorly. By focusing on grammar they disguise their inability to speak well. 

What about communication activities? Surely they are designed to help students. Actually, they are not. These activities, as we discussed previously, are unnatural. They are nothing like a real conversation, and thus do not prepare students to have real conversations. However, communication activities are great for teachers. The teacher puts the students into pairs or groups and asks them to follow a textbook activity. Often, the students simply read a written dialogue from the book or answer pre-written questions from the book. The advantage for the teacher is that once such an activity is started, the teacher can rest and do nothing. While the students go through the textbook activity, the teacher relaxes. It’s a secret among English teachers that communication activities are a great way to waste time and avoid work. 

One particularly horrible version of communication activities is the use of movies. Used correctly, movies can be a powerful English learning tool. Most teachers, however, simply use movies as a way to waste time. They put in a movie, turn out the lights, and push play. For the remainder of the class, the teacher happily does nothing. The students are usually happy, too, because watching a movie is far more interesting than grammar, even if they can’t understand most of the film.

Passive Low Energy Benefits the Teacher

Finally, let’s look at the low energy situation in most schools. From childhood, students are forced to sit for hours, motionless in chairs. They are told to be quiet and obedient. By adulthood, most people are thoroughly trained. They accept passive lectures and low energy as a normal part of learning. 

Why would schools and teachers want low energy? Again, because low energy students are easier to manage. A teacher must work much harder with curious, energetic students. Sadly, most teachers prefer the easy way. It’s much easier for them to lecture quietly to passive students.

The truth is that many teachers are tired and stressed. Because of this, they constantly look for ways to make their own job easier. Their first concern is not the students. They are not obsessively focused on getting better results for the learners. Rather, they just want to get through their workday as easily as possible. There are many reasons for this situation, but the end result for the student is boredom, frustration, and poor results. 

This is the ugly truth of education. This is the reason you cannot speak English well, despite years of study. This is the reason you ind English to be stressful, difficult, and boring. This is the cause of English trauma. This is the source of the problem. 

Happily, there is a solution. The Internet has made independent learning easy for all. No matter where you live or what you do, it is possible to master spoken English without schools. All you need is an Internet connection!

In the next chapter, I will introduce the solution to English trauma. You will learn how to heal and how to finally get the results you want with English speaking. 




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