I was a rabbit in your headlights.

(image taken from google images)

It’s been nearly 2 and a half months since my unplugged project came to an end. I would like to say I have been on a long, sun drenched, relaxing holiday and completely disconnected my overworked brain, but instead I threw myself into summer work and have only just come up for air.

Throughout that time, my reflection of the last teaching year has been on slow burn and after a recent conversation about what ’emergent language’ was, I felt it time to bring an end to this chapter of my teaching life.

For those of you who have followed this blog from the beginning, skip to the next paragraph. For those that are new, a very quick recap of the project. One intermediate class, one fairly inexperienced teacher, a blog to record everything that happened in the class and the chance to teach in the unplugged approach for an entire academic year. There were ups and downs, crisis’ of confidence, euphoria, breakthroughs and blogging block.

All that’s left to do now is summarise my thoughts on the whole thing. Which is easier said than done.

I will start with the good news. The four students that took the PET exam and were part of the project group from the beginning, all passed. You wouldn’t believe how happy this made me. The class was never really exam orientated, although with the exam fast approaching toward the end of the year I did base lessons around the PET exam and the final classes were devoted to exam technique and making sure the students were aware of the format.

Looking back at the year, I realise how incredibly lucky I was to carry out such a project. This couldn’t have been done without the support of my D.o.S, Emily Bell (@emilyvbell), my fellow teachers at IH Santander and my ever-expanding and awesome PLN. The magnitude of what I was actually attempting didn’t hit me until people like Anthony Gaughn, Jemma Gardner, Chiew Pang, Mike Harrison and Scott Thornbury, and many others, began to take an interest in what I was trying to do. In all honesty, it was completely bonkers. A second year teacher, with a hare-brained idea of teaching without a coursebook, with minimum materials and then taking on the added pressure of blogging about it and then presenting at two conferences. Madness. But you know what, I wouldn’t have changed it for the world. I took a journey that many people would never even have imagined, a journey that many other teachers would have shied away from, teachers with years of experience that have continued to follow the same well trodden path and never ventured from their comfort zone. I proved to myself that I could teach and that I was making a difference and I hope that people who have followed this blog, have been inspired or provoked to look at their own teaching and what happens in their classroom.

I also feel honored to have championed teaching unplugged as a legitimate teaching practice. While I am well aware that there needs to be a lot more research and debate rages as to whether it is ‘just good teaching’. I genuinely feel that it is an authentic way of teaching and can help a teacher to strip down everything around them and get back to basics.

I feel like a more rounded teacher, a more confident teacher and more importantly I am unafraid to experiment in my classes and push the boundaries. I’m convinced that this can only benefit my students and help to push English language teaching into the 21st century. Even if I don’t get it right the first time,  the amount of reflection and learning that happens is unprecedented, which I think project unplugged demonstrates.

To finish, I just want to add my thoughts on emergent language. Which I think is the cause of much debate and is quite hard to define and even harder to extract and then work with. I think emergent language exists. It is an indicator that the students are pushing themselves to experiment and produce an utterance that they are not quite sure of or perhaps haven’t studied properly but is appropriate to say at that moment. The slightly garbled and mixed up second conditional, which is then pounced upon by the teacher, exploited, clarified, practised and reinforced so that it become a part of that students language armory.

Just as important as emergent language is the language gaps our students have. The things they aren’t saying. The structures they aren’t using, when in fact the situation is screaming out for it. Some people might argue that the coursebook caters for this. Ploughing through from unit 1 to unit 12 will cover all the bases and fill those gaps, but unless we actually listen to our students and allow ourselves the opportunity to notice these gaps through conversation driven activities, we may just end up papering over those gaps and not filling them correctly.

Output (emergent language) + Input (filling the gaps) =   Results

On that note, I will draw a line under my unplugged experience. It’s been emotional and my Dogme days are not over. I have ideas and motivation for future projects but they will have to wait.

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6 thoughts on “I was a rabbit in your headlights.

  1. Adam, interesting reading and a lovely way to bring the project to a close – really enjoyed following it all the way through.

    That you finish with a comment about emergent language and a formula is great too – I have many doubts about Emergent language and I love formulas. I think the Dogme movement are confused when they speak about emergent language, what they really mean is interlanguage. As I understand it, emergent language is the result of the process, therefore your formula should read:

    interlanguage + input = emergent language

    I’d be a lot happier with this formula, but it’s also one that’s been around a lot longer then Dogme.

    • Neil,
      Emergent language and interlanguage are based on fundamentally different metaphors. Emergent language is diachronic whereas interlanguage is synchronic. The “emergent” in emergent language comes from complex dynamic systems theory and ecological approaches whereas interlanguage has roots in Chomskyan UG. That’s why interlanguage has been around much longer but is also why both approaches are theoretically incompatible and based on different worldviews.

      They can’t be united into a formula. For an example, see how Diane Larsen Freeman started out with classic interlanguage studies in the seventies but moved full on into complexity theory in the past 5 years.

  2. Pingback: A couple of comments on ‘Five against One’ by @bealer81 « A Muse Amuses

  3. I should also say that interlanguage studies posit underlying assumptions of an ideal native speaker, a deficiency view of L2 learners, modularity of the mind, the existence of universal grammar (UG) and a language acquisition device (LAD). Furthermore, due to its generativist roots, interlanguage as a field of study conceives of acquisition or learning as a private cognitive act or restructuring in the mind, as it were.

    Ecological approaches situate learning in social interaction between individuals. Complexity theory has been appropriated by usage based models of language learning in linguistics which jettison Generativist accounts. Again, for an example, look at how Larsen Freeman (2008) bases her argument for complexity theory on Joan Bybee’s usage based linguistics and view of language as a general cognitive domain ability.

    Interlanguage is intimately connected to SLA and has for a long time been part of the discourse learning institutions impart to teachers in qualification courses. In my opinion, it is a dead end and becoming increasingly marginalised as usage based models of language and complexity theory take over linguistics.

  4. Hi Adam,

    It’s taken me ages to get round to reading this. Sorry.

    I’m not going to join in the above debate on emergent language right now, but as I am doing a talk at TESOL France on how to deal with it, I think your readers can guess my thoughts on whether it exists or not!!

    What I will say though, is that I think you should be darn proud of yourself and the work you have done since you began working in TEFL. You are a great thinker, and this allows you to reflect on the many things which occur in the world of teaching, and helps you be a good teacher. It’s been great following your project and in look forward to knowing where you go next.

    On a more personal note, it’s been bloody marvellous to get to know you and actually work alongside you!

    I have taken a huge break from blogging, but I can feel some ideas beginning to trickle towards my fingers, and you have inspired me to get back to it.

    Keep up the good work!
    Jem

  5. You are indeed a brave man, Adam and I hope you’ve enjoyed and is enjoying the fruits…
    Thanks for the mention and I hope to meet you some time in the future!

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