S is for (Earl) Stevick

21 11 2010

In a comment on my previous blog post, Diarmuid Fogarty suggested, if ever I get tired of the A-Z format, I might simply go through the book titles on my bookshelves and write a blog post per book. As it happens, when Diarmuid wrote that, I was already planning to focus on a book that had been a key influence on my development as a teacher, a copy of which – second-hand but in mint condition –  I’d recently managed to unearth, courtesy Amazon.

The book is Earl Stevick’s Teaching Languages: A Way and Ways, published by Newbury House in 1980. This was the first book on ELT I read of my own volition. (I’d of course read at least a couple of books on the intensive Diploma course I’d recently completed at IH London).  For some obscure reason, Stevick’s book was available in the bookshop of the International House affiliate I was in charge of, in Alexandria, Egypt, in the early eighties.  I either borrowed it, or bought it for the school (I’ve never had a copy of my own until now).

ILI Alexandria: with some of the locally-recruited staff, circa 1981

The book made a profound impression on me, at a stage of my development as a teacher and teacher educator (I was supervising a dozen newly-recruited teachers at the time) where I had already begun to question some of the ‘givens’ that underpinned my initial training five years earlier. For instance, I was no longer sure that a methodology of elicit-and-repeat would ever result in conversational fluency. Nor was I comfortable with a methodology that reduced learners to the role of passive consumers of ‘grammar mcnuggets’ . But I still hadn’t fully grasped the critical role that affect plays in learning – language learning not least. Learning, for me, was still  a purely cognitive process. By opening my eyes to the emotional and attitudinal dimension of learning, under the umbrella of humanistic learning theory, Stevick’s book marked a milestone in my professional development.

Earl Stevick

Early in the book, citing his own much-quoted dictum that “success depends less on materials, techniques, and linguistic analysis, and more on what goes on inside and between the people in the classroom,” Stevick adds that he has been able “to pursue this principle more deeply, and at the same time to practice it more broadly, than before”.  As a result, he continues, “I have begun to suspect that the most important aspect of ‘what goes on’ is the presence or absence of harmony — it is the parts working with, or against, one another.  How such a thing may happen within and between the people in a language course is the subject of this book” (p.5).

In successive chapters, he describes his own quest for harmony in teaching, recounting how he had experienced, both as a student and as a teacher, such humanistic methods as The Silent Way, Community Language Learning, and Suggestopedia. For me, the realisation that success is more likely when the learner “is learning as a whole person, with body, mind, and emotions in harmony with one another” (p. 11) precipitated a major restructuring of my self-image as a teacher.

In order to capture something of the significance of this discovery, I drew up a series of ‘resolutions’ that were intended to set a new agenda for my teaching. Each resolution was based on a key ‘principle’, and elaborated in terms of its practical applications.  For example:

1.    Find out what the students want/need. Learning increases in proportion to relevance. “Pre-course” chat; sts write, conduct, collate results of their own survey; individuals choose thematic (lexical) areas to research and re–present to class; individual projects…
2.    Allow the students to bring their own interests, enthusiasms into the class, into the way the lessons are structured. Learning increases in proportion to personal investment. Use only materials with which there is a chance of generating discussion, argument; have sts bring things they have read (news) or heard; “show & tell” — photos, souvenirs, etc

Some of my resolutions (click to enlarge)

There were 17 resolutions in all, and I still have the original typewritten document, which, photocopied and distributed to my teachers, became a focus for discussion at our regular meetings. Our communal attempts to realise these ideals formed the platform on which all my later thinking about teaching was constructed.

I have read a lot of books on ELT since then, but none has had anything like such a profound impact, not just on my thinking, but on my actual classroom practice. This post is my tribute to its author: Earl Stevick – a great scholar, humanist and guide.

And (because it’s customary to end on a question): Do you have a ‘book that changed your life’?