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Alex McNish: Teachers Touch the Future – Part 2


Alex preparing English Tea Room lessons on napkins

Alex preparing English Tea Room lessons on napkins

Interview by Martina Bednarikova

Teachers are artists who assist discovery. The best ones therefore do not simply give the answers. They just point the way and let their students make their own choices, their own mistakes. According to Alex McNish, one of the speakers at ELT Forum, a teacher’s job is not to teach kids. A teacher’s job is rather to create meaningful and engaging work whereby kids can learn the things they need. For that reason never forget that in order to achieve this goal every teacher needs to understand learning more than teaching.

Slovak Chamber of English Teachers (SCET): Your workshop covers the topic of teaching ‘thinking skills’. How do you keep improving/developing your own thinking skills? Is there anything that makes you feel intellectually exhausted yet exhilarated?

Alex McNish (AM): I had a brilliant tutor, Lisa Downing at the University of London, who used to construct these fantastically complex yet concise explanations during literature analysis seminars, and then say to herself, “Yes! What a great sentence!” Trying to keep up with her musings, and then to construct something similar in essays used to give me a real kick. I get a similar feeling from my sister’s poems these days (Hollie McNish), but without the hope of constructing anything similar…

I have what was a little yellow book, and is now a rather large yellow book, of reflections on teaching/learning that I keep as a diary and am constantly adding to and re-reading, thinking about what has worked and what hasn’t, what to do better, and how. Trying to give my students ideas for types of questions to ask that might be more productive than others, and constantly asking them to go the extra mile in their thinking, takes a lot of research, at least initially. Setting myself up as an example of a thinker for teenage students, though it sounds terribly arrogant, takes a lot of courage and humility, especially as teenagers, having not been through the education system fully, have a tendency not to think in the theoretical boxes we come to expect from academic disciplines, and always keep me on my toes! Getting embroiled in a good debate with a fifteen-year-old, or class of fifteen-year-olds!, seems to work wonders for reminding me how incomplete or rigid my own thinking can be and how I have to keep stepping out of my learned categorical ways of thinking and into their world.

What makes me feel intellectually exhausted yet exhilarated? Every time a student starts a sentence with “If…” I know I’m going to have my work cut out trying to understand, then correct, then possibly explain, English verb tenses! But then later when they sit up and the nodding “uh-hu” of not understanding is transformed into the wide-eyed “ah-ha!”, it leaves me chuffed for hours.

SCET: How can the development of thinking skills help students learn a foreign language? Can you tell us more about the reactions of your own students to these activities?

AM: Most of the time they don’t even know they’re doing ‘thinking skills’, they just feel something less boring/superficial is being asked of them. My teenage classes have said they like me as a teacher because I take a genuine interest in them, which is, I think, a response to the fact that I ask them a lot of elaborative opinion questions and don’t let them get away with easy answers. I also don’t judge their answers as right or wrong, but rather as more or less complete, with the latter requiring further prompting (we spent the whole lesson today, in fact, with a huge “Why?” sprawled across the blackboard in electric blue, a big garish reminder). I want to know what they think and feel about a topic, not just whether they can use good grammar or appropriate vocabulary; the former pair they seem to find highly encouraging, and the latter pair will take care of themselves through acquisition if their enthusiasm guides them to greater input and I keep pointing things out as we go. Not many of the beloved course book tasks we do in class have any substantial effect size anyway, whereas volume of input and a curious eye/ear certainly do. As experienced teachers we all know the student will either learn or not largely of their own volition, but that means the place to focus our efforts is on upping and redirecting the volition towards what we want them to learn, as responsible ‘mentors’.

Thinking skills have a great effect on language learning. In our current state of obsession with the communicative method, we forget that it deals largely with inter-communication (blah blah blah between people) and forgets intra-communication (blah blah blah in your own mind!). Tomasello describes the latter relationship quite beautifully as the “inextricable intertwining of the communicative and cognitive functions of language,” while Andy Clark posits “language as a tool to augment human computation”, where such computation is done in a non-local (i.e. extended, or distributed) mind: “a good deal of actual thinking involves loops and circuits which run outside the head and through the local environment.” In both cases the boundaries between the personal and interpersonal, and between language and thinking, are pleasingly blurred. Highlighting thinking skills, I hope, somewhat redresses the balance away from the purely, and putative, mania for inter-communication.

But does it really help language learning/acquisition? Ha, good question! It seems to be widely accepted that, all else being equal, the more cognitive work you do on a topic, the deeper your understanding of it and the better you remember it. More than that though, emotional engagement with a topic is critical for long-term memory, and this is more easily worked on with challenging opinion questions than drier, knowledge-based ones, especially when such questions come from peers rather than a teacher, as I’m picking up on in the workshop. Also, if thinking in English becomes a habit for learners early then they will surely identify with the language more readily as they grow.

I don’t think the question, though, should only be whether thinking skills help language learning/acquisition, because language is itself a thinking skill: when we teach a word, we’re teaching an idea; when we teach a point of grammar, we’re teaching a way of thinking, of combining ideas. Comparatives are themselves analogical thinking, conditionals are hypothesising, the tenses create a feeling of linear time, etc. Grammar is functional, though it’s easy to forget. As teachers we’d perhaps get students more involved if, instead of focusing on the grammar structure itself, we focused explicitly on what students can do with it.

SCET: You hold an MA degree in Second Language Acquisition from the University of Barcelona. In what way does it help you teach English to speakers of foreign languages? Do you have any tips as to how to master them? What kind of a learner are you and how do you personally learn best?

AM: I was going to study for a teaching MA until I read John Hattie’s comment that to teach better, you have to understand learning, not teaching. This key idea now underpins my whole teaching philosophy. In truth, I largely ignore a lot of the teaching literature and instead try to keep abreast of some of the learning theory out there, impossible as it is.

My MA studies in language acquisition totally changed how I approach the classroom (now with a jauntier gait): I don’t try to ‘teach’ much anymore, but instead try to maximise acquisition by doing some awareness-raising activities on grammar, pronunciation, etc., by providing healthy doses of feedback, and by providing opportunities for increased input and interaction. My lessons seem to be tending more and more towards a flipped classroom style, where I plan the classroom interaction based on the levels of thinking I want students to engage in, rather than pedagogical methods or knowledge-level learning outcomes. My favourite lessons involve pre-reading homework on a topic (or TED Talk, etc.), followed up in class with a list of 50-100 discussion questions on the topic given to pairs to choose from and ask each other while I monitor, join in, and sporadically interrupt to give whole-class feedback on. I once had a brilliant student whose older brother was teaching him English, in fact, through debates on ideas from the Koran. Okay, so we keep religion out of the classroom, but the idea of being something of an older brother who prompts stimulating debates is one I try to embody to a certain extent. If I could, I would teach every lesson like this if the course book did not oblige otherwise.

How to master foreign languages? Maximum input and interaction, and a clear and genuine reason. But it’s not my tip really, it’s just what the research shows: if you take a group of otherwise similar people (in IQ level, age, motivation, socioeconomic background, etc.) and want to guess who will be most proficient, it’ll be the ones who have had the most input from and interaction with native speakers. No magic secret really, just brute volume of interaction in the target language. As for the clear and genuine reason, a lot of people will also vouch for the ‘girlfriend effect’, as it’s known!

I don’t really believe in multiple intelligences (shocking, I know!) because I think it asks the wrong question; namely, “How do people learn best?” rather than, “How could people learn best?” That is, it is a theory which caters to people’s current state rather than their potential. I also don’t believe in differentiating lessons down to the different levels of students in the class, again because I disagree with the premise, here, that a lesson should be brought down to a student. I try to teach all my lessons to the top two students in the class and then differentiate the other students up to the lesson, not the lesson down to the student.

Personally, I wouldn’t want to define myself as a certain type of learner. If anything I am, like everyone probably, an “enjoy” learner: I learn what I enjoy, what piques my curiosity, in the way that takes my fancy, and this is always changing. Usually I like reading, though it depends on the author, but I probably prefer listening if the particular voice suits my mood of the moment. This doesn’t mean I learn best by reading and listening though, because I dislike a lot of literature, and some people’s voices turn my stomach! The whole thing is far less predictable, more chaotic, than the likes of multiple intelligence theory, for example, describe. If you think about dancing, for example, even people who love dancing hate some dances; people who are music lovers hate some types of music.BC logo

Alex McNish is a British Council English teacher in Bratislava, Slovakia. Last year he completed his master’s degree in Second Language Acquisition at the University of Barcelona. He holds his degree in French from the University of London, QMW. He has been teaching in Slovakia for four years in total, as well as in England at an international private school near Oxford on and off since 2003. Alex’s main interests are preparing second-language English speakers for university entrance exams, extensive reading programmes, and trying to fathom Slovak grammar.

4 SKILLS /GR/VO/EXAMS – LOWER Secondary/UPPER Secondary/UNI/Adults – A1-C2 – ALL TEACHERS


Author: Vicky Loras

My name is Vicky Loras and I am an English teacher born in Toronto, Canada. I have been teaching since 1997. For ten years, my sisters and I owned an English School in Greece, The Loras English Academy, but I have now moved to Switzerland with my eldest sister, where we have opened a new school, The Loras Network. I believe in teaching as an ongoing learning process, both for the benefit of the students and the teacher. One of my primary educational interests is celebrating diversity in education and languages.

2 thoughts on “Alex McNish: Teachers Touch the Future – Part 2

  1. Pingback: Alex McNish: Teachers Touch the Future | Just Me

  2. Pingback: ELT Forum – Recap of Interesting Resources and Blog Posts – April 2014 | Just Me

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