Why ELT needs to cut like a knife

Thiers knife
Every boy should have a penknife…

A few weeks back I was working with a group of CEF B2 learners. I had recently returned from a holiday in France and had brought a souvenir back with me: a pocket knife made by hand in the traditional heart of French blade-making, Thiers.

The knife itself (as you can see in the picture) is not particularly attractive or interesting – there were many other shinier, more beautifully made display pieces in the dozens of specialist shops in the town.

But this was the one that had found its way from a mediaeval town in France into a language class in a Hanseatic town in Germany.

I recalled I had the knife with me and pulled it out. After passing it around, I told the group about how the blades used to be sharpened back in the old days: backbreaking work, lying face down on a plank of wood hanging over a spinning grindstone (hence the phrase nose to the grindstone), judging if the blade was ready by touch (!) because they couldn’t see it, suspended over a roaring river deep in a valley where, to stave off the cold and damp, they trained dogs to lie on their legs for the 12 hours a day that the blade-grinders spent prone at work.

Blade-grinder's hut - Theirs
…and you think your working conditions are bad?

If that seems like an awfully long sentence, just think how long that kind of working day must feel like.

The group was fascinated and appalled by the story, and we had a lively discussion about life expectancy and industrial accidents. The students picked up on language I’d used to tell the story and went on to tell their own (not about industrial accidents, I hasten to add!)

If I had to choose a word to describe the atmosphere in the room, I’d say keen.

Keen in both senses: eager and sharp-edged. The people in the group were absorbed by the story and compelled to engage with it out of raw curiosity. They were notably determined to grasp the precise technique used for sharpening the blades – they were definitely not going to be satisfied by a superficial skimming of the text, which Scott Thornbury has written about recently.

What did it take to achieve this focus, this keenness? Well it wasn’t about the knife – my own shiny precious was barely interesting in itself. What cut through the afternoon lassitude was the story: the story behind the blade – the human story – cut like a knife.

What thoughts have I taken from this experience, as a teacher and teacher trainer? Well:

Stories are powerful
Candy van Olst pleaded passionately for more space for stories – particularly learner stories – in the classroom at the IATEFL Dogme Symposium. stories are part of what connects people, and language is the essential medium through which stories work their magic. More stories = more language.

Tools – by themselves – do not sharpen the mind
It is often asserted that use of EdTech can help establish motivation and focus in otherwise unmotivated classes. This may be true but it seems to me that it’s not the tool we should be concerned with, but the motivation and how to awaken that.

Trainee teachers need to dig deep in their pockets
… and I don’t mean for the course fees! Perhaps trainee teachers need to trust their own stories and their own resources more – and perhaps those of us who train them need to encourage them to trust these things, too. Perhaps we should refrain a bit longer before reaching for a tried and trusted piece of our own material to shortcut a planning deficit in teaching practice.

Find the sublime in the mundane, not vice versa
Our job as teachers is to take the everyday – whether it be situations, texts, language or resources – and leverage them for high performance. We shouldn’t be pouring our time and energy into things which appear “Awesome” on the surface but leave our learners speechless for all the wrong reasons.

What do you think? Or have you experienced a similar low-material/high performance moment recently?

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