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?


  • You’ve touched on the holy grail of teaching here Anthony. Something can become important in a class if it is needed. This could be an actual need from the student’s life or a created need by you. The former is better of course but this example also attacked and challenged people’s beliefs and ethics perhaps. This is my main area of interest. How to engage students without insulting or attacking them.

    It also shows, very well, how a small object can lead into many avenues of discussion related to cultural differences, ethics, beliefs, crime and punishment etc. Finding this stimulus and letting things develop seems essential.

    Why would we want another book-based lesson on chess or skiing when you could have one like this?

    I also like stories or anecdotes. One of my highest classes (CPE+) said their best speaking class was when the teacher (who had been summoned 1 minute before to cover) told them about how he was thinking of buying a house and discussed his options with them for 1 hour and they looked ad adverts in the paper. They said this was brilliant because it was real and it gave them a platform to discuss other related issues.

    • Monty Dogme and the Holy Grail 😉

      I’m constantly surprised how it’s the small things that seem to awaken the most interest in classes (one of my favorite recent classes revolved around some rather chic little page markers that I had got as a present – the students were fascinated by them to a degree that was, frankly, a wee bit silly!)

      Your story about your colleague’s success in turning a real life problem into a great language learning experience confirms for me that it’s the human need that drives the whole thing.

      But I should make clear (as I didn’t in the post!) that this isn’t a cry against EdTech again: yesterday my colleague watched a final TP lesson (55 minutes) by a trainee who worked with a group of A1/A2 learners to develop short presentations on national festivals from their countries. She also filmed them using her netbook and projected them on the Big Screen during final feedback and apparently the look of pride and joy on their faces as they watched their short movies was priceless.

      Which proves once again what the best advocates for EdTech constantly and rightly make clear: it’s not the tool, its the use to which you put it!

  • This is the kind of post in which I need to ask you permission to quote you!
    “Find the sublime in the mundane, not vice versa” – that is SO true. The things that are most memorable to the students are the ones that hook up to things in real life they can relate too.

    By the way, I just got back from a family trip to Alaska. On sale everywhere was a special native knife called ULU. Looked impressive but I didn’t even want to BEGIN thinking about the logistics of traveling in so many planes with a knife!

    • Permission granted, and gladly so! As you say so rightly, the true leverage points for communication lie in the everyday things that form our common sense of what our lives are all about: something that my mother-in-law reminded me of recently. She had taken part in an English class where the teacher had (with good intentions) tried to engage the class in discussions about world peace and so on. My mother-I’m-law (a well-educated woman and highly experienced social worker) said “I know that stuff’s important, but we’re all mod-50s mothers – what we want to talk about is our kids, the laundry and what’s going on in the neighborhood!”

      And as for exporting a knife out of Alaska, you made the right decision in leaving it there – but did you take a photo? 😉

  • Good point. That’s been my argument for a while. If it can be used very quickly as a natural part of the class then fine. That’s why FLIP cameras are good. The only problem is what effect it has on the presenters. If they are all happy to be recorded and just act naturally OK but I’ve seen my own students sit starting at the webcam frozen because they are nervous. This destroyed the lesson but with another techie class they recorded themselves and then analysed each other and recorded feedback at home.

    Everything depends on the people in the room I guess.

  • Nose to the grindstone’s enchanting etymology ! WOW !!!

    I wondered if “back to the grind” evolved from this as well, and digging a bit into the web, it seems it also comes from the middle ages and mills… back-breaking monotonous work.

    Great read. Thanks, Anthony.

  • Ha-ha your example cast me back into the past with a kindergarten teacher who challenged us to bring interesting objects to class with rich backstories and asked us to muster details about the object in an effort to interest others. You might be familiar with this time, it was called “Show and Tell”.

    This is a technique that has spanned generations. But, it always required that the teacher pass control of the class, for a brief time, over to the student.

    I think many of the things we need to learn are things we already know but have simply forgotten.

    • I think you’re right there – the question is, how to raise these ideas back from the depths of memory to the surface of consciousness, so to speak.

      Any ideas that would work in the busy time frame of a short pre-service course?

  • It sounds like the biggest problem you have is first and foremost one of time. As in, “how do we create more time for the necessary tasks of remembering (how you were taught) and reflection (about what you can take from these experiences).”

    It is possible, but it sounds like the structure of the course needs to be changed to free up more time. I hate to give you a simplistic answer but often, “where there is a will, there is a way.”

    The problem of course is convincing the powers that be that remembering and reflection have a place. In this day and age where events get compressed into less and less time-space, the first thing we often lose are the twins Rs.

    Disclaimer: I believe that how we teach is profoundly effected by how we learn(ed).

    • Very true, Mike – time is a major constraining factor on courses like the CELTA (which is what I work on most of the time). Let me qualify that: Time divided by syllabus content and administrative regulations is the constraining factor! We have done a fair bit of jiggery-pokery to make more space for “the Two Rs” (you can watch me and my colleague banging on about it if you like – look for “IATEFL Talk 2010″ in the section”talks”, above) but it’s a constant wrestle with time.

      I really am torn between thinking that I would like much more time to work more leisurely, and thinking that the slight pressure-cooker effect of short courses brings out learning more intensely.

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