Archive for the ‘Uncategorized’ Category


May 10, 2013

Excuse the poor Powerpoint skills. This is the presentation that goes with the paper.


May 9, 2013

This is the proposal for my doctoral dissertation

the doctoral proposal of Michael Scott Sommers version 2

The Economic Migration of English Teachers in Asia

December 26, 2011

Recently, there has been a lot of attention given to my idea of English teachers in Asia as economic migrants. Much of this attention is focused on what I had to say about the children of English teachers. This discussion of the children of English teachers was initially a minor point that Mark Liberman at Language Log picked up on due to his differing personal experiences with people raised overseas. I replied to this comments, and the discussion was born.

While I have enjoyed the chance to answer Dr. Liberman’s query, the difficulties of raising children in the lifestyle of an English teacher is really a side issue that resulted from speculation on my categorization of English teachers as economic migrants. If it is the case that English teaching can only be explained as economic migration, certain other issues are bound to arise. But rather than focus on the potential social problems of English teachers inAsia, I want to try and summarize why I categorize us as economic migrants.

The Central Issue

Since sometime in the late 1980’s, an enormous number of Anglo-americans have flooded East Asia to teach English. The English teaching market for Anglo-americans existed in Asia before this time, but it appears there was little supply of teachers. Since that time, a number that I estimate to be close to a million Anglo-americans have taught English in Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan. This movement of people shows no sign of stopping — or even slowing down. While a large market for native-speaker English teachers exists in other Asian countries, such as China, Thailand, and Vietnam, Anglo-americans English teachers seem concentrated in the affluent regions of north-east Asia.

I have vigourously explored a number of other explanations to explain this observation but have been unable to find one more satisfactory than this. I am of course open to other explanations or even refutations of the validity of my data.

What is a Migration?

Perhaps the strongest point of disagreement I have encountered concerns what I call a ‘migration’. My use of this term is quite technical and varies somewhat from the way in which the term is used colloquially. Colloquial usage often refers to a conventional American sense of usage that distinguishes between ‘sojourners’ and ‘settlers’. A great deal was written about these concepts by sociologists and historians dating back to the 1920’s, and this ultimately led to the concept of American migration as a ‘melting pot’. This usage contrasts sharply with a more contemporary understanding of migration based on more complete data. Highly readable research based on this more contemporary understanding can be found in Immigration Reconsidered: History, Sociology, and Politics edited by Virginia Yans-McLaughlin. In this volume, one of the leading sociologists writing in this field, Charles Tilly, discusses different types of migration.
Tilly urges readers to (p. 88),

…stop thinking about migration as a single homogeneous experience and start recognizing its sharply contrasting forms.

He continues with a discussion of 5 different types of migration: colonizing, coerced, circular, chain, and career. English teaching as I am describing it resembles most closely what Tilley calls ‘career migration’ which,

…characterizes individuals and households that move in response to opportunities to change position within or among large structures, such as corporations, states, and professional labor markets.

Although I suspect that in many ways English teaching is coming to resemble ‘circular migration’, which he states,

…consists of the creation of a regular circuit in which migrants retain their claims and contacts with a home base and routinely return to that base after a period of activity elsewhere in the circuit.

A closer reading of the volumes technical literature available on the great migrations that populated the Anglo-american world, as well as South and Central America, point to several other important characteristics.
a) Return migration was extremely common. Depending on the ethnic group, return migration may have been the norm, with some individuals returning twice or even three times before finally going ‘home’ for good.
b) Migrants do not move as individuals. Rather, their movement is typified by groups that form networks of culturally and linguistically similar peoples in communities that live and often work together.
c) These migrations were not driven by poverty and desperation, but were frequently highly literate people for whom opportunity (rather than food) was the biggest drawing factor.
d) While we hear mostly of the immigrant success stories, migration is typified by vice which, depending on ethnicity, may include gambling, drug use, and prostitution and occasionally leaves behind broke, destitute migrants.

What an Explanation of English Teachers Must Explain

I have talked about this elsewhere, but here I will try to summarize why I say that English teachers in Asia are driven by economic forces.

Many individuals have written me to suggest that they personally were driven by some force other than money in their move to East Asia. I do not doubt the authenticity of any individual narrative. Nor do I doubt that the money to be made in Asia is less than in the mother country of most English teachers. However, neither of these points seems a particularly strong rebuttal of anything I have said.

“English teaching’ is a social phenomena that needs an explanation. Where did it come from? Why is there a seemingly endless mass rush out of Anglo-american nations?

An explanation of this mass exodus must explain other characteristics as well. In the past, emigration from the USA moved predominantly to other highly developed, English-speaking nations, such as Canada. While tens of thousands of people moved to such places as Japan, Mexico, and Israel, this migration was motivated by ethnic affiliation. For example, Americans Abroad: A Comparative Study of Emigrants from the United States reports that from 1970 to 1974 over 23,000 Americans emigrated annually to Japan. Almost certainly, all of them were Americans of Japanese ancestry and not white or Americans of African ancestry. The migration of English teachers would appear to be the first large scale movement of Americans to a significantly lesser developed region. Why is this decision being made now?

Anglo-american groups are represented inEast Asia as English teachers in proportion to their disadvantage in their domestic labour markets. My anecdotal evidence is that English teachers are overwhelmingly liberal arts graduates. While there are some working as English teachers who have science or professional backgrounds, they represent a tiny minority. Also, I have statistical evidence that citizens ofSouth Africa andCanada are overrepresented by teachers at the lowest level of employment while Americans are overrepresented by teachers in the most competitive jobs. If this is correct, why would it be so?

While the commercial English teaching markets of the better-paying nations are increasingly so full of teachers that businesses and governments have reacted to the oversupply, the poorer-paying markets can’t seem to attract enough. It is widely believed among teachers in Taiwanand South Koreathat better paying jobs in Japanare unobtainable. This is increasingly the case in Taiwanas well. In China, Thailand, and Vietnam, on the other hand, jobs are so easily obtainable that there is no need to think of getting one as a problem. In fact, I have heard of Chinese universities knowingly hiring high schools graduates to teach their students.

The Social Problems of English Teachers

It is the social life of English teachers that I have the least factual information to refer to. Unfortunately, it is also the aspect of the discussion that attracts the most information. For example, it was my speculation that the children of some English teachers could go on to suffer from social and linguistic disadvantage that initially attracted attention to my posts.

In fact, my speculation is based on a very small sample of people that I know personally. I will readily admit that I may be way off base on this one. Still, I often wonder what will happen to those that we all know who have taught English for years, but saved absolutely no money. This may represent a fringe element of long-term foreign English teachers — although I am not really sure about this one either — but it is a problem that will occur. While Japan may have the economy and social development to handle this, South Korea and Taiwan do not.

The kind of problems I am speculating about may or may not be common enough for our growing community to be forced to deal with. But there will be problems like this, even if there are only a few, as the population of long-term foreign residents ofTaiwan and other Asian nations increases.

School Reform and the Crises of Educational Testing in Taiwan

May 4, 2009

One of the biggest issues in Taiwan is the development of a new system of education. The MOE is currently trying to replace a test-driven, hierarchical system of selection with one more in-line with models derived in Western countries. The system they seem intent on implementing would be based more on direct application to schools who can then select students on a criteria they feel better suits the needs and identity of the school. High-placed MOE officials have spoken of their respect for the University of California system, but important details appear yet to be ironed out.

These reforms have come under heavy criticism. It is not clear to me how much of this criticism is aimed at the concept of reform or at the way these reforms have been progressing. Nevertheless, one of the main foci of criticism has been the significantly smaller role that paper-and-pencil tests will play in selecting and promoting students.

Paper-and-pencil placement tests have been until very recently a very large part of schooling as developed for Taiwan by the KMT government. The public rationale for this is often centered on the term ‘fair’. In this case, ‘fair’ has come to be defined as an objective number that would be replicated if the same test score were counted again by a different grader. Until only a few years, almost all educational decisions related to student placement were bound up in a web of paper-and-pencil tests administered centrally through the Ministry of Education and the Examination Yuan.

Recently, I had a significant experience relating to why the MOE would appear so desperate to change this system. And in the course of this experience, I have come to agree that such serious flaws exist in the system of high stakes competitive testing established under KMT rule that only massive reform can prepare the nation for a competitive future.

The Problem

The problem of testing in the Republic of China on Taiwan is straight forward. These tests are not at all fair. That is, they are not effective at selecting for those who best know the subject being tested. The result of this is a whole host of significant problems that include a huge washback effect that damages students and interferes with educational innovation.

Does the system of testing developed by the KMT’s MOE and the Examination Yuan actually select the best candidates? Although I implied above that the answer is no, the real answer is that no one knows. Neither the MOE nor the Examination Yuan carry out the kind of analysis on their tests that mark the Western concept of a scientific test. They are constructed according to legal mandates conceived early in the life of the KMT’s Republic of China.

You have all heard the complaint that selection by testing in the end selects for people who are good at tests. This complaint is perhaps more widespread in Taiwan than anywhere you are likely to go. Those of us whose lives are defined by a world of school and institutional excellence are not likely to come across this belief, but it is rife among Taiwanese. I was first exposed to it by a former roommate who was a 4th year Sociology student at NTU. He explained to me it was unlikely local shopkeepers in our working-class neighborhood thought he was particularly ‘smart’. Instead, he related to me, they probably thought he was just “good at taking test.”

The all-or-nothing test system creates a vast number of other problems. From the proliferation of expensive preparation schools to the stress that robs children of their childhood, newspapers are full of complaints. The MOE has its own concerns. Emphasis on unchanging goals stifles the drive for innovative teaching techniques. There are many very skilled public school teachers in Taiwan who want desperately to make their students more talented. This is difficult in a system where life changing knowledge is defined by paper-and-pencil tests whose basic design has not been changed in decades.

The Anatomy of a Good Test

While the macro aspects of the testing problem are well understood, the micro aspects are not at all clear. There is good testing available, and by this I mean, it is well understood how to create exams that consistently select for a defined standard. Tests such as TOEIC, TOEFL, LSAT and others of the Educational Testing Service are designed along these criteria. I would never defend the ETS as the bastion of fairness, but at least I do know what their tests test are selecting for. The same can not be nor could have ever been said for those of The ROC’s Ministry of Education and Examination Yuan.

The construction of the kind of tests I am talking about is complex and beyond the discussion here, but I would like to point out some aspects of the kind of tests I am talking about.

Language tests are conventionally divided into achievement and proficiency tests. For example, a test that purports to determine a student’s ability to answer the phone in English would be an achievement test. Tests such as the TOEIC or TOEFL that are designed to examine a generalized English ability are proficiency tests. It is not clearly understood what kind of test the English section of the JCEE or even other entrance examinations are supposed to be.

The design and planning of a proficiency test is quite complex and should involve the piloting of questions and an examination of results using powerful statistical procedures. It is crucial that proficiency test questions have certain statistical properties. Questions on exams such as the JCEE were written according to procedures that allowed for use on only a single administration of the test. To assure that the testing was ‘fair’, following an administration of the test, questions and correct answers were made public in newspapers.

We all know that the MOE’s English tests do not select for proficiency in English. Everyone knows that students at top schools like National Taiwan University (NTU) have achieved tremendous scores on the English section of their entrance test. This has always been true. Yet despite this, the communication ability of an average NTU student is extremely poor – unless they have received outside instruction from a commercial language school. These tests could in no sense be construed as proficiency tests. Yet if the test is not a proficiency test, what ability is it selecting for? Could it be that language exams such as the JCEE are neither proficiency nor ability tests? The thought of this distorts my mind.

Testing in Taiwan

An Examination Yuan official once described to me how professional selection examinations are made. Test writers are selected from a list of approved people and assigned writing tasks by the member of the Examination Yuan whose job it is to supervise that test’s construction. The questions are collected together and then sent across the road to the Ministry of Examinations to be copied and assembled. For this process, the selected staff of the Ministry of Examinations are sequester. Following the administration of the tests, the qualified person who wrote the examination marks the questions that he or she wrote. Selection examinations for high schools and universities use a multiple-choice format, but the point remains the same that none of the standard procedures for test development or verification are carried out on official examinations in Taiwan.

The problems created by this system of test construction are strange. Because there are only limited guidelines for the construction of test items, there is as much leeway in marking an exam as there would be in a classroom test. The answer to the question “What is the law?” depends very much on who is grading the test. As a result, the leading test preparation buxibans keep a close watch on the experts used to write professional selection tests and also on their research and class teaching materials. I have been told of bar exam prep schools finding out who is writing certain sections of the test and then prepping their students on what that professor teaches in his or her class.

The problems of the construction of multiple-choice examinations are even more difficult to understand. In the past, the Joint College Entrance Examination contained compulsory examination of subjects that included English. While multiple-choice examination seem straightforward – either the answer is correct or incorrect – this is not true. In fact, it is not true in Mathematics, and it is not at all true for language testing.

My Story

Questions can be written in such a way that actually knowing the material is a distraction to finding the correct answer. That’s right. What I’m saying is there are questions about English that have a clear and reproducible answer that are made more difficult to find by a strong knowledge of English. This fact is well understood by Taiwanese, but its full significance did not drive home to me until a very recent experience gave me insight into what kind of skills a good test taker in Taiwan truly has to master.

One of my projects at Ming Chuan is working as part of a team developing a testing system to replace the current test used for in our English program. As part of this program we’re using Rasch Modeling to assess the usefulness of individual items for future tests. Several other team members are MBA students in the business program here.

The other night, we were discussing the criteria for placing items on a test and how some items that seem good intuitively are in fact very bad items. Rasch Modeling uses a statistic called point-biserial correlation to determine the quality of items on a test. Briefly, the point-biserial correlation measures the relationship between answering a particular item correctly and your score on the entire test. Did testees who answered an item correctly also get better overall scores on the entire test? And did testees who answered the item incorrectly get lower overall scores on the entire test? The statistical test results in a number between 1.0 and -1.0, where acceptable items have as high a positive number as possible.

One of the things that our new development program has pointed out to me is just how hard it is to write test items with high positive point-biserial correlations. The program has been able to identify a large number questions from our previous testing program that had negative point-biserial correlations. That’s right. There are actually questions that students whose total test score is high are more likely to get wrong. And all of them were written by highly experienced language teachers. I suspect that what most classroom teachers think of as ‘hard’ questions or ‘detailed’ questions are in fact questions that select against language proficiency.

But back to Taiwan. Taiwanese know all this. They know about it so well there are buxibans established with the purpose of teaching students how to identify and answer this type kind of question when it appears on an official examination – such as a university entrance test. Ask your Taiwanese friends about this. All of my friends and students know answering such questions correctly is necessary for admission to the most prestigious institutions. In fact, it may even be more important than actual language proficiency, which would explain how those with poor proficiency could get higher scores.

What Does All This Mean for Taiwan?

It’s true that the high stakes, test-driven system powered Taiwan industry during its decades of growth. In fact, similar systems existed in Japan and Korea during their economic miracles and exist in China right now. But there are other characteristics of schooling that are not taken into account with this explanation, and it may be these characteristics that were more significant. And it may be that the benefit of these characteristics are coming to an end.

In a world where almost no one has the money to study at the top universities in America or Europe, cash is an advantage. In the coming competition of this century, paying tuition will not be enough, and a system that selects for students with questionable ability is bound to affect competitiveness.

The fact is that current government and education officials have all been selected by a meritocratic system based on paper-and-pencil test results and as such are extremely conservative about accepting reforms that would dramatically alter what defines excellence. Despite this, there has been so much public outcry over the high stakes testing system and its consequences that they have been forced to act. But, as I said earlier, what the final results will be is anybody’s guess.

January 21, 2007 | Permalink


Fantastic post. What are the English tests selecting for? Students with psychological insight into the construction and taking of tests (“they probably think I’m just good at tests”). Students with a demonstrated willingness to commit to the test-dispensing regime to the extent that they reshape themselves to survive in that System. Highly intelligent people who have completely internalized System values….


Posted by: Michael Turton | January 22, 2007 at 10:08

The internalization of system values…that’s a good point. I think that was my roommates point that any reform in membership selection process, no matter how small outsiders may see it, is seen by this group as radical change. ‘Outsiders’ I suppose would include not just foreigners, but Taiwanese who not members of this internally consistant group.

Posted by: Scott Sommers | January 22, 2007 at 11:12

You capture much of problem well Scott, and I think although Michael is being cynical, the internalization of values is exactly the point. However, where I part ways with Michael (I suspect) and maybe you, is that the “fair” part is not what you point out at all. Everyone knows the exams are somewhat random in their quality and consistency, I mean just watch the news during exam time, it is always a lead story how something was screwed up. Yet, at least the exams are made by real teachers, and those people are NOT government employees, but rather the job moves around to different universities, bringing in different people over time. There is a long, complex, and expensive process of putting question makers away for weeks, closing not only doors but all windows, sending food up in elevators, without any personal contact, etc. Why? Because although the exam system has many flaws, it is an attempt to get away from the biggest flaw that would swamp it in a minute: corruption. This is what the reaction to reform is based on. With so many interview-based admissions now (each with a fee), parents feel schools are just sucking down cash flow while actual admitted students are getting in due to guanxi and money.

Thus, the system is “fair” only in so far as it avoids the straight out payment for positions. But this is not the main idea either. Fair comes from the fact that when a student does do well in the exam, she is totally free to choose whatever school she likes. The exam system actually has nothing to due with rankings or school choice. For example, Tai Da has no rules about scores for students entering. There is no system of filtering based on score. The “fair” is that all the school ranks and all the department entrance scores are decided totally by the choices of the students. In this way, it is a very democratic system. Let me repeat that, because I know when I first saw it in action it totally flew in the face of what I thought the exams stood for: The exams only determine who chooses their department first, not which department they will choose.

In reality, however, by the time one actually internalizes the whole testing paradigm, which is a full time job from elementary school on, the objective becomes very blurred, and the pressure to do as others have done before is huge. Thus a high school student may have a strong interest in electronics, but he has a score that can get him into Tai Da’s animal science department. Well, parents and family may encourage that choice over the young man’s own interest. And I ask, is that wrong?

Wu Jing’s reforms should have broken this dilemma by making so many school choices, but in the end what we have gotten are many bad schools who’s goals are clearly profit. Students graduate lacking basic skills in the areas they hold degrees in. Is it any wonder that we are then right back where we started, pushing our kids to get into the school with the best name because it buys so much here?

It sounds so easy to hear things can be made “better,” yet, as your post points out, the complexity is very high, and I argue that the underlying assumptions in the society, the expectations, the behaviors (generally labeled culture) push everything right back, or at least confound such attempts at change. As a parent with children in the system I can say I don’t find the current reforms any better than the “unreformed” system. The whole thing is more complex than ever and all the same people are all still competing to get those high exam scores. Thus, all the reform is meaningless to the demographic that participated in the system previously. The big change is more university students in the system and the elimination of the vocational system. Rather than drop outs, you have students, and rather than skilled workers for a production economy you have service workers. Seems like things are working.

Posted by: Clyde Warden | January 23, 2007 at 00:08

Clyde, thank you very much for comment, It helps bring a side of this issue that both Michael and I lack. Still, I am confused about whether your concern is about the way in which this reform is being done or whether reform is even a good idea.

I think I need to restate my position on this. I am not advocating either reform or a neoconservative testing regime. My position is that the testing regime itself leaves out talented people and that it does this not just by accident, but systematically. I speculate that it is this that the MOE is concerned about. The reforms themselves are the result of a long struggle begun initially with the protests of public school teachers about curriculum, textbooks, and testing started almost as soon as teachers were legally able to speak publicly on these matters.

The place of parents in policy is complex position. While they are a key stakeholder, their interests are hardly paramount. Education as an element of a nation’s economic and business policy instructs that schools should find the most efficient balance between the workplace needs of a nation and the skills of the workforce. As such, it is important if a student with no interest at all ends up in veterinary school instead of engineering. In fact, I suspect it is one of the factors I hear expressed by Western professionals working in Taiwan when they speak of how professionals here lack autonomy.

While I can understand that some parents would be confused by the evolving standards under discussion, this is only one of the considerations that the MOE should be taking into account. The reality is that even with alternative entrance standards in place, the majority of students are still admitted via examination, and at national schools, it is probably almost everyone.

My interpretation of Taiwan is that it is a highly homogeneous society comprised of many different groups with differing histories, identities and needs – cultures if you will. While some parents no doubt ascribe to a vision of education tightly circumscribed by conservative examination, I have found a very different picture among urban professionals. Speaking on their experience and expectations about education, many have told me that public education did not at all prepare them for the current demands of their professional work lives. As such, they have no expectation it will do so for their children. Many in this group are actively seeking alternative routes to educate their children through supplementary education or even schooling outside Taiwan. Not coincidentally, it is this group that is currently fighting with the MOE over bilingual kindergartens and other forms of supplementary education.

Posted by: Scott Sommers | January 24, 2007 at 17:54

The reform is great, in so far as more competition in the market, but my point is that reform to the examination system is almost meaningless. It is not the exam that creates the mismatch of education with reality, but the choices of those who are involved in the exam system.

Those professionals you talk to may tell you one thing, but I observe they act out another. The reality is that there are only limited numbers of spaces at NTU, and everyone wants in. If you eliminate the exams in order to prevent the backwash issue, then just get ready for another type of backwash. Maybe instead of cramming for exams from the first grade, students will need to start bank accounts to prepare the red envelopes needed for payoffs when college entrance interviews come.

Again, my point is that the backwash is not from the exams, but from the choices made by those participating! Those behaviors are not going to be modified by any entrance system anyone can come up with. The exam system doesn’t place anyone, it is the choices of the students that make the placements! It is not an “all or nothing” system, and never has been. Sit down with a high school student and look at the paperwork they complete for the exams. The way they choose universities and the way the scores impact those choices. The system is only all or nothing for those who select the same schools and departments that everyone else is chasing after. This results in so many students targeting so few spaces that they all their choices are missed.

Most students know this risk very well and always have a back up choice that is known to be lower (and for some students this may even be a preferred choice, that their parents wouldn’t approve of). I think you are misinterpreting the exams and you are buying into standardized scripts that everyone in Taiwan knows how to repeat by heart. I’ve sat in rooms with parents waiting for our kids to come out of cram school classes, or exams, and we all say the same thing: “the system sucks, so much pressure, no fun, so confusing,” bla bla bla. But those same parents turn right around and push their kids into departments the children have no interest in just because it is at a national university. This is the heart of the issue, not the exams!

Posted by: Clyde A. Warden | January 27, 2007 at 22:01

Clyde is right — I was thinking in my comments about how what kind of student is being created by the system, not what kind of system there is.

To answer Clyde’s question, the system is markedly inefficient and definitely unfair. I do not see it as democratic at all; testing and the test system are fundamentally authoritarian in nature. This is for practical reasons — it favors nuclear families over extended families, mandarin users over Taiwanese users — but also because the test system, and education in CHinese culture in general, is viewed as a weeding out process rather than an enhancement process. When you make it all the way through the System, you belong to an elite, and now the choices are yours. The idea of educating everyone to that elite level, which underlies democratic education in the US, is foreign to here. Thus the system is hugely inefficient.

Clyde’s observation that families force kids into things they don’t like is spot on. That’s a gross system inefficiency.

Further, you can claim that it is producing fewer technical workers than it needs, and that might be true, but nowhere in the system does there appear to be a process that assesses future economic needs and then assigns parts of the educational system to fulfill them. Instead, intakes are regulated by the MOE according to the infrastructure of the school, not according to the needs of the economy. So there is no point of view from which the system can be viewed as efficient.


Posted by: Michael Turton | January 28, 2007 at 14:23

Michael, once again, I like your point. Thank you for helping with clarity.

Clyde, I think there are a number of points being confused here. My post was about the poor design of entrance exams. The significance of this is that poorly designed tests can not consistently select for anything. In particular, I used the example of English tests that seem to select for nothing for all. In fact, it seems from a strictly technical point of view that these tests are not tests in any sense that we would have learned about in school, baring much more resemblance to the teacher evaluations we talked about earlier. They seem to be, as Michael puts it so well, merely obstacles.

The term “all or nothing” is incorrect and that is why I did not use it in my post. The term I used is “high stakes testing”, which is a widely used term in education and correctly used in this case. My point is that high stakes testing results in structural aspects of education that are not desirable for a nation in the current position of Taiwan.

The issue of parents is something I brought up only because it is the focus of your comment. As I pointed out above, parents are only one of the stake holders the MOE should be considering. In fact, it could be argued that parents are among the least significant of these stake holders.

Anyway, the professionals I talk to have children that are either in elementary school, so no one knows what they will do when their children are old enough, or they are sending their children overseas for schooling. Regardless of what they will feel when their choices comes down to it, there is a clear feeling expressed that MOE schools can not provide education in the skills they know professional workers need. In fact, I would say that this struggle between professionals and the MOE has been one of the defining characteristics of schooling since the conception of the ROC. But that’s another story.

Posted by: Scott Sommers | January 28, 2007 at 20:51

The weeding out direction Michael brings up is good. Can you imagine any other way here in Taiwan, we are talking about a fundamentally punishment oriented culture, not a reward one. But I don’t see that the US approach is any better, where everyone gets to be above average and one third of your students cannot pass high school exit exams.

I agree, these exams, and all exams, cannot be equally fair to everyone, that is a fact. My point is that this is as good as you can get in a setting where social pressures can easily push things to be even more unfair. The MOE often tweaks with score adjustments to address the very issues you raise Michael. You say that the elite get to choose, but my point is what is it they choose? It is their attitudes, so deeply ingrained, that perpetuate the problems. Can’t we even say a big so what? With schools like CYUT, why can’t students get an even better education there–more aligned with economic realities, and their entrance was not so influenced by exam scores? Do the scores even matter? You and I know the answer, I think, and that is that even these students are so bought into the system’s assumptions that nothing changes.

Of course, it would be great if the exams could be more aligned with some economic realities, and then the prep for the exams would help everyone involved build up useful skills, but hey, let’s look at reality. These kids spend how much time on Chinese character memorization alone–without any chance in hell a more rational approach like simplified characters (not to mention bigger changes) being implemented.

Who can decide such things in a political environment? Wouldn’t it be nice for the MOE to get out ahead and do as you say, making a more systematic approach to the exams. I agree. This would benefit everyone, even those who do not do so great on the exams will at least not be wasting their time with silly exam topics that have use in reality. It doesn’t have any chance of ever happening though. Anyone who has sat in academic meetings about the exam topics and been in the scoring committees knows the very strong currents to test details that are detached from reality.

Posted by: Clyde Warden | January 28, 2007 at 21:27

I suspect this last comment came in before my response, but here goes anyway.

Clyde, the key point you make comes at the end of your comment,
“Wouldn’t it be nice for the MOE to get out ahead and do as you say, making a more systematic approach to the exams…Anyone who has sat in academic meetings about the exam topics and been in the scoring committees knows the very strong currents to test details that are detached from reality.”
This is probably why the MOE is trying to hand more of this responsibility over to the schools and other responsible parties. Despite this, the reality is almost all students are still admitted through some kind of examination.

I can understand the fear that parents have with changes coming to system that has shown only the tiniest of change since its conception 3 decades ago, but the MOE does have to consider greater issues. The situation now is that talent is systematically being bypassed because it does not conform to the test-based placement system.

It’s true that professional parents will respond to whatever system is on place to get their children the label and skills they believe they need. On the other hand, it is these parents who have the strongest belief that the system just doesn’t do it. And it is these parents’ whose hearts the MOE must win in a democratic society.

Posted by: Scott Sommers | January 28, 2007 at 21:43

This is a big assumption:
“The situation now is that talent is systematically being bypassed because it does not conform to the test-based placement system.”

With nearly everyone now taking the entrance exam getting some acceptance at some school, how is it that talent is being bypassed? Isn’t what you mean to say is that individuals don’t get to just apply to departments and get accepted based on the department’s definition of skill? That is exactly what everyone is afraid of!

Currently many departments can admit up to 1/3 of their students in exactly this way. Do you think those applying are exhibiting skill or even interest in the specific department? The answer is no. They go to cram schools where they get all the points on how to prepare a project to show the entrance committee, they get told what to say in interviews, etc.

I’ve sat on these entrance committees and watched as high school buses pulled up with 50 or more kids all ready for their interviews, and guess what, like robots they all had very similar, and at times exactly the same, things to say and show. Your whole concept of professional simply is confounded by the local traditions and behaviors Scott. The people you talk to are giving you pre-canned scripts, especially useful when faced with a Western intellectual, but the values they hold are in a very different direction.

Posted by: Clyde Warden | January 30, 2007 at 13:17

Clyde, I’m a little confused by your response. I think I mentioned above that the reforms we are talking about began under pressure from Taiwanese school teachers and parents in the early 1990’s. For the most part, anything I say could be a paraphrase of remarks that appeared in teacher’s professional magazines, reported in communique of the Legislative Assembly, or said in public groups set up specifically with the purpose of addressing educational issues such as ubiquitious test with political content.

I can agree that the current government is not doing a good job of these reforms, but the pressure to limit the affects of testing and change textbooks began more than a decade ago by Taiwanese urban professionals. In fact, I would say the historical record shows this goes back almost a century, but that’s another story.

Posted by: Scott Sommers | January 30, 2007 at 13:53

Let me make this point with this example: The MOE “limited” the effects of the exams by not allowing schools to continue classes during vacation time (used to cram more for the exams). Great.

The result is, before vacations teachers ask students who volunteers to come to school during the break (normally everyone volunteers). And because the time is officially not school time guess what–parents get to pay in cash to support the effort. My daughter is in class now even though the semester is over.

Words differ from behavior and I live in the world of behavior Scott, and I’m telling you there is NO change among a certain large segment of the population in their own emphasis on the exams (and as I said earlier, it is not the exams but the opportunity to choose a result that is socially preferred) and nothing done by anyone has changed it over the past twenty years I’ve been here. Do you see what I’m saying? There have been many structural reforms, but I’m adding to your point by saying those reforms do not change behavior and it is the behavior that causes the issues not the government regulations.

Posted by: Clyde Warden | February 02, 2007 at 22:56

I don’t doubt that some segments of Taiwan have not changed at all perhaps even in decades. This might (or might not) be a large segment of Taiwan or even a majority. My point is that what is called Taiwan ‘society’ is a heterogeneous group composed of diverse groups with largely different histories, interests, and cultures.

But in fact, in all the excitement of these comments, I have become sidetracked from what was intended as my main point. Clyde, your comments focus on university entrance exams, but my post was intended as a larger critique of the way that testing has been used in the ROC. Ironically, my critique of entrance and professional testing was the same as your comments about teacher evaluations; without proper measurement of results, test questions can not be written so they systematically select for their stated purpose. In Taiwan, this problem has been compounded by test specifications determined not by professionals themselves but by legal mandates. As I put it in this post,
test questions frequently address matters irrelevant to the practice of the profession being selected. Professionals and even Examination Yuan officials do not want such questions included.

Posted by: Scott Sommers | February 03, 2007 at 00:17

Issues in the Professionalization of English Teaching in Asia

April 13, 2009

At least on Dave’s ESL Cafe, some of the most difficult issues that English teaching in Asia is currently struggling with concern the professional status of the occupation. Dave’s regularly posts discussions that address whether or not there is such a thing as a ‘real teacher’, what qualifies one to be a ‘real teacher’, and discussions of the personal behaviour and deportment of people involved in teaching English in Asia. TEFL in Asia is not a particularly self-reflective occupation. What I mean is that while there is a great deal of discussion about the status and qualification of TEFL teachers, there seems to be very little effort toward understanding the problem. The only academic discussion that I am aware of is David Nunan’s . However, his thoughts on the matter draw from a model of professionalism based in a sociological theory called structural-functionalism. Subsequently, his analysis focuses on the education and self-regulation of practitioners. While not wrong, it fails to take into account many of the more important aspects of professionalization that TEFL in Asia is struggling with. More recent studies of professional development, such as Burrage and Torstendahl, Thomas Haskell , and Terence Johnson’s 1972 classic ‘Professions and Power’ describe professions that work in a very different fashion from that which David Nunan assumes, and thus raise some different questions for the professionalization of TEFL in Asia.

What qualifies someone to teach TEFL?

From my point of view, the most significant questions concerning this issue involve the problem of certification. What qualifies someone to teach TEFL? The answer to this question varies enormously depending on who you ask. TESOL qualifications, for example, except at the lowest levels (in language schools for overseas students and migrants), are decided by the same groups that decide who teaches math in your public schools. Likewise, the practitioners of TEFL have very little say about what is important in a practitioner. The licensing of TEFL practitioners in Asia is decided by immigration and labour bureaus of the national governments when they issue working permits.

Is there such a thing as an ‘English teaching qualification’?

The reason for this last point is one of the main problems that continually emerge on Dave’s ESL Cafe; what does one can call a TEFOL qualification? While there is little doubt that an M.A.TESOL from the Monterey Institute of International Studies ‘qualifies’ one to teach language, what about the myriad of other qualifications available? This is especially disturbing when it comes to the well-known language teacher training programs referred to as CELTA and DELTA. Individuals qualified by these programs insist that they are among the highest level certification possible. Needless to say, this is not a universally recognized opinion.

While each individual reader will have a clear idea about the answer, it is important to realize that there is no standard answer to this question.

What is the relationship between TEFL and education?

Related to the questions above is the problem of where people with a B.Ed, M. Ed, or GDE sit in all of this. Should training that would qualify one to teach TESOL in a public school qualify one to teach to teach TEFL? Holders of an M.A. TEFL that I have spoken to don’t always express positive opinions about such degrees. And if that’s the case, where does this leave holders of an M.A. in linguistics or English?

It is possible to establish a hierarchy of qualification, and this is what employers do in real life. But if this is a legitimate practice, does that mean that someone with an M.A. in sociolinguistics or even no degree at all could also be ‘qualified’ if an employer deemed it necessary or appropriate?

How can ‘qualified’ English teachers recognize each other?

Much of the problem of qualification has arisen because there really is no standardized body of knowledge that ‘qualified’ English teachers need to master to become qualified. Put another way, could a ‘qualified’ English teacher detect someone who was not really qualified? My experience is that the answer to this is no. Unlike well-organized professions, such as medicine or law, the holder of an M.A.TESOL would not know questions or standard practices that would differentiate themselves from colleagues without such education. I base this statement on personal observations of colleagues who hold an M.A.TESOL who have called similarly qualified colleagues “unqualified”. In one case, the teacher became quite upset when I confronted him with the fact that the colleague in question did in fact hold the same degree as he did.

My feeling is that what a TEFL/TESOL practitioner ‘knows’ is much more related to what kind of certification they have and where it was obtained than anything else. Different kinds of certification stress different aspects of language; different schools stress differing amounts of practice or theory–or even completely different theories.

I may be wrong with this point, but if I am, I would like someone to point out the questions or practices that would make such a distinction.

What is the function of our professional organizations?

What all of this boils down to is the inability of TEFL organizations to gain control over the process that qualifies its practitioners. In fact, such organizations repeatedly state that they want nothing to do with advocacy for their members. While TESOL in the USA is attempting to establish a strong police voice and every state has a teacher’s organizations that advocate for political power for members, TEFL in Asia lacks any such organizations. As a result, TEFL practitioners left at the mercy of government regulatory bodies, are unable to define themselves.

Of Medicine and English Teaching

April 13, 2009

Medicine is the king of the professions. Every occupation that has organization as a goal wants to be like Medicine. In discussions about professionalization and credentialism, English teachers in Asia often draw some kind of comparison with Medicine. Yet, Medicine as a profession is not what it seems.

Medicine is the oldest professionally organized occupation. It is not clear what the term ‘profession’ really refers to, and sociologists have stopped trying to define it. In a sense, the only thing that a profession is is what people call a profession. Professions define themselves, and in this sense, Medicine is the king.

It is often stated that Medicine is the king because medical technology is so powerful. This is wrong. Medicine was the king long before medical technology had any serious scientific power. The American Medical Association was founded in 1847, when life span was about 40 years. The causal connection in this case is backward. Medicine controls powerful scientific technology because it is the king of professions.
Medicine was organized first. They laid the first legitimate claim over medical technology, and subsequently, medicine has gotten first claim to all new medical technologies. The battle between medical professionals and other organizing professions over claims to new discoveries is fascinating. Medicine did not have any historical or scientific reasons to dominate X-ray technology or clinical care. There were occupations dominating child birthing long before Medicine ever had anything useful to say. But Medicine became the king of professions because it organized first and from then afterward, any other occupation that wanted to control medical technology could only do so if Medicine did not first want that control. Pharmacists may make, dispense, and understand drug action, but ONLY a physician can prescribe them.

What’s all this got to do with English teachers? A lot, I’d say. And particularly a lot for those of us who teach EFL. Long before EFL in Asia became a major employer of education professions, there was a hierarchy of educators that included post-secondary and public school literature and grammar teachers, as well as private cram school teachers. The division of educational labour divided the known teaching work world between all the recognized parties in a way that balanced and made sense to those involved.

The lifting of military law and development of the economy made possible the expansion of a traditional form of education formerly reserved almost exclusively for the wealthy: foreign teacher instruction. The privileged position of this market and its relatively smallness had left it largely unregulated. As a result, when it expanded, the only regulatory bodies that were in any position to control them were those monitoring labour and migration.

EFL in Asia has emerged a patchwork collection of ideas. Qualifications have arisen because they make sense to labour officials. Developing systems of education and certification have responded to the labour market needs that this defines, rather than to those defended by professionalized members of this group. Put another way, would certificate training, such as CELTA and TEFL International have continued to expand into Asia without the assistance of local authorities? Would their existence have continued if employment were regulated and recognized by a professional body controlled by licensed EFL professionals?

Foreign EFL teachers themselves have done little in the way professional organization. The groups that do exist, such as JALT and KoTESOL, have publically stated that advocacy is NOT one of their roles. Their only function is to hold conferences, workshops, and release periodicals. They steadfastly refuse to rank programs or employers, lobby governments over policy issues or teacher certification, or become involved in work that promotes their organization as the only legitimate voice for EFL education. Contrast this will AMA opposition to chiropractic and other alternative medicines. This sluggishness of response has created a work world where individual teachers are left at the mercy of the labor force. Those with the ability can claw their way into a place in an already established organization, but there is no security or control. Definitions of what should be done at work are handed down through an institution whose goals may not fit the foreign EFL professional.

One of the side issues involved in this problem is internal fighting among foreign EFL professionals in Asia over what basic training should be, how it should be conducted, and where it should take place. The conflict between CELTA/DELTA and M.TESOL may appear highly theoretical on Dave’s ESL Cafe, but it has a very real history. CELTA/DELTA reflect an older British concept of the professional. Professionals are master craftsmen trained through OJT in much the same way that American people think of an apprenticeship. The M.TESOL and other similar degrees reflect an American, university-bound definition of what a professional should be. There is some attempt to address this issue. University-based certificate training offers limited exposure for practitioners without the extensive time committment of a master’s degree. Some certificate granting organizations, such as TEFL International are trying to offer more ‘hi-tech’ sorts of certificates by exposing students to the kind of concepts and training that a longer, university-based program would teach. But this social experiement has been largely unsuccessful.

Will the internal disputes of TEFL get solved and the authority base of this profession expand? Is it possible that the bushiban/hogwan/juku industry will get sorted out and absorbed into some aspect of a professionalized occupation? Personally, I don’t see how. Education in Asia is very well stratified; subsequently there is little room for increased division of labour. Nor do the foreign teachers themselves seem much up to the difficult task ahead of themselves. In all likelihood, the kind of English teaching that foreign teachers do in Asia will continue to be bits and pieces of work at the margins of legitimate, mainstream educational work.

March 01, 2004 in The EFL Professional Project | Permalink


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» professional organization from Blinger: A linguistics and ESL Blog – ESL in Korea
Scott Sommers’ wrote a long and inciteful post comparing the organization of medicine and EFL instruction. when it [EFL] expanded, the only regulatory bodies that were in any position to control them were those monitoring labour and migration. EFL in… [Read More]

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Posted by: Kerim Friedman | March 1, 2004 11:22 AM

This article on the role of professional associations in restricting free trade might be of interest.

Posted by: Kerim Friedman | March 1, 2004 10:18 AM

There is not even a basic idea about what teaching in Taiwan is for. This mostly leads to each person doing his own thing, which often means default to the same old thing learned when in Taiwan high school, i.e., go through the motions but actual skill obtainment is optional (while this may look to many as a “Chinese” thing, it is not

the same could be said about Korea.

Posted by: Blinger | February 29, 2004 08:59 AM

The largest difference between being a teacher in a language department and any other college/university department in Taiwan is that language departments have a complete and total lack of any kind of standard. I’ve noted this for years, but most English teachers don’t see it because they are in the center of it. Scott’s observation is so on target.
In organizational behavior, one of the key concepts is to hire people who have the same professionalization as the employees you already have; In Taiwan langauge departments, however, this is hard since it seems almost no one has any background that unites them in thought. Standards and professionalism here do not mean to do a good job, they mean that in the past, mostly during university and and first few years on the job, you get a kind of basic thorught/value system into your brain. Thus, engineers should emphasize safe design no matter what company they work at. Business teachers understand the importance of profit and efficiency, etc. At each language department I’ve worked there is NO idea what they do! There is not even a basic idea about what teaching in Taiwan is for. This mostly leads to each person doing his own thing, which often means default to the same old thing learned when in Taiwan high school, i.e., go through the motions but actual skill obtainment is optional (while this may look to many as a “Chinese” thing, it is not–in trade and business departments I’ve seen the professional concept expressed very clearly).
I could write more, but I just caught Scott’s post and had to say I agree that this is at the core of nearly all problems with English in Taiwan, making organizing, goal setting, hiring, etc., very difficult.

Posted by: Clyde A. Warden | February 29, 2004 08:47 AM

The Technology of a Professionalized ELT

April 13, 2009

Professions are a social label or category. There is great difficulty defining them in objective terms, and subsequently, useful definitions always depend on how they are defined by those involved in the social creation of the label: a profession is a job that people call a profession.

Professionals control a body of knowledge that they create. This does not distinguish a profession from a highly developed trade, such as plumbing, but it does allow for the distinction between allied professions. For example, physicians are responsible for the detection, diagnosis, and treatment of physical disease or injury in patients; nurses are responsible for the routine care of patients. In principal, it is possible to separate contact with patients based on this criterion and determine what kind of professional should deliver the care. In actual practice, it is not always so easy to distinguish between the concerns of allied professions, but the research and development of technologies to deal with the professional problems of physicians remains quite distinct from that of nursing. The growing number of nurse practitioners has increasingly edged into clinical practices that were once controlled exclusively by physicians, still there is no trouble making the distinction between doctors and nurses.

Are there allied professions involved in English teaching? And if so, what is the technology that distinguishes between them?

The answer to this first question would have to be yes. The wide array of certification systems available for English teachers are not always compatible. Many of these qualifications are aimed specifically at educators who will work in commercial language companies, rather than public education systems. Their content in not always transferable from the private sector into the public sector. As a result of this, leaders in one form of ELT do not necessarily have the skills to move into other venues of instruction. Leading figures in the delivery of commercial education, such as Jeff Mohamed, , Harry Swindells, or Bruce Veldhuisen do not appear qualified to teach in the public schools of their home countries.

Several facts are salient in the further discussion of this topic.
(a) The two forms of certification appear to distinguish between ESL and EFL. While this distinction is not always clear the vast majority of EFL certificates (ex: CELTA and DELTA) are offered in commercial training facilities situated in EFL settings and are aimed at native-speakers of English.
(2) The kind of certification aimed at ESL teachers (ex: MATESOL) is located, not surprisingly, in countries where English is spoken as the first language, and students in these programs are just as likely to be foreign teachers who will ultimately teach TEFL in their home country public schools as they are to be local teachers specializing in TESL.
(3) Many foreign teachers receiving the kind of training aimed at local ESL teachers (ex: MATESOL) are in fact working in institutionalized public teaching situations in their home countries. Increasingly, there are native-speakers teachers receiving this type of training who are not eligible to teach in the public education institutions of their home countries but who teach overseas in schools where there native-speaker status allows access to entry-level positions.

It appears that there are two groups of people involved in ELT. One group is legally qualified to teach in public education institutions, either in a native English speaking country or in their home country which is not a native English speaking country. The other group is not able to teach in the public education institutions of their home country, but is qualified to teach language largely on the basis of their proficiency in institutions where English is taught as a foreign language.

A more difficult question concerns the relationship between these respective occupational groups. Two possibilities could explain. The first is that their relationship is hierarchical. For example, the group that can teach in public institutions is better qualified than the second group because its members can teach every where that the second group can teach and also in public institutions. The problem is that this is not true. There are many commercial teaching positions whose minimum qualification is a DELTA. Candidates with an M.Ed would not qualify unless they also had other qualifications in TESOL/TEFL.

The second possibility is that these occupational groups are allied professions in the same way that medicine and nursing are allied professions. Speculating on the relationship between the two (and keep in mind that I am only speculating), public institutions teachers look after the training of academic English skills whereas those working in the other sector of the market look after more practical language skills.

All of this leaves unanswered the question of what distinguishing technology differentiate the functions of the two groups. While it is clear that public institution teachers are versed in the technologies that colleges of education perpetuate, it is not clear what practices our other group of educators are specialized in delivering. It may be that I am premature in referring to this group as a ‘profession’, and a more correct categorization may be that it is in the process of ‘professionalizing’ itself. Nevertheless, if this is a correct categorization, it may very well be our group does not yet have a properly defined core technology.

The Expertise of English Teaching

April 13, 2009

I don’t know if you’ve been watching the thread on Dave’s ESL Cafe’s Teacher Training Forum about ‘authentic TEFL courses’. This discussion concerns the certification of English teachers and may seem a little arcane for readers unfamiliar with the field.

English teaching has several forms of certification. The kind that we are most familiar with is graduate training in ESL/EFL. This is similar to what you see in other professional schools, such as those that prepare MBAs; candidates who may or may not have a background in Education or Linguistics, are exposed to advanced research related to language teaching and often expected to do their own original research. Most programs now feature teaching practicum.

A second form of certification is referred to as ‘certificate’ or ‘diploma’ training. Certificates are typically 1-month courses that prepare candidates for the language teaching classroom in a very ‘hands-on’ way. Diplomas are the advanced version of this and usually require that candidates have a certificate and several years of teaching experience. The most well-known versions of these are the CELTA / DELTA and TEFL International. Both of these forms of certification are taught through commercial language schools. In the case of the CELTA/DELTA, training centers are chartered by University of Cambridge English for Speakers of Other Languages (ESOL). TEFL International is an independent organization.

The holders of CELTA/DELTA certification are ferociously loyal to their brand of training. With striking regularity, you can find postings on Dave’s ESL Cafe comparing the DELTA with MATESOL training. While this may seem strange, at this moment, debates about the merits of such certification take up almost the entire Dave’s ESL Cafe’s Teacher Training Forum.

The claim frequently made is that teachers prepared through DELTA are superior classroom teachers because their training is more practical. Typical of the kind of comments I refer to are

“…I called a few schools and asked and they wouldn’t interview me without holding a CELTA or DELTA…More M.A. TESOL programs need to incorporate a CELTA or DELTA practical approach or component to their programs.”

“Regarding hiring – I will not hire teachers with MA but no practical teaching qualification. Face with a teacher with an MA or one with a Trinity or UCLES Diploma – I’ll take the Diploma holder every time. “

“Those with a CELTA or DELTA know “how” to teach. This is not the case with all who finish an M.A. TESOL. “

One post that appears to be from the manager or operator of a commercial school said,

“To choose between a dip candidate and a masters to teach (sweeping generalization coming, I know) its like being asked to choose between someone who can describe the history and theory behind cooking and someone who can prepare a good meal.”

Another claiming to have both a master’s and a DELTA stated,
“As for personal development, I found the DELTA immensely helpful for my classroom teaching.”

All of this raises a number of issues. The first of these is the historical development that this conflict represents. Certificate / diploma training emerged from Britain. While there are plenty of American certificates available, the granddaddy of them all, the CELTA, is British, or to be more exact, English. It appears modelled after a British form of professional training that relies on apprenticeship, rather than university-based study. While British universities have jumped on to the professional ESL bandwagon, the remnants of an earlier form of workplace preparation continue through private channels.

One of the interesting implications of this is that teaching holds a very different place in the lives of candidates. In universities, teaching is viewed as a vocation. Typically, candidates in schools of education have little or no classroom experience and are taking the training out of a ‘love of education’ or some such goal. Certificates and diplomas are aimed at people already working in education at an entry level that does not demand any formalized background. It is similar to the way that tradesmen and women are trained in Canada and the USA, with periods of employment interspersed with highly practical classroom instruction. Many of the British universities involved in TESOL / TEFL graduate training appear to follow a similar model; aiming their programs at working teachers who may not be able to attend class regularly and may lack even a first degree. This difference in interpretation of the role of the teacher is quite important to note, since it implies a need for a very different kind of knowledge.

Another more significant problem concerns the content of certificate / diploma training. Candidates for this form of certification do not appear to be trained in any formal fashion in the evaluation of student progress. It is not clear to me what the above quotes are referring to when they state that DELTAs are “better” teachers than MATESOLs. Certainly they could not mean that student achievement is better for those taught by DELTAs, since no such research exists. One posting on Dave’s Cafe speculated that the DELTA-advantage might not necessarily be related to efficacy (Although I think he had a different intention in mind for his quotation.).

“The Masters Degree will get you short-listed and into an interview. But then it’s like, ‘show us what you know’ The DELTA will help you with your presentation of the teaching demo and any other technical questions or skills that are asked to demonstrate.”

I suspect that the real effect of this form of teacher preparation is unknown. In fact, there are too many variables to even begin suggesting what happens in these programs; the training is performed in an unstandardized way by trainers of differing qualifications, the candidates come from very different, unstandardized backgrounds, etc. Only a well-designed empirical study can really answer this question. Anything short of that is speculation…or worse.

Perhaps my greatest concern is that certificate / diploma training appears to lack any theoretical grounding, so it is not clear to me what could be taught. I have to be cautious here, since I have no first-hand experience with these programs, but this is a claim often made by the proponents of this form of training. While I can’t find the postings, there have been debates on Dave’s where the claim is made that practitioners of any EFL teaching methodology can take and pass a CELTA / DELTA, since there is no prescribed theory of language acquisition inherent in the training. While strong arguments have been made that this is not really correct, it does appear that some involved in this form of training believe there is no theory of language acquisition implicit in the instruction.

I have a lot of comments and postings from CELTA trainers and spoken to holders of qualifications about what happens on their courses. I am not completely satisfied that there is any theoretical basis to what they are learning and teaching. It appears to be a system for presenting language-based information to students. Properly prepared candidates will reproduce the system more accurately. My suggestion is that this is much like the military method of instruction that I learned in the Army, which is highly effective for instruction in that situation, but of limited value outside of it. Since language learning often appears to take place for some students even in the worst learning environments, there will be students who show effect no matter what else happens. Of course CELTA / DELTA does not create the worst, most disordered language learning environment, but…really…how does anyone know? The fact that some students emerge successful is not proof of anything. Nor is the judgment of other practitioners of the same system, since the system lacks any external verification.

What I really think needs to be done is a formal evaluation of this type of training. In fact, right here, I am offering to begin work on this sort of evaluation. If someone is willing to give me access to candidates training for certificates or diplomas, there are some measures I would like to try just to see what kind of changes are going on in candidates. I’m not sure that I could do all the research that needs to be done on my own, but I’d sure like to try this…if someone would give me the chance.

Clarifying Diplomas, Certificates, and Expertise in TEFL

April 13, 2009

In a previous post, I brought up the issue of certificate and diploma training for ESL/EFL teachers. My point was not to endorse these as methods of educating teachers equivilant to more conventional training, such as MATESOL. Rather, I hoped to raise the issue that TESOL / TEFL is invoved in a certification process quite different from that of public school educators. Certificate and diploma training are just the most dramatic examples of these.

Certificates and diplomas are not just qualifications at a lower level of training; they are a different type of preparation for the classroom. The training received in CELTA / DELTA or TEFL International is apprenticeship training remarkably similar to the methods that are used in Canada and the USA to prepare tradesmen for the workplace; candidates who work for commercial organizations occasionally leave employment to return to more formalized classroom training and up-grading. A comparison between CELTA / DELTA and MATESOL is therefore much like a comparison between electricians and professional engineers; the difference is that I have never seen electricians argue that they are qualified to fill the same jobs as professional engineers. In fact, the critiques of certificate and diploma training from Mark Frear and those posted by Ari Sha Dupp on Dave’s Cafe follow from this comparison.

But engineering is not language teaching, and from an historical perspective, much of the role of universities in the training of professional occupations has more to do with American global dominance than its superiority as an alternative method of preparation. Is it possible to train effective language teachers outside of a university? I have the sense that TEFL International hopes to be involved in an experiment with this goal in mind. The problem is that they are just as elusive with responses to direct questions as any CELTA trainers. So while they may want something different, it may be they want it without the willingness to do anything differently.

One of the major differences between apprentice training in Canada and certificate / diploma training is that the government of Canada rigourously supervises all trades training. As part of their supervision, governmental agencies are constantly evaluating the effectiveness of their training methods and modifying the practices and procedures used. Language teaching certificates and diplomas are private ventures. They are run for the financial profit of everyone involved, and this fact has not escaped criticism.

While CELTA and other diploma trainers may have financial motives, I’m not sure that they’re worse than those of other educators, and certainly not worse than those of other professionalized occupations, like physicians and lawyers. Nevertheless, my question of interest is slightly different than the one of many involved in this discussion; is it possible to develop English teaching outside of the university as a highly professionalized, knowledgeable occupation whose recipients are recognized as such by employers and governments?

May 08, 2004 in The EFL Professional Project | Permalink


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Scott, thanks for the note. My own point of view about the EFL/ESL split is that in EFL, you generally have to function in an alien school system, so there is no escaping that the educational goals are really quite different. These goals, because they apply over the entire system, influence all of the aspects of the teaching in such a way that it is really putting on blinders to suggest that because they both deal with teaching English, they should rely on the same training. While I’m sure that some skills are transferrable, I’m thinking that it might be 25% at best.

This is not to say that an apprenticeship system that would focus on the 25% would not work.

One of the prestigious distance programs in the UK (the name escapes me now) has as its final a demonstration lesson that you perform where you are teaching, and the grader comes out to watch you (though it may now be videotaped) though IIRC, the washout rate was quite high for the program.

In this model, an program with an apprenticeship based component would be a strong incentive, and therefore, this works quite well in Europe (note that the general educational philosophy is much more uniform, so an apprenticeship deals with perhaps 60% shared skills), though my experience was before the open borders that now exist. But with the constrained geography, the large startup group that can then be weeded out through these kinds of programs, the need for continental Europeans to learn from native speakers (this is not to claim that someone can’t learn to a very high standard from a non-native teacher, as this is the blurring of perceptions and efficacy, but I don’t want to get into an either/or fight) makes it much easier to set up in Europe, and much harder to set up in Asia.

As for apprenticeship programs in the context of US programs, in principle, there is no problem, but the market and academic pressures that drive TEFL/TESOL departments are not going to permit it. Its advantages would be in identifying what components are necessary for good teachers, but as it stands now, most programs reflect the general academic hierarchy of valuing research over practice.

Posted by: joe tomei | July 26, 2004 02:32 AM

My interpretation of the American/British difference is more historical. Britain is one of the last places in the modern world to adopt university-based training for professional. In fact, I have some interesting stats on this, if you’d like to know them.

I am interested in you comments about why an apprenticeship system is not possible in the American system. I hadn’t thought of it that way. I’d like to hear more of your thoughts on the ESL/EFL gap and what this means for teacher training.

I also like your comments about the possibility of an apprentice-based system. I agree that it’s possible and that some schools are even trying to develop such a system. I am NOT a believer in the necessary superiority of a university-based system, but I have trouble imagining an apprenticeship system for professionals that could be better than the way we do it now. I hadn’t thought about SIT in those terms, but then I don’t know that much about them. TEFL International seems to be trying to move in that direction, but with much less success.

Posted by: Scott Sommers | July 26, 2004 12:41 AM

It is important to remember that certification still plays a role in public school teaching. I am (or at least was) certified to teach high school in Mississippi. This was based on me taking a specific number of courses that may or may not have been required by my degree.

On the other hand, you are right that teaching English as a foreign language is a strange hybrid. I think that there are a number of reasons for this. The first is that for a long time (and this is a view still held by a surprising number of people) the main qualification for teaching English to foreigners is native speaker fluency. Thus, a logical step is the rise of short term courses which legitimize practitioners, which would arise in the UK because of the geography of the country. On the other hand, in the US, where geography constrains the rise of a apprenticeship system if there is not an overriding concern on the part of either the consumer, government or the guild itself. The BA/BS has become a defacto ‘minimum’ standard (at least for Japan, to get a teaching visa, you must hold a 4 year degree), yet a BA/BS in EFL would pigeonhole the graduate too much, so the masters level is the logical niche for such a program. However, because it exists in the context of the research driven university system, there is an absence of practical oriented education and a concentration on theory. Many of the MATesol etc programs are terminal, so people who are going into them are second rate citizens in terms of the US university, and the only way to get a PhD in TESOL, EFL/ESL is to make a ‘contribution to human knowledge’. Sorry, a new kind of information gap exercise doesn’t count.

What is interesting in regards to this is the market trend for upgrading credentials. Shorter term courses are obviously more suited for this, but many universities are competing by developing distance programs. For those of us in Asia, the rise of Australian institutions, which have always had a need for more flexible schemes (because the working population is smaller and the option of leaving one’s job to get a graduate degree and then reentering the job market was not as possible) are now attempting to market distance learning to provide the academic weight/gloss of a graduate degree with the practical orientation of the shorter term courses as well as the flexibility of committment. British universities are also doing this, and both are being driven by market oriented reform that dictate they develop pay as you go schemes.

This focus on the bottom line is what drives people to hold up their degree as the sine qua non and disparage others. Are they going to say ‘I took this certification and it was really a waste of time’? To do so is to devalue one’s own qualifications.

There is also another split to think about and that is the EFL/ESL split. The needs and requirements of the two sets of students are diverging rapidly and I believe that the market is not big enough to support two separate certification standards, and the boundaries of the two fields are fuzzy enough to defy separation, so programs will continue to try and straddle the gap, even though it results in a loss of focus. Also, ESL teachers are generally subject to public school certification standards (taking ed psych, handicapped education, various other courses) so a ‘teaching English to non-native speakers’ certification is either going to have to be run in parallel to the standard public school certification or it will have to incorporate large chunks of things that don’t really mean anything to the foreigner working overseas.

I think all of these trends prevent the possibility that there could be an apprenticeship/practitioner certification that would be accepted as a standard. The stakes are too high for unis, for those who have gotten their certification from unis, and for those people who have gotten apprenticeship like certification that may not be recognized as the ‘correct’ one.

However, in principle, I don’t think there is any reason to believe that a certification program like the one you suggest couldn’t work. I believe that there are a number of teachers here in Japan who have become quite successful through acquiring skills through practice. However, these people have had to start their own private language schools and develop their own customer base. SIT begins to approach the kind of certification that you are talking about. But again, they have had to establish their own ‘brand’, and would not want to ‘dilute’ it by casting their standards in with a more general standard.

Posted by: Joe Tomei | May 8, 2004 09:29 PM

Lu Ying-ying

April 13, 2009

Lu Ying-ying

Lu Ying-ying (呂瀅瀅)is the youngest member of the Taipei City Council. While running for this office in December last year, Ms. Lu gave an interview to the Taipei Times in which she advocated the licensing and special training of foreign English teachers. The article about the interview produced quite a bit of discussion on the Segue Website. Since then, she has gone on to appoint herself the guardian of English standards in Taipei see (Mayor Ma is Blasted for Poor English Web Sites China Post April 3, 2003. Sorry, this article didn’t make their website).

I am not entirely clear what qualifies Ms. Lu for such a role. The Taipei Times interview described her as follows, “Lu was an English teacher before participating in the councilor election. She owned a Sesame Street English school in Shihpai.” However, her information page on the Taipei City Council Website states that she has no education to speak of. After graduating from high school, she attended a school whose name directly translates into the “American Pacific University Bushiban”. The school does not have a Web page, but I was able to locate a similar message on a Chinese language Website. It would appear that the “American Pacific University Bushiban” is a cram school.

Why Ms. Lu advocates special education and licensing for foreign teachers, but not their employers, is quite mysterious. I have tried to clear up this confusion by contacting her. I have e-mailed her twice, but received no reply. If you’re wondering what qualifies her to be the defender and guardian of Taipei’s English standards, Taiwan being a democracy, you too can write her at her City Council address and ask.