Do we need teachers at all? Jeremy Harmer at Anglo

Jeremy Harmer´s opening plenary - 10th annual Anglo congress in Montevideo, Saturday 17 August 2013

Jeremy started by praising Uruguay, which is a place where very interesting things are at work (Plan Ceibal, for example), but unfortunately, not Jeremy's projector! Fortunately, the projector did work after Jeremy´s introduction. 

Sugata Mitra's hole in the wall project in New Delhi was mentioned by Jeremy as an inspiration for this talk. In particular he was curious about the fact that the kids worked out how to use computer on their own. Sugata Mitra sugests that if give we kids the right stimulation and the right kind of task, they don´t need teachers to help them.

Jeremy recommends checking out the TED talk on Youtube that Sugata Mitra gives (see above). In it, he talks about the past, the idea of school was built on values that have changed and that "I'm not saying that schools are broken, or the education system is broken...but we just don't need them anymore...they are out-dated."

Sugata Mitra believes that what is needed now is SOLEs (self-organised learning environments - download the SOLE toolkit here), where the role of the teacher is very different to the one most of us are used to. 

Jeremy then moved on to talk about Steve Bingham and a time last year when Steve asked Jeremy to help him with a show. Jeremy arrived early and Steve asked him to go to the teaching session for a string quartet. During the session, the women played badly, and Jeremy wondered what Steve was going to do.

Steve focused on the cello player and he encouraged her to play on her own and to play louder. When they played again, it was much better. This was a very good example of a teacher intervening in order to help learners.

Jeremy then recommended a book called 'Guitar Zero' by Gary Marcus, a psychologist who decided to learn the guitar at the age of 39. One paragraph in the book talks about why teachers are important.Jeremy summarised this - this is because i) they know things ii) they can motivate people iii) they can provide incentive iv) they can pinpoint errors, target weaknesses v) they can impose structure.

Jeremy then talked about the blog post he wrote about this and in particular the reply that Willy Cardoso wrote in reply, Jeremy said that Willy is his own SOLE but he is maybe not typical. Jeremy mentioned that Willy did agree with one aspect...he said the one área where he did like having a teacher is when it comes to error correction.

With a picture of jalapeno chiles on the screen, and Jeremy talked about a dialogue he wrote about an exchange (the spicier the better) between an American and a Japanese talking about a Mexican restaurant in Japan.In the dialogue, the Japanese man corrects the American's pronunciation of jalepeno and the American gets upset. Correction is a sensitive issue.

Reformulation is perhaps the best form of correction. It is non-threatening. However, Jeremy mentions that this often isn't picked up by students. 

Kumaravadivelu (1991) in a paper in the ELT journal writes about the difference between what a teacher thinks students learn or understand and what the teacher thinks.

Jeremy talked about a particular transcript between a teacher and student about the term 'a little costly'and the teacher's explanation about why 'expensive' was the better word to use. Jeremy's point about this is that we are not that good when it comes to correcting students. A lot of time when teachers correcta written work, for example, is by guesswork, and it could be that the teacher often gets it wrong and doesn't correctly guess what the student wanted to say.

'Very good' is the most ambiguous phrase that teachers use with learners. When teachers use this, learners often don't know what is 'very good'(the content of the sentence or the way it was said, etc). It also brings an end to the conversation. It's much better to use a follow-up move (Cullen, 2002*)

Wong and Waring (2009*) suggest different kinds of intervention: 1) teachers should pursue students...i.e. ask follow-up questions 2) problematize 3) use peers.

To finish, Jeremy asked the question he posed at the beginning of the talk: why do we need teachers at all?

As an answer, he proposed that the one thing that teachers do well is intervene, but it was up to all of us to find an answer.


Cullen, R. 2002. ‗Supportive teacher talk: the importance of the F-move.‘ ELT Journal
56/2: 117-27.
* Wong, J. & Waring, H. Z. (2010). Conversation analysis and second language pedagogy: A guide for ESL/EFL teachers. New York: Routledge.


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