Technique Analysis; A Tool for the Teacher

Vivian Cook 
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Modern English Teacher, 16, 1, 29-32, 1988

One problem with the concept of teaching methods is that the contact point with students is not methods but techniques; teaching techniques have not only to fit the method, but also to take account of the other dimensions of the classroom that methods ignore. Techniques are rarely 'pure' reflections of methods. For instance while a structure drill is officially part of an audiolingual or structuralist method, in practice it also involves conversational exchanges and cognitive processing; it is arbitrary to see its 'habit-formation' aspect as dominant simply because that is stressed by the structuralist method. A teaching method may succeed because its techniques accidentally employ something not envisaged by the method; grammatical explanation for example may work by providing interesting content for academically-minded students to discuss rather than because it is part of the grammar/translation method. 

It seems useful, rather than starting from methods and working down, to start by looking at techniques and working up. Only when we know properly what a technique involves can we see how it fits into a method. The approach I call Technique Analysis (TA) examines the technique itself without any preconceptions - takes it to pieces to see how it works. Hence Technique Analysis is similar to the literary technique of Practical Criticism - looking at the meaning of a poem detached from its author and context. It's what the poem means to the reader that counts, what the technique means to the student that matters. TA is not intended as a model for research but as a tool for teachers to become more aware of what their teaching involves.

Let us then go through some aspects of TA that I have found useful .

i) Resources

A technique may require certain physical resources. It is easy to spot the need for a microcomputer or a taperecorder, less easy that for a spirit duplicator, a photocopier, a plentiful supply of paper and pencils, or even a blackboard. Physical resources also include those that teachers themselves have to supply in the form of texts, magazines, realia, etc. The evaluation of the technique should take into account how readily these are available to the teacher. The other main resource is the teacher's time and energy; the technique may require the teacher to collect ten unrelated objects, to keep a file of magazine photos, to write out cue cards for each student, or to store 20 fiddly pieces of paper - all very possible in an ideal world but unrealistic in a seven hour teaching day. Preparation time is indeed a concealed load in many communicative techniques where the teacher is a deviser and organiser of activities and so needs time to devise and provide them. Whatever the demerits of the all-inclusive single volume coursebook, it rid the teacher of many hours work. Finally the resource involved may be the teacher's own language. Does a technique imply, say, that the teacher is providing a model of native usage, or is a living dictionary and grammarbook, or is a provider of carefully controlled input? In particular the assumption may be that the teacher is a native speaker of a particular variety of English. All of these may crucially affect the technique's success in the classroom as much as the explicit teaching method.

ii) Assumptions about the students' makeup

On the one hand there are the assumptions about the students' interests and motivation familiar from many discussions, on the other less discussed but obviously vital assumptions such as whether the students can read and write, or are able to type. Certain cultural peculiarities may be assumed, such as the visual skills of left to right progression in picture stories or the use of perspective in interpreting diagrams. Often the age of the student is implicitly specified. Again putting to one side the oft-discussed matching of techniques and ages, the technique may require mature cognitive abilities in the student such as the ability to store information for a certain period of time -a listening passage with questions at the end for instance - something increasingly possible with age till say the teens but difficult up to then. Or certain topics may be preferred that are age-related; pop music is not necessarily interesting to all ages. Or the technique may assume the ability to understand abstract processes or explanations, probably only available to those in Piaget's formal operations stage of thinking. Again one is not asking for a complete psychological description - but simply seeing what obvious assumptions a technique makes.

 iii) Goals of teaching

A technique may imply that the point of learning English is, say, meeting other people through English, or passing an examination, or knowing the 'rules' of the language; deliberately or accidentally it gives an impression of the reasons why the language is being learnt, why it has a place in the curriculum. Whatever the method may say, the students' contact is with techniques; their idea of the teacher's goals is arrived at through what the teacher does, not through reading the syllabus. My own hobbyhorse in this area is with the teacher's body language; it is all very well to have communicative or humanistic goals if teachers distance themselves from normal human beings by every gesture they make, say scissors movements to show abbreviated words or finger waves to mean "say more".

iv) Expectations of the classroom

One of the problems we face is that learners rightly or wrongly come to the classroom expecting certain things to happen. We must then ask whether their expectations are met or thwarted. One expectation concerns the type of activity that the students encounter in the classroom. A questionnaire I once gave to 400 odd students showed they expected to hear grammatical explanations but did not expect to sing. This is not to say that grammatical explanation should be favoured and singing completely dropped. But if a technique goes against the students' expectations then at least the teacher has a selling job to do. Two examples we have all faced are students who rely on dictionaries at all times and students who expect continual correction; even if we feel their expectations are wrong we have at least to take them into account and explain why we feel these are wrong rather than denying another human being's experience and beliefs about the world. Any technique also implies a particular style of teaching - say the authoritarian front of class style, or the cooperative sitting in a circle style. I find it helpful to think in terms of Margaret Mead's distinction between prefigurative cultures in which people learn from their wiser elders, configurative cultures in which they learn from their equal contemporaries, and postfigurative in which they learn from those younger than themselves. Most traditional techniques imply a prefigurative culture; communicative techniques assume a configurative; few techniques to my knowledge really assume a postfigurative. But without going into such theories, a technique's style should fit the teacher and the class. if it doesn't, we are in the business of cultural imperialism rather than language teaching.

iv) Learning strategies

A vast technical literature has sprung up about the different strategies that students use for tackling a new language. Here it is claimed that what we need for TA is simply the empathetic exercise of imagining what is happening in our students' minds while a technique is being used. One clear division is between strategies that imply the learner's conscious focus is on language learning, versus those that imply the conscious focus is on information exchange. Some techniques leave the choice of strategy open to the students; it is up to them to do something with what we are providing. For example many listening comprehension activities provide feedback on how successful the students have been at getting information from what they have heard but give them no explicit guidance how to improve. At the other extreme translation or grammatical explanation techniques assume precise processes going on in the students' minds. But it is important in TA to at least try to decide what is happening. Again it may be very different from what the method assumes; as Carol Hosenfeld has shown, drills can be seen as cognitive problem solving by the students. In particular I feel it is important to look at the 'depth' of the technique in terms of emotion and cognition. A communication game may have no emotional involvement at all but a great depth of cognitive involvement through problem solving; a text on AIDS may provoke strong emotional reactions but have little cognitive depth. Again this is not to say that either kind of depth is right or wrong but among other things to make certain that there are no nasty surprises about techniques once the teacher gets in the classroom. I used to use mental arithmetic as a way of practicing numbers till I realised how much cognitive depth this involved in a second language. Seeing techniques through methods may not help; one might point to the shallow emotional depth of communicative map games about imaginary places or the high cognitive depth in grammatical explanation as being at odds with their avowed methods.

This provides then a quick checklist for techniques as follows:

Technique Analysis Checklist

-   resources required? (equipment, provision of materials, teacher time)
assumptions about students' makeup? (interests and motivation, cultural, age)
goals of teaching?
expectations of classroom? (activities, teacher role)
learning strategies? (conscious and unconscious, open or prescribed, emotional and cognitive depth)

Obviously this is a personal list; every user of TA needs to develop a checklist of their own. But it is a salutary and rewarding experience simply to start from the actual technique without any teaching method assumptions and say to oneself: what is actually going on?