Chris Sowton needs no introduction. He has been working in the field of education, in a wide range of different roles, for 25 years. He has worked in and travelled to different places of the world, and he has also been an active member of the IATEFL GISIG. He has edited and authored many books including 50 steps to improving your academic writing, 50 steps to improving your grammar, Unlock Level 4 Reading and Writing Skills Presentation and many more. Today, we are discussing his new book, Teaching in challenging circumstances, published by Cambridge University Press.
Vicky : First of all, I would like to thank you for agreeing to give this interview and I would also like to welcome you!
Thank you for inviting me. The IATEFL blog is great and it’s nice to be able to share information about my new book with you, and I hope it will be of interest and practical use to IATEFL members.
Vicky : Chris, your book ‘Teaching in Challenging Circumstances’ has just been published. So, what circumstances can we define as ‘challenging’?
In the introduction to TiCC I discuss this very point, quoting our illustrious President Harry Kuchah Kuchah in so doing! Harry makes the point that the term difficult circumstances, which has been more commonly used in the past, may be patronizing and limits ELT professionals to pathologizing these contexts. He asks: who decides what is difficult? This is one of the reasons I use the term challenging circumstances instead. Phrasing it in this way also highlights the pragmatic nature of the book, and recognizes that however hard a teaching situation is, learning can still take place.
In terms of what makes a situation challenging, there may be factors which can contribute to this. For example, insufficient textbooks and learning resources, conflict between the official language of instruction and the teachers’ / students’ ability in that language, the existence of different pedagogical views and belief systems, when teachers and institutions are on the front line of challenging political social change, where teachers are expected to be a ‘catch all’ for wider problems in society, and when teachers are paid poorly (if at all) and they have little job security and cannot unionize. I would also say that teachers can self-define what they personally think are challenging circumstances – if they feel they are challenging, then they are.
Vicky : I assume your initial idea about the book came way before the COVID era, probably from what you experienced as evident educational inequality across the world, which also happens to be the focus of your PhD, if not mistaken. Can this book, though, have practical value to the teachers who have been experiencing the emerging conditions due to the pandemic?
Yes, although the book was conceived pre-COVID, much of it was written in Spring 2020 during the first lockdown in the UK. Many of the book’s big themes are even more relevant in the COVID and post-COVID, for example: making your classroom (whether physical or digital) a safe space; being inclusive and empowering students; teaching writing interactively and collaboratively; checking learning effectively and humanistically; engaging with the local community and environment; and supporting and caring for yourself and others.
Vicky : You state that developing our teaching skills can have the most immediate impact in such circumstances. At the same time, you consider the need for changing the mindset crucial. Would you like to elaborate more on this?
In challenging circumstances, teachers can sometimes feel heavily oppressed by the “big things” weighing them down, such as the textbook, the curriculum, the ministry of education, their school principal. There is a value in recognising that within your classroom, with your students, you have the capacity to make huge and significant changes to those children’s lives – whatever else is going on outside those four walls (and even if there aren’t four walls). I’m not saying this is easy. It’s not. But if you have to be in a classroom, and you have to use that textbook, and you have to listen to that principal – you may as well try to do the best job you can, especially as those 20, 50, 100 students in front of you will only ever get one chance at their education. And for many of them, school may be the best and safest place in their whole world.
Vicky : In your book, you present a lot of practical strategies as you seem to consider them a more concrete and essential way (without overlooking theory, of course) to help teachers in such situations develop their teaching skills and help their students. Can you give us some examples of the kind of such strategies and activities?
I give step-by-step guides to these strategies, explain the rationale behind them, and suggest ways in which they can be used in the classroom. I try to link the strategies to common classroom problems – e.g. using onion-ring grouping as a way of getting boys and girls to work together. I also show how play can be used to improve learning experiences and learning outcomes – e.g. vocabulary tag, running dictation and treasure hunts. Recognising the value of using multilingual strategies in language learning, activities such as simultaneous translation, reconstructing a L2 text from L1 notes and five-minute language takeover celebrates the diversity of the students in your class.
Vicky : Considering how the digital divide has increased currently, due to the mass shift towards online teaching, do you believe it can be eradicated? Or will it lead to deeper inequality?
Digital equity is a huge question, and one which I think will become increasingly important in the years to come. When they begin formal education, children who live in households with lots of books and whose parents read and talk to them have huge advantages over their peers who do not. We’re in a situation now where the same is true for children depending on what hardware or software they can access and how often, whether their electricity supply or Wi-Fi connection is stable, and how much their data costs. Teachers and institutions should ensure that the digital approach used is as accessible to the largest possible number of students. They should ensure that synchronous sessions are not directly sequential, in case students can’t access particular sessions, through no fault of their own. Just throwing a load of old smartphones or tablets at the problem is not going to work. In addition to digital support, there needs to be changes in pedagogy, assessment and educational administration, amongst others.
Vicky : Is it utopian to believe in a more egalitarian future ?
Yes. But we should do it anyway.
About Chris Sowton
Chris Sowton has been working in the field of English Language Teaching for 25 years, working in ESOL, EAP and general ELT environments. He has written extensively in the field, as author or co-author on more than 20 ELT books, including CUP’s Unlock series and the recently published Teaching in Challenging Circumstances. He has worked in fragile states such as Nepal, Nigeria, Palestine and Somaliland, and with refugees and migrants in the UK, Lebanon and Jordan. He was previously joint coordinator of GISIG.
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