Thursday, June 08, 2017

TEFLology Podcast: TEFL Interviews 31: John Kullman on Critical Issues in ELT Textbooks

(TEFLology Podcast)

I'm still playing catch-up on the TEFLology podcast.
This interview is all the way back from May 10.  (Listen to it here).

But, better late than never, here are my thoughts:

* Another excellent interview episode.
In the past, I've been critical of some of the regular episodes of TEFLology.  (Which I view as hit-and-miss.)  But they've never done a bad interview episode yet, and at this point they're beginning to build up an impressive archive.
31 interview episodes is a lot to listen to.  At this point, it is possible to recommend the TEFLology podcast to people just based on the strength of the Interview episodes alone.  Even if you skip the regular episodes completely, 31 interview episodes will still keep you occupied for several days.
Assuming the current model of the Internet perpetuates into the future, and all of this stuff stays archived online indefinitely, I think it's safe to say a valuable resource for future teachers is being built up here.

* John Kullman had some really interesting thoughts, he articulated himself well, and I enjoyed listening to him.
It was, however, a bit hard to find a take-away message.
He had problems with textbooks which were too abstract, but he also had problems with textbooks which were too personal.
He had problems with textbooks which were too bland, but he also had problems with textbooks that had heavy topics.

This wasn't necessarily a bad thing though.  The positive way to look at this was that John Kullman has a critical mind which is able to examine the issue from every angle, and avoid simple solutions.

* The issue of PARSNIPS, which was discussed in this interview, was something I had just recently talked about in my recent re-review of Beyond the Sentence.  (Or, more precisely, Scott Thornbury talked about it in his book, and I discussed Thornbury's thoughts.)

* Actually in that same post, I made use of an old tweet of Scott Thornbury's:
EFL coursebooks - in-flight magazines with grammar notes?

I had assumed it was a Scott Thornbury original, but John Kullman also mentions this quote a few times (at times attributing it to an anonymous textbook writer).

* I think every single problem with textbooks that John Kullman mentioned I've encountered at one time or another in my teaching career.  I could, in fact, list specific examples from specific publishers of most of the problems he mentions.  But I don't want to go into too much detail (I'd be typing here all night).
I can also add to his list of complaints.
One of my biggest pet-peeves is the audio CD which accompanies the textbook, and which often contains a lot of very bad fake accents.  (The textbook writers are apparently trying to increase diversity by including characters from all around the world in the textbook.  But the recording studio apparently only has the budget for 3 British actors, who then attempt to do all the accents.  Often the same generic "oriental accent" is used for Chinese, Japanese, and Korean characters.)

* Interesting that John Kullman ties in the need for critical thinking with the current American president.
I think he's right--we are living in times when critical thinking is more important than ever.
I do, however, have some reservations about incorporating critical thinking into ESL curriculums.
One problem is that it is very easy to talk about critical thinking, but very difficult to do it--see for example here and here  (To be fair, John Kullman acknowledges this in the interview, and talks about the different ways different people perceive critical thinking.)
Another problem is that putting too much emphasis on critical thinking in ESL materials encourages a dangerous kind of missionary zeal on the part of the foreign ESL teacher.  In my time teaching in Japan, Cambodia, and Vietnam, I've often heard fellow ESL teachers say something along the lines of:  "Japanese/Cambodians/Vietnamese can't think critically, so it's very important that we teach them these skills."
In fact, Asians often do a much better job of critically thinking than Western ESL teachers give them credit for.

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