Sunday, July 16, 2017

The Delta vs. Masters Throwdown

I've only been at Exeter for a few weeks and haven't started the assignment writing part of my course yet, so I may come back and edit this at some point in the future. However, I do feel qualified to comment on what it's like doing a modular Cambridge Delta compared to doing a Master's degree in TESOL.

In the introductory section on the first day of my MEd program, I walked into the classroom remembering this completely preposterous exchange on Facebook: the admin of a CELTA-specific group grew inexplicably angry when I ventured that a Delta was likely just as challenging as a Master's, and a Delta holder will have learned just as much as a Master's graduate (although they may have learned some different things, and certainly in different ways).

"A Master's is a one-year or several-year high-level program. A Delta can be completed in 12 weeks. There is no way a Delta can compare to a Master's," the admin insisted.

Although I had not yet started a Master's then, I was basing this suggestion on anecdotes from friends and colleagues who have done both, many if not all of whom feel Delta was actually harder. I was also considering the Ofqual rankings, which award Delta the same level (7) as a Master's. Surely they wouldn't do so for no reason. I was also considering my Delta experience, which consisted of deep and intensive exposure to the academic and practical corpus of research into teaching and learning English, from the fairly unacademic, somewhat beginner 'How to...' series all the way up to dense analyses in Applied Linguistics. Most of our work was self-directed, with the expectation that we would, after Module 1, create thoughtful and worthwhile output rather than a regurgitation of our reading.

For this insolence, I was banned from the group, but whatever. I was mostly amused by the other person's complete certainty that the Delta was the cakewalk and the Master's was the rigorous training program. I am not certain the holder of this deep and anger-inducing opinion held either degree.

That's a part of why I'm writing this - there are a lot of opinions out there, mostly by people who have taken one course or the other (but not both), or who have done neither. I'm not sure I'm better qualified than those people quite yet, but I have some experience and an 'Edit' button for future thoughts, so I figure it's worth having a go. Don't take this as my final opinion on the matter: my thoughts on this are very much a work in progress.

I also want to take some time to discuss which one is the better choice if you want to teach English in Taiwan.

The short version of my opinion is that, in fact, those who compare the Delta unfavorably to a Master's: my original supposition that they are roughly equal in difficulty and content learned seems to be holding up. The Master's program feels easier now, but I suspect that will change. What will certainly remain constant is that the way of transmitting knowledge and its intended application is very different indeed between the two types of program.

The Delta is hard. It took me three years; it's not at all true that "it can be completed in just 12 weeks". First of all, for those who do take that option, that 12 weeks is more intensive than anything you'll encounter on a Master's with the possible exception of the final stretch of thesis writing. Spread out to create a workload more similar to that of a Master's - say, completing the modular courses in quick succession rather than taking one per year as I did - a Delta will take at least a year, and likely more given the breaks between when the modules are offered. If you take Module One in September and finish in December, the next module is likely to be starting in March of the next year, finishing in June. You may have to wait until September again to take the third one, finishing again in September. Your workload will be similar during those times as that of a Master's.

That sounds an awful lot like the amount of time it takes to complete a Master's in the UK (generally one year), and nearing the amount of time it takes to complete one in the US. There is no basis for dismissing Delta on those grounds. In fact, if you contrast that to my current program, it will take me three years (exactly the amount of time it took to do a Delta), with a much more spread-out workload and likely less crying into a pillow overall (though ask me about that again in 2019).

Even if one does take the 12-week course, you are not done in 12 weeks. In that time, you crash-study for the Module 1 exam, which you generally take when the intensive program ends. Your Module 2 is complete. You receive a crash course in how to do Module 3, but you don't actually do it: that is completed after the intensive course ends and can take up to another full semester. Two semesters' worth of work, one of which is highly intensive? Again, that sounds similar to a Master's program.

As for the content, so far it's much the same. If anything, I feel sympathy for my non-Delta-holding classmates who are currently taking Language Awareness. I remember having to learn that, and what I learned is not that different from what's being taught in the core module, although I tended to focus more on pure mechanics (e.g. the actual phonology system of English including use of the phonemic chart, manner of articulation and the like rather than ideas of what phonology is and how one might teach it). The basics of testing, approaches to teaching and issues in teaching  are also much the same, and it seems as though principles of teaching and syllabus design will be similar, as well. The same names - Richards, Nunan, Krashen, Thornbury, Kumaravadivelu, Kachru, Vygotsky, Tomlinson to name a few - pop up in both.

That said, the application of the content is radically different. Master's programs vary, but the Exeter MEd TESOL leans more toward the cerebral end. That's a compliment: it's exactly what I wanted after the relentless practicality of Delta. Or, as we discussed on the first day, programs like this are a part of teacher development. They are not teacher training. Teacher training is about making teachers more immediately effective in the classroom, whereas teacher development is about cultivating the knowledge that informs what one teaches in the classroom. I've had teacher training - I did a Delta. Although professional development - like learning a language - is never really over, I don't need another program like that. I needed, and found, a program focusing on the theoretical underpinnings of what I did in that program.

A few examples of what I mean when I say Delta was training, whereas the Master's is development:

On Delta, we did have to do background reading but what really mattered was how we executed our ideas in class, or how well we built a syllabus as a result. For Module Two, the written assignments mattered, but what really made or broke a candidate was their assessed teaching. You could know all the theory in the world and it wouldn't matter if enough of your classes sucked (ahem, were deemed substandard in execution), whereas you could pass the written assignment with an imperfect grounding in theory and still do well if your classes were amazing as rated against the course specifications.

On the Master's, there are no practicums. Nobody is going to assess my teaching - I'll mostly be assessed based on my written work. On one hand that's a shame, as I find observation and feedback to be the most efficient route to improved teaching. On the other, I'm relieved because I've been through it already, and what happens in a one-hour class as per Delta specifications cannot fully capture the depth and breadth of what goes on in a real class over time. In either case, having walked over that bed of coals, it will be good to immerse myself more deeply in theory without necessarily having to stop when I reach a point that a grounding in it is sufficient for me to teach a given one-hour class. It's not a benefit that is as immediately apparent, but over time I do feel it will grow to inform my work in valuable ways.

The assessed lessons were far and away the hardest - yet most practical - part of the Delta. There are ways in which I am sure a Master's will be more challenging, however. The closest you get to writing a thesis on Delta is your Module Three assignment. However, the main paper is capped at 4500 words, with everything else going in appendices. Although my final product easily topped 100 pages, the main paper only took up 17 of them. I can't imagine a passing Master's thesis with that ratio.

I also suspect - and I am usually right about these things - that our assignments will be judged to a very high standard. Once my blissful month in England is over and I hit the books in Taipei, I suspect what seems very interesting but basically easy now will become much harder extremely quickly. The British educational system, especially at the Master's level, places a high value on self-directed reading and output. It only makes sense that the input sessions, then, would be the breeziest part of the course, but are not at all indicative of what will be expected of us once we start producing. I have a suspicion that, academically speaking, much more will be expected of our written work in terms of depth and breadth of research covered as well as ideas birthed from that process than Delta ever expected. The trade-off is that we will not be expected to demonstrate our ability to actually write a lesson plan or teach a class (we do, however, have to demonstrate our ability to create materials, conceptualize a teacher development or training course and critique as well as write a test).

That said, I can't deny that these past two weeks have felt more like a lovely vacation with some interesting TESOL classes, in a way that Delta never did. Delta was pure - and purifying - pain. An intensive Delta (or even CELTA) is several weeks of all-day input with further work on the weekends. You don't get a day off, ever. "Intensive" summer input sessions for a Master's are four, maybe five days a week where only occasionally does one have more than three hours' of class to attend, with some reading that is not onerous. Yesterday we went to the seaside town of Beer. Today we'll go to Powderham Castle and have cream tea. It's so very intensive.

I'm still surprised I never descended into functional alcoholism on Delta, whereas here at Exeter, if I drink too much it will be because of all the pub-crawling students in Britain do, not because the course is particularly stressful. We'll see how I feel about that when I actually start writing, however.

I am learning a lot, though. For example, what I had thought the term 'construct validity' meant turns out to be not at all what it means when considered in depth. We'll be going more deeply into the concepts of validity and reliability than I ever had to on Delta. Delta Module One had one section on issues in ELT, whereas this course offers a whole module on it (and the issues - such as culture clash in the classroom, the native speaker myth and others are pertinent and worthwhile). Delta only touched on materials development in that you had to create or adapt materials, with no background reading on how to do so necessary, whereas I'm now taking an entire module on exactly that.

Another benefit of actually studying TESOL at a university is that I am an educator by profession. Training in how to execute my work better is important, but an educator who doesn't herself seek higher education feels like an oxymoron of sorts. It will also loop back to training in that eventually I am likely to find myself teaching EAP classes to non-native-speaking graduate students. How can I claim to be qualified in teaching a graduate student how to absorb content and then write and present it if I have not done a graduate program myself?

It is also important to repeat something I pointed out in my last post: I have learned more from my classmates, most of whom are non-native speakers, and had more productive discussions with them in two weeks than I have in ten years of interacting with mostly average, often unqualified teachers in Taiwan who were mostly hired on the basis of their being native speakers rather than their having any training (or in some cases ability) in teaching. It's cruel but true. If you only focus on the practical, you begin to treat education as a purely practical channel. It then becomes about market forces - students become clients, teachers are hired based on optics more than ability, and the goal is a happy customer, which is not necessarily an educated customer despite education being the ostensible goal. I've heard more justifications for this practical approach than I care to consider, including defenses a lack of qualifications on the part of both teachers and school owners (not principals, not head educators - owners), with little emphasis on what is actually learned if that is not necessary to create happy clients. I appreciate getting away from all that.

Delta never advocated such an approach, but the idea that learning should only ever be immediately practical (being specifically trained for some kind of job, without actually knowing much beyond that in any deeper way) eventually brings one to that logical conclusion.

I'm happy that I did Delta first, though. If I had done the MEd first, I'd be getting a lot of developmental input with not as much guidance as I'd like on how to actually use it. I might have started to question why I was doing it at all. What I needed when I did Delta was exactly what it provided: practical and efficient training to be better in the classroom. Having that, it's time to dive deeper - something Delta doesn't offer. If I'd never done the MEd, I'd be fighting a nagging feeling of hollowness, that there is so much more to how we teach that I never touched upon because it was not immediately necessary, regardless of whether it might be someday.

I have to say I also appreciate the access to academic journals that I get as a real live student, rather than a sort of in-limbo person in training. Delta was difficult, in part, because I needed academic references but didn't always have access to them. The Distance Delta attempts to remedy that, but ultimately the online library is insufficient.

A final note on Master's programs that is worth mentioning: more than one person I've talked to regarding more than one program has mentioned that many of them are full of a certain cohort. The students are mostly young women and mostly inexperienced - mostly candidates who might struggle doing a Delta, if they are accepted on a module at all. They mostly have to get the basics down of TESOL theory and practice. Yes, they are mostly from China, but that shouldn't be a point against them (I only bring it up because it's a recurring theme in conversations I've had with those familiar with MA TESOL programs in several institutions, including some quite prestigious ones).

This is not at all specific to Exeter - in fact, the person who first mentioned it to me did so in the context of a completely different university - and certainly does not apply to the summer intensive program I am currently doing. That is to say, if that's the common denominator you are teaching to, someone who comes in with a Delta and a wealth of experience might feel that the work is not sufficiently challenging. In fact, the person I talked to told me straight-up that I would be disappointed with the academic rigor such a program and it's a major reason why I applied to this program specifically.

I'll end with a short exploration of which path is right for someone who wants to make their career in Taiwan. I wish I had an easy answer, and could just shout "Master's!" or "Delta!" and have that be it, but as with most worthwhile issues, it's more complicated than that.

If your goal is to simply be an excellent teacher, and you have a good work situation in which teaching well is generously remunerated and which doesn't require a Master's, get a Delta (it should go without saying that I recommend you get a CELTA regardless). The Delta is training, and you will be well-trained. You'll have exactly the amount of theory you need to do your job effectively, but not much more. Get a Delta if you want to go into teacher training as well, if you don't have a teaching license of PGCE - you can train teachers without one, but you are not likely to be a great trainer.

Keep in mind, though, that the Delta is not recognized by the Taiwanese government because they have some who-knows-what-dunce in charge of foreign language education policy. You get Delta to better yourself, and it's a good filter for separating good employers from bad when interviewing (pro tip: a good employer will recognize the value of a Delta and reward you accordingly. A bad one will not know or care what a Delta is and why it matters - if you have a Delta, don't ever take a job with a school that doesn't care about it unless you're desperate).

If, however, your goal is to explore employment opportunities outside of the deeply exploitative cram school industry (although good cram schools do exist - I teach classes through two of them), get the Master's. That is your entree into university teaching, may help you get into international school work and should be sufficient for public school teaching if you have permanent residency or a marriage visa (for everyone else, a teaching license is specifically required). A Master's degree is recognized, and therefore matters more for this type of advancement. If you do, though, I'd recommend getting a CELTA or Trinity TESOL certification as well, simply for the practical component. I know Master's degree holders who have done that and said it was worthwhile, as their graduate programs never actually taught them how to teach in the way that a series of practicums with targeted input sessions can.

If you've had good training, with a solid teacher trainer who took the time to observe you and help you grow as a teacher as you gained experience, get the Master's. Do this especially if you are interested in the theories and ideas that inform your beliefs and priciples as a teacher.

Do not, however, mistake being trained in one school's specific - and potentially not-research based - 'house curriculum style' for actual training. If you have unbiased, outside feedback saying that you are already effective in the classroom - perhaps you have a CELTA or equivalent and did a lot with it, or received good but informal training - get the Master's.

If you think you might leave Taiwan someday, and you want to teach but are worried about how to get a good job doing it in another country, get the Master's, or a teaching license if you want to work with children. It's an unfair but true fact that outside of Europe - if you can get a teaching job there, which as an American is nearly impossible - and possibly the Middle East, the Delta just won't be widely recognized enough to help you.

If that's never happened and you'd be going from "online TEFL certification and being thrown in a classroom without guidance" to "Master's student", get the Delta (or at least get it first).

If you think you'd like to do both, get the Delta first. It will not only give you the practical framework  that helps make sense of the theory in real contexts, but many programs will give you credit for it which will reduce your overall workload and fees on the Master's.

If you need something you can start from Taiwan, and want to start as soon as possible, get the Delta. You might have trouble finding a Module Two tutor, but everything else can be done with minimal problems from Taiwan. That's not true for a Master's. Although some Taiwanese universities do offer graduate programs in TESOL, I am not convinced of the quality or international portability of any of them. It is similarly hard to put together the time and money to do a full-time program abroad and then come back, but options like the program I'm currently at at Exeter are available. 

If you not only want to expand your career horizons but dive into both training-by-fire and deep theory, get both.

After all, nobody except the twin devils of money or time ever said you had to choose.

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