Friday, February 5, 2016

Thoughts on Delta: a more general approach

First, I'm sorry for the boring title.

Secondly, I've been toying with the idea of starting an ELT blog, separate from Lao Ren Cha (but obviously with lots of links between the two). I haven't decided to commit to it just yet, and I'm curious about outside opinions - a good way to go, or just keep my ELT commentary to Lao Ren Cha, even though it's not quite the focus of this blog? The argument for a new blog is obvious - it would be more targeted. The argument against is that I have enough trouble finding the time to maintain this blog and I'm not sure I have time at all for another.

Anyway, here are some reflections on doing Delta in a more general sense, contrasted to my previous post on doing the Delta specifically in Taiwan.

The good:

I was impressed with the level and methods of assessment on Delta - basically all three modules taken together assess you in three distinct ways: a task-based exam (Module One), a portfolio (Module Two) and a paper (Module 3). In my opinion (and according to good testing practice) this gives you a full, accurate look at what a teacher is capable of in a variety of situations, from theory to teaching to syllabus design, and how much they've progressed. I liked that no one method was used, which also ensures that someone who is, say, not particularly good at tests, or papers, or what have you, still has a chance to shine in another module with some other assessment method. I especially liked this as, although I have always thought of myself as a good test-taker, I flamed out on the Module One exam and while I did pass, I didn't get the Merit or Distinction I had been gunning for, which I do think I was capable of earning. It was a relief to have other ways to prove myself in later modules.

I also learned a hell of a lot. It's fairly common to hear folks, most of whom have never attempted Delta, to slam it as empty credentialism, a money-making scheme for Cambridge. It's no surprise - they do the same thing for CELTA, and often claim "all you need to know" you can pick up from experience. I reject this notion on its face - yes, experience is valuable, but input from people more experienced and knowledgeable than you as you gain that experience is what makes it truly worthwhile. If you spend 5 years teaching, with no input or feedback beyond what's in your head, the experience is still great but it is simply not going to be worth as much as if you spend 5 years teaching, and throughout those years are observed, get feedback, are assessed, attend input sessions, gain a strong theoretical background via training (so you'll know why good strategies work, not just "weird tricks". Teaching isn't a diet fad) and attempt higher-level teaching accomplishments such as good syllabus design with guidance rather than with a slapdash "let's see what works" approach.

So, I'm just not on board with that side of the debate, and as I see it the proof is really in the papers: I know more after Delta - significantly more - than I did before. Period. Though a lot of CELTA was pretty common-sense (though not necessarily easy for everyone to implement in practice), a lot of the theory and practice in Delta is not always, or particularly, intuitive and by Module Two - at least if you are trying to write the best possible language skills/systems assignments (LSAs) - you are delving past the introductory textbooks and deep into some fairly technical research papers and journal articles. Sometimes you're just looking for citable confirmation of things you know to be true (also a valid thing!) but at other times you're coming across completely new ideas. For example, when I did my LSA on helping pre-intermediate learners use the definite article, I was already aware of the idea of "the-flooding", but what I didn't know was the extent to which it had been studied and documented. But when I did my final LSA on discourse (hedging for intermediate learners in a business e-mail writing class), I was quite surprised to learn that the concept of hedging was far broader than I'd originally thought, and it was challenging to narrow my focus enough to write a solid essay and plan a focused class on a sub-topic of same.

I appreciated that it is carefully delineated into sections with distinct learning goals that, while they don't have to be taken in order per se, build on each other.

Module One: If you do Module One first - which I recommend you do - you get the theoretical foundation you need to do well in the other two modules (which can then be taken in any order). The exam seems daunting when you begin, but by the end you'll look back on it as the easiest part of the Delta. If you take a step back and look at what the exam aims to accomplish, if you study well you'll gain:
- A fairly solid background in terminology (if concepts can only be fully understood through having language to describe them, which I do believe to be true, then this is worthwhile)
- An overview of systems - all of them, as you won't know which will appear on the exam
- An overview of basic concepts in testing and assessment
- The chance to look more deeply at the assumptions that underlie language teaching materials, and which materials are appropriate for learners at what point and different ways of approaching different learning targets
- An overview of, with the chance to interact and think about beliefs about teaching
- The ability to apply these concepts to feedback on actual learner work

Module Two: Module Two helps you dive into your actual classroom practice and re-examine your habits and norms, thinking more deeply about what you do in class, why, and how it affects learners, while giving you the chance to learn in fairly great detail about four (out of a possible eight) skills/systems areas. You choose two skills from reading, listening, speaking and writing - one choice must be receptive, the other productive - and two systems from discourse, phonology, lexis and grammar. Then you narrow down your focus to look at one area within your selected skill or system - for example, when I did an assignment on listening I chose connected speech in authentic listening - to learn and write about it in some depth before teaching a class on that topic (as a result your choices ought to reflect what your learners need at the time) and getting detailed feedback on it. The classes themselves are a bit fake-feeling, I mean, the learners are learning something useful but in real life teaching is never so carefully compartmentalized into 40-60 minute increments. If you look at it another way, though, that narrow time focus also allows you to examine, almost microscopically, your habits and practices and how they affect learners. When you go back to teaching "normally", you'll be more inclined to think deeply about what you are doing, why, and what learners are getting from it.

Module Three then takes a step back and has you working with syllabus design and course planning, including needs analysis and assessment - all things any well-trained teacher would do well to get outside their own head and their own coping strategies to learn about. You also have the chance to "specialize" - to choose one area of ELT to focus on - which looks good on a CV (all of the very best teaching jobs, at least in the private sector, like to see some form of specialization). What dedicated teacher wouldn't want a chance to learn about the principles of syllabus design, and then apply those principles to designing a syllabus for a real group of learners, getting feedback on your work as you go? What teacher wouldn't be well-served by reading more of what experts say on testing?

So, let's say you do Module One, and to improve your chances of getting full points on the systems task (it used to be Paper One Task Four but that may have changed), you do the work in About Language. You learn about phonology, the basics of grammar and the basics of lexis (semantics, morphology), and perhaps you bone up on these latter points though an introductory Linguistics textbook. To make sure you are best able to look at class materials, textbook materials and student work - and get maximum points in those areas - you get a crash course in discourse fundamentals via Beyond The Sentence. Later, when you do Module Two and it's time to choose a skill or system, you have a reasonably strong foundation from which to do so, and you can build on that by looking more in-depth at a more narrowly-focused topic. With that knowledge you dive into how to sequence individual classes, and what to plan in them, in Module Three, and your Module One background in testing and assessment helps you in that paper, as well.

Think about that - does it sound like "meaningless credentialism" to you? Then consider what all of the anti-training types are really saying - I don't want a fundamental knowledge of theory and systems! My coping strategies are good enough! It's not necessary for me to be observed on my teaching and I don't need any feedback! I don't need to know the basics of syllabus design or testing. It is not important for me to have read up on what people before me, who have a wealth of expertise, research findings and knowledge, have to say about teaching certain skills or systems. I do not need external feedback on my self-reflection at any point - everything I need I can come up with in my own head because I'm a super genius, or something, able to duplicate in moments the work of years of others' dedicated research, and fabricate brilliant new teaching ideas without any contact with other ideas or professionals! Or alternatively, teaching isn't a real profession, any idiot could do it and there is nothing more to it than throwing out some vocabulary and grammar and doing some drills, perhaps with a game. It is not necessary to think about it any more deeply than that. 

Does anyone with either attitude sound like someone you'd want on your team?

I also like that doing these three modules pushed me to do what I might not have otherwise done - or otherwise done as well, sans feedback - such as reading up on the practice of Business English teaching or gaining a fundamental knowledge of assessment. It gave me the chance to work with ideas I might not have otherwise gotten the chance to work with, such as syllabus design, as it's surprising how few schools require any sort of syllabus from teachers.

Finally, I like that I was able to do the whole thing at a distance, without leaving Taiwan, and more cheaply than a regular postgraduate degree. This can be done through The Distance Delta or Bell. They are more or less the same, the only difference being that The Distance Delta wants you to do an orientation abroad for Module Two, which is not required at Bell. The Distance Delta, however, gives you access to International House's online library, which Bell does not. I like that, while many countries and institutions don't necessarily recognize it as such, the Delta is recognized in Europe as equal in level to a Master's degree (they're both rated Level 7 by Ofqual), and when you finish you do come out feeling like you have a Master's worth of knowledge, or nearly so, along with something most Master's programs don't provide - in-class practicums with assessment and feedback. And when I do get a Master's, I like that it will likely entitle me to an exemption from some courses or modules.

In fact, you could say I appreciate that the way I did it is not the only way. You can do the modules separately as you are able, you can do them online, you can do them face-to-face (though it's hard at times to find a center that will deliver a single module face-to-face), you can do them part-time or full-time, you can do them in one go in an intensive course, or as part of a Master's in at least one case.

But of course, with all of that good stuff, there's also bad:

I hate to harp on price, because while a lot of people will accuse Delta of being nothing more than a moneymaker for Cambridge, I actually get the feeling it doesn't turn a huge profit. Remember your tuition has to cover tutors, assessors, overseers (the folks who consistently review the Delta requirements and tweak them as needed), office space, assessment development, writing and handbook updates, IT, certification creation and printing, administration, accounting and more. And a lot of the fees charged are so that the centers offering the courses can turn a profit, only some (if any?) of it actually goes back to Cambridge. For a few hundred pounds for Modules 1 and 3, and a few thousand for Module 2 (a chunk of which goes to your local tutor), I doubt this is the cash cow that some people think it is.

But, having taken all of that into consideration, honestly, Module Two especially is quite financially burdensome for English teachers. We are not rich, generally. We don't make heaps of money. I get that education costs money and somebody's gotta pay, and perhaps if you have a fantastic salary in South Korea (where pay is better than Taiwan relative to cost-of-living, though I've heard it has not gone up in correlation with the increased standard, and cost, of living there in recent years) it's no big deal, however, there is a point at which I question how fair it is to make good, justifiable CPD (continuing professional development) something that is a financial strain for a career teacher.

With this in mind, another issue isn't with Delta itself but with the industry. In any other professional industry not only would qualified people get priority in hiring, but CPD directly related to one's work would be sponsored in part by the company. British Council does offer this, but basically nobody else does.

Another flaw is with some of the assessment methods. I know I praised them above, but that doesn't make them perfect. For instance, while I understand why the exam is timed (you can't have people writing pages and pages of stuff just to try to squeeze more points out of inefficient or off-the-mark writing), the time given is just an eensy bit too short to be reasonable. An extra 15-30 minutes for each paper would set a limit on how much could possibly be written while offering a reasonable amount of time in which to do the test, which raises its validity. Right now, part of what you're tested on is how fast you can write, and that's not really the assessment criteria that counts. Creating a computer-based test where answers can be typed would also be a help in the modern world. And I'm not just saying this because I used up most of my Paper One time on the old Task 4 (a massive systems task) and didn't even get to Task 3 (yet I still passed) - even if I'd gotten the score I feel I was capable of, I would still be saying it. It's just not write to set a test and then set timing for it that is clearly, obviously, too short. (I have the same complaint about IELTS writing, by the way. Far too short a time to produce something good written by hand).

I have less of a problem with the Module Three paper and the Module Two portfolio, and I realize why there are limits set on what you turn in. My only (small) complaint is that what is expected is not always realistic, especially for the assessed classes. In reality, for a systems lesson, one hour is barely enough time to intro the topic, do an activity to set the target language, do meaning, form, pronunciation and use and then practice it with limited feedback. I would do all of that in an hour and a half, but if you move just a tad too quickly (yes, too quickly) you can get it done in an hour. It is not enough time to include extended practice. It is not enough time to answer more than one or two in-depth learner questions, and maybe not even that. It is not long enough to extend the practice as long as you might like or give as much feedback as you'd like. It is not enough time to explore any sort of teachable moment or extra 'noticing'. The result is that while you learn a lot about your teaching, you never quite teach a class like that again, because in the real world it's simply unrealistic. Plus, the feedback you get often includes notes like "it would have been good to include extended practice in collocations" or what have you, and you're all yeah I think so too, but that is not possible in a one-hour class, JEEZUS. You want to see that, GIVE ME MORE TIME.

What's more, when you choose a topic, you're not supposed to be thinking about the class you're eventually going to teach - you're meant to concentrate on the paper first and then plan a class related to it, using one or more of the teaching suggestions given in the paper. But the class you teach has to be important for the learners, fit in with what they already know and what they need (and the course in general), be pitched to their level and needs etc. - how can you choose a topic and write a paper without thinking about what you will eventually teach? (A lot of Delta veterans admit that it's not possible - you must start out considering your eventual learners, and then basically pretend you didn't).

My only qualm with Module Three is that it continues the tradition of giving you not quite enough time to do the best possible job - you design a 20-hour course, which is great except most courses are longer than that, and the word limit for each section is just a bit too short to include everything they seem to want, which again means you are assessed on the compactness of your writing (forget having any sense of style or attempting to make it pleasurable to read) rather than the ideas therein. And I say this as someone who got a Merit. Otherwise, while I actually cried during this module, after it was all over I'd say it was my favorite of the three. I suspect I'm in the minority on that, though!

Overall, I don't see many faults with the design and implementation of Delta, but there are a few concerns worth mentioning. The timing of the Module One course was just about right, and while Module 3 went by a bit more briskly than I would have liked, it was basically okay. But Module Two was way too fast - it seems to me it'd be smartest to give candidates two full weeks between all assessed lessons (so about 3 weeks total) and an extra week for the experimental lesson somewhere in the middle. But in practice, one LSA (assessed lesson + paper) has to be done in two weeks, and often, just due to the way one's work plan rolls out, it's in the time between LSAs 2 and 3, which is generally when you should be doing your experimental lesson. So you suddenly have way too much work to do and way too little time to do it in. More reasonably, courses might simply start two weeks earlier, allowing again for candidates to do their best work within a reasonable time frame rather than being assessed based on how well you work under pressure, rather than the quality of the work you do. I'm not just saying this to complain - I haven't received my results yet but I received Distinctions on at least two papers and a Merit on a class, and I didn't fail any LSAs - I genuinely feel it would be a better experience for everyone to do it this way.

In short, it would be great if Delta could give us adequate time and word count to do the best we are capable of, rather than making it so we are measured not just on the quality of our work but on how well we cram our work into somewhat unreasonable deadlines and parameters, which I feel does detract from overall validity.

My other qualms with Delta aren't really related to Delta itself - things like the difficulties many face in having a reliable, useable class for Module 3 or finding a local tutor for Module 2 (or having access to appropriate classes for it), and how unsupportive a lot of employers can be - not my employers, but I have seen this happen.

Finally, I'd just like the ELT industry to respect Delta more. There's no reason why governments can't recognize it as a valid teaching credential. Certainly not all Master's degrees (which are accepted in Taiwan regardless of their relevance to the field) nor a teaching license for children is as pointedly directed at teaching adults as the Delta. I'd like to see more sponsorship of it by employers - my employers were supportive but I did notice that neither one offered to help sponsor me. I felt like it was seen as something I could do (and pay for) independently, I don't know, for fun or something, and otherwise was not related to their employment of me, when in fact it's directly related to my development as a teacher. Naw, I'm not mad, I'd just like to see more of a British Council attitude to Delta in the industry overall.


Fearchar said...

Congratulations! So you're now trained to lead the shock troops of that rapidly expanding mental colonisation project, the English language. The president-elect of your homeland would be proud of you. 😉

On a constructive note, why not pick an indigenous language in Taiwan and add your obviously considerable skills to the efforts to make it thrive? Let's face it: no-one will feel much gratitude for you adding to their existing skills in English, whereas a foreigner even learning an indigenous language would become famous quickly, and one adding effective learning methods would practically end up being deified. Which legacy do you want to leave once you're gone?

Jenna Lynn Cody said...

I wouldn't characterize teaching English so negatively. If anything I consider it a boon, to help people better get their ideas out into a world where it is, for better or worse, the main international language of communication (I am aware of the ignominious reasons for this, of course, but that's not the point). I would say people I have helped to do this are quite grateful for their ability to reach a wider audience just from a linguistic standpoint and communicate their ideas more fluently, and therefore more effectively and persuasively.

I am currently trying to improve my Chinese, learn Taiwanese and am eventually interested in learning an aboriginal language, however, I do not think that would make me the best person to, say, help that language thrive. I feel it is more effective to help that indigenous person learn English well enough to share his or her own native culture to the rest of the world and perhaps go out and teach their own language themselves (not that I think native speakers are always better, but being the bearer of both a language and a culture has some benefits and as a foreigner I would not want to take that away from an already marginalized group).