The Philosophy of English Language Teaching By Tamas Kiss Introduction To the everyday person philosophy has an air of mysticism

, carrying with it the connotation that its tenets are understandable only for those who spend their lives trying to find the answers of life’s most perplexing questions. As a result, people who are associated with this discipline of science are often thought to be loners, sitting in dark rooms, spending their time watching their belly buttons and doing nothing but pondering the meaning of life and existence. However, this is far from being true. Philosophy has several layers in its meaning and interpretation. In its most common sense, it helps us to make sense of the world we live in. In other words, when we use philosophy, we try to find explanations for our actions and shed light on the environment in which we live or work. Thus, our philosophy of the world – influenced by our individual interpretations - forms our belief and value systems by which we operate in the world. Therefore, in this article when I discuss philosophy I am going to deal with the beliefs and values connected to English Language Teaching (ELT) and I will try to outline how these may be formed in the world of Global English and in a rapidly globalising world. In such circumstances one needs to ask the question: is there a global philosophy of ELT? Or are there different philosophies from continent to continent, region to region, country to country, or even school to school? In order to find this out we need to look into how one becomes a teacher and how global approaches to teacher training may have an impact on educational values all over the world. The nature of knowledge “All men by nature desire knowledge” wrote Aristotle the great Greek philosopher and his words never seem to lose their relevance at all. However, people tend to show more interest in things that are far away from us and rarely examine those which are in front of our noses. It might be the way our scientists work – we are exploring the universe, sending probes to Mars and beyond, yet, we do not even now the exact age of our planet, Earth. It is now estimated that it is about 4.55 billion years old, give or take about 1%. Well, 1% does not look too bad, but if you think about it, it is actually 45 million years. A slight margin for error, but probably more than what you, dear reader, would personally experience. One may ask the question: if we are not sure about scientific facts, how do we know about the beliefs, feelings, and values which are rooted in our minds? Interestingly enough, we know fairly little about our own beliefs and values, though we use them every minute of our lives. We form them consciously and unconsciously, and we cannot do without them. Why is it then that we are reluctant to explore ourselves? Maybe the answer lies in the fact that we possess two types of knowledge: one that we consciously search for, and one that is taken for granted, and as such is rarely explored. Such tacit knowledge is the knowledge of ourselves and the values by which we operate in everyday life and by which we make professional judgements in the classroom. The power of beliefs Knowing ourselves and our beliefs is very important, especially in the field of education. Beliefs, values and feelings have a huge impact on the professional behaviour of teachers and, thus, have a significant impact on the teaching and learning process. A good example of this is a research project described by Galan and Maguire (2001). An average class was divided

into two equal sub-groups. Two teachers were assigned to teach the groups but one of them was told that his group was selected from the ‘clever’ students, while the other teacher was informed that the students he was going to work with were ‘slow learners’. At the beginning and at end of the research the achievements of students were measured. The students whose teacher thought that he was working with ‘clever’ students improved their previous scores, they managed to perform better on the test than their previous average, while the students whose teacher believed that he was working with ‘poor ability’ students actually scored below their previous performance. Why did this happen? Is it possible that the teachers’ belief had an impact on the students’ performance? Very much so! As Galan and Maguire (2001) say, “the educator’s belief became the student’s reality”. Everything you believe in is reflected in your own teaching. If you believe that students have to learn English grammar in their attempt to be effective users of the language, then you are most probably will employ activities in your classes which are built on grammar. If you think it is more important that learners deal with vocabulary and lexis, rather than grammar on its own, then you may find Scott Thornbury’s (2004) ideas and his Natural Grammar appealing. If you believe that learning a language is only possible through doing tasks, as Phrabu (1987) suggested, there is no doubt that your selection of classroom activities will reflect this. Anyway you look at it, beliefs do have an influence on the way you work. Theories, experiences, beliefs, values will constitute your educational philosophy, whether you are aware of them or not. A metaphor which can clearly illustrate the importance of values and beliefs in a teacher’s work is the “Teacher Iceberg” (see Appendix 1) by Bodóczky and Malderez (1999). They note that the peculiar feature of icebergs is that only ten percent of them are above the water level, and the rest is underneath. They transfer the same imagery to describe the teacher claiming that what is above the surface is the visible classroom behaviour – what anybody can observe if they go into a classroom. This includes where a teacher stands in the classroom, what activities are used, his or her language proficiency, error correction techniques, etc. However, all these visible actions are based on deeper conceptualizations, understandings and beliefs about learning (epistemology), human nature (metaphysics), and values (axiology). Language teaching methods are also influenced by the beliefs of their creators, whose views have been formed by the philosophy of great philosophers and thinkers, such as Plato, Hegel, Dewey, etc. Every school of thought has had its explanation of what knowledge is and how learning and teaching should take place. This is called epistemology in philosophy and it is, according to Richards and Rodgers (1984), an important part of language teaching theories. However, the authors do not refer to it as the philosophy of the method, but rather as a theory of learning and they also discuss their practical classroom application. For example, the epistemology of idealism, the influential philosophical school that stems from German scholarship, and the learning theory of the Grammar Translation method seem to emphasise similar principles. Idealism claims that ideas have a higher status and are more valuable than practical actions. In the Grammar Translation method students study grammar rules and their system without necessarily being capable of using them in real life communications. Another example might be the link between Pragmatism, which claims that learning can only take place through experimentation, and the principles of the Communicative Approach which allows learners to use the language in real-life like communicative situation where experimentation with the language is considered part of the learning process. A global philosophy of English?

We can distinguish between different English language teaching approaches: we can talk about EFL – English as a foreign Language, ESL – English as a second language, ESP – English for specific purposes, EAP – English for academic purposes, and now, as the title of the 2006 SPELT conference suggests (Vanishing Borders: Global English), we can talk about Global English. Globalization has become the hot issue of the late 20th and early 21st centuries. People talk about the ‘global village’, they come up with slogans like ‘think global, act local’, and the like. It is not the task of this paper to decide whether globalization is, in general, a positive or negative phenomenon, but it is clear that it has some impact on values in education. Globalization is most prominent in ELT and it has a transformational force on the values of English language professionals worldwide. But how does it affect the teacher? In order to answer this question, we need to look at what makes a teacher and how teachers learn their trade. There are three views of professionalism which can be connected to teaching: the craft model, the applied science model (Wallace, 1991), and the professional artistry model (Fish, 1995). In the craft model (or as it is sometimes called, the ‘Sitting by Nellie’ model, or the ‘apprenticeship’ model) the learner watches a more experienced professional and tries to imitate their master and copy the behaviour they want to learn. In language teaching pedagogy learners work under the supervision of an experienced teacher and through observation tasks and imitation they try to copy their master’s behaviour. In the applied science model, learners focus primarily on the theoretical foundations of their profession and then, once this basis is learnt, they try to apply them in practice. This means that student teachers learn about language teaching theories, different activities, classroom management, e.g. student grouping at a college then they go to a school and they try to apply what they have learnt. Many times they realise that there is a rather serious gap between what they learn in theory and what is applicable in the classroom. Finally, there is a model which holds that teaching is an art – professional artistry. It claims that professionals instinctly know what to do although sometimes they are not able to formally express the reasons for their actions. For example, a painter may not consciously think about the chemical reactions that he ignites by mixing different paints with each other but he knows how to get the desired shade of colour which he feels would look good on the canvas. When a professional is really a master of his trade then everything he does looks effortless and simple. Many times you go to a museum of modern art and, seeing a painting there, you say to yourself: “this is something I could have done myself”. However, one tends to forget that the painter is a highly skilled artist who has gone through the basics of paining, doing stills, and traditional portraits, and only then does he consciously chose his own way of expressing ideas or feelings. In his philosophical novel, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance Robert Pirsig asks the question: “You want to know how to paint a perfect painting?” then he gives a very simple answer: “It’s easy. Just make yourself perfect and paint naturally”. However, he does not offer any suggestions on how one becomes perfect, though he implies that this simple philosophy should apply to any learning or any human activity, and thus to teaching as well. Which model of professionalism can then be expanded to cater for Global English and perhaps for a globalised teacher training approach? When teaching is considered to be an art, then teachers have the freedom to perform their profession in seemingly similar, but rather different ways. There are always certain trends in art: once it is very fashionable to use abstract imagery, then a new wave comes and people start using landscapes, etc. Even in the art of certain people you can notice different eras, as in Picasso’s blue or rose periods, which

indicates personal professional development. It also suggests experimentation, progress, and change of views and values. Therefore, professional artistry can never become a global view of professionalism and it will never be used to train teachers to behave in the same way regardless of their working contexts. The craft model (Vallace, 1991) would not be appropriate as young professionals can only learn what they see from their masters, nothing else. Thus, true globalization in language teaching would never happen, because it would be impossible to pass on new teaching techniques all over the world in a one-to-one approach. When the applied science model (Vallace, 1991) is considered, then it may be possible to talk about real globalization. In science 1 + 1 should always be 2, wherever we are, and whichever culture we belong to. Thus if we have X student group – sharing the age characteristics of any particular group of children - and Y teaching method, then the result should be always the same. Therefore, according to the applied science model, the same teaching techniques should be applied everywhere in the world. Many would argue that communication, the essential characteristic of language, is the same wherever you look, children share the same psychological and physiological characteristics, thus it would not be different to teach a class in Karachi or to teach a class in London. This globalisation process is also supported by standardised requirements for teachers, for example the Teacher Knowledge Test. Teacher learning in a Globalised world In any case, it is undeniable that teaching ideas and new philosophies influence the teaching profession to a great extent. Usually, new teaching ideas in ELT come from the English speaking countries, such as the UK, North America (US and Canada) and from Australia. These ideas are either presented in different publications or at conferences, i.e. theory is presented and the reader or the participants try to apply what they learn in their own contexts, just as it is presented by the principles of the applied science model. Still the question remains: How do people react to these new ideas? Some innovations are taken aboard, but some are rejected right away. Any new idea that we come across is categorised and put into an already existing category in our mind. This is what psychologists call anchoring (László, 1999). If an idea cannot be connected to an existing category, then the brain would reject it as irrelevant for the individual. For example, when you hear about Hungarians, the new information will be grouped with already existing information about this group of people (if not to Hungarians, then to Eastern Europeans, or Europeans). This process is very well illustrated by a verse written by John Godfrey Saxe (1816-1887), The Blind Men and the Elephant. In the poem, six blind men try to figure out what an elephant might be by relying on their intact senses. Thus, the one who touches the side of the animal exclaims that the elephant is like a wall, while the one holding the tail is convinced that the elephant is like a rope. Basically they are all correct, but the problem is that none of them can comprehend the whole picture of what it is to be an elephant. They use their existing knowledge of the world to make sense of the new experience. The result is what you can see in Figure 1.

Figure 1: Picture of the elephant as ‘seen’ by the six blind men (source:

This is exactly how we construct our own understanding of teaching methods and teaching techniques. New ideas are presented at conferences, perceived, and attached to an already existing category in our mind. If they do not seem to fit perfectly, then they might be altered to allow anchoring and further interpretation. We always rely on our previous beliefs and philosophy of teaching when we meet new techniques. New ideas are evaluated – mostly on an unconscious level – and then we form our own beliefs about them. However, in the process of conceptualisation or the formation of new beliefs about teaching and learning our interpretations might be far from the original ideas. The formation of new beliefs In his book Changing Belief Systems with NLP, Dilts (1990) offers a framework which enables us to explore the way in which we construct beliefs. His model distinguishes five different levels at which we construct our beliefs: environment, behaviour, capabilities, beliefs, and identity. As an example he talks about the case when a child has difficulties with English spelling. Dilts (1990) claims that the teacher may approach the problem from any one of the five viewpoints: • • • • • Environment – ‘You can’t spell well because of this noisy atmosphere.’ Behaviour – ‘You lack effort, thus you make mistakes.’ Capabilities - ‘You need to learn better spelling strategies.’ Beliefs – ‘Creative writing is more important than spelling.’ Identity – ‘You are a weak student’ (Dilts, 1990).

There is a similar process of belief formation when it comes to teaching approaches or new teaching ideas. One may consider group work activities as inappropriate in her big class and crowded classroom, thus forming a belief on the environmental level. Teachers very often form beliefs on the identity level, saying that their students are not good enough to do certain activities, or on the capabilities level when they claim that they need to prepare the learners for an important exam, thus choose of a certain approach. Whatever their reasons and the beliefs are, teachers should not forget that beliefs are very powerful and as such they have an enormous impact on our classroom practice. Galan and Maguire (2001) point out that “our beliefs are so ingrained, so part of us, that we confuse belief with reality”. If we fail to consider them seriously it may happen that our reality, which may be far from the reality of our learners, hinders the learning process and we end up doing more harm than good in the classroom.

Conflicting beliefs It is even more complicated that most teachers do not have crystallised belief and value systems. Their educational philosophy is usually constructed from a handful of ideas and impressions that they gather through their experiences in the classroom and at different training sessions or conferences. Also, they carry with themselves the effects of the years they themselves spent in schools as learners. The mixture of these experiences creates a kaleidoscope of ideas that influence and override each other. Thus, it is not surprising that teachers often hold seemingly contradictory principles and believe in conflicting values without realising that these cannot be logically explained. In a recent study (Kiss, 2006) I examined the value system of Hungarian English teachers. The research subjects had to indicate whether they agree or disagree with statements which belonged to different educational philosophies. The statements covered three major areas of educational philosophy: metaphysics, epistemology, and axiology. As the philosophies represented different schools of thought, there was a significant difference between the content of the statements, especially when such rival philosophical schools like idealism and pragmatism are contrasted. There are some examples of differences in Figure 2, categorised by the area of philosophy they belong to.
Area of philosophy Metaphysics Idealism Pragmatism

The ideas of the past remain important, because human nature never changes.

The child has the capability of changing, and continuously does change, in response to a changing society. The primary purpose of knowledge is to adapt for life in the practical world. Values are relative and changing.


Knowledge is the search for truth which is best experienced through ideas. Basic moral values never change.


Figure 2: Conflicting beliefs (Kiss, 2006)

Many respondents indicated that they believed in the paired statements, which tells me that there must be some change in their value systems, and thus they apply different values in different situations. This, of course, does not necessarily mean that the respondents are confused and they cannot operate in their own classrooms. They are most probably able teachers who handle the day to day challenges of teaching well. However, most probably, they have never faced the challenge of defining their own educational philosophy and they have never been given the opportunity to think about their educational beliefs consciously. Another possible explanation for the conflicting views is that there is a paradigm change in the Hungarian educational scene and teachers are changing their ideals. The new principles are already in place but they have not yet let the old concepts go. Thus, they are hesitant about which concept is the one that they should operate by. This finding is not unique to the Hungarian context. Mike Breen and his colleagues in Australia (Breen, et al., 1998) discovered in a project that teachers indicated many possible reasons for their classroom decisions and actions – some of which was completely contradictory, and they listed the same pedagogical principles to underline a number of

conflicting classroom behaviours. The researchers concluded that the participating teachers’ values reflect a great diversity and it is difficult to draw any conclusions about collective values even if the research participants share a number of common features, such as work context or pre-service training background. Conclusions In this paper I have tried to outline some of the trends that seem to have an influence on the formation of the philosophy of English Language Teaching. In this attempt I have mainly discussed the formation of educational values and beliefs. As we live in a globalised world I wanted to examine whether there is such a thing as a global philosophy of ELT. Based on my arguments, I would like to propose the following conclusions: 1. Our educational beliefs are constantly changing. This means that we react to everyday impulses which we receive from both the educational and the social context in which we are embedded. These signals are compared to existing beliefs and are constantly modified as a result of a never-ending flow of information, which is one of the mixed blessings of our globalised world. 2. Global theories are viewed in the light of local values. It is impossible to assume that teachers in far corners of the globe will adopt the same teaching methods and techniques. Teachers need to interpret and evaluate teaching principles in relation to their classroom realities and the social expectations of the context they live and work in. 3. Mainstream education will never be fully globalised. My final conclusion is that education is too individualistic a profession for it to be globalised. There will be examples of globalisation and standardisation of certain areas, like exams, and teacher requirements, but the actual interpretation of what learning and what teaching should entail will be essentially different in different settings for many more years. I think this is not something that we should not feel sorry for, but rather a phenomenon that we need to celebrate. It adds a distinctive colour to the quantity driven, business-like approach to education where the learner is often neglected and where teachers deliver conveyor-belt lessons to demotivated students. Thus, I encourage you to explore your beliefs and values and not accept ready made values and ideas sheepishly without considering their merits. Discover your own Philosophy of English Language Teaching.

References Bodóczky, C. and A. Malderez (1999). Mentor Courses. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. Breen, M., B. Hird, M. Milton, R. Oliver, and A. Thwaite (1998). Principles and Practices of ESL Teachers: A Study of Teachers of Adults and Children. Mount Lawley: Edith Cowan University. Dilts, R. (1990). Changing Belief Systems with NLP. California: Meta Publications Galan, M. and T. Maguire. (2001) ’Education and Beliefs’. in IDEAS Galicia: Spain. Kiss, T. (2006). Investigating the Influence of Mentor Training Programmes on the Formation of Educational Values and Beliefs of Hungarian English Language Teachers. Unpublished PhD dissertation. Warsaw: University of Warsaw. László, J. (1999). Társas tudás, elbeszélés, identitás. Budapest: Scienta Humana / Kariosz Prahbu, N.S. (1987). Second Language Pedagogy. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Richards, J. and T. Rodgers (1984). Approaches and Methods in Language Teaching. Oxford: Oxford University Press. Thornbury, S. (2004). Natural Grammar. Oxford: Oxford University Press. Wallace, M. (1991). Training Foreign Language Teachers. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Appendix 1: The Teacher Iceberg



Education System


Professional Behaviour

plan select / learn



Knowledge about: - pupils - language - activities which promote language learning

Understanding of: - education - roles of teachers & learners - language - language learning beliefs attitudes values feelings