The world is changing. The world has changed. We live in an age of companies named after fruit with their iThis and iThat. We live in a world of instant access and instant information, a world in which Google tells you when a page is written in foreign language and then offers to translate it for you. An increasingly bilingual, or even multilingual world.
The notion of bilingualism is especially relevant in Madrid (and Spain) where there has been a shift towards bilingual education and we need to address how that meshes with our role as language training providers. The world is changing for Spanish young learners and we can help them progress in that new world. In fact, at a lunch in February earlier this year Angel Gabilondo, Spanish Minister of Education said:
“Este año es el año de la formación profesional, infantil e idiomas” | This is the year of vocational training, infants, and languages”
He went on to say:
“Si crees que estudiar es caro, prueba no estudiar” | If you think that studying is expensive, try not studying.
The IH core values are particularly poignant as we readdress our approach to our work in YL in the context of a world facing difficult economic times as well. In this article we discuss how the IH core values are reflected in the work that we do, specifically in the Young Learners context. Looking specifically at three of the values: Communication, Imagination and Achievement, we will argue that each of these core values has two faces or perspectives: Us and Them.
Communication is essential to all the relationships we have, key in all successes and in most cases central to all problems caused as well. Miscommunication or, more likely, misunderstanding of the core of the message between the messenger and the receiver often leads to unnecessary problems that could have been avoided. For example, if we are proactive about communicating a reason for a change in teacher or group, rather than waiting for a parent to complain about their child being in the wrong level, all parties benefit. We reinforce a positive relationship rather than only being seen to react to a situation.
This is a fairly obvious place to start for an LTO, but what do we communicate? To whom do we communicate? How do we communicate?
– Facts: course dates, prices etc
– Promises: learn more / faster with IH, guarantee of passing exams
– Professionalism: our teachers are the best, constantly being trained
– Skills: as well as the fundamental communication involved in teaching, we also teach the students the study skills to become more autonomous learners
This we communicate to:
– IH Teachers
– Readers of national newspapers, users of social media (Facebook, Twitter)
– Other IH schools and teachers (through articles, blogs, etc)
And we do this by:
– Writing: like this article, advertising, online
– Speaking: Chris’ presentation tour of schools, face to face with our students, parents etc
One of the conclusions of looking at this list is that what we communicate seems to talk about what we do but say nothing of who we are and what we believe in. Communicating who we are and what we believe in as opposed to what we do seems to have two main advantages:
– It speaks to people’s hearts and passions, enthusing them with a desire to be part of the organization. Every encounter with a student or parent is an opportunity to flame their love of our organisation. When we talk to parents about methodology and CLT, we don’t talk about activities and research we talk about giving the children reasons to communicate, opportunities to communicate and we contextualize these in real world examples, such as travel, study or work life.
– It binds people together around common values. This is a much more powerful relationship bond than a surface level business relationship. After recent BlackBerry problems, it would be easy to change to iPhone or HTC but, I love my BlackBerry. Can our clients say the same? An incidental (though no less important) benefit is that clients who love you, will forgive you and give you the benefit of the doubt. Though I had absolutely no evidence of this, somehow I just knew that highly skilled and well-trained BlackBerry technicians were working round the clock so that I could get my email at home and, well, work around the clock.
So communicating values – saying more about what we believe and who we are, than what we do – can be a very powerful way of engaging our students and their parents beyond the surface level of “we give language classes”. One final example before we move on. When we talk about our teachers, we talk much more about their training (CPD) than we do about their initial qualifications. This is a deliberate choice because, in reality, any reputable LTO can boast CELTA qualified teachers. But we don’t boast about that, we mention it in passing as a minimum requirement for employment. What we boast about is that our teachers are in a process of constant CPD, through a series of courses, seminars and masterclasses. We talk about the opportunities our staff have to develop professionally as the best teachers they can be. In other words, this is a training organisation that really believes in training and really invests in it.
We must also consider the communication which we enable our students to achieve through our classes. In fact, if, as we argued above, we see development of communicative competencies as the key outcome of our training programmes then it follows that communication must also be the central pillar of our teaching: the ultimate goal of anyone studying with IH is to communicate with the world. For years we have been working on the basis that communicative methodology lies at the heart of our teaching, but the current changes in the Spanish educational system, with the move to teaching many more subjects in English, only serves to make this even more relevant, and thus it is fundamental to make sure that students appreciate that English is a tool to communicate with and facilitate the rest of their learning. One way that we can do this, for example, is by ensuring that students are overtly aware of the transferability of language from one context to another.
Inevitably in a difficult economic climate there is more and more (or at least tougher) competition both direct competition from other LTOs and from providers of alternative extra-curricular activities. Imagination or innovation is, therefore, increasingly important as we strive to find new ways to attract and retain students. Finding imaginative and engaging complements to our core product is fundamental to this process. Last year we offered one of our client schools a stand-alone reading project (imaginatively called bookworms), open to all our students in the client school, where they could come along once a week to borrow graded readers from us. Teachers could link to this in their classes if they felt it appropriate or it could just be a personal extensive reading project for the students.
Another aspect of this is the courage and vision to imagine the world not how it is but how it will be in 10 years’ time. For example, we see EFL as an essential component of the development of children in the 21st century as they face a world with an increasingly global outlook. We aim to help our students, their parents and communities to communicate across cultures with appropriate language skills promoting sensitivity to global cultural issues. As we intimated in our introduction, a changing world requires a changing vision of education and, therefore, language training.
Talking specifically about web-education, Daniel Dominguez-Figaredo[i] (2007) states:
“La última revolución educativa conlleva un cambio definitivo en las claves del proceso de enseñanza y aprendizaje. Por un lado, se pasa de una concepción que considera los materiales y los recursos educativos como elementos suficientes para abarcar el ciclo completo de la enseñanza, a un terreno en el que los procesos, y no los contenidos, son lo principal. Y por otro lado, se traslada el eje del diseño y la práctica educativa del docente al estudiante.”
The last educational revolution brings about a definitive change in the keys of the process of teaching and learning. On the one hand, we move from a conception which considers materials and educational resources as sufficient elements to cover the complete teaching cycle, to one in which the processes, and not the contents, are more important. And on the other hand, the thrust of educational design and practice shifts from the teacher to the student.
Imagining that education will follow the trend of webucation (a word, I’ve just – ahem – imagined), we now see a world in which syllabus design and teaching practice are much more student centred than many coursebooks. This is not necessarily revolutionary to ELT methodology, but perhaps it is in mainstream ELT practice where we are still very driven by content of materials and coursebooks.
We try to encourage the student’s imagination through creative work, personalising activities as far as possible to engage students with the course material, competitions and so on.
It is clear that the other side of Dominguez-Figaredo’s assertion is that students must also feel that their ideas and input to the class processes and content actually matter. If we are successful in implicating them in the learning process then they will use their imagination to help shape their own classes, with the subsequent positive consequences for their engagement with – and enjoyment of – the class and their learning. We believe that this can have a hugely inspiring effect on our students and can instil a love of language, a love of English and a love of learning.
Our YL department has been able to grow despite the difficult economic period. However, the real measure of our achievement is in the amazing learning of all of our students thanks to the achievements of our teaching staff with thousands of students in a wide variety of different teaching contexts. The achievement is theirs.
It is also important to recognise what we as an organisation aspire to achieve and we might summarise it as: to enable our students and their community (parents, school, teachers etc) to speak to the world and achieve their educational and social aspirations through English as a Lingua Franca.
The motivational benefits of explicit achievement are well documented and we help them see their achievement in many ways from day to day achievement in class such as winning points and certificates through our reward system to displaying work in their schools or in our centres, to putting on end of year shows, providing parents and students with detailed reports, organising regular parents’ meetings and publicising success in Cambridge exams.
Nevertheless, it seems to me that the values of inspirations and achievement are inseparable from the idea of aspirations. Learning a language is not only a practical skill which is transactionally useful for working life and study, it is also a cultural and life enriching experience. No matter how badly used in Madrid, the word “bilingual” has a real meaning and it is something to which to aspire.
Therefore, an understanding of what our Young Learners and – crucially – their parents aspire to will underpin all of our communication, support and achievements.
A neat and easily understandable way of communicating these aspirations can be seen in the Maslovian pyramid above. Each level is analogical to Maslow’s original so the base needs can be likened to the need for food and shelter and the higher order need to self-actualisation. Relating the need for language classes as a lower order need suggests that they are unquestionably needed but that this is not sufficient. We can let this type of analysis inform the message we transmit as well. A lower order message will typically be: “Cheap English classes” as this fulfills only the bottom level of the pyramid. A higher order message might be “Speak to the world”. These different messages will resonate with different groups of people according to their needs and aspirations.
So what have we learnt from comparing the core values identified by IH World to our own work in Madrid? It validates the key values identified by IH World as to what it means to be an IH school, showing that they are present at multiple levels in the work we already do and the aspirations we have for us and our students in the future. The values guide us in making daily decisions and longer term plans and how these key areas affect us and our students.
Reflection, discussion and debate about values is also useful, motivational and inspirational as an activity in itself and will ensure that we remain faithful to the fundamental values of what it means to be International House.
 Chris is Director of the YL dept of IH Madrid, Alex was DOS YL but is now HR Director
 Don’t believe us? Check out www.ihmadridtraining.com/seminars
[i] Domínguez Figaredo, Daniel (2007) Modelos de aprendizaje en la Web Social. Comunicación y Pedagogía, 223, 41-55.