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Get Off Your Hobby-Horse… A Rallying Cry

by Nick Kiley

So, what is a hobby-horse, and are you indeed riding one? Why am I bothering to put finger to keyboard and make you read about it? According to Wikipedia: “From “hobby horse” came the expression “to ride one’s hobby-horse”, meaning “to follow a favourite pastime”, and in turn, the modern sense of the term Hobby.” So, surely a good thing, right? Over the last few years working as an English teacher and lately as a teacher trainer, I’ve come across it quite a lot in a different light, though. The usual context is something on the lines of, “That’s just a little hobby-horse of mine…”, having just highlighted some aspect of teaching or language we feel deserves attention. So, where do they crop up? The places that spring to mind for me are: when observing teachers, both in service and on training courses, during training sessions and also when teaching students. And, just like the real-life nags they are named after, they come in different colours, shapes and sizes…

Some could be called positive – things we like to see others do, and things we have good reason to focus on ourselves. Others could be called negative – the things we prefer not to see others do, or things we may not have good reason to do, but for some reason we do them. And where do they come from, these stags and mares? As mentioned, maybe we genuinely believe them to be right, some may be just things we’ve taken a liking to for whatever reason, and sometimes they are just fun for us. Some are instilled in us by previous experience – a trainer, or DOS, perhaps, maybe a teacher at school. Whatever the source, they are there, and probably there to stay. I think, like most things connected with this ever-evolving language, they are forever growing. I often find myself sagely giving forth about something I have read recently, or been picked up upon myself, as if it were a truth that I’ve actually secretly known since birth.

Whatever they are, and wherever they may come from, they’re there. When we teach our students we find ourselves focusing on an area of language we feel to be important (or easier to teach…?), regardless of the students’ real problems. That idiom gets divulged in depth, despite a lack of actual usage on behalf of the divulger (count the times you’ve taught ‘it’s raining cats and dogs’ and then take a second to reflect on the last time you actually used it in normal conversation with another native speaker…). This last tale of mammalian precipitation helps to demonstrate an important point – the English language is constantly evolving, and the hobby-horse, like it’s wooden, rocking name-sake, is slow to keep up. I’m prepared to concede that when I was a child, and words seen as acceptable on TV now were then seen as profane, the cats and dogs may well have been a much more preferable descriptive turn of phrase to the now seemingly widely accepted ‘it’s pissing it down outside’ (in the UK, at least). Yet I can’t recall any native speaker using the phrase seriously in my presence. Plenty of students, yes, but never my fellow Englishians (the author is now making up words in order to avoid repeating ‘native-speakers’ – a hobby-horse of mine…?). So, why do we teach it? It’s fun…it amuses students and gives us the chance to demonstrate what a colourful language English is (our descriptions of culinary delights being short lived…). I worked in one location where, seemingly in a bid to try and match the locals for drinking rituals, an inordinate amount of English teachers could be found in bars teaching the locals that “in England we say ‘bottom’s up!’”, followed by an exaggerated demonstration of the literal meaning of this phrase. All very nice. I don’t know about you, however, but I have never used, or had used upon me, that expression, and I cringe when I think of a group of well intentioned tourists shouting ‘Bottoms up!’ in a well meaning toast in the middle of some of the hostelries I used to frequent in Leeds. So, what use is it to the students? As you may have noticed already, people teaching antiquated idiomatic expressions is a little hobby-horse of mine…

Hobby-horses not only affect what we teach, but what we correct. In the classroom we can find ourselves picking up on the things that jump out at us. Do you have an unhealthy obsession with the third person –s, and find yourself making snake noises every single time the students miss it? Find yourself cringing when the students mix up their tenses? What other things are you missing whilst your inner-voice screams abuse at the offending debaser of your inherited linguistic art. And here is my point – hobby-horses are an easy way for us to focus on certain aspects of language (or teaching, if we are observing a lesson), possibly aspects we know will arise and are therefore easy to focus on, and if we’re not careful they become too easy to rely on and we can switch off to other aspects of what we are seeing / hearing.

This may become clearer if we look at the example of observing teachers as part of teacher training. I have my hobby-horses – pronunciation is one of them, and I have clear ideas about what I want to see. It is therefore very easy for me to put pronunciation in the requisite column – strengths or areas to work on. But while I’ve been diligently watching out for any pron. work the teacher does, what have I been missing? Now, of course I’ll allow the observee to justify their lack of pronunciation work, but if what they say conflicts with my hobby-horse, am I going to be professional enough to let it slide, or spout forth about why I’m right? Similarly, while we’re focussing on making sure students are using at least one past form, what else are we missing? Those little gems they’re producing? A greater problem with prepositions? And what damage are we doing by missing these things? I feel it can be a particular problem when you work in one place / field (not the green variety!) for a long time. I expect my Vietnamese learners to make certain mistakes, and similarly, I expect teachers at certain stages of their careers to make certain ‘mistakes’ when I observe them (in inverted commas as they’re not really mistakes – their only mistake was not realising that Nick likes it done a certain way…). I recently sheepishly sat and listened as a trainee justified a lesson by telling me that ‘the other trainer wanted it done that way. If I’d known you’d wanted it done this way, I’d have planned that,’ leaving me muttering something about there being more than one way to skin an egg…, but more importantly realising silently to myself that there was more than one way to break a cat, and that if I was more honest with myself about my hobby-horses, then it might have been clearer to the trainee as well (although in this particular case, I doubt it…)

So, what are we going to do about it? I’ll make a pact with you – I’ll try if you try? OK? I’m not doing it if you don’t… Harmer discusses Watson & Raynor’s experiments with conditioning and the subsequent theory of Behaviourism. In this theory, conditioning results from stimulus, response and reinforcement . Are our hobby-horses just an example of this conditioning? Stimulus – we hear several students making a mistake / get told in training to use a certain technique; response – we correct it / we put the technique into practice; reinforcement – the students respond. This procedure is repeated and it becomes conditioned. Instead of Pavlov’s bell, a student rings an incorrect tense, or a teacher rings a reading text set up in a different way, and we salivate away, possibly without even thinking about why…

How would we re-condition Pavlov’s dogs? I suppose we have the capacity that the dogs might not possess, in that we can try to break the habit ourselves. Like addicts, we have to first acknowledge the addiction. Then, we need to wean ourselves off. Addicted to correcting tenses? Try spotting some prepositions, or some good usage of verb phrases… Addicted to getting teachers to drill in class? Maybe ignore pronunciation for a whole observation and focus on their variety of interaction. One technique I use when developing students’ writing is to tell them which area my correction will focus on, so that they themselves focus on this area when writing. We can turn this focus on ourselves – knowing that we may focus a little over-zealously on verb tenses, we can tell ourselves that we’ll only be focussing on pronunciation mistakes this lesson, or we’ll only focus on interaction during this observation, and this way we can self-condition to look at a wider range of areas.

Right, I’m off to drink my milk…

The Practice of English Language Teaching, Pearson 2007, p.51

Author’s Bio:
Nick has recently taken on the position of DoS at IH Tbilisi, having been Teacher Training Manager and Academic Manager at IH Hanoi & Ho Chi Minh City for the last three years. Prior to this he also worked at IH Qingdao and Bielsko-Biala. As well as being a CELTA trainer, Nick has an interest in teacher training and development, and is trying to work around several of his own hobby-horses.

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