Wednesday, 26 July 2017

New Oriental debate

If you attended IATEFL or watched it online, you might remember a debate between Jim Scrivener and Jocelyn Wang of 'New Oriental' (NO) school in ChinaA recent edition of ELGazette features an interview with  Wang. According to the article:
British teacher-training guru Jim Scrivener was roundly defeated in his defence of Communicative Language Teaching by [Wang] who argued passionately and in perfect English for the benefits of traditional Chinese teaching methods
I'm not sure how the writer was able to ascertain who 'won' the debate, but to me, Wang's argument, that CLT was in principle a great idea, just not suitable for China, put me in mind of one of my childhood heroes, Jackie Chan. In 2009, Chan, who hails from Hong Kong, wondered aloud about his country's democratic future:
I'm not sure if it's good to have freedom or not...I'm gradually beginning to feel that we Chinese need to be controlled. If we're not being controlled, we'll just do what we want." 
In this post, I want to examine some of the arguments Wang made in favour of 'traditional Chinese teaching methods'. 

Traditional teaching methods with Chinese characteristics

As the trad/prog debate rages online and particularly on twitter, some have pointed to China's impressive ranking on the PISA tests and suggested that we could learn a thing or two about teaching from listening to Chinese educators who stick to very traditional teaching methods. In simplistic terms the approaches differ in the following ways:

This idea reached its culmination in a BBC 'experiment' (reality TV show) in which Chinese teachers were brought to England to teach British kids. (You can see an example of a rather bizarre grammar lesson here). 

The debate between Scrivener and Wang was the latest salvo in the ongoing prog/trad war. It wasn't billed as such, because progressive teaching has largely been victorious in the UK ELT world and what would be labelled 'progressive' is considered, by many teachers, as just 'teaching'. 

During the debate, and in her article, Wang makes several specific claims that push against the progressive ethos of UK ELT such as:
  • CLT doesn't really work in the Chinese context.
  • The communicative approach doesn't help students memorise language.
  • It is perfectly OK for teachers to speak entirely in Chinese in the lesson
  • Students do not need to speak in the lesson (i.e to practice the target language) 
All of these claims are specific and research to either back up or contradict Wang's claims could've been presented. For instance, if we believe that input is the only thing necessary for acquisition, it might be perfectly defensible to have a class in which students say nothing. In fact, CLT's application in Chinese classrooms has been examined by a number  authors (see for instance Yu 2001Liao 2004Hu, 2005) yet none of this research is referred to, instead Wang chose to argue that Chinese learners learn best when taught using a 'Chinese approach'. 

A Chinese-centric approach 

The New York Times reported that the Japanese "once tried to ban foreign-made skis because they were deemed unsuitable for Japan's ''unique'' snow". Anyone who has lived in Japan will be familiar with this kind of argument. Japanese Stomachs are unsuited to American beef (sorry we can't import any!) and so on. As stomachs digest, so brains learn. And as Long notes “the architecture of human brains varies very little among adults or among children”(2011:375). Yet when Scrivener points out that the kind of teaching promoted by Wang was "contrary to all contemporary theory, about how people learn languages", Wang shot back with "are [the studies] based on Chinese learners?" Perhaps, like left brain, or right brained learners, there are also Chinese brained learners?

As Wang is Chinese it seems difficult to argue with her 'insider knowledge', of what Chinese students needs. When progressive education tell us that that 'everyone learns in different ways', then it makes sense that Chinese students may learn in a 'Chinese way'. So we nod along as we're told "when Chinese learners learn anything, they value quantity" and "the whole idea of practice sits awkwardly with our view of learning". 

However, there are a few problems with what she presents as the Chinese approach to learning languages. Firstly, What she describes as 'Chinese learning' is the same 'transmission approach' of teaching which was common in many countries at one point and is still common in many classrooms. Secondly, is it unfair to point out how conveniently the homogeneous 'Chinese learner' she describes, desires the kind of teaching New Oriental offers?

A final criticism is that NO's methods bear no resemblance to those of another famous Chinese educator, Yang Li, creator of Crazy English. For while NO boasts "73 schools, 803 learning centres and 20,400 teachers in 61 cities across the country", Crazy English has over 20 million students. Unlike NO, Crazy English promotes massive amounts of student oral practice and somehow still manages to draw in huge numbers of students. Crazy English teachers conduct mass rallies with lots of chanting in English which seems odd as we are to believe "the whole idea of practice sits awkwardly with our view of learning". 

Ancient Traditional Chinese wisdom! 

Another line of defence employed by Wang was cultural and historical. She defended silent language classes by referring to an old Chinese proverb:

sān sī ér hòu xíng
Three think, then act. 

Which she translated as 'think 3 times before you speak' and made the point that China had a 5000 year old history and that the teaching style is Confucian in origin.  

This would be a bit like saying that the silent way is a good method because in English we say 'Silence is golden'. Actually, that would be a better proverb since the Chinese phrase she quoted would be better rendered as 'look before you leap' which is really unrelated to speaking in a language class. This is basically ideology disguised as best practice. Chinese people are different, the culture is different. Our ways are better because they're older (argument from antiquity), they come from Confucius (argument from authority). I have discussed the problem with arguments from authority here and it should be obvious but something being old is no guarantee it's any good. The same arguments are routinely used to defend questionable practices like traditional Chinese medicine and acupuncture.  

This post isn't a defence of CLT or an attack on traditional teaching. Wang is an eloquent speaker and it's good to hear a voice from one of the most populace countries in which English is taught. I think she and other Chinese teachers can give us an interesting insight into the Chinese context, but China and the Chinese are not monolithic and teaching practices shouldn't be defended with long dead philosophers or ancient wisdom. 


  1. Hi Russ,

    From a slightly different perspective: what immediately captured my attention when I was reading the original article in ELGazette was this line: „argued passionately *and in perfect English*“. Was this an attempt to impress the reader and prove that although the Chinese are taught in a traditional way, they can achieve a high level of proficiency? Why, at the end of the article, when Jocelyn Wang talks about her experience of learning English, she admits that she hadn’t learned it the way other kids in China usually do. At the same time, the bit *and in perfect English* sounds a bit condescending to me – or at least redundant under the given circumstances. Is it surprising that a Chinese person speaks in perfect English? The *and* sounds a bit like *surprisingly*. It’s amazing how such a little word can sometimes express a whole attitude.

    Anyway, you've definitely come up with an interesting analysis.


    1. Thanks for reading and thanks for your comment Hana. the 'perfect English' line did strike me as odd.

      good point about her own experiences learning English. TBH, I'm not convinced, from what I've heard, that Wang is such an advocate of traditional teaching as perhaps she came across.

    2. As the person who wrote the article, I am tickled pink by your literary analysis of my standard issue journalese. 'and in perfect English' is kind of Daily Mail I grant you but it has no deep Freudian meaning. It just fits. I don't have an attitude really, the idea was to generate debate. Which it did, I am always amazed the way Teflers treat journalism as worthy of textual analysis - it's just one more bloody genre. Thrilled about the debate, though, haven't had this much fun since we accused most of British EFL of breaking minimum wage law. I am signing this anonymous because I have no idea what anything else on the drop down menu means. Melanie Butler

    3. Surely any text, regardless of what 'bloody genre' it is, is open to textual analysis. And surely you don't mean to say that journalists have no responsibility for what they write because it is 'only a bloody genre'! And finally, surely you don't consider a simple comment on a single phrase you used to be a literary analysis revealing deep Freudian meaning. The phrase to my mind seems quite transparently condescending, needing no deep analysis, and your reply here seems only to reinforce the impression, as do forced displays of humility reinforce an impression of abundant arrogance. Patrick Spillane

    4. "... my standard issue journalese. 'and in perfect English' is kind of Daily Mail I grant you ... I am always amazed the way Teflers treat journalism as worthy of textual analysis"

      The thing that strikes me about this comment is that you don't write for the Daily Mail, but for the EL Gazette which, the cover tells me, has been "Informing English Language Teaching since 1978".

      So it ought to come as no surprise that using 'and in perfect English' in an article aimed at an audience of English language teaching professionals is bound to raise an eyebrow.

      Likewise, the tone behind the use of 'Teflers' in that reply is rather striking given that we/they are your readership ... apparently.

    5. Thanks for commenting Melanie. I didn't instantly think 'Daily Mail' when I read that. I actually just wondered what the authors intention had been when writing'perfect English'.

    6. Thanks to the other commentators here. I personally wouldn't rush to chastise someone on the internet. There has been far too much of that recently. I'm pretty sure Melanie wasn't thinking 'now how can I really patronise Jocelyn' :)

  2. riding on an elevator today, i heard a young chinese student say, 'i go level 5'. now in all likelihood, this student had studied english for 10 years or so in the chinese school system, but could only use what would be described as the basic variety of english. no inflections, no functors, no tense marking. pretty sad that this is the predicament that most chinese learners find themselves in after years of agonizing classroom instruction. this type of explict instruction and focus on forms, sentence level grammar with no opportunities to use the langauge, to activate implicit learning faculities is only effective if you goal is to learn 'about' the language, rather than learning how to use it (declaritive knowledge vs. procedural knowledge). so it depends on the goals-- if the goal is to use the language, then researchers from across the SLA spectrum, whether from a processing, a generative, or a usage-based orientation, all agree that implicit learning is more durable and is the default mode of language learning. a classroom with no practice, no opportunities for authentic use and affordances, that is explicit teaching of grammatical forms can only be effective if the goal is to learn about the formal aspects of the code.

    1. Thanks for the comment. These are all really good points. Maybe NO is actually an 'exam prep' kind of place?

  3. I have a lot to say on this issue, but I'd like to focus on the argument (theirs, not yours) regarding PISA. PISA seems to be a cross-culturally reliable assessment that measures a number of things, including creativity. I'd highly recommend "The Smartest Kids in the World" by Amanda Ripley to learn more about it.

    However, when looking at the scores, have you ever noticed China comes with an asterisks? China is not China, but Beijing, Shanghai, and two other provinces. The whole of the motherland is not taken into account because the scores would be much lower. China does indeed use traditional methods in its public school, but there is a great deal of private tutoring (NO is an example, right?) that uses a variety of methods. I'm not just talking about for English - this is for all subjects. Korea has the same phenomenon over overschooling, and their scores are high up on the PISA. But so are other non-Confucian nations (Canada, Switzerland, Finland, Estonia) that rank almost as highly without the extra schooling, and, presumably, without the "traditional" teaching methods.

    My point here is that there are a lot of factors that influence the PISA score, so for those claiming it as evidence of the virility of traditional, Confucian teaching techniques, they are working from a very shaky premise.

    1. This comment has been removed by the author.

    2. Thanks for this Anthony. I completely agree and didn't really have space in the article for this stuff, so I'm glad you've commented. I know a lot of Chinese/Jpanese/Taiwanese students spend 3-4 hours a night in cram schools. How good can the education system be when that is necessary to be on a level playing field with other students? Also, if you've taught in Japan, you'll be well aware of the cliche of Japanese kids sleeping on the desks in school. Often they get better education in the cram schools.

  4. I'm now teaching my twenty-oddth pre-sessional English course and as usual most of the students are Chinese. Every year it is clear that they have never been given the chance to speak English before coming to this country, that they haven't been exposed to authentic listening, and that they have passed IELTS speaking and writing to get here by assembling memorised chunks: 'In nowadays, with the development of society, more and more Xs are Xing' is the all-purpose intro to an essay, and coins have two sides and swords are double edged, useful phrases for anyone unable or unwilling or untaught to commit to a point of view. One student told me a couple of years ago 'in China, teacher is talk, talk, talk, talk, talk, and student just play with phone.' (I actually have to get all of them to put their phones on the front desk unless I allow their use for research purposes.) I have not listened to this Wang woman, admittedly, but it sounds to me like she's talking out of her arse.

    1. While I wouldn't agree with the invective, (I think Wang is probably more of a CLT fan than she lets on), I do agree with what you have written here. Chinese students on pre-sessional courses show a very similar profile. Weak Speaking and listening skills. Good declarative knowledge of grammar. VERY good at taking tests / test strategy.

  5. I am currently working with some Chinese teachers and the article elicits some responses:

    1 From talking to these 21 teachers, it would seem that they have 21 different approaches to teaching, some of which would fit my definition of CLT.
    2 Definitions of CLT and traditional are quite contested.

  6. "How did you begin learning English?"

    Asks the EL Gazette of Jocelyn Wang to which Wang replies:

    "I was quite lucky because my exposure to English came much earlier than most typical kids growing up in China. Both my parents were English teachers ... "

    I don't know about anyone else, but that certainly casts Wang's (albeit interesting) comments in quite a different light for me.

  7. Very interesting post.

    Just by-the-by, I came across something in a review article by David Block earlier this week which I think might be of interest - excuse the length of the quote but I do think it's relevant and best read in the original. I certainly think it makes a nice complement to your post.

    “One variation on learner identities worthy of note is the focus on student identities vis-a-vis teacher identities. A good example of this type of work is Lantolf and Genung (2003), a publication that monitors the experiences of one of the authors, Genung (hereafter, PG), learning Mandarin at an American university […] PG is presented as an experienced and successful language learner who had studied up to varying degrees of proficiency in several languages. She was also an applied linguist and experienced English language teacher with firm ideas about the merits of communicative language teaching.

    “As the Mandarin course went on, the teachers stuck to a carefully controlled programme of grammatical presentation and drilling, and the students in the class began to feel more and more frustrated. As Lantolf and Genung (2003) put it, "the Chinese language program seems to have insulated itself from the dominant belief system about language teaching and learning that served to organize the department at large" (p. 184). To make matters worse, the teachers resorted to teaching strategies that could only damage the affective atmosphere in the classroom. Lantolf and Genung reported that teachers would try to humiliate students by publicly reprimanding them when it was thought that they had not done home- work or prepared sufficiently for classes. The authors noted that "[f]rom PG's perspective, the dominant tone of the community that emerged in this classroom was one of hostility" (p. 187). In addition, PG's classmates said that such treatment by teachers made them feel "verbally abused" and "beat up" (p. 187).

    “PG endured this situation, feeling progressively frustrated that she was not learning to form sentences, in short, that she was not progressing in the way that she had expected and wanted. Slowly, her motives shifted from what Lantolf and Genung (2003) termed social learning motives, including the desire to communicate with others, and self-related motives, including a drive toward self-fulfillment, to cognitive motives, in particular the learning of facts and achieving a high grade. In this process, PG adjusted her self-image as a successful language learner from success equals learning to success equals getting a good enough grade. As a result, she was transformed into a different type of language learner.”
    (Block, 2007: 870)

    Block, D. (2007). ‘The Rise of Identity in SLA Research, Post Firth and Wagner (1997)’. The Modern Language Journal, Vol. 91, Focus Issue: Second Language AcquisitionReconceptualized? The Impact of Firth and Wagner (1997) (2007), pp. 863-876

    Lantolf, J., & Genung, P. (2003). 'I'd rather switch than fight': An activity theoretic study of power, success, and failure in a foreign language classroom. In C. Kramsch (Ed.), Language acquisition and language socialization (pp. 175-196). London: Continuum

    1. This is really interesting and it perfectly sits with my view I expressed earlier on Twitter: given the enormous competition in China, it's not surprising that students favour the-more-the-better approach to education (as Jocelyn Wang said, the more vocabulary or grammar items the students get from the teacher, the better they feel). We’re not in a position to judge this standpoint and whatever reason there is behind this mindset, they simply believe this works best for them. So it’s not about convincing somebody that a method/approach is more efficient but about changing the student’s mindset, or rather their motivation.