Revisiting ELT Mantras: know you think


There are these two young fish swimming along and they happen to meet an older fish swimming the other way, who nods at them and says ‘Morning boys. How’s the water?’ And the two young fish swim on for a bit, and then eventually one of them looks over at the other and goes, ‘What the hell is water?’

Excerpt from the commencement address given by the late David Foster Wallace to graduates of Kenyon College in 2005.
(Photo: Diving Maldives: Gold Striped Emperor Fish by Malcolm Browne CC BY-ND 2.0)

Over the course of the year I’ve attempted to revisit and give my take on a number of ELT Mantras, things that we generally hold to be true in our profession, with the aim of hopefully casting some new light, or even just a fresh pair of eyes on each one. I haven’t been trying to reinvent the wheel here, just take a fresh look at things. I started by looking at CCQs and ICQS, with a bit of a rant about relying too much on snappy abbreviations. Then I looked at eliciting, and what it really means, before going on to discuss learning styles, which seems to have been quite a topic of debate this year, since Russell Mayne’s bold talk at IATEFL Harrogate this year (though in fact a lot of the debunking has previously been carried out by Daniel Willingham at the University of Virginia). In May I took a look at some established grammar ‘rules’ we often give in the classroom, and in May looked at grading texts and tasks, trying to find a sort of compromise between conflicting ideas. The following posts discussed reading aloud, authentic texts and revisiting phrasal verbs. Finally, last month, I revisited a subject which first got me thinking about critical thinking for teachers, that of relying too much on quotes from others in the profession (something that even some of  the most well-established writers in our profession seem to be guilty of).

I hope you’ve managed to read some of these posts, and I hope you’ve been able to find something to relate to, even if it’s just been a case of flat-out disagreeing with what I said (that’s kind of what I hoped to achieve anyway). If there’s an underlying point to all of this, then it’s this: in today’s fast-paced, online world, we are bombarded with ‘noise’, in the form of clickbait, funny cat posts, serious messages, offers of work, and so on. It’s becoming more important than ever to develop the ability to filter this noise so that we don’t lose focus. We need to be able to enjoy what’s there but at the same time not lose sight of what’s important or what’s real.

The same is true of how we approach professional development as teachers. We are bombarded with free webinars, conference talks, free articles, blogs (just like this one), as well as the more traditional respected, peer-reviewed journals and books. All of this is a good thing, as it’s never been easier to find a way to reflect and develop as a teacher. But we need to be able to filter out what is truly useful to us, what we can apply to our own situation. Even if we don’t have much experience as a teacher, we do know our own situation better than anyone else, so we know what works and (just as importantly) what doesn’t.

If we can keep a critical eye on what we read, watch and hear in this way, we can develop from the younger fish to the older fish, and be aware of the water around us.


As a final word, a few sentences borrowed from Matt Haig’s book The Humans. It’s a story about an alien visitor to our planet who enjoys spending time with humans so much he decides to stay here. At the end of the book is a list of advice to humans. My three favourite are:

4 Be curious. Question everything. A present fact is just a future fiction.

34 No-one is ever completely right about anything, anywhere.

57 Don’t think you know, know you think.

Stephen Greene
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Damian Willians

I'm an ELT author/writer and have written several books and digital material for various publishers (Amazon author page - I'm also a member of the committee for the IATEFL Materials Writers Special Interest Group (MaWSIG). After living and working in Brazil for ten years, I'm now based in London.

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