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Michael West - extracts

Below are extracts from one of Michael West's best-known books and from a radio broadcast he recorded around 1960. The Warwick ELT Archive Hall of Fame pages include information about his life and career, information about his published works, and about rare items we hold.

title page of Michael West's 1960 book Teaching English in Difficult Circumstances

From West, M. 1960. Teaching English in Difficult Circumstances. London: Longmans, Green:

1) 'Difficult' or 'unfavourable' circumstances

'For the most part my work has lain in unfavourably circumstanced schools -- schools with large classes, crowded classrooms, etc. They have been my chief concern: they seemed most in need of help and were the more interesting and intractable problem. The discussion in the following pages is mainly centred upon such schools'. (p. vii)

'By "unfavourable circumstances" we mean a class consisting of over 30 pupils (more usually 40 or even 50), congested on benches (not sitting at individual or dual desks), accommodated in an unsuitably shaped room, ill-graded, with a teacher who perhaps does not speak English very well or very fluently, working in a hot climate. Moreover the pupils in such schools are more subject to Elimination [i.e. drop-out] than those who are more favourably circumstanced; more of them leave school before completing the course; less of them go on from school to higher studies'. (p. 1)

'The problem is one which has of late tended to become exacerbated owing to the rapid spread of education in these areas, too rapid for the supply of buildings and teachers to catch up with the number of pupils, and owing to the spread of education over a larger proportion of the population and consequently over a wider range of educability'. (p. 1):

'Unfavourable conditions tend to produce those types of teaching which are most easily practicable under unfavourable conditions: [...] (1) The lecture. [...] (2) Grammar [...] (3) Textbook-study [...] (4) Written translation [...].' (pp. 2-4)

'[W]e have to find, not the best that can be done, but what can best be done; and the place of the explorer of this problem is not at the front of the class showing what he can do, but at the back of the class, a big class, in a bad classroom on a hot and steamy day, watching what a not-too-competent teacher can best achieve. If he can do it under these circumstances, others can'. (p. 5)

'I was invited to attend a lesson in the Middle East given by an exceptionally brilliant teacher. The class consisted of about twenty-four pupils in an excellent classroom. It was a brilliantly delivered lesson. I asked the teacher at the end how many such lessons he gave during the day: he answered, "Only one, thank goodness!", and I noticed that his forehead was covered with beads of sweat. Too often Practice lessons, Criticism lessons and Demonstration lessons in the Teachers' Training College are of the "Only one, thank goodness!" type'. (p. 7, footnote)

2) 'The teacher as an obstacle' (p. 14)

'There are [...] two types of teacher. There is (1) the Teacher and (2) the Class-master. There is the man who is a teacher because he likes children, and there is the man who is a teacher because he likes teaching. The latter may make an excellent teacher of history or literature: he conveys a subject and his attitude towards it to his pupils. But a language or any other skill is a thing which has to be learnt; the Class-master's task is to help the learners, and his main interest is in them. A great part of his work is done individually; his place is, so far as possible, in amongst the pupils, not up on the platform. The great enemy of the teacher, or rather the class-master, engaged in such work is restlessness and aggressiveness. Just watching people work is dull, difficult and boring to the active and aggressive lecturer-type. Maybe for this reason one may venture the opinion that women may tend to be better language-teachers than men. They are not so restless or aggressive, and perhaps they are apt to be more interested in the efforts of pupils as individuals than in their own performance as Protagonist on the Platform'. (pp. 14-15)

3) On learning how to learn

'Children are sent to school not merely to learn, but to learn how to learn. The small amount of English (or other language) which they acquire at school will be of little profit to them, and may even soon be forgotten, if they do not know how to go on learning afterwards. The most valuable lesson which a pupil can carry away from his English class is that he has learnt (or should have learnt) how to set about learning a language -- any language. The over-active teacher may indeed instil some English into his pupils, but he will have failed in his duty if he has not weaned them -- has failed to teach them how to learn'. (p. viii)

'[T]he larger the class and the more difficult the circumstances, the more important it is to stress learning as the objective. And the higher the elimination ['drop-out'], the more necessary it is to do so: if a pupil has learnt how to learn he can go on learning afterwards'. (p. 15)

4) The value of (good) textbooks

'Of all aspects of English teaching as a foreign language the most neglected has been the science of textbook construction. Until the textbook is regarded as a public utility, the teacher's sharpest tool to be perfected regardless of labour and expense, no great improvement can be made in the teaching of English in schools as a whole ad the unfavourably circumstanced school in particular'. (p. 94)

From the end of a radio broadcast by Michael West on 'Teaching English under Difficult Circumstances'Link opens in a new window (source and date unknown). This extract from 11.34 onwards:

'This is the last of my broadcasts. In conclusion, let me express the hope that what I’ve said may have been helpful to my fellow teachers in the unfavourably circumstanced schools.

In one sense, we teachers in such schools are fortunate because we are compelled to face realities. The teacher in the small, favourably circumstanced school may get away with a badly planned lesson with multiple aims in which he – or she – talks far too much and the pupils spend far too much time merely listening. But the teacher in a big class is forced to realize that language is a thing which is learnt by practice. It is learnt by the pupils. He cannot, if he is to get results, stand and talk and talk in front of the class. The pupils will soon get restless and anyhow they will not acquire practice in the use of the language. His job is to help the pupils to do the work.

This realization – that a language is learnt and not taught – might produce better results even in the most favourably circumstanced school, where things are too easy for the teacher and the devastating results of his – or her - talkativeness are less evident.

Well, so I must say goodbye to those who have been listening to me. And if I may, in bidding you goodbye, I would like to leave one last saying with you. And it is:

A language is learnt rather than taught, and too much teaching can be an obstacle to learning'.