Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Sandy's Guide to TEFL Mythodology - #2: The Silent Way

It's often been stated that 'The Silent Way' originated in the early 1970s and was the brainchild of the late Caleb Gattegno (see pic alongside). However, the little-known truth is that the method was actually invented some years before by a severely hungover EFL teacher in Spain called Stan Cruddy. This blog-entry is therefore a rather belated attempt to put the record straight, and to restore Stan to the position he so richly deserves in the esteemed annals of the proud history of Tefl methodology.

'Needs must', as they say, and never was this more true on that fateful day in December 1971 when Stan, finding himself incapacitated in class one morning due to an unexpectedly high intake of alcohol and illicit combustible substances the night before, was unable to communicate with his normally chatty class of belligerent young school-children. Being an articulate and resourceful EFL teacher, Stan's solution to this problem was simple and immediate - to teach the class using a system of mime and gestures that he had been prototyping on similar occasions of momentary lapses of faculty co-ordination.

Thus was born 'The Silent Way', a crafty teaching technique that he later passed on to Gattegno in exchange for a fortnight's holiday in Thailand with a wide assortment of lady-boys. Although Gattegno revised and refined Stan's original ground-breaking contribution to pedagogical practice, the main tenets of the approach remain broadly similar, and can be summarised as follows.

Firstly, the main premise is that learning is facilitated if the learner discovers rather than remembers or repeats. This 'discovery-learning' approach actually favours the time-pressed EFL teacher, as in many cases he does not even have to know that he's supposed to be teaching. Moreover, if the teacher attempts to model certain vocabulary items and phrases too often, the class might well realise that he is incapable of normal speech, which would have catastrophic consequences for both the teacher and his bank balance.

Of course, the use of the word "silent" is very significant here, as The Silent Way is based on the premise that the teacher should be as silent as possible in the classroom in order to encourage the learner to produce as much language as possible. This of course saves the teacher from having to breathe a mouth full of whisky fumes over his students, and also means that he can economise on toothpaste - a very tangible benefit these days, given the dogshit wages on offer at many private EFL schools. He can also laugh at their pathetic attempts to produce the English language.

Referring back to the presentation of language, in the Silent Way the structural patterns of the target language are presented by the teacher and the grammar "rules" of the language are learnt inductively by the learners. Stan was extremely perceptive here in realising that future EFL teachers would have virtually no knowledge of the grammar system of their own language, and would therefore have to relinquish the reins of power and oblige the learners to sort things out for themselves.

Stan was also one of the first teachers to stumble on the idea of using Cuisenaire rods - small coloured blocks of varying sizes originally intended for the teaching of mathematics - in the EFL classroom. This discovery came about almost by accident, as Stan found the rods in a colleague's drawer one day and figured they could come in very useful for throwing at rowdy students.

Some time later, when he had sobered up, he realised their potential for being used in the classroom to illustrate meaning. This is perhaps best shown by an example. Let us say that the teacher has introduced the idea of pronouns as in "Give me a green rod". The class will then use this structure until it is clearly assimilated, using, in addition, all the other colours. One member of the class would now like to ask another to pass a rod to a third student but she does not know the word "her", only that it cannot be "me". At this point the teacher would intervene and supply the new item: "Give her the green rod" and the learners will continue until the next new item is needed (probably "him").

Quite why a learner would want to say 'give me the green rod' has never been fully explained, and unfortunately both Gattegno and Stan are now dead, the latter having perished in a fire at a Chinese brothel in 1990, so we shall never understand the apparent wisdom behind the technique. However, Stan was well known for making frequent cryptic references to his 'rod', and the picture alongside - the last surviving one of Stan taken at a teachers' conference in 1989, as he demonstrated his revolutionary "butt-naked" method of teaching EFL - appears to bear out his insistence on using his 'rod' as a teaching tool.

Although the minimalist role of the 'Silent Way' teacher has led some critics to describe its teachers as 'aloof', Stan wrote of a real need for the EFL teacher to just "give them some some vocab, then get out of the way". In fact, Stan was very keen on getting out of the way, often for weeks at a time, as his DoS sought him out amongst the bars and 'cantinas' of downtown Barcelona.

As with other methods and approaches, however, aspects of Silent Way can now be observed in many lessons in the modern classroom. In the 1980s and early 90s, for example, it became fashionable in some quarters to argue that excessive "teacher talking time" was something to be discouraged. As Stan often had severe problems in being understood by his students, and not merely because of his strong regional accent, he alone felt the urgency to put minimal TTT at the forefront of his unique teaching methodology.

Lastly, the problem-solving feature of Silent Way may well prove to be its most enduring legacy as it has led indirectly to the idea of Task-based Learning, to the widespread use of problem-solving activities in language classrooms, and to teachers just leaving their students to get on with the process of learning while they nip outside for a quick ciggy or two. In short, we carefree teachers in the Tefl Trade owe one hell of a lot to Stan Cruddy and his Licor 43-inspired technique.

Only today has that debt of gratitude been made fully apparent. Stan Cruddy - we salute you!


Kapitano said...

Ah, but The Silent Way is but merely one half of a brilliant idea!

Setting a task for students without explaining it, so they'll have to figure out the task before they do it - a geniuserific way to minimise teacher talking time, maximise student involvement, and get the learners deeply into the task at hand.

Either that, or a way to make any given task take twice as long. That's good too.

But wait! There's more! The other half of the insight...

If the students don't know what the task is...why should the teacher? All the teacher (I use the term very loosely) has to do is pile a heap of random junk on the table, pretending to have a meticulously preplanned task in mind, and wait for the class to figure out what game they're supposed to play.

They're bound to come up with something, and - who knows? - they might even practice their English while doing it.

I hereby christen this The Violent Way - because when the class figure out that Teacher's not just a fraud but a lazy fraud, they'll want to express the full force of their gratitude.

King John said...

Reminds me of my first week on a Cert course at a major TEFL provider. The trainer entered the room on the third day and vomited in the waste paper basket, then lay on the floor and cadged a cigarette from a trainee. We went to find help, and discovered the DOS on the fire escape smoking a joint.
I thought YES! This is the industry for me.

Incidentally, and not connected, it seems the Windsor Schools website has been taken down permanently. Windsor English, anyone?

Shaun Ryder said...

I reckon that King John's story is a bit fookin' suspect. Iss foony an' that burr what it ain't is fookin true. Cos 'ow would you get away with it-"oh, 'ello, blecccuughhhh, bleeeuuurgggh 'ere give us a fag". Nah, it would be good if it were true, but this one's bollocks.

The TEFL Tradesman said...

No, Shaunie - the story is absolutely true! You see, I was that teacher-trainer, and I remember the occasion very well indeed. It happened after a particularly hard night on the sauce at the DoS's house...

As for dear Krapitano - it's a great idea, 'The Violent Way'! But one that I believe I floated myself some years ago. Shame I didn't trademark it, as it seems you've ripped me off!

But I like your whacky contributions to this blog - please keep them coming. Then I can rip YOU off in return!

Angielski said...

Most english teachers at some point make the conscious or unconscious decision to experiment in the Silent way. It's true that getting your students to do all the hard work appeals limitlessly when your trying to keep the vomit in your throat and not on the floor.

And on those frequent days when you have nothing prepared having students arse around for 15minutes 'producing' the language or trying to figure out exactly what they are supposed to do in the activity gives you a breather to plan the rest of the lesson.

One DOS actually recommended I stopped talking in classes as she didnt want her students picking up my brummie accent.

Prime8 said...

The silent way is shtoopid and also if drunk or hungover it is actually harder than any other method. Only a drunken mind could conceive of this method as saving pain. If you have a hangover, give your students a surprise test or writing assignment.