Demand High?

by Robert Buckmaster

At the DOS Conference in Greenwich in January this year Jim Scrivener and Adrian Underhill led three sessions on their meme of ‘Demand High’.  The first introductory session, led by Jim, was met by quite a few heads nodding in agreement; in the second  – a feedback session – there was a mixture of responses from broad agreement to the concern that the meme was an attack on CELTA trainers and courses (which Jim denied absolutely); the third session, which looked deeper into the ‘how’ of Demand High was met with more agreement but also a ‘this is what we do in the UK, what’s new?’ response.  The balance of people I talked to at the conference was clearly on the side of ‘they’re on to something here.’

Demand High, as Jim and Adrian explain it on their website, asks:

  • Are our learners capable of more, much more?
  • Have the tasks and techniques we use in class become rituals and ends in themselves?
  • How can we stop ‘covering material’ and start focusing on the potential for deep learning?
  • What small tweaks and adjustments can we make to shift the whole focus of our teaching towards getting that engine of learning going?

From my understanding of the meme, the concern is with the moments and boundaries of learning and what the teacher can do to push the learning boundaries just that little bit more so that the teacher and learner are fully engaged with learning. The focus is on what the teacher can do to enable this learning rather than just ensure the delivery of materials in a lesson format to a particular group of learners. The learning encounters and interventions are seen as pushing one or maybe two steps beyond what might be seen as a perfectly acceptable execution of an activity in a perfectly acceptable lesson with perfectly unexceptional learning outcomes. The question is what more could be done in the particular circumstances to encourage more learning.

I was one of those nodding my head during Jim’s initial presentation of the idea of Demand High (a label they half regret, no?). Their ideas chime with my experiences of observing lessons in the broadly soft communicative approach using the course books of the major publishers. In my lesson feedback sessions I often ask teachers a number of questions, some of which I do not know the answers to. I ask them why they did a particular activity; explore what the learners were actually doing during the activity and was it what the teacher thought they were doing or wanted them to do; ask the teacher what the learners needed to be able to do and/or know in order to be able to do it; invite them to think about other ways to do the activity; and to answer the question – what did the learners learn during the activity and ultimately the lesson?  These questions and discussion are designed to open up vistas on how to deepen the learning depth of activities and increase the intensity of the learning encounter.

CELTA- qualified teachers are, or should be, able to craft and deliver well-thought out, engaging, logically-sequenced and coherent lessons which promote learning using course book (and other) materials. A-pass and B-pass teachers and Delta-qualified and more experienced teachers are capable of more. Jim likened professional skills to a series of ladders going up a cliff and talked about pushing professional skills beyond the delivery of lessons and manipulation of materials, obviously essential teaching competencies, to something beyond that, something which very good teachers can already do but which not all teachers aspire to.  The core competencies of the CELTA are, as Jim said, essential.

General George Patton Jnr wrote, after Voltaire, that ‘the best is the enemy of the good.’ Demand High is not about being perfect, or taking teaching to the next level all of the time, but Demand High asks if we can add something more, go that extra step at key moments in the lesson with individual learners and with the class, and by doing so, increasing learning.

My own concerns about communicative language teaching are the learning intensity, the pedagogical depth to activities, and the cost/benefit analysis of any activity. Learners in a typical learning situation in my context – Latvian state and private sector education – have limited contact time in the classroom with the target language. In state schools lessons are 40 minutes long and at IH Riga 90 minutes twice a week for teens and this is not a lot of time. So, do we have time for games? How many times during course can you reasonably play Scrabble? Is reading a long text to answer a few comprehension questions a good use of the time or materials available? Is delayed feedback on a few points which came up while monitoring a speaking task the most effective way of doing things? Is fluency more important than accuracy? Is less, more? Is more, less? Does the intensity of what we do in the class match our learners’ learning needs? Does the activity contain enough ‘learning’ or could we add layers to the task to add learning value? What is the cost-benefit of the task? Is it worth doing the task for the amount of learning which happens? Or is there something more worthwhile we could be doing?

The cost/benefit analysis recognises that everything has a cost – at the minimum it is the opportunity cost of not doing something else. If we don’t play this game, what could we do instead? Is another sentence completion task on conditionals really the best use of both our and the learners’ time?

Like the Good, the Bad and the Ugly, there are three kinds of language. The language we know, the language we almost or partly know and the language we don’t know. How much time in each lesson, and over the course, should we spend on using the language we know, practising the language we almost know and meeting the language we do not know? It is up to the individual teacher to decide on the right answer to this and the thinking teacher might answer the question differently each time. It might be that on Friday afternoon with a group of tired teenagers a focus on using the language they know and almost know will be better than introducing new language. But if little of your course is spent on learning new language then the mix is wrong. How much new language did they learn today? How much almost known language did they practice? These are key reflective questions.

Adding learning depth to an activity might merely be a question of adding a better lead-in, or focusing on the collocations or idioms in a text which the course book ignores. Or asking learners for alternative ways of saying something. Or brainstorming rather than just giving out the words on a worksheet, and thus promoting the use of memory recall.  Or taking a long sentence from a listening or reading text and making an oral drill out of it. Or taking phrases from a text and asking the learners to make personalised statements or questions with them. As a rule of thumb, might I suggest that if something is worth doing, it is worth doing well i.e. in depth.

Some conclusions?

I think that communicative language teaching privileges fluency and communication [communicative competence] over accuracy, and extensive tasks over intensive tasks. At some stage from A1 to C2 the balance in materials shifts from the focus in A1 elementary on understanding every word in a sentence or short text [through listening and/or reading] and being able to say such things [listen and repeat] to reading and listening to much longer texts and focussing in detail less and less in those texts. The intensity in learning dissipates.  And teachers generally, in my experience anyway, privilege grammar learning over vocabulary learning. Are these the right choices? Ultimately the answer is the teacher’s, but Adrian and Jim’s meme of Demand High helps the teacher by raising questions about their practice. A reflective teacher will be willing to reconsider their previous answers to such questions as a sign of their professional maturity, and they might come to different answers depending on the particular learners they are teaching. We should welcome Jim and Adrian’s questions.

Author’s Bio: Robert Buckmaster is a teacher, trainer and manager who has worked in central and eastern Europe for 20 years. He has managed projects for the British Council and was the Director of Studies at International House Riga for five years until June 2013. His book called the Grammar of English Ideas will be published soon.