07 March 2007

Coursebooks are failing our students

Except for new teachers, it is an overly simplistic idea that coursebooks are doing a great job of meeting the needs of our students.

No publisher or book author knows your students like you do. Look at nearly every single business English book. There are loads of stuff in there that will not help anyone. I've yet to have any students who could make full use of one of those business English books.

I mean there are entire units talking about Advertising, Marketing and Investing. My business English students were managers at Colgate in China or managers of a Japanese electronics firm in China. They were managing the factory. They had nothing to do with Advertising and Marketing. Actually, what they really needed was Manufacturing English. Where is the book on that? Sure there might be one or two but those are usually outdated and still too general. I need a book on electronics manufacturing and one on fast moving consumer personal care goods manufacturing. I had an IT English book that explained what a "floppy disk" was. Can you imagine going over the definition of a floppy disk with an IT manager?

Is nothing going to ever change? Are we going to be stuck with books forever? I learn very little from books these days. I've been studying the significance and uses of corpus from the Internet. I've recently learned a lot about the significance of Bayesian statistical theory and e-rating, the science of machine rating writing papers on the Internet. But I must admit that I am turning to books to satisfy my interest in Physics and String Theory, but those are audio books.

What is going to come after the book? That's why I think that "books" have got us in a BOX. Teachers today do need help. They need highly adaptable materials in an electronic format that they can focus to each type of students they are going to teach. If they had a basic course framework with basic teaching content that the teacher could shift to different needs. He could shift this basic course framework to teach English to doctors, English to lawyers or English to policemen. The biggest difference between the different courses would be the vocabulary.

I know that years of research goes behind the design of coursebooks but still I'm tempted to believe that the course book designers are doing something that Dave Barry would describe as "listening to a little voice in my head that makes up believable facts".

The unit themes in business English course books have a lot of redundant material that business professionals will never need. Few business people need the full scope of topics including everything from Stock Market Investing to Advertising. Now you could argue that college students who are not certain what field of business they will get involved in could make good use of this and I will grant that.

But to make that concession here in China and some other places it is getting more and more difficult. I just bumped into a student from last semester. He was real happy to tell me he found a job at Nokia. I was happy for him. Nokia is a great company. I asked him what exactly he was doing. He was a salesman working a counter in a department store. It is unlikely that he will get any English practice in that situation and the job holds little prospects.

Consequently, the English of this student and a lot of his classmates will go unpracticed and possibly much of it lost. This is not entirely an English teaching problem but it is part of the reality in which we operate. The Chinese government has announced it will reduce the number of college students in an effort to improve teaching quality and the high employment expectations of graduates. These kinds of concerns are not reserved to China. Something similar has happened in France.

At the college level what we are doing is "front loading", filling the student up on knowledge that he might need. There was no recourse to this when we were students. But today, after all the technological developments, the science and art of teaching needs to become much more flexible and targeted. We need to employ the principles of "mass customization" to be able to mass generate customized training for students and give them this training "just-in-time".

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