How to become a usefully ignorant EAP teacher?

Sometimes I think I’ve never been more confused about what I should be saying and doing in my EAP classroom.

I, like many others, was initially trained as an English language teacher in the CELTA/DELTA communicative era where ‘good’ teacher talk meant reducing its quantity.  I don’t think I ever really understood why this was necessarily a good thing – just that having more student talking time would apparently give them more opportunities to communicate and that this increased communication would somehow facilitate learning.  In the low-stakes ELT contexts I subsequently taught in, this approach seemed to work well enough and I enjoyed the task of creating student-centred activities where I would stand as the ‘guide on the side’ (McWilliam, 2007) facilitating and monitoring whatever my planning led to in the classroom.

My transition to EAP teaching however, led to some rather unexpected consequences for my ingrained adherence to reducing TTT.  Feedback from my Insessional students was that I didn’t ‘talk enough’ and other students requesting that instead of making them go through a laborious sequence of  Columbo-like clues to discover the answer for themselves, it would be far better if I just told them the answer in the first place and saved everyone’s time and energy.  On a Presessional course, where time is so limited, the stakes are so high, and there is so much pressure to get through all the materials, this request did not seem wholly unreasonable.  Moreover, having experienced and seen so many other teachers go through so many hoops to elicit an answer that they eventually answered themselves, I started to question what I was doing and why.

I think most researchers and practitioners now agree that the issue is more about quality rather than quantity, and that, in any case, attempts to reduce TTT have largely failed (Walsh, 2002; Wilson, 2007).   Other attempts to make classroom interaction more representative of ‘authentic’ communication outside the classroom also seem to have been quashed by claims that the classroom is as valid a context of communication as any other institutional discourse setting, and so has its own norms of communication related to language use and pedagogical goals and purposes.

Part of me thinks ‘great’ and yet another part of me thinks that I no longer know what those norms are.  I’ve bought into sociocultural pedagogic theory and concepts of dialogic and collaborative learning, and I like the idea of using the EAP context as a sort of initiation into academic communities of practice and development of relevant competences.  I also understand the core principles of social learning are action, communication, reflection and negotiation (Illeris, 2002) and that my classroom needs to foster an atmosphere that allows for these things to happen.

But…going back to Walsh (2002), I have no idea as to what I do and say in my EAP context that would be deemed either ‘constructive’ or ‘obstructive’ to these particular goals.  Moreover, as I read about the changing nature of tertiary education and the need for a rethink around effective teaching towards a more experimental culture of learning to better prepare students for a constantly developing, digitally enhanced working context (Bauman, 2004), I have less confidence about what my teaching practice should be.  If knowledge is now somehow backgrounded in favour of the development of transferable skills, then what can I usefully do with my students?

McWilliam (2008) talks about a shift from the ‘guide from the side’ to the ‘meddler in the middle’, where we use our increasing relative ignorance to create space for creation, innovation, and pedagogical possibilities.  Education thus becomes less about transmission of knowledge from the ‘sage on the stage’ to teachers developing their own  disposition to be ‘usefully ignorant’ (McWilliam, 2008) in the classroom and to developing  the learning dispositions among students that would be appropriate in those future contexts.  This then leads to teaching contexts where knowledge transmission is replaced by a form of value creation shifting students from consumers of education to users and ultimately producers (Hearn, 2005).  As McWilliam states (2007:6):

‘If we consider pedagogical exchange as a form of value exchange and value creation, then what Hearn opens up are new possibilities for thinking about a pedagogy that has more promise from creative capacity building…Rather than teachers delivering an information product to be ‘consumed’ and fed back by the student, co-creating value would see the teacher and student mutually involved in assembling and dissembling cultural products…The teacher is in there experimenting and learning from the instructive complications of her errors alongside  her students.’

And so back to my confusion.  If we understand that pedagogical exchange is achieved through value co-construction and co-creation of meaning, then surely the context in which that occurs is equally co-constructed by the participants.  In which case, ultimately the ‘norms’ of behaviour within those contexts can only be decided by those participants and their particular goals, and not by some undefined party external to that interaction.  And where is the evidence that knowledge transmission is no longer such a good thing and that the knowledge that we have acquired over the years is now inappropriate and out of date?


Bauman, Z. (2004) Liquid Sociality. In N. Gane (Ed.) The Future of Social Theory. Continuum: London pp17-46.

Hearn, G. (2005) The Shift to Value Ecology Thinking and its Relevance to the Creative Industries. Paper presented at the QUT Brisbane Conference: Open Content Licensing: Cultivating the Creative Commons.

Illeris, K. (2002). The three dimensions of learning. Roskilde, Denmark: Roskilde University Press/Leicester, UK: NIACE.

McWilliam, E. (2008)  Unlearning how to teach. Innovations in Education and Teaching. Vol 45 (3) pp263-269..

Walsh, S. (2002) Construction or obstruction: teacher talk and learner involvement in the EFL classroom.  Language Teaching Research Vol 6 (1) pp3-23.

Wilson, K. (2007) Facilitating talk in EAP reading classes. ELT Journal Vol 64 (4) pp366-374.


5 Comments on “How to become a usefully ignorant EAP teacher?”

  1. Andy Gillett says:

    In the early days, you didn’t teach, you gave your students practice. I think this is very common and is still prevalent in English language teaching in HE. How many times have I seen “practise” as a learning outcome on either a lesson plan or a course specification? Maybe giving practice is OK. However, one thing that annoys me is that you often hear these teachers complaining about the bad teaching that goes on in the state system of the country they are working in. When, in reality this is where the real teaching takes place.


  2. Steve O'Sullivan says:

    Indulging in the ‘usefully ignorant meddle’ with awareness, it would seem, requires some initial leap of faith, with potential risks, perhaps not least since (handed-down) norms and expectations of assessment (by both students and teaching/learning assessors) may ‘cling on despite all logic to the contrary’ (McWilliam, 2007:7). Casualties, cul de sacs, and misunderstandings would be faced, I should think.

    It would be interesting further to explore practical examples of ‘usefully ignorant meddling’, (and perhaps ‘less usefully ignorant meddling’), as applied to the EAP teaching/learning context.


  3. Hi Julie,
    I like enjoyed your blog and the ‘sage on the stage’, ‘guide to the side’, and ‘medler in the middle’ roles! I’m thinking that perhaps all three roles may be relevant in the Sydney School pedagogic cycle for teaching (writing for example) involves moving through 3 phases: deconstruction, co-construction and, independent construction. In the deconstruction phase, (of a genre for example), teachers will need to be the most explicit thus, be a sage on the stage. Students count on teachers having knowledge and cutting to the chase is often more efficient than the so called ‘discovery learning’ where the opinion of the students often becomes the sum of knowledge. The co-construction phase, where we co-construct a text with our students, would require ‘medling in the middle’. The degree to which one is being a meddler will depend on how well the deconstruction phase was delivered and students’ up-take. This is where we largely drop the teaching and I take your blog as largely addressing this very important phase. Very often we move to independent practice much too quickly with inadequate explicit scaffolding. I see co-construction more as a ‘supervised’ practice session where students ideally take the lead. The more sophisticated students can lead and judge what is being constructed. Students need to also see a teacher make an evaluation and this is often done in the co-construction phase where teachers move between scaffolder and evaluator modes. I’ve had mixed results in this phase, the best result was when a student was able to declare ‘its not very elegant!’ in the middle of the construction of a topic sentence signaling that she wanted a more sophisticated language choice. My less sucessfull experiences in being a meddler in the middle is when I’ve had less time to unpack a deconstructed text and rushed to the co-construction phase. I’m learning to reign in the pace and lay the groundwork of ‘knowledge’ first. It depends on the cohort one is teaching as well. When students move to the final phase, independent-construction phase, and we give feedback on a draft its perhaps the phase where being ‘a guide on the side’ is appropriate. For some students we may need to move back to being meddlers. These differentiations in the pedagogic phase perhaps give us a clue on the roles we play and when. One of my concerns with not differentiating the pedagogic phases is when teachers are ‘assessed’ for APR purposes and where an assessor may have a completely different idea of how much meddling is needed in a lesson. We tend to be evaluated on the CLT template where reduced TTT is privileged so I very much agree with your last observation.


  4. Hi Julie (Martha and Alex),

    Thank you for your thought provoking post and also for starting this unique blog on EAP.

    Although there has always been a learner-centred approach to teaching EAP, this is, perhaps, an era to proceed from delusions and dogme-like prescriptions to eclecticism and transformative learning through new research.

    “All learning begins with experience” Peter Jarvis suggested back in 1987 while there may also be a lot of insight to gain in EAP from his most recent study on ‘Learning from Everyday Life’ (available on HSSRP, vol.1, no. 1 2012: 1-20).
    Perhaps there is a greater amount to learn from Adult Learning Theories and interdisciplinary research than we can imagine.

    Please keep posting and offering the best of you in EAP.

    Thank you,



  5. Jumana says:

    Dear Julie,

    Thanks for the interesting post. I found it thought-provoking.



Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s