An interview with ... Jim Scrivener
Jim Scrivener is based at International House, Budapest, Hungary. He works on a wide range of teacher training courses including RSA Cambridge Certificate and Diploma courses and specialist workshops in topics such as Training Skills, Drama and New Trends, all over Europe and the Middle East.
Jim is also an EFL author. His book Learning Teaching, published by Heinemann, won the ARELS Frank Bell prize in 1995 as the best ELT book by a new author and went on to be a best seller.
Jim was a trainer on the first ever RSA Cambridge CTEFLA course held in Malta in 1994. At the end of this course the trainees discussed between themselves and their trainers the question: where to we go from here? They decided to meet six months later, and did so. Over a delicious meal and facilitated by some fine wine, these teachers decided to try and form an association of teachers to share ideas and experiences. MATEFL was born. Three years later when MATEFL decided to invite a speaker from abroad to hold the first ever International Seminar it seemed only fitting that this first “foreign” speaker should be Jim Scrivener whose first CTEFLA trainees had conceived the idea of MATEFL. In March of this year (2001)Jim returned to hold this year's International seminar with an excellent workshop entitled “Poetry as a Foreign Language”. After the seminar I managed to interview him .
When and why did you choose to go into EFL teaching? I
t happened by mistake while I was trying to think what I wanted to be when I grew up. I did English teaching as part of Voluntary Service Overseas for two years in Kenya and when I came back I thought I ought to get some training.
You are involved in various aspects of the EFL business: teaching; teacher training; trainer training; CELTA course assessment; lecturing; writing books; If you had to choose just one of these, which would you choose and why?
Right now, writing. I would love to write a coursebook.
How do you feel about your work at this point in your career?
Generally I still enjoy it. I didn’t think I would ever tire of teaching but the honest answer is that after quite a few years of ELT the limited nature of the subject matter at lower levels has become a bit dull for me. There are only so many ways you can teach the Present Perfect and when working with learners who mainly take short intensive courses the work can become repetitive. One temptation then is to find ways to teach that keep oneself interested – but this can be dangerous as it leads away from learner needs. Meeting numbers of new people on a weekly basis can also become exhausting over a long period of time – as can seeing lots of your colleagues and friends move on every year.
Have learners changed over the years?
One change I feel I’ve noticed is a changing perception as to expected "value" from lessons. I think learners used to see teachers far more as "humans" and were prepared to take the lesson as a joint exploration – whereas recently I feel that they have become far more cost-conscious and result-focussed and see the teacher more and more as product deliverer, and the whole business as comparable to, say, buying a burger at a fast food restaurant. Short courses particularly force the teacher to give perceived value in a short space of time, which can be stressful. In Hungary we have one school that advertises that students can learn English in 14 days. This sort of aggressive and grossly untruthful marketing serves to raise entirely unrealistic expectations for all English courses as to what is possible– and leads teacher and learner to feel that, however good the course, whatever has been achieved, it isn’t sufficient.
Did learning a foreign language help you in your own language teaching?
Well, I’m actually a very poor linguist. I have no excuse – I just seem to have real problems learning languages and I struggle to get above Pre-Int level at any. I suspect it’s mainly a memory problem. I am trying hard to learn Hungarian at the moment, but fear I have reached my plateau. The usual assumption is that being a good linguist makes one a better language teacher. Because of my own sorry story I have to challenge that. It occurs to me that a bad language learner could actually also be a good language teacher - in that they will have some insight into why many learners in their classes don’t find learning easy. Maybe this kind of empathy helps one to teach all the students in class rather than just racing with the faster ones. I suspect that some teachers are never completely able to empathise with those learners who don’t quickly pick up things.
Did being a language teacher make you critical of the way your were being taught a foreign language?
Yes. And I’m quite a "difficult" student anyway.
Which country have you most enjoyed working in? T
hey’ve all been good. I wouldn’t have missed any of them. For example, my short time in Malta is a very happy memory for me.
Go on – there must have been a favourite.
Ok – I think I’d have to say that I found working in the Soviet Union fascinating. I lived in Moscow at a time when very few foreigners were allowed to be there. I had a real insight into the country and the way it worked. It’s a very strange feeling that I can’t ever go back to revisit; the place I knew no longer exists.
You lead a very busy life, what do you like to do in your spare time?
I keep trying to write, maintaining my illusion that I could write a good non-ELT book. We have a small writers’ group in Budapest which is fun. I also help organise a regular evening of readings and entertainment (known as "The Bardroom"). I’m trying to finish a novel or two. I enter poetry competitions with a little success. As I mentioned I’d love to write a coursebook – so I keep doing sample units – but haven’t yet persuaded a publisher of my skills in this area.
I listen to CD’s a lot – though I’m not very "musical". It’s always the words I notice and enjoy most. So, for example, I really admire Bob Dylan – and would travel quite a long way to see him perform. I’d also like to draw your attention to the remarkable Pete Atkin who has just released his first new album in over 25 years.
Do you think that the internet will dominate language learning and will eventually make EFL teachers obsolete?
Let me try this from a different angle. I’m never quite sure why people go to teachers anyway. What added value do they get that they can’t get from a good set of books and cassettes? (Sorry, I’m playing devil’s advocate here). But it’s an interesting question isn’t it? Do we know what learners think they are getting from a teacher?
I suspect that it’s not simply a "good language model" (books and cassettes give that) or the "structuring" of learning (coursebooks do that). I think many learners still expect that a teacher will somehow make the process of learning easier for them – that the teacher will somehow take onto him/herself some element of the "hard work" involved in language learning. It’s interesting to observe how many learners seem to operate on the principle that being in the presence of a teacher in a classroom is in itself "learning" –requiring limited engagement or investment on their part. This is the theory of the magical transformative power of a teacher, an ability to somehow offer learners language ability at a lower personal cost.
I’m suggesting that many students buy courses because of this expectation that the teacher can achieve things for them that they could never do by themselves. This is not a matter of syllabus or methodology – but of how power, trust and hope operate in relationships between people.
I can imagine an excellent and complete computer-adaptive language program on the Internet capable of taking you through from complete beginner to Native Speaker level with imitated communicative activities and perceptive feedback and personal attention. There may be real human contact as well via e-mail, voice-mail and video-calls – and a teacher monitoring your web-based work could offer the "magic" element. So, yes, I se no reason why the internet could not do that and do it successfully. Some teachers’ places of work may be home studios rather than classrooms. But I suspect that a web-based course that is purely based on pre-programmed machine contact – without the human element - would probably not succeed. Learners will still seek out teachers, if only because we are humans and feel the need for the kinds of persuasion, encouragement, coercion, simplification and magic that we feel we get from them..
Do you have any advice to give the profession in Malta?
Yes – invite me back.
[This interview was conducted in March 2001]