Rules and improvisation can sit happily together

10th June 2016 at 00:00
Spats between education’s progressives and traditionalists miss the point – pupils need both ‘classical’ and ‘jazz’ styles of learning if they are to find their voice

Twitter is a great arena for a bit of argy-bargy. Perhaps it’s a welcome outlet for teachers weary of singing from the same hymn sheet. One of the paradoxes of the profession is how we attempt to teach youngsters to think and speak up for themselves, while simultaneously tying our own intellectual freedom up in knots. We have to break loose every now and then, Houdini-style, just to prove that there is a way out – hence teachers’ scrapping on Twitter.

One such pervasive debate over the last few years has turned on the supposed opposition between “traditional” and “progressive” modes of teaching. The startling thing about this collision has been the way it sets up a dogmatic antithesis between the most vocal participants, who, in dismissing “flat earthers” slip all-too-readily into the easy rhetoric of sarcasm and ridicule.

I admire the passion, but as a languages teacher, I am bemused by the polarity.

Traditionally, modern languages have been taught as an academic subject, on a par with classics. The language was objectified on the page, examined under the microscope, analysed and parsed, corrected with red ink, down to the fastidious detail of the last accent. What you wrote was right or wrong, and if you had the rigour to get it right consistently, then it was an open door to Oxbridge.

Living the language

The text – including the literary text – ruled supreme, but oral work was approached using similar techniques, with rote learning, repetition and recitation, until your delivery was just so, creating the illusion of being at ease. What was often missing, however, as older generations will testify, was the ability to improvise in the real world.

Inevitably, there was an equal and opposite reaction. If you wanted children to “live” the language, to be part of it, the progressives argued in the last third of the 20th century, then you had to “immerse” them in it. Hence the vogue for integrated and bilingual learning as a means of approximating first-language acquisition in a native-speaker environment.

This worked in a completely different way. Language in real life was a messier thing. People got it wrong, even into adulthood. They couldn’t spell their own language (why would we require them to be word-perfect in another?) Songs and games supplanted literature, and the subject became allied to music and drama, privileging performance, intonation, rhythm and rhyme: get it to sound right, even if you still don’t quite understand the mechanics and how every little bit of it works.

The pendulum swings back and forth in the public domain, with language teaching as a microcosm of the divided profession at large. But it shouldn’t be this way. Language has rules, but also freedom: take a sonnet, for example, which has 14 lines, but also infinite variations. It’s a living thing, shaped by the flesh-and-blood beings who both use and abuse it: adapting and evolving, branching out organically, accommodating the good, the bad and the ugly, sympathetic to innovation and experimentation.

Creative error is built in. The more that a mistake is repeated, the more that it creeps into common parlance, the less of a mistake it becomes. Misuse of personal pronouns, omission of prepositions, the exclusion of proper apostrophes in hashtags, the admission of the words “selfie” and “LOL” to the Oxford English Dictionary – all of these things conspire against any notion of de haut en bas dogmatism in language teaching and learning. The crest of the wave is always ahead of you: enjoy the ride, but wiping out is no shame.

Fortunately, most teachers just get on with the job, drawing pragmatically on all the tools in the box and doing what works. Sometimes this coincides with the evidence of the latest approved research, sometimes just with the evidence of experience. Sometimes, for brief, angst-free moments, these two things may even be one and the same.

Guarding a ‘fragile fortress’

Just now, the diehard traditionalists are in fine voice. They swear by the mantra of drilling and can point to some outstanding results. Yet the unforgiving emphasis on correctness makes for a fragile fortress. We all make mistakes, but in the real world mistakes do not lead axiomatically to punishment. Nor should they in school, where most are rightly interpreted as a positive part of the learning process.

In a rigid system, the tiniest crack can bring the whole edifice tumbling down. Hence the colleague who, when tasked with reading out a list of previously unseen names in public, found herself unable to pronounce a Spanish name. “I teach French!” she protested. The audience let her off lightly, but the weakness was plain to see. Unless certain that she would get full marks, she was neither equipped nor prepared to have a go, despite the warm embrace of the Romance family of languages.

My Year 4 pupils, taught using both methods – having respect for both rules and improvisation, the classical and the jazz – would have had more confidence and greater success.

Jean-Paul Sartre memorably described the clash between two boxers as “a binary praxis of antagonistic reciprocity”. If you want to transcend the warring factions, then languages can show you the way.

Dr Heather Martin is a languages specialist @drheathermartin

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