An Interview with Jeremy Harmer
Popular ELT author and trainer, Jeremy Harmer was educated in the United Kingdom and graduated from the University of East Anglia with a BA Hons in English and American Studies followed by an MA in Applied Linguistics from the University of Reading and has trained as a Teacher Trainer at International House.
Jeremy has taught in Mexico, for which he retains an abiding love, and the UK. He has trained teachers and offered seminars all over the world. A writer of both course material and methodology, he is the author of methodology titles including The Practice of English Language Teaching, which is featured on our reading list, and How To Teach Writing as well as Graded Readers. He is also a faculty member on the MATESOL at The New School, New York.
Jeremy is also a musician and spoken word performer. With colleague Steve Bingham he has toured the show Touchable Dreams, and is a regular performer in folk clubs in and around Cambridge UK (where he lives). His children’s oratorio, Island, premiered in 2015.
If you asked any artist, musician, or athlete if they were good “noticers”, they would tell you that they either considered themselves to be so, or were immersed in a lifelong journey of becoming so. I am a teacher, but also a practising artist. Noticing and observing are skills that help me as an artist to “see”. Or take an athlete. An athlete will do their best training when their mind is present in the action. In that state, they’ll feel and see the body in space, the position of the foot, the toes, the line of the leg, the tension in certain muscles, their breathing. It is a deep connection of the mind to the body and the world that surrounds the two.
To be present and focused is a hard practice. Possibly harder to do in this age of media-driven attention deficiency, where flicking through our Facebook feed has become a tick. We glide over updates, are entertained by cat videos and put our frowny faces on political posts. I’ve found myself clicking likeon a friend’s artwork having beheld it less than half a second.
If you want to know what noticing is all about, spend time with a farmer.
Yes, we can learn it. It’s as old as the hills. Picture a farmer standing still for some time in his field, or where I come from, the paddock (I’m going to use my father as a case study here). He’s apparently doing little, but actually, he’s doing a lot. I would think he was sneaking a sly cigarette, but what he was really doing was some or all of the following: checking weather and observing grass growth, grass mixes and other plants an untrained eye wouldn’t even notice. He’d be feeling the soil, watching for the presence of water or lack thereof. He’d be observing animal health: the coughing ewe, the limping ewe, the one who has been sitting too long, the one who looks agitated, forming the right questions to ask, coming up with answers… and sneaking a sly cigarette.
Farming is a lonely job, but this solitude is a blessing as well as a curse. Solitude forms part of the ecosystem that sustains reflection. And it happens infrequently for many people today, as one of our Perth based teacher trainers Antony Atkinson wrote recently, in response to the words of Professor Tom O’Donoghue at the launch of his 25th book “Understanding Contemporary Education’. We need to provide the right environment for noticing to happen.
This is what Jeremy Harmer calls it. While writing material for a coursebook recently, he came across the Namib desert beetle. Being a reflective sort, he observed how it has evolved with the tools to capture vapour on its wings in the seemingly waterless desert. The vapour forms into a droplet and trickles down into the beetle’s mouth. Now researchers in Chile are replicating this to increase water resources in the Atacama Desert, the driest (non-polar) desert on Earth to provide precious water for farming and native vegetation.
Given this metaphor, Harmer asks the question: What capturing equipment are we helping our students to make to become capturers of language?
Harmer: “My argument is that you can take any text, written or audio, at any level, and gradually train students to develop this capturing method. One way of doing it with a text is to say simply ‘How many verbs can you find?’ or ‘What do you notice about this language?’ And give them time to do that. You can ask them ‘If you had to choose three phrases from the text, which would you choose and why?’. All these techniques are about training students to be their own language capturers.”
Harmer argues that time spent on this, other affective factors aside, would surely have some sub-conscious effect on the way language learners approached language learning.
Don’t make me think. One click ordering!
Noticing forms part of teaching approaches and materials driven by discovery learning and is talked about by Scott Thornbury and Luke Meddings in their book Teaching Unplugged(2009). Giving room for noticing to happen means giving learners space to think. This is especially tricky in today’s world as I’ve mentioned. We’re all getting lazy. In fact, if you made it this far into the article, you’re doing well. 😉 Giving our learners the answers instead of letting learning breath and grow in the silent spaces, cuts into an organic learning process that is deeper and more solid than spoon feeding.
Harmer: “One of the greatest things you can ever do for a student is to train them to listen. I’m not talking about listening skills, but just training them to be aware…Sometimes students can hear a whole story and enjoy it, but what have they learnt?”
We are poor listeners. How often have you simply waited for someone to stop talking so you could speak? How many nods and verbal fillers do we use by default when we listen?
So, what can we language teachers do about this?
Traditionally we would ask comprehension questions as part of a pre-while-post listening format, but Harmer is increasingly more drawn to the technique of re-telling. Harmer argues that we need to get learners engaged, to listen and re-tell from different view-points, and different angles. Importantly, so as to make it an exercise in observation of content and integrated language, we need to draw learners’ attention to language by having them takes notes, drilling into the text and reassembling it, dragging the language through it.
Training, repetition, practise and rehearsal.
As a musician, Harmer reflects a lot on music practice. There is an aspect of language acquisition and learning where we are essentially training our bodies, like musicians or athletes, to reproduce an action quickly, seamlessly and effectively. As an artist, I rely on years of painting practise to effortlessly pick or mix colour, choose mediums, or produce certain strokes.
Our aim in training is that the brain achieves well-worn pathways for this action and the muscles remember. However, the training doesn’t have to go on for hours. In Jeremy Harmer’s experience and from talking with other musicians, being aware of what you are doing and how a piece of music is sounding, takes a high level of concentration and we simply can’t keep that level up for long. An athlete would agree. Instead, short bursts of highly frequent practise is the most effective way of training. Five minutes of practice daily is more effective than 90 minutes or more once a week.
Are you good at noticing?
Are we, as ELT professionals, able to stand quietly and observe? Do we really listen? Or do we nod by default and say good, good, interesting. Nice one Jeremy, right, turn to your partner….
In good design, the principle of observation underlies and supports all other principles. Observation leads us to ask the right questions. And as teachers moving deeper into this Online Social Age, we need to be employing the ability to be very present as well.
I asked Jeremy Harmer what he felt about the direction of teaching and language learning. Given that so much learning can now happen without the presence of a human teacher, what was our role?
Harmer: “The relationships between teacher/mentor/guide/facilitator/ and student are unchanging. We will still be needed to guide, support, care for and encourage. But if we look at the classic role of the teacher as evaluator, technology is a threat. Testing in public exams is now being done by software, even free speaking and writing. The claim is that software does this better than we do.”
Change happens slowly… until it doesn’t.
Harmer uses this phrase as he contemplates our future as language teachers. Before we find ourselves well behind the 8 ball, we need to brush up our skills, observe and form the right questions to answer. And could these questions be: ‘What should a classroom be like?’ ‘Should people be grouped in a room?’ ‘How long should a lesson be?’ ‘Should we be taking notes from CLIL and dragging the language through the content rather than the classic grammar slot fill?’ ‘Does our pre-service teacher training such as the CELTA reflect the future?’
Harmer: “I did my teacher training in 1971, but quite a long time ago, it wasn’t called the CELTA then. But I wouldn’t be entirely surprised if I went on a CELTA course today…I bet you’d find that the content is remarkably similar.”
Harmer underlines his argument that the essential qualities of a teacher will not change, but that technology is indeed challenging us to reassess our profession. One of the problems about getting a good view of what is happening is that technology itself has formed bubbles around us. Our friendly little algorithms only send us what we want to see and believe. We are living increasingly in echo chambers of our own beliefs, in virtual communes or even virtual ghettos. The suggestion is put forward, it is time for the ELT Industry to start conversations with vastly different sectors to our own? But first, we let’s start with some training. Let us become effective noticers ourselves, to find and be clear signals in the noise.
New Atlas Article: How Chile’s fogcatchers are bringing water to the driest desert on Earth, by Nick Lavars, 25 August, 2015
ITE Professional Development Forum Post: Solitude, by Antony Atkinson, 16 November 2016
ELTcampus Article: The Power of Noticing, by Emma L Pratt, 24 June 2015