The Unbearable Lightness of Materials

May 2011


Authenticity is a philosophical concept that was central to the existentialist philosophers of the early 20th century and one with important ramifications in language teaching. The existentialists were a loose collection of nihilistic modernist writers, the leading light of whom was Jean Paul Sartre. Sartre believed that human existence is such a precarious and depressing predicament that it can be compared to a person standing on the edge of a cliff, wrestling with the urge to through himself off. This anxiety of being causes people to shun reality and to live life inauthentically in what he termed as bad faith. That is, pretending to be who you are for the sake of social expectations while in fact shying away from taking a truly individualistic, perhaps eccentric, and fearless approach to living.

The real world is an unpredictable and imperfect place and this is what students have to interact with. If we fail to challenge them with authentic materials they will be underprepared linguistically which means we have done them a disservice educationally. The overriding truth of language learning is that immersion environments are where learners receive the highest levels of authentic input and it is under these conditions that they learn quickest.

The point here is that teachers have to throw things out there which you know may not be grasped by the listeners or readers. It is not essential that learners understand every single thing but that they develop strategies for guessing what words mean from context and listening for the gist. Babies do this as a matter of course but adults do it much less so and this is part of the reason why adults can be such slow learners. Young children hear a new word and instantly ask themselves or others, does it mean this? They intuitively take risks. Adults, comfortable in understanding what they know of the world, instead get caught up in the things that they don’t know, losing themselves in the minutiae and losing communicative perspective.

If we can encourage second language learners to take a more child-like approach they’ll make better progress. Sometimes it can be quite a challenge to instill this spirit of deductive risk-taking. The habits of a lifetime are not broken in an instant. Ultimately though, it is an attitudinal issue which can be remedied. We all have comfort zones — areas which we do not like to step out from, like when you start a new job and you have the jitters and you feel very self conscious and silly and you make horrendous basic errors. But after a while, your comfort zone grows bigger to encompass newly learnt knowledge and skills, roles and responsibilities, so that eventually you can look back and laugh at yourself.

If you challenge yourself, you grow as a person.

There are two ways to deal with stepping out of comfort zones. The first is by being completely authentic and true to yourself, not hiding any conceits or prejudices and taking everything on face vale as a child would. The second is by enacting a model of bad faith; going through the trial period unwilling to relinquish your pride and faking it in some respects. Slow learners often take themselves too seriously and we deceive ourselves that the world is as it should be rather than as it is. By wanting to go fast we end up going slow. Sartre illustrates this with the example of a waiter in a Parisian cafe.

“Let us consider this waiter in the cafe. His movement is quick and forward, a little too precise, a little too rapid. He bends forward a little too eagerly; his voice, his eyes express an interest a little too solicitous for the order of the customer. Finally there he returns, trying to imitate in his walk the inflexible stiffness of some kind of automation while carrying his tray with a recklessness of a tight-rope walker by putting it in a perpetually unstable, perpetually broken equilibrium which perpetually re-establishes by a light movement of the arm and hand.

All his behaviour seems to us a game. He applies himself to chaining his movements as if they were mechanisms; he gives himself the quickness and pitiless rapidity of things. He is playing, he is amusing himself. But what is he playing? We need not watch long before we can explain it: he is playing at being a waiter in a cafe. There is nothing there to surprise us.” ~ Being and Nothingness (1943)

Do you think your students sometimes play at being students? More importantly, do you think teachers sometimes play at being teachers? Of course they do and it is this eagerness to do well; this trying too hard which ends up leading us down predictable and unnatural avenues to learning. Seriousness is the disease that causes bad faith. It counters creativity and drains motivation.

Nothing is too hard if you really enjoy it.

Adults ted to be self-conscious. We have to be to an extent. If you go around making mistakes all the time and not watching what you’re doing, it won’t take long for your life to become a mess in every aspect. What people forget is that if we want to speak a second language, caution is not going to help in the slightest. If we want to learn a language effectively, we have to do what a baby does: make a lot of mistakes.

Teachers can encourage this healthy disregard for errors by demonstrating the right attitude themselves. ‘The world is not perfect but what of it? There are things you dont understand at first sight, but don’t panic.’ Teachers can encourage learners to stop focussing on the minutiae, to move forward and not monitor so much. We can stop people effectively trying to be slow learners. We can give a sense of perspective.

This is why we need authentic texts and materials — to challenge people. Mind you, we cannot forget that as educators we do have a responsibility to ensure learning happens. The key is finding the right balance between fluency and accuracy, between meaning and form, between authentic and crafted materials. As with all of these things, the balance must be weighted in favour of the former quality.

Three Spectrums of Authenticity

Here are three sliding scales to keep in mind when creating and using materials.

1. Learner’s Level — Of course at the lower levels texts necessarily have to be less authentic than at higher levels. Nevertheless they should still contain a degree of edginess and factual content that makes them appealing for their own sake.

Spectrum 1

2. Aspects of Content — When you create texts, listening materials or other content try to keep the cultural and stylistic factors as genuine as you can while more prosaic and technical features can be manipulated a bit more freely.

Spectrum 2

3. The Learner’s Relative State of Mind — Authentic texts should always strive to capture the zeitgeist so that they have relevance and provide a supplementary benefit to learners by informing them of culture and the world in a realistic context. Authentic texts capture interest and alter thinking far more than the watered down platitudinous contrivances knocked out by the big publishers.

Spectrum 3

One of the problems with the blind adoption of technology in ESL is that teachers can without much thought, pull anything they like off the internet and without much preparation, introduce any content they wish in class. The danger is clear: frequently, materials are not appropriate for the level of the learner, leaving them confused and disheartened. Again, the trick is getting the balance right and you do this by a) having a sense of perspective grounded in reality and b) by asking the question, how appropriate is this for the learners’ needs?

This is not a pipe.
Authentic materials adhere to reality,
not representations of reality.

In reality, there is no such thing as a perfectly authentic text because all texts are contrived to some extent so as to have the intended effect on the reader. So I think that when creating texts the authenticity not only has to be measured and but it has to come from you, the creator and teacher, and not from the preconceived or stereotyped wisdom of others. It has to reflect what you yourself have heard, observed, and thought, independently but perhaps concurrently of peer-led notions of what is right.

“I have a theory that the best ads come from personal experience. Some of the good ones I have done have really come out of the real experience of my life, and somehow this has come over as true and valid and persuasive.” ~ David Ogilvy

Often there is something cringeworthy and patronising about the inauthentic texts you see in coursebooks, often purporting to be genuine. Materials designers write these uninspiring things because they fear the unknown outcomes of challenging students and so they take the safe option. They don’t take risks because their salaries and cushy little desk jobs are at stake. That's why teachers have to pick up the mantle and show themselves to be more creative and inspiring than the corporate drones who blithely grist the mill of ELT.