A Method in the Madness

April 2012

The idea of post-method era in language teaching seems to be becoming a prevalent one. A few researchers have written on this, notably B. Kumaravadivelu, but I have a bit of an issue with the idea in general because the honest truth as I see it is that we need methods more than we need teachers. It is relatively easy to do away with teachers but not so with with methods, and teachers have been using them since time immemorial as an expedient way of inculcating. So the belief that we are living in a post-method period I think is a tad presumptuous.

A method is just a series of steps used to perform a process that leads to (‘eventually’ in the case of language learning) something resembling a finished product. Actually, any activity or exercise contains a method, and who in their right mind would really do away with these? Even your way of presenting contains a method. Eliciting self-corrections is a method because the action can be broken down and analysed technically. We use methods to do all sorts of things, and professional people of all fields implicitly use such systems all the time. It simply means working consistently with a purpose and a plan.

Dead white men
Art and science have their meeting point in method. ~ Edward Bulwer-Lytton, English politician and writer.

The term ‘post-method era’ seems to have a connotation of whiggish history about it; that we have evolved through the methods and we are now at the pinnacle of the profession — the end of history as it were. Obviously that kind of thinking is a bit of a nonsense when given proper scrutiny. But the problem is that this hubristic view gets repeated as conventional wisdom and a turgid sameness that makes it sound to me rather glib.

I think the term ‘post-method’ is basically an inaccurate and fluffy framing of the situation and we have to be careful of using it cheaply. We are really in an eclectic and flexible stage of language teaching. We are in a regressive and perhaps less disciplined and less rigid period. The methods of former decades have been diluted and teachers’ strategies have become more idiosyncratic and maybe more rounded in order to balance various inputs and ideas. But the methods haven’t really gone away. There is just more to choose from now and less social distance between people in the classroom.

The very idea of a blanket term like post-method feels anti-empirical, which in the long run is never going to be a good thing. And if a rejection of all methodological approaches is propagated, it could lead to an unintentional yet pervasive negligence of the responsibility we have to learners. Let’s not pretend people don’t learn with methods. We have used them for centuries and the blame for poor proficiency lies elsewhere in more affective factors.

Language learning is of course a non-linear pursuit but because teachers’ time with learners is so limited, we have to adopt formulas that bring some sort of efficiency to the process. As conformist as that may be to some, it’s that way for a reason and the real responsibility for making them work lies with school management and teacher trainers, who can sometimes be woefully lacking in the ability to communicate clearly in this regard.

Dead white men
It is rigid dogma that destroys truth; and, please notice, my emphasis is not on the dogma, but on the rigidity. When men say of any question, ‘This is all there is to be known or said of the subject; investigation ends here,’ that is death. It may be that the mischief comes not from the thinker but for the use made of his thinking by late-comers. ~ Alfred North Whitehead, English mathematician and philosopher.

In the classroom, students don’t just want an interesting teacher they can have a laugh with, they also want someone who enacts a meaningful task and makes the learning points memorable and I think to do that well, over the length of a whole course, you do need to employ methods of some description.

Just by saying that we are in a ‘post-method era’ does not make it really true. Just as saying what you do is ‘dogme’ does not necessarily make it dogme. There are a lot of soundbites that fly around and carry little weight, but methods are different. They are transferable. They give order and direction. They make things productive and there’s no great mystery to them: they are supposed to make things easier for people. They are useful. More useful than not at any rate. And a good one that works is actually beneficial and thus really important.