Discussion: Contemporary teaching tends to be “low demand” (and this is a problem)!

Students are regularly asked to do and achieve far less than they are capable of. We have trained teachers to respond over-positively to “good enough”. They lack the skills to take students from there to genuinely good.  A student mumbles a quarter-good sentence that no-one else in class can hear – to which the response is “Excellent” or “Fantastic”.

Many teachers do not seem to realise that a student can move in the space of one lesson from pretty poor at a piece of language to near-native speaker level  – admittedly on a single item – but over time such upgrading has a huge impact.

At some point, we forgot how to be demanding. This is not laziness, simply that teachers do not know how to take learners there. In class correctness has come to mean little more than “the right words in the right order…” But students can hear it is substandard. They know.

Comments for this discussion are open.

Do you agree with the supposition or not? Is it an important issue? What experiences as teacher or trainer have you had that you are reminded of? If it is a problem … what needs to be done?


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15 responses to “Discussion: Contemporary teaching tends to be “low demand” (and this is a problem)!

  1. Regarding Point 9 (in The Issues), i.e.

    We have not defined well what we might expect of a genuinely experienced teacher. Training and inspections do not often take account of the higher skillset of teaching.

    It was always a gripe of mine that the checklist for examining DELTA lessons incuded no descriptor of the type ‘Learners were challenged’ or ‘Learners were pushed to the limits of their competence, and then helped to go beyond them’. Has this changed?

    • Hi Scott

      Yes and no. I’ve always had a similar gripe, and have been assessing Delta (now Module 2) for a while now. The criteria changed in around 2010 I think it was, and we now have 7e) notice and judiciously exploit learners’ language output to further language and skills/subskills development, but that’s about the closest one. We’re still laying the game of trying to say what we really want to say and fitting it into the criteria.

      Interestingly though the post-lesson evaluation now asks them to comment on the learners’ progress and what exactly they did to ensure it happened., so maybe in some respects this is a good way of encouraging them to think about this?


  2. eslnotes

    how can we disentangle ‘demanding’ characteristics from other teaching issues?

  3. I often wonder if the ability to challenge learners can be taught. Perhaps trainee teachers should be given an hour or two on the philosophy of education; I’m convinced that if you asked teachers from any field to describe their true role in the classroom, most would not be able to say the ultimate goal is to teach their students to think for themselves.

  4. I think it has to be about being in tune with, and paying attention to, the individual learners. The student who mumbles the quarter-good sentence that no-one else can hear might be the one who hasn’t spoken at all yet, so this effort may indeed be fantastic. However, in other cases where the student is otherwise comfortable in the class and is capbable of better, I’d agree that it probably doesn’t warrant an “Excellent”.

    Before learners can be pushed to do better, they need to believe that they are capable of better. Often, it will be necessary to boost confidence and self esteem before raising expectations. So, perhaps we need to coax and then push. Begin by encouraging learners to try, convincing them that they can learn, speak, write etc by responding extra positively to “good enough for now”. Then raise expectations for both student and teacher, and challenge and push more. People need to believe that they are “good enough” to be able to aim higher.

    So perhaps it’s not so much that, “at some point, we forgot how to be demanding”, but that we forgot to pay attention to the learners’ needs and capabilities.

    • leslieinprague

      One of the most important things I tell my students (and I tell all of them at nearly every lesson) that they must believe in themselves with regard to their ability to speak English. I notice so many people here in Prague say they don’t speak English when in fact they do, but they’re too shy or don’t have enough confidence to do so. I try to emphasize to my students that no matter what their level is, the number one thing is have confidence in your ability, and no matter what, when someone asks you if you speak English, you smile, nod, and say “yes, I do”! Thanks for your post! 🙂

  5. Sorry to throw a spanner in the works but I don’t entirely agree with the supposition. Over the past few years I’ve seen as many teachers abandoning praise and encouragement even when it’s obvious that a student has made a great effort and shown progress … as teachers giving ‘over the top’ praise for mediocrity. Scott mentions the DELTA descriptors – a good point. Unfortunately a lot of the English teachers who I train (most are qualified teachers who are already working as teachers in state schools) rarely consider either pushing their students to achieve their maximum potential or praising and encouraging their students when they go the extra mile. It isn’t always cynicism – although we all know there’s a lot of that around – often they are so focused on how to get all of the ‘material’ covered ready for ‘the exam’ that they haven’t got time to consider much else. Teacher trainers can help by setting an example. Just as we model things like giving clear instructions and promoting learner autonomy, we can encourage our trainees to stretch themselves and offer appropriate praise at all times. I agree with Carol’s comments about boosting self esteem. In fact, I’d say that was the key to everything. An interesting topic … I’m going to open it up to the teachers I’m currently training. I’ll let you know what they have to say.

    • leslieinprague

      Great comment! As I commented on Carol’s post, my feeling is that self-esteem is indeed the root of success (that goes for anything we’re trying to do). I try to remember the teachers who had the best influence on me, and it was the ones who boosted my confidence (even if I only knew a portion of something). To me it seems like common sense that when teaching, it’s so very important to focus on this aspect, because without confidence, most people aren’t capable of learning much of anything. Thanks for your comment! 🙂

  6. Here is a thought: is it that schools and managers have not been demanding of their teachers? At least not in the sense of the level of challenge evident in their teaching? Does this say as much about what is important to schools and managers, as well as the quality of observation and feedback as it does about the teachers themselves? Surely this is linked to the quality, or otherwise, of CPD and the culture of learning within the organisation.

  7. As a trainer and school director I see way more classes which are underchallenging than over challenging, so agree with the proposition that the aggreagate is low-demand. A coaching approach which requires students and teachers to set and monitor clear goals as well as support self esteem and deal with blockages to learning may help I think. As a profession we need to move beyond the methodologies debate and focus on teaching “close up” (as Adrian/Jim describe it) to the students and at some distance from our own prejudices about teaching methods.

  8. I wonder how much the current situation has to do with the commercial nature of many schools. This is particularly true over here in Brazil where it is a highly commercialised industry with a few big schools churning out pre-prepared lessons to the masses. The job of the teacher is then to ‘entertain’ and ‘pamper’ the Ss in order to bring in revenue.

    This is perhaps somewhat of an over-simplification, but to varying degrees it is true. As a teacher trainer here I find that a lot of the time I am trying to ‘undo’ a lot of what experienced teachers have been ‘taught’ to do by managers eager to push the expensive material the Ss have to buy. Most of the time it’s a case of reminding teachers that they’re here to ‘teach’, and that the most successful teaching is that where the learners make most progress.


  9. Hi There,

    Missed this one earlier (Thx Ceci) 😉 I actually think that the problem is more about how we see the “business” we are in. Teaching needs to have far less to do with “TEACHing” than it does with “LEARNing” – we have, in fact, been saying this for years – but seem to overlook it again and again in our practice. I work with a lot of teachers from all over and the one single complaint that keeps cropping up is “I do not have time to cover the syllabus, content, pacing document”, etc. This tell me a lot about how many teachers view the business they are in – or, perhaps moreso, how the institutions these teachers “do business for” see the role of teachers. When did the role of the teacher become one of covering “content” – it used to be the case (3000 years ago) that teaching was about “uncovering potential – talent – the best a person can be” 😉


  10. Luiz Otávio

    I think we can view this from at least three different angles:
    1. In Brazil, the adult A1, A2 learner of the 21st century is relatively uneducated and belongs to what you might call the lower income brackets. They need to learn English to keep their jobs and perhaps climb up the corporate ladder. They’re not crazy about the language and, as a rule, have very little intrinsic motivation. So, naturally, they will under perform, which means that skillful scaffolding in many cases will be tantamount to simply enabling students to string words together and convey meaning.
    2. These learners have a very pragmatic, no nonsense way of looking at language and language learning. Because they basically want to keep their jobs, learning will be effective in so far as it enables them to get things done in the language. This means that there’s a clear loser in the accuracy/complexity – task achievement trade-off: students’ interlanguage development.
    3. Non-native teachers in their 20s, early 30s are often products of the communicative era themselves. This means that a lot of what they do in class will be firmly grounded in their experience as learners. So, perhaps not surprisingly, these are people who will often struggle with teaching interventions aimed at accuracy, such as oral correction for example.

  11. I think this is a very important and valid point. In my observations I have also found that many students are often underchallenged. It seems to me that teachers are more focused on their own lesson aim than reaching the needs of the individual students.

  12. leslieinprague

    As has been said in a few other comments, for me, boosting the students’ self-esteem with regard to their English is vitally important, because if they don’t believe they can do it, then they surely won’t succeed. I tell my students that when someone asks them if they speak English, they need to smile, nod, and say “Yes, I do speak English”. We can teach until the day is long, but if the students don’t “believe” they can do it, then there’s no amount of teaching we can do to help them. Also, I find it’s very important to make each student feel as if they’re the only one, because this individualized attention makes a difference. The ones who are a bit more bashful in class might come up to you after class or at the break and ask questions, and this very important to me, because the students pay to be taught, and while I can teach them what’s in the course book, they could actually read it at home and get just as much from it, but with lessons, I think we need to teach things that aren’t written in the teacher’s notes–get them to see you as a person and not just a teacher. It’s working for me, and this is my first year teaching, so I still have much to learn, but I just try to do for my students what was most effective for my learning when I was in school. Thanks for the post! 🙂

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