Dr Ken Beatty (PhD, MFA, Ling Dip, Ed Dip, BA) taught the last 15 years at universities in the People's Republic of China and Hong Kong. His publications for Pearson, Longman, Oxford University Press, Thomson, Heinle & Heinle and Hong Kong Educational Press include English as a Second Language textbooks and readers from the primary through university levels. He is also involved in electronic media and was Academic Advisor to Hong Kong's Educational Television from 1998 to 2004. Dr Beatty can be reached by e-mail.
Ken conducted this interview by e-mail with ELT News editor Mark McBennett in July 2005.
First of all, can you tell us how your long career in ELT began?
Desperation! I started out teaching emotionally-disturbed children, and the Shakespeare and other literature I had studied wasn't helpful. The kids couldn't string a sentence together or read simplified books. I thought a Diploma in Applied Linguistics from the University of Victoria would help me understand and address their problems; it did, and I encourage all English teachers to study linguistics and ELT methodologies.
Eventually, I ended up working with teenagers at a children's prison; I had to go through five locked doors just to get to my classroom where a guard was always present. I left to volunteer for a year as a lecturer at Southwest China Teacher's University in Sichuan and have been involved in ELT ever since.
But before I moved to China, I tried to find a teaching job in Japan. I answered an advertisement from a Tokyo language school and received a letter saying hundreds of candidates had applied and, unfortunately, I was the second-best candidate; they had hired someone slightly more qualified. I was disappointed, but also flattered. I applied again the following year and received the identical letter! I realized it was simply the standard polite rejection letter sent to everyone who didn't get a job. I laughed and laughed. Politeness is one of the things I love best about Japan!
You have written extensively on many aspects of ELT. Do you have a particular field which you consider your strongest?
Creativity. In every field not just language teaching there is a move toward specialization. People on tight career paths take no time to study outside their own disciplines. In my case, my first degree was in Geography followed by Diplomas in Education and Linguistics. After that, I studied Theater, completing a Master's degree in Playwrighting. My PhD is in computer-assisted language learning. When I approach writing, I do so from a variety of experiences and perspectives and hopefully bring along my own infectious love of learning. I'm always up for a challenge and try to write create materials in new ways.
You worked for sixteen years in China and Hong Kong. How would you compare ELT there to what you've seen in Japan?
Throughout Asia, students are forced to take years of English instruction. But the purpose, most often, is to pass tests, not to demonstrate working language proficiency. When most Hong Kongers or Japanese graduate from school or university, they seldom need English at work or in their daily lives. Motivation is low.
In China, the situation is quite different. English is seen as a language of opportunity and a competent speaker of English can find far more interesting and better-paying jobs, sometimes with opportunities for international travel. Motivation is high and despite a lack of resources, students find their own ways to learn. There are more English speakers in China than there are in the USA.
But it is important for governments and educational authorities both in Hong Kong and Japan to face the fact that they are heavily dependent on tourism at home and international trade abroad. When a Japanese businessperson travels in Asia, Europe or anywhere else in the world, the common language is usually English. For Japan to continue to compete in business and many other areas, there needs to be a fundamental shift away from the current testing situation that so influences what is taught and how it is taught.
You have publications with just about all the major ELT publishers. But your most recent visit to Japan was sponsored by Longman, I believe.
Yes, I have done a great deal of writing with Longman over the past few years with a primary listening series (eight books) and a secondary non-fiction readers series (40+ books) in China and the four-book secondary/university Read and Think! series used in Japan and throughout Asia. And I continue to write for Longman.
Good publishers are like family. I am sure teachers who have dealt with Longman representatives will recognize among them both personal bonds and a strong culture of learning. The topic of our discussions is never how we can sell more books; it is always what we could be doing to more effectively address the needs of students and teachers. It's a great company.
The theme of your recent presentations in Japan was on the idea of seeing reading as a problem-solving activity rather than a narrow focus on vocabulary or grammar?
I have always been a naughty student the first to ask, "Why are we learning this?" But it's a question that all students think about or should think about. Simply knowing that something is part of the curriculum or in the book is not good enough.
Too often, teachers say, "Memorize this list of words and these grammatical structures they will be on the test." For the student, this is poor and short-term motivation. It also presumes that there is a set of knowledge items that everyone has to understand and communicate in the same way. But in the real world, this is not so. There are many synonyms, circumlocutions, grammatical structures and even body language to express similar ideas.
How often does someone ask you a multiple choice or true/false question? When people talk, they explain problems and ask for solutions. And when we solve problems, we tend to do so collaboratively with family, friends and co-workers. I'm suspicious of traditional teaching, which tends to focus on competition over collaboration.
Consider this task: "You and your friends are going to a restaurant in a foreign country. You don't speak the language, but you are extremely hungry! Talk together and decide what sorts of language and structures would you need to get a meal."
In this type of task, students see a real problem and a real reason for learning. The task makes the learning more natural and memorable. But there is one problem many teachers fear open-endedness. "How will I mark it?" they cry. My response is that the language teacher's first purpose is to teach language not just to constantly test. Be creative. Be innovative. Let the students test themselves. Try something new and different and unforgettable.
You wrote a book called, "Teaching and Researching Computer-assisted Language Learning." Have you seen any substantive evidence that teachers and students are using computers and the Web effectively as a foreign language-learning tool?
What we know so far is that computers come to the language classroom with problems as well as benefits.
Computers and the WWW are great for communication, but spelling can deteriorate as students start adopting phrases such as How R U? I m gr8. Computers are good for research, but they usually fail to help students think critically about what they read. Computers can test simple written input efficiently, but they cannot deal well with ambiguity in speech or writing. Computers can present interesting graphics and video to enliven learning, but they cannot easily adapt their presentations to different audiences.
In short, a state-of-the-art computer system generally cannot do many of the things that any reasonably qualified teacher can do. However, what computers can do better than teachers is exhibit unlimited patience. A CD-ROM will give eternal personal attention and answer the same question with the same answer incessantly, anytime, anywhere.
Computers are a good resource for teachers and students. The problem today is many administrators and businesses want computers to be replacements for teachers. It's the wrong paradigm and inhibits the development of truly useful computer applications in the classroom.
For you software experts out there, here is the type of pedagogical application I would like to see: In a program like Microsoft Word, spelling is routinely and effortlessly corrected; invent a subprogram to record and review the errors a student makes.
And for the inventors out there, I would like to see a primary school keyboard with all the letters in two long (logical) alphabetical rows, one for upper case and one for lower case.
What do think are the most exciting developments or future possibilities in computer-assisted language learning?
In Teaching and Researching Computer Assisted Language Learning, I have a very simple measure of what will constitute success in CALL: a student in Japan will use a computer to learn a language such as Swahili to a high degree of fluency without any access to a native speaker of the target language or any other target language materials.
We are a long way off from this happening and the reasons why are fascinating because they tell us a great deal about the nature of teaching and learning.
The next big thing in computing in general and CALL in particular will be near-perfect speech recognition so we can do away with the traditional computer's need for a keyboard and mouse. Once this happens, a highly powerful mobile phone will be all the computer most of us need. Imagine having the opportunity to have unobtrusive but highly interactive Italian language lessons as you stroll down a street in Rome.
During my thesis research, I spent a lot of time reading science fiction for ideas about the future of books, computers and education. Science fiction can dream of the ideal without being caught up in the limits of the possible. For example, in Neil Stephenson's The Diamond Age or A Young Lady's Primer, there is a wonderful description of what an educational computer program should be. It would be nice to convince Bill Gates to spend a few billion dollars to build it, but I believe it will come anyway, incrementally, eventually.
In general, the most important thing we need to see is computer applications and peripherals which are not poor copies of real world artifacts. For example, early programs tried to replicate the look and feel of books or blackboards on screen. What we need to see are new ideas for the intuitive presentation and transmission of information that take advantage of what the computer can do and that the book or teacher cannot. An innovative example is Thinkmap Visual Thesaurus.
You completed your Ph.D. studies with David Nunan and Amy Tsui at Hong Kong University. Do you have any advice for teachers in Japan considering doing a Ph.D.?
Imagine you had to move to another country for seven years. Would you rather go to Siberia or Hawaii? Would you rather go with someone who is going to lecture you endlessly about 50 kinds of snow or someone who knows a bit about beaches but who would like to join you in learning to surf?
When you start a Ph.D., have passion for both what you will study and the people with whom you will work. Don't simply choose a topic which you think is safe or practical and an advisor who is an established expert on the topic.
When I first proposed my thesis to David Nunan he dismissively tested me by saying he wasn't an expert on CALL. I explained I knew that, but thought he probably wanted to learn. He liked the answer and took me on. We both learned a great deal through the process. And, as a bonus, I found out that David could easily give up his academic life and become a professional chef; we've had countless great meals together!
On a more practical note, I recommend David's book Research Methods in Language Learning. I read it before I started and it saved me endless grief as it addresses the common problems so many Ph.D. and Masters degree students face.
You recently moved back to Canada. What are your plans for the future?
Sometimes the best plan is to have no plan. I left Hong Kong on 1 July 2004 and traveled through Asia for three and a half months with my wife and two sons, ages 3 and 6. We settled on a small island near Vancouver with a population of 3,200 where wild deer graze on my lawn and salmon spawn in the streams. I settled down to continue writing but have also been drawn into an odd assortment of adventures including consulting on creativity and new product development for an international toy company.
And what next? I'm sure we will live abroad again. My wife is a painter and we always thought a year in Kyoto would suit us perfectly. Now, if only my computer had a crystal ball function to peer into the future!
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