A cycle of success
How can we make sure that business English teaching/training is effective? That was the question I posed at a workshop in Zurich recently.
The occasion was the 33rd annual conference of the English Teachers Association, Switzerland (ETAS). The event brought together more than 200 teachers, trainers and publishers for a stimulating exchange of ideas.
In one of the plenary sessions, experienced ELT author, presenter and trainer Jeremy Harmer talked about disruption — changes to business models that make it impossible for things to continue the way they have been.
Harmer challenged the audience to think about what they could do to make sure that the English teaching industry won't suddenly be disrupted in the way that, for example, Uber has disrupted the taxi business. One suggestion was to be constantly discussing the job of an English teacher and looking for ways of adapting and developing it.
Harmer himself picked up this theme in a separate workshop, in which he looked back at the way teaching materials have developed over the past 30-plus years. To describe his attitude to his own earlier work, Harmer adopted an expression used by the late British dramatist, playwright and journalist Dennis Potter in a fascinating interview shortly before his death in 1994. Potter said he regarded his earlier works with "tender contempt".
My own workshop was more prosaic. In order to decide how we can make business English teaching/training more effective, we first need to define what business English is and what its objective is.
My definition of business English has always been very simple: the language (and, one could add, communication skills) that people need in their jobs, whatever those jobs are. And the main aim of business English teaching/training is to enable people to do their jobs more effectively as a result of better communication in English.
So far, so good. But how can we ensure that the language and skills learned in the classroom are put into practice in the workplace and are used effectively? The key is good feedback.
This feedback could come from line managers or peers. But a key component, I argued, should also be self-assessment. Learners should be encouraged to (a) choose which language and communication strategies to adopt at work; (b) observe what happens in practice; (c) reflect on what happened and the impact their language and strategies had; and (d) adapt the language and strategies next time round.
This self-critical, self-assessment learning cycle is the approach adopted by Bob Dignen and me in our e-book, English for Business: 100 Tips for Effective Communication, which looks at ten typical business English situations, including meetings, negotiations and building business contacts.
Self-reflection is a tool that teachers and trainers have long used in their own work. We should encourage our learners to do so more often, too. And paradoxically, using our personal skills to help learners to become more independent in their self-assessment might even reduce the chances of business English teachers becoming disrupted by computers and robots.