TEFL Ethnomethodology


OK.  So I’m side-stepping outside of postmodernism and going back to the anthropological interest in human interaction. Welcome to ethnomethodology.

So, what goes on in an English language classroom?

During CELTA  training, trainee teachers are taught to feel like students – to personally experience language learning; to experience the stress of being out of their own language comfort zones; to be part of classroom interpersonal dynamics. When I did mine we had a lovely trainer who would sit on the teacher’s desk swinging her legs whilst drinking  mugs of tea.  She would then raise her hand in the air when she wanted us to stop talking – as if we were all children. And although the course was fun and quite informal, our work was cut out to learn the language teaching techniques, submit the essays, write up teaching practices, and pass.  We all did, but the experience of ‘being’ students was the central thrust of the CELTA experience.

What is this experience? How do students blend and form language learning groups whilst individually maintaining personal identities?  How relevant is this group learning experience to acquiring second languages?  How tightly is identity linked to language? How  are identities in a second language created and portrayed? How is self preserved in the transition to a second language? Is self intrinsically linked to communication abilities? Do we develop different selves as we learn different languages?

   Years ago I needed help. Everything I touched seemed to turn sour. Every decision I made, turned out to be the wrong decision. As a result, my life was spiralling downwards.  Academically, strange to say, I was on top form, intensely burying myself in learning. But outside of academia I lost confidence in my capacity to think rationally.  That was frightening, so when I needed to express an opinion I felt my voice quaver.  It felt as if everything I was saying sounded stupid; or bullshit.  I was losing faith in myself. My identity was collapsing.  A nervous breakdown was heading my way. Help came.

   Communication and identity are intertwined. Lose one, we lose the other.  This communication/identity dualism occurs explicitly in the language classroom. This is where the communication/identity dualism is constructed – in a second language. It is constructed processually  between individuals; teacher included.  Here identities are exposed and developed simultaneous to the exposure and development of second language communication. Communication = identity.

        Communication (i.e. collaboration) and social reality are intertwined.  Durkheimian ‘social facts’  exercising social control  are too transcendent. They are replaced, in ethnomethodology, by interactive talk continually reconstituting social reality.  Collaborative interactions amongst individuals make the group (Garfinkle, H. 1967). This is the ethnomethodological perspective:  Individuals make society; not society makes individuals.  Individual experience (phenomenology – see previous blog) evolves within a background of  shared, evolving, group understanding.

     For ethnomethodologists, or social observers (aren’t we all?), much can be seen in the interplay between individuality and group identity.  Individuals act in groups whilst presenting their self-identities (Goffman, E. 1959). This is true in outside life and in the classroom. The joker, the flirt, the loud-mouth, the bully, the rebel, the recluse, the introvert, the extrovert, the philosopher, the cool-guy, the fashion-queen, the trend-setter, the leader, the spokesperson… it takes all types.  In class – they all come together. Teachers maintain, or keep an eye on, the status quo.

    Second language identity crises, the ‘destabilization of self’ (Block.D. 2006),  I  also have previously blogged: The fear that arises in communicating in a second language. The fear of sounding stupid and having a communication block. The fear of jumping into deep water and being out of your depth. The fear of having no identity because you have lost your primary language skill in communication.

   Establishing trust, rapport and mutual support in class is essential. Again, that’s the teacher’s role. Many forces may be out ‘to get at’ the self-identities of students: Ridicule, insensitivity, over-correction, forcing a level, communication pressure, exam pressure, parental pressure, bad group dynamics… But we try not to let that happen.

   Ethnomethodology follows group dynamics over time. Practicing TEFL teachers do the same as they prepare, lead and keep records. This is an obvious statement, perhaps, but university based researchers take note. Time and continuous involvement with students, following them as they progress, is what teaches teachers their teaching techniques. It’s an intuitive, reflective methodology, based on a student/teacher dualism, that creates the lessons.   Creating positive learning environments to counteract fear of communication and fear of losing identity when communication is a struggle, is an unfolding process as students progress.  Following that process is a time-consuming process. There is no quick research methodology here. Questionaires can be sent out to teachers and their responses statistically analysed, but they miss so much of what really goes on in the classroom.   This is where ethnomethodology comes to the fore.

   Thus stands my reasoning for the greater promotion of qualitative research in TEFL. Quantitative research extrapolates from a slice of the pie. Much is lost that way. The best meals take a long time to prepare.



Phil NEWMAN. 2006



One thought on “TEFL Ethnomethodology

  1. Right, the best meals take a long time to prepare.
    Creating positive learning environment is really important for learning English.


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