ALAN MALEY’s latest book

Maley Print Chapter (1)Fellow explorers.  Alan Maley, the most creative voice in our field for decades, edited a book published by the British Council titled Developing expertise through experience in 2019.

I think it is a must read! Full disclosure—I wrote one of the 20 chapters.

Alan asked 20 people from all over the world, most non-native speakers of English, to respond to the same questions. To me, this was a novel idea. And I think that each of us who responded to the same questions shows clearly how each of us developed in quite different ways.

Alan wanted to give substance to N.S. Prabu’s idea of “the teacher’s sense of plausibility.” Prabu believes that certainty in teaching is dangerous because it prevents us from exploring and leads to routine. [N. S. Prabu. Second Language Pedagogy (OUP, 1987)] Alan had worked with Prabu in India.

I am sorry to say that I missed out on reading Prabu, unfortunately. Having been introduced to him I now see how similar we are in much of our thinking both about teaching and the preparation of teachers. He refers to F. L. Billows in his Forward to Alan’s book. This struck a chord with me as Billows is a person who has had a major influence on me. I met him in Uganda when I was working with teachers in Somalia and he graciously signed my copy of The Techniques of Language Teaching (1961, Longmans) He said that initially his manuscript had been rejected because he had no empirical data to support his ideas. But the editors, fortunately, saw the value of his ideas and activities.

But back to Alan’s book. As you can see I am copying  my chapter. But you will learn so, so much more if you buy the book and read the contributions of the other 19 and also Alan’s Introduction and Prabu’s Foreward.

Developing Expertise Through Experience

Editor, Alan Maley, The British Council 2019

John F. Fanselow’s Chapter 2, (29-38)

My quest to understand learning and teaching.


My earliest experiences of language learning and education, which have affected my current views and practices.

I went to a Catholic elementary school. I wanted to be an altar boy. One requirement was that we were able to say the responses in Latin. In this case ‘say’ meant recite the words even if we did not understand what they meant.

The person in charge of training altar boys said my accent was not good enough to be an altar boy. Yet in studying to recite the words, I found the juxtaposition of the Latin sentences and the English renditions fascinating. So rather than give up, I applied to be a choirboy. The choirmaster asked me to read a few lines from the Gloria in Latin and he said fine.

My experiences with Latin fed my curiosity about languages, so when I went to secondary school and was told I could take at least one year of a foreign language, I was thrilled. I took Spanish because more people spoke it than French and German, the other two languages on offer.

Discovering that there were such things as feminine and masculine nouns and adjectives, among other differences, was exciting. To this day I am fascinated by word origins in English.

Language teaching around the world I believe would be greatly enhanced if languages were not required and there were no external commercial examinations. As Paulo Freire (1976) among others has said, ‘We are wired to learn!’ ‘Can I do this? Can I do that or the other thing?’ These questions represent our constant odyssey. It is ironic that the origin of ‘curious’ is related to being careful!


My greatest influence was my experience as a Peace Corps Volunteer at a teacher training college in Nigeria.

I was about to graduate from college with a degree in Spanish and English, eager to get a high-school teaching job when President Kennedy established the Peace Corps. He wanted to send Americans to other countries to learn about other people, return to the US and share what they learned with fellow citizens and in the meantime, maybe do some good, but for sure no harm.

I had no particular country in mind but my spoken Spanish was not great, so I applied for a position in Latin America thinking it would be a way refine it my Spanish. But there were no positions there in 1961. So I accepted a position in Nigeria, teaching English, saying bye-bye to improving my Spanish.

I was assigned to a Teacher Training College to teach language and literature and supervise practice teachers. Two problems: first, the teachers I was supervising each had from 4 to 20 more years’ experience than I had; second, they were teaching Nigerian history and geography, the currency system adopted from England—pounds, shillings, pence, before decimalization; British systems of measurements such as poles, rods and perches; etc.—information that was all new to me.

Fortunately for me, in the primary schools where the teachers were practice-teaching, there were two primary 1 classes, two primary 2 classes, all the way up to primary 6. Also, the timetable mandated that each stream study the same subjects at the same time each day.

I decided that the only way I could be the least bit useful would be to observe the first 20 minutes of the first period in one stream and the second 20 minutes of the first period in the other stream. I wrote down as much as I could of what each teacher and some students said and did, with the intention of sharing what the teachers did with each other and what their students produced.

At the end of the day, when I met the two teachers teaching primary one, for example, I would say, ‘Okon, Benedict wrote the date and all the directions on the board and had the students copy them as they looked at the board. You said the date and had the students look at the board, then look only at their notebooks and write what they remembered. So, Okon, tomorrow do what Benedict did. And Benedict, please do what Okon did.’


Key people who have left an enduring mark on my life, beliefs and practices.

You will recall that the practice teachers I was supervising had more experience and knowledge of what they were teaching than I did.

Although telling teachers who taught the same classes to try out activities that were slightly different made me feel mildly useful, the range of activities that we tried was very limited. I thought that the teachers I was charged with developing were being short-changed because of my ignorance.

Fortunately for me, the British Council had posted an English Language Officer in Enugu, the capital of the Eastern Region, where I was teaching. He was charged with visiting schools and introducing books and lessons to teachers. Just as I was thinking how I was short-changing the teachers, he visited me.

He visited the primary school where my practice teachers were teaching and demonstrated some alternative activities. He gave me books by Michael West (1961)—read and look up; A. S. Hornby (1961)—ways to teach structural words and sentence patterns; F. G. French (1960)–ways to use sketches, and give dictations, to name just some of the many activities he suggested; P. Gurrey (1955) who introduced me to the 9 types of questions: yes/no; either/or; question word about facts in the text, inferences from the text or personal experience, etc

The fact that he taught my classes to demonstrate what these books suggested became one foundation of my professional life: do not just read but also do. Crucial as reading can be, we have to act in order to learn.


Key ideas and publications which have helped form or change my beliefs and practices.

While I was teaching at Teachers College, Arno Bellack and colleagues there had published The language of the classroom (1966). They had asked social studies teachers to teach a speech on free trade by John F. Kennedy. They told the teachers they could use whatever methods they wanted but they all had to use the same text.

In the event, each teacher focussed on a totally different section of the text. But all spent most of their time asking factual questions. So the content which was supposed to be the same was in fact different in each class – but the methods teachers used were the same.


Imagine all the possibilities

Since my time in Nigeria, I have read many other descriptions of classrooms. Almost every analysis of classroom interactions shows that the number of activities done in classrooms is extremely limited. Factual questions predominate. As in Dickens’ satire of Mr. Gradgrind in Hard Times (1854): ‘Facts alone are wanted in life’, was Gradgrind’s mantra.

In Nigeria, I thought having a teacher write the directions rather than say them was a big step forward. But having observed classrooms through the years, I have seen that the options available are much broader and more numerous. Yet in our teaching we often fail to remember this fact.

As we know, the number of radii in a circle is infinite. But the narrow range of activities in most classrooms represents around 25% of those available. Here is just one way to expand the activities beyond the making just a small change.

Students in many countries erase mistakes they make during a dictation. One teacher asked her students to write, ‘I like ice cream.’ In both her classes at the same level, she said the sentence three times. After saying the sentences, she wrote the sentence on the board. But in one class she asked the students to keep their erasers in their pencil cases.

She discovered that in the class where students could not erase and correct their sentences, only 10 out of 40 had written the sentence correctly. ‘I ice’, ‘I cream’, ‘I spring’ were among the renditions.

I was introduced to Douglas Barnes (1976) among others, who had analysed classroom interactions from various perspectives. At the same time, so-called designer methods were being introduced. When I saw Caleb Gattegno teach a class without saying a word and Charles Curran teach a class eliciting the language students wanted to learn in their first language and then writing what they wanted to say in English, I thought ‘Wow, substituting written directions for spoken directions and not using erasers are nothing by comparison!’

Reading how Sylvia Ashton-Warner (1963) had Maori children draw sketches of experiences they had in their homes and then wrote lines for them to match their emotional experiences I felt even more keenly how limited my practices had been.

But when I read Frank Smith’s books on reading (1971) and later on learning (1988), I began to see how the designer methods and Barnes and Ashton-Warner, who were out of the mainstream, all had two similar messages: nurture natural curiosity and, following Plato, remind people of what they already know.


Key publications in my personal and professional development.

Reading literature in university provided crucial lessons for my development as a teacher and a person. One relates to ways of analysing literature and the other to the message that authors try to convey.

When we discussed a poem, a play, or a scene from a novel each of us tended to have slightly different interpretations. ‘Why was Antonio sad in the opening lines of The Merchant of Venice? Some gave opinions before reading no more than the opening scene. Others shared their reasons after reading more scenes. A few had opinions picked up from reviews of the play in production. So I found one-dimensional comments that are common in discussions of teaching hard to accept after studying literature.

When we re-read a poem or lines from a play aloud we tended to stress different groups of words, conveying some novel emotions and employing distinct gestures. So when I discussed videos of teachers and students I would ask viewers to speak the teachers’ lines with different emotions, to remind them that carrying out even such a regular activity as giving directions can be engaging, off-putting, boring or a waste of time, depending on small changes in how we express ourselves

When I re-read parts of Don Quixote years after college, I realized that his seeing windmills as dragons, through his knight’s visor, was no different from each of us seeing an activity in a particular way—useful, not useful, challenging, boring—depending on our perception. I have substituted a pair of huge sunglasses for Don Quixote’s visor to remind teachers that we all wear a particular pair of glasses and until we substitute other pairs, we cannot see what we observe in new ways.

On a course in film, one of the films we analysed was Rashomon, directed by Kurosawa. In the film, various characters give conflicting accounts of the same event.

Without these themes from Cervantes, Plato, Dickens, Kurusawa and others in my literature classes, I doubt I would have written Breaking Rules (1987), Contrasting Conversations (1992a), Try the Opposite (1992b), and Small changes in teaching, big results in learning (2018).

Walt Whitman developed many themes in Leaves of Grass – equality, individuality, acceptance of differences to name a few, I have quoted the following, which is in tune with John Dewey, Frank Smith and others who remind us that we can learn only by predicting and experiencing ourselves, not by being told or talked at.

I lead no man to a dinner table, library, exchange,

But each man and each woman of you I lead upon a knoll ,…

My right hand pointing to landscapes of continents and

The public road.

Not I, not anyone else can travel that road for you.

You must travel it for yourself.


Critical incidents/ epiphanies in life and work, which have given me new insights.

After my film course, when Rashomon opened my eyes, I started to ask teachers to bring in clips of favourite movies and TV programs that they thought had scenes we could learn about teaching from. One teacher brought in a clip from Witness for the prosecution. In the film Charles Laughton is the defence attorney. He asks many ‘yes/no’ questions. After each one, the witness continues to talk after saying ‘yes’ or ‘no’. The judge intervenes to tell the witnesses that they have to limit their response to ‘yes’ or ‘no’. Many teachers too have been deluded that responses to ‘yes/no’ questions are limited toyes’ or ‘no’.

My focus on literature, film and TV goes along with two other influences on my thinking: botany and The Dewey Decimal System.

We were required to take one science lab course in college. I chose botany because I loved gardening and as a Boy Scout I learned a lot about how Indians used plants and how trees were important to support the lives of insects and animals.

A key feature of my botany class was the taxonomy of plants. When I discovered that roses and strawberries were related, I was blown away. I mean if you ask 100 people what a rose and a strawberry have in common few could state any connections. So discovering that plants are grouped on the basis of multiple characteristics—number of stamens and pistils, configuration of leaves, type of roots, etc. was stimulating. Bellack (1966) grouped student and teacher communications in the same way that botanists group plants– looking at multiple characteristics. I found this connection very exciting.

O In high school, I was fascinated how the books were arranged in our library using the Dewey Decimal System: 300, social studies, 307 Communities as a subcategory of social studies, 500 science and 550 Earth sciences as a subcategory. Dewey reminded me that categories were insufficient; we need to use sub-categories. So in my coding system I described in Beyond Rashomon (1977), I point out that we communicate using linguistic, non-linguistic, para-linguistic and silence. But I then indicate that each of these mediums can appeal to our ears, our eyes and our feelings.

So there are two Deweys in my influences: Melvil (1876) and John (1938)! Coincidentally, both Deweys, like me, ended up at Columbia University in New York City. John as a professor and Melvil as the founder of the first school of library science in the United States.


Themes emerging from my chapter.

I missed Prabhu’s writings while developing my own ideas about preparing teachers. But reading him now, I resonate with his thinking. He reminds us of the importance and power of joint exploration. One of my themes has been to jointly develop with teachers ways to constantly explore. As we jointly explore, I remind teachers that they should accept suggestions from others only if they fit the situations they are in – and to have faith in their beliefs based on their experiences. These ways to explore are suggestions I have been making for decades, with a nod to John Rogers, my British Council Mentor in Nigeria, among others.

Technology had a big impact on my development as a joint explorer. When video recorders became easier and easier to use, the teachers in my classes and I started to make recordings of interactions. As a result, we could transcribe and look at the data together rather than just at my notes, as had been the case in Nigeria. Over time we involved the students in the exploration as well.

Working as a peer rather than an expert was not done in a heartbeat. Initially, some teachers balked at jointly transcribing. ‘We are too busy to write what we and our students say and do in the recordings.’ After transcribing for decades, of course I understood their concern. So I suggested first that they transcribe exchanges that fitted on one sheet of A4. Second, I suggested they ask their students to transcribe the same exchanges, again just those that would fit on one sheet of A4. Even this amount of transcribing takes from fifteen to thirty minutes.

Again technology had a big impact. More recently, I have had students record their interactions with their cell phones and take pictures of pages from their notebooks and information on the whiteboard. The availability of the new technology has made it possible to have teachers and their students more engaged in the joint non-judgmental analysis of what they do. The initial resistance faded as teachers saw that they could use the transcriptions as the basis for planning their subsequent classes.

Not only did they generate alternatives from what they analysed but they saw what language they needed to work on with their students, based on the errors they noted as they transcribed. The students also began to notice their errors. Teachers discovered that the transcripts eliminated the need to prepare, administer and grade tests.

All of the joint exploration that I have learned to do over the years has increasingly exemplified Prabhu’s ‘sense of plausibility’.

Given the state of teacher preparation, it seems that, tragically, many others also missed Prabhu’s discussion of ‘a sense of plausibility’. Most MA programs, as well as Trinity and other certificate programs are into one-size-fits-all, a focus on learning from the experts. Few if any invite teachers to record and analyze transcriptions of their teaching nor develop with them ways to non-judgmentally analyze what they say and do. Every service industry except teaching reminds us when we call that our call might be recorded so that the service company can better understand the needs of their clients—students to us.

My beliefs about languages and teaching and learning them

Languages, like music, dance, art, mathematics and all other forms of communication enable us to create new worlds for us and others to experience. Not all the worlds we create bring joy but all enrich us.

To me, teaching, whether languages or any skill or subject, is reminding people of what they already know and nurturing natural curiosity. The dialogue in which Socrates teaches geometry to a slave in Meno’s house is the classic example of how we can prompt a person to make use of what they do not realize they know.

I believe that learning is predicting, solving problems, and seeking answers to questions. If we do not have a question we want to explore answers to, we cannot learn. We cannot get through even a few minutes without making predictions. When we enter a building, we have to determine whether the door opens inwards or outwards or slides to the left or to the right. When we see something we have not seen before, such as a butterfly, we ask questions such as, ‘Why is it yellow and black? How long will it live? Where did it come from?’ Ignorance is the beginning of knowledge and understanding.

Learning is doing as well as predicting, though they work in unison. As a Boy Scout, I learned how to tie knots by watching others tie knots, looking at sketches in the Boy Scout Manual and playing with rope. I later read John Dewey’s Education and Experience (1938) and was thrilled that ways I had learned to tie knots had the backing of a widely respected philosopher.

John Dewey did not limit his idea of learning-by-doing to manual skills like knot-tying though. Nor do I. In learning languages we have to manipulate bits of language, experience the relationships between the sounds of the language, make the symbols that represent the sounds on paper with pens or touch-typed on a computer screen, say the bits of language, read them and relate them to our experiences.

All forms of communication- language, art, etc. – are creative acts. Whether learning geometry, knot-tying or anything else, we bring something new into being for ourselves and often for others too.


The importance of small changes

A central conversation I have with teachers is to remind them of the complexity of interactions. The idea that A causes B is widespread in all fields. ‘We declare a war on drugs’ has been a theme of many US presidents. All the evidence shows that de-criminalizing drugs has more positive outcomes than having a war on drugs. But for whatever reasons, the leaders of many countries believe that A causes B, in spite of the overwhelming evidence that this is a fallacy.

‘You can change the world, but please don’t unless you know what you are doing! is a comment I heard in a talk at Teachers College by James Garbarino about bullying and school shootings in the US. It resonated with me because it is a central theme of my latest book: Small changes in teaching, big results in learning (2018).

Ministries of Education and publishers believe in the same myth – that A causes B, whether they want to stop bullying, control drugs and all other complex problems with a simple solution. ‘We have a new series of textbooks which will lead all students to be proficient. We have tests to check their progress.’ In my experience, big changes, new programs, text-book series stultify teacher-creativity and initiative. They also fail.

These institutional dictates not only fly in the face of Prabhu’s sense of plausibility but are ineffectual too. Test scores on standardized commercial tests are closely related to the ability of students to take tests, to the educational level of their parents and to the family income. How can new texts and programs move the test scores if these other variables are so powerful in determining success?

From a transcription of a 3-minute recording of students and their teachers both can learn more about what they need to learn than being given a score on IELTS of 15 in grammar and 17 in vocabulary or scores of 300 or whatever on TOEIC or TOEFL. The fact that only 25% of students could write ‘I like ice cream’ in my earlier example, could not be captured in a thousand years by standardized tests.

When students and teachers see what they have said they are often surprised. But a moment’s thought reminds us that if we have even 10 students in a class, much less 40, we cannot hear what they are saying. Couples misunderstand each other all the time. I was once walking with a couple who had been married 50 years. We saw two food trailers next to the path: one selling curry and one coffee. Marge asked, ‘Ken, would you like a cup of coffee?’ Ken replied, ‘It’s a bit early for curry.’

I focussed on small changes initially because I was ignorant of what to do. But through the years I have seen that if we make small changes, they are easier to implement than large ones. If they are upsetting or not useful they are easy to stop using. We can see the consequences more easily than if we make large changes involving many variables.


Two final thoughts

Firstly, checking claims:

My quest to understand teaching and learning, discussed in this chapter, focuses on two deficiencies in the preparation not only of teachers but of everyone: scepticism and an admission of ignorance. My ignorance of what the teachers I was supervising knew led me to much new learning.

Unless we follow Socrates and act like a gadfly, we cannot understand how far what we do, what we want to do and what we think we do are in tune. We have to question whether what we are doing that we think is useful, might not be, and whether what we are doing that we think is not useful, might be useful.

Secondly, the teacher as a human being.

I have been analyzing excerpts from lessons with teachers and students for 56 years. As part of the analyses, I have encouraged teachers I visit to ask their students to comment on their teaching. Here is a comment from one of my students from a secondary school in an affluent suburb of Chicago. Teachers I have learned with through the years have received similar comments.

‘I feel you are more of a human being than a teacher. You understand the students; therefore you communicate with them better than the teachers that set themselves up on a pedestal!’

To what extent can analysis aimed at expanding the range of engaging and useful activities lead to this type of reaction from our students? To what extent can we recruit people into teaching who will elicit this type of reaction? To what extent can we retain teachers who elicit this type of reaction? Provide experiences that enable teachers to develop a sense of plausibility! If we deal with the teachers we work with as humans and not from a pedestal, it is more likely teachers will treat those they work with in the same way.

If claims were checked not only about our teaching but about the war on drugs, hundreds of thousands of lives would be saved and millions of people would learn more and in more satisfying and engaging ways. And the multibillion-dollar scam perpetrated by commercial standardized-test companies would be out of business.

In a way thinking about being human is similar to being sceptical: In both cases we remind ourselves of our ignorance.



Ashton-Warner, S. (1963) Teacher. New York: Simon & Schuster.

Barnes, D. (1976) From Communication to Curriculum. Harmondsworth: Penguin.

Bellack, A. A., Kliebart, H. M., Hyman, R. T. & Smith, F. L. (1966). The Language of the Classroom. New York, NY: Teachers College Press.

Curran C. (1972) Counseling-Learning–A whole person model for education. New York: Grune and Stratton.

Dewey, J. (1970) (Orig.1938) Experience and education. New York: Collier Books.

Dewey, M. (1876) A Classification and Subject Index for Cataloguing and Arranging the Books and Pamphlets of a Library, Forgotten Books. (Original publisher not known)

Dickens, C. (1854) Hard Times. London: Bradury and Evans.

Fanselow, J. F. 1977. Beyond Rashomon–conceptualizing and describing the   teaching act. TESOL Quarterly. Vol. XI, March. (Reprinted in Allwright,R (ed) Observation in the language classroom. (1988) London: Longman.)

Fanselow, J. F. (1987) Breaking Rules – Generating and Exploring Alternatives in Language Teaching. White Plains, NY: Longman.

Fanselow, J. F. (1992a) Contrasting Conversations – Activities for Exploring our Beliefs and Teaching Practices. White Plains, NY: Longman.

Fanselow, J. F. (1992b) Try the Opposite. Tokyo: SIMUL Press.

Fanselow, J. F. (2018) Small changes in teaching, big results in learning:            Videos, activities and essays to stimulate fresh thinking about language learning. Tokyo:The International Teacher Development Institute.

Freire, P. (1976) Pedagogy of the oppressed. New York: Continuum.French, F. G. (1960) English in tables: A set of blue prints for sentence builders. London: Oxford University Press.

Gattegno, C. (1963) Teaching Foreign Languages in Schools – The Silent Way. New York: Educational Solutions

Gurrey, P. (1955) Teaching English as a foreign language. London: Longmans.

Hornby, A. S. (1961) The teaching of structural words and sentence patterns. London: Oxford University Press

Smith, F. (1971) Understanding reading: A psycholinguistic analysis of reading and learning to read. New York: Hold, Rinehart and Winston

Smith, F. (1988) The Book of Learning and Forgetting. New York. Teachers College Press

West, M. (1960). Teaching English in difficult circumstances: teaching English as a foreign language with notes in the technique of textbook construction. London: Longmans, Green.



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PS I started this blog with a claim that Alan has been the most creative person in our field for a long time. Here is a poem he wrote which is printed in the inside front cover of developing expertise through experience which distills the messages in all of our chapters:

Events  Alan Maley 

Nothing circumvents

The power of events.

But we are not without defence.

For we are active agents

Not passive patients.


Events are the raw materials life sends,

For us to shape them to our ends

What matters is not what they do to us.

But what we do with them.


Events are the grapes,

We make the wine.

Events are the shapes

That we re-align.


Events are the threads

That shuttle through our lives.

We weave the tapestry

With our evolving artistry.


Events are the water,

We are not their slave.

As they pour over us,

We shape them to a wave


Think of the power of happenstance,

Moments when we took a chance.

Think of all those places

and half-remembered faces

that happened to us

as we made our way

from day to day …


Something we accidentally read,

Something a respected colleague said,

A mail someone once sent us,

A book someone once lent us,

A class that went spectacularly wrong

That made us think about it hard and long.

A talk we went to at a conference,

That only, years later, made sudden sense.


And the slow incubation of time.

Experiences fermenting –

And the exhilaration

of unending exploration.











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