Teaching Productivity and Its Enemies

is now on sale for US$12.50

Scroll down to see sample pages from the book


© copyright Thorold May 2011; All Rights Reserved 

published by The Plain & Fancy Press
ISBN 978-0-9871390-0-9

e-mail thormay AT yahoo.com

TP&E is available in eBook pdf format from this site (371 pages) through PayPal at $12.50.

Purchase the book through Paypal by clicking the 'Buy Now' button:



Payment Methods

Paypal accepts credit cards such as:

You can pay through Paypal in currencies listed on its website .

For other options see 'International Payments' below.

International Payments

Paypal is reliable where it is available. However, some countries do not allow Paypal. Click here for a list of Paypal friendly countries.

Other money transfer services are increasing in number all the time. However, some also go out of business, so always check what is available at the time you wish to send money.

A useful list of money transfer services + customer reviews can be seen on the Review Center website at http://www.reviewcentre.com/products3376.html .

We don't care where your payment comes from. Once we are notified by a money transfer company that the funds have been sent, we will forward your copy of the book


Teaching Productivity & Its Enemies  



(sample content below has a link)


Teaching Productivity And Its Enemies - Preface 3

Abstract 15

Section 1: Language Tangle and the productive teacher 18

Productivity 22

The paradox of measuring productivity 25

Competing metrics of productivity 27

The virtualization of human activities 28

Knowledge worker productivity 30

The problem of substitution 31

Teachers and students as knowledge workers 35

a) Language Learners 35

b) Language Teachers 37

Concepts of productivity within educational institutions 39

Domains of productivity applied to an educational context 41

Teaching productivity 45

The predictability of learning 45

The special case of learning complex systems 45

The unique case of learning complex language systems 46

The argument for teacher productivity through de-skilling 49

Teaching productivity mediated through the class 51

Learning productivity 53

General productivity issues arising in the case studies 56

What is the model framework for the analysis? 58

Biographical case study 60

What rationale can be given for data inclusion, organization and weighting? 64

Elements in Thor May's character formation* 66

The teacher as language learner – a personal view 70

Types of data in the dissertation 72

Teaching validation 74

Section 2: Personal case studies in issues affecting language teaching productivity 77

Introduction 77

Case Study 1: Tangaroa Junior Secondary College, 1976 78

Case Study 2: The Chiko Roll Factory, 1977 82

Case Study 3: Scallop Fishermen, 1977 85

Case Study 4: Government Aircraft Factory, 1977 89

Case Study 5: Vietnamese Refugees, 1979 91

Case Study 6: English for Special Purposes in Papua New Guinea, 1983 & 1985 95

Case Study 7: Banjalang* Language Rescue, 1984 101

Case Study 8: Solomon Islands Project, 1984 107

Case Study 9: University of the South Pacific, Suva 1987-1990 110

Case Study 10 : Fijian Language Survey , 1990 114

Case Study 11: Myer House Adult Migrant Education Program*, 1990 to 1993 118

Case Study 12: Saudis at Western Metropolitan TAFE, 1993-1994 125

Case Study 13: English for Mechanics, 1993-1998 128

Case Study 14: Koba Tin Mining Company & John Batman College of TAFE, 1996 134

Case Study 15: Wuhan Technical University of Surveying and Mapping, 1998 139

Case Study 16: Central China Normal University, 1999-2000 143

Case Study 17: Sungsim College of Foreign Language Studies, 2000 - 2003 148

Case Study 18: Pusan University of Foreign Studies, 2003 - 2004 154

Case Study 19: Chungju National University, 2004-2007 161

Case Study 20: The Intimate Learner 167

Section 3 - Analysis 175

Part 1 - Productivity factor analysis 175

The choice of productivity factors for anecdotal productivity factor analysis 182

Explication of productivity factors 185

Summary of Productivity Factor Analysis 244

Part 2 : Analysis of case study trends, patterns and implications 246

Role ambiguity and productivity 247

The professionalising of teaching 247

Negotiating language teaching through the narrative spaces of institutions 251

Unasked questions and untrodden paths 255

Summary of case study patterns 262

Conclusions 264

The repair of unproductive educational institutions 264

Empirical findings and the potential for further research 265

1. Students ultimately control learning, but are sensitive to immediate reward 266

2. The primary (but not the only) role of any successful foreign or second language teacher is to leverage student motivation. 267

3. Teaching productivity turns, ultimately, on the teacher's ability to influence the probability of student learning. 267

4. Curriculum and method are best negotiated with students rather than with institutions 268

5. The phenomenon of the 'intimate learner' demonstrates a potent, although minority alternative to mass language education 268

6. Teacher-student learning reciprocation is among the most important of all motivational tools 269

7. Certification may outrank actual language learning as a student and institutional goal under certain cultural conditions 269

8. Institutional players are not always interested in student language learning productivity, and tend to be poorly equipped to evaluate it 270

9. A significant proportion of language teachers remain ignorant about language learning and effective language teaching 271

10. The understanding and practice of knowledge worker productivity remains weakly developed in language teaching institutions 272

The complexity and potentials of productivity concepts 273

Appendix 1: Summaries of Case Studies274

Case Study 1 synopsis: 1976, Tangaroa College, New Zealand 274

Case Study 2 synopsis: 1977, Chiko Roll Factory, Melbourne 274

Case Study 3 synopsis: 1977, Scallop Fishermen, Melbourne 275

Case Study 4 synopsis: 1977, Government Aircraft Factory, Melbourne 275

Case Study 5 synopsis: 1979, Vietnamese Refugees, NSW 276

Case Study 6 synopsis: 1983, PNG Engineering Students 276

Case Study 7 synopsis: 1984, Banjalang Language Revival, Lismore NSW 277

Case Study 8 synopsis: 1984, Solomon Islands Aid Project, Lismore NSW 278

Case Study 9 synopsis: 1987-90 USP (a), Fiji and a Military Coup 278

Case Study 10 synopsis: 1990 USP (b), Fiji: the Suva language Survey 279

Case Study 11 synopsis: 1993, AMEP, Myer House, Melbourne 279

Case Study 12 synopsis: 1993, Western Metropolitan TAFE, Melbourne 280

Case Study 13 synopsis: 1993-98, English for Mechanics, Batman TAFE, Melbourne 280

Case Study 14 synopsis: 1996, Consultancy, Pulau Banka, Indonesia 281

Case Study 15 synopsis: 1998, WUTSM, Wuhan, central China 282

Case Study 16 synopsis: 2000 ,Central China Normal University, Wuhan 283

Case Study 17 synopsis: 2000, Sungsim College of Foreign Languages, Busan, South Korea 284

Case Study 18 Synopsis: 2004, Pusan University of Foreign Studies, Busan, South Korea 284

Case Study 19 synopsis: 2004-2007, Chungju National University, South Korea 285

Case Study 20 synopsis: The Intimate Learner 286

Appendix 2: Listing of productivity factors affecting institutional language learners 287

Appendix 3: Table of productivity factors in language teaching 290

Appendix 4: Productivity factor listing for the case studies 296

Appendix 5 : Sociolinguistic Survey: Language in Suva - language use and literacy in an urban Pacific population 302

References 330

Teaching Productivity & Its Enemies © copyright Thorold May 2011; All Rights Reserved



Teaching Productivity & Its Enemies


Everyone knows what teaching is. Also, it must be one of the very oldest professions. Put those two propositions together and you have infinite confusion. Cultures accumulate ideas, beliefs and attitudes which coalesce over centuries and harden into rules, or even institutions. Nowhere is this more the case than in teaching, in every culture. Then we have individuals, you and me, who not only inherit entrenched cultural ideas about teaching. We also figure out our own meanings from our accidents of birth and life experience. We attach these personal meanings to the institutions of the culture, especially its words, and believe thereafter that everyone shares our understanding. Amazingly, we get by, more or less, or sometimes kill each other. In the case of teaching, wasting each other’s time is luckily more common than homicide, but time wasting is life wasting. It is not a small thing. Now in the 21st century, the problems and consequences of education are multiplying. For a century or so now the world has had “mass” education for millions, then billions of people, meaning that all the ambiguities and failures of whatever we declare to be teaching have been breeding like mushrooms.

This book deals with one small corner of the mess through the medium of one language teacher’s experience. It does not fashion one ring of power to rule the myriad meanings of “teaching”. Teaching is not a human activity that easily lends itself to precise metrics of academic modeling (though many pretenders try), and even less to the invented graphs of “continuous improvement” beloved of managers and politicians. The genius of successful teachers can only be described in broad adjectives, but the benefits they offer flow deep and wide. They are not only the transmitters of our cultures across generations, the best of them enhance those cultures and give them an imprimatur of value. It is remarkably difficult to predict effective teaching, coming as it seems to from an elusive equation of each individual teacher’s chemistry channeling useful and well presented information, and reacting with the ever shifting force field you find within a class of students. This writer can only document his own successes and failures with any honesty.

Although the keys to teaching success are elusive, some of the destructive forces at work against success have enough constancy to be worth the trouble of a well-developed defence system. I will collectively describe forces acting against teaching success as “the enemies of language teaching productivity”. A productive teacher is one who adds to the learning productivity of students. A productive student is one who acquires and retains what needs to be learned (a skill, a body of knowledge or a method of thinking) with the most efficient use of his or her mental resources, time and money. Teaching & learning productivity problems obviously have much to do with managing the psychology of the individuals involved. That has been endlessly studied by academics, often under the heading of “motivation”. As a working teacher, I too am concerned with managing the psychology of my students as well as my own. The “enemies” in this ghostly arena of the human mind are well known to an experienced teacher. However, the bulk of this book is concerned with other distracters – enemies without. Typically they take the form of individuals and groups within institutions who have agendas which clash with what the teachers and students are trying to achieve. Productivity for these other players has an altogether different meaning from the learner’s pursuit of knowledge. Students and even teachers are transitory. Institutional workers persist and seek internal promotion. In the end it is the administrative values which usually prevail in institutions, all to often at a fatal cost to teaching and learning productivities. None of this is evident from reading the well massaged language of institutional reports, or counting the diplomas which are invariably awarded to prove learning. The real outcomes are only seen in the quality of our civilization, its triumphs, its failures. That of course is too nebulous to measure, except by novelists, and the seed which finally flowers is never easy to trace to a classroom experience, one Monday morning twenty years ago.

This book has something to say, and its voice is individual. It is my voice, not the disembodied voice of pretended scientific truth. Therefore you are likely to disagree with at least parts of what you read. You may disagree with the title, or what you think the title ought to have been after you read the book. You may disagree with the views of teaching promoted here, or the ideas about productivity which are discussed. You may not like the kind of coverage given to the topic, or its quality, and above all you may dispute the use of personal anecdote or biographical case studies to open up discussion. That’s all OK. Write another book. If you react then we are getting somewhere.

Now a personal disclosure statement: TP&E is a rebranded doctoral dissertation. Wait, don’t go away yet. This claims to be a non-typical dissertation. Yes, it is true that few people read theses for pleasure, or even for information. Like much academic writing, they may be part of the vanity publishing industry. Of course, an occasional classic does emerge, but that is by the way. Academic vanity is generally timid in its presentation and vague in its syntax. This is the tribal code, defended in the name of science, and he who would write a dissertation must conform or be cast into outer darkness. Therefore, apologies if the text does not always read like a Sunday newspaper supplement, but at least I’ve done my best to be coherent and specific.

The writer of TP&E, though inclined to mischief, had learned after much mauling as a research student not to bait the bears, so the actual doctoral thesis was given a title which could have meant anything: “Language Tangle: Predicting and Facilitating Outcomes in Language Education”. He was advised by his betters that he would be unwise to change this. As a magic talisman the PhD, awarded in my 64 th year, had no hope of course of yielding either glory or safe employment. Therefore within the document itself I have felt less constrained than usual to speak with a clear voice, and so be clearly right or wrong. Here too lies the reason for sneaking it out under a different name. In the big scheme of things, academics are few and mostly remote. Teachers are legion and everywhere in people’s faces. Perhaps a handful of them can be tricked into reading this material, or part of it. Who knows, it may reach other eyes too. Title apart, the content of the book has been left untouched. It would have been perfectly possible to snip the redundancy, trim the references, blow wave and perm it for some imagined audience. However you, dear reader, are the imagined audience and I don’t know who you are. Therefore, do your own clipping.


Thor May

Brisbane , Australia
April 2011

Teaching Productivity & Its Enemies © copyright Thorold May 2011; All Rights Reserved




Since notions of productivity are central to the analysis in the thesis, this section will attempt to trace some of the history of the concept before centering it in actual language teaching and learning.

Productivity is firstly an economic concept, and rests at the heart of modern economic theory. Tracing its application to language learning will take a little effort. The roots of productivity notions go back to Adam Smith's seminal The Wealth of Nations (1776). Using the now famous analogy of a pin factory, Smith argued that such a factory where each worker specialized in part of the process could produce vastly more pins than one in which each worker produced a pin from start to finish. That is, by specializing, each worker could be more productive. The whole factory would be more productive by extracting a superior output from the same input of labour.

The economic models which were first built upon the pin factory analogy emphasized certain elements while minimizing others. In the age of mass industrial production, the focus was on maximizing productivity in the sense of producing the largest number of widgets for the smallest input cost of labour, capital and materials. Labour was seen as a negative, a cost (Smith 1995:6, Moad 2006). The productivity focus was from an industry perspective, not from a personal perspective. The individual was there to serve the interests of an industry or institution, not vice versa. To this extent the real division between the newly emerged capitalist ideology and collectivist ideologies like communism was that the former consciously employed productivity as a tool for efficiency (Thompson 1997) whereas the latter did not (The Economist 2002). Both kinds of ideologies were built around mass organizations.

The management of mass education is an extremely large enterprise. It is not surprising that managerial bureaucracies in education often adopted the economic rationalist models of institutional productivity, The objective was to graduate the largest number of students for the smallest input of capital resources and teaching labour (Longstreet 1976, Larsen 2005). Teachers were seen as an enterprise cost. Students were an enterprise raw material with associated costs, but with a potential for profitable transformation. It has been the employment experience of at least this researcher that such a model is still common in the thinking of senior educational management.

The focus in this dissertation is on the productivity of teachers as knowledge workers, not the productivity for business investors that is ultimately expressed through financial returns. There would seem to be a natural opposition between these productivity objectives, but real life outcomes are more complex than that.

Teaching Productivity & Its Enemies © copyright Thorold May 2011; All Rights Reserved




Competing metrics of productivity

The unit of productivity is an arbitrary cultural selection. In effect, an activity is productive if some particular group of people state it to be so (for example, The Economist 2005 formulating a measurable quality-of-life index as an alternative economic indice). Such a group may be very large and agree to some unit of output value such as a national currency. It may be relatively small, and range from collecting beer bottle labels to the acquisition military decorations, academic diplomas, competence in a second language or any other valued cultural attribute or artifact. The agreed unit of productivity value may be fairly stable, such as gold, or subject to sudden and catastrophic devaluation when external factors cause a rapid modification of values.

Even within the conventional paradigms of economic measurement in nation states, economists themselves are widely dubious about the coherence and consistency of what productivity statistics actually measure:

Most research by economists on productivity growth over time, and across countries, is superficial and to some degree misleading regarding the following matters: the determinants of productivity at the level of the firm and of inter-firm differences; the processes that generate, screen and produce new technologies; the influence of microeconomic conditions and institutions on productivity growth. (Nelson quoted in Bodea 1994: 6 )

We live in a complex world, and a part of that complexity is based on competing metrics of productivity within our own lives (Cornell 2008). The successful raising of a child might represent productivity of a high order in one sphere, yet lead to the ruination of a career governed by other values.

Some units of measurement used evaluate productivity are fairly easy to manipulate, whereas others are beyond the control of most individuals. The oligarchic manipulation of fiat currencies, and the creation of financial instruments by merchant bankers is a clear example here. The substitution of, say, virtual sex by computer or the troublesome requirements of physical sex between individuals is open to much more personal control, yet is quite analogous to the other units of measurement used evaluate productivity referred to here. All describe some effort or cost to achieve a desired outcome.

Teaching Productivity & Its Enemies © copyright Thorold May 2011; All Rights Reserved



Concepts of productivity within educational institutions


Concepts of productivity within the organizational structure of schools have been explored by educational researchers (Odden & Kelley 2002; Walberg 2003, and others). However such analyses have often been motivated by specific management problems such as how to remunerate and promote teachers. For example, here is a rationale for the productivity of a collegiate approach:

Most previous efforts at changing how teachers are paid have focused on individual merit, or incentive pay, strategies that work in only a few private sector organizations and do not work in education or other organizations where the most productive work is characterized by collegial and collaborative interaction. (Odden & Kelley 2002:vii)

The consideration of teacher productivity developed later in this thesis draws on a much wider range of variables. (See Appendix 3, Table of productivity factors in language teaching).

Even from within the relatively narrow perspective of management views of teaching productivity, actual practice may be ruled more by political fashion than by what truly works. This has certainly been the case in parts of America, which has great regional diversity, and in some areas a long history of dysfunctional educational practices (Walberg 2003).

Again taking a management perspective, teacher productivity is sometimes called 'teacher effectiveness' and in the American context at least, often expressed as a function of standardized test scores achieved by students (Goe, Bell & Little 2008). Many of the studies in this thesis relate to situations where there is no formalized testing, and in those where testing is a high stakes criterion, the language learning and teaching processes are almost invariably corrupted to assert credentialism as a higher measure of productivity than actual language learning. Test scores therefore seem to be a poor metric for teacher effectiveness or productivity from a language learning perspective. However the frequent contradictions between learning and credentialing seem to be poorly understood outside of the teaching profession.

Since Australian educational institutions on the whole are controlled by a managerial class rather than teaching professionals, the rhetoric of productivity is often employed when decisions have to be made (Dwyer 1994, Gonczi 2008). There is nothing abstract about this. This writer's experience with the Australian environment as a teacher, coordinator, and at one stage as a union organizer, was that teaching staff could find in a debate confined to economic rationalism that they were deprived of the language they needed to respond with in a more balanced way. It was often a dialogue of the deaf. That is, notions of productivity were narrowly confined to the original industrial formulations of the early twentieth century. Productivity as applied to knowledge workers, specifically teachers, was beyond conception.

Teaching Productivity & Its Enemies © copyright Thorold May 2011; All Rights Reserved



The unique case of learning complex language systems

Language learning is rather special within this paradigm of the predictability of learning. Every natural language is a complex of systems which at best has so-far been only partly analysed by specialist researchers for particular purposes (Halliday & Webster:125). We do have a multitude of models of the various sub-systems of natural languages. These models differ in the level of detail, but have the shared property that they are beyond the understanding or interest of most learners and most teachers. Therefore language learning is not an activity which can be undertaken by the informed learner with any confidence that the task is finite and manageable in its entirety. Naive learners of course may not grasp the magnitude of the job. Similarly, informed teachers know that they cannot teach the whole language. Naïve and/or inexperienced teachers might have no real idea of what they are attempting.

There are cognitive and other congenital factors which do make learning the complex systems of language quite different from learning to manage other complex systems. That is, by design human beings are predisposed to learn languages in ways that they are not predisposed to learn other complex tasks (Chomsky 1981; Pinker 1989). We all learn at least one language in infancy, even though the process is not consciously understood by the infant. It is known that older individuals can learn a second language with some measure of communicative success, even if not perfectly. It is this special inbuilt capacity for language learning which makes the 'teaching' of language possible by individuals who do not really understand what they are teaching. Such 'teaching' by, say, a weapons instructor who didn't thoroughly understand guns would be downright dangerous.

Learning can be stimulated by ill-defined problems (Greenwald 2000). However, beyond a certain point (perhaps related to the “zone of proximal development” suggested by Vygotsky 1978), the more complex and/or ill-defined a system is in its entirety, the less predictable successfully learning to manage that system by any given individual becomes. Even with the special inborn cognitive assistance we all have in language learning, the overall task is so complex and ill-defined that the ultimate learning success of students is extremely difficult to predict by either informed teachers or informed administrators. There are however very large numbers of teachers and administrators who never come to understand this inherent unpredictability.

Although there is consensus amongst linguists that the task of learning a first or second language is immensely complex, there is at present only limited agreement about the nature of that complexity, and widely divergent models attempting to explain its sources. Amongst researchers into SLA, various elaborations of Noam Chomsky's original proposal (Chomsky 1975) for a language specific language acquisition device (LAD) depending upon an innate universal grammar (UG) common to all human languages has wide currency, but has also been heavily criticized. Some non-nativist approaches to SLA (e.g Bley-Vroman 1989 and Schacter 1996) prefer to relate innate language learning abilities to developments in a general cognitive domain, an approach they find useful in explaining divergences between first and second language acquisition. Still others are drawn to empiricist explanations that turn on various kinds of statistical accumulation. Connectionist models fit here (e.g. Seidenberg & McClelland 1989). The sheer unpredictability stemming from complexity in many aspects of second language acquisition has also drawn interest in chaos/complexity theory as a possible explanation (Larson-Freeman 1997). There is some further limited discussion of these competing ideas in the analysis section of the thesis. While intriguing for researchers (including this writer) the uncertainties surrounding what actually happens in human minds when languages are learned is discouraging for ordinary language teachers. None of this, they feel, actually helps to guide them as they decide what to do for productive results in classrooms.

Teaching Productivity & Its Enemies © copyright Thorold May 2011; All Rights Reserved



What is the model framework for the analysis?

This dissertation examines one kind of knowledge productivity through the mechanism of biographical case studies from the professional life of (mostly) one language teacher over a period of thirty-three years in seven countries. The framework of analysis is therefore a synthesis of three different traditions of research: productivity, biographical case study and second or foreign language teaching. The literature in all three areas has grown rapidly and in the cases of knowledge productivity and biographical case study been applied to a diversity of professions. However, language teaching has not been extensively considered within these other frameworks in a unified way, although case studies of specific practices in isolated classrooms are relatively common.

Teaching practice is informed by more than the formal training that a teacher receives, the course and curriculum, or the students in his classroom. These elements all contribute to his understanding. They are however only a part of his cognition, and therefore cannot fully account for his behaviour of the moment, or his productivity as a teacher. Any attempt to influence teacher behaviour must take into account a much fuller spectrum of influences on the thinking of teachers. Ellis (2004) makes a useful tripartite distinction between components of thinking.

I ... propose that the following terms are most useful: knowledge, beliefs and insights. Knowledge, after Woods (1996, p. 195) is 'things we 'know' - conventionally accepted 'facts' which we hold to have been demonstrated, or at least to be demonstrable'. For example English has articles whereas Bahasa Indonesia does not. Beliefs, after a modified version of Woods (1996, p. 195) are the 'acceptance of a proposition . . . for which there is accepted disagreement.' For example, ESL students need explicit focus on grammar as well as communicative practice.

The third component is one that incorporates Clandinin and Connelly's (1987, p. 490) 'personal practical knowledge: knowledge which is experiential, embodied, and reconstructed out of the narratives of a teacher's life' and which I term insights. An insight is an understanding gained from personal experience that allows us to see how previously understood realities could be different. It illuminates something previously unseen, makes sense of something previously incomprehensible, or lends a new perspective on something taken for granted. It is the meeting-place of knowledge, beliefs, and experience.

From Ellis' characterization, we can see that insight comes from interpreting experience in the context of personal knowledge and beliefs. However, these elements have reciprocal and emergent rather than linear relationships. For example belief is influenced by both knowledge and experience. All of these elements go well beyond the classroom for both teachers and language learners. This dissertation draws on selected 'narratives from a teacher's life' in a way which, it is hoped, will contribute to insight for those involved in the enterprise of teaching and learning human languages efficiently.

Teaching Productivity & Its Enemies © copyright Thorold May 2011; All Rights Reserved



Case Study 5: Vietnamese Refugees, 1979

Location : Newcastle, Australia

Productivity issues : Social cohesion, obligation, trust and status validating language guidance; dilution of the learning environment in regular classes.

For detailed factors which had some bearing on teacher productivity in Case Study 5, See Appendix 3, Appendix 4 and Section 3 of the thesis,


Stakeholders : Vietnamese refugees (young men); voluntary teacher; the Australian Red Cross; Hunter TAFE college; NSW police and vehicle licensing officials; the state government.

Program objectives : Survival English; enculturation into the Australian community; management of officialdom and its documentary requirements by NES refugees.

Outcome : Intense personal commitment to learn English within the group, fading as the program was moved to a general migrant class.

Student profiles : The students were mostly young fishermen from the town of Phan Thet in South Vietnam. Their educational and literacy levels were low in any language. These young fishermen had escaped from communist Vietnam with very little reflection, mostly by hijacking boats at gunpoint. Now they were struggling in many ways. Their girlfriends, or in a couple of cases, their wives, were thousands of kilometres away with little hope of reunion. They were lonely, isolated, afraid, unemployed, and utterly without any understanding of Australian culture or the English language. Their anchor in Newcastle was a slightly older man in his thirties, Dau Kim Ahn and his wife. This couple were wonderful, and far wiser than me.

The teacher : In 1979 I was working part time on a PhD thesis in theoretical linguistics at the University of Newcastle. A research scholarship and some income from part time linguistics lecturing provided just enough to live on. However, I also missed the emotional satisfaction that comes from successful language teaching. I approached the Newcastle Red Cross to inquire about voluntary refugee teaching. They knew of a young Vietnamese man who had asked for help with English, so one evening I went to an old tenement expecting to do a little one-to-one coaching. I was astounded to find twelve men sitting around a table. From that moment I was 'the teacher'. I only later came to understand the special status that teachers have in traditional Vietnamese society. I taught this group for nine months without any kind of payment.

The teaching program : The Adult Migrant Education Program in Australia, for whom I had worked, has much accumulated experience with teaching survival English. It was not difficult for me to construct a basic teaching plan to work through. In practice, the teaching plan became a fall-back reserve after more important matters had been put to rest. The minutiae of daily interaction which we take for granted in our home culture become major obstacles when you don't know what bits of paper mean, you don't know who performs which role, you don't know whom you are permitted to ask for assistance, and you can't talk to them anyway without the words to do it with. On the way to teaching the language, I found myself as the only trusted cultural advisor on dealing with everything from rent to hospitals, to (eventually) marriage formalities.

My voluntary students felt under intense obligation to meet my teaching demands. This was satisfying in some ways, and sometimes alarming. To get real rewards from the language, ultimately they would need a broader motivation than personal loyalty. This came into relief when I unwittingly betrayed their trust.

I was approached by another, older Vietnamese man, an ex-officer from a parachute regiment who was understandably something of a hero for the young men. He was worried. Some of the local Vietnamese men were causing a disproportionate number of road smashes, and they always turned out to be uninsured. A prime reason, he revealed confidentially, was that they were buying licences from a corrupt official in Sydney's main vehicle registration centre. This was normal procedure in Vietnam (and still is; also in China 2009). He asked me to approach the appropriate authorities discreetly, to put a stop to it. He especially asked that any police questioning should be discreet and non-threatening.

At that time I still believed naively (probably like most Australians) in the general probity and common sense of the government and the police. I wrote to the state Premier, passing on the Vietnamese officer's request and stressing the need for discretion in a fragile situation. A couple of weeks later there were late night raids on a number of houses in Newcastle, and heavy police interrogations. The small Vietnamese community was deeply shaken. I received a letter from the Premier stating that no evidence has been found of corruption in the vehicle registration centre.

All of this activity did draw attention from the local media. My class was 'discovered', and a local television station asked to film it. The next day I received a call from a rather embarrassed local TAFE manager saying that the state could actually pay me for the teaching. Shortly I was asked to integrate the students into a general immigrant class at the TAFE college.

Sooner or later it would have been necessary for my group to merge into general community migrant English classes anyway. Historically these classes have been one of the most effective ways for immigrants to come to direct personal terms with Australia's multicultural character. Often lifelong friendships are forged. Their was no question though that the nature of my relationship with the young Vietnamese men changed, and with it their attitude to the language learning.

I was no longer the revered, almost sacred, teacher to whom they owed unquestioning dedication and labour. They were no longer unique, and uniquely catered for. Increasingly they came to see themselves as the general community saw them: undereducated, unemployed, scruffy and potentially dangerous young men from a war-torn country. Some drifted into unskilled labouring work in the local steel factory. A few transcended their origins. Years later it was moving to meet one, now a graduate in electronics with fluent English, about to be seconded by Australia Telecom to Vietnam as a technical expert.


1. The relationship between the teacher and the language learner can profoundly affect the motivation to learn. The less socially and intellectually autonomous a student is in a host culture, the more critical this relationship may become.

2. Language learning productivity is not necessarily stable, even with the same teacher and an essentially similar curriculum. A change in personal relationships, or a change in student self-perception can radically alter the dynamics of the language learning process.

Teaching Productivity & Its Enemies © copyright Thorold May 2011; All Rights Reserved



The choice of productivity factors for anecdotal productivity factor analysis

Occasionally economists themselves have recognized that their narrow focus on a few factors to measure economic productivity has mathematical convenience, but amounts to real world fantasy:

Productivity is determined by a multiplicity of economic, cultural, psychic and political factors. Moreover, all these factors contribute significantly to the changing productivity rates. Therefore, those who seek to explain these rates must deal with this multiplicity of factors -- and their interaction -- rather than limit their analysis to one discipline. (Etzioni 1980: 3)

Statistical factor analysis necessarily works with a small number of factors, preferably selected in an environment where other variables are constrained or neutralised so that conclusions drawn from the calculation can be properly replicated and confirmed or challenged in following studies. The environments dealt with in the case studies are radically different from any such research determined ideal. The data set in this thesis is established in the first instance by the biographical criterion of historical occurrence in the classroom of one teacher (the writer). It cannot in principle be replicated, only compared by analogy to patterns of occurrence in the classrooms of other teachers. Any patterns of teaching productivity evident to this researcher in the present study are derived from reflection rather than the execution of experimental design. Such productivity patterns emerged in daily teaching practice from the shifting interaction of large numbers of factors. For this reason the analysis did not seem susceptible to credible probing by statistical method. Rather, it is a guided anecdotal analysis based on the writer’s view of how elements which he identifies as teaching productivity factors have interacted to produce particular outcomes.

The choice of productivity factors for anecdotal factor analysis in foreign language teaching has not been random even though it is not exhaustive, nor was the choice particular to the idiosyncrasies of the writer’s personality. Any kind of productivity statement is a description of the efficiency with which specific inputs generate a desired output. The general output sought by a foreign language teacher is the successful acquisition by his students of the language he is teaching, as they study in his classroom. Resources, recurrent events, institutional conditions, the physical environment, motivation, interpersonal relations … or any other element which contributes to or inhibits student learning in that teaching environment ipso facto becomes a factor affecting teaching and learning productivity. Nevertheless, from a potentially unlimited number of factors which might affect teaching and learning, the researcher has clearly made a selection. Certain general guidelines have informed that selection. These guidelines have not been borrowed from elsewhere, and are open to challenge, but the researcher considered that they were sufficiently selective to meet the needs of this study:

1. Did the candidate productivity factor have a significant influence, in the view of the researcher, on teaching and learning in one or more of the case studies under review?

2. Was the candidate productivity factor specific to only the case study under review, or in the experience of the researcher had it been a recurrent factor in other teaching situations, and was it likely to be significant in the experience of other teachers?

3. Was the candidate productivity factor specific to a particular kind of teaching situation (for example, a methodology) or did it bear on the total teaching environment?

4. Was the candidate productivity factor within the power of an institutional or societal actor to modify, at least in principle? This question is sometimes difficult to answer, but in general the present analysis has not addressed some intractable issues such as the differing backgrounds of students (for example) which can have a potent effect on individual learning productivity and life achievement (Etzioni 1980:11). However institutional power relationships have been selected as a productivity factor since they can be modified in principle, even though this might not have occurred during the period of the case studies.

5. Was the candidate productivity factor likely to have a significant impact on teacher or student morale? This is a very important consideration since a) morale colours the whole teaching and learning environment; b) morale is usually a predictor of both teacher effectiveness and student learning (Mackenzie 2007, Valentic 2005). The teacher-student relationship in terms of morale is one of reciprocal co-dependence (this is not only in language teaching).

"Teachers clearly identified students as the primary and central factor that has an impact on both their professional enthusiasm and discouragement.... Teachers almost universally treasure student responsiveness and enthusiasm as a vital factor in their own enthusiasm, and conversely list low motivation in students as a discourager" (Stenlund 1995 as quoted by Lumsden 1998).

One implication here is that if external factors negatively or positively affect either party, they might influence the whole classroom atmosphere, even amplify the mood, and thus affect both teaching and learning productivity. In other words, classroom relations are a kind of catalytic medium to learning, where all kinds of impinging events can acquire significance, sometimes out of proportion to their original value. (For example, in one venue not treated in the case studies, a rumour that the college was to be downgraded seriously demoralized students, led to a student strike, and greatly affected student commitment to study until the teacher was able to clarify the situation). Judgements about morale and motivation are multifaceted, and often a test of a teacher’s general ability to manage expectations (see Lundin et al 2000, Lauren 2008 and Vroom 1982 on the critical role of expectations on morale, motivation and productivity in the workplace).

Teaching Productivity & Its Enemies © copyright Thorold May 2011; All Rights Reserved



The repair of unproductive educational institutions

The fragmented inner spaces of many mass educational organizations - the gaps in communication and intent among players - can inhibit or destroy language teaching productivity. That is demonstrable. In most cases it is less easy to see how they can be pragmatically repaired to assist language teaching productivity. Working in the abstract the theorist can say this thing or that should be changed. Taking each of the case studies in this thesis in the context of its own real world at the time, intruding non-educational variables were often beyond control, at least without serious risk. The factory manager in the Chiko Roll factory would have closed the class down if he had known how teaching had been hijacked to give the students what they wanted to learn. The lecturer at USP could see that his Indian students were scared to death by military monitors sitting at the back of the lecture hall, and understood why they didn't re-enrol. There wasn't a thing he could do about it. The victimised teacher at Myer House migrant centre could see the fear in his employers of a political steamroller, even as they fired him. The foreign 'grass professor' going through the motions of teaching English in Korean universities could see very well how the cultural paradigm precluded learning, yet there was little that the Korean administrators would feel empowered to change, even if they had wanted to.

The limits of the thesis expounded in this document are therefore located in a multitude of workplaces and communities. That is, the limits of optimizing teacher productivity are frequently set by the human ambitions and powers of non teachers, and also by their ignorance. Therefore, the only powers of this dissertation are those of illustration, explanation and persuasion. Where all the players in an educational institution can be brought to some understanding of the full set of narratives in the enterprise of teaching and learning languages, then perhaps there is hope that teachers may be allowed to productively exercise and fully coordinate the dimensions of their knowledge worker roles.


 ©Thor May 2016  All rights reserved      thormay@yahoo.com