Unplugged Interview with Mark Andrews
By Martina Bednarikova
On October 15-19, 2012 Slovak teachers had the unique opportunity to experience a teacher development workshop entitled “How to teach with less reliance on textbooks” with Mark Andrews. Thanks to SOL (Sharing One Language) and the Slovak Association of Language Schools teachers in five different cities in Slovakia could experience workshops based on a methodology which values spontaneity, thinking on one’s feet and learner contributions. The workshops were based on topics and language that emerged spontaneously. It certainly helped us model a way of thinking and working that can be applied in many teaching situations. Mark’s presentation involved a lot of interaction; he showed us his “less is more” approach and broke down the barriers between ‘inside’ and ‘outside’ the classroom. Mark shared his passion and encouraged teachers to help their learners take more responsibility for their learning.
Martina (MB): Mark, thank you for coming to Slovakia and delivering this workshop. This is not your first time here. However, I would like to know how you felt during the presentation?
Mark: Well, I felt very relaxed and at home. It’s really good to talk about a topic I’ve kind of been involved in and passionate about for about 20 years now. During my workshop I was trying to demonstrate an approach which involves the learners more and gets them to think about being more jointly responsible for lessons. And I hope this is what people will take away with them and that they enjoyed it and had fun as well of course.
MB: Definitely, we all enjoyed it. Where do you find inspiration for such interesting projects?
Mark: When I worked for the British Council on a British Cultural Studies project for secondary schools, I got more involved in bringing language and culture together and teaching intercultural skills. I think that language learning is not only about the teaching of grammar, reading, writing, speaking and listening. It’s good to look more closely at the culture which is revealed in and underlies texts and get learners to explore them more critically. It helps to see how things are connected and interrelated, to understand cause and effect and that is why I enjoy putting what might seem to be unlikely sorts of materials together in more challenging and interesting ways. It’s about getting texts to “talk” to each other more, whether the “texts” are pictures, adverts, crisp packets or whatever.
MB: What is the story behind Mark Andrews, the teacher?
Mark: When I was 18, I did not want to go straight to university and decided to spend a year abroad in West Germany, teaching as a language assistant in a school. I was obviously not qualified but I really enjoyed it. I didn’t work with coursebooks but worked with texts to do with skiing as I was working with the members of the German Olympic skiing team. They ended up taking me to the winter Olympics in Innsbruck in 1976. I went back to Germany after I finished my university studies but this time to the GDR or East Germany. I taught there at the university for two years, still unqualified! At that time I realised that I needed a proper qualification to teach well. So I did a one-year course in Teaching English as a Foreign Language at the University of Manchester. Since then, I have been working in East Germany, England, Czechoslovakia, the Czech Republic and Hungary.
MB: Can you tell us a bit more about your Czechoslovak experience?
Mark: I came to Czechoslovakia in 1989, shortly before the Velvet Revolution in September. Universities went on strike and I took part in all kinds of demonstrations there as well as helping the students to formulate their demands in English to send round the world. As a result of this I learned Czech very quickly. It also really helped me identify with the country, the people and the society as a whole. In 1991, I came back to Britain and did an MA in Applied Linguistics at Lancaster University. I started to read a lot about language learning. In fact, I think it is there that many of the ideas I have now about teaching and learning were formed. I wanted to involve people more in the learning process and to hand over decision making to the students themselves and to develop more learner autonomy. I wanted to try to move away from fixed syllabuses and allow more space for students themselves. Full of ideas, I came back to Czechoslovakia again in 1992 and stayed in the Czech Republic till 1996 when I moved to Budapest with a job with the British Council as British Studies Methodology Adviser.
MB: What was your favourite subject at school?
Mark: Definitely languages and literature. My first foreign language was actually French. I did German later and when I was 16 I went to a West German school in Hessen for 10 weeks, living with 2 different families. It gave me a lot of encouragement. When I came back to England I had gone from being the weakest student to probably the best in terms of language proficiency and motivation.
Later I also learned Czech, Serbo-Croat, as it was called then, and Hungarian with different degrees of success. And of course I have to concentrate harder when I listen to Slovak but I do understand quite a bit. At school, I was awful at physics, chemistry and biology but now you can often find me reading about particle physics and quantum theory and am looking forward to Brian Cox’s new series on “The Wonders of Life” on the BBC in January. New discoveries fascinate me and I am always trying to combine them with English language teaching. I’d love to do a talk on ELT and the Higgs particle! I think it helps enliven ELT to locate it in a broader context. To paraphrase Kipling: “What do they know of ELT who only ELT know.” It was all that cross-fertilization of ideas in Viennese café houses at the turn of the last century that lead to great advances in the arts, sciences and architecture.
MB: Your knowledge of foreign languages is necessarily connected with a lot of travelling. Which countries do you like the most?
Mark: I love the Adriatic coast, especially Italy and Croatia. I enjoy swimming and being by the sea. One of my favourite places is Trieste in Italy. I also like going to Ireland. I used to go to Ireland every year, but that was a while ago. What I especially loved about Ireland were the long sandy beaches. As it rains a lot not so many people go there and it’s good to enjoy the solitude and the open spaces during the day and then the cosiness of the pubs in the evenings. But I am very attracted to the sea wherever it is J. And if there isn’t a sea then Lake Balaton and the river Danube are great “places” to be.
MB: I wonder whether you have a place that you can call home…
Mark: Well, not really. I am always moving around. The truth is I am very much at ease wherever I am. Due to the fact that I studied Eastern European Studies at university, I am familiar with Slovakia, Hungary, Poland, Austria and the Czech Republic. Part of my course was also Yugoslav studies. That is why I feel at home basically anywhere in Central Europe. However, I have a flat in Budapest and I like living there. On the other hand, I spend a lot of my time in North Devon now, working with SOL (Sharing One Language) . That is why I am currently planning to buy a house there when I get enough cash together.
MB: How do you relax? Do you have time to slow down?
Mark: My favourite kind of relaxation is definitely swimming. As I have mentioned before, I like the sea, swimming pools and spas… I also enjoy the sauna a lot. I hope to be in Finland for a few days in the summer on a course where there should be time to experience the real thing there. Regarding my future, one of my plans is actually to learn how to play the guitar properly. I like to think I get the balance reasonably right between work and relaxation and certainly slow down lying in thermal baths.
MB: What is your favourite food?
Mark: It is again connected with my passion for the sea I suppose. I love different kinds of fish, mussels, prawns, sea bass. I like cooking Indian food too. When I lived in Bradford, where I went to university, I met lots of Indians and Pakistanis and got into Asian cooking. I used to have friends round regularly. We cooked curry, lentil dishes and ate them with different chutneys and chapattis.
MB: What does an ordinary day of Mark Andrews look like?
Mark: I am not sure whether any day is ordinary. It varies according to where I am at any one time and what I’m doing there. I teach students but also work with teachers. I go to lots of conferences and write articles. And I’m probably on the Internet for 5 or 6 hours a day, uploading videos, sharing things. It’s good to be a part of the big ELT conversation which takes place on a daily basis on facebook, blogs and twitter. I am constantly looking for interesting ways of exploring and exploiting contemporary issues for language learning.
MB: I liked the way you used H&M-related things during the workshop. Was it a new idea as well?
Mark: Yes, I used a lot of H&M stuff. The new autumn collection and how it is promoted is very interesting with the video and the Lane Del Rey stuff. I wanted to demonstrate a way of engaging people which explores local contexts and there is an H&M in Bratislava. It is up to the teacher to develop their own ways of getting people interested in things and that will usually depend on being closely in touch with what their learners are interested in and experiencing. If I was teaching now in December I’d be exploring the Slovak teachers’ strike with the students and learning English through that.
MB: You teach students but train teachers, too. If you were to choose just one activity, which would it be?
Mark: That’s a very difficult question. Both training and teaching require special skills. Sometimes training is more difficult and sometimes teaching is more difficult depending on the context but I really enjoy both.
I like working with teachers a lot as they have a big say in what goes on in the classroom and if you can encourage teachers to work in more exploratory ways then maybe some of it will rub off on the students.
Students are very often fed up with school by the time they get to 16 or they like going to school mainly to meet their friends and the lessons kind of get in the way, so the challenge is to create interesting experiences in the English lessons that DO engage them.
A lot depends on the relationship you develop together. It is not always easy to establish good relationships, because it’s usually not cool to co-operate with teachers. But it doesn’t have to be like that and one of the aims of the workshop was to offer some ways of possibly engaging disengaged teenagers.
MB: I am sure you have one particular story with your students that you will never ever forget…
Mark: Well, I used to run an English club in East Germany in Rostock on the Baltic coast. On International Women’s Day we did a male beauty contest and I was actually a part of it. There were five of us in our trunks and we got women to evaluate us and vote for who they thought was the most handsome guy. It was really funny. Later we had a discussion about it and how reversing the traditional roles made people feel and think. It was a very productive discussion.
MB: What does teaching mean to you? Who is a teacher in your view?
Mark: In state schools I think one of the roles of the teacher is to develop students’ thinking skills and get them to care about the world we all live in. It is also important to help students develop decent values, with kindness and empathy being probably the most important ones. All of this is part of how I teach and I think that the world would be a better place if more attention was paid to these values.
To teach people how to cooperate, care and behave nicely to each other, to show them what it is to be human. It is important to look at what we have in common, not at what divides us. If we had the opportunity to see the world from space I’m sure we would think differently about territory, religion and nationalism and and whether it is really worth fighting over these things. The ability to really listen to people patiently and empathise with them is for me a key quality in a good teacher. If ever I get tired of it all one day or lose my enthusiasm, I shall go and get myself a fishing boat on the Adriatic and watch the stars, but there’s no sign of that yet. There are too many interesting things going on in ELT at the moment and it’s good to be a part of it!
Mark Andrews has been working on integrating language and culture in the language classroom for many years. From 1989 he was part of the much appreciated team of British Council Advisers working in Czechoslovakia and then The Czech Republic. Up till 2011 he taught courses at Eötvös Loránd University Budapest many of which were on integrating language and culture, and intercultural learning in general. He is a frequent tutor at teacher training workshops and ELT conferences around central, southern and eastern Europe. Mark now works with SOL in North Devon, England, where he teaches courses for students as well as tutor courses for teachers.