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Feb 1, 2024
Andrew Walkley

Aiming for average

An amazing feat, but that’s all

I recently watched  Nyad – a new film about the super-endurance swimmer Diane Nyad, who swam from Cuba to Florida. I like these kinds of stories, and the achievements they depict are often pretty amazing – but I’m turned off if they are presented as models of how to achieve things in life, which is exactly what happens at the end of Nyad. I buy these stories as entertainment, but I don’t buy into the lessons that are supposed to be learnt: “Look at me and learn how anything is possible if you just believe in yourself”, “Follow your dreams and give everything – I did”; “Just work hard and see what you can achieve”; yadda, yadda.

Lessons you can’t – or wouldn’t – want to learn

Are these really lessons that we can all apply? In his book about Beryl Burton, one of the greatest British athlete, who broke the 12-hour cycling record for both men and women, Jeremy Wilson discusses how such elite athletes are made. One infamous ‘lesson’ that is often talked about is the 10,000 hours of intense training that elite ‘winners’ do. OK, this may be something that others could emulate, but what actually drives people to actually do these things?

The implication of the ‘just work hard’ brigade is that essentially what’s stopping us mere mortals from reaching such heights is laziness, some moral failing that prevents us from working harder, or else some failure on the part of our trainer to push us. However, Wilson argues that where the difference might actually lie is in something quite different and unlearnable – and it’s in that space where the training and competing becomes almost a part of the person’s identity, so that they no longer see it as ‘work’.

The drive to achieve like this is also often sparked by some kind of childhood trauma (as was the case for both Nyad and Burton). It’s also a drive and obsession that the Olympic gold medallist Chris Boardman describes as ‘unhealthy’. And I have seen something similar said of the Steve Jobs and Elon Musks of this world as it appears that you are more likely to find psychopathic tendencies among CEOs than among the general population. All in all, it made me think that we should avoid using these people as role models to be followed. ‘Elite’ people will literally take care of themselves. They don’t really need further encouragement. Equally, perhaps we need to value more the average person, the mediocre, ‘the loser’.

Aiming for average B1

Which I suppose is where I see the parallels with language teaching. Don’t get me wrong; I don’t think highly accurate, super fluent speakers of a foreign language are unhealthy obsessives or psychopaths! However, I do think the inner drive to practise and study is often not a lesson that can be learned, but something that just happens.

I also think the native and the idea of ‘near native-speaker fluency’ still remain an underlying ideal for many teachers against which their students (and they themselves) are judged. This can lead to an unhealthy heavy focus on accuracy from the beginning and to the imposition of controls on practice to prevent students from making mistakes or encountering previously ‘untaught’ forms.

It can also often result in teachers dwelling on mistakes rather than trying to support a speaker to say more (even if they’re saying it ‘badly’!). As I argued in my recent webinar, we could do with more aspiration to get our students to be average; B1; semi-fluent sometimes, and occasionally accurate, but all the same, giving it a go and successfully communicating. In education, the message really should be “it’s not the winning, it’s the taking part.” We shouldn’t be aiming to dismiss the tears when people lose, but ideally, we should be avoiding any tears in the first place.

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