An amazing feat, but that’s it
I recently watched the film about the super-endurance swimmer Diane Nyad who swam from Cuba to Florida. I like these kinds of stories, and their achievements are pretty amazing – but I’m turned off if they are presented as models of how to achieve things in life, which happens at the end of Nyad. I buy these stories as entertainment but I don’t buy the lessons to be learnt: “look at me and learn how anything is possible if you just believe in yourself”, “follow your dream 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, 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 has been talked about is the 10000 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 it’s laziness, some moral failing not to work harder or some failure on the part of the trainer to push the sports person. But instead Wilson argues where the difference can lie is something quite different and unlearnable where the training and competing becomes almost a part of the persons identity, so that they don’t see it as ‘work’. The drive is also often sparked by some kind of childhood trauma (as is 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 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 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 ‘near native’ speaker fluency still remains 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 imposing controls on practice to avoid students making mistakes or encountering ‘untaught; forms. We’ll also often dwell on the mistake rather than trying to support a speaker to say more (even if it is saying it ‘badly’!). As I argued in my recent webinar, we could do with more aspiration 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” – not to dismiss the tears when people lose, but as an actual ideal to avoid the tears in the first place.
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