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Expertise and the Foreign Teacher in China


Bobby FischerA few months ago, MKL reported a story about Guangzhou's plan to require a standardized teaching certificate of all its foreign English teachers. This was understood as the government's attempt at standardizing minimum EFL training in the absence of any single official accrediting body. A similar attempt at defining and measuring expertise as a foreign language teacher was reported and critiqued in our earlier article titled Evaluation System for Foreign Language Expert.

A review of these two earlier articles led me to ask: Who can be considered a bona fide foreign expert in China and how would one go about defining and measuring this? It turns out that the answers to these questions are not as simple or straightforward as one might initially assume and, furthermore, may actually prove to be unanswerable in the context of China's current English foreign language program.

Defining an Expert and Expertise

During the course of my research, I came across an article published in the Harvard Business Review that provides an outstanding discussion of not only what constitutes expertise but, also, how one can become expert: The Making of an Expert (2007). By way of informing that source, the article's principal author is the editor of the Cambridge Handbook of Expertise and Expert Performance.

The authors underscore three conditions that must be met in order to demonstrate expertise: 1) Performance must be superior to that of one's peers; 2) It must be evidenced by concrete results, and; 3) It can be replicated and measured under controlled (scientific or laboratory) conditions.

It turns out that meeting these three criteria is not a simple feat and they are most easily (but not exclusively) applied to measuring behavioral performance in standardized competitions, such as sporting events. For example, we can agree that Tiger Woods is an expert at golf based on his consistent success in standardized competitions against other expert golfers. We all know that Bobby Fischer was one of the greatest experts at the game of chess who ever lived, for the same reasons.

The problem is that it becomes very difficult to measure expertise when what is being measured eludes operational definition, e.g., what exactly does it mean to "feel better," the expected results are long-term, and especially when contextual conditions vary from expert to expert. For example, physicians working in upper class neighborhoods will necessarily have better success rates than those who are not because, as a rule, higher-SES patients are not only more compliant with treatment than are their poorer and less educated counterparts, but were also in better overall health to begin with prior to becoming ill. Related, and in the world of second language acquisition theory, while Stephen Krashen is regarded as an expert by many, the reality is most of his theories remain unproven as most of his concepts defy quantification (for example, consider the problems inherent in defining and measuring "subconscious process").

Foreign Language Expert in China

Unfortunately, proclaimed expertise as a foreign language expert in China is often based on popularity and experience alone, neither of which is a sufficient or even necessary condition for demonstrating expertise.

It is fairly obvious that it is quite possible to be both popular and also not particularly effective as a teacher, depending entirely on what that teacher's popularity is based on. I could be extremely popular with my students because I am entertaining, light-hearted, genuinely caring, and an easy grader, but that doesn't necessarily mean my students are learning anything.

Experience can only be considered a necessary condition for expertise if it can be demonstrated that it included what Ericsson, Prietula, and Cokely refer to as deliberate practice (ibid, p. 3), or what professional practitioners refer to as supervised practice. For example, if I began my career as a lousy teacher and have been entirely left to my own devices, the fact that I have worked as a lousy teacher for ten years doesn't make me anymore of an expert now than I was ten years ago. Experience that does not include supervision, critical assessment, additional training, repetitive corrective measures to improve one's practice, and both a broadening and deepening of one's skill set is simply the wrong kind of experience for demonstrating expertise (see "Things to Look Out for When Judging Expertise," ibid).

Related, it is often treated as a given (as indicated by hundreds of self-reports on China EFL websites and anonymous forums) that life experience alone is synonymous with increased knowledge and, therefore, expertise. It would be nice for the sake of all humankind if that were true but it is simply not. A commuter who rides his city's subway system everyday for 20 years is not automatically an expert on that city's transit system. I have suffered more head colds and upper respiratory infections during my six years in China than I had collectively during my 50 years prior to moving here but that does not quality me as an expert in otolaryngology or air quality, not even in China.

The reality is it may very well be impossible for any foreign teacher in China to demonstrate or even acquire true expertise, as an educator, given the gross limitations of this country's foreign language program and the larger contextual environment that shapes it.

In the absence of a true English-speaking environment in China (outside of the foreign teacher's classroom), it is simply unreasonable for anyone to expect that limited exposure to a native speaker of English for 36 hours a semester —no matter how proficient he or she may be as a teacher—will lead to an improvement in English language skills. If there were any validity to this assumption—namely, that simply listening to a native speaker (or watching foreign films) is sufficient for acquiring a foreign language—then I should be speaking fluent Tagalog right now after two years of listening to my wife's Filipino soap operas and other daytime television shows.

The bottom-line is that in the absence of an objective and controlled way of measuring improvement in our Chinese students' listening and speaking skills, there will never be a reliable and valid way of demonstrating who is or isn't a foreign language expert in China, not from an educational perspective.

For the time being and perhaps for as long as this fiasco—the English foreign language program in China—is allowed to continue in its present form, sheer popularity with our students will be the only true objective indicator of our "success," at least the only kind of success that China's school leaders appear to care about.

Certainly, when you consider the reality that China has more English language students in the world today than any other country with also one of the poorest functional English literacy rates among developing countries (estimated at only .77 percent or 1 out of 130 people [see Yang, 2006]), it is obvious that student satisfaction with his or her foreign teacher (or, related, a low student attrition rate at private schools) is all they really do care about. It is anyone's guess what Chinese student satisfaction with one's foreign teacher is associated with beyond a Westerner who is entertaining, humorous, and interesting (and that perception will vary from class to class and also by student age). While many of us would like to believe that student satisfaction is the direct result of teaching effectiveness, there is simply no way to demonstrate that in the absence of controlled and objective baseline and outcome measures.

If any part of this is true, then it can be successfully argued that continued experience as an EFL teacher in China, such that success is measured primarily (if not entirely) by popularity, actually renders one increasingly less of an expert as a teacher with each passing year: a perception that appears to be regarded as a fact by Western school administrators and other academic hiring personnel. The only exception to this would be those who were licensed and credentialed in their countries of origin and are teaching standardized Western K-12 curricula at international schools in China. Simply restated, years of experience as an EFL teacher in China best (if not only) prepares one for a career as an EFL teacher in China and, perhaps, one or two other Asian countries.

In the interest of fair consumerism and providing a truly functional set of employment skills, China TEFL programs should be revised to include courses such as "Chinese Humor for Foreigners 101," "How to be 'Interesting' When You Are Bored Out of Your Mind and No One Cares 102," and, for the truly advanced foreign experts, "Keeping Your Skin Ultra-white and Looking Younger than Your Stated Age 550."

When viewed in this context, it might make a good deal of sense for the Ministry of Education to revise its Evaluation System for Foreign Language Expert so that it measures not an esoteric understanding of Chinese culture and a few basic concepts in TEFL (teaching English as a foreign language), but the foreigner's current ability to be entertaining and "interesting." That type of measurement would at least be consistent with how success among foreign English teachers in China is currently determined in practice by our school administrators and owners.

In the alternative, the Chinese government could abandon its not-so-secret and long-term plan to teach Chinese to the rest of the world and, instead, adopt a true English-speaking language environment in China and administer English language proficiency exams that actually measure functional language skills, as opposed to how good a student's memory is. Maybe then, when we accidentally run into some of our best students two years after graduation, we won't have to speak Chinese with them to learn how they are and what they've been up to.

Of course, anyone who has been here for awhile knows that English will never be an official second language or ever necessary for having a very successful life in China (at least this is a reality that most of our students already know, especially the ones who were assigned to English as a major in consolation for having earned a poor score on the college entrance exam). Maybe now, in the aftermath of the very successful 2008 Summer Olympic Games, the Chinese government will give serious thought to dropping the charade.

Ericsson, K.A., Prietula, M.J., & Cokely, E.T. (2007, July/August). The Making of an Expert. Harvard Business Review.
Yang, Jian (2006, April). Learners and users of English in China. English Today 22 (2): 3–10.

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Middle Kingdom Life is the premier award-winning educational website for foreign teachers and Western expats in China. It was founded by an American professor in psychology and sociology for the purpose of disseminating valid and reliable information about living and teaching in China. The site's mission is to protect and enhance the interests and social welfare of foreign teachers and Western expats in China.

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