Making the most of classrooms, they are real and we need them more than ever

The famous beer from Plsen

The famous beer from Plzen

Miroslav Holub was a Czech poet and an immunologist who was born in Plzeň, Pilsen in German, home of the legendary Pils beer.  He died at the age of 75 on the anniversary of the French revolution, July 14th, in 1998.  In 1967 he appeared in a Penguin modern poets anthology and gained much acclaim in the world of poetry in the English speaking world as a result.  As an artist and a scientist he had that rare quality of bridging the arts/science divide and his poems highlighted life’s major questions  in both fresh and challenging ways.

holub book cover

An anthology in English of the poems of Miroslav Holub

Mike Breen,one of my tutors on my MA course in Lancaster, brought one of Holub’s poems, “Brief Thoughts on Exactness”  to the world of applied linguistics in 1982 at a colloqium in Canada. It was subsequently published in the “Applied Linguistics” journal  in 1985 and the poem had first appeared in an anthology of Holub’s, Notes of a Clay Pigeon, in 1977.

I was reminded of this poem and article again this week while following the comments on Jeremy Harmer’s blogpost, ” No Dogma for EFL – away from a pedagogy of essential bareness.” and in particular relating to the value of  classrooms as authentic places where groups of people come together to learn languages, socialise and share experiences. Jeremy’s thread also reminded me of a comment on a forum this time last year by Nik Peachey:

“ The classroom is totally artificial and constructed rather like the film studio set and certainly isn’t the ‘on location’ where genuine communication takes place for genuine purposes.”

This is the poem:


move exactly there and exactly then

just as

birds  have this inbuilt exact measure of time and place

But mankind,

deprived of instinct, is aided

by scientific research, the essence of which

this story shows.

A certain soldier

had to fire a gun every evening exactly at six

He did it like a soldier. When his exactness

was checked, he stated:

I follow

an absolutely precise chronometer in  the shop-window

of the clockmaker downtown. Every day at seventeen

forty-five I set my watch by it and

proceed up the hill where the gun stands ready.

At seventeen fifty-nine exactly I reach the gun

and exactly at eighteen hours I fire.

It was found

that this method of firing was absolutely exact.

There was only one chronometer to be checked.

The clockmaker downtown was asked about its exactness

Oh, said the clockmaker.

This instrument is one of the most exact. Imagine,

for years a gun has been fired here at six exactly.

And every day I look at the chronometer

and it always shows exactly six.

So much for exactness…..

How do we measure what is exact, what is real and what is authentic?

It's not always easy to measure what is exact, real and authentic

Mike Breen goes on to ask which is the authentic time, maybe the soldier’s, maybe the clockmaker’s and maybe neither but the point of the poem, I think, and one of the points in his article is that when we teach a language what is real and authentic will depend on what our purposes are and that if the learning itself is the most authentic thing then “perhaps the most socially appropriate and authentic role of the classroom situation is to provide the opportunity for public and interpersonal sharing of the content of language learning, the sharing of problems, within such content, and the revealing of the most effective means and strategies to overcome such problems.”  (Breen, M. P. (1985). Authenticity in the language classroom. Applied Linguistics, 6, 60-70.)

What is real and authentic for some teachers is artificial and contrived for others.  Gavin Dudeney, in the recent excellent discussion on dogme and coursebooks,  sees many things that go on in classrooms as not “real”:

“I see no reason why I should sit in a classroom, thrown together with people that may not interest me or share anything with me and attempt to pretend that I am indeed interested or having a good time.

Personally, I learn more from interactions that I choose, that I am genuinely interested in and with people I want to talk to than in any other situation. In that sense, I choose those real interactions over the locked ‘prison like’ interactions which are imposed in the classroom simply because we are in the same place.

I also (having predominately worked in monolingual situations) find it absurd to get people in the same class talking in English. It’s not natural, it’s not real. People do it because that’s what you do – but that doesn’t make it real.”

Is it real to talk in English in the class to people who share your mother tongue?

If the English classes are about how to learn English better, which they are in most cases, except maybe when people go to evening classes or language schools for mostly social reasons to meet people, then speaking in English to people who share your mother tongue is a very real and authentic thing to do.  In fact, some people actually enjoy this a lot and when the three year teacher training colleges in Czechoslovakia were set up in 1992 it was the policy of some of the colleges to speak in English to both other teachers and students outside the class within the department, even when they shared their mother tongue Czech.


I spent many hours in Bradford in the pub speaking German, after returning from Bavaria I had a acquired a Bavarian accent which was a source of amusement to both teachers and the others on my course

When I was at university in Bradford, doing German on an Eastern European Studies course, every Monday night in the pub we had a “Stammtisch” where we went to speak German. Sometimes there were native speakers of German there and sometimes there weren’t but we always spoke German to each other and it was a lot of fun.

Coming back to the poem, what is real, authentic and accurate for one person may not be for somebody else and, in the case of the poem, reality for other people, and the time itself, might be different for both the soldier and the clockmaker.

Gavin finds it “absurd to get people in the same class talking in English. It’s not natural, it’s not real. People do it because that’s what you do – but that doesn’t make it real.”  However, if people agree that learning English is the reason that you come together in a classroom then you can argue that talking in English is the most “real” and “authentic” thing that you can do.

Sitting in a classroom with people that may not interest you or share anything with you

“I see no reason why I should sit in a classroom, thrown together with people that may not interest me or share anything with me and attempt to pretend that I am indeed interested or having a good time.”  Gavin Dudeney.

For most people in the world language classes take place in primary,secondary and tertiary education, I don’t know what the percentage is, but the reality is being “thrown together” with other people, as it often is in private language schools  Again, if the purpose of the classroom is to improve people’s English then sharing the problems involved in doing this is an authentic activity and if the learning becomes one of the main things that is talked about in class then there may be a lot to be learned from sharing experiences with people who you might not immediately feel an affinity with.

With a group of students in school who may be together for several years, exploring both the English language and issues that are important to them and which they care about and are interested in, in a mutually supportive environment, will often define the character of the English class and developing a sense of class belonging and class identity through a shared class biography may be a strength of an English class. I have seen examples of where speaking to each other in English has become part of their identity and their shared history that they refer back to fondly and which becomes part of their social banter amongst themselves. This was a group I had a very productive year together with when they were 15/16.

Szabó Lőrinc Két Tannyelvű Általános Iskola students who I worked with for a year. We had many interesting discussions including ones on the Iraq war, contraception, Hannukah and careers.

Szabó Lőrinc Két Tannyelvű Általános Iskola students who I worked with for a year. We had many interesting discussions including ones on the Iraq war, contraception, Hannukah and careers.

There is another dimension to this too though, if you are working in state education then you are a subject teacher, in our case English, but you are more than this as well. You are a teacher who is trying to teach people life skills which include getting people to listen to each other, to really listen to each other, to co-operate together in groups and to encourage those people whose English is better than others to sometimes encourage those students whose English might not be so good.  The reality in life is that we will always have to work together with people who we might not immediately like or feel we have much in common with but there are always some things that we can share and developing these skills in the classroom might be one of the functions of a classroom in a digital age where increasingly people can get both their language data and contact with other users of English online, whether native-speaker or not.

The role of the language classroom as a place where we motivate people to learn and help people to learn

On an earlier post of  Jeremy Harmer’s I argued that the language class might be somewhere where those children, students, learners are exposed to English in a safe and motivating environment who outside the class might not get the encouragement that they need to learn languages. The teacher might have a very important role in this and seeing other students who are more motivated, who might themselves be given a role in the class to help those students who aren’t as lucky, could be an important factor in their language learning. The point I’m trying to make and the one that Mike Breen makes in his article is that sharing the common purpose of learning a language and how we can do it better transcends the issue of talking with people who we may or may not like.

Creating a classroom that we want to belong to

Hilary Swank playing Erin Gruwell in "The Freedom Writers". How to create a classroom that we really want to belong to

Hilary Swank playing Erin Gruwell in the "Freedom Writers", a true story based on a teacher trying to create a classroom that her students want to belong to

At our IATEFL Hungary conference in Budapest last year Herbert Puchta, President of IATEFL, did a talk which included extracts from the film “The Freedom Writers” in which a beginner teacher, in a very difficult environment, manages to create a classroom which the students really do feel like belonging to.  Classrooms are here to stay and talking about how we make a better classroom and making this one of the topics that we talk about in class with our students, in their own language if necessary right at the beginning, might be one of the most authentic and real things we can do in classrooms. Each and every one of the students can have a role in shaping what happens in a classroom, lessons are co-constructed by everybody who is present and encouraging people to explore these things together may have enormous benefits to learning in terms of discipline, responsibility and the effectiveness of the English learning itself.

What is the real thing for one person might be totally artificial for another.

The campaign for real ale

Which ale is real and which isn't?

"Real" ale's great but beer that might not be "real" as defined by CAMRA might be just as "real" for somebody else

I started off with beer so I might as well end with it. Na Zdravi,if we are drinking what Holub probably drunk! In my late teenage years I was a member of an organisation called the campaign for real ale. It was at a time when six breweries dominated the market and served beers which were  easier to keep, cost less to produce and there was a movement against a drop in the quality of the beer.  The organisation achieved a lot but I remember some people saying if you weren’t drinking “real” ale then you were somehow missing out on the “real” experience when in fact other beers could also be enjoyed and they were just as “real” for those people who were drinking them. Who is to say whether the clockmakers time or the soldier’s time is the right time?  What is the most real and authentic thing we can do in classrooms? If  what we do there is authentic to learning then for me it is real. I try as much in my classrooms to encourage spontaneous interaction and certainly do not subscribe to the “locked, prison like interactions” that Gavin describes but classrooms are here to stay, they may take on different forms in response to digital changes and much of this will be for the better but for me making them places that people actually enjoy being in will continue to be something I spend time working on and sharing how to do this with my students.

And finally in the words of Mike Breen again, “Perhaps we should seek ways of bringing to the surface all of the potential resources of the social world in which we work?  Like Holub’s soldier and clockmaker, our own certainties may represent only one of many possible alternative points of view”.

So much for exactness

And the fish move in the waters and the heavens are filled

with the murmur of wings while

The chronometers tick and the guns thunder.

PS: If anyone would like to read the poem in French or in Holub’s native Czech here it is

10 thoughts on “Making the most of classrooms, they are real and we need them more than ever

  1. Mark,

    Thanks for the name check, and for the delicate picking apart of some of what I said. I still stand by the fact that I would rather *choose* the interactions I have, based on criteria such as interest, challenge, friendship, relevance, etc., than have them imposed on me in the artificial situation of the classroom.

    Right now, I reckon, within about ten minutes, I could find someone who speaks the target language online, someone interesting to me, and have a chat with them. As I said, I realise that’s not an option for everyone, but it is for many.

    And I still think it’s strange to expect people thrown together in a classroom to naturally have an interest in listening or speaking to each other – or indeed to find it comfortable or useful in monolingual situations.

    I really, sincerely, do doubt most claims of ‘authenticity’ in connection with most classroom activities. Now, it has to be said, that these are sometimes the only opportunities people have – and I accept that. And they can, of course, be useful sometimes, too. But ‘authentic’? No, I don’t think so…


    • Thanks for the response Gavin.

      What I was trying to say is that the classroom is not an artificial place at all, it is part of mainstream education and it’s also a real place where people come to learn languages in language schools. Having a teacher present who is experienced in understanding individual students’ needs and who is capable of giving them feedback, support and encouragement is one of the strong points of classrooms.

      In primary and secondary schools children and students go to school primarily to meet each other and socialise and the lessons often get in the way of that. I think it’s the teacher’s task to try and make the lessons engaging enough for students to also interact with each other in the classroom.

      But if English is part of a student’s school experience then learning English and speaking in English to each other is authentic to language learning. This is what I was trying to say with the use of the word authentic.

      If a teacher works hard to create a safe environment where students are less uncomfortable about using English in monolingual situations then classrooms can provide a very rich learning environment.

      Hopefully outside the classroom students will find more and more opportunities face2face and online to use their English but the classroom can be a place which builds confidence for this.

      I think what Mike Breen was arguing in his article was that if a task is authentic to language learning then it is an authentic thing to do in class.

      Isn’t it the teacher’s task to encourage students to listen and speak to each other? Both language skills and social skills can be developed that way and that is what English teachers in state education are there to develop.

      Whatever classrooms can’t do, isn’t it our role to make them as enjoyable, challenging and engaging places as possible given that we spend most of our lives in them, as much as for ourselves as for our students?

      Thanks again for writing


  2. Hi Marek, I have to say I absolutely loved this post. I had been thinking about writing on the same topic, but you did it so much better.

    I sort of agree with Gavin that the often forced imposition of L2 in the classroom can be a bit fake. Regardless, this doesn’t belie the fact that the conversations, interactions, and sharing that occur in the classroom can be authentic. If a student genuinely wants to share a story, get their point across, persuade someone, etc. this is authentic communication. It doesn’t matter what language a student is using to do it.

    This is why it’s so important to get to know the students and really interact with them. As one of my students once said, “I love your class because it’s like we’re at a cafe. It seems so natural.”

    • Glad you enjoyed it Nick, I’d been wanting to write it since I started the blog in January but hadn’t found the right moment. While I was reading Jeremy’s last post and the responses to it I thought it would be a good time.

      As you say, sometimes students want to share things in class in English and because it is in English in a monolingual class it doesn’t mean that it is inauthentic, it is authentic to language learning.

      And some students do actually enjoy playing with, having fun with and struggling to say things in English in an English class. If the students defintion of an English class is communicating in English in order to learn English better nothing could be more authentic.

      One of the tutors on the Manchester PGCE in the teaching of English Oveseas, a course I did in 1984/5, Gerry Abbot wrote this article in 1981. Abbot, G. (1981) ‘Encouraging communication in English: a paradox’, ELTJ, 35/3.

      He wrote about the fact that the more that people want to communicate in a monolingual situation the more they will want to use their mother tongue. And it became known as Abbot’s paradox, as i remember.

      But…if people want to practise their English and it is understood that this is expected and the teacher makes it clear that this is what goes on in an English class then it is authentic classroom behaviour.

      It doesn’t mean though that you don’t sometimes use classroom time to discuss things in the mother tongue.

      Thanks for contributing Nick.

  3. Fascianting post on a great topic, Mark. I love the way you gather together so many seemingly unconnected strands here to form a coherent whole.

    I thought it was interesting that you mentioned cinematic presentations of classrooms. It was Scott Thornbury who first alerted me to this whole genre and it’s amazing how much we can learn from looking at these on-screen classroom settings, from films as diverse as “Dead Poet’s Society” or “Italian For Beginners”.

    For me, a great example of authentic communication in class comes in the film “La Classe, Entre les Murs”. Do you know it? I’m attaching a particular clip here, but don’t know if you understand the original French or the Spanish subtitles. I can’t find this scene on You Tube with English subtitles, unfortunately.

    Here the students challenge the teacher on the use of the imperfect subjunctive, questioning the need to cover it in class because, they claim, it is not used. What’s fascinating is to see how the teacher’s attitude gradually changes here when he sees that he can learn something from them. He puts away his agenda and statrts reacting to the here and now of the spontaneous dialogue that has emerged in class. The power relationship between the immigrant students and the native speaker teachers begins to shift.

    Students talking ABOUT the target language IN the target language, questioning it and trying to unpack it, is clearly not something we do generally in our daily lives, it is an example of purely classroom discourse – but I don’t think there’s anything richer than that.

    By the way, I’ve only just come across your blog, Mark. Great stuff! I’m going to speaking at the RATE conferene next week and see that you are too, so I look forward to meeting you there


  4. Hi Ben,

    Have been trying, since I started this blog in January, to locate ELT in a wider educational and cultural framework in both a cross-cultural and cross-curriculuar way and love using film in both by classes and on the blog.

    I think “entre les murs” is a fabulous film and have taken my methodology students to see it at the cinema as well as working with it in class.

    I think it captures classroom life better than any other film I have seen which is about teaching. Co-incidentally, as we are both going to Romania, I experienced a very interesting discussion on “Dead Poets Society” on a course in Sinaia, in Romania, on ELT and human rights after we had discussed clips in the morning and then watched it in the evening. The discussion went late into the night and led to the voicing of very strong opionions both in praise of that teacher and ones very critical of him.

    Looking forward to seeing you in Iasi and thanks for commenting

    All the best

  5. Mark,
    This year I have 6 English classes in our high school and their command of English varies.
    With the beginners we face the problem of having a gap between what is in their mind and what they can articulate in L2. It bothers them more than it bothers me. They feel that they fake communication by using English instead of their mother tongue which would be more natural for them.

    I am also challenged by the fact that I have to build the conversations on their vocabulary and it is way below their mental capacity since they speak as a 3 year old and they think in their first language as a teenager.

    In the more advanced classes we can gradually
    move towards REAL situations and REAL communication.

    I do not want to take a side on the authenticity issue, because I think for the students, school has a major part in their social life. They learn to interact with their peers and with adults as well. This is real life for them.

    As a teacher I spend time with them in and out of the classroom and I think that I have to be an authentic adult for them. If they accept me then neither I nor my classroom is artificial for them.
    As you can tell I do not speak about just teaching English any more.


  6. Hi Mark, great poem, great post, great video from Ben, I want to watch the whole film. Unlike your two paths crossing, I don’t think ours ever have, despite me going to Manchester Uni and knowing some real ale chaps, then landing in Siofok for a year and visiting Budapest a number of times. My photo is, I hope and imagine, still up in Percel Mar Gimnasium, just like the picture you put up.

  7. Hi Mark,

    During an argument I heard someone saying “you are right, but I am right too” which made me realize that sometimes two points of views can be valid for different reasons. Obviously there is nothing more authentic than talking face to face to a native speaker in the target language. At the same time monolingual classes could seem to be artificial. But what happens when suddenly a person with a different mother tongue appears in the class? Could we assume that our Italian learners (for example) will realize that they must speak in English with the Ukrainian newcomer (for example) in order to communicate not only in class but also after class? Could only one person make the difference? If yes, can the teacher be this person who doesn’t speak the learners’ native language well or not at all? Can the urge to communicate with the newcomer or the teacher himself/herself persuade our learners to speak in English? I think the answer is yes because people are curious. And I also agree with you that the English classroom can be a place where people share information and experience with each other about their English in English. It can also become a place where people can try out their new language and by getting used to hearing their own voice in another language they will grow into taking risks also outside the classroom. And when they succeed in real life, maybe during a vacation or on a business trip, they will come back to the classroom to deepen their knowledge and understanding even more because they have tasted the satisfaction of being independent not only in their own country but also anywhere else in the world.


  8. Great post, Mark! In this comment I would like to react both to this post and to Jeremy Harmer’s blogpost (+ the debate). I am chicken to comment there..

    I have been thinking a lot about what you could mean by ’real’. I think that if something is real then it is subjective and uncluttered and without compromise, it affects us on a personal level. It means being involved, being part of something bigger. Understanding life with the heart and not exclusively with the brain. However, not necessarily in an emotional sense, but more like a certainty, which is always a satisfying experience. It touches centre and it has something to do with the self.

    Can we draw a line between school and real life? Is school a place where we need to aspire to authenticity? Is life outside school the real thing? I have the impression that we often talk about the two in terms of oppositions. And routine acceptance of such dreary polarisation hardly brings us closer to any solution I think.
    Regarding social interactions in real life, i am sceptic about their authenticity. ’Real’ life is full of clichéd representations of our feelings and thoughts I find. It requires huge effort and skills to be real in our personal relationships. You always stress that school should be a place where life skills are learned, and I think that being real in our relationships is one of them. Although what I see is that only a few people can achieve this quality.

    Now having said that, this also suggests that we want to transfer something to the classroom that is often only half-authentic. Whereas schools are full of children and young people who still have the precious gifts of naivety and creativity. During my teaching practice in a secondary school in Budapest I often felt more real within the walls of the classroom, than after classes when I left the building and walked the streets. And the source of that feeling, I believe, was the children: their often cruel honesty and the feeling that they do not live according to the restrictions and the routine of everyday life. My only task was to keep that atmosphere alive, and not to bring along that fake reality to the classroom.

    “I see no reason why I should sit in a classroom, thrown together with people that may not interest me or share anything with me and attempt to pretend that I am indeed interested or having a good time.’’
    Is modern life not a succession of people we are not interested in?? Sorry for sounding a bit gloomy, but I think that is the way it is, most of the times, life is indeed a construct of unwillingly matched participants. I believe that if at school we are thrown together with people whom we love/hate/do not care about/find interesting or boring, we get a field where we can master the skills that we later in ’REAL’ life can use to manage ourselves through our relationships.
    I realise that the comment was about learning, but can we separate learning these skills from social interactions? The commenters on Jeremy Harmer’s blog mention the idea of how we learn: socially or/and individually, etc. But that is besides the point, people are social creatures, it is crucial to master the skills of interacting with each other effectively.

    Also, being in the classroom is a constructive situation, or at least it should be. The teachers, as well as the students, are creators. If it is boring to be there, well why don’t we do something? Be active! I truly believe that here in Hungary the social/political /economic, etc. situation is the result of the fact, that at school many children, who now are adults, simply endured boring people, boring classes and boring situations. I do not know about other countries. But here many are passive in their social interactions, and many do not care, and even if we do, it often causes a headache to handle a difficult situation. This is why I doubt the authenticity of real life, you see.. School-life-school-life-school – a vicious circle.

    Creating the situation in which we feel comfortable requires personal involvement, which makes the situation feel real. Action makes life real. And how do we do that? By making connection, by getting to know each other. That is why the T should know the Ss. I think that the most a teacher can achieve is to make the students realise that they are active participants in their own lives and that they can shape reality, and to make them realise that the things that we are talking about – in this case a foreign language – have got something to do with their lives. It is a tool in their hands – to be used. And to achieve this, it is useful if the T considers the students’ reality as a starting point. I think the title says a lot: classrooms are real and we need them more than ever.

    It is enjoyable to read the debate on the other blog, it is immensely useful for me to get to know the different methods and ways of thinking. It is useful because this is how we can put the pieces of the puzzle together. But what I particularly liked about your blogpost, Mark, is that you answer the dilemma from a totally different viewpoint. And to do so you exhibit a more organic way of thinking, as Ben Goldstein also pointed this out. Which is that you do not approach the problem from the coursebook vs dogme end, but instead you start from pedagogy, from the importance of sheer interaction, a kind of essentialism in a more positive sense. Here we are talking about something that goes beyond teaching English and methods. It all boils down to human interaction and understanding.

    If I am generous with myself and allow myself not to stick to any method, and if I have my students as the alpha and the omega of the teaching-learning process, slowly but surely everything falls into the right place. At the end it really does not matter if we call an idea a method or not, because as I experience, there is no method, there are only ways that do not exlude each other. However, it is important to have this debate i think..

    I found this thing the other day, a set of ’rules’ from a US college art department, written by, interestingly enough, a catholic nun. A pretty decent manifesto for anyone, not just for artists.
    It says at one point:
    General duties of a student: Pull everything out of your teacher. Pull everything out of your fellow students.
    General duties of a teacher: Pull everything out of your students.
    I quite like the idea of hanging some worthy ideas out on the wall, I never had such a thing at school. I think something like this could have helped raise awareness of individual participation during my school years.
    I do not think I can copy paste pictures here. If you are interested in the whole list, you can find it here:

    To end a long comment, I can only repeat the question: why do we seperate school from reality, and why do we put our faith in the authenticity of our post-school existence?

    Yours was a thought-provoking post!


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