Devil’s Advocate vs Mike Hogan on Business English Teaching and Training

This series is inspired by a conversation between Mike Hogan and myself about examining the controversies in ELT. We wanted to consider the different positions taken by different members of the industry. However, to do so, we’d need a debate, a disagreement of sorts. And it became apparent that we either tend to agree with members of our PLN (flying creatures of the same feathers and all that), or would keep an open mind and be fairly polite and supportive of one another (that is why we tweet and blog). We concluded that the only way to get a real debate going was to actively play Devil’s Advocate (DA). After all, it’s always healthy to rethink our views as we attempt to justify them.

The following debate took place as an Instant-Messaging Chat on Skype.  The statements of here are of the DA and in no way represent my beliefs about teaching. This is merely a tool to spark a dialogue between you, the reader, and all those involved in this project.

So the first victim in the hot seat is my co-conspirator, Mike Hogan.  

Mike currently gives communication skills training to corporate clients based in Germany. He also creates bespoke training concepts for clients and advises clients, training providers and publishers on issues relating to corporate training. Mike is also a Business English coursebook writer. Find out more about him here and follow him on Twitter here.

Chia : The area of Business English teaching is a very grey one…It is often unclear as to whether the BE teacher is teaching English or teaching Business skills.

While some say the two should not and cannot be separated, and that BE teachers should also be well-versed in business, others say that we are simply not paid enough to act as consultants.

Mike: Hi Chia, you’ve definitely brought up an interesting and relevant topic, but before we delve into it, I think you’re confusing the different job/roles.

Consultants and business English teachers are simply not the same thing

Chia : Pray tell. What are the differences?

Mike: Well, before we look at that, let’s just focus first on the BE teacher and what’s expected of them. What is their task?

Chia : What WHO is expecting of them? The clients? The TEFL BE specialists? The layperson? Everyone seems to have a different definition of what is expected of the BE teacher. Some expect a course in Business, some expect communication skills, some expect presentation or negotiation skills, some just want some grammar…

Mike : Right, so you’ve listed communications skills, presentations & negotiation skills and grammar….. We’re getting closer to the big 6: Telephoning, Correspondence, Presentations, Meetings, Negotiations, Socializing/Small Talk. These are the skills which most course books cover, and also those listed in books like:

How to Teach Business English                         or                                                                                                                The Business English Teacher

Chia : So are you saying that the definition of a BE teacher is one that teaches English used to carry out those 6 skills and what is expected of a trainer or a consultant is different then?

Mike : Yes, those ‘6’ are certainly what seems to be expected from a BE teacher , although not limited to those. The expectations of the latter two are fundamentally different, as is what they deliver.

Let’s stick with ‘teacher’ for a moment though. A teacher can come into BE teaching from a number of areas, right? Although it’s often though the CELTA route, right?

Chia : Yes.

Mike : Ok, and many of those may not have had what one might call “professional” business experience before doing their CELTA. (I include myself among them).

So, then those starting out lack the practical experience and knowledge of business meetings and presentations necessary to train their learners. They teach from the coursebooks provided to them and use them as the basis from which to further their own knowledge of said subjects.

As Frendo puts it in the aforementioned book, “a teacher is someone who teaches (for general purposes of general improvement). A trainer is someone who is required to change a person’s behaviour or ability so that they can do a specific job. Training is job-oriented.”

Chia: Isn’t that simply rhetoric? Take the English teaching field outside of BE for example. We call them teachers but many would be pretty up in arms if you were to suggest that they were just teaching for ‘general improvement’. We live in a world of ‘niche markets’ and English teaching is becoming more and more needs-based than ever.

Does that mean that outside of BE, all teachers who attempt a needs-based, job-oriented focus is a trainer?

Mike: Hold on… “Teacher as coach is someone who can help the learner to take advantage of the learning opportunities in their learning environments … to better understand their own strengths/weaknesses, and plan accordingly. This is related to learner autonomy, where the learner takes full responsibility for their learning.” They generally work in-company – as does the trainer – as opposed to within a school environment, a place where ‘the teacher’ is often found.

Chia: All the definitions you are giving seems like pure rhetoric to me. The word ‘general’ in General English is a misnomer. Most experienced teachers will tell you that… And any teacher engaged in 1-to-1 classes will without doubt be using goal-oriented needs-based lessons… You are just giving me definitions after definitions…

Mike: And as you’ve said above, yes the teaching world is a world of niche markets and I wasn’t aiming at making a sweeping statement about what teachers do or what they call themselves, but fundamentally, the definitions are there and they are different from each other. This is how they can be distinguished.

Chia: The boundaries between a teacher, a trainer, and a consultant is not always that clear in real life.

Mike: I haven’t mentioned consultant yet … and yes, there’s a huge difference here: experience and what they do.

Consultants are neither “teaching” nor “training”, but can use their expertise to run needs analyses within companies, create training concepts, analyse the structures in place within, potentially recommend training suppliers, conduct negotiations (rather than ‘teach’ the language for them, or ‘train’ the skill)…and so on.

Following my point of experience (just above) – a consultant (or coach) very often has ‘real’ business experience…and their educational background may well have been a business MA rather than one in TESOL.

Am I getting closer to not just using rhetoric to highlight the differences?

[Note: that was in no way a value statement relating to either type of MA, and I have great amounts of respect for anyone who further their development through further learning, regardless of what it is they’re learning. It should be relevant to them, their needs and direction].

And over the years teachers may, yes, develop into trainers, and from there into coaches or consultants … but it also comes with continual development and not just teaching experience.

Further training and also often ‘real’ business experience are necessary to make that leap/step…as well as the implementation of many of the skills found in our BE course books, i.e. marketing, networking, presentations and negotiations … in order to ‘place’ oneself.

Wikipedia: “Business English means different things to different people. For some, it focuses on vocabulary and topics used in the worlds of business, trade, finance, and international relations. For others it refers to the communication skills used in the workplace, and focuses on the language and skills needed for typical business communication such as presentations, negotiations, meetings, small talk, socializing, correspondence, report writing, and so on.”

Chia: As you have so clearly just shown with your wiki definition of BE, the boundaries aren’t always clear…But don’t you think that part of the issue in the Business world is a failure for clients to recognise what the BE teacher/trainer/coach does? (I’m going to leave out consultant as you have clearly shown that that warrants a whole different discussion) And thus the status of the BE teacher/trainer/coach isn’t clear too

Mike: I believe that one should tread lightly when using the term ‘coach’ as it can often be misconstrued in the psychological or life coach sense … and also in the business coach sense …which is getting closer to the consultant definition I gave above.

Chia: What I’m saying is a lot of BE teachers might be doing the very things that you defined as what a trainer, or even a coach does … but just because of where they work and how they package themselves, they don’t earn the same title and therefore the same remuneration.

Mike: I’m sorry, I have to disagree.

As I’ve just said above … the coach uses very many different techniques to the teacher or trainer. ‘Coaching Toolkit for Business English Trainers’  aims to looks at some of the differences and highlight coaching approaches which can be used be those thinking about making the transition or expanding their own skill set. It’s been co-authored by a Business English trainer who has re-trained as a coach (Anna Stowers) – which also follows my previous point about (continual) development.

So, can we please remove that designation from your objections above and focus then on the distinction between teacher and trainer?

Chia: OK, fair point. I recede.

Mike: I thought you would. ; )  Anyway, coming back to ‘where they work’ and ‘how they package themselves’ and that ‘they don’t earn the same title or remuneration’.

Does a doctor who works in his/her own specialist practice earn more than a ‘general’ ‘non-specialist’ doctor working in a hospital?

Does a mechanic who works for a Formula 1 team make more than the guy around the corner who fixes my car?

Chia: A doctor’s or a F1 mechanic’s specialist knowledge isn’t quite the common sense knowledge that a business trainer needs…

Mike: But are you agreeing that specialist knowledge is worth a higher fee?

Chia: Yes. But common sense packaged as specialist knowledge isn’t necessarily that specialist.

Mike: Ok, and are you also then saying that business (English) trainers’ knowledge of business need just be that at a level of ‘common’ sense?

Chia: It depends on how you define common sense, which of course as we know isn’t that common.

Mike: Common = most people know it.

Chia: Common sense isn’t quite common as such. It’s an ability for logical thinking and as defined by Merriam-Webster as, “sound and prudent judgment based on a simple perception of the situation or facts.”

It’s an ability to make such judgment – an ability that could be honed from experience, or be instinctive…

But certainly not the same kind of specialist knowledge that a doctor has…

Mike: Yes, there are very many excellent teachers out there, with very high levels of ‘common sense’ that would also make excellent trainers, but common sense is not enough. ‘Specialist’ knowledge of how business works is also necessary. For such people, with (or without) prior professional experience, investing in professional development could greatly help, such as the Cert iBet, or an Intercultural Trainer’s Cert … as is attending the conferences where we see each other and our peers. That combined with practice, i.e. the experience I was talking about earlier, will help them to make the next steps in their career (if they decide to want to go in that direction).

OK, given your background in trading , or sales & marketing … If you were giving BE teaching/training to a group of sales/marketing people or traders, do you not think that you’d be able to relate more to them and their needs than someone who has no idea of these industries (and may not be flexible enough to take a Dogme approach to it)?

Chia: I like the way you sneakily slip Dogme in there to get me on your side… But not today, Mike…not today…

Mike: Well, as I’ve said before (today), the concepts behind Dogme aren’t new (in Business English) teaching, and people teaching/training in this industry need to be particularly adaptable to the needs of their learners.

Chia: Absolutely. But again, I take you back to the initial argument. Most good teachers already practise some form of principled eclectism, which by definition is needs-based.

On my Celta courses, I spend the whole month getting my trainees to elicit, to deal with emergent language, to work with learners’ interests and learners’ needs … even at a Celta level, one could claim that I’m training them to be trainers rather than teachers as such … after all, isn’t that what the communicative approach to teaching about? So is there really a difference between trainer and teacher?

Mike: Yes, there is – context, expectations, delivery, experience, ability, (possible) specialization … and not necessarily location …

There is a growing importance of and focus on improved performance in the workplace rather than mere language level practice and improvement. This means more importance is being given to the level of transfer between what is covered by the TRAINER and how applicable that is in learners’ working lives. It’s not enough for learners to be able to successfully complete activities, role-plays and simulations in training sessions. They need to complete their professional tasks more successfully.

OK. let’s try a different angle…

Do you call yourself a trainer?

Chia : No

Mike: Why not? If it’s just a matter of rhetoric (as you say) and results in higher rates for doing the same thing?? Then it would be a no-brainer to call yourself one, right?

Chia: Because I work for a school and it says ‘teacher’ on my pay slip. Which is exactly my point… I could be doing all the things a trainer does but labels only matter if you are a free-lancer… Thus, my point being, the labels are not about what we do, it’s about who we work for and how much we get paid. In an ideal world, we would be defined by the duties we perform, but in actuality, it is about the marketing and being the free-lancer and not about the job we do as such…

Purely playing Devil’s Advocate, don’t you think it’s extremely unfair that we have to do the marketing and repackaging of ourselves to ‘fool’ the clients into thinking we aren’t the bog-standard ‘English teacher’. Shouldn’t we instead be trying to change the lay person’s view of what an English teacher does so as to ensure they understand the impact we can have on their communicative competencies in their businesses? Shouldn’t we be trying to educate the lay person instead of trying to differentiate ourselves from English teachers?

Mike: We’re not re-packaging ourselves and I don’t know what you mean by ‘bog standard’ teacher. Who is the lay person? Our client?? and what sort of ‘fooling’ are we doing? Regardless of what our clients’ expectations of what a BE teacher is or isn’t.

I believe the best way to fulfill clients needs is to find out what they are (rather than telling them what they are – based on what we want to sell), to consult them and clearly identify their needs then those of their organisation. The person consulting is not necessarily the teacher/trainer/deliverer. It is quite often a centre manager, sales person, external consultant, etc. Then a suitable programme/offer/course/package can be put together for an appropriate fee, with the appropriate type of professional taking care of the delivery.

The key word is ‘appropriate’. Then we can ensure that our client’s needs (and expectations) are met. …and this type of consultancy work should be done be a consultant who can draw on the necessary and appropriate resources to deliver.

Appropriate meaning; what does this individual, group or client need? A teacher, trainer, coach or mix of all.

As I said above, the consultant and the training/coaching/teaching provider are not necessarily one and the same person, but they could be – although as you’ve indirectly pointed out, this could lead to a conflict of expectation in terms of rates.

…and responding to your comment above; there are many (training) institutions which use trainer to delivery their training – drawing on the differences highlighted at the top, and so it’s the distinction is not limited to whether the provider of the service is in a ‘school’ (or agency), or in-company.

Mike: Further to my comment earlier about trainers, coaches and consultants often have business training backgrounds rather than TESOL MA and such, I also think that training of the type that our participants get, i.e. active business people, would also be potentially very useful. I’m talking about fundamental training in the principles of project management, team leadership and such areas. Such training would give the basis for increased insight into business communication and business practices, which again serve to draw a distinction between the titles of professional we are talking about. They could be useful for people aiming to further develop in the fields of corporate training.

In addition, training in international competency development could also be beneficial. There are many specialist course available for thse coming from Business English teaching background, such as those offered by Barry Tomalin at IH, London; Adrian Pilbeam at LTC Bath; York Associates or WorldWork in the UK; or Skylight in Germany.

Yes, it’s about where we do it and how much we get paid, but crucially, it is also about WHAT we do.  Training is about training someone for a change in their behaviour, or ability so that they can do a SPECIFIC job. It’s context based and led by situation … and not just because unit5 of the book deals with business trips and negotiations. [Aside: IF you work with course books, they need to be flexible and adaptable with opportunity for personalization]

Chia: Sure. You can call that training and I can call that good teaching and continual professional development…

Mike: OK fine, but there is a difference in the terms/titles used, built upon (further) training, practical (i.e. business) experience, client expectations, and what is actually being delivered. There are also some key qualities necessary, including, but not limited to, openness, desire to self-improve/invest, ability to become an ‘expert’ in your clients’ field quickly, and others. Maybe we can save the rest for a sequel?

Chia: Thank you, Mike. That is a really concise summary of what we discussed. Sorry for giving you a hard time.


Come back soon for the next DA session, with a new person in the hot seat.

Chia

Epilogue: Mike & Chia are still friends! Mike’s opinions are his own and do not represent any organization he is associated with. Chia was just playing DA.