Image: Richard Cullen
Marion Williams recently received the prestigious Ben Warren Prize for “Outstanding contribution to teacher education over the last two years” for her book Exploring Psychology in Language Learning and Teaching. She was also nominated for the ELTons Innovations award for the series of stories for young learners called The Thinking Train; a beautifully illustrated series of books which aim to develop thinking from story.
Her background is full of adventure. Marion trained as a primary school teacher in the 70s and taught children before moving to Nigeria, where she trained primary teachers and supervised teaching practice, and would frequently travel from place to place on horseback. She then transformed her environment completely, moving to Hong Kong to work for the British Council as well as completing a Master’s degree in applied linguistics, remaining there and in Singapore for over a decade to train teachers. When receiving an offer to run the Master’s course at Exeter University, she packed her family and moved back to England.
This sprawling experience of culture and different approaches to life has had a great impact on her understanding of the psychology of learning and teaching, which has helped teachers across the world understand their students better. So where did it all begin?
- When I started setting up the Master’s programme in Exeter, the first thing I did was to look for books on the psychology of language learning. There was a wonderful bibliography on methodology, language acquisition and how language works, but to my great surprise, very little relating these to psychology. I thought I’d better rectify this situation so went to a professor of educational psychology to learn about his subject, to help me understand how people learn. This would enable me to better understand how people learn languages and could, in turn, help me help teachers to teach better. So jointly with Bob Burden, I created a new course which became very popular, and after some years of experience we turned this knowledge into a book titled Psychology for Language Teachers.
Following on from the success of this publication I got going with my other passion: teaching thinking. Almost 20 years ago now I published Thinking Through the Curriculum which considers how thinking can be developed through all subjects in the curriculum: thinking through art, music, history – every subject, including language learning. Continuing this passion, four years ago I wrote Teaching Young Learners to Think jointly with Herbert Puchta. We developed language activities to develop thinking concepts: comparing, catergorising, focusing attention, up to problem solving and creative thinking - activities which are used frequently in the OISE syllabus.
What is different about a language lesson that stimulates creative thinking?
You basically want to encourage learners to come up with their own solutions and views rather than the ones the teacher is looking for. A lesson where you seek to simply extract correct answers is unlikely to stimulate creativity. Life is not about correct answers. Life is full of finding the best possible solution to a particular situation. We don’t prepare students for their future if we only seek correct answers. If we teach thinking properly, we generate a lot of creativity, more invention. We need to teach people to look at things in alternative ways and come up with new ideas. And of course we develop the language abilities at the same time.
An example activity I like is to ask a class to come up with 20 different uses for a paper clip. An earring? A lock pick? The students can get really creative with a simple object, as well as use interesting language. I also want teachers to give students more time to think rather than trying to be the first to finish. You need time to think, to think without fear of criticism.
How do we encourage thinking at OISE?
There is a strong loop within the company in that teachers learn our ethos by being taught in much the same way that we teach our students. Training is active and interactive. We are trying to produce more than just people who speak English, we are creating citizens of the world: going beyond language teaching.
What is the role of the OISE Academic Board?
About ten years ago I was invited to be the President of IATEFL (International Association of Teachers of English as a Foreign Language) and at the same time Till Gins, founder and CEO of OISE, approached me to ask if I’d like to join the company and set up and chair the Academic Board. I could see the wisdom of this: if you have someone who can advise on academic matters and help out when needed this will enhance academic standards and provide the best quality teaching, and produce better learning. Our role on the board is to make sure that learners get the best teaching possible.
I like to help teachers to teach well, so that learners can learn better – that is what I have been doing for the past decades. This organisation is very proud of its teaching. The company has gone a long way from simple language teaching, to going beyond language teaching and developing learners’ life skills, and we have excellent teachers who focus on doing this.
How has teaching languages evolved over the course of your career?
Back in the 1970s there were lots of drills where you just mindlessly parrot phrases, substituting certain words. A standard lesson would involve certain structures as opposed to grammar points, and “free practice” which was not at all free, still using the same structures. I had a video of one of these classes, where a woman parroted “my father has gone to town” and then “my father has gone to the market” and so on. Now we teach with a focus on communicating in the real world.
Is there anything you’d like to share with our readers?
OISE teachers aim to give learners the best possible experience. That’s how the learner benefits. Teachers are encouraged to be creative, and the important thing is that the teacher understands the student. Students have fears, worries about home and themselves, likes and dislikes, fears of making mistakes, anxieties, thoughts about what their families might think if they fail… no matter how well the teacher follows a particular methodology they will get nowhere if they don’t know how to tackle these fears. That is what I want teachers to do, to understand their learners. The methodology is only one third of the whole. The other components are understanding the student, and of course, knowing the language. All these must come together.