Business English: Who’s teaching who?

This post originally appeared on the OUP Global ELT Blog in April 2010 and was called ‘Something I learned from my business English students’

I’ve always had a theory that the real reason Business English is called ‘Business English’ is because the student learns English while the teacher learns a lot about business. One-to-one lessons with high-level managers are especially good for learning about different management theories, so the last 18 years of working in ELT has also been like my own personal MBA.

One business theory that’s always struck me as relevant to both manager and teacher is the Deming Cycle. Deming is probably most famous for his work on quality and TQM, but his ‘cycle’, which defines  the process of management, is still massively influential on basic management training and certainly applies  to what English teachers do in the classroom.

Here’s the basic idea:

Plan > Do > Check > Act

Managers plan a project including the stages, who will do each stage and by when etc. Then this is put into action in the ‘Do’ stage. Both during and afterwards, the stages, or the entire project, are checked and then it can be evaluated. Based on this evaluation, the manager takes necessary action and begins planning again.

Clearly, this cycle can be easily applied to the classroom. We plan a lesson, do it, check our students’ progress and follow up with necessary action. As with management, failure to implement any one of the four stages in the lesson cycle can often explain why lessons go wrong.

Having trained and observed many teachers on courses, my impression is that most problems occur at the ‘Check’ and ‘Act’ stages. The reason is that during the ‘Do’ stage, the teacher hasn’t incorporated enough tasks which will demonstrate outcomes and produce tangible results which will allow us to be able to check or evaluate and give useful feedback to act on. In Business English classes in particular this is especially important as our students (and companies) want measurable successes. Without these last two stages, students will be left wondering what the point of the lesson was.

Role-plays are probably the most obvious example of a task which produces tangible results. Students speak, we monitor, and so the teacher is in position to evaluate. Using case studies is another way to see how well a student can integrate different language skills. Other than having ‘tangible tasks’ you need criteria by which you can check and evaluate. One way to do this is to use a checklist which includes stages of a spoken interaction. For example, if a student is role-playing a telephone task which involves taking a message, your checklist might look like this:

1.  Answer the phone  □

2.  Offer to take a message  □

3.  Check details such as spellings and numbers  □

4.  Ask if the caller needs anything else  □

5.  Say good bye  □

As you listen to the student, you tick each stage if it is done successfully. As students become familiar with this format they can even use the checklist to evaluate each other.

So next time you reflect on your lesson, apply Deming’s cycle and see if you can identify the four stages of the cycle in action.