Connected with my comments on what constitutes a successful lesson/teacher, is Earl Stevick's now famous riddle from his book, Memory, Meaning and Method

Connected with my comments on what constitutes a successful lesson/teacher, is Earl Stevick's now famous riddle from his book, Memory, Meaning and Method:

"In the field of language teaching, Method A is the logical contradiction of Method B: if the assumptions from which A claims to be derived are correct, then B cannot work, and vice versa.  Yet one colleague is getting excellent results with A, and another is getting comparable results with B.  How is this possible?" (Stevick 1976: 104)

The riddle can be re--phrased in various ways:  How come my successful lesson yesterday with class X , was a disaster with class Y today?  How come the lesson I taught last year with a similar group flopped this year? etc.  But the question remains, why does it work sometimes, whatever the method, and why not at other times? There is surely a something 'beyond method'.

Over to you.

Alan's now finished blogging on the site - check the Guest Writers page to see contributions from other guests.


  Dear Alan Maley,                         I am really fascinated to read your blog Stevick's paradox. It is a fact that the lesson which is a success in one class may be a failure in the other. The methods adapted in native speaking countries like England may not work in non-native countries like India. A resourceful teacher needs to change his/her lesson plan depending on the nature standard, level, culture and background of the learner. Anyone can be a teacher but it is very difficult to be a facilitator in the acquisition of knowledge. Most students AND SOME TEACHERS , i am afraid don't know the difference between learning and acquisition. I hope you will read my poems. With kind regards, Yours sincerelym JVL NARASIMHA RAO

Dear Mr Narasimha Rao, Thank you again for your helpful comments.I agree with you that the 'same' methods may not be suitable in very different contexts.  It would be unrealistic to expect that methods devised for small, mixed-language groups in British private language schools with abundant resouirces would work in an rural school in India with monolingual students, large numbers and few resources.  This was, of course, what Adrian Holliday was getting at when he made the distinction between BANA (British, Auastralasian and North American) and TESEP (Tertiary, Secondaruy and Primary) contexts in his book 'Appropriate Methodology...' However, I think that what Stevick was driving at was something a little different.  His riddle addresses the problem of why, even in the same school, two different teachers obtain the same results with very different methods.  And, by extension, why the same teacher gets different results using the same method in two different classes.  And so on. With best wishes, Alan Maley

Dear Alan,
I guess that there is no answer, but just that we are fascinating as human beings!
We never respond the same way to the same/similar things (be it English, a friend, a chocolate, a film, a situation, a song, a story, the weather, etc.).
Also, depending on who we are with, what we have been through just before, what we aree thinking about, what we'll do next, etc. we'll all react differently...
We are so complicated as human beings...that everything changes with every second that goes by...
But this keeps things interesting, don't you think?
warmest regards from the sunny Chile to the snowy England, I suppose,
P.S: Dear Alan, I have a request to make. Would you mind if I copied your blog posts and used them in a course I am teaching next year? I'm going to teach a Listening & Speaking course for 2nd year teachers-to-be at the university I studied. They have never had any teaching course before, so I decided to do it only with teaching-related topics; I want to introduce them to some of the topics they'll study in the near future, and so that they start thinking about the idea of being a teacher (because they are still thinking that they are students of English).. and I was just thinking that your topics would be great!
Let me know, thnx beforehand!

Dear Alan,                  I agree with the fact that the same teacher will get different results from the different ability of the students,Some are slow,passive or active.I have taught a good class,the smart students will be much better in achieving higher grades but the slower students are sort of lagged behind and they need special attention,what I would say is the remedial activities suited to the level of the child's ability.When I taught the less smart students,(average level)they like the flow of the slow and comprehensive teaching and were able to absorb the knowledge suited to their level.                 When I experimented and used the same method to the smarter kids,they were saying that the lesson was boring.So,I would conclude that the teacher plays an important role in knowing the ability and background of the students before teaching.It helps a lot to make the lesson flow very meaningful and enjoyable to students learning English as their second or third language.                 What I really wish that the enrolment of a class in Malaysia's primary school would be less that 30.But the real fact,there are sometimes more than 45 students in a class which makes the lesson less effective when there are too many students who need the teacher's personal attention in an hour.

Dear Kathy,Nice to hear from you again.You are absolutely right that we are all so complex and in many ways unpredictable.  That is the big challenge but also the bog stimulus for teachers.  'Variety is the spice of life' as the saying goes.By the way, you may of course use whatever you would liken from the postings. Very best wishes Alan  

Dear Normala, Thanks so much for your comments.You are quite right to point out how important it is for the teacher to pitch the lactivities (and texts) at just the right level for students.  Too easy, and they switch off.  Too difficult, and they shut down.The issue of class size is a headache for many teachers across the world, as I know.  it is crazy to expect quality teaching and learning with so many to attend to at the same time.  Even at higher levels, it happens.  I have one MA class in a SE Asian country with over 40 students in the class!  What to do, lah!Best wishes Alan