Phil Wade Interviews: Daniel Barber
Daniel Barber is a teacher, trainer and writer based in Cádiz, Spain. He has taught for 22 years, in Mexico, the UK and Spain. He has written for several publishers and co-written From English Teacher to Learner Coach with Duncan Foord. Daniel is currently part of the National Geographic Learning’s team, writing a course for upper secondary level. He is an experienced tutor on Trinity Certificate and Diploma TESOL courses. His interests include motivational factors, the digital future of ELT, and neuroeducation.
You have created a good coaching blog and e-book and are one of the very few people I have seen make the move from teacher to more of a coach. How did this happen and why do you think other teachers should make the shift?
For a long time, I’ve been aware of how ineffective my teaching is. I’d like to rephrase that to say ‘how ineffective all teaching is’, but I can only speak for my own, so I’ll let it stand. My teaching is only as effective as my learners, who are typically a very mixed bunch, with some learning fast and others hardly at all.
I thought about my more effective learners and realised that they were all motivated to learn by something outside of my powers. That’s to say, they wanted to learn independently about how good my lessons were. They often had a passion for something in the English-speaking world, whether the lyrics of Arctic Monkeys or family members living overseas. They enjoyed movies. They weren’t afraid to browse foreign pages of the Internet. They identified as users of English, not just learners.
I started to think about how I could get all my students to be a bit more like these people. I realised that this had little to do with good lessons and lots to do with my students’ ‘English language lives’ outside class. I wanted to use the time we had together to share these ideas, to help motivate each other to learn, to help them organise their learning and to get practising throughout the week. My writing partner, Duncan Foord, has a neat analogy; he likens learning a language to losing weight. You may attend a WeightWatchersTM meeting once a week, but you don’t lose weight there. Losing weight is what you do the rest of the week. The meetings are there to generate a sense of togetherness, instruct, encourage, check on progress, commiserate if necessary, celebrate as much as possible – exactly what a language class should be.
Coaching seemed to Duncan and I a suitable way of reframing the teacher’s role in this new dynamic. Again, analogies are helpful. You may only see your sports coach once a week, but every athlete knows it’s the hours you spend on the track each day that make the difference between a contender and a champion.
It seems you are very interested in how we learn languages and the best ways to help that process but would you agree that perhaps teaching and learning are sometimes separate i.e. teaching does not automatically create learning?
Of course, the two processes are connected, but many teachers assume that if they’ve taught it, the students have learnt it. Teaching is about providing rich opportunities to learn. It reminds me of the adage: you can lead a horse to water, but you cannot make it drink. Lessons and classes should be like oases, where learners are eager to drink.
So good teaching is about creating optimum conditions for learning: clarity in explanation is one aspect of this, of course, as is praise and encouragement. I would also argue that good teaching concerns itself with the capacity learners have to teach themselves, not only setting homework, but helping learners generate their own learning opportunities. The conclusion for me then, is that a crucial part of our curriculum needs to attend to learner’s ability to learn, such as teaching the phonemic chart, how to use online resources well and how to boost one’s motivation when it begins to flag.
I’m currently interested in digital learning apps, courses, tools and sites on offer, and the role the teacher has in mediating learners’ use of these products. Whereas twenty years ago, the problem for self-access was one of access (Where do I find suitable resources?), today the issue is one of choice (Where do I start!), so I think a primary goal of teachers must be to equip student with the critical and evaluative tools they require to make informed decisions about out-of-class practice activities.
If a new student came to you and asked how quickly you could get them from A1 to B2 and how, what would you say?
I’d ask them how much they want to learn and how much time they have. I’d ask them how hard they are willing to work. I’d ask them what they think I can do to help. Then I’d tell them that I can’t get them to B2 – that’s up to them.
There are people who become proficient speakers of a language without ever having set foot in a language classroom and there are students who after fifteen years of formal tuition are still barely able to say a word. We have to question any approach that promises a ‘no-sweat’ path to success, any approach that expects the teacher or the method to do the hard work and any approach which suggests that the responsibility for learning lies anywhere other than at the learner’s feet.
Daniel has written a book with Duncan Foord, From English Teacher to Learner Coach, available at