Interview with Doug Marbach, Academic Writing Teacher

In this interview I chat about learning and teaching with Doug Marbach, a Beijing-based EFL Coach with a specialism in Academic Writing. Listen to the audio to learn more about Doug’s:

– learning and teaching background

– passion for coaching rather than teaching

– dealings with technology in the classroom & iBT TOEFL preparation

– experience teaching Academic Writing

– recommendation of (his own!) new Academic Writing book – The Writer’s Journal

Coaching vs. Teaching

According to Timothy Galway (1975), a world renowned tennis coach, “Coaching is unlocking people’s potential to maximise their own performance.” It stands to reason, then, that being a coach is the natural extension of the role of teacher when considering teaching and learning from a student-centred perspective. For some today, this may be hard to accept: it is no longer about the perfect lesson, nor the perfect teacher. It’s all about the student. It’s about acknowledging that she/he has a basketful of resources and previous experiences to draw on, and that we, the coaches, are there not solely to impart knowledge, but to liberate and stimulate students into finding their own answers. Indeed, equipping students with the ability to become autonomous learners, is one of the key 21st century global skills employers look for when hiring today. In this way, I have been inspired by Doug to consider myself a Learner Coach, wanting less to tell students what to learn, and wanting more to give them the opportunity to select and justify their own learning paths and for me to support and guide them through these choices.

Technology in the Classroom

Although Doug’s students are digital natives, this does not mean that they have successfully made the transition from using technology for social purposes to using technology for learning. Whereas Doug views the existence of mobile phones as a distraction, I see this as simply a lack of awareness on the part of students and teacher alike, as to the effectiveness and value of communication technologies in the classroom. As Garrett (1991) pointed out, technology is there to serve language, and not the other way round. Perhaps, in this case, both learner and teacher training is necessary, not only of the practical elements and functionality of learning technologies, but also to highlight, and then bring together, the differing expectations (of use of these technologies) of these two groups. It is only then that a future state of ‘normalisation’ (Bax, 2003), where technology is so naturally integrated it seems almost invisible, may be envisaged.

Teaching Academic Writing

Despite having a lot of experience helping students improve their writing skills, Doug notes that with less emphasis on writing than the other three language skills, many of his students rely on memorising and copying as a “full template approach to getting the job done quickly.” Certainly, students need coaching in this area, but teachers often tell them what is needed, rather than show and guide them through the writing process.

As reported by Doug, the essential parts of writing are: – introduction theses, topic sentences, paragraph support, making a point and expressing an opinion. Together, these elements create coherence, logic and progression. So what students really need to be shown is what good writing looks like. That is to say, what a topic sentence is, how it relates to the theses and, in turn, how it relates to what comes after in the paragraph. Textbooks do include such examples, but don’t often emphasise the requirement for teachers to sit down and work through and discover what writing means from the student perspective.

The Writer’s Journal is a soon-to-be-published book that helps both teachers and learners alike, to discover, break down and better understand academic writing techniques. Penned by our very own Doug Marbach (!), this manual embodies a step-by-step process, combining plentiful examples and space for experimentation, with a coaching style discussion, unearthing the basic, essential elements of writing.  Based on the IELTS Writing system, this book is destined to make writing simpler, more fun and interesting.

Technology and Writing

Considering, as I do, most learning situations through a digital lens, I suggest there are many ways one may incorporate technology in the classroom in order to improve individual language skills. Indeed, just last semester I did some analysis of a research project that introduced collaborative blogging into the language classroom, as a form of improving academic writing skills. Entitled, Blogging to Learn: Becoming EFL Academic Writers Through Collaborative Dialogues (Sun & Chang, 2012), I think this is one example of an activity that would complement Doug’s writing course, by providing the conditions and outcomes for successful academic writing. If you want to know more about the background and results of the project, feel free to read my post with embedded presentation here.

Extra Resource for Learner Coaches

Sample activities taken from From English Teacher to Learner Coach, by Daniel Barber and Duncan Foord

References

Bax, S. (2003). CALL – past, present and future. System, 31, 13-28.

Garrett, N. (1991). Technology in the service of language learning: Trends and issues. Modern Language Journal, 75, 74-101.

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