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Ken Wilson: A life on the ELT stage

INSIGHTS: ETAS Journal Volume 31 No. 2 Spring 2014

Ken Wilson: A life on the ELT stage

An Interview

The only difficulty in interviewing Ken Wilson is deciding what to focus on. A teacher since the 1960s, he started his career in Seville, before moving back to London and recording his Mister Monday album, the first ever collection of ELT songs. He wrote TV and radio programmes for BBC English, and became a member of the English Teaching Theatre, a theatre group that toured the world, performing in 55 countries.
Now an established author, he has written books including Smart Choice (Oxford University Press, 2007) and Drama and Improvisation (Oxford University Press, 2008), and is one of the most popular speakers on the ELT conference circuit. 2013 has already seen him speak in locations as diverse as Turkey, Cuba, Italy, and Dubai. But I kicked off my interview by asking him to go right back to the beginning.

What’s the first lesson you remember giving and how did it go?

The first class I remember doing was part of teaching practice when I was training at International House, London. The less said about that the better. The fact that they gave me a job at Instituto Británico in Seville suggests that I wasn't completely rubbish as a teacher. I clearly remember standing in front of my first class in Seville. I didn't speak Spanish, but decided to tell them we would only speak English. I said: “Hablamos solamente inglés.” They all nodded and smiled. You could see them thinking, "Great! He speaks Spanish!” First of many mistakes.

Who has been the biggest influence on your career in ELT?

John Haycraft, the founder of International House, was actually the trainer on my training course, which was the best bit of education I have ever had. He was Principal of the London IH school and was like an eccentric uncle to me when I went back to work there. When he heard that I had written some songs for my students, he arranged an interview with Longman, so he was also responsible for me becoming a published author.

During your travels around the world with the English Teaching Theatre, you performed in 55 countries. What are your fondest memories of this time?

Everything about the ETT seems rosy in hindsight, but there were some difficult times, mainly when we couldn't get enough actors to do a tour. But the strongest memories are of shows that really went well because the audience was really up for it. And these could happen anywhere, in the most unlikely places. The first really great shows that come to mind were in Belgium, Spain, and Brazil, but there were others all over the place. And some terrible ones, too, mainly in German Realschulen at eight o'clock in the morning!

And what are your memories of Switzerland?

My first memory of Switzerland is arriving in Lucerne on a train just before Christmas with my wife Dede when she was four months pregnant with our first child. Although the train journey had been a bit uncomfortable, once we were there, we were wonderfully looked after by the mother of a student of ours called Rudolf, who was also our lodger in London. His mother, Frau Erculiani, made delicious soups every day and Dede felt better than she'd felt all the time she was pregnant.

My strongest memory of doing ETT shows in Switzerland was the first show we did in Geneva. Half the audience were wearing shoe-skates! I'd never seen shoe-skates before and was astonished by the size of them as I walked through the audience.

You are most closely associated with using drama techniques in the classroom. What was it that led you to drama in the first place?

Working with actors at the English Teaching Theatre. The first thing they taught me was about voice preparation. An actor wouldn't dream of starting rehearsals without doing some vocal warm-ups. I remember suggesting that to the teachers in the IH staff room, and they thought I was mad. I still think it's a good idea.

I also noticed that some of their warm-up ideas involved little routines in pairs and groups and I realised that I could adapt them for use in the classroom. Then I became aware of the improvisation work of the Comedy Store players, one of whom was an ETT actor.

Then people started asking me to do drama workshops, and it all expanded from there.

Are there any misconceptions about the use of drama in the ELT classroom that you would like to dispel?

Hm... well, I think that people who do drama activities are probably happy with what they do and don't need to have me talking about misconceptions. However, I do worry that other teachers who are less confident may be put off by some of the things they see at conferences, full-blown drama events which require a staggeringly high level of English to complete.

For me, drama activities in the classroom should be manageable, success-oriented, and set at a level the students can handle.

And I don't like the word 'drama' either. I think it makes some teachers think there are a whole lot of skills they have to learn before they can 'do' drama activities. But that's another story.

You were the plenary speaker at the ETAS SIG day in 2011. What were your impressions of ETAS and the conference?

Great bunch of people, and Zug was a marvellous place to have the conference. My workshops went very well, and the participants showed great enthusiasm.

You’ve also written a number of coursebooks. With the rise in interest in ideas such as Dogme ELT and Demand- High Teaching, what do you think the current state of the coursebook is and how do you see it changing in the future?

With the greatest respect to the Dogmetists and also to Adrian Underhill and Jim Scrivener (the proponents of Demand- High), I don't think either of these things are going to have the biggest impact on course material in the next 10 years. Despite the Dogme revolution, demand for course material has never been higher. The biggest change is going to be in the mode of delivery of new course material.

Pearson Longman have already made it clear that they expect to be delivering paper-free course material in the very near future. They have done their research, so I suppose they know what they are doing, but there remains an immense digital divide, often in the same country.

China is a great example. High school classrooms in the major cities – Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou, etc – all have interactive white boards. Many of these schools are using tablets instead of books. Meanwhile, 300 kilometres to the west of Beijing, there are schools where teachers are still using blackboards and chalk, and the students are using hand-me-down books that are 25 years old.

Developments in the field of course material will not be uniform!

What are your upcoming projects?

Writing – I'm starting work on an Advanced level book for Richmond ELT, and I'm also working as Editor-in-Chief on a Vietnamese primary project.

Visits – I have an interesting and exciting set of visits coming up between now and the end of 2013: Peru, Ecuador, Greece, Armenia, Iran, and Japan.

Many thanks for your time, Ken.
You’re welcome.

James Taylor