“How can TEFL and ironwork possibly have anything in common?”

A sandwich. That’s what my career has been like: two slices of TEFL (one much thicker than the other) with a hefty slice of blacksmithing in between. Yes, blacksmithing: for fifteen years, my husband and I ran a blacksmith’s forge, designing and producing traditionally-forged functional and decorative ironwork.

Few more disparate jobs it is hard to imagine, I know, and space does not permit me to explain the shift from one to the other and back again. However, on closer examination, I have realised that these two disciplines, one involving hitting hot metal with a hammer over an anvil to form it into useful and beautiful items, the other involving enabling speakers of other languages to communicate their ideas successfully in English, do perhaps have more in common than you’d think. And I would even go so far as to say that EFL might have something to learn from blacksmithing…

Both disciplines have a couple of fundamental elements, without an understanding of which students won’t get very far. For learning English, these are grammar and vocabulary; for blacksmithing they are the temperature of the metal and the core techniques for striking it. In each discipline, it is the manipulation of and interplay between these two sets of fundamentals that form the basis of any successful output.

There is also a strong element of ‘learning by doing’ in both: there is only so much forging or English that can be learnt passively from books or from observation. Eventually you just have to go and light a fire and pick up a hammer, or go and write an email to your customer or ask for directions to the station. It is therefore fortunate that in both disciplines, mistakes are seldom if ever fatal. After all, both hot metal and English offer almost endless scope for correction, adjustment and refinement. This is because the English language, like steel, is malleable, versatile and capable of being shaped into an infinite variety of forms.

Perhaps because of this, practitioners in neither field can ever credibly claim to have finished learning, to have fully mastered their craft. Improving one’s skills is, rather, a lifelong work in progress as much for the blacksmith as for the learner of English. That said, regardless of the practitioner’s skill level, simplicity can often be more effective than complexity, as much in relation to English as to forging.

Fashions have changed over time in both, too. The style of 18th and 19th century ironwork is as flowery and formal as anything written by Jane Austen or Charles Dickens, while more contemporary ironwork tends to reflect the pared-back style of, say, Ernest Hemingway or Stephen King. And a similar shift has taken place in EFL classrooms: who now would ever teach their students to say ‘to whom should I give this?’ rather than ‘who should I give this to?’

Style in both disciplines can, once a certain level of proficiency has been achieved, also be an expression of individuality: the work of some blacksmiths is as readily recognisable as that of some writers. On many occasions I have certainly been able to say whose homework I’m marking just from the style and content of their written work.

Lastly, both disciplines can be used for purely functional or for entirely artistic purposes: blacksmiths can produce gates and candlesticks as well as sculpture and jewellery, whereas students of English can use their skills to produce a business presentation or a poem. Well, in theory, at least: I’ll come back to the poem thing later.

For in learning their craft, trainee blacksmiths are typically given much more scope – encouragement, indeed – to indulge in creative play. As part of their training, they are regularly given free rein to explore the properties and limits of their material, to take risks, and to experiment with different ways of achieving a given outcome, or even just wait for something interesting and serendipitous to emerge from that play. A critical feature of this kind of learning is that here is no such thing as rules, no such thing as mistakes, no such thing as grades. And that freedom enables blacksmiths to develop a much deeper understanding and appreciation of their medium, and a more confident and intimate relationship with it. This in turn enables them to interact with it more successfully in the creation of original and well-crafted work – whether that is, say, a quirky gate or a striking objet.

Over the years I have watched dozens of blacksmiths – ranging from near beginners to highly skilled professionals – participating in this kind of creative play. Sometimes this has been in a work context, with smiths experimenting with ways to fulfil a design concept or client brief; sometimes it has been part of a master class, with a guest smith inviting participants to play around with a particular tool or technique; and sometimes it has been part of a collaborative event at which blacksmiths of all levels are set the task of producing a piece of work with limited materials and in a limited time in response to a given theme.

Inevitably, some experiments will end up in the scrap bin, others will be a raving success, but most will be somewhere in between. The maker of every single piece, though, will have learnt something as part of the process, will have gained knowledge and experience that they can carry forward to their future projects. Oh, and almost invariably they will also have great fun along the way.

It seems to me, however, that this freedom to indulge in creative play is largely absent from EFL classrooms – my own included, I should add. Yes, we all play language games and do quizzes with our students, together with a whole load of other activities classed as ‘fun’ – and they are great. Let’s face it, though: these are not about experimentation and the creative use of language at all, but a sneaky means of helping students internalise the rules governing a certain area of the language they need to pass their exam without realising it.

So I would say let’s all allow our students more opportunity to enjoy the liberation from the constrictions inherent in needing to pass an exam, get a job, or get a visa a little bit more, in always needing to ‘get it right’. Let’s encourage them and give them space to take risks and play creatively with language, exploring meaning, metaphor and mood or playing with sound, rhythm and intonation, for example. Let’s get them creating, displaying and even performing or recording more of their own, original output, whether that involves stories, features, flash fiction, comic strips or plays; poems, rap, limericks, song lyrics, haiku or… Well, as teachers, perhaps we should also allow our own creativity to take flight.

Blacksmiths have been playing with fire for millennia. I’d say it’s about time EFL did some catching up.

Fran Mackereth has degrees in Law with French from the Universities of Leicester and Strasbourg, and in Business with Economics from the Open University, from which she graduated with First Class Honours. During the seventeen years between the two, she taught EFL in the UK, Germany and South-East Asia, having gained her CELTA back when it was called the Preparatory Certificate in TEFL (and dinosaurs sill roamed the earth). She has taught all levels and all ages, both in groups and 1:1, but her primary area of interest has always been Business English, both in-company and in-class. Following a fifteen-year break from teaching, during which time she ran an award-winning blacksmith’s forge with her husband (yes, you read that right), she moved to Italy and returned to teaching. Since her return to the classroom, she has also qualified as an interlocutor for Language Cert oral exams, gained a Certificate in Online Teaching, delivered teacher training courses and written ESP materials. She is currently participating in a Creative Writing course through the University of Cambridge.

Categories: Careers