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What’s so funny ’bout peace, love and understanding?

Below is an article I wrote for the IATEFL Teacher Development SIG’s newsletter, which you can access by following this link. It’s more or less a summary of the plenary talk I gave at the TDSIG’s Pre-Conference Event in Liverpool in April 2019, and it explores the role of social justice in education in general, and ELT more specifically. Comments welcome, as usual.

It used to be the case that the phrase “social justice warrior” was a badge of honour – something that activists and campaigners against various conservative or regressive policies would proudly call themselves. Nowadays it tends to be used by the alt-right (though not only the alt-right) to mock their liberal or leftist opponents, and particularly any tendency they may have towards self-righteousness. If you look up “social justice warrior” in the Urban Dictionary you get this definition:

A person who uses the fight for civil rights as an excuse to be rude, condescending and sometimes violent for the purpose of relieving their frustrations or validating their sense of unwarranted moral superiority (Urban Dictionary 2019).

Somehow the phrase has become co-opted, and is now used to portray anti-conservative activists as insincere, self-serving, judgemental hypocrites who don’t actually have any interest in making the world a better place but have realised that criticising their opponents makes them feel better about themselves.
Is it fair to portray campaigners for social justice in this way? Well, there’s no doubt that believing you hold the moral high ground can lead to a certain degree of smugness, but surely that’s not the issue. What should be important are the actual values and policies that they are campaigning for or defending, and to explore this we first need to understand what social justice is. Finn and Jacobsen describe social justice in this way:

Notions of social justice generally embrace values such as the equal worth of     all citizens, their equal right to meet their basic needs, the need to spread opportunity and life chances as widely as possible, and finally, the requirement that we reduce and, where possible, eliminate unjustified inequalities (Finn and Jacobsen 2017).

Now, to my mind, nothing in this description of social justice appears particularly radical, or even controversial. The idea that every person should be valued equally is central to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (United Nations 2019), and it seems reasonable to want everyone to have access to what they need in order to survive. Spreading opportunity and life chances doesn’t mean everyone gets the same things in life; it just means they get the same opportunities to have those things. And if inequalities are unjustified, it stands to reason that we should try to reduce or eliminate them. Yet, somehow, a belief in social justice appears to have become associated with radicalism, unfair demonisation and dangerous left-wing authoritarianism (Young 2016). Why is this? What kind of world are we living in where the desire to have a fairer, more equal and equitable society should be regarded as so abhorrent?

Perhaps it has something to do with the way our society is currently structured – specifically the fact that it is hierarchical, unequal and hegemonic. Hierarchies exist in all walks of life, and what tends to happen is that those people at the top of a hierarchy get more than those at the bottom. It could be argued that they deserve more because they’re doing more important work or they have more responsibility, but the extent of the inequality has become ridiculous; the 8 richest people in the world now have the same wealth as the poorest 50% (Elliott 2017). In addition to ensuring an unequal share of wealth and opportunity, the hegemonic nature of society means we are led to believe that all of this inequality and injustice is normal (Bates 1975). In practice, what this means is that those in power manage to ensure the implementation of political decisions that favour them, ensuring they are able to retain their power and wealth, even if these decisions are damaging to other people – or to the planet. This is why we have pollution from fossil fuels and the waste produced by consumerism, an international arms trade, and child labour. Hegemony also leads us to direct any blame for our own suffering away from the people who are causing it, and towards groups who are suffering even more than us, which is why we have racism, homophobia, transphobia and other forms of bigotry. In short, the world is in a pretty awful state right now, and wanting to make it better by promoting a fairer society shouldn’t be a controversial stance. In fact, it should be the default position. But instead, the default position seems to be the promotion of the status quo, despite its very obvious flaws.

When it comes to education, a model that supports the status quo is effectively a form of indoctrination, as it entails giving learners knowledge and skills that allow them to play a role in keeping things as they are – and nothing more. Most teachers prefer not to think of themselves as promoters of hegemony, and tend instead to look at the empowering impact of their work. Through education, individual learners can acquire skills that allow them to be more successful, to reach their full potential in the world; many teachers see this as the main purpose of what they do. However, any success their learners achieve still takes place within the existing structures of society which, as I have said, are inherently unequal. An empowering approach to education does nothing to alter, or even challenge, these structures – it only changes the roles people play within the existing paradigm and, therefore, is also a means of maintaining the status quo (Inglis 1997).

The only approach to education that can be regarded as progressive in the sense that it seeks to address the structural imbalances that create inequality and injustice is an emancipatory one. Inglis distinguishes between empowerment and emancipation in this way:
 …empowerment involves people developing capacities to act successfully nwithin the existing system and structures of power, while emancipation  concerns critically analysing, resisting and challenging structures of power.  (Inglis 1997: 4).

This distinction is significant as it highlights the fact that the only way to promote social justice in education is to encourage learners to explore and expose power imbalances, and to look for alternatives. For this, we must turn to critical pedagogy, which Giroux describes as being ‘…rooted in a project that is tied to the creation of an informed, critical citizenry capable of participating and governing in a democratic society’ (Giroux 2011: 7). Again, an approach to education that seeks to give people the knowledge and skills to make the world a fairer, more equitable place is – or should be – far from controversial. In fact, it seems entirely logical, particularly when you consider the impact that power imbalances are having on the world right now.

However, instead of this highly sensible approach to education, we appear instead to be stuck with an approach that not only maintains, but reinforces the status quo. This is evident in the use of two-tier or multi-tier education systems to ensure the privileged get the best opportunities, while the most vulnerable members of society often get excluded from education altogether. Education is often conceptualised as something you do in order to prepare you for the world of work, which effectively means that educational content is dictated by corporate need – we’re trained to do the things that global corporations need us to do. We’re also encouraged to regard current social structures as normative, i.e. the way things are (unequal, hierarchical, heteronormative, patriarchal) is the way things should be, and the only way to improve your position in life is to aspire to be more like those who are in privileged positions. This can be done by being more competitive, more individualistic, more aggressive. This is what neoliberal hegemony encourages us to be like (Blacker 2013), and education plays its role in promoting this hegemony (see for example Gillies 2011).

Of the various types of education that exist, ELT is arguably one of the worst offenders in promoting neoliberalism. Learning English tends to be promoted as a key to economic success, by unlocking access to high-status education and jobs. This gatekeeping role serves to promote inequality by excluding people who are unable to access English programmes from the more privileged positions, or even from gaining access to key information about the world. Elitism in ELT is, of course, further promoted through its huge private sector, and the prioritisation of employability as the principal reason for learning English implies the application of Human Capital Theory, a neoliberal approach to education that values individuals for their economic potential, and nothing else (Coffield 1999). As for the learning content in ELT, materials tend to under-represent minorities and marginalised or vulnerable groups such as LGBTQIA and single parents, and avoid topics that might encourage learners to query or challenge social structures: topics like politics, religion, racism or imperialism (Gray 2002). Instead, learners are encouraged to aspire towards materialistic lifestyles through endless units on shopping and money. Native speakerism defines learners as inferior members of the global English-speaking community whose best hope for success is to try to imitate the privileged minority (Holliday 2006). All those reading activities that present multi-billionaires as role models, or equate happiness with material wealth, serve a similar purpose. They aren’t just representing the dominant worldview, they’re complicit in its construction. As Copley puts it, ‘not only has neoliberalism helped to shape the landscape in which global ELT operates, it has, in turn, become an integral part [of] the project itself. Commercial ELT, through its materials and branding, is therefore not merely reflecting a neoliberal zeitgeist, but in many respects is strategically positioned within it’ (Copley 2018: 59).

An important point to consider in all of this is that many English language teachers don’t see themselves as promoters of neoliberal hegemony, preferring instead to believe that, by avoiding critical engagement with social justice issues, they are somehow maintaining a position of neutrality. This is, however, a myth. Failure to address social justice issues in the classroom is a tacit acceptance of the systemic injustices inherent in our current social structures. Anyone who thinks otherwise either doesn’t understand hegemony, is prepared to accept these injustices, or places ELT within a very narrow definition of coaching – not really education at all.

If we return to the term “social justice warrior”, then, I contend that a fundamental purpose of education is – or should be – to give people the skills to make the world a better place. For educators, then, the promotion of social justice should be embedded in everything we do. Teachers who bring social justice into the classroom are not warriors – they’re teachers. That’s what education is all about. However, the dominant view in ELT is that an emancipatory approach to education is radical, or subversive, or even indoctrinatory. The Orwellian doublethink required to regard the emancipation of learners as a form of oppression demonstrates just how powerful these hegemonic forces are – and what we’re up against.

Bates, T.R. (1975), ‘Gramsci and the Theory of Hegemony’, Journal of the History of Ideas, Vol. 36:2, pp. 351-366.Blacker, D.J. (2013), ‘The Failling Rate of Profit and the Neoliberal End Game, Washington D.C: Zero Books.
Coffield, F. (1999), ‘Breaking the Consensus: Lifelong Learning as Social Control’, British Educational Research Journal, 25:4, pp. 479-499.
Elliott, L. (2017), ‘World’s Eight Richest People Have Same Wealth as Poorest 50%’, Guardian, published online 16/01/2017, available from: [accessed 14 April 2019].
Finn, J. and Jacobsen, M. (2017), ‘What is Social Justice?’, OUP Blog, available from: [accessed 23 March 2019].
Gillies, D. (2011), ‘Agile Bodies: A New Imperative in Neoliberal Governance’, Journal of Education Policy, 26:2, pp. 207-223.
Giroux, H. (2011), On Critical Pedagogy, London: Bloomsbury.
Gray, J. (2002), ‘The Global Coursebook in English Language Teaching’, in D. Block and D. Cameron (eds.), Globalization and Language Teaching, pp. 151-167, London: Routledge.
Holliday, A. (2006), ‘Native-speakerism’, ELT Journal 60:4, pp. 385-387.
Inglis, T. (1997), ‘Empowerment and Emancipation’, Adult Education Quarterly, 48:1, pp. 3-17.
United Nations (2019), Universal Declaration of Human Rights, available from: [accessed 12 April 2019].
Urban Dictionary (2019), Social Justice Warrior, available from: [accessed 14 April 2019].
Young, C. (2016), ‘The Totalitarian Doctrine of Social Justice Warriors’, The Observer, published online 02/02/2016, available from: [accessed 14 April 2019].


Conferences, Ethics and the #ELTfootprint

I wouldn’t say I was a seasoned conference speaker, or count myself as being part of the international ELT conference circuit. But I have presented at a few conferences over the past few years, and it’s something I enjoy doing. Since I heard of the Fair List though, I’ve made a point of asking about gender representation when I’ve been approached about speaking at a conference, and I only agree to present if at least 50% of speakers are female. More recently I’ve started paying attention to other forms of representation as well – people with first languages other than English, people of colour, people with disabilities, people who identify as LGBTQIA – and I’ve tended to look more favourably at conferences that are clearly taking speaker diversity into consideration when planning who their presenters will be. I really don’t want to be just another middle-aged native English speaking white man in a line-up of middle-aged native English-speaking white men, telling an audience of mostly non-male, non-white, non-native English-speaking teachers what to do.

But it’s only very recently that I’ve started considering another ethical issue that relates to conference presentation. As well as representation, we also need to consider carbon footprint. Earlier this year, Daniel Barber gave a presentation and wrote a blog post in which he declared a climate emergency within the ELT profession. The #ELTfootprint hashtag has been doing the rounds on social media ever since, and there’s an ELT Footprint group on Facebook, as well as an accompanying blog. These initiatives have been really effective in getting people thinking about ways to reduce waste in ELT – recyclable name tags, reduced use of paper, ethical disposal of used marker pens, that sort of thing.

While all of these initiatives are well-intentioned and can have a positive impact, reading about them reminds me of an interview I saw with the journalist and environmentalist George Monbiot (which you can watch here). He describes individual gestures like these as “pathetic micro-consumerist bollocks which isn’t going to get us anywhere”. The only two things that Monbiot suggests we can do as individuals that will actually make a difference to climate change are to stop eating meat and to stop flying. Everything else has to happen on a much wider, structural, macro-level.

With this (and my children’s futures) in mind, I’ve massively reduced the amount of meat I eat, but I’ve also started thinking more about what I can do to reduce my carbon footprint within my working context. Travelling by plane is something that happens a lot in a global profession like ELT, but much of it is unnecessary and actually impacts negatively on the development of our profession.

On the ELT conference circuit, the main problem with a lack of diversity is the over-representation of (usually) white male native-speaker presenters, and this is facilitated by the practice of flying such presenters in from other countries. What this means of course is that these presenters are not only giving their talks from a white male native-speaking perspective, they’re also speaking from a position of relative ignorance of the local context. There’s a good chance that someone who knows more about the key issues in the country where the conference is taking place will be able to give a more relevant and useful presentation than someone who is being flown in from elsewhere. There is something very imperialistic about a white man flying into a country he knows little about, telling everyone what he thinks they should do (despite his contextual ignorance), and then flying home again. There’s an implication that the locals don’t know what to do and are dependent on this “superior” “expert” for guidance. I was very aware of this when I was one of these white men at a conference in Mexico a few months ago, and it did make me uncomfortable (though I managed to convince myself at the time that it was OK, as you can read here).

Having said that, it’s sometimes good to get some external input, and it may be the case that someone on the other side of the world happens to have a message that is particularly relevant to the focus of a conference. But that person doesn’t have to fly round the world to convey their message. There’s nothing to stop someone giving a conference presentation remotely. I don’t know much about technology, but it’s definitely possible. For example, here’s a keynote presentation given by the late David Graddol in 2017 for an audience in Korea, which he gave from his office in Milton Keynes, UK. He was unable to travel for health reasons rather than ethical ones, but his live-streamed talk managed to stimulate follow-up discussion and seemed to go down very well.

I’ve never organised a conference, and experienced conference-organisers might be reading this and thinking I don’t know what I’m talking about, and that I’ve failed to take various crucial factors into consideration; that’s fine, please use the comments section below to enlighten me. What I’m saying here though is that I imagine the selection of conference speakers is (or should be) largely influenced by what these speakers can bring to the context in which the conference is located, or the general theme of the conference. The chances are that locally-based speakers will be able to provide more relevant content than speakers from elsewhere, so my suggestion is that they should be considered first. Then, if it still seems appropriate to get input from speakers from elsewhere, they can be invited to give a live-streamed presentation. This approach makes sense in terms of providing relevant content, reducing white male native-speaker dominance among presenters, saving money, and reducing the conference’s carbon footprint.

So, if in the future I am invited to fly somewhere just to give a conference presentation, I will first enquire about representation among speakers and, if there are already lots of non-local white men on the list already, I’ll suggest they reconsider who they’ve invited. If the list of speakers is already reasonably diverse, I’ll suggest that I travel there by train (if that’s possible), or I’ll offer to give a talk via some kind of teleconference. If that’s not possible either, I’ll suggest that they look elsewhere – ideally more locally – to find another presenter.

Am I shooting myself in the foot? Well yes, I suppose I’m denying myself the opportunity to visit some cool places and to do interesting work that will benefit my career. But hey, I’m a white native-speaking male. I’ve already had plenty of opportunities and benefited from my privileged position. I need to acknowledge this and concede that the voices of less well-represented people need to be heard too; this might happen more if conference-organisers source their presenters more locally. But also, and even more importantly, something we should all be considering a lot more is the impact of our professional practice on the environment. Of course, reducing carbon footprint involves some sacrifices but, when you put them in perspective and consider the consequences of not making these sacrifices, it’s a very small price to pay.

Ultimately, I don’t have to fly round the world giving conference presentations. But the point is that nobody does. I realise of course that it’s an important source of income for some people, and I’m not deliberately trying to shame individuals into giving that up. However, we all have a responsibility to consider the ethical impact of our actions. This is what I’ve done, and this is the decision I’ve reached as a result. If everyone reflects on their professional practice from an ethical perspective, it could actually lead to significant positive change.

Poking at the NEST – an anecdote about native speakerism

A few weeks ago I received an email from a Mr Ma, owner and director of the Mountain Ray English Training School in Yunnan, southern China. Mr Ma had learnt that we offer an MEd programme in TESOL, and was interested in knowing if any of our graduates might like to work for him. Like all educational institutions in the UK (and probably everywhere else), it’s becoming increasingly important for us to consider the employability of our graduates and to monitor how many of them progress to “positive post-course destinations”, so I’m always open to the possibility of making links with potential employers in this way.

However, the job ad that Mr Ma wanted me to publicise among our students contained the following list of requirements:


  • Bachelor’s Degree 
  • TESOL/TEFL certificate
  • Clear criminal record
  • Native speaker with clear accent
  • Loving personality and good behavior

Given that the majority of our current MEd TESOL cohort consists of people whose first language is not English, and given how much time we’d spent exploring the injustices inherent in native speakerist employment practices in our ‘English as a Global Language’ module the previous term, there was no way I was going to pass this on to my students as a legitimate job ad. So I decided to email Mr Ma explaining the UWS position regarding native speakerism:

Dear Mr Ma,

Thanks for your email, and for providing information about your school. We are               happy – in principle – to include your school in a list of potential employers for         graduates from our programme. However, I see that in your list of requirements you insist on applicants being native speakers of English. Here at UWS we value teaching ability over linguistic background, and we recognise that many non-1st language speakers of English can be highly effective teachers, while being a native speaker does not in any way guarantee a high level of language teaching proficiency. In the English Language Teaching (ELT) profession, using language background as a job requirement is becoming increasingly recognised as a form of discrimination called Native Speakerism. For this reason, we are unable to promote your school to our students.

If you would like to know more about Native Speakerism, here is a link to an article      by Adrian Holliday that explains the concept:

The link below summarises some research into Native Speakerism and other forms of discrimination in English language teacher recruitment:

Of course, if you wish to modify your recruitment practices we would be happy to explore ways to work in partnership in the future.

Best regards,


I wasn’t sure how Mr Ma would react. I half-expected him to just ignore me and move on to a more compliant teacher education provider, but I was also slightly worried that he might think I was a complete maniac; the practice of actively recruiting employees who are “native English-speaking teachers” (NESTs) is so deeply embedded within the ELT profession that to most people it appears innocuous, that it is an entirely natural desire amongst employers to prefer NESTS over NNESTs (“Non-native” English-speaking teachers). The myth that native speakers automatically make better English language teachers is widely believed by most stakeholders in ELT – students, parents of students, employers etc. So, when you apply capitalist principles to our profession and conceptualise an English course as a “product”, the need to meet client expectations becomes paramount, however unrealistic, discriminatory or damaging those expectations might be.

However, Mr. Ma surprised me by sending back an email with this subject:

please forgive my ignorance and accept my modified employment practice

It appeared that Mr. Ma had taken on board the points I had made in my email, and was perhaps more than a little embarrassed to learn that his job ad was in fact discriminatory (I’ve removed some parts of this email to preserve anonymity):

Dear Dr Steve Brown,

Thank you for your kind response. I should say I feel very sorry as my job description sounds native-speakerism to you. Although I have been working [in multicultural contexts] for many years, I still encounter embarrassment quite often as the result of the culture shock when I try to communicate with people from different culture.

I have many friends from…other countries, and I believe people are people no matter which countries they come from and of which color their skins are. By saying all these I just want to say that I did not mean to be offensive and discriminative in my previous job description. So I hope you may forgive my ignorance related to native-speakerism as this terminology is completely new to me.

It was clear to me that Mr. Ma had good intentions, and had no desire whatsoever to be part of an industry that seeks to impose the cultural and linguistic dominance of one group over another. It simply hadn’t occurred to him that the practice of actively recruiting NESTs automatically discriminates against NNESTs. As soon as I made him aware of the issue of native speakerism, he immediately realised the problematic nature of the ad and wanted to change it. However, he wanted to change it to this:


  • Bachelor’s Degree 
  • TESOL/TEFL certificate
  • Clear criminal record
  • British Citizen with clear accent
  • Loving personality and good behavior

So yes, this change means the job requirements aren’t directly native speakerist inasmuch as they allow NNEST British citizens to apply, but it is still discriminatory – this time on grounds of nationality, so I still couldn’t put it up on our MEd noticeboard. I could see that Mr Ma was keen to change his approach though, and I found this very encouraging. I decided to expand on the issues, explaining my perspective a bit more clearly:

Dear Mr Ma,

Thank you for your response, and I am also sorry for causing you to be embarrassed. Please don’t think I am being critical of you or your organisation. You are right that people from different cultures often have very different perspectives about certain issues, and I know that it is common in China for employers to request native speakers when they are employing English teachers. From our perspective, however, it is not something we can entertain. Many of our MEd students come from outside the UK, including China, and it’s important that their potential to become good language teachers is valued as highly as the potential for UK nationals or other native speakers. In fact, there are strong arguments to suggest that non-native speakers are in a better position to become effective teachers because they have actually studied English before, they know how the language works and how it can be learned in a classroom environment, and they are also more likely to be sympathetic to their learners’ problems. It is widely accepted that proficiency in English, understanding of how the English language works and ability to teach effectively are important qualities for English language teachers, but 1st language and nationality are not.

I know that it may seem strange for me, a native speaking English teacher from a UK institution, to be so supportive of non-native speaking English teachers, but lots of British (and other) academics are concerned about the imperialistic nature of the English Language Teaching profession. Because English is now a global lingua franca and no longer under the “ownership” of countries like the UK and the USA, there is no need for teachers to be a certain nationality or to be “native speakers”. In fact, it may make more sense for your teachers to be Chinese speakers, so that they can better understand the issues that your students are having while learning English.

If you are prepared to modify your ad further so that it does not discriminate according to nationality, I will be happy to share it among my students. Once again, I am sorry if you find my position on this issue unusual, and I certainly do not want to cause offence. But I do think it’s important to make you aware that discrimination in job advertisements is a sensitive issue in the global ELT jobs market, and I think it is in your interest to know about this so you can avoid any unpleasant allegations/accusations from job applicants.

Best regards,


I was a bit worried that, by rejecting his proposed modification, I might be pushing things too far. However, I was really pleased to get this response back (again, some parts of this email have been removed):

Dear Dr Steve Brown,

Thank you for your kind response.

I should say I cannot agree with you more when you mentioned the teaching capacities of non-native teachers. I have three non-native English teachers now…I am very happy with them and I think they are as good as my American teacher, and to some extent, even better. So, I fully AGREE that non-native speakers can also do a good job in teaching English. 

As a result, I would happily modify my terms in employing English teachers, instead of native speaker or British Citizen, I would like to put English teacher with good command of English and accent.  Will this be ok for you?

Looking forward to your positive response.

Thank you and have a nice day.


Mr Ma showed in this email that he recognises and understands the discriminatory nature of job ads that specifically require native speakers, and also how this discriminatory practice is profoundly unjust, given the high quality of professionalism that he is witnessing in his own NNEST teachers. I decided to push for one further amendment:

Dear Mr Ma,

Thanks very much for your reply. I am very pleased that we are in agreement about this issue. Professional competence is, of course, something that all employers should value above other factors, and it is pleasing to learn that you are happy with the non-native speaking staff that you have.

If it’s OK with you, I will remove the point about nationality/1st language and replace it with “Good command of English and clear pronunciation” – I think “pronunciation” is a more appropriate word than “accent” because it refers to the technical production of sound, whereas “accent” is usually associated with where a person comes from. Please let me know if you are happy with this change. If so, I will publicise your job ad among our students, who will be finishing their course very soon.

Best wishes,


Once again, Mr Ma immediately understood my point about accent vs. pronunciation and was very happy to make the change.


The reason I’ve decided to share this email exchange here (with Mr Ma’s permission, of course) is that many of us working in ELT tend to take a rather adversarial approach to the divisive, dichotomous issues that are so pervasive in our profession. NESTs vs. NNESTs, EFL vs. ELF, employers vs. employees, private sector vs. state-funded sector, structural syllabus vs. content-based syllabus, grammatical vs. lexical, global vs. local… when you come up against someone who appears to hold an opposing view, the tendency is to assume that they have considered both sides in the same way you have and then arrived at the opposite conclusion. This may often be the case, but not always. Mr Ma was requesting NEST teachers from a position of (to use his word) “ignorance”. It simply hadn’t crossed his mind that he was being discriminatory. But as soon as it was pointed out to him he immediately relented and asked for guidance in how to use more ethical and inclusive language in his job ads.

I’m not suggesting there is nothing sinister about native speakerism in ELT – that it’s nothing more than a misunderstanding; there’s plenty evidence to suggest that the inner circle of English-speaking nations have promoted the global use of English as a means of gaining “soft power” over other nations. See for example this quote from the British Council that Geoff Jordan posted in the comments section of a previous post I wrote:

“English . . . is spoken by a quarter of the world’s population, enabling a true single market in knowledge and ideas . . . For the UK today, it provides a strong competitive advantage in culture, diplomacy, commerce, media, academia and IT, and in the use and practice of soft power. . . The global power of English has helped the UK to grow and maintain its position as a cultural superpower . . . And just as culture can create the space where individuals can express, explore and re-imagine difficult issues, so English as the common language aids dialogue, understanding, trust and the brokering of business deals.” (British Council (2013) The English effect, p. 4).

For English to continue to be a source of soft power, countries like the UK need to retain some sort of control over it, and the myth of native-speaker superiority within the ELT profession allows this to happen. But as soon as you problematise the concept of NS superiority, its inherently unjust and discriminatory nature is immediately apparent. Rather than assuming that employers who post native-speakerist job ads are deliberately colluding with a UK/US-driven imperialistic agenda, perhaps we should first assume that, much like their potential customers, they have been misled by the long-running native-speakerist discourse that has dominated ELT for so long. As educators, maybe the first thing we should try to do when we encounter these attitudes is to educate, rather than criticise.

Out of the frying pan..?

out of frying pan

Image source: Pinclipart

Another dispute between Scottish further education (FE) colleges and the largest teaching union, EIS-FELA, has recently come to an end. A series of strikes had resulted from disagreements that dated back to a previous dispute over the harmonisation of salaries, which ended 2 years ago. During the last period of strike action I wrote this post, from a lecturer’s perspective, about the state of FE and how the sector had ended up in the situation it’s in, and it seems that there’s been little or no improvement in industrial relations since then.

I feel quite sad when I look back at what’s happened to the Scottish FE sector over the past 6 years or so. The regionalisation process has led to Scotland having fewer, but much larger, colleges, and recent policies such as Developing the Young Workforce have redefined the purpose of FE, shifting the focus away from providing lifelong learning opportunities to local communities and instead towards the reduction of youth unemployment. Of course, I’m all in favour of reducing youth unemployment, and the provision of vocational training for school leavers has always been an important role for the FE sector, but the approach taken by the current Scottish government has been one that hands power to corporate industry, requiring colleges and young people to meet employer needs, rather than prioritising the needs of young people and the communities they belong to (I previously wrote about this here). The SNP’s (surprisingly?) neoliberal approach to FE policy has dominated the sector so much that it has led to the decimation of part-time and non-vocational courses, with colleges being pushed into replacing them with full-time, accredited courses that people with barriers to learning such as childcare or existing work commitments are unable to access. The need to address the “employability agenda” within programme content, to increase the focus on the attainment of qualifications, and to use post-course employment as a measure of success (irrespective of the type of job students end up getting), have all increased the degree to which the FE sector is driven by performativity. To a large extent, college managers are now more concerned about making it look like they’re doing a good job than whether or not they actually are doing a good job.

To me, the most frustrating thing about Scottish FE’s prioritisation of employer-driven vocationalism at the expense of community-driven lifelong learning is the lack of resistance offered by college leaders. Anyone who knows a bit about education, and lifelong learning in particular, should be able to tell you how damaging human capital theory can be. For years now, the idea of conceptualising education as a means of developing the economy, and the resultant valuing of human beings in terms of their potential to contribute to economic growth, has been roundly criticised (see for example Coffield 1999 and Livingstone 2012). And yet, when the SNP decided to get a successful businessman to write an FE policy, and when that policy turned out to be unashamedly based on Human Capital Theory, college leaders simply accepted this policy uncritically and set about implementing it. They didn’t point out the damage it would inevitably cause in terms of equality of opportunity and access, particularly for more vulnerable members of society, nor did they (publicly at least) raise concerns about the increased workloads it would give college staff by enforcing changes to curriculum content and increasing the need for assessment and other forms of evidence-gathering.

I think there are probably two reasons why there was such little resistance from college leaders to the Scottish Government’s neoliberalisation of the FE sector. First of all, and rather unfortunately, most college leaders appear not to know that much about education. I know this is a strong claim, and I don’t have any hard evidence to back it up, but I’m guessing that none of them has taught a lesson in the past 10 years (perhaps longer), and most of them only ever taught for a short time before getting out of teaching and onto the management ladder. Some have never taught, coming to educational management from different routes such as financial management or student services. Educational management seems to exist as a career in itself, independent of ability to teach or knowledge about teaching, or understanding of what makes good educational practice. Of course, the gradual creep towards performativity (Ball 2003) has reduced the need for managers to actually know about teaching. As long as they can find ways to make the numbers look good, that’s all that matters.

A second reason (in my view) why college leaders have been unable to resist government policy is that, by accepting the jobs offered to them as principals of new, larger colleges, they effectively compromised their own positions. I’m not sure how explicitly it’s ever been stated, but if you find yourself in a new job as the leader of an institution that has just been reclassified as a public body, meaning it is now accountable to the government, and if this new job involves a massive pay increase, it can’t be very easy to then criticise that government – however damaging their policymaking might seem.

When politicians decide they want to impose daft ideas on a sector, what you expect from that sector’s leaders is for them to turn round and tell the government a)that it’s a daft idea and b)why it’s a daft idea. When the Scottish government decided to impose regionalisation and an employability agenda on colleges, a counter-argument from the college sector should have been relatively easy to present, given that the rationale for regionalisation was based on cost-cutting, and the rationale for Developing the Young Workforce was based on meeting economic targets: there wasn’t a single educational reason for doing either of these things. However, it appears that a lack of awareness among college leaders of basic educational principles and practices, and a lack of understanding of the damaging impact of new policy on vulnerable and hard-to-reach members of the community, coupled with the tacit obligation to accept government policy that was implied in their appointment, have made it impossible for college leaders to offer any resistance or present any alternatives.

Since regionalisation, then, college leaders’ inability (for whatever reason) to criticise policy has left them no choice but to implement it as instructed by the government, as controlled by the Scottish Funding Council (which awards government funding to colleges) and Education Scotland (which monitors educational “quality”). This has led to college leaders becoming increasingly distanced from college lecturers, who have to deal with the impact of these policy changes. It’s a tough gig being a college lecturer, especially if your ability to deliver programmes that students genuinely value, and which are based on sound pedagogy, is undermined by your own managers.

I no longer work in FE, and there is much about the sector that I miss, but in many ways I’m happy to be out of it. The Universities sector is certainly different in that people in positions of power actually know a lot about what education is (and/or should be) about. The awareness of philosophical principles underpinning educational theories, the societal impact of education and the role it can play in addressing inequality and promoting social justice, and the perils of implementing approaches to education that do not seek to play such a role, appear to be things that senior academics in universities know a lot about. My colleagues and managers are familiar with the principles of critical pedagogy, and the benefits of using education to develop criticality and capacities to engage with the transformative process of positive social development.

Still though, I’m beginning to notice a disconnect between what university leaders believe should happen and what is actually being implemented. I have yet to meet an academic who believes that it’s a good idea to apply neoliberal principles to education. And yet, the influence of neoliberalism on university governance is plain to see. The highly competitive international student recruitment market, the lure of funding from global corporations seeking to develop new products or legitimise existing products, and the performative culture required to embrace university rankings and other performance indicators and use them as marketing tools, all imply an acquiescence to the application of capitalist principles to education.

Being aware of what’s happening doesn’t make what’s happening any better. In fact, you could argue that it makes it worse. While the FE sector has been struggling through a leadership crisis, the entire HE sector seems to be experiencing more of an existential crisis: everyone’s aware that it’s become something it shouldn’t be, but nobody seems to know what to do about it. How do you respond to such a crisis? Accept? Adapt? Resist? I’m interested to see what direction it will go in. I hope it doesn’t end up splitting management from faculty though, as has happened in the FE sector.


Ball, S. (2003), ‘The Teacher’s Soul and the Terrors of Performativity’, Journal of Education Policy, 18:2, pp. 215-228.

Coffield, F. (1999), ‘Breaking the Consensus: Lifelong Learning as Social Control’, British Educational Research Journal, 25:4, pp. 479-499.

Livingstone, D.W. (2012), ‘Debunking the Knowledge Economy: The Limits of Human Capital Theory’, in D.W. Livingstone and D. Guile (eds.), The Knowledge Economy and Lifelong Learning: A Critical Reader, pp. 85-116, Rotterdam, N.L: Sense Publishers.


Which side are you on? IATEFL in a messed up world

I was asked to write a piece for IATEFL Voices reflecting on this year’s IATEFL conference, and I’m pleased to say they agreed to publish it, so members of IATEFL can read it here. Below is an earlier draft of this article. It isn’t as well-referenced, but it’s a bit more direct with its wording and in some ways I prefer it to the one that ended up in Voices. Comments very welcome, as always.

resist here

Image source:

I don’t think it’s very controversial to say that the world is in a pretty awful state right now. The development of a global consumer society over the past few decades has led to excessive production and consumption, causing massive environmental damage through carbon emissions, deforestation and the generation of waste. Increased transfer of power to global corporations in recent decades (Levitas 1986: 3) means they now hold a tremendous amount of political influence, to such an extent that many political decisions (the continued use of fossil fuels, the arms trade, the deregulation of the financial sector etc.) are made because they serve the interests of corporations rather than society (Monbiot 2016). The obvious consequence of this is that those powerful people and organisations who form the corporate elite are able to increase their power, while those in more vulnerable positions become increasingly marginalised and disempowered. Society has always been hierarchical and unequal, but now it’s getting ridiculous.

What’s this got to do with English Language Teaching? Well, the ELT profession itself is heavily influenced by global corporations and other for-profit organisations. Providers of globally-recognised teacher training qualifications drive methodology, publishing companies drive materials content, and examining bodies dictate learning outcomes. What’s more, the enormous private ELT sector and the increasing commodification of state-funded ELT means that decisions are largely made for commercial, rather than educational, reasons. Our profession promotes inequality through a private sector that only the privileged can afford. It positions countries like the UK and USA as superior by promoting a native speakerist discourse. It excludes LGBTQIA communities and other minorities by airbrushing them out of materials. It fetishizes neoliberal values through materialistic aspirations embedded in materials content. It actively undermines the professional worth of teachers by reducing ELT to a series of technicist practices that can be acquired in the space of 4 weeks. It allows commercial enterprises to make money out of ELT by uncritically embracing tech products and other “innovations” that are likely to have little or no positive impact on learning but are sure to make a small number of people very rich.

As Keith Copley puts it, ELT is ‘…not merely reflecting a neoliberal zeitgeist, but in many respects is strategically positioned within it (Copley 2018: 59). The ELT profession as a whole is guilty of sleepwalking into a situation where global corporations wield so much power that we find it difficult to conceive of an alternative. “That’s just the way the world is”, we say with a shrug. Then we go off and plan a lesson about shopping, or how to become a billionaire like Bill Gates, or how to pass an expensive exam that gives students access to a course in international business.

What’s this got to do with IATEFL? Well, as one of the largest international associations for English Language Teachers, you might expect IATEFL to be critical of the damaging impact of corporate-driven globalisation on ELT and, perhaps more importantly, the ways in which ELT has become complicit in promoting corporate-driven globalisation. You may also expect IATEFL to then speak out against the ways in which these practices negatively affect teaching, learning and, ultimately, society as a whole. After all, it doesn’t have to be like this. In many contexts ELT is used to indoctrinate learners into a neoliberal world of individualism, competitiveness and self-interest, but it could equally be used as a source of emancipation, giving people language skills that allow them to challenge hegemony and have a positive, transformative impact on global society. Over the years though, IATEFL has been noticeably reluctant to take a position against corporate ELT.

One clear reason for this reluctance is IATEFL’s desire to maintain a position of “impartiality”. If, for whatever reason, IATEFL was to be openly critical of a publishing company, or a qualification provider, or an examining body, or a chain of language schools, this might suggest bias against some of its own members in favour of others. IATEFL is quite explicit about this:

‘We do not…get involved in specific campaigns, issues, or politics, at a local, national, or international level, and do not favour or prioritise the needs of one group of teachers over another’ (IATEFL 2017).

The problem with this position, however, is that remaining silent about practices that favour the privileged and disadvantage the vulnerable means that these practices are allowed to become implemented and then normalised. Silence becomes collusion, or, as Freire put it: ‘Washing one’s hands of the conflict between the powerful and the powerless is to side with the powerful, not to be neutral’ (Freire 1996: 122). If refusing to engage is as much a political choice as becoming engaged, a position of impartiality is impossible. IATEFL’s mission statement also tells us that its purpose is to ‘…serve the needs of the wider ELT community’ (IATEFL 2017) but, by refusing to criticise practices that damage the profession’s potential as a source for good, IATEFL opens itself up to the allegation that is doing the wider ELT community a disservice.

IATEFL’s silence on the way ELT promotes social and economic injustices is made all the more uncomfortable when we consider how it relies so heavily on corporate sponsorship for its own existence. Membership and conferences fees are one source of income, but corporate sponsorship from publishing companies, teaching institutions and examining bodies is what allows the annual IATEFL conference to be such a massive, high profile event. Acceptance of this sponsorship compromises IATEFL’s ability to speak out against such organisations.

Having said all of this, it would be unfair to dismiss IATEFL as nothing more than a corporate mouthpiece. It appears that the organisation is becoming increasingly self-conscious about the role of corporate ELT at its conferences. This year, the confinement of the exhibition centre to the basement made it easy to avoid the in-your-face commercialism of publishing reps trying to sell their products, and the recently adopted practice of highlighting sessions that are sponsored by publishers meant that you could go through the entire conference without having a single book or digital product shoved down your throat. This makes a welcome change from previous years.

It’s also possible to see an increasing trend towards the inclusion of talks related to social justice, inclusion and equity at IATEFL. This year saw the Global Issues and Teacher Development SIGs holding a pre-conference event on the topic of social justice in ELT. Plenary talks by Paula Rebolledo and John Gray conveyed messages about the importance of teacher empowerment and the application of queer pedagogy in ELT materials design respectively. The closing plenary explored the future of ELT and included discussion about ELT’s potential and responsibility to play a more positive role in the development of global society. Various conference sessions directly addressed issues like heteronormativity, native speakerism, hegemony, and the mental health of teachers within our profession. A talk by Neil McMillan, which included criticism of IATEFL’s lack of engagement with instances of teacher exploitation or injustice, even led to IATEFL president Harry Kuchah actively engaging in a Twitter discussion with ELT professionals who had hitherto given up on IATEFL as an advocate for improving teachers’ working conditions. I don’t think that’s ever happened before.

It is certainly possible to criticise – and be frustrated by – IATEFL’s reluctance to directly oppose the organisations that have shaped ELT’s development into a neoliberal, market-driven profession. But there’s some evidence from the 2019 conference to suggest that IATEFL is at least becoming more self-aware about its current role, and there’s a hint that it is becoming increasingly uncomfortable with its current position. It seems unlikely that IATEFL will stop accepting sponsorship from global corporations or start criticising unethical employers and government policymakers any time soon. But it can use its own conference to offer a platform to those of us who do wish to challenge the status quo and to offer alternatives, and there seems to be a desire to do more of this.

And, let’s face it, can we expect it to do more right now? The neoliberal paradigm is so all-encompassing that we’re all obliged to go along with it to some extent, or risk our livelihoods. The invisible hand of the market is still the hand that feeds us and, much as we’d love to, very few of us are in a position to bite it off. IATEFL is in a similarly delicate position and has to tread carefully. Whether it will take steps towards more direct action, or whether it will increase its platforming of those who advocate change, at least we can start to believe that it understands the unsustainability of the current paradigm. This in itself is encouraging.



Copley, K. (2018), ‘Neoliberalism and ELT Coursebook Content’, Critical Inquiry in Language Studies, 15:1, pp. 43-62.

Freire, P. (1996), Pedagogy of the Oppressed (revised edition), London: Penguin.

IATEFL (2017), IATEFL’s Missions, Goals and Practices, available from: [accessed 6 April 2019].

Levitas, R. (ed.), (1986), The Ideology of the New Right, Cambridge: Polity Press.

Monbiot, G. (2016), ‘Neoliberalism – the Ideology at the Root of all our Problems’, The Guardian Online, 15 April 2016, available from: [accessed 27/04/2019].


Radicalism where you’d least expect it: Reflections on BBELT 2019

I’m very lucky to have spent the past week in Mexico City, attending the British Council’s BBELT (Best of British ELT) Conference. I gave a presentation to ELT coordinators from the different states of Mexico entitled “Emancipation in ELT: A Policy Perspective”, followed two days later by a plenary talk that I called “Emancipation not Indoctrination: Critical Pedagogy in ELT”. In both of these presentations I focused on the potential for ELT to be emancipatory in a critical, socially transformative sense, but also pointed out how the current ELT paradigm severely limits our ability to employ techniques that encourage learners to engage with social justice issues and consider ways of effecting change. Mark Arthur, who watched my plenary, provided a summary of it, which you can see here, and I understand that more information about it (and the other conference sessions) will be going up on the British Council Mexico website very soon.

What I want to focus on in this post though is the whole idea of people like me going to conferences like this, and the ethical questions it raises. For starters, the conference itself took place in the (very swanky) Hilton Hotel, and it certainly came across as a no-expense-spared, super-slick affair that must have cost a huge amount of time and effort to put on. This montage that they put together and played at the closing ceremony should give you an idea of what I’m talking about. Add to that the fact that the plenary speakers were all flown in from various distant locations and put up in the hotel itself, and you could easily argue that all this expense could have been put to more practical use, addressing more directly the many problems that the Mexican ELT profession, and education system more generally, is currently facing. That’s certainly what one person on Twitter felt:


It’s the sort of criticism that often gets levelled at conferences on climate change. Massive carbon footprints and unnecessary financial expense to allow a bunch of people to get together, say a few nice words, then jet off again to carry on doing the damaging things that caused the problems in the first place.

I can certainly understand such a feeling, and I think all of the plenary speakers felt more than a little uncomfortable with the VIP treatment we got. More seasoned plenary speakers may have come to expect such treatment, but it was new to us and I think we all felt that we’d have been equally comfortable in more modest accommodation and with less of the celebrity billing. There’s also the fact that, because none of us work in Mexico, whatever we were talking about would be coming from a position of contextual ignorance and would therefore run the risk of being either irrelevant or just not very helpful. The fact that I, a white, middle-aged native speaking man from the UK who works in academia, had come to Mexico to talk about an approach to education that has its origins in Latin America, presented an irony that was not lost on me. I don’t mind admitting I had a couple of sleepless nights wondering if I have maybe become one of Those Guys – a hypocrite, a sell-out, a platitude-spouter.

Having said that though, this was a conference unlike any I have ever been to before. Sure, the venue, the supremely professional organisation, and the slick production could give the cynic an impression of extravagance and corporate self-promoting pomp, but the general focus and the issues that were raised and discussed were refreshingly progressive. All six plenary speakers gave their presentations from what could be described as an anti-establishment perspective. Ceri Jones may be a coursebook writer, but her talk focused on collaborative learning and the benefits of diminished teacher control, as she presented a series of activities that quite explicitly encouraged non-use of published materials. Paula Rebolledo criticised the way ELT research perpetuates a sense of elitism by excluding teachers from doing it, expertly sticking the boot into academics who suggest that teachers are not the best people to conduct research about teaching. Tyson Seburn stressed the importance of taking a critical approach to reading skills in the classroom, stressing the need to look beyond the surface and explore whether (and why!) something may be presented as fact when it isn’t. His message that being a language teacher involves way more than the technicist model so often presented in TESOL training programmes addressed an important aspect of what’s wrong in ELT. Bethany Cagnol was hilariously funny, but her point that dominant models of ELT encourage us (and our students) to play safe and avoid taking risks is a serious one. Mercedes Viola’s talk on inclusive education didn’t just rail against exclusion in ELT, or even in education more generally, but in society as a whole. And then there was my talk, which was full of the anti-establishment, radical-alternative rants that you’d probably expect of me if you’ve heard or read any of my stuff before.

steve at BBELT

I suppose what I’m saying is that despite the fancy-nancy-corporate-establishment-BC image that was highly visible on the surface, the actual content was really quite radical. And the important thing to consider here is that the radical theme was deliberately chosen and implemented by the organisers. Every year, BC Mexico staff go to IATEFL and scout the sessions, looking for presenters who they feel can bring a message that fits with the Mexican context and which, they feel, will provide appropriate food for thought/information/ideas/inspiration to BBELT conference delegates. If this was a conference that intended to maintain the status quo, why would they invite people like me? You’d have to be quite a conspiracy theorist to suggest it was a clever attempt to compromise my position or co-opt me into the establishment (it wasn’t, by the way).

Also, we can’t forget that the plenaries were only a small part of the conference. Apart from us, all the other speakers were based in Mexico, talking about issues that directly affect English teachers across this massive and very diverse country. From one session I gained some fascinating insight into the issues related to migrants, refugees and deportees in Mexico, and the role of ELT within these complex issues. Another session completely changed my (previously very cynical) perceptions of English as a Medium of Instruction; I can now see its potential as a means of promoting global understanding and social justice. A recurring theme in many sessions was that of inclusion or, rather, exclusion of minorities and marginalised communities/individuals from education, and its resultant disempowering impact.

However cynical you are (and I’m pretty damn cynical myself), the fact that the British Council in Mexico is prepared to invest so much time, effort and money in a conference that tackles important issues like inclusion, marginalisation, criticality and hegemony within the ELT profession makes it hard to do anything other than give them a massive round of applause. No doubt it was very expensive for Mexican teachers to attend – prohibitively so for some people – but at least it was in Mexico. Organising a massive national conference and importing speakers is surely less prohibitive than simply expecting people to travel abroad to get this sort of CPD.

The BC gets its share of grief for its corporate approach to operations, its use of English and exams to generate profit, its promotion of rather traditional models of ELT, and the imperialistic undertones implied within its very existence. But it does do some really good stuff as well, and the BBELT conference is, in my opinion, a clear and concrete example of this. If you are uncomfortable with the status quo and looking for opportunities to explore issues of challenging hegemony and discuss radical alternatives, this is a conference for you.  If you get the chance to go, go. If you ever get the chance to speak, take it. But don’t think you can just turn up with some tried-and-tested “10 ways to make your students think the coursebook is a good thing”-type nonsense. Mexican teachers are wise to the ways in which the current ELT paradigm is failing us, and are calling out for change. ¡Viva la revolución!

What do I think I’m doing?

You may have noticed that Geoff Jordan has been blogging quite a bit recently about teacher training in ELT. Geoff has a lot of concerns about the way people are trained to become English language teachers – most of which boil down to a fundamental mismatch between how languages are learned and how languages are taught. I share Geoff’s concerns, and have used this blog (and other places) to rail against various underlying assumptions that inform ELT practice and which are, for one reason or another, flawed. Of course, it’s easy enough to have a pop at teacher training courses and teacher trainers when you’re not actually doing any teacher training yourself – and I haven’t done much in the last few years. But I’ve started a new job that involves working on an MEd TESOL programme, so I now have to start walking the talk, so to speak.

In his blog What do you think you’re doing? Geoff presents the views of a range of applied linguists and concludes that much of what teacher training courses prescribe is not congruent with these views, and therefore promotes a model of English Language Teaching that isn’t as effective as it should be. He calls for some serious, critical reflection on the part of teacher trainers, and recommends that we all start asking ourselves some fairly basic questions. As someone who is returning to structured TESOL after some time away from it (during which my views have evolved considerably), I feel it’s particularly important for me to consider these questions as a form of recalibration, a way of establishing a basis upon which to determine my praxis. This is what I intend to do here.

Before I address Geoff’s questions directly though, I want to raise the semantic issue of what we call ourselves, and what we do – are we teacher trainers or teacher educators? When it comes to TESOL, we tend to speak of teacher trainers who work on teacher training courses, but it’s important to know that this implies a rather archaic view of teaching. In practically all other subject areas, dealing with all forms of teaching and learning (primary, secondary, tertiary or lifelong), the preferred term is teacher education – so much so that if you describe a teacher educator as a teacher trainer, there’s a good chance that they will be offended. This article by G. Patrick O’Neill, from as long ago as 1986, bemoans the continued use (even back then) of Teacher Training to describe Teacher Education. O’Neill uses even older literature to make a clear distinction between the two: Teacher Training is essentially concerned with the low-level, procedural skills that are required in order for teachers to transmit knowledge and/or skills in a specific subject, without focusing on or referring to knowledge in any wider sense. Teacher Education, on the other hand, doesn’t just seek to develop knowledge of a subject and a person’s ability to transmit that knowledge, but also seeks to develop skills, abilities and awareness about learning and teaching more generally.

Given the content of many popular TESOL courses, it’s perhaps understandable how the term Teacher Training has endured. Much of the content of both pre-service and in-service TESOL programmes is concerned with what can only be described as low-level, procedural techniques – giving instructions, checking understanding, grouping students, sequencing and staging lessons, correcting errors etc. The same courses neglect to focus on some of the wider issues that are hugely important for ELT professionals. I’m talking about exploring the whole purpose of education in the first place – what it means, why it’s important and who benefits (or should benefit) from it, as well as more contextualised issues such as the role of English in the world, how this impacts on learner motivation, and what role ELT can/could/should play in making the world a better place. These issues are often absent from TESOL programmes and, while I don’t want to diminish the importance of the low-level technicist stuff – particularly on initial TESOL programmes – I feel it is remiss to deliver programmes in “teacher training” without bothering with “teacher education”. We now have large numbers of English language teachers around the world who struggle to think beyond their highly prescriptive lesson plan with its linguistic aims and meticulous staging based on externally-imposed standards. The fact that the most popular TESOL courses in the world can still quite accurately be described as teacher training programmes rather than teacher education programmes is a large part of the problem, in my view.

So, anyway, I regard myself as a teacher educator, I am working on a teacher education programme, and I approach Geoff’s questions from this perspective. Here are my answers to his questions.


  1. What is your view of the English language? How do you transmit this view to teachers?

Like almost all languages, English is a means of communication that consists of a system that determines its structure, a lexicon that determines its content, a series of phonological features that determine what it sounds like and an orthographic system that determines what it looks like. Importantly though, English is different from other languages in terms of the role it plays in the world. Its prevalence as a means of communication in disparate geographical regions and between/among non-1st language users has resulted in it becoming heavily influenced by other languages, resulting in an increasingly rich vocabulary and a certain ambivalence towards the application of its own “rules”. The range of varieties of English has made standardisation difficult, and questions have been raised in recent decades about where standards should come from, what they should be, and who (if anyone) has the right to impose them (Kachru 1985, Seidlhofer 2005, Pennycook 2017). The reasons behind the spread of English as a global language, and the ways in which it is used today, raise many issues related to power that are important for English teachers to be aware of, as they impact massively on their learners and their learners’ learning.

English is increasingly recognised as a passport to opportunity – an employability skill, or a study skill, or a life skill. It is increasingly becoming a requirement for certain jobs, or for access to further/higher education, and in today’s globalised world is often necessary to facilitate communication, or even to allow access to knowledge. This means that people rarely learn English these days because they actually like learning English; motivation for learning English tends to be instrumental – a means to an end rather than an end in itself. Learners are therefore preoccupied with acquiring the skills to use English in order to do the other things they want to do. This means that teachers need to know what these things are, to understand why they are important to their learners. Long discussions about the uses of the continuous and simple aspects are unlikely to be motivating for someone who needs to pass a specific exam in order to keep her job as a Geography teacher, or someone who does a low-paid job in an English-speaking country and can’t get a promotion, or an engineer who needs to be able to read scientific journals.

One way of transmitting my views about English to teachers is to encourage them to explore their learners’ backgrounds and needs. This allows them to see for themselves that, for most learners, English is perceived less as an academic subject and more as a vehicle for something else. For any TESOL programme that includes a practical element, where course participants work with real learners in the classroom, I present the need to understand learners’ backgrounds and contexts as being fundamental to, and a prerequisite for, developing a learning programme that will be appropriate for these learners.

I think it’s also worth making teachers (or would-be teachers) aware of the importance of English as a source of power. Our MEd TESOL programme includes a module entitled Language, Identity and Power, which explores the ways in which language – and English in particular – can be a source of empowerment, but can also be used to exploit, to dominate and to exclude.


  1. How do you think people learn an L2? How do you explain language learning to teachers?

It’s a while since I actively studied applied linguistics and I don’t regard myself as an SLA specialist, but I think that most differences between L1 and L2 acquisition relate to the fact that people learning English in a language classroom tend not to be toddlers. They already have a first language and the ability to analyse it, allowing them to apply certain cognitive and metacognitive skills to the new language they are learning. There is scope therefore to exploit this. However, just because learners have the capacity to use their L1 as a basis for scaffolding L2 learning, that doesn’t mean that the best way to learn an L2 is through translation and contrastive analysis. It can come in handy at certain stages in the learning process, but I still think that language learning takes place best when it is used for authentic, meaningful purposes, in authentic, meaningful contexts. It’s the communicative value of language that gives it any meaning, and learning is always more effective when the process is meaningful.

An important point to consider, therefore, is that meaning is subjective – the “meaningfulness” of any classroom activity will be perceived differently from student to student. This point naturally raises questions about the validity of any approach to language teaching that assumes all students will learn specific items of language at the same time, when the teacher presents it to them. Language acquisition doesn’t happen at the same speed, at the same time and in the same order for everybody, and we certainly don’t acquire language in order of linguistic complexity. This of course means that any syllabus that assumes all students will acquire language items in a predetermined sequence is fundamentally flawed.

I see language acquisition as incredibly messy, unpredictable and difficult to assume anything about. I try to encourage teachers to accept the fact that their learners will learn different things from a lesson, identifying and acquiring linguistic features that they, individually, happen to be ready to acquire. Effective lesson planning, therefore, is not about identifying language in advance that you want to teach to your learners, and then creating a context that allows you to introduce it. Instead, it’s about identifying a context first that is useful/relevant to the students, and then identifying a range of linguistic features that learners might be ready to acquire while functioning within that context. Teaching moments occur when opportunities for learning are identified (by the teacher or the learners), and then exploited by the teacher to maximise those opportunities. But this is something that has to emerge during the lesson. There’s no point in teaching something that none of the students are ready to learn – it’s about being aware of your students and what they’re ready to learn at any point in the lesson, and then exploiting those opportunities as they come up. I suppose this what I meant when I was banging on about Preflection a few years ago.


  1. What types of syllabus do you discuss with teachers? Which type do you recommend to them?

I feel that many TESOL courses lack sufficient critical analysis of the ELT syllabus. I think it’s important to look at a range of syllabus models in order to identify their strengths and weaknesses. This is particularly important with regard to the more common approaches to syllabus design that you get in ELT. There’s a real lack of congruity between widely accepted SLA theory and the types of syllabus that drive popular, published learning programmes. Any syllabus that assumes a linear model of progression and the incremental acquisition of individual language items (pretty much all popular ELT coursebooks) runs counter to theories of language acquisition, as Geoff mentions in his posts.

Problems with popular models of syllabus design aren’t just limited to organising principles and assumptions about language acquisition, though. The lack of focus on PARSNIP topics means that they often have huge holes in their content. Censoring these topics from the ELT syllabus denies our students access to important and incredibly useful language, ensuring they are unable to use English to talk about some of the most talked-about and divisive issues in the world today and effectively ensuring their voices go unheard in the English-speaking world. Allowing this to happen is, in my view, a very irresponsible thing for ELT professionals to do. I therefore encourage teachers to approach syllabus design by considering what content will be most useful, empowering or emancipatory for their learners, and working from there.

I also feel it’s important to point out how some syllabus models look good but can still be poorly implemented. For example, task-based or project-based syllabuses, or in fact any syllabus that relies on non-linguistic outcomes, can lead to teachers neglecting to focus on language at all. A negotiated syllabus, which uses the expressed needs of learners to derive its content, can turn into a kind of structureless, unbalanced, “what-do-you-want-to-do-today?” sort of course that is more concerned with entertaining the students than ensuring they actually learn anything. A syllabus can be based on sound principles, but it’s how it is implemented that really matters.


  1. What materials do you recommend?

I understand the importance of ensuring teachers and would-be teachers are familiar with the sorts of materials they might end up having to use in their everyday professional practice, so I do focus on some of the big coursebooks and other published materials. However, I certainly don’t recommend that they are simply accepted uncritically as legitimate teaching materials and followed in the same way as the teacher’s book prescribes. Instead, I recommend some critical analysis and evaluation of these materials in order to identify their assumptions about language learning, about “appropriate” content and also about underlying values that are being promoted in these materials. Being able to follow published ELT materials is a lot less of a skill than being able to adapt them so that they’re more effective from an SLA perspective, or more inclusive of/for minorities, or less indoctrinatory in their promotion of white western values, etc.

I also think it’s really important for teachers to be able to develop their own materials. This might involve selecting authentic materials and using them as a basis for devising tasks, but might equally involve getting learners to exploit their own existing knowledge, learning experiences and contexts to identify materials that can create learning opportunities in the classroom. So this is really about recommending that teachers develop a knowledge of the types of authentic texts that their learners engage with, or aspire to engage with, and developing appropriate materials from there.


  1. What methodological principles do you discuss with teachers? Which do you recommend to them?

Communicative Language Teaching has become such a catch-all that it is almost meaningless; pretty much any activity could conceivably be described as “communicative” as long as it involves the learners engaging somehow with the language being taught. When it comes to methodology, then, I feel it’s a question of exploring (or exposing) the principles that underpin certain methods. Looking at SLA theory to establish the effectiveness of a particular method can be very useful, but I also feel that relying exclusively on language acquisition theory to inform your practice naturally leads to a very narrow view of ELT, and the failure to consider wider principles can be quite damaging. For example, PPP (and other methods whereby the teacher decides in advance what learning will take place) applies the principle that the teacher knows what the learners want to know better than the learners, and that learning takes place best when knowledge is dispensed unidirectionally, from teacher to students, and deposited into their brains. Paolo Freire (1996: 52-67) described this type of methodology as a ‘banking model’, and was critical of (among other things) the power dynamic that it creates between teacher and learners.

I tend to be quite critical of methods that assume, accept or promote any form of inequality or power imbalance. I’m more in favour of participatory methodologies – methods that require the learners to be involved in all aspects of the process, from selecting content to identifying opportunities for learning, right through to selecting criteria for assessment. Of course, it’s not always possible to follow fully participative approaches to ELT within the performative and prescriptive paradigms that ELT professions usually find themselves having to work within, but it’s the responsibility of teacher educators to make sure the limitations of existing paradigms are exposed.


I’m not sure what Geoff was expecting when he asked these questions, and I’m not sure what he’ll think of my answers either. I’m not even sure what I think of my answers. Maybe it’s because of the position I’m in as I write this – starting to get back into working on a teacher education programme after a break from it, but not into the swing enough that I can give fully-formed concrete answers about what I do on a regular basis. It would probably be a useful exercise for me to revisit these questions after some time, as this will probably allow me to identify specific examples of what I actually do, rather than what I think I do or what I think I want to do. Please remind me to do this.




Freire, P. (1996), Pedagogy of the Oppressed (revised edition), London: Penguin.

Kachru, B. B. (1985), ‘Standards, Codification and Sociolinguistic Realism: the English Language in the Outer Circle’, In R. Quirk and H.G. Widdowson (eds), English in the World: Teaching and Learning the Language and Literatures, pp. 11-30, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

O’Neill, G. P. (1986), ‘Teacher Education or Teacher Training: Which is it?’, McGill Journal of Education Vol 21:3.

Pennycook, A. (2017), The Cultural Politics of English as an International Language, Abingdon, Oxon: Routledge.

Seidlhofer, B. (2005), ‘Key Concepts: ‘English as a Lingua Franca’, English Language Teaching Journal, 59:4, pp. 339-341.