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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.

References:

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.

 

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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: Truthout.org

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.

 

References

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: https://members.iatefl.org/downloads/member_info/IATEFL_mission_goals_practices.pdf [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: https://www.theguardian.com/books/2016/apr/15/neoliberalism-ideology-problem-george-monbiot [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:

IMG_5063

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.

 

 

References

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.

Right – this calls for immediate discussion! (IATEFL 2018 Reflections Part 2)

 

After IATEFL 2015 I wrote this blog post, reflecting on Russ Mayne and Nicola Prentis’s session about women in ELT. The focus of the post was less about disproportionately high male representation in relatively influential positions in ELT, and more about the fact that these positions have been held by the same men for such a long time. In an attempt to be humorous, I included a few references from Monty Python’s Life of Brian, as the whole idea of people blindly following messianic figures and hanging on their every word seemed relevant. This year, as I write another IATEFL reflection, I can’t help thinking of this other scene from the same film:

PFJ

Since 2015, the whole issue of women in ELT has become much higher profile, with the Fair List and Equal Voices in ELT campaigning for better representation of women among speakers at ELT conferences, Gender Equality ELT, which raises the profiles of individual women in ELT, and the ELTtoo movement, which seeks to raise awareness of sexual harassment and bullying in the ELT profession. However, there also seems to be a considerable amount of resistance to these types of movements, as I discovered at this year’s IATEFL conference.

The title of Adrian Tennant’s talk was “Labels – Not the Way Forward!” He started by making some fairly uncontroversial statements about labels and labelling, like how the term non-native speaker implies some kind of deficit model, a bit like the word disabled, and that the whole idea of labelling certain groups is socially constructed. It may (or may not) be worth pointing out that disabled is a word that most disabled people prefer other people to use when referring to them, but I could see his general point – labelling and the whole notion of identity politics is highly problematic. However, Adrian then went on to make the rather more contestable claim that positive discrimination always fails, and that we must therefore find alternative ways to ensure that discrimination does not take place in our profession. He then told us that he wanted to propose some kind of competency-based framework that could be used to ensure fair and equal representation, as an alternative to actively promoting certain under-represented or discriminated groups.

Now, I think I can understand Adrian’s argument to some extent. It seems he is uncomfortable with people being given preferential treatment simply because of who they are, rather than what they are capable of doing. Most of the discussion that followed centred around representation among conference presenters, and he seems concerned that increasing the number of women and non-1st language users of English as conference presenters simply because they happen to fall into these categories could have a negative impact on the quality of conference presentations. There is a certain logic to this, but I think it’s worth exploring a bit.

Adrian’s main criticism of labels is that they are socially constructed. This of course means that they are the product of human social interaction and are therefore value-laden. What he didn’t mention though is the fact that the under-representation of certain groups on the conference circuit is also socially constructed. The current situation in ELT, in which the majority of conference presenters are men men, particularly white men, and more specifically white men whose first language is English, and even more precisely white men over 45 whose first language is English, is not a product of genetics or biology. It’s a reflection of the male dominance that exists in most contexts in the world today, and “native speakerism” is undoubtedly a legacy of the imperialistic origins underpinning ELT as a global profession (consider colonialism and the notion that English was historically regarded as the “property” of the colonisers).

So any notion that men are in any way deserving of the privileged positions that they find themselves in is also socially constructed. Adrian surely isn’t saying that the current imbalance is because of some kind of biological difference that naturally makes men better conference speakers than women. Surely not. What he might be saying though is that he doesn’t believe that white men still dominate positions of relative influence in ELT as a result of privilege – that they are where they are on merit. Certainly, he does seem concerned that any affirmative action in favour of women could result in the discrimination of men.

But within the current – socially constructed – reality, men do enjoy a degree of privilege. And I’m saying this as a middle-class, middle-aged white man whose first language is English. However fantastic I may be at my job, it is still the case that being a white native-speaking male has been very useful in allowing me to build a successful career. I probably don’t need to provide examples of how being white and a first-language user of English have been beneficial in terms of finding work and not having to work very hard to prove myself to any students who wanted a “real” English teacher. Being male has also had its advantages, though. I can’t say I’ve ever been hired because I’m a man, but I have been in front of all-male panels where it probably counted in my favour. I’ve also found myself in male-dominated management teams and I know it’s been easier for me to get my point across – or at least have it heard – than it was for my female colleagues. Also, becoming a victim of sexual harassment in the workplace has never been something I’ve had to worry about.

I’m not just talking about things that happened a long time ago, either. Everyday sexism is very much alive and well in ELT. At IATEFL this year I witnessed three instances of what most people would describe as inappropriate behaviour. In one case, a female friend of mine introduced herself to a male representative of a large global publishing company, who she had previously only had email contact with. She went to shake his hand, and he grabbed her and forced her into a hug that she really didn’t want or feel comfortable about. The second time was when a very well-known man in the ELT profession, one of the elder statesmen of the conference circuit, went up to a female presenter at the end of her talk to compliment her – not on the quality or content of her talk, but on how beautiful she looked. And the third one was when a male presenter made a really crass joke about having to end his talk because otherwise the woman at the back of the room would whip him, and that he would actually enjoy it. Yes that actually happened.

Within this context, it doesn’t seem in any way legitimate for men to express concern that they might be in danger of suffering somehow as a result of the increased representation of women. The only men who should feel threatened by the possibility of women getting 50% representation at conferences are the ones who are themselves bad conference speakers, and who therefore shouldn’t be doing it in the first place.

Of course, Adrian Tennant’s alternative solution – to create a framework that measures the competencies of conference speakers – also seeks to weed out the bad presenters and ensure quality is maintained. But it’s interesting that he is proposing the framework, and presumably wants to have at least some input in deciding what competencies it should include. Based on what though? Based on what he thinks is a good conference speaker? Based on criteria that he thinks are relevant in assessing conference presentation? Or even if he didn’t devise the framework himself, the criteria would have to be based on people’s previous experiences of attending conference, which of course have been dominated by men. You can’t criticise labels for being socially constructed and then propose an alternative that is literally the creation of a construct modelled on existing patriarchal social norms.

Look, I don’t know Adrian Tennant, he seems like a nice enough person, I don’t wish him anything bad and I think he genuinely means well. I just find it odd that a man who has achieved considerable success in the ELT profession – or any man for that matter – should object to action that is already succeeding in increasing the representation of women and challenging sexual harassment in the workplace. You could only do that if you thought that discrimination against women isn’t a thing, or if you thought that you had a better solution than the women who are already doing a pretty good job of addressing the issue. Typical man.

Pulling at Invisible Threads: IATEFL 2018 Reflections Part 1

After IATEFL 2017 I wrote a post that expressed concerns about the level of control and influence that publishing companies and other for-profit organisations have over the conference. I described a session by Sue Kay that demonstrated how publishing editors had rejected her materials based round a text that portrayed a billionaire in a slightly negative light (heaven forbid!), and another text about Malala Yousefzai and Kailash Sathyarti winning the Nobel Peace Prize (like who cares about rights to education?), opting instead for a text about a commercial product that reduces urban pollution (that’s that problem solved then). I really wanted Sue to be using the session to criticise the publisher (which was Pearson, by the way), but she didn’t directly do this. In fact, she seemed to be trying to tell us that we should adopt similar principles when selecting materials for classroom use, or, better still, we should just use Pearson’s materials because they have already gone through a rigorous checking process.

This year, I watched Dorothy Zemach give her plenary talk which, in many respects, did what I had wanted Sue Kay’s 2017 talk to do. Like Kay, Zemach described materials she had sourced and lessons she had prepared which had been rejected by publishing editors. But instead of stopping there and implying that we have to just accept that publishers can be a bit picky sometimes, she was quite openly critical of the way publishing editors make decisions about her proposals for coursebook content. You can watch her full talk here.

It was interesting, and encouraging, to see a coursebook writer being so openly critical of publishers. Normally they use IATEFL to promote their materials and try to convince us that their coursebook is somehow better than all the others because it does more of this or doesn’t do quite as much of that. It must take a bit of courage for a writer to stand up in front of a whole conference, particularly one with such a strong publisher presence, and expose some of the unethical and irresponsible practices inherent in coursebook publication. I’ve previously written posts that are very critical of coursebooks, and my IATEFL talk last year was a pretty open attack on the way they contribute to the censorship of important topics from the English language classroom. But I’m not a coursebook writer, which allows me to be openly critical without risking my livelihood.

I did get the feeling this year that ELT professionals are starting to become less accepting of the dodgier aspects of coursebook design. Zemach’s talk focused mostly on content and values, but I was also interested to see Hugh Dellar, another coursebook writer, having a pop at the way coursebooks approach grammar. In his talk, Hugh was highly critical of the way in which coursebooks tend to spend a whole unit focusing on a single language item, and then do little or no overt focus on that item for the rest of the book. Of course, he then went on to tell us that his coursebook series doesn’t do this, but still, he did seem to be arguing against the structural syllabus – the most commonly used organising principle in coursebook design that runs counter to widely accepted second language acquisition theory and which, according to Mike Long, offers ‘…a psycholinguistically unrealistic timetable in the form of an externally imposed linguistic syllabus …[leading to]…virtually guaranteed repeated failure’ (Long 2015: 25).

So, we’ve got coursebook writers openly criticising both the content and the structure of coursebooks. This in itself suggests that the situation must be pretty bad, if writers are so frustrated by the neoliberal ways of their paymasters that they feel they have to say something. A recent article by Keith Copley compounds the view that things are pretty bad, as his study comparing coursebooks today with those of 30 years ago concludes that:

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).

However, while I welcome any critical analysis of coursebooks and the nefarious practices of publishing companies, I’m not sure how much impact they’ll have. Dorothy Zemach told us that when she comes up against editors who only want to include sanitised, uncritical content, they tell her “that’s what the market wants”. This in itself is a very neoliberal thing to do – create a market that relies heavily on your product and then blame the market for wanting it – that we should all start telling publishers that what they are giving us is not what we want, which will encourage them to change their ways.

The problem I have with Zemach’s proposed solution is that it is still couched within the neoliberal paradigm that dominates ELT (Kerr and Wickham 2015). It assumes that market forces can solve the problem. I would argue that the neoliberal mindset that underpins this view is in fact the source of what’s wrong with our profession, and therefore cannot possibly offer the answer.

If we take a critical look at why ELT professionals (apparently) want publishers to produce coursebooks that promote neoliberal ideology and present language atomistically, the following points emerge:

  1. Private ELT institutions need to sell their courses as “products”. Using a series of books that ostensibly “cover” each “level” of English allows them to offer this.
  2. The linear model of learning creates an illusion that students learn incrementally, which allows ELT providers to provide “evidence” of “success”. This is useful for both private and state-funded institutions, both of which are accountable to other stakeholders.
  3. It’s possible to call yourself, and be regarded as, a qualified English language teacher after completing a 4-week course. With the best will in the world, such a small amount of input can’t provide the knowledge and skills required to be good at designing your own materials or syllabus, so many teachers have to rely on pre-published materials. They are a captive market.
  4. The majority of these 4-week courses use global coursebooks in their teaching practice. This means that many people graduate as qualified teachers and they literally don’t know anything else other than how to teach with a global coursebook.
  5. Teachers in most contexts are contracted to teach as many hours as their employers feel they can get away with giving them. If the employer provides a coursebook that can be used without the teacher having to do too much planning (or none at all), this reduces the need for planning time and increases their potential to spend more time in front of a class.
  6. Most courses train teachers to avoid selecting topics that might potentially make students feel “uncomfortable”. The result is that many teachers lack the skills to effectively manage class activities that centre round some of the more serious issues that dominate the world today. Instead, they prefer to focus only on topics that are bland and inoffensive.
  7. The highly lucrative concept of the globally-recognised TESOL qualification allows teachers to be geographically mobile – a phenomenon that relies on the notion that the same teaching techniques can be applied in any context, which in turn legitimises the use of the same global coursebook anywhere in the world. Teachers who are trained in Bournemouth, start working in Bogota and then move to Bangkok are comforted by the fact that they can use the same coursebook in all three contexts, and that the dominant discourse tells them that this is somehow OK.
  8. ELT practice tends to be informed by Applied Linguistics research; research and academic literature that relates to general education plays a relatively minor role in shaping our practice. This means that the whole idea of education as a transformative, emancipatory act, and its potential to contribute towards creating a fairer, more equitable world, is often absent from discussions about effective language teaching. This allows neoliberal values to be promoted in ELT coursebooks without most of us even noticing.

I suppose what I am saying, then, is that complaining to publishers may lead to some changes being made to coursebook content and design, but we’ll still have coursebooks. We’ll still have coursebooks because we’ll still be trained to rely on them, and our managers will still want us to use them, and our students, who are by now familiar with the norms of the English language classroom and who want to believe that language is something you can learn atomistically, will still expect us to use them. For years now, we’ve been seduced by the beauty of the material presented to us by publishers, and it seems that people like Zemach and Dellar are finally starting to identify faults hidden beneath that beauty. But ultimately, they’re pulling at invisible threads. Criticising the material is pointless when the emperor is naked. That’s what we really need to face up to.

 

References

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

Kerr, P. and Wickham, A. (2015), ELT as an Industry, available from: https://adaptivelearninginelt.wordpress.com/2017/02/15/elt-as-an-industry/ [last accessed 15/04/2018].

Long, M. (2015), Second Language Acquisition and Task-Based Language Teaching, Chichester, West Sussex: Wiley-Blackwell.

 

Exploring ELT as Emancipatory Practice

Here is a link to the talk I gave at IATEFL 2018 in Brighton, plus a copy of the slides I used. I am grateful to IATEFL for the opportunity to present these ideas, and to the British Council for filming it.

As always, I welcome any comments.

IATEFL18 Final

Exploring ELT as Emancipatory Practice

or try this link?

Don’t bother with the link below – it seems to have been removed from YouTube now.