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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.

 

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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

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

Football cliches and ELT

“Technically they’re very good”

This is a sentence that I’ve heard many times to describe football players. It’s often said by a Scottish pundit, usually to describe some team from Eastern Europe, as a means of explaining why the Scottish team lost/are losing/will lose. I suppose what it means to be technically very good is that you have the ability to do the things that you want to be able to do during a football match – control the ball quickly, don’t give it away with your first touch, pass accurately, hit the target when you get a shot in, swerve the ball round the wall, put spin on the ball so your free kick dips under the bar at the last second – that sort thing. Having good technical ability, then, seems to be about being able to do the low-level, mechanical things well, with the focus being on the physical attributes required to perform those tasks. So it’s ultimately about balance, control, coordination, strength, stuff like that.

If we were to apply the same term to English language teaching, we might say that a teacher is technically very good if they can do similarly low-level things like set up tasks, clarify language, and generally manage the class effectively. So we’re looking at skills like eliciting language, grouping students, grading language, giving and checking instructions, asking CCQs, effective boardwork, using various drilling techniques, that sort of thing. We might also say that lesson planning is a largely technical pursuit, especially if teachers are expected to follow a specific format, in which case lesson planning pretty much consists of applying a formula. If you have done one of those 4-week intensive, internationally recognised TESOL courses, or something similar, you probably found that this course mostly focused on your ability to develop these technical skills.

 

“That takes great vision”

Of course, it’s possible to be able to have all the technical skills and still be rubbish at football. In fact, when pundits describe players as “technically very good”, sometimes they are damning with faint praise. What they actually mean is “they lack creativity”. It’s not much good being able to make a 60-yard pass if you can’t identify this as the right pass to make. Keeping the ball is one thing, but using it to get your team into a scoring position is something else. The most outrageous banana shot in the world is no good whatsoever if you can’t get the ball out of your own half. Football is also a game that requires creativity and vision. Knowing that a pass into space will let your striker in behind the back four, or a short pass now will give your winger time to make a run into the box, or a back-pass will allow your team to build an attack slowly from the defence. Being able to see what needs to be done on the football pitch is at least as important as having the ability to actually do those things.

In language teaching, we might talk about creativity or vision in terms of how effectively the teacher applies their technical skills – how well they can see what needs to be done and then use technique to achieve that aim. So, for example, if they want to focus on a specific aspect of pronunciation they may decide to do choral drilling, or mumble-drilling, or back-chaining. Being able to do these things in the classroom demonstrates technical ability, but knowing which one is most appropriate for the thing you are focusing on, that takes some vision. And if you can make up a quick series of choral and individual drills on the spot to allow your students to use the target language with more confidence, then that’s creativity. If you’ve done one of those diploma-type courses, one of the ones where you normally need a certain amount of prior experience before being accepted, you’ve probably been required to demonstrate some creativity and vision in your teaching. The focus in those courses tends to be not only on technique, but also on knowing why certain techniques are effective, and which techniques to use in which situations.

 

“They show a lot of heart”

Traditionally, Scottish football teams are not particularly well-known for their technical ability or their creativity. But what they have tended to have in abundance (not so much recently mind you) is something called “heart”. When football pundits talk about heart they seem to be referring to a level of commitment that goes beyond enthusiasm. It’s about playing with passion, as if your life depends on it. “Leaving everything on the pitch” or “knowing what it means to wear the shirt” are other clichés that can be used when talking about players having “heart”. Such attributes manifest themselves on the pitch in the form of last-gasp tackles, chasing every ball, using whatever part of your body you legally can to clear the ball off the line, or making that mazy run into the box in the dying seconds to get a shot on target, even when the rest of your team has given up. But mostly, showing heart is more than just doing things on the pitch. It’s about knowing what it means to win – not just to you and your teammates, but to everyone involved. The wider impact of a victory – on the club, the fans, the nation even, can be far-reaching in terms of both its emotional and economic impact. Players with heart understand this. They don’t just see the match in terms of 90 minutes and 22 players, they consider the wider impact and use this to motivate themselves to be more successful.

Of course, you get teachers who show a lot of heart as well. These are teachers who think beyond individual lessons and the achievement of specific language aims. They think about the impact of their practice on their students’ lives, and the lives of those around them. They don’t just think “I’m going to use the topic of sport to introduce and practise some common verb + sport collocations”, they think “If I use the topic of sport and get my students to practise common verb + sport collocations, this will allow them to find out what sports clubs exist in the local area, which may encourage them to take up a new activity that will be good for their wellbeing”. “Heart” in language teaching isn’t really about language teaching at all. It’s about the (non-linguistic) impact that the learning experience can have on the learners. How language learning affects learners’ ability to participate in, and contribute to, the world.

If you’ve gone through the Certificate-followed-by-Diploma model of CPD in the ELT profession, you may not have done much in the way of overt focus on “teaching with heart”. This doesn’t mean that none of the teachers who followed this path have any heart – of course many of them do. The point is that the training courses they did would have focused a lot more on technique, vision and creativity. How often does a trainer on one of those courses ask the question “So how is this lesson going to enhance your learners’ lives?” or “Does this lesson do anything to address inequality?” How often, if ever, has a trainee’s main lesson aim on one of these courses been “To make students aware of the extent of gender bias in local government”? Most short, ELT-specific TESOL courses tend to focus instead on the low-level stuff, reducing ELT to a series of procedural tasks, and evaluating teachers on their ability to employ these tasks with a greater or lesser degree of effectiveness. Trainees are rarely asked to consider the wider impact of their teaching, and are instead encouraged to focus on just how effectively (or not) their clarification stage allowed the students to grasp the difference between the present perfect simple and the present perfect continuous. Or whatever.

Having said that, for the same reasons that a football manager doesn’t select players purely on their level of enthusiasm, we can’t expect a teacher to be effective simply because they have a lot of heart. You can have all kinds of ideas about the purpose of education and how it can/should be used to develop certain knowledge and skills with a view to making the world a better place. But if you don’t know how to grade your language and give instructions that are clear enough for learners to understand what to do (never mind why you want them to do it) you’re unlikely to get very far. If you want your students to be able to use specific language items so they can set up a community development project, that’s great, but if you lack the boardworking skills, or the ability to ask effective CCQs, or even the linguistic knowledge to know what forms you’re dealing with in the first place, then you’re not going to have much success, if any. If you’ve done a generic teaching qualification, one of those ones where you get the same qualification irrespective of the actual subject you teach, you may find that you have learned a lot about what it means to teach with heart but, compared to people who have gone through the route of completing ELT-specific professional teaching qualifications, with their heavy focus on observed teaching practice, writing detailed lesson plans, and ability to manage the class in order to maximise learning (as opposed to managing the class for effective crowd control), you may find yourself with fewer technical skills at your disposal.

 

“(S)he’s the full package”

So I suppose what I’m saying here is that people come into our profession from different directions. But I’m not sure if any of the more common pathways allow ELT professionals to become sufficiently well-rounded. Depending on what pathway you followed, you might be very strong technically but have no idea why you’re doing any of the things you’re doing, or indeed why you’re getting your students to do the things you’re (very expertly) getting them to do. Or, you might design and deliver a course that covers relevant and useful topics that will impact positively on learners’ lives, but which doesn’t actually teach them any language because you lack the technical skills to do this. Obviously, experience can be very helpful in developing all aspects of our teaching, but input can accelerate that development massively. What we really need is a course that develops the full package from the beginning, linking technique, vision, creativity and heart to produce teachers who not only know how their teaching can contribute towards making the world a better place, but who also have the lower-level skills to make sure that when they do this, they do it effectively.

I’m hoping that some people will read this and get frustrated because I haven’t mentioned a wonderful course that they have done, or run, or know of, which does exactly what I’m calling for. If that’s you, please mention it in the comments section below. Thanks.

Honour the Deal

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Before I get into this properly I feel I need to acknowledge my audience. Most people who read this blog are English language teachers, and for many of these good people, the life of a teacher is a precarious one. Zero-hours and temporary contracts are commonplace, salaries are often pitifully low compared to other professions, holiday pay and maternity leave are frequently non-existent, and pension schemes are equally rare. Nevertheless, expectations from management are, in many cases, disproportionately high, with teachers required to work split shifts or teach at weekends as part of their normal timetable, as well as attending CPD or other training in their own time and often at their own expense. If, for whatever reason (a student complaint, poor class results, whatever) a teacher is judged as performing below a required standard, they face the very real risk of having their contract terminated. If I’ve just described your teaching context, the concept of educational institutions being run by out-of-touch managers who prioritise bottom-line figures and profit margins over quality learning and teaching is a given, to the extent that it probably doesn’t even seem worth writing about. To you, this post may just seem like a big long petulant whine, or, at best, nothing that you can relate to. However, please bear with me.

You see, I happen to have a permanent contract in a Scottish further education college. This means that, compared to most English language teachers around the world, I get really well paid, have fantastic holidays and enjoy a high level of job security. And yet, a recent dispute between Colleges Scotland, the association that represents college managers, and EIS-FELA, the lecturers’ union, means that I’m on strike for a 5th day in the past four weeks, and I’ll be on strike again tomorrow. But why? What on earth would make me and my colleagues sacrifice so many days’ pay and take action that can only damage relations with our managers? Well the thing is, this dispute isn’t about how much we get paid, or how many holidays we have. It’s about other, more important things, related to power, control, equality and trust.

A bit of background is required, and I’ll try to be brief. Between 1993 and 2016, further education (FE) colleges operated as independent bodies. The vast majority of their funding still came from the government, but they weren’t under government control. The union had to negotiate terms and conditions for its members separately, within each individual college. Inevitably, this led to different terms and conditions existing in different colleges. It happened gradually, but over the years, lecturers in some colleges saw their terms and conditions improve, while things gradually got worse in others.

By 2014, the disparities in terms and conditions had become enormous, with an annual salary difference of around £10,000 between the highest- and lowest-paying colleges. The differentials were made more obvious when the government introduced a process of regionalisation, which required colleges to merge with each other. Suddenly, lecturers found themselves working for the same employer and doing the same job, but being paid vastly different amounts. In some cases, pay and conditions within colleges still hasn’t been harmonised. Lecturers share the same staffroom, but get paid different rates and have different terms and conditions.

A couple of years ago, colleges became reclassified as public bodies, increasing their accountability to the Scottish Government, particularly with regard to expenditure. Around the same time the government proposed a return to national bargaining, which would allow EIS-FELA to negotiate pay and conditions with Colleges Scotland on a national level, allowing them to move towards achieving the same terms and conditions across all colleges. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the union was in favour of this, but the managers were less so. In fact, they were reluctant to even accept national bargaining had been introduced – even after it had – and it took a one-day strike from lecturers in March 2016 and some government intervention to get them to agree to any kind of plan that worked towards harmonisation of terms and conditions.

The 2016 deal focused on the equalisation of pay, and aimed to bring all salaries up to the same level as the highest paying college, over a three-year period. Obviously this was very good news for the lecturers in the more poorly paid colleges, who had had a raw deal for such a long time, and it was less good for those in colleges that paid higher salaries. But EIS-FELA members voted overwhelmingly to accept the deal, as the main objective was to bring an end to pay inequality; once this had been established we could negotiate terms and conditions and national bargaining would function as it should.

However, after this deal was signed, nothing happened. The first salary adjustment was due to take place in April this year, and it didn’t. When pressed to explain why this was the case, Colleges Scotland responded that pay harmonisation could only be implemented if other aspects of lecturers’ conditions, such as annual leave and weekly teaching hours, were also addressed. This was not what had been agreed and, following a ballot, EIS-FELA entered into an official dispute with Colleges Scotland. As there was no further movement or indication that the deal would be honoured, another union ballot saw lecturers voting overwhelmingly in favour of strike action.

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Now, strike action is serious, and is generally only something that unions and the workers they represent do as a last resort. It is worth noting that college lecturers in Scotland have been on strike for more days in the past 4 weeks than in the previous 25 years. It is also worth pointing out once again that many lecturers who are in favour of strike action stand to gain very little on an individual level – but this is not about individualism. It’s about a collective sense of professional worth, a feeling that all lecturers who do the same job should be recognised equally for doing it. Furthermore, it is about being able to trust that your managers respect and value what you do, and the need for mutual trust between employers and employees in order to maintain a positive and productive working environment. When repeated calls for the deal to be implemented were ignored, and when the deadline on 1st April 2017 passed without any pay adjustments being made, lecturers felt that this trust had been broken. A deal had been agreed, and managers had refused to honour it.

Since industrial action started 4 weeks ago, relations between lecturers and managers have deteriorated further. Statements on the Colleges Scotland website and quoted in the press repeatedly claim that the 2016 pay deal was inextricably linked to other conditions, and that lecturers are being offered a 9% pay rise but, in addition, they are demanding more holidays and fewer weekly teaching hours. None of this is true. The deal over pay has no conditionality attached to it, other than an acknowledgement that Colleges Scotland would draw up a plan to sort other conditions out soon. The 9% figure is based on some calculation of the average pay increase that lecturers will receive in order to achieve pay equality. But again, this is over a three-year period and is necessary to address the pay inequalities that have existed for so many years. Saying that lecturers want more holidays and fewer teaching hours is also untrue. Everybody knows that college lecturers get lots of holidays – why would we demand more? That would be silly. There is also inequality in the amount of annual leave offered at each college though, and the truth behind the claim is that Colleges Scotland want to harmonise holidays downwards. Lecturers aren’t asking for more holidays, they’re just not keen on losing what they have.

As for teaching hours, it’s the same thing. Lecturers currently teach between 21 and 26 hours per week, depending on what college they work in. College managers want to be able to make all lecturers teach 26 hours per week. For many college lecturers, the prospect of increased weekly teaching remits is a serious concern. The upheaval caused in recent years as a result of regionalisation and new policy implementation has made the FE curriculum more outcomes-based, more attainment-focused, and has also increased the level of performativity in colleges. It is no longer enough to simply teach in a way that allows your students to learn effectively. Large amounts of evidence need to be generated to allow the teaching and learning process to be evaluated by other people. Increased accountability isn’t necessarily a bad thing per se, but it means that non-teaching time is at an absolute premium. Lecturers need time outside the classroom to source or design materials, prepare lessons, mark homework, deliver assessments and provide ongoing support to students on an individual and group level. To any teacher reading this, the need for sufficient prep time is self-evident, but it seems less obvious to college managers.

Ultimately though, whether you agree with the union’s desire for harmonisation to always go in lecturers’ favour, or whether you think that some lecturers should make some sacrifices in the name of equality, this particular debate is irrelevant. The fact is that an agreement has already been reached. Colleges Scotland agreed to implement the equal pay deal. They are now reneging on this deal by claiming that it has to be linked in with other aspects of lecturers’ terms and conditions. If that is the case, why did they agree to the March 2016 deal in the first place? Either they made a massive error of judgement by not realising the financial implications of the deal, which raises questions about their competence, or they signed the deal but had no intention of implementing it, raising questions about their integrity. Either way, this dispute makes Colleges Scotland, and the managers it represents, look pretty bad – incompetent, or devious, or possibly both.

Perhaps it is a fear of looking stupid, then, that is motivating Colleges Scotland to present alternative facts to the public and to try and re-define the debate so it includes annual leave and teaching hours. It is misleading to publicly express disappointment at the union’s unwillingness to negotiate, when a deal has already been negotiated and just needs to be implemented. Not only that, but the Scottish Government says the funding to allow pay to be harmonised has been made available, so Colleges Scotland can’t say that the deal is unaffordable; if the government is footing the bill, managers don’t stand to lose anything, do they?

Well, maybe they do. In that long period when colleges were publicly funded but privately run, senior management teams in individual colleges had a large degree of freedom in how they spent funds. Not only did they set salaries and write job descriptions for their staff, they also had considerable autonomy when it came to spending on other things, and there have been instances in the past where managers have used college funding in ways that have been regarded as, let’s say, questionable (for examples please read here, here, here and here), and more recent stories would suggest that at least some of them are keen to ensure their own interests are well-served, as can be seen here and here. However, returning colleges to the public domain increases the level of scrutiny over how college principals spend funds. Re-introducing national bargaining means that individual colleges no longer have the capacity to force their staff into accepting unpalatable changes to their terms and conditions (I’m not saying all college principals want to do this, just that they had the ability to in the past and they don’t any more). Making colleges national bodies and  nationalising negotiating procedures means a loss of control, therefore a loss of power. Some principals don’t seem to like that.

We are now in a really unpleasant situation, with strike action affecting classes at a crucial stage in the academic year. As well as having to bear the financial burden of going out on strike, lecturers are acutely aware of the impact of industrial action on college students, and the temptation to cross the picket line, or cram more work than usual into non-striking days, will increase if the dispute continues. However, the whole purpose of strike action is to be disruptive. If lecturers withdraw their labour and students manage to complete their courses successfully anyway, not only does this minimise the impact of the industrial action, it also justifies (in managers’ eyes) shaving hours off of existing courses. It may seem paradoxical, but if lecturers’ main responsibility is the delivery of high quality teaching and learning for their students, they must strike, and the more disruptive the strike is the better. The onus is not on lecturers to resolve this dispute; all they want is the implementation of something that has already been agreed. The onus is on managers to honour this deal.

As I said at the beginning of this post, college lecturers are in a far more privileged position than many of our fellow teachers. But we’re not in this position because we have benevolent managers who understand and value the job we do. We are in this position because we have a strong union, and a strong sense of solidarity. We are now taking the opportunity presented by national bargaining to bring about an end to unequal pay. Many of us stand to gain little or nothing from the agreed pay deal. However, if we allow our managers to break this deal, we allow them to do the same again in the future and we can look forward to a gradual erosion of pay and conditions for us, and an erosion of quality for students. Lecturers with permanent contracts in the Scottish FE sector are not in the same precarious position as many teachers who will read this, but we will be if we don’t stay strong and united. Concerns about our own terms and conditions are part of it, but this is more about the sector as a whole. We need to use national bargaining to create a platform that allows us to deliver a high quality curriculum for our learners. Students matter. Prep time matters. Never mind the spin – just honour the deal.

For updates on the progress of the dispute between EIS-FELA and Colleges Scotland, you can visit the EIS-FELA website

Or follow the EIS on Twitter – @EISUnion

Or visit either the Honour the Deal Facebook page or the Students Supporting Lecturers Facebook page

Or try searching for any of these hashtags:

#honourthedeal     #preptimematters     #principlesoverprincipals

Whose conference is this? IATEFL 2017 reflections

It’s a bit strange when a big international conference like IATEFL comes to your home town. In many ways it highlights just how international it is, and this year it also highlighted to me how little the ELT scene in Scotland is engaging with the wider profession. This was a great opportunity for us to showcase the many good things that go on here, and also to take advantage of the valuable input that can be gained by attending something like this. Obviously a number of us did, and there were a few sessions from local presenters, but on the whole I feel there could have been a much bigger local presence at the conference. Maybe it was because it took place during a week where most schools and colleges are on holiday, and, understandably, only a small minority of teachers are prepared to give up valuable holiday time to attend something work-related. Or maybe most ESOL teachers in Scotland just don’t think IATEFL is for them; it’s too EFL-y, too global to have relevance, I don’t know.

Anyway, I want to write about something that really stood out to me at this year’s conference, which is the scale of corporate influence over IATEFL and the tensions caused between big money sponsors and the genuine (I think) desire of IATEFL to be a force for good. Other bloggers like Geoff Jordan have criticised IATEFL in the past for being little more than a sales convention for publishers and a vehicle for writers to sell their latest books. Apart from the shameless plugging of materials and other “products” that goes on in the exhibition area, where delegates eagerly lap up the sales pitches along with the free samples of materials, stress balls, beer, bubbly and whatever else is deemed effective at luring them in, I was also struck by the corporate messages being transmitted through the sessions themselves.

The most striking example of this for me was in Sue Kay’s session on using authentic materials. I got a lot out of this session, but I’m not sure if what I got out of it was what Sue wanted me to get (I really hope it was!) and I know for sure that what I got out of it definitely wasn’t what Pearson, the publishers of her latest coursebook, would have wanted. Her session was entitled “The genuine article (you couldn’t make it up)” and ostensibly aimed to demonstrate the value of using authentic texts rather than writing them from scratch.

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Very quickly though, it became obvious that Sue was really talking about using authentic texts in coursebooks. Within the first five minutes she had qualified her definition of “authentic” to mean texts that are originally found in authentic contexts, but are then adapted/graded to be more accessible for learners of English. Which, it could be argued, means they are no longer authentic, but let’s leave that whole argument to one side. Sue wanted to demonstrate the considerations that must be taken when selecting texts, to be sure the learners – in her case older teens – would respond positively to them. To do this, she presented three different authentic texts that she had wanted to include in her latest book, and our task was to guess which two had been rejected by the editors and which one had been accepted. The first one was about Malala Yousafzai and Kailash Satyarthi, and how they had jointly won the Nobel Peace Prize for their work in promoting children’s rights to education. The second text was about Jeff Bezos, the multi-billionaire founder of Amazon. The text described some of his personality traits and, put bluntly, implied that he is a bit of a dick. The third text was about a machine that sucks in smog and blows out clean air, and also breaks down the gunge from the smog in such a way that it can be used to make jewellery.

Perhaps surprisingly, perhaps not (depending on how sceptical you are about international publishing companies), Sue’s editors accepted the text about the smogsucker, for these reasons:

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I suspect they also liked the fact that the machine’s ability to recycle the smog particles makes it commercially viable as well as good for the environment. But OK, it’s an interesting innovation and it does have a positive use, though the publishers seemed to like the picture most of all and were less interested in its potential to curb pollution. In fact they seemed to like the fact that the article seemed to trivialise the “potentially dry” topic of the environment. Potentially dry!

So this means of course that the publishers rejected the text about Bezos. They didn’t like it because it didn’t portray him as a positive role model:

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So we want to make out to the younger generation that all multi-billionaires are nice guys, do we? That’s aspirational, I suppose. Apparently it’s good for the younger generation to grow up thinking that rich capitalists got where they are by being nice to everybody. That way, when they end up on a low wage working for The Man, at least they’ll believe that The Man is spending his billions responsibly.

The publishers also rejected the text on Malala and Satyarthi, and here are the reasons they gave Sue:

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To my way of thinking, these reasons are simply pathetic excuses. Students are too far removed from the topic? The topic is education for children. The students are older children who would be reading the text in an educational context. The topic couldn’t be more relevant to them if it was dancing a jig on their classroom desk. Satyarthi is too old for the students to relate to? Do these students not have parents and grandparents? Do they never engage with other generations? If teenagers have problems relating to older people then surely those of us who are educating them have a responsibility to make it easier for them to do this, like maybe showing them how older people like Satyarthi can do a lot of good for the younger generation. Controversial? This could only be controversial if the teenage students thought that they shouldn’t have a right to free education. If they do have that opinion, then surely there’s something seriously wrong with the type of education they are getting. Oh hang on.

As soon as the presentation was finished, and before Sue even got a chance to answer questions, some guy from Pearson stood up and announced that we could find out more about the book and order copies etc. from their stand in the exhibition hall, and then about half a dozen other Pearson people marched down the aisles thrusting brochures into our hands. It was all very hard-sell and really quite aggressive.

The whole experience of being in this session was a bit weird. Sue stressed how, when she saw the feedback from her editors, she agreed with what they were saying and was happy to go with the smogsucker and forget the other two texts. But her candour in exposing the comments from her editors gave us a real insight into just how ugly, self-motivated and irresponsible a publishing company can be. I genuinely hope that this was her real intention, and that her session was a clever act of subversion.

However, despite the dominant in-your-face commercialism resulting from its reliance on corporate sponsorship, there is still plenty to be said about IATEFL as a potential source for good. The most obvious example of this was the fact there was a plenary from JJ Wilson in which he spoke passionately about the work of Paolo Freire, and gave practical examples of how language teaching can be used as a means of highlighting inequalities and promoting social justice. There were also a number of smaller sessions on the same theme, such as Mike Chick’s engaging presentation of his partnership project that provides ESOL classes to refugees in Cardiff. Linda Ruas, who is heavily involved in IATEFL’s Global Issues SIG, did a great job of demonstrating the usefulness of the free downloadable materials that she’s developing for New Internationalist Magazine. Angelos Bollas presented research findings on the lack of LGBTQ representation in ELT materials. These are just the ones I saw, and I’m sure there were a lot more. I suppose I should also be grateful to IATEFL for allowing me to give my own presentation, which was a fairly direct attack on certain aspects of established ELT practices.

But IATEFL’s status as a charity, and the fact that the conference relies on sponsorship from massive corporations like Pearson, Cambridge and the like, places it in a very uncomfortable ethical position. Well, it should feel uncomfortable; I don’t know whether it does. There is some evidence to suggest that IATEFL is quite happy in its relationship with these for-profit bodies, such as its refusal to accept a Teachers as Workers SIG on the grounds that it doesn’t want to get involved in politics. This in itself is a political decision, which seems to place IATEFL firmly on the side of the dominant sources of power, rather than standing up against inequalities and promoting ELT as a force for good. Maybe all this social justice stuff at IATEFL is just lip-service, a bit like McDonald’s selling carrot sticks.

For those of us who do genuinely believe that education should not be a for-profit industry, I don’t think we should be boycotting IATEFL. Instead, I think we should all become paid-up members, allowing IATEFL to become less reliant on corporate sponsorship and forcing it to listen to the voices of individual teachers around the world. We should all attend the conferences but, instead of drinking the free beer and listening to the sales pitches, we should ask the reps questions about pricing structures, profit margins and the ethical issues embedded in the content of their materials. We should go to all the sessions, applauding any that promote education for social justice and heckling any that promote “innovative new products”. We should submit proposals for our own sessions so that the balance of content tips in our favour, creating a dominant discourse calling for our profession to harness its emancipatory potential. IATEFL is an International Association of Teachers. Let’s claim it back.

Cans of Worms and Rotten Parsnips: My IATEFL 2017 presentation

If you click the link below you should be able to download a version of the presentation I gave at IATEFL on 6th April 2017 in Glasgow. This version includes the powerpoint slides I used with an accompanying audio recording. As usual, I’d be happy to receive comments below.

IATEFL 2017 presentation with audio

Rotten Parsnips: IATEFL Preamble Part 2

 At this year’s IATEFL conference I will be mostly ranting about how dominant practices in ELT are limiting the potential for English language programmes to have a beneficial impact on our learners and on wider society. This is the second in a short series of posts that briefly discuss some of the concepts I’ll be exploring in more detail in my IATEFL presentation.

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Picture sourced from ataleoftwokitchens.com  

I expect that most people who have studied ELT materials design and/or development will be familiar with the PARSNIP acronym. It represents the topics that publishing companies avoid using when producing materials for a global market – Politics, Alcohol, Religion, Sex, Narcotics, Isms and Pork. The rationale for avoiding these topics is that they are likely to cause offence in certain cultures and that would be bad for business, so it’s best just not to talk about them at all. So if there’s a unit in a coursebook on the topic of, say, travel (and there usually is), it’s highly unlikely that it would include a text about Brits going on stag parties in Eastern Europe (alcohol), or sex tourism and child prostitution in South-East Asia (sex), or Donald Trump’s Muslim travel ban (politics). Instead, you might get a text comparing city breaks with activity holidays, or a task asking people to say whether they prefer holidays in the city or the countryside, or a text prompting students to say how long it takes them to pack their suitcase.

Now, I’m not saying there’s anything wrong with students reading about different types of holiday, or expressing their preferences for different destinations, or even talking about their suitcase-packing skills. I also understand the sensitive nature of some topics in certain cultures. However, it’s also the case that these PARSNIP topics are potentially very important in the lives of most of our students. Yeah OK, Muslim cultures eschew alcohol and pork. But I teach a lot of Muslim students here in Scotland, and I would suggest that it’s really rather important for them to be able to tell a can of Tennents from a can of Irn Bru, or a smoked salmon bagel from a roll and bacon.

Other PARSNIPs play such a fundamental part in everyone’s lives that their removal from the curriculum seems a little odd, to say the least. If you think about the types of conversations that people have on a regular basis or the information that they are exposed to, it’s actually quite difficult to get through a day without engaging in some way with one or more of these topics.

So why do the global publishing companies make such an effort to avoid them? Well, ostensibly it’s to avoid causing offence, and also to avoid litigation in some countries. But this is not because of some concern for the sensibilities of English language learners; it’s purely a business decision. Publishers want to be able to sell the same thing to a global market, so they need a product that is equally marketable everywhere. It therefore needs to be inoffensive, universally appealing, nicely packaged, and in line with the existing expectations of the market. A bit like McDonald’s, when you think about it.

Scott Thornbury has used the analogy of McDonald’s in the past when talking about how coursebooks break down language into bite-sized chunks and serve them up in a pleasantly-packaged format – grammar Mcnuggets, he calls them. This atomistic approach against what is widely accepted about language and language acquisition, so it’s clearly a bad thing for that reason alone. But this McDonaldization thing goes beyond language acquisition theory. The way publishing companies go about materials production is a good example of what has been described as The McDonaldization of Society (Ritzer 1993). This is where market forces start to control every aspect of our lives, leading to a process of over-rationalization in which we value practicality and convenience over actual benefit. McNuggets are cheap and tasty, you can get them anywhere in the world and they taste pretty much the same everywhere so you know what to expect. They are also made of the mankiest bits of chicken and have little or no nutritional value whatsoever. In the same way, the same coursebooks are used all over the world, and most coursebooks have very similar content anyway, so teachers know they can use them anywhere and deliver the same lessons, and students also have a pretty clear idea of what to expect in the EFL classroom – language presented within bland, inoffensive contexts that don’t upset anyone or make them think too much.

So what about the “nutritional value” of globally published materials? Maybe it’s OK that everyone across the world learns the same stuff from the same books. Chomsky’s universal grammar hypothesis tells us that we all have the same innate capacity for language so a standardised approach seems congruent with that. And standardised content means they can all talk about the same things, which also seems healthy enough. However, Littlejohn (2012) makes a very good point on the issue of standardisation in ELT materials:

‘One of the most worrying aspects of standardisation and centralisation is that by setting out what needs to be done, what should not be done is simultaneously dictated.’ (Littlejohn 2012: 294).

It may seem like a good idea to avoid sensitive topics in teaching materials; it certainly makes good business sense. But what it effectively means is that we are denying English language learners across the world the ability to use English to express their political opinions, discuss their religious values, engage with social problems that result from alcohol/drug abuse, and to address issues related to gender, race, sexuality and other –isms. This isn’t just about some students being denied the opportunity to learn how to order a pint; it’s about removing fundamental social issues from the English language classroom, specifically issues that must be discussed and critically analyzed if any kind of positive social change is to happen.

There’s a lot of talk these days about the world becoming more divisive, about people only listening to and reading about stories that reinforce their existing worldviews, rather than trying to learn about opposing views and engaging with the people who hold them. With English being the international language that it is, the ELT industry is currently serving up language learning products that perpetuate this divisiveness by making sure key social issues are never even raised. Instead of doing this, don’t we have a responsibility, as language teachers and as educators, to bring these issues into the classroom with a view to facilitating communication and cross-cultural understanding? Let’s get parsnips back on the menu. Big, fresh, tasty, nutritious parsnips. Even if you think they taste bitter, they’re good for you and we’ll all feel the benefit in the long run.

References:

Littlejohn, A. (2012), ‘Language Teaching Materials and the (very) Big Picture’, Electronic Journal of Foreign Language Teaching, 9:1, pp. 283-297.

Ritzer, G. (1993), The McDonaldization of Society, Los Angeles: Sage Publications.

Thornbury, S. (2010), G is for Grammar McNuggets, available from: https://scottthornbury.wordpress.com/2010/09/18/g-is-for-grammar-mcnuggets/  [accessed 26/03/2017].