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IATEFL 2022: Joint Presentation with Christine Nanguy

At this year’s IATEFL conference in Belfast I gave a joint presentation with Christine Nanguy, who works as an ESOL practitioner in the Community Learning and Development sector in Glasgow, and who is also a graduate of the MEd TESOL programme that I work on at University of the West of Scotland. Our talk asked the question ‘do global coursebooks promote discriminatory ideologies?’ – a question we had both found ourselves engaging with separately for many years in our respective ESOL contexts, where we were often required or expected to use these kinds of materials. We had previously done a small-scale study of global coursebooks using UK equalities legislation as an analytical framework, and an article summarising and discussing our findings was published here. Our talk at IATEFL gave a brief overview of this study, before offering some alternative examples of copyright-free inclusive images that can be used to devise tasks that are less likely to promote uncritical acceptance of the values that are often prevalent – whether overtly or more subtly – in global coursebooks.

The slides that we used in our IATEFL talk can be viewed here:

In the past I have added audio commentary to presentation slides when I put them on this blog but, as we hope to publish further on this topic elsewhere, we’re just putting the slides up for now. You can read the article that was previously published, and watch this space for more from us on this topic. Of course, if you would like to make any comments then please do so below.

Perceptions of Online and On-Campus Learning Among University Students – Some Findings

Image source: https://oftruth.net/difference-between-on-campus-education-and-online-education/

A few weeks back, before we knew about the Omicron variant, my workplace announced (perhaps a bit optimistically) that we’d be returning to fully campus-based teaching from January 2022, with no need for social distancing measures. While this may have been welcome news for many students and staff, I thought it might also be really unwelcome news for others. All of our teaching is currently taking place online, with live, synchronous lessons supported by asynchronous tasks – actually very similar to what we did in pre-Covid days except it’s a virtual classroom. This has meant that many students who don’t normally live near the campus have been able to access our courses without having to do any travelling. Moving to on-campus delivery could, therefore, be quite an inconvenience for some of them, to say the least. I was also curious to know how our students felt about the whole online experience in a wider sense, and the extent to which they felt that studying online either diminished or enhanced their learning. So I put together a little survey and made it available to all students who are currently studying with us, and who would “normally” (whatever that means nowadays) be on one of our campuses in the West of Scotland. The university is no longer considering a full return to campus in January anyway, so the survey results are, to some extent, moot. However, I still think they reveal some interesting findings, so I thought I might share them here as they may be of some interest to other people who are working in similar contexts.

The Survey

The aim of the survey was simply to gain some understanding of students’ views on online and on-campus learning, and to establish how positively disposed (or otherwise) they are towards the idea of a full return to campus. 47 responses were received, with respondents cutting across the following four programmes/courses:

  • MEd TESOL
  • BA ESL (including students doing single modules from this programme as English language supoport)
  • Various French and Spanish modules (primarily students on the BA Education programme)
  • Doctoral Induction Programme (DIP)

Of the 47 responses received, 14 (30% of total responses) were from students on the MEd TESOL programme, 8 (17%) from BA ESL, 19 (40%) from Languages modules, and 5 (11%) from the DIP. These numbers may seem small, but we are a very small department so, without making any claims about statistical significance, I think it is fair to say that these findings reflect some widely-held views across the different cohorts. The survey itself consisted of a total of 10 questions, and took each respondent an average of just under seven minutes to complete. It included a combination of closed/multiple-choice and open-ended questions. Collated results of all responses are presented in the section below, followed by a deeper analysis of the findings. In presenting the results here, anonymity is preserved by removing any data that could identify individual students.

Presentation of Findings

In answer to a multiple-choice question asking how they felt about studying online, just over half (51%) said that they prefer this format. 23% stated that they would prefer to study on-campus, and the same number selected the “I don’t mind” option. When asked to select the biggest advantage of studying online, the most popular response was safety from Covid-19 (32%), followed by convenience (28%), then cost (23%). 13% chose flexibility, and only one respondent (2%) chose more effective teaching methods as the biggest advantage of studying online. When asked to choose the biggest disadvantage of online learning, 32% replied that it requires more self-discipline, 28% selected distance from their classmates and lecturers, and 21% selected a lack of regular, live interaction. Of the remaining options, 15% chose lack of access to other university facilities, and 4% selected and less effective teaching methods.

With regard to studying on-campus, the most commonly-selected advantage was greater/better interaction with classmates and lecturers (45%), followed by closeness to classmates/lecturers (32%), with the third most-selected advantage being easy access to other university facilities (15%). Only 4% chose a more fixed timetable/routine, and the same number chose more effective teaching methods. By far the most common perceived disadvantage of studying on-campus was the risk of Covid-19 infection (41%), followed by additional cost (e.g. the need to commute or re-locate – 21%) and a lack of flexibility (20%). 9% of respondents opted for inconvenience as the biggest disadvantage of studying on-campus, and the smallest number of respondents (7%) chose teaching methods.

Participants were also asked to rate the proposed full return to campus on a scale of 1 to 5, with 5 meaning they fully supported the idea and 1 meaning they were completely opposed to the idea. The average response to this question was 2.62, which implies a slightly negative but somewhat ambivalent attitude towards a return to campus. However, further analysis shows that only seven students (15%) gave a neutral response of 3, suggesting that most respondents hold quite strong views on this matter. 30% gave a response of 4 or 5, indicating that they are in favour of a return to campus, compared to 56% who opposed it with a response of 1 or 2. Of those who opposed the idea, 30% indicated the strength of their opposition with a response of 1.

In addition to asking limited-response questions, the survey also asked students to comment on the advantages and disadvantages of both online and on-campus learning. Several students stated that safety from Covid-19 was a key advantage of studying online, even for those who normally prefer studying on-campus, as these quotes demonstrate:

“I am still very nervous regarding Covid 19 so am anxious about campus learning due to this.”

“Online learning will be helpful to reduce the risk of covid 19 especially people having other health issues.”

“I do prefer on-campus learning but I don’t want to attend the classes physically until the covid situation is over.”

As well as lowering Covid transmission risks, cost, convenience and general accessibility were all also mentioned as perceived benefits:

“Online learning also is cheaper than study on-campus.”

“It is convenient and cost-effective for students with children as they do not need to apply for childcare grants while studying online.”

“Online learning makes the course more accessible to all. Also, no need to miss classes if self-isolating.”

“Personally I find [online learning] more advantageous due to family/work commitments at the moment.”

For some, the convenience of online learning was such that a return to campus would be highly problematic, due to other commitments and/or physical distance from the university:

“At the moment, I am teaching between 15 and 25 hours a week…so would ideally need to study online if possible.”

“It would be a big move to relocate from [outside Scotland]”

“I currently feel unsafe travelling long distances and would be required to travel for over an hour on the train which gives me too much anxiety right now.”

As well as having to travel from other parts of the UK, some students are currently accessing their programme from other countries, which is reflected in their comments:

“It would be impossible for me to attend classes if they were on campus.”

“It’s not convenient to…study on-campus for the students like us.”

“..safety and more ecpenses (sic) will make me become more difficult to go to Scotland.”

When commenting on the quality of learning and teaching, a number of students suggested that direct, on-campus interaction would improve engagement and enhance the overall learning experience:

“Good to know your classmates in-person, have live socialising, especially when doing group coursework”

“When doing group tasks it would be far better being in person.”

“…it is even more important for face-to-face teaching with languages as we aren’t getting the full learning experience, of seeing the other person we speak to in our other language(s).”

“I pay way less attention online, during most classes I am on my phone.”

One student, who had travelled from abroad in order to study, felt that online learning limited opportunities to benefit fully from the wider experience of being a student in Scotland:

“…because the point is to be into the culture of the English speaking world, I only see disadvantages to study online. We don’t have enough interaction with other students or teachers and stay in our room instead of discovering how it is to learn abroad. On top of that it is more difficult to socialise or make new friends.”

When reacting to the university’s planned return to campus in January, most comments made reference to Covid-19, with a majority of respondents citing this as a reason to keep teaching online:

As I’m having health issues I would prefer online learning.”

“I would feel too anxious to go on campus with no social distancing”.

“I am still very anxious regarding covid as I have family that were previously shielding. I feel that online learning is more flexible at the moment due to my commitments at home.”

“I really concern about the safety situation for on-campus teaching since COVID-19 has an obviously high infectiousness.”

For those international students who are currently accessing their programme from their own country, the prospect of travelling to the UK during a pandemic is particularly unappealing:

“I am afraid of being caught in covid.”

“It is unsafe esp. for international students. it will bring about much trouble”

“I think that in 2022, if students from different areas came back to UWS, the risk of Covid-19 infection would be higher.”

It seems that even those students who prefer studying on-campus also have reservations; most comments in favour of returning to campus contained some kind of qualifying statement, either suggesting only a partial return, or the use of social distancing measures to minimise the risk of infection:

“I am ok with on campus study but definitely would prefer social distancing and all safety measures to be followed”.

“It would seem sensible to retain some social distancing measures if in class teaching is resumed. To go [back to] pre-pandemic teaching while there is still a pandemic in the country seems risky.”

“I agree to the opening of on-campus teaching, and I believe that it is very important to do so. However, I think that there should still remain some forms of social distancing, or at least personal protection (such as facemasks, hand gel etc) to be used where possible inside and out of classes.

“COVID-19 is still very present in Scotland and I would not feel safe with a full campus return with no social distancing.”

“I worry about the spreading of the virus and would feel more safe if we had a mix of online and in person lectures.”

Two comments suggested that a return to campus would enhance the learning experience, expressing a preference for this, regardless of social distancing:

“I would love to be on campus full time as I struggle learning from home.”

“As an international student, I came here to have real studies abroad, not to be in my bedroom without social interactions while parties take place without any safety measures. I don’t think teaching face to face is more dangerous than any other activity.”

Analysis of Findings

The above short-answer responses and supporting comments reveal some interesting findings about participants’ perceptions of online and on-campus learning. With a slight majority declaring a preference for online learning it would appear that, for most students, the move to online-only delivery has, if anything, been a positive one. However, it is important to remain mindful of the reasons that students give for preferring to study online: safety, convenience and cost are by far the most popular benefits, whereas only one student suggested that online learning offers more effective teaching methods. Similarly small numbers of respondents selected teaching methods when asked to consider the advantages and disadvantages of on-campus learning, though 45% did choose better interaction with classmates and lecturers as the main advantage of studying on-campus. These findings therefore suggest that, methodologically, there is little perceived difference in the effectiveness of online and on-campus learning. However, many students do appear to value classroom interaction as a means of facilitating learning, and also seem to associate this more with classroom-based learning than with online learning.

With particular regard to the proposed return to campus in January 2022, responses indicate a preference to remain online: a clear majority are against studying on-campus from January, and 30% of all respondents are “completely opposed” to this idea. However, analysis of the comments relating to this question suggest that many students would be in favour of a return to campus if Covid-19 was less prevalent. Risk of transmission is the biggest concern, and many students suggest that they would be in favour of a return to campus if sufficient social distancing measures were in place to make them feel safe.

While it is possible, then, to point at the 51% preference for online learning and the 56% opposition to returning to campus, and to conclude that online learning is our students’ preferred mode of studying, I feel this would be an over-simplistic interpretation of the data. We cannot forget that a global pandemic is still prevalent throughout the world, and students’ responses take this into account. Furthermore, for those students who are not currently living in the West of Scotland, the financial, logistical and other implications of relocating mid-course are understandably very unappealing. In fact, given the wider context, we should perhaps be surprised that only 51% stated a preference for online learning, and that as many as 30% support a return to campus with no social distancing. If anything, these statistics perhaps suggest an enduring preference for classroom-based learning, all other things being equal. Given the supporting comments provided, it seems fair to assume that respondents would be overwhelmingly in favour of a return to campus if Covid-19 was no longer an issue.

Further analysis also reveals interesting differences between students on different programmes. The MEd TESOL caters for a mix of home and international students, and a majority of those who responded to this survey either live outside the West of Scotland or outside the UK altogether. Perhaps unsurprisingly, then, a much bigger majority of this cohort (73%) stated that they prefer to study online, with only 13% preferring to study on-campus and the same number giving no preference. As with the whole group, concerns about Covid-19 are common among this cohort, but numerous comments also relate to the practicalities and costs involved in travelling and relocating – in addition to concerns about international travel and the various Covid-related restrictions that currently inhibit this. For the DIP, which caters exclusively for international students who are studying online from their own country, all respondents stated a preference for studying online, with safety and cost being the two main reasons. 80% of respondents from this cohort were opposed to the idea of moving on-campus in January 2022.

Interestingly, responses from the above two cohorts contrast markedly with those from students who are studying on BA ESL modules: three-quarters of students from this cohort who completed the survey said that they would prefer to study on-campus. Reasons for this related primarily to a desire for more interaction, with a quarter of respondents also selecting more effective teaching methods as the biggest advantage of studying on-campus. 75% of respondents from this cohort are in favour of a return to campus, with one giving a neutral response and one stating they are opposed. However, even this respondent stated a preference for on-campus learning if Covid-19 was not a factor. It is worth noting that most students on BA ESL modules are from outside the UK but, unlike many of our postgraduate students, they have physically moved to Scotland and the majority are living on-campus in student accommodation. For these students, reasons for studying in Scotland often go beyond simply attending classes: they are here to engage with and benefit from the wider on-campus experience of studying at a UK university. It is therefore unsurprising if they feel somewhat short-changed by the need to study online, particularly if they are witnessing or participating in social activities where no Covid restrictions are being applied.

The most mixed responses come from students who are studying Languages (French or Spanish) modules. Most of these are home students who are currently living in the West of Scotland. There appears to be a slight preference for online study among this cohort, with 38% in favour of studying online, 24% preferring to be on-campus and a further 38% giving no preference. A somewhat larger proportion are opposed to the idea of returning to campus in January, however (48%), with 33% in favour. Comments from this group suggest that a return to campus in January might be better received if social distancing measures were in place.

Further Discussion, Conclusions and Recommendations

A key finding from this survey is that our students appear to prefer studying online, and a majority are opposed to the idea of returning on-campus in January with no social distancing measures. However, it is worth stressing that very few students prefer studying online for educational reasons; indeed, very little mention is made of the effectiveness of one mode of teaching over another. Instead, students who indicate a preference for online learning cite practical issues such as safety from Covid, convenience and cost. There is also a clear indication that students associate studying on-campus with increased levels of interaction and engagement, along with a perception that online learning is a rather solitary pursuit that requires greater self-discipline and offers few opportunities for meaningful engagement with staff and students. It would therefore be wrong to assume that students prefer online learning per se; there are clearly elements of campus-based learning that students value highly and would wish to benefit from if circumstances allowed. Having said that, the non-educational benefits of studying online appear to override any benefits of studying on-campus in the current climate, and most students would not welcome a return to campus any time soon.

Another important finding from this survey is that responses vary considerably across different programmes. For those cohorts that contain large numbers of students who are accessing their course from outside the West of Scotland (and, in many cases, from outside the UK), the prospect of having to relocate in January entails travelling at a time when travel restrictions are unpredictable, and which brings with it the additional costs of quarantining etc. The risk to individuals of Covid infection is also significantly increased by making long journeys, and this is clearly a concern for many students. While a number of respondents from these cohorts identified some benefits of being in Scotland and studying on-campus, findings suggest that the majority are reasonably happy with the quality of delivery they are receiving online. It therefore seems unnecessary to disrupt their programme by forcing them to take action that would be highly inconvenient, expensive and potentially dangerous.

On the other hand, for students on English language modules – who are already here physically, who are broadly in favour of studying on-campus, and who would face little or no inconvenience if required to attend classes in-person – it may actually be preferable to consider moving these modules on-campus sooner rather than later. However, Covid-19 is still an issue, and even students who are keen to study on-campus expressed concerns about a lack of social distancing. This was also a major concern for students on Languages modules, who appear to be slightly in favour of remaining online. Of course, if social distancing measures involve maintaining physical distance and wearing masks in the classroom, this creates rather obvious pedagogical limitations, particularly with regard to language teaching, where meaningful communication and interaction is paramount.

There’s no doubt that the whole online vs. on-campus thing is far from straightforward, and many different factors need to be taken into consideration when evaluating the merits of each. However, it also seems pretty clear to me that most of these factors are practical and context-driven, rather than based on any universal educational principles. Reasons for studying online are largely about safety, convenience, accessibility and cost. These are all perfectly legitimate factors to consider, and widening access is a key aim for higher education institutions in Scotland. But few students, if any, seem to be suggesting that online learning is more effective than classroom-based learning – or, indeed, vice-versa. Maybe this implies that good teachers can make learning effective whatever the delivery mode – perhaps we can be proud of the fact that, despite the sudden and hugely disruptive switch to online learning that Covid caused, the perceived quality of teaching seems to have been largely unaffected. However, we also need to recognise that even students who are happy studying online at the moment still seem to value the enhanced human interaction that comes with sharing the same physical space, and regard this as being beneficial to the learning process. Convenience, comfort and cost, on the other hand, do not have that same educational value. Looking more strategically then, educational institutions should think carefully before deciding to replace any classroom-based activity with online alternatives on a permanent basis.

The Emancipation Continuum

Over the past few years a lot of my writing and presentations have referred to a thing I’ve been calling the emancipation continuum. This is an analytical framework that I developed from ideas that I originally found in an article by Christopher Worthman, and which became central to the thesis I developed in my doctoral dissertation.

Since then, I have written a separate article that presents the emancipation continuum as an analytical framework, i.e. a means of analysing English language courses/programmes for their emancipatory potential, i.e. the extent to which they develop capacities for students to actively engage with and participate in the positive transformation of society. This article was recently published in the British Journal of Sociology of Education, and is now available in open-access. I decided to post a link to the article here to make it easier to access, and also to create a forum for anyone to post comments or ask questions, if they wish to do so.

You can access the article here:

https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/01425692.2021.1908116

Beyond Empowerment – My IATEFL 2021 Presentation

https://www.bookmartialarts.com/news/female-martial-artists-strengths

This year’s IATEFL conference is online, and I pre-recorded my presentation in an attempt to minimise the risk of any technical problems. However, there were some issues with the animations on the slides, which meant that the text and images I was talking about weren’t always visible.

So, I’m uploading my presentation here as well. It should be possible to download it and then play it as a slideshow – this will allow you to get my audio commentary too.

If you have any comments or questions, please feel free to put them here and we can create some discussion.

Berlin 2019: IATEFL BESIG/GISIG Post-Conference Interview

Back in 2019, when the only problematic thing about foreign travel was your carbon footprint, I was invited to present at the IATEFL joint BESIG and GISIG conference. I think my invitation came more from the Global Issues side than the Business English side, and I was a bit unsure how my talk would go down with an audience that was, to a large extent, heavily embedded in the corporate world. They seemed to get it though, and I thoroughly enjoyed the experience.

Me in Berlin, asking the big questions

After the conference I had some further discussion with Roy Bicknell, who leads the IATEFL BESIG editorial team, and our conversation was recently published in this group’s Conference Selections booklet. I’m not sure how widely available this booklet is – you might need to be a BESIG member to get free access – but you can read my conversation with Roy below. Thanks to Roy for putting our conversation out there in written form, and for agreeing to let me publish it here. It starts with a summary of my talk, then Roy asks me to expand on some of the ideas I covered. I’ve added some links to further reading about some of the concepts and issues covered in our discussion. Comments welcome, as always.

Indoctrination, empowerment or emancipation? – The role of ELT in global society

Steve Brown, Director of Studies, University of the West of Scotland

Roy Bicknell, Editor IATEFL BESIG Editorial Team

Introduction

Steve Brown has considerable experience in the Scottish further education sector managing and teaching on ESOL programmes. Steve’s main research interests lie in the application of critical pedagogy principles in English language teaching, particularly the impact of teacher education, programme design and materials development on the emancipatory potential of ELT. In a wide-ranging talk Steve addresses the current state of English language teaching and what he sees as its increasing commodification. In his view, we are promoting an ideology that monetises learning which requires English and English language programmes to be itemised as marketable commodities. He also states that we are stifling any capacities that might exist within ELT to critically explore and challenge current power structures and processes within global society. Drawing on the work of critical pedagogues such as Paolo Freire and Henry Giroux, he invites the audience to explore alternatives that promote the emancipation of learners, as opposed to their indoctrination. We should allow learners to identify examples of social injustice and take steps to redress imbalances. This would eventually lead to a model of ELT that is socially responsible but also more congruent with widely accepted principles of language acquisition. The stimulating and thought-provoking talk gave the audience much to reflect on regarding their own practices in teaching business English. Later we had the opportunity to discuss with Steve Brown some of the many points which were raised through his talk.

In conversation with Steve Brown

Q: At the beginning of your talk you paint a broad canvas of the world we live in. And it’s not a pretty one. It’s a world of half-truths and fake news but also one of climate change and financially motivated wars. And now there’s the new reality of Covid-19. Do you think this will push teaching to face the challenges of finding a more critical approach to what we teach our students?

Steve: Do you mean Covid-19 specifically, or the generally terrible state of the planet right now? Either way, I find it difficult to be optimistic. The most obvious change to education since the start of the Covid-19 pandemic has been the move to online teaching. I think we’re all preoccupied with the practicalities of this change right now, rather than looking at any long-term strategic shift. It’s hard to see how an increase in online teaching will enable an increase in critical pedagogy in ELT though.

Q: You talk about hierarchical power structures and inequality. And the hegemony or single point of view that this represents in society: this is the way things are, this is the default or how things are perceived. If ELT does have a positive role to play in changing that view, could you say more about what those first steps might be?

Steve: This is where the Covid-19 crisis does have an impact; the mask of hegemony has slipped somewhat. Governments have somehow managed to find hundreds of billions of pounds to support individuals when they previously said there wasn’t any. We’re all realising that we normally spend a lot of our income on things we don’t need. We don’t need to travel hundreds of miles for a business meeting because it can be done online. A lot of what was “normal” a few months ago is no longer possible, and I think this has allowed people to realise that those structures and norms – the ones that we all thought were fixed and permanent – are actually very fragile. Regarding the role of ELT in challenging hegemony, perhaps the first thing we need to do is remove it from our materials. So much of the world is presented to our students as something that they have to uncritically accept. Materials published for a global market deliberately avoid topics that might be upsetting or controversial (David Block and John Gray have done some very useful research in this area). Rather than shying away from controversy or pretending to be “neutral” (there is no neutrality in education), we need a more transformative approach to materials design – one that encourages learners to explore issues such as social injustice, inequity, unequal distributions of power, that sort of thing. As long as these topics are left out of the curriculum, we’re limited to pedagogies of conservatism and compliance. Methodologically, the application of Freire’s “problem-posing” approach is one strategy that we could bring into our teaching more. Rather than presenting reality as some kind of done deal that we have to accept (e.g. Jeff Bezos is a very rich and successful businessman), teachers can encourage the problematisation of issues (e.g. How is it possible for one man to make so much money when most people in the world live in poverty?)

Q: If there is commodification in language teaching – the reference to Scott Thornbury’s criticism of the commodification of language is a good example of this – then this would be an integral part of our teaching today. This makes it difficult for teachers and learners to ‘step back’ and see the bigger picture. How do you see a way forward in this?

Steve: I think a lot of this comes down to the way we are trained as English language teachers. We are trained and conditioned to regard language as a series of individual items (grammatical structures, pieces of lexis, pronunciation features). Learning is also commodified and packaged for students in the form of “levels”. But to assume that language is atomistic and can be acquired in a linear fashion is to ignore widely held principles and theories about SLA. Language is a holistic entity and learning is complex. Trying to present it otherwise is dishonest, frankly, but that’s what tends to happen. Initial training courses encourage new teachers to focus on small items of language or specific sub-skills, and lead them to assume that if they can get their students to use this target language accurately during their lesson, this means they must have learnt it. We need to stop encouraging people to make these ridiculous assumptions.

Q: In talking about the monetisation of learning you also refer to precarity and precariousness, which is something that many see as being part of the ELT world. The (contractual) uncertainty that many teachers experience is just one example of this. Could you say more about how uncertainty affects our teaching?

Steve: Firstly I should say that I have been very privileged in my career and have not experienced the levels of precarity faced by many other ELT professionals – so I’m probably not the best person to talk about this. However, I think we all know that ELT is not the most widely respected profession in the world. In fact, many people don’t regard it as a profession at all – it’s often conceived as something backpackers do in order to make a bit of money while travelling, something people do in their 20s until they manage to get a “proper job”. This in turn allows employers to claim that English language teachers don’t want to take their jobs seriously or take on the responsibility that comes with a secure contract. There are several discourses that feed into this conceptualisation of ELT as a non-professional industry and of teachers as casual workers. Firstly, the notion of the native speaker as the ideal teacher means that monolingual English speakers with no teaching qualifications or experience are regarded as more employable than multilingual, highly qualified and experienced teachers. Then, there’s this idea that you can become a competent English language teacher by doing a 4-week course. Not only that, but the content of this course focuses on very low-level procedural skills, leading to the assumption that ELT simply involves the application of a series of techniques. I think, then, that ELT is constructed in such a way that allows it to be conceptualised on nonprofessional terms, and this low-status view of teaching and teachers allows employers to offer poor and precarious working conditions. If all that is required to be a very employable English language teacher is fluency in English plus a certificate from a 4-week course, little or no value is placed on experience or further qualifications. It also means that more experienced teachers are expendable – they can easily be replaced by someone new to the profession who doesn’t take it that seriously and who is prepared to accept relatively low pay, casual hours and a lack of security. To answer your question then, I think precarity in ELT is deliberately constructed to discourage us from seeing ourselves as professionals. Lots of people become English teachers for a couple of years but relatively few decide to make a career out of it – I think this must have a negative impact on the overall quality of what goes on in ELT.

Q: In your critique of ELT you highlight the risk of over-emphasising aspects of learning: proceduralism with a focus on the ‘what’ instead of the ‘why’, and performativity and the (UK) obsession with league tables; while at the same time other aspects that are more difficult to measure are very important. Your reference to Stephen Ball and the need to make individuals ‘responsive and flexible’ seems in that respect relevant. Could you say more about this?

Steve: Stephen Ball has written quite extensively on what he calls “the terrors of performativity”. Basically, he uses the term “performativity” to describe the obsession with evidencing everything that we do. He uses the English education system as an example context where the need to provide evidence of good practice in the form of key performance indicators such as test results means that people spend so much time making it look like they’re doing a good job that they don’t have time to actually do a good job. As long as the evidence is there, their managers don’t really care what actually happens in reality. This of course leads to a certain amount of gamesmanship, where teachers regard the whole review and evaluation process as something they all have to go along with, just a box-ticking exercise rather than a genuine exercise in reflective practice. It also leads to fabrication, as teachers are effectively encouraged to produce data that looks good, irrespective of whether it reflects what really happened. You’re right that performativity is rife in the UK state education sector, and is particularly bad in England. However, it exists in the private sector too [and the wider ELT profession more generally], where schools are constantly trying to prove that their courses allow people to learn English better, faster, more effectively, whatever – so they like to use general statements or stats in their publicity. The way we tend to evaluate teaching in observations can also be very performative, with observers maybe having a checklist of things that they want to see the teacher doing – if they do it once, they can tick the box, but no thought is given to whether they did that thing well, or when it was appropriate to do so. I wrote a blog post about performativity a few years ago in which I tried to exemplify its impact on the job I had at the time.

Q: You are critical of current teaching practices which seem to fit our profession in a neoliberal mould. One key point for you is incongruence, more specifically the idea that much of what we teach doesn’t fit what research on second language acquisition shows how people actually learn. Isn’t this something that also applies to ELT in general, as something that has more to do with the complexity of this area of learning?

Steve: Well, I suppose we have to consider why the ELT profession seems so hell-bent on commodification of language and learning, even though it requires us to go against what SLA research tells us. I think it’s because a commodified approach to language learning works well in a neoliberal environment. Neoliberalism, after all, is about the commodification of everything – turning everything into a product that can be bought and sold. If you accept that language is far more than a set of rules that gets applied to a list of words, and if you accept that language learning doesn’t happen incrementally – that people learn things and then forget them, get better and then get worse again – if you accept the fact that different people acquire language at different speeds, in different orders and with varying degrees of success, suddenly it all becomes a lot less marketable. But you’re right that we live in a world dominated by neoliberalism – the market is all-pervasive. So the neoliberal, highly commodified and marketised nature of ELT, to a large extent, reflects the wider world.

Q: ELT can empower our learners, and instrumental motivation, personalisation and learner autonomy in our teaching support that. But you also say that this empowerment is limited. But surely, learner autonomy and the critical independence of thought this requires goes beyond limited empowerment?

Steve: In my talk I made a distinction between individual empowerment and emancipation, with empowerment being about developing knowledge, skills and understanding in individuals so that they can function and flourish more effectively within society. That’s all very well, but there is no explicit focus here on the transformation of society. The only transformation is in that individual’s capacities for success, which is great for that individual. But if society is unequal (it is), if power is distributed unevenly (it is), and if current social structures are designed in such a way that they favour some people over others (they are), then an approach to education that focuses only on individual empowerment is unlikely to change any of this. Emancipation, on the other hand, is a social phenomenon. Rather than simply giving people the skills to be successful within existing social structures, an emancipatory approach to education seeks to give people the skills to challenge and transform those structures.

Q: Critical pedagogy would in your view provide a viable alternative for ELT. Paulo Freire’s idea of participatory methodologies is an example of changing our teaching approach in this way. Do you see significant developments in this direction within ELT?

Steve: Not yet, but there are some small steps being taken. The problem is that people assume that any alternative to the current model has to fit within current (capitalist) constructs, and of course that’s not going to solve anything. If, for example, you replace highly sanitised/censored global coursebooks with a global coursebook that encourages the exploration of topics related to social justice, that solves one problem but you’ve still got the problem of a centrally-produced curriculum that the students had no input in designing, with predetermined outcomes that are (somehow) supposed to be equally useful, irrespective of the learning context. Critical pedagogy requires the eschewing of externally imposed content and outcomes. We can’t all just start using the same alternative methods and materials, because the whole point is that the methods and materials should be informed by the preferences, needs, interests and contexts of our learners. If we look at Dogme as an example, this is an approach that is, to a large extent, compatible with critical pedagogy. It’s been around for 20 years now, and most people have heard of it as a thing. However, despite all of this, and the huge amount of respect that Scott Thornbury has in the ELT profession, Dogme has never taken off. Why? Because it’s not commercially viable. You can’t make money selling coursebooks if everyone does Dogme. You’re unlikely to attract students if you refuse to guarantee what level they will be at by the end of the course – or even what content they will cover while they’re studying. Critical pedagogy isn’t commercially viable either – it’s not supposed to be. But as long as capitalist principles are applied to education, people are likely to reject critical pedagogy for this very reason. I noticed that TESOL Africa recently focused on the theme of De-centring TESOL. That’s encouraging, but I think we’re still a long way from being in a position to claim that critical pedagogy is widely used in ELT.

Q: You suggest language teaching is inherently political in the choices we make. That would seem to be an inevitable part of becoming a critically conscious learner. But doesn’t this also entail risks? (I’m thinking here of the dangers of over-politicisation…)

Steve: I don’t think it’s about over- or under-politicisation. Of course, I think there’s always a danger that teachers will try to push their own political agendas in the classroom, and I think that some people assume that critical pedagogy is simply an excuse to allow them to do this. However, the current model is one of faux neutrality: we’re encouraged to avoid politics in the classroom on the premise that this allows us to be neutral, but of course that isn’t the case. Removing opportunities to critically examine current dominant power structures is a very political act, as it allows those structures to remain intact. This is not political neutrality, it is reinforcement of the status quo. I think though that many teachers feel that they can’t bring politics into the classroom without pushing a certain message, and they worry that this can be construed as a form of indoctrination. This implies a failure to understand what critical pedagogy is all about though. In critical pedagogy, the teacher is not expected to be the one that provides all the answers – it is up to the students to engage with the issues and explore possible solutions from their perspectives. The teacher is not (should not be) expected to tell students what is right or wrong, or what political views they should have. This requires an approach to teaching that many of us struggle to get our heads around – we’re used to our role being to provide answers.

Q: One of the alternatives from critical pedagogy that you provide is challenging expectations as part of the learning process. Could you say more about how this might work?

Steve: I suppose this relates to what Freire described as the raising of critical consciousness, as well as what was said earlier about hegemony. An important part of education is helping people to understand how the world works, why it works that way, who benefits from it working that way and what role they as individuals play in the whole process. This can require learners to become aware of their own privilege, as well as ways in which they are oppressed. This can be an uncomfortable thing to do, but it allows them to see social relationships differently, and may lead to them questioning or challenging authority rather than simply accepting what is offered to them.

Q: In your post-plenary Q&A session, were there new insights from the audience about the responsibility that educators have, and how they can develop students’ capacities to transform society?

Steve: To be honest, I wasn’t very sure how my talk would go down with an audience of people who mostly work in the corporate world, but I was very encouraged by what people had to say in the Q&A afterwards. It was interesting to hear teachers describing things that they already do in their classes to encourage their learners to question or challenge existing structures of power, and also to hear that their learners tend to respond positively. However, there was general acknowledgement that this approach to teaching is a kind of subversion of what teachers are expected to do and what their clients expect of them.

Another guest blog post: Leslie Denton

This is the second in what might become a series of guest posts from TESOL professionals who I’m working with at the University of the West of Scotland. Leslie Denton spent time as an English language teacher in South Korea, and is now working towards the completion of an MEd in TESOL. In this presentation, Leslie explores how the spread of English as a global language has created the discriminatory practice of native-speakerism. She then focuses on the South Korean context to reflect critically on the impact that native-speakerism has on the ELT profession there. Leslie draws on her own experiences and provides examples to illustrate her points, exposing some of the problematic elements that underpin ELT in South Korea.

I’ve never worked in South Korea, but I know plenty of people who have and I’m aware that TESOL is regarded as playing an important role in the nation’s socio-economic development, as well as being a prosperous industry in and of itself. It’s therefore important to shed light on any practices that promote inequality or social injustice, and I think Leslie does this very effectively here.

You can download and watch Leslie’s presentation by clicking on the link below:

As always, you’re welcome to comment on Leslie’s post below. I’m curious to know how (or whether) her ideas resonate with other TESOL professionals with experience of working in South Korea.

Guest Blog Post – Tanina Baronello

In this post I’m delighted to welcome a guest blogger, Tanina Baronello. Tanina has taught English for several years and has considerable experience working as an online teacher in the private sector. She is currently in the middle of doing an MEd in TESOL at the University of the West of Scotland, and that’s how we got to know each other. The MEd programme includes a module called English as a Global Language, which explores the role and nature of English – and the learning and teaching of English – in global society. During this module, students were asked to give a short presentation exploring an aspect relating to the phenomenon of English as a Global Language, and Tanina decided to explore the neoliberal phenomena of commodification and McDonaldization in online ELT by focusing on one company as a case study. I found what she had to say really interesting, and when I tweeted one of her presentation slides a few people expressed an interest in seeing the whole presentation. Tanina very kindly offered to provide a version of her presentation to post on this blog – and here it is:

Once you’ve downloaded the presentation, just play it as a slideshow to watch.

Tanina’s social media details are on the first slide, but you are, of course, welcome to respond to her presentation in the comments section below. I’d be very interested to know how other ELT professionals react to her findings.

Covid-19 and the Future of Learning

For many of us, the pandemic has massively altered how we live our everyday lives, how we engage with others, and how we do our jobs. The impact of the virus on education has been huge, with many institutions closing their premises and moving to online learning. This sudden need to teach online has required language teachers to re-invent themselves in some ways, as we come to terms with the different parameters and limitations we’re now working in, and develop new skills to try and be as effective online as we were in the physical classroom.

In many ways, I’ve been pleasantly surprised at how effective an online learning environment can be, and how even language learning – which requires a lot of meaningful interaction and not just passively internalised input – can still work reasonably well. However, I wouldn’t say that the online learning environment naturally lends itself to effective language learning and teaching, and I’ve found myself having to challenge students’ preconceptions of what online learning is all about. Some students assume that online learning is always asynchronous, that they can just log in whenever they have time and do the tasks on their own. Others recognise that lessons can be synchronous, meaning they have to log in at the same time as the teacher and the rest of the class, but once they’ve logged in they feel it’s OK to mute themselves, switch their cameras off, and just go about their day while listening to the lesson running in the background.

Presumably these assumptions stem from previous online learning experiences, or simply because people who aren’t language teachers aren’t very aware of the fact that you can’t acquire a language if you don’t actually use it. And sure, there are occasions in the language classroom where it is appropriate for students to sit passively and listen to the teacher clarifying a grammar point, and there are also lots of ways in which asynchronous learning can be beneficial to the language learning process. But language is all about communication, and language learning therefore requires lots of meaningful interaction. While an online environment can still allow students to engage actively with each other and with other sources of language, it does perhaps lend itself more naturally to a unidirectional model of learning, where the content is pre-selected and then presented to the students, whose role is merely to passively absorb and digest that content.

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This unidirectional approach doesn’t work well for language learning, but I’m a bit concerned that it isn’t just students who expect their online learning experience to be like this. The rise of online learning that has resulted from the pandemic, and a surprisingly (to me) widely-held belief/acceptance that learners can simply be passive recipients of knowledge, allows courses to be developed and presented as products – pre-packaged, off-the-shelf commodities for learners to “consume”, in an order predetermined by the provider. Even live, synchronous language teaching is now used by private companies to present heavily scripted, McDonaldized materials that ensure there is little or no opportunity for students to express their own ideas – unless those ideas happen to coincide with the content. Mark Carrigan’s recent blog post draws on the work of Erich Fromm to show how this whole approach to learning is problematic, and how active, critical engagement with the learning content is crucial for learning to have any kind of transformative impact.

A lot of educational institutions (mine included) seem to be looking at ways for online learning to continue to play a dominant role in teaching and learning processes, even after a return to classroom-based teaching becomes possible. But if their motivations for doing this are grounded in assumptions that online learning is all about developing materials in advance and presenting them as consumable packages for students, it may become increasingly difficult for those of us who value meaningful engagement – and student contributions as sources of learning rather than merely checks that they’ve “got the right answers” – to find spaces in the curriculum to allow that kind of engagement to take place.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

References:
Bates, T.R. (1975), ‘Gramsci and the Theory of Hegemony’, Journal of the History of Ideas, Vol. 36:2, pp. 351-366.Blacker, D.J. (2013), ‘The Failling Rate of Profit and the Neoliberal End Game, Washington D.C: Zero Books.
Coffield, F. (1999), ‘Breaking the Consensus: Lifelong Learning as Social Control’, British Educational Research Journal, 25:4, pp. 479-499.
Elliott, L. (2017), ‘World’s Eight Richest People Have Same Wealth as Poorest 50%’, Guardian, published online 16/01/2017, available from: https://www.theguardian.com/global-development/2017/jan/16/worlds-eight-richest-people-have-same-wealth-as-poorest-50 [accessed 14 April 2019].
Finn, J. and Jacobsen, M. (2017), ‘What is Social Justice?’, OUP Blog, available from:https://blog.oup.com/2017/03/what-is-social-justice/ [accessed 23 March 2019].
Gillies, D. (2011), ‘Agile Bodies: A New Imperative in Neoliberal Governance’, Journal of Education Policy, 26:2, pp. 207-223.
Giroux, H. (2011), On Critical Pedagogy, London: Bloomsbury.
Gray, J. (2002), ‘The Global Coursebook in English Language Teaching’, in D. Block and D. Cameron (eds.), Globalization and Language Teaching, pp. 151-167, London: Routledge.
Holliday, A. (2006), ‘Native-speakerism’, ELT Journal 60:4, pp. 385-387.
Inglis, T. (1997), ‘Empowerment and Emancipation’, Adult Education Quarterly, 48:1, pp. 3-17.
United Nations (2019), Universal Declaration of Human Rights, available from:https://www.ohchr.org/EN/UDHR/Documents/UDHR_Translations/eng.pdf [accessed 12 April 2019].
Urban Dictionary (2019), Social Justice Warrior, available from:https://www.urbandictionary.com/define.php?term=Social%20Justice%20Warrior [accessed 14 April 2019].
Young, C. (2016), ‘The Totalitarian Doctrine of Social Justice Warriors’, The Observer, published online 02/02/2016, available from: https://observer.com/2016/02/the-totalitarian-doctrine-of-social-justice-warriors/ [accessed 14 April 2019].

 

Conferences, Ethics and the #ELTfootprint

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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