If your first language is not English, and you want to study at university in an English-speaking country or at an English-medium university, the chances are you’ll need to provide evidence of your English level. In Scottish universities, the most widely accepted qualification is IELTS and, depending on the course you’re applying, an overall score of somewhere between 6.0 and 7.5 is usually an additional criterion that non-1st language users of English need to meet. For people already living in Scotland, another option might be Higher ESOL, which is delivered in many secondary schools and colleges. The validity of using qualifications such as IELTS or Higher ESOL may be questionable – a person’s ability to write 250 words in 40 minutes doesn’t really tell you if they’re capable of writing 5000 words in a much longer timeframe, for example – but it’s pretty much accepted across all universities that applicants whose first language is not English must meet some kind of minimum language requirement before they can be accepted onto a degree programme.
(Photo sourced from: http://www.studyenglishgenius.com)
In the Further Education sector, however, things are a bit different. Most colleges have some kind of policy involving language requirements for entry onto courses, but some don’t. And even if they do, these policies are not always implemented. The result is that many ESOL learners are accepted onto courses that they are unable to pass, simply because their English level is not sufficiently high to meet the linguistic demands of these courses. Maybe they can’t understand what their lecturers or classmates are saying to them, maybe they don’t have the vocabulary to cope with the texts they have to read, or maybe they can’t produce texts with a sufficient level of accuracy to effectively convey meaning. Or maybe they are unaccustomed to the norms of academia in this country, and find tasks such as giving presentations or applying theoretical concepts to case studies completely alien. Maybe they have all of these problems. In any case, it surely goes without saying that colleges that don’t check their applicants’ English levels before accepting them on courses are doing these students a massive dis-service.
So, what’s going on here then? Why are colleges setting students up to fail in this way? Well, there seem to be two reasons why it’s happening. The first is a really cynical one – the need to get bums on seats. There are a few subject areas in the FE sector that are not exactly having their doors beaten down by would-be students. These departments risk having programmes cut unless they can recruit sufficient numbers. So, if it looks like a course might not run due to low numbers, there’s a temptation to overlook certain entry requirements just to get more bodies in. ESOL applicants, often more mature and motivated than your average college applicant, may have the English skills to perform very well in an oral interview. Perhaps in a fit of wishful thinking, then, course leaders sometimes accept these applicants onto their course without even bothering to check if they can actually write anything. Of course, it reflects badly on the department if these students end up dropping out or failing the course, but if the course is allowed to run and if the students stay for the first three months then the college will receive funding for them. It’s very short-sighted, but the pressure during recruitment to run viable courses overrides the pressure to plan for high attainment rates. And in any case, when non-ESOL specialists interview someone who comes across as being more motivated, more mature and more articulate than the Scottish-born teenagers they are used to interviewing, they often genuinely think they have a strong applicant and it simply does not occur to them that the applicant’s written English skills might be considerably less well-developed than their speaking.
There’s another reason, however, why colleges are often quick to accept ESOL learners onto non-ESOL courses, and it’s to do with a misunderstanding of what it means to have English as a second or additional language. Depending on their English level when the course starts, ESOL students who are accepted onto non-ESOL courses are likely to need a bit of additional support, so colleges sometimes equate ESOL needs with other Additional Support Needs. The term is generally used to refer to needs that result from disabilities, or learning differences like dyslexia. If someone with an ASN applies for a course, the college has an obligation to make reasonable adjustments to programme delivery to allow that person to access the course. Provided, of course, the applicant meets all other minimum criteria. The college would identify what special equipment might be needed, or different assessment conditions, or changes to classroom practice, to allow the applicant to meet the criteria for success on the course. This is because Additional Support Needs can only be managed, not removed. You can put things in place to minimise the impact of dyslexia (coloured overlays, a particular font, that sort of thing) but you can’t make the dyslexia go away. Unlike dyslexia though, not having English as your first language is a barrier that can be overcome by, well, learning English. Language is a skill that can be acquired, and therefore the best way to overcome the problem is to acquire the skill.
But a lot of college staff seem to be treating a lack of English as if it was an additional support need. This leads to a misapprehension that it would be discriminatory NOT to let the person onto a course, no matter how low their English level is. I have even had it argued to me that if someone applies for a course and their first language is not English, the college is under an obligation to provide all of the course materials in that person’s language. This is taking the language-disability conflation to the extreme, and is a good example of well-intentioned inclusive action actually exacerbating the problem; rather than teaching the student English, giving them a skill that not only helps them pass the course but also opens all kinds of other possibilities for human flourishing, the student’s ability in this area remains undeveloped.
But of course, not being very good at English does not mean you have a disability – it just means you’re not very good at English, in the same way that I’m just not very good at maths. Because I’m not very good at maths, I wouldn’t expect to be accepted onto a course that requires a lot of maths, and such a course would presumably have an entry requirement of Higher maths, or some other minimum qualification level, that I would need to pass before I could be accepted. In the same way, a course that is delivered in English and therefore requires the use of English needs to state the minimum level required for applicants whose first language is not English.
Minimum English language requirements are surprisingly non-ubiquitous in the Scottish FE sector – there are colleges where it is possible to go through the whole application process without even being asked if English is your first language. And in colleges that do state specific language requirements for their programmes, these requirements are often so vague that it is easy to ignore them if it is convenient to do so.
The assumption that the college’s ESOL department will provide additional support to students with poor English who were accepted onto non-ESOL courses is also problematic. Like all departments in Scottish FE colleges, ESOL providers are under pressure to maximise efficiency, which essentially means large class sizes and programmes containing units that attract lots of credit funding. Additional support for students on non-ESOL courses, if done properly, involves individualised one-to-one support, and the return to colleges in terms of funding is so low that resources are far more likely to be used on types of provision that can generate more funding. And anyway, even if a student receives a couple of hours per week of one-to-one support, how effective is this going to be when they have A2 level writing and the course requires them to write 2000 words under exam conditions?
Those of you who teach in other contexts, particularly those who work in universities, may be reading this in horror, or with a certain amount of scepticism. Surely it’s not that bad. How could such a huge misconception about ESOL learners be so widespread? But I’m not exaggerating. And, when you think about it, it shouldn’t be so surprising that such a culture has developed. Unlike universities, which tend to be quite comfortable with their elitism, colleges see themselves as inclusive places, where people who get rejected from other institutions can feel welcome and can find a course that suits them, at a level they are capable of achieving at. With this attitude engrained in the FE sector, you get a culture where academic staff are encouraged to accept everyone and are terrified of being accused of discrimination. Of course, it is far worse to recruit students onto courses they are bound to fail than it is to avoid this failure by referring them to an ESOL course instead. But within this culture, the idea of rejecting an applicant, particularly an enthusiastic applicant who has probably suffered discrimination in other forms before, is counter-intuitive to many college staff.
Understanding the nature of the problem doesn’t make it OK though. Course leaders need to get comfortable with the fact that a lack of English is a perfectly legitimate reason for not letting someone on a course that is delivered in English. They need to be disabused of the notion that ESOL is an Additional Support Need that can be provided in the same way as orthopaedic chairs, hearing loops and coloured overlays. They need to understand that the best thing you can do for someone who lives in an English-speaking country and wants to study on an English-medium course is to teach them English first, and then give them access to a vocational course. And, once it has been established that minimum English requirements are a good thing, colleges need to be much clearer about what those requirements are, and adhere to those requirements to ensure that students are given opportunities to achieve, rather than being allowed to fail.
Please follow this link to a piece I did with Mike Griffin for his blog. If you’re not familiar with Mike’s blog, you really really should be. After you’ve read the post below, I recommend you have a look at some of his other posts as well.
Once upon a time there was a teacher called Dave. Dave taught English in a college a few miles from his house. When the weather was good, Dave would ride his bike to work. Cycling helped to clear his head and energise him, and there were the obvious benefits to his physical health. Two fast bike rides a day was a proper workout which toned his muscles and helped his stamina. Dave was rarely ill when he was regularly cycling, he slept much better at night and he looked better too. Occasionally Dave would run round his local park at the weekends as well, but as long as he was cycling to work he didn’t feel the need to do this; he did it more out of enjoyment.
One day, Dave got a new app for his mobile phone. It was one of those step counters that lets you know your physical activity. “This is great”, thought Dave “I’ll be able to measure the exercise I do and this will help me to maintain a good state of health.”
The next day, Dave set off to work on his bike with his new phone in his pocket. But when he got to work, he discovered that the number of steps recorded by his phone was disappointing. “Only 2500 steps for a 40-minute bike ride? I’d been hoping for more than that”, he said to himself. Still, he kept his phone in his pocket at all times and monitored his steps closely over the next few weeks. He became obsessed with measuring how many steps he used to go anywhere or do anything, and kept a mental note of which activities clocked up the most steps.
Dave soon found that he used a surprising number of steps in ways he hadn’t expected. Browsing in a shopping mall for a couple of hours could clock up as much as 4000 steps. Teaching a 3-hour lesson could easily add 1500, sometimes more. He even discovered that if he took the bus to work, walking to the bus stop at either end of the trip gave him more steps than if he cycled to work, and that if he walked round the park he would use up more steps than if he ran (smaller steps, you see). As his obsession with counting steps grew, Dave cycled to work less and less often. He enjoyed cycling, and it was definitely good for his health. But the step counter didn’t seem to agree, and he was using the step counter to measure his fitness.
After a while, Dave stopped cycling to work altogether, preferring to take the bus. He also stopped running round the park at weekends and instead he’d either go for a walk or simply wander round the shops, guaranteeing the step counter would clock up a minimum of 10000 steps every day. He missed cycling, but he slowly forgot about how much better it had made him feel, and he was able to tell himself that walking 10000 steps every day must make him feel pretty good too.
One day, Alex, Dave’s boss, called Dave into his office, a worried look on his face. “I want to talk to you about your Intermediate class”, said Alex.
“OK, well they’re doing really well,” answered Dave, “Abdi has made great progress with his writing and Renata is really gaining confidence. The whole group is developing a much better awareness of appropriate language and the contexts we’ve covered are clearly useful for helping…” Alex cut him short. “Your retention rate is only 65% for this class. That’s 15% down on last year and 18% below the national average. What do you think is causing this?”
Dave didn’t really know how to respond to this. The numbers did sound bad, but he wasn’t quite sure what they meant.
“Erm, what’s the retention rate again?” Alex looked at Dave as if he had just asked him what shoes were for.
“The retention rate is the number of students who remain on the course. So, early retention is the number of students who are still on the course after 25% of the course is complete, and late retention is the number…”
“Ah OK, I get it, so you’re telling me that too many students have dropped out of the course?”
“I’m telling you that a surprisingly high number of students have dropped out of your course”, said Dave’s boss, subtly but quite clearly placing some stress on the your.
“But they’re a good class”, Dave insisted, “they enjoy the course, and I know t’s definitely good for their English.”
“Well, the retention rates don’t seem to agree”, replied Alex, “and it’s the retention rates that we’re using to measure performance. Can you explain why the number is so low?”
“Well, we started with 20 on the register, but one never showed up so I can’t say anything about them. Sumayah left last week to have her baby – she’s due tomorrow. Dorota has gone to set up her own catering company, and Imre got a job in a bookshop. Liu’s wife has got a really good new job in a bank, so he gave up the course so he could stay home and look after their kids. Celeste had to go back to France because her Dad is very ill and her Mum can’t look after him, and I’m sorry to say that poor Magda has been diagnosed with cancer so she’s stopped her studies to focus on getting treatment.”
Alex looked slightly irritated. “Look Dave, you’re a good teacher, the students like you and everything. So I just don’t understand why the numbers should look so bad, particularly when they were so much better last year”.
“Well, like I just said…” Dave started, about to repeat all the individual reasons, but he was cut short again. “I just don’t know how we’re going to justify this in our annual course review. I mean, a drop of 15%, and we were already below the national average!” Alex looked genuinely worried. Dave frowned.
“Alex, you’re talking about these students leaving as if it was a bad thing.”
“It is a bad thing, Dave!” exclaimed Alex, “we’ve not had a retention rate as low as this since that agent brought those students over from Nepal.”
“But my students have either left because they found work, which is surely a good thing, or because of health issues or caring responsibilities, and both of those things are more or less inevitable, just part of life.”
Alex looked stonily at Dave. “What do you suggest we do to improve the retention rates for this class?” he asked.
Dave paused, then answered thoughtfully. “Well, we could recruit only young people, as they’re more likely to be in good health, and maybe exclude women so they can’t leave to have babies. People over 30 are also more likely to have responsibilities caring for either their children or their parents, so that’s another reason to exclude them. And if we teach them stuff that is less likely to help them to get a job, it would reduce the risk of them finding work. So yes, if we only recruited young men and then taught them really useless language, our retention rates would be much higher.”
Alex knew Dave was joking, but he didn’t show any anger. In fact, was that a glint in his eye?
Shortly after this conversation with Alex, Dave deleted the step counter app from his phone and stopped trying to measure how much exercise he did. He started cycling to work and running round the park again, and felt so much better for it.
I was scrolling through twitter the other day and I saw this image, tweeted by the Scottish Labour Party:
I’m never impressed when political parties use social media for point-scoring and slagging each other off. It seems a bit cynical just plucking some convenient statistics out of the air and using them to attack another party. Clearly I wasn’t the only one that felt this way, as the following comments appeared in the thread below:
“Jeezo, relentless positivity :)”
“oh my, now that’s bad spin, that’s very bad spin, that’s embarrassingly bad spin. no wonder U’re numbers are plummeting,”
“it’s so tedious and boring n they don’t get it. 😝”
So yes, maybe this kind of tweet, one that cynically aims to show the SNP’s further education policy in a negative light without offering any kind of positive alternative, deserves simply to be dismissed as such. But there were some comments that actually engaged with the issue as well. These examples give an idea of what was said in defence of the SNP:
“No matter how you dress it up. Cutting unaccredited short courses of <10hrs delivered this success”
“I was so looking forward to my college certified foundation course in practical car scoosher refilling too.”
“it was due to cutting useless fun ‘courses’ like basketweaving to focus on full time useful stuff that get people in work”
“so looking forward to my course in origami however I folded and took a real course in engineering.”
OK, so there are a couple of things here. For starters, these commenters are all making the point that while the number of students doing further education (FE) courses has gone down, this is because there are a lot fewer students doing part-time courses and a lot more studying full-time. Which they think is a good thing. They think it’s a good thing because there seems to be a general belief that part-time college courses are a waste of time. I’m not sure where this general belief has come from, but when you say the phrase “part-time college course”, people tend to think of subjects that are more hobby-like than vocational, more about having fun than being of any actual use.
What people seem to have forgotten is that you can do a part-time course in accounting, or engineering, or hairdressing. People who didn’t do well at school the first time around can go back to college and do some Highers in the evenings, to broaden their career options or get access to university. People who have recently been made redundant can retrain and compete in the jobs market and avoid ending up on the scrapheap. Retired people can get the basic computing skills they need to allow them to order their groceries online, and pay their heating bills, and maybe even switch provider if they feel they’re not getting a good deal. Single parents can manage their caring responsibilities but still be on a course that will allow them to progress with their careers when their kids are older.
At least they could. But now, as a result of the SNP’s FE policy, it’s very difficult to study anything part-time these days.
The point I’m trying to make here is that the people who suffer the most from cuts to part-time FE courses are very often people who are already the most vulnerable. Single parents, the elderly, the recently unemployed, people with disabilities, people who can’t progress with their careers unless they re-train – these are the people that benefitted from part-time courses and who are now suffering through their demise. It may be convenient to dismiss part-time college courses as a load of liberal artsy-fartsy nonsense, but to do this is to demonstrate either a considerable amount of ignorance or a lack of compassion, or both. John Field, a leading educational academic and specialist in Adult Learning, has made exactly this point here.
The other thing is the broader, political implication behind the SNP’s current further education strategy. The Developing the Young Workforce policy document, the key driver in FE curriculum planning at the moment, is quite clearly grounded in Human Capital theory. Emerging from a previous government paper written by the prominent businessman Sir Ian Wood (not an education specialist by any means), DYW is aimed directly at 16-19 year-olds and the provision of training programmes to meet the employment needs of industry. Colleges are expected to engage with employers to find out what type of skills they need their employees to have, and amend their programmes accordingly. Employability is the big buzzword and features highly in college outcome agreements and curriculum planning documents.
This view of education is rooted in a belief that people exist to serve economic requirements, and it’s very neoliberal indeed. Education is regarded as a commodity, to be invested in with a view to gaining an economic return – nothing more. Of course it’s a good thing to educate young people so they are able to do a job, but that’s not all education is about. There is more to life than work, and the FE sector has a role in educating people about the other things as well. It also has a responsibility to cater for the needs of older people; you can’t promote lifelong learning and then deny access to it.
In the 2015 general election the SNP placed itself firmly to the left of Labour, advocating an anti-austerity policy and generally championing social equality. This is probably what ensured such a huge success for the SNP in the UK election, and also sets them up nicely for a very comfortable majority in Holyrood later this year. But the same party, which claims to be so concerned with equality, social justice and the rights of minorities, is pursuing an education policy that ignores all of that and is instead transforming colleges into production lines for corporations. This is not the behaviour of a left-leaning party committed to a more egalitarian society.
I suppose it boils down to this: either you believe that people exist for the economy, or you believe that the economy exists for the people. The idea of an economy that exists for the people sounds so much more preferable though, doesn’t it? A society where people’s happiness and well-being is seen as more important than the profits of multinational corporations. Where everybody gets a fair share and working people don’t have to just hope for some kind of trickle-down from the super-rich. A society where we consider moral value as well as monetary value, where quality of life is more important than career management, where, dare I say it, we can choose to do a basketweaving class if we want to…
But the SNP has chosen to pursue an FE policy that does the opposite. Access to education is diminishing for those who already have barriers to learning. And instead, 16-19 year-olds are being channelled through a very narrow curriculum with employability as its main focus, in order to give big businesses the workforce they need to continue to make profits.
So, by all means go ahead and slam Labour down for cynical use of social media, and feel free to belittle the value of part-time courses. But understand that to support the SNP’s current FE policy is to support a neoliberal view of socioeconomics, which benefits corporations and further disadvantages vulnerable people. Is that what the SNP stands for?
If you have been visiting this blog for a while you’ll have noticed the frequency of the posts has diminished greatly. In 2013, when I first started blogging properly, I published 49 posts. In 2014 I only published 18, and this year I’ve only managed 8. The main reason for me devoting less time to the blog is the fact that I’m now spending a lot of time doing other things. My college workload increased significantly with a new job last year, and the EdD course is starting to consume pretty much any other free time I might have when I’m not doing things with my family.
So, this is going to be my last blog post – for a while at least. I could have just left it hanging, intending to come back at some point and get into the swing of regular posts again, but I know that I won’t be able to do that for a while so I feel I should let you know not to expect anything new from me here. Of course, please feel free to add comments to existing posts, and I’ll happily respond. I’ve just had a look back and some of them have led to really rather interesting discussions – not always about what I had thought they would lead to, but I’ve discovered that this is often a good thing. Thanks very much to everyone who has contributed.
In case you’re interested, here are some stats about the blog and its contents, along with a bit of analysis:
In terms of the number of readers, the top 10 posts since the blog started (not counting the home page and the “about the blogger” page) are as follows:
- Don’t blame us: the real problem with ELT
- Why pre-selected language aims are a waste of time (and what we should be doing instead)
- Never mind the Bo**ocks – here’s the TEFL skeptic!
- He’s not the messiah, he’s a very naughty boy!
- EFL vs. ESOL: a false dichotomy
- There are no bad students (except there are)
- “Predomonolingual” classes – the worst of both worlds?
- The Matrix exposed (is Demand-High enough?)
- The big issues and ELT 1: Globalisation
- Concerning Coursebooks
I’m quite pleased that ‘Don’t blame us’ came in at number 1, as it encapsulates many ideas from previous posts in which I ranted about what I feel is wrong with ELT. The posts that came in at numbers 3 and 4 were both written immediately after IATEFL conferences and were about things that had happened there (and both feature Russ Mayne – thanks Russ!), so this might explain how they were popular at the time, though very few people have looked at them since. Number 6 and 7, on the other hand, weren’t read much at the time of posting, but have consistently attracted a trickle of readers ever since. Maybe something about the titles?
While these are the top 10 posts for readers, they’re not necessarily the ones I enjoyed writing the most. I think I enjoyed writing Imagine there’s no levels the best, though Language Selection: an evolution was also a good romp. There are a few really boring posts in here as well of course, but I’m pleased to say that you didn’t seem to like them much either.
The top 10 countries that readers came from were:
I’m a bit surprised at the USA being so high up this list, as I got very few comments or likes from readers based there. Maybe it’s just that there’s a big ESL teaching community out in the States, I don’t know. Otherwise I don’t think this list reveals any big surprises – maybe you disagree…
Another stat that I’ve enjoyed looking at is the list of search terms that people typed in which led them to the blog. Unsurprisingly, the top 10 is mostly made up of my name, the name of the blog, or some variation of the two. But other popular search terms were “Globalisation” at number 2, “Bad students” at number 4, “Demand high ELT” at number 5 and “Preflection”, a word that I thought I had made up, at number 9. There were a few other interesting ones, clearly from people who had no interest in anything on my blog and who stumbled upon it by accident, such as:
- matrix pod
- sqa knitting
- thought bubble
- kids clothes wash label
- sqa verifier photography
- knitting school exams
- learning to drive properly
- cost of knitting own jumper
- I know kung fu
…and these are some questions that people typed in and ended up on my blog:
- where in bloomfield did Scottish immigrants gather?
- where to get photocopying in Ulaanbaatar?
- do you need to pass exams to be a gamekeeper?
These all seem pretty random search terms unless you know the content of all the posts. I’m sure the photocopying situation has improved in Ulaanbaatar since I worked there over 20 years ago, but I do find it kind of funny that only last year somebody felt the need to go online and ask this question.
Unsurprisingly, Twitter was the most popular referrer, with Facebook close behind. Quite a lot of visitors came to this blog via blogs written by other language teaching professionals though, such as Geoff Jordan, the Secret DOS (ah, remember the Secret DOS?), Juergen Kurtz, Scott Thornbury and Mike Griffin. Blogging traffic also went the other way, with visitors from my blog clicking on links to a similar collection of interesting blogs and websites.
For me, being part of this ELT blogging community has been immensely satisfying, and I hope I can manage to stay in touch with the wonderful people I’ve made contact with over the last couple of years. Maybe I’ll manage to get back to writing my own posts in the future. In the meantime, I’ll continue to read with interest what other people are writing. It’s hard to know where change originates, but a lot of what is being written out there suggests there is an appetite for a major transformation in our profession. Geoff Jordan recently asked if we’re on the verge of a paradigm shift in ELT. He concluded that we aren’t, but then maybe for ELT to change the whole world has to change; as educators we have a responsibility in this regard as well.
I imagine you are familiar with the terms “evidence-based reporting” and “accountability”. Both of these concepts seem perfectly reasonable, don’t they? I mean, the idea of gathering evidence to draw conclusions or learn more about something is fundamental to the scientific method, and holding people to account for their actions is a crucial component of a fair and just society. However, these two concepts have been twisted together to form something different, known as performativity, which is severely damaging our profession. In this post I’ll try to explain what performativity is, and I’ll give some examples of its impact on my own teaching context. As you read, you may want to reflect on the extent to which performativity impacts on your professional practice.
We live in a world where knowledge is regarded as a commodity, a bit like oil. The well-known economist Joseph Stiglitz said, in 1999, ‘Knowledge and information is being produced today like cars and steel were produced a hundred years ago.’ (Stiglitz 1999: 1). This makes educational institutions sound a bit like factories, and to a large extent they are, with governments regarding education as a means of producing individuals with the knowledge and skills to develop their nations’ economies. Investment in education is therefore seen as investment in economic growth, as explained by Little in her definition of Human Capital Theory:
‘…the skills that people acquire are a form of capital, human capital…these are acquired through deliberate investments in education…skills are the capacities that contribute to economic production’ (Little 2003: 438).
The perception of education as a vehicle for economic development has led to governments becoming increasingly interested in educational performance and outputs. Like private companies, they want to know what they’re getting for their money, so they create a framework to evaluate the performance of educational institutions:
‘Now the state is the agent…which…defines the terms in and on which the education service will be evaluated. It defines educational “effectiveness”.’ (Cowen 1997: 67-68).
This evaluation process, according to Cowen, ‘…involves defining and measuring and publicising the “results” of education in quantative [sic] terms.’ (ibid: 68). So we’re talking about measurable criteria such as exam results, student retention, the use of checklists to evaluate teaching “performance”, that sort of thing. Using criteria like this to pass judgement on educational institutions, and individual teachers, is what is known as performativity.
One of the strongest critics of performativity is Stephen Ball, a renowned academic in the field of Education Policy. This paragraph gives you an idea of what he thinks of it:
‘Performativity is a culture or a system of “terror”. It is a regime of accountability that employs judgements, comparisons and displays as means of control, attrition and change. The performances of individual subjects or organisations serve as measures of productivity or output, or displays of “quality”, or “moments” of promotion or inspection. These performances stand for, encapsulate or represent the worth, quality or value of an individual or organisation within a field of judgement.’ (Ball 2013: 57).
Basically, performativity reduces teaching to a series of limited, externally imposed, measures, and places judgements accordingly on teachers’ ability to do their jobs. Teaching by numbers, if you like. In order to justify this means of evaluation, governments created what Ball has termed a “discourse of derision” (Ball 1990), described by Forde et al as ‘…the perception that teachers and the teaching profession are unable to deliver the required standards of schooling’ (Forde et al 2006: 25), thereby justifying the need for the state to intervene.
The use of measurable criteria to establish how well a system is working may seem like a reasonable and scientific approach to take. However, the location of power is significant here; the discourse of derision suggests that the criteria used are deliberately designed to make educational professionals look bad. Furthermore, performativity creates a culture within which, according to Forde et al, ‘…we laud that which can be measured and ignore what cannot be measured, even though it might be as important in the educative process.’ (ibid.).
We all know how hard it is to measure learning, and teaching for that matter. Using things like exam results to measure success doesn’t take into account distance travelled, or the number of barriers that students have to overcome in order to pass. Nor does it take into account any cultural or linguistic bias that may lie within the exam. For example, many English language assessments contain references to topics that some cultures are more familiar with than others, or expect students to perform in a way that comes more naturally to European students than it does to students from, say, China. When evaluating teaching performance, the use of a set of pre-determined criteria skews the focus of the lesson towards the meeting of these criteria, rather than meeting the needs of the students as the lesson progresses (I’ve previously written touched on this issue here).
Focusing on the measurable at the expense of the less measurable also affects the professionalism of teachers. Forde et al describe a 1997 study by Wright and Bottery on teacher trainers’ perceptions of professionalism, which revealed this:
‘…while there was a very strong emphasis on the practical classroom skills, there was very low priority accorded to the wider professional growth of the trainees, or to their understanding of other parts of the educational process.’ (Forde et al 2011: 25).
I imagine that if a similar study was carried out today among teacher trainers on initial training courses in ELT, the results would be similar. Lots of focus is placed on the technical side of things – classroom management, clarification techniques etc, – but there’s very little focus on the wider implications of being a professional educator. Of course, this plays into the hands of employers in both state and private sectors; if teaching is simply a means of implementing a series of skills and techniques which can be acquired in the space of 4 weeks, teaching can be perceived as a fairly low-level job, and teachers themselves are relatively expendable. This helps to explain why English language teachers in many countries are paid so badly.
The other issue of concern is that of accountability. The impact of performativity on teachers, according to Ball, is ‘…a sense of being constantly judged in different ways, by different criteria, through different agents and agencies.’ The system is designed to ‘…make individuals responsible for monitoring and disciplining themselves, to make them responsive and flexible.’ (Ball 2013: 58). Teachers feel conscious of the need to perform according to the various inspection criteria, policies, reports and recommendations that are thrown at them. This starts to take precedence over the more immediate, actual needs of their students, to the point where teachers spend so much time trying to show that they are doing a good job, that they don’t have any time left to actually do a good job. All this evidence-gathering ‘…consumes so much energy that it drastically reduces the energy available for making improvement inputs.’ (Elliot 1996: 15, quoted in Ball 2013: 59-60).
Not that what actually goes on in the classroom counts for much anyway. The “best” teachers are not the ones who actually do a really good job, but those who are able to make it look like they are doing a really good job. This is what Ball calls ‘fabrications’, where individuals or institutions describe, in reports and other texts, the work they do using language that demonstrates that they are meeting performative criteria. What they say they do within these texts becomes more important than what actually happens in practice. Ball puts it this way:
‘Fabrications are versions of an organization (or person) which does not exist – they are not “outside the truth” but neither do they render simply true or direct accounts – they are produced purposefully in order “to be accountable”. Truthfulness is not the point – the point is their effectiveness.’ (Ball 2003: 224).
So far I’ve been trying to describe performativity and its implications in a very general sense, with occasional references to ELT. Now I want to give some more specific examples of how performativity impacts on my own practice, because I feel that the performative culture I work in, rather than helping to maintain or enhance teaching performance, actually undermines standards. Have a look at these examples and see what you think:
- Education Scotland, the body that reviews standards in Scotland’s colleges, uses the same criteria to evaluate teaching across all subjects. The criteria, therefore, are either so generic as to be meaningless, allowing for pretty poor standards to be accepted across the board, or they favour some teaching contexts over others. Is this type of value judgement likely to develop us as teachers?
- The need to generate evidence can be ridiculously time-consuming. Senior managers understand this, but feel they must prioritise evidence-gathering over everything else. It has been suggested to me in the past that I cancel lessons in order to attend pre-inspection meetings. Shouldn’t the students and their learning take precedence over everything else?
- “Best Practice” is a term that is commonly used when evaluating performance. If one college is doing something that works well for them, other institutions are expected to follow their example. But what if the thing they are doing for their students doesn’t match the needs of my students?
- One of the Key Performance Indicators (KPIs) used to measure the success of our programmes is Retention, or how many students stay on the course until the end. If I want to ensure high retention, I need to recruit students who are unlikely to drop out of the course – this encourages me to prioritise people who are settled in the country, with a steady income and no major distractions that are likely to impact on their studies. But what about people in less stable situations – asylum-seekers (who could be deported at any time), jobseekers (who could get a job at any time, which, perversely, is recorded as a negative outcome), people with health issues, single parents (who are likely to miss classes if their kids get sick) – should they be excluded? If I excluded them, my KPIs would look much better.
- If I have a student with poor attendance, punctuality, or discipline, I’ll try to identify the root of the problem and see if it can be solved. Sometimes though, for whatever reason, the best course of action may be to withdraw the student from the course. But this would negatively affect KPIs, so I am instead expected to do everything I can to keep the student on the course, no matter how negatively they influence class dynamics, and even if it is not in that student’s best interests.
- The use of attainment figures as a KPI raises ethical issues when it comes to initial placement. The focus is on ensuring as many students as possible pass the course. So, do I place students in classes where they will be challenged and where there is scope for them to make a lot of progress, or do I place them at a level they can already achieve at, knowing that this will make my KPIs look better?
- Of course, the other issue about attainment in a performative culture is that teachers are under pressure to pass everybody. When assessing students, I should employ good professional judgement and fail anyone who doesn’t meet the required standard – right? But if I do this it reflects badly on me. A teacher with a less well-developed moral compass might just pass everyone, and as a result they would look like the better teacher.
I’ve tried to demonstrate through the above examples how a performative culture, rather than maintaining or raising standards of education, actually conspires to make the quality of teaching worse. As professionals, we teachers are caught in an impossible paradox. If we do the things that we know to be right (prioritise teaching and learning over everything else, challenge our students, have an inclusive recruitment policy, instil a productive and hard-working class dynamic, use professional knowledge and judgement when assessing students’ performances etc.) it may look like we are doing a bad job. If we “play the game” and focus solely on doing what is required to look good on paper, we could find ourselves doing things that we know to be immoral, unethical or unprofessional.
In Stephen Ball’s article entitled ‘The teacher’s soul and the terrors of performativity’ (Ball 2003) he argues how performativity isn’t just damaging teaching, it’s damaging teachers as well:
‘The novelty of this epidemic of reform is that it does not simply change what people, as educators, scholars and researchers do, it changes who they are.’ (Ball 2003: 215).
Ball argues that teachers are required to question or contravene the values that were previously fundamental to their professional practice, to such an extent that they no longer know where they stand. I’m not sure if I would go that far myself, but I can see the effects of performativity on my own working environment, and they are not good. As G.E Johnson, a teacher quoted by Ball, puts it:
‘What happened to my creativity? What happened to my professional integrity? What happened to the fun in teaching and learning? What happened?’ (Ball 2013: 59).
It’s not impossible to do a good job within a performative culture, but justifying what you know to be right, when externally-imposed value judgements say otherwise, is a constant battle. And it’s getting harder and harder.
Ball, S. 1990, Politics and Policy Making in Education: Explorations in Policy Sociology, London: Routledge.
Ball, S. 2003, ‘The teacher’s soul and the terrors of performativity’, Journal of Education Policy, 18:2, 215-228.
Ball, S. 2013, The education debate (2nd edition), Bristol: The Policy Press.
Cowen, R. 1997, ‘Autonomy, Citizenship, the Market and Education’, in D. Bridges (ed.), Education, Autonomy and Democratic Citizenship: Philosophy in a Changing World, 61-73, Abingdon: Routledge.
Elliott, J. 1996, ‘Quality assurance, the educational standards debate, and the commodification of educational research’, BERA Annual Conference, University of Lancaster.
Forde, C., McMahon, M., McPhee, A. and Patrick, F. 2011, Professional development, reflection and enquiry, London: Sage.
Little, A. (2003), ‘Motivating learning and the development of human capital’, in Compare: A Journal of Comparative and International Education, 33:4, 437-452.
Stiglitz, J. 1999, Public Policy for a Knowledge Economy, available from: https://www0.gsb.columbia.edu/faculty/jstiglitz/download/speeches/PublicPolicy/Public_Policy_for_Knowledge_Economy.pdf [last accessed 01/08/2015].
Earlier this year there was a bit of a hoo-hah in the ELT blogging world on the topic of coursebooks. Perhaps unsurprisingly, it was Geoff Jordan who started it, claiming that coursebooks, with their atomistic and linear approach to language, fail to take into account the non-linear and disorganised way in which languages are actually learned.
Geoff’s posts inspired other bloggers to get involved in the discussion; Rose Bard and Sandy Millin both came down on the anti-coursebook side, though Sandy still seems a bit unsure about any workable alternative. There was also an entertaining exchange of views on Twitter, in which Hugh Dellar defended the coursebook by arguing that Geoff was oversimplifying the issue, tarring all coursebooks with a big dirty brush and failing to see that some coursebooks are better than others. Further baiting from Geoff led Hugh to write his own post, and then put a presentation up on YouTube which describes how his own series of coursebooks is better than others because it is less PPP-focused and contains items of lexis that you might not find in other coursebooks.
I’ve written about coursebooks on this blog before, with some posts directly criticising them (like this one and this one) and others implicating them in a wider malaise that exists across our profession (like this one and this one), so it’s pretty easy to see what side of this debate I’m on. Don’t get me wrong, Hugh Dellar is a nice bloke and he knows his stuff. He genuinely believes that his books buck the trend and offer something different. I’ve used Outcomes myself, and I can see that, compared with other coursebooks, the choice of lexis is a bit more natural, the topics are a bit less restricted, the language is presented a bit less atomistically. It’s absolutely true that some coursebooks are better than others, and his is probably one of the better ones. But at the end of the day, it’s still a COURSEbook, and this is the biggest problem as far as I’m concerned.
By definition, we are expected to use these books as our course – sure, we may adapt the materials, miss some bits out, or supplement with some other stuff, but fundamentally, a coursebook is designed to be used as the organising principle for our syllabus. The order of information (grammar, vocabulary, topics, pronunciation features, whatever) presented in the coursebook is the order in which we are expected to deliver to the students.
There’s an assumption that a single syllabus, with a predetermined order of language input, can be applied to any teaching and learning environment with equal effect. There’s also, of course, the idea that someone with no knowledge of my teaching context, my students’ needs or other factors influencing the outcomes of the courses I work on, knows better than me about what to teach my students and when. This is an idea that I personally find quite offensive.
So why am I writing this post? I’ve already said what I think about coursebooks many times before, and people like Geoff, Rose and, years earlier, Scott Thornbury and Luke Meddings, have argued against coursebooks far more effectively than me. And in any case, this most recent online debate blew over ages ago. Well, the reason the whole coursebook thing is on my mind again is that, from next month, all the full-time ESOL courses in my college will use a coursebook. This is not the place to go into detail about the reasons for this decision, but I feel I need to say that I am to a large extent responsible for it happening. This could mean that I am a terrible hypocrite, but it could also mean that I listen to the needs and preferences of my staff and students. I like to think it’s that.
But it does put me in a rather uncomfortable position. I need to be able to support my staff in the use of coursebooks to achieve outcomes that the books don’t directly lead the students towards. They can help to facilitate the achievement of some outcomes, of course, but it’s finding an appropriate role for the books within the context of the curriculum that is going to be the challenge.
I saw @ashowski tweeting about “coursebook literacy” the other night – maybe I need to develop some of that. Any ideas?