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The Matrix Exposed (Is Demand-High Enough?)

March 24, 2013

There’s an article in this month’s English Teaching Professional by Jim Scrivener and Adrian Underhill on Demand-High Teaching. If you’re at all aware of Demand-High and have visited their blog, the content of the article should already be familiar. The basic premise behind their “meme” is that perhaps we are focusing too much on our own teaching and not enough on our students’ learning. We should therefore be less concerned with getting through the materials and achieving our lesson aims, and should instead identify when and how our students learn, focusing overtly on the learning process during the lesson and trying to maximise our students’ learning potential.

Scrivener and Underhill use the film The Matrix to suggest that what currently goes on in language classrooms is (perhaps) a big illusion – we all think we’re doing a perfectly good job when in fact we aren’t – and that they are offering a red pill to allow us to see through the illusion.

OK, I’m happy to buy into this analogy. There’s a degree of complacency in ELT these days, a general belief that if you do the activities in the coursebook and sprinkle in a few games that you learned on your CELTA (ideally ones that involve cut-up strips of paper), you can pretty much assume that you’re doing a good job. The truth is that there’s a lot more to it than that – there’s no guarantee that ploughing through materials that were written by a stranger for no-one in particular is going to lead to any learning, no matter how many strips of paper you cut up.

I think that most teachers make this realisation eventually. Once they get past the DELTA the perceived importance of making lessons fun starts to abate; good teachers start to focus more on their learners and, more importantly, their learning. A lot of us, therefore, are reading about Demand-High and thinking “Yes! This is true! I used to be a product of the Matrix but, now I see the reality for what it is, I don’t teach like that any more.”

The disappointment for me is that Scrivener and Underhill, once they have exposed the Matrix to us, don’t seem to be concerned with fighting the machines. When Neo discovers that the world he thought he was living in is actually an illusion, he doesn’t think he can address the situation by going back to his previous lifestyle and adjusting it a bit. He is obliged to abandon his false life and join the struggle against the Machines who are controlling the planet.

Proposals for change that accompany Demand-high seem to be pretty low-level – the word “tweaks” is repeatedly used, suggesting that all we need to do is make a few small adjustments in our teaching and things will be OK again.

Scrivener and Underhill seem to have missed a trick with their own metaphor. Having taken the red pill, surely we need to do a lot more than just “tweak” our teaching practice. That’s just making changes within the Matrix, when what needs to happen is for the Matrix to be destroyed. We need to overthrow the machines.

On the page following Scrivener and Underhill in ETP there’s an article with the rather naff title “Let there be light!” which I wrote a few months back. I wrote it in response to a piece by Adrian Underhill and Alan Maley about the “dark matter” of the classroom, the stuff involving the students’ actual learning, which we tend not to focus on even though we know we should. A lot of what I’m saying in ETP ties in with Demand-High teaching in this respect. However, my article also goes on to examine why the current situation exists in the first place. Without giving too much away (I would like you to read it, after all), I suggest that teacher training courses, accreditation/inspection bodies and publishers have combined to create an industry that values predictability, uniformity and measurability. The casualty of this is our ability to teach in the moment, to react appropriately to learners’ contributions, to let our students and their learning drive the course and dictate its content. You could say, then, that I am describing the machines which have created the Matrix we are operating in.

Now, I’m no Morpheus, and I’m certainly not The One, but I would humbly suggest that if you really want to take the red pill, don’t just read pages 16-17 of this month’s ETP and think about tweaking your feedback – read pages 18-20 as well. You might wake up naked and bald in a slimy pod in the middle of a field of human batteries with a tube coming out the back of your head, but at least you’ll know the truth.

  1. Excellent

  2. Paul Duffy permalink

    Having never seen the Matrix, the analogy is a bit lost on me – although the point is clear enough. I agree that if we take as given the fact that celta/textbook-driven methods are fundamentally missing something, then we need more than the odd tweak.

    “the perceived importance of making lessons fun starts to abate” – How true! I do think it’s possible to be a decent teacher at all stages of one’s career though, but what we perceive as important shifts, as you say. It’s just that learners can benefit differently from our lessons depending on the stage we are at. If there is indeed more fun in lessons of teachers who are straight off the celta, then perhaps some students can be motivated and inspired by this, even though the lessons lack the individual attention to the learner of a post-delta teacher. I remember a line from the English Droid, something about students being satisfied in classes with celta qualified teachers and bored in classes with delta qualified teachers. Maybe they’ve got something there! I know this wasn’t the main point of your post, but perhaps an interesting side-issue nonetheless.

    • Hi Paul,
      This is an interesting point. I’m sure students are able to benefit from all sorts of teachers, and some new teachers are very good indeed. It’s not just about experience.
      But having said that, I think I’m able to engage my students a lot better now, without playing games, than when I was a kinaesthetic-fuelled rookie. I taught some decent lessons back then, but not usually when I was doing what I had planned to do. I think I thought I was a lot better than I was. Could that be part of it – there’s an element of relativity in it?

  3. Great post Steve. Last paragraph particularly well written. I am currently overseeing an action research project in the school where I am DoS in London on Demand High. It would be nice to share experiences on this. I also have an article in the next MET which deals with Demand High with reference to deliberate practice and high teacher expectations. I think we are definitely on the same page here.

    • Thanks for this, Phil. It’s good to know I’m not the only person who feels this way. I look forward to reading your article in the MET and learning more about your research project.

      • Bruna permalink

        Hi Phil and Steve,

        I would also be very interested in learning more about the research project and I too, would like to see a more practical approach to Demand High. I already am experimenting a few things in my classes and would be happy to hear about more people doing the same.
        All the best.

      • That’s great to hear – thanks. It will be good if a number of people can share ideas on how to increase learner success.

  4. Hi Steve,
    Just came across your blog. I don’t know really why it took me so long. But here I am, you’ve just gained another follower.
    This is a excellent article – much needed to counter balance the hype of demand-high. I particularly think DH is a bit overrated, but actually haven’t had the time, inspiration or will to blog about it myself. So I’m glad there are other bloggers asking some fundamental questions about it.

  5. Ross permalink

    Interesting post Steve. I’m currently doing some experimental research with two classes, elementary and FCE, using the ideas behind DH – I am however pleased to see your take on things as well. I’m planning on comparing traditional activities with ‘tweaked’ activities and then getting feedback from my students who are young learners. There seems to be a lot of chat about DH but not a lot of practical ideas which is basically what I’m trying to develop. Having read your post has made me think even more about the tweaks though…..

    • Hi Ross,
      Thanks for this. It will be interesting to find out how your research goes. Will your feedback focus on your students’ opinions or will you also assess their progress in some way?
      I think DHELT asks some really good questions of a lot of current teaching, but it’s the practical alternatives that I’m not so sure about. Is “tweaking” enough? Your students’ response to the different activities could be very revealing.
      Please let me know how it goes.

Trackbacks & Pingbacks

  1. Implementing DHELT – Trainer Powerpoint and Session Notes (from Steve Brown) | Demand High ELT
  2. What have I learned? | The Steve Brown Blog

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