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Never Mind the Bo**ocks – here’s The TEFL Skeptic!

April 5, 2014

It’s often struck me that the IATEFL conference is a bit like a big music festival. You’ve got the global stars on the main stage, slightly more alternative acts in the bigger rooms, and then the unsigned bands that nobody has heard of (like me) playing in some faraway tent, mostly to people who are there by accident.

Some of the venues even have themes – the room with all the Learning Technologies SIG events is a bit like the dance stage, where all the techno-heads go to get turned on by people like Gavin Dudeney and Nicky Hockly. The Consultants-E are like Daft Punk – they started out as some kind of dance-oriented outfit, and over the years they have somehow managed to stay ahead of a very fast-moving game. As their genre has become more accepted as part of the establishment, they are now firmly at the forefront of the technology-driven mainstream.

The ES(O)L SIG room, by contrast, is more like a folk tent – inherently uncool and yet actually requiring considerable talent to perform. This year, Genevieve White, all KT Tunstall-like with her Scottish twang and quirky yet genuine humour, exemplified this with an unplugged set, choosing not to use technology in her workshop even though it was about developing writing skills for social media.

However, the problem IATEFL has had for a number of years is with the main set list. You tend to get the same old headline acts and over the years it’s become a bit tedious. Jeremy Harmer, the Elton John of ELT, is a great entertainer and loves to play up to his audience, but he hasn’t produced anything particularly original for many years. Most of his more recent work has consisted of re-hashings of previous, highly successful, stuff. A recent talk he gave for International House involved a dialogue-build, for goodness’ sake.

Jill Hadfield who, like Madonna, has been hugely influential with her once controversial but always highly accessible pop material (I’m talking about her invention of the spiral-bound supplementary book here), now relies heavily on other people’s theories (e.g. Zoltan Dornyei’s motivational self system), and somehow manages to make them seem a bit bland.

There are others who manage to be quite rock’n’roll though. Jim Scrivener is a kind of Noel Gallagher in the ELT world. His material was very refreshing in the 90s and achieved considerable commercial and critical acclaim. He has a wonderful ability to make something sound really good, and presents it in an uncompromising way. It’s all a bit derivative and any originality lies mostly in the way he repackages ideas, yet it’s still very pleasing to listen to.

Adrian Underhill did some groundbreaking work in the 1990s, with the Phonemic Chart – the “OK Computer” of English language teaching – a seminal creation that cemented his reputation as one of the most talented people in the field. Since then though, Adrian has got interested in all kinds of complex concepts that can actually hurt your head when you listen to them – a bit like Radiohead’s later albums. He did try and mix it up this year by playing in a smaller venue, and his partnership with Jim Scrivener has placed him more firmly into the mainstream again. He never seems quite comfortable with this, though. Despite his love of Bob Dylan, I see strong parallels between Underhill and Thom Yorke.

Scott Thornbury somehow manages to remain cool despite having been around for ages. Flamboyant and incredibly popular with most people, irritating and subversive to others, Thornbury somehow manages to be alternative and counter-establishment while at the same time being part of it. Because of this, he’s the man that all the young dudes want to be like.

It would be great to have David Bowie playing your festival – but if he played it every year, might that get a bit tiresome?

This year, the “same old same old” feel about IATEFL was given a major shake-up by the arrival of a new act. Russell Mayne presented “A guide to pseudoscience in English language teaching”, and this title alone attracted more than enough people to fill the small room he was in. Russell, known online as the TEFL Skeptic, has a problem with a few established ideas and theories in ELT, specifically those that have no scientific evidence to back them up. He started his talk by naming and shaming the organisations, and then the individuals (drawing audible gasps from around the room) who support or acknowledge theories such as NLP, multiple intelligences and learning styles. This was followed by a concise yet thorough debunking of these theories, achieved simply by quoting research findings to demonstrate that there is no scientific underpinning behind any of them, despite claims that there are.

In a kind of punk subversive act that Pussy Riot might be proud of, Russell held a mirror up to the establishment, exposed the flaws inherent in some key established beliefs, got out, had a quick drink and was on the next train home before Kirsteen Donaghy (the Jo Whiley of IATEFL/British Council Online), could interview him about it.

If you haven’t done so already, you really need to watch his presentation here.

At the end of the presentation, Adrian Underhill asked Russell why he didn’t just have a go at the whole of Communicative Language Teaching. After all, there’s no real scientific evidence that any of it works. Russell’s response – that there’s a difference between saying something is a good idea (whether it is or not) and saying something is scientifically proven (when it patently isn’t), was a measured one. But where do we go from here? Is it maybe time to just do a total re-think of the whole profession?

A couple of years ago, Jim Scrivener was talking about making tweaks in our teaching. This year he was talking about upgrades. Surely it’s only a matter of time before he (or someone else) starts calling for a complete overhaul? I suspect that this is what both Scrivener and Underhill secretly want to happen.

Hopefully, as a result of Russell Mayne’s presentation, more questions will be asked about the state of ELT and the (lack of) rationale behind popular approaches and techniques. From this, maybe it will be possible to come up with some principles that are bit more grounded, or a bit less dodgy at least.

For now though, while on the train home from Harrogate, I’m happy to just sit back and smile to myself at Russell’s description of how pseudoscientific theories seem to speak to us personally – “in the same way that horoscopes do”.


  1. We spoke briefly after my talk on CLT on Friday morning, Steve.

    One thing that really jumped out at me after speaking to you and seeing Russell’s talk is the ferocity of dissent that some people are willing to display. Perhaps I am misinterpreting that, but what ever happened to the “reflective teacher model”? I understand this to require us to listen and consider each other.

    Interestingly, many of the teachers in my talk who so strongly disagreed with the principles I was questioning (i.e. the assumptions on which our teacher training courses are founded are not, or no longer accurate) were the trainers themselves. I found this to be a rather scary thing. I would expect, in an open and openly critical industry, for the leaders, or role-models to be the most critical of what they do.

    It was fascinating to follow the Twitter feed during Sugata’s talk this morning. And while hard to identify in the Twitter feed just who held which beliefs, it shows we have a lot to learn still before “the reflective” teacher norm becomes a “dissenting teacher” norm, without us knowing.

    • Hi James,
      It was good to meet you at the conference, and thanks for your comment here. At your session and mine I sensed a certain amount of resistance to the notion that the way we train our teachers is perhaps inappropriate for what the job actually involves. I suppose that’s fair enough in many ways; after all, we are challenging the practice of current teacher trainers and nobody who is happy in their job wants to be told that they are doing it wrong.
      But I agree that critically reflective practice requires us to keep an open mind, and to constantly challenge our own assumptions. In his book Becoming a critically reflective teacher (Jossey-Bass 1995), Stephen Brookfield described critical reflection as “trying to see the back of one’s head while looking in the bathroom mirror.” It isn’t always easy to see what you’re doing wrong, and it’s a lot easier if you can get a second mirror i.e. a different person’s perspective. But you need to WANT to look at the back of your head; very often, the people who want to do this least are the people with bald patches.
      I had to leave before Sugata Mitra’s talk, but he definitely seemed to split the room. I found it odd that people should take offence at the simple suggestion that people can learn without the presence of a teacher. OK, I understand that people might dislike the fact that all his research was sponsored by a computer company, and that he seems to want to dismiss anything good about the physical presence of a teacher in favour of some occasional remote intervention. It’s also important to remember that he’s a physicist and knows nothing about language teaching.
      But in many ways it’s healthy to have somebody challenging some deeply held views. If we actually are on the cusp of some major changes in our profession (and at the conference I got the feeling that we maybe are), perhaps it’s natural for a dialogue of extremes to emerge. Change is always met with resistance, which means the people who want change need to shout a bit more loudly or aggressively in order to be heard.
      I’ve put up the slides to my workshop, with an audio commentary, here:
      You’ll see some parallels with your session in terms of the key message we were trying to convey.
      Thanks again for your comment and for the interesting research you presented at IATEFL.

      • Yeah resistance is definitely the word I would use. I don’t mind it because I knew what I was trying to say was a little bit challenging. And we need to keep in mind that we, as messengers of the scientific ideology should never reject criticisms, but welcome them and expect them.

        It’s easy to say “well I have research data therefore you have no leg to stand on if you disagree with me”. It was such a thrill, those closing moments of my session where there was that genuine debate and concern and that’s what we need, I think……provided there is enough data to feed into that.

        What I’d really like to run/be involved with next year is a session, panel discussion or interview or debate between 2 or 3 of us who brought these ideas to the table at Harrogate. I was following Sandy’s FB thread on THE question from IATEFL…for me, this had to be a top contender….

  2. Jennifer MacDougall permalink

    Steve, I can see another wee quiz, buzzfeed style, coming on. ‘which EFL guru were you in a parallel life’ or ‘who would you be in the BIG EFL MUSIC festival?’

    • Hi Jennifer,
      Ha ha yes, well at the conference I found myself wondering who I would be, but decided I am probably just some pub band that has got lucky by getting a festival gig. Of course I need to thank Ken Macdougall for the original idea, though I did tone it down a bit from our original conversation. I did write a couple of paragraphs about Herbert Puchta and Mario Rinvolucri but I took them out. That’s why Russell Mayne is a TEFL punk and I’m not!

  3. Daljit permalink

    Hey Steve,looking forward to hearing all about your experiences at this year’s IATEFL. Let’s hope Harrogate is the turning point in ELT when teachers now start saying out loud what we’ve been saying for years in our offices. Why are we being made to believe this is valid? Why are we training new teachers to go through stuff that doesn’t make sense? Why are certain ‘guest’ speakers churning out the same old, same old. Finally, how does Scott Bowie Thornbury still manage to make sense when many around him don’t.

    • Hi Daljit,
      No doubt we’ll find time to catch up on the big issues of the conference (what? on my timetable?). There are a lot of issues with current practice, as you rightly point out, and it was refreshing to hear some of them being questioned. I suspect more people will need to engage in the debate though if it’s going to go anywhere. Let’s hope this happens.

  4. eltcriticalmoments permalink

    Ah yes, TEFL teaching is so like being a rock star 😉

  5. Yes, well, not so much teaching itself, but presenting at a conference is about as rock and roll as it can get for teachers, and attending IATEFL always reminds me of Glastonbury. But with better toilets.

  6. The ‘Daft Punk’ of ELT. I’ll take that!

  7. In answer to James’s second comment (above) – I agree, some kind of panel discussion would be really good. There seems to be an increasing groundswell of opinion that much of our current practice is out of step with current thinking, and clearly this should be having some kind of impact on initial teacher training and ongoing CPD.
    There re so many issues tied up with this though that it’s hard to know where to start. I suppose we all have a year to develop our ideas further, then let’s see what people are ready to discuss in 2015.

  8. I think maybe you got your TEFL Skeptics mixed up:

    Great post though!

  9. honestly Steve , I could not agree more, Harmer, with his charming Terry Thomas like lechery and content lite edutainment is well past his sell by. Underhill, a man who made a career out of copyrighting a font and a layout and Scrivener, more Les Dawson than Lee Mack, Trying to flog this teach up bollocks that they made up in a pub which basically boils down to ‘exploit the material properly.’ make me want to set fire to commemorative IATEFL tea towels.

    I followed a number of tracks at Harrogate, the YL track, where if just one more person had expounded on intrinsic and extrinsic motivation one more time I would have gone on an axe rampage screaming ‘motivate this mother f*ckers’

    The Technology track where by far the most interesting thing was the Ukrainian fella who had done some worthy research into playing large multi player online games as a method of teaching. Sadly his presentation was woeful, which kind of undermined it. I also saw the Technology SIG panel so wrapped up in their own smugness that they simply can’t have seen Michael Carrier predict the end of all language learning with his instant translation technology demo.

    The Teaching management track, where George Pickering, dressed like Super Mario did his best to convince us that having an employer who invests in your professional development is not that useful anyway and that self help is the way forward. At least though, George is entertaining and earnestly striving to help.

    By far the best plenary was the fella whose research proposed that people learn whatever you do so, by extension, why have teachers?

    I couldn’t get into the room for the great debunking as it was too packed so thanks for that link. Personally the thing i most enjoyed at Harrogate was the free booze! maybe it’s time I got out, wait, it definitely is, but like most of us i’m stuck with it, so..i’ll be speaking at next year’s conference no doubt!

    • Wow, strong words there. I think though that you are not alone in your disgruntlement with the complacency that has set in around ELT. Scrivener pointed this out at Glasgow two years ago and I really thought he was onto something with his attack on “going through the motions teaching”. However, these demand-high ideas that he an Adrian Underhill are proposing are not the answer. We don’t need tweaks, we need wholesale change.
      There is a hint of revolution in the air though. A growing number of people are realising that we can’t go on like this. The more of us who present their ideas at conferences like IATEFL the better. Hope too see you next year.

  10. Phil Keegan permalink

    This is an excellent post Steve, well done. I am so annoyed I wasn’t able to get away to go to Harrogate. In response to some of the above comments, I am also increasingly questioning much of what we teach on the CELTA. Some of the required sessions – literacy springs immediately to mind – are a complete waste of time. I think a deep overhaul of our approach to language teaching is something we should all be thinking about. And any trainers who can’t deal with someone questioning what they do are in the wrong job.

    • Hi Phil,
      Too bad you didn’t get to IATEFL, it would have been nice to see you again. Interesting that you mentioned the session on literacy – in my teaching context it’s useful for teachers to have some familiarity with literacy needs as we do get a lot of learners with limited educational backgrounds and low levels of literacy in their own language. I suppose this highlights the limitations of a single training course that is designed to prepare teachers to work in any context.
      I did sense that the general mood at this year’s IATEFL was that things aren’t quite right, and that our profession needs to take a good look at itself. Any calls for change are bound to meet with some resistance, but anything that causes a debate is fine with me.

      • Phil Keegan permalink

        Hi Steve, yes it would be great to meet up again sometime. My comment about the literacy session has two aspects. One, it is irrelevant for at least 90% of CELTA candidates. Two, I don’t know a single CELTA trainer, myself very obviously included, who is competent in this field and can do a meaningful session on it.

        I agree 100% that serious debate is very much needed.

  11. Yes, that’s probably true. It took me a fair amount of time and the completion of a course in teaching ESOL literacies before I felt able to effectively teach literacies learners. The issue that this raises for me is that it’s simply not possible to have a 120-hour course that prepares people to teach English in any context.
    We need to remember what the CELTA (or at least the first incarnation of it) was created for in the first place. Back in the 1970s it was possible for a Brit to go abroad and find work simply because they were native speakers. However, they didn’t really know what they were doing, so John Haycraft spotted a gap in the market and came up with a course that gave these people enough skills that they could stand in front of a class and more or less get away with it.
    Nowadays, ELT is a far more sophisticated industry, and the stakes for learners are far higher than they used to be. English teachers need to be highly skilled and able to operate effectively in specific contexts. For this, the CELTA simply does not cut it. It has always been described by Cambridge as an introductory course, but it has nevertheless become regarded by many as the ultimate qualification.
    I think that there is something to be said for a very basic course that gives you a few low-level techniques that can be applied in any context, but this needs to be supplemented with more focused training that related to particular contexts.
    I wrote a post about this last year – not sure if you saw it at the time:
    We have something a bit like this in Scotland – a professional development award called TESOL: Applied Practitioner Studies. This has individual units at post-CELTA level that trainees can do one by one, depending on what’s most relevant to their context. Unfortunately there’s no money to help anyone to do them! It was a nice idea though – you can read about them here:

    Click to access APPLIEDTESOL.pdf


  12. LeotheLion permalink

    Incredible, simply incredible. I’m a teacher of English (CELTA from IH, London) currently in Bangkok and this kind of nonsense makes my blood boil. Why on Earth ‘Graggs Craggs’ did you waste the fare + fee on nonsense like this? Presumably to make yourself feel better about wasting your life and ‘talents’ on ‘teaching’ EFL. The whole TEFL/EFL industry is a con, pure and simple.

    Rote learning for 2nd/3rd, etc languages is BY far the most effective (cost + educational) approach ‘in the field’, and not the complete bollocks that is the current management speak flavour of the month – child centred learning, etc, etc. Sadly, this simple reality at a stroke gets rid of the need for the cottage industry of ‘experts’, consultants and the like that litter the TEFL world, as they do with similar effect in the wider one.

    Kids, forget what they tell you. At least in the Far East it’s all about putting the answers on the board and getting the little bastards to copy the crap into their books. But, hey wasn’t that how I learnt most of the shit I know………..? Could be!

    • Hi Leo,
      I’m not entirely clear about which “nonsense” makes your blood boil. I think we both agree that a lot of established ideas and techniques in language teaching are based on dodgy or non-existent evidence, and tend to have been popularised by charismatic personalities rather than whether they actually work or not. I think we probably disagree on what actually does work, though. You say “Rote learning for 2nd/3rd, etc languages is BY far the most effective (cost + educational) approach ‘in the field’” – I’m not sure what you are basing this statement on. Is there any evidence to back this up?
      From what I know, rote learning is an effective way of remembering stuff, so it can be quite good if you need to memorise facts, or rules. When it comes to language learning, this is fine if you want to teach your students a bunch of set phrases that you have decided to teach them. But language is about self-expression, isn’t it? Shouldn’t we be giving our students the skills to say what they want to say, rather than what we want them to say? I know that’s not very fashionable in South-East Asia; kids are taught to memorise what the teacher tells them and regurgitate it for the exam. That’s all very well until they are put in a position where they have to think for themselves or give their own opinions, and then they often struggle – I’ve seen this happen to East Asian students who come over to the UK to study.
      I know there’s a lot of chat about creativity in education, and you might want to dismiss it as a fad. But actually there’s nothing new about the notion of education requiring people to be active learners. Socrates said:
      “Education is the kindling of a flame, not the filling of a vessel”.
      Nor are these ideas particularly western in their origin. Confucius said:
      “I hear, I know. I see, I remember. I do, I understand.”
      Memorising stuff and writing things down will only get your students so far, particularly with language learning as it entails speaking as well as writing. OK, a lot of what currently passes for Communicative Language Teaching is a bit ropey, but what you seem to be suggesting sounds even ropier to me. Maybe you’re working towards different priorities though.
      Thanks for your comment,

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