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2014 and Me

January 2, 2015

It’s now 2015, which means I’ve left it a bit late for a review post of 2014; most people put these out at some point between Christmas and New Year. I didn’t quite get round to it then, but so many big things happened in 2014 that I feel it would be wrong to let the year pass without acknowledging them in some way. So here’s a brief look at some important bits of last year for me.


In April I went to IATEFL for the second time in my life. I like to think that the presentation I gave contributed in a (very small) way to the general sense of discomfort with the way things are in ELT. I was having a bit of a pop at established approaches to lesson planning, while Russell Mayne was (far more effectively) debunking any ideas that have become established truths in ELT but have no scientific evidence to back them up. Meanwhile, on the “main stage”, Scott Thornbury and Jeremy Harmer were having a “conversation” about Communicative Language Teaching that could have explored some of the issues that others were trying to raise but instead demonstrated that, having become part of the establishment, these guys don’t seem to have the bottle or the inclination to tackle the crossroads we seem to be at.

Those who attended the conference were all so uncertain about the future of our industry that when Sugata Mitra told us we were “obsolete”, half the audience gave him a standing ovation! Clearly things need to change, but replacing teachers with computers is definitely not the answer, Sugata.

In terms of my own job, 2014 was the year that I started to properly embrace Project-Based Learning – essentially Task-Based Learning but with really long tasks. This seems to be an approach that makes an awful lot of sense, in my context at least, and I’ll be presenting something about it at the ES(O)L SIG day of IATEFL 2015 in April.

I also got a new job, which is the same as the old job but a lot bigger. As a result I haven’t been teaching as much as I used to, which I don’t think is good for me. Hopefully things will settle down a bit more in 2015 and I’ll be able to spend more time in the classroom.

Probably the thing that happened in 2014 that had the biggest impact on the way I think was the huge amount of reading I’ve had to do for my EdD course. I’ve never been very political, and I had always rather naively assumed that the world is in a terrible state as a result of incompetence rather than by design. However, the unit I did on education policy required me to read about socio-political, economic and philosophical theories and their impact on education, and I realised that a lot of the current mess has been created on purpose. I genuinely used to think that such notions were only written by conspiracy theorists. It was only when I started reading academic papers and books by the people responsible for devising and implementing the theories that I realised how deliberate it all is. I started to realise how greed and self-interest, thinly disguised as ‘entrepreneurialism’, were the key values required to be successful in a corporate-driven globalised society. I started to see how the UK, having bought into this model of society since the 1980s, was already in a place that was deeply unpalatable for anyone who believes in social justice or the distribution of wealth, and how the rest of the world is going the same way. Words like hegemony became part of my vocabulary – though I’m still not confident about its pronunciation.

Inevitably, the stuff I was reading about started to find its way into my blog posts as I tried to get my head round big issues like Neoliberalism, Globalisation and Human Capital Theory by relating them to English Language Teaching. Perhaps understandably though, not many people were interested in reading about these things – maybe a bit heavy going. More people visited my blog in 2014 than in the previous year, but the most popular post by far was the rather irreverent one I knocked out on the train back from IATEFL. I posted the heavy ones anyway, even though I found writing about this stuff really quite depressing. Perhaps the most depressing thing was the apparent inevitability of it all; there didn’t seem to be a way of changing the world to make it more equal or socially just. If only something unusual would happen, something big that would allow me and others who felt like me to have our voices heard…


I never asked for a referendum on Scottish independence. A couple of years ago, the idea of an independent Scotland seemed to me to be nothing more than a fanciful notion, something that appealed to sentimental Braveheart-lovers. We’d had devolution for a while, and that seemed to work well for us. But the ‘national conversation’ developed and I, along with the rest of the country, started to consider Scottish independence a bit more seriously. As the rhetoric from the Yes campaign started to unfold, it became apparent that this referendum wasn’t about flag-waving patriotism, or bashing the English, or any other kind of distasteful xenophobia that is often associated with national parties. It wasn’t even about nationalism.

The Yes campaign exposed the injustices that exist in Britain and across much of western society, and boldly declared ‘This isn’t for us’. And it wasn’t about the English and wanting to give them a kicking for being English. It was about allowing the people who live in Scotland (not all of whom are Scottish, of course) to govern Scotland, rather than allowing ourselves to be governed by people who we frequently don’t vote for, who seem to care very little about our well-being, and who created this self-serving neoliberal society in the first place. It was about democratic representation and social justice. It was about rejecting neoliberalism and its self-serving values, and doing it with the whole world watching us.

It was the possible impact of a Yes vote on the whole world that really excited me. As the momentum behind the Yes campaign started to build, everyone who has a stake in maintaining an unequal, neoliberal society, totally started shitting themselves. You could see the fear in David Cameron’s eyes, but it wasn’t just him. Barack Obama, several leaders of EU countries, the prime minister of China, and then of course all kinds of bankers and corporate business leaders. For a moment it looked like Scotland was going to lead the world towards an epiphany, a New Enlightenment if you like, where we would all start to wake up to the awfulness of the situation that governments and corporations have put us in.

Of course, Scotland voted No, which means that 55% of its people are either too comfortable with or too ignorant of the situation as it stands. Within a week, the UK was at war with the Middle East (again), the government had given the go-ahead for fracking in central Scotland, and David Cameron had called for a referendum to leave the EU. A bit like the 1978 world cup, we had had a tremendous opportunity to do something amazing and we blew it.

The immediate aftermath of the referendum left me profoundly depressed, so much so that I felt paralysed. The best I could do blog-wise was to publish a post entitled “Oh, what’s the point?” which certainly summed up how I was feeling but which was hopelessly nihilistic and therefore completely useless.

Since then I have come to terms with the No vote, but it still rankles as a wasted opportunity. One good thing though is the way it encouraged us all to engage with big issues – not just political ones, but issues that go to the core of our individual and collective identity. I’m not sure what 2015 will bring – it could be awful. But now I feel better able to cope with any awfulness.

  1. paulwalsh permalink

    Hi Steve,

    I really liked reading your comments on my blog – so I’m reposting here something I wrote in reply.

    Regarding the Scottish referendum, IMO losing the referendum has galvanized people EVEN MORE then ever, especially after they see that British Democracy plc. is not what it seems. Scottish Labour, for ‘getting into bed’ with the Tories face electoral wipeout in Scotland, which has serious consequences for the balance of power in Westminster.

    I also wrote a piece about the rise of the Radical Independent Campaign in Scotland, Podemos and Syriza that’s just been published online. Maybe you’d be interested – let me know your thoughts.

    In my opinion once people have had a taste of (direct) democracy – it’s hard to put that genie back into the bottle!

    Maybe ELT could do with a dose of democracy too?


    • Hi Paul,
      Thanks very much for this comment, and for directing me to your excellent piece on the growing popularity of anti-neoliberal political organisations. I hope that there is a possibility of a real and lasting change, but those hegemonic forces aren’t going to give up their power easily. The same applies to ELT – when you’re calling for a move away from profit-oriented practice to something that’s less likely to generate income, it’s the established corporations that lose out – and they won’t want to do that.
      The next year or so will be interesting though. We may see enough of a groundswell to actually shift the balance of power back towards those who prioritise social justice. Here’s hoping.

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