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Jordan, Scriverhill and Guru-bashing

February 1, 2015


Not for the first time, I’ve been sucked into an online discussion with Geoff Jordan. If you’re not familiar with Geoff’s work you should check out his blog here. As well as being able to write with considerable authority and clarity on ELT and SLA-related topics, Geoff has a bit of a reputation for being very forthright in expressing his views. If he thinks that an idea is crap, he’ll say so. If he thinks that an individual’s work is overrated, he’ll cut them down to size. As a result, Geoff has attracted negative comments from some of the many nice people in our profession who think his criticisms are personal attacks, and that he’s being unfair. And most of us are nice people. I bet Geoff’s a nice person too. Certainly, he is always keen to point out that his criticisms are about people’s ideas and not about them as individuals. Anyway, I’ve found myself being quoted on his blog, in a post that could be interpreted as a bit of ELT-celebrity-bashing. Although I don’t retract the comments he has quoted, I do feel a bit uncomfortable about being complicit in an attack on Jim Scrivener and Adrian Underhill’s Demand High meme. I’ll try to explain why.

Geoff originally wrote a critique of Demand High, with one of his main criticisms being that it is merely a vehicle for Scrivener and Underhill to promote themselves. They are exploiting their position as ELT celebrities to gain publicity for a product that they can be paid to take round the conference circuit and write books and articles about. In my comment on this post I agreed with Geoff that when you look at what Demand High offers us – a series of small tweaks and low-level techniques – it doesn’t really amount to very much at all, which is very disappointing. I believed the hype to begin with, hoping that Demand High was going to lead to the “discussion about re-inventing our profession” that it boldly claims to be on the website. So when I see that all Underhill and Scrivener have to offer us are some checking questions and drilling techniques, it’s a bit of an anti-climax.

However, I’m reluctant to be as cynical as Geoff and accuse Scrivener and Underhill of deliberately selling us a dud product. Instead, I think they realise that if they were to start promoting ideas that really did prompt us to reinvent our profession, everyone would accuse them of hypocrisy. After all, they have both been very influential over the last 20 years and are therefore partly responsible for our profession being what it is. Geoff thinks that Scrivener and Underhill actually believe that the stuff they are selling us through Demand High is good stuff. I think that they know it’s all a bit half-baked, and they are secretly wishing for someone to take it further and come up with something that actually is new. But it can’t be them, as they are part of the establishment that needs to be overthrown in order for this to happen.

My mentioning of the establishment and the need for wholesale change in Communicative Language Teaching (CLT) prompted (I think) Geoff to write a second post about Demand High, this time quoting a lot of my comments and then reflecting back on how things used to be, earlier in his career. Reading Geoff’s latest post makes me want to raise two issues which are related to the whole Scriverhill-Demand-High thing. First of all, there’s the concept of the ELT Guru, which seems to have existed in language teaching for at least 100 years. You get one guy (it’s usually a man) who comes up with a “method” of teaching that is, in some way, distinct from anything that existed before. There was Cattegno’s Silent Way, Lozanov’s Suggestopedia, Asher’s TPR – all of these “communicative” methods from the 1970s were, in effect, commercial products that were being peddled by individuals who were able to make a lot of money. You can go back further to Berlitz and his carefully packaged language teaching method that is based on behaviourism. What Scrivener and Underhill are doing with Demand High, therefore, is nothing new, and demonstrates how the cult of the ELT celebrity is still alive and well today. Except for the fact that the product they are peddling lacks substance, which infuriates Geoff and disappoints me. Geoff’s point though is that the Demand High product needs to be critically examined, in the same way that Cattegno, Lozanov and everyone else back in the day received a lot of criticism and had to debate and justify their ideas. If the product doesn’t stand up to scrutiny then this must be pointed out – Geoff and I agree on this.

I’d like to raise another issue though by telling a story of my own. While Geoff enjoyed a wonderfully creative and exciting spell in the 1980s at ESADE Idiomas, I had a similar experience in the late 1990s at IH Budapest. The issues were different, but the buzz and the enthusiasm among teachers was very similar to what Geoff describes. Of course, by the 1990s methods like the Silent Way and Suggestopedia were seen as curiosities, period pieces. Their legacy was there for all to see in the classroom – people used cuisinaire rods and guided visualisation activities, for example – but they were used within the now established, all-encompassing paradigm known as Communicative Language Teaching. Other ideas like the Lexical Approach and Task-Based Learning were also emerging and causing plenty of debate and discussion, though these ideas were also known as “communicative” approaches rather than heralding any kind of potential paradigm shift.

The key thing here is that, in between Geoff’s glory days in Spain and mine in Hungary, something very important had happened. The commercial potential of ELT as a truly global industry had been recognised by publishing companies, and also by the qualification awarding bodies at Cambridge and Trinity. If ELT could be packaged as a single entity, and if they could convince us all that the same methods, approaches and (get this) materials could be used all over the world, these corporations could make an absolute fortune. The McDonaldisation of education.


So, by the time I got properly into ELT, the coursebook was king and pretty much dictated syllabus content. John and Liz Soars were living on an island in the Carribean (probably), metaphorically sipping cocktails with Phil Collins and Richard Branson. Their Headway series of coursebooks followed a grammatical syllabus, presenting language in order of structural complexity. The fact that it prioritised structures over communicative purpose meant that it contradicted the most fundamental principle underlying CLT, but by this stage most people had forgotten the true meaning of Communicative Language Teaching and the term had come to mean any approach that involves students talking to each other. Besides, the structural syllabus was familiar and non-threatening, and Headway and subsequent global coursebooks were user-friendly and inoffensive. You could come straight off the CELTA, follow a coursebook and pretty much get away with it.

Like Geoff and his colleagues, we would still try out some whacky stuff in the classroom, but it was always as a kind of one-off digression. I would use a TPR activity here, a Silent Way lesson there, or maybe follow a task-based model, but this would only happen within the confines of a course that followed a coursebook. Then the management at IH Budapest decided to do something a bit different. They developed a new, multi-level course that was modular rather than sequential. It still used coursebooks, but it used them as materials rather than as the organising principle of the course. A number of different coursebooks were chopped up (not literally), re-ordered, and mixed in with bits of supplementary materials to create several modules at each level. Learners would complete as many modules as they needed to before “bubbling up” to the next level.

It didn’t seem like much – after all, we were still using the same materials – but taking ownership of which bits of books to use and the order in which to use them liberated us from the confines of the structural syllabus. This taught me to be a lot less respectful of coursebooks, and to realise that linguistic complexity is only one way of sequencing a syllabus. Not only that, but from a point of view of language acquisition, ordering language in this way is as random as any other way. It was this revelation at IH Budapest that has allowed me to (I hope) become a far more autonomous and communicative teacher. I feel I can (and should) base my courses on content selected by me and my students, not by some distant, unseeing but all-knowing coursebook writer.

The reason I’m telling this story is because the Director of Education at IH Budapest at the time, the person who devised and led the development of this modular syllabus, was Jim Scrivener. He sometimes came across as a bit too nice, but Jim had good ideas and knew how to convey them. He got the best out of teachers by helping them to focus less on what they were teaching and, instead, to prioritise who they were teaching.

Maybe this is why I’m so frustrated by Demand High, but I don’t want to dismiss it. My reluctance to be as critical as Geoff Jordan isn’t to do with the fact that I know Jim personally. It’s because I think I understand what he and Adrian Underhill would like to change in ELT. In fact, I think they want what Geoff wants. But what they are offering falls way short of achieving this, and I find it hard to accept that it’s because they don’t have any better ideas. They have ideas but are not in a position to express them because it would undermine their own reputations. Or maybe they just think it’s someone else’s turn to be the next ELT guru. Or, maybe, they have sown the seeds of a bottom-up paradigm shift that will ultimately destabilise and disempower the ELT establishment. Or maybe I’m giving them too much credit. Who’s going to ask them?

  1. geoffjordan permalink

    Hi Steve,

    VERY sorry that my 2nd post on Demand High made you feel uncomfortable. This post of yours should clear up any misunderstanding.

  2. Geoff, no need to apologise. You were right to assume I’d be OK with you posting my comments – I wouldn’t comment on your blog if I wasn’t OK with this. I just wanted to make a distinction between our two different standpoints when we criticise Demand High. But it’s also worth mentioning that neither of us are being critical of Scrivener or Underhill as people. We just don’t rate Demand High – not in its current form anyway.
    But when the gates of Pearson Longman are breached, when Cambridge and Trinity stop providing TESOL qualifications that churn out lesson planners and allow instead for the development of learner-focused educators, when lesson aims are focused on the communicative purpose that learners want to achieve, and when that purpose is about conveying views on gender equality or the global distribution of wealth, when your average EFL course no longer begins with the verb to be and ends with the third conditional – when all these things happen, I fully expect Scrivener and Underhill to be nodding their approval, not heading for the hills.

    • when lesson aims are focused on the communicative purpose that learners want to achieve, and when that purpose is about conveying views on gender equality or the global distribution of wealth’

      This is alarming. It sounds as though you have a very definite, prescriptive idea about what the communicative purpose that learners want to acheive is.

      • ‘when your average EFL course no longer begins with the verb to be ‘

        Do you feel that your ability to acheive your communicative purposes in French is hampered by your knowledge of the conjugation of the verb ‘etre’?

      • No, not really. My point here is that these are topics that are rarely covered in contemporary published materials, so learners of English are rarely given an opportunity to express views like this. Another point is that there is some kind of obligation for teachers to develop and promote rational autonomy in their students. In language teaching, then, we should be encouraging learners (and developing their ability) to express their views on issues like this. Not just these issues, obviously; these are just examples.

      • Patrick, when I first starting learning French at Hawick High School, aged 11, we used a book called Tour de France, which was very new at the time. It was a functional coursebook, teaching set phrases and then substituting key content words. I was able to communicate a fair amount of basic personal information and perform a number of basic transactions before we even started to look at verb conjugations. I don’t remember doing any “Je suis, tu es, il est…” kind of stuff until 3rd year. Once we started looking at the language in this way, a lot of my classmates were turned off. French stopped being fun and started being a bit like Maths.
        I’m not saying that learning to conjugate verbs necessarily hampers communicative competence, but it doesn’t help it either and it certainly isn’t necessary.
        Thanks for your comment,

  3. First of all, thank you for this great post: I think it is wonderfully open and I appreciate the human connection it shows between people – I had no idea Jim Scrivener was the DoS at IH Budapest. I think when it comes to big names it is easy to forget they were probably once just ordinary teachers or in fairly ordinary positions.

    I recently learnt about Demand High. It was a buzz word around a school I was working at for a while – something avant-garde I hadn’t quite gotten round to checking out, so to speak. When I did check it out I was a little disappointed. It didn’t seem much different to me to what I learnt in Delta.

    It led to me writing a post on it which I had hoped might have gotten some responses from people wit the questions I posed but that unfortunately hasn’t happened. You can find the post here:

    However, this blog and others, which I have been perusing this evening, have helped to provide a lot of answers and food-for-thought on Demand High.

    • Thanks for this comment, Anthony. There’s been a little flurry of blog posts on Demand High over the past week, and like you I’ve enjoyed reading a variety of opinions, both in the posts themselves and the comments. It seems that the launch of this meme poses a lot of questions and doesn’t provide too many answers, which is maybe the intention. It will be interesting to see if this prompts any kind of response from Jim and Adrian. We’ll see.

  4. Arizio Sweeting permalink

    Hi Steve I feel that I have found an interesting hub for discussion in your blog (and in Geoff’s). I’m someone who is rather frustrated with the McDonaldisation of ELT, the edubusiness behaviour of some teachers and managers in language schools. As a teacher educator, who also trains on CELTAs, I would really like to see teaching being learnt for the sake of teaching and not for a piece of paper for which one has to pay such a high price through exhaustion and stress. I have been in this profession for many years and like anyone else have been affected by the ‘communicative language teaching’ bug myself. However, I’m now at the stage where I have had enough. My approach to teaching is spontaneous and dialogic, with students bringing to the classroom their needs. For instance, I’m less concerned whether they can label a tense, but rather known when to use it, to articulate something which allows them to feel that they have been understood and in a sense my efforts are getting paid off. Recently, for example, a student gave me a letter to thank me because my teaching allowed her to express herself and my flexibility in class changed her views about English language learning, so I’m taken by your views about the need for placing the learners at the front of the learning process for real and not as it is perceived to be. Looking forward to more interactions here.

    • Hi Arizio,
      It sounds to me that your current teaching practice is very like Communicative Language Teaching as it was originally intended, with the principle focus on developing the communicative competence of the learners, allowing them to convey the ideas that they wasn’t to convey. If we follow the basic principles of CLT that were outlined by those big applied linguists of the early 70s (Hymes, Corder, Halliday, Widdowson, those guys) this is exactly what we should be doing. However, somewhere along the line this got derailed and teachers found themselves having to continue to TRY and do this, but within the confines of a structural syllabus and using materials that were written by someone who knew nothing about the learners. I’m not sure how that ever got accepted in the first place, maybe we were dazzled by the coloured pictures in Headway or something, but we’re living with the legacy now.
      It’s encouraging to learn that I’m not the only one who is disillusioned by the approach to teaching that the hegemonic forces encourage us to follow. But having said that, Scott Thornbury presented us with an alternative in Dogme about 15 years ago and it’s still very much a fringe thing. I would argue that Dogme hasn’t taken off because it isn’t commercial. You can’t sell Dogme coursebooks!
      It’s an interesting debate, and I think this is an interesting time for our profession. We’ll see how things develop.
      Thanks for your post,

  5. You’re right, Steve, when you say that ‘Dogme hasn’t taken off’, in the sense that it hasn’t radically changed current ELT practice, or it hasn’t toppled the hegemonic hold of coursebooks on the profession, or it hasn’t made its founders ridiculously rich…etc. But the fact that it is still around, all these 15 years later (the original Dogme discussion group was launched in March 2000), that it gets a mention in the latest edition of Richards and Rodgers ‘Approaches and methods’, in Harmer’s ‘Practice of ELT’, in Johnson’s ‘Introduction to Foreign Language learning and Teaching’, in Spiro’s ‘Changing Methodologies inTESOL’ etc etc, suggests that it HAS wormed its way into the pedagogical discourse, at least to the extent that it offers a plausible alternative to current methodology (even if it’s not an alternative that is practicable in many – most? – teaching contexts), and that it persistently nags at the conscience of an ‘industry’ that is driven by assessment, merchandizing and profit. This is an acheivement its original architects could never have dreamt possible, all those 15 years ago.

    • Hi Scott, and thanks for commenting here. Of course you’re right about the impact that Dogme has had. It still sits on the fringes but it is a very important thorn in the side of the establishment. I’m personally very grateful for it, as it’s an articulation of a lot of my thoughts about what communicative language teaching SHOULD be, and has allowed me to develop my own ideas further – I’m sure many other teachers feel the same way.
      I suppose I’m just disappointed that for most of us we still have this outdated and unrealistic construct to work within, which in many respects hampers effective language teaching when it should be facilitating it. I’m in the middle of writing another post about that at the moment. Well, I am about to take the dog for a walk and so some other Sunday chores, but I hope to have this next post up by the end of today.
      Thanks again for stopping by and leaving a comment.

    • Thom permalink

      Makes me think, many things hang on not because they are the best of the trade, but because they are better than next best. I argued some years ago over banning PPP from teacher training–i.e. in our context–and was give the answer that it was still better than teaching without any structure at all. Same thing with books, they hang on because I would think that in many cases English is taught by less than experienced teaching professionals (again, I have my context S-America in mind) and a book provides sequence and variety and content better than “none”. Also, I have seen a lot of resources go into language training, and the assessment obsession partially obeys the need to have some sort of assurance that the thing promised was also delivered. And I am not sure if publishing is still a profitable business. I have never published. But people around me that have and / or work in the industry are not driving Jaguars. Maybe it’s the happy few. We have been preaching teaching away from the book for years and the book stays center stage. Maybe this has to do with the notion that education has been book oriented. Having a textbook in hand seems to send a comforting signal to students. I like to criticize and when I seem inspired I spend my musing hours thinking how to better arrange a textbook. I am not sure I would be very proud if the thing were ever put to paper. It might be titled crap book of the year. I guess what I am saying, even the guys that live on the sunny side of ELT gave it their best shot.

Trackbacks & Pingbacks

  1. Don’t blame us: the real problem with ELT | The Steve Brown Blog
  2. A short interview with Geoff Jordan « Cooperativa de Serveis Lingüístics de Barcelona
  3. Demand High: What it really is | ELT
  4. ListeNotes #2 (Part 1): Interview with Jim Scrivener at IATEFL 2016 – Muddles into Maxims

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