Do Lines Need Drawing

Over the last couple of weeks, a lot of my communication online and offline has been about English language education and the status, stage and purpose it occupies, for teachers as well as students. There are the usual gripes of coursebooks, which I am not going to get into here because I have looked at it before (on more than one occasion), and also the state of the industry/profession and the definitions of ELT, (T)EFL, (T)ESL, (T)ESOL (and Steve tweeted that maybe this is not actually the case now).
So, a bit of background out of the way, on to Mordor!

Us and Them

Most English teachers are, like most people, nice and just trying to go about their day. I’m not going to talk about the outliers who are just unpleasant. This is for the rest of us, and I’m going to talk about a few types of people and it gets political, actually. Sorry, but I’m not sorry.
English teachers generally tend to be a bit bleeding heart. English teachers generally need money to feed themselves and do nice stuff. We can kid ourselves that we are helping make the world a better place. However, why not indulge me and just consider the following questions.

  • How much do we dripfeed the subliminal message that English makes the world go round and anything else just is a bit substandard?
  • We need work, and if Chain Language School can offer enough work to ensure one doesn’t end up homeless even though they drive down wages by aggressive undercutting, is this a wise choice?
  • Do you teach people or content? I’m not even talking about methodology here.
  • Are we, as teachers, being enabled to use a book in a pedagogically sound way and being enabled to deliver content in a standardised way?
  • Are we thinking about how to enable language acquisition to take place?
  • Are we thinking about how to enable acquired language to be used to perform tasks or even speech acts appropriately?
  • Are we given time and resources to provide the best teaching possible?

While a lot of these questions have answers that seem obvious, I am going to say that a lot of us say one thing and do another – and I am holding my hands up here and saying I am not perfect but I try to be good. Eating requires money and so on. Luckily, I don’t require a fast car or designer clothes to feel good about myself. I do have a child and this means the earning of money and the teaching of language.
The problem is that other forces, basically capitalism/neoliberalism manipulate the environment and how easy it is to make wise choices all the time. I’ll go out on a limb and say that several of the larger publishers even obfuscate what a wise choice would even be, because it would actually cause the teachers and administrators who buy/order books to see that buying more books that are pedagogically unsound is, well, unsound and so they would stop ordering and the publisher would cease to exist.

The differences between us

Look, I don’t  want to be a snob (actually, even an anti-snob), nor do I want to be telling anybody how to live their life, but if people can’t actually see what’s at the end of their noses when somebody is pointing it out, I would have to say they’re wilfully blind.

  • Deskilled teachers.
  • Unskilled ‘teachers’.
  • Edutainment.
  • Marketisation of standardised tests of reading and listening used as a benchmark for communicative skills.
  • Use of a standardised test to assume someone can do a job when there are no similar instances of domain-specific language.
  • Book as syllabus.
  • Book as content.
  • E-‘learning’ of multiple-choice questions.
  • Making everything about jobs rather than edification.
  • Making everything about financial return for companies rather than value for money for students, teachers and education providers.

We have a whole culture of spending a month to do a course to get a credential to prove you can be in a classroom and not have chaos ensue. We have companies who will take bachelor’s degree holders and have them provide lessons and have essentially the same credential experience without the credential. This is seen as enough. This is seen as the terminal qualification, the furthest one needs to go, in a lot of commercial language education providers.
We have a culture of needing to move out of the classroom to make adequate money to raise a family. Time in the classroom is not rewarded. Unfortunately, this culture is being passed from commercial entities to schools and colleges. Teaching ‘only’ requires navigating content, providing it, and are we back at audiolingualism yet, because we have presentation of language, practice with behaviourist gap-fills and behaviourist CALL/MALL? Nothing moves on or needs to move on if money can be made.
We have experts and ‘experts’. We have people who have looked at learning, looked at other people’s studies of learning and tried to apply the findings. We also have people who have paid lip service to these studies, dismissed them because they don’t fit with what is convenient or what they have always done. We have providers of continuing professional development who are providing merely orientations to their products.

By any means necessary

You can’t fight cash fluid market leaders with merely a better lesson. You cannot provide lessons to everyone. What can be done is to show what you are actually doing. If you do good work, show it. Somebody might nick your idea. This is actually a good thing because this will raise standards. I mean, yeah, get pissed off that the idea thief didn’t do the legwork to be original or even helpful, but if the idea disperses, good stuff comes. If you have a better alternative to coursebook ELT, you need to have a tangible version of this. People are busy and they need, sadly, to just be able to print something, see what to do, and do it (I am working on something about this).

Standing on the other side of the line

I think we, as the critical wing of English teaching, need to define ourselves in opposition to the dominant idea and practice in English teaching, which usually gets called ELT (I’d say ELT Research Bites is far out of this dominant idea). As nothing bloody changes for the better and Silicon Valley gets lionised in society more and more with poor-quality MALL becoming more prevalent, we need to draw the line to stop frankly awful quality pedagogy in language education becoming the norm, stopping poor pedagogy being acceptable in language teaching, and stopping the rot. You can’t do this by just accepting it, doing your own thing and hoping that others will somehow see what you are doing and do it. We need to speak about the poor side of stuff when it dominates. We can see the rubbish – it’s in every bookshop, every catalogue you get sent, every commercial presentation at a conference, every pointless app that gets recommended for students.
Show your good stuff. The good will out. Now let’s change things.

14 Replies to “Do Lines Need Drawing”

  1. Great post Mark, I’m sure it’ll ignite discussion. You’re right about calling the profession out on its shortcomings. But there are two problems here:
    1) If you call people out eg publishers, testing providers, organisations – you encounter a wall of ‘discursive patheticness’ (to steal a phrase I heard on the radio). That is, people – even a lot of teachers – say the equivalent of “Why are you being so negative?” or “Can’t we all just get along?” It’s a surprisingly common reaction, as if anybody who has anything critical to say can just be dismissed with one wave of the happiness wand.
    It’s as if the tiny group of people who are critical of ELT are ‘bullying’ the majority in some way. As if the multi-billion dollar ELT industry is somehow the victim here.
    2) If you manage to get past the wall of discursive patheticness – then it’s very difficult to get around the fact that the whole of ELT and its constituent organisations are in many ways complicit with neoliberalism, and complicit in a model of language learning that puts profit before pedagogy.
    Trying to get people to admit that and have a serious conversation on CHANGE is difficult – because the overwhelming majority of ELT professionals have, and have had for a long time, a philosophical and economic (and perhaps even moral) investment in the status quo.
    In effect, why would turkeys vote for Christmas?

    1. Hi Paul, thanks for your comment.
      I think that so far arguing has got us almost nowhere. I think that’s why concrete demonstration of how things can be, to borrow from software development ‘proof of concept’, is required. Not behind research paywalls, but freely visible. Hopefully this can come soon. It should also, hopefully, prevent the argument about the unworkable/unsustainable nature of principled practice. Seeing, hopefully, is believing.

  2. Good stuff, Marc.
    I share a lot of Paul’s doubts, and I agree with his remarks about the way critics of the ELT status quo are treated.
    But I think there are at least sparks of resistence to the commdification of ELT among the “precaritat” (those of us who do the actual teaching), and I think we should fan the flames. We should continue to call out those who talk baloney in their attempts to defend and promote coursebook-driven ELT, continue to form cooperatives, continue to organise alternative forums and conferences, continue to demand better pay and working conditions, continue to draw attention to the erosion of true eductional values by the expansion of neoliberalism.
    We mustn’t abandon hope; we must keep fighting!

    1. Hi Geoff,
      I hope that with a show of what can be done, we can bypass the ELT gurus who shill the rubes yearly. Proof of the pudding and all that. Hopefully with flows of good ideas we will do away with the need for a guru stratum and instead end up with a rhizomatic growth of ideas and knowledge in the field.

  3. Well here are the usual suspects again! I tend to agree with you Marc, not that arguing has got us (almost) nowhere, but that it’s time to focus on constructing alternatives. Then we can argue to defend them.
    Secondly, I feel not a shred of bleeding heart guilt for teaching execs, oil companies and the like because like you there are mouths to feed and the thing is, the people I am teaching are no more responsible for how fucked the game is than I am. Yes we all collude, yes we’re all complicit, but in this life, unless you’re independently wealthy, forced choices are what you’ve generally got.
    The thing for me is to be as aware as possible of what’s going on around you, not shrug it off and carry on cynically but look for wherever you can intervene or transform things, look to exploit whatever gaps and contradictions can be found. That might be as small as teaching an exec (who’s investing in English as an asset to boost his/her career) in the most decentralised, process-focused, dialogic way possible. It might be convincing your academy class they don’t need a coursebook. It might be doing all the things Geoff mentions …

    1. Hi Neil,
      I too have taught mining people and bastard bankers. I wonder if we can make things a better place. I judge nobody for teaching people that want taught, just let’s not pretend globalisation is a world party.

      1. Bastard bankers and mining people need to be, er, mined too. If we’re not to live in an echo-chamber, especially on the left – far too obsessed with identity politics and not enough with structural injustice – there’s a lot to be said for having to listen/respond to points of view that you don’t share, especially in an environment where you’re not supposed to get angry about it!

  4. I agree that we should “show good stuff”. For me that means showing ourselves actually doing it in the classroom. It’s technically easy these days to make a video and put it online but in the judgemental ELT world we’re scared shitless at the idea of doing it. At least I am. Maybe you big tough blokes are not???

  5. Hi Marc,
    When I was active in UEPD ( I think we only had one person refuse to let us use her photo on our site. Go about it in the right way and people feel honoured. Our problem with videos was of making them of decent quality.
    The best Silent Way ones I know are Donald Cherry’s Mind you he’s sneaky – he offers reduced rate courses for people who accept to have the video put on line.

    1. Thanks for this, Glenys,
      Japanese students have an aversion to having themselves appear on video. Also, I am not sure my university would be OK with me blogging students on video.
      What I might do is recruit a bunch of students for a free course and put it on YouTube. Benefit to me is I can use it for research.
      I shall have to see.

      1. Hi Marc,
        99% of the students you see in Don’s videos are Japanese. His situation is much the same as yours – he works in a university but organises the courses he films privately. Do get in touch with him for more information
        A little bit of advice – make the courses cheap but not free or you might have a problem of absenteeism and won’t be respected by the students.
        Go for it and I promise you at least one enthusiastic and non judgemental viewer.

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