How’d we ever get this way?

He may well not remember this, but a long time ago, when I was first starting out on the great merry-go-round that is the ELT talks circuit, Jim Scrivener – the esteemed author of Learning Teaching, as I knew him then – once called me a Thatcherite. Well, to be more precise, he called my ideas Thatcherite!

To those of you lucky enough not to have been living in the UK during the reign of That Bloody Woman (as my grandfather insisted on calling her till his dying day!), this may not strike you as much of an insult, or even as an insult at all. However, where I come from, that’s fighting talk! Punches have been thrown for less. Having pointed this out to Jim, the ensuing discussion clarified what seemed to me to be some kind of generational fault lines. Jim felt that my talk – about the importance of teaching fixed expressions and collocations if we really want our students to become more fluent (and, I’d venture to add, accurate) – was crassly commercial (in his defence, the talk may well have ended with passing mention of a book I had out at the time, INNOVATIONS!), utilitarian and focused on outcomes and results, and was thus lacking poetry, creativity and soul.

The reason I mention this scurrilous piece of EFL gossip, apart from to simply hook you in, is because I was reminded of it during the debate which seems to have emerged of late about the many failures of Brit-centric, CELTA-rooted Communicative Language Teaching, and also when watching both Jeremy Harmer’s recent talk that I blogged about earlier this week and Jim Scrivener’s talk up at Glasgow IATEFL recently (incidentally, you can read many of Jim’s stimulating recent thoughts over on HIS blog – We seem to be hitting a moment where teachers of a certain vintage are reassessing their careers, thinking about where things might perhaps have gone slightly astray and posing questions for the rest of us to ponder. Here’s my take on all of this – and on how it connects to my recent post about focus and testing.

Much of what has become ELT orthodoxy has its roots in the late 1960s counter-culture. At his recent talk at my university, Jeremy Harmer said quite clearly that he was a flower child back in the day (and anyone who’s seen such Youtube clips as this one will testify that he was most certainly of the paisley-shirted and hirsute persuasion from a young age). The late 60s and early 70s was the cultural and political environment out of which many of The Grand Old Men (and they do tend to mainly be men) of TEFL emerged, and from which, in many ways, ELT as a globalised profession grew. This was a time of challenging authority, of the realisation that the powers-that-be were not always straight-forward and honest, of utopian daydreams, of free love, of experimentation, of screwing the system and standing up to The Man. And out of this developed a pedagogy rooted in caring and sharing in the language classroom, in humanizing the classroom (with the implications being, of course, that all classrooms before must have been neither caring, nor sharing nor even very human!). I would argue that what also developed was a generation of teachers – often wonderfully funny, warm, witty, creative (and, lest we forget, influential) teachers, it must be said – who felt vaguely uncomfortable about actually being TEACHERS; who preferred to be seen as facilitators or mediators or unlockers of inner excellence or guides, and so on. Anything but the dreaded T word.

Now, don’t get me wrong, I have nothing major against the 1960s. As anyone who knows me well will attest, a large chunk of my ever-expanding record collection derives from that very decade. Indeed, the title of the post comes from a ’68 pop hit by the wonderful and very underrated Andy Kim.

That said, I am not, and never can be, a child of the 60s in the way that Jeremy and Jim and Adrian Underhill and that generation are.

Whether I like it or not, I was formed as an adult during The Thatcher Years (or the post-punk years, as I prefer to remember them!).

I am also the product of the comprehensive school system, and the first from my family to go to university, and all of these things shape who we go on to become and what we go on to believe.

My feeling is that the 60s generation have shaped an ELT pedagogy in their own image for a long time now, and are finally starting to have doubts about where it’s got us. The simple dichotomy (I feel a Henry Widdowson moment coming on) of 60s = freedom / 80s = authoritarianism at worst, hard-headed pragmatism at best may be an oversimplification, but it’s one which contains a fair few grains of truth, not least in terms of the way that the 60s generation – and all those they have influenced so deeply – have come to see things, as evidenced by the story with which I began this piece.

CLT – and its close cousin, Task-Based Learning – has created a generation of teachers who think of lessons solely in terms of activities. The number of times I’ve sat down with teachers and asked what their goal is for the lesson they’re planning to teach only to be told what the teacher and students will be doing. On occasion, when I’ve said “No, that’s WHAT you’re doing. I want to know WHY you’re doing it”, it’s got so bad I’ve been told that I must be a bit slow and that the goal of the lesson is obviously – as any fool can see – TO DO A LISTENING. Or a reading, Or a speaking.

This has all been exacerbated by the tyranny of four-week CELTA courses, the easy entrance into our noble profession for the vast majority of native-speaker teachers (present company included: Westminster College, 1993). Given its ridiculous time restrictions, the CELTA is unable to help trainees learn much more about language than the names and basic functions of a fee grammatical structures – and how to find one’s way around a dictionary and the grammar notes at the back of the book. As such, the main focus falls on faking it: we end up pretty linguistically ignorant, but highly adept at manufacturing that magical quality, FUN! We may not know much about how language works, but we’re dab hands at a bit of TPR, we know good games for Friday afternoons and we can knock up a gap-fill based on almost any song you’d care to name.

And we wonder why non-natives are starting to distrust our infinite wisdom!

We have come to a point where teaching has become a dirty word, where FUN has become the be-all and end-all, where teachers are all-too often little more than automatons able only to string recipes, games and activities together, where testing creates terror (and has come to be seen as some kind of weird anti-educational cult-like behaviour indulged in by those crazy authoritarian Asians, whilst we in the Free West (TM) see ourselves as creative libertarians.  We have come to a point where the hard graft and discipline required to learn not just language, but almost any kind of serious skill are in short supply. We now pin our hopes on shortcuts: technology will save us by facilitating a sufficient amount of meaningful exposure; DOGME will save us by freeing us from actually being teachers and having to make informed decisions abut syllabus, word choice, topics and themes, testing and assessment, and so on and instead will allow us to exist in Gurdjieff’s perpetual now.

And all the time we fail to get better at the one thing we’re all supposed to be doing: teaching language.

When I first read The Lexical Approach by Michael Lewis, as part of my DELTA reading, one thing that hit me hard was just how much language there is out there. Just take the word blog. We read and we follow blogs, we post on blogs, we maintain blogs, we upload stuff to our blogs; indeed, we BLOG. We talk about bloggers and the blogosphere. It goes on and on. And each word and each collocation has its own colligations – grammatical patterns it’s often used with – and its own co-text (words often used with – or around – it). There is a LOT of language out there – and students really need to start getting to grips with it.

Students know this.

Examination boards know this.

Employers know this.

University entrance panels know this.

It’s about time we all woke up to this harsh reality too and started to think about whether or not what we’re doing in our classes is getting enough of it to our students. Are we covering a broad enough range? Are we honestly covering the 750+ words needed to lift a student from one level to the next? Are we revisiting and recycling them? Are we testing how much our students are retaining? In short, are we making the teaching and learning of new language the absolute centre of our practice? And if not, then why not?

To wrap up this rambling ranting post, I’ll go right back to where I started from.

I am proud to call myself a TEACHER first and foremost. I am also, however, a man of The Left, hence my annoyance at the Thatcherite tag. I would argue all day long that having clear goals which can be stated before a student buys into a course, having high expectations of what my students can achieve in terms of language load, and giving students regular (soft AND hard) tests in order to help them see how they’re doing and what they’ve got for the money they’ve invested are acts of The Left as well. They are rooted in a desire for collective improvement and in a belief that the powers-that-be have a duty of care to those entrusted to them. These beliefs also, though, come with a clear-eyed acceptance of the long hard route to competence – and see little point in hiding this reality from students. To insist on the process over the product is to deny this reality, and to me is little short of professional irresponsibility.

16 responses

  1. One word: Exactly! I could not agree more with each point you make.

    Very interesting and brave you link this to politics. It’s something that I (as a foreigner) have very often thought but never dared to utter. Many of the ideas that crept into ELT were indeed shaped by political views (political correctness?).
    I see exactly the same in my own country (Belgium) in education in general, not just ELT. The ideal of a diploma (i.e. a good job i.e. a better life i.e. a fairer society ) for everyone is indeed a most valuable cause for teachers to contribute to. I believe we must try to reach that by demand high teaching, by awarding diplomas that still have any value and for which both teachers and students have to work very hard.
    Otherwise we are deceiving our students, getting the opposite result of what we aimed at: an even bigger discrepancy and inequality between those who are old enough to have been “taught” and those who are often denied that chance today.

    1. Thanks for taking the time to read it – and to write down your thoughts Mieke. Much appreciated.

      I think you’re right that you have to see the way ELT developed against a social / cultural / political backdrop, rooted in the 60s. I don’t personally think it has to do with political correctness, at least not in the way I understand the word, which is as a form of linguistic etiquette (may well blog something about PC later on, actually, now that you’ve put the idea in my mind). I think it’s more to do with the fear that many of the children of the 60s had of becoming authority figures, and with the ways in which they tried to evade that eventuality. We saw it in the UK in the 70s and 80s when there was a well-meaning (but ultimately disastrous) attempt to teach working-class kids in their own dialects. The same thing happened in the States with Ebonics. The upshot of both drives was to essentially condemn a generation of lower-class (and in the US African-American) kids to the ghetto by not giving them access to the discourse of power. It’s default exclusion in the name of idealistic equality.

      I think we can see echoes of this in ELT in the ELF / Globish debates (which I’ll also be blogging about later on) and in the anti-testing / process-driven / emergent syllabus rhetoric that abounds.

  2. Hugh,

    I wanted to make an intelligent comment, but fear I shall have to content myself with the following:

    “Ooh, look at you with your fancy pants blogging and that!”

    You are the least ‘Thatchetite’ person I’ve met, I think. More power to your keyboard, reluctant though it may be. I’ll be up to the smoke for music and more sometime over the summer…


    1. Nice to see you here Gavin! In the end, I realised that a blog was actually the perfect place for a pub bore and ranter such as myself! Of course, there’s always the very real fear that my blog will end up being a collection of answers people don’t want to hear to questions they didn’t ask, but in the face of such fears I guess I’ll just to have follow the advice of my Swedish students – and not paint the Devil on the wall!

  3. Yep, you’ve done it again. A very provocative text!
    Have to agree with Mieke here. Incidentally, having taught at a couple of Belgian schools I was initially surprised by how ‘un-fun’ it was (compared to the way the UK was moving in the early 90s) and yet how the pupils nonetheless reached for the high-level demands made on them. Though I agree with you on not being afraid to ‘teach’ and having clear goals and objectives for each and every lesson, I do think that teaching needs to change as the public is changing. Pupils these days (and I’m talking of teenagers here) are more aware of their rights, have more access to information of other schools, methods etc – and perhaps because of this respond better to the clear guidelines set at school: knowing what’s expected of them provides a certain amount of stability.
    My 3 teens are very lucky: my oldest chose a secondary school which suits her; they have lots of ‘fun’, a very relaxed atmosphere and a great amount of individual/group learning whereby the teacher is merely a ‘guide’. Schools here are streamed and my daughter is in the middle stream. My two sons are at a “gymnasium” (like a grammar school i.e. top stream) which is exactly what they needed (NB: my kids all chose their own schools and somehow all knew exactly what they themselves needed): it’s a very traditional, bums on chairs type of school where they are still taught Latin and Greek! My daughter’s general level is less than the boys (compare old CSE with O’levels, or polytechnic with university). So I think there’s room out there for all types of “methodologies” (a sort of Howard Gardner-esque ELT) depending on what the learners want (fluency or accuracy; communication or deeper learning).
    Our primary schools teach English in a fun way with lots of music and rote learning via jazz chants etc: pure fun, no deductive grammar. The kids love it, become motivated to learn more and have a great base before they move on to secondary education for the fine-tuning.
    So can we agree that ‘fun’ is ok, depending on the public?

    1. Thanks for the kind comments. Glad to hear your three kids are thriving in their respective school enviroments. My little ones are still very much pre-school (I was a very late starter!), so I have all that ahead of me.

      I totally agree with you that fun is important. In my next post on what I try to do ion class to activate / test memory, hopefully you’ll see how much fun some of these things can be. I just don’t see why serious learning, high expectations and fun should be mutually exclusive. At the same time, though, I don’t think FUN in and of itself is anything like enough to guarantee any kind of learning.

      To repeat something I said in response to another post earlier, It’s very hard indeed to be a GOOD teacher without making your classes fun and being popular, but it’s easy to be popular and have fun classes without being a good teacher!

  4. i bumped into one of my multi-media students this afternoon on the train. she wanted to ask me about getting an extension on some work as her computer had died and her mum’s computer was struggling with using an electronic poster-making website that was being used for the assignment.

    as we were chitchatting she asked me WHY we did this activity? i admit i do like activities, the process rather than the product, the WHAT of lessons rather than the WHY of lessons. and i don’t see the need to explain the why of an activity to students. but this chat made me rethink.

    so i guess she was really channelling you, Hugh, with this query! i explained to her the language and skills i hoped she had used in the activity and that seemed to satisfy her.

    the pendulum is swinging back but let’s make sure it does not knock us out, again!


    1. Hi Mura –
      Thanks for taking the time to read my ramblings and to post a response.
      I have to say (or should that be I hate to say it), but I think your student has a mighty good point. I’m not knocking activities per se, or saying that doing fun stuff is bad or anything like that. Rather, I’m just saying that we really need to START by asking ourselves what is it we want to achieve in any given class. What’s our goal? What will our students be able to do better at the end of the class that they couldn’t do before? And how does the language we’re giving them help them do that? Get that clear in your head first and foremost and then take it from there.
      I guess I’ve also shifted over the years from a predominantly output-oriented approach to more of an input-oriented approach. I no longer believe that just getting students to engage through English and practise is enough of a reason for doing something. There has to also be some desirable outcome involving the acquisition of new language.
      One to ponder, anyway!

  5. What a beautifully emotive and poignant post! Didn’t you say in your first post that you would write every week or so, Hugh? 🙂 And look at you now – churning post after post and one more thought provoking than another.

    If you see the methodology predominant in ELT today as a result of the flower children of the 1960s and their the counter culture, I wonder what the legacy of the 1970s ELT writers and methodologists would be.

    As regards, Jim Scrivener’s call for creativity and soul and your appeal for the increased role of memorisation of fixed phrased and chunks, I don’t see any dichotomy here. Wasn’t it Earl Stevick who said that imagination and memory are not enemies, but rather imagination draws on memory?

    Enjoying your blog, Hugh and good to see familiar faces here: Mieke, Mura and Gavin.

    1. I’m sure that once the inital rush of blood to the head has worn off, Leo, I’ll be back blogging more erratically. You have to remember I have one kid this end – with another one on the way – and this takes up the vast bulk of my time!

      As to what the legacy of 70s writers may be, it is a very interesting question. I can only talk for myself, I guess, but I know a lot of my own interest in subverting from within, pushing the boundaries of acceptability, ensuring a wide range of coverage of difference and so on stems from teenage years soaked in post-punk and its ideologies. Whether others will emerge from this era onto the ELT writing scene with similar values or ideas remaisn to be seen. More pertinent, I suspect, is what will those reared in the nineties and the noughties bring to the table?!

      I’m obviously totally with you on the inter-connectedness of the fixed and the creative impulse. Who was it that once said ‘Memory is genius!”? I suspect we’re still in a minority in the greater scheme oif things, though!

  6. Hi Hugh,

    Far too many points there to comment on! I do feel obliged to defend the ‘flower’ generation a little, not that I am one of them (think post punk, mod revivalist, depressed west Midland new town in the 80’s to see that I am not). They did imbue a certain humanity in what we do (perhaps sometimes to the point of crossing the border into group therapy), something I see lacking in the responses of a new wave of Gringo teachers fleeing the economic turmoil in the US.

    Here in Chile to 1.learn a new language 2. party and 3. see a bit of the world, many new teachers have no repsonse to a genuine exchange of ideas in the classroom, particularly if it gets in the way of the next role-play. Obviously, there is nothing wrong in 1. learning a new language 2. partying and 3. seeing a bit of the world, but at the expense of who? Can we not combine some humanity with an attempt to actually teach?

    Thatcherism was the opposite of humane (even worse than calling someone a Spurs fan) but don’t we have some kind of moral obligation to make sure hard-working people, who make great sacrifices to study, get a decent class, not Hangman? I despair to see a student, mother of two, after work (and they work long hours here), spending a third of her salary on a class provided by a morally bankrupt ‘cultural’ organisation (dining out on an invented ‘Britishness’) having her money wasted by being entertained by a Gringo in a suit who got off the plane yesterday armed with a 40 hour online certificate. I know how bad the teaching can be as I was one of them 10 years ago, fresh off a CELTA.

    To conclude, if I rattle someone’s cage who is sponging off (‘fun’ but pointless classes) hard-working Chilean folk in order to pay for his or her trip to Machu Picchu then call me a Thatcherite. I might correct you and say that actually, what the teacher is doing is a leaf out of Margaret’s book.What I am doing is quite the opposite – attempting to protect the student, who, not born into the right socio-economic group, has missed out on the English classes provided for the children of the rich in exclusive private schools. I can’t do anything to change the fact that people are bullied into needing English, but I can try and make sure they progress and don’t waste their time and money.

    That’s my goal and also why a class should have one! Overly simplistic ranting but broadly true.


    1. Hello there Kevin –
      Thanks for finding me here and for taking the time to write.
      Before I started this blog, I thought I was the only one with anger management issues, but clearly I am not alone.
      Anyway, I enjoyed reading your rantings above – and despite struggling to decode bits, I think it sounds as if we’re broadly in agreement: we need to aim higher than bloody Hangman, the status quo favours the wealthy, too many teachers take the piss and fail to make the required effort, and so on. I do also kind of accept that the 60s generation did foster a kind of humanism and caring / sharing mentality, but fear that in many ways this has bled into and fed the sitting around chatting and playing games laxness that you lament above. You know that old hippy thing of play being the only way to learn, encouraging playful spontaneity and so on. I’m all for teachers being attuned to the reality of their students’ lives and taking an active and caring interest in who they’re teaching and so on, and if that’s a positive than can be taken from time, then good, obviously . . . the flip-side though is Mario Rinvolucri’s whackier ends, where students pretend to be trees and tell each other what colour they’d be if they were colours and the like! One of the parallels too, of course, is that the whole hippy thing was always essentially a middle-class preserve. I’ve met plenty of the old counter-cultural hardcore like Miles, who ran Indica and so on, and they’re all very well-to-do.

      Anyway, all we can do is moan long and hard about this stuff, demand higher standards as they’re the only way those less privileged will benefit, fight complacency and move on up.

      1. Hugh,

        Sorry you had to decode!

        It’s Catch 22 really. The fact that an entry-level certificate is relatively easy to get means that lots of people have a bash at language teaching. That’s exactly what I did with a CELTA. I now look back on it and I’m happy I did it, compared to the 24 hour online certificates I see on CV’s nowadays!

        In Chile at least, partly due to huge government sponsorship of the teaching of English (even with many teachers fleeing the economic troubles in the US) there is still a shortage of teachers. Many have no qualifications at all.

        I was lucky to land my first job at a well run International House but many people find themselves at institutes driven entirely by profit and lacking any kind of quality procedures or indicators.

        As I now slowly plod through an MSc I realise how little I know about my profession, partly due to my own failings, but also due to the fact that I work in an unregulated industry which welcomes and relies on, non-professionals. I was one of them.

        This leads to “We may not know much about how language works, but we’re dab hands at a bit of TPR, we know good games for Friday afternoons and we can knock up a gap-fill based on almost any song you’d care to name”

        But how do we change it?


  7. Bloody brilliant post, Hugh. I think this one might get printed out and made into wallpaper for my bedroom wall so I can read it every day when I get up!!!

    1. Slightly scary, but very flattering.
      Many thanks Amanda!
      Glad it resonated with you.

      1. You’ll be glad to know that, after my initial euphoria wore off, I scrapped the wallpaper idea. ;-)))))

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