Tag Archives: Margaret Thatcher

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 – http://demandhighelt.wordpress.com). 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.

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