Thoughts on IATEFL: Blinding Stars

This week, at IATEFL, a Chinese lady battled bravely to defend her educational context against a Western man, performing as he did to a Western audience, in a Western context. Every person in a debate argues from a framework, and the Western man played to his advantage that the framework he would argue from was the same framework that set the parameters of the debate. Never mind that the whole symposium was based on a fallacy of question begging, no, communicative language teaching was asserted and accepted as the preferable approach (it’s not a methodology!). Western teaching uses CLT, Chinese teaching does not. We’re going to debate which one is better.

At one point Mr Scrivener (the Western man) asked his worthy and esteemed opponent (here I paraphrase) “Are the students in China learning from the teaching, or from the music on their ipods, the programmes on TV, and the podcasts at home?” Nods of approval from the audience. But Mr Scrivener, I waited to ask as some pratt hogged the Q and A session, surely the same challenge can be laid at the door of CLT? How many students learn from CLT, and how many learn for, or in order to do CLT? What evidence do you have for CLT that cannot also be applied to Chinese teaching? (Especially since, you know, you’re not massive on SLA research…)

But, the question was not posed, and I watched as the audience applauded Jim, bayed for blood, drew spears and charged the stage, lit fires and offered burnt offerings to their Western deity…at this point I may be exaggerating. Nonetheless, onto the point…

I put it to you that there is a certain group of people holding us all back. They churn out books, wax lyrical their expertise via blogs and televised interviews, weave wisdom threaded through a microphone, and stand on stages speaking in front of gushing audiences, immune to the dazzling flashes of phone and tablet cameras.

They are the Scott Thornburys, the Jim Scriveners, the Jeremy Harmers, the Adrian Underhills, add the names that belong to the list. They represent expertise in EFL. They made it to the top of the industry and fell victim to that old snare: that the man has become greater than his idea (I haven’t forgotten the women, just I can think of none for the moment that have risen in status so far above their own expertise). The most obvious example is that of Scott Thornbury and dogme. Even Thornbury would baulk at the bastardisations of his idea: from dogme to unplanned to winging it as you go along. Delta candidates everywhere are trying it out in their experimentals, schools are boasting that they follow the DP (Dogme Principle) and novice teachers are ‘trying dogme’ after fifteen goes at understanding the rationale for a coursebook unit have failed. I am, by no means, attacking dogme itself, except insofar as to say that, these days, dogme is revered because it came from Scott Thornbury.

These men are damaging the industry, and what is to be done about it? It’s not their fault: their choice was to become established as experts, or settle for mediocrity. The problem is not with Scott, or Jim, or Adrian, or Jeremy (feel free to disagree, though) but with the people who built and maintain the pedestals. They’re not deliberately bullshitting us, they’re just giving us whatever information they believe

i.) is accurate

ii.) contributes to the development of the industry

iii.) makes them more noticeable

iv.) has practical value

I think Adrian Underhill’s work in pronunciation is phenomenal. Jim Scrivener helped me through my CELTA and first couple of teaching years with his published works and teaching videos (even if our teaching styles differ vastly). Scott Thornbury’s work was insurmountable as I pored through pages of text for my LSA 1 Delta essay on affixation, trying to justify my choice of topic.

But I like Underhill’s work on pronunciation because of the work, not because of the man, and I feel that, as they stand on stage, or sit in front of the television camera, or sign the umpteenth copy of their latest book, people are blindly accepting their ideas. This, of course, is by no means universal (thankfully!), but it does pose a conundrum. If so many people are unable to think critically, and an idea is accepted because it came from an apparent expert, whether or not it is expert as an idea, then to whom do we turn to fix the problem? Jim can’t just tell us to think for ourselves; we’ve not collectively developed that ability. Scott can’t tell us which ideas work, that’s just circling us back to the same problem. Adrian can’t tell us who to trust and when and why, because, again, circles.

Geoff Jordan, ever the champion of scathing wit and ire, argues the coursebook is to blame. I disagree. Blind dependence on coursebooks, organisations that force teachers to use it, the consequent de-skilling of teachers, these are all symptoms of a much more insidious issue. The coursebook, or the coursebook system, is not the cause. It is merely another infant suckling the acidic, curdled milk from the teats of industry.

The problem starts at the bottom, the beginning, the ITT. Teachers need to be properly trained. The CELTA, or CERTTESOL, or equivalents, should be overhauled and include, as minimum, a module on critical thinking, and a teaching placement. Start with the same rigour and professionalism that got these blokes to the top.

This is a difficult case, for me, to argue, because I was far from decent when I started. I barely got onto the CELTA, I barely passed the CELTA (you try giving a lesson on making polite requests after 2 years as a professional chef. If it didn’t start and end with a ferociously barked epithet, it wasn’t a request!) and I barely kept my first proper teaching job beyond the first week. After my first lesson, a student quit, citing poor teaching, and I nearly lost an entire class of CEFR B2 students before Christmas.

I’ll stop there.

My response to all this? I got better, but I was lucky. I had tremendous support, and it wasn’t all positive. Evaluations were brutally worded, mistakes were swiftly swooped upon, overuse of consonance was not for a moment tolerated (see how many instances of it you can spot in this post) but I used it, I cherished it, and I got better. Many teachers will not be so lucky.

Give ITT course trainees the rigour, but give them the support. Build them, develop them, and fill the world of EFL with critically minded, well-developed teachers who can tell a good idea from a bad one.


“But what about the ones who like things as they are?”


Fuck ’em!


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