decentralisation what is it?


I get asked this question a lot – so in this post I give a simple and clear explanation.

I go through what decentralised teaching is, how it is different to other teaching approaches and the theory behind it.


My explanation of decentralised teaching comes in the form of a Quizlet deck below – this can also be accessed here.

Click on options just above the box (on the right) to adjust settings – I recommend ‘Term’ (under ‘Start with’). Click the arrows to go forward and back, to ‘flip’ the slide click on it.

When you can’t see all the text – press ‘T’ on your keyboard – press ‘T’ again to go back to normal.

Comments, criticisms and constructive debate welcome as always – bring it on!


6 thoughts on “A dummies guide to decentralised teaching

  1. Hi Paul

    Thanks for the slides, I was wondering too! The most interesting question in your slideshow for me was “What problem is decentralised teaching responding to?” The answer on the flipside was “the problems inherent in (over-)centralised systems.” Could you give us an example of one of these? From your slides it seems like it must be a place where the teachers don’t get to know the students or find out what they want or need to learn or their learning preferences and where the classes are teacher-focused rather than student focused – would that be right? (Sounds a bit like Grammar Translation method!)

    Sorry for all the questions, but I thnk it’s useful to be specific about where a “new” approach, or style, is relevant.


  2. Hi Emma,

    Great question!

    It’s not really needs analysis, which is what I think you’re talking about (Nunan 1988 also stresses needs analysis).

    Needs analysis is important but there’s a tendency to put it into a ‘black box’ at the beginning of a course. But needs sometimes emerge slowly, they’re cloudy. Also, how can learners know what they want if they’ve been spoon-fed from a coursebook for ….. years? The thing that I added to Nunan’s ‘negotiated syllabus’ is priming, a period of learner training if you like. Then learners are better able to make informed choices.

    But, to return to your question, these problems of (over-) centralisation are just ones I’ve experienced over the years. Some examples:

    i) coursebooks/ imported materials – these often create distance between teacher and learner. Let’s call this what it is – pedagogical alienation.

    Learners are not connected to their own learning, and I’m not connected to their learning either. We’re just going down the yellow-brick, PPP/ grammar mcnugget road.


    ii) centralised syllabuses – When I taught at a university in Saudi Arabia, we were forced into what can only be described as a pedagogical straitjacket.

    The syllabus (IMO) wasn’t fit for purpose, so you had hundreds of teachers changing, modifying and reshaping the syllabus for their own learners – trying to take into account their needs. This defeats the whole point of a centralised syllabus.

    Lose-lose (and lots of stress).

    iii) tech – I teach several courses with Moodle, and to be honest – it’s little more than a dumping ground for information and tasks. I felt the same way about Edmodo when I tried it years ago too.

    I’ve found other tools to work a lot better because they are not so centralised e.g. quizlet. Learners can download the app onto their phones, and practise the vocab that we learn in class. They can even edit the sets. They have more ownership and control.

    One final example, just moving the desks and sitting in a circle is the simplest form of (physical) decentralisation in a classroom – and makes a big difference.

    Does that answer your question?

  3. Hi Paul and thanks for taking the time to answer!

    Yes, I think that helps, although I think a lot of teachers do what you’re talking about anyway – for example, most classrooms I’ve seen or taught in have the desks in a U shape- if they even have traditional desks. But I think we’re lucky here in Spain. Is it in a particular culture that it’s harder to teach the students rather than an imposed syllabus?

    I don’t much like online learning through portals either, but I always thought this was because in my experience, learning is a social thing: the bonds between the students and between the student and teacher play an important role in motivation. I used to go to Spanish classes but I gave up because I was bored – there were no warmers or get to know you activities to tie me into the group and give me a reason to be there. (Perhaps my teacher could have read some of your ideas!)

    I completely agree that needs “emerge” and that’s why ongoing needs analysis is useful. This priming (learner training?) sounds interesting – I shall have to check it out!

    One further question: Would you say there are parallels between what you’re proposing and Demand High?

    Thanks again and sorry for all the bother!

  4. Hi,

    I have some very big criticisms of Demand High which I go over in this post:

    While I have Adrian and Jim’s books on my shelves, I think that Demand High comes ‘top down’ and puts even more pressure on teachers! That’s the opposite of my approach which I hope is ‘bottom up’.

    Naturally, at the start of this whole ‘experiment’ I had to choose which group I would do this with – luckily I was given a class at a Berlin startup and complete freedom over which materials. I was also lucky in that the class responded well (you can’t force any group to be decentralised/ dogme-tized/ TBL-ized in my opinion – that’s completely undemocratic!)

    Also, my approach isn’t a panacea for all pedagogical problems – but it might make a dent in someone’s practice somewhere. That’s fine.

    A lot of what I’m doing is nothing new. Negotiated syllabus is from David Nunan. Learner training is from Learner Autonomy. As the saying goes ‘Good artists copy; great artists steal’!

    Actually I was really inspired by the work of people like Leni Dam and I fully support Learner Autonomy as a practice. But both Learner Autonomy, and the Learner strategy approach (kind of equivalent approach in the US) suffer from serious definitional problems IMO (what’s ‘autonomy’; what’s a ‘learning strategy’). I wrote a paper about this – Sailing with Learner Autonomy:

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