Hats off to the Innovate ELT Team, organisers of the Power to the Teacher conference. They put on a risky event, gave us uncouth TaWSIG rabble-rousers a platform, and provided plenty of beer and vermouth to move proceedings along.
I’m proud to say that TaWSIG members (Teachers as Workers Special Interest Group) represented a small but significant group at Power to the Teacher. Blair Matthews presented on Collective Bargaining, Neil McMillan from SLB spoke about setting up your own Teacher Cooperative; Marek Kiczkowiak gave a plenary on professional equality in ELT (and taught a great lesson on the same topic to real learners) and Nicola Prentis gave her rousing plenary on Gender Equality to whoops of support.
And I talked about stuffed mice.
Shooting Sacred Mice
Actually I spoke about sacred mice: things that are taken for granted within ELT, things that go unquestioned. Here is a recording I made of my powerpoint presentation, recorded on a sunny Sunday afternoon here in Berlin – apologies for any mistakes – if you have any questions or comments get in touch. (One important point I forgot to mention while recording this presentation: Donald Schön, author of The Reflective Practitioner actually worked for Arthur D. Little, a well-known consulting and PR company early in his career.)
The thesis of my presentation (a thesis, how old-fashioned of me…) was as follows:
By ignoring the social, philosophical and historical origins of our practice we impoverish our pedagogy.
And the sacred mice that I took aim at? The Market (or market values), Empowerment, and Reflective Practice. Three things central to our profession, yet given precious little critical attention. For example, I find it strange that we’re encouraged to become ‘reflective practitioners’, yet I’m still waiting for someone to give me a clear and precise definition of what ‘reflective practice’ actually means.
(And if being ‘reflective’ just means ‘thinking about stuff’ – then in what sense does this constitute a methodology?*)
I also wanted to bring the social, philosophical and historical back into the conversation about our profession and where we are heading, primarily because I believe these aspects get lost or obscured in the ELT-industry fog. And if we blind ourselves to the social and philosophical aspects of our practice, then we render ourselves incapable of resisting the self-serving PR and general nonsense flying around the ELT industry stratosphere.
Because perhaps there’s a connection between the kind of teachers produced within the ELT industry and the circuits of neoliberal capitalism. As Angel Lin (2013) writes:
Language teaching is increasingly prepackaged and delivered as if it were a standardized, marketable product (e.g., “BBC English,” “Wall Street English”) of chain shops, institutes, or factories. This commodifying ideology of language teaching and learning has gradually penetrated into school practices, turning teachers into “service providers.”
In essence, the global ELT industry needs an acquiescent workforce. And this workforce should believe that the state of affairs that exists is somehow ‘natural’ and cannot be changed; which, strangely enough, is what I hear from a surprising amount of teachers I speak to about precarious employment and working conditions.
What the ELT industry perpetrates is a form of non-knowledge or agnotology. And what is agnotology? It is the continued production of ignorance.
Because if we took off the blinkers and saw how the industry really operated, who it benefits and who it leaves behind in the dust, we might want to change it.
And who knows where that might lead?
Protest to Policy
I kicked off my presentation at ‘Power to the Teacher’ with a reference to 2011, when I came to Barcelona to complete my TESOL Diploma Teaching Practice.
I actually arrived during the Indignados, or 15M protests, and this first-hand experience of grassroots protest in Barcelona stayed with me. Because unlike other grassroots protests, this protest led to institutional change. Out of the 15M movement came Podemos – and Podemos are now in government.
(Ok, so the Spanish government is deadlocked right now, I hear you. But you take my point.)
So perhaps this is the next stage for TaWSIG. Not just protesting against the current state of affairs but trying to change it.
A new idea: The Lawn
The new idea that struck me at the ‘Power to the Teacher’ conference? A policy platform on a range of issues forming the foundation for a reasoned, constructive dialogue between grassroots teachers and institutions – the ‘cognitive architecture’ for change.
That’s right, I’m suggesting that grassroots teachers write policy; policy on ‘hot topic’ issues within ELT that are often ignored or forgotten: working conditions, inequality, ageism, and more.**
Policy to improve our profession and the conditions of its practitioners—those pedagogical bodies who dance around the classroom; the people who actually create the value.
Policy as if teachers mattered. Policy from the grassroots.
We set up own own SIG—why can’t we write our own policy?
Who and Why?
Who better to write policy on NNEST equality than Marek Kiczkowiak? Who better to write policy on Gender Equality than Nicola Prentis?
Who better to write policy on improving working conditions than the ‘experts’: teachers who suffer from precarious employment and low pay.
That’s my idea: a policy platform from ordinary grassroots teachers. A policy platform constructed from the ground up: from the grassroots to a summer lawn—or maybe even a wildflower meadow! Is this crazy? Is it exciting? Yes and yes.
Our voices have been ignored by institutions and major stakeholders within ELT for too long.
And we think that it is time for this to change.
I think we can all raise a glass to that.
*Reflective Practice within ELT is clearly more of an approach than a methodology, as noted in Richards & Lockhart (1994: ix), ‘A recent trend in second language teaching is a movement away from “methods” and other “external” or “top down” views of teaching toward an approach that seeks to understand teaching in its own terms.’
Two points to make here, i) What is an approach that “seeks to understand teaching in its own terms”? This reminds me of the William James’ “applying truth to an idea” from Pragmatist philosophy, judging the validity of a proposition from its result or outcome. And ii) Across domains or fields of inquiry i.e. nursing, social work, teaching – the ‘toolkit’ of Reflective Practice is remarkably similar: logbooks, reflections, peer discussions and arguably the same technology: confession (via the ubiquitous: What could I have done better?) You could therefore argue that Reflective Practice has developed a methodology in implementation.
**TESOL is one of the few institutions that does put forward policy positions on such issues (largely dealing with the U.S. context) – which is to be commended.
Lin, A. 2013. Toward paradigmatic change in TESOL methodologies: Building plurilingual pedagogies from the ground up. TESOL Quarterly, 47, 3.
Vermouth Yzaguirre by JaulaDeArdilla, from Flickr. CC license 2.0.