I sometimes get asked the question: How do I do decentralised teaching?
Decentralised teaching is not an item of clothing that you take out and wear once; it is a process, a way of developing your own teaching and reconnecting with your learners. 

In this post I talk about why developing your own teaching methodology is important and give you an activity to start the ball rolling.

Why bother with pedagogy?

Decentralised teaching is a pro-pedagogical methodology in a context where pedagogy is rare. We don’t talk about the art of teaching, but apps; we don’t talk about theories but twitter.

At one school I worked, 20 interactive whiteboards were installed, yet no one knew how to use them; they were used to watch YouTube videos, hardly a pedagogical great leap forward. 

Imagine the sigh of the  TV naturalist observing a future classroom: ‘And there we see it, the last remaining chalkboard, a remnant of a bygone world.’ 

david 2

We’re constantly on the lookout for innovation like distracted meercats yet unaware of our own strength. Part of the responsibility lies with the Global ELT industry–the way it constantly pushes product onto us. In my opinion, at its worst, this marketing-and-selling machine distorts the humanistic values of pedagogy.

But I’m as guilty as you! I love the buzz of new technology, yet find it hard to savour everyday victories.

Good information for a good system

You can’t teach in a different way until you have information from your learners; about why they are learning and how they learning.

Unfortunately, a pedagogy full of gadgets and gizmos, workbooks and whiteboards often precludes the gathering of this information.

The textbook (or materials in general) typically becomes the interface which structures, or disciplines, the relationship with your learners. Herein lie the borders of your pedagogical world. And it’s a bright, cheery, yet impoverished landscape.

Yet, it obviously does not have to be this way–it’s symptomatic of a misfit between the pedagogy and the profession. This misfit is perfectly expressed in the chasm that exists between CELTA training and post-CELTA working–which no one can explain to me in a coherent way. Rather we are fed some mumbo-jumbo about ‘the market’, or ‘reality’. That’s just the way things are. 

Rhetorical Hocus Pocus.


To reconnect with your learners, your pedagogy should be the interface that structures the learning and examines the world you and your learners inhabit.

Your job as a teacher is to develop, implement and nurture that pedagogy — and make it as democratic and transparent as possible. The negatives here are clear: you will be outside the mainstream and therefore challenge the status quo, it is sometimes thankless work, and it offers no instant reward.  
The positive: you’re creating something new that reflects the way you see the world.


Dar’st thou amid the varied multitude

To live alone, an isolated thing?

(Percy Bysshe Shelley, The Solitary 1810)


I’m not claiming that my pedagogy is best; just that it’s a possibility. And it’s possible for you to create your own pedagogy too. 

All I’m saying is: if we’re 2000 miles apart, but we’re using the same textbook, then something isn’t right.

Am I wrong? 

I’m pointing out  inherent contradictions here, which I hope resonate with your experience at some level — independent of the ‘echo chamber’ of mainstream ELT/ ESL.

I mean, do you think it’s democratic to walk into a classroom and impose a coursebook on learners? Or to impose a grammar syllabus? Or even Dogme? I think my pedagogy is at least democratic. 

And we all believe in democracy, don’t we?

Contradictions of MY pedagogy

But what about ESP, or Business English? Often the person or organisation paying gets to decide the course content — that’s not democratic, is it?

No, of course it isn’t. But I’m saying is that devolving some kind of power to learners is always possible, and that’s what we should strive for. If it isn’t possible during classroom time to devolve power to learners – then it is always possible for learners to take control of their learning outside the classroom, and the teacher should advise, encourage and assist here. How else are they going to learn?

If the teacher adopts the role of a coach, and encourages learners to question and improve their tactics for learning a language, this is also decentralised teaching.

Your role changes from an authority figure to a facilitator.

Activity: Draw who you are as a language learner 

In this activity learners visualise their language learning, discuss it with others, and imagine ways to improve it. It is inspired by Christian Reuter from the Berlin Language Worker GAS, who came up with a similar activity: ‘Draw who you are’. 

This activity is also suitable for introverted learners, who feel more secure when there is an intermediate focus while learning–that they are not the centre of attention (you will hear more about introversion in language learning soon as it’s something I’m interested in). 

And it’s simple. With no materials.


Buy index cards with no lines (cards about the size of your hand). 


1. Tell learners to relax. Write on the WB ‘Me as a Learner of English’. Tell them you want them to react to this sentence by imagining pictures in their minds. Where are they? What are they doing? Does this feel difficult, or is it easy? What thoughts come to mind? Just think alone for one minute. 

2. Then give the index cards out and say ‘I’d like you to draw YOU learning English–the picture should communicate two things–HOW you learn English, and IF this is difficult or not’. 

3. Give learners time to draw e.g. 5 minutes. In my class, I did the exercise too and drew a picture of myself learning German. N.B. if learners says that ‘they can’t draw’ say that no artistic ability is needed and just to do the best they can. 

4. Learners then compare their pictures in class and talk about them in pairs. 

5. Have an open class discussion on the pictures. 

Folllow up 

Have an exhibition of the ‘Me as a Learner of English’ pictures! 


Decentralised Teaching is pro-pedagogy and pro-teacher. I want us as workers to be paid well instead of precarious, respected as professionals–not de-skilled. To rely on ourselves, not for others to tell us who we are. For us to become visible again. So, if you also share these beliefs–please join the mailing list for Teachers as Workers SIG! 

We need 200 subscribers by the end of April to take the project forward. So tell all your friends! 

And to all the doubters and haters out there, those who say that ‘nothing will ever change’, listen to the words of Myles Horton, co-founder of the HighLander Folk School, on the future:

“I think the future is… well, as somebody said one time, ‘it’s out there.’ It’s not only out there, but it’s ready to be changed. It’s malleable, and there’s nothing fixed that you can’t unfix. But to unfix things that appear to be fixed, you have to not only be creative and imaginative, but courageously dedicated to the long haul.”


Thank you.







Sir David Attenborough. By Johann Edwin Heupel on flickr. CC license 2.0 Generic.

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