The ZX81, “…both a delight and a disappointment” – something it shares with teaching English.



Look at this Youtube video and weep. The ZX81 was my first computer and my favourite game was 3D Monster Maze.

It’s not exactly Xbox – the 3D ‘Monster’ is a blob of dots resembling an dinosaur lumbering its way towards you. In black and white.

But although it looks like the Rosetta Stone to computer geeks now, to a spotty teenager in the early 80’s this was like splitting the atom.


The ZX81 was designed by Clive Sinclair. One famous quote by him is:

I don’t use a computer at all…I’d much prefer someone would telephone me if they want to communicate.

           (Interview in the Guardian, 2010)

ZX81 performance

The ZX81 was hampered by having only 1Kb of memory. That’s like ten shopping lists, or one crayon drawing. It makes the Raspberry Pi, today’s ZX81, look like the Hadron Collider by comparison.


What is more, the funky membrane keyboard on the ZX81 was a tad ‘unresponsive’. It became red hot after a marathon ‘sesh’ of banging in BASIC code letter-by-letter which meant that half the buttons would also stop working. The hopeful clattering of fingers onto smouldering plastic was often accompanied by screams of ‘GOD HELP ME WHY DOESN’T THIS WORK!!!’


‘Digital natives’ out there -you don’t know you’re born.


When I actually succeeded in just loading a game, or typing in a whole BASIC program from a computer magazine which actually functioned I felt a tremendous sense of accomplishment!


Why? Because I did it all by myself, without an external authority telling me what to do. It was just me struggling to learn on my own. I didn’t need any authority, any encouragement, any ‘zone of proximal development’. I just wanted to learn because I was incredibly interested (or incredibly frustrated) and had a clear task.

People often ask me what is decentralisation and my answer is: there is no central authority telling you what to do.


Learners can learn by themselves and often do (with better results).


What’s this got to do with Demand High?

Anyone with a new approach, method or even ‘meme’ that attempts to stimulate change should also be open to criticism (myself included here). Therefore my major criticism of Demand High Teaching rests on this question:

Who is the agent of change in ‘Demand High’?

Answer: It’s the teacher.

Teachers. The low-hanging fruit of ELT – often stressed, low-paid, overworked, fully paid-up members of the Precariat.

I don’t know if the creators of Demand High have noticed but ordinary working teachers are required to work longer hours, for less money, and with less stable working conditions than ever. Again, myself included here.

So to add another weight to the burden doesn’t spark my pedagogical flame.

I’ve absolutely no problem with some of the ideas on the ‘What is Demand High‘ page, like pushing students, coming up with new activities, tweaking existing activities. But that’s nothing new.

And to ‘demand’ more of us when the industry itself does not tackle the issue of working conditions is unfair in my opinion.

An alternative might be…

Demand High at all levels…

Demand High institutions i.e. IATEFL – Why can’t we have a SIG to talk about working conditions?

Demand High coursebooks – Why can’t the industry produce more coursebooks based on corpora not intuition? (I realise this is underway but it’s a slow process…)

Demand High employers – Can we be paid according to our qualifications or experience? Can natives and non-natives have equal status?

Or does ‘Demand High’ stop at us teachers?




The Mighty ZX81. Mikey Walters on flickr. CC license 2.0.

ZX81. Barney Livingston on flickr. CC license 2.0.


12 thoughts on “ZX81 and Demand High

  1. (Jim:) Very interesting article. I self-taught myself programming in a very similar way so, yes, no argument that you can learn a huge amount under your own power. But it doesn’t work for all students in all contexts and all content areas. I think teachers can make a real difference to help learning to happen, to happen better, to keep focussed etc. Teachers can make a big difference. That’s why we still have them everywhere in the world. The Sugatra Mitra argument that teachers will all evaporate soon is dodgy at best.

    (Adrian:) Yes you’re absolutely right. We agree that the DH meme should apply throughout a teaching organisation and in the case of management I would call it the approach of the Learning Organisation (which is the main area of my consultancy work these days. We dispute the conventional wisdom that doing something better must necessarily take more time and energy. It takes more time and energy if you teach in your normal ways – the teacher-centred approaches are highly energy inefficient – whereas learning from and with the learners make use of energy which is already there.

    [We are sitting on a train together as we are on our way to London to run a one day workshop on DH for teachers.]

    (JIm & Adrian:) . We believe that what we are talking about is not teacher-centred in the conventional way. The teacher IS the agent of change but we believe DH is much more learner-centred because it is learning-centred and takes all its cues from the learner.

  2. Hi Jim and Adrian,

    Thanks for commenting! I have no problem with improving teaching, but I do have a problem – as I mention in my post – with positioning the teacher as the agent of change. That’s all I wanted to say. Demand High, to me, implied that there’s been a humanistic influence that has made us teachers all soft!

    There are other institutions and ‘ways of doing things’ in ELT that should be doing more for learners (and teachers) and not just pushing product. To give one example, I’m really surprised that learner autonomy has never really caught on in mainstream ELT even though it’s a very progressive and effective teaching approach.

  3. Marvellous to see the ZX81 again here, and you use it to very good effect in making your point about the satisfaction got from learning to do things for yourself. I reckon that those of us who mastered the ZX81 deserve at least a knighthood.

    I completely agree with you that the Demand High advocates are putting more pressure on teachers, and that what they’re saying is nothing new. Not surprisingly, given the elevated level they work at and the extremely nebulous nature of the Demand High meme, Jim and Adrian say you’re “completely right” – that’s the way they deal with criticism. In reply to your suggestion that we might expect IATEFL or OUP to demand high, they happily concur: of course the DH-meme should permeate all corners of the ELT world! But as they rush around the country pushing their mystic meme, who has to listen to them? The teachers, that’s who, and I reckon the teachers could do without being exhorted to up their game even more by these two well-paid stars who offer little more that platitudes such as “teacher-centred approaches are highly energy inefficient”, and “learning from and with the learners make use of energy which is already there”.

    1. I think of DH as more an attitude toward teaching than a method. Isn’t it basically assuming that learners are capable of more rather than assuming that they will have great difficulty? If that is the case, we as teachers just need to be attuned to that energy and respond to it. Maybe DH is just reminding us to change our perspective. This change seems to me to give me more flexibility, and possibly make my job easier (and more importantly, enhance the learning)

  4. Hi Geoff and Anonymous – thanks for commenting,

    Firstly Anonymous – I don’t really agree with making anonymous comments, just a little about yourself would be good. But anyway, I find it a little hard to follow your line of reasoning. DH is an ‘attitude’, reminding us to change our perspective. That makes DH sound insubstantial. I don’t really need an attitude as a teacher, I already have one! And if DH is merely an attitude, well is it really worth the time and attention costs in finding out more.

    Geoff – You certainly don’t mince your words, so fair play to you for that! I think that I would maybe agree that in some circumstances, at certain times we should be asking more from learners. But we already know this, it’s obvious. But to have pressure put on us from above, top-down style, as if us teachers are lacking in something doesn’t seem fair.

    Jim and Adrian, I understand that DH seems to aiming to solve the following problem: that teachers aren’t pushing learners enough. But I don’t follow your reasoning either. What then is the cause of this problem? You argue that ‘communicative language teaching had painted itself into a corner, encouraging a lot of “fun” and familiar ritualised activity types, work groupings and materials but with limited apparent engagement with the “dirty” part of dealing with language and learning, and so on.’

    Perhaps communicative language teaching has or has not done this, but I think that more mature teachers develop their own micro-strategies and theories which do demand more of their learners. And there’s a whole proliferation of teacher blogs out there which say that, to a large extent, ‘teachers are doing it for themselves’ – there’s a whole eco-system where teachers are developing their own ways of dealing with learners.

    I would question whether the problem you are diagnosing really exists. And without proving that such a problem exists, how can you address it? As the sociologist of science Robert Merton (1987) states “…before one proceeds to explain or to interpret a phenomenon, it is advisable to establish that the phenomenon actually exists, that it is enough of a regularity to require and to allow explanation.”

    Merton, R. K. (1987), ‘Three Fragments from a Sociologist’s Notebook: Establishing the Phenomenon, Specified Ignorance and Strategic Research Materials’, Annual Review of Sociology, 13: 1-28.

  5. Hi Paul, thanks for an interesting post. With regard to course books – you’re making an interesting point.

    Corpora of workplace discourse are starting to influence Business English titles such as Business Advantage: something I welcome. But isn’t this a case of CUP responding to demand from the market, i.e. Business English teachers and their clients? General English seems to be moving more slowly. Can you suggest ways in which educators can push for a similar move there in the direction of authenticity?

    With regard to “Demand High” as an approach (or spirit of teaching) rather than a methodology – I guess that is what it is. I’m not sure it’s incompatible with more humanistic approaches, though. Maybe I’m an eclectic at heart but I seem to be able to switch tactics and learners accept it if I’m open about my agenda for the day. I’d suggest it depends on one’s goals. I think it fits well with a performance-orientation – once rapport is already well established.

    Your point about learner autonomy is interesting, and I partly agree. I think my learners still expect me to take the lead, I’m not sure I can ever truly escape from that. But offering them a range of choices (sometimes infinite) on how to get a job done seems to be a great pedagogic instrument that goes with, rather than against, the grain of learner motivation.

    I’d love to know what you think!


    1. Hi Philip,

      Thanks for your comments – I like your presentation ‘Needs analysis in the Real World’, very useful btw.

      Regarding your first point, I’m not sure how much CUP is responding to the market – does the market want corpora in published materials? I would have thought this would push costs up. Also not sure how much educators can ask of publishers, power seems to flow in the other direction. Also, I think the big university presses might have a different relationship to the market than purely private firms.

      Your comment about ‘Demand High’ – “I guess that’s what it is” is how I felt about it. I wasn’t sure of the claims that the approach/ meme/ method is making. Is it an approach (a generalised way of approaching problems) or a method (a systematic procedure for tackling particular problems)? Or something else.

      I’ve no problem with someone experimenting and developing something over time but I’m surprised at the lack of criticism DH has had.

      I face the same problems with my ‘approach’ and I think it’s important to strip away ‘woolly thinking’ (I’m criticising myself here also). There is a difference between a method, a methodology, an approach and so on.

      1. Hi Paul,

        Thanks very much for your considered response. I think we are in approximate agreement on the subject of what represents an approach as distinct from a methodology in today’s “post-methods era”.

        With regard to CUP and their most recent titles aimed at the Business English market: I’m absolutely certain costs there have been pushed up, the price tag for “Business Advantage” is very high by Hungarian standards. But I think this is a strategy a market leader can legitimately pursue. The aim is probably not to maximise market share but instead to lay claim to a reputation for excellence and charge accordingly.

        I’m glad you liked my slides on Needs Analysis. I am about to update them online once I’ve given a workshop on this topic this coming weekend. Perhaps you would like to check them out when that happens.

        Best wishes,


        1. Hi Philip,

          Like you say with regard to ‘Business Advantage’ – it costs to produce good materials. But personally, I would like to say more materials based on corpora. I’m also keen on teachers getting together to write their own materials for their own contexts – why not?!

          Good luck with your workshop – I’ll certainly give your prezzie a look afterwards too,



  6. Hi Paul,
    Looking at what they say on the Demand High blog and in their comments above, I think Jim and Adrian and very well aware of how nebulous Demand High is as a concept. The idea that teachers need to think more about what and how their students are learning is merely a platitude. It’s impossible to disagree with this. What you can disagree with is how to go about addressing this need, and this is where Demand High – with its tweaks and small adjustments – falls short, in my view.
    When I first saw your comment on the Demand High blog, saying you felt that Demand High puts too much pressure on teachers, I was all set to disagree with your post. I was going to say that I feel there is currently pressure on teachers to do things like write long and detailed lesson plans, when what they should be doing is paying more attention to what is actually going on with individual students during the lesson (I’ve written about this before here: https://stevebrown70.wordpress.com/2014/08/23/planning-for-chaos/ ). This doesn’t mean more pressure or time, it just means refocusing existing energy on more useful activity.
    However, having read your post I realise that this isn’t really the point you are making. You are calling on the establishment to get its house in order as well, and that’s fair enough.
    Having said that though, the establishment is not going to readily implement any change that compromises its power and control over us. If we wait for the publishing companies, the employers, the organisations that benefit from the status quo, to be the agents of change, the only changes that happen will be changes that increase their hegemony.
    Demand High should be a call for a major overhaul of our profession, but it isn’t because it was created by two people who are part of the thing that needs to be overhauled. This is unfortunate. But for me that just highlights the need for change to be bottom-up rather than top-down.
    Thanks for posting this,

    1. Hi Steve,

      First of all – thanks for your eloquent comments, I wholeheartedly agree with you!

      Some things that came into my head:

      1) My point IS that the industry should ‘get itself together’ – I was just criticising the assumptions of Demand High as a way of getting to this. It wasn’t just a rant – which I have been accused of – so I appreciate that you understand where I’m coming from.

      Of course, the blame doesn’t lie solely with Adrian and Jim – why do we as teachers tend to uncritically accept every new flavour of ELT cornflakes?

      Also, it would be nice if one or two people in the ‘ELT establishment’ would lend some support to those us at the bottom (privately or publicly). I think long-lasting change needs to come from ‘bottom-up’ but we all need allies.

      2) I think the first stage in changing anything is ‘unfreezing the status quo’; if more teachers just vocalise how they feel about their working conditions and start connecting with each other – that’s an important step.

      We don’t need to give into this kind of pervasive self-censorship which I feel is present in ELT (‘don’t-rock-the-boatism’) – or is it just me who thinks this?

      3) I took a look at your blog post ‘2014 and me’ – very interesting.


      I wanted to comment on the Scottish referendum. In my opinion, the loss of the referendum has galvanized people EVEN MORE then ever, especially after they see that British Democracy plc. is not what it seems. Scottish Labour, for ‘getting into bed’ with the Tories face electoral wipeout in Scotland, which has serious consequences for the balance of power in Westminster.

      I wrote a piece about the rise of the Radical Independent Campaign in Scotland, Podemos and Syriza that’s just been published online. Maybe you’d be interested – let me know your thoughts.


      In my opinion once people have had a taste of (direct) democracy – it’s hard to put that genie back into the bottle!

      Maybe ELT could do with a dose of democracy too?

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