Theoretical Constructs in SLA

Given the recent discussion on Twitter of Native Speakers, where I defended the construct as a useful one for SLA research, below is a short piece I wrote for Robinson, P. (ed) (2013) The Encyclopedia of SLA London, Routledge. In the Twitter thread I wrote, I criticised those in the sociolingustics field who adopt a relativist epistemology. The post I did on the work of Adrian Holliday might be of interest.

1. Introduction
Theoretical constructs in SLA include such terms as interlanguage, variable competence, motivation, and noticing. These constructs are used in the service of theories which attempt to explain phenomena, and thus, in order to understand how the term “theoretical construct” is used in SLA, we must first understand the terms “theory” and “phenomena”.

A theory is an attempt to provide an explanation to a question, usually a “Why” or “How” question. The “Critical Period” theory (see Birdsong, 1999) attempts to answer the question “Why do most L2 learners not achieve native-like competence?” The Processability Theory (Pienemann, 1998) attempts to answer the question “How do L2 learners go through stages of development?” In posing the question that a theory seeks to answer, we refer to “phenomena”: the things that we isolate, define, and then attempt to explain in our theory. In the case of theories of SLA, key phenomena are transfer, staged development, systemacity, variability and incompleteness. (See Towell and Hawkins, 1994: 15.)

A clear distinction must be made between phenomena and observational data. Theories attempt to explain phenomena, and observational data are used to support and test those theories. The important difference between data and phenomena is that the phenomena are what we want to explain, and thus, they are seen as the result of the interaction between some manageably small number of causal factors, instances of which can be found in different situations. By contrast, any type of causal factor can play a part in the production of data, and the characteristics of these data depend on the peculiarities of the experimental design, or data-gathering procedures, employed. As Bogen and Woodward put it: “Data are idiosyncratic to particular experimental contexts, and typically cannot occur outside those contexts, whereas phenomena have stable, repeatable characteristics which will be detectable by means of different procedures, which may yield quite different kinds of data” (Bogen and Woodward, 1988: 317). A failure to appreciate this distinction often leads to poorly-defined theoretical constructs, as we shall see below.

While researchers in some fields deal with such observable phenomena as bones, tides, and sun spots, others deal with non-observable phenomena such as love, genes, hallucinations, gravity and language competence. Non-observable phenomena have to be studied indirectly, which is where theoretical constructs come in. First we name the non-observable phenomena, we give them labels and then we make constructs. With regard to the non-observable phenomena listed above (love, genes, hallucinations, gravity and language competence), examples of constructs are romantic love, hereditary genes, schizophrenia, the bends, and the Language Acquisition Device. Thus, theoretical constructs are one remove from the original labelling, and they are, as their name implies, packed full of theory; they are, that is, proto-typical theories in themselves, a further invention of ours, an invention made in our attempt to pin down the non-observable phenomena that we want to examine so that the theories which they embody can be scrutinised. It should also be noted that there is a certain ambiguity in the terms “theoretical construct” and “phenomenon”. The “two-step” process of naming a phenomenon and then a construct outlined above is not always so clear: for Chomsky (Chomsky, 1986), “linguistic competence” is the phenomenon he wants to explain, to many it has all the hallmarks of a theoretical construct.

Constructs are not the same as definitions; while a definition attempts to clearly distinguish the thing defined from everything else, a construct attempts to lay the ground for an explanation. Thus, for example, while a dictionary defines motivation in such a way that motivation is distinguishable from desire or compulsion, Gardener (1985) attempts to explain why some learners do better than others, and he uses the construct of motivation to do so, in such a way that his construct takes on its own meaning, and allows others in the field to test the claims he makes. A construct defines something in a special way: it is a term used in an attempt to solve a problem, indeed, it is often a term that in itself suggests the answer to the problem. Constructs can be everyday parlance (like “noticing” and “competence”) and they can also be new words (like “interlanguage”), but, in all cases, constructs are “theory-laden” to the maximum: their job is to support a hypothesis, or, better still, a full-blown theory. In short, then, the job of a construct is to help define and then solve a problem.

2. Criteria for assessing theoretical constructs used in theories of SLA

There is a lively debate among scholars about the best way to study and understand the various phenomena associated with SLA. Those in the rationalist camp insist that an external world exists independently of our perceptions of it, and that it is possible to study different phenomena in this world, to make meaningful statements about them, and to improve our knowledge of them by appeal to logic and empirical observation. Those in the relativist camp claim that there are a multiplicity of realities, all of which are social constructs. Science, for the relativists, is just one type of social construction, a particular kind of language game which has no more claim to objective truth than any other. This article rejects the relativist view and, based largely on Popper’s “Critical Rationalist” approach (Popper, 1972), takes the view that the various current theories of SLA, and the theoretical constructs embedded in them, are not all equally valid, but rather, that they can be critically assessed by using the following criteria (adapted from Jordan, 2004):

1. Theories should be coherent, cohesive, expressed in the clearest possible terms, and consistent. There should be no internal contradictions in theories, and no circularity due to badly-defined terms.
2. Theories should have empirical content. Having empirical content means that the propositions and hypotheses proposed in a theory should be expressed in such a way that they are capable of being subjected to tests, based on evidence observable by the senses, which support or refute them. These tests should be capable of replication, as a way of ensuring the empirical nature of the evidence and the validity of the research methods employed. For example, the claim “Students hate maths because maths is difficult” has empirical content only when the terms “students”, “maths”, “hate” and “difficult” are defined in such a way that the claim can be tested by appeal to observable facts. The operational definition of terms, and crucially, of theoretical constructs, is the best way of ensuring that hypotheses and theories have empirical content.
3. Theories should be fruitful. “Fruitful” in Kuhn’s sense (see Kuhn, 1962:148): they should make daring and surprising predictions, and solve persistent problems in their domain.

Note that the theory-laden nature of constructs is no argument for a relativist approach: we invent constructs, as we invent theories, but we invent them, precisely, in a way that allows them to be subjected to empirical tests. The constructs can be anything we like: in order to explain a given problem, we are free to make any claim we like, in any terms we choose, but the litmus test is the clarity and testability of these claims and the terms we use to make them. Given it’s pivotal status, a theoretical construct should be stated in such a way that we all know unequivocally what is being talked about, and it should be defined in such a way that it lays itself open to principled investigation, empirical and otherwise. In the rest of this article, a number of theoretical constructs will be examined and evaluated in terms of the criteria outlined above.

3. Krashen’s Monitor Model

The Monitor Model (see Krashen, 1985) is described elsewhere, so let us here concentrate on the deficiencies of the theoretical constructs employed. In brief, Krashen’s constructs fail to meet the requirements of the first two criteria listed above: Krashen’s use of key theoretical constructs such as “acquisition and learning”, and “subconscious and conscious” is vague, confusing, and, not always consistent. More fundamentally, we never find out what exactly “comprehensible input”, the key theoretical construct in the model, means. Furthermore, in conflict with the second criterion listed above, there is no way of subjecting the set of hypotheses that Krashen proposes to empirical tests. The Acquisition-Learning hypothesis gives no evidence to support the claim that two distinct systems exist, nor any means of determining whether they are, or are not, separate. Similarly, there is no way of testing the Monitor hypothesis: since the Monitor is nowhere properly defined as an operational construct, there is no way to determine whether the Monitor is in operation or not, and it is thus impossible to determine the validity of the extremely strong claims made for it. The Input Hypothesis is equally mysterious and incapable of being tested: the levels of knowledge are nowhere defined and so it is impossible to know whether i + 1 is present in input, and, if it is, whether or not the learner moves on to the next level as a result. Thus, the first three hypotheses (Acquisition-Learning, the Monitor, and Natural Order) make up a circular and vacuous argument: the Monitor accounts for discrepancies in the natural order, the learning-acquisition distinction justifies the use of the Monitor, and so on.

In summary, Krashen’s key theoretical constructs are ill-defined, and circular, so that the set is incoherent. This incoherence means that Krashen’s theory has such serious faults that it is not really a theory at all. While Krashen’s work may be seen as satisfying the third criterion on our list, and while it is extremely popular among EFL/ESL teachers (even among those who, in their daily practice, ignore Krashen’s clear implication that grammar teaching is largely a waste of time) the fact remains that his series of hypotheses are built on sand. A much better example of a theoretical construct put to good use is Schmidt’s Noticing, which we will now examine.

4. Schmidt’s Noticing Hypothesis

Schmidt’s Noticing hypothesis (see Schmidt, 1990) is described elsewhere. Essentially, Schmidt attempts to do away with the “terminological vagueness” of the term “consciousness” by examining three senses of the term: consciousness as awareness, consciousness as intention, and consciousness as knowledge. Consciousness and awareness are often equated, but Schmidt distinguishes between three levels: Perception, Noticing and Understanding. The second level, Noticing, is the key to Schmidt’s eventual hypothesis. The importance of Schmidt’s work is that it clarifies the confusion surrounding the use of many terms used in psycholinguistics (not least Krashen’s “acquisition/ learning” dichotomy) and, furthermore, it develops one crucial part of a general processing theory of the development of interlanguage grammar.

Our second evaluation criterion requires that theoretical constructs are defined in such a way as to ensure that hypotheses have empirical content, and thus we must ask: what does Schmidt’s concept of noticing exactly refers to, and how can we be sure when it is, and is not being used by L2 learners? In his 1990 paper, Schmidt claims that noticing can be operationally defined as “the availability for verbal report”, “subject to various conditions”. He adds that these conditions are discussed at length in the verbal report literature, but he does not discuss the issue of operationalisation any further. Schmidt’s 2001 paper gives various sources of evidence of noticing, and points out their limitations. These sources include learner production (but how do we identify what has been noticed?), learner reports in diaries (but diaries span months, while cognitive processing of L2 input takes place in seconds and making diaries requires not just noticing but also reflexive self-awareness), and think-aloud protocols (but we cannot assume that the protocols identify all the examples of target features that were noticed).

Schmidt argues that the best test of noticing is that proposed by Cheesman and Merikle (1986), who distinguish between the objective and subjective thresholds of perception. The clearest evidence that something has exceeded the subjective threshold and been noticed is a concurrent verbal report, since nothing can be verbally reported other than the current contents of awareness. Schmidt adds that “after the fact recall” is also good evidence that something was noticed, providing that prior knowledge and guessing can be controlled. For example, if beginner level students of Spanish are presented with a series of Spanish utterances containing unfamiliar verb forms, and are then asked to recall immediately afterwards the forms that occurred in each utterance, and can do so, that is good evidence that they noticed them. On the other hand, it is not safe to assume that failure to do so means that they did not notice. It seems that it is easier to confirm that a particular form has not been noticed than that it has: failure to achieve above-chance performance in a forced-choice recognition test is a much better indication that the subjective threshold has not been exceeded and that noticing did not take place.

Schmidt goes on to claim that the noticing hypothesis could be falsified by demonstrating the existence of subliminal learning, either by showing positive priming of unattended and unnoticed novel stimuli, or by showing learning in dual task studies in which central processing capacity is exhausted by the primary task. The problem in this case is that, in positive priming studies, one can never really be sure that subjects did not allocate any attention to what they could not later report, and similarly, in dual task experiments, one cannot be sure that no attention is devoted to the secondary task. In conclusion, it seems that Schmidt’s noticing hypothesis rests on a construct that still has difficulty measuring up to the second criteria of our list; it is by no means easy to properly identify when noticing has and has not occurred. Despite this limitation, however, Schmidt’s hypothesis is still a good example of the type of approach recommended by the list. Its strongest virtues are its rigour and its fruitfulness, Schmidt argues that attention as a psychological construct refers to a variety of mechanisms or subsystems (including alertness, orientation, detection within selective attention, facilitation, and inhibition) which control information processing and behaviour when existing skills and routines are inadequate. Hence, learning in the sense of establishing new or modified knowledge, memory, skills and routines is “largely, perhaps exclusively a side effect of attended processing”. (Schmidt, 2001: 25). This is a daring and surprising claim, with similar predictive ability, and it contradicts Krashen’s claim that conscious learning is of extremely limited use.

5. Variationist approaches

An account of these approaches is given elsewhere In brief, variable competence, or variationist, approaches, use the key theoretical construct of “variable competence”, or, as Tarone calls it, “capability”. Tarone (1988) argues that “capability” underlies performance, and that this capability consists of heterogeneous “knowledge” which varies according to various factors. Thus, there is no homogenous competence underlying performance but a variable “capacity” which underlies specific instances of language performance. Ellis (1987) uses the construct of “variable rules” to explain the observed variability of L2 learners’ performance: learners, by successively noticing forms in the input which are in conflict with the original representation of a grammatical rule acquire more and more versions of the original rule. This leads to either “free variation” (where forms alternate in all environments at random) or “systematic variation” where one variant appears regularly in one linguistic context, and another variant in another context.

The root of the problem of the variable competence model is the weakness of its theoretical constructs. The underlying “variable competence” construct used by Tarone and Ellis is nowhere clearly defined, and is, in fact, simply asserted to “explain” a certain amount of learner behaviour. As Gregg (1992: 368) argues, Tarone and Ellis offer a description of language use and behaviour, which they confuse with an explanation of the acquisition of grammatical knowledge. By abandoning the idea of a homogenous underlying competence, Gregg says, we are stuck at the surface level of the performance data, and, consequently, any research project can only deal with the data in terms of the particular situation it encounters, describing the conditions under which the experiment took place. The positing of any variable rule at work would need to be followed up by an endless number of further research projects looking at different situations in which the rule is said to operate, each of which is condemned to uniqueness, no generalisation about some underlying cause being possible.

At the centre of the variable competence model are variable rules. Gregg argues cogently that such variability cannot become a theoretical construct used in attempts to explain how people acquire linguistic knowledge. In order to turn the idea of variable rules from an analytical tool into a theoretical construct, Tarone and Ellis would have to grant psychological reality to the variable rules (which in principle they seem to do, although no example of a variable rule is given) and then explain how these rules are internalised, so as to become part of the L2 learner’s grammatical knowledge of the target language (which they fail to do). The variable competence model, according to Gregg, confuses descriptions of the varying use of forms with an explanation of the acquisition of linguistic knowledge. The forms (and their variations) which L2 learners produce are not, indeed cannot be, direct evidence of any underlying competence – or capacity. By erasing the distinction between competence and performance “the variabilist is committed to the unprincipled collection of an uncontrolled mass of data” (Gregg 1990: 378).

As we have seen, a theory must explain phenomena, not describe data. In contradiction to this, and to criteria 1and 2 in our list, the arguments of Ellis and Tarone are confused and circular; in the end what Ellis and Tarone are actually doing is gathering data without having properly formulated the problem they are trying to solve, i.e. without having defined the phenomenon they wish to explain. Ellis claims that his theory constitutes an “ethnographic, descriptive” approach to SLA theory construction, but he does not answer the question: How does one go from studying the everyday rituals and practices of a particular group of second language learners through descriptions of their behaviour to a theory that offers a general explanation for some identified phenomenon concerning the behaviour of L2 learners?

Variable Competence theories exemplify what happens when the distinction between phenomena, data and theoretical constructs is confused. In contrast, Chomsky’s UG theory, despite its shifting ground and its contentious connection to SLA, is probably the best example of a theory where these distinctions are crystal clear. For Chomsky, “competence” refers to underlying linguistic (grammatical) knowledge, and “performance” refers to the actual day to day use of language, which is influenced by an enormous variety of factors, including limitations of memory, stress, tiredness, etc. Chomsky argues that while performance data is important, it is not the object of study (it is, precisely, the data): linguistic competence is the phenomenon that he wants to examine. Chomsky’s distinction between performance and competence exactly fits his theory of language and first language acquisition: competence is a well-defined phenomenon which is explained by appeal to the theoretical construct of the Language Acquisition Device. Chomsky describes the rules that make up linguistic competence and then invites other researchers to subject the theory that all languages obey these rules to further empirical tests.

6. Aptitude

Why is anybody good at anything? Well, they have an aptitude for it: they’re “natural” piano players, or carpenters, or whatever. This is obviously no explanation at all, although, of course, it contains a beguiling element of truth.To say that SLA is (partly) explained by an aptitude for learning a second language is to beg the question: What is aptitude for SLA? Attempts to explain the role of aptitude in SLA illustrate the difficulty of “pinning down” the phenomenon that we seek to explain. If aptitude is to be claimed as a causal factor that helps to explain SLA, then aptitude must be defined in such a way that it can be identified in L2 learners and then related to their performance.

Robinson (2007) uses aptitude as a construct that is composed of different cognitive abilities. His “Aptitude Complex Hypothesis” claims that different classroom settings draw on certain combinations of cognitive abilities, and that, depending on the classroom activities, students with certain cognitive abilities will do better than others.. Robinson adds the “Ability Differentiation Hypothesis” which claims that some L2 learners have different abilities than others, and that it is important to match these learners to instructional conditions which favor their strengths in aptitude complexes. In terms of classroom practice, these hypotheses might well be fruitful, but they do not address the question of how aptitude explains SLA.

One example of identifying aptitude in L2 learners is the CANAL-F theory of foreign language aptitude, which grounds aptitude in “the triarchic theory of human intelligence” and argues that “one of the central abilities required in FL acquisition is the ability to cope with novelty and ambiguity” (Grigorenko, Sternberg and Ehrman, 2000: 392). However successfully the test might predict learner’s ability, the theory fails to explain aptitude in any causal way. The theory of human intelligence that the CANAL-F theory is grounded in fails to illuminate the description given of FL ability; we do not get beyond a limiting of the domain in which the general ability to cope with novelty and ambiguity operates. The individual differences between foreign language learners’ ability is explained by suggesting that some are better at coping with novelty and ambiguity than others. Thus, whatever construct validity might be claimed for CANAL-F, and however well the test might predict ability, it leaves the question of what precisely aptitude at foreign language learning is, and how it contributes to SLA, unanswered.

How, then, can aptitude explain differential success in a causal way? Even if aptitude can be properly defined and measured without falling into the familiar trap of being circular (those who do well at language aptitude tests have an aptitude for language learning), how can we step outside the reference of aptitude and establish more than a simple correlation? What is needed is a theoretical construct.

7. Conclusion

The history of science throws up many examples of theories that began without any adequate description of what was being explained. Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection (the young born to any species compete for survival, and those young that survive to reproduce tend to embody favourable natural variations which are passed on by heredity) lacked any formal description of the theoretical construct “variation”, or any explanation of the origin of variations, or how they passed between generations. It was not until Mendel’s theories and the birth of modern genetics in the early 20th century that this deficiency was dealt with. But, and here is the point, dealt with it was: we now have constructs that pin down what “variation” refers to in the Darwinian theory, and the theory is stronger for them (i.e. more testable). Theories progress by defining their terms more clearly and by making their predictions more open to empirical testing.

Theoretical constructs lie at the heart of attempts to explain the phenomena of SLA. Observation must be in the service of theory: we do not start with data, we start with clearly-defined phenomena and theoretical constructs that help us articulate the solution to a problem, and we then use empirical data to test that tentative solution. Those working in the field of psycholinguistics are making progress thanks to their reliance on a rationalist methodology which gives priority to the need for clarity and empirical content. If sociolinguistics is to offer better explanations, the terms used to describe social factors must be defined in such a way that it becomes possible to do empirically-based studies that confirm or challenge those explanations. All those who attempt to explain SLA must make their theoretical constructs clear, and improve their definitions and research methodology in order to better pin down the slippery concepts that they work with.

References

Birdsong, D. (ed) (1999) Second Language Acquisition and the Critical Period Hypothesis. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.Bogen, J. and Woodward, J. (1988) Saving the phenomena. Philosophical Review 97: 303-52.

Chomsky, N. (1986) Knowledge of Language: Its Nature, Origin and Use. New York: Prager.

Ellis, R. (1987) Interlanguage variability in narrative discourse: style-shifting in the use of the past tense. Studies in Second Language Acquisition 9, 1-20.

Gardner, R. C. (1985) Social psychology and second language learning: the role of attitudes and motivation. London: Edward Arnold.

Gregg, K. R. (1990) The Variable Competence Model of second language acquisition and why it isn’t. Applied Linguistics 11, 1. 364—83.

Grigorenko, E., Sternberg, R., and Ehrman, M. (2000) “A Theory-Based Approach to the Measurement of Foreign Language Learning Ablity: The Canal-F Theory and Test.” The Modern Language Journal 84, iii, 390-405.

Jordan, G. (2004) Theory Construction in SLA. Benjamins: Amsterdam

Kuhn, T. (1962) The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Krashen, S. (1985) The Input Hypothesis: Issues and Implications. New York: Longman.

Pienemann, M. (1998) Language Processing and Second Language Development: Processability Theory. Amsterdam: John Benjamins.


Popper, K. R. (1972) Objective Knowledge. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Schmidt, R. (1990) The role of consciousness in second language learning. Applied Linguistics 11, 129-58

Schmidt, R. (2001) Attention. In Robinson, P. (ed.) Cognition and Second Language Instruction. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 3-32.

Tarone, E. (1988) Variation in interlanguage. London: Edward Arnold.

Towell, R. and Hawkins, R. (1994) Approaches to second language acquisition. Clevedon: Multilingual Matters.

Summer Reading

Frustrated by online searches for new books to read in the garden (no way am I going near a Spanish beach this summer!) I looked through my own collection and picked the ones listed below. I’m sure many of you will have read some of them, but I hope one or two might tickle your fancy.

The Doll Factory is set in London, 1850, the year of the Great Exhibition. This is Victorian London, a truly awful place for most of its inhabitants. It tells the story of Iris, struggling to survive, an aspiring artist who meets a member of the Pre-Raphaelite group and agrees to model for him. Silas, a Dickensian bad guy if ever there was one, is the spanner in the works. It’s a great story and it’s beautifully written. Paula Hawkins, author of The Girl on the Train, describes it as “A sharp, scary, gorgeously evocative tale of love, art and delusion”. I bought it at an airport without much expectation and was blown away by the opening pages that draw you in to a wonderfully described environment and its main characters. A superb debut novel.     

There are five novels in Edward St. Auybyn’s Patrick Melrose series. I read the first one, Never Mind, when it came out and just couldn’t believe that anyone could write so well – it’s a masterpiece. Nobody else writes like this, St. Aubyn has to be one of the greatest stylists in the English language. St. Aubyn says that he wrote the novels as an act of investigative self-repair. The first novel tells of how, as a child, he was repeatedly sexually abused by his father while his mother turned a blind eye. This harrowing tale is told with quite extraordinary style; it is, IMHO, an unrivalled tour de force of literary elegance, sparkling in its wit and intelligence. The rest of the series recount his father’s death, his loss of the huge family fortunes, and his eventual “redemption”. Hide the drugs while you read; if you felt hungry reading One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, you’ll be sorely tempted to indulge in illicit substances while reading this. The books were recently made into a tv series starring Benedict Cumberbatch as Patrick. Fantastic as Cumberbatch’s acting is, you really must read the books.

Gomptertz’ What Are You Looking At? gives a tremendously enjoyable history of modern art. It’s easy to read, mercifully free of all the precious, obscurantist stuff that art critics are famous for, and it tells its story with terrific anecdotes and illustrations. Highly recommended.

Russell’s Bird lives is the best biography I’ve ever read (Mao: The Unknown Story by Jung Chang, and Mozart: A Life by Peter Gay, come close). It’s the biography of Charlie Parker and if you like jazz, you’ve almost certainly read it. It swings! Here’s one review:

“One of the very few jazz books that deserve to be called literature . . . perhaps the finest writing on jazz to be found anywhere. . . . Russell knows a lot about music, has a novelist’s eye for detail and a phonographic ear for jazz speech, and he swings a clean sports reporter’s style. He has poured these gifts into what must be the most exhaustively researched biography on a jazz musician ever published and miraculously catches the feel of a jazz performance, that impossible fusion of spontaneous freedom and total discipline. Those aware of Parker’s genius cannot do without this book.”  Grover Sales, Saturday Review

Greger’s How not to die is a must read. As someone who’s dedicated much of his life to drug abuse (not that I’ve ever got close to Edward St. Auybyn’s), I’m an unlikely fan of a book dedicated to clean living. But Greger doesn’t preach or tell you off – he just gives you facts about the damage modern meat and dairy produce do to us, and recommends that we adopt a vegan diet. The argument is compelling. Quite apart from how much we suffer, it’s evident that the planet we live on suffers even more than we do from our reliance on meat and dairy products. In our house now, we eat a small fraction of the meat and dairy stuff we used to: most of what we eat is unprocessed fruit and veg. “Stay away from processed foods” is the number one take away (geddit!). Yes, I know: beer, wine, vodka, cocaine, heroin and speed are all processed. I want to change to opium, but you wouldn’t believe how hard it is to find.    

Stevick’s A Way and Ways is well described and commented on by Scott Thornbury in his S is for (Earl) Stevick post. The book looks at various innovative ways of doing ELT that were emerging at that time. It changed my life. It didn’t stop the drug abuse, but it stopped me teaching in the prescribed fashion that dominated ELT in the late 1970s and that now, in the 2020s, again dominates. Stevick was a key player in breaking the mold and ushering in a golden, alas, short-lived, era of CLT.  My good friend Mike Long (how we all miss him) used to get quickly riled up when I praised Stevick, and I now appreciate his concerns, but nevertheless, back in the early 1980s, Stevick was one of my gurus (Henry Widdowson – another of Mike Long’s bete noires – was another). When I worked at ESADE Idiomas in Barcelona, Earl was a regular visitor and I fondly remember hosting a lunch for Earl at our house in 1989. About a dozen of us sat around the table outside, shooting the breeze with one of the most charming and persuasive educationalists we’d ever meet. I’m going to spoil this now, but I can’t resist recounting what Earl said at that lunch. “Being quizzed by Geoff is like going to the dentist – it hurts, but it’s good for you”. Well, it got a laugh, and added a bit of spice, as if it were needed, to a lovely encounter with the great man. It’s never too late to read Stevick’s stuff for yourself. A Way and Ways is on my desk now, ready for its umpteenth reading this summer.       

Finally, Coffield and Williamson’s From Exam Factories to Communities of Discovery which I only bought recently, makes compelling reading. To paraphrase the blurb, it calls for educators to challenge the dominant market-led model of education and instead build a more democratic one, better able to face threats such as environmental damage; intensified global competition; corrosive social inequalities in and between nations in the world; and the need for a new, just and sustainable economic model. It shows how education policy has led to schools and universities becoming exam factories and further education colleges becoming skills factories. They propose an alternative future for education, which builds “communities of discovery” by realising the collective creativity of students and educators through democracy. Put it down from time to time, but its 80 pages are well worth slowly digesting.   

I wish you all a great summer break; stay safe and happy reading.

The books

Macneal. E. (2019) The Doll Factory. Picador.

St. Aubyn. E. (2016) The Melrose novels (the 5 novels in one book).  Picador.

Gompertz, W. (2012) What are you looking at? Penguin.

Russell, R. (1972) Bird Lives. Quartet Books.

Greger, M. (2016) How Not to Die. Macmillan.

Coffield, F. & Williamson, B. (2012) From Exam Factories to Communities of Discovery. Bedford Way Papers.

Genius!

Dr. Gianfranco Conti (with largely unacknowledged help from his side kick Steve Smith) is the brilliant scholar and gifted educator responsible for the M.A.R.S.’ E.A.R.S. method for teaching modern languages. The enormous success of Dr. Conti’s method is due to a winning combination of factors:

  • its crystal clear, lock-step, Do-this-then-do-that-and-don’t-even think-of-doing-anything-else methodology;
  • its catchy, easy to follow range of classroom activities, including Drill and Kill, Stultifying Sentence Stealer, Disappearing Time, Wake Me Up When It’s Over, Three Blind Mimes, and It’s All Nonsense.
  • the relentless promotion of both Dr. Conti himself and his methodology on platforms including YouTube, Facebook, and websites like The Language Gym.

Dr. Conti’s websites give tons (sic) of extraordinarily detailed information about every single aspect of his sparkling career, with special attention paid to his formidable combination of academic prowess and pedagogic acumen. Thousands of teachers applaud his work; stories abound of fans waiting patiently outside his house, often in pouring rain, hoping to catch a glimpse of their hero as he returns home after a gruelling day’s work at the chalk face. If all the “Thank you, Dr. Conti” testimionials Dr. Conti has received over the years were laid end to end, they would doubtless circumnavigate his wonderous head more than once.

Dr. Conti discusses his MARS-EARS sequence for implementing his Endlessly Repeated Instruction (ERI) method of teaching modern foreign languages (MFLs) in a number of posts, one of which is Patterns First. While the method remains faithful to the time-honoured tradition in mainstream language education of ignoring the tedious distinction made by academics between declarative and procedural knowledge, it stands head and shoulders above the usual PPP methodology by devoting no time at all to students creatively using the L2 for their own chosen communicative purposes. In a typical school term using Dr. Conti’s method, no student ever gets a speaking turn lasting for more than twenty seconds, except right at the end of the course, in the “Spontaneity” phase, where a single student was once recorded speaking, with only occasionally interruptions from the teacher, for over one minute.

Thus, Dr. Conti ensures that “the kids”, as he lovingly calls them, having worked their way through masses of sentence building, drills (expansion work to push output) and carefully guided, focused production of target items, are well-prepared for their end of tem exam which tests what they know about the bits of language they have been so thoroughly taught. They know what this sentence means:

The pen of my aunt is on the desk of my uncle.

They know how to pronounce each word. They know what’s wrong with the sentence

The pens of my aunt is on the desk of my uncle .

and with a bit of luck and enough time they know how to compose (“build” as Dr. Conti would say) this sentence

The wheel of my car is on the foot of my screaming daughter.

What they don’t know, of course, is how to use the L2 fluently in order to to take part in spontaneous, real-time, communicative exchanges with other people about things that matter to them. But, as Dr. Conti likes to say, “Less in more”.

Luckily for us, Dr. Conti has recently recorded “an impromptu, unplanned, unscripted summary of the EPI philosophy and principles”.

This tour de force is worth playing over and over again. Among the many remarkable features of the talk, Dr. Conti’s ability to continually recover from contradictions in what he’s saying with all the aplomb of a truly professional salesperson, and his powerful use of the fingers of his two hands. deserve special praise. Note how, in his “Count The Ways” (TM) routine, while the left hand serves to indicate the number of elements involved in the current topic being discussed, the thumb and index finger of his right hand are used to show which among the elements he is focusing on.

Dr. Conti begins by offering a daring interpretation of emergentism. Majestically sweeping aside the finer points of Nick Ellis’ work on emergentism, Dr. Conti suggests that “basically” (a key term in Dr. Conti’s oevre) what Ellis is saying is that language learning consists of getting bombarded with lexical chunks that are all basically the same. Every single situtation the learner finds themselves in is like “an attentional frame to a specific number of chunks”, and what Nick Ellis says (“born out by research, by science”) is that by being bombarded with these chunks that are all basically the same, “a phenomenon called priming happens whereby you are basically primed by this exposure ….. to then at some stage produce them”.

OK? Got that? If you’ve read Nick Ellis’ stuff, you might not recognise Dr. Conti’s description, but rest assured, he’s got a PhD in SLA, so he must be right. Now here comes the truly original twist, the bit that really seals the authority of the maestro.

Having stripped emergentism to the bone, Conti goes on to combine its raw principles with the principles of skills acquisition theory! I mean, how audacious can you get! It goes like this. First you get primed (the basic principle of emergentism), and then, and I quote: the important theory which kicks in after that is that then you’re going to start producing those chunks and you’re going to become fluent through trial and error, through feedback and a lot of practice. So when you have the two theories combined, you have a powerful synergy.

What most mundane scholars see as two completely contradictory theories, Dr. Conti sees as synergy! After a bit of a detour, Dr. Conti returns to these two theories which provide the principles for his method. He repeats that emergentism (usage based theory) gets you primed through massive exposure, and then skills theory gets you to practice so that you reach automaticity. “These two theories are the main tenets of my approach”.

Wow! Isn’t that amazing? As you know, I’m sure, the basic tenet of skills based theory is that learning begins with declarative knowledge, which can then be turned into procedural knowledge through practice. The usual way to describe skills based theory is to say that when you start learning something, you do so through largely explicit processes, after which, through practice and exposure, you move into implicit processes. So you go from declarative knowledge to procedural knowledge and the automatisation this brings. Declarative knowledge involves explicit learning or processes; learners obtain rules explicitly and have some type of conscious awareness of those rules. The automatization of procedural knowledge; learners proceduralise their explicit knowledge, and through suitable practice and use, the behaviour becomes automatic.

But Dr. Conti is, of course aware of the weaknesses of this theory.

  1. First, the lack of an operational definition undermines the various versions of skill acquisition theory that Conti has referred to: there is no agreed operational definition for the constructs “skill”, “practice”, or “automatization”. Partly as a result, but also because of methodological issues (see, for example, Dekeyser, 2007), the theory is under-researched; there is almost no empirical support for it.
  2. Second, millions of people who have emigrated to an English speaking country have learned English without any declarative or metalinguistic knowledge.
  3. Third, skill acquisition theory is in the “strong-interface” camp with regard to the vexed issue of the roles of explicit and implicit learning in SLA. It holds that explicit knowledge is transformed into implicit knowledge through the process of automatization as a result of practice. Many, including perhaps most famously Krashen, dispute this claim, and many more point to the fact that the theory does not take into account the role played by affective factors in the process of learning.  Practice, after all, does not always make perfect.
  4. Fourth, the practice emphasized in this theory is effective only for learning similar tasks: it doesn’t transfer to dissimilar tasks. Therefore, many claim that the theory disregards the role that creative thinking and behaviour plays in SLA.
  5. Fifth, to suggest that the acquisition of all L2 features starts with declarative knowledge is to ignore the fact that a great deal of vocabulary and grammar acquisition in an L2 involves incidental learning where no declarative stage is involved.
  6. Sixth, and perhaps most importantly, skill acquisition theory fails to deal with the sequences of acquisition which have been the subject of hundreds of studies in the last 50 years, all of them supporting the construct of interlanguages.

How to deal with these weaknesses? Only Dr. Conti could hit on bringing emergentist theories to the rescue. Without for a moment revising his method, which so obviously relies almost completely on the explicit teaching of pre-selected items of the L2, Dr. Conti says that priming gets learners ready for the practice bits of skills based pedagogy! So what Dr. Conti has done – as Marx did to a more modest degree with Hegel – is to stand two theories on their heads in such a way that his EPI method rests magically on the principles of two contradictory theories, and the limitations of both theories are surmounted. Needless to say, such is the audacity of this dialectic leap that nobody in the emergentist or skills based theory camps agrees with it. Nick Ellis, for whom language learning is an essentially implicit process, would not easily recognise Dr. Conti’s account of emergentism, and he most certainly would not endorse the MARS EARS sequence. On the other hand, neither Anderson nor DeKeyser would have any truck with Dr. Conti’s seemingly incoherent account of skills based theory. It’s hard to exaggerate the originality of Dr. Conti’s account as outlined in this truly fascinating off the cuff lecture.

Syllabus Design

We must accept that even the genius that is Dr. Conti has his weak spots, and I think his approach to syllabus design (which he refers to under the broader umbrella of curriculum design) needs some attention.

In his post “The seed-planting technique ..”,   Dr. Conti says:

effective teaching and learning cannot happen without effective curriculum design…… A well-designed language curriculum plans out effectively when, where and how each seed should be sown and the frequency and manner of its recycling with one objective in mind : that by the end of the academic year the course’s core language items are comprehended/produced effectively across all four language skills under real life conditions.

This amounts to what Breen (1987) calls a “Product” syllabus, what White calls a “Type A” syllabus and what Long (2011 and 2015) calls a “Synthetic” syllabus. The key characteristic of Conti’s “effective curriculum” is that, like all synthetic syllabuses, it concentrates on WHAT is to be learned. Dr. Conti’s syllabus specifies the content – he recommends concentrating on lexical chunks that can be used in the expression of communicative functions – “The Majestic 12” as he calls them. This content is presented and practiced in a pre-determined order, in such a way that planting “seeds” precedes the scheduled main presentation and subsequent recycling. Despite all Dr. Conti’s brilliant intellectual gynmnastics, his syllabus assumes that declarative knowledge is a necessary precursor to procedural knowledge, and second, it assumes that learners learn what teachers teach them, an assumption undermined by all the evidence from interlanguage studies. We know that learners, not teachers, have most control over their language development. As Long (2011) says:

Students do not – in fact, cannot – learn (as opposed to learn about) target forms and structures on demand, when and how a teacher or a coursebook decree that they should, but only when they are developmentally ready to do so. Instruction can facilitate development, but needs to be provided with respect for, and in harmony with, the learner’s powerful cognitive contribution to the acquisition process.

Even when presented with, and drilled in, target-language forms and structures, even when errors are routinely corrected, and even when the bits and pieces are “seeded” and recycled in various ways, learners’ acquisition of newly-presented forms and structures is rarely either categorical or complete, and it is thus futile to plan the curriculum of an academic year on the assumption that the course’s “core language items” will be “comprehended/produced effectively” by the end of the year. Acquisition of grammatical structures and sub-systems like negation or relative clause formation is typically gradual, incremental and slow, sometimes taking years to accomplish. Development of the L2 exhibits plateaus, occasional movement away from, not toward, the L2, and  U-shaped or zigzag trajectories rather than smooth, linear contours. No matter what the order or manner in which target-language structures and vocabulary are presented to them by teachers, learners analyze the input and come up with their own interim grammars, the product broadly conforming to developmental sequences observed in naturalistic settings. They master the structures in roughly the same manner and order whether learning in classrooms, on the street, or both. This led Pienemann to formulate his learnability hypothesis and teachability hypothesis: what is processable by students at any time determines what is learnable, and, thereby, what is teachable (Pienemann, 1984, 1989).

Conclusion

I hope you rushed quickly through the bit about syllabus design, and that your “take away” will be simple: Such is Dr. Conti’s genius, that, like Lewis Carroll’s Humpty Dumpty he can say what he likes.

‘When I use a word,’ Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, ‘it means just what I choose it to mean — neither more nor less.’

‘The question is,’ said Alice, ‘whether you can make words mean so many different things.’

‘The question is,’ said Humpty Dumpty, ‘which is to be master — that’s all.’ (Carroll, 2009).

There can, surely be no question about who IS the master!

References

Breen, M. (1987) Learner contributions to task design. In C. Candlin and D. Murphy (eds.), Language Learning Tasks. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice Hall. 23-46.

Carroll, L. (2009). Alice through the looking glass. Penguin.

Dekeyser, R. (2007) Skill acquisition theory. In B. VanPatten & J. Williams (Eds.), Theories in second language acquisition: An introduction (pp. 97-113). New Jersey: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Inc.

Long, M. (2011) “Language Teaching”. In Doughty, C. and Long, M. Handbook of Language Teaching. NY Routledge.

Long, M. (2015) SLA and TBLT. N.Y., Routledge.

Pienemann, M. (1984). Psychological constraints on the teachability of languages. Studies in Second Language Acquisition 6, 2, 186-214.

Pienemann, M. (1989). Is language teachable? Psycholinguistic experiments and hypotheses. Applied Linguistics 10, 1, 52-79.

White, R.V. (1988) The ELT Curriculum, Design, Innovation and Management.  Oxford: Basil Blackwell.

Dr Conti’s latest sales pitch

Gianfranco Conti, Phd (Applied Linguistics), MA (TEFL), MA (English Lit.), PGCE (Modern Languages and P.E.) likes to emphasise what a well-qualified scholar he is. In this tweet, he refers to a body of SLA research which demonstrates that learners follow their own trajectory in the development of an interlanguage. The pedagogic implication is that efficacious teaching depends on respecting students’ interlanguage trajectory: students cannot learn formal aspects of the L2 which they’re not yet ready for (see Pienemann, M. (1989) “Is language teachable? Psycholinguistic experiments and hypotheses”. Applied Linguistics, 10, 52-79, for example). Conti correctly says that SLA research on interlanguage development suggests that prepositions and prepositional phrases are acquired late in the L2 acquisition process, after which he immediately contracticts himself by urging teachers to do lots of work on them with beginners.  

Thus, Conti flaunts his supposed command of SLA research by references to two different bits of it – interlanguage development and the construct of saliency – in order to add clout to the latest sales pich for his famous “Sentence Builders”. These crude substitution tables will, he assures his followers, do the impossible. They will enable those who teach beginners to successfully teach items of the L2 which, according to Conti himself, the students concerned are not ready to learn. As they say, you couldn’t make it up.

See this post for my view on the implications of SLA research for ELT

The IATEFL Conference 2021 and the Elephant Who Is Studiously Ignored

INTRODUCTION

Thanks to the IATEFL 2021 Conference website and to messages on Twitter (in particular, the work of Jessica Mackay who does such a truly fine job of reporting), I have some idea of what happened at the 2021 IATEFL conference.

Hundreds of presentations covering various aspects of the lives of its members were given, and hardly any of them talked about new findings in SLA concerning how people learn an L2. How, I ask, can teachers do their jobs well, if they’re not informed about how people learn English as an L2? Surely the most important question for teachers is

“What is the most efficacious way of helping students learn English as an L2?”

And surely that question is answered, to a significant extent, by appeal to what we know about how people learn an L2.

In what follows, I won’t give references, but every assertion I make is supported in posts on this blog where references are given, and I’ll happily respond to requests for more references.

BACKGROUND

We know that learning an L2 is not the same as learning other subjects in a school curriculum. You learn geography, biology, etc., by learning about the subject. In contrast, you learn an L2 by doing it. There’s a difference in language learning between declarative and procedural knowledge – knowing about the language doesn’t mean you know how to use it. This basic difference was first highlighted in the early 1960s and it led to radical reform of ELT methodology in the late 1970s, with the emergence of Communicative Language Teaching, where the emphasis was put on giving students opportunities to do things in the L2 rather than being told about the L2.

These progressive tendencies were snuffed out by the emergence of the modern coursebook, of which Headway was the first example and Outcomes is a current example. They returned ELT practice to its old emphasis on teaching ABOUT the target language, rather than an emphasis on giving students opportunities to do things IN the target language. Since 1990, ELT practice has been dominated by coursebooks, by high stakes exams which give prime importance to knowledge about the language, and by teacher training programmes which emphasise teaching about the language.

ARGUMENT

Today, around the world, ELT is characterised by courses where most of the time is devoted to teaching students about the language. Teachers talk for most of the time, and individual students get few opportunities to speak in the target language; they mostly do drills, respond to display questions and very rarely speak for longer than a minute. The results are bad: most students of English as an L2 (more than a billion of them) fail to reach the ability to communicate well. In primary and secondary school education in most countries, the results are particularly bad.  

More than 60 years of SLA research suggest that basing ELT on the explicit teaching about the L2 doesn’t give the knowledge needed to use it. Quite simply: explicit teaching must take a back seat and prominence must be given to giving students the opportunities to do things in the language – not at the end of a lesson but right the way through it. There is absolutely zero support from research findings to support the argument that using coursebooks as the driver of ELT is more efficacious than using an analytic syllabus like TBLT, Dogme, CBLT, for example. None! Adapting, supplementing, tweaking coursebooks doesn’t rescue them. They are fundamentally flawed because they try to teach students things in a way that they can’t learn them. See the dozens of posts I’ve done to support this assertion and see the work of dozens of teachers and scholars I’ve cited. Here’s the argument: throw away coursebooks and focus on learning by doing.

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You may well disagree, but surely it deserves some attention, given that it’s supported by so much evidence. And that’s my point: it’s the elephant in the room. Very few at the IATEFL 2021 conference talk about it. Very little time in the 2021 IATEFL conference is given to discussion of what we know about SLA or of new findings in SLA research. Who talks about the 40 years of Interlanguage studies which demonstrate conclusively that learners follow their own non-linear trajectory towards communicative competence? Who talks about Nick Ellis’ new work on emergentism, or the push back against it?  Who talks about the general consensus that’s emerging among SLA scholars about how L2 learners are affected by their L1 and the implications about how explicit attention to certain formal features of the language is best done? Who talks about the growing ability of stats tools to help in meta-surveys of research studies? Who talks about results of crucial new tools of research such as eye-tracking? Who talks about the new results on sensitive periods, motivation, age, re-casts, modified, elaborated texts, or attempts to measure the cognitive complexity of tasks? Who talks about the really important new work being done on aptitude? Who’s right: Skehan or Robinson? What’s wrong with Tomlinson’s new account of SLA? How are lexical chunks processed? (Pace Dellar, this is an open, very interesting on-going, unresolved problem.) What’s the relationship between short term (SM) and long term memory? (Pace Smith and Conti, SM doesn’t rule.)

Most of this research points in one very clear direction: THE NEED TO BASE TEACHING ON LEARNING BY DOING. If it were taken seriously, which it should be, the current ELT paradigm would be overthrown. It’s that important: we’re teaching in the wrong damn way! There’s no silver bullet, no “right way”, despite what Conti might tell you. As always, it’s much easier to say what’s false than what’s true. We know, from SLA research, that coursebook-driven ELT is based on false assumptions about how people learn an L2. We have good reason to think that an analytic syllabus, one that doesn’t cut the L2 up into hundreds of items to be learned, but rather treats the L2 more holistically, respects learners’s interlanguage development, and gives students scaffolded opportuntiesw to learn by doing, is more efficacious.

And we also know that current ELT practice is driven by commercial interests which lead, inevitably, to the increasing commodification of education.

THE CONFERENCE

The IATEFL conference is sponsored by the powerful commercial interests who support current ELT practice and there’s little room for any real challenge to the status quo. What we get instead is hundreds of sessions that leave the fundamentally flawed basis of EFL unexamined. It’s simply assumed that coursebook-driven ELT is the way to go, and the question is how to do it better.

The most obtuse example of this is the IATEFL SIG that deals with second language teacher education (SLTE).  It’s all about identity. “Who am I? Where did I come from? Is it OK to be who I am? Why do I believe what I believe? Where did I get the ideas about teaching that mess me up? How have I been messed up? How can I grow as a human being?”  Nothing about “How can I move beyond this effing coursebook? Is my teaching efficacious?” And, even more importantly, nothing about “How can I get decent working condition and pay?” “How can I unite with my fellow workers in such a way that we challenge the status quo?”

Similarly, the materials SIG.  Rather than taking the opportunity to change the way they teach provided by the need to teach online, they confine themselves to the question of how to adapt coursebook-driven ELT to Zoom sessions. The “rear-view mirror” history of development strikes again!  

Instead of challenging the dominantion of the coursebook, materials writers in IATEFL prefer to improve the content of the texts. Tyson Seburn is a good example. Keen to make materials more inclusive, he suggests ways in which the texts and exercises provided in coursebooks and supplementary materials should reflect the myriad concerns of the LGBT communities. Not for a second does he question the status quo and the framework it provides for current ELT practice. The elephant in rainbow colours is still the elephant.

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Steve Brown’s session at IATEFL was, for me “el colmo” – the last straw. Here we have one of ELT’s best, most articulate progressive voices doing one of the most audacious “I see no elephant” acts I’ve ever seen. His presentation is called “Beyond Empowerment: ELT as a Source of Emancipation” He deconstructs a couple of pages from Outcomes Intermediate in order to show how it enshrines gender stereotypes. In my opinion, he does a good job of it. He goes on to suggest a more politically correct version, substituting all the men for a more varied cast and making careful changes to the text and the discussion topics. Bravo! I invite you to watch the presentation.

The problem is, of course, that Steve doesn’t refer to the bigger picture. Why not step back a bit and see the elephant? Why not look at the two pages he selects in terms of how well they represent what General English coursebooks are all about? Outcomes Intermediate, for all its pretensions to be a new kind of coursebook, is a typical example of the implementation of a synthetic syllabus, where items of the L2 are dealt with in a linear sequence on the false assumption that students will learn what they’re taught in this way. We may begin by asking: why talk about martial arts in the first place? Why assume that everybody in the class needs to know about martial arts? The answer is, of course, that the subject doesn’t really matter: what’s important is THE LANGUAGE AS OBJECT. Martial Arts as a topic might as well be Pottery Through The Ages or Great Philosophers or Sailing The Seven Seas. This is just a chance to hear, study, talk ABOUT the language. Who cares that nobody in the class has any interest in martial arts! It’s just a random topic, a vehicle for learning ABOUT the language. The 2 pages Steve uses do this:

  • listen to a short text,
  • see if you get it by ticking boxes,
  • study words in the vocab. box,
  • study the grammar box,
  • study pronunciation, and then
  • do a bit of “Speaking” by working in groups, finding answers to a list of questions, using questions starting with “how long, when, where, how often…”.    

Now THAT’s what’s wrong: students are involved in looking at the language as an object and then in silly exchanges. No care has been taken to assure that the content is relevant to students’ needs, and very little time is dedicated to giving students the opportunity to do things in the language, to engage in meaningful communicative exchanges. The two pages from the coursebook are a good example of a synthetic syllabus in action: certain items of vocabulary, pronunciation and grammar have been selected for teaching and these are contextualised then presented and then practiced. The assumption that this is an efficacious way of helping students on their trajectory towards communicative competence is both false and unquestioned.

Reply to Gerald’s “Twitter discussions, ways of seeing the world, and whiteness” Thread, June 1, 2021

In his June 1st thread of tweets on “Twitter discussions, ways of seeing the world, and whiteness”, Gerald explains why he occaisionally chooses to engage with “certain types” in Twitter scuffles. “These people” (later identified as “status quosaders” – a term coined by Scott Stillar) defend an ideology which, says Gerald, they probably can’t articulate. Specifically, they are unable to see past “How Things Are”. They hold to the concept that there is a binary between order and disorder, with “the latter always lower in the hierarchy”. It’s impossible to argue with these people – they’re so fixed in the fundamental belief in the justness of hierarchies and binaries that they can’t see the inherent value of a paradigm where there is no order and no real hierarchy.

Gerald continues:  

You can use whatever word you want – rigor, logic, evidence, “thin soup” – but basing your ethos on the assumption that there is One True Practice is inherently hostile to innovative ways of knowing, teaching, and languaging. (12)

Ultimately, we don’t know the best way to teach everyone, because we’re all very different, and that’s good!  We just have to keep trying to find ways that connect with and support anyone who wants to learn and be heard. (13)

And ultimately, this sort of fluidity is anathema to the binaries and hierarchies that whiteness would prefer to hold in place. It’s up to you if you want to see something new. The current way only benefits a few people and harms almost everyone else. (14)

So on one side there are people who can’t see past How Things Are and who hold to the concept that there is “a binary between order and disorder”, “with the latter always lower in the hierarchy”. These people use words like rigor, logic, evidence and thin soup; they base their ethos on the assumption that “there is One True Practice”; and they are thus hostile to innovation and to the sort of fluidity in teaching practice that encourages trying out different ways of meeting different learners’ needs.

On the other side are those who embrace the paradigm where there is no order and no real hierarchy, who embrace “fluidity” and seek change

Discussion

I suggest that this amounts to a poorly articulated misrepresentation of the real struggle between those who promote coursebook-driven ELT and those who fight it by promoting alternatives such as Dogme, CBLT and TBLT.  At least we can agree on one thing: binary thinking is faulty – people’s positions on the matters we’re discussing cluster around a non-binary, indeed fluid, range of views. But it’s Gerald who makes the binary distinction between two different, mutually opposed “paradigms”, one bad the other good.

The problem I see (and which I discuss at length in various posts on this blog) is that most teachers, teacher educators, materials writers, and the tens of thousands who work for assessment providers are largely in favour of the commodified ELT that results from its focus on profit. The majority of people involved in the ELT industry embrace the use of coursebooks which serve up what Thornbury (2010) calls ” Grammar McNuggets”, the use of the CEFR which reifies proficiency levels, and the use of high stakes exams which every year ruin hundreds of thousands of people’s lives thanks to their (frequently racist and nearly always class-based) use by university entrance boards and immigration authorities.

The ideology which supports this industry is the ideology of capitalist neoliberalism: free competition is the basis of social interaction; citizens are consumers whose democratic choices are best exercised by buying and selling; everybody aspires to material prosperity, and the play of market forces is the best way to deliver these aspirations.  The “Ulterior motives” section of Gerald’s 2019 article has some good points to make on this.

Do Gerald and his supporters recognise that the current practices of ELT are parts of a status quo which promote a neoliberal capitalist ideology? In their work in ELT, do Gerald and his supporters recognise that the use of synthetic syllabuses facilitates the packaging of English courses, and that proficiency scales facilitate ordering students into convenient consumer groups, and that institutions like the British Council, Cambridge Assessment, TOEFL, and bodies like IATEFL and TESOL are powerful promoters of the status quo?

Gerald poses as a radical crusader, urging his followers on to a brighter future, while scathingly dismissing the reactionary views and practices of his critics. In fact, many of Gerald’s critics voice more radical (and certainly more articulate) views than he does, while he, and many of his supporters, give the impression of limiting themselves to identity politics. These are complicated matters which deserve serious discussion, but it’s unlikely that we’ll get far with Gerald. While he stresses what a waste of time it is to discuss matters with me, because I’m a racist only interested in winning arguments, I suggest that until Gerald gets his ideas sorted out to the point where he can succinctly articulate them, it’s hard to talk to him.    

Gerald makes a distinction between people who believe in the justness of hierarchies and binaries, and people who believe in the inherent value of a paradigm where there is no order and no real hierarchy. The question is: what’s he talking about?  

What are the binaries and hierarchies he refers to?

Take this statement:

 “They hold to the concept that there is a binary between order and disorder, with the latter always lower in the hierarchy. Or, in truth, a set of binaries in the first place.”

Or this:  

I’m staking a claim for the inherent value of a paradigm where there is no order and no real hierarchy. Yes, I focus on racism and language, but it applies to all categories.”

What do tjhey mean?

What “paradigm” bases itself on “no real order and no real hierarchy”?

I can find nothing in any of Gerald’s published texts which answers these questions. Should he not explain, if he wants to be taken seriously?

My guess is that Gerald is basing himself on an epistemological debate among scholars in the field of applied linguistics (AL) and elsewhere who adopt either (1) a realist, critical rationalist approach, or (2) a relativist “postmodern” approach. In the field of AL, those studying psycholinguistics tend to adopt a realist epistemology, which bases the investigation of phenomena on the use of logic, rational argument and empirical evidence to test hypotheses. In a broad sense, this research method can be described as the scientific method. On the other hand, many scholars researching sociolinguistics adopt a relativist epistemology, rejecting the scientific method (which they call “positivism”) and adopting various alternative research methods, such as ethnography. As I say in Jordan (2004), the relativists, mostly sociolinguists, want to throw off the blinkers of modernist rationality, in order to grasp a more complex, subjective reality. They feel that science and its discourse are riddled with a repressive ideology, and they feel it necessary to develop their own language and discourse to combat that ideology. They have every right to express such views, which usuually reflect a radical politcal position.

Science is a social construct, a social institution, and scientists’ goals, their criteria, their decisions and achievements are historically and socially influenced.  And all the terms that scientists use, like “test”, “hypothesis”, “findings”, etc., are invented and given meaning through social interaction.  Of course.  But – and here is the crux – this does not make the results of social interaction (in this case, a scientific theory) an arbitrary consequence of it.  Popper (1975) defends the idea of objective knowledge by arguing that it is precisely through the process of mutual criticism incorporated into the institution of science that the individual shortcomings of its members are largely cancelled out. I discuss all this more fully in my book (Jordan, 2004) and briefly in my post on Positivist and Constructivist Paradigms.

My point here is that Gerald contributes nothing to the interesting debate between those taking different epistemological positions, and fails to appreciate that there are many scholars – including Chomsky, White, Carroll, Doughty, Long, Crookes, Krashen, Gass, Baretta, Robinson and a host of others – who manage to combine a commitment to a realist epistemolgy (using words like rigor, logic, and evidence) with a radical political position.

Conclusion

If Gerald wants to present himself as a serious scholar dedicated to the decentering of Whiteness in ELT, then he needs to do better than this. Gerald’s argument rests on a poorly described and unexplained distinction between people “fixed in the fundamental belief in the justness of hierarchies and binaries” and people who “stake a claim for the inherent value of a paradigm where there is no order and no real hierarchy”. Such a distinction doesn’t stand up to examination and does nothing to promote his cause more widely.

And, just BTW, please note that I’m replying to a further attack on me by Gerald. The moment Gerald stops accusing me of racism, of being an obsolete part of the “statusqusaders”, etc., etc., I’ll stop replying.   

References

Gerald, JPM. (2020) Worth the Risk: Towards DecentringWhiteness in English Language Teaching. BC TEAL Journal, 5, 1, 44–54.

Jordan, G. (2004) Theory Construction in SLA. Amsterdam, Benjamins.

Popper, K.R. (1975). Objective Knowledge. Oxford, Clarendon.

Thornbury, S. (2010) G is for Grammar McNuggets. Retreived, 5th June, 2021, from https://scottthornbury.wordpress.com/2010/09/18/g-is-for-grammar-mcnuggets/

Life on Twitter Part 3

Instead of using the comments section on my post where I defend myself against charges of racism, Rob Sheppard did another thread of tweets. I replied to some of the tweets and ended up by thanking Sheppard for his engagement in the discussion. I want to repeat those thanks here. I’m grateful to him for his contributions.

James Burn, in his article The Kitsch of “Wokeness” gives the Cambridge Dictionary definition of wokeness: “the state of being aware, especially of social problems such as racism and inequality.” As Burn says, this definition implies that the woke person has correctly identified what form racism takes. In his thread of tweets replying to my post, Rob Sheppard identifies racism in a way that makes it difficult for any white person to defend themselves against accusations of being a racist. He says:

  1. You are still failing to address possibly the most fundamental insight of the anti-racist movement, one that is central to understanding Gerald’s work.
  2. You say “I do not participate in racism.” This is where you seem to be fundamentally misunderstanding Gerald’s work. You work in English language teaching. So do I. By virtue of that fact, we participate in racist systems. So, yes, we absolutely do participate in racism.
  3. Racism is baked into systems. Government, healthcare, criminal justice, policing, education, and certainly ELT. Saying you don’t participate in racism is like a fish saying they don’t participate in water. You move and act in a racist world and so you inevitably participate.
  4. This is why your emphasis on your own not being “a racist” at an individual level is pointless. I mean good, don’t be a bigot, obviously. But that’s not sufficient. But this is where systemic racism comes in. You can remove all the bigots, and the system is still racist.
  5. This is true of nearly all fields, but particularly true in our field, which is fundamentally grounded in colonialism. That the systems themselves are racist independent of the racism of individual bigots is what makes the active “anti-“ in anti-racism necessary. Just like being neutral in situations of oppression favors the oppressor, being merely “not a racist” within a racist system favors an inequitable status quo.
  6. There are power dynamics at play that now intersect with your individual behavior, regardless of your motivation. This is why you can be (and are) perpetuating racism regardless of your receipts from 40 years ago.
  7. But now you are an established white academic tearing down the work of a young Black academic. I do not think that this is motivated by individual bigotry on your part. But that’s beside the point.
  8. This is why your emphasis on your own not being “a racist” at an individual level is pointless. I mean good, don’t be a bigot, obviously. But that’s not sufficient. But this is where systemic racism comes in. You can remove all the bigots, and the system is still racist.

Discussion

1,2, 3 and 4 say: We all participate in racism. (Ergo; I participate in racism.)

5 says: We must be active in fighting racism. (I have always been active in fighting racism – I dare to say that I’ve done so more than he has, and contributed more than he has to that fight.)  

 6. says: I am perpetuating racism because of power dynamics at play that now intersect with my individual behavior, regardless of my motivation. (Decipher that for yourselves,)

7 and 8 say: Although my motivation is not individual bigotry, my attempts to show that I’m not a racist are beside the point because of the existence of systemic racism.

Given that my only concern has been to defend myself against personal accusations of racism, I hope that the weaknesses in Sheppard’s argument speak for themselves. What is troubling is the wokeness of the argument, summed up by this bit:

“Saying you don’t participate in racism is like a fish saying they don’t participate in water. You move and act in a racist world and so you inevitably participate.”

My attempts to defend myself against personal accusations of racism are doomed to fail if this sort of reply is given credence. In Sheppard’s world, the world of wokeness, the persistent, endemic racism that pervades our world makes any attack on the work of black scholars a minefield. If the person treading through this minefield is bad old me, known for making “weird” personal attacks on people, and if the victim of my criticism this time is “a young black scholar”, then I’m almost bound to tread on a mine. And when I do, it’s only right and proper that the full wrath of wokeness should descend on me. “He’s a racist!” chant the woke people – and Sheppard’s there, true to his family’s heritage perhaps, guiding the sheep towards a slightly more nuanced understanding of why they take so much delight in cheering from the sidelines as another offender’s character gets dragged through the social media slime.

Whatever my criticisms of Sheppard’s arguments, I respect him, and his attempts to fight racism. I have nothing but contempt, however, for those on Twitter who get so much perverse enjoyment (“I can’t sleep” for fuck’s sake) from making wokeness an artless, vicarious form of kitsch. Burn, cited above, quotes Kundera: “In the realm of totalitarian kitsch, all answers are given in advance and preclude any questions.” He adds “Crucially, indulgence in kitsch brings with it the feeling that one is part of something greater—joining with others in being moved to happiness, sorrow or anger”.

My CV in Fighting Racial Prejudice

1960  Aged 16, I organised a debate at my school “This House condemns Apartheid in South Africa”.

1962 I joined the Anti Arpartheid group at LSE

1965  As President of Debates at LSE, I helped organise Malcolm X’s visit to LSE https://blogs.lse.ac.uk/lsehistory/2015/02/11/brilliant-rhetoric-malcolm-x-at-lse-11-february-1965/

1967-1969 I worked with  Ronnie Kasrils in London (he was at LSE for a while) to organize opposition to the  South African government.  https://jacobinmag.com/2017/11/south-africa-apartheid-sacp-london-recruits

1970- 1975 I worked in Notting Hill and Chalk Farm with various anarchist groups. We fought racism by supporting local black groups fight police busts, racist landords and racist government officials. I was part of a group in Chalk farm who went with black Londoners (mostly from the Caribbean) to fight for their rights in local magistrates courts and government departments, notably social security. I worked with a radical solicitor (Bernie Simons) on a number of cases to defend innocent black Londoners against trumped-up charges.  I was also part of a group who gave evening classes to local young people (many of whom were black) to help them with their school studies.

1972 – 1974 I worked with radical black groups in Chicago and with the San Francisco branch of the Black Panthers. I gave two series of seminars to members and followers on Marxism and Anarchism and I rode in cars with armed Panthers who followed the police to monitor their stops on black African Americans.

1960 – 1980 In the UK, I was involved in a number of conferences and workshops involving local officials and members of the government where racial prejudice was attacked and solutions proposed.

1980 – While living in Spain, I have taken an active part in various campaigns to combat racial prejudice and spoken out every time I’ve ever heard people making racist comments or treating people of colour disrespectfully.  

All my life I have fought racial prejudice. I’ve been beaten up by cops and racists. I’ve lost jobs, been arrested and put in prison for my efforts. I have on a few occasions started fights in bars and restaurants when I’ve witnessed people being insulted or badly treated because of the colour of their skin.  

I feel obliged to defend myself in this way because recently I’ve been accused of being a racist on Twitter and other parts of the Social Media. All of the attacks stem from an exchange I had with a black American who accused me of racism because I said he was talking crap. My “guilt” was sealed by a review I did of an article that the same man wrote with two co-authors. “He’s done it again!” tweeted the now twice offended black guy.

And the same man recently said on Twitter something like “It seems that years ago he spoke truth to power, but now he’s just a sad, cranky old man, unwilling to accept his obsolescence”. He refuses to acknowledge that his accusation is false, he uses my age to insult me in a way I never insulted him, and he uses my age and whiteness to dodge the criticisms I make of his published work. His followers, and those who are only too happy to see me insulted, back him up.     

Postscript

On 31st May, Rob Sheppard tweeted the following thread about this post      

Response

My concern in this post is to support my claim that the accusations of racism made against me are wrong and unfair. I give my “CV” in order to suggest that the comments I made about Gerald’s tweets and articles are unlikely to be explained by racism. After a life dedicated to fighting racism, why would I suddenly stoop to it for the first time in my life when arguing with Gerald on Twitter?

Sheppard’s tweets seem to say “Today, we’re less concerned about people being racists and more about combating the ways that we all inevitably participate in racism. Since you frequently critique people’s work in a way that many [including Sheppard, of course] strongly disapprove of, and since you tried to “tear down” the work of a young black scholar, you should stop making all this effort to defend yourself and, instead, reflect on the consequences of your online behaviour.” The message seems to be: it’s your own fault that you’ve been called out as a racist.

First, I do not participate in racism; not in what I say, nor in what I do. However much the current turn in anti-racist work might be about combating general social attitudes and practices, I’m defending myself against a personal attack: I was personally “called out” as a racist.

Second, I think it’s an unfair exaggeration to say that I tried to tear down Gerald’s work. I supported the attempt of the authors to bring attention to the problems of what they call “Standardized English”, and suggested that they needed to build a stronger case. My remarks about Gerald’s style were seized on as evidence of racism. See my reply.

Third, I know perfectly well that many people intensely dislike many of my posts, and maybe many of them intensely dislike me. That’s OK by me. I appreciate that I’ve been rude about individuals, although I have, pace Sheppard, on a number of occasions, publically recognised and apologised for offensive remarks, and deleted the offending blog posts. Still, I recognise that I’ve “blotted my copybook”, so to speak, enough times for Sheppard’s remarks to have some force. He’s quite right to say that I too often adopt the wrong tone and that I show little sign of learning from my mistakes.

But what isn’t OK by me is being called a racist. I find the accusation abhorrent. That’s why I’ve taken the trouble to defend myself by 1) answering a series of tweets describing me as a “trash person”, … “called out for racism”, and 2) writing this “CV”.

Gerald’s accusations of racism about me are unfounded and unfair, as are similar remarks made by others. Nobody who has called me a racist has given any but the flimsiest of evidence to support these accusations, and I hope my “CV” serves as counter evidence. Of course, it’s hard to prove that you’re NOT a racist or to live with the smear, once it’s been made. Sheppard might like to reflect on that.

Summary of Beliefs

English language Teaching (ELT) should be based on what we know about how people learn a second language (an L2).  

We know that language learning relies mostly on implicit, unconscious learning. Learning English as an L2 is not the same as learning geography, biology, or most subjects that form the programmes of primary, secondary and tertiary education. Learning English as an L2 happens, mostly, as the result of using the language, of doing things in the language, rather than studying it as an object.

It follows that, while telling students about the language is helpful (depending on the way it’s done), it should not the basis of ELT.

Telling students about English is the basis of most ELT. Protests from coursebook writers and other prominent teacher educators notwithsatanding, research shows that in most ELT settings, where teachers use coursebooks, 70% plus of classroom time is taken up with teachers telling students about the language.

It follows that most ELT is inefficacious.

 The reason why this inefficacious approach to ELT persists is because it allows for the packaging and delivery of English courses for profit.  ELT, which includes materials, teacher education and testing, is a multi-billion dollar industry. ELT is commodified, to the detriment of learning.

There are better ways of organizing ELT. All of them start with rejecting the CEFR framework, the use of coursebooks which use a synthetic syllabus to get students from A1 to C2, and the use of high stake exams which falsely measure people’s communicative competence.

The “better ways” include Dogme, Content Based Language Teaching and Long’s version of TBLT, all of which are more efficacious. They aren’t more widely understood and used because of the enormous power of the commercial interests that promote coursebook-driven ELT.

Current ELT practice results in the general failure of students to reach their objectives and in the appalling pay and conditions of most teachers.

Progress depends on social change. The world’s 2,153 billionaires have more wealth than the 4.6 billion people who make up 60 percent of the planet’s population. Far from being tangental, this is central to understanding the way current ELT is carried out.

We can bring about change. The best way to do so is by informing ourselves about how people learn languages. This will lead to recognising the weaknesses of current ELT practice. Along with that, we should organise at a local level in such a way that we teach differently and fight for decent pay and conditions.

Tom The Teacher Part One

(Note: I’ve done this before, but it’s updated, and the start of a new series. I dedicate it to Sandy Millin, who, in her work as a Director of Studies (DOS), punches a huge hole in the argument.)

Tom was in a bit of a panic. He only had an hour before his first class. He was in the teachers room scrambling to get his classes together. His problem, as usual, was just how much of the Outgoes Intermediate unit that was supposed to frame his lesson he could ignore. Was his plan to concentrate on the mention of single mothers a bit too risky? Were some of the items he’d quickly put together on his supplementary vocab. slide appropriate?

  • sanctity of marriage
  • hypocrisy /prejudice / machismo
  • up the duff
  • It’s your own fault, you ….. + adj.
  • I’m quite capable of ….. ing  without ….
  • parenting
  • Just because ….. , doesn’t mean ….
  • Has it ever occurred to you that ….
  • I tell you what. Why don’t you just …….

 His work was interrupted by a tap on his shoulder. It was the DOS’ secretary.

“Jill wants to see you in her office, now”.

Jill’s office was at the top of the building.  Lots of inspirational posters (Don’t make excuses; make improvements; Teach me and I will forget, bribe me and I’ll do it; Excellence is a numbing mind set) dressed the walls, and a huge desk at the end of the room had Jill throned behind it on a plush executive chair. Tom knocked on the door, heard the order “Come!” and walked to the desk, where he sank into a sort of office deck chair designed to emphasise his lowly status. Jill swiveled the monitor screen on her desk round so that Tom could see it.

“Well, Tom, what do you make of these data?”

Tom leant forward and strained his neck up to read the information. It showed attendance at his classes, test results of his students, and results from the latest evaluation questionnaires filled in by his students (“clients” they were called in the data summaries). Highlighed bits of the myriad graphs displayed on the screen flashed in red. They indicated that in 4 out of 20 recent classes, fewer than 50% of his students had attended class; that 3 of his students had failed their mid-course test and that 23 had got less than 60% (the target set at the April Teachers’ Meeting); and that 17% of his students had given his teaching a score of 3 or worse (the target was 4, the maximum score being 5).

“Well, they show that most of my students attended most of the classes, that most passed the exams, and that most were happy with my teaching”, Tom said, attempting a winning smile at his boss.

“Any other comments, Tom?”

“Er, could do better?”

“Very droll, Tom, but don’t you think they indicate that some real improvement, some paradigm shift in your attitude towards excellence in the challenging field of contemporary ELT, is needed?”

“Right.”

“So what, Tom, are we going to do? I need hardly remind you of the economic climate we face, or of the need to lift our game so as to face with confidence the challenges we face.”

“Right.”

Tom was thinking how tense Jill looked, She looked as if she was about to have a seizure. She seemed to be making a supreme effort to smile, make eye contact, not cross her arms, not fiddle with the pencils (why would she need pencils?), do everything she had learned how to do in her MBA. He felt like going over to her and giving her a hug. 

“So what do you propose, Tom?”

“I really can’t think of anything that might, well, lead to a paradigm shift.”

“That’s a pity, Tom. I was hoping for more from you.”

“Perhaps you had something in mind?”

Jill pushed her glasses up to the bridge of her nose, and then looked down at Tom through the bottom of the lenses, as if needing a closer view.

“My job, Tom, is to lead a team. My job is to inspire us all to give 110% of ourselves. My job is to project the value of engagement in the on-going quest for betterment.  An ongoing dialogue, a frank, open and transparent exchange of views which takes place at a personal, group and institutional level can only win the prize I seek, Tom – Undisputed Number One Educational Centre in Torrecaca – if we are all on board.”

“Right.”

“And the implication is, Tom, that I need you to re-visualise your extant, faux hippy ideological foundations. I need you, that is, to re-examine your fundamentally individualistic, blinkered belief system, to confront the limitations of your woke-free, complacent, 1960s-driven liberal mindset , and to re-group towards a more clearly on-side positioning.”

“I’m not sure that I understand that.”

Jill pushed the up lever and her executive chair sprang upwards.  

“At the last Teachers’ Meeting it was agreed that we would collectively embrace a social constructivist view of ELT. This carefully fashioned pedagogic approach is built on the findings of an eminent group of teacher educators who base themselves, as it were, well, you know what I mean, no need to raise an eyebrow, Tom, on the work of academics who adopt a socio-cultural perspective, a perspective that rightly rejects the sterile, positivist, where’s-the-evidence, nit-picking nonsense of those who stand in the way of a slowly-evolving, steady-as-she-goes, socially-sensitive approach, cognizant of the legitimate expectations of all stakeholders, including of course our generous sponsors, .. Where was I? Ah yes.  “Enough!”, they rightly cry. “Away with positivistisic, retrograde thinking! On and upwards now to the existentially mediated, grounded, foregrounded impacting of a post Hegelian dialectical praxis, multidimensionally pluri-affecting reaffirmation of the ideological hegemony of a mummified status quo!” Hmm. I might not have adequately paraphrased that. So much to learn. You know what I mean.”

The front and back legs of Tom’s chair were slowly moving apart. As he slowly sank towards the floor he ventured: “Well, actually, … “

“As I said at the meeting, teachers are simply not the ones who should judge the efficacy of our carefully crafted, consumer-orientated raft of products. The management is confident that the well-ordered progression through the carefully calibrated, seventy ‘Can Do’ statements laid out in our “Seven Step” plan of courses offers a premium, life-enhancing learning experience. We stand by our use of the Outgoes series of coursebooks  – truly progressive in its use of obscure lexical chunks and off-beat tokenism – supplemented, as they are, by the universally acclaimed materials provided by Dr. Friginfranco Ponti, including Drill and Skill, Disappearing Text, Wake Me Up When It’s Over, Spot the Nonsense, Sign Here For The Next Course, Blind Mimes, Sentence Chaos and Thank God It’s Finished, which, I shouldn’t have to remind you, we pay nearly $3 a day to use.”

Now on the floor, Tom propped himself on his elbows.

 “To be fair, there are quite a lot of worries …..”

“Listen, Tom. Despite our exemplary SLTE programme, where, again at great expense, we get the finest educators in the field, like Byson Sunburnt, for example, to help them reflect on the dissonance between their thought-to-be, maybe, and if-only-I-could-stop-drinking-would-be selves, they continue to voice doubts about what we’re doing. The effort involved in social constructivist pedagogy, Tom, is always linked to an epistemological relativity where social determinants intervene and where each of us, as the great Byson Sunburnt puts it, extrapolates its “meaning-for-us-where-we-are-nowishness”, its interactive, contextualized praxis, if you will, in our own idiosyncratic way. With this, Tom, I mean that social constructivist pedagogy is not, as you mistakenly seem to think, a license for an “Anything goes” approach, but rather an injunction to diversely interpret an ongoing engagement with a fluid but nonetheless mutually constraining road map.”

“Catchy title for a coursebook series” Tom blurted out, hand on chin, looking up from the floor.

“The constraints, Tom”, continued Jill, ineffectually pushing the down button on her executive chair in an attempt to get up close and personal with her employee, “include being on the same page”.

“And I bet that, for once, you’re not using a metaphor”, said Tom, already, once again, imagining working somewhere else.

“If it’s Tuesday, Tom, you teach the present perfect, because that’s on page 23 of the testament, I mean the textbook. You’re free to do it in your own way, but do it. Then move to page 24. Why? Because it enhances the sense, illusory as it might be, of progress, because it rescues us from uncertainty, because it stops students babbling on in ineffectual attempts to express themselves and because we’ve got a well-planned course to get through for God’s sake. Those of us who adopt a socio-cultural perspective are pragmatic, inclusive, LGBTFYT aware, progressive educationists, pushing boundaries, inexorably moving goalposts, but if I hear that you’ve skipped more than two pages in the unit again, well let me just say this ……. ”

The down button on Jill’s chair abruptly responded to her frantic force on it, and down she went, leaving her eventually with her chin on the desk, unable to see Tom, who couldn’t see her either.

“Are you OK?” asked Tom, getting to his feet.

Jill disentangled herself from the chair.

“Well, I’m glad we’ve had this little get together, and I hope to see results. OK Tom?”

“OK.”

“Good, Splendid. Excellent. Thank you, Tom.”

It was over. Tom went back to the Teachers’ Room, collected his stuff, and went to class.

To be continued