N is for Neoliberalism

26 12 2010

The following extract from a coursebook dialogue is fairly typical of the upbeat, self-actualising discourse we’ve come to associate with people in ELT texts. A Western male has re-invented himself as a successful pop star in the East, and is being interviewed:

Q. So, do you think you’ve made the right choices in your life?

A. Absolutely.  I’m having a fantastic time in Macau.  When you go back home, you see all of your friends doing exactly the same as 10 years ago.  I do things and have done things that most people could only dream of doing.

(English Unlimited, Elementary Coursebook, Cambridge University Press, 2010, p.159).

Here is another text, along similar lines, except in this case, the direction of migration is from East to West:

Admirable people

Admirable people

My neighbour Dien Tranh was born in 1959 in Vietnam, in the city of Hue. By the time he was 12, he had lost both his parents. Somehow he cared for himself and his younger sister. By the time he was 20 he had arrived in the United States as a refugee, and he had begun working two and sometimes three jobs at a time. Within five years, he had already saved enough money to help bring many of his relatives to the United States, and he had bought a small florist shop. By 1994 – 10 years after he bought that small shop – Tranh had expanded his business to include six stores and more than 30 employees.

(Gaies, S. and Ellis, R. 1999. Impact English. New York: Pearson Longman).

Two recent articles (Chun 2009; Gray 2010) firmly situate this kind of text in the rhetoric of neoliberalism, i.e., the belief in the sanctity and ultimate munificence of an unfettered market economy.  As Gray explains, “according to the neoliberal view, the role of government is primarily to guarantee and extend the reach of the market” (p. 717).  This agenda, in turn, is associated with such market-friendly practices as ‘customer care’ culture, communication skills training, and what Chun calls “discourses of self-actualisation and entrepreneurial choices” (p. 115).

Self-actualisation, Headway style

Gray looks at the way that self-actualisation, by means of work (including, of course, the learning of English) is a theme that permeates many current ELT materials.  This goes hand-in-hand with an obsession with celebrity, one of the more overt consequences of self-actualisation in the (media) marketplace, and a familiar motif in most coursebooks.  One coursebook that Gray analyses, for example, “includes a reading in which our (assumed) interest in celebrity is seen as inevitable, if not altogether healthy, and at the same time asks students to work in small groups and decide on ways of becoming an A-list celebrity” (p.728).

This “neoliberal discursive positioning of students as consumers and entrepreneurs of self and others” (Chun, op. cit. p. 118) is, of course, attributable to the fact that English, as a global language, is well-placed to serve the interests of a globalised market economy, and thereby to act as a vehicle for the fulfillment of learners’ aspirations. Coursebooks, like other forms of aspirational literature, such as self-help guides and travel brochures, project a typically upbeat and well-heeled lifestyle. Not only is the work-ethic celebrated, but so too are its rewards, in the form of leisure, travel and shopping. Seldom, if ever, are such practices problematised, or critiqued, although Chun reports ways that classroom discussions might be set up so as to subvert some of the more conspicuous neoliberal values that coursebooks enshrine.

Language school in Cologne

But I suspect there may be another reason why self-actualisation is a dominant theme in coursebooks, and that is that ELT itself is increasingly seen, by its practitioners, as an entrepreneurial culture, offering plentiful opportunities for self-realisation and, even, fame. Gone are the days of the doughty, do-gooder, internationalist English teacher working tirelessly in a shed in East Africa. He or she has long since been replaced, either by the gap-year, pleasure-seeking, backpacker, or by the disaffected professional (lawyer, stockbroker, school teacher, etc) who has downsized and embraced otherness, as part of an ambitious self-branding project.  When this palls, an obvious outlet is coursebook writing itself – offering an escape from the insecurity and tedium of day-to-day teaching – not to mention the low pay!

Even now EFL still has something of the feel of a ‘frontier’ culture about it – largely unregulated, somewhat disreputable, and inherently unstable – but where rich pickings might be had, simply by staking out a little bit of (intellectual) property, in the form of, say, a coursebook, a website, a game or – nowadays –  an app.  So, is the coursebook celebrity, toasting his self-actualisation in Macau, perhaps a projection of the coursebook writer’s own not-so-covert aspirations?

References:

Chun, C. 2009.  Contesting neo-liberal discourses in EAP: critical praxis in an IEP classroom.  Journal of English for Academic Purposes, 8.

Gray, J. 2010.  The branding of English and the culture of the new capitalism: representations of the world of work in English language textbooks.  Applied Linguistics, 2010, 31/5.


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91 responses

26 12 2010
Thomas Ewens

Great post Scott. Although how much of coursebook content is actually a case of the tail wagging the dog?

While the coursebooks used here in Kazakhstan certainly have elements of the neoliberal ideology you have described, many students themsleves share this consumerist, neoliberal outlook on life. Adult students here tend to be young, aspirational and upper middle-class. They are the type of people who want to be able to buy luxury cars, designer brands and other consumer goods. Needless to say, New English File, IELTS Masterclass and other coursebooks are wildly popular here.

I would suggest that English language coursebooks are not a vehicle for speading a neoliberal ideology, but that their content is simply a reflection of why students want to learn English in the first place.

26 12 2010
Thomas Ewens

i.e. they want to learn English for academic/career purposes and also for the purposes of travel.

26 12 2010
Scott Thornbury

Thanks Thomas – I agree entirely that the values in coursebooks reflect those of the learners, and that these are, in turn, by and large ‘aspirational’: the days when learners learnt English for anything other than instrumental reasons are fast fading. On the other hand (and this was my point), the same values seem to be shared by their teachers and materials publishers, at least if the fairly uncritical acceptance of the materials themselves is any indication.

26 12 2010
Thomas Ewens

If we can agree that the ELT profession is perpetuating neoliberal values I suppose the next question is who is driving this? Is it coursebook writers and publishers who are subconsciously projecting their own values, or is it that they are simply responding to the (perceived) needs of students.

After all, the reason why grammar still features so heavily in coursebooks is because students want it. As you once wrote Scott ‘form is safe, it sells books’. Is it a similar kind of deal with content?

26 12 2010
Simon Greenall

Haha, you thought you’d slip this in the day after Christmas when we might not be watching out for you!

This post has given me some serious thought. Of course, you may be entirely correct about coursebook writers’ neoliberalism and the opportunities that coursebooks offer for ‘an escape from the insecurity and tedium of teaching’. I admit that textbook writing has offered me financial rewards and enormous self-fulfilment, and I certainly recognize my own neo-liberalism.

I’m also aware that neo-liberalism and political correctness, for example, in areas such as gender-marked or -unmarked lexis can get in the way of conveying meaning in coursebooks. However well meant it might be, it’s not always helpful to illustrate nurse with a photo of a male nurse, or engineer with a photo of a female engineer if such representation runs counter to the cultural expectations of the learner.

Yet I think you’re being at the same time both over-specific and over-general.

It’s not just specifically coursebook writers who are neo-liberals. Surely many people in the teaching profession as a whole are broadly neo-liberal, and every teacher will be tempted to impose something of their own socio-cultural characteristics or political values on the lessons they teach. Isn’t this a touch of personalization which teachers are encouraged to include in their teaching? At any rate, it’s fairly difficult to avoid revealing something of your own values in a coursebook or in class, or, if I may say so, in books on methodology or posts such as this.

It’s also over-general to say this neo-libralism is a quality of all textbook writers. It may be true for international adult and young adult material, where the curriculum is understood, often by teachers’ expectations, rather than prescribed by ahigher authority. I don’t think it’s true of primary school material, and it’s certainly not true of anyone material which is formed to meet ministry of education requirements. Actually, there’s a lot of skill required of coursebook writers from a western neo-liberal culture to prepare material which respects the values and aspirations of what is, in effect a country and culture which is foreign to their own.

Your point is good. But I’d like to suggest you’re addressing both your own preconceived ideas about coursebook writers and finding further proof to support them (yet another stick to beat us with!), as well as the fairly specific readership of your blog. And while the influence of the former and the mportance of the latter is a significant constituency, it’s not representative of the profession around the world, as a whole.

If you and I don’t agree about this … well, I’m happy to be described as a neo-liberal. But would this make you a neo-con?😉

Great post, as usual, thank you Scott.

26 12 2010
Scott Thornbury

Damn! I was hoping you would still be in your post-prandial stupor, Simon – or playing with your new train set perhaps.😉

It’s hardly surprising that you should read my post as (yet another) critique of coursebook writers, given that the final rhetorical flourish was directed at them – but the point I was trying to make (and which Thomas – above – also missed) is that the whole industry seems complicit in perpetrating these neoliberal values. That was my point about the market-driven, enrtepreneurial values inherent at every level. In the Chun article I cited, for example, the writer unpacks the print publicity of a language school in North America to show that these values are instantiated in not just the text but in the overall design (choice of photos etc).

But your point that many textbooks are written impelled by very different values (I’m thinking of the English for Palestine course we were both involved with – you much more than me) underscores the fact that – yes – the neoliberal mindset is neither universal nor inevitable, despite the aspirational values of many students. As you correctly note, my post relates mainly to the UK/US published adult market, as well as to the native-speaker EFL popluation – and does not necessarily apply at national/local level, in the ESL world, to non-NEST teachers, particualry in state education systems, nor to the teaching of young learners. That’s a fairly big chunk of the market that’s out of range of my fire.

Nevertheless – and in terms of the extent it still powers the industry – the NS teacher, adult EFL market, is still a big one, and I think it’s fair to say that the values it projects are those of the prevailing neoliberal socio-politico-economic model. But we are all complicit.

26 12 2010
Mr Darkbloom

In my opinion, ideological considerations such as these obviously add to the considerable reasons why schools/teachers should try not to use coursebooks (yes, sorry.. this will be a coursebook bashing post!) :))

It’s bad enough having to contend with our mainstream media and all the advertising and false images of happy consumers.. but for the love of Chomsky, can we not keep it out of the classroom?

Having said that, I notice that some adult learners seem to have internalized such ‘aspirational’ neo-liberal notions. In Milan, where I work at the moment there are more than a few people who see English learning (especially one-to-one) as a status thing, along with their four-wheel-drive and designer clothes.

Although I simply don’t subscribe to ideas of consumerism and any real financial aspirations, I think it would unseemly to criticize people for such tendencies per se. IPeople are people and if that’s how they want to carry on, that’s their business. But as a teacher (and citizen), I’m not going to join in the happy-clappy pat ourselves on the back for being nice consumers silliness. I would, if anything, like to act as a counter-weight to such ideas.

Regardless of these ideological (and other) concerns, why do good, reputable schools like International House and the British Council still insist that every bloody language course needs a bloody coursebook? It’s just there!

If you can point to any mainstream schools that don’t act like coursebooks are an immutable force of nature – in ANY country – I will be applying for a job there. Really, I will!

At the moment, frankly I feel like a leper (I’ve refused several decent job posts because of this bloody coursebook issue… A school will say, no, of course you don’t have to use it all the time… BUT we all know if it’s there and if it’s physically given to the learners as part of the course with the EXPECTATION of being used, it will probably end up being used).
😦

26 12 2010
TEFL101

Is it right to sneer at notions of self-improvement or should we embrace socio-economic aspiration? I think it’s unhealthier to view concepts like ambition and work ethic with cynicism and snobbery.

26 12 2010
Scott Thornbury

I didn’t set out to ‘sneer’ at the culture of self-actualization, but simply to situate it in a wider, relatively unproblematised, discourse of economic liberalism, a policy which, in turn, nourishes a political (and military) structure that tends to ride roughshod over the interests of those who have no access to, or investment in, the pursuit of personal gain at all costs.

But it’s fair to ask: what – in coursebook content terms – might the alternative be? Perhaps Simon hints at this, in his reference to materials that are written according to the guidelines of local educational authorities: e.g. materials that promote civic values, critical thinking, social equality etc.

26 12 2010
Simon Greenall

Scott,
I agree with you, you were not setting out to ‘sneer’ at the culture of self-actualization. Your post was well thought-out, even if I missed some of the finer points of your positioning.

If it’s helpful for your readers’ reference, here are a couple of extracts from ministry documents which, yes, suggest an alternative, or at least a focus on national preoccupations about the need for learning English.

The first are quotes from the Palestine MoE curriculum, which you referred to:

‘(School students in Palestine) will be living in and contributing to an increasingly interdependent community of nations …
‘Internationalism is the hallmark of modern education …’
‘… Linguistic and cultural diversity are the hallmarks of internationalism’
‘Learning about other cultures develops citizens who embrace diversity.’
‘… Those who study foreign cultures and languages (…) are more active thinkers.’
‘English has “an economic-reproductive function” (to operate the technology to which it provides access) and “ideological function” (to bring modern ideas, serves as a channel for interpersonal, social and cultural values)’.
‘Developing English in Palestine “serves Palestinian national interests by increasing the language resources available as Palestine competes in the global economy.”

The second reference is from the Chinese MoE curriculum, which is another admirable curriculum document. It specifies five areas to be covered in the English curriculum: linguistic knowledge, linguistic skills, learning strategy, cultural awareness, and affective atttiudes.

Specifically, affective attitudes are concerned with what you refer to as ‘materials that are written according to the guidelines of local educational authorities: e.g. materials that promote civic values, critical thinking, social equality’. In this curriculum document, under affective atttidues, they specify:

• motivation
• confidence
• team working
• national commitment
• international vision

Now, these may not be the values which you’ve generously acknowledged as lying beyond the remit of your original post. But they may help illustrate the point you’re making
By the way, I can supply the references if people are interested, but they’re difficult to access.
Simon

PS The train set hasn’t arrived. Snow drift in Northern Europe?

28 12 2010
TEFL101

Mr Thornbury, asking what is the alternative is a bit like asking what is the alternative to democracy? Ultimately publishers wouldn’t put out stuff with a liberalist bent if consumers didn’t want it. That is the utilitarian nature of the beast.

30 12 2010
Scott Thornbury

The fact that a status quo has arisen out of a response to ‘utilitarian needs’ does not mean it can’t be questioned, challenged, resisted, or even subverted.

By way of a case in point, Sarah Benesch (2010) describes how, on her campus in the US, recruitment for the US military was actively promoted – in response to the utilitarian need for more troops in Iraq – and how she used the promotional materials to instigate a dialogue among her students about military recruitment in college campuses, a dialogue “in which opinions seemed to be freely expressed and elaborated” (p. 113). Her approach was premised on the belief that, rather than accepting the status quo as a ‘given’, through dialogue the students should make their own decisions about what was acceptable. “If conditions are deemed unacceptable, strategies, for challenging the status quo may be developed” (p. 113).

Contrast that with the text about Dien Trahn (Admirable People) in my original post, where none of the assumptions underlying the text – principally that Dien Trahn is ‘admirable’ or that the US’s role in his narrative was purely benign – are targeted for discussion.

At the same time, Benesch is realistic about what can be achieved in the classroom, in terms of implementing social change, or even of changing entrenched opinions. She summarises her position thus: “Critical teaching is an exploratory dialogue of unknown outcomes, through which teachers and students learn from each other, not a transfer of knowledge from teacher to student through materials” (p. 123).

So, I guess what I am calling for is, at the very least, some kind of discussion of the values implied in the coursebook ‘success stories’ – a discussion that the coursebooks tend to avoid – but not a discussion that necessarily imposes the teacher’s beliefs over those of her students.

31 12 2010
TEFL101

Mr Thornbury,

Where I live people get locked up trying to ‘implement social change’ and subversion. Of course publishers are too cautious to risk upsetting authorities and their bottom lines in such circumstances, though I do remember coming across some course books a few years ago which had a distinctly neo-conservative and pro-GWB tone to them – subtle propaganda that managed to get under the radar.

26 12 2010
Glennie

Coursebook content, it seems, reflects the aspirations and values of the majority of language learners. Well, it would be more accurate to state that it reflects the author’s view of what those aspirations and values are.

But assuming that most authors’ views are a true reflection of what makes learners tick, does that mean that most Dogme discussions, their content actually being determined by learner preoccupations, naturally gravitate towards discussions about celebrity and consumption?

26 12 2010
Scott Thornbury

Fair comment, Glennie – and one that revives some of the issues that were thrown around here, on the dogme list, and on other blogs, as to the ‘criticality’ of dogme. In the end, it’s the teacher who has to decide the extent to which the learner-generated topics should be tabled, developed, problematised, subverted, etc. But there’s nothing inherently ‘critical’ about dogme that might disallow discussions of celebrity and consumption.

26 12 2010
Glennie

Thanks for the response Scott.

In fact, the assumption behind my comment wass that learners are perhaps not quite as homogenous a group as they might be assumed to be; that a learning environment not conditioned by the topics of coursebooks would not reveal anything like unanimity in terms of aspirations or values.

Or am I referring to a learner of general English in danger of extinction?: somebody who does not want to learn English for International Business.

26 12 2010
lclandfield

Thanks Scott for yet another of your thought-provoking pieces. Just as I thought that I had taken my leave of the blogosphere this post drags me back. And I really do feel I have to say something here, because partly John Gray’s article and talk at IATEFL as well as the work of others who have been critical of the content of coursebooks (e.g. Gillian Brown, Ben Goldstein to name but two) were in fact quite instrumental in some of the decisions I and my co-authors made for Global (a new adult coursebook published by Macmillan in case other readers don’t know what I’m talking about).

The first, and most quoted of these, was a total rejection of celebrities in the material. We went 100% celebrity-free. I’ve written quite a lot about this elsewhere and the trends I had been seeing in books myself (I’ll be happy to provide other readers with more if they get in touch). We also steered well clear of the aspirational lifestyle topics, things like shopping, exotic vactions, extreme sports and so forth. Space doesn’t permit me to go into what we did include, I’ll let your readers find out for themselves on the web if they want. This was a rejection partly on ideological grounds. I just didn’t feel that this kind of material was educational, and it certainly often lacked any kind of critical self-awareness.

I think that your other readers who have commented above are right that this is reflecting reality. I blame the rise of a lot of this stuff on Tony Blair and the whole “cool Britannia” epoch. Writers are affected by the times they live in, and the last generation of blockbuster coursebooks were written in the late nineties – the first editions at least. I think we are going to find that there will be a slight shift in the current generation (writers living though economic crisis, the Obama “change” mania, ecological awareness etc). I was surprised therefore at the inclusion of that dialogue from English Unlimited which is brand new. I don’t know the book well enough, but I think that it too steers clear of too much celebrity stuff and the authors are probably horrified that those lines are being used here.

All this being said, I think that what goes in coursebooks is a relatively minor part of neoliberalism. It’s the soft power, if you like, and it could be important in shaping or reflecting opinions but it isn’t the most alarming or dangerous aspect of the new capitalism. By all means let’s take a critical look at the material we teach with, but there may be bigger fish to fry: privatization of schools, unregulated tuition fees for universities, privatization of the curriculum, leaving the teacher out of the decision-making process and the commercialization of school via cafeterias, sports equipment, vending machines and so on.

N for “Not a pretty picture for education”.

27 12 2010
Scott Thornbury

Thanks Lindsay, for the view from the ‘inside’. You may have noted, by the way, that I qualified my critique of coursebooks by saying that ‘most’ coursebooks include celebrity content, knowing that it has been a policy of yours to eschew such content in Global. Also, I didn’t mean to single out English Unlimited for special criticism – it just happened to be one of the first I opened: such content is not hard to find, and I didn’t have to look far.

But your point about the way that market forces are being allowed to dictate the shape of educational policies is well made – and puts the whole argument about coursebook content in the right perspective. There is a useful article by Marnie Holborrow in (Re)Locating TESOL in an Age of Imperialism (edited by Julian Edge, Palgrave Macmillan) on this very subject.

27 12 2010
lclandfield

Thanks Scott, and yes that was duly noted. I can imagine that it wasn’t very hard to find.
And thank you for the reference to that book, which I will follow up!

28 12 2010
Scott Thornbury

Now that I am home again, I can give you the full reference (and a quote). It’s:

Holborow. M. 2006. Ideology and Language: interconnections between neo-liberalism and English. In (Re)locating TESOL in an age of Empire, Edge, J. (ed.) Palgrave Macmillan.

“Challenging the dominant neo-liberal consensus — its language, its educational practice, and its ideological assumptions — is part of challenging the global order whose market fundamentalism and military exploits so many of us oppose” (p.100)

27 12 2010
Thomas Ewens

I was at the launch of Global at IATEFL in Harrogate and have had a flick through it (though I haven’t used it in a class as yet). It does seem to be very well thought-out, and I can see how it promotes critical-thinking in the classroom.

As a teacher and as a novice materials-developer I do try to be innovative, to create lessons which are student-centred and which generally are about the students and their needs. I love teaching, I find it very rewarding and I find a huge amount of inherent value in just trying to do the best job I can.

However, I would love to publish coursebooks myself. I think Scott’s point in the original blog-post about coursebook writers themselves being aspirational people is probably accurate (although I don’t recognise the ‘insecurity and tedium of day-to-day teaching’ which Scott describes, I think he was being tongue-in-cheek but I’m not entirely sure). Coursebook writers may be English teachers who have climbed to the top of the greasy pole. Is that how you see yourself Lindsay?… you can be honest😉

27 12 2010
lclandfield

I’m not sure that it IS true of all coursebook writers, but I’m often wary about making generalizations about a collective (unless it’s those damn dogemeists… just kidding!)

I would certainly say that I’m ambitious. Aspirational in the sense that Scott describes, probably not. I didn’t pay much attention to that part of the post, because actually I don’t think the majority of teachers really want to be coursebook writers.

And the ELT frontier culture that Scott describes applies very aptly to one sector of ELT but not to whole swathes of teachers of English who, as my friend and colleague Philip Kerr once told me, probably think of themselves more as “teachers” than “English teachers”.

As for the “rich pickings which might be had, simply by staking out a little bit of (intellectual) property, in the form of, say, a coursebook, a website, a game or – nowadays – an app” can I also add “a teaching movement” and “books on grammar teaching” to that list to make it six items?😉

27 12 2010
Scott Thornbury

Defintely tongue-in-cheek, Thomas. But many teachers do experience burn-out, and writing offers a viable antidote. (Writers suffer burn-out too, not so much from the writing, but from the promotional work involved).

A propos, one of the more successful coursebook writers of the 80s and 90s is alleged to have mused aloud (while still a classroom teacher): “Do you think you could write your way out of this?” He did, and the rest is history.

27 12 2010
Mr Darkbloom

[As for the “rich pickings which might be had, simply by staking out a little bit of (intellectual) property, in the form of, say, a coursebook, a website, a game or – nowadays – an app” can I also add “a teaching movement”]

Lindsay, is that a bit of jealousy on your part? Ostensibly, when Scott wrote the Dogme article, he was reacting to what he saw were inherent problems in the industry – problems which still exist and will not go away by intelligently writing a new coursebook.

I get it that singling out coursebook writer as some kind of problem in themselves is to ignore a much bigger systemic problem and is not the right way to go. I mean, you obviously do good work within this media and as long as it is simply taken for granted that coursebooks are an essential part of classroom culture, we at least need people to think out of the box ‘within the box’.

The simple truth is that, for obvious reasons of ignoring the people in the room, coursebooks come between a teacher and their class and also between the learners themselves as a group. They are not an immutable law of nature. Goodness knows there is so much material and information at our disposal these days, not least via the internet. Learners should be encouraged to start with their interests and pursue materials that have a more personal bent. Learning is highly personal – it cannot be mass-produced in my opinion.

By the way, I’m not a Dogmeist or Unplugged Teacher, I simply want to be a good teacher. That’s why I try to think out of the box.

Here’s an interesting blog of people thinking out of the box:

http://teachertrainingunplugged.wordpress.com/
🙂

28 12 2010
Lindsay Clandfield

Hi there Mr Darkbloom. My comment was a playful poke at Scott; I quite often poke playfully at Dogme. As I’ve already stated many times, in reality I have quite a lot of time for people who wish to experiment teaching without a coursebook. And I agree that thinking outside the box is good individually for a teacher’s development and collectively for the teaching profession. I would just add that thinking outside the box can take different forms. That blog you mention is a good find though, I’ve heard a lot of great stuff coming from those people so thanks for mentioning it.

I won’t go any further into the coursebook debate here though as 1) it is ground well trod on this and many other blogs and 2) tis the season to be merry🙂

Finally, I’d say that my jealousy of Scott is what is often called in Spain “envidia sana” – healthy envy!

Best wishes.

28 12 2010
Scott Thornbury

LOL. The jealousy cuts both ways, Mr Darkbloom. Perhaps I’m actually a coursebook writer manqué, hence my constant sniping!

Seriously, though, Lindsay’s dig about dogme underscores a valid point: that – just as coursebooks tend to reflect, and hence reinforce, the current educational orthodoxy – no method or methodology text is purely disinterested either. Dogme itself was a product of a particular constellation of factors (not least a certain anarchic tendency in Catalan learners of English) and – although it hasn’t benefited me materially – it could easily be construed as an elaborate exercise in self-branding – a fact that its critics are quick to point out. In my defence I’d want to say that dogme’s success (if you can call it that) is more of the viral kind, rather than the deliberately engineered. Once the bug escaped from the test-tube there was no stopping it!

27 12 2010
steph

Thanks for the post Scott. Must admit I had a chuckle at the “Happiest man in the World” extract. I actually remember that too. A married accountant with 2 kids living in the South East of England is “happiness”🙂

Back to the topic. Perhaps the answer lies in training teachers in how to use course books selectively and critically. One of the hats I wear at our school is “joint DOS” hat! Basically to pass EAQUAL’s it is necessary to map out in particular can do statements in relation to several course books.

The way I see it, is the course books are there to provide a bit of a framework and some material to assist teachers in progressing through these “can do statements” But I give regular workshops internally highlighting how you can link the can do statements to tasks (the can do statements are not necessarily about mastering the 3rd conditional – they seem more functional and task related than that)

So the idea is use the coursebooks and the map provided by the DOS to identify the can do statements and then teachers can choose to use the material in the books or other tasks unrelated. The best is when teachers can really think practically – why exactly do these learners need English – what will they be better able to do?

There is always a way to link the practical application back to the Can Do statements and finally the language – which of course can be emergent language using the idea of feeding in what is needed when. Whether teachers use the books or not is up to them.

The 2nd point (wearing my other hat as CELTA trainer/teacher trainer) is really providing teachers and would be teachers with the tools and awareness on how to critically and selectively use course books. First, in my view teachers would benefit from learning how to simply work with the emergent language in the classroom – and later looking at using course books in class.

It’s an approach that was very clearly and cleverly presented at IATEFL last year by Izzy and Anthony both unplugged trainers on the CELTA in Hamburg.

The problems arise when teachers are not trained to look at course books critically – or to work with the learner as an individual – the temptation is then to follow a course book uncritically – in combination with an over-use of things like concept questions regardless of the type of learners sitting in front of them and as a result enter the kind of inauthentic “performing artist” type space and teaching – that seems both superficial and slightly patronizing.

28 12 2010
Mr Darkbloom

Scott,

Thanks for your reponse. You never fail to surprise me with your incredible sense of diplomacy! How do you do it?!

You’re right, of course, we all have agendas and bias and I’m sure you’ll agree the point is to see our biases for what they are and either work with them or around them.

You say that you have an ‘anarchic tendency’. I think this is very good.

Anarchy is a umbrella term if ever there was one – there are many diverse schools of thought sheltering under it – but the important point to remember is there seems to be at least one unifying concept that any anarchist worth their salt will subscribe to… i.e. that all power structures and forms of coercion must justify themselves. If they can’t justify themselves, they must be rejected and dismantled.

I don’t want to give myself labels like ‘anarchist’ but I definitely subscribe to these notions. From what you’ve written and talked about, it seems you do too.

I appreciate Lindsay and others not wanting to go over the whole coursebook issue again, but I happen to think it is important. We have a duty to keep talking about these matters. There are power structures here that simply must be questioned and, in my view, dismantled.

Not wanting to sound dramatic (or maybe I do), I really think that the way coursebooks are used in most language (and general) schools adds to the general disempowerment of teachers and learners. It’s all part of a systemic problem that urgently needs to be addressed.

I’m sure most of you know Ken Robinson, but in case you don’t:

Personally, I will not rest until mainstream state-funded schools take such sensible education models as those usually used with school like Montessori, Steiner, Sands or even Summerhill.

Why are these not the norm?? We have a duty to create a new paradigm.
🙂

28 12 2010
Mark Leonard

“Neoliberal Discourse”: Now I have a term for what’s been bothering me.

Not a few teachers at my school are pretty bored with the books we use. Even the relentlessly upbeat titles begin to cloy, and we enjoy riffing on them: “Faking Progress,” “Not Ready For FCE,” “Dead Way,” etc.

We’ve already come up with the title of the coursebook we’d write: “Scraping By” (TM). To give you the flavor of our staffroom banter, we’ve decided that in the Scraping By unit on work and jobs, we’ll have the students listen to an interview with a laid-off mill worker, plus read about “McJobs” and “The Most Mindless Work In The World”. For the writing activity, the students might write an essay on the topic “Is It Better To Just Drop Out?”

I wonder how many other teachers out there find that the usual textbooks start to cloy after a while?

(And by the way Lindsay, we just ordered almost 200 copies of Global—seems like a refreshing change, and we like the more multi-cultural slant).

28 12 2010
Lindsay Clandfield

Thanks for the nice news there Mark. Your book Scraping by reminds me of one that Philip Kerr thought of called Grind On. If you all need a co-author for some of your later units let me know, seems like the least I can do🙂

And if you eventually tire of Global, I seem to remember that Scott had already come up with some good riffs on the title based on anagrams of it: Bog All, All Gob, La Glob, and Gal Lob were the best ones!

29 12 2010
Mr Darkbloom

Mark,

I was with you all the way until you stated you were going to try and fix the situation with… another coursebook!!? If you really want to be serious about changing things for the better, why don’t you get together with the other teachers and talk honestly about the reasons for and against using ANY coursebook in the first place?

And then perhaps you could just buy 10 copies of Teaching Unplugged instead for the teachers.
🙂

29 12 2010
Mark Leonard

Nothing I’d like better Mr. D, but — the reality is that I’m a relatively new Director of Studies at this school, the owners like coursebooks, many of the students expect a coursebook, we teach a LOT of exam courses, and we have big government contracts which require the use of a coursebook.

We do have several copies of Teaching Unplugged though, and many of our better, more experienced teachers unplug their lessons all the time. So it’s a work in progress.

29 12 2010
Mark Leonard

I also have to add that I’m not convinced that textbooks are all bad. I depended on them when I was starting out as a teacher, and I still learn new tricks from them and enjoy using them as a launching point for lessons. I do agree though that students should engage more critically with the textbooks than they usually do.

30 12 2010
Mr Darkbloom

Mark,

Exam preparation is, by nature, clearly different from the general classes, but unfortunately that may not be obvious to the people in charge of putting your curriculum together.

Whatever kind of class it is, I think it’s imperative to allow the learners to really own their learning. How can we do this when we are dictating to them what are they are supposed to learn and when they are supposed to learn it? It’s massively wrong-headed.

I’ll say it again, coursebooks are not a law of nature. They and thinking behind them can be (and should be) rejected.

Ask yourself; what if I had received my teacher training differently and my tutors had based the course on books like Teaching Unplugged instead? Would you really ‘have to’ depend on coursebooks then? I doubt it very much.

If you want to be a great teacher. You really have to question what you and those around you take for granted. That is unavoidable.

It’s funny, but when you started to explain why your school uses coursebooks, you immediately blamed eveyone around you, not least the learners! They ‘expect’ a coursebook, so what can I do? From your additional comment, it seems like it is YOU who expects a coursebook as much as any one else. Ask yourself… why is that?

I’m not for one second saying teachers can’t still do a good job teaching when they use a coursebook and a completely imposed non-learner centered curriculum, but they are using a broken model and I sincerely believe that the best teachers – and we all know these people by their drive and passion – actively fight against these kinds of restrictions on learning where they find them. And they never stop fighting… because they are in the business of education – which is one the most important aspects of human life.
😉

29 12 2010
Jessica Mackay

It seems it’s not only the content of EFL coursebooks that is under critique. This is in the latest TESOL Quarterly;

Immigrant Success Stories in ESL Textbooks
Gulliver, Trevor (TESOL Quarterly, Volume 44, Number 4, December 2010)

29 12 2010
Scott Thornbury

Thanks for the tip, Jessica. For those who don’t have access to TESOL Q, here is an extract from the abstract:

“The stories of these immigrant newcomers [to Canada] follow a very similar narrative pattern that legitimates periods of economic hardship, social exclusion, and personal struggle. However, they overwhelmingly represent hardworking immigrant newcomers as successful and appreciative of the opportunities provided to them by Canada. I conclude by arguing that ESL teachers should recognize that the diverse experiences of newcomers may not align with these repetitive imaginings of Canada as a redeemer of immigrant others.”

30 12 2010
Declan Cooley

Here are a few thoughts/ i prefer bullet points / it gets better as it goes on😉

Coursebooks provide:

• Attractive visuals and design (design is not be underestimated).
• Some Well-thought out Tasks for texts
• Topical continuity
• A syllabus of lexico-pragmo-grammatical items
• Balance of skills and systems (though balance is not always a good thing) depending on needs of students
• Language analysis tools – mindmaps, substitution tables and the like
• Practice exercises that allow the emergence of errors that can be used as teaching material
• Production tasks that can really provide a space for realistic language use
• Variety of task type
• A sense of completion and closure –( important for student motivation even if somewhat misguided)
• A sense of progress (again motivating though possibly – but not always – misleading).
• A way to break up and time manage activity – a common pattern in human behaviour (see television schedules, two halves of a football match).
• “islands of stability” (I echo deliberately the SLA reference) for teachers and students to cling onto in the uncertain maelstrom of language and learning –however, it serves as a fig-leaf for the chaotic (in the dynamic systems sense) process of learning (and there is nothing wrong with a fig leaf – total transparency is not something everyone wants, not even a certain Julian A.)

Coursebook are problematic because:

• Are sparse in truly interesting texts for all the class
• Have some weird topic-choices that students can hardly relate to (extreme sports for the elderly ? /TV programmes – many people don’t watch TV anymore) that are often mindlessly repeated through the levels with more “advanced” vocabulary and grammar
• A somewhat skewed choice of language items seemingly not related to frequency or real world use
• A one-unit one-language issue approach – inordinate time and space devoted to marginal items (in case ? I’d rather ? – I’m looking at you Total English)
• Lack proper recycling by ignoring language issues brought up once for the rest of the book (probably due to infrequency in real life – future perfect continuous – I’m looking at you !)

What coursebooks could do more of:

• Create a proper project- and task-based syllabus (pace old Cutting Edge) linked to a can-do syllabus (like English Unlimited which I think is a step forward in this latter aspect.)
• Many more CR tasks plus reconstruction and reformulation tasks to have more of a focus on form than focus on forms [however, this cannot be done willy-nilly – students’ learning style may not always match these types of tasks; an additional point to make on this though is that one job of a teacher is to introduce learning strategies to students that indeed may not totally mesh with the student’s cognitive style but may as a result change it for the better ! (SHOCK HORROR!)]
• Give a more process-oriented routine and scheme of work for an inexperienced teacher to work from rather than a conveyor belt of activities eg mark items as optional; however, I think teacher’s books are getting better these days – I especially esteem Scott’s teacher pages for Natural English and the book itself had an interesting approach.

Coursebooks cannot nor are not meant to make these things happen:

• Teachers listening to students carefully, noting style, interests and language proficiency
• Students listening to each other carefully
• Notice what errors of students and needs of students are and cater to these instantly
• Facilitate interaction through scaffolding reformulation and feeding-in language
• Establish good relations between and among students and teacher – the basis of a fruitful lesson.

[These are the core teacher skills that a training course should help develop]

What good teachers have always done with coursebooks:

• Selected, adapted, omitted, subverted and replaced activities, language points or entire units in the interests of doing what coursebooks could do more of. (see above)
• Noted the interests and language needs of the students and built in specific modules to address these (admittedly more limited than inventing a syllabus from scratch).
• Asked ss to bring in texts (songs articles), had ss editing each other’s written work, had ss teaching lessons to the rest of the class, tailored lessons for multiple intelligences, motivated ss to deconstruct coursebooks.

This is where I leave it. I wanted to say more about change in TEFL – but I will just leave hints:

1. Innovations can be ahead of their time : http://didyouknow.org/firstfax/
2. Change is socially-mediated.
3. Mainstreaming of an idea is a process that cannot happen overnight (though the pace of change is accelerating in certain areas).
4. We must always look critically at even the most shiny and “outside-the-box” idea – rather than be bedazzled merely by its newness. There is nothing wrong with deconstructing a box or thinking in new but connected boxes. ( see – the first 2 mins of this http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kHamDutH1Wg)
5. Engaging with the System and subverting it usefully from within in a principled way (as the Hamburg CELTA centre is doing –see above) rather than becoming “a voice in the desert” bewailing the fact that the world does not match our ideals is unlikely to impact change.

Here is a great way to see how TEFL may be more like in 10 years in some parts of the world:

30 12 2010
Declan Cooley

sorry for lack of spaces – first time poster !

edit last sentence:

5. Engaging with the System and subverting it usefully from within in a principled way (as the Hamburg CELTA centre is doing –see above) seems more beneficial than becoming “a voice in the desert” bewailing the fact that the world does not match our ideals, an approach which is unlikely to impact change.

This forum is a perfect way to engage. 🙂

1 01 2011
Scott Thornbury

Thanks for your posts, Declan – which, by the way, would make an excellent schema for a session on coursebooks on a training course. And I agree that there’s not a lot to be gained by simply ‘bewailing’. Or by knocking coursebooks without suggesting how they might be improved or replaced. (I hope I am not guilty of this myself).

30 12 2010
keithsands

Thank you again, Scott, for another thought-provoking post. As an editor involved with the development of English Unlimited (interest duly declared) I feel I have to, with trepidation, stick my head above the parapet here. I accept that you are not, as you say, singling out English Unlimited for special criticism, but I would not like someone to dismiss the course, on the basis of a selective quotation – a small fragment of a single listening text. So, with a deep breath, here goes …

I concede that English Unlimited includes a few ‘aspirational’ success stories – among many other kinds of text. I disagree with the suggestion that the real person who you quote is a ‘coursebook celebrity’, though. This human interest story (included for its intercultural content rather than its aspirational content, as I recall) is surely different to seeding the text with Clooneys, Ciccones and Windsors, something ‘English Unlimited’ is at pains to avoid (as Lindsay, author of another celeb-free course, is good enough to mention above).

Also, is the inclusion of people talking about success evidence in itself of a ‘neo-liberal’ political agenda – even an unconscious one? For example, we also have a video interview with a Polish climate researcher who works in the Antarctic for an international research team. Hers is a globalised success story, no doubt, with aspirations, migration, work ethic, all of that: but not a ‘neo-liberal’ success story, surely – rather one that depends on the state funding system that neo-liberals are currently dismantling …!

I would also like to mention the ‘across cultures’ strand in the course, designed to involve learners in open, critical, discussion of meaty, cross-cultural topics such as healthcare, family roles, cultural assimilation, attitudes to success and authority, and so on.

Finally, I would say that the last paragraph, whilst wittily put, is rather unfair on the authors themselves. Having worked with them over several years, I would venture that they are not driven by the wish to be ELT ‘celebrities’, but rather the wish to create an English course which is genuinely different (with a syllabus based on goals before grammar, and a strong, corpus-informed lexical strand, tasks designed to encourage emergent language …) Indeed, all of them, at different times, have expressed the same impatience with the McNugget model as many of the proponents of Dogme have. I’m happy for English Unlimited to be called ‘neo-communicative’, if you like – but not ‘neo-liberal’, please … ! And I think the authors would be delighted if it was used ‘subversively’, too.

That’s all. I will now retreat back to my secret underground bunker, where all the evil publishers lurk …

31 12 2010
Scott Thornbury

Thanks, Keith, for your measured (and slightly aggrieved!)) response to my post. You’re right that it was cheap of me to choose that extract from English Unlimited to exemplify aspirational, neoliberal discourses – and, as I said above, I didn’t intend to imply that English Unlimited is a prime culprit in this particular – far from it: as you rightly point out, the content of the series is refreshingly NOT your usual blend of in-flight magazine and fanzine, and there does seem a growing sophistication in terms of the choice of topics, texts and genres in ELT publishing in general, if the latest ‘big hitters’ are anything to go by.

I chose that extract simply as an example of the kind of rhetoric we’ve come to associate with coursebook narratives (Present Perfect Man!) ignoring the fact that – in this case – the speaker’s success emanates not from his prowess in English but in Cantonese. Nevertheless, his glee in his self-made success maps very neatly on to Gray’s argument that neoliberal practices involve self-branding in the kinds of ways that self-help literature promotes, e.g. “The fundamental unit in today’s economy is the individual, aka as YOU!” (from Peters, 2008: The Brand You 50: Fifty ways to transform yourself from an ’employee’ to a brand that shouts distinction, commitment and passion!).

Nor did I mean to imply that the authors of English Unlimited hanker after a penthouse in Macau – the need for a rhetorical flourish to end with got the better of me! Nevertheless, I do hold by the view that ELT has nurtured its own ‘brand’ of aspirational culture, and that the aspirations of coursebook characters reflect – not only the aspirations of the students – but the lifestyle choices of many ELT practitioners, whether teachers, writers or bloggers! In this sense, I think the ‘culture’ of ELT has shifted – from a gap year one to a Gap year one, perhaps.😉

31 12 2010
keithsands

Many thanks, as ever, for a characteristically generous and witty reply. The idea of ‘Present Perfect Man’, involved presumably in endless one-upmanship about the places he’s been and the exotic cuisines he’s tried, is a vivid one. (“Have you ever been to India? You haven’t? I’ve been there four times …”)

I didn’t mean to suggest that quoting from EU was a cheap shot – I just didn’t want the ‘part’ to stand in for the ‘whole’ in your readers’ minds, as it were. I suspect the agendas you (rightly) identify are set less by authors and publishers, but are carried in on the primary source texts, often taken from the broader news media. If teachers are to use texts like this, one way forward might be to encourage much more critical reading skills, of a ‘media studies’ type (‘who wrote it?’ ‘what for?’ ‘who owns the publication?’ ‘who’s the target reader?’ as universal comprehension questions …?)

Anyway, thanks again for engaging with my (admittedly slightly ‘aggrieved’) remarks, and happy New Year!

31 12 2010
Scott Thornbury

Keith wrote: “If teachers are to use texts like this, one way forward might be to encourage much more critical reading skills, of a ‘media studies’ type (‘who wrote it?’ ‘what for?’ ‘who owns the publication?’ ‘who’s the target reader?’ as universal comprehension questions …?)”

Yes, absolutely. This is what Catherine Wallace promotes as ‘critical reading’, aka ‘interrogating the text’: “Readers are initially asked why, by and for whom, and in whose interests, texts are written” (Wallace, C. 2001 ‘Reading’ in Carter & Nunan, The Cambridge Guide to Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages, CUP, p.26). Writers of coursebooks omit these questions at their peril. Why? Because otherwise they are assumed to have authorised the texts, even if not having ‘authored’ them.

31 12 2010
Mark Kulek

Fantastic posts. A little about myself, I have been teacher in Japan for the past 15 years as a conversation teacher. The English conversation(EC) field and the economy have gone hand-in-hand in constant decline. So has the reasons for studying EC. The days of young single women taking EC to be well rounded catches or for hope of traveling one day, is but a distant memory of mine. The motives are surely utilitarian today. However, I have not seen much change from the big schools adapting to these changes. That is reenergizing students to come back. There is still a big need for EC in Japan, but no incentives. For my part, I have turned to Dogme ELT for my students.

31 12 2010
Zahid Sheikh

As usual, there are some really interesting posts here. They got me thinking about Robert Phillipson’s ideas. I’m wondering if there’s a connection between all the neoliberal “stuff” in coursebooks (and ELT in general) and Phillipson’s thesis of Linguistic Imperialism. I think Lindsay hinted toward that when he discussed soft power.

31 12 2010
Scott Thornbury

Thanks, Zahid – yes, indeed, Phillipson is an outspoken critic of the ‘neoliberal’ agenda, and the role that English plays in its dispersion. For example, “English is not merely an instrument for communication, it is a value one identifies with for the social functions the language is seen as serving, its utility in the linguistic market…” (Linguistic Imperialism Continued, 2009, p. 109).

He doesn’t (as far as I know) target coursebooks specifically, but has a sharp eye for the telling quotation that links the teaching of English both with global capitalism and US imperialism, as in this one, by David Rothkopf, Director of the Kissinger Institute (!), in 1997:

It is in the economic and political interest of the United States to ensure that if the world is moving toward a common language, it be English; that if the world is moving toward common telecommunications, safety, and quality standards, they be American; and that if common values are being developed, they be values with which Americans are comfortable. These are not idle aspirations. English is linking the world.

(op. cit. p. 107)

In the same spirit, the British Council Annual Report of 1991-1992 urged that the post-communist world embrace “liberal democracy, the free market, and, above all, the English language” (cited on p. 108).

In fairness, the British Council has since learned to contain its triumphalism and modify its rhetoric – in part, no doubt, because of the ferocity of critics like Phillipson.

31 12 2010
TEFL101

At least aspirational material has some practical value in the world. Aspirational content should not be the be-all and end-all of a teacher’s repetoire and materials but it needs to occupy a place in a good EFL curriculum. It’s worth putting this whole discussion in perspective by recognising that in places like China and India people aren’t even questioning whether globalisation is good or bad. The overwhelming priority is simply getting on in life. I don’t look down my nose at that way of thinking – it’s a perfectly natural and reasonable attitude for people in developing countries who haven’t been born into a place where comfort, education and relative wealth are taken for granted. I don’t really the zero sum game here. I don’t see where the big exploitation is. However, I do tire of the academia-led cargo cults and sacred cows which get hoisted to the forefront of the discourse when in reality they often occupy a relatively minor place in the context of the daily practicalities and realities of ELT.

1 01 2011
Lorna

Students know that, even if they don’t like it, English is a key factor in a successful future. A good level of spoken and written English can mean a better job, greater mobility, a new chance in life. Furthermore they are aware that it can give them a voice in the global conversation; they see for themselves how people from all walks of life (including celebrities) are empowered through English.

It is interesting to discuss how such aspirational values might be problematised and critiqued in the classroom. However, I think that we as teachers would quickly find our students becoming impatient with such digressions. “There is a world of opportunity out there, for those of us who can get good grades at least – dear teacher, could we please return to the present perfect!”

1 01 2011
Scott Thornbury

Fair comment, Lorna. No one would wish to deny learners access to improved living standards, greater opportunity, etc, and if the present perfect will give them such access, all power to it!

I think, though, that the critics of the neoliberal agenda are arguing that this agenda – on the one hand – misrepresents the opportunities available (much in the way travel brochures portray beaches as empty and spotless when we know they never are!), and, on the other, ignores values that might be more community-oriented and less self-interested, such as social justice, environmental responsibility, conflict resolution, the rights of minorities, etc. Subscribing to market forces, willy nilly, may be good for a select few but ultimately detrimental to society at large. In the end, the opportunities that the present perfect affords may have more chance of being realised in a world where there is greater equality and justice. This is not the kind of world that coursebooks – with their consumerist veneer – typically reflect.

1 01 2011
Mike Harrison

Thanks for the post, Scott. It might be a bit of a cheeky ask, but I now wonder what your thoughts might be about published material designed for the ESOL market in the UK (well, ‘market’ but really the materials were government-produced and free, as well as expected to be cross-referenced in ESOL teaching programmes that are publicly funded) given the questions you ask in your post.

Reading that now, I realise I’m not being very clear. Let me rephrase a little: if you believe there to be neoliberal undertones to much of ELT in a wider sense, what do you think the values that are promoted are in these materials http://rwp.excellencegateway.org.uk/readwriteplus/LearningMaterialsESOL?

2 01 2011
Scott Thornbury

Hi Mike… I had a look at the link you sent and chanced upon a unit on jobs (Entry 2, Unit 8 ) which seemed to be fairly realistic in its scope and pragmatic in its objectives (i.e. helping learners negotiate a job interview). The material does assume that it’s the immigrant who should adapt to the norms of the host community (e.g. in terms of adopting acceptable body language) but the same advice might apply just as well to anyone in a situation of unequal power distribution, whether immigrant or not. I’m assuming you’ve used these materials – how do you feel about them?

2 01 2011
Mike Harrison

Thanks for replying to my comment, Scott.

I have indeed used these materials since working in the ESOL sector in the UK (since 2008), but certainly a lot less than when I started teaching here (I was previously in a private EFL school in Pamplona where we were assigned coursebooks for teaching different groups).

Regarding the ESOL materials, I think they’re terribly outdated – one example of the technology in the units is a walkman – but that’s expected, since they were designed in 2000/2001. I think there are certain elements to the materials that are useful to teaching ESOL, such as a focus on functional language which lends itself to the typical situations immigrants might have to deal with. Whether these are wholey realistic, or much fun to teach is another matter. Where the ESOL materials here are a let down is in the almost haphazard planning of units and the grammar and functions to be taught, but I’ve started to find covering a couple of pages of any coursebook to be difficult to teach more and more lately – I often can’t find a thread to hold the content on the pages together for a lesson.

More recently, I’ve found myself using the Skills for Life materials as a starting point in terms of topic content, or as a guide for the functions and language that’s expected for the learners’ ESOL level and the exams they will take. A lot of the time I’ll find something more interesting from non-ELT print (storybooks, leaflets, newspapers, etc) or other resources (video, pictures, etc) or see what language comes from the learners. I do sometimes wonder what message is being transmitted through the whole Skills for Life agenda to the students. Have some thinking to do.

Thanks again for a very interesting read.

4 01 2011
Diarmuid

I seem to remember one of the first units in the government produced materials for teaching adult literacy was all about reporting a crime to our trusted friends in blue (with collapsible batons). I was looking at the materials to be able to offer some suggestions to a friend who was going to start teaching adult literacy classes. In HMP Manchester. We decided upon an alternative course of action.

The government ESOL materials don’t seem all that bad to me, but seem to be rather uninspirational. They aim at helping learners to cope with their new lives, but as someone far more hirsute than I once said, “ELT materials writers have interpreted the world in various ways, the point however is to change it.” [slight paraphrase]

4 01 2011
Scott Thornbury

Diarmuid – that’s the challenge, perhaps: how to be inspirational without being aspirational?

1 01 2011
Natalia

First day of class, I asked students why they were learning English. I got the usual “for work”, though most were middle management who never wrote or spoke English (something I always made a point of asking, too). A lawyer, however, replied, “because I’m tired of feeling like a foreigner in my own country. I’m a literate Brazilian, a Law professor, and I can’t understand shop signs any more.”

I wanted to clap and I wanted to be there to help empower him and the class, but I knew I was going to cheat him from his objective. I was young, inexperienced and had to work mindlessly with English File on a tight schedule.

You see, it’s not so much the coursebook (like you said, we can question it in class –well, theoretically, at least), but rather the schedule… and the school ideology (which go hand in hand, might I add). There was pressure from the language teachers on teachers to always lead light joyful drink-the-neoliberal-Kool-aid lessons. I’m not sure where and when being communicative was equated with being fluffy, but that seems to be the main ideology in institutes here. Making them think was out of the question. In fact, being younger than most of the students, who was I to think I could educate them? Besides, if they really thought it over, they might see that they didn’t need English so badly after all. And who wants to be the teacher whose students are quitting, when the logic of commercialism has hit the school and teachers have quota to fill?

So yeah, you touched on a soft spot, a dilemma I never really could solve as an educator. And the dilemma starts in the label: as an English language teacher, am I an educator? Or am I just here to be fun and entertaining while teaching them a sanitized version of language, English as a falsely neutral language?

2 01 2011
Mr Darkbloom

Natalia,

A good teacher will always be an educator.
🙂

2 01 2011
Scott Thornbury

Thanks so much for that comment, Natalia, which captures better than I ever could the tension between the English teacher’s role as ‘technician’, lubricating the relentless capitalist machine with a little bit of utilitarian lingua franca, and the educator, where English is more the vehicle for higher order thinking, personal development, and intercultural communication.

3 01 2011
Cristina

As I see it, once we step in to teach whatever subject it is, we are indeed educating another as well as being ourselves educated by the other.

In the case of teaching a foreign language, we are fortunate as we can bring to the lesson various issues to discuss with our pupils and make them think critically or at least we try to raise their awareness to more controversial topics, making them intrigued.
That’s the beauty of teaching a foreign language.

2 01 2011
Nick Jaworski

Popping in my two cents. I’ve only met a handful of course book writers, but only one comes to mind who would fit the description of someone looking for glamour and fame. I really don’t think you get that with ELT so much. I mean, I can’t say I’ve ever met a kid that said, “I want to be an ELT course book writer when I grow up.”🙂 Somehow the rockstar appeal isn’t there. I would think course book writing is more of a serious career move that allows you to support family and have a secure paycheck in this industry, something not a lot of teachers have. I just think it’s too much to say most course book writers hold illusions of grandeur regarding their status in the overall scheme of things.

The neo-liberal attitude in most course books is quite blatant, but it does come down to the business side of things as well, which is what a lot of ELT is, especially in the UK. I’d say most advertising promotes the “you’ll have a better life approach” and I’ve had many a manager try to explain how teaching English will help their students to find better jobs. “Sell them the IELTS course, they can get a pay raise if they get a good score.” The students are looking for success and often financial advancement and the course book sells this.

Even volunteers and teachers in low-income areas have the same attitude. I’m teaching these rural kids English to give them the opportunity to have a better life (often without course books at that).

I definitely think we need to be critical of the material we are teaching and help the students to do so as well, but the business nature of ELT and the motivations for learning English will continue to have a big influence on lesson material and the way it’s presented. I’d say it’s the teacher’s job to help students deconstruct it.

2 01 2011
Vicki Hollett

Oh what an interesting post!
I read the two texts from a different frame before I read your analysis, Scott. To me they sound like people trying to form bonds but also being likely to fail, mostly because they seemed to be flouting Leech’s modesty principle. And yes, I think I see what you mean about most learners having aspirational motivation (or I think I do), but when you look at what seems to happen in rapport building in ELF conversations (and I wish there was more research on this to guide us) there seems to be a difficult tightrope that human beings walk between sounding modest and likable, but at the same time sounding competent and trustworthy.
A hasty thought that I haven’t fully considered: when learners move from the classroom to practice, does the here-and-now goal take over, so it’s more about connecting than trying to move up? I think that sounds like more realistic reflection of what most of my (in-work) students want to do in class.

2 01 2011
Scott Thornbury

Thanks for the comment, Vicki. That’s a good point – about learners wanting to be connected to a discourse community (if I read you right) rather than simply having their material needs satisfied. In the end, it’s the former that language does best, and if the latter (i.e. personal gain) follows, it’s often only as a result of the former (i.e. connecting people – to invoke the Nokia slogan). All of which suggests that our classroom practices should exploit the ‘connectivity’ factor, rather than the ‘this will make you rich’ one!

2 01 2011
Mila Navarro

We have all grown weary of coursebooks which offer shallow, idealistic view of English speakers and, presumably, we all agree that there is no such thing as a perfect coursebook.
Despite all the advances in teaching materials (e-boards and mobile learning etc), coursebooks are here to stay. At least for the foreseeable future. Why? Students feel comfortable with them and so do most teachers. What can make a reasonably good coursebook great? An experienced teacher who knows how to exploit material thoroughly and lead students to become critical thinkers.

2 01 2011
Scott Thornbury

What can make a reasonably good coursebook great? An experienced teacher who knows how to exploit material thoroughly and lead students to become critical thinkers.

Nicely put, Mila. I worry, though, that the washback effect of exams etc means that most teachers see the coursebook as a succession of ‘grammar mcnuggets’ that have to be presented and practised, irrespective of the topical content.

4 01 2011
Diarmuid

I have to admit to feeling a bit bemused by the claim (made at least twice) that learning English is somehow “empowering”. This too is part of the neo-liberal myth that pervades our profession, our societies and our cultures. This latter point about the all-pervasiveness of neoliberal values is why I see materials as subscribing to this particular ideology. As neoliberalism forms the basis of nearly all vultures and societies on the planet, it is only logical that the tools and artefacts produced by these societies reflect their values. Of course, this means that the role of the educator is to provoke a critical examination of them.

English is not a tool for empowerment. It is a link by means of which the chains can be lengthened slightly. Perhaps the only exceptions to this are when English is taught to non-English speakers living in an English-speaking context. It no more provides the key to a better life than does drinking coca cola or dining at McDonald’s. It simply means that people believe that if they are to be able to provide for themselves or their families, they need to conform to what the most powerful groups in society expect of them.

There is an argument that English can be decontextualised into some sort of benign global lingua franca. It is not one that I have yet been convinced by, but I grant that it may have some mileage. If English is taught to equip learners with the tool that they need to overthrow some of the inequities that contemporary society imposes upon them, then I see some possibility for English as a tool for empowerment. Quite how you teach this kind of English to economically privileged students using the dross that is churned out by ELT publishers is a challenge that I am still exploring.

4 01 2011
Scott Thornbury

Thanks for that comment, Diarmuid – especially for pointing out that the relationship between English learning and empowerment is not a straightforward one, and that the latter does not follow the former, as the night the day. Bonny Norton (in Identity and Language learning, Longman, 2000) traces the stories of a number of immigrant women in Canada for whom empowerment was unachievable simply because their social, ethnic and gender status rendered them ‘invisible’ and denied them ‘the right to speak’. Communicative competence does not necessarily equate with communicative opportunity. She adds that, “if classrooms cannot compensate for social isolation and communicative inequity, then what is to be done? At least a radical reappraisal of content and methodology, modes of instruction, learner participation, and modes of delivery would seem necessary” (p. xx).

In terms of content, the aspirational might not be the best match for learners whose ‘pyramid of needs’ is still situated at the level of social acceptance and integration.

4 01 2011
Diarmuid

I’m tapping this out on my iPhone (having been fooled into western consumerism) and noticed upon re-reading that the predictive text had changed my claim that “neoliberalism forms the basis of nearly all cultures and societies on the planet,” to “neoliberalism forms the basis of nearly all vultures and societies on the planet.” Whilst this may indeed be true, I am not nearly as experienced in ornithology as I am in having over-inflated opinions and a naive outlook on life. My apologies to all vultures out there who, as far as I know, may provide living examples of the benefits of collectivism and mutually supportive communism.

4 01 2011
englishskills1111

Course book designers with anti-capitalist ideals are actually doing people a disservice by propagating misguided and unrealistic beliefs. Why would you want to retard economic development in the rest of the world but be quite happy to live in a developed country and enjoy the consumerist trappings yourself?

Of course it’s patronising to spoon-feed people glib over-idealised projections but it’s even more patronising to think that people can’t to a large degree think critically for themselves to determine whether the characters and situations are realistic and valuable. Truth comes out through spontaneous and lengthy dialectic. A good teacher asks the right questions and pokes fun at cheesy or socially inauthentic material and good students do too. Yet at the same time it’s not healthy or realistic to have your default button set to cynic when you see anything of an aspirational nature. I worry when educationalists earnestly tell people that something is ‘simply unachievable’ yet take great care not to go into specifics. It tells me you’re getting very jaded in your views of society and the capacity of people to achieve what they want.

4 01 2011
Diarmuid

If we follow englishskills111 correctly, only capitalist ideology is realistic and [insert whatever you think is the most appropriate antithesis of misguided]. And yet, we are later taught that truth comes from “a spontaneous and lengthy dialectic.” Well, that clears that up then. I’ve always found that the best way to engage in dialectics is to begin by discounting the other points of view as misguided and unrealistic.

Of course, what our erstwhile opponent is really doing is betraying how much they have allowed themselves to be hooked by the lure of capitalism. Perhaps they are one of the tiny minority who are well-served by capitalism; more likely they are one of the many who content themselves with a few creature comforts and prefer not to think about the real cost for others of their delights.

The truth is that there is nothing either misguided or unrealistic about what our poster describes as anti-capitalism (if by “anti-capitalism” is meant an alternative to the capitalist system). In fact, I’d venture so far as to say that most of the longer lasting and successful institutions on our planet run on lines that have got very little to do with capitalism at all and have more in common with collectivism, communism, anarchism and the like. What strikes me as truly misguided and unrealistic is any belief that capitalism might be a natural and sustainable answer to the question of how we should organise our societies.

4 01 2011
englishskills1111

Doesn’t communism have a worse record for exploitation than capitalism? Surely the only workable manifestation of anarchy in a modern world can be free-market anarchy? Either way Diarmud, you want to change the world or you want others to change the world (which is a noble thing) but you’re not a policy maker. It’s more pragmatic as an ESL teacher to encourage people to change their own lives in terms of the pressing economic needs rather than promoting lofty social causes. It’s certainly easier to motivate people that way.

4 01 2011
Diarmuid

As any communist worth their ethically-mined salt will tell you, a great deal of harm has been caused by regimes that branded themselves as communist but were in fact state capitalist. We come back to critical approaches which encourage us to look at what something is rather than accept it for what it claims to be.

I can see no reason why free-Market anarchy would be the only way forward, nor indeed how it would ever work. I live and hope that one day a more humane type of anarchism might govern our society. However, I am not so naive as to believe that this will happen overnight nor that it can be imposed by a vanguard of heroic revolutionaries. It is a gradual process and could only ever be achieved if a critical mass of people worked for it. Which is where education comes in. And which is also where I agree with your view that this is best done by encouraging individuals to change their own individual situations rather than toiling to website the victory of some abstract hi-falutin’ ideology. That said, I do think an ideological framework is necessary to scaffold any emerging new behaviours.

Thus endeth the lesson.

4 01 2011
Lorna Liebeck

I think as far as English teaching is concerned, we should concentrate on educating students according to their language needs, rather than ‘re-educating’ them to fit with some political agenda or other (however well-intentioned) that may have nothing to do with language learning. Why should students accept such a teacher-centred approach?

As for Diarmuid’s comment dismissing as a myth the idea that English is empowering, I scroll back and see that I was one of those guilty of using that word. OK then. In my experience, students are very clear about why they want to learn English, and if possible master English, it’s because they know that much of the world’s communication, commerce, finance, marketing, entertainment and even leisure activities are increasingly being conducted in English. They want the opportunities and empowerment that English can bring them. I know this because it comes from them, it emerges during discussions in class. This is a learner-centred approach.

4 01 2011
Mr Darkbloom

Lorna,

I see what you’re saying, but I think your idea of a learner-centered teacher is very narrow.

I don’t know about you, but the teachers I remember most fondly from school (and who influenced my thinking) were ones who gave more of themselves than their particular ‘subject’ should have allowed. Through their opinions, off-hand remarks, anecdotes, jokes etc they (wittingly or unwittingly) raised my consciousness.

Would they have been more learner-centered if they had kept their opinions to themselves?
😉

5 01 2011
Scott Thornbury

Do the consumers really know best, I wonder?

By chance, I read this statement in the newspaper this morning: “The point … is that we have to make a product that consumers want”. No, it’s not a publisher speaking: it’s a manufacturer of potato crisps – which, according to the report, are a staple of 69% of British children’s lunch boxes, the equivalent of drinking 5 litres of cooking oil a year. And children love them.

How far can I stretch this analogy? Well, here’s a nutritionist speaking: “Don’t get me wrong, there’s nothing wrong with enjoying a pack of crisps every now and again” [substitute: using a coursebook?] “But we shouldn’t be eating them often … Because they’re selling so little, a packet of air and a few bits of something very cheap, the only way they can make money is by constantly reinventing themselves, and by making sure we eat an awful lot of them”.

(Crisps: a very British habit, by John Henley, Guardian Weekly, 17.1.2.10)

6 01 2011
darridge

A discussion that I think has been missed above is the way neoliberalism is seen in the layout, aims and design of coursebooks – indeed their raison d’etre – as much as the content they contain.

The whole sequential nature of them, with accompanying tests and vocab to be mastered represents an output approach to knowledge – just feed in the right materials, and the right outcome will happen – regardless of the person its happening to. The whole focus is on the materials not the learner, as the product is more important than consumer – the product is what is sold (I don’t have the references with me but have read that traditionally, consuming has been regarded as inferior to producing – make the consumer fit the product, its much easier).

More than this, how coursebooks affect the running and business agenda of schools is neoliberalism to a T. Coursebooks mean teachers can be held accountable for their performance. Students must demonstrate through testing they have learned what the book teaches and therefore teachers can be ranked and paid accordingly. They also mean that teachers are reduced to mere technicians – the coursebook material is what’s important. This means teachers don’t need to be paid as professionals, who after all are more expensive…

There are also powerful messages inherent the idea of coursebooks about what constitutes knowledge – is it defined by the product (coursebook) or by the person who wields it? This again comes back to making the consumer fit the product, as the product is what is sold, and selling things is all that is important.

I agree with Darmiud that learning English in itself is not what is or should be empowering. A person is empowered, not the language they speak. Empowering people is not about the language but about how it is taught and how the person is regarded – as a consumer/customer, or as (indeed) a person. Coursebooks that are used merely to transmit passive knowledge by a technician are not empowering no matter how well they are written.

6 01 2011
Scott Thornbury

Well argued, Darridge. The commodification of grammar (not just in coursebooks but in exams, resource books, etc) is something I have written about too. In a piece called Grammar, Power, and Bottled Water (IATEFL Newsletter 140, 1998) I argued that

by creating a dependency culture, by construing the learner as grammatically-challenged, grammar-based materials ensure a market. By getting learners hooked on grammar, the publishers are guaranteed not just any old market but a global one, because, after all, what is language if not grammar? Only the marketing of bottled water could be simpler. Just as consumers have been taught to trust bottled water more than tap water (despite blind-tastings that prove there is no difference [Brown, 1997]) so have learners been conned into choosing packaged language over some natural, home-grown, more eco-friendly product.

You can read the rest of the article here.

7 01 2011
darridge

That’s a crackingly good article thanks Scott, and very well timed with an assignment coming up.

I thought when doing my DELTA that there was a distinct dearth of looking at teaching/education as opposed to looking at language. The teaching part seemed to consist of “what tricks can I use to get across this language – read grammar – point”.

For me, a TEFL teacher needs to not only know language well, but needs to know teaching well too. There is a whole history of education and educational theory that seems to be subservient to the need to know about and be able to explain language.

Being a good science teacher means more than just knowing science. The TEFL world needs to recognise this too.

6 01 2011
Mr Darkbloom

Excellently put, Darridge. And brilliantly affirmed, Scott. I couldn’t agree more.

Like I stated previously, I believe coursebooks add to the disempowerment of learners and teachers alike. I just wish I could have said it as articulately as you guys!
😉

6 01 2011
Matt

I don’t think that all coursebooks are bad, and it’s not really true that all teachers cling to them in this subordinate role of lowly materials operator. Unless, that is, they are unfortunate enough to be working for one of the supermarket-style language schools where coursebooks are rigidly prescribed.

I do think that the ELT course materials market is saturated, and there doesn’t seem to be very much that is new or ground-breaking coming through. This in part is a reflection of the enormous power that the big publishers wield in the world of ELT. Apart from overloading the market, look how they dominate the world of testing and certificates. And how they fund IATEFL and TESOL conferences.

Maybe things will change as more interesting and creative projects from small publishers (and indeed self-publishing and print-on-demand materials) start to loosen the hegemonic grip of the big boys. And as more and more teachers gain the confidence to teach unplugged, of course. Or at least go ‘semi-acoustic’.

11 01 2011
Mr Darkbloom

Matt,

When you say you don’t think all course books are bad, it really depends on what your definition of ‘bad’ is within the context of language education (…and education generally).

From a pedagogical view, one very important question every teacher who likes using coursebooks must ask themselves is… who needs them more, me or the learners?

In my (limited) experience, the answer is nearly always the teacher.

12 01 2011
Matt

From a pedagogical view, we can’t do away with coursebooks because that’s how most EFL teachers learn how to teach!

13 01 2011
Mr Darkbloom

Matt,

So, you are advocating coursebooks because you think there’s no other way to learn to be a teacher?

And what about the learners?

Perhaps you haven’t read Teaching Unplugged. I would urge you to do so.

18 01 2011
AG

Sorry Matt, but that’s false logic. It’s the same as saying you can’t do away with cars because that’s how most people get to work.

By choosing to organise travel networks around public transport options instead of privately owned cars, you would obviate the need to depend on cars.

By choosing to organise initial teacher training around something other than a coursebook, you would obviate the need for teachers to depend on coursebooks for their initial training experiences.

Effective teacher training does not in fact depend on the existence of coursebooks. God help us if this were so!

PS: sorry I’m joining in late!

18 01 2011
Matt

No, I wasn’t advocating coursebooks as a means of learning to teach. And no, I wasn’t suggesting that one should choose coursebooks as a way of organising a teacher training course.

I was just saying that’s how it is, for most people entering the profession who get four weeks of CELTA and then find themselves ‘in at the deep end’.

18 01 2011
Mr Darkbloom

Matt,

“I don’t think that all coursebooks are bad”

Coursebooks are ‘fast food’ in teaching. We should simply promote awareness on the (considerable) drawbacks and encourage healthier alternatives.
At the end of the day, some people will always be impervious to the message. That’s no reason to stop giving the message.

“From a pedagogical view, we can’t do away with coursebooks because that’s how most EFL teachers learn how to teach!”

Not so much pedagogy as pragmatism, it would seem.

I never said (nor has perhaps Anthony) that we have to do away with all coursebooks. The fast food junkies will keep using them regardless. Let’s just keep promoting the (better) alternatives.
🙂

18 01 2011
AG

OK, sorry for taking you to mean something different.

So reading what you say here, would you agree that one issue that the ELT profession still needs to confront is how its business model (relatively swiftly qualified young teachers with accordingly limited linguistic or pedagogic repertoires, working long hours for – or as a result of – low pay) tends to perpetuate a dependency on coursebooks because they are the only way to sustain this otherwise unsustainable way of working, and which therefore are forced to take on the role of crutch (or perhaps even wheelchair and complete life-support system) rather than one resource amongst many?

To make a tenuous analogy: might coursebooks be the oil of ELT? Not inherently bad and in many respects amazingly useful, but turned to a highly destructive force in terms of economics, environment, society and politics when appropriated by large interest groups for profit?

Would teaching unplugged be wind or offshore wave energy – leveraging the affordances of the natural environment? Sustainable, high-impact, low-footprint teaching and learning? Or have I gone too far?

(I pause to smile…)

And if any publisher can see through this and offer me a 5-level book deal, I really do have just the thing you’re looking for…

19 01 2011
Mr Darkbloom

“And if any publisher can see through this and offer me a 5-level book deal, I really do have just the thing you’re looking for…”

Mmm… Interesting comment. Is it a joke or do you really have ideas for some books? If you do, I would love to hear more about it – just out of curiosity!
🙂

19 01 2011
Anthony Gaughan

Haha! The thought of becoming “Macau Man” obviously seemed appealing enough – “ne’er a truer word spoken in Jest” you might say!

26 01 2011
TEFL Jobs London

Self-actualisation was certainly a big part of why I started out as an EFL teacher. The idea of travel, expose to different cultures and experiences. I think the same is equally true for most private students of English as it is for most TEFL teachers. They want to “go places” and believe English ability is one of the keys to doing that. There is nothing wrong with that, in fact its incredibly positive. Students and teachers alike in our field don’t simply want to tow the line, but want to make something of their lives that is beyond mediocraty. Textbooks are correct to embrace this attitude, and create materials that explore it.

Jon.

4 06 2011
Kenan

Hey Scott,

What a great post!! I enjoyed reading the comments just as much… so intriguing to the extent that I wanted to find out whether coursebooks(Headway, Cutting Edge and Interchange- Elementary and Pre-Intermediate levels) actually promote neo-liberalism and consumerism as a topic for my MA dissertation. Yet I am in need of some relevant literature other than those mentioned on this post. Any suggestions& ideas are welcome and appreciated.

Thank you,

Kenan

4 06 2011
Scott Thornbury

I know these were mentioned, but you should follow them up – the bibliographies will point you in the right direction:

Gray, J. (2010) ‘The Branding of English of English and the Culture of the New Capitalism: representations of the world of work in English language textbooks’. Applied Linguistics, 31/5: 714-73

Gray, J. (2010) The Construction of English: Culture, Consumerism and Promotion in the ELT Global Coursebook. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan

Gulliver, T. (2010) Immigrant Success Stories in ESL Textbooks. TESOL Quarterly, Volume 44, Number 4.

5 06 2011
Kenan

Thank you Scott!

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