I is for Innovation

9 05 2015

This is a dress rehearsal of my opening ‘mini-plenary’ for the hugely successful ELT Innovate conference, held this weekend in Barcelona  – on the subject, unsurprisingly – of innovation.

These are the books and articles I refer to:

Postman, N., & Weingartner, C. (1969) Teaching as a subversive activity. Penguin Education.

Selwyn, N. (2011) Education and Technology: Key Issues and Debates, London: Continuum.

Selwyn, N. (2013) Distrusting Educational Technology: Critical Questions for Changing Times. London: Routledge.

Selwyn, N. (2015) ‘Minding our language: Why education and technology is full of bullshit … and what might be done about it’, paper given to the ‘Digital Innovation, creativity and knowledge in education’ conference, Qatar, January 2015.



19 responses

9 05 2015

Finally someone with the courage to use the word bullshit! Will be interesting to see where the use of that word leads. If it weren’t for you Scott, provocation would be voiceless, subsumed by experts, books and apps. Thanks.

9 05 2015
Paul Driver

I thoroughly enjoyed that soliloquy Scott. I wasn’t fortunate enough to have attended the conference.

One question that your comments bring to mind for me is how innovation is recognised when it does take place. If those belonging to a particular community of practice (or affinity space as Gee would put it) are “inside the tent”, then how do they know innovation when they see it? How does the innovation make it through the marquee of gatekeepers that exist in any profession?

10 05 2015
Farid Bashiri

Hi Paul,
Interesting question, very relevant I think.
It’s perhaps, most of the time “blending” the ideas that lead to new innovations. When you touch upon one of those widely held beliefs and try to question things or add a new dimension somewhere, it automatically draws attention.

11 05 2015
Scott Thornbury

“….how do they know innovation when they see it?” Good question, Paul. Perhaps it’s because they were (unwittingly?) ready for it – as captured in the expression ‘an idea whose time had come’. Thus, the innovation that became Communicative language teaching was the missing piece in a puzzle (and both recognized and welcomed as such) that had been created by both the demise of audiolingualism and the failure of Chomskyan linguistic theory to provide a viable methodological alternative: an idea whose time had come. Just a thought.

10 05 2015

This is a really good post, Scott. Thanks.

10 05 2015

There’s definitely a bias in our field that what’s recent or new is somehow better than what was written before. I think we’d all be better off if we referenced more the ancient philosophers and remarkable thinkers in other fields to guide us on what’s the right way to think about elt.

[insert Einstein quote here]

10 05 2015

Bullshit seems the word of the day in my ELT/EAP social media world today ..

10 05 2015
James Thomas

You’re posting a dress rehearsal for something which has already happened, if I understand correctly. A few thoughts: (1) ‘smart’ is nowadays a term for a type of technology, so I wouldn’t criticise smartboards in that way. The term itself invokes a bit of flattery perhaps of itself, or trying to make the customer feel smart. (2) I read Frankfurter’s ‘Bullshit’ and it seemed to me quite linguistically naive. He’s a philosopher unaware of recent developments in linguistics which makes his arguments a bit unpalatable. (3) I never thought of LMS as surveillance technology. Indeed we track our students, their time on task (online in reality), can see stats about their work. But the connotations of surveillance make it sound nefarious. Is that the intention? (4) P & M’s “Subversive” is also one of my fav books on education. I read it a few years ago for the first time since it was new and it was interesting to see how relevant it remains. I think it was Max Planck who said that innovation takes place when the older generation dies. Innovation is unlikely to happen when teachers are self-satisfied and when teaching is just a job and when innovative people are discouraged by their (un)professional environment and … Rumour has it that using the students’ mother tongue in foreign language lessons is considered innovative today. Whatever next?

On with the struggle! Thanks as always.

11 05 2015
Scott Thornbury

Thank you, James, yes the ‘mini-plenary’ had already happened by the time the post went live – so there’s no going back!

Regarding your comments: ‘The term itself [i.e. ‘smart’] invokes a bit of flattery perhaps of itself’ – but this is Selwyn’s point, I think, that by flattering the technology, questions as to its utility are pre-empted or sidelined. This is what he says: “Consider the implications and inferences of other common terms of the trade — ‘virtual learning environments’, ‘Smart board’, ‘intelligent tutoring system’, and ‘connected learning’. Such labels convey a clear sense of what will happen when these technologies are used in education. Certainly the possibility of technology not leading to learning and/or other educational gains is rarely a matter of consideration.’ (2015, p. 2).

Regarding ‘surveillance’, I know stuff about my students (on my MA TESOL) that they probably don’t know I know, e.g. how often they log in to the course, what times of day they do so, what pages they visit and for how long. There is nothing necessarily ‘nefarious’ about this, but then, that’s what the NSA said about its collecting of ‘metadata’. I think it’s as well to be mindful, vigilant even, regarding the fact that data flows both ways – every time I log into a corpus or do a Google search, I’m leaving a trace that – in a more sinister universe – could be used against me.

On with the struggle, indeed!

10 05 2015
James Chamberlain

Thanks, Scott, for another insightful talk.

By expanding the definition of innovation from “creating new things” to include the ”questioning of old ones”, I think you are subverting the concept (in a positive and Postmanian way). Certainly in our field of education, “great innovators break out of the confines of the discourse and critique it”, but I think that most of the engineers and software developers that I teach would object to defining innovation in this way.

As you point out, the BS gets particularly deep when the marketeers try to foist technological inventions upon educators. This calls to mind another quote by Harry Frankfurt in his modest scatological treatise:

“The realms of advertising and of public relations, and the nowadays closely related realm of politics, are replete with instances of bullshit so unmitigated that they can serve among the most indisputable and classic paradigms of the concept.” (p. 23)

By the way, in the progression from Hemingway to Frankfurt (or from crap to bullshit), it is again Neil Postman who furnishes the link in his 1969 address to the National Convention for the Teachers of English, “Bullshit and the Art of Crap-Detection.”


11 05 2015
Scott Thornbury

Thanks, James – and thanks for that link. (I’m sort of surprised that Selwyn didn’t reference Postman in his own piece).

My ‘subverting’ of the term innovation was really a sincere attempt to identify what it is in my own work that gives others the idea that I am ‘innovative’. Being asked to host the British Council ‘Innovations in ELT’ awards, and to give a mini-plenary at this weekend’s ‘ELT Innovate’ conference does puzzle me. Hence my conclusion that it may be due more to ‘innovative thinking’ than to ‘innovative doing’. And because that ‘thinking’ has often been subversive (or viewed as such) there does seem to be an association between innovation and subversion.

11 05 2015

Three questions from Benoit Godin’s ‘Innovation: The History of a Category’:

Why has innovation acquired such a central place in our society or, put differently, where precisely does the idea of innovation come from? Why did innovation come to be defined as technological innovation? Why is innovation generally understood, in many milieus, as commercialized innovation?

The answers, all more or less connected with Joseph Schumpeter, popularizer of the term ‘creative disruption’, are well worth reading here: http://www.csiic.ca/PDF/IntellectualNo1.pdf

11 05 2015

Thank you Scott, great talk and useful references.

Have you (or has anyone) come across any similar criticism of CLIL/EMI discourse? I’d be interested to read further …

Thank you

11 05 2015

There’s a piece by Ernesto Macaro on EMI in the APRIL 2015 edition of Modern English Teacher. Not an analysis of the discourse surrounding it, but a nice, brief look at the ‘unstoppable train’ of EMI.

12 05 2015

Reblogged this on JO'C's blog and commented:
Thank you Scott Thornbury. You have reminded me that I need to keep my “Crap Detector” turned on and to stay vigiliant about what tech in education pretends to be and what it is doing.
I am suspicious that way too many managers in the teaching world are more proficient with spreadsheets than they are with teaching concepts.
I use tech in my teaching and am indeed a tech advocate in my school, but I still get great value out of paper cut ups and walk and talk activities. Good teaching for me is using all the resouces at hand to engage and make the learning experience memorable and meaningful for the learner.
I do worry that bad teaching with tech is being sold as good teaching and that bad teachers with tech know how and poorly designed products are taking over education.
I will continue to use tech in my practice but I neeed to be more mindful of why I am using it.

16 05 2015
J.J. Almagro

Hi, Scott.
Your posts are always inspirational and informed, encouraging a sensible and sensitive language teaching practice. However, this one leaves me a little uneasy; the EFL field as the book of conspiracies and false idols (tongue in cheek)

16 05 2015
Irene Voulgaris (Eιρήνη Βούλγαρη)

After our daily bombardment with promotional articles extolling the benefits of various AI mediated “learning” tools, it’s a relief to hear some sensible appraisal of such educational apps & similar, supposedly “superb”, stuff!

18 05 2015

Study investigated importance companies give to innovation in relation to globalization of market in which they occur, case of Czech Republic.

7 06 2015

This really hits… the institution am working for in Cairo has asked about replacing traditional classrooms to all-flipped mode settings… am not sure that will succeed taken the demotivated students we have. should we experiment/not in that? I do not know that much about flipped classrooms, but what I know is that it can be done at some classes not all of them!

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