C is for Commodification

16 07 2017

cocacola(Or P is for Profit)

Let’s say you identify a large and untapped market for a product that you manufacture. Unfortunately the market is in one of the world’s most economically depressed areas. In order to capture and monopolize the market you need to be able to deliver your product at the lowest possible cost to the maximum number of consumers. The smaller the unit of sale, but the more of them, the better. Aggressive marketing will be needed, of course, to persuade a sceptical and precarious client-base to sign up – and stay signed up. And those who are delivering the product should be paid as little as you can get away with: if they are relatively untrained, so much the better.

Soft drinks and cigarettes have been marketed to developing countries like this for decades. Now it is the turn of education. A recent report in The New York Times describes how a chain of low-cost private schools called Bridge International Academies has co-opted the practices of commodification to profit from the dire state of education in many parts of the developing world. As The Times reports:

It was founded in 2007 by [Shannon] May and her husband, Jay Kimmelman, along with a friend, Phil Frei. From early on, the founders’ plans for the world’s poor were audacious. ‘‘An aggressive start-up company that could figure out how to profitably deliver education at a high quality for less than $5 a month could radically disrupt the status quo in education for these 700 million children and ultimately create what could be a billion-dollar new global education company,’’ Kimmelman said in 2014.

Notice the key collocation that captures the essence of the business model: ‘to profitably deliver…’

The way they do this is to employ untrained teachers, give them a crash course, pay them less than public school teachers to work longer hours (which include recruitment drives among the local population), and then ‘deliver’ them their lesson plans by means of e-readers – lesson plans which are written by teams of content writers in the US who have never been near the local context. As the NYT describes it:

The e-reader all but guarantees that every instructor, despite his or her education or preparation level, has a lesson script ready for every class — an important tool in regions where teachers have few resources. But scripts can be confining, some teachers told me. And in some of the 20 or so Bridge classrooms I observed, pupils occasionally asked questions, but Bridge instructors ignored them. Teachers say that they are required to read the day’s script as written or risk a reprimand or eventual termination, and they do not have time to entertain questions. Bridge says that ‘‘teachers are required to reference the day’s teachers’ guide and to diligently work to ensure all material is covered in each lesson.’’

The Times correspondent was lucky enough to witness a lesson (reporters are discouraged from entering Bridge schools):

Inside the Bridge school in Kiserian, an hour’s drive from central Nairobi, students wore the same green uniforms and sat at attention behind the same rough wooden desks I saw in Kawan­gware. In front of a blackboard, a preschool teacher, Gladys Ngugi Nyambara, a thin woman also dressed in bright green, held a Bridge ‘‘teacher computer’’ that contained a recently downloaded lesson script on recognizing the ‘‘F’’ sound in common English words. Nyambara held up a picture of a fish and saw these words on the e-reader’s screen: What is this? (signal) Fish.

She gestured toward the class with the picture and delivered the line as precisely as she could. ‘‘What is this?’’ She snapped her fingers. ‘‘FEESSH.’’ She surveyed the 26 expectant faces in front of her. Her eyes went back to the script on the gray rectangular tablet. Listen. Say it the slow way. FISH. She followed the prompt. ‘‘Listen, class. This is a FEESSH.’’

There was a pause, and the teacher leaned over the e-reader. Our turn. Pupils say it the slow way. (signal) Fish. ‘‘Class, your turn.’’ She snapped her fingers again. ‘‘What is this?’’

After some uncertainty over whether to use ‘‘this’’ or ‘‘that,’’ the children began to dutifully respond. ‘‘This is a FEEEESH.’’

Nyambara pressed on, repeating the call-and-response five more times. ‘‘This is a FEESH. Now class?’’ Snap. ‘‘This is a FEESH,’’ responded the children, their voices moving from uncertainty to singsong, pleased to be catching on.

Needless to say, the delivery model has attracted some major corporate players who are already heavily invested in the economics of digitally-mediated commodification, Bill Gates, the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative and Pearson being just a few. As The Times notes, ‘the company’s pitch [is] tailor-made for the new generation of tech-industry philanthropists, who are impatient to solve the world’s problems and who see unleashing the free market as the best way to create enduring social change.’

Hands Up

Contrast this with a project that is the polar opposite of Bridge in spirit, intent and educational philosophy, but which also addresses the needs of children (without disempowering their teachers) in very difficult circumstances. Nick Bilbrough’s initiative to use simple technology (Skype, Zoom) – not to deliver commodified lesson ‘MacNuggets’ at a price – but to freely create opportunities for learners to interact and be creative using English, supporting them and their teachers in such deprived situations as the Gaza Strip and Syrian refugee camps in Jordan, is called the Hands-Up Project.

Because it is not designed to make a profit, it has not attracted the attention of Bill Gates or Pearson, needless to say. But watch any of the videos that Nick has posted on his blog and you cannot help but be moved by the level of engagement – not to say the level of English – of these children.

How can we enlist more support for this project, without ‘unleashing the free market’ and the forces of commodification, I wonder?



30 responses

16 07 2017
James Thomas

It has always bothered me that so many countries do not have free primary and secondary education: there should be no “gaps in the market” for Bridge to fill and the countries that let them in need to regulate them – ethically. If this is a case of a Bridge education instead of no education for millions of children, their role in shifting people from poverty to becoming (a) lovers of learning, and critical thinkers, etc, or (b) good little consumers, needs to be critically assessed. Any evidence of product placement and kickbacks, for example?

It also bothers me that many WEIRD countries don’t have free tertiary education. WEIRD btw is western, educated, industrialised, rich, democratic (from social science).

18 07 2017
Scott Thornbury

Thanks, James. I think that many of the contexts in which Bridge operates (such as Kenya) do in fact have free education, but that it is in such a parlous state that it is relatively easy for private players to take advantage of parents’ desperation – rather than, say, attempt to help the public system to improve – as is the motivation (insofar as I understand it) of the Ceibal project in Uruguay.

23 07 2017
Graham Stanley

Indeed, Plan Ceibal has managed to engage the private sector language schools in Uruguay, persuading them to join in and help meet the need of providing 3,500 remote lessons per week to 80,000+ primary children.

As far as I can tell, the language institutes do this without lowering the hourly rate a teacher gets paid for a class, instead assuming the teaching of the classes at cost, or according to what I have heard some academy directors say, making a small loss. They choose to remain involved perhaps through a mixture of sense of pride at being involved in an innovative project, believing that a new market will emerge with an increased appetite for English, and the feeling that they don’t want to miss out on the experience of being part of a new type of teaching that could become more popular in the future.

Whatever the motivation, there are I think few other examples of private and public sector working together in the field of language teaching. It’s certainly a first for Uruguay.

21 07 2017

Have you ever read John Taylor Gatto’s “The Underground History of American Education” or heard his presentation on it? The premise is that the public school system in the US was based on the Prussian model and designed to produce factory workers, i.e. people with just enough education to do basic work but not to be able to think too much.

Gatto taught in NY public schools for 30 years and found his own unique ways to educate his students in spite of the system. The book is about 1,000 pages (originally 2,000) and his You Tube is about 3-hours long. It’s well-worth listening to. And I love the title of Volume I: “An Intimate Investigation Into the Prison of Modern Schooling”. Nice!

16 07 2017

Hi Scott,

You end with a good question. What you describe is an extreme case of the commodification of ELT, where similarities with what’s going on in the Far East, South America, Europe, and even the UK and the USA today are not hard to see – that description of the teacher elliciting “feeesh” must send shivers down many of your readers!

So how we can enlist more support for the shoots of an alternative approach, without ‘unleashing the free market’ and the forces of commodification is surely a general concern for those who seek change. It has echoes in the gentrification of run down neighbourhoods in big cities: radical alternative groups move in and generate a vibrant community where profit is not the main driver, this attracts the attention of the chic middle class who start to move in too, and quickly “gentrify” the area, thus bringing it safely back into the belly of the beast. Johnny Rotten starts as an “An Ar Kist” and ends up having tea with the Queen. All that and all that. Encouraging projects like the one you describe, as you rightly suggest, can so easily backfire.

Raising awareness of the issues has to be a good start. I think you already know my views on what should follow.

18 07 2017
Scott Thornbury

Thanks, Geoff. Yes, the neo-liberal imperative to outsource not only education, but everything that ought to be guaranteed exempt from exploitation for profit motives (such as health) is ubiquitous. Watching the Ken Loach film I, Daniel Blake on the plane back from the US yesterday forcefully reminded me of the fact. E.g. ‘Are you a trained nurse?’ ‘No, I’m an out-sourced health service operative…’ (or words to that effect).

16 07 2017
Heidi A. Karow

I’m glad that you offer hope with the example of the Hands-up Project.

In response to your question, maybe you also could seek the support of someone high profile, who is not focussed on profitability – for example, J.K. Rowling.

Or, you could offer a regular feature involving song or any highly engaging activity that teachers could incorporate into their lesson plan (different levels, on and off). This would increase traffic to your website and raise your profile in the teaching community.

Bill Gates is a supporter of Khan Academy, which is still non-profit I think. Maybe there are other reasons why he and his wife are unaware of the Hands-up Project?

18 07 2017
Scott Thornbury

Thanks, Heidi, for your suggestions. I’ll pass them on to Nick. In fact, the stories and chants that Nick has written (typically based on local folk tales) are freely available for use by teachers in the kinds of classrooms he has been working with. See the Resources for Teachers link in the Hands Up website.

16 07 2017
Rob Sheppard

I’m glad to see this issue addressed here, Scott. There has certainly been some vigorous debate on Twitter about several adjacent issues lately, and I imagine this is in part a response to that.

The example of Bridge is an extreme but useful one. I think it can be valuable to state outright a couple of the underlying issues that lead to extreme cases like Bridge. The most fundamental is that profit and pedagogy seem to be irrevocably at odds. Profit calls for lower paid, lesser trained teachers, larger classes, a uniformity of experience, etc. Best pedagogical practices call for higher pay, paid prep time, smaller classes, a responsiveness and level of engagement that resists homogenizing. Keeping this in mind is, in my mind, essential to making any progress in this debate.

The other big factor is that quality education is simply expensive. This may sound really obvious, but many of the most vocal voices in this debate spend a whole lot of time calling out big corporations without offering any serious, viable, sustainable alternatives. I really think there should be more effort to involve program administrators in these conversations, because these are the people who see the inner workings of budgets and work with the numbers on a daily basis. As a program admin myself, I can tell you, it’s really not as simple as just not being evil and not maximizing profit. Even at a mid-sized nonprofit—where the evils of profit are removed from the equation—simply balancing the budge without sacrificing quality or making classes prohibitively expensive is impossible without heavy subsidies from donors.

Ultimately, I think whatever solution is reached will have to come from the for-profit sector, so we’d do well to not just vilify big corporations. Rather, we ought to encourage them toward reasonably alternatives. Spend some time talking to the people who work at Pearson and Cengage. The vast majority of them are not evil suits bent to maximize profit at every turn. They’re mostly like-minded educators themselves, navigating a complicated, threatened industry and trying to find a way that ensures both quality and profit.

I won’t turn this into a full-on self promo, but this is an idea that I am engaging with daily in my own (still nascent) project, Ginseng English, where I’m trying to use a social enterprise model—something like Tom’s or Warby Parker’s get-one-give-one model—to address precisely these issues. Expanding our definition of success beyond the purely financial, embracing the so-called “triple bottom line,” this to me is the way forward.

Anyway, I think the conversation needs to move toward solutions that actually look at hard numbers and logistics, proposing viable alternatives. If teachers want to organize and advocate for better teaching/learning conditions, wonderful, let’s do it, I’m all in. But let’s make sure we’re actually grappling with the nuts and bolts of the situation and not just casting facile aspersions at the easiest targets.

18 07 2017
Scott Thornbury

Thanks, Rob, for your thoughtful and measured response. I agree that we should, as you say ‘spend some time talking to the people who work at Pearson and Cengage’ – and the rest. To this end I have been in discussion with a lead player with a view to participating in a panel discussion on these very issues for the next TESOL Convention in Chicago.

I would dispute your point, though, that ‘quality education is simply expensive’. Or, I would qualify it and say that it doesn’t have to be as expensive as some stakeholders make out. It’s more a question of priorities: if you have limited means, spend them on teacher education, and not on technology or attempting to reduce class sizes. I think that one of the outcomes of the PISA tests is that there is only a weak correlation between succesful educational systems and the money that is invested in them.

18 07 2017
Rob Sheppard

Thanks for your response, Scott. I guess “expensive” is a subjective term, so I don’t know if this is pushback or just elaboration: it may not be “as expensive as some stakeholders make out,” but I’d counter with “it’s much more expensive than most teachers realize.”

I think that when it comes to these discussions in which teachers are criticizing employers (or publishers or whatever institution or establishment it is that we as freethinking teachers tend to chafe against), it’s often with a very limited perspective on the actual costs that go into an effective program. It’s really important to question the status quo, but it’s futile to do so without actually understanding why the status is quo.

It’s not just the direct costs of the teacher’s time and the materials. I’m not talking about new tablets or overhead projectors; we have those at my program, but they account for less than 1% of the annual budget. Time for paid preparation, paid time off, benefits, curriculum development, paid professional development, rent, program coordinator and director salaries, taxes, marketing: all of these are in some way or another integral to a successful, sustainable program (or mine, at least), and they all need to be built into the cost of each class hour that students are paying for.

I think that qualification, sustainable, is an important one: teaching a great course once is pretty easy for any great teacher. Ensuring that it can be done consistently over a span of years is a different matter, and it can be an expensive one.

I talked to an economics professor recently who said at the beginning of the year she makes her freshmen jot down a back-of-the-napkin budget of a 4-person family at the poverty line, and their estimates are almost comically off. But the exercise helps them to notice the gap, and provides a great jumping-off point for a discussion of economic policies that is grounded in the concrete realities of the people they effect. I’d say that something similar might be in order when we’re trying to change any sort of status quo that comes down to money.

Anyway, none of this is to say that we shouldn’t be thinking creatively to decide where we might be able to cut costs. I agree with you completely with that. I simply think we need to ensure that we’re thinking creatively and innovating within realistic parameters, and I don’t think that’s happening as often as it ought to.

19 07 2017
Scott Thornbury

Thanks, Rob. You are right – ‘expensive’ is subjective, and also contextually relative. A school fee that might seem cheap to you or me is a year’s savings for a worker in Kenya.

But to change the subject slightly – since you were too modest to describe what you are doing at Ginseng English, here is the link https://ginse.ng/

To quote an interview with Rob (in The Boston Globe), Ginseng English is ‘an online English school that will charge market-rate tuition to some students, using the money to subsidize class slots for those who can’t afford to pay.’ This would seem to be a more pragmatic and less mercenary approach to funding education. You can read the rest of the interview by clicking on the link below.. (Sorry, Rob, but it does fit rather well with the theme of commodification, and alternative business models).


16 07 2017
Rose Bard

Taking a look at Brazil’s policies for education and the amount of money invested (or not) in education explains the reasons for the scenario you described. Especially that in Brazil, most access to education is through the private sector. It is not a matter of more NGO initiatives, especially if the initiative is imported, but to identify the issues, make better use of public money, for a start, and of course, provide better conditions for teachers to work.

I think that kind of “market” you’ve just described would only be real if the context is not regulated by a government agency, considering it a free market, as it is the case of English language schools in Brazil. As for education and English as a discipline and part of a school curriculum in Brazil, a teacher must have the appropriate degree to teach. But that doesn’t stop companies to continue profit from education with their so called educational solutions and disempowering teachers.

I understand you are talking about education and not just English teaching, so I’ll give you an example of what we are doing in my son’s school. It is a public school under the responsibility of the city government. Parents and teachers decided to be more proactive, instead of leaving to the government to do all the decisions and provide all the funds. There are assemblies where issues are discussed. But all this is thanks to the work of a great principal and a great history teacher who is a social activist. A couple of the issues, for example, were the lack of a science laboratory and the state of the computer lab. There is a science laboratory now, thanks to the science teacher and the principal. And for the computer lab, there were 23 desktops and only 3 working. The principal requested the local government to fix them. The answer from the government was to trash them. We decided to get a second opinion and find a local technician who could take a look at the machines and tell us if they were fixable. From the 20 machines, 16 were recovered. The computer lab will be re-inaugurated next month. And we spent very little to fix the computers from the school’s parents and teachers association. we also counted with the voluntary work of a parent to get all the machines updated and running. By using open source software and focusing on PD (another investment that government should make but it is left for universities extension and research projects such as the ones I am part of), teachers and students will find an array of possibilities to become more protagonists instead of consumers of ready-made lessons. And as consequence, become digital literate and a global citizen.

In Brazil, the answer is simple. We pay taxes and we are entitled to have public education. All we need to do is get the community to become participative in the decisions of the school by having a clear idea what to know to push the government and when to do so, and the action that we need to take collectively. We are basically taking charge of the school because it belongs to the community.

Oh, another interesting project, in the school where my son studies, is the study groups formed by students who have left school because they finished 9th grade and those who need extra classes in math. The solution is within the community, always in the community.

18 07 2017
Scott Thornbury

Thanks Rose. I agree that those accounts of your son’s school (and those, too, from the Joaquim Ruyra school in Barcelona that I described in a previous blog post) demonstrate that – as I said to Rob above – it is not all about flinging a great load of cash at under-resourced school systems. The collective decision-making you describe, and the involvement of family members, as in Joaquim Ruyra, goes a long way to making up for any lack of interactive whiteboards etc. Some might say that this is the cynical exploitation of unpaid labour, but I think any school system worth its salt must actively involve all stakeholders – especially parents – in decisions at every level. This seems not to be written into the charter of the Bridge schools I described in my post.The ony involvement the parents have is in trying to keep up with payments that are rigorously exacted from them.

16 07 2017
Justin Willoughby

In my view, the application of artificial intelligence is the way to improve the quality and affordability of Education. AI can already grade students’ written answers and answer stds’ questions. There are virtual personal assistants that tutor students, virtual reality and computer vision for immersive, hands-on learning and simulations and gamification with rich learning analytics. Much much more sofisticated than drilling ¨FEEESH” and not taking questions and much much cheaper.

18 07 2017
Scott Thornbury

Thanks, Justin. The tenor of my previous comments would suggest that supplementing teaching with virtual assistants is not the way to go. Rather, it would seem to resurrect the programmed instruction initiatives of the 1960s, that assumed learning (of languages, of anything…) could be ‘conditioned’ in much the same way that a pigeon could be trained to walk in figures-of-eight. Indeed, this seems to be the premise underlying adaptive learning technologies today – a critique of which you can find here: https://adaptivelearninginelt.wordpress.com/

19 07 2017
Justin Willoughby

Thanks Scott. The article seemed a bit one-sided to be honest. One such company that leverages AI and machine learning to offer online courses worldwide is “coursera.org”. They have 26 million users and 2 million of those are from India and the number is growing fast as more and more people become aware of the MOOC. One such course they have on offer is:


The course is essentially free. You pay if you want the certification. We should check it out.

17 07 2017

“… the delivery model has attracted some major corporate players who are already heavily invested in the economics of digitally-mediated commodification, Bill Gates, the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative and Pearson being just a few … Nick Bilbrough’s initiative to use simple technology (Skype, Zoom) … How can we enlist more support for this project, without ‘unleashing the free market’ and the forces of commodification, I wonder?”

Bilborough is using Skype – which however easy it may be to use is anything but “simple” – a digital product which was acquired for $8.5 billion dollars by an international giant, Microsoft, just 4 years ago.

He also uses Zoom. This is a company that, as TechCrunch reports (2017, Jan 17), on the strength of its billion dollar valuation managed to raise $100 million dollars to invest in improvements to the service. The service that, as you say, is one of two Bilborough uses.

Neither technology is “simple” as you describe it, however easy they may be to access and however intuitive they may be for users.

And Microsoft is of course a rather good representation of exactly the kind of “digitally-mediated commodification” that this post evidently considers morally questionable at best; downright colonialist in its exploitation at worst.

And yet it is exactly that very economic system that you seem so scathing of that has made it possible for Bilborough to do what he does the way he does.

Like you, I am full of admiration for Bilborough’s project. On the other hand, it seems to be not only simplistic but actually wrong to characterise “the economics of digitally-mediated commodification” with such disdain when it is precisely that economic system that has made his project a viable option.

17 07 2017

You seem to be operating under the assumption that capitalism is something that we must either embrace wholesale and wholeheartedly or else be outright communists. That is, well, a bit too “simple.” Scott’s post is not a wholesale rejection of all things capitalist. There is nothing there (despite your bizarre fixation on the word “simple”) that condemns the aspects of capitalism that have undoubtedly led to the development of products like Zoom and Skype.

Scott’s critique is pretty clearly focused on the negative impact that commodification can have on education, and I don’t think anyone who has worked in this industry can seriously deny that impact. Commodification is a simple fact. A product or service becomes a commodity, and as such becomes more than just that product or service itself. It becomes a thing that is bought and sold and marketed. This inevitably has effects: some positive, some negative.

Take the case of food: when food the commodity is approached in terms of speed and convenience, you get McDonalds. McDonalds offers a product that meets a demand, and does so with remarkable efficiency, so it is a massive success from a business standpoint. Still, we can critique the effects that this form of commodification has had on food as sustenance and food as an art form. And those effects are undeniable.

The same is true of education. When it becomes a commodity, it changes. In the case of Bridge, it changed into something that most educators agree is not the makings of good education. That pedagogically—not morally—questionable model is the grounds of Scott’s critique. I agree completely with this critique, and it doesn’t in any way change my belief that some form of capitalism is the best economic model we’re going to come up with. The embrace of capitalism doesn’t need to be blind and uncritical.

To go back to the example of food, look what happens when critical consumers make it clear to producers that they value quality. America is seeing a massive boom in chains that commit to some degree of quality, charge a bit more, and still remain pretty fast and efficient.

18 07 2017

“You seem to be operating under the assumption that capitalism is something that we must either embrace wholesale and wholeheartedly or else be outright communists.”

I made no such claim or even implied such. You can persist in believing that to be the case but whether you do or not is a matter for you to decide. Either way, pretty much everything which follows that first sentence is you shadowboxing with yourself using pre-rehearsed arguments and positions against a position you have encountered elsewhere with someone else, imaginary or otherwise.

My point – which was fairly unambiguous and therefore did not require any guesswork on your part (i.e. “You seem to be …”) – was that the system which comes under criticism in this post (“the negative impact that commodification can have on education” as you yourself put it just now) is the very same system which made the technology possible which in turn makes Nick Bilborough’s project a possibility at all.

Given that Scott’s post includes the following – “Nick Bilbrough’s initiative to use **simple** technology (Skype, Zoom) … but to **freely** create opportunities for learners …” – the point is pertinent as the technology he uses is neither “simple” nor free. Consequently, it seems a little simplistic to divide education providers along such lines.

18 07 2017
Scott Thornbury

I think you are confusing the medium and the message. I was not actually comparing technologies in my post (the e-readers that Bridge Academies use are probably relatively ‘simple’ too, where ‘simple’ means – in my book – readily accessible, very user friendly, and, for the end-user, low-cost, if not totally free – but it’s what they do with this technology (as evidenced by the ‘feesh’ lesson) that is the problem. What the Bridge schools are doing is using (simple) technologies to commodify education, something that the Hands Up Project is manifestly not doing. Technology is the problem only when it is enlisted in the profitable commodification of granular learning outcomes. By the same token, there are good educational uses of books (e.g. graded readers) and there are more questionable ones (e.g. global coursebooks) – and both kinds of book may in fact emanate from the very same publisher. My beef – as Rob correctly observes – is not with capitalism per se (I’m too inextricably entangled it it, for a start) but with the cynical way that capitalism – in its neo-liberal avatar – poses as a force for emancipation and social change.

17 07 2017

best one yet

18 07 2017
Sulabha Sidhaye

Dear Scott,
Such contrasting systems of providing education co-exist even in India. In some deprived areas it is a case of “something is better than nothing “! The government is making efforts but the population of India is too large and diverse for a common programme to reach and benefit all the people.

I feel it is for the teaching community to critically examine what is happening in different remote areas in their own countries. They can rope in better organisations to provide quality education with the help of charity from the community. It is a long drawn process but is being done by aware citizens and groups in many parts of India. I offer some assistance in providing material / conducting projects as a language teacher or training their new teachers if & when required. I also donate funds personally and through my contacts to such social groups.(One example is the Rotary Club where I contribute as a Rotary-Ann) I am aware that such efforts are not enough but I am confident that more and more people will get involved in ensuring good education for the future generations !

18 07 2017
Scott Thornbury

Thanks for the comment, Sulabha – and it’s useful to have the Indian perspective on this issue – not least because there have been some interetsing, if controversial, attempts,using digital technologies, to erase some of the inequalities in the Indian educational system. I’m thinking in particular of Sugata Mitra’s Hole-in-the-Wall project and his subsequent promotion of SOLEs (self-organizing learning environments). One criticism of these initiatives is that, by sidelining the teacher in favour of what can be ‘delivered’ on the internet, they are simply perpetuating a widely felt distrust and rejection of what teachers are capable of doing themselves, so long as they are trained, supported and valued.

21 07 2017

Thanks for mentioning the Hands Up Project here Scott. The point you make about ‘addressing the needs of children, without disempowering their teachers’ is a crucial one for me, and it’s so central to the way that our project is developing. Every online session that takes place is a collaborative effort between a local teacher and an external volunteer, and the content is created through dialogue and negotiation between them, before, during and afterwards. This is nicely illustrated in this blog post by Alex in Russia and Sahar and Gaza. https://handsupproject.org/2017/04/21/visualisation/ Of course there are some things which the local teacher will be better suited to do (classroom management, assessing needs, providing language support etc) and some things that are more suited to the remote teacher (engaging in genuine communication, bringing in external stimuli, being an audience for student performances etc). When it works well, it is team teaching at its best though and I’m proud of the fact that a Hornby scholar at Warwick University is currently researching this aspect of the Hands Up Project for her Masters dissertation. Teachers who work together have become not just colleagues but friends. I’m in Brazil at the moment, trying to establish more links here, and a Brazilian volunteer has just told me that he has regular long facebook calls with his partner in Palestine – just to chat.

21 07 2017
Scott Thornbury

Thanks, Nick, for confirming what I strongly feel is one of the great benefits of the Hands Up project and worth repeating: “Every online session that takes place is a collaborative effort between a local teacher and an external volunteer, and the content is created through dialogue and negotiation between them, before, during and afterwards.”

Nothing could be further removed from the off-the-peg downloadable lessons of the Bridge Academies.

21 07 2017
Richard Wilson (@ritchartwinson)

This is an important issue but is it really any different from what is happening in ELT schools everywhere (not just “economically depressed areas”)? I know of language schools that use content based tests to ensure their teachers cover everything in the coursebook, and of large franchises that provide teachers with “teacher notes” or “suggested lesson plans” (scripts) that teachers are assessed on their ability to follow. Most of the schools that I have seen or worked at have a management defined syllabus for all courses and very few are open to the idea of teacher input, let alone student input.

Recently, there were many posts on twitter and a few related blog posts about updating the CELTA course or lengthening the pre-service training English teachers receive. I like training, I like learning and experimenting in the classroom but is this what companies want? What would be the point of a nine month pre-service course, or even of an in-service course like DELTA, if teachers are then forced to work through a course book in order and read from a script?

21 07 2017
Scott Thornbury

Thank you, Richard. I was kind of hoping someone would make this connection – the point of my post was not simply to hype the Hands UP project as much as I love it. Some less beleaguered classroom contexts could do with a similar stimulus!

And, of course, the move to package and control language teaching is exacerbated by the lemming-like rush towards the cliffs of standardized testing.

21 07 2017

I absolutely agree that this is something that happens in a broad array of contexts, and I would add that it happens for a variety of reasons. I hear Scott talk a lot about teacher empowerment and giving teachers the freedom to do what is best for their students, and I’ve pushed back against him on this idea a few times.

In an ideal world, where “teacher empowerment” means empowering QUALIFIED teachers to control most of what happens in their classroom, I’m all for that. But the reason for my objection is that we can’t just assume that “teachers” means good teachers.

Unfortunately, our field is one that attracts a whole lot of people without much training, and there are a whole lot of ways to do it wrong. In short, there are lots of ineffective, undersupported, or undertrained teachers out there who ought not to be given that freedom. Ideally, they’d never make it to the classroom to begin with (or at least not until they’re ready). But, if it’s a given that they’re going to be there for some reason or other, I can see why it might be preferable to restrict the freedom they have in the classroom.

This is what makes Hands-Up such a remarkable model, to me. I’m sorry if it’s a bit tactless to say so, but the tacit premise of the program seems to be exactly my objection: there are teachers out there in classrooms who don’t have the training and support they need to be as effective as we might like. Hands Up seems to have found a really innovative and genuinely empowering model to address that issue.

Any chance of an offshoot: Hands Up for Hagwons?

21 07 2017
Scott Thornbury

Thanks, Rob. I agree that novice and/or untrained teachers need all the support they can get, including off-the-peg lesson plans. And coursebooks. Too often, however, this support ‘stunts them at birth’, so to speak, and they are not encouraged – or see no reason – to discard their training wheels (forgive the mixed metaphors) when the appopriate time comes.

With respect to the teachers in Gaza etc, I can vouch for their skills, dedication and experience. What they – and their learners – lack is any contact with the English-speaking world. Hands Up satisfies a communicative and creative need – as well as signalling that we more privileged educators are not indifferent to their desperate situation.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: