Take the Cambridge Assessment English website, for example. When you connect to the site, you will see, at the bottom of the screen, a familiar (to people in Europe, at least) notification about the site’s use of cookies: the cookies consent.

You probably trust the site, so ignore the notification and quickly move on to find the resource you are looking for. But if you did click on hyperlinked ‘set cookies’, what would you find? The first link takes you to the ‘Cookie policy’ where you will be told that ‘We use cookies principally because we want to make our websites and mobile applications user-friendly, and we are interested in anonymous user behaviour. Generally our cookies don’t store sensitive or personally identifiable information such as your name and address or credit card details’. Scroll down, and you will find out more about the kind of cookies that are used. Besides the cookies that are necessary to the functioning of the site, you will see that there are also ‘third party cookies’. These are explained as follows: ‘Cambridge Assessment works with third parties who serve advertisements or present offers on our behalf and personalise the content that you see. Cookies may be used by those third parties to build a profile of your interests and show you relevant adverts on other sites. They do not store personal information directly but use a unique identifier in your browser or internet device. If you do not allow these cookies, you will experience less targeted content’.

This is not factually inaccurate: personal information is not stored directly. However, it is extremely easy for this information to be triangulated with other information to identify you personally. In addition to the data that you generate by having cookies on your device, Cambridge Assessment will also directly collect data about you. Depending on your interactions with Cambridge Assessment, this will include ‘your name, date of birth, gender, contact data including your home/work postal address, email address and phone number, transaction data including your credit card number when you make a payment to us, technical data including internet protocol (IP) address, login data, browser type and technology used to access this website’. They say they may share this data ‘with other people and/or businesses who provide services on our behalf or at our request’ and ‘with social media platforms, including but not limited to Facebook, Google, Google Analytics, LinkedIn, in pseudonymised or anonymised forms’.

In short, Cambridge Assessment may hold a huge amount of data about you and they can, basically, do what they like with it.

The cookie and privacy policies are fairly standard, as is the lack of transparency in the phrasing of them. Rather more transparency would include, for example, information about which particular ad trackers you are giving your consent to. This information can be found with a browser extension tool like Ghostery, and these trackers can be blocked. As you’ll see below, there are 5 ad trackers on this site. This is rather more than other sites that English language teachers are likely to go to. ETS-TOEFL has 4, Macmillan English and Pearson have 3, CUP ELT and the British Council Teaching English have 1, OUP ELT, IATEFL, BBC Learning English and Trinity College have none. I could only find TESOL, with 6 ad trackers, which has more. The blogs for all these organisations invariably have more trackers than their websites.

The use of numerous ad trackers is probably a reflection of the importance that Cambridge Assessment gives to social media marketing. There is a research paper, produced by Cambridge Assessment, which outlines the significance of big data and social media analytics. They have far more Facebook followers (and nearly 6 million likes) than any other ELT page, and they are proud of their #1 ranking in the education category of social media. The amount of data that can be collected here is enormous and it can be analysed in myriad ways using tools like Ubervu, Yomego and Hootsuite.

A little more transparency, however, would not go amiss. According to a report in Vox, Apple has announced that some time next year ‘iPhone users will start seeing a new question when they use many of the apps on their devices: Do they want the app to follow them around the internet, tracking their behavior?’ Obviously, Google and Facebook are none too pleased about this and will be fighting back. The implications for ad trackers and online advertising, more generally, are potentially huge. I wrote to Cambridge Assessment about this and was pleased to hear that ‘Cambridge Assessment are currently reviewing the process by which we obtain users consent for the use of cookies with the intention of moving to a much more transparent model in the future’. Let’s hope that other ELT organisations are doing the same.

You may be less bothered than I am by the thought of dozens of ad trackers following you around the net so that you can be served with more personalized ads. But the digital profile about you, to which these cookies contribute, may include information about your ethnicity, disabilities and sexual orientation. This profile is auctioned to advertisers when you visit some sites, allowing them to show you ‘personalized’ adverts based on the categories in your digital profile. Contrary to EU regulations, these categories may include whether you have cancer, a substance-abuse problem, your politics and religion (as reported in Fortune https://fortune.com/2019/01/28/google-iab-sensitive-profiles/ ).

But it’s not these cookies that are the most worrying aspect about our lack of digital privacy. It’s the sheer quantity of personal data that is stored about us. Every time we ask our students to use an app or a platform, we are asking them to divulge huge amounts of data. With ClassDojo, for example, this includes names, usernames, passwords, age, addresses, photographs, videos, documents, drawings, or audio files, IP addresses and browser details, clicks, referring URL’s, time spent on site, and page views (Manolev et al., 2019; see also Williamson, 2019).

It is now widely recognized that the ‘consent’ that is obtained through cookie policies and other end-user agreements is largely spurious. These consent agreements, as Sadowski (2019) observes, are non-negotiated, and non-negotiable; you either agree or you are denied access. What’s more, he adds, citing one study, it would take 76 days, working for 8 hours a day, to read the privacy policies a person typically encounters in a year. As a result, most of us choose not to choose when we accept online services (Cobo, 2019: 25). We have little, if any, control over how the data that is collected is used (Birch et al., 2020). More importantly, perhaps, when we ask our students to sign up to an educational app, we are asking / telling them to give away their personal data, not just ours. They are unlikely to fully understand the consequences of doing so.

The extent of this ignorance is also now widely recognized. In the UK, for example, two reports (cited by Sander, 2020) indicate that ‘only a third of people know that data they have not actively chosen to share has been collected’ (Doteveryone, 2018: 5), and that ‘less than half of British adult internet users are aware that apps collect their location and information on their personal preferences’ (Ofcom, 2019: 14).

The main problem with this has been expressed by programmer and activist, Richard Stallman, in an interview with New York magazine (Kulwin, 2018): Companies are collecting data about people. The data that is collected will be abused. That’s not an absolute certainty, but it’s a practical, extreme likelihood, which is enough to make collection a problem.

The abuse that Smallman is referring to can come in a variety of forms. At the relatively trivial end is the personalized advertising. Much more serious is the way that data aggregation companies will scrape data from a variety of sources, building up individual data profiles which can be used to make significant life-impacting decisions, such as final academic grades or whether one is offered a job, insurance or credit (Manolev et al., 2019). Cathy O’Neil’s (2016) best-selling ‘Weapons of Math Destruction’ spells out in detail how this abuse of data increases racial, gender and class inequalities. And after the revelations of Edward Snowden, we all know about the routine collection by states of huge amounts of data about, well, everyone. Whether it’s used for predictive policing or straightforward repression or something else, it is simply not possible for younger people, our students, to know what personal data they may regret divulging at a later date.

Digital educational providers may try to reassure us that they will keep data private, and not use it for advertising purposes, but the reassurances are hollow. These companies may change their terms and conditions further down the line, and examples exist of when this has happened (Moore, 2018: 210). But even if this does not happen, the data can never be secure. Illegal data breaches and cyber attacks are relentless, and education ranked worst at cybersecurity out of 17 major industries in one recent analysis (Foresman, 2018). One report suggests that one in five US schools and colleges have fallen victim to cyber-crime. Two weeks ago, I learnt (by chance, as I happened to be looking at my security settings on Chrome) that my passwords for Quizlet, Future Learn, Elsevier and Science Direct had been compromised by a data breach. To get a better understanding of the scale of data breaches, you might like to look at the UK’s IT Governance site, which lists detected and publicly disclosed data breaches and cyber attacks each month (36.6 million records breached in August 2020). If you scroll through the list, you’ll see how many of them are educational sites. You’ll also see a comment about how leaky organisations have been throughout lockdown … because they weren’t prepared for the sudden shift online.

Recent years have seen a growing consensus that ‘it is crucial for language teaching to […] encompass the digital literacies which are increasingly central to learners’ […] lives’ (Dudeney et al., 2013). Most of the focus has been on the skills that are needed to use digital media. There also appears to be growing interest in developing critical thinking skills in the context of digital media (e.g. Peachey, 2016) – identifying fake news and so on. To a much lesser extent, there has been some focus on ‘issues of digital identity, responsibility, safety and ethics when students use these technologies’ (Mavridi, 2020a: 172). Mavridi (2020b: 91) also briefly discusses the personal risks of digital footprints, but she does not have the space to explore more fully the notion of critical data literacy. This literacy involves an understanding of not just the personal risks of using ‘free’ educational apps and platforms, but of why they are ‘free’ in the first place. Sander (2020b) suggests that this literacy entails ‘an understanding of datafication, recognizing the risks and benefits of the growing prevalence of data collection, analytics, automation, and predictive systems, as well as being able to critically reflect upon these developments. This includes, but goes beyond the skills of, for example, changing one’s social media settings, and rather constitutes an altered view on the pervasive, structural, and systemic levels of changing big data systems in our datafied societies’.

In my next two posts, I will, first of all, explore in more detail the idea of critical data literacy, before suggesting a range of classroom resources.

(I posted about privacy in March 2014, when I looked at the connections between big data and personalized / adaptive learning. In another post, September 2014, I looked at the claims of the CEO of Knewton who bragged that his company had five orders of magnitude more data about you than Google has. … We literally have more data about our students than any company has about anybody else about anything, and it’s not even close. You might find both of these posts interesting.)

References

Birch, K., Chiappetta, M. & Artyushina, A. (2020). ‘The problem of innovation in technoscientific capitalism: data rentiership and the policy implications of turning personal digital data into a private asset’ Policy Studies, 41:5, 468-487, DOI: 10.1080/01442872.2020.1748264

Cobo, C. (2019). I Accept the Terms and Conditions. https://adaptivelearninginelt.files.wordpress.com/2020/01/41acf-cd84b5_7a6e74f4592c460b8f34d1f69f2d5068.pdf

Doteveryone. (2018). People, Power and Technology: The 2018 Digital Attitudes Report. https://attitudes.doteveryone.org.uk

Dudeney, G., Hockly, N. & Pegrum, M. (2013). Digital Literacies. Harlow: Pearson Education

Foresman, B. (2018). Education ranked worst at cybersecurity out of 17 major industries. Edscoop, December 17, 2018. https://edscoop.com/education-ranked-worst-at-cybersecurity-out-of-17-major-industries/

Kulwin, K. (2018). F*ck Them. We Need a Law’: A Legendary Programmer Takes on Silicon Valley, New York Intelligencer, 2018, https://nymag.com/intelligencer/2018/04/richard-stallman-rms-on-privacy-data-and-free-software.html

Manolev, J., Sullivan, A. & Slee, R. (2019). ‘Vast amounts of data about our children are being harvested and stored via apps used by schools’ EduReseach Matters, February 18, 2019. https://www.aare.edu.au/blog/?p=3712

Mavridi, S. (2020a). Fostering Students’ Digital Responsibility, Ethics and Safety Skills (Dress). In Mavridi, S. & Saumell, V. (Eds.) Digital Innovations and Research in Language Learning. Faversham, Kent: IATEFL. pp. 170 – 196

Mavridi, S. (2020b). Digital literacies and the new digital divide. In Mavridi, S. & Xerri, D. (Eds.) English for 21st Century Skills. Newbury, Berks.: Express Publishing. pp. 90 – 98

Moore, M. (2018). Democracy Hacked. London: Oneworld

Ofcom. (2019). Adults: Media use and attitudes report [Report]. https://www.ofcom.org.uk/__data/assets/pdf_file/0021/149124/adults-media-use-and-attitudes-report.pdf

O’Neil, C. (2016). Weapons of Math Destruction. London: Allen Lane

Peachey, N. (2016). Thinking Critically through Digital Media. http://peacheypublications.com/

Sadowski, J. (2019). ‘When data is capital: Datafication, accumulation, and extraction’ Big Data and Society 6 (1) https://doi.org/10.1177%2F2053951718820549

Sander, I. (2020a). What is critical big data literacy and how can it be implemented? Internet Policy Review, 9 (2). DOI: 10.14763/2020.2.1479 https://www.econstor.eu/bitstream/10419/218936/1/2020-2-1479.pdf

Sander, I. (2020b). Critical big data literacy tools—Engaging citizens and promoting empowered internet usage. Data & Policy, 2: e5 doi:10.1017/dap.2020.5

Williamson, B. (2019). ‘Killer Apps for the Classroom? Developing Critical Perspectives on ClassDojo and the ‘Ed-tech’ Industry’ Journal of Professional Learning, 2019 (Semester 2) https://cpl.asn.au/journal/semester-2-2019/killer-apps-for-the-classroom-developing-critical-perspectives-on-classdojo

A week or so ago, someone in the Macmillan marketing department took it upon themselves to send out this tweet. What grabbed my attention was the claim that it is ‘a well-known fact’ that teaching students a growth mindset makes them perform better academically over time. The easily demonstrable reality (which I’ll come on to) is that this is not a fact. It’s fake news, being used for marketing purposes. The tweet links to a blog post of over a year ago. In it, Chia Suan Chong offers five tips for developing a growth mindset in students: educating students about neuroplasticity, delving deeper into success stories, celebrating challenges and mistakes, encouraging students to go outside their comfort zones, and giving ‘growth-mindset-feedback’. All of which, she suggests, might help our students. Indeed, it might, and, even if it doesn’t, it might be worth a try anyway. Chia doesn’t make any claims beyond the potential of the suggested strategies, so I wonder where the Macmillan Twitter account person got the ‘well-known fact’.

If you google ‘mindset ELT’, you will find webpage after webpage offering tips about how to promote growth mindset in learners. It’s rare for the writers of these pages to claim that the positive effects of mindset interventions are a ‘fact’, but it’s even rarer to come across anyone who suggests that mindset interventions might be an à la mode waste of time and effort. Even in more serious literature (e.g. Mercer, S. & Ryan, S. (2010). A mindset for EFL: learners’ beliefs about the role of natural talent. ELT Journal, 64 (4): 436 – 444), the approach is fundamentally enthusiastic, with no indication that there might be a problem with mindset theory. Given that this enthusiasm is repeated so often, perhaps we should not blame the Macmillan tweeter for falling victim to the illusory truth effect. After all, it appears that 98% of teachers in the US feel that growth mindset approaches should be adopted in schools (Hendrick, 2019).

Chia suggests that we can all have fixed mindsets in certain domains (e.g. I know all about that, there’s nothing more I can learn). One domain where it seems that fixed mindsets are prevalent is mindset theory itself. This post is an attempt to nudge towards more ‘growth’ and, in trying to persuade you to be more sceptical, I will quote as much as possible from Carol Dweck, the founder of mindset theory, and her close associates.

Carol Dweck’s book ‘Mindset: The New Psychology of Success’ appeared in 2006. In it, she argued that people can be placed on a continuum between those who have ‘a fixed mindset–those who believe that abilities are fixed—[and who] are less likely to flourish [and] those with a growth mindset–those who believe that abilities can be developed’ (from the back cover of the updated (2007) version of the book). There was nothing especially new about the idea. It is very close to Bandura’s (1982) theory of self-efficacy, which will be familiar to anyone who has read Zoltán Dörnyei’s more recent work on motivation in language learning. It’s closely related to Carl Roger’s (1969) ideas about self-concept and it’s not a million miles removed, either, from Maslow’s (1943) theory of self-actualization. The work of Rogers and Maslow was at the heart of the ‘humanistic turn’ in ELT in the latter part of the 20th century (see, for example, Early, 1981), so mindset theory is likely to resonate with anyone who was inspired by the humanistic work of people like Moskowitz, Stevick or Rinvolucri. The appeal of mindset theory is easy to see. Besides its novelty value, it resonates emotionally with the values that many teachers share, writes Tom Bennett: it feels right that you don’t criticise the person, but invite them to believe that, through hard work and persistence, you can achieve.

We might even trace interest in the importance of self-belief back to the Stoics (who, incidentally but not coincidentally, are experiencing a revival of interest), but Carol Dweck introduced a more modern flavour to the old wine and packaged it skilfully and accessibly in shiny new bottles. Her book was a runaway bestseller, with sales in the millions, and her TED Talk has now had over 11 million views. It was in education that mindset theory became particularly popular. As a mini-industry it is now worth millions and millions. Just one research project into the efficacy of one mindset product has received 3.5 million dollars in US federal funding.

But, much like other ideas that have done a roaring trade in popular psychology (Howard Gardner’s ‘multiple intelligences theory, for example) which seem to offer simple solutions to complex problems, there was soon pushback. It wasn’t hard for critics to scoff at motivational ‘yes-you-can’ posters in classrooms or accounts of well-meaning but misguided teacher interventions, like this one reported by Carl Hendrick:

One teacher [took] her children out into the pristine snow covering the school playground, she instructed them to walk around, taking note of their footprints. “Look at these paths you’ve been creating,” the teacher said. “In the same way that you’re creating new pathways in the snow, learning creates new pathways in your brain.”

Carol Dweck was sympathetic to the critics. She has described the early reaction to her book as ‘uncontrollable’. She freely admits that she and her colleagues had underestimated the issues around mindset interventions in the classrooms and that such interventions were ‘not yet evidence-based’. She identified two major areas where mindset interventions have gone awry. The first of these is when a teacher teaches the concept of mindsets to students, but does not change other policies and practices in the classroom. The second is that some teachers have focussed too much on praising their learners’ efforts. Teachers have taken mindset recipes and tips, without due consideration. She says:

Teachers have to ask, what exactly is the evidence suggesting? They have to realise it takes deep thought and deep experimentation on their part in the classroom to see how best the concept can be implemented there. This should be a group enterprise, in which they share what worked, what did not work, for whom and when. People need to recognise we are researchers, we have produced a body of evidence that says under these conditions this is what happened. We have not explored all the conditions that are possible. Teacher feedback on what is working and not working is hugely valuable to us to tell us what we have not done and what we need to do.

Critics like Dylan William, Carl Hendrick and Timothy Bates found that it was impossible to replicate Dweck’s findings, and that there were at best weak correlations between growth mindset and academic achievement, and between mindset interventions and academic gains. They were happy to concede that typical mindset interventions would not do any harm, but asked whether the huge amounts of money being spent on mindset would not be better invested elsewhere.

Carol Dweck seems to like the phrase ‘not yet’. She argues, in her TED Talk, that simply using the words ‘not yet’ can build students’ confidence, and her tip is often repeated by others. She also talks about mindset interventions being ‘not yet evidence-based’, which is a way of declaring her confidence that they soon will be. But, with huge financial backing, Dweck and her colleagues have recently been carrying out a lot of research and the results are now coming in. There are a small number of recent investigations that advocates of mindset interventions like to point to. For reasons of space, I’ll refer to two of them.

The first (Outes-Leon, et al., 2020) of these looked at an intervention with children in the first grades in a few hundred Peruvian secondary schools. The intervention consisted of students individually reading a text designed to introduce them to the concept of growth-mindset. This was followed by a group debate about the text, before students had to write individually a reflective letter to a friend/relative describing what they had learned. In total, this amounted to about 90 minutes of activity. Subsequently, teachers made a subjective assessment of the ‘best’ letters and attached these to the classroom wall, along with a growth mindset poster, for the rest of the school year. Teachers were also asked to take a picture of the students alongside the letters and the poster and to share this picture by email.

Academic progress was measured 2 and 14 months after the intervention and compared to a large control group. The short-term (2 months) impact of the intervention was positive for mathematics, but less so for reading comprehension. (Why?) These gains were only visible in regional schools, not at all in metropolitan schools. Similar results were found when looking at the medium-term (14 month) impact. The reasons for this are unclear. It is hypothesized that the lower-achieving students in regional schools might benefit more from the intervention. Smaller class sizes in regional schools might also be a factor. But, of course, many other explanations are possible.

The paper is entitled The Power of Believing You Can Get Smarter. The authors make it clear that they were looking for positive evidence of the intervention and they were supported by mindset advocates (e.g. David Yeager) from the start. It was funded by the World Bank, which is a long-standing advocate of growth mindset interventions. (Rather jumping the gun, the World Bank’s Mindset Team wrote in 2014 that teaching growth mindset is not just another policy fad. It is backed by a burgeoning body of empirical research.) The paper’s authors conclude that ‘the benefits of the intervention were relevant and long-lasting in the Peruvian context’, and they focus strongly on the low costs of the intervention. They acknowledge that the way the tool is introduced (design of the intervention) and the context in which this occurs (i.e., school and teacher characteristics) both matter to understand potential gains. But without understanding the role of the context, we haven’t really learned anything practical that we can take away from the research. Our understanding of the power of believing you can get smarter has not been meaningfully advanced.

The second of these studies (Yeager et al., 2019) took many thousands of lower-achieving American 9th graders from a representative sample of schools. It is a very well-designed and thoroughly reported piece of research. The intervention consisted of two 25-minute online sessions, 20 days apart, which sought to reduce the negative effort beliefs of students (the belief that having to try hard or ask for help means you lack ability), fixed-trait attributions (the attribution that failure stems from low ability) and performance avoidance goals (the goal of never looking stupid). An analysis of academic achievement at the end of the school year indicated clearly that the intervention led to improved performance. These results lead to very clear grounds for optimism about the potential of growth mindset interventions, but the report is careful to avoid overstatement. We have learnt about one particular demographic with one particular intervention, but it would be wrong to generalise beyond that. The researchers had hoped that the intervention would help to compensate for unsupportive school norms, but found that this was not the case. Instead, they found that it was when the peer norm supported the adoption of intellectual challenges that the intervention promoted sustained benefits. Context, as in the Peruvian study, was crucial. The authors write:

We emphasize that not all forms of growth mindset interventions can be expected to increase grades or advanced course-taking, even in the targeted subgroups. New growth mindset interventions that go beyond the module and population tested here will need to be subjected to rigorous development and validation processes.

I think that a reasonable conclusion from reading this research is that it may well be worth experimenting with growth mindset interventions in English language classes, but without any firm expectation of any positive impact. If nothing else, the interventions might provide useful, meaningful practice of the four skills. First, though, it would make sense to read two other pieces of research (Sisk et al., 2018; Burgoyne et al., 2020). Unlike the projects I have just discussed, these were not carried out by researchers with an a priori enthusiasm for growth-mindset interventions. And the results were rather different.

The first of these (Sisk et al., 2018) was a meta-analysis of the literature. It found that there was only a weak correlation between mindset and academic achievement, and only a weak correlation between mindset interventions and academic gains. It did, however, lend support to one of the conclusions of Yeager et al (2019), that such interventions may benefit students who are academically at risk.

The second (Burgoyne et al., 2020) found that the foundations of mind-set theory are not firm and that bold claims about mind-set appear to be overstated. Other constructs such as self-efficacy and need for achievement, [were] found to correlate much more strongly with presumed associates of mind-set.

So, where does this leave us? We are clearly a long way from ‘facts’; mindset interventions are ‘not yet evidence-based’. Carl Hendrick (2019) provides a useful summary:

The truth is we simply haven’t been able to translate the research on the benefits of a growth mindset into any sort of effective, consistent practice that makes an appreciable difference in student academic attainment. In many cases, growth mindset theory has been misrepresented and miscast as simply a means of motivating the unmotivated through pithy slogans and posters. […] Recent evidence would suggest that growth mindset interventions are not the elixir of student learning that many of its proponents claim it to be. The growth mindset appears to be a viable construct in the lab, which, when administered in the classroom via targeted interventions, doesn’t seem to work at scale. It is hard to dispute that having a self-belief in their own capacity for change is a positive attribute for students. Paradoxically, however, that aspiration is not well served by direct interventions that try to instil it.

References

Bandura, Albert (1982). Self-efficacy mechanism in human agency. American Psychologist, 37 (2): pp. 122–147. doi:10.1037/0003-066X.37.2.122.

Burgoyne, A. P., Hambrick, D. Z., & Macnamara, B. N. (2020). How Firm Are the Foundations of Mind-Set Theory? The Claims Appear Stronger Than the Evidence. Psychological Science, 31(3), 258–267. https://doi.org/10.1177/0956797619897588

Early, P. (Ed.) ELT Documents 1113 – Humanistic Approaches: An Empirical View. London: The British Council

Dweck, C. S. (2006). Mindset: The New Psychology of Success. New York: Ballantine Books

Hendrick, C. (2019). The growth mindset problem. Aeon,11 March 2019.

Maslow, A. (1943). A Theory of Human Motivation. Psychological Review, 50: pp. 370-396.

Outes-Leon, I., Sanchez, A. & Vakis, R. (2020). The Power of Believing You Can Get Smarter : The Impact of a Growth-Mindset Intervention on Academic Achievement in Peru (English). Policy Research working paper, no. WPS 9141 Washington, D.C. : World Bank Group. http://documents.worldbank.org/curated/en/212351580740956027/The-Power-of-Believing-You-Can-Get-Smarter-The-Impact-of-a-Growth-Mindset-Intervention-on-Academic-Achievement-in-Peru

Rogers, C. R. (1969). Freedom to Learn: A View of What Education Might Become. Columbus, Ohio: Charles Merill

Sisk, V. F., Burgoyne, A. P., Sun, J., Butler, J. L., Macnamara, B. N. (2018). To what extent and under which circumstances are growth mind-sets important to academic achievement? Two meta-analyses. Psychological Science, 29, 549–571. doi:10.1177/0956797617739704

Yeager, D.S., Hanselman, P., Walton, G.M. et al. (2019). A national experiment reveals where a growth mindset improves achievement. Nature 573, 364–369. https://doi.org/10.1038/s41586-019-1466-y

subtitlesAs both a language learner and a teacher, I have a number of questions about the value of watching subtitled videos for language learning. My interest is in watching extended videos, rather than short clips for classroom use, so I am concerned with incidental, rather than intentional, learning, mostly of vocabulary. My questions include:

  • Is it better to watch a video that is subtitled or unsubtitled?
  • Is it better to watch a video with L1 or L2 subtitles?
  • If a video is watched more than once, what is the best way to start and proceed? In which order (no subtitles, L1 subtitles and L2 subtitles) is it best to watch?

For help, I turned to three recent books about video and language learning: Ben Goldstein and Paul Driver’s Language Learning with Digital Video (CUP, 2015), Kieran Donaghy’s Film in Action (Delta, 2015) and Jamie Keddie’s Bringing Online Video into the Classroom (OUP, 2014). I was surprised to find no advice, but, as I explored more, I discovered that there may be a good reason for these authors’ silence.

There is now a huge literature out there on subtitles and language learning, and I cannot claim to have read it all. But I think I have read enough to understand that I am not going to find clear-cut answers to my questions.

The learning value of subtitles

It has been known for some time that the use of subtitles during extensive viewing of video in another language can help in the acquisition of that language. The main gains are in vocabulary acquisition and the development of listening skills (Montero Perez et al., 2013). This is true of both L1 subtitles (with an L2 audio track), sometimes called interlingual subtitles, (Incalcaterra McLoughlin et al, 2011) and L2 subtitles (with an L2 audio track), sometimes called intralingual subtitles or captions (Vanderplank, 1988). Somewhat more surprisingly, vocabulary gains may also come from what are called reversed subtitles (L2 subtitles and an L1 audio track) (Burczyńska, 2015). Of course, certain conditions apply for subtitled video to be beneficial, and I’ll come on to these. But there is general research agreement (an exception is Karakaş & Sariçoban, 2012) that more learning is likely to take place from watching a subtitled video in a target language than an unsubtitled one.

Opposition to the use of subtitles as a tool for language learning has mostly come from three angles. The first of these, which concerns L1 subtitles, is an antipathy to any use at all of L1. Although such an attitude remains entrenched in some quarters, there is no evidence to support it (Hall & Cook, 2012; Kerr, 2016). Researchers and, increasingly, teachers have moved on.

The second reservation that is sometimes expressed is that learners may not attend to either the audio track or the subtitles if they do not need to. They may, for example, ignore the subtitles in the case of reversed subtitles or ignore the L2 audio track when there are L1 subtitles. This can, of course, happen, but it seems that, on the whole, this is not the case. In an eye-tracking study by Bisson et al (2012), for example, it was found that most people followed the subtitles, irrespective of what kind they were. Unsurprisingly, they followed the subtitles more closely when the audio track was in a language that was less familiar. When conditions are right (see below), reading subtitles becomes a very efficient and partly automatized cognitive activity, which does not prevent people from processing the audio track at the same time (d’Ydewalle & Pavakanun, 1997).

Related to the second reservation is the concern that the two sources of information (audio and subtitles), combined with other information (images and music or sound effects), may be in competition and lead to cognitive overload, impacting negatively on both comprehension and learning. Recent research suggests that this concern is ungrounded (Kruger et al, 2014). L1 subtitles generate less cognitive load than L2 subtitles, but overload is not normally reached and mental resources are still available for learning (Baranowska, 2020). The absence of subtitles generates more cognitive load.

Conditions for learning

Before looking at the differences between L1 and L2 subtitles, it’s a good idea to look at the conditions under which learning is more likely to take place with subtitles. Some of these are obvious, others less so.

First of all, the video material must be of sufficient intrinsic interest to the learner. Secondly, the subtitles must be of a sufficiently high quality. This is not always the case with automatically generated captions, especially if the speech-to-text software struggles with the audio accent. It is also not always the case with professionally produced L1 subtitles, especially when the ‘translations are non-literal and made at the phrase level, making it hard to find connections between the subtitle text and the words in the video’ (Kovacs, 2013, cited by Zabalbeascoa et al., 2015: 112). As a minimum, standard subtitling guidelines, such as those produced for the British Channel 4, should be followed. These limit, for example, the number of characters per line to about 40 and a maximum of two lines.

For reasons that I’ll come on to, learners should be able to switch easily between L1 and L2 subtitles. They are also likely to benefit if reliably accurate glosses or hyperlinks are ‘embedded in the subtitles, making it possible for a learner to simply click for additional verbal, auditory or even pictorial glosses’ (Danan, 2015: 49).

At least as important as considerations of the materials or tools, is a consideration of what the learner brings to the activity (Frumuselu, 2019: 104). Vanderplank (2015) describes these different kinds of considerations as the ‘effects of’ subtitles on a learner and the ‘effects with’ subtitles on learner behaviour.

In order to learn from subtitles, you need to be able to read fast enough to process them. Anyone with a slow reading speed (e.g. some dyslexics) in their own language is going to struggle. Even with L1 subtitles, Vanderplank (2015: 24) estimates that it is only around the age of 10 that children can do this with confidence. Familarity with both the subject matter and with subtitle use will impact on this ability to read subtitles fast enough.

With L2 subtitles, the language proficiency of the learner related to the level of difficulty (especially lexical difficulty) of the subtitles will clearly be of some significance. It is unlikely that L2 subtitles will be of much benefit to beginners (Taylor, 2005). It also suggests that, at lower levels, materials need to be chosen carefully. On the whole, researchers have found that higher proficiency levels correlate with greater learning gains (Pujadas & Muñoz, 2019; Suárez & Gesa, 2019), but one earlier meta-analysis (Montero Perez et al., 2013) did not find that proficiency levels were significant.

Measures of general language proficiency may be too blunt an instrument to help us all of the time. I can learn more from Portuguese than from Arabic subtitles, even though I am a beginner in both languages. The degree of proximity between two languages, especially the script (Winke et al., 2010), is also likely to be significant.

But a wide range of other individual learner differences will also impact on the learning from subtitles. It is known that learners approach subtitles in varied and idiosyncratic ways (Pujolá, 2002), with some using L2 subtitles only as a ‘back-up’ and others relying on them more. Vanderplank (2019) grouped learners into three broad categories: minimal users who were focused throughout on enjoying films as they would in their L1, evolving users who showed marked changes in their viewing behaviour over time, and maximal users who tended to be experienced at using films to enhance their language learning.

Categories like these are only the tip of the iceberg. Sensory preferences, personality types, types of motivation, the impact of subtitles on anxiety levels and metacognitive strategy awareness are all likely to be important. For the last of these, Danan (2015: 47) asks whether learners should be taught ‘techniques to make better use of subtitles and compensate for weaknesses: techniques such as a quick reading of subtitles before listening, confirmation of word recognition or meaning after listening, as well as focus on form for spelling or grammatical accuracy?’

In short, it is, in practice, virtually impossible to determine optimal conditions for learning from subtitles, because we cannot ‘take into account all the psycho-social, cultural and pedagogic parameters’ (Gambier, 2015). With that said, it’s time to take a closer look at the different potential of L1 and L2 subtitles.

L1 vs L2 subtitles

Since all other things are almost never equal, it is not possible to say that one kind of subtitles offers greater potential for learning than another. As regards gains in vocabulary acquisition and listening comprehension, there is no research consensus (Baranowska, 2020: 107). Research does, however, offer us a number of pointers.

Extensive viewing of subtitled video (both L1 and L2) can offer ‘massive quantities of authentic and comprehensible input’ (Vanderplank, 1988: 273). With lower level learners, the input is likely to be more comprehensible with L1 subtitles, and, therefore, more enjoyable and motivating. This makes them often more suitable for what Caimi (2015: 11) calls ‘leisure viewing’. Vocabulary acquisition may be better served with L2 subtitles, because they can help viewers to recognize the words that are being spoken, increase their interaction with the target language, provide further language context, and increase the redundancy of information, thereby enhancing the possibility of this input being stored in long-term memory (Frumuselu et al., 2015). These effects are much more likely with Vanderplank’s (2019) motivated, ‘maximal’ users than with ‘minimal’ users.

There is one further area where L2 subtitles may have the edge over L1. One of the values of extended listening in a target language is the improvement in phonetic retuning (see, for example, Reinisch & Holt, 2013), the ability to adjust the phonetic boundaries in your own language to the boundaries that exist in the target language. Learning how to interpret unusual speech-sounds, learning how to deal with unusual mappings between sounds and words and learning how to deal with the acoustic variations of different speakers of the target language are all important parts of acquiring another language. Research by Mitterer and McQueen (2009) suggests that L2 subtitles help in this process, but L1 subtitles hinder it.

Classroom implications?

The literature on subtitles and language learning echoes with the refrain of ‘more research needed’, but I’m not sure that further research will lead to less ambiguous, practical conclusions. One of my initial questions concerned the optimal order of use of different kinds of subtitles. In most extensive viewing contexts, learners are unlikely to watch something more than twice. If they do (watching a recorded academic lecture, for example), they are likely to be more motivated by a desire to learn from the content than to learn language from the content. L1 subtitles will probably be preferred, and will have the added bonus of facilitating note-taking in the L1. For learners who are more motivated to learn the target language (Vanderplank’s ‘maximal’ users), a sequence of subtitle use, starting with the least cognitively challenging and moving to greater challenge, probably makes sense. Danan (2015: 46) suggests starting with an L1 soundtrack and reversed (L2) subtitles, then moving on to an L2 soundtrack and L2 subtitles, and ending with an L2 soundtrack and no subtitles. I would replace her first stage with an L2 soundtrack and L1 subtitles, but this is based on hunch rather than research.

This sequencing of subtitle use is common practice in language classrooms, but, here, (1) the video clips are usually short, and (2) the aim is often not incidental learning of vocabulary. Typically, the video clip has been selected as a tool for deliberate teaching of language items, so different conditions apply. At least one study has confirmed the value of the common teaching practice of pre-teaching target vocabulary items before viewing (Pujadas & Muñoz, 2019). The drawback is that, by getting learners to focus on particular items, less incidental learning of other language features is likely to take place. Perhaps this doesn’t matter too much. In a short clip of a few minutes, the opportunities for incidental learning are limited, anyway. With short clips and a deliberate learning aim, it seems reasonable to use L2 subtitles for a first viewing, and no subtitles thereafter.

An alternative frequent use of short video clips in classrooms is to use them as a springboard for speaking. In these cases, Baranowska (2020: 113) suggests that teachers may opt for L1 subtitles first, and follow up with L2 subtitles. Of course, with personal viewing devices or in online classes, teachers may want to exploit the possibilities of differentiating the subtitle condition for different learners.

REFERENCES

Baranowska, K. (2020). Learning most with least effort: subtitles and cognitive load. ELT Journal 74 (2): pp.105 – 115

Bisson, M.-J., Van Heuven, W.J.B., Conklin, K. and Tunney, R.J. (2012). Processing of native and foreign language subtitles in films: An eye tracking study. Applied Psycholingistics, 35 (2): pp. 399 – 418

Burczyńska, P. (2015). Reversed Subtitles as a Powerful Didactic Tool in SLA. In Gambier, Y., Caimi, A. & Mariotti, C. (Eds.), Subtitles and Language Learning. Principles, strategies and practical experiences. Bern: Peter Lang (pp. 221 – 244)

Caimi, A. (2015). Introduction. In Gambier, Y., Caimi, A. & Mariotti, C. (Eds.), Subtitles and Language Learning. Principles, strategies and practical experiences. Bern: Peter Lang (pp. 9 – 18)

Danan, M. (2015). Subtitling as a Language Learning Tool: Past Findings, Current Applications, and Future Paths. In Gambier, Y., Caimi, A. & Mariotti, C. (Eds.), Subtitles and Language Learning. Principles, strategies and practical experiences. Bern: Peter Lang (pp. 41 – 61)

d’Ydewalle, G. & Pavakanun, U. (1997). Could Enjoying a Movie Lead to Language Acquisition?. In: Winterhoff-Spurk, P., van der Voort, T.H.A. (Eds.) New Horizons in Media Psychology. VS Verlag für Sozialwissenschaften, Wiesbaden. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-663-10899-3_10

Frumuselu, A.D., de Maeyer, S., Donche, V. & Gutierrez Colon Plana, M. (2015). Television series inside the EFL classroom: bridging the gap between teaching and learning informal language through subtitles. Linguistics and Education, 32: pp. 107 – 17

Frumuselu, A. D. (2019). ‘A Friend in Need is a Film Indeed’: Teaching Colloquial Expressions with Subtitled Television Series. In Herrero, C. & Vanderschelden, I. (Eds.) Using Film and Media in the Language Classroom. Bristol: Multimedia Matters. pp.92 – 107

Gambier, Y. (2015). Subtitles and Language Learning (SLL): Theoretical background. In Gambier, Y., Caimi, A. & Mariotti, C. (Eds.), Subtitles and Language Learning. Principles, strategies and practical experiences. Bern: Peter Lang (pp. 63 – 82)

Hall, G. & Cook, G. (2012). Own-language Use in Language Teaching and Learning. Language Learning, 45 (3): pp. 271 – 308

Incalcaterra McLoughlin, L., Biscio, M. & Ní Mhainnín, M. A. (Eds.) (2011). Audiovisual Translation, Subtitles and Subtitling. Theory and Practice. Bern: Peter Lang

Karakaş, A. & Sariçoban, A. (2012). The impact of watching subtitled animated cartoons on incidental vocabulary learning of ELT students. Teaching English with Technology, 12 (4): pp. 3 – 15

Kerr, P. (2016). Questioning ‘English-only’ Classrooms: Own-language Use in ELT. In Hall, G. (Ed.) The Routledge Handbook of English Language Teaching (pp. 513 – 526)

Kruger, J. L., Hefer, E. & Matthew, G. (2014). Attention distribution and cognitive load in a subtitled academic lecture: L1 vs. L2. Journal of Eye Movement Research, 7: pp. 1 – 15

Mitterer, H. & McQueen, J. M. (2009). Foreign Subtitles Help but Native-Language Subtitles Harm Foreign Speech Perception. PLoS ONE 4 (11): e7785.doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0007785

Montero Perez, M., Van Den Noortgate, W., & Desmet, P. (2013). Captioned video for L2 listening and vocabulary learning: A meta-analysis. System, 41, pp. 720–739 doi:10.1016/j.system.2013.07.013

Pujadas, G. & Muñoz, C. (2019). Extensive viewing of captioned and subtitled TV series: a study of L2 vocabulary learning by adolescents, The Language Learning Journal, 47:4, 479-496, DOI: 10.1080/09571736.2019.1616806

Pujolá, J.- T. (2002). CALLing for help: Researching language learning strategies using help facilities in a web-based multimedia program. ReCALL, 14 (2): pp. 235 – 262

Reinisch, E. & Holt, L. L. (2013). Lexically Guided Phonetic Retuning of Foreign-Accented Speech and Its Generalization. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Human Perception and Performance. Advance online publication. doi: 10.1037/a0034409

Suárez, M. & Gesa, F. (2019) Learning vocabulary with the support of sustained exposure to captioned video: do proficiency and aptitude make a difference? The Language Learning Journal, 47:4, 497-517, DOI: 10.1080/09571736.2019.1617768

Taylor, G. (2005). Perceived processing strategies of students watching captioned video. Foreign Language Annals, 38(3), pp. 422-427

Vanderplank, R. (1988). The value of teletext subtitles in language learning. ELT Journal, 42 (4): pp. 272 – 281

Vanderplank, R. (2015). Thirty Years of Research into Captions / Same Language Subtitles and Second / Foreign Language Learning: Distinguishing between ‘Effects of’ Subtitles and ‘Effects with’ Subtitles for Future Research. In Gambier, Y., Caimi, A. & Mariotti, C. (Eds.), Subtitles and Language Learning. Principles, strategies and practical experiences. Bern: Peter Lang (pp. 19 – 40)

Vanderplank, R. (2019). ‘Gist watching can only take you so far’: attitudes, strategies and changes in behaviour in watching films with captions, The Language Learning Journal, 47:4, 407-423, DOI: 10.1080/09571736.2019.1610033

Winke, P., Gass, S. M., & Sydorenko, T. (2010). The Effects of Captioning Videos Used for Foreign Language Listening Activities. Language Learning & Technology, 1 (1): pp. 66 – 87

Zabalbeascoa, P., González-Casillas, S. & Pascual-Herce, R. (2015). In Gambier, Y., Caimi, A. & Mariotti, C. (Eds.), Subtitles and Language Learning. Principles, strategies and practical experiences Bern: Peter Lang (pp. 105–126)

Precarity

Barely liveable hourly wages, no job security because there is no permanent contract (so employment may be terminated at short or no notice), no social security, paid health care or pension, struggling to meet everyday needs, such as food and accommodation … this is the situation for at least one in five workers in the UK and similar figures exist in many countries (e.g. one in six in New Zealand). As Bourdieu (1998: 81ff.) noted, job insecurity is now everywhere.

Many English language teachers, especially those working for private schools or universities operating like private schools, belong to what has been termed the global educational precariat. In addition to language school and university language teachers, there are hundreds of thousands of teachers, mostly American and British, working in English-medium schools ‘international schools’ around the world (Bunnell, 2016). Besides financial insecurity, many of these teachers also suffer from a lack of agency and a marginalisation of their professional identities (Poole, 2019). There’s a very useful article on ‘precarity’ in ELT Journal (Walsh, 2019) that I’d recommend.

Even teachers with reasonable pay and job security are facing attacks on their pay and working conditions. A few weeks ago in Jordan, security forces shut down the teachers’ union and arrested leading members. Teachers union leaders have also been imprisoned recently in Iran and Cambodia. The pages of the website of Education International , a global federation of teachers’ trade unions, catalogue the crises in education and the lives of teachers around the world.

Teacher bashing, in particular attacks on teacher unions, has been relentless. Four years ago, it was reported that teacher bashing had ‘reached unprecedented levels’ in the US (Saltzman, 2017: 39), where there has been a concerted attempt, over many years, to blame teachers for shortcomings in the educational system (see, for example, Kumashiro, 2012). Although it may have been the US that led the way, closely followed by Australia and the UK, attacks on teachers have become a global phenomenon. Mary Compton and Lois Weiner’s book, ‘The Global Assault on Teaching, Teachers and their Unions’ (Compton & Weiner 2008), gives examples from China to South Africa, from Denmark to Mexico, of how teachers’ pay and conditions have been eroded. The reason? Quite simply, it is because teachers have stood in the way of so-called ‘reforms’ (e.g. pay cuts). It is because they have, as they are doing now in times of COVID-19, stood in the way of what governments have wanted to do. In an earlier post, I wrote in more detail about the ways in which the World Bank has spearheaded the drive towards privatized, lower cost education around the world.

COVID-19 has, of course, made matters worse, much worse. As often as not, the pandemic has been used as an excuse to accelerate attacks on teachers that were well under way long before.

Wellbeing

In the circumstances, it is not surprising that teacher wellbeing has recently become a more talked-about topic. Precisely because there is so little of it about.

The publication earlier this year of a book about teacher wellbeing (Mercer & Gregersen, 2020) for language teachers is very timely. The authors acknowledge that real change for wellbeing [must] addresses structural and systemic levels of change and is not just a matter for individual teachers to cope with alone. They acknowledge that teachers should not have to compensate for fundamental flaws in the system as a whole that undermine their wellbeing, and they express concern about the risks associated with discussing teacher wellbeing at the individual level and not acknowledging that the systems in which teachers work may be at fault (Mercer & Gregersen, 2020: 9). But, with these caveats out of the way, the matter is closed, and the whole book is about how individuals can improve their wellbeing. Indeed, the book begins: As you read the title of this chapter, you might have thought how self-seeking or egocentric it sounds: It’s all about me? Our response is, ‘Yes, you!’ Throughout this book, we want you to focus your attention on yourself for a change, without any guilty feelings (Mercer & Gregersen, 2020: 1). Mindfulness techniques, tips for time management, ways of thinking positively and so on – it’s a compendium of self-help advice that may be helpful for language teachers. The real ravages of precarity, the real causes of so much lack of wellbeing, these do not get a mention.

Banksy_-_Grin_Reaper_With_TagPositive psychology

Mercer and Gregersen’s approach is directly inspired by the work of Martin Seligman, often referred to as the founder of ‘positive psychology’ (see, for example, Seligman, 2011; 2018). Positive psychology and Seligman’s ideas about wellbeing are not uncontested (see, for example, Bache & Reardon, 2016; Bache & Scott, 2018). The nub of the critiques is that positive psychology chooses to focus on happiness or wellbeing, rather than, say, justice, solidarity or loyalty. It articulates an underlying individualism and narrow sense of the social (Cabanas & Illouz, 2019: 68) and it is, therefore, not entirely surprising that much of the funding that made the rapid growth of positive psychology possible came from the ultra-conservative and religious institution, the John Templeton Foundation (Cabanas & Illouz, 2019: 20).

Mercer and Gregersen are not unaware of such critiques (see, for example, MacIntyre et al., 2016: 375). They mention the critiques of Barbara Ehrenreich (Ehrenreich, 2009), but, to the best of my knowledge, they have never troubled to respond to them. They have a very clear agenda – the promotion of positive psychology ideas in language teaching / learning contexts – which is made explicit in MacIntyre and Mercer (2014). A slew of articles, books and conference presentations have followed since then, and ‘Teacher Wellbeing’ is one of them. Mission seems to have been achieved.

Positive psychology has not only been criticised for its focus on the individual. Others have focused on its foundational assumptions, including decontextualized and ethnocentric claims; theoretical oversimplifications, tautologies and contradictions; methodological shortcomings; severe replicability problems; exaggerated generalizations; and even its therapeutic efficacy and scientific status (Cabanas & Illous, 2019: 29). Probably the most important of these critics was Richard Lazarus, whose work is certainly familiar to Mercer, Gregersen and their collaborators, since Lazarus’s criticisms are listed in MacIntyre and Mercer (2014) and elsewhere. These include:

  • the over-use of crosssectional research designs
  • a tendency to treat emotion too simplistically as either positive or negative
  • inadequate attention to both differences among individuals within a group as well as the overlap between groups when discussing statistically significant group differences
  • poor quality measurement of emotions.

However, as with the critiques of Ehrenreich, I have yet to find any examples of these authors actually addressing the criticisms. Instead, they prefer to talk about how problems such as those listed above need to be avoided in the future. For example, there is no doubt that the future development of the [positive psychology] approach within SLA can learn from these and other criticisms, write MacIntyre and Mercer (2014:161), and they see the future of positive psychology in language learning / teaching as being fundamentally grounded in science.

Empirical science

Acknowledging, but without actually addressing, past criticisms of the scientific shortcomings of positive psychology, MacIntyre and Mercer (2014: 15) insist that positive psychology is the empirical study of how people thrive and flourish […] it represents a form of “rebirth” for humanistic psychology, but with a stronger emphasis on empirical research. The word ‘empirical’ appears 4 times on this page and another 5 times in the article. In their follow-up book, ‘Positive Psychology in SLA’ (Macintyre et al., 2016), there is a whole section (over a third of the book) entitled ‘Empirical’. In a historical survey of positive psychology in foreign language teaching, written by close collaborators of Mercer, Gregersen and MacIntyre (Dewaele et al.,2019), the same focus on empirical science is chosen, with a description of positive psychology as being underpinned by solid empirical research. The frequency of this word choice is enough to set alarm bells ringing.

A year before the MacIntyre and Mercer article (2014), an article by Brown et al (2013) questioned one of the key empirical foundations of positive psychology, the so-called ‘critical positivity ratio’ (Fredrickson & Losada, 2005). Wikipedia explains this as the ratio of positive to negative emotions which distinguishes “flourishing” people from “languishing” people, and the ratio was 2.9013. A slightly later article (Brown et al, 2014) further debunked the work of Fredrickson, arguing that her work was full of conceptual difficulties and statistical flaws. Wikipedia now describes the ‘critical positivity ratio’ as ‘a largely discredited concept’. In contrast, Mercer and Gregersen (2020: 14) acknowledge that although the exact ratio (3:1) of positivity has been called into question by some, they reassert the value of Fredrickson’s work. They neither cite the criticisms, nor rebut them. In this, they are following a well-established tradition of positive psychology (Rhyff, 2003).

Given growing scepticism about the claims of positive psychology, MacIntyre et al (2016) elected to double-down. Even if empirical evidence for positive psychology was in short supply, it was incumbent on them to provide it. Hence, the section in their book entitled ‘Empirical’. Personally, I would have advised against it. The whole point of positive psychology, as outlined by Seligman, is to promote ‘wellbeing’. But what, exactly, is this? For some, like Mercer and Gregersen (2020: 3), it’s about finding meaning and connection in the world. For others, it’s not a ‘thing’ that needs research to uncover its essential nature, but as a social and cultural construction which is interesting as such, not least for what it can tell us about other social and cultural phenomena (Ereaut & Whiting, 2008). We may agree that it’s ‘a good thing’, but it lacks solidity as a construct. Even Seligman (2011: 15) comes to the conclusion that ‘wellbeing’ is not ‘a real thing. Rather, he says, it is a construct which has several measurable elements, each a real thing, each contributing to well-being, but none defining well-being. This, however, simply raises the question of how much of a ‘thing’ each of these elements are (Dodge et al., 2012). Seligman’s elements (Positive Emotion, Engagement, Relationships, Meaning, and Accomplishment (PERMA)) form the basis of Mercer and Gregersen’s book, but none lend themselves to clear, workable definitions. In the absence of construct validity, empirical research evidence will prove hard to find.

How well does the ‘Empirical’ section of Positive Psychology in SLA (MacIntyre et al., 2016) stand up? I don’t have space here to discuss all 7 chapters. However, I’ve selected the first of these, ‘Positive Psychology Exercises Build Social Capital for Language Learners: Preliminary Evidence’ (Gregersen et al, 2016) because it includes ‘evidence’ in the title and because it was written by two of the book’s editors. The research reported in this chapter involved five volunteer women, aged 20 -23, in an English program at an American university, who took part in a number of positive psychology exercises (PPEs) which entailed laughter, exercise, interaction with animals, listening to music, expressing gratitude and engaging in altruism. The data collected was self-rating questionnaires and some self-reflection discussion. The results indicated that the PPEs led to more positive emotions, with exercise and laughter leading to the greatest gains (but since the order of the PPEs was not randomized, and since the sample size was so small, this doesn’t really tell us anything). Some of the participants doubted the value of some of the PPEs. However, the participants developed better relationships with their partners and this may have led to gains in confidence. The authors conclude that although the present data-set is small, we see preliminary evidence of all three pillars of positive psychology supporting positive outcomes (p.164).

My own view is that this is wishful thinking. The only thing that this study does is to indicate that in this particular context with these particular learners, feeling good about what you are doing may help things along a bit. In addition, this has absolutely nothing to do with ‘social capital’, which the authors seem to have misunderstood. Citing an article by Nawyn et al (2012), they describe ‘social capital’ as emerging friendships that provide learners with positive emotional experiences and intangible resources for language acquisition (Gregersen et al, 2016: 147). But this is a misreading of the Nawyn et al article, which adheres fairly closely to Bourdieu’s notion of social capital as fundamentally about power relations, but extends it beyond purely economic power relations. Given the connections between the lack of teacher wellbeing and precarity, and given Bourdieu’s writings about precarity, the authors’ attempt to bring Bourdieu into their justification of positive psychological experiences, best undertaken at the individual level (Gregersen et al., 2016: 149), is really quite extraordinary. And if this is empirical evidence for anything, I’m a positive psychologist!

Cui bono?

It may be that some of the exercises suggested in Teacher Wellbeing will be of benefit to some, even many, teachers. Maybe. But the claims of empirical science behind this book are questionable, to say the least. More beneficial to teacher wellbeing would almost certainly be strong teacher unions, but these are only mentioned in passing. There is, incidentally, some recent evidence from the U.S. (Han, 2020), that highly unionized districts have higher average teacher quality and improved educational outcomes. But positive psychologists seem unwilling to explore the role that unions might play in teacher wellbeing. It is not, perhaps, coincidental that the chapter in Teacher Wellbeing that deals with teachers in their workplaces contains three recommendations for further reading, and all three are written for managers. The first on the list is called Build It: The Rebel Playbook for World-class Employee Engagement (Elliott & Corey, 2018).

The problems that teachers are facing, exacerbated by COVID-19, are fundamentally systemic and political. Mercer and Gregersen may be aware that there is a risk associated with discussing teacher wellbeing at the individual level and not acknowledging that the systems in which teachers work may be at fault, but it’s a risk they have chosen to take, believing that their self-help ideas are sufficiently valuable to make the risk worthwhile. I agree with a writer on the National Education Association blog, who thinks that self-care is important but argues that it is an insufficient and entirely too passive way to address the problems teachers are encountering today.

There are other ways of conceptualising teacher wellbeing (see, for example, the entries on the Education International website with this tag) and the Mercer / Gregersen book may be viewed as an attempt to ‘claim the field’. To return to Paul Walsh, whose article about precarity I recommended earlier, it is useful to see the current interest in teacher wellbeing in context. He writes: Well-being has entered ELT at a time when teachers have been demanding greater visibility and acceptance of issues such as mental health, poor working conditions, non-native speaker and gender equality. Yet to subsume these issues under a catch-all category does them a disservice. Because as soon as we put these issues under the well-being umbrella, they effectively vanish in a cloud of conceptual mist—and lose their sharp edges.

In this sense, a book like Teacher Wellbeing, although well-meaning, may well contribute to the undermining of the very thing it seeks to promote.

References

Bache, I. & Reardon, L. (2016) The Politics and Policy of Wellbeing: Understanding the Rise and Significance of a New Agenda. Cheltenham: Edward Elgar

Bache, I. and Scott, K. (eds.) (2018). The Politics of Wellbeing: Theory, Policy and Practice. Palgrave Macmillan

Bourdieu, P. (1998). Acts of Resistance: against the new myths of our time. Cambridge: Polity Press

Brown, N. J. L., Sokal, A. D., & Friedman, H. L. (2013). The complex dynamics of wishful thinking: The critical positivity ratio. American Psychologist, pp. 68, 801–813. http://dx.doi.org/10.1037/a0032850

Brown, N. J. L., MacDonald, D. A., Samanta, M. P., Friedman, H. L. & Coyne, J. C. (2014). A critical reanalysis of the relationship between genomics and well-being. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, 111, 12705–12709. http://dx.doi.org/10.1073/pnas.1407057111

Bunnell, T. (2016). Teachers in International schools: a global educational ‘precariat’? Globalisation, Societies and Education, 14(4), pp. 543-559

Cabanas, E. & Illouz, E. (2019). Manufacturing Happy Citizens. Cambridge: Polity Press

Compton, M. & Weiner, L. (Eds.) (2008). The Global Assault on Teaching, Teachers and their Unions. Palgrave Macmillan

Dewaele, J. M., Chen, X., Padilla, A. M. & Lake, J. (2019). The Flowering of Positive Psychology in Foreign Language Teaching and Acquisition Research. Frontiers in psychology, 10, 2128. https://doi.org/10.3389/fpsyg.2019.02128

Dodge, R., Daly, A., Huyton, J. & Sanders, L. (2012). The challenge of defining wellbeing. International Journal of Wellbeing, 2(3), pp. 222-235. doi:10.5502/ijw.v2i3.4

Ehrenreich, B. (2009). Bright-Sided: How the relentless promotion of positive thinking has undermined America. New York: Metropolitan Books

Elliott, G. & Corey, D. (2018). Build It: The Rebel Playbook for World-class Employee Engagement. Chichester: Wiley

Ereaut, G. & Whiting, R. (2008). What do we mean by ‘wellbeing’? And why might it matter? Research Report No DCSF-RW073 Department for Children, Schools and Families https://dera.ioe.ac.uk/8572/1/dcsf-rw073%20v2.pdf

Fredrickson, B. L. & Losada, M.F. (2005). Positive affect and the complex dynamics of human flourishing. American Psychology, 60 (7): pp. 678–86. doi:10.1037/0003-066X.60.7.678

Gregersen, T., MacIntyre, P.D. & Meza, M. (2016). Positive Psychology Exercises Build Social Capital for Language Learners: Preliminary Evidence. In MacIntyre, P.D., Gregersen, T. & Mercer, S. (Eds.) Positive Psychology in SLA. Bristol: Multilingual Matters. pp.147 – 167

Han, E. S. (2020). The Myth of Unions’ Overprotection of Bad Teachers: Evidence from the District–Teacher Matched Data on Teacher Turnover. Industrial Relations, 59 (2): pp. 316 – 352

Kumashiro, K. K. (2012). Bad Teacher! How Blaming Teachers Distorts the Bigger Picture. Teachers College Press

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I noted in a recent post about current trends in ELT that mindfulness has been getting a fair amount of attention recently. Here are three recent examples:

  • Pearson recently produced the Pearson Experiences: A Pocket Guide to Mindfulness, written by Amy Malloy. Amy has written also written a series of blog posts for Pearson on the topic and she is a Pearson-sponsored speaker (Why use mindfulness in the classroom?) at the English Australia Ed-Tech SIG Online Symposium this week.
  • Russell Stannard has written two posts for Express Publishing (here and here)
  • Sarah Mercer and Tammy Gregersen’s new book, ‘Teacher Wellbeing’ (OUP, 2020) includes a section in which they recommend mindfulness practices to teachers as a buffer against stress and as a way to promote wellbeing.

The claims

Definitions of mindfulness often vary slightly, but the following from Amy Malloy is typical: ‘mindfulness is about the awareness that comes from consciously focussing on the present moment’. Claims for the value of mindfulness practices also vary slightly. Besides the general improvements to wellbeing suggested by Sarah and Tammy, attention, concentration and resilience are also commonly mentioned.

Amy: [Mindfulness] develops [children’s] brains, which in turn helps them find it easier to calm down and stay calm. … It changes our brains for the better. …. [Mindfulness] helps children concentrate more easily on classroom activities.

Russell: Students going through mindfulness training have increased levels of determination and willpower, they are less likely to give up if they find something difficult … Mindfulness has been shown to improve concentration. Students are able to study for longer periods of time and are more focused … Studies have shown that practicing mindfulness can lead to reduced levels of anxiety and stress.

In addition to the behavioural changes that mindfulness can supposedly bring about, both Amy and Russell refer to neurological changes:

Amy: Studies have shown that the people who regularly practise mindfulness develop the areas of the brain associated with patience, compassion, focus, concentration and emotional regulation.

Russell: At the route of our current understanding of mindfulness is brain plasticity. … in probably the most famous neuroimaging research project, scientists took a group of people and found that by doing a programme of 8 weeks of mindfulness training based around gratitude, they could actually increase the size of the areas of the brain generally associated with happiness.

Supporting evidence

In her pocket guide for Pearson, Amy provides no references to support her claims.

In Russell’s first post, he links to a piece of research which looked at the self-reported psychological impact of a happiness training programme developed by a German cabaret artist and talk show host. The programme wasn’t specifically mindfulness-oriented, so tells us nothing about mindfulness, but it is also highly suspect as a piece of research, not least because one of the co-authors is the cabaret artist himself. His second link is to an article about human attention, a long-studied area of psychology, but this has nothing to do with mindfulness, although Russell implies that there is a connection. His third link is to a very selective review of research into mindfulness, written by two mindfulness enthusiasts. It’s not so much a review of research as a selection of articles which support mindfulness advocacy.

In his second post, Russell links to a review of mindfulness-based interventions (MBIs) in education. Appearing in the ‘Mindfulness’ journal, it is obviously in broad support of MBIs, but its conclusions are hedged: ‘Research on the neurobiology of mindfulness in adults suggests that sustained mindfulness practice can ….’ ‘mindfulness training holds promise for being one such intervention for teachers.’ His second link is to a masterpiece of pseudo-science delivered by Joe Dispenza, author of many titles including ‘Becoming Supernatural: How Common People are Doing the Uncommon’ and ‘Breaking the Habit of Being Yourself’. Russell’s 3rd link is to an interview with Matthieu Ricard, one of the Dalai Lama’s translators. Interestingly, but not in this interview, Ricard is very dismissive of secular mindfulness (‘Buddhist meditation without the Buddhism’). His fourth link is to a video presentation about mindfulness from Diana Winston of UCLA. The presenter doesn’t give citations for the research she mentions (so I can’t follow them up): instead, she plugs her own book.

Sarah and Tammy’s three references are not much better. The first is to a self-help book, called ‘Every Teacher Matters: Inspiring Well-Being through Mindfulness’ by K. Lovewell (2012), whose other work includes ‘The Little Book of Self-Compassion: Learn to be your own Best Friend’. The second (Cresswell, J. D. & Lindsay, E.K. (2014). How does mindfulness training affect health? A mindfulness stress buffering account. Current Directions in Psychological Science 23 (6): pp. 401-407) is more solid, but a little dated now. The third (Garland, E., Gaylord, S.A. & Fredrickson, B. L. (2011). Positive Reappraisal Mediates the Stress-Reductive Effects of Mindfulness: An Upward Spiral Process. Mindfulness 2 (1): pp. 59 – 67) is an interesting piece, but of limited value since there was no control group in the research and it tells us nothing about MBIs per se.

The supporting evidence provided by these writers for the claims they make is thin, to say the least. It is almost as if the truth of the claims is self-evident, and for these writers (all of whom use mindfulness practices themselves) there is clearly a personal authentication. But, not having had an epiphany myself and being somewhat reluctant to roll a raisin around my mouth, concentrating on its texture and flavours, fully focussing on the process of eating it (as recommended by Sarah and Tammy), I will, instead, consciously focus on the present moment of research.

Mindfulness and research

The first thing to know is that there has been a lot of research into mindfulness in recent years. The second thing to know is that much of it is poor quality. Here’s why:

  • There is no universally accepted technical definition of ‘mindfulness’ nor any broad agreement about detailed aspects of the underlying concept to which it refers (Van Dam, N. T. et al. (2018). Mind the Hype: A Critical Evaluation and Prescriptive Agenda for Research on Mindfulness and Meditation. Perspectives on Psychological Science 13: pp. 36 – 61)
  • To date, there are at least nine different psychometric questionnaires, all of which define and measure mindfulness differently (Purser, R.E. (2019). McMindfulness. Repeater Books. p.128)
  • Mindfulness research tends to rely on self-reporting, which is notoriously unreliable.
  • The majority of studies did not utilize randomized control groups (Goyal, M., Singh, S., Sibinga, E.S., et al. (201). Meditation Programs for Psychological Stress and Well-being: A Systematic Review and Meta-analysis. JAMA Intern Med. 2014. doi:10.1001/ jamainternmed.2013.13018).
  • Early meditation studies were mostly cross-sectional studies: that is, they compared data from a group of meditators with data from a control group at one point in time. A cross-sectional study design precludes causal attribution. (Tang, Y., Hölzel, B. & Posner, M. (2015). The neuroscience of mindfulness meditation. Nature Reviews Neuroscience 16, 213–225)
  • Sample sizes tend to be small and there is often no active control group. There are few randomized controlled trials (Dunning, D.L., Griffiths, K., Kuyken, W., Crane, C., Foulkes, L., Parker, J. and Dalgleish, T. (2019), Research Review: The effects of mindfulness‐based interventions on cognition and mental health in children and adolescents – a meta‐analysis of randomized controlled trials. (Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, 60: 244-258. doi:10.1111/jcpp.12980)
  • There is a relatively strong bias towards the publication of positive or significant results (Coronado-Montoya, S., Levis, A.W., Kwakkenbos, L., Steele, R.J., Turner, E.H. & Thombs, B.D. (2016). Reporting of Positive Results in Randomized Controlled Trials of Mindfulness-Based Mental Health Interventions. PLoS ONE 11(4): e0153220. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0153220)
  • More recent years have not seen significant improvements in the rigorousness of research (Goldberg SB, Tucker RP, Greene PA, Simpson TL, Kearney DJ, Davidson RJ (2017). Is mindfulness research methodology improving over time? A systematic review. PLoS ONE 12(10): e0187298).

 

The overall quality of the research into mindfulness is so poor that a group of fifteen researchers came together to write a paper entitled ‘Mind the Hype: A Critical Evaluation and Prescriptive Agenda for Research on Mindfulness and Meditation’ (Van Dam, N. T. et al. (2018). Mind the Hype: A Critical Evaluation and Prescriptive Agenda for Research on Mindfulness and Meditation. Perspectives on Psychological Science 13: pp. 36 – 61).

So, the research is problematic and replication is needed, but it does broadly support the claim that mindfulness meditation exerts beneficial effects on physical and mental health, and cognitive performance (Tang, Y., Hölzel, B. & Posner, M. (2015). The neuroscience of mindfulness meditation. Nature Reviews Neuroscience 16, 213–225). The italicized broadly is important here. As one of the leaders of the British Mindfulness in Schools Project (which has trained thousands of teachers in the UK) puts it, ‘research on mindfulness in schools is still in its infancy, particularly in relation to impacts on behaviour, academic performance and physical health. It can best be described as ‘promising’ and ‘worth trying’ (Weare, K. (2018). Evidence for the Impact of Mindfulness on Children and Young People. The Mindfulness in Schools Project). We don’t know what kind of MBIs are most effective, what kind of ‘dosage’ should be administered, what kinds of students it is (and is not) appropriate for, whether instructor training is significant or what cost-benefits it might bring. In short, there is more that we do not know than we know.

One systematic review, for example, found that MBIs had ‘small, positive effects on cognitive and socioemotional processes but these effects were not seen for behavioral or academic outcomes’. What happened to the promises of improved concentration, calmer behaviour and willpower? The review concludes that ‘the evidence from this review urges caution in the widespread adoption of MBIs and encourages rigorous evaluation of the practice should schools choose to implement it’ (Maynard, B. R., Solis, M., Miller, V. & Brendel, K. E. (2017). Mindfulness-based interventions for improving cognition, academic achievement, behavior and socio-emotional functioning of primary and secondary students. A Campbell Systematic Review 2017:5).

What about the claims for neurological change? As a general rule, references to neuroscience by educators should be taken with skepticism. Whilst it appears that ‘mindfulness meditation might cause neuroplastic changes in the structure and function of brain regions involved in regulation of attention, emotion and self-awareness’ (Tang, Y., Hölzel, B. & Posner, M. (2015). The neuroscience of mindfulness meditation. Nature Reviews Neuroscience 16, 213–225), this doesn’t really tell us very much. A complex mental state like mindfulness ‘is likely to be supported by the large-scale brain networks’ (ibid) and insights derived from fMRI scans of particular parts of the brain provide us with, at best, only a trivial understanding of what is going on. Without a clear definition of what mindfulness actually is, it is going to be some time before we unravel the neural mechanisms underpinning it. If, in fact, we ever do. By way of comparison, you might be interested in reading about neuroscientific studies into prayer , which also appears to correlate with enhanced wellbeing.

Rather than leaving things with the research, I’d like to leave you with a few more short mindfulness raisins to chew on.

Mindfulness and money

As Russell says in his blog post, ‘research in science doesn’t come out of a vacuum’. Indeed, it tends to follow the money. It is estimated that mindfulness is now ‘a $4 billion industry’ (Purser, R.E. (2019). McMindfulness. Repeater Books. p.13): ‘More than 100,000 books for sale on Amazon have a variant of ‘mindfulness’ in their title, touting the benefits of Mindful Parenting, Mindful Eating, Mindful Teaching, Mindful Therapy, Mindful Leadership, Mindful Finance, a Mindful Nation, and Mindful Dog Owners, to name just a few. There is also The Mindfulness Coloring Book, a bestselling genre in itself. Besides books, there are workshops, online courses, glossy magazines, documentary films, smartphone apps, bells, cushions, bracelets, beauty products and other paraphernalia, as well as a lucrative and burgeoning conference circuit’.

It is precisely because so much money is at stake that so much research has been funded. More proof is desperately needed, and it is sadly unforthcoming. Meanwhile, in the immortal words of Kayleigh McEnany, ‘science should not stand in the way.’

Minefulness and the individual

Mindfulness may be aptly described as a ‘technology of the self’. Ronald Purser, the author of ‘McMindfulness’, puts it like this: ‘Rather than discussing how attention is monetized and manipulated by corporations such as Google, Facebook, Twitter and Apple, [mindfulness advocates] locate crisis in our minds. It is not the nature of the capitalist system that is inherently problematic; rather, it is the failure of individuals to be mindful and resilient in a precarious and uncertain economy. Then they sell us solutions that make us contented mindful capitalists’.

It is this focus on the individual that makes it so appealing to right-wing foundations (e.g. the Templeton Foundation) that fund the research into mindfulness. For more on this topic, see my post about grit .

Mindfulness and religion

It is striking how often mindfulness advocates, like Amy, feel the need to insist that mindfulness is not a religious practice. Historically, of course, mindfulness comes direct from a Buddhist tradition, but in its present Western incarnation, it is a curious hybrid. Jon Kabat-Zinn  who, more than anyone else, has transformed mindfulness into a marketable commodity, is profoundly ambiguous on the topic. Buddhists, like Matthieu Ricard or David Forbes (author of ‘Mindfulness and its Discontents’, Fernwood Publishing, 2019), have little time for the cultural appropriation of the Pali term ‘Sati’, especially when mindfulness is employed by the American military for training for snipers. Others, like Goldie Hawn, whose MindUP programme sells well in the US, are quite clear about their religious affiliation and their desire to bring Buddhism into schools through the back door.

I personally find it hard to see the banging of Tibetan bowls as anything other than a religious act, but I am less bothered by this than those American school districts who saw MBIs as ‘covert religious indoctrination’ and banned them. Having said that, why not promote more prayer in schools if the ‘neuroscience’ supports it?

Clare is a busy teacher

Image from Andrew Percival , inspired by The Ladybird Book of Mindfulness and similar titles.

Flipped learning undoubtedly has much potential and now, when F2F teaching is not always possible, the case for exploring what it might offer seems greater still. For a variety of reasons (not the least of which are motivational issues), it may not always be possible to flip the classroom, but, if and when it is, how and what should be flipped?

In the most well-known flipped approaches, such as the Khan Academy, students watch instructional videos in their own time, before coming to class where they can work together on practical problems, applying the knowledge they have gained from the instructional video. The flipped part of the learning does not need to be a video (Bergmann et al., 2013), but, in practice, it usually is. But whether video or something else, one of the big questions for me is what, precisely, does it make sense to flip?

In a recently published Cambridge Paper in ELT that I wrote on Flipped Learning, I noted that it is not uncommon for grammar instruction to be flipped. Al-Harbi & Alshumaimeri (2016), for example, describe a Saudi secondary school where the teacher selected a number of grammar areas from the coursebook and then identified instructional videos from YouTube that addressed these areas. Buitrago & Díaz (2018) describe a Colombian university where students were required to watch instructional videos about grammar, some of which were selected from YouTube and others created by members of staff.

To understand better what learners might be doing in their flipped time, I decided to take a look at a selection of YouTube grammar videos. I focussed on one area of grammar only (‘bored’ vs ‘boring’) and from the huge selection available, I prioritised those that were the most popular. Here’s what I found. After a brief commentary on each of the 10 videos, I wrap up with a few observations.

mmmEnglish 1245K views 8.33 minutes

mmmEnglish

Early on, Emma says ‘These endings are called suffixes and when we add them to the end of a verb, they transform our verb into an adjective, but you need to know how to use each of these types of adjectives and we’re gonna do that right now’. This gives a good taste of what follows. We learn that –ing adjectives refer to ‘the characteristics of a person, a thing, or a situation’ while –ed adjectives refer to an ‘emotion or a feeling’. Bearing in mind that this area of grammar is listed as A2+ (in Pearson’s GSE), explanations of this kind in English may be tricky for many learners. The language grading in explanations like ‘If you say that someone or something is boring, they or it makes you feel bored. Do the thing or the person that is boring is what makes you feel bored. It bores you. OK, there’s our verb’ needs a little attention! On and on goes Emma, until after almost five minutes she reads out a few sentences and students have to decide if the correct adjective has been used. Over a million people have watched this.

Learn English with Let’s Talk 452K views 8.52 minutes

Lets Talk

Rashna explains: ‘First, let’s begin by understanding what are adjectives’. My heart sinks. ‘So ‘pretty’ is doing the job of describing or bringing about a quality of the noun ‘girl’, so ‘pretty’ becomes my adjective. So when you’re confused and don’t know how to spot the adjectives, ask the question ‘what kind’. All right. So, if I say I live in a big city, and if I ask what kind of a city, it’s big, so ‘big’ is an adjective that is describing the noun ‘city’. All right. So remember, adjectives are nothing but just words that describe a noun that tell you more about it or bring about some quality.’ Over a quarter of the way through and we haven’t yet got on to –ed and –ing. I recommend watching all the way through to the end just to admire the whiteboard work. You might enjoy the comments, too (e.g. ‘Thanks very much. This lesson was confused me so much.’) Coming up for half a million views.

Alejo Lopera Inglés 428K views 4.07 minutes

Alejo

The only English here is in the example sentences, with Spanish being used for the rest. The explanation hinges on ‘pienso’ (think) for –ing and ‘sentimiento’ (feeling) for –ed, which only kind of works. Alejo takes us through a few examples using a combination of talking-head video and background slides. His delivery is engaging and using Spanish makes things clearer than English only.

English Lessons with Adam 357K views 5.27 minutes

Adam

Standing in front of the whiteboard, Adam says that his video is especially useful for beginners. He rambles on for over 5 minutes in language which is far more complicated than the language he is explaining. Here’s a flavour: Now, what does it mean to be bored and what does it mean to be boring? When we talk about “bored”, we’re describing a feeling. Okay? When we talk about “interested”, we’re describing a feeling. So all of the “ed” adjectives are actually feelings, and you can only use them to talk about people and sometimes animals. Why? Because things, like chairs, or tables, or whatever, they don’t have feelings. […]”I am worried”, now people don’t realize that “worried” can have “worrying” as another adjective. “The situation is worrying” means the situation is making me feel worried. Okay? Maybe the whole global political situation, whatever. Now, hopefully none of you are confused by this lesson because I’m trying to make it not confusing. Okay? Everybody okay with that? […] Now, I just want to point out one other thing: Don’t confuse feeling adjectives with “ed” with actual feelings. Okay? If somebody is loved, does he feel loved? Maybe yes, maybe no. We’re not talking about that person’s feelings.

Crown Academy of English 270K views 26.57 minutes

Crown academy

Using screen capture and voiceover software, the script is mostly read aloud from the screen. There is no attempt to make either the script or the delivery interesting. The approach is as traditional as can be: it focuses first on form, with no shying away from grammatical jargon, and eventually moves on to meaning. And then, if you’re still awake, there’s a discrimination exercise. After over 25 minutes of death-by-Powerpoint, the lesson comes, mercifully, to an end.

 

Learn English with Rebecca 274K views 3.30 minutes

Rebecca

From the same stable as Adam’s video, this is more controlled than his ramble, and with slightly better language grading, but is still hard to follow, in part because no examples are given in written form. As with Adam, Rebecca bangs on about how important it is to get this grammar right, because ‘if you make a mistake you could be saying something very unpleasant about yourself’. It’s hard to tell what level it’s intended for.

Francisco Ochoa Inglés Fácil 64K views 11.02 minutes

Pacho

Switching between Spanish and English, Pacho rattles non-stop through 6 discrimination sentences, taking the difference between feelings (which take the Spanish ‘estar’) and states (which take the Spanish ‘ser’) as his key explanatory tool. This doesn’t quite work, but following his breakneck delivery is more of a problem. The only thing he doesn’t translate are the commas in his examples. I challenge you not to feel confused / confusing by the time he gets to the third sentence. Even Pacho seems to be struggling. Words like ‘hence’ and tenses like past perfect continuous don’t help his 11 minute monologue. I loved the way that he says at the end that the only way to learn this stuff is by applying the language in the way he has just done.

BBC Learning English 48K views 0.56 minutes

BBC_Learning_English

In under a minute, Sam from BBC Learning English achieves much greater clarity than anyone else I watched, helped by a carefully planned script, very controlled language and a split screen showing the key points as she makes them. Towards the end, she rattles through 5 more –ed / -ing pairs rather too quickly. It’s a shame, I thought, that she (or the producers) felt the need to reference the old trope about how boring grammar lessons are.

Shaw English Online 46K views 8.49 minutes

Shaw English Online

The explanation is mercifully brief and the language of Fanny, the presenter, is well controlled. We could do without the exhortations to listen carefully, etc, ‘because this is very important’, but you can’t have everything. A lot of examples are given, before the explanations are repeated. The repetitions don’t help as Fanny resorts to more complicated language than the language she is explaining (e.g. ‘But when you say the teacher was boring, you are describing the teacher, OK, the teacher made the students feel bored, because he or she was boring’). After nearly 4 minutes of presentation, there are some practice discrimination tasks, but Fanny’s relentless commentary gets seriously in the way. The lesson is rounded off with a few minutes of repeat-after-me pronunciation practice.

Mad English TV 24K views 6.59 minutes

Mad_English

In a surreal opening, the presenter talks about the three different states of H2O, before explaining that people, too, can have different states. Eventually, we get to the idea that ‘boring’ is an accusation, ‘bored’ is a state: ‘If you go up to your teacher and say ‘you’re boring’, that’s an insult’. The language grading is all over the place, as is the explanation itself. As a general rule, the longer the explanation, the less clear it is. At 7 minutes, this video is no exception to the rule. When we get to a mini-test (a useful feature that not all other videos have), the choice is ‘My cat is _______’. To know the answer, you need to know if you’re making an accusation about the cat. Got it?

Flipped learning and grammar

Although grammar instruction might seem a strong candidate for a flipped treatment, videoed explanations are clearly not the way to do it. Many coursebooks have perfectly adequate guided discoveries of this and other standard grammar points. Newer courses on platforms have interactive guided discoveries (and often also offer a more traditional deductive route) that will also do the trick much better than videoed explanations. Would learners not be better off doing something else altogether with their time? Initial vocabulary study, listening, reading, writing, almost anything in fact, is a more appropriate target for flipping than grammar, when approached in this way. Video is not the solution to a problem: on the evidence here, it makes the problem worse.

The popularity of grammar videos

It’s very hard to watch this stuff and not scoff, but there’s no denying the immense popularity of videos like these. Much as I find it difficult to believe, people must be learning something (or think they are learning something) from watching them. Otherwise, they presumably wouldn’t consume them to such an extent. Perhaps, these videos conform to expectations about what English lessons should be like? Perhaps viewers subscribe to a belief in ‘no pain, no gain’? Perhaps they simply don’t know where to find something that would help them more? Or perhaps they have been told to watch by their flipping teachers?

Emma has had 1.25 million views. Advertising earnings from 1 million YouTube views are generally reckoned to be between $600-$7000, but are likely to be at the higher end of this scale if (1) people watch the video through to the end (which is probably the case here), and (2) viewers interact with the video through likes and comment (for this video Emma has received 2353 comments). Earnings are also higher when you have more subscribers to your channel. Emma can count on 3.25 million subscribers and Rachna of Let’s Talk has 4.77 million subscribers. By way of contrast, Russell Stannard’s Teacher Training Videos has 40,000 subscribers. There’s gold in them thar hills.

Grammar videos and the world of ELT

Free grammar videos, along with self-study apps like Duolingo, are a huge and thriving sector of ELT. They rarely, if ever, feature in research, conference presentations or the broader discourse of ELT, a world, it seems, much more oriented to products you have to pay for.

References

Al-Harbi, S.S., & Alshumaimeri, Y.A. (2016). The flipped classroom impact in grammar class on EFL Saudi secondary school students’ performances and attitudes. English Language Teaching, 9(10): 60–80. Available at: https://files.eric.ed.gov/fulltext/EJ1113506.pdf

Bergmann, J., Overmeyer, J., & Wilie, B. (2013). The flipped class: myth vs. reality. The Daily Riff, July 9, 2013. Available at: http://www.thedailyriff.com/articles/the-flipped-class-conversation-689.php

Buitrago, C. R., & Díaz, J. (2018). Flipping your writing lessons: Optimizing your time in your EFL writing classroom. In Mehring, J., & Leis, A. (Eds.), Innovations in Flipping the Language Classroom. Singapore: Springer, 69–91.

Around 25 years ago, when I worked at International House London, I used to teach a course called ‘Current Trends in ELT’. I no longer have records of the time so I can’t be 100% sure what was included in the course, but task-based learning, the ‘Lexical Approach’, the use of corpora, English as a Lingua Franca, learner autonomy / centredness, reflective practice and technology (CALL and CD-ROMs) were all probably part of it. I see that IH London still offers this course (next available course in January 2021) and I am struck by how similar the list of contents is. Only ‘emerging language’, CLIL, DOGME and motivation are clearly different from the menu of 25 years ago.

The term ‘current trends’ has always been a good hook to sell a product. Each year, any number of ELT conferences chooses it as their theme. Coursebooks, like ‘Cutting Edge’ or ‘Innovations’, suggest in their titles something fresh and appealing. And, since 2003, the British Council has used its English Language Teaching Innovation Awards to position itself as forward-thinking and innovative.

You could be forgiven for wondering what is especially innovative about many of the ELTon award-winners, or indeed, why neophilia actually matters at all. The problem, in a relatively limited world like language teaching, is that only so much innovation is either possible or desirable.

A year after the ELTons appeared, Adrian Underhill wrote an article about ‘Trends in English Language Teaching Today’. Almost ten years after I was teaching ‘current trends’, Adrian’s list included the use of corpora, English as a Lingua Franca, reflective practice and learner-centredness. His main guess was that practitioners would be working more with ‘the fuzzy, the unclear, the unfinished’. He hadn’t reckoned on the influence of the CEFR, Pearson’s Global Scale of English and our current obsession with measuring everything!

Jump just over ten years and Chia Suan Chong offered a listicle of ‘Ten innovations that have changed English language teaching for the British Council. Most of these were technological developments (platforms, online CPD, mobile learning) but a significant newcomer to the list was ‘soft skills’ (especially critical thinking).

Zooming forward nearer to the present, Chia then offered her list of ‘Ten trends and innovations in English language teaching for 2018’ in another post for the British Council. English as a Lingua Franca was still there, but gone were task-based learning and the ‘Lexical Approach’, corpora, learner-centredness and reflective practice. In their place came SpLNs, multi-literacies, inquiry-based learning and, above all, more about technology – platforms, mobile and blended learning, gamification.

I decided to explore current ‘current trends’ by taking a look at the last twelve months of blog posts from the four biggest UK ELT publishers. Posts such as these are interesting in two ways: (1) they are an attempt to capture what is perceived as ‘new’ and therefore more likely to attract clicks, and (2) they are also an attempt to set an agenda – they reflect what these commercial organisations would like us to be talking and thinking about. The posts reflect reasonably well the sorts of topics that are chosen for webinars, whether directly hosted or sponsored.

The most immediate and unsurprising observation is that technology is ubiquitous. No longer one among a number of topics, technology now informs (almost) all other topics. Before I draw a few conclusion, here are more detailed notes.

Pearson English blog

Along with other publishers, Pearson were keen to show how supportive to teachers they were, and the months following the appearance of the pandemic saw a greater number than normal of blog posts that did not focus on particular Pearson products. Over the last twelve months as a whole, Pearson made strenuous efforts to draw attention to their Global Scale of English and the Pearson Test of English. Assessment of one kind or another was never far away. But the other big themes of the last twelve months have been ‘soft / 21st century skills (creativity, critical thinking, collaboration, leadership, etc.), and aspects of social and emotional learning (especially engagement / motivation, anxiety and mindfulness). Three other topics also featured more than once: mediation, personalization and SpLN (dyslexia).

OUP ELT Global blog

The OUP blog has, on the whole, longer, rather more informative posts than Pearson. They also tend to be less obviously product-oriented, and fewer are written by in-house marketing people. The main message that comes across is the putative importance of ‘soft / 21st century skills’, which Oxford likes to call ‘global skills’ (along with the assessment of these skills). One post manages to pack three buzzwords into one title: ‘Global Skills – Create Empowered 21st Century Learners’. As with Pearson, ‘engagement / engaging’ is probably the most over-used word in the last twelve months. In the social and emotional area, OUP focuses on teacher well-being, rather than mindfulness (although, of course, mindfulness is a path to this well-being). There is also an interest in inquiry-based learning, literacies (digital and assessment), formative assessment and blended learning.

Macmillan English blog

The Macmillan English ‘Advancing Learning’ blog is a much less corporate beast than the Pearson and OUP blogs. There have been relatively few posts in the last twelve months, and no clear message emerges. The last year has seen posts on the Image Conference, preparing for IELTS, student retention, extensive reading, ELF pronunciation, drama, mindfulness, Zoom, EMI, and collaboration skills.

CUP World of Better Learning blog

The CUP blog, like Macmillan’s, is an eclectic affair, with no clearly discernible messages beyond supporting teachers with tips and tools to deal with the shift to online teaching. Motivation and engagement are fairly prominent (with Sarah Mercer contributing both here and at OUP). Well-being (and the inevitable nod to mindfulness) gets a look-in. Other topics include SpLNs, video and ELF pronunciation (with Laura Patsko contributing both here and at the Macmillan site).

Macro trends

My survey has certainly not been ‘scientific’, but I think it allows us to note a few macro-trends. Here are my thoughts:

  • Measurement of language and skills (both learning and teaching skills) has become central to many of our current concerns.
  • We are now much less interested in issues which are unique to language learning and teaching (e.g. task-based learning, the ‘Lexical Approach’, corpora) than we used to be.
  • Current concerns reflect much more closely the major concerns of general education (measurement, 21st century skills, social-emotional learning) than they used to. It is no coincidence that these reflect the priorities of those who shape global educational policy (OECD, World Bank, etc.).
  • 25 years ago, current trends were more like zones of interest. They were areas to explore, research and critique further. As such, we might think of them as areas of exploratory practice (‘Exploratory Practice’ itself was a ‘current trend’ in the mid 1990s). Current ‘current trends’ are much more enshrined. They are things to be implemented, and exploration of them concerns the ‘how’, not the ‘whether’.

The idea of ‘digital natives’ emerged at the turn of the century, was popularized by Marc Prensky (2001), and rapidly caught the public imagination, especially the imagination of technology marketers. Its popularity has dwindled a little since then, but is still widely used. Alternative terms include ‘Generation Y’, ‘Millennials’ and the ‘Net Generation’, definitions of which vary slightly from writer to writer. Two examples of the continued currency of the term ‘digital native’ are a 2019 article on the Pearson Global Scale of English website entitled ‘Teaching digital natives to become more human’ and an article in The Pie News (a trade magazine for ‘professionals in international education’), extolling the virtues of online learning for digital natives in times of Covid-19.

Key to understanding ‘digital natives’, according to users of the term, is their fundamental differences from previous generations. They have grown up immersed in technology, have shorter attention spans, and are adept at multitasking. They ‘are no longer the people our educational system was designed to teach’ (Prensky, 2001), so educational systems must change in order to accommodate their needs.

The problem is that ‘digital natives’ are a myth. Prensky’s ideas were not based on any meaningful research: his observations and conclusions, seductive though they might be, were no more than opinions. Kirschner and De Bruyckere (2017) state the research consensus:

There is no such thing as a digital native who is information-skilled simply because (s)he has never known a world that was not digital. […] One of the alleged abilities of students in this generation, the ability to multitask, does not exist and that designing education that assumes the presence of this ability hinders rather than helps learning.

This is neither new (see Bennett et al., 2008) nor contentious. Almost ten years ago, Thomas (2011:3) reported that ‘some researchers have been asked to remove all trace of the term from academic papers submitted to conferences in order to be seriously considered for inclusion’. There are reasons, he added, to consider some uses of the term nothing more than technoevangelism (Thomas, 2011:4). Perhaps someone should tell Pearson and the Pie News? Then, again, perhaps, they wouldn’t care.

The attribution of particular characteristics to ‘digital natives’ / ‘Generation Y’ / ‘Millennials’ is an application of Generation Theory. This can be traced back to a 1928 paper by Karl Mannheim, called ‘Das Problem der Generationen’ which grew in popularity after being translated into English in the 1950s. According to Jauregui et al (2019), the theory was extensively debated in the 1960s and 1970s, but then disappeared from academic study. The theory was not supported by empirical research, was considered to be overly schematised and too culturally-bound, and led inexorably to essentialised and reductive stereotypes.

But Generation Theory gained a new lease of life in the 1990s, following the publication of ‘Generations’ by William Strauss and Neil Howe. The book was so successful that it spawned a slew of other titles leading up to ‘Millennials Rising’ (Howe & Strauss, 2000). This popularity has continued to the present, with fans including Steve Bannon (Kaiser, 2016) who made an ‘apocalyptical and polemical’ documentary film about the 2007 – 2008 financial crisis entitled ‘Generation Zero’. The work of Strauss and Howe has been dismissed as ‘more popular culture than social science’ (Jauregui et al., 2019: 63) and in much harsher terms in two fascinating articles in Jacobin (Hart, 2018) and Aeon (Onion, 2015). The sub-heading of the latter is ‘generational labels are lazy, useless and just plain wrong’. Although dismissed by scholars as pseudo-science, the popularity of such Generation Theory helps explain why Prensky’s paper about ‘digital natives’ fell on such fertile ground. The saying, often falsely attributed to Mark Twain, that we should ‘never let the truth get in the way of a good story’ comes to mind.

But by the end of the first decade of this century, ‘digital natives’ had become problematic in two ways: not only did the term not stand up to close analysis, but it also no longer referred to the generational cohort that pundits and marketers wanted to talk about.

Around January 2018, use of the term ‘Generation Z’ began to soar, and is currently at its highest point ever in the Google Trends graph. As with ‘digital natives’, the precise birth dates of Generation Z vary from writer to writer. After 2001, according to the Cambridge dictionary; slightly earlier according to other sources. The cut-off point is somewhere between the mid and late 2010s. Other terms for this cohort have been proposed, but ‘Generation Z’ is the most popular.

William Strauss died in 2007 and Neil Howe was in his late 60s when ‘Generation Z’ became a thing, so there was space for others to take up the baton. The most successful have probably been Corey Seemiller and Meghan Grace, who, since 2016, have been churning out a book a year devoted to ‘Generation Z’. In the first of these (Seemiller & Grace, 2016), they were clearly keen to avoid some of the criticisms that had been levelled at Strauss and Howe, and they carried out research. This consisted of 1143 responses to a self-reporting questionnaire by students at US institutions of higher education. The survey also collected information about Kolb’s learning styles and multiple intelligences. With refreshing candour, they admit that the sample is not entirely representative of higher education in the US. And, since it only looked at students in higher education, it told us nothing at all about those who weren’t.

In August 2018, Pearson joined the party, bringing out a report entitled ‘Beyond Millennials: The Next Generation of Learners’. Conducted by the Harris Poll, the survey looked at 2,587 US respondents, aged between 14 and 40. The results were weighted for age, gender, race/ethnicity, marital status, household income, and education, so were rather more representative than the Seemiller & Grace research.

In ELT and educational references to ‘Generation Z’, research, of even the very limited kind mentioned above, is rarely cited. When it is, Seemiller and Grace feature prominently (e.g. Mohr & Mohr, 2017). Alternatively, even less reliable sources are used. In an ELT webinar entitled ‘Engaging Generation Z’, for example, information about the characteristics of ‘Generation Z’ learners is taken from an infographic produced by an American office furniture company.

But putting aside quibbles about the reliability of the information, and the fact that it most commonly[1] refers to Americans (who are not, perhaps, the most representative group in global terms), what do the polls tell us?

Despite claims that Generation Z are significantly different from their Millennial predecessors, the general picture that emerges suggests that differences are more a question of degree than substance. These include:

  • A preference for visual / video information over text
  • A variety of bite-sized, entertaining educational experiences
  • Short attention spans and zero tolerance for delay

All of these were identified in 2008 (Williams et al., 2008) as characteristics of the ‘Google Generation’ (a label which usually seems to span Millennials and Generation Z). There is nothing fundamentally different from Prensky’s description of ‘digital natives’. The Pearson report claimed that ‘Generation Z expects experiences both inside and outside the classroom that are more rewarding, more engaging and less time consuming. Technology is no longer a transformative phenomena for this generation, but rather a normal, integral part of life’. However, there is no clear disjuncture or discontinuity between Generation Z and Millennials, any more than there was between ‘digital natives’ and previous generations (Selwyn, 2009: 375). What has really changed is that the technology has moved on (e.g. YouTube was founded in 2005 and the first iPhone was released in 2007).

TESOL TurkeyThe discourse surrounding ‘Generation Z’ is now steadily finding its way into the world of English language teaching. The 2nd TESOL Turkey International ELT Conference took place last November with ‘Teaching Generation Z: Passing on the baton from K12 to University’ as its theme. A further gloss explained that the theme was ‘in reference to the new digital generation of learners with outstanding multitasking skills; learners who can process and absorb information within mere seconds and yet possess the shortest attention span ever’.

 

A few more examples … Cambridge University Press ran a webinar ELT webinar entitled ‘Engaging Generation Z’ and Macmillan Education has a coursebook series called ‘Exercising English for Generation Z’. EBC, a TEFL training provider, ran a blog post in November last year, ‘Teaching English to generation Z students’. And EFL Magazine had an article, ‘Critical Thinking – The Key Competence For The Z Generation’, in February of this year.

The pedagogical advice that results from this interest in Generation Z seems to boil down to: ‘Accept the digital desires of the learners, use lots of video (i.e. use more technology in the classroom) and encourage multi-tasking’.

No one, I suspect, would suggest that teachers should not make use of topics and technologies that appeal to their learners. But recommendations to change approaches to language teaching, ‘based solely on the supposed demands and needs of a new generation of digital natives must be treated with caution’ (Bennett et al., 2008: 782). It is far from clear that generational differences (even if they really exist) are important enough ‘to be considered during the design of instruction or the use of different educational technologies – at this time, the weight of the evidence is negative’ (Reeves, 2008: 21).

Perhaps, it would be more useful to turn away from surveys of attitudes and towards more fact-based research. Studies in both the US and the UK have found that myopia and other problems with the eyes is rising fast among the Generation Z cohort, and that there is a link with increased screen time, especially with handheld devices. At the same time, Generation Zers are much more likely than their predecessors to be diagnosed with anxiety disorder and depression. While the connection between technology use and mental health is far from clear, it is possible that  ‘the rise of the smartphone and social media have at least something to do with [the rise in mental health issues]’ (Twenge, 2017).

Should we be using more technology in class because learners say they want or need it? If we follow that logic, perhaps we should also be encouraging the consumption of fast food, energy drinks and Ritalin before and after lessons?

[1] Studies have been carried out in other geographical settings, including Europe (e.g. Triple-a-Team AG, 2016) and China (Tang, 2019).

References

Bennett S., Maton K., & Kervin, L. (2008). The ‘digital natives’ debate: a critical review of the evidence. British Jmournal of Educational Technology, 39 (5):pp. 775-786.

Hart, A. (2018). Against Generational Politics. Jacobin, 28 February 2018. https://jacobinmag.com/2018/02/generational-theory-millennials-boomers-age-history

Howe, N. & Strauss, W. (2000). Millennials Rising: The Next Great Generation. New York, NY: Vintage Books.

Jauregui, J., Watsjold, B., Welsh, L., Ilgen, J. S. & Robins, L. (2019). Generational “othering”: The myth of the Millennial learner. Medical Education,54: pp.60–65. https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/pdf/10.1111/medu.13795

Kaiser, D. (2016). Donald Trump, Stephen Bannon and the Coming Crisis in American National Life. Time, 18 November 2016. https://time.com/4575780/stephen-bannon-fourth-turning/

Kirschner, P.A. & De Bruyckere P. (2017). The myths of the digital native and the multitasker. Teaching and Teacher Education, 67: pp. 135-142. https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0742051X16306692

Mohr, K. A. J. & Mohr, E. S. (2017). Understanding Generation Z Students to Promote a Contemporary Learning Environment. Journal on Empowering Teacher Excellence, 1 (1), Article 9 DOI: https://doi.org/10.15142/T3M05T

Onion, R. (2015). Against generations. Aeon, 19 May, 2015. https://aeon.co/essays/generational-labels-are-lazy-useless-and-just-plain-wrong

Pearson (2018). Beyond Millennials: The Next Generation of Learners. https://www.pearson.com/content/dam/one-dot-com/one-dot-com/global/Files/news/news-annoucements/2018/The-Next-Generation-of-Learners_final.pdf

Prensky, M. (2001). Digital natives, digital immigrants. On the Horizon, 9: pp. 1- 6

Reeves, T.C. (2008). Do Generational Differences Matter in Instructional Design? Athens, GA: University of Georgia, Department of Educational Psychology and Instructional Technology

Seemiller, C. & and Grace, M. (2016). Generation Z Goes to College. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass

Selwyn, N. (2009). The digital native-myth and reality. Perspectives, 61: pp. 364-379

Strauss W. & Howe, N. (1991). Generations: The History of America’s Future, 1584 to 2069. New York, New York: HarperCollins.

Tang F. (2019). A critical review of research on the work-related attitudes of Generation Z in China. Social Psychology and Society, 10 (2): pp. 19—28. Available at: https://psyjournals.ru/files/106927/sps_2019_n2_Tang.pdf

Thomas, M. (2011). Technology, Education, and the Discourse of the Digital Native: Between Evangelists and Dissenters. In Thomas, M. (ed). (2011). Deconstructing Digital Natives: Young people, technology and the new literacies. London: Routledge. pp. 1- 13)

Triple-a-Team AG. (2016). Generation Z Metastudie über die kommende Generation. Biglen, Switzerland. Available at: http://www.sprachenrat.bremen.de/files/aktivitaeten/Generation_Z_Metastudie.pdf

Twenge, J. M. (2017). iGen. New York: Atria Books

Williams, P., Rowlands, I. & Fieldhouse, M. (2008). The ‘Google Generation’ – myths and realities about young people’s digital information behaviour. In Nicholas, D. & Rowlands, I. (eds.) (2008). Digital Consumers. London: Facet Publishers.

Definition of gritGrit book cover

from Quartz at Work magazine

 

Grit is on the up. You may have come across articles like ‘How to Be Gritty in the Time of COVID-19’ or ‘Rediscovering the meaning of grit during COVID-19’ . If you still want more, there are new videos from Angela Duckworth herself where we can learn how to find our grit in the face of the pandemic.

Schools and educational authorities love grit. Its simple, upbeat message (‘Yes, you can’) has won over hearts and minds. Back in 2014, the British minister for education announced a £5million plan to encourage teaching ‘character and resilience’ in schools – specifically looking at making Britain’s pupils ‘grittier’. The spending on grit hasn’t stopped since.

The publishers of Duckworth’s book paid a seven-figure sum to acquire the US rights, and sales have proved the wisdom of the investment. Her TED talk has had over 6.5 million views on YouTube, although it’s worth looking at the comments to see why many people have been watching it.

Youtube comments

The world of English language teaching, always on the lookout for a new bandwagon to jump onto, is starting to catch up with the wider world of education. Luke Plonsky, an eminent SLA scholar, specialist in meta-analyses and grit enthusiast, has a bibliography of grit studies related to L2 learning, that he deems worthy of consideration. Here’s a summary, by year, of those publications. More details will follow in the next section.

Plonsky biblio

We can expect interest in ‘grit’ to continue growing, and this may be accelerated by the publication this year of Engaging Language Learners in Contemporary Classrooms by Sarah Mercer and Zoltán Dörnyei. In this book, the authors argue that a ‘facilitative mindset’ is required for learner engagement. They enumerate five interrelated principles for developing a ‘facilitative mindset’: promote a sense of competence, foster a growth mindset, promote learners’ sense of ownership and control, develop proactive learners and, develop gritty learners. After a brief discussion of grit, they write: ‘Thankfully, grit can be learnt and developed’ (p.38).

Unfortunately, they don’t provide any evidence at all for this. Unfortunately, too, this oversight is easy to explain. Such evidence as there is does not lend unequivocal support to the claim. Two studies that should have been mentioned in this book are ‘Much ado about grit: A meta-analytic synthesis of the grit literature’ (Credé et al, 2017) and ‘What shall we do about grit? A critical review of what we know and what we don’t know’ (Credé, 2018). The authors found that ‘grit as it is currently measured does not appear to be particularly predictive of success and performance’ (Credé et al, 2017) and that there is no support for the claim that ‘grit is likely to be responsive to interventions’ (Credé, 2018). In the L2 learning context, Teimouri et al (2020) concluded that more research in SLA substantiating the role of grit in L2 contexts was needed before any grit interventions can be recommended.

It has to be said that such results are hardly surprising. If, as Duckworth claims, ‘grit’ is a combination of passion and persistence, how on earth can the passion part of it be susceptible to educational interventions? ‘If there is one thing that cannot be learned, it’s passion. A person can have it and develop it, but learn it? Sadly, not’. (De Bruyckere et al., 2020: 83)

Even Duckworth herself is not convinced. In an interview on a Freakonomics podcast, she states that she hopes it’s something people can learn, but also admits not having enough proof to confirm that they can (Kirschner & Neelen, 2016)!

Is ‘grit’ a thing?

Marc Jones, in a 2016 blog post entitled ‘Gritty Politti: Grit, Growth Mindset and Neoliberal Language Teaching’, writes that ‘Grit is so difficult to define that it takes Duckworth (2016) the best part of a book to describe it adequately’. Yes, ‘grit’ is passion and persistence (or perseverance), but it’s also conscientiousness, practice and hope. Credé et al (2017) found that ‘grit is very strongly correlated with conscientiousness’ (which has already been widely studied in the educational literature). Why lump this together with passion? Another study (Muenks et al., 2017) found that ‘Students’ grit overlapped empirically with their concurrently reported self-control, self-regulation, and engagement. Students’ perseverance of effort (but not their consistency of interests) predicted their later grades, although other self-regulation and engagement variables were stronger predictors of students’ grades than was grit’. Credé (2018) concluded that ‘there appears to be no reason to accept the combination of perseverance and passion for long-term goals into a single grit construct’.

The L2 learning research listed in Plonsky’s bibliography does not offer much in support of ‘grit’, either. Many of the studies identified problems with ‘grit’ as a construct, but, even when accepting it, did not find it to be of much value. Wei et al. (2019) found a positive but weak correlation between grit and English language course grades. Yamashita (2018) found no relationship between learners’ grit and their course grades. Taşpinar & Külekçi (2018) found that students’ grit levels and academic achievement scores did not relate to each other (but still found that ‘grit, perseverance, and tenacity are the essential elements that impact learners’ ability to succeed to be prepared for the demands of today’s world’!).

There are, then, grounds for suspecting that Duckworth and her supporters have fallen foul of the ‘jangle fallacy’ – the erroneous assumption that two identical or almost identical things are different because they are labelled differently. This would also help to explain the lack of empirical support for the notion of ‘grit’. Not only are the numerous variables insufficiently differentiated, but the measures of ‘grit’ (such as Duckworth’s Grit-S measure) do not adequately target some of these variables (e.g. long-term goals, where ‘long-term’ is not defined) (Muenks et al., 2017). In addition, these measures are self-reporting and not, therefore, terribly reliable.

Referring to more general approaches to character education, one report (Gutman & Schoon, 2012) has argued that there is little empirical evidence of a causal relationship between self-concept and educational outcomes. Taking this one step further, Kathryn Ecclestone (Ecclestone, 2012) suggests that at best, the concepts and evidence that serve as the basis of these interventions are inconclusive and fragmented; ‘at worst, [they are] prey to ‘advocacy science’ or, in [their] worst manifestations, to simple entrepreneurship that competes for publicly funded interventions’ (cited in Cabanas & Illouz, 2019: 80).

Criticisms of ‘grit’

Given the lack of supporting research, any practical application of ‘grit’ ideas is premature. Duckworth herself, in an article entitled ‘Don’t Believe the Hype About Grit, Pleads the Scientist Behind the Concept’ (Dahl, 2016), cautions against hasty applications:

[By placing too much emphasis on grit, the danger is] that grit becomes a scapegoat — another reason to blame kids for not doing well, or to say that we don’t have a responsibility as a society to help them. [She worries that some interpretations of her work might make a student’s failure seem like his problem, as if he just didn’t work hard enough.] I think to separate and pit against each other character strengths on the one hand — like grit — and situational opportunities on the other is a false dichotomy […] Kids need to develop character, and they need our support in doing so.

Marc Jones, in the blog mentioned above, writes that ‘to me, grit is simply another tool for attacking the poor and the other’. You won’t win any prizes for guessing which kinds of students are most likely to be the targets of grit interventions. A clue: think of the ‘no-nonsense’ charters in the US and academies in the UK. This is what Kenneth Saltzman has to say:

‘Grit’ is a pedagogy of control that is predicated upon a promise made to poor children that if they learnt the tools of self-control and learnt to endure drudgery, then they can compete with rich children for scarce economic resources. (Saltzman, 2017: 38)

[It] is a behaviourist form of learned self-control targeting poor students of color and has been popularized post-crisis in the wake of educational privatization and defunding as the cure for poverty. [It] is designed to suggest that individual resilience and self-reliance can overcome social violence and unsupportive social contexts in the era of the shredded social state. (Saltzman, 2017: 15)

Grit is misrepresented by proponents as opening a world of individual choices rather than discussed as a mode of educational and social control in the austere world of work defined by fewer and fewer choices as secure public sector work is scaled back, unemployment continuing at high levels. (Saltzman, 2017: 49)

Whilst ‘grit’ is often presented as a way of dealing with structural inequalities in schools, critics see it as more of a problem than a solution: ‘It’s the kids who are most impacted by, rebel against, or criticize the embedded racism and classism of their institutions that are being told to have more grit, that school is hard for everyone’ (EquiTEA, 2018). A widely cited article by Nicholas Tampio (2016) points out that ‘Duckworth celebrates educational models such as Beast at West Point that weed out people who don’t obey orders’. He continues ‘that is a disastrous model for education in a democracy. US schools ought to protect dreamers, inventors, rebels and entrepreneurs – not crush them in the name of grit’.

If you’re interested in reading more critics of grit, the blog ‘Debunked!’ is an excellent source of links.

Measuring grit

Analyses of emotional behaviour have become central to economic analysis and, beginning in the 1990s, there have been constant efforts to create ‘formal instruments of classification of emotional behaviour and the elaboration of the notion of emotional competence’ (Illouz, 2007: 64). The measurement and manipulation of various aspects of ‘emotional intelligence’ have become crucial as ways ‘to control, predict, and boost performance’ (Illouz, 2007: 65). An article in the Journal of Benefit-Cost Analysis (Belfield et al., 2015) makes the economic importance of emotions very clear. Entitled ‘The Economic Value of Social and Emotional Learning’, it examines the economic value of these skills within a benefit-cost analysis (BCA) framework, and finds that the benefits of [social and emotional learning] interventions substantially outweigh the costs.

In recent years, the OECD has commissioned a number of reports on social and emotional learning and, as with everything connected with the OECD, is interested in measuringnon-cognitive skills such as perseverance (“grit”), conscientiousness, self-control, trust, attentiveness, self-esteem and self-efficacy, resilience to adversity, openness to experience, empathy, humility, tolerance of diverse opinions and the ability to engage productively in society’ (Kautz et al., 2014: 9). The measurement of personality factors will feature in the OECD’s PISA programme. Elsewhere, Ben Williamson reports that ‘US schools [are] now under pressure—following the introduction of the Every Student Succeeds Act in 2015—to provide measurable evidence of progress on the development of students’ non-academic learning’ (Williamson, 2017).

Grit, which ‘starts and ends with the lone individual as economic actor, worker, and consumer’ (Saltzman, 2017: 50), is a recent addition to the categories of emotional competence, and it should come as no surprise that educational authorities have so wholeheartedly embraced it. It is the claim that something (i.e. ‘grit’) can be taught and developed that leads directly to the desire to measure it. In a world where everything must be accountable, we need to know how effective and cost-effective our grit interventions have been.

The idea of measuring personality constructs like ‘grit’ worries even Angela Duckworth. She writes (Duckworth, 2016):

These days, however, I worry I’ve contributed, inadvertently, to an idea I vigorously oppose: high-stakes character assessment. New federal legislation can be interpreted as encouraging states and schools to incorporate measures of character into their accountability systems. This year, nine California school districts will begin doing this. But we’re nowhere near ready — and perhaps never will be — to use feedback on character as a metric for judging the effectiveness of teachers and schools. We shouldn’t be rewarding or punishing schools for how students perform on these measures.

Diane Ravitch (Ravitch, 2016) makes the point rather more forcefully: ‘The urge to quantify the unmeasurable must be recognized for what it is: stupid; arrogant; harmful; foolish, yet another way to standardize our beings’. But, like it or not, attempts to measure ‘grit’ and ‘grit’ interventions are unlikely to go away any time soon.

‘Grit’ and technology

Whenever there is talk about educational measurement and metrics, we are never far away from the world of edtech. It may not have escaped your notice that the OECD and the US Department of State for Education, enthusiasts for promoting ‘grit’, are also major players in the promotion of the datafication of education. The same holds true for organisations like the World Education Forum, the World Bank and the various philanthro-capitalist foundations to which I have referred so often in this blog. Advocacy of social and emotional learning goes hand in hand with edtech advocacy.

Two fascinating articles by Ben Williamson (2017; 2019) focus on ClassDojo, which, according to company information, reaches more than 10 million children globally every day. The founding directors of ClassDojo, writes Ben Williamson (2017), ‘explicitly describe its purpose as promoting ‘character development’ in schools and it is underpinned by particular psychological concepts from character research. Its website approvingly cites the journalist Paul Tough, author of two books on promoting ‘grit’ and ‘character’ in children, and is informed by character research conducted with the US network of KIPP charter schools (Knowledge is Power Program)’. In a circular process, ClassDojo has also ‘helped distribute and popularise concepts such as growth mindset, grit and mindfulness’ (Williamson, 2019).

The connections between ‘grit’ and edtech are especially visible when we focus on Stanford and Silicon Valley. ClassDojo was born in Palo Alto. Duckworth was a consulting scholar at Stanford 2014 -15, where Carol Dweck is a Professor of Psychology. Dweck is the big name behind growth mindset theory, which, as Sarah Mercer and Zoltán Dörnyei indicate, is closely related to ‘grit’. Dweck is also the co-founder of MindsetWorks, whose ‘Brainology’ product is ‘an online interactive program in which middle school students learn about how the brain works, how to strengthen their own brains, and how to ….’. Stanford is also home to the Stanford Lytics Lab, ‘which has begun applying new data analytics techniques to the measurement of non-cognitive learning factors including perseverance, grit, emotional state, motivation and self-regulation’, as well as the Persuasive Technologies Lab, ‘which focuses on the development of machines designed to influence human beliefs and behaviors across domains including health, business, safety, and education’ (Williamson, 2017). The Professor of Education Emeritus at Stanford is Linda Darling-Hammond, one of the most influential educators in the US. Darling-Hammond is known, among many other things, for collaborating with Pearson to develop the edTPA, ‘a nationally available, performance-based assessment for measuring the effectiveness of teacher candidates’. She is also a strong advocate of social-emotional learning initiatives and extols the virtues of ‘developing grit and a growth mindset’ (Hamadi & Darling-Hammond, 2015).

The funding of grit

Angela Duckworth’s Character Lab (‘Our mission is to advance scientific insights that help kids thrive’) is funded by, among others, the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, the Bezos Family Foundation and Stanford’s Mindset Scholars Network. Precisely how much money Character Lab has is difficult to ascertain, but the latest grant from the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative was worth $1,912,000 to cover the period 2018 – 2021. Covering the same period, the John Templeton Foundation, donated $3,717,258 , the purpose of the grant being to ‘make character development fast, frictionless, and fruitful’.

In an earlier period (2015 – 2018), the Walton Family Foundation pledged $6.5 millionto promote and measure character education, social-emotional learning, and grit’, with part of this sum going to Character Lab and part going to similar research at Harvard Graduate School of Education. Character Lab also received $1,300,000 from the Overdeck Family Foundation for the same period.

It is not, therefore, an overstatement to say that ‘grit’ is massively funded. The funders, by and large, are the same people who have spent huge sums promoting personalized learning through technology (see my blog post Personalized learning: Hydra and the power of ambiguity). Whatever else it might be, ‘grit’ is certainly ‘a commercial tech interest’ (as Ben Williamson put it in a recent tweet).

Postscript

In the 2010 Cohen brothers’ film, ‘True Grit’, the delinquent ‘kid’, Moon, is knifed by his partner, Quincy. Turning to Rooster Cogburn, the man of true grit, Moon begs for help. In response, Cogburn looks at the dying kid and deadpans ‘I can do nothing for you, son’.

References

Belfield, C., Bowden, A., Klapp, A., Levin, H., Shand, R., & Zander, S. (2015). The Economic Value of Social and Emotional Learning. Journal of Benefit-Cost Analysis, 6(3), pp. 508-544. doi:10.1017/bca.2015.55

Cabanas, E. & Illouz, E. (2019). Manufacturing Happy Citizens. Cambridge: Polity Press.

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What is the ‘new normal’?

Among the many words and phrases that have been coined or gained new currency since COVID-19 first struck, I find ‘the new normal’ particularly interesting. In the educational world, its meaning is so obvious that it doesn’t need spelling out. But in case you’re unclear about what I’m referring to, the title of this webinar, run by GENTEFL, the Global Educators Network Association of Teachers of English as a Foreign Language (an affiliate of IATEFL), will give you a hint.

webinar GENTEFL

Teaching in a VLE may be overstating it a bit, but you get the picture. ‘The new normal’ is the shift away from face-to-face teaching in bricks-and-mortar institutions, towards online teaching of one kind or another. The Malaysian New Straits Times refers to it as ‘E-learning, new way forward in new norm’. The TEFL Academy says that ‘digital learning is the new normal’, and the New Indian Express prefers the term ‘tech education’.

Indian express

I’ll come back to these sources in a little while.

Whose new normal?

There is, indeed, a strong possibility that online learning and teaching may become ‘the new normal’ for many people working in education. In corporate training and in higher education, ‘tech education’ will likely become increasingly common. Many universities, especially but not only in the US, Britain and Australia, have been relying on ‘international students’ (almost half a million in the UK in 2018/ 2019), in particular Chinese, to fill their coffers. With uncertainty about how and when these universities will reopen for the next academic year, a successful transition to online is a matter of survival – a challenge that a number of universities will probably not be able to rise to. The core of ELT, private TEFL schools in Inner Circle countries, likewise dependent on visitors from other countries, has also been hard hit. It is not easy for them to transition to online, since the heart of their appeal lies in their physical location.

But elsewhere, the picture is rather different. A recent Reddit discussion began as follows: ‘In Vietnam, [English language] schools have reopened and things have returned to normal almost overnight. There’s actually a teacher shortage at the moment as so many left and interest in online learning is minimal, although most schools are still offering it as an option’. The consensus in the discussion that follows is that bricks-and-mortar schools will take a hit, especially with adult (but not kids’) groups, but that ‘teaching online will not be the new normal’.

By far the greatest number of students studying English around the world are in primary and secondary schools. It is highly unlikely that online study will be the ‘new normal’ for most of these students (although we may expect to see attempts to move towards more blended approaches). There are many reasons for this, but perhaps the most glaringly obvious is that the function of schools is not exclusively educational: child-care, allowing parents to go to work, is the first among these.

We can expect some exceptions. In New York, for example, current plans include a ‘hybrid model’ (a sexed-up term for blended learning), in which students are in schools for part of the time and continue learning remotely for the rest. The idea emerged after Governor Andrew Cuomo ‘convened a committee with the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to reimagine education for students when school goes back in session in the fall’. How exactly this will pan out remains to be seen, but, in much of the rest of the world, where the influence of the Gates Foundation is less strong, ‘hybrid schooling’ is likely to be seen as even more unpalatable and unworkable than it is by many in New York.

In short, the ‘new normal’ will affect some sectors of English language teaching much more than others. For some, perhaps the majority, little change can be expected once state schools reopen. Smaller classes, maybe, more blended, but not a wholesale shift to ‘tech education’.

Not so new anyway!

Scott Galloway, a New York professor of marketing and author of the best-selling ‘The Four’ (an analysis of the Big Four tech firms), began a recent blog post as follows:

After COVID-19, nothing will be the same. The previous sentence is bullsh*t. On the contrary, things will never be more the same, just accelerated.

He elaborates his point by pointing out that many universities were already in deep trouble before COVID. Big tech had already moved massively into education and healthcare, which are ‘the only two sectors, other than government, that offer the margin dollars required to sate investors’ growth expectations’ (from another recent post by Galloway). Education start-ups have long been attracting cheap capital: COVID has simply sped the process up.

Coming from a very different perspective, Audrey Watters gave a conference presentation over three years ago entitled ‘Education Technology as ‘The New Normal’’. I have been writing about the normalization of digital tools in language teaching for over six years. What is new is the speed, rather than the nature, of the change.

Galloway draws an interesting parallel with the SARS virus, which, he says, ‘was huge for e-commerce in Asia, and it helped Alibaba break out into the consumer space. COVID-19 could be to education in the United States what SARS was to e-commerce in Asia’.

‘The new normal’ as a marketing tool

Earlier in this post, I mentioned three articles that discussed the ‘new normal’ in education. The first of these, from the New Straits Times, looks like a news article, but features extensive quotes from Shereen Chee, chief operating officer of Sunago Education, a Malaysian vendor of online English classes. The article is basically an advert for Sunago: one section includes the following:

Sunago combines digitisation and the human touch to create a personalised learning experience. […] Chee said now is a great time for employers to take advantage of the scheme and equip their team with enhanced English skills, so they can hit the ground running once the Covid-19 slump is over.

The second reference about ‘digital learning is the new normal’ comes from The TEFL Academy, which sells online training courses, particularly targeting prospective teachers who want to work online. The third reference, from the New Indian Express, was written by Ananth Koppar, the founder of Kshema Technologies Pvt Ltd, India’s first venture-funded software company. Koppar is hardly a neutral reporter.

Other examples abound. For example, a similar piece called ‘The ‘New Normal’ in Education’ can be found in FE News (10 June 2020). This was written by Simon Carter, Marketing and Propositions Director of RM Education, an EdTech vendor in the UK. EdTech has a long history of promoting its wares through sponsored content and adverts masquerading as reportage.

It is, therefore, a good idea, whenever you come across the phrase, ‘the new normal’, to adopt a sceptical stance from the outset. I’ll give two more examples to illustrate my point.

A recent article (1 April 2020) in the ELTABB (English Language Teachers Association Berlin Brandenburg) journal is introduced as follows:

With online language teaching being the new normal in ELT, coaching principles can help teachers and students share responsibility for the learning process.

Putting aside, for the moment, my reservations about whether online teaching is, in fact, the new normal in ‘ELT’, I’m happy to accept that coaching principles may be helpful in online teaching. But I can’t help noticing that the article was written by a self-described edupreneur and co-founder of the International Language Coaching Association (€50 annual subscription) which runs three-day training courses (€400).

My second example is a Macmillan webinar by Thom Kiddle called ‘Professional Development for teachers in the ‘new normal’. It’s a good webinar, a very good one in my opinion, but you’ll notice a NILE poster tacked to the wall behind Thom as he speaks. NILE, a highly reputed provider of teacher education courses in the UK, has invested significantly in online teacher education in recent years and is well-positioned to deal with the ‘new normal’. It’s also worth noting that the webinar host, Macmillan, is in a commercial partnership with NILE, the purpose of which is to ‘develop and promote quality teacher education programmes worldwide’. As good as the webinar is, it is also clearly, in part, an advertisement.

Thom Kiddle

The use of the phrase ‘the new normal’ as a marketing hook is not new. Although its first recorded use dates back to the first part of the 20th century, it became more widespread at the start of the 21st. One populariser of the phrase was Roger McNamee, a venture capitalist and early investor in technology, including Facebook, who wrote a book called ‘The New Normal: Great Opportunities in a Time of Great Risk’ (2004). Since then, the phrase has been used extensively to refer to the state of the business world after the financial crisis of 2018. (For more about the history of the phrase, see here.) More often than not, users of the phrase are selling the idea (and sometimes a product) that we need to get used to a new configuration of the world, one in which technology plays a greater role.

Normalizing ‘the new normal’

Of all the most unlikely sources for a critique of ‘the new normal’, the World Economic Forum has the following to offer in a blog post entitled ‘There’s nothing new about the ‘new normal’. Here’s why’:

The language of a ‘new normal’ is being deployed almost as a way to quell any uncertainty ushered in by the coronavirus. With no cure in sight, everyone from politicians and the media to friends and family has perpetuated this rhetoric as they imagine settling into life under this ‘new normal’. This framing is inviting: it contends that things will never be the same as they were before — so welcome to a new world order. By using this language, we reimagine where we were previously relative to where we are now, appropriating our present as the standard. As we weigh our personal and political responses to this pandemic, the language we employ matters. It helps to shape and reinforce our understanding of the world and the ways in which we choose to approach it. The analytic frame embodied by the persistent discussion of the ‘new normal’ helps bring order to our current turbulence, but it should not be the lens through which we examine today’s crisis.

We can’t expect the World Economic Forum to become too critical of the ‘new normal’ of digital learning, since they have been pushing for it so hard for so long. But the quote from their blog above may usefully be read in conjunction with an article by Jun Yu and Nick Couldry, called ‘Education as a domain of natural data extraction: analysing corporate discourse about educational tracking’ (Information, Communication and Society, 2020, DOI: 10.1080/1369118X.2020.1764604). The article explores the general discursive framing by which the use of big data in education has come to seem normal. The authors looked at the public discourse of eight major vendors of educational platforms that use big data (including Macmillan, Pearson, Knewton and Blackboard). They found that ‘the most fundamental move in today’s dominant commercial discourse is to promote the idea that data and its growth are natural’. In this way, ‘software systems, not teachers, [are] central to education’. Yu and Couldry’s main interest is in the way that discourse shapes the normalization of dataveillance, but, in a more general sense, the phrase, ‘the new normal’, is contributing to the normalization of digital education. If you think that’s fine, I suggest you dip into some of the books I listed in my last blog post.