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.

Chaykowski, K. (2017). How ClassDojo Built One Of The Most Popular Classroom Apps By Listening To Teachers. Forbes, 22 May, 2017. https://www.forbes.com/sites/kathleenchaykowski/2017/05/22/how-classdojo-built-one-of-the-most-popular-classroom-apps-by-listening-to-teachers/#ea93d51e5ef5

Credé, M. (2018). What shall we do about grit? A critical review of what we know and what we don’t know. Educational Researcher, 47(9), 606-611.

Credé, M., Tynan, M. C., & Harms, P. D. (2017). Much ado about grit: A meta-analytic synthesis of the grit literature. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 113(3), 492. doi:10.1037/pspp0000102

Dahl, M. (2016). Don’t Believe the Hype About Grit, Pleads the Scientist Behind the Concept. The Cut, May 9, 2016. https://www.thecut.com/2016/05/dont-believe-the-hype-about-grit-pleads-the-scientist-behind-the-concept.html

De Bruyckere, P., Kirschner, P. A. & Hulshof, C. (2020). More Urban Myths about Learning and Education. Routledge.

Duckworth, A. (2016). Don’t Grade Schools on Grit. New York Times, March 26, 2016 https://www.nytimes.com/2016/03/27/opinion/sunday/dont-grade-schools-on-grit.html?auth=login-google&smid=nytcore-ipad-share&smprod=nytcore-ipad

Ecclestone, K. (2012). From emotional and psychological well-being to character education: Challenging policy discourses of behavioural science and ‘vulnerability’. Research Papers in Education, 27 (4), pp. 463-480

EquiTEA (2018). The Problem with Teaching ‘Grit’. Medium, 11 December 2018. https://medium.com/@eec/the-problem-with-teaching-grit-8b37ce43a87e

Gutman, L. M. & Schoon, I. (2013). The impact of non-cognitive skills on outcomes for young people: Literature review. London: Institute of Education, University of London

Hamedani, M. G. & Darling-Hammond, L. (2015). Social Emotional Learning in High School: How Three Urban High Schools Engage, Educate, and Empower Youth. Stanford Center for Opportunity Policy in Education

Kirschner, P.A. & Neelen, M. (2016). To Grit Or Not To Grit: That’s The Question. 3-Star Learning Experiences, July 5, 2016 https://3starlearningexperiences.wordpress.com/2016/07/05/to-grit-or-not-to-grit-thats-the-question/

Illouz, E. (2007). Cold Intimacies: The making of emotional capitalism. Cambridge: Polity Press

Kautz, T., Heckman, J. J., Diris, R., ter Weel, B & Borghans, L. (2014). Fostering and Measuring Skills: Improving Cognitive and Non-cognitive Skills to Promote Lifetime Success. OECD Education Working Papers 110, OECD Publishing.

Mercer, S. & Dörnyei, Z. (2020). Engaging Language Learners in Contemporary Classrooms. Cambridge University Press.

Muenks, K., Wigfield, A., Yang, J. S., & O’Neal, C. R. (2017). How true is grit? Assessing its relations to high school and college students’ personality characteristics, self-regulation, engagement, and achievement. Journal of Educational Psychology, 109, pp. 599–620.

Ravitch, D. (2016). Angela Duckworth, please don’t assess grit. Blog post, 27 March 2016, https://dianeravitch.net/2016/03/27/angela-duckworth-please-dont-assess-grit/

Saltzman, K. J. (2017). Scripted Bodies. Routledge.

Tampio, N. (2016). Teaching ‘grit’ is bad for children, and bad for democracy. Aeon, 2 June: https://aeon.co/ideas/teaching-grit-is-bad-for-children-and-bad-for-democracy

Taşpinar, K., & Külekçi, G. (2018). GRIT: An Essential Ingredient of Success in the EFL Classroom. International Journal of Languages’ Education and Teaching, 6, 208-226.

Teimouri, Y., Plonsky, L., & Tabandeh, F. (2020). L2 Grit: Passion and perseverance for second-language learning. Language Teaching Research.

Wei, H., Gao, K., & Wang, W. (2019). Understanding the relationship between grit and foreign language performance among middle schools students: The roles of foreign language enjoyment and classroom Environment. Frontiers in Psychology, 10, 1508. doi: 10.3389/fpsyg.2019.01508

Williamson, B. (2017). Decoding ClassDojo: psycho-policy, social-emotional learning and persuasive educational technologies. Learning, Media and Technology, 42 (4): pp. 440-453, DOI: 10.1080/17439884.2017.1278020

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

Yamashita, T. (2018). Grit and second language acquisition: Can passion and perseverance predict performance in Japanese language learning? Unpublished MA thesis, University of Massachusetts, Amherst.

 

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.

The ‘Routledge Handbook of Language Learning and Technology’ (eds. Farr and Murray, 2016) claims to be ‘the essential reference’ on the topic and its first two sections are devoted to ‘Historical and conceptual concepts’ and ‘Core issues’. One chapter (‘Limitations and boundaries in language learning and technology’ by Kern and Malinowski) mentions that ‘a growing body of research in intercultural communication and online language learning recognises how all technologies are embedded in cultural and linguistic practices, meaning that a given technological artefact can be used in radically different ways, and for different purposes by different groups of people’ (p.205). However, in terms of critical analyses of technology and language learning, that’s about as far as this book goes. In over 500 pages, there is one passing reference to privacy and a couple of brief mentions of the digital divide. There is no meaningful consideration of the costs, ownership or externalities of EdTech, of the ways in which EdTech is sold and marketed, of the vested interests that profit from EdTech, of the connections between EdTech and the privatisation of education, of the non-educational uses to which data is put, or of the implications of attention tracking, facial analysis and dataveillance in educational settings.

The Routledge Handbook is not alone in this respect. Li Li’s ‘New Technologies and Language Learning’ (Palgrave, 2017) is breathlessly enthusiastic about the potential of EdTech. The opening chapter catalogues a series of huge investments in global EdTech, as if the scale of investment was an indication of its wisdom. No mention of the lack of evidence that huge investments into IWBs and PCs in classrooms led to any significant improvement in learning. No mention of how these investments were funded (or which other parts of budgets were cut). Instead, we are told that ‘computers can promote visual, verbal and kinaesthetic learning’ (p.5).

I have never come across a book-length critical analysis of technology and language learning. As the world of language teaching jumps on board Zoom, Google Meet, Microsoft Teams, Skype (aka Microsoft) and the like, the need for a better critical awareness of EdTech and language learning has never been more urgent. Fortunately, there is a growing body of critical literature on technology and general education. Here are my twelve favourites:

Big Data in Education1 Big Data in Education

Ben Williamson (Sage, 2017)

An investigation into the growing digitalization and datafication of education. Williamson looks at how education policy is enacted through digital tools, the use of learning analytics and educational data science. His interest is in the way that technology has reshaped the way we think about education and the book may be read as a critical response to the techno-enthusiasm of Mayer-Schönberger and Cukier’s ‘Learning with Big Data: The Future of Education’ (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2014). Williamson’s blog, Code Acts in Education, is excellent.

 

Distrusting Educational Technology2 Distrusting Educational Technology

Neil Selwyn (Routledge, 2014)

Neil Selwyn is probably the most widely-quoted critical voice in this field, and this book is as good a place to start with his work as any. EdTech, for Selwyn, is a profoundly political affair, and this book explores the gulf between how it could be used, and how it is actually used. Unpacking the ideological agendas of what EdTech is and does, Selwyn covers the reduction of education along data-driven lines, the deskilling of educational labour, the commodification of learning, issues of inequality, and much more. An essential primer.

 

 

The Great American Education Industrial Complex3 The Great American Education-Industrial Complex

Anthony G. Picciano & Joel Spring (Routledge, 2013)

Covering similar ground to both ‘Education Networks’ and ‘Edu.net’ (see below), this book’s subtitle, ‘Ideology, Technology, and Profit’, says it all. Chapter 4 (‘Technology in American Education’) is of particular interest, tracing the recent history of EdTech and the for-profit sector. Chapter 5 provides a wide range of examples of the growing privatization (through EdTech) of American schooling.

 

 

Disruptive Fixation4 Disruptive Fixation

Christo Sims (Princeton University Press, 2017)

The story of a New York school, funded by philanthropists and put together by games designers and educational reformers, that promised to ‘reinvent the classroom for the digital age’. And how it all went wrong … reverting to conventional rote learning with an emphasis on discipline, along with gender and racialized class divisions. A cautionary tale about techno-philanthropism.

 

 

Education Networks5 Education Networks

Joel Spring (Routledge, 2012)

Similar in many ways to ‘Edu.net’ (see below), this is an analysis of the relationships between the interest groups (international agencies, private companies and philanthropic foundations) that are pushing for greater use of EdTech. Spring considers the psychological, social and political implications of the growth of EdTech and concludes with a discussion of the dangers of consumerist approaches to education and dataveillance.

 

 

Edunet6 Edu.net

Stephen J. Ball, Carolina Junemann & Diego Santori (Routledge, 2017)

An account of the ways in which international agencies, private companies (e.g. Bridge International Academies, Pearson) and philanthropic foundations shape global education policies, with a particular focus on India and Ghana. These policies include the standardisation of education, the focus on core subjects, the use of corporate management models and test-based accountability, and are key planks in what has been referred to as the Global Education Reform Movement (GERM). Chapter 4 (‘Following things’) focusses on the role of EdTech in realising GERM goals.

 

Education and Technology7 Education and Technology

Neil Selwyn (Continuum, 2011)

Although covering some similar ground to his ‘Distrusting Educational Technology’, this handy volume summarises key issues, including ‘does technology inevitably change education?’, ‘what can history tell us about education and technology?’, ‘does technology improve learning?’, ‘does technology make education fairer?’, ‘will technology displace the teacher?’ and ‘will technology displace the school?’.

 

 

The Evolution of American Educational Technology8 The Evolution of American Educational Technology

Paul Saettler (Information Age, 2004)

A goldmine of historical information, this is the first of three history books on my list. Early educational films from the start of the 20th century, educational radio, teaching machines and programmed instruction, early computer-assisted instruction like the PLATO project, educational broadcasting and television … moving on to interactive video, teleconferencing, and artificial intelligence. A fascinatingly detailed study of educational dreams and obsolescence.

 

Oversold and Underused9 Oversold and Underused

Larry Cuban (Harvard University Press, 2003)

Larry Cuban’s ground-breaking ‘Teachers and Machines: The Classroom Use of Technology since 1920’ (published in 1986, four years before Saettler’s history) was arguably the first critical evaluation of EdTech. In this title, Cuban pursues his interest in the troubled relationship between teachers and technology, arguing that more attention needs to be paid to the civic and social goals of schooling, goals that make the question of how many computers are in classrooms trivial. Larry Cuban’s blog is well worth following.

 

The Flickering Mind10 The Flickering Mind

Todd Oppenheimer (Random House, 2003)

A journalistic account of how approximately $70 billion was thrown at EdTech in American schools at the end of the 20th century in an attempt to improve them. It’s a tale of getting the wrong priorities, technological obsolescence and, ultimately, a colossal waste of money. Technology has changed since the writing of this book, but as the epigram of Alphonse Karr (cited by Oppenheimer in his afterword) puts it – ‘plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose’.

 

 

Teaching Machines11 Teaching Machines

Bill Ferster (John Hopkins University Press, 2014)

This is the third history of EdTech on my list. A critical look at past attempts to automate instruction, and learning from successes and failures as a way of trying to avoid EdTech insanity (‘doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results’). Not explicitly political, but the final chapter offers a useful framework for ‘making sense of teaching machines’.

 

 

The Technical Fix12 The Technical Fix

Kevin Robbins & Frank Webster (Macmillan, 1989)

Over thirty years old now, this remarkably prescient book situates the push for more EdTech in Britain in the 1980s as a part of broader social and political forces demanding a more market-oriented and entrepreneurial approach to education. The argument that EdTech cannot be extracted from relations of power and the social values that these entail is presented forcefully. Technology, write the authors, ‘is always shaped by, even constitutive of, prevailing values and power distribution’.

 

 

And here’s hoping that Audrey Watters’ new book sees the light of day soon, so it can be added to the list of history books!

 

 

 

 

 

 

I’ve long felt that the greatest value of technology in language learning is to facilitate interaction between learners, rather than interaction between learners and software. I can’t claim any originality here. Twenty years ago, Kern and Warschauer (2000) described ‘the changing nature of computer use in language teaching’, away from ‘grammar and vocabulary tutorials, drill and practice programs’, towards computer-mediated communication (CMC). This change has even been described as a paradigm shift (Ciftci & Kocoglu, 2012: 62), although I suspect that the shift has affected approaches to research much more than it has actual practices.

However, there is one application of CMC that is probably at least as widespread in actual practice as it is in the research literature: online peer feedback. Online peer feedback on writing, especially in the development of academic writing skills in higher education, is certainly very common. To a much lesser extent, online peer feedback on speaking (e.g. in audio and video blogs) has also been explored (see, for example, Yeh et al., 2019 and Rodríguez-González & Castañeda, 2018).

Peer feedback

Interest in feedback has spread widely since the publication of Hattie and Timperley’s influential ‘The Power of Feedback’, which argued that ‘feedback is one of the most powerful influences on learning and achievement’ (Hattie & Timperley, 2007: 81). Peer feedback, in particular, has generated much optimism in the general educational literature as a formative practice (Double et al., 2019) because of its potential to:

  • ‘promote a sense of ownership, personal responsibility, and motivation,
  • reduce assessee anxiety and improve acceptance of negative feedback,
  • increase variety and interest, activity and interactivity, identification and bonding, self-confidence, and empathy for others’ (Topping, 1988: 256)
  • improve academic performance (Double et al., 2019).

In the literature on language learning, this enthusiasm is mirrored and peer feedback is generally recommended by both methodologists and researchers (Burkert & Wally, 2013). The reasons given, in addition to those listed above, include the following:

  • it can benefit both the receiver and the giver of feedback (Storch & Aldossary, 2019: 124),
  • it requires the givers of feedback to listen to or read attentively the language of their peers, and, in the process, may provide opportunities for them to make improvements in their own speaking and writing (Alshuraidah & Storch, 2019: 166–167,
  • it can facilitate a move away from a teacher centred classroom, and promote independent learning (and the skill of self-correction) as well as critical thinking (Hyland & Hyland, 2019: 7),
  • the target reader is an important consideration in any piece of writing (it is often specified in formal assessment tasks). Peer feedback may be especially helpful in developing the idea of what audience the writer is writing for (Nation, 2009: 139),
  • many learners are very receptive to peer feedback (Biber et al., 2011: 54),
  • it can reduce a teacher’s workload.

The theoretical arguments in support of peer feedback are supported to some extent by research. A recent meta-analysis found ‘an overall small to medium effect of peer assessment on academic performance’ (Double et al., 2019) in general educational settings. In language learning, ‘recent research has provided generally positive evidence to support the use of peer feedback in L2 writing classes’ (Yu & Lee, 2016: 467). However, ‘firm causal evidence is as yet unavailable’ (Yu & Lee, 2016: 466).

Online peer feedback

Taking peer feedback online would seem to offer a number of advantages over traditional face-to-face oral or written channels. These include:

  • a significant reduction of the logistical burden (Double et al.: 2019) because there are fewer constraints of time and place (Ho, 2015: 1),
  • the possibility (with many platforms) of monitoring students’ interactions more closely (DiGiovanni & Nagaswami, 2001: 268),
  • the encouragement of ‘greater and more equal member participation than face-to-face feedback’ (Yu & Lee, 2016: 469),
  • the possibility of reducing learners’ anxiety (which may be greater in face-to-face settings and / or when an immediate response to feedback is required) (Yeh et al.: 2019: 1).

Given these potential advantages, it is disappointing to find that a meta-analysis of peer assessment in general educational contexts did not find any significant difference between online and offline feedback (Double et al.:2019). Similarly, in language learning contexts, Yu & Lee (2016: 469) report that ‘there is inconclusive evidence about the impact of computer-mediated peer feedback on the quality of peer comments and text revisions’. The rest of this article is an exploration of possible reasons why online peer feedback is not more effective than it is.

The challenges of online peer feedback

Peer feedback is usually of greatest value when it focuses on the content and organization of what has been expressed. Learners, however, have a tendency to focus on formal accuracy, rather than on the communicative success (or otherwise) of their peers’ writing or speaking. Training can go a long way towards remedying this situation (Yu & Lee, 2016: 472 – 473): indeed, ‘the importance of properly training students to provide adequately useful peer comments cannot be over-emphasized’ (Bailey & Cassidy, 2018: 82). In addition, clearly organised rubrics to guide the feedback giver, such as those offered by feedback platforms like Peergrade, may also help to steer feedback in appropriate directions. There are, however, caveats which I will come on to.

A bigger problem occurs when the interaction which takes places when learners are supposedly engaged in peer feedback is completely off-task. In one analysis of students’ online discourse in two writing tasks, ‘meaning negotiation, error correction, and technical actions seldom occurred and […] social talk, task management, and content discussion predominated the chat’ (Liang, 2010: 45). One proposed solution to this is to grade peer comments: ‘reviewers will be more motivated to spend time in their peer review process if they know that their instructors will assess or even grade their comments’ (Choi, 2014: 225). Whilst this may sometimes be an effective strategy, the curtailment of social chat may actually create more problems than it solves, as we will see later.

Other challenges of peer feedback may be even less amenable to solutions. The most common problem concerns learners’ attitudes towards peer feedback: some learners are not receptive to feedback from their peers, preferring feedback from their teachers (Maas, 2017), and some learners may be reluctant to offer peer feedback for fear of giving offence. Attitudinal issues may derive from personal or cultural factors, or a combination of both. Whatever the cause, ‘interpersonal variables play a substantial role in determining the type and quality of peer assessment’ (Double et al., 2019). One proposed solution to this is to anonymise the peer feedback process, since it might be thought that this would lead to greater honesty and fewer concerns about loss of face. Research into this possibility, however, offers only very limited support: two studies out of three found little benefit of anonymity (Double et al., 2019). What is more, as with the curtailment of social chat, the practice must limit the development of the interpersonal relationship, and therefore positive pair / group dynamics (Liang, 2010: 45), that is necessary for effective collaborative work.

Towards solutions?

Online peer feedback is a form of computer-supported collaborative learning (CSCL), and it is to research in this broader field that I will now turn. The claim that CSCL ‘can facilitate group processes and group dynamics in ways that may not be achievable in face-to-face collaboration’ (Dooly, 2007: 64) is not contentious, but, in order for this to happen, a number of ‘motivational or affective perceptions are important preconditions’ (Chen et al., 2018: 801). Collaborative learning presupposes a collaborative pattern of peer interaction, as opposed to expert-novice, dominant- dominant, dominant-passive, or passive-passive patterns (Yu & Lee, 2016: 475).

Simply putting students together into pairs or groups does not guarantee collaboration. Collaboration is less likely to take place when instructional management focusses primarily on cognitive processes, and ‘socio-emotional processes are ignored, neglected or forgotten […] Social interaction is equally important for affiliation, impression formation, building social relationships and, ultimately, the development of a healthy community of learning’ (Kreijns et al., 2003: 336, 348 – 9). This can happen in all contexts, but in online environments, the problem becomes ‘more salient and critical’ (Kreijns et al., 2003: 336). This is why the curtailment of social chat, the grading of peer comments, and the provision of tight rubrics may be problematic.

There is no ‘single learning tool or strategy’ that can be deployed to address the challenges of online peer feedback and CSCL more generally (Chen et al., 2018: 833). In some cases, for personal or cultural reasons, peer feedback may simply not be a sensible option. In others, where effective online peer feedback is a reasonable target, the instructional approach must find ways to train students in the specifics of giving feedback on a peer’s work, to promote mutual support, to show how to work effectively with others, and to develop the language skills needed to do this (assuming that the target language is the language that will be used in the feedback).

So, what can we learn from looking at online peer feedback? I think it’s the same old answer: technology may confer a certain number of potential advantages, but, unfortunately, it cannot provide a ‘solution’ to complex learning issues.

 

Note: Some parts of this article first appeared in Kerr, P. (2020). Giving feedback to language learners. Part of the Cambridge Papers in ELT Series. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. Available at: https://www.cambridge.org/gb/files/4415/8594/0876/Giving_Feedback_minipaper_ONLINE.pdf

 

References

Alshuraidah, A. and Storch, N. (2019). Investigating a collaborative approach to feedback. ELT Journal, 73 (2), pp. 166–174

Bailey, D. and Cassidy, R. (2018). Online Peer Feedback Tasks: Training for Improved L2 Writing Proficiency, Anxiety Reduction, and Language Learning Strategies. CALL-EJ, 20(2), pp. 70-88

Biber, D., Nekrasova, T., and Horn, B. (2011). The Effectiveness of Feedback for L1-English and L2-Writing Development: A Meta-Analysis, TOEFL iBT RR-11-05. Princeton: Educational Testing Service. Available at: https://www.ets.org/Media/Research/pdf/RR-11-05.pdf

Burkert, A. and Wally, J. (2013). Peer-reviewing in a collaborative teaching and learning environment. In Reitbauer, M., Campbell, N., Mercer, S., Schumm Fauster, J. and Vaupetitsch, R. (Eds.) Feedback Matters. Frankfurt am Main: Peter Lang, pp. 69–85

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If you cast your eye over the English language teaching landscape, you can’t help noticing a number of prominent features that weren’t there, or at least were much less visible, twenty years ago. I’d like to highlight three. First, there is the interest in life skills (aka 21st century skills). Second, there is the use of digital technology to deliver content. And third, there is a concern with measuring educational outputs through frameworks such as the Pearson GSE. In this post, I will focus primarily on the last of these, with a closer look at measuring teacher performance.

Recent years have seen the development of a number of frameworks for evaluating teacher competence in ELT. These include

TESOL has also produced a set of guidelines for developing professional teaching standards for EFL.

Frameworks such as these were not always intended as tools to evaluate teachers. The British Council’s framework, for example, was apparently designed for teachers to understand and plan their own professional development. Similarly, the Cambridge framework says that it is for teachers to see where they are in their development – and think about where they want to go next. But much like the CEFR for language competence, frameworks can be used for purposes rather different from their designers’ intentions. I think it is likely that frameworks such as these are more often used to evaluate teachers than for teachers to evaluate themselves.

But where did the idea for such frameworks come from? Was there a suddenly perceived need for things like this to aid in self-directed professional development? Were teachers’ associations calling out for frameworks to help their members? Even if that were the case, it would still be useful to know why, and why now.

One possibility is that the interest in life skills, digital technology and the measurement of educational outputs have all come about as a result of what has been called the Global Educational Reform Movement, or GERM (Sahlberg, 2016). GERM dates back to the 1980s and the shifts (especially in the United States under Reagan and the United Kingdom under Thatcher) in education policy towards more market-led approaches which emphasize (1) greater competition between educational providers, (2) greater autonomy from the state for educational providers (and therefore a greater role for private suppliers), (3) greater choice of educational provider for students and their parents, and (4) standardized tests and measurements which allow consumers of education to make more informed choices. One of the most significant GERM vectors is the World Bank.

The interest in incorporating the so-called 21st century skills as part of the curriculum can be traced back to the early 1980s when the US National Commission on Excellence in Education recommended the inclusion of a range of skills, which eventually crystallized into the four Cs of communication, collaboration, critical thinking and creativity. The labelling of this skill set as ‘life skills’ or ‘21st century skills’ was always something of a misnomer: the reality was that these were the soft skills required by the world of work. The key argument for their inclusion in the curriculum was that they were necessary for the ‘competitiveness and wealth of corporations and countries’ (Trilling & Fadel, 2009: 7). Unsurprisingly, the World Bank, whose interest in education extends only so far as its economic value, embraced the notion of ‘life skills’ with enthusiasm. Its document ‘Life skills : what are they, why do they matter, and how are they taught?’ (World Bank, 2013), makes the case very clearly. It took a while for the world of English language teaching to get on board, but by 2012, Pearson was already sponsoring a ‘signature event’ at IATEFL Glasgow entitled ‘21st Century Skills for ELT’. Since then, the currency of ‘life skills’ as an ELT buzz phrase has not abated.

Just as the World Bank’s interest in ‘life skills’ is motivated by the perceived need to prepare students for the world of work (for participation in the ‘knowledge economy’), the Bank emphasizes the classroom use of computers and resources from the internet: Information and communication technology (ICT) allows the adaptation of globally available information to local learning situations. […] A large percentage of the World Bank’s education funds are used for the purchase of educational technology. […] According to the Bank’s figures, 40 per cent of their education budget in 2000 and 27 per cent in 2001 was used to purchase technology. (Spring, 2015: 50).

Digital technology is also central to capturing data, which will allow for the measurement of educational outputs. As befits an organisation of economists that is interested in the cost-effectiveness of investments into education, it accords enormous importance to what are thought to be empirical measures or accountability. So intrinsic to the Bank’s approach is this concern with measurement that ‘the Bank’s implicit message to national governments seems to be: ‘improve your data collection capacity so that we can run more reliable cross-country analysis and regressions’. (Verger & Bonal, 2012: 131).

Measuring the performance of teachers is, of course, a part of assessing educational outputs. The World Bank, which sees global education as fundamentally ‘broken’, has, quite recently, turned more of its attention to the role of teachers. A World Bank blog from 2019 explains the reasons:

A growing body of evidence suggests the learning crisis is, at its core, a teaching crisis. For students to learn, they need good teachers—but many education systems pay little attention to what teachers know, what they do in the classroom, and in some cases whether they even show up. Rapid technological change is raising the stakes. Technology is already playing a crucial role in providing support to teachers, students, and the learning process more broadly. It can help teachers better manage the classroom and offer different challenges to different students. And technology can allow principals, parents, and students to interact seamlessly.

A key plank in the World Banks’s attempts to implement its educational vision is its System Assessment and Benchmarking for Education Results (SABER), which I will return to in due course. As part of its SABER efforts, last year the World Bank launched its ‘Teach’ tool . This tool is basically an evaluation framework. Videos of lessons are recorded and coded for indicators of teacher efficiency by coders who can be ‘90% reliable’ after only four days of training. The coding system focuses on the time that students spend on-task, but also ‘life skills’ like collaboration and critical thinking (see below).

Teach framework

Like the ELT frameworks, it can be used as a professional development tool, but, like them, it may also be used for summative evaluation.

The connections between those landmarks on the ELT landscape and the concerns of the World Bank are not, I would suggest, coincidental. The World Bank is, of course, not the only player in GERM, but it is a very special case. It is the largest single source of external financing in ‘developing countries’ (Beech, 2009: 345), managing a portfolio of $8.9 billion, with operations in 70 countries as of August 2013 (Spring, 2015: 32). Its loans come attached with conditions which tie the borrowing countries to GERM objectives. Arguably of even greater importance than its influence through funding, is the Bank’s direct entry into the world of ideas:

The Bank yearns for a deeper and more comprehensive impact through avenues of influence transcending both project and program loans. Not least in education, the World Bank is investing much in its quest to shape global opinion about economic, developmental, and social policy. Rather than imposing views through specific loan negotiations, Bank style is broadening in attempts to lead borrower country officials to its preferred way of thinking. (Jones, 2007: 259).

The World Bank sees itself as a Knowledge Bank and acts accordingly. Rizvi and Lingard (2010: 48) observe that ‘in many nations of the Global South, the only extant education policy analysis is research commissioned by donor agencies such as the World Bank […] with all the implications that result in relation to problem setting, theoretical frameworks and methodologies’. Hundreds of academics are engaged to do research related to the Bank’s areas of educational interest, and ‘the close links with the academic world give a strong credibility to the ideas disseminated by the Bank […] In fact, many ideas that acquired currency and legitimacy were originally proposed by them. This is the case of testing students and using the results to evaluate progress in education’ (Castro, 2009: 472).

Through a combination of substantial financial clout and relentless marketing (Selwyn, 2013: 50), the Bank has succeeded in shaping global academic discourse. In partnership with similar institutions, it has introduced a way of classifying and thinking about education (Beech, 2009: 352). It has become, in short, a major site ‘for the organization of knowledge about education’ (Rizvi & Lingard, 2010: 79), wielding ‘a degree of power that has arguably enabled it to shape the educational agendas of nations throughout the Global South’ and beyond (Menashy, 2012).

So, is there any problem in the world of ELT taking up the inclusion of ‘life skills’? I think there is. The first is one of definition. Creativity and critical thinking are very poorly defined, meaning very different things to different people, so it is not always clear what is being taught. Following on from this, there is substantial debate about whether such skills can actually be taught at all, and, if they can, how they should be taught. It seems highly unlikely that the tokenistic way in which they are ‘taught’ in most published ELT courses can be of any positive impact. But this is not my main reservation, which is that, by and large, we have come to uncritically accept the idea that English language learning is mostly concerned with preparation for the workplace (see my earlier post ‘The EdTech Imaginary in ELT’).

Is there any problem with the promotion of digital technologies in ELT? Again, I think there is, and a good proportion of the posts on this blog have argued for the need for circumspection in rolling out more technology in language learning and teaching. My main reason is that while it is clear that this trend is beneficial to technology vendors, it is much less clear that advantages will necessarily accrue to learners. Beyond this, there must be serious concerns about data ownership, privacy, and the way in which the datafication of education, led by businesses and governments in the Global North, is changing what counts as good education, a good student or an effective teacher, especially in the Global South. ‘Data and metrics,’ observe Williamson et al. (2020: 353), ‘do not just reflect what they are designed to measure, but actively loop back into action that can change the very thing that was measured in the first place’.

And what about tools for evaluating teacher competences? Here I would like to provide a little more background. There is, first of all, a huge question mark about how accurately such tools measure what they are supposed to measure. This may not matter too much if the tool is only used for self-evaluation or self-development, but ‘once smart systems of data collection and social control are available, they are likely to be widely applied for other purposes’ (Sadowski, 2020: 138). Jaime Saavedra, head of education at the World Bank, insists that the World Bank’s ‘Teach’ tool is not for evaluation and is not useful for firing teachers who perform badly.

Saavedra needs teachers to buy into the tool, so he obviously doesn’t want to scare them off. However, ‘Teach’ clearly is an evaluation tool (if not, what is it?) and, as with other tools (I’m thinking of CEFR and teacher competency frameworks in ELT), its purposes will evolve. Eric Hanushek, an education economist at Stanford University, has commented that ‘this is a clear evaluation tool at the probationary stage … It provides a basis for counseling new teachers on how they should behave … but then again if they don’t change over the first few years you also have information you should use.

At this point, it is useful to take a look at the World Bank’s attitudes towards teachers. Teachers are seen to be at the heart of the ‘learning crisis’. However, the greatest focus in World Bank documents is on (1) teacher absenteeism in some countries, (2) unskilled and demotivated teachers, and (3) the reluctance of teachers and their unions to back World Bank-sponsored reforms. As real as these problems are, it is important to understand that the Bank has been complicit in them:

For decades, the Bank has criticised pre-service and in-service teacher training as not cost-effective For decades, the Bank has been pushing the hiring of untrained contract teachers as a cheap fix and a way to get around teacher unions – and contract teachers are again praised in the World Bank Development Report (WDR). This contradicts the occasional places in the WDR in which the Bank argues that developing countries need to follow the lead of the few countries that attract the best students to teaching, improve training, and improve working conditions. There is no explicit evidence offered at all for the repeated claim that teachers are unmotivated and need to be controlled and monitored to do their job. The Bank has a long history of blaming teachers and teacher unions for educational failures. The Bank implicitly argues that the problem of teacher absenteeism, referred to throughout the report, means teachers are unmotivated, but that simply is not true. Teacher absenteeism is not a sign of low motivation. Teacher salaries are abysmally low, as is the status of teaching. Because of this, teaching in many countries has become an occupation of last resort, yet it still attracts dedicated teachers. Once again, the Bank has been very complicit in this state of affairs as it, and the IMF, for decades have enforced neoliberal, Washington Consensus policies which resulted in government cutbacks and declining real salaries for teachers around the world. It is incredible that economists at the Bank do not recognise that the deterioration of salaries is the major cause of teacher absenteeism and that all the Bank is willing to peddle are ineffective and insulting pay-for-performance schemes. (Klees, 2017).

The SABER framework (referred to above) focuses very clearly on policies for hiring, rewarding and firing teachers.

[The World Bank] places the private sector’s methods of dealing with teachers as better than those of the public sector, because it is more ‘flexible’. In other words, it is possible to say that teachers can be hired and fired more easily; that is, hired without the need of organizing a public competition and fired if they do not achieve the expected outcomes as, for example, students’ improvements in international test scores. Further, the SABER document states that ‘Flexibility in teacher contracting is one of the primary motivations for engaging the private sector’ (World Bank, 2011: 4). This affirmation seeks to reduce expenditures on teachers while fostering other expenses such as the creation of testing schemes and spending more on ICTs, as well as making room to expand the hiring of private sector providers to design curriculum, evaluate students, train teachers, produce education software, and books. (De Siqueira, 2012).

The World Bank has argued consistently for a reduction of education costs by driving down teachers’ salaries. One of the authors of the World Bank Development Report 2018 notes that ‘in most countries, teacher salaries consume the lion’s share of the education budget, so there are already fewer resources to implement other education programs’. Another World Bank report (2007) makes the importance of ‘flexible’ hiring and lower salaries very clear:

In particular, recent progress in primary education in Francophone countries resulted from reduced teacher costs, especially through the recruitment of contractual teachers, generally at about 50% the salary of civil service teachers. (cited in Compton & Weiner, 2008: 7).

Merit pay (or ‘pay for performance’) is another of the Bank’s preferred wheezes. Despite enormous problems in reaching fair evaluations of teachers’ work and a distinct lack of convincing evidence that merit pay leads to anything positive (and may actually be counter-productive) (De Bruyckere et al., 2018: 143 – 147), the Bank is fully committed to the idea. Perhaps this is connected to the usefulness of merit pay in keeping teachers on their toes, compliant and fearful of losing their jobs, rather than any desire to improve teacher effectiveness?

There is evidence that this may be the case. Yet another World Bank report (Bau & Das, 2017) argues, on the basis of research, that improved TVA (teacher value added) does not correlate with wages in the public sector (where it is hard to fire teachers), but it does in the private sector. The study found that ‘a policy change that shifted public hiring from permanent to temporary contracts, reducing wages by 35 percent, had no adverse impact on TVA’. All of which would seem to suggest that improving the quality of teaching is of less importance to the Bank than flexible hiring and firing. This is very much in line with a more general advocacy of making education fit for the world of work. Lois Weiner of New Jersey City University puts it like this:

The architects of [GERM] policies—imposed first in developing countries—openly state that the changes will make education better fit the new global economy by producing workers who are (minimally) educated for jobs that require no more than a 7th or 8th grade education; while a small fraction of the population receive a high quality education to become the elite who oversee finance, industry, and technology. Since most workers do not need to be highly educated, it follows that teachers with considerable formal education and experience are neither needed nor desired because they demand higher wages, which is considered a waste of government money. Most teachers need only be “good enough”—as one U.S. government official phrased it—to follow scripted materials that prepare students for standardized tests. (Weiner, 2012).

It seems impossible to separate the World Bank’s ‘Teach’ tool from the broader goals of GERM. Teacher evaluation tools, like the teaching of 21st century skills and the datafication of education, need to be understood properly, I think, as means to an end. It’s time to spell out what that end is.

The World Bank’s mission is ‘to end extreme poverty (by reducing the share of the global population that lives in extreme poverty to 3 percent by 2030)’ and ‘to promote shared prosperity (by increasing the incomes of the poorest 40 percent of people in every country)’. Its education activities are part of this broad aim and are driven by subscription to human capital theory (a view of the skills, knowledge and experience of individuals in terms of their ability to produce economic value). This may be described as the ‘economization of education’: a shift in educational concerns away from ‘such things as civic participation, protecting human rights, and environmentalism to economic growth and employment’ (Spring, 2015: xiii). Both students and teachers are seen as human capital. For students, human capital education places an emphasis on the cognitive skills needed to succeed in the workplace and the ‘soft skills’, needed to function in the corporate world (Spring, 2015: 2). Accordingly, World Bank investments require ‘justifications on the basis of manpower demands’ (Heyneman, 2003: 317). One of the Bank’s current strategic priorities is the education of girls: although human rights and equity may also play a part, the Bank’s primary concern is that ‘Not Educating Girls Costs Countries Trillions of Dollars’ .

According to the Bank’s logic, its educational aims can best be achieved through a combination of support for the following:

  • cost accounting and quantification (since returns on investment must be carefully measured)
  • competition and market incentives (since it is believed that the ‘invisible hand’ of the market leads to the greatest benefits)
  • the private sector in education and a rolling back of the role of the state (since it is believed that private ownership improves efficiency)

The package of measures is a straightforward reflection of ‘what Western mainstream economists believe’ (Castro, 2009: 474).

Mainstream Western economics is, however, going through something of a rocky patch right now. Human capital theory is ‘useful when prevailing conditions are right’ (Jones, 2007: 248), but prevailing conditions are not right in much of the world (even in the United States), and the theory ‘for the most part ignores the intersections of poverty, equity and education’ (Menashy, 2012). In poorer countries evidence for the positive effects of markets in education is in very short supply, and even in richer countries it is still not conclusive (Verger & Bonal, 2012: 135). An OECD Education Paper (Waslander et al., 2010: 64) found that the effects of choice and competition between schools were at best small, if indeed any effects were found at all. Similarly, the claim that privatization improves efficiency is not sufficiently supported by evidence. Analyses of PISA data would seem to indicate that, ‘all else being equal (especially when controlling for the socio-economic status of the students), the type of ownership of the school, whether it is a private or a state school, has only modest effects on student achievement or none at all’ (Verger & Bonal, 2012: 133). Educational privatization as a one-size-fits-all panacea to educational problems has little to recommend it.

There are, then, serious limitations in the Bank’s theoretical approach. Its practical track record is also less than illustrious, even by the Bank’s own reckoning. Many of the Bank’s interventions have proved very ‘costly to developing countries. At the Bank’s insistence countries over-invested in vocational and technical education. Because of the narrow definition of recurrent costs, countries ignored investments in reading materials and in maintaining teacher salaries. Later at the Bank’s insistence, countries invested in thousands of workshops and laboratories that, for the most part, became useless ‘white elephants’ (Heyneman, 2003: 333).

As a bank, the World Bank is naturally interested in the rate of return of investment in that capital, and is therefore concerned with efficiency and efficacy. This raises the question of ‘Effective for what?’ and given that what may be effective for one individual or group may not necessarily be effective for another individual or group, one may wish to add a second question: ‘Effective for whom?’ (Biesta, 2020: 31). Critics of the World Bank, of whom there are many, argue that its policies serve ‘the interests of corporations by keeping down wages for skilled workers, cause global brain migration to the detriment of developing countries, undermine local cultures, and ensure corporate domination by not preparing school graduates who think critically and are democratically oriented’ (Spring, 2015: 56). Lest this sound a bit harsh, we can turn to the Bank’s own commissioned history: ‘The way in which [the Bank’s] ideology has been shaped conforms in significant degree to the interests and conventional wisdom of its principal stockholders [i.e. bankers and economists from wealthy nations]. International competitive bidding, reluctance to accord preferences to local suppliers, emphasis on financing foreign exchange costs, insistence on a predominant use of foreign consultants, attitudes toward public sector industries, assertion of the right to approve project managers – all proclaim the Bank to be a Western capitalist institution’ (Mason & Asher, 1973: 478 – 479).

The teaching of ‘life skills’, the promotion of data-capturing digital technologies and the push to evaluate teachers’ performance are, then, all closely linked to the agenda of the World Bank, and owe their existence in the ELT landscape, in no small part, to the way that the World Bank has shaped educational discourse. There is, however, one other connection between ELT and the World Bank which must be mentioned.

The World Bank’s foreign language instructional goals are directly related to English as a global language. The Bank urges, ‘Policymakers in developing countries …to ensure that young people acquire a language with more than just local use, preferably one used internationally.’ What is this international language? First, the World Bank mentions that schools of higher education around the world are offering courses in English. In addition, the Bank states, ‘People seeking access to international stores of knowledge through the internet require, principally, English language skills.’ (Spring, 2015: 48).

Without the World Bank, then, there might be a lot less English language teaching than there is. I have written this piece to encourage people to think more about the World Bank, its policies and particular instantiations of those policies. You might or might not agree that the Bank is an undemocratic, technocratic, neoliberal institution unfit for the necessities of today’s world (Klees, 2017). But whatever you think about the World Bank, you might like to consider the answers to Tony Benn’s ‘five little democratic questions’ (quoted in Sardowski, 2020: 17):

  • What power has it got?
  • Where did it get this power from?
  • In whose interests does it exercise this power?
  • To whom is it accountable?
  • How can we get rid of it?

References

Bau, N. and Das, J. (2017). The Misallocation of Pay and Productivity in the Public Sector : Evidence from the Labor Market for Teachers. Policy Research Working Paper; No. 8050. World Bank, Washington, DC. Retrieved [18 May 2020] from https://openknowledge.worldbank.org/handle/10986/26502

Beech, J. (2009). Who is Strolling Through The Global Garden? International Agencies and Educational Transfer. In Cowen, R. and Kazamias, A. M. (Eds.) Second International Handbook of Comparative Education. Dordrecht: Springer. pp. 341 – 358

Biesta, G. (2020). Educational Research. London: Bloomsbury.

Castro, C. De M., (2009). Can Multilateral Banks Educate The World? In Cowen, R. and Kazamias, A. M. (Eds.) Second International Handbook of Comparative Education. Dordrecht: Springer. pp. 455 – 478

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

De Bruyckere, P., Kirschner, P.A. and Hulshof, C. (2020). More Urban Myths about Learning and Education. New York: Routledge.

De Siqueira, A. C. (2012). The 2020 World Bank Education Strategy: Nothing New, or the Same Old Gospel. In Klees, S. J., Samoff, J. and Stromquist, N. P. (Eds.) The World Bank and Education. Rotterdam: Sense Publishers. pp. 69 – 81

Heyneman, S.P. (2003). The history and problems in the making of education policy at the World Bank 1960–2000. International Journal of Educational Development 23 (2003) pp. 315–337. Retrieved [18 May 2020] from https://www.academia.edu/29593153/The_History_and_Problems_in_the_Making_of_Education_Policy_at_the_World_Bank_1960_2000

Jones, P. W. (2007). World Bank Financing of Education. 2nd edition. Abingdon, Oxon.: Routledge.

Klees, S. (2017). A critical analysis of the World Bank’s World Development Report on education. Retrieved [18 May 2020] from: https://www.brettonwoodsproject.org/2017/11/critical-analysis-world-banks-world-development-report-education/

Mason, E. S. & Asher, R. E. (1973). The World Bank since Bretton Woods. Washington, DC: Brookings Institution.

Menashy, F. (2012). Review of Klees, S J., Samoff, J. & Stromquist, N. P. (Eds) (2012). The World Bank and Education: Critiques and Alternatives .Rotterdam: Sense Publishers. Education Review, 15. Retrieved [18 May 2020] from https://www.academia.edu/7672656/Review_of_The_World_Bank_and_Education_Critiques_and_Alternatives

Rizvi, F. & Lingard, B. (2010). Globalizing Education Policy. Abingdon, Oxon.: Routledge.

Sadowski, J. (2020). Too Smart. Cambridge, MA.: MIT Press.

Sahlberg, P. (2016). The global educational reform movement and its impact on schooling. In K. Mundy, A. Green, R. Lingard, & A. Verger (Eds.), The handbook of global policy and policymaking in education. New York, NY: Wiley-Blackwell. pp.128 – 144

Selwyn, N. (2013). Education in a Digital World. New York: Routledge.

Spring, J. (2015). Globalization of Education 2nd Edition. New York: Routledge.

Trilling, B. & C. Fadel (2009). 21st Century Skills. San Francisco: Wiley

Verger, A. & Bonal, X. (2012). ‘All Things Being Equal?’ In Klees, S. J., Samoff, J. and Stromquist, N. P. (Eds.) The World Bank and Education. Rotterdam: Sense Publishers. pp. 69 – 81

Waslander, S., Pater, C. & van der Weide, M. (2010). Markets in Education: An analytical review of empirical research on market mechanisms in education. OECD EDU Working Paper 52.

Weiner, L. (2012). Social Movement Unionism: Teachers Can Lead the Way. Reimagine, 19 (2) Retrieved [18 May 2020] from: https://www.reimaginerpe.org/19-2/weiner-fletcher

Williamson, B., Bayne, S. & Shay, S. (2020). The datafication of teaching in Higher Education: critical issues and perspectives, Teaching in Higher Education, 25:4, 351-365, DOI: 10.1080/13562517.2020.1748811

World Bank. (2013). Life skills : what are they, why do they matter, and how are they taught? (English). Adolescent Girls Initiative (AGI) learning from practice series. Washington DC ; World Bank. Retrieved [18 May 2020] from: http://documents.worldbank.org/curated/en/569931468331784110/Life-skills-what-are-they-why-do-they-matter-and-how-are-they-taught

Vocab Victor is a very curious vocab app. It’s not a flashcard system, designed to extend vocabulary breadth. Rather it tests the depth of a user’s vocabulary knowledge.

The app’s website refers to the work of Paul Meara (see, for example, Meara, P. 2009. Connected Words. Amsterdam: John Benjamins). Meara explored the ways in which an analysis of the words that we associate with other words can shed light on the organisation of our mental lexicon. Described as ‘gigantic multidimensional cobwebs’ (Aitchison, J. 1987. Words in the Mind. Oxford: Blackwell, p.86), our mental lexicons do not appear to store lexical items in individual slots, but rather they are distributed across networks of associations.

The size of the web (i.e. the number of words, or the level of vocabulary breadth) is important, but equally important is the strength of the connections within the web (or vocabulary depth), as this determines the robustness of vocabulary knowledge. These connections or associations are between different words and concepts and experiences, and they are developed by repeated, meaningful, contextualised exposure to a word. In other words, the connections are firmed up through extensive opportunities to use language.

In word association research, a person is given a prompt word and asked to say the first other word that comes to their mind. For an entertaining example of this process at work, you might enjoy this clip from the comedy show ‘Help’. The research has implications for a wide range of questions, not least second language acquisition. For example, given a particular prompt, native speakers produce a relatively small number of associative responses, and these are reasonably predictable. Learners, on the other hand, typically produce a much greater variety of responses (which might seem surprising, given that they have a smaller vocabulary store to select from).

One way of classifying the different kinds of response is to divide them into two categories: syntagmatic (words that are discoursally connected to the prompt, such as collocations) and paradigmatic (words that are semantically close to the prompt and are the same part of speech). Linguists have noted that learners (both L1 children and L2 learners) show a shift from predominantly syntagmatic responses to more paradigmatic responses as their mental lexicon develops.

The developers of Vocab Victor have set out to build ‘more and stronger associations for the words your students already know, and teaches new words by associating them with existing, known words, helping students acquire native-like word networks. Furthermore, Victor teaches different types of knowledge, including synonyms, “type-of” relationships, collocations, derivations, multiple meanings and form-focused knowledge’. Since we know how important vocabulary depth is, this seems like a pretty sensible learning target.

The app attempts to develop this breadth in two main ways (see below). The ‘core game’ is called ‘Word Strike’ where learners have to pick the word on the arrow which most closely matches the word on the target. The second is called ‘Word Drop’ where a bird holds a word card and the user has to decide if it relates more to one of two other words below. Significantly, they carry out these tasks before any kind of association between form and meaning has been established. The meaning of unknown items can be checked in a monolingual dictionary later. There are a couple of other, less important games that I won’t describe now. The graphics are attractive, if a little juvenile. The whole thing is gamified with levels, leaderboards and so on. It’s free and, presumably, still under development.

Word strike backsideBird drop certain

The app claims to be for ‘English language learners of all ages [to] develop a more native-like vocabulary’. It also says that it is appropriate for ‘native speaking primary students [to] build and strengthen vocabulary for better test performance and stronger reading skills’, as well as ‘secondary students [to] prepare for the PSAT and SAT’. It was the scope of these claims that first set my alarm bells ringing. How could one app be appropriate for such diverse users? (Spoiler: it can’t, and attempts to make an edtech product suitable for everyone inevitably end up with a product that is suitable for no one.)

Rich, associative lexical networks are the result of successful vocabulary acquisition, but neither Paul Meara nor anyone else in the word association field has, to the best of my knowledge, ever suggested that deliberate study is the way to develop the networks. It is uncontentious to say that vocabulary depth (as shown by associative networks) is best developed through extensive exposure to input – reading and listening.

It is also reasonably uncontentious to say that deliberate study of vocabulary pays greatest dividends in developing vocabulary breadth (not depth), especially at lower levels, with a focus on the top three to eight thousand words in terms of frequency. It may also be useful at higher levels when a learner needs to acquire a limited number of new words for a particular purpose. An example of this would be someone who is going to study in an EMI context and would benefit from rapid learning of the words of the Academic Word List.

The Vocab Victor website says that the app ‘is uniquely focused on intermediate-level vocabulary. The app helps get students beyond this plateau by selecting intermediate-level vocabulary words for your students’. At B1 and B2 levels, learners typically know words that fall between #2500 and #3750 in the frequency tables. At level C2, they know most of the most frequent 5000 items. The less frequent a word is, the less point there is in studying it deliberately.

For deliberate study of vocabulary to serve any useful function, the target language needs to be carefully selected, with a focus on high-frequency items. It makes little sense to study words that will already be very familiar. And it makes no sense to deliberately study apparently random words that are so infrequent (i.e. outside the top 10,000) that it is unlikely they will be encountered again before the deliberate study has been forgotten. Take a look at the examples below and judge for yourself how well chosen the items are.

Year etcsmashed etc

Vocab Victor appears to focus primarily on semantic fields, as in the example above with ‘smashed’ as a key word. ‘Smashed’, ‘fractured’, ‘shattered’ and ‘cracked’ are all very close in meaning. In order to disambiguate them, it would help learners to see which nouns typically collocate with these words. But they don’t get this with the app – all they get are English-language definitions from Merriam-Webster. What this means is that learners are (1) unlikely to develop a sufficient understanding of target items to allow them to incorporate them into their productive lexicon, and (2) likely to get completely confused with a huge number of similar, low-frequency words (that weren’t really appropriate for deliberate study in the first place). What’s more, lexical sets of this kind may not be a terribly good idea, anyway (see my blog post on the topic).

Vocab Victor takes words, as opposed to lexical items, as the target learning objects. Users may be tested on the associations of any of the meanings of polysemantic items. In the example below (not perhaps the most appropriate choice for primary students!), there are two main meanings, but with other items, things get decidedly more complex (see the example with ‘toss’). Learners are also asked to do the associative tasks ‘Word Strike’ and ‘Word Drop’ before they have had a chance to check the possible meanings of either the prompt item or the associative options.

Stripper definitionStripper taskToss definition

How anyone could learn from any of this is quite beyond me. I often struggled to choose the correct answer myself; there were also a small number of items whose meaning I wasn’t sure of. I could see no clear way in which items were being recycled (there’s no spaced repetition here). The website claims that ‘adaptating [sic] to your student’s level happens automatically from the very first game’, but I could not see this happening. In fact, it’s very hard to adapt target item selection to an individual learner, since right / wrong or multiple choice answers tell us so little. Does a correct answer tell us that someone knows an item or just that they made a lucky guess? Does an incorrect answer tell us that an item is unknown or just that, under game pressure, someone tapped the wrong button? And how do you evaluate a learner’s lexical level (as a starting point),  even with very rough approximation,  without testing knowledge of at least thirty items first? All in all, then, a very curious app.

One of the most powerful associative responses to a word (especially with younger learners) is what is called a ‘klang’ response: another word which rhymes with or sounds like the prompt word. So, if someone says the word ‘app’ to you, what’s the first klang response that comes to mind?