Archive for the ‘Discourse’ Category

Innovation and ELT

Next week sees the prize ceremony of the nineteenth edition of the British Council’s ELTons awards, celebrating ‘innovation in English language teaching and learning … the newest and most original courses, books, publications, apps, platforms, projects, and more.’ Since the Council launched the ELTons in 2003, it hasn’t been entirely clear what is meant by ‘innovation’. But, reflecting the use of the term in the wider (business) world, ‘innovation’ was seen as a positive value, an inherently good thing, and almost invariably connected to technological innovation. One of the award categories in the ELTons is for ‘digital innovation’, but many of the winners and shortlisted nominations in other categories have been primarily innovative in their use of technology (at first, CD-ROMs, before web-based applications became standard).

Historian Jill Lepore, among others, has traced the mantra of innovation at the start of this century back to renewed interest in the work of mid-20th century Austrian economist, Joseph Schumpeter, in the 1990s. Schumpeter wrote about ‘creative disruption’, and his ideas gained widespread traction with the publication in 1997 of Clayton Christensen’s ‘The Innovator’s Dilemma: The Revolutionary Book that Will Change the Way You Do Business’. Under Christensen, ‘creative disruption’ morphed into ‘disruptive innovation’. The idea was memorably expressed in Facebook’s motto of ‘Move fast and break things’. Disruptive innovation was always centrally concerned with expanding the market for commercial products by leveraging technology to gain access to more customers. Innovation, then, was and is a commercial strategy, and could be used either in product development or simply as an advertising slogan.

From the start of the innovation wave, the British Council has been keen to position itself in the vanguard. It does this for two reasons. Firstly, it needs to promote its own products and, with the cuts to British Council funding, its need to generate more income is increasingly urgent: ELT products are the main source of this income. Secondly, as part of the Council’s role in pushing British ‘soft power’, it seeks to promote Britain as a desirable, and therefore innovative, place to do business or study. This is wonderfully reflected in a series of videos for the Council’s LearnEnglish website called ‘Britain is Great’, subsets of which are entitled ‘Entrepreneurs are GREAT’ and ‘Innovation is GREAT’ with films celebrating the work of people like Richard Branson and James Dyson. For a while, the Council had a ‘Director, English Language Innovation’, and the current senior management team includes a ‘Director Digital, Partnerships and Innovation’ and a ‘Director Transformation’. With such a focus on innovation at the heart of its organisation, it is hardly surprising that the British Council should celebrate the idea in its ELTons awards. The ELTons celebrate the Council itself, and its core message, as much as they do the achievements of the award winners. Finalists in the ELTons receive a ‘promotional kit’ which includes ‘assets for the promotion of products or publications’. These assets (badges, banners, and so on) serve to promote the Council brand at the same time as advertising the shortlisted products themselves.

Innovation and a better world

Innovation, especially ‘disruptive innovation’, is not, however, what it used to be. The work of Clayton Christensen has been largely discredited (Russell & Vinsel, 2016). The Facebook motto has been changed and ‘the Era of “Move Fast and Break Things” Is Over’ (Taneja, 2019). The interest in ‘minimal viable products’ has shifted to an interest in ‘minimal virtuous products’. This is reflected in the marketing of edtech with the growing focus on how product X or Y will make the world a better place in some way. The ELTons introduced ‘Judges’ Commendations’ for ‘Equality, Diversity and Inclusion’ and, this year, a new commendation for ‘Environmental Sustainability and Climate Action’. Innovation is still celebrated, but ‘disruption’ has undergone a slide of meaning, so that it is more likely now to refer to disruption caused by the Covid pandemic, and our responses to it. For example, TESOL Italy’s upcoming annual conference, entitled ‘Disruptive Innovations in ELT’, encourages contributions not only about online study and ‘interactive e-learning platforms’, but also about ‘sustainable development and social justice’, ‘resilience, collaboration, empathy, digital literacy, soft skills, and global competencies’. Innovation is still presented as a good, even necessary, thing.

I am not suggesting that the conflation of innovation with positive social good is purely virtue-signalling, although it is sometimes clearly that. However, the rhetorical shift makes it harder for anyone to criticise innovations, when they are presented as solutions to problems that need to be solved. Allen et al (2021) argue that ‘those who propose solutions are always virtuous because they clearly care about a problem we must solve. Those who suggest the solution will not work, and who have no better solution, are denying the problem the opportunity of the resolution it so desperately needs’.

There are, though, good reasons to be wary of ‘innovation’ in education. First among these is the lessons of history, which teach us that today’s ‘next big thing’ is usually tomorrow’s ‘last next big thing’ (Allen, et al., 2021). On the technology front, from programmed instruction to interactive whiteboards, educational history is littered with artefacts that have been oversold and underused (Cuban, 2001). Away from technology, from Multiple Intelligences to personalized learning, we see the same waves of enthusiasm and widespread adoption, followed by waning interest and abandonment. The waste of money and effort along the way has been colossal, although that is not to say that there have not been some, sometimes significant, gains.

The second big reason to be wary of technological innovations in education is that they focus our attention on products of various kinds. But products are not at the heart of schooling: it is labour, especially the work of teachers, which occupies that place. It is not Zoom that made possible the continuation of education during the pandemic lockdowns. Indeed, in many parts of the world, lower-tech or zero-tech solutions had to be found. It was teachers’ readiness to adapt to the new circumstances that allowed education to stumble onwards during the crisis. Vinsel and Russell’s recent book, ‘The Innovation Delusion’ (2021) compellingly argues that the focus on innovation has led us to ‘devalue the work that underpins modern life’. They point out (Russell and Vinsel, 2016) that ‘feminist theorists have long argued that obsessions with technological novelty obscures all of the labour, including housework, that women, disproportionately, do to keep life on track’. Parallels with the relationship between teachers and technology are hard to avoid. The presentation of innovation as an inherently desirable value ‘rarely asks who benefits, to what end?’

The ‘ELT’ in the ELTons

It’s time to consider the ‘ELT’ part of the ELTons. ‘ELT’ is a hypothetical construct that is often presented as a concrete reality, rather than a loosely-bound constellation of a huge number of different practices and attitudes, many of which have very little in common with each other. This reification of ‘ELT’ can serve a number of purposes, one of which is to frame discourse in particular ways. In a post from a few years ago, Andrew Wickham and I discussed how the framing of ‘ELT’ (and education, more generally) as an industry serves particular interests, but may be detrimental to the interests of others.

Perhaps a useful way of viewing ‘ELT’ is as a discourse community. Borg (2003) argues that ‘membership of a discourse community is usually a matter of choice’. That is to say that you are part of ‘ELT’ if you choose to identify yourself as such. In Europe, huge numbers of English language teachers do not choose to identify themselves primarily as an ‘ELT teacher’: they may see this label as relevant to them, but a more immediate and primary self-identification is often as a ‘school teacher’, a ‘primary school teacher’, a ‘(modern) languages teacher’, a ‘CLIL teacher’, and so on. They work in the state / public sectors. The concerns and interests of those who do not self-identify as ‘ELT practitioners’ are most likely to revolve around their local contexts and issues. Those of us who self-identify as ‘ELT practitioners’ are more likely to be interested in what we share with others who self-identify in the same way in different parts of the globe. The relevance of local contexts and issues is mostly to be found in how they may shed light on more global concerns. If you prioritise the local over the global, your participation in the ‘ELT’ discourse community is likely to be limited. Things like the ELTons are simply off your radar.

Borg (2003) also points out that discourse communities typically have ‘experts who perform gatekeeping roles’. The discourse of ‘ELT’ is enacted in magazines, blogs, videos, webinars and conferences aimed at English language teachers. I exclude from this list academic journals and books which are known to be consulted only rarely by the vast majority of teachers. Similarly, I exclude the more accessible books that have been written specifically for English language teachers, which are mostly sold in minuscule quantities, except for those that are required reading for training courses. The greatest number of contributors to the discourse of ‘ELT’ are authors, developers and publishers of language teaching materials and tools, teachers representing product vendors or (directly or indirectly) promoting their own products, representatives of private teaching / training schools, and organisations, representatives of international examination bodies, and representatives of universities (which, in some countries, essentially function as private institutions (Chowdhury & Ha, 2014)).

In other words, the discourse of ‘ELT’ is shaped to a very significant extent by gatekeepers who have a product to sell. Their customers are often those who do not self-identify in the same way as members of the ‘ELT’ discourse community. The British Council is a key gatekeeper in this discourse and it is a private sector operator par excellence.

The lack of interest in the workers of ‘ELT’ is well documented – see for example the Teachers as Workers blog. It is hardly unexpected, especially in the private sector. The British Council has a long history of labour disputes. At the present time, the Public and Commercial Services Union in the UK is balloting members about strike action against forced redundancies, which ‘are disproportionately targeted at middle to lower graded staff, while at the same time new management positions and a new deputy chief executive officer post are to be created’. One of the aims of the union is to stop the privatisation / outsourcing of Council jobs. The British government’s recent failure to relocate British Council employees in Afghanistan led to over 100,000 people signing a petition demanding action. The public silence of the British Council did little to inspire confidence in their interest in their workers.

The Council is a many-headed beast, and some of these heads do very admirable work in sponsoring or supporting a large variety of valuable projects. I don’t think the ELTons is one of these. The ideology behind them is highly questionable, and their ‘best before’ date has long expired. And given the financial constraints that the Council is now operating under, the money might be better spent elsewhere.

References

Allen, R., Evans, M. & White, B. (2021) The Next Big Thing in School Improvement. Woodbridge: John Catt Educational

Borg, E. (2003) Discourse Community. ELT Journal 57 (4): 398-400

Chowdhury, R. & Ha, P. L. (2014) Desiring TESOL and International Education. Bristol: Multilingual Matters

Christensen, C. M. (1997) The Innovator’s Dilemma: The Revolutionary Book that Will Change the Way You Do Business. Cambridge: Harvard Business Review Press

Cuban, L. (2001) Oversold and Underused: Computers in the Classroom. Cambridge: Harvard University Press

Lepore, J. (2014) The Disruption Machine. The New Yorker, June 16, 2014. https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2014/06/23/the-disruption-machine

Russell, A. L. & Vinsel, L. (2016) Hail the Maintainers. Aeon, 7 April 2016 https://aeon.co/essays/innovation-is-overvalued-maintenance-often-matters-more

Taneja, H. (2019) The Era of “Move Fast and Break Things” Is Over. Harvard Business Review, January 22, 2019, https://hbr.org/2019/01/the-era-of-move-fast-and-break-things-is-over

Vinsel, L. & Russell, A. L. (2020) The Innovation Delusion. New York: Currency Books

On 21 January, I attended the launch webinar of DEFI (the Digital Education Futures Initiative), an initiative of the University of Cambridge, which seeks to work ‘with partners in industry, policy and practice to explore the field of possibilities that digital technology opens up for education’. The opening keynote speaker was Andrea Schleicher, head of education at the OECD. The OECD’s vision of the future of education is outlined in Schleicher’s book, ‘World Class: How to Build a 21st-Century School System’, freely available from the OECD, but his presentation for DEFI offers a relatively short summary. A recording is available here, and this post will take a closer look at some of the things he had to say.

Schleicher is a statistician and the coordinator of the OECD’s PISA programme. Along with other international organisations, such as the World Economic Forum and the World Bank (see my post here), the OECD promotes the global economization and corporatization of education, ‘based on the [human capital] view that developing work skills is the primary purpose of schooling’ (Spring, 2015: 14). In other words, the main proper function of education is seen to be meeting the needs of global corporate interests. In the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic, with the impact of school closures becoming very visible, Schleicher expressed concern about the disruption to human capital development, but thought it was ‘a great moment’: ‘the current wave of school closures offers an opportunity for experimentation and for envisioning new models of education’. Every cloud has a silver lining, and the pandemic has been a godsend for private companies selling digital learning (see my post about this here) and for those who want to reimagine education in a more corporate way.

Schleicher’s presentation for DEFI was a good opportunity to look again at the way in which organisations like the OECD are shaping educational discourse (see my post about the EdTech imaginary and ELT).

He begins by suggesting that, as a result of the development of digital technology (Google, YouTube, etc.) literacy is ‘no longer just about extracting knowledge’. PISA reading scores, he points out, have remained more or less static since 2000, despite the fact that we have invested (globally) more than 15% extra per student in this time. Only 9% of all 15-year-old students in the industrialised world can distinguish between fact and opinion.

To begin with, one might argue about the reliability and validity of the PISA reading scores (Berliner, 2020). One might also argue, as did a collection of 80 education experts in a letter to the Guardian, that the scores themselves are responsible for damaging global education, raising further questions about their validity. One might argue that the increased investment was spent in the wrong way (e.g. on hardware and software, rather than teacher training, for example), because the advice of organisations like OECD has been uncritically followed. And the statistic about critical reading skills is fairly meaningless unless it is compared to comparable metrics over a long time span: there is no reason to believe that susceptibility to fake news is any more of a problem now than it was, say, one hundred years ago. Nor is there any reason to believe that education can solve the fake-news problem (see my post about fake news and critical thinking here). These are more than just quibbles, but the main point that Schleicher is making is that education needs to change.

Schleicher next presents a graph which is designed to show that the amount of time that students spend studying correlates poorly with the amount they learn. His interest is in the (lack of) productivity of educational activities in some contexts. He goes on to argue that there is greater productivity in educational activities when learners have a growth mindset, implying (but not stating) that mindset interventions in schools would lead to a more productive educational environment.

Schleicher appears to confuse what students learn with the things they have learnt that have been measured by PISA. The two are obviously rather different, since PISA is only interested in a relatively small subset of the possible learning outcomes of schooling. His argument for growth mindset interventions hinges on the assumption that such interventions will lead to gains in reading scores. However, his graph demonstrates a correlation between growth mindset and reading scores, not a causal relationship. A causal relationship has not been clearly and empirically demonstrated (see my post about growth mindsets here) and recent work by Carol Dweck and her associates (e.g. Yeager et al., 2016), as well as other researchers (e.g. McPartlan et al, 2020), indicates that the relationship between gains in learning outcomes and mindset interventions is extremely complex.

Schleicher then turns to digitalisation and briefly discusses the positive and negative affordances of technology. He eulogizes platform companies before showing a slide designed to demonstrate that (in the workplace) there is a strong correlation between ICT use and learning. He concludes: ‘the digital world of learning is a hugely empowering world of learning’.

A brief paraphrase of this very disingenuous part of the presentation would be: technology can be good and bad, but I’ll only focus on the former. The discourse appears balanced, but it is anything but.

During the segment, Schleicher argues that technology is empowering, and gives the examples of ‘the most successful companies these days, they’re not created by a big industry, they’re created by a big idea’. This is plainly counterfactual. In the case of Alphabet and Facebook, profits did not follow from a ‘big idea’: the ideas changed as the companies evolved.

Schleicher then sketches a picture of an unpredictable future (pandemics, climate change, AI, cyber wars, etc.) as a way of framing the importance of being open (and resilient) to different futures and how we respond to them. He offers two different kinds of response: maintenance of the status quo, or ‘outsourcing’ of education. The pandemic, he suggests, has made more countries aware that the latter is the way forward.

In his discussion of the maintenance of the status quo, Schleicher talks about the maintenance of educational monopolies. By this, he must be referring to state monopolies on education: this is a favoured way of neoliberals of referring to state-sponsored education. But the extent to which, in 2021 in many OECD countries, the state has any kind of monopoly of education, is very open to debate. Privatization is advancing fast. Even in 2015, the World Education Forum’s ‘Final Report’ wrote that ‘the scale of engagement of nonstate actors at all levels of education is growing and becoming more diversified’. Schleicher goes on to talk about ‘large, bureaucratic school systems’, suggesting that such systems cannot be sufficiently agile, adaptive or responsive. ‘We should ask this question,’ he says, but his own answer to it is totally transparent: ‘changing education can be like moving graveyards’ is the title of the next slide. Education needs to be more like the health sector, he claims, which has been able to develop a COVID vaccine in such a short period of time. We need an education industry that underpins change in the same way as the health industry underpins vaccine development. In case his message isn’t yet clear enough, I’ll spell it out: education needs to be privatized still further.

Schleicher then turns to the ways in which he feels that digital technology can enhance learning. These include the use of AR, VR and AI. Technology, he says, can make learning so much more personalized: ‘the computer can study how you study, and then adapt learning so that it is much more granular, so much more adaptive, so much more responsive to your learning style’. He moves on to the field of assessment, again singing the praises of technology in the ways that it can offer new modes of assessment and ‘increase the reliability of machine rating for essays’. Through technology, we can ‘reunite learning and assessment’. Moving on to learning analytics, he briefly mentions privacy issues, before enthusing at greater length about the benefits of analytics.

Learning styles? Really? The reliability of machine scoring of essays? How reliable exactly? Data privacy as an area worth only a passing mention? The use of sensors to measure learners’ responses to learning experiences? Any pretence of balance appears now to have been shed. This is in-your-face sales talk.

Next up is a graph which purports to show the number of teachers in OECD countries who use technology for learners’ project work. This is followed by another graph showing the number of teachers who have participated in face-to-face and online CPD. The point of this is to argue that online CPD needs to become more common.

I couldn’t understand what point he was trying to make with the first graph. For the second, it is surely the quality of the CPD, rather than the channel, that matters.

Schleicher then turns to two further possible responses of education to unpredictable futures: ‘schools as learning hubs’ and ‘learn-as-you-go’. In the latter, digital infrastructure replaces physical infrastructure. Neither is explored in any detail. The main point appears to be that we should consider these possibilities, weighing up as we do so the risks and the opportunities (see slide below).

Useful ways to frame questions about the future of education, no doubt, but Schleicher is operating with a set of assumptions about the purpose of education, which he chooses not to explore. His fundamental assumption – that the primary purpose of education is to develop human capital in and for the global economy – is not one that I would share. However, if you do take that view, then privatization, economization, digitalization and the training of social-emotional competences are all reasonable corollaries, and the big question about the future concerns how to go about this in a more efficient way.

Schleicher’s (and the OECD’s) views are very much in accord with the libertarian values of the right-wing philanthro-capitalist foundations of the United States (the Gates Foundation, the Broad Foundation and so on), funded by Silicon Valley and hedge-fund managers. It is to the US that we can trace the spread and promotion of these ideas, but it is also, perhaps, to the US that we can now turn in search of hope for an alternative educational future. The privatization / disruption / reform movement in the US has stalled in recent years, as it has become clear that it failed to deliver on its promise of improved learning. The resistance to privatized and digitalized education is chronicled in Diane Ravitch’s latest book, ‘Slaying Goliath’ (2020). School closures during the pandemic may have been ‘a great moment’ for Schleicher, but for most of us, they have underscored the importance of face-to-face free public schooling. Now, with the electoral victory of Joe Biden and the appointment of a new US Secretary for Education (still to be confirmed), we are likely to see, for the first time in decades, an education policy that is firmly committed to public schools. The US is by far the largest contributor to the budget of the OECD – more than twice any other nation. Perhaps a rethink of the OECD’s educational policies will soon be in order?

References

Berliner D.C. (2020) The Implications of Understanding That PISA Is Simply Another Standardized Achievement Test. In Fan G., Popkewitz T. (Eds.) Handbook of Education Policy Studies. Springer, Singapore. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-981-13-8343-4_13

McPartlan, P., Solanki, S., Xu, D. & Sato, B. (2020) Testing Basic Assumptions Reveals When (Not) to Expect Mindset and Belonging Interventions to Succeed. AERA Open, 6 (4): 1 – 16 https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/pdf/10.1177/2332858420966994

Ravitch, D. (2020) Slaying Goliath: The Passionate Resistance to Privatization and the Fight to Save America’s Public School. New York: Vintage Books

Schleicher, A. (2018) World Class: How to Build a 21st-Century School System. Paris: OECD Publishing https://www.oecd.org/education/world-class-9789264300002-en.htm

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

Yeager, D. S., et al. (2016) Using design thinking to improve psychological interventions: The case of the growth mindset during the transition to high school. Journal of Educational Psychology, 108(3), 374–391. https://doi.org/10.1037/edu0000098

All things told, it’s been a pretty good year for thought leaders. The face-to-face gigs have dried up, but there’s no shortage of online demand. Despite being identified, back in 2013, as one of the year’s most “insufferable” business buzzwords and clichés, thought leaders have hung on and are going strong. In fact, their numbers are increasing, or at least references to them are increasing. Ten years ago there was a tussle on Google Trends between ‘thought leader’ and ‘edtech’. The latter long ago zoomed into the stratosphere of search terms, but ‘thought leader’ has been chugging along quite nicely, despite a certain amount of flak that the term has taken. Concern about the precise nature of what is and what is not thought has been raised. There was a merciless parody-deconstruction of a TED talk by a comic pretending to be a thought leader (2.3 million views). Anand Giridharadas (2019) devoted a whole chapter of his best-selling ‘Winners Take All’ to the difference between thought leaders and critics. The former, Giridharas scoffs, love ‘an easy idea that goes down like gelato, an idea that gives hope while challenging nothing’. Elsewhere, in the New York Times, another writer jokes about thought leaders as a sort of wannabe highflying, good-doing yacht-to-yacht concept peddler. Thought leadership, in the withering words of one new book (Daub, 2020), is what some people in tech think is thinking.

But thought leadership is not rolling over and going away just yet. If you think you may have spotted a thought leader, the probability is that they have something about their thought leadership skills in the first line of their bio. You can double check someone’s aspiration to being a thought leader by their use of phrases like ‘reimagining’, ‘innovation’, ‘inclusivity’ and ‘disruption’.

The last of these is a real shibboleth and has to be used carefully. Everyone knows it is a nonsense of sorts: for every Uber there is a Hutzler 5711 banana slicer (I highly recommend the customer reviews on Amazon!). Still, you can get away with talking about ‘disruption’ if you’re in the right group of people.

We don’t have enough thought leaders in ELT. I’ve checked and there don’t seem to be too many of them out there. Broadly speaking, they can be divided into two types. There are those who are sometimes referred to by others as a ‘thought leader’ and there are those who only get referred to in that way when they’re talking about themselves. A good place to look for them is the British Council, whose remit includes thought leadership: it’s part of their ‘what we do’. But when you investigate more closely, it’s hard to identify who exactly is a ‘thought leader’ and who is just a ‘leading expert’. There’s a certain coyness about naming particular thought leaders. Not long ago, I saw a job advert for OUP which required ‘thought leadership on the exploitation of data science to drive the innovations in Assessment products and services’. I hope they filled the post satisfactorily. And Cambridge English has a Director of ‘Research and Thought Leadership’, but you can’t blame him for the job title.

Pearson offers webinars where you can find out about ‘what’s being discussed amongst our Thought Leaders’, but the presenters don’t come labelled ‘thought leader’, so you don’t know who’s a thought leader and who’s not. It’s all very tricky. TESOL is also quite oblique, promoting TESOL partnerships where you can reach ‘fellow thought leaders’ … who are never further identified.

There’s a clear need for these thought leaders to be made more visible. Who exactly are they? What’s their typical profile? ‘Who pays them’ would also be an interesting question.

Unfortunately, the BETT Show, which is a good place to spot a thought leader in the flesh, has been covid-cancelled. BETT has the laudable-sounding goal of ‘Creating a better future by transforming education’, but the future has been postponed and the transformation will be technological, enabling ‘educators and learners to thrive’. In March 2021, you can catch up with thought leaders, though, new and old, at BETT’s replacement event: Learnit Live. It’s ‘a five-day, global online event featuring global education leaders’ where you can acquire ‘the tools [needed] to thrive in a rapidly changing world’. Yes, the Future of Learning is Now.

The image is worth deconstructing a little. We’ve got measurement / accountability in the bar chart at the top. We’ve got inclusive collaboration in the handshake, insights with the electric bulb and an all-seeing eye, which I don’t think is meant to refer to data privacy issues. I’m not sure what the money icon is meant to represent, either, but perhaps I’m being obtuse. One thing is clear. The future of learning is on a screen banged down on a UK-centred globe. The event also guarantees no Zoom fatigue, and a refund is offered if you find the whole thing tedious. A General Ticket costs £160.00: thought leaders don’t come cheap.

Thought leaders are interlopers in the world of education. They really belong in the discourse of business, as reflected in the webpage of Global Thought Leaders . The adjectives say it all: changing, efficient, financial, forward-thinking, sustainable, technological, transparent. Education, however, sits a little uneasily with some of these attributes, and, for that reason, I, personally, find it hard to use the term without irony.

You can check out the list of the World’s Top 30 Education Gurus for 2020 here and it includes some of the usual suspects: Salman Khan, Sugata Mitra, the late Ken Robinson, John Hattie and Dylan William. White men, mostly. For more specifically ELT thought leaders, perhaps we should let them stay anonymous. Guruism, as Paola Rebolledo has reminded us, can be detrimental to our professional health. ‘Become your own guru,’ she calls and I would add, ‘Become your own thought leader’.

You can do this by reading Ayn Rand and ‘Talk like TED’ by Carmine Gallo. You might consider an online course on ‘Becoming a Thought Leader’ (the price includes a shareable certificate) to help you develop a compelling message, build influence, maximize your visibility, and track your impact. Or save money and buy ‘The Thought Leadership Manual: How to Grab Your Clients ….’ (I’ll leave you to complete the title). Find your niche, but focus on tech, that’s my advice.

Happy new year!

Philip

Daub, A. (2020) What Tech Calls Thinking. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux.

Giridharas, A. (2019) Winners Take All. New York: Knopf

Whenever a word is frequently used in arguments trying to persuade people to believe some opinion or other, our mental twists and turns to make the opinion plausible involve shifting from meaning to meaning without realizing it. This has happened to creativity on a grand scale.’ (Perry, L. (1987). The Educational Value of Creativity. Journal of Art and Design Education 6 (3) ) quoted in Pugliese, 2010: 8)

If you take a look at the word ‘creativity’ in Google’s Ngram viewer, you’ll notice that use of the word really took off around 1950, the year when J. P. Guilford published an article entitled ‘Creativity’ in American Psychologist. Guilford’s background was in the US military. His research was part funded by the US Navy and his subjects were US Air Force personnel. His interest was in the classification and training of military recruits.

With the Cold War between the US and the Soviet Union hotting up, Guilford’s interests increasingly became a matter of national security. In 1954, Carl Rogers, argued that education tended to turn out ‘conformists […] rather than freely creative and original thinkers’ (Rogers, 1954: 249) and that there was a ‘desperate need’ for the latter. He warned that ‘international annihilation will be the price we pay for a lack of creativity’. When Sputnik scared the shit out of the American military, creativity became more important still. It ‘could no longer be left to the chance occurrence of genius; neither could it be left in the realm of the wholly mysterious and the untouchable. Men had to be able to do something about it; creativity had to be a property in many men; it had to be something identifiable; it had to be subject to efforts to gain more of it’ (Razik, 1967).

It wasn’t long before creativity moved beyond purely military concerns to more generally corporate ones. Creativity became one of the motors driving the economy. This process is tracked in a fascinating article by Steven Shapin (2020), who quotes the director of research at General Electric as saying in 1959: ‘I think we can agree at once that we are all in favour of creativity’. Since then, the idea of creativity has rarely looked back.

By the end of the century, the UK government had set up a National Advisory Committee on Creative and Cultural Education, chaired by Ken Robinson. Creativity was seen as a ‘vital investment in human capital for the twenty-first century’ (National Advisory Committee on Creative and Cultural Education, 1999). Quoting the prime minister, Blair, the report stated that ‘our aim must be to create a nation where the creative talents of all the people are used to build a true enterprise economy for the twenty-first century — where we compete on brains, not brawn’.

A few years later, in the US, the Partnership for 21st Century Skills was founded, supported primarily by the corporate community with companies like AOL Time Warner, Apple and Microsoft providing financial backing. The ‘21st century skills’ required by global employers (or more specifically that global employers wanted national governments to pay for) could be catchily boiled down to the 4Cs – communication, collaboration, critical reflection and creativity. What was meant by creativity is made clearer in Trilling and Fadel’s bible of 21st century skills (2009: 56):

Given the 21st century demands to continuously innovate new services, better processes, and improved products for the world’s global economy, and for the creative knowledge required in more and more of the world’s better-paying jobs, it should come as no surprise that creativity and innovation are very high on the list of 21st century skills. In fact, many believe that our current Knowledge Age is quickly giving way to an Innovation Age, where the ability to solve problems in new ways (like the greening of energy use), to invent new technologies (like bio- and nanotechnology) or create the new killer application of existing technologies (like efficient and affordable electric cars and solar panels, or even to discover new branches of knowledge and invent entirely new industries, will all be highly prized.

In this line of thought, creativity is blurred with ‘innovation skills’ and inextricably linked to business (and employee) performance. It involves creative thinking techniques (such as brainstorming), the ability to work collaboratively and creatively with others, openness to new ideas and perspectives, originality and inventiveness in work, and understanding real-world limits to adopting new ideas (Trilling & Fadel, 2009: 59). Although never defined very precisely, the purpose of creativity in education (as well as 21st skills more generally) is crystal-clear:

A fundamental role of education is to equip students with the competences they need – and will need – in order to succeed in society. Creative thinking is a necessary competence for today’s young people to develop. It can help them adapt to a constantly and rapidly changing world, and one that demands flexible workers equipped with ‘21st century’ skills that go beyond core literacy and numeracy. After all, children today will likely be employed in sectors or roles that do not yet exist’. (OECD, 2019: 6)

Creativity, then, has become first and foremost about the development of human capital and, by extension, the health of financial capital. In the World Economic Forum’s list of ‘5 Things You Need To Know About Creativity’, #1 on the list is ‘Creativity is good for the Economy’, #4 is ‘It’s important for leadership’, and #5 is ‘It’s crucial for the future of work’. For the World Bank, creativity is more or less synonymous with entrepreneurship (World Bank, 2010).

Given the importance that the OECD attaches to creativity, it was inevitable that they should seek to measure it. The next round of PISA tests, postponed to 2022 because of Covid-19, will incorporate evaluation of creative thinking. As the OECD itself recognises (OECD, 2019), this will be no easy task. There are problems in establishing a valid and agreed construct of creative thinking / creativity. There is debate about the extent to which creative thinking is domain-specific (does creative thinking in science different to creative thinking in the arts?). Previous attempts to measure creativity have been less than satisfactory. But none of this will stop the OECD juggernaut, and shortcomings in the first round of evaluations can be taken, creatively, as ‘an opportunity to learn’ (Trilling & Fadel, 2009: 59). There will be a washback effect, but this is all to the good in the eyes of the OECD. One of their most significant objectives in measuring creativity is to encourage ‘changes in education policies and pedagogies’ (OECD, 2019: 5): ‘the results will also encourage a wider societal debate on both the importance and methods of supporting this crucial competence through education’. To a large extent, it is an agenda-setting exercise.

Creativity’s most well-known cheerleader is the late Ken Robinson. His advocacy of creativity in education for the purposes of developing human capital is clear from his contribution to the National Advisory Committee on Creative and Cultural Education (1999) report. Subsequently, he changed his tune a little, and was careful to expand on his reasons for promoting creativity. Creativity, for Robinson, became something of broader importance than it was for those with a 21st century skills agenda. ‘There’s a lot of talk these days about 21st century skills,’ he said, ‘and I go along with a great deal of it, my only reservation about the idea of 21st century skills is that when they’re listed, they often include skills that were relevant at any time, in any century, it’s not that they’re a completely brand new set of things that people need to learn now that they didn’t have to learn before, but the context is very different’. In another interview, when pushed about creativity as an ‘essential 21st century skill’ – ‘why is creativity especially important right now?’ – Robinson again avoided going too far down the 21st century skills path. In reply, he offered a number of reasons, but the economy was the last that he mentioned. Human capital mattered to Robinson (‘any conversation about education that doesn’t take account of the economy is really, in some respects, detached and naïve from the world that we live in’ he said in another interview), but he made a point of downplaying it. As a highly accomplished rhetorician, Robinson knew how to tailor his messages for his audiences. His success and fame were due in large part to his ability to craft messages for everybody, and his readiness to allow the significance of creativity to shift from one meaning to another played, in my view, a large role in his appeal.

In ELT, there is no doubt that creativity is, as Maley and Kiss (2018: v) put it, ‘a fashionable concept’. In addition to Maley & Kiss’s ‘Creativity and English Language Teaching’ (2018), recent publications have included ‘The Creative Teacher’s Compendium’ (Clare & Marsh, 2020), ‘Hacking Creativity’ (Peachey, 2019), ‘50 Creative Activities’ (Maley, 2018), ‘Creativity in English Language Teaching’ (Xerri & Vassallo, 2016), ‘Creativity in the English language classroom’ (Maley & Peachey, 2015) and ‘Being Creative’ (Pugliese, 2010). In addition, there have been chapters on creativity in recent books about 21st century skills in ELT, such as ‘21st Century Skills in the ELT Classroom – A Guide for Teachers’ (Graham, 2020) and ‘English for 21st Century Skills’ (Mavridi & Xerri, 2020). Robinson is regularly cited.

What is striking about all these publications is that the kind of creativity that is promoted has virtually nothing to do with the kind of creativity that has been discussed in the first part of this article. The notion of language learners as human capital is absent, the purpose of creativity teaching is entirely different, and the creativity of the 4 Cs of 21st century skills has transformed into something else altogether. Even in the edited collections with ‘21st century skills’ in their titles, creativity has little or nothing to do with the creativity of the OECD. In most of these titles, ‘21st century skills’ are not mentioned at all, or only briefly in passing. In the 330 pages of Maley and Kiss (2018), for example, there are only three mentions of the term.

Instead, we have something that is not very ‘21st century’ at all. Definitions of creativity in these ELT books are very broad, and acknowledge the problems in even providing a definition. Recognising these difficulties, Nik Peachey (2019: iv) doesn’t even attempt to provide a definition. Instead, he offers a selection of ideas and activities which have something to do with the concept. Maley (in Xerri & Vassallo, 2016: 10) takes a similar approach, offering a list of attributes, including things like newness / originality, immediacy, wonder, curiosity / play, inspiration, finding / making connections, unpredictability, relevance and flow. Pugliese (2010: 114) asks teachers how they interpret creativity and this list includes problem-solving, the teacher’s aesthetic drive, a combination of the previous two, and a search for Rogerian self-actualization. Both writers focus heavily on the teacher’s own commitment to creativity. For Pugliese (2010: 12), ‘creativity is about wanting to be creative’.

In practice, the classroom ideas that are on offer can usually be put into one or more of the following categories:

  • Activities that involve the arts: drama, stories, music, song, chants, poetry and dance, etc. Maley (2018) is especially interested in poetry, and Pugliese (2010) explores music and the visual arts in more detail.
  • Activities that involves the learners in personalized self-expression, with emotional responses prioritized.
  • Activities which are in some way exploratory, unpredictable or ‘different’. The work of John Fanselow (e.g. 1987) is an important inspiration here.

The overall result is a relabelled mash-up of ideas that have been around for some time: exploitation of literature, music and art; humanistic approaches inspired by Stevick, Rinvolucri and others; a sprinkling of positive psychology; and, sometimes, suggestions for using digital technology to facilitate creative expression of some kind. I hope I am not being unfair if I suggest that the problem of definition arises because the 21st century label of creativity has been stuck on bottles of vintage wine.

Most of these writers seem content to ignore 21st century OECD-style creativity, to pretend that it is not the driver of the ‘fashionable concept’ they are writing about. However, the reason for this silence surfaces from time to time: most of these ELT writers disapprove of, even dislike, the OECD version of creativity. Here, for example, is Chris Kennedy in the foreword to Maley & Peachey (2015: 2):

It is worrying in our market-driven world that […] certain concepts, and the words used to express them, lose their value through over-use or ill-definition. […] The danger is that such terms may be hijacked by public bodies and private institutions which employ them as convenient but opaque policy pegs on which practitioners, including educators, are expected to hang their approaches and behaviours. ‘Creativity’ is one such term, and UK government reports on the subject in the last few years show the concept of creativity being used to support a particular instrumental political view as a means of promoting the economy, rather than as a focus for developing individual skills and talents.’

And here’s David Nunan (in Mavridi & Xerri, 2020: 6) dishing out some vitriol:

I have been unable to find any evidence that the ability to solve such [problem-solving 21st century-style creativity tasks] transfers to the ability to solve such problems in real life. This has not stopped some people building their careers out of the concept and amassing considerable compensation in the process. Robinson even garnered a knighthood’.

This is all rather strange. It is creativity as a 21st century skill that has made the topic a ‘fashionable concept’. The ideas of Alan Maley et al about creativity become more plausible because the meaning of the key term can shift around. His book (with Nik Peachey) was commissioned by the British Council, an organisation that is profoundly committed to the idea that 21st century skills, including creativity, are essential for young people ‘to be fully prepared for life and work in a global economy’. In this light, Maley & Peachey (2015), which kicks off with a Maley poem before the Chris Kennedy foreword, may almost be seen as a subversive hijacking, a détournement of British Council discourse. But détourneurs can be détourné in their turn …

Maley’s co-author, Tamas Kiss, on ‘Creativity and English Language Teaching’, a book which so strenuously avoided the discourse of 21st century creativity, chose to discuss this work in the following way for a webpage for his university:

‘Dr Kiss explained that creativity has been the subject of investigation in several fields including psychology and business, as well as language teaching, and is one of the ‘core skills’ of most 21st century educational frameworks:

“People have realised that traditional knowledge transfer systems are not necessarily preparing students for 21st century jobs,” said Tamas, “New educational frameworks, for example those developed by the Council of Europe, emphasize cross-cultural communication, problem-solving, and creativity.”’

The university in question is Xi’an Jiaotong University, to the west of Shanghai. In the same year as the publication of the book that Kiss co-authored with Maley, Barbara Schulte gave a conference presentation entitled ‘Appropriating or hijacking creativity? Educational reform and creative learning in China’ (Schulte, 2018). She noted the increasing importance accorded to creativity in China’s educational reforms, the country’s increasing engagement with OECD benchmarks, and the way in which creative approaches ‘originally intended to empower learners are turned into their exact opposites, constraining learners’ spaces even more than with conventional approaches’.

Creativity is a classic weasel word. Its use should come accompanied with a hazard warning.

References

Clare, A. & Marsh, A. (2020). The Creative Teacher’s Compendium. Teddington, Middx.: Pavilion

Fanselow, J. (1987). Breaking Rules. Harlow: Longman

Graham, C. (Ed.) (2020). 21st Century Skills in the ELT Classroom – A Guide for Teachers. Reading: Granet

Guilford, J. P. (1950). Creativity. American Psychologist, 5 (9): pp.444–454

Maley, A. (2018). Alan Maley’s 50 Creative Activities. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press

Maley, A. & Kiss, T. (2018). Creativity and English Language Teaching. London: Palgrave Macmillan

Maley, A. & Peachey, N. (Eds.) (2015). Creativity in the English language classroom. London: British Council

Mavridi, S. & Xerri, D. (Eds.) English for 21st Century Skills. Newbury, Berks.: Express Publishing

National Advisory Committee on Creative and Cultural Education. (1999). All Our Futures: Creativity, Culture and Education http://sirkenrobinson.com/pdf/allourfutures.pdf

OECD (2019). PISA 2021 Creative Thinking Framework (Third Draft). Paris: OECD.

Peachey, N. (2019). Hacking Creativity. PeacheyPublications.

Pugliese, C. (2010). Being Creative. Peaslake: DELTA

Razik, T. A. (1967). Psychometric measurement of creativity. In Mooney, R. L. & Razik, T. A. (Eds.) Explorations in Creativity. New York: Harper & Row

Rogers, C. (1954). Toward a Theory of Creativity. ETC: A Review of General Semantics, 11: pp. 249-260

Schulte, B. (2018). Appropriating or hijacking creativity? Educational reform and creative learning in China. Abstract from Australian Association for Research in Education (AARE) Conference 2018, Sydney, Australia.

Shapin, S. (2020). The rise and rise of creativity. Aeon 12 October 2020 https://aeon.co/essays/how-did-creativity-become-an-engine-of-economic-growth

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

World Bank (2010). Stepping Up Skills. Washington: The World Bank

Xerri, D. & Vassallo, O. (Eds.) (2016). Creativity in English Language Teaching. Floriana: ELT Council

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!

 

 

 

 

 

 

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

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