Archive for the ‘Discourse’ Category

The paragraph above was written by an AI-powered text generator called neuroflash https://app.neuro-flash.com/home which I told to produce a text on the topic ‘AI and education’. As texts on this topic go, it is both remarkable (in that it was not written by a human) and entirely unremarkable (in that it is practically indistinguishable from hundreds of human-written texts on the same subject). Neuroflash uses a neural network technology called GPT-3 – ‘a large language model’ – and ‘one of the most interesting and important AI systems ever produced’ (Chalmers, 2020). Basically, it generates text by predicting sequences of words based on huge databases. The nature of the paragraph above tells you all you need to know about the kinds of content that are usually found in texts about AI and education.

Not dissimilar from the neuroflash paragraph, educational commentary on uses of AI is characterised by (1) descriptions of AI tools already in use (e.g. speech recognition and machine translation) and (2) vague predictions which invariably refer to ‘the promise of personalised learning, adjusting what we give learners according to what they need to learn and keeping them motivated by giving them content that is of interest to them’ (Hughes, 2022). The question of what precisely will be personalised is unanswered: providing learners with optimal sets of resources (but which ones?), providing counselling services, recommendations or feedback for learners and teachers (but of what kind?) (Luckin, 2022). Nearly four years ago, I wrote https://adaptivelearninginelt.wordpress.com/2018/08/13/ai-and-language-teaching/ about the reasons why these questions remain unanswered. The short answer is that AI in language learning requires a ‘domain knowledge model’. This specifies what is to be learnt and includes an analysis of the steps that must be taken to reach that learning goal. This is lacking in SLA, or, at least, there is no general agreement on what it is. Worse, the models that are most commonly adopted in AI-driven programs (e.g. the deliberate learning of discrete items of grammar and vocabulary) are not supported by either current theory or research (see, for example, VanPatten & Smith, 2022).

In 2021, the IATEFL Learning Technologies SIG organised an event dedicated to AI in education. Unsurprisingly, there was a fair amount of input on AI in assessment, but my interest is in how AI might revolutionize how we learn and teach, not how we assess. What concrete examples did speakers provide?

Rose Luckin, the most well-known British expert on AI in education, kicked things off by mentioning three tools. One of these, Carnegie Learning, is a digital language course that looks very much like any of the ELT courses on offer from the big publishers – a fully blendable, multimedia (e.g. flashcards and videos) synthetic syllabus. This ‘blended learning solution’ is personalizable, since ‘no two students learn alike’, and, it claims, will develop a ‘lifelong love of language’. It appears to be premised on the idea of language learning as optimizing the delivery of ‘content’, of this content consisting primarily of discrete items, and of equating input with uptake. Been there, done that.

A second was Alelo Enskill https://www.alelo.com/about-us/ a chatbot / avatar roleplay program, first developed by the US military to teach Iraqi Arabic and aspects of Iraqi culture to Marines. I looked at the limitations of chatbot technology for language learning here https://adaptivelearninginelt.wordpress.com/2016/12/01/chatbots/ . The third tool mentioned by Luckin was Duolingo. Enough said.

Another speaker at this event was the founder and CEO of Edugo.AI https://www.edugo.ai/ , an AI-powered LMS which uses GPT-3. It allows schools to ‘create and upload on the platform any kind of language material (audio, video, text…). Our AI algorithms process and convert it in gamified exercises, which engage different parts of the brain, and gets students eager to practice’. Does this speaker know anything about gamification (for a quick read, I’d recommend Paul Driver (2012)) or neuroscience, I wonder. What, for that matter, does he know about language learning? Apparently, ‘language is not just about words, language is about sentences’ (Tomasello, 2022). Hmm, this doesn’t inspire confidence.

When you look at current uses of AI in language learning, there is very little (outside of testing, translation and speech ↔ text applications) that could justify enthusiastic claims that AI has any great educational potential. Skepticism seems to me a more reasonable and scientific response: de omnibus dubitandum.

Education is not the only field where AI has been talked up. When Covid hit us, AI was seen as the game-changing technology. It ‘could be deployed to make predictions, enhance efficiencies, and free up staff through automation; it could help rapidly process vast amounts of information and make lifesaving decisions’ (Chakravorti, 2022). The contribution of AI to the development of vaccines has been huge, but its role in diagnosing and triaging patients has been another matter altogether. Hundreds of predictive tools were developed: ‘none of them made a real difference, and some were potentially harmful’ (Heaven, 2021). Expectations were unrealistic and led to the deployment of tools before they were properly trialled. Thirty months down the line, a much more sober understanding of the potential of AI has emerged. Here, then, are the main lessons that have been learnt (I draw particularly on Engler, 2020, and Chakravorti, 2022) that are also relevant to education and language learning.

  • Anticipate what could go wrong before anticipating what might go right. Engler (2020) writes that ‘a poorly kept secret of AI practitioners is that 96% accuracy is suspiciously high for any machine learning problem’. In language learning, it is highly unlikely that personalized recommendations will ever reach anything even approaching this level of reliability. What are the implications for individual learners whose learning is inappropriately personalised?
  • We also know that a significant problem with AI systems is bias (O’Neil, 2016). There is a well-documented history of discriminatory outcomes because of people’s race, gender, social class or disability profile. Bias needs to be addressed proactively, not reactively.
  • Acknowledge from the outset that, for AI to work, huge amounts of data related to prior outcomes will be needed. In the cases of both Covid and language learning, much of this data will be personal. This raises immediate questions of privacy and consent, especially for learners who are children. Don’t minimise this issue.
  • Common by-products of AI use include insecure data storage, digital surveillance and consolidation of market power (Engler, 2020). Since such issues are so pervasive, assume they will be a problem, and need to be considered in evaluating the potential of any piece of AI edtech.
  • Find out what the subject matter experts have to say: ‘AI is only helpful when applied judiciously by subject-matter experts—people with long-standing experience with the problem that they are trying to solve […] Effectively predicting a badly defined problem is worse than doing nothing at all’ (Engler, 2020). It may be that the problem the AI is trying to help solve is the wrong problem and not worth solving at all (e.g. more efficient ‘delivery’ of explicit grammatical knowledge, gamifying gapfills).

To bring this post to an end, I returned to the AI / GTP-3 driven neuroflash program. This time, I asked it to write a longer piece entitled ‘The dangers of artificial intelligence in education: what could go wrong?’. Here’s what it came up with:

There are a few potential dangers of artificial intelligence in education. One is that AI could be used to replace human teachers. This could lead to a decline in the quality of education, as machines are not yet capable of replicating the full range of human emotions and social interactions that are necessary for teaching. Additionally, AI could be used to create biased or “racist” educational materials, as has already happened with some commercial software products. Finally, AI could be used to track and monitor students in ways that invade their privacy, or that could be used to manipulate their behavior.

All of these dangers are real and should be taken seriously. However, it’s important to remember that AI is still a new technology, and its impact on education is not yet fully understood. As such, we should tread cautiously when implementing AI into our educational systems.

When it comes to education, artificial intelligence could be a double-edged sword. While AI has the potential to revolutionize the field of education and help students learn in more efficient ways, there are also dangers that need to be considered.

One of the dangers of AI in education is that it could lead to a more standardized and homogenized form of learning. If all students are relying on AI-based learning tools, they may all end up learning the same things in the same way. This could lead to a loss of creativity and individuality in education.

Another danger is that AI-based learning tools could become too reliant on data and algorithms. This could lead to a situation where students are simply being taught what the machines think they should know, rather than being allowed to explore and discover new things for themselves.

Finally, there is the danger that AI could eventually replace human teachers altogether. While this may seem like a far-fetched scenario, it is not outside the realm of possibility. If AI-based learning tools become sophisticated enough, they may one day be able to do the job of teaching just as well as humans can.

These are just some of the dangers that need to be considered when it comes to artificial intelligence in education. While AI has the potential to revolutionize education, we need to be careful about how we implement it so that we don’t end up doing more harm than good.

References

Chakravorti, B. (2022) Why AI Failed to Live Up to Its Potential During the Pandemic. Harvard Business Review March 17,2022. https://hbr.org/2022/03/why-ai-failed-to-live-up-to-its-potential-during-the-pandemic

Chalmers, D. (2020) Weinberg, Justin (ed.). “GPT-3 and General Intelligence”. Daily Nous. Philosophers On GPT-3 (updated with replies by GPT-3) July 30, 2020. https://dailynous.com/2020/07/30/philosophers-gpt-3/#chalmers

Driver, P. (2012) The Irony of Gamification. In English Digital Magazine 3, British Council Portugal, pp. 21 – 24 http://digitaldebris.info/digital-debris/2011/12/31/the-irony-of-gamification-written-for-ied-magazine.html

Engler, A. (2020) A guide to healthy skepticism of artificial intelligence and coronavirus. Washington D.C.: Brookings Institution https://www.brookings.edu/research/a-guide-to-healthy-skepticism-of-artificial-intelligence-and-coronavirus/

Heaven, W. D. (2021) Hundreds of AI tools have been built to catch covid. None of them helped. MIT Technology Review, July 30, 2021. https://www.technologyreview.com/2021/07/30/1030329/machine-learning-ai-failed-covid-hospital-diagnosis-pandemic/

Hughes, G. (2022) What lies at the end of the AI rainbow? IATEFL LTSIG Newsletter Issue April 2022

Luckin, R. (2022) The implications of AI for language learning and teaching. IATEFL LTSIG Newsletter Issue April 2022

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

Tomasello, G. (2022) Next Generation of AI-Language Education Software:NLP & Language Modules (GPT3). IATEFL LTSIG Newsletter Issue April 2022

VanPatten, B. & Smith, M. (2022) Explicit and Implicit Learning in Second Language Acquisition. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press

Always learning

In an earlier post , I explored the use of the phrase ‘Always learning’ as a promotional tagline by Pearson. Pearson’s use of the phrase peaked in the early years of the 2010s at a time when the company, facing growing criticism for the length and aggressivity of its tentacles in US education (Ravitch, 2012; Sellar et al, 2016), was particularly keen to fashion ‘its image as a socially responsible edu-business’. Not coincidentally, ‘lifelong learning’, the big idea evoked by ‘Always learning’, saw a resurgence of interest around the same time, as the United Nations published their Sustainable Development Goals in 2015. The fourth of these was:

‘Ensure inclusive and equitable quality education and promote lifelong learning opportunities for all.’

This was an extension of the earlier (2000) UN Millennium Development Goal, which aimed for universal primary education. It had been recognised that this was not sufficient to break global cycles of poverty. For that, not only universal secondary education, but also post-secondary (lifelong) learning, were needed, too. The goal was criticised for being vague, over-ambitious and unrealisable, but it was so obviously a ‘good thing’ that it could do nobody any harm to be associated with it.

Lifelong learning, democracy and human capital

The idea of lifelong education may be vague, but its history can be traced back to at least Confucius who said that ‘life is limited, while learning is limitless’ (Guo-Dong, 1994). Plato advocated lifelong learning for the highest ranking members of society. Comenius promoted a more democratic version of lifelong learning, as did Condorcet during the French Revolution (Matheson & Matheson, 1996). More recent incarnations of the idea are often traced back to John Dewey (Fleming, 2011), who saw a close connection between education and democracy, and believed that learning should continue past school ‘irrespective of age’ (Dewey, 1916: 55). The UNESCO report (Faure, 1972), which did so much to establish the idea of lifelong learning in contemporary educational discourse, was very much in the democratic Dewey tradition.

In more recent discourse, the democratic veneer remains visible, but a human capital approach to lifelong learning is now clearly privileged (Fleming, 2011). Supported by international bodies like the OECD and the EU, current discourses prioritize the needs of the marketplace, and place the emphasis on learning as an individualized responsibility (Olssen, 2006). References abound to the rapidly changing nature of our contemporary world, especially the world of work, where only lifelong learning can offer the adaptability and flexibility needed for our occupational, political and ecological survival. Notions of a fuller life and self-actualization have not gone away, but interest is much more squarely centred on the part that lifelong learning can play in the development of human capital. A recent (2021) article from Pearson entitled ‘New research shows employers see lifelong learning as the ‘new normal’ as UK Government releases skills data’ https://plc.pearson.com/en-US/news/new-research-shows-employers-see-lifelong-learning-new-normal-uk-government-releases-skills is typical in this respect. In a similar vein, MOOC provider, FutureLearn (2022), has recently brought out a report into the ‘future of learning’ in which ‘lifelong learning’ is seen as ‘critical to upskilling the workforce of the future’.

Like so many other words I have looked at on this blog, ‘lifelong learning’ ‘has all the trappings of what might be termed a ‘good idea’ — it is bedecked with hurrah words and emotive terms, liberally dispersed by its proponents, and this gives it an air of conceptual solidity, together with making it more readily popular’ (Matheson & Matheson). Meaning little more than learning that is not confined to school, the best way of understanding the term is perhaps to look at what people actually do with it.

Lifelong learning and English language teaching

In the world of English language teaching, one of the early uses of the term ‘lifelong learning’ was in the title of a plenary IATEFL presentation, ‘Developing learner autonomy – preparing learners for lifelong learning’ (Dam, 2002). It was an interesting, but hardly contentious, lecture, arguing that (1) lifelong learning is necessary because schools can’t teach everything, (2) that learner autonomy is necessary for lifelong learning, so (3) our educational focus should be more on learning and less on teaching. Precisely what should be learnt in the long life of learning is left unspecified, and whether that learning should literally continue till death do us part remained equally unclear. Leni Dam was invoking the fashionable term of ‘lifelong learning’ to sell the idea of ‘learner autonomy’. But it really wasn’t needed: even month-long learning would be enough to justify the encouragement of learner autonomy.

There is, however, no disputing the potential of the term ‘lifelong learning’ in selling ideas. I recently came across the lovely phrase ‘premature ultimate’ (try googling it!) – ‘a concept or term that provokes such reverence and contains such connotative potency that its invocation tends to silence any further discussion on a matter’ (Brookfield, 1986). Great for selling, in other words, as on the website of the wonderfully named ‘Enjoy TEFL’ , ‘the Global Number 1 Accredited TEFL and Mindfulness Provider’, which manages to pack ‘lifelong learning’, ‘21st century’, ‘creativity’ and ‘innovation’ into just two lines. Their current promotion offers two free mindfulness courses when you buy a 120 / 180 hour TEFL course.

Linking ‘lifelong learning’ and ‘21st century skills’ is standard practice. The Lifelong Learning Programme 2007 – 2013 of the EU had rather vague objectives, but the desirable skills that were listed were largely indistinguishable from other lists of C21 skills / global skill / soft skills: communication competencies, digital competencies, social and emotional skills, and so on (Kaplan, 2016). Coupling the two concepts means that anything loosely connected with the latter can be promoted by association with the former. Two examples. Creativity and lifelong learning are associated in an article by Daniel Xerri (2017) that seeks to ‘mobilise students’ creative thinking’ and to show ‘how the English language classroom can serve as an incubator for an awareness of the need to ensure inclusive and equitable quality education, and to promote lifelong learning opportunities for all’. Xerri is certainly interested in using ‘creativity’ tasks to promote awareness of the first part of the UN’s SDG, but the ‘lifelong learning’ bit is not explored at all. In contrast, Reinders et al (2022) explore in some depth what they mean by ‘lifelong learning’, but the bottom line is the promotion of the use of digital tools in language learning. ‘Lifelong learning’ (or ‘lifewide learning[1]’, as they call it) is just one reason for advocating the use of digital technologies.

Competing with ‘Enjoy TEFL’ for the prize of the crudest invocation of ‘lifelong learning’ is Darren Nicholls, a product manager for Pearson. A promo for some new Pearson proficiency tests describes them as ‘web-based tests [that] first stream students into the appropriate class and then monitor their progress over an extended period of time. Both tests are hosted on a new platform, Test Hub, which supports lifelong learning by bringing together all proficiency assessments under one roof’. Lifelong learning would seem to mean digital homework.

Lifelong learning and CPD

I have often heard myself (and many others) saying that a good teacher is one who never stops learning. It’s the kind of wisdom of online memes. Once you stop learning you start dying, Albert Einstein didn’t actually say, but let’s not worry about attributional details. ‘Enjoy TEFL’ tries to sell its courses by appealing to the same sentiment, and they are not alone. The blurb for an IATEFL Poland webinar says ‘Being networked is of key importance to all professionally active people in the process of lifelong learning …’ A joint LTSIG and TDSIG conference in Istanbul in 2012 waxed lyrical: ‘This is an age of lifelong learning, or ‘perpetual beta’, of learning anywhere, any place, any time’. Professional development is a lifelong obligation and, for those who are super-keen, JALT (the Japanese Association of Language Teachers) has a ‘Lifelong Language Learning Special Interest Group’ which organises events and a regular newsletter.

All well and good, you may be thinking, but pause a moment to think about the way in which the discourse of lifelong learning ‘orientates education to the enterprise society where the learner (or the teacher as learner) becomes an entrepreneur of him / herself’ (Olssen, 2006). Never mind that increasing numbers of teachers are on zero-hours contracts or fail to take home the minimum wage, a commitment to lifelong professional development is expected. Where better place to start than next week’s IATEFL conference, with its free, daily mindfulness workshops? If you’re based in the UK and working at one of the many language schools that pays the minimum wage, you’ll only need to clock up about 100 hours of teaching to afford it.

References

Brookfield, S. (1986) Understanding and Facilitating Adult Learning. Hoboken, NJ: Jossey – Bass

Dam, L. (2002) Developing learner autonomy – preparing learners for lifelong learning. In Pulverness, A. (Ed.) IATEFL 2002 York Conference Selections. Whitstable, Kent: IATEFL

Dewey, J. (1916) Democracy and education. New York: Macmillan.

Faure, E. (1972) Learning to be: The world of education today and tomorrow. Paris: UNESCO.

Fleming, T. (2011) Models of Lifelong Learning: An Overview. In M. London (Ed.). Oxford Handbook of Lifelong Learning (pp. 29-39). New York: Oxford University Press.

FutureLearn (2022) The Future of Learning Report 2022. London: FutureLearn https://www.futurelearn.com/info/thefutureoflearning

Guo-Dong, X. (1994) Lifelong education in China: new policies and activities. International Review of Education, 40, (3-5)

Jackson, N. J. (Ed.) (2011) Learning for a complex world: A lifewide concept of learning, development and achievement. AuthorHouse Publishing. Available at: https://www.lifewideeducation.uk/learning-for-a-complex-world.html

Kaplan, A. (2016) Lifelong Learning: Conclusions From A Literature Review. International Online Journal of Primary Education, 5 (2): pp. 43 – 50

Matheson, D. & Matheson, C. (1996) Lifelong Learning and Lifelong Education: a critique. Research in Post‐Compulsory Education, 1 (2): pp. 219-236, DOI: 10.1080/1359674960010207

Olssen, M. (2006) Understanding the mechanisms of neoliberal control: lifelong learning, flexibility and knowledge capitalism. International Journal of Lifelong Education, 25 (3): pp. 213-230.

Ravitch, D. (2012) The United States of Pearson? http://dianeravitch.net/2012/05/07/the-united-states-of-pearson-2/

Reinders, H., Dudeney, G., & Lamb, M. (2022) Using Technology to Motivate Learners. Oxford: Oxford University Press

Sellar, S., Hogan, A. & Lingard, B. (2016) Always Learning. Education International https://www.ei-ie.org/en/item/21091:always-learning

Xerri, D. (2017) Ensure inclusive and equitable quality education and promote lifelong learning opportunities for all. In Maley, A. & Peachey, N. (Eds.) Integrating global issues in the creative English language classroom: With reference to the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals. London: British Council, pp. 49 – 56


[1] ‘Lifewide learning’ is not a term made up by Reinders et al. The idea has been around for over 20 years, piggy-backing on lifelong learning, and referring to the fact that learning takes place in a variety of different environments and situations. For more information, see Jackson (2011). And, if you really have nothing better to do, check out ‘lifedeep learning’. I thought, at first, it was a joke, but it’s been written about in all seriousness.

There’s a wonderful promotional video for Pearson English https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=b6o1s8U88N8 that packs as many clichéd slogans and images into one minute as you could ever wish for. Here’s the script:

Great things happen when you dare to dream / Learning is a journey filled with challenge, wonder and discovery / Educators not only inspire the future they also define it / We partner with the learning community to change futures / It’s our passion / Together we can inspire / Together we can empower / Together we can achieve / Change is happening all around us, faster than ever / Let’s empower change / There’s an exciting future ahead / Expect great things / Pearson English / Dare to learn, dare to change / Pearson always learning

How futures will be changed, what exactly can be inspired or empowered, what great things we can expect, what we might dare to learn or change – all these minor details are left unanswered. It is a wonderful example of advertising language, aka bullshit, defined by philosopher Harry Frankfurt (2005) as discourse that is only intended to persuade, without any concern for truth. It’s language where meanings are not shared, but where emotional responses are desired.

Pearson refers to its slogan ‘Always learning’ as their ‘brand tagline’. It is, they say, ‘Short, bold, and memorable, “Always Learning” encapsulates our learners and ourselves. It highlights Pearson’s commitment to constantly be discovering, learning and improving ourselves. And it describes what we enable our learners to do–to keep learning, whenever, wherever and however it suits them, throughout every stage of their lives’. The company provides detailed advice to its employees about how the slogan can be used: when, where, when not, colour combinations, good and bad examples of use, translations, etc. All of this makes for fascinating reading, which, strangely, is available online (at least, for the time being!).

Bullshit is a wise approach in advertising ELT products. If you get too specific / meaningful, you run the risk of coming out with bullshit of the non-philosophical kind. Macmillan English, for example, has the new slogan ‘Advancing learning’ and says: As technology opens new doors for teachers and students, we use our expertise to create products that suit different learning styles and design innovative new tools for teachers and students.

With ELT conference season getting underway in some parts of the world, slogans, clichés and buzzwords are vying for our attention in the marketing of these events. There are ELT conferences of a commercial, predatory kind (‘guaranteed publication of your work in the conference proceedings’) where the slogans are clearly bullshit (in the philosophical sense). The upcoming ‘4th International Conference on Modern Research in Education, Teaching and Learning’ (22 – 24 April in Barcelona) has the marvellous slogan ‘The only of all English language teaching conference’ and can be attended for only €320 (much cheaper if you just want to listen without presenting).

But for conferences organised by teachers’ associations, it would be inaccurate and inappropriate to describe their choice of slogans as bullshit. This doesn’t mean, however (as an entertaining blog post at ELT Rants, Reviews and Reflections in 2015 described them), that they are not ‘buzzword-heavy word salads [that] are rinsed, re-used, and repeated ad nauseum’. Here’s a small current selection for you to take your pick from. The resemblance, in many cases, to the language of the Pearson promo video is striking.

ELT in the digital era and beyond: innovation, engagement, and resilience (ThaiTESOL)

The hybrid transition: emotional, social and educational impacts on language learning (TESOL Kuwait)

Connecting teachers, empowering learners (BBELT)

Innovating changes: a world of diversity (TESOL Spain)

Translanguaging and multilingualism in language teaching (TESOL Arabia)

Inspiring collaboration (BELTA)

For me, the standout slogan is definitely TESOL Arabia, since it is the only one that seems to be about something specific. But perhaps I’m wrong. Both translanguaging and multilingualism can mean quite a few different things. When you put the terms together, my thoughts turn first to questions of social justice, and the idea of a conference in which social justice is discussed in the Hyatt Regency hotel in Dubai is fairly surreal. As in most of these examples, conferences for ELT teachers tend to opt for broad themes which aim to include almost everyone in the field (Raza, 2018) and will usually index innovation, excellence, empowerment, and / or wellbeing.

A good slogan will include words that are themselves sloganized (Schmenk et al., 2019). ‘Innovation’ and ‘empowering’ are good examples here. Neither can truly be understood without familiarity with extensive co-texts which confer connotational meaning and rhetorical force. ‘Change’ (for ‘innovation’) and ‘helping’ (for ‘empowering’) don’t quite have the same heft, even though they basically mean the same.

It’s important that buzzwords don’t mean too much, but the ‘key processing features of successful slogans are simplicity, memorability and emotionality’ (Pavlenko, 2019: 146). By ‘emotionality’, Pavlenko means words that carry an upbeat / positive message. In this sense, TESOL Kuwait’s ‘emotional, social and educational impacts’ all sound rather neutral and academic. I think that ‘engagement, diversity and outcomes’ might resonate better. Similarly, ‘hybrid’ still needs to shake off some negative associations: ‘digital’ sounds more positively modern. Hats off to ThaiTESOL, whose ‘the digital era and beyond’ sounds positively visionary.

Even though slogans shouldn’t mean too much, they only work as slogans ‘as if their meaning were obvious’ (Schmenk et al., 2019: 4). In their exploration of sloganization in language education discourse, Schmenk et al (2019) look at ‘communicative language teaching’, ‘learner autonomy’, ‘innovation’, ‘multiple intelligences’, ‘intercultural / transcultural language learning’, ‘input’, ‘language commodification’ and ‘superdiversity’. In this blog, I’ve considered ‘innovation’, ‘resilience’, ‘translanguaging’ and ‘multilingualism’, among others. These buzzwords come and go – the field of language teaching is as keen on current trends as any other field – and they can usually be grouped into broader trends, which academics like to call ‘turns’. There’s the ‘social turn’ (Block, 2003), the ‘intercultural turn’ (Thorne, 2010), the ‘multilingual turn’ (May, 2013), the ‘critical turn’ (Dasli & Diáz, 2017), the ‘emotional turn’ (White, 2018), and these are just for starters. If you’re quick, you won’t be too late to register for the 2nd International Conference on Linguistic, Literary and Pedagogical Turns at the University of Wah. The conference doesn’t have a slogan, but my suggestion would be ‘The Turn Turn’.

Schmenk et al (2019: 3) note that language education is an inherently interdisciplinary field so it is not surprising to find so many of its current trends drawn from other disciplines. This has not always been the case. If we go back 30 / 40 years, the hot topics included corpora, task-based learning, and lexical approaches. Now, in the choice of slogans, ELT conferences are not dissimilar from other professional conferences in sales and marketing, management and leadership – see for example this website offering advice about organising such events.

Slogans and buzzwords are, of course, a marketing tool for ELT conferences and publishers, but they also play an important role in academic branding – the personal brand you construct for yourself as an academic. Aneta Pavlenko (2019: 1488 – 151) offers a useful set of strategies for this kind of academic branding, but similar strategies can also be used by ELT freelancers

  • Adopt a slogan / buzzword (simple, memorable and positive)
  • Link it to your work (easiest if it was either your idea in the first place or you were one of the first to import the idea into language education)
  • Institutionalize the slogan by organising conferences, courses, journals, supervising dissertations, and so on
  • Recycle the slogan endlessly (especially in the titles of publications)
  • Keep things pretty vague so you can’t be criticised too much
  • Frame the phenomenon in question with words like ‘radical’, ‘unprecedented’, ‘hugely complex’, ‘tremendously important’

Quoting the work of Michael Billig (2013), Pavlenko (2019: 160) suggests that we should not necessarily be asking ourselves what slogans and buzzwords mean. A better question is: what is the person who is using these words attempting to do with them?

My favourite ELT slogan is an anti-slogan slogan. It is Bo Cai Zhong Chang (‘assimilating merits of different teaching approaches for our own use’) which was used in China to advocate for a ‘methodological approach appropriate to the specific sociopolitical realities of the country’ (Feng & Feng, 2001). China has a long history of powerful slogans, of course, with ‘Dare to think, dare to act’ being the key phrase during the Great Leap Forward. Did the people at Pearson have this in mind when they came up with ‘Dare to learn, dare to change’?

References

Billig, M. (2013) Learn to Write Badly: How to Succeed in the Social Sciences. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press

Block, D. (2003) The Social Turn in Second Language Acquisition. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press

Dasli, M. & Diáz, A. R. (Eds.) (2017) The Critical Turn in Language and Intercultural Communication Pedagogy. New York: Routledge

Feng, A. & Feng, A. (2001) ‘Bo Cai Zhong Chang’ – A slogan for effective ELT methodology for College English education. English Language Teaching, 1: 1 – 22

Frankfurt, H. G. (2005) On Bullshit. Princeton: Princeton University Press

May. S. (Ed.) (2013) The multilingual turn: Implications for SLA, TESOL and Bilingual education. New York: Routledge

Pavlenko, A. (2019) Superdiversity and Why It Isn’t: Reflections on Terminological Innovation and Academic Branding. In Schmenk, B., Bredibach, S. & Küster, L. (Eds.) Sloganization in Language Education Discourses. Bristol: Multilingual Matters. pp. 142 – 168.

Raza, K. (2018) The Alignment of English Language Teacher Association Conference Themes to Research Agendas: An Investigation of TESOL International Association and IATEFL. In A. Elsheikh et al. (Eds.), The Role of Language Teacher Associations in Professional Development, Second Language Learning and Teaching. Cham: Springer pp. 117 – 129

Schmenk, B., Bredibach, S. & Küster, L. (Eds.) (2019) Sloganization in Language Education Discourses. Bristol: Multilingual Matters.

Thorne, S. L. (2010) The ‘Intercultural Turn’ and Language Learning in the Crucible of the New Media. In Helm, F. & Guth, S. (Eds.) Telecollaboration 2.0 for Language and Intercultural Learning. Bern: Peter Lang. pp. 139 – 164

White C.J. (2018) The Emotional Turn in Applied Linguistics and TESOL: Significance, Challenges and Prospects. In: Martínez Agudo J. (Eds) Emotions in Second Language Teaching. Cham: Springer

You have probably heard the following joke, or a version of it. What do we call a person who speaks three languages? A trilingual. And a person who speaks two languages? A bilingual. And someone who only speaks one language? An American. For the joke to work, even mildly, the listener has to buy in to the idea that multilingualism / plurilingualism is a ‘good thing’, and that too many Americans are monolingual.
Not everybody would share these views. Some would prefer the US (and other countries of immigration) to be more of a language graveyard than less of one. Negativity about multilingualism can be extreme, as in the wrath of those on Twitter who found a Coca Cola advertisement profoundly un-American, supportive of communism and terrorism. The advert in question showed a multicultural bunch of people sharing a Coke in perfect harmony while singing a multilingual rendition of ‘America the Beautiful’. To make things even worse, the commercial was shown at that homage to all things American, the Super Bowl.
Enthusiasm for multilingualism is, in part, a liberal reaction to the reactionary monolingualism of the ‘if-you-can’t-speak-our-language-go-back-to-your-own-fucking-country’ variety. Countering the post- 9/11 rise in monolingual linguistic prescriptivism in some countries (Cameron, 2013), tolerant multilingualism indexes visions of perfectly harmonious communities and the rhetoric of human rights and autonomy (Gramling, 2016: 205). It values diversity for its own sake.
It is also, in part, a reaction (see, for example, the Wikipedia entry or Maher, 2017) to a number of clearly widespread myths and misconceptions (e.g. that multilingual societies are less harmonious than monolingual ones or that bilingually raised children are cognitively disadvantaged). Going further than mere rebuttals, advocates of multilingualism argue, with some evidence, that it is good for critical and creative thinking, beneficial for problem-solving and decision-making, makes us more open to new ideas, more tolerant, more embracing of divergent thinking, and it can help stave off dementia. What is there not to like?
Most enthusiasts of multilingualism will list and expand on all the advantages of multilingualism that I have already mentioned, but many will also be interested in its market potential. Linguanomics, the title of a book by Gabrielle Hogan-Brun (2017), is the exploration of the economic aspects of multilingualism, the links between linguistic diversity and economic growth, and the ways in which linguistic capital may be converted into monetary capital. Citing Hogan-Brun, a blog post (Hardach, 2018; see also Hardach, 2021) for the World Economic Forum suggests that companies which invest more in languages do better in export markets; that countries with better language skills have higher GDP; and, therefore, countries should do more to tap the ‘vast, linguistic resource [of] migrant families’. Diversity has become human capital. Multilingualism is not just an end in itself, but a tool ‘in global collaborations to make the world a better place’ (Stein-Smith, 2021b) primarily through economic growth. In this framing, becoming multilingual (i.e. learning another language) is acquiring the ultimate 21st century skill (Stein-Smith, 2021a), so long, of course, as the language has value in the market place. English, for example.
Like all 21st century skills, multilingualism appears to have a readily obvious meaning, but does not, in fact, lend itself easily to a simple definition. Perhaps the defining feature of all 21st century skills is precisely the lack of precision, allowing the idea to be embraced by different people, from critical theorists to investment bankers, for different reasons. The European Commission (2007:6) defines the term as: ‘the ability of societies, institutions, groups and individuals to engage, on a regular basis, with more than one language in their day-to-day lives’. It leaves unanswered the key questions of what a language is, which languages are being referred to, and in which aspects of people’s day-to-day lives. But answers of a sort can be found when we look at the reasons for the European policy of multilingualism. In addition to the importance of diversity and respect for identities, the policy is intended (1) on a collective basis, to contribute to European unity (reflecting the EU’s motto ‘United in Diversity’) and (2) on an individual basis, to develop human capital and job mobility.
Can a policy of multilingualism be both a celebration of diversity and a tool for linguanomics – the development of human capital through languages? Problems arise when we look for the answer to the question of which language. Are we differentiating languages and dialects, and, if so, how? When the European Commission (2005: 4) says that it would like all European citizens to have ‘practical skills in at least two languages in addition to his or her mother tongue’, it’s fairly clear that this means ‘foreign languages’. And if part of the purpose of learning ‘foreign languages’ is to develop human capital, the language of choice is likely to be English most of the time. A particular kind of English. Closely related is the question of what is meant by ‘mother tongue’. If your home language is not the national language of the country in which you live, you’re unlikely to get much help from European states in developing your competencies in it. In practice, when development of human capital is weighed against diversity, the former takes precedence every time. Multilingualism in this European context is overridingly concerned with languages associated with nation states and is tied ‘to a future anterior of successful language learning among new citizens’ […] it ‘fulfils all the characteristics of neoliberal self-making: horizontal, voluntaristic, entrepreneurial, opportunity-rich, privatizable, decentralized, team-oriented, and, at turns hopeful or mute about structural poverty and other forms of socio-economic precaritization’ (Gramling, 2016: 204). In other words, interest in diversity may only be skin-deep: advocacy of multilingual policies may, in fact, be mostly about ‘targeting the anxiety within the [white, privileged, monolingual] majority about social and linguistic pluralism’ (McNamara, 2011: 38).
‘Language’, ‘diversity’ and ‘multilingualism’ are all strategically deployable shifters (Moore, 2015): their meanings shift in relation to the purposes for which the terms are being used. Multilingualism can stand in opposition to the bigotry of people in MAGA caps, but it can also stand in opposition to ‘unassimilated’ monolingual, migrant populations who haven’t learnt the language of the ‘host nation’. This is all rather problematic for those who do not want their espousal of multilingualism to be associated with xenophobia or a neoliberal agenda, and for those who want to dissociate diversity from human capital (Flores, 2013). Multilingualism, therefore, needs to be disambiguated, so that the multilingualism that is oriented towards social justice is not appropriated by those whose main interest in language learning is linguanomics (Katznelson & Bernstein, 2017).
This, I think, is what is behind the so-called ‘multilingual turn’ in applied linguistics, a turn that tries to bring social justice to the fore. In an attempt at terminological smash-and-grab, critical applied linguists set about reclaiming the term (May, 2013; Conteh & Meier, 2014). There are differences in interpretation between them (Meier, 2017), but the common denominator is a desire to redefine ‘language’ – not as a fixed and largely territorial system owned by native-speakers, but as a dynamic, complex, social, deterritorialized practice owned by its users. There is ample evidence to indicate that various forms of linguistic intermixing are more characteristic of everyday spoken communication than the orderly use of what we might call ‘monolanguages’ – separate, individual, named languages. The multilingualism of the multilingual turn contends that lingualism (Block, 2013) – the belief in the existence of monolanguages – is contrary to the evidence, and must be dispensed with in order to get away from the social injustice of native-speaker norms, of accentism, and linguistic prejudice.
In this light, the term ‘multilingual’ is problematic. It denotes countability and plurality. If we want or need to distance ourselves from lingualism – the idea of languages as bounded entities (e.g. English, Hebrew, Xhosa), ‘language’ needs to become a verb: ‘languaging’ or ‘translanguaging’ (see my previous post). The multilingual turn has led us to translanguaging and ‘few voices in applied linguistics have found fault with this positive counter-distinction of translanguaging over multilingualism’ (Gramling, 2021: 29). It is translanguaging, rather than multilingualism, that is now being offered as a, even the, theory of language (Li Wei, 2018).
For a strong critique of the idea that named languages (like English) do not exist, you could do worse than read a recent post by Geoff Jordan. Or you could simply try asking someone who’s about to take a TOEFL exam what they think of the idea (Gramling, 2021: 26). Even if we cannot clearly define the boundaries of what constitutes a named language like English, we cannot simply disinvent it. Our lives can be shaped by language exams, our online interactions are shaped by our choice of named language, and many of us invest a significant part of our identity in a named language. You may go along with Li Wei (2021) in disapproving of lingualism, but it won’t be going away any time soon. Quite how we are supposed to dispense with lingualism also remains less than clear. Perhaps Li Wei might begin by trying to get rid of the PGCE in Languages, or the MAs in TESOL or French at his own university, or its language proficiency requirements for students from countries that are not ‘majority English-speaking’. I suspect, though, that his institution’s linguanomic dispositive of multilingualism might prevent that happening.
Lingualism is at the heart of much English language learning, of English medium instruction, and of Li Wei’s own university (UCL) where nearly half the student body has paid to benefit from the linguistic capital that is on sale there. Lingualism may be (but is not necessarily) ‘indifferent to social justice, migration, asylum, refuge, immigration, decoloniality, or liberation from the strictures of monolingualism’ (Gramling, 2021: 66), but multilingualism of the translanguaging kind is unlikely to make much of a dent in our monolingualising world, either. It certainly isn’t going to help anyone who has to take a gate-keeping language test (Cameron, 2013). For all the noise about translanguaging in TESOL, it’s worth noting (Gramling, 2021: 70) that the overwhelming majority of current research into multilingualism comes, not from TESOL or applied linguistics, but from computational engineers and Natural Language Processing specialists. Compared to multilingual linguanomics, the ‘multilingual turn’ is a very niche affair. Most people have never heard of it, and never will.
Academic handbooks on multilingualism stretch to over a thousand pages, and there are countless journals devoted to the topic. Attempts have been made to condense the topic to 130 pages (Maher, 2017), and even 15 pages (Cenoz, 2015), but multilingualism is a discursive construct, a category in the process of continuous reinvention (Gramling, 2021). Discourses about monolingualism and multilingualism are what Deborah Cameron (2013) has called discourses of ‘verbal hygiene’ – the normative practices through which people attempt to improve languages or regulate their use. Such discourses, whether coming from xenophobes, neo-liberals, or those with more liberal perspectives, are:
linked to other preoccupations which are not primarily linguistic, but rather social, political and moral. The logic behind verbal hygiene depends on a tacit, common-sense analogy between the order of language and the larger social order; the rules or norms of language stand in for the rules governing social or moral conduct, and putting language to rights becomes a symbolic way of putting the world to rights (Cameron, 2013: 61).
Cameron adds that verbal hygiene is a response to the anxieties of a specific moment and place, and that we should be wary of assuming that preoccupations about, say, multilingualism and monolingualism will have the same symbolic meanings in different times and places. With that in mind, I know I need to be careful about the way I react to the writings of Li Wei, Ofelia García, Nelson Flores, or Guadalupe Valdés. Their professional worlds of the ‘multilingual turn’ in bilingual and immersion education in mostly English-speaking countries hardly intersect at all with my own professional world of EFL teaching in central Europe, where rejection of lingualism is not really an option.

References
Block, D. (2013) Moving beyond ‘Lingualism’: Multilingual embodiment and Multimodality in SLA. In May. S. (Ed.) (2013) The multilingual turn: Implications for SLA, TESOL and Bilingual education. New York: Routledge. pp. 54 – 77
Cameron, D. (2013) The one, the many, and the Other: Representing multi- and mono-lingualism in post-9/11 verbal hygiene. Critical Multilingualism Studies, 1 (2): 59 – 77
Cenoz, J. (2013) Defining multilingualism. Annual Review of Applied Linguistics, 33: 3 – 18
Conteh, J. & Meier, G. (Eds.) (2014) The multilingual turn in languages education: Opportunities and challenges. Bristol: Multilingual Matters
European Commission. (2007) Final report: High level group on multilingualism. Luxembourg: Office for Official Publications of the European Communities
European Commission (2005) Communication from the Commission to the Council, the European Parliament, the Economic and Social Committee, and the Committee of the Regions. A New Framework Strategy for Multilingualism, COM(2005) 596 final. https://eur-lex.europa.eu/legal-content/EN/TXT/?uri=CELEX:52005DC0596
Flores, N. (2013) The Unexamined Relationship Between Neoliberalism and Plurilingualism: A Cautionary Tale. TESOL Quarterly, 47 (3): 500- 520
Gramling, D. (2021) The Invention of Multilingualism. Cambridge: CUP
Gramling, D. (2016) The Invention of Monolingualism. New York: Bloomsbury
Hardach, S. (2018) Speaking more than one language can boost economic growth. https://www.weforum.org/agenda/2018/02/speaking-more-languages-boost-economic-growth/
Hardach, S. (2021) Languages are Good for Us. London: Apollo Books
Hogan-Brun, G. (2017) Linguanomics: What is the Market Potential of Multilingualism? New York: Bloomsbury
Katznelson, N. & Bernstein, K. (2017) Rebranding Bilingualism: The Shifting Discourses of Language Education Policy in California’s 2016 Election. Linguistics and Education, 40: 11 – 26
Li Wei. (2021) Translanguaging as a Political Stance: Implications for English Language Education. ELT Journal, ccab083, https://doi.org/10.1093/elt/ccab083
Li Wei. (2018) Translanguaging as a Practical Theory of Language. Applied Linguistics, 39 (1): 9 – 30
Maher, J. C. (2017) Multilingualism: A very short introduction. Oxford: OUP
May. S. (Ed.) (2013) The multilingual turn: Implications for SLA, TESOL and Bilingual education. New York: Routledge
McNamara, T. (2011) Multilingualism in Education: A poststructuralist critique. The Modern Language Journal, 104 (1): 430 – 441
Meier, G. S. (2017) The multilingual turn as a critical movement in education: assumptions, challenges and a need for reflection. Applied Linguistics Review, 8 (1): 131-161
Moore, R. (2015) From revolutionary monolingualism to reactionary multilingualism: Top-down discourses of linguistic diversity in Europe, 1794-present. Language & Communication, 44: 19 – 30
Stein-Smith, K. (2021a) Multilingualism as a Global Competency: Skills for a 21st Century World. Saarbrücken: LAP Lambert Publishing
Stein-Smith, K. (2021b) Multilingualism for Global Solutions and a Better World. Journal of Language Teaching and Research, 12 (5): 671-677

The world of language learning and teaching is full of theoretical constructs and claims, most of which have their moment of glory in the sun before being eclipsed and disappearing from view. In a recent article looking at the theoretical claims of translanguaging enthusiasts, Jim Cummins (2021) suggests that three criteria might be used to evaluate them:

1 Empirical adequacy – to what extent is the claim consistent with all the relevant empirical evidence?

2 Logical coherence – to what extent is the claim internally consistent and non-contradictory?

3 Consequential validity – to what extent is the claim useful in promoting effective pedagogy and policies?

Take English as a Lingua Franca (ELF), for example. In its early days, there was much excitement about developing databases of ELF usage in order to identify those aspects of pronunciation and lexico-grammar that mattered for intercultural intelligibility. The Lingua Franca Core (a list of pronunciation features that are problematic in ELF settings when ELF users mix them up) proved to be the most lasting product of the early empirical research into ELF (Jenkins, 2000). It made intuitive good sense, was potentially empowering for learners and teachers, was clearly a useful tool in combating native-speakerism, and was relatively easy to implement in educational policy and practice.

But problems with the construct of ELF quickly appeared. ELF was a positive reframing of the earlier notion of interlanguage – an idea that had deficit firmly built in, since interlanguage was a point that a language learner had reached somewhere on the way to being like a native-speaker. Interlanguage contained elements of the L1, and this led to interest in how such elements might become fossilized, a metaphor with very negative connotations. With a strong desire to move away from framings of deficit, ELF recognised and celebrated code-switching as an integral element in ELF interactions (Seidlhofer, 2011: 105). Deviations from idealised native-speaker norms of English were no longer to be seen as errors in need of correction, but as legitimate forms of the language (of ELF) itself.

However, it soon became clear that it was not possible to describe ELF in terms of the particular language forms that its users employed. In response, ELF researchers reframed ELF. The focus shifted to how people of different language backgrounds used English to communicate in particular situations – how they languaged, in other words. ELF was no longer a thing, but an action. This helped in terms of internal consistency, but most teachers remained unclear about how the ELF.2 insight should impact on their classroom practices. If we can’t actually say what ELF looks like, what are teachers supposed to do with the idea? And much as we might like to wish away the idea of native speakers (and their norms), these ideas are very hard to expunge completely (MacKenzie, 2014: 170).

Twenty years after ELF became widely used as a term, ELF researchers lament the absence of any sizable changes in classroom practices (Bayyurt & Dewey, 2020). There are practices that meet the ELF seal of approval (see, for example, Kiczkowiak & Lowe, 2018), and these include an increase in exposure to the diversity of English use worldwide, engagement in critical classroom discussion about the globalisation of the English language, and non-penalisation of innovative, but intelligible forms (Galloway, 2018: 471). It is, however, striking that these practices long pre-date the construct of ELF. They are not direct products of ELF.

Part of the ‘problem’, as ELF researchers see it, has been that ELF has been so hard to define. Less generously, we might suggest that the construct of ELF was flawed from the start. Useful, no doubt, as a heuristic, but time to move on. Jennifer Jenkins, one of the most well-known names in ELF, has certainly not been afraid to move on. Her article (Jenkins, 2015) refines ELF.2 into ELF.3, which she now labels as ‘English as a Multilingual Franca’. In this reframed model, ELF is not so much concerned with the difference between native speakers and non-native speakers, as with the difference between monolinguals and multilinguals. Multilingual, rather than ‘English’, is now the superordinate attribute. Since ELF is now about interactions, rather than ELF as a collection of forms, it follows, in ELF.3, that ELF may not actually contain any English forms at all. There is a logic here, albeit somewhat convoluted, but there’s also a problem for ELF as a construct, too. If ELF is fundamentally about multilingual communication, what need is there for the term ‘ELF’? ‘Translanguaging’ will do perfectly well instead. The graph from Google Trends reveals the rises and falls of these two terms in the academic discourse space. After peaking in 2008 the term ‘English as a Lingua Franca’ now appears to be in irreversible decline.

So, let’s now turn to ‘translanguaging’. What do Cummins, and others, have to say about the construct? The word has not been around for long. Most people trace it back to the end of the last century (Baker, 2001) and a set of bilingual pedagogical practices in the context of Welsh-English bilingual programmes intended to revitalise the Welsh language. In the early days, translanguaging was no more than a classroom practice that allowed or encouraged the use (by both learners and teachers) of more than one language for the purposes of study. The object of study might be another language, or it might be another part of the curriculum. When I wrote a book about the use of L1 in the learning and teaching of English (Kerr, 2014), I could have called it ‘Translanguaging Activities’, but the editors and I felt that the word ‘translanguaging’ might be seen as obscure jargon. I defined the word at the time as ‘similar to code-switching, the process of mixing elements form two languages’.

But obscure jargon no longer. There is, for example, a nice little collection of activities that involve L1 for the EFL / ESL classroom put together by Jason Anderson http://www.jasonanderson.org.uk/downloads/Jasons_ideas_for_translanguaging_in_the_EFL_ESL_classroom.pdf that he has chosen to call ‘Ideas for translanguaging’. In practical terms, there’s nothing here that you might not have found twenty or more years ago (e.g. in Duff, 1989; or Deller & Rinvolucri, 2002), long before anyone started using the word ‘translanguaging’. Anderson’s motivation for choosing the word ‘translanguaging’ is that he hopes it will promote a change of mindset in which a spirit of (language) inclusivity prevails (Anderson, 2018). Another example: the different ways that L1 may be used in a language classroom have recently been investigated by Rabbidge (2019) in a book entitled ‘Translanguaging in EFL Contexts’. Rabbidge offers a taxonomy of translanguaging moments. These are a little different from previous classifications (e.g. Ellis, 1994; Kim & Elder, 2005), but only a little. The most significant novelty is that these moments are now framed as ‘translanguaging’, rather than as ‘use of L1’. Example #3: the most well-known and widely-sold book that offers practical ideas that are related to translanguaging is ‘The Translanguaging Classroom’ by García and colleagues (2017). English language teachers working in EFL / ESL / ESOL contexts are unlikely to find much, if anything, new here by way of practical ideas. What they will find, however, is a theoretical reframing. It is the theoretical reframing that Anderson and Rabbidge draw their inspiration from.

The construct of translanguaging, then, like English as a Lingua Franca, has brought little that is new in practical terms. Its consequential validity does not really need to be investigated, since the pedagogical reasons for some use of other languages in the learning / teaching of English were already firmly established (but not, perhaps, widely accepted) a long time ago. How about the theory? Does it stand up to closer scrutiny any better than ELF?

Like ELF, ‘translanguaging’ is generally considered not to be a thing, but an action. And, like ELF, it has a definition problem, so precisely what kind of action this might be is open to debate. For some, it isn’t even an action: Tian et al (2021: 4) refer to it as ‘more like an emerging perspective or lens that could provide new insights to understand and examine language and language (in) education’. Its usage bounces around from user to user, each of whom may appropriate it in different ways. It is in competition with other terms including translingual practice, multilanguaging, and plurilingualism (Li, 2018). It is what has been called a ‘strategically deployable shifter’ (Moore, 2015). It is also unquestionably a word that sets a tone, since ‘translanguaging’ is a key part of the discourse of multilingualism / plurilingualism, which is in clear opposition to the unfavourable images evoked by the term ‘monolingualism’, often presented as a methodological mistake or a kind of subjectivity gone wrong (Gramling, 2016: 4). ‘Translanguaging’ has become a hooray word: criticize it at your peril.

What started as a classroom practice has morphed into a theory (Li, 2018; García, 2009), one that is and is likely to remain unstable. The big questions centre around the difference between ‘strong translanguaging’ (a perspective that insists that ‘named languages’ are socially constructed and have no linguistic or cognitive reality) and ‘weak translanguaging’ (a perspective that acknowledges boundaries between named languages but seeks to soften them). There are discussions, too, about what to call these forms of translanguaging. The ‘strong’ version has been dubbed by Cummins (2021) ‘Unitary Translanguaging Theory’ and by Bonacina-Pugh et al. (2021) ‘Fluid Languaging Approach’. Corresponding terms for the ‘weak’ version are ‘Crosslinguistic Translanguaging Theory’ and ‘Fixed Language Approach’. Subsidiary, related debates centre around code-switching: is it a form of translanguaging or is it a construct better avoided altogether since it assumes separate linguistic systems (Cummins, 2021)?

It’s all very confusing. Cenoz and Gorter (2021) in their short guide to pedagogical translanguaging struggle for clarity, but fail to get there. They ‘completely agree’ with García about the fluid nature of languages as ‘social constructs’ with ‘no clear-cut boundaries’, but still consider named languages as ‘distinct’ and refer to them as such in their booklet. Cutting your way through this thicket of language is a challenge, to put it mildly. It’s also probably a waste of time. As Cummins (2021: 16) notes, the confusion is ‘completely unnecessary’ since ‘there is no difference in the instructional practices that are implied by so-called strong and weak versions of translanguaging’. There are also more important questions to investigate, not least the extent to which the approaches to multilingualism developed by people like García in the United States are appropriate or effective in other contexts with different values (Jaspers, 2018; 2019).

The monolingualism that both ELF and translanguaging stand in opposition to may be a myth, a paradigm or a pathology, but, whatever it is, it is deeply embedded in the ways that our societies are organised, and the ways that we think. It is, writes David Gramling (2016: 3), ‘clearly not yet inclined to be waved off the stage by a university professor, nor even by a ‘multilingual turn’.’ In the end, ELF failed to have much impact. It’s time for translanguaging to have a turn. So, out with the old, in with the new. Or perhaps not really all that new at all.

The king is dead. Long live the king and a happy new year!

References

Anderson, J. (2018) Reimagining English language learners from a translingual perspective. ELT Journal 72 (1): 26 – 37

Baker, C. (2001) Foundations of Bilingual Education and Bilingualism, 3rd edn. Bristol: Multilingual Matters

Bayyurt, Y. & Dewey, M. (2020) Locating ELF in ELT. ELT Journal, 74 (4): 369 – 376

Bonacina-Pugh, F., Da Costa Cabral, I., & Huang, J. (2021) Translanguaging in education. Language Teaching, 54 (4): 439-471

Cenoz, J. & Gorter, D. (2021) Pedagogical Translanguaging. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press

Cummins, J. (2021) Translanguaging: A critical analysis of theoretical claims. In Juvonen, P. & Källkvist, M. (Eds.) Pedagogical Translanguaging: Theoretical, Methodological and Empirical Perspectives. Bristol: Multilingual Matters pp. 7 – 36

Deller, S. & Rinvolucri, M. (2002) Using the Mother Tongue. Peaslake, Surrey: Delta

Duff, A. (1989) Translation. Oxford: OUP

Ellis, R. (1994) Instructed Second Language Acquisition. Oxford: OUP

Galloway, N. (2018) ELF and ELT Teaching Materials. In Jenkins, J., Baker, W. & Dewey, M. (Eds.) The Routledge Handbook of English as a Lingua Franca. Abingdon, Oxon.: Routledge, pp. 468 – 480.

García, O., Ibarra Johnson, S. & Seltzer, K. (2017) The Translanguaging Classroom. Philadelphia: Caslon

García, O. (2009) Bilingual Education in the 21st Century: A Global Perspective. Malden / Oxford: Wiley / Blackwell

Gramling, D. (2016) The Invention of Monolingualism. New York: Bloomsbury

Jaspers, J. (2019) Authority and morality in advocating heteroglossia. Language, Culture and Society, 1: 1, 83 – 105

Jaspers, J. (2018) The transformative limits of translanguaging. Language & Communication, 58: 1 – 10

Jenkins, J. (2000) The Phonology of English as an International Language. Oxford: Oxford University Press

Jenkins, J. (2015) Repositioning English and multilingualism in English as a lingua franca. Englishes in Practice, 2 (3): 49-85

Kerr, P. (2014) Translation and Own-language Activities. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press

Kiczkowiak, M. & Lowe, R. J. (2018) Teaching English as a Lingua Franca. Stuttgart: Delta

Kim, S.-H. & Elder, C. (2005) Language choices and pedagogical functions in the foreign language classroom: A cross-linguistic functional analysis of teacher talk. Language Teaching Research, 9 (4): 355 – 380

Li, W. (2018) Translanguaging as a Practical Theory of Language. Applied Linguistics, 39 (1): 9 – 30

MacKenzie, I. (2014) English as a Lingua Franca. Abingdon, Oxon.: Routledge

Moore, R. (2015) From Revolutionary Monolingualism to Reactionary Multilingualism: Top-Down Discourses of Linguistic Diversity in Europe, 1794 – present. Language and Communication, 44: 19 – 30

Rabbidge, M. (2019) Translanguaging in EFL Contexts. Abingdon, Oxon.: Routledge

Seidlhofer, B. (2011) Understanding English as a Lingua Franca. Oxford: OUP

Tian, Z., Aghai, L., Sayer, P. & Schissel, J. L. (Eds.) (2020) Envisioning TESOL through a translanguaging lens: Global perspectives. Cham, CH: Springer Nature.

We need to talk

Posted: December 13, 2021 in Discourse, research
Tags: , , ,

In 1994, in a well-known TESOL Quarterly article entitled ‘The dysfunctions of theory/practice discourse’, Mark A. Clarke explored the imbalance in the relationship between TESOL researchers and English language teachers, and the way in which the former typically frame the latter as being less expert than themselves. In the last 25 years, the topic has regularly resurfaced, most recently with the latest issue of the Modern Language Journal, a special issue devoted entirely to ‘the Research-Practice Dialogue in Second Language Learning and Teaching’ (Sato & Loewen, 2022). At the heart of the matter is the fact that most teachers are just not terribly interested in research and rarely, if ever, read it (Borg, 2009). Much has been written on whether or not this matters, but that is not my concern here.

Sato and Loewen’s introductory article reviews the reasons behind the lack of dialogue between researchers and teachers, and, in an unintentionally comic meta move, argue that more research is needed into teachers’ lack of interest in research. This is funny because one of the reasons for a lack of dialogue between researchers and teachers is that ‘teachers have been researched too much ON and not enough WITH’ (Farrell, 2016): most research has not been carried out ‘for the teacher’s benefit and needs’, with the consequence being that ‘the result is purely academic’. Sato and Loewen’s primary focus in the article is on ‘classroom teachers’, with whom they would like to see more ‘dialogue’, but, as they acknowledge, they publish in a research journal whose ‘most likely readers are researchers’. They do not appear to have read Alan Maley’s ‘‘More Research is Needed’ – A Mantra Too Far?’ (Maley, 2016). Perhaps the article (and the Humanising Language Teaching magazine it is from) passed under their radar because it’s written for teachers (not researchers), it’s free and does not have an impact factor?

I wasn’t entirely convinced by the argument that more research about research is needed, not least because Sato and Loewen provide a fairly detailed analysis of the obstacles that exist to dialogue between researchers and teachers. They divide these into two categories:

Epistemological obstacles: the framing of researchers as generators of knowledge and teachers as consumers of knowledge; teachers’ scepticism about the relevance of some research findings to real-world teaching situations; the different discourse communities inhabited by researchers and teachers, as evidenced by the academic language choices of the former.

Practical obstacles: institutional expectations for researchers to publish in academic journals and a lack of time for researchers to engage in dialogue with teachers; teachers’ lack of time and lack of access to research.

Nothing new here, nothing contentious, either. Nothing new, either, in their argument that more dialogue between researchers and teachers would be of mutual benefit. They acknowledge that ‘In the current status of the research-practice relationship, it is researchers who are concerned about transferability of their findings to classrooms. Practitioners may not have burning motivation or urgent needs to reach out to researchers’. Consequently, it is researchers who should ‘shoulder the lion’s share of responsibility in this initiative’. This implies that, while the benefit could be mutual, it is not mutually proportionate, since researchers have both more to lose and more to gain.

They argue that it would be helpful to scrutinize closely the relationship between researchers and teachers (they prefer to use the word ‘practitioners’) and that researchers need to reflect on their own beliefs and practices, in particular the way that researchers are stake-holders in the research-practice relationship. I was disappointed that they didn’t go into more detail here and would like to suggest one angle of the ‘cui bono’ question worth exploring. The work of TESOL researchers is mostly funded by TESOL teaching. It is funded, in other words, by selling a commodity – TESOL – to a group of consumers … who are teachers. If we frame researchers as vendors and teachers as (potential) clients, [1] a rather different light is shone on pleas for more dialogue.

The first step, Sato and Loewen claim, towards achieving such a dialogue would be ‘nurturing a collaborative mindset in both researchers and teachers’. And the last of four steps to removing the obstacles to dialogue would be ‘institutional support’ for both teachers and researchers. But without institutional support, mindsets are unlikely to become more collaborative, and the suggestions for institutional support (e.g. time release and financial support for teachers) are just pie in the sky. Perhaps sensing this, Sato and Loewen conclude the article by asking whether their desire to see a more collaborative mindset (and, therefore, more dialogue) is just a dream. Back in 1994, Mark Clarke had this to say:

The only real solution to the problems I have identified would be to turn the hierarchy on its head, putting teachers on the top and arraying others-pundits, professors, administrators, researchers, and so forth-below them. This would require a major change in our thinking and in our behavior and, however reasonable it may appear to be, I do not see this happening. (Clarke, 1994: 18)

In 2017, ELT Journal published an entertaining piece of trolling by Péter Medgyes, ‘The (ir)relevance of academic research for the language teacher’, in which he refers to the expert status of researchers as related to the ‘orthodox and mistaken belief that by virtue of having churned out tons of academic papers and books, they must be performing an essential service for language education’. It is not hard to imagine the twinkle in his eye as he wrote it. In the same volume, Amos Paran (2017) picks up the bait, arguing for more dialogue between researchers and teachers. In response to Paran’s plea, Medgyes points out that there is an irony in preaching the importance of dialogue in a top-down manner. ‘As long as the playing field is uneven, it is absurd to talk about dialogue, if a dialogue is at all necessary’, he writes. The same holds true for Sato and Loewen. They acknowledge (Sato & Loewen, 2018) that ‘researchers’ top-down attitudes will not facilitate the dialogue’, but, try as they might, their own mindset is seemingly inescapable. In one article that was attempting to reach out to teachers (Sato, Loewen & Kim, 2021), they managed to make one teacher trainer, Sandy Millin, feel that teachers were being unfairly attacked.

The phrase ‘We need to talk’ has been described as, perhaps, the most dreaded four words in the English language. When you hear it, you know (1) that someone wants to talk to you (and not the other way round), (2) that, whether you want to talk or not, the other person will have their say, (3) that the discussion will almost certainly involve some criticism of you, and this may be merited, and (4) whatever happens next, it is unlikely that your relationship will improve.

References

Borg, S. (2009). English language teachers’ conceptions of research. Applied Linguistics, 30 (3): 358 – 88

Clarke, M. (1994). The dysfunctions of theory/practice discourse. TESOL Quarterly, 28: 9-26.

Farrell, T. (2016). Reflection, reflection, reflection. Responses to the Chapter:  More Research is Needed – A Mantra Too Far? Humanising Language Teaching, 18 (3) http://old.hltmag.co.uk/jun16/mart.htm

Maley, A. (2016). ‘More Research is Needed’ – A Mantra Too Far? Humanising Language Teaching, 18 (3) http://old.hltmag.co.uk/jun16/mart.htm

Medgyes, P. (2017). The (ir)relevance of academic research for the language teacher. ELT Journal, 71 (4): 491–498

Paran, A. (2017). ‘Only connect’: researchers and teachers in dialogue. ELT Journal, 71 (4): 499 – 508

Sato, M., & Loewen, S. (2022). The research-practice dialogue in second language learning and teaching: Past, present, and future. The Modern Language Journal, 106 (3)

Sato, M. & Loewen, S. (Eds.) (2019) Evidence-Based Second Language Pedagogy. New York: Routledge

Sato, M. & Loewen, S. (2018). Do teachers care about research? The research–pedagogy dialogue. ELT Journal 73 (1): 1 – 10

Sato, M., Loewen, S. & Kim, Y. J. (2021) The role and value of researchers for teachers: five principles for mutual benefit. TESOL AL Forum September 2021. http://newsmanager.commpartners.com/tesolalis/issues/2021-08-30/email.html#4


[1] I am actually a direct customer of Sato and Loewen, having bought for £35 last year a copy of their edited volume ‘Evidence-Based Second Language Pedagogy’. According to the back cover, it is a ‘cutting-edge collection of empirical research [which closes] the gap between research and practice’. In reality, it’s a fairly random collection of articles of very mixed quality, many of which are co-authored by ‘top scholars’ and the PhD students they are supervising. It does nothing to close any gaps between research and practice and I struggle to see how it could be of any conceivable benefit to teachers.

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