Posts Tagged ‘21st century skills’

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

Since no single definition of critical thinking prevails (Dummett & Hughes, 2019: 2), discussions of the topic invariably begin with attempts to provide a definition. Lai (2011) offers an accessible summary of a range of possible meanings, but points out that, in educational contexts, its meaning is often rather vague and encompasses other concepts (such as higher order thinking skills) which also lack clarity. Paul Dummett and John Hughes (2019: 4) plump for ‘a mindset that involves thinking reflectively, rationally and reasonably’ – a definition which involves a vague noun (that could mean a fixed state of mind, a learned attitude, a disposition or a mood) and three highly subjective adverbs. I don’t think I could do any better. However, instead of looking for a definition, we can reach a sort of understanding by looking at examples of it. Dummett and Hughes’ book is extremely rich in practical examples, and the picture that emerges of critical thinking is complex and multifaceted.

As you might expect of a weasel word like ‘critical thinking’, there appears to be general agreement that it’s a ‘good thing’. Paul Dummett suggests that there are two common reasons for promoting the inclusion of critical thinking activities in the language classroom. The first of these is a desire to get students thinking for themselves. The second is the idea ‘that we live in an age of misinformation in which only the critically minded can avoid manipulation or slavish conformity’. Neither seems contentious at first glance, although he points out that ‘they tend to lead to a narrow application of critical thinking in ELT materials: that is to say, the analysis of texts and evaluation of the ideas expressed in them’. It’s the second of these rationales that I’d like to explore further.

Penny Ur (2020: 9) offers a more extended version of it:

The role of critical thinking in education has become more central in the 21st century, simply because there is far more information readily available to today’s students than there was in previous centuries (mainly, but not only, online), and it is vital for them to be able to deal with such input wisely. They need to be able to distinguish between what is important and what is trivial, between truth and lies, between fact and opinion, between logical argument and specious propaganda […] Without such skills and awareness of the need to exercise them, they are liable to find themselves victims of commercial or political interests, their thinking manipulated by persuasion disguised as information.

In the same edited collection Olja Milosevic (2020:18) echoes Ur’s argument:

Critical thinking becomes even more important as communication increasingly moves online. Students find an overwhelming amount of information and need to be taught how to evaluate its relevance, accuracy and quality. If teachers do not teach students how to go beyond surface meaning, students cannot be expected to practise it.

In the passages I’ve quoted, these writers are referring to one particular kind of critical thinking. The ability to critically evaluate the reliability, accuracy, etc of a text is generally considered to be a part of what is usually called ‘media information literacy’. In these times of fake news, so the argument goes, it is vital for students to develop (with their teachers’ help) the necessary skills to spot fake news when they see it. The most prototypical critical thinking activity in ELT classrooms is probably one in which students analyse some fake news, such as the website about the Pacific Tree Octopus (which is the basis of a lesson in Dudeney et al., 2013: 198 – 203).

Before considering media information literacy in more detail, it’s worth noting in passing that a rationale for critical thinking activities is no rationale at all if it only concerns one aspect of critical thinking, since it has applied attributes of a part (media information literacy) to a bigger whole (critical thinking).

There is no shortage of good (free) material available for dealing with fake news in the ELT classroom. Examples include work by James Taylor, Chia Suan Chong and Tyson Seburn. Material of this kind may result in lively, interesting, cognitively challenging, communicative and, therefore, useful lessons. But how likely is it that material of this kind will develop learners’ media information literacy and, by extension therefore, their critical thinking skills? How likely is it that teaching material of this kind will help people identify (and reject) fake news? Is it possible that material of this kind is valuable despite its rationale, rather than because of it? In the spirit of rational, reflective and reasonable thinking, these are questions that seem to be worth exploring.

ELT classes and fake news

James Taylor has suggested that the English language classroom is ‘the perfect venue for [critical thinking] skills to be developed’. Although academic English courses necessarily involve elements of critical thinking, I’m not so sure that media information literacy (and, specifically, the identification of fake news) can be adequately addressed in general English classes. There are so many areas, besides those that are specifically language-focussed, competing for space in language classes (think of all those other 21st century skills), that it is hard to see how sufficient time can be found for real development of this skill. It requires modelling, practice of the skill, feedback on the practice, and more practice (Mulnix, 2010): it needs time. Fake news activities in the language classroom would, of course, be of greater value if they were part of an integrated approach across the curriculum. Unfortunately, this is rarely the case.

Information literacy skills

Training materials for media information literacy usually involve a number of stages. These include things like fact-checking and triangulation of different sources, consideration of web address, analysis of images, other items on the site, source citation and so on. The problem, however, is that news-fakers have become so good at what they do. The tree octopus site is very crude in comparison to what can be produced nowadays by people who have learnt to profit from the online economy of misinformation. Facebook employs an army of algorithmic and human fact-checkers, but still struggles. The bottom line is that background knowledge is needed (this is as true for media information literacy as it is for critical thinking more generally) (Willingham, 2007). With news, the scope of domain knowledge is so vast that it is extremely hard to transfer one’s ability to critically evaluate one particular piece of news to another. We are all fooled from time to time.

Media information literacy interventions: research on effectiveness

With the onset of COVID-19, the ability to identify fake news has become, more than ever, a matter of life and death. There is little question that this ability correlates strongly with analytic thinking (see, for example, Stanley et al., 2020). What is much less clear is how we can go about promoting analytic thinking. Analytic thinking comes in different varieties, and another hot-off-the-press research study into susceptibility to COVID-19 fake news (Roozenbeek et al., 2020) has found that the ability to spot fake news may correlate more strongly with numerical literacy than with reasoning ability. In fact, the research team found that a lack of numerical literacy was the most consistent predictor of susceptibility to misinformation about COVID-19. Perhaps we are attempting to develop the wrong kind of analytic thinking?

In educational contexts, attempts to promote media information literacy typically seek to develop reasoning abilities, and the evidence for their effectiveness is mixed. First of all, it needs to be said that ‘little large-scale evidence exists on the effectiveness of promoting digital media literacy as a response to online misinformation’ (Guess et al., 2020). An early meta-analysis (Jeong et al., 2012) found that such interventions had a positive effect, when the interventions were long (not one-off), but impacted more on students’ knowledge than they did on their behaviour. More recently, Huguet et al (2019) were unable to draw ‘definitive conclusions from past research, such as what kinds of media literacy practices work and under what conditions’. And this year, a study by Guess et al (2020) did not generate sufficient evidence ‘to conclude that the [media information literacy] intervention changed real-world consumption of false news’. I am unaware of any robust research in this area in the context of ELT.

It’s all rather disappointing. Why are we not better at it? After all, teachers of media studies have been exploring pathways for many years now. One possible answer is this: Media information literacy, like critical thinking more generally, is a skill that is acquirable, but it can only be acquired if there is a disposition to do so. The ability to think critically and the disposition to do so are separate entities (Facione, 2000). Training learners to be more critical in their approach to media information may be so much pissing in the wind if the disposition to be sceptical is not there. Shaping dispositions is a much harder task than training skills.

Both of the research studies into susceptibility to COVID-19 misinformation that I referred to earlier in this section underscore the significance of dispositions to analytic thinking. Roozenbeek et al (2020) found, in line with much previous research (for example, Jost et al. 2018), that political conservatism is associated with a slightly higher susceptibility to misinformation. Political views (on either side of the political spectrum) rarely change as a result of exposure to science or reasoned thinking. They also found that ‘self-identifying as a member of a minority predicts susceptibility to misinformation about the virus in all countries surveyed’ (except, interestingly, in the UK). Again, when issues of identity are at stake, emotional responses tend to trump rational ones.

Rational, reflective and reasonable thinking about media information literacy leads to an uncomfortable red-pill rabbit-hole. This is how Bulger and Davidson (2018) put it:

The extent to which media literacy can combat the problematic news environment is an open question. Is denying the existence of climate change a media literacy problem? Is believing that a presidential candidate was running a sex-trafficking ring out of a pizza shop a media literacy problem? Can media literacy combat the intentionally opaque systems of serving news on social media platforms? Or intentional campaigns of disinformation?

Teachers and fake news

The assumption that the critical thinking skills of young people can be developed through the intervention of their teachers is rarely problematized. It should be. A recent study of Spanish pre-service teachers (Fuertes-Prieto et al., 2020) showed that their ‘level of belief in pseudoscientific issues is comparable, or even higher in some cases to those of the general population’. There is no reason to believe that this changes after they have qualified. Teachers are probably no more likely to change their beliefs when presented with empirical evidence (Menz et al., 2020) than people from any other profession. Research has tended to focus on teachers’ lack of critical thinking in areas related to their work, but, things may be no different in the wider world. It is estimated that over a quarter of teachers in the US voted for the world’s greatest peddler of fake news in the 2016 presidential election.

It is also interesting to note that the sharing of fake news on social media is much more widespread among older people (including US teachers who have an average age of 42.4) than those under 30 (Bouygues, 2019).

Institutional contexts and fake news

Cory Doctorow has suggested that the fake news problem is not a problem of identifying what is true and what is fake, but a problem ‘about how we know whether something is true. We’re not disagreeing about facts, we’re disagreeing about epistemology’. In a post-modernist world of ‘Truth Decay’ (Kavanagh & Rich, 2018), where there is ‘a blurring of the line between opinion and fact’, epistemological authority is a rare commodity. Medicine, social sciences and applied linguistics are all currently experiencing a ‘replication crisis’ (Ioannidis, 2005) and we had a British education minister saying that ‘people of this country have had enough of experts’.

News reporting has always relied to some extent on trust in the reliability of the news source. The BBC or CNN might attempt to present themselves as more objective than, say, Fox News or InfoWars, but trust in all news outlets has collapsed globally in recent years. As Michael Shudson has written in the Columbia Journalism Review, ‘all news outlets write from a set of values, not simply from a disinterested effort at truth’. If a particular news channel manifestly shares different values from your own, it is easy to reject the veracity of the news it reports. Believers in COVID conspiracy theories often hold their views precisely because of their rejection of the epistemological authority of mainstream news and the WHO or governments who support lockdown measures.

The training of media information literacy in schools is difficult because, for many people in the US (and elsewhere), education is not dissimilar to mainstream media. They ‘are seen as the enemy — two institutions who are trying to have power over how people think. Two institutions that are trying to assert authority over epistemology’ (boyd, 2018). Schools have always been characterized by imbalances in power (between students and teachers / administrators), and this power dynamic is not conducive to open-minded enquiry. Children are often more aware of the power of their teachers than they are accepting of their epistemological authority. They are enjoined to be critical thinkers, but only about certain things and only up to a certain point. One way for children to redress the power imbalance is to reject the epistemological authority of their teachers. I think this may explain why a group of young children I observed recently coming out of a lesson devoted to environmental issues found such pleasure in joking about Greta ‘Thunfisch’.

Power relationships in schools are reflected and enacted in the interaction patterns between teachers and students. The most common of these is ‘initiation-response-feedback (IRF)’ and it is unlikely that this is particularly conducive to rational, reflective and reasonable thinking. At the same time, as Richard Paul, one of the early advocates of critical thinking in schools, noted, much learning activity is characterised by lower order thinking skills, especially memorization (Paul, 1992: 22). With this kind of backdrop, training in media information literacy is more likely to be effective if it goes beyond the inclusion of a few ‘fake news’ exercises: a transformation in the way that the teaching is done will also be needed. Benesch (1999) describes this as a more ‘dialogic’ approach and there is some evidence that a more dialogic approach can have a positive impact on students’ dispositions (e.g. Hajhosseiny, 2012).

I think that David Buckingham (2019a) captures the educational problem very neatly:

There’s a danger here of assuming that we are dealing with a rational process – or at least one that can, by some pedagogical means, be made rational. But from an educational perspective, we surely have to begin with the question of why people might believe apparently ‘fake’ news in the first place. Where we decide to place our trust is as much to do with fantasy, emotion and desire, as with rational calculation. All of us are inclined to believe what we want to believe.

Fake news: a problem or a symptom of a problem?

There has always been fake news. The big problem now is ‘the speed and ease of its dissemination, and it exists primarily because today’s digital capitalism makes it extremely profitable – look at Google and Facebook – to produce and circulate false but click-worthy narratives’ (Morosov, 2017). Fake news taps into and amplifies broader tendencies and divides in society: the problem is not straightforward and is unlikely to be easy to eradicate (Buckingham, 2019a: 3).

There is increasing discussion of media regulation and the recent banning by Facebook of Holocaust denial and QAnon is a recognition that some regulation cannot now be avoided. But strict regulations would threaten the ‘basic business model, and the enormous profitability’ of social media companies (Buckingham, 2009b) and there are real practical and ethical problems in working out exactly how regulation would happen. Governments do not know what to do.

Lacking any obvious alternative, media information literacy is often seen as the solution: can’t we ‘fact check and moderate our way out of this conundrum’ (boyd, 2018)? danah boyd’s stark response is, no, this will fail. It’s an inadequate solution to an oversimplified problem (Buckingham, 2019a).

Along with boyd and Buckingham, I’m not trying to argue that we drop media information literacy activities from educational (including ELT) programmes. Quite the opposite. But if we want our students to think reflectively, rationally and reasonably, I think we will need to start by doing the same.

References

Benesch, S. (1999). Thinking critically, thinking dialogically. TESOL Quarterly, 33: pp. 573 – 580

Bouygues, H. L. (2019). Fighting Fake News: Lessons From The Information Wars. Reboot Foundation https://reboot-foundation.org/fighting-fake-news/

boyd, d. (2018). You Think You Want Media Literacy… Do You? Data and Society: Points https://points.datasociety.net/you-think-you-want-media-literacy-do-you-7cad6af18ec2

Buckingham, D. (2019a). Teaching Media in a ‘Post-Truth’ Age: Fake News, Media Bias and the Challenge for Media Literacy Education. Cultura y Educación 31(2): pp. 1-19

Buckingham, D. (2019b). Rethinking digital literacy: Media education in the age of digital capitalism. https://ddbuckingham.files.wordpress.com/2019/12/media-education-in-digital-capitalism.pdf

Bulger, M. & Davidson, P. (2018). The Promises, Challenges and Futures of Media Literacy. Data and Society. https://datasociety.net/pubs/oh/DataAndSociety_Media_Literacy_2018.pdf

Doctorow, C. (2017). Three kinds of propaganda, and what to do about them. boingboing 25th February 2017, https://boingboing.net/2017/02/25/counternarratives-not-fact-che.html

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

Dummett, P. & Hughes, J. (2019). Critical Thinking in ELT. Boston: National Geographic Learning

Facione, P. A. (2000). The disposition toward critical thinking: Its character, measurement, and relation to critical thinking skill. Informal Logic, 20(1), 61–84.

Fuertes-Prieto, M.Á., Andrés-Sánchez, S., Corrochano-Fernández, D. et al. (2020). Pre-service Teachers’ False Beliefs in Superstitions and Pseudosciences in Relation to Science and Technology. Science & Education 29, 1235–1254 (2020). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11191-020-00140-8

Guess, A. M., Lerner, M., Lyons, B., Montgomery, J. M., Nyhan, N., Reifler, J. & Sircar, N. (2020). A digital media literacy intervention increases discernment between mainstream and false news in the United States and India. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences Jul 2020, 117 (27) 15536-15545; DOI: 10.1073/pnas.1920498117

Hajhosseiny, M. (2012). The Effect of Dialogic Teaching on Students’ Critical Thinking Disposition. Procedia – Social and Behavioral Sciences, 69: pp. 1358 – 1368

Huguet, A., Kavanagh, J., Baker, G. & Blumenthal, M. S. (2019). Exploring Media Literacy Education as a Tool for Mitigating Truth Decay. RAND Corporation, https://www.rand.org/content/dam/rand/pubs/research_reports/RR3000/RR3050/RAND_RR3050.pdf

Ioannidis, J. P. A. (2005). Why Most Published Research Findings Are False. PLoS Medicine 2 (8): e124. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pmed.0020124

Jeong, S. H., Cho, H., & Hwang, Y. (2012). Media literacy interventions: A meta-analytic review. Journal of Communication, 62, pp. 454–472

Jones-Jang, S. M., Mortensen, T. & Liu, J. (2019). Does media literacy help identification of fake news? Information literacy helps, but other literacies don’t. American Behavioral Scientist, pp. 1 – 18, doi:10.1177/0002764219869406

Jost, J. T., van der Linden, S., Panagopoulos, C. & Hardin, C. D. (2018). Ideological asymmetries in conformity, desire for shared reality, and the spread of misinformation. Current Opinion in Psychology, 23: pp/ 77-83. doi:10.1016/j.copsyc.2018.01.003

Kavanagh, J. & Rich, M. D. (2018). Truth Decay: An Initial Exploration of the Diminishing Role of Facts and Analysis in American Public Life. RAND Corporation, https://www.rand.org/pubs/research_reports/RR2314.html

Lai, E.R. 2011. Critical Thinking: A Literature Review. Pearson. http://images.pearsonassessments.com/images/tmrs/CriticalThinkingReviewFINAL.pdf

Menz, C., Spinath, B. & Seifried, E. (2020). Misconceptions die hard: prevalence and reduction of wrong beliefs in topics from educational psychology among preservice teachers. European Journal of Psychology of Education https://doi.org/10.1007/s10212-020-00474-5

Milosevic, O. (2020). Promoting critical thinking in the EFL classroom. In Mavridi, S. & Xerri, D. (Eds.) English for 21st Century Skills. Newbury, Berks.: Express Publishing. pp.17 – 22

Morozov, E. (2017). Moral panic over fake news hides the real enemy – the digital giants. The Guardian, 8 January 2017 https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2017/jan/08/blaming-fake-news-not-the-answer-democracy-crisis

Mulnix, J.W. 2010. ‘Thinking critically about critical thinking’ Educational Philosophy and Theory, 2010

Paul, R. W. (1992). Critical thinking: What, why, and how? New Directions for Community Colleges, 77: pp. 3–24.

Roozenbeek, J., Schneider, C.R., Dryhurst, S., Kerr, J., Freeman, A. L. J., Recchia, G., van der Bles, A. M. & and van der Linden, S. (2020). Susceptibility to misinformation about COVID-19 around the world. Royal Society Open Science, 7 (10) https://doi.org/10.1098/rsos.201199

Stanley, M., Barr, N., Peters, K. & Seli, P. (2020). Analytic-thinking predicts hoax beliefs and helping behaviors in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. PsyArxiv Preprints doi:10.31234/osf.io/m3vt

Ur, P. (2020). Critical Thinking. In Mavridi, S. & Xerri, D. (Eds.) English for 21st Century Skills. Newbury, Berks.: Express Publishing. pp.9 – 16

Willingham, D. T. (2007). Critical Thinking: Why Is It So Hard to Teach? American Educator Summer 2007: pp. 8 – 19

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pearson English blog

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

OUP ELT Global blog

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

Macmillan English blog

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

CUP World of Better Learning blog

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

Macro trends

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Teach framework

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

References

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

In my last post , I asked why it is so easy to believe that technology (in particular, technological innovations) will offer solutions to whatever problems exist in language learning and teaching. A simple, but inadequate, answer is that huge amounts of money have been invested in persuading us. Without wanting to detract from the significance of this, it is clearly not sufficient as an explanation. In an attempt to develop my own understanding, I have been turning more and more to the idea of ‘social imaginaries’. In many ways, this is also an attempt to draw together the various interests that I have had since starting this blog.

The Canadian philosopher, Charles Taylor, describes a ‘social imaginary’ as a ‘common understanding that makes possible common practices and a widely shared sense of legitimacy’ (Taylor, 2004: 23). As a social imaginary develops over time, it ‘begins to define the contours of [people’s] worlds and can eventually come to count as the taken-for-granted shape of things, too obvious to mention’ (Taylor, 2004: 29). It is, however, not just a set of ideas or a shared narrative: it is also a set of social practices that enact those understandings, whilst at the same time modifying or solidifying them. The understandings make the practices possible, and it is the practices that largely carry the understanding (Taylor, 2004: 25). In the process, the language we use is filled with new associations and our familiarity with these associations shapes ‘our perceptions and expectations’ (Worster, 1994, quoted in Moore, 2015: 33). A social imaginary, then, is a complex system that is not technological or economic or social or political or educational, but all of these (Urry, 2016). The image of the patterns of an amorphous mass of moving magma (Castoriadis, 1987), flowing through pre-existing channels, but also, at times, striking out along new paths, may offer a helpful metaphor.

Lava flow Hawaii

Technology, of course, plays a key role in contemporary social imaginaries and the term ‘sociotechnical imaginary’ is increasingly widely used. The understandings of the sociotechnical imaginary typically express visions of social progress and a desirable future that is made possible by advances in science and technology (Jasanoff & Kim, 2015: 4). In education, technology is presented as capable of overcoming human failings and the dark ways of the past, of facilitating a ‘pedagogical utopia of natural, authentic teaching and learning’ (Friesen, forthcoming). As such understandings become more widespread and as the educational practices (platforms, apps, etc.) which both shape and are shaped by them become equally widespread, technology has come to be seen as a ‘solution’ to the ‘problem’ of education (Friesen, forthcoming). We need to be careful, however, that having shaped the technology, it does not comes to shape us (see Cobo, 2019, for a further exploration of this idea).

As a way of beginning to try to understand what is going on in edtech in ELT, which is not so very different from what is taking place in education more generally, I have sketched a number of what I consider key components of the shared understandings and the social practices that are related to them. These are closely interlocking pieces and each of them is itself embedded in much broader understandings. They evolve over time and their history can be traced quite easily. Taken together, they do, I think, help us to understand a little more why technology in ELT seems so seductive.

1 The main purpose of English language teaching is to prepare people for the workplace

There has always been a strong connection between learning an additional living language (such as English) and preparing for the world of work. The first modern language schools, such as the Berlitz schools at the end of the 19th century with their native-speaker teachers and monolingual methods, positioned themselves as primarily vocational, in opposition to the kinds of language teaching taking place in schools and universities, which were more broadly humanistic in their objectives. Throughout the 20th century, and especially as English grew as a global language, the public sector, internationally, grew closer to the methods and objectives of the private schools. The idea that learning English might serve other purposes (e.g. cultural enrichment or personal development) has never entirely gone away, as witnessed by the Council of Europe’s list of objectives (including the promotion of mutual understanding and European co-operation, and the overcoming of prejudice and discrimination) in the Common European Framework, but it is often forgotten.

The clarion calls from industry to better align education with labour markets, present and future, grow louder all the time, often finding expression in claims that ‘education is unfit for purpose.’ It is invariably assumed that this purpose is to train students in the appropriate skills to enhance their ‘human capital’ in an increasingly competitive and global market (Lingard & Gale, 2007). Educational agendas are increasingly set by the world of business (bodies like the OECD or the World Economic Forum, corporations like Google or Microsoft, and national governments which share their priorities (see my earlier post about neo-liberalism and solutionism ).

One way in which this shift is reflected in English language teaching is in the growing emphasis that is placed on ‘21st century skills’ in teaching material. Sometimes called ‘life skills’, they are very clearly concerned with the world of work, rather than the rest of our lives. The World Economic Forum’s 2018 Future of Jobs survey lists the soft skills that are considered important in the near future and they include ‘creativity’, ‘critical thinking’, ‘emotional intelligence’ and ‘leadership’. (The fact that the World Economic Forum is made up of a group of huge international corporations (e.g. J.P. Morgan, HSBC, UBS, Johnson & Johnson) with a very dubious track record of embezzlement, fraud, money-laundering and tax evasion has not resulted in much serious, public questioning of the view of education expounded by the WEF.)

Without exception, the ELT publishers have brought these work / life skills into their courses, and the topic is an extremely popular one in ELT blogs and magazines, and at conferences. Two of the four plenaries at this year’s international IATEFL conference are concerned with these skills. Pearson has a wide range of related products, including ‘a four-level competency-based digital course that provides engaging instruction in the essential work and life skills competencies that adult learners need’. Macmillan ELT made ‘life skills’ the central plank of their marketing campaign and approach to product design, and even won a British Council ELTon (see below) Award for ‘Innovation in teacher resources) in 2015 for their ‘life skills’ marketing campaign. Cambridge University Press has developed a ‘Framework for Life Competencies’ which allows these skills to be assigned numerical values.

The point I am making here is not that these skills do not play an important role in contemporary society, nor that English language learners may not benefit from some training in them. The point, rather, is that the assumption that English language learning is mostly concerned with preparation for the workplace has become so widespread that it becomes difficult to think in another way.

2 Technological innovation is good and necessary

The main reason that soft skills are deemed to be so important is that we live in a rapidly-changing world, where the unsubstantiated claim that 85% (or whatever other figure comes to mind) of current jobs won’t exist 10 years from now is so often repeated that it is taken as fact . Whether or not this is true is perhaps less important to those who make the claim than the present and the future that they like to envisage. The claim is, at least, true-ish enough to resonate widely. Since these jobs will disappear, and new ones will emerge, because of technological innovations, education, too, will need to innovate to keep up.

English language teaching has not been slow to celebrate innovation. There were coursebooks called ‘Cutting Edge’ (1998) and ‘Innovations’ (2005), but more recently the connections between innovation and technology have become much stronger. The title of the recent ‘Language Hub’ (2019) was presumably chosen, in part, to conjure up images of digital whizzkids in fashionable co-working start-up spaces. Technological innovation is explicitly promoted in the Special Interest Groups of IATEFL and TESOL. Despite a singular lack of research that unequivocally demonstrates a positive connection between technology and language learning, the former’s objective is ‘to raise awareness among ELT professionals of the power of learning technologies to assist with language learning’. There is a popular annual conference, called InnovateELT , which has the tagline ‘Be Part of the Solution’, and the first problem that this may be a solution to is that our students need to be ‘ready to take on challenging new careers’.

Last, but by no means least, there are the annual British Council ELTon awards  with a special prize for digital innovation. Among the British Council’s own recent innovations are a range of digitally-delivered resources to develop work / life skills among teens.

Again, my intention (here) is not to criticise any of the things mentioned in the preceding paragraphs. It is merely to point to a particular structure of feeling and the way that is enacted and strengthened through material practices like books, social groups, conferences and other events.

3 Technological innovations are best driven by the private sector

The vast majority of people teaching English language around the world work in state-run primary and secondary schools. They are typically not native-speakers of English, they hold national teaching qualifications and they are frequently qualified to teach other subjects in addition to English (often another language). They may or may not self-identify as teachers of ‘ELT’ or ‘EFL’, often seeing themselves more as ‘school teachers’ or ‘language teachers’. People who self-identify as part of the world of ‘ELT or ‘TEFL’ are more likely to be native speakers and to work in the private sector (including private or semi-private language schools, universities (which, in English-speaking countries, are often indistinguishable from private sector institutions), publishing companies, and freelancers). They are more likely to hold international (TEFL) qualifications or higher degrees, and they are less likely to be involved in the teaching of other languages.

The relationship between these two groups is well illustrated by the practice of training days, where groups of a few hundred state-school teachers participate in workshops organised by publishing companies and delivered by ELT specialists. In this context, state-school teachers are essentially in a client role when they are in contact with the world of ‘ELT’ – as buyers or potential buyers of educational products, training or technology.

Technological innovation is invariably driven by the private sector. This may be in the development of technologies (platforms, apps and so on), in the promotion of technology (through training days and conference sponsorship, for example), or in training for technology (with consultancy companies like ELTjam or The Consultants-E, which offer a wide range of technologically oriented ‘solutions’).

As in education more generally, it is believed that the private sector can be more agile and more efficient than state-run bodies, which continue to decline in importance in educational policy-setting. When state-run bodies are involved in technological innovation in education, it is normal for them to work in partnership with the private sector.

4 Accountability is crucial

Efficacy is vital. It makes no sense to innovate unless the innovations improve something, but for us to know this, we need a way to measure it. In a previous post , I looked at Pearson’s ‘Asking More: the Path to Efficacy’ by CEO John Fallon (who will be stepping down later this year). Efficacy in education, says Fallon, is ‘making a measurable impact on someone’s life through learning’. ‘Measurable’ is the key word, because, as Fallon claims, ‘it is increasingly possible to determine what works and what doesn’t in education, just as in healthcare.’ We need ‘a relentless focus’ on ‘the learning outcomes we deliver’ because it is these outcomes that can be measured in ‘a systematic, evidence-based fashion’. Measurement, of course, is all the easier when education is delivered online, ‘real-time learner data’ can be captured, and the power of analytics can be deployed.

Data is evidence, and it’s as easy to agree on the importance of evidence as it is hard to decide on (1) what it is evidence of, and (2) what kind of data is most valuable. While those questions remain largely unanswered, the data-capturing imperative invades more and more domains of the educational world.

English language teaching is becoming data-obsessed. From language scales, like Pearson’s Global Scale of English to scales of teacher competences, from numerically-oriented formative assessment practices (such as those used on many LMSs) to the reporting of effect sizes in meta-analyses (such as those used by John Hattie and colleagues), datafication in ELT accelerates non-stop.

The scales and frameworks are all problematic in a number of ways (see, for example, this post on ‘The Mismeasure of Language’) but they have undeniably shaped the way that we are able to think. Of course, we need measurable outcomes! If, for the present, there are privacy and security issues, it is to be hoped that technology will find solutions to them, too.

REFERENCES

Castoriadis, C. (1987). The Imaginary Institution of Society. Cambridge: Polity Press.

Cobo, C. (2019). I Accept the Terms and Conditions. Montevideo: International Development Research Centre / Center for Research Ceibal Foundation. https://adaptivelearninginelt.files.wordpress.com/2020/01/41acf-cd84b5_7a6e74f4592c460b8f34d1f69f2d5068.pdf

Friesen, N. (forthcoming) The technological imaginary in education, or: Myth and enlightenment in ‘Personalized Learning’. In M. Stocchetti (Ed.) The Digital Age and its Discontents. University of Helsinki Press. Available at https://www.academia.edu/37960891/The_Technological_Imaginary_in_Education_or_Myth_and_Enlightenment_in_Personalized_Learning_

Jasanoff, S. & Kim, S.-H. (2015). Dreamscapes of Modernity. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Lingard, B. & Gale, T. (2007). The emergent structure of feeling: what does it mean for critical educational studies and research?, Critical Studies in Education, 48:1, pp. 1-23

Moore, J. W. (2015). Capitalism in the Web of Life. London: Verso.

Robbins, K. & Webster, F. (1989]. The Technical Fix. Basingstoke: Macmillan Education.

Taylor, C. (2014). Modern Social Imaginaries. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

Urry, J. (2016). What is the Future? Cambridge: Polity Press.

 

At the start of the last decade, ELT publishers were worried, Macmillan among them. The financial crash of 2008 led to serious difficulties, not least in their key Spanish market. In 2011, Macmillan’s parent company was fined ₤11.3 million for corruption. Under new ownership, restructuring was a constant. At the same time, Macmillan ELT was getting ready to move from its Oxford headquarters to new premises in London, a move which would inevitably lead to the loss of a sizable proportion of its staff. On top of that, Macmillan, like the other ELT publishers, was aware that changes in the digital landscape (the first 3G iPhone had appeared in June 2008 and wifi access was spreading rapidly around the world) meant that they needed to shift away from the old print-based model. With her finger on the pulse, Caroline Moore, wrote an article in October 2010 entitled ‘No Future? The English Language Teaching Coursebook in the Digital Age’ . The publication (at the start of the decade) and runaway success of the online ‘Touchstone’ course, from arch-rivals, Cambridge University Press, meant that Macmillan needed to change fast if they were to avoid being left behind.

Macmillan already had a platform, Campus, but it was generally recognised as being clunky and outdated, and something new was needed. In the summer of 2012, Macmillan brought in two new executives – people who could talk the ‘creative-disruption’ talk and who believed in the power of big data to shake up English language teaching and publishing. At the time, the idea of big data was beginning to reach public consciousness and ‘Big Data: A Revolution that Will Transform how We Live, Work, and Think’ by Viktor Mayer-Schönberger and Kenneth Cukier, was a major bestseller in 2013 and 2014. ‘Big data’ was the ‘hottest trend’ in technology and peaked in Google Trends in October 2014. See the graph below.

Big_data_Google_Trend

Not long after taking up their positions, the two executives began negotiations with Knewton, an American adaptive learning company. Knewton’s technology promised to gather colossal amounts of data on students using Knewton-enabled platforms. Its founder, Jose Ferreira, bragged that Knewton had ‘more data about our students than any company has about anybody else about anything […] We literally know everything about what you know and how you learn best, everything’. This data would, it was claimed, enable publishers to multiply, by orders of magnitude, the efficacy of learning materials, allowing publishers, like Macmillan, to provide a truly personalized and optimal offering to learners using their platform.

The contract between Macmillan and Knewton was agreed in May 2013 ‘to build next-generation English Language Learning and Teaching materials’. Perhaps fearful of being left behind in what was seen to be a winner-takes-all market (Pearson already had a financial stake in Knewton), Cambridge University Press duly followed suit, signing a contract with Knewton in September of the same year, in order ‘to create personalized learning experiences in [their] industry-leading ELT digital products’. Things moved fast because, by the start of 2014 when Macmillan’s new catalogue appeared, customers were told to ‘watch out for the ‘Big Tree’’, Macmillans’ new platform, which would be powered by Knewton. ‘The power that will come from this world of adaptive learning takes my breath away’, wrote the international marketing director.

Not a lot happened next, at least outwardly. In the following year, 2015, the Macmillan catalogue again told customers to ‘look out for the Big Tree’ which would offer ‘flexible blended learning models’ which could ‘give teachers much more freedom to choose what they want to do in the class and what they want the students to do online outside of the classroom’.

Macmillan_catalogue_2015

But behind the scenes, everything was going wrong. It had become clear that a linear model of language learning, which was a necessary prerequisite of the Knewton system, simply did not lend itself to anything which would be vaguely marketable in established markets. Skills development, not least the development of so-called 21st century skills, which Macmillan was pushing at the time, would not be facilitated by collecting huge amounts of data and algorithms offering personalized pathways. Even if it could, teachers weren’t ready for it, and the projections for platform adoptions were beginning to seem very over-optimistic. Costs were spiralling. Pushed to meet unrealistic deadlines for a product that was totally ill-conceived in the first place, in-house staff were suffering, and this was made worse by what many staffers thought was a toxic work environment. By the end of 2014 (so, before the copy for the 2015 catalogue had been written), the two executives had gone.

For some time previously, skeptics had been joking that Macmillan had been barking up the wrong tree, and by the time that the 2016 catalogue came out, the ‘Big Tree’ had disappeared without trace. The problem was that so much time and money had been thrown at this particular tree that not enough had been left to develop new course materials (for adults). The whole thing had been a huge cock-up of an extraordinary kind.

Cambridge, too, lost interest in their Knewton connection, but were fortunate (or wise) not to have invested so much energy in it. Language learning was only ever a small part of Knewton’s portfolio, and the company had raised over $180 million in venture capital. Its founder, Jose Ferreira, had been a master of marketing hype, but the business model was not delivering any better than the educational side of things. Pearson pulled out. In December 2016, Ferreira stepped down and was replaced as CEO. The company shifted to ‘selling digital courseware directly to higher-ed institutions and students’ but this could not stop the decline. In September of 2019, Knewton was sold for something under $17 million dollars, with investors taking a hit of over $160 million. My heart bleeds.

It was clear, from very early on (see, for example, my posts from 2014 here and here) that Knewton’s product was little more than what Michael Feldstein called ‘snake oil’. Why and how could so many people fall for it for so long? Why and how will so many people fall for it again in the coming decade, although this time it won’t be ‘big data’ that does the seduction, but AI (which kind of boils down to the same thing)? The former Macmillan executives are still at the game, albeit in new companies and talking a slightly modified talk, and Jose Ferreira (whose new venture has already raised $3.7 million) is promising to revolutionize education with a new start-up which ‘will harness the power of technology to improve both access and quality of education’ (thanks to Audrey Watters for the tip). Investors may be desperate to find places to spread their portfolio, but why do the rest of us lap up the hype? It’s a question to which I will return.

 

 

 

 

All aboard …

The point of adaptive learning is that it can personalize learning. When we talk about personalization, mention of learning styles is rarely far away. Jose Ferreira of Knewton (but now ex-CEO Knewton) made his case for learning styles in a blog post that generated a superb and, for Ferreira, embarrassing  discussion in the comments that were subsequently deleted by Knewton. fluentu_learning_stylesFluentU (which I reviewed here) clearly approves of learning styles, or at least sees them as a useful way to market their product, even though it is unclear how their product caters to different styles. Busuu claims to be ‘personalised to fit your style of learning’. Voxy, Inc. (according to their company overview) ‘operates a language learning platform that creates custom curricula for English language learners based on their interests, routines, goals, and learning styles’. Bliu Bliu (which I reviewed here) recommended, in a recent blog post, that learners should ‘find out their language learner type and use it to their advantage’ and suggests, as a starter, trying out ‘Bliu Bliu, where pretty much any learner can find what suits them best’. Memrise ‘uses clever science to adapt to your personal learning style’.  Duolingo’s learning tree ‘effectively rearranges itself to suit individual learning styles’ according to founder, Louis Von Ahn. This list could go on and on.

Learning styles are thriving in ELT coursebooks, too. Here are just three recent examples for learners of various ages. Today! by Todd, D. & Thompson, T. (Pearson, 2014) ‘shapes learning around individual students with graded difficulty practice for mixed-ability classes’ and ‘makes testing mixed-ability classes easier with tests that you can personalise to students’ abilities’.today

Move  it! by Barraclough, C., Beddall, F., Stannett, K., Wildman, J. (Pearson, 2015) offers ‘personalized pathways [which] allow students to optimize their learning outcomes’ and a ‘complete assessment package to monitor students’ learning process’. pearson_move_it

Open Mind Elementary (A2) 2nd edition by Rogers, M., Taylor-Knowles, J. & Taylor-Knowles, S. (Macmillan, 2014) has a whole page devoted to learning styles in the ‘Life Skills’ strand of the course. The scope and sequence describes it in the following terms: ‘Thinking about what you like to do to find your learning style and improve how you learn English’. Here’s the relevant section:macmillan_coursebook

rosenber-learning-stylesMethodology books offer more tips for ways that teachers can cater to different learning styles. Recent examples include Patrycja Kamińska’s  Learning Styles and Second Language Education (Cambridge Scholars, 2014), Tammy Gregersen & Peter D. MacIntyre’s Capitalizing on Language Learners’ Individuality (Multilingual Matters, 2014) and Marjorie Rosenberg’s Spotlight on Learning Styles (Delta Publishing, 2013). Teacher magazines show a continuing interest  in the topic. Humanising Language Teaching and English Teaching Professional are particularly keen. The British Council offers courses about learning styles and its Teaching English website has many articles and lesson plans on the subject (my favourite explains that your students will be more successful if you match your teaching style to their learning styles), as do the websites of all the major publishers. Most ELT conferences will also offer something on the topic.oup_learning_styles

How about language teaching qualifications and frameworks? The Cambridge English Teaching Framework contains a component entitled ‘Understanding learners’ and this specifies as the first part of the component a knowledge of concepts such as learning styles (e.g., visual, auditory, kinaesthetic), multiple intelligences, learning strategies, special needs, affect. Unsurprisingly, the Cambridge CELTA qualification requires successful candidates to demonstrate an awareness of the different learning styles and preferences that adults bring to learning English. The Cambridge DELTA requires successful candidates to accommodate learners according to their different abilities, motivations, and learning styles. The Eaquals Framework for Language Teacher Training and Development requires teachers at Development Phase 2 t0 have the skill of determining and anticipating learners’ language learning needs and learning styles at a range of levels, selecting appropriate ways of finding out about these.

Outside of ELT, learning styles also continue to thrive. Phil Newton (2015 ‘The learning styles myth is thriving in higher education’ Frontiers in Psychology 6: 1908) carried out a survey of educational publications  (higher education) between 2013 and 2016, and found that an overwhelming majority (89%) implicitly or directly endorse the use of learning styles. He also cites research showing that 93% of UK schoolteachers believe that ‘individuals learn better when they receive information in their preferred Learning Style’, with similar figures in other countries. 72% of Higher Education institutions in the US teach ‘learning style theory’ as part of faculty development for online teachers. Advocates of learning styles in English language teaching are not alone.

But, unfortunately, …

In case you weren’t aware of it, there is a rather big problem with learning styles. There is a huge amount of research  which suggests that learning styles (and, in particular, teaching attempts to cater to learning styles) need to be approached with extreme scepticism. Much of this research was published long before the blog posts, advertising copy, books and teaching frameworks (listed above) were written.  What does this research have to tell us?

The first problem concerns learning styles taxonomies. There are three issues here: many people do not fit one particular style, the information used to assign people to styles is often inadequate, and there are so many different styles that it becomes cumbersome to link particular learners to particular styles (Kirschner, P. A. & van Merriënboer, J. J. G. 2013. ‘Do Learners Really Know Best? Urban Legends in Education’ Educational Psychologist, 48 / 3, 169-183). To summarise, given the lack of clarity as to which learning styles actually exist, it may be ‘neither viable nor justified’ for learning styles to form the basis of lesson planning (Hall, G. 2011. Exploring English Language Teaching. Abingdon, Oxon.: Routledge p.140). More detailed information about these issues can be found in the following sources:

Coffield, F., Moseley, D., Hall, E. & Ecclestone, K. 2004. Learning styles and pedagogy in post-16 learning: a systematic and critical review. London: Learning and Skills Research Centre

Dembo, M. H. & Howard, K. 2007. Advice about the use of learning styles: a major myth in education. Journal of College Reading & Learning 37 / 2: 101 – 109

Kirschner, P. A. 2017. Stop propagating the learning styles myth. Computers & Education 106: 166 – 171

Pashler, H., McDaniel, M., Rohrer, D. & Bjork, E. 2008. Learning styles concepts and evidence. Psychological Science in the Public Interest 9 / 3: 105 – 119

Riener, C. & Willingham, D. 2010. The myth of learning styles. Change – The Magazine of Higher Learning

The second problem concerns what Pashler et al refer to as the ‘meshing hypothesis’: the idea that instructional interventions can be effectively tailored to match particular learning styles. Pashler et al concluded that the available taxonomies of student types do not offer any valid help in deciding what kind of instruction to offer each individual. Even in 2008, their finding was not new. Back in 1978, a review of 15 studies that looked at attempts to match learning styles to approaches to first language reading instruction, concluded that modality preference ‘has not been found to interact significantly with the method of teaching’ (Tarver, Sara & M. M. Dawson. 1978. Modality preference and the teaching of reading. Journal of Learning Disabilities 11: 17 – 29). The following year, two other researchers concluded that [the assumption that one can improve instruction by matching materials to children’s modality strengths] appears to lack even minimal empirical support. (Arter, J.A. & Joseph A. Jenkins 1979 ‘Differential diagnosis-prescriptive teaching: A critical appraisal’ Review of Educational Research 49: 517-555). Fast forward 20 years to 1999, and Stahl (Different strokes for different folks?’ American Educator Fall 1999 pp. 1 – 5) was writing the reason researchers roll their eyes at learning styles is the utter failure to find that assessing children’s learning styles and matching to instructional methods has any effect on learning. The area with the most research has been the global and analytic styles […]. Over the past 30 years, the names of these styles have changed – from ‘visual’ to ‘global’ and from ‘auditory’ to ‘analytic’ – but the research results have not changed. For a recent evaluation of the practical applications of learning styles, have a look at Rogowsky, B. A., Calhoun, B. M. & Tallal, P. 2015. ‘Matching Learning Style to Instructional Method: Effects on Comprehension’ Journal of Educational Psychology 107 / 1: 64 – 78. Even David Kolb, the Big Daddy of learning styles, now concedes that there is no strong evidence that teachers should tailor their instruction to their student’s particular learning styles (reported in Glenn, D. 2009. ‘Matching teaching style to learning style may not help students’ The Chronicle of Higher Education). To summarise, the meshing hypothesis is entirely unsupported in the scientific literature. It is a myth (Howard-Jones, P. A. 2014. ‘Neuroscience and education: myths and messages’ Nature Reviews Neuroscience).

This brings me back to the blog posts, advertising blurb, coursebooks, methodology books and so on that continue to tout learning styles. The writers of these texts typically do not acknowledge that there’s a problem of any kind. Are they unaware of the research? Or are they aware of it, but choose not to acknowledge it? I suspect that the former is often the case with the app developers. But if the latter is the case, what  might those reasons be? In the case of teacher training specifications, the reason is probably practical. Changing a syllabus is an expensive and time-consuming operation. But in the case of some of the ELT writers, I suspect that they hang on in there because they so much want to believe.

As Newton (2015: 2) notes, intuitively, there is much that is attractive about the concept of Learning Styles. People are obviously different and Learning Styles appear to offer educators a way to accommodate individual learner differences.  Pashler et al (2009:107) add that another related factor that may play a role in the popularity of the learning-styles approach has to do with responsibility. If a person or a person’s child is not succeeding or excelling in school, it may be more comfortable for the person to think that the educational system, not the person or the child himself or herself, is responsible. That is, rather than attribute one’s lack of success to any lack of ability or effort on one’s part, it may be more appealing to think that the fault lies with instruction being inadequately tailored to one’s learning style. In that respect, there may be linkages to the self-esteem movement that became so influential, internationally, starting in the 1970s. There is no reason to doubt that many of those who espouse learning styles have good intentions.

No one, I think, seriously questions whether learners might not benefit from a wide variety of input styles and learning tasks. People are obviously different. MacIntyre et al (MacIntyre, P.D., Gregersen, T. & Clément, R. 2016. ‘Individual Differences’ in Hall, G. (ed.) The Routledge Handbook of English Language Teaching. Abingdon, Oxon: Routledge, pp.310 – 323, p.319) suggest that teachers might consider instructional methods that allow them to capitalise on both variety and choice and also help learners find ways to do this for themselves inside and outside the classroom. Jill Hadfield (2006. ‘Teacher Education and Trainee Learning Style’ RELC Journal 37 / 3: 369 – 388) recommends that we design our learning tasks across the range of learning styles so that our trainees can move across the spectrum, experiencing both the comfort of matching and the challenge produced by mismatching. But this is not the same thing as claiming that identification of a particular learning style can lead to instructional decisions. The value of books like Rosenberg’s Spotlight on Learning Styles lies in the wide range of practical suggestions for varying teaching styles and tasks. They contain ideas of educational value: it is unfortunate that the theoretical background is so thin.

In ELT things are, perhaps, beginning to change. Russ Mayne’s blog post Learning styles: facts and fictions in 2012 got a few heads nodding, and he followed this up 2 years later with a presentation at IATEFL looking at various aspects of ELT, including learning styles, which have little or no scientific credibility. Carol Lethaby and Patricia Harries gave a talk at IATEFL 2016, Changing the way we approach learning styles in teacher education, which was also much discussed and shared online. They also had an article in ELT Journal called Learning styles and teacher training: are we perpetuating neuromyths? (2016 ELTJ 70 / 1: 16 – 27). Even Pearson, in a blog post of November 2016, (Mythbusters: A review of research on learning styles) acknowledges that there is a shocking lack of evidence to support the core learning styles claim that customizing instruction based on students’ preferred learning styles produces better learning than effective universal instruction, concluding that  it is impossible to recommend learning styles as an effective strategy for improving learning outcomes.

 

 

Pearson’s ‘Efficacy’ initiative is a series of ‘commitments designed to measure and increase the company’s impact on learning outcomes around the world’. The company’s dedicated website  offers two glossy brochures with a wide range of interesting articles, a good questionnaire tool that can be used by anyone to measure the efficacy of their own educational products or services, as well as an excellent selection of links to other articles, some of which are critical of the initiative. These include Michael Feldstein’s long blog post  ‘Can Pearson Solve the Rubric’s Cube?’ which should be a first port of call for anyone wanting to understand better what is going on.

What does it all boil down to? The preface to Pearson’s ‘Asking More: the Path to Efficacy’ by CEO John Fallon provides a succinct introduction. Efficacy in education, says Fallon, is ‘making a measurable impact on someone’s life through learning’. ‘Measurable’ is the key word, because, as Fallon continues, ‘it is increasingly possible to determine what works and what doesn’t in education, just as in healthcare.’ We need ‘a relentless focus’ on ‘the learning outcomes we deliver’ because it is these outcomes that can be measured in ‘a systematic, evidence-based fashion’. Measurement, of course, is all the easier when education is delivered online, ‘real-time learner data’ can be captured, and the power of analytics can be deployed.

Pearson are very clearly aligning themselves with recent moves towards a more evidence-based education. In the US, Obama’s Race to the Top is one manifestation of this shift. Britain (with, for example, the Education Endowment Foundation) and France (with its Fonds d’Expérimentation pour la Jeunesse ) are both going in the same direction. Efficacy is all about evidence-based practice.

Both the terms ‘efficacy’ and ‘evidence-based practice’ come originally from healthcare. Fallon references this connection in the quote two paragraphs above. In the UK last year, Ben Goldacre (medical doctor, author of ‘Bad Science’ and a relentless campaigner against pseudo-science) was commissioned by the UK government to write a paper entitled ‘Building Evidence into Education’ . In this, he argued for the need to introduce randomized controlled trials into education in a similar way to their use in medicine.

As Fallon observed in the preface to the Pearson ‘Efficacy’ brochure, this all sounds like ‘common sense’. But, as Ben Goldacre discovered, things are not so straightforward in education. An excellent article in The Guardian outlined some of the problems in Goldacre’s paper.

With regard to ELT, Pearson’s ‘Efficacy’ initiative will stand or fall with the validity of their Global Scale of English, discussed in my March post ‘Knowledge Graphs’ . However, there are a number of other considerations that make the whole evidence-based / efficacy business rather less common-sensical than might appear at first glance.

  • The purpose of English language teaching and learning (at least, in compulsory education) is rather more than simply the mastery of grammatical and lexical systems, or the development of particular language skills. Some of these other purposes (e.g. the development of intercultural competence or the acquisition of certain 21st century skills, such as creativity) continue to be debated. There is very little consensus about the details of what these purposes (or outcomes) might be, or how they can be defined. Without consensus about these purposes / outcomes, it is not possible to measure them.
  • Even if we were able to reach a clear consensus, many of these outcomes do not easily lend themselves to measurement, and even less to low-cost measurement.
  • Although we clearly need to know what ‘works’ and what ‘doesn’t work’ in language teaching, there is a problem in assigning numerical values. As the EduThink blog observes, ‘the assignation of numerical values is contestable, problematic and complex. As teachers and researchers we should be engaging with the complexity [of education] rather than the reductive simplicities of [assigning numerical values]’.
  • Evidence-based medicine has resulted in unquestionable progress, but it is not without its fierce critics. A short summary of the criticisms can be found here .  It would be extremely risky to assume that a contested research procedure from one discipline can be uncritically applied to another.
  • Kathleen Graves, in her plenary at IATEFL 2014, ‘The Efficiency of Inefficiency’, explicitly linked health care and language teaching. She described a hospital where patient care was as much about human relationships as it was about medical treatment, an aspect of the hospital that went unnoticed by efficiency experts, since this could not be measured. See this blog for a summary of her talk.

These issues need to be discussed much further before we get swept away by the evidence-based bandwagon. If they are not, the real danger is that, as John Fallon cautions, we end up counting things that don’t really count, and we don’t count the things that really do count. Somehow, I doubt that an instrument like the Global Scale of English will do the trick.

Personalization is one of the key leitmotifs in current educational discourse. The message is clear: personalization is good, one-size-fits-all is bad. ‘How to personalize learning and how to differentiate instruction for diverse classrooms are two of the great educational challenges of the 21st century,’ write Trilling and Fadel, leading lights in the Partnership for 21st Century Skills (P21)[1]. Barack Obama has repeatedly sung the praises of, and the need for, personalized learning and his policies are fleshed out by his Secretary of State, Arne Duncan, in speeches and on the White House blog: ‘President Obama described the promise of personalized learning when he launched the ConnectED initiative last June. Technology is a powerful tool that helps create robust personalized learning environments.’ In the UK, personalized learning has been government mantra for over 10 years. The EU, UNESCO, OECD, the Gates Foundation – everyone, it seems, is singing the same tune.

Personalization, we might all agree, is a good thing. How could it be otherwise? No one these days is going to promote depersonalization or impersonalization in education. What exactly it means, however, is less clear. According to a UNESCO Policy Brief[2], the term was first used in the context of education in the 1970s by Victor Garcìa Hoz, a senior Spanish educationalist and member of Opus Dei at the University of Madrid. This UNESCO document then points out that ‘unfortunately, up to this date there is no single definition of this concept’.

In ELT, the term has been used in a very wide variety of ways. These range from the far-reaching ideas of people like Gertrude Moskowitz, who advocated a fundamentally learner-centred form of instruction, to the much more banal practice of getting students to produce a few personalized examples of an item of grammar they have just studied. See Scott Thornbury’s A-Z blog for an interesting discussion of personalization in ELT.

As with education in general, and ELT in particular, ‘personalization’ is also bandied around the adaptive learning table. Duolingo advertises itself as the opposite of one-size-fits-all, and as an online equivalent of the ‘personalized education you can get from a small classroom teacher or private tutor’. Babbel offers a ‘personalized review manager’ and Rosetta Stone’s Classroom online solution allows educational institutions ‘to shift their language program away from a ‘one-size-fits-all-curriculum’ to a more individualized approach’. As far as I can tell, the personalization in these examples is extremely restricted. The language syllabus is fixed and although users can take different routes up the ‘skills tree’ or ‘knowledge graph’, they are totally confined by the pre-determination of those trees and graphs. This is no more personalized learning than asking students to make five true sentences using the present perfect. Arguably, it is even less!

This is not, in any case, the kind of personalization that Obama, the Gates Foundation, Knewton, et al have in mind when they conflate adaptive learning with personalization. Their definition is much broader and summarised in the US National Education Technology Plan of 2010: ‘Personalized learning means instruction is paced to learning needs, tailored to learning preferences, and tailored to the specific interests of different learners. In an environment that is fully personalized, the learning objectives and content as well as the method and pace may all vary (so personalization encompasses differentiation and individualization).’ What drives this is the big data generated by the students’ interactions with the technology (see ‘Part 4: big data and analytics’ of ‘The Guide’ on this blog).

What remains unclear is exactly how this might work in English language learning. Adaptive software can only personalize to the extent that the content of an English language learning programme allows it to do so. It may be true that each student using adaptive software ‘gets a more personalised experience no matter whose content the student is consuming’, as Knewton’s David Liu puts it. But the potential for any really meaningful personalization depends crucially on the nature and extent of this content, along with the possibility of variable learning outcomes. For this reason, we are not likely to see any truly personalized large-scale adaptive learning programs for English any time soon.

Nevertheless, technology is now central to personalized language learning. A good learning platform, which allows learners to connect to ‘social networking systems, podcasts, wikis, blogs, encyclopedias, online dictionaries, webinars, online English courses, various apps’, etc (see Alexandra Chistyakova’s eltdiary), means that personalization could be more easily achieved.

For the time being, at least, adaptive learning systems would seem to work best for ‘those things that can be easily digitized and tested like math problems and reading passages’ writes Barbara Bray . Or low level vocabulary and grammar McNuggets, we might add. Ideal for, say, ‘English Grammar in Use’. But meaningfully personalized language learning?

student-data-and-personalization

‘Personalized learning’ sounds very progressive, a utopian educational horizon, and it sounds like it ought to be the future of ELT (as Cleve Miller argues). It also sounds like a pretty good slogan on which to hitch the adaptive bandwagon. But somehow, just somehow, I suspect that when it comes to adaptive learning we’re more likely to see more testing, more data collection and more depersonalization.

[1] Trilling, B. & Fadel, C. 2009 21st Century Skills (San Francisco: Wiley) p.33

[2] Personalized learning: a new ICT­enabled education approach, UNESCO Institute for Information Technologies in Education, Policy Brief March 2012 iite.unesco.org/pics/publications/en/files/3214716.pdf