Posts Tagged ‘GSE’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

References

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

 

I was intrigued to learn earlier this year that Oxford University Press had launched a new online test of English language proficiency, called the Oxford Test of English (OTE). At the conference where I first heard about it, I was struck by the fact that the presentation of the OUP sponsored plenary speaker was entitled ‘The Power of Assessment’ and dealt with formative assessment / assessment for learning. Oxford clearly want to position themselves as serious competitors to Pearson and Cambridge English in the testing business.

The brochure for the exam kicks off with a gem of a marketing slogan, ‘Smart. Smarter. SmarTest’ (geddit?), and the next few pages give us all the key information.

Faster and more flexible‘Traditional language proficiency tests’ is presumably intended to refer to the main competition (Pearson and Cambridge English). Cambridge First takes, in total, 3½ hours; the Pearson Test of English Academic takes 3 hours. The OTE takes, in total, 2 hours and 5 minutes. It can be taken, in theory, on any day of the year, although this depends on the individual Approved Test Centres, and, again, in theory, it can be booked as little as 14 days in advance. Results should take only two weeks to arrive. Further flexibility is offered in the way that candidates can pick ’n’ choose which of the four skills they want to have tests, just one or all four, although, as an incentive to go the whole hog, they will only get a ‘Certificate of Proficiency’ if they do all four.

A further incentive to do all four skills at the same time can be found in the price structure. One centre in Spain is currently offering the test for one single skill at Ꞓ41.50, but do the whole lot, and it will only set you back Ꞓ89. For a high-stakes test, this is cheap. In the UK right now, both Cambridge First and Pearson Academic cost in the region of £150, and IELTS a bit more than that. So, faster, more flexible and cheaper … Oxford means business.

Individual experience

The ‘individual experience’ on the next page of the brochure is pure marketing guff. This is, after all, a high-stakes, standardised test. It may be true that ‘the Speaking and Writing modules provide randomly generated tasks, making the overall test different each time’, but there can only be a certain number of permutations. What’s more, in ‘traditional tests’, like Cambridge First, where there is a live examiner or two, an individualised experience is unavoidable.

More interesting to me is the reference to adaptive technology. According to the brochure, ‘The Listening and Reading modules are adaptive, which means the test difficulty adjusts in response to your answers, quickly finding the right level for each test taker. This means that the questions are at just the right level of challenge, making the test shorter and less stressful than traditional proficiency tests’.

My curiosity piqued, I decided to look more closely at the Reading module. I found one practice test online which is the same as the demo that is available at the OTE website . Unfortunately, this example is not adaptive: it is at B1 level. The actual test records scores between 51 and 140, corresponding to levels A2, B1 and B2.

Test scores

The tasks in the Reading module are familiar from coursebooks and other exams: multiple choice, multiple matching and gapped texts.

Reading tasks

According to the exam specifications, these tasks are designed to measure the following skills:

  • Reading to identify main message, purpose, detail
  • Expeditious reading to identify specific information, opinion and attitude
  • Reading to identify text structure, organizational features of a text
  • Reading to identify attitude / opinion, purpose, reference, the meanings of words in context, global meaning

The ability to perform these skills depends, ultimately, on the candidate’s knowledge of vocabulary and grammar, as can be seen in the examples below.

Task 1Task 2

How exactly, I wonder, does the test difficulty adjust in response to the candidate’s answers? The algorithm that is used depends on measures of the difficulty of the test items. If these items are to be made harder or easier, the only significant way that I can see of doing this is by making the key vocabulary lower- or higher-frequency. This, in turn, is only possible if vocabulary and grammar has been tagged as being at a particular level. The most well-known tools for doing this have been developed by Pearson (with the GSE Teacher Toolkit ) and Cambridge English Profile . To the best of my knowledge, Oxford does not yet have a tool of this kind (at least, none that is publicly available). However, the data that OUP will accumulate from OTE scripts and recordings will be invaluable in building a database which their lexicographers can use in developing such a tool.

Even when a data-driven (and numerically precise) tool is available for modifying the difficulty of test items, I still find it hard to understand how the adaptivity will impact on the length or the stress of the reading test. The Reading module is only 35 minutes long and contains only 22 items. Anything that is significantly shorter must surely impact on the reliability of the test.

My conclusion from this is that the adaptive element of the Reading and Listening modules in the OTE is less important to the test itself than it is to building a sophisticated database (not dissimilar to the GSE Teacher Toolkit or Cambridge English Profile). The value of this will be found, in due course, in calibrating all OUP materials. The OTE has already been aligned to the Oxford Online Placement Test (OOPT) and, presumably, coursebooks will soon follow. This, in turn, will facilitate a vertically integrated business model, like Pearson and CUP, where everything from placement test, to coursework, to formative assessment, to final proficiency testing can be on offer.

It’s international ELT conference season again, with TESOL Chicago having just come to a close and IATEFL Brighton soon to start. I decided to take a look at how the subject of personalized learning will be covered at the second of these. Taking the conference programme , I trawled through looking for references to my topic.

Jing_word_cloudMy first question was: how do conference presenters feel about personalised learning? One way of finding out is by looking at the adjectives that are found in close proximity. This is what you get.

The overall enthusiasm is even clearer when the contexts are looked at more closely. Here are a few examples:

  • inspiring assessment, personalising learning
  • personalised training can contribute to professionalism and […] spark ideas for teacher trainers
  • a personalised educational experience that ultimately improves learner outcomes
  • personalised teacher development: is it achievable?

Particularly striking is the complete absence of anything that suggests that personalized learning might not be a ‘good thing’. The assumption throughout is that personalized learning is desirable and the only question that is asked is how it can be achieved. Unfortunately (and however much we might like to believe that it is a ‘good thing’), there is a serious lack of research evidence which demonstrates that this is the case. I have written about this here and here and here . For a useful summary of the current situation, see Benjamin Riley’s article where he writes that ‘it seems wise to ask what evidence we presently have that personalized learning works. Answer: Virtually none. One remarkable aspect of the personalized-learning craze is how quickly the concept has spread despite the almost total absence of rigorous research in support of it, at least thus far.’

Given that personalized learning can mean so many things and given the fact that people do not have space to define their terms in their conference abstracts, it is interesting to see what other aspects of language learning / teaching it is associated with. The four main areas are as follows (in alphabetical order):

  • assessment (especially formative assessment) / learning outcomes
  • continuous professional development
  • learner autonomy
  • technology / blended learning

The IATEFL TD SIG would appear to be one of the main promoters of personalized learning (or personalized teacher development) with a one-day pre-conference event entitled ‘Personalised teacher development – is it achievable?’ and a ‘showcase’ forum entitled ‘Forum on Effective & personalised: the holy grail of CPD’. Amusingly (but coincidentally, I suppose), the forum takes place in the ‘Cambridge room’ (see below).

I can understand why the SIG organisers may have chosen this focus. It’s something of a hot topic, and getting hotter. For example:

  • Cambridge University Press has identified personalization as one of the ‘six key principles of effective teacher development programmes’ and is offering tailor-made teacher development programmes for institutions.
  • NILE and Macmillan recently launched a partnership whose brief is to ‘curate personalised professional development with an appropriate mix of ‘formal’ and ‘informal’ learning delivered online, blended and face to face’.
  • Pearson has developed the Pearson’s Teacher Development Interactive (TDI) – ‘an interactive online course to train and certify teachers to deliver effective instruction in English as a foreign language […] You can complete each module on your own time, at your own pace from anywhere you have access to the internet.’

These examples do not, of course, provide any explanation for why personalized learning is a hot topic, but the answer to that is simple. Money. Billions and billions, and if you want a breakdown, have a look at the appendix of Monica Bulger’s report, ‘Personalized Learning: The Conversations We’re Not Having’ . Starting with Microsoft and the Gates Foundation plus Facebook and the Chan / Zuckerberg Foundation, dozens of venture philanthropists have thrown unimaginable sums of money at the idea of personalized learning. They have backed up their cash with powerful lobbying and their message has got through. Consent has been successfully manufactured.

PearsonOne of the most significant players in this field is Pearson, who have long been one of the most visible promoters of personalized learning (see the screen capture). At IATEFL, two of the ten conference abstracts which include the word ‘personalized’ are directly sponsored by Pearson. Pearson actually have ten presentations they have directly sponsored or are very closely associated with. Many of these do not refer to personalized learning in the abstract, but would presumably do so in the presentations themselves. There is, for example, a report on a professional development programme in Brazil using TDI (see above). There are two talks about the GSE, described as a tool ‘used to provide a personalised view of students’ language’. The marketing intent is clear: Pearson is to be associated with personalized learning (which is, in turn, associated with a variety of tech tools) – they even have a VP of data analytics, data science and personalized learning.

But the direct funding of the message is probably less important these days than the reinforcement, by those with no vested interests, of the set of beliefs, the ideology, which underpin the selling of personalized learning products. According to this script, personalized learning can promote creativity, empowerment, inclusiveness and preparedness for the real world of work. It sets itself up in opposition to lockstep and factory models of education, and sets learners free as consumers in a world of educational choice. It is a message with which it is hard for many of us to disagree.

manufacturing consentIt is also a marvellous example of propaganda, of the way that consent is manufactured. (If you haven’t read it yet, it’s probably time to read Herman and Chomsky’s ‘Manufacturing Consent: The Political Economy of the Mass Media’.) An excellent account of the way that consent for personalized learning has been manufactured can be found at Benjamin Doxtdator’s blog .

So, a hot topic it is, and its multiple inclusion in the conference programme will no doubt be welcomed by those who are selling ‘personalized’ products. It must be very satisfying to see how normalised the term has become, how it’s no longer necessary to spend too much on promoting the idea, how it’s so associated with technology, (formative) assessment, autonomy and teacher development … since others are doing it for you.