Posts Tagged ‘inclusivity’

Always learning

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

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

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

Lifelong learning, democracy and human capital

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

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

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

Lifelong learning and English language teaching

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

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

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

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

Lifelong learning and CPD

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

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

References

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Innovation and ELT

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

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

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

Innovation and a better world

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

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

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

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

The ‘ELT’ in the ELTons

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

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

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

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

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

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

References

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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