#ELTchat, a weekly Twitter chat for English Language Teaching professionals, returned on 22 January 2014 after the Christmas/New Year break. The chat is now held once per week, every Wednesday, alternating between 12 noon and 9pm GMT each week. For the latest news on #ELTchat and the latest topics up for voting, click here.
Summary: Pre-packaged, marketable language learning
The first chat of 2014 was proposed by @cioccas (above) who, unfortunately, could not join in the actual chat due to its late timing – currently it is GMT+11 in Australia, where she lives. The topic title was distilled from @cioccas’ original lengthy proposal (above) which made reference to an abstract by Scott Thornbury for an upcoming #AusELT chat:
I would go further, though, and add that one of the unintended consequences of an uncritical commitment to educational technology might be the effective disempowering of teachers in the interests of servicing the neoliberal ‘knowledge economy’. As Lin (2013) warns: ‘Language teaching is increasingly prepackaged and delivered as if it were a standardised, marketable product […] This commodifying ideology of language teaching and learning has gradually penetrated into school practices, turning teachers into ‘service providers’. The invisible consequence is that language learning and teaching has become a transaction of teachers passing on a marketable set of standardised knowledge items and skills to students.’ This commodification process is, of course, massively expedited by digital technologies. (emphasis added)
@cioccas was interested by the reference to Lin’s (2013) study and the notion therein of ‘prepackaged’ and ‘marketable’ language teaching. The first thing that chat participants attempted to do was define what they understood this to mean.
For @harrisonmike it is the idea that one company provides all the material, such as all the coursebooks, learning materials and test sheets. One body owns all the material from which lessons are planned. It is the monetisation of educational products across the board, he added later. It has been called the ‘Pearsonization’ (or ‘Haussmannisation’ according to a post by Luke Meddings at TESOLFrance, referenced by @harrisonmike) after the largest education publisher in the world. @Tefladventures wondered if a situation where schools provide all the materials that teachers are required to use, was an example, to which Marisa_C agreed, suggesting that ‘it could be printed or online pre-prepared lessons that teachers have to deliver in sync.’
It was generally agreed that prefabricated materials, or ‘prefab mats’, can bring benefits to newly qualified teachers. It can ensure providers that all teachers are on the ‘same page’, even demanding it in one case. It can provide ‘a framework … but [we should] be encouraging a developing of teaching personality,’ stated @Innov8rEduc8r, who was not a fan of mandating the same textbook for every class, later suggesting that constraints might provide motivation for wickedly creative teachers and imagined many teachers disobeying. @tefladventures, who thought it easier for new teachers to have a syllabus but with freedoms, said that in her situation (Vietnam) there is a lot of ‘teaching to the test,’ instead on focusing on what students actually want to learn. This would probably mean ‘grammar’ according to @NikkiFortova. @patrickelt wondered if learners can only express that they want to learn grammar. ‘The course program doesn’t usually leave time for what they [actually] want,” added @tefladventures. When asked if this was an argument in favour of packaging, @nroberts said that she had found that ‘students’ parents are particularly in favour of testing and teaching to test.’ @nroberts88 suggested it sounded ‘Orwellian’. He also stated that there is so much pressure in Spain to pass exams such as the FCE before being able to graduate. @tefladventures realised that a new law was coming in Spain before she left and found it interesting that it had been implemented. @Marisa_C believed that her experience of one big chain, in Greece, Eurognosi, elsewhere written as ‘Euro-Nosey’ was, in hindsight, somewhat Orwellian.
@Shaunwilden stated there is a difference between a syllabus and the whole package. @Shaunwilden wondered if the definition is any different from a school using a coursebook package. In some senses, a coursebook is a pre-packaged set of materials, but the danger comes, according to @harrisonmike, when just one body owns it and everything else that is used in the classroom or the books become standardised across schools. @NikkiFortova did not think she had ever seen pre-packaged materials, unless we are talking about the rigidity of one coursebook.
Teachers could not create ‘Individualized programs for each student’ are just not possible where learning is ‘Pearsonali(s)ed,’ according to @victorhugor. He thought the first decision by most language teachers is to select the textbook and workbook. It is a dream for publishers when [a textbook] goes global, he added, “because a dependant teacher will buy, buy, buy.”
From @teacherphili‘s own teaching beginnings, this was something he had experienced at Jungchul Hagwon, a franchise of cram schools in South Korea. The concept is quite commonplace to those working in other Asian contexts. Every franchise has the same material and there are set texts for each age group and level, which lay down the possible progression that can be made. The whole operation, including (not very hidden) CCTV in every classroom, as @BobK99 asked, was set up for the selling to and the ease of understanding by parents, who were performed to at scripted end-of-level presentations. It was primarily a business first, a childminder second. Learning authentic English came in third, at best.
@patrickelt questioned whether the only possible ‘advantage’ in a cram school situation could be for the students’ parents. @teacherphili reiterated this so-called benefit, along with the possible benefit for the inexperienced, first time teacher who needs everything laid out for them. @NikkiFortova later rhetorically asked whether there were any large language schools in Asia that don’t force materials on teachers.
Standardisation / Standard(ised) Environment
@Marisa_C asked why Directors of Studies and school owners do it [offer pre-packaged courses]. Is it to market better or because they don’t trust their teachers? @NikkiFortova wondered if it is done to help standardisation. ‘Of what?’, asked @Innov8rEduc8r. Not according to @Marisa_C, who claimed that “[standardisation] is a myth and a Utopian delusion. :-D”
@SueAnnan offered an example of a seemingly cost-ineffective Swedish school which sends students to a different environment [Jersey], provides all the material, employs local teachers and tells them what to teach. @teacherphili thought this really was ‘the whole package.’ ‘It’s so soulless’, she said, before claryifying that the Swedish students, fortunately, do not come to her school, just the island. The kids get a holiday, the company makes money.
@mitchefl thought pre-packaging to be more of a business ploy than about education. She once worked in a school which provided the whole course, although teachers could still ‘supplement’ the material, which was a word that @Innov8rEduc8r felt allowed scope for creativity. There was still no room to ‘personalise’ the lessons … probably because of marketing, before sarcastically adding ‘that we should be wary of personalising … wouldn’t want teachers showing their own style … might engage the students!’ There seemed to be a slight confusion around this point between ‘pearsonalising’ as roughly defined above and ‘personalising’ – that is, bringing something of yourself to class. They are, of course, distinctly different.
@harrisonmike used the phrase, ‘standard(-ised) environment’, which could mean a possible unified set of criteria, according to @NikkiFortova. He felt that students in these settings were becoming less creative and imaginative. @Innov8rEduc8r questioned this, prompting @harrisonmike to reply that “Some students over the last few years [were] really not prepared to put the effort in. Expecting it all on a plate.’ @patrickelt suspected students have imagination but do not express it, which was a possible factor, ‘especially when little … space for imagination [is] given in assessments,’ added @harrisonmike. @Innov8rEduc8r liked ‘finding out their passions, interests. It’s a challenge,’ he stated. This creative apathy was not an observation shared by @NikkiFortova. Her students are amazingly creative, she felt, before adding that ‘as long as assessment carries on taking a bottom-up approach, it won’t get more creative.’ This creativity is more difficult in standardised environments, although maybe ‘we just have rethink our view of what testing and assessment looks like,’ she added. ‘Rethink, re-shape, re-conceptualising,’ responded @Innov8rEduc8r. This could lead to ‘a more top-down rather than bottom-up approach to language learning,’ said @NikkiFortova.
@Marisa_C summarised one general consensus that we need a set of clear objectives but have the freedom to supplement when appropriate. But also to get creative, added @Innov8rEduc8r, while @SueAnnan agreed in part. She said that teachers also need freedom to meet the needs of students, which is not true in a standardised environment.
@bethcagnol popped in with a random thought – many of her clients had requested not to provide pre-packaged training, which appealed to @Innov8rEduc8r. In France, many DoSs say they can provide the teacher [on business English classes] with packages to make planning easier, while companies are requesting more tailored courses, @bethcagnol added. This was recognised by @Marisa_C from her own context at CELT Athens. This was interesting for @patrickelt as many teacher training courses do seem to provide these materials. ‘If many schools opt out of providing packages, will this then change the responsibilities of DOSs’, said @bethcagnol, before adding that she had recently hired a teacher who refused to plan. ‘It’s a risk but it’s working so far,’ she said. The lack of trust in the trainer is, also for her, a major factor in pre-packaging. Many large language companies are run by non-teachers. It is a general critique of education provision, not just ELT.
Moving the topic on, @Marisa_C subsequently asked if all teachers are good syllabus designers or have the ability to analyse students’ needs. If not, then can this explain pre-packaging? Clear objectives and a healthy library full of resources helps, responded @tefladventures. Teachers should be trained in this. ‘Talk to the students, see what they can [already] do,’ suggested @harrisonmike. But if it is a large concern, with 300+ teachers, you can’t possibly hope to monitor them all, said @tefladventures. It may not be about the materials per se, ‘if teachers have the scope to deviate,’ pointed out @Innov8rEduc8r. @harrisonmike asked whether language schools need an appealing gimmick. @mitchefl thought that some kind of ‘gimmick’ might be needed ‘to help them stand out from the crowd.’
@patrickelt raised the point of distance learning materials. Pre-packaged materials are not localised, interjected @Sookjhee. Although they could be, suggested @BobK99. Although a number of participants thought this was a good point, it was not expanded upon.
Being aware of individuals in a group is important, but getting them to collaborate is key,’ for @NikkiFortova. ‘I think some people confuse personalisation, mentioned earlier, with heavy individualisation,’ said @Marisa_C. But, the individual is too easily forgotten, said @Innov8rEduc8r, who claimed that you can still have awful teaching with prefab materials. They do not help teacher development much. @SueAnnan added that “in many ways these are more difficult as they don’t always take loyalty into account.”
This thread lead to prompted @bethcagnol to ask a devil’s advocate question. Do pre-packaged programmes cause awful teaching? ‘Not with an experienced teacher,’ according to @SueAnnan. ‘Less likely to happen,’ believed @harrisonmike. An awful teacher will always be an awful teacher, regardless of material used, believed @tefladventures.
@Marisa_C expressed this slightly differently. Do students suffer from pre-packaging and in what way? Can well-designed and taught prefab lessons work well? Pre-packaged materials can be ‘a good model of they are well written and based on sound learning and teaching beliefs,’ replied @NikkiFortova. ‘I guess it comes down to [students’] needs, interests and passions – are they developing life skills?’ asked @Innov8rEduc8r. ‘Packages can suck the life out of teaching,’ however, thought @bethcagnol.
Language is not packaged up in real life, so it should not be in teaching or learning,’ affirmed @harrisonmike, before adding that ‘packaged learning materials promote [an] atomistic rather than [a] holistic view of language’. To which @NikkiFortova replied, I think the trend towards language learning, due I’d say to testing, is analytic rather than holistic, at least in the [Czech Republic].’
So packaging does not guarantee quality of instruction or learning! Go tell industrially oriented school owners!!! shouted @Marisa_C towards the end.
At this point, the chat was wound up, with particpants, including some first-timers, thanked for their contributions. It was a ‘highly energetic chat’ according to @Innov8rEduc8r and a great way to kick off #ELTchat in 2014. People were reminded that the chats are now once a week at the alternating times of 12 noon and 9pm GMT. See #ELTchat for more.
Link referred to by @cioccas:
Lin, A. 2013. Toward paradigmatic change in TESOL methodologies: Building plurilingual pedagogies from the ground up. TESOL Quarterly, 47, 3
Thornbury, S. 2014. Abstract for upcoming #AusELT Twitter chat on ‘Ed Tech: The Mouse That Roared?’ Available at: http://bit.ly/1ayiEHR.
Links referred to by @harrisonmike:
Meddings, L., 30 Nov 2013. We Teach to Reach, they Test to Invest. Available at: http://bit.ly/1mWaFam. Accessed 22 January 2014.
Ravitch, D., 5 June 2012. The Pearsonizing of the American Mind. Available at: http://bit.ly/1d28h9D. Accessed 22 January 2014.
This chat’s attendees* by their Twitter handles in order of appearance:
@Marisa_C (moderator) @Innov8rEduc8r @teacherphili @Shaunwilden (moderator) @victorhugor @BobK99 @tefladventures @patrickelt @harrisonmike @Mashfaqka @NikkiFortova @nroberts88 @AlexandraKouk @SueAnnan @mitchefl @elawassell @bethcagnol @sookjhee @bigke
*not including lurkers or trolls, which the author would like to point out are definitely not the same thing.
Note: As with all #ELTchat summaries that I write I am aware that ideas can become ‘decoupled’ (a lovely concept I borrowed from Keith Richards – paper see here) from the original conversation and the potential is always there for misquoting someone. Any decoupling is, therefore, unintended. Although it is not helped when participants forget to use the #ELTchat hashtag, as responses can become effectively decoupled in the transcript. I would welcome feedback/comments, as well as an opportunity to correct any decoupling, if this is the case.