Building C, Room 205, Jeremy Harmer

It is easy to forget just how revolutionary Diderot’s Encyclopédie was; the fact that a king (roi) be placed next to someone who roasts meat for a living (rotisseur.). By employing the levelling standards of alphabetical order, Diderot was challenging the hierarchies of the feudal order. Its revolutionary content is rather lost on us in the modern setting as such practices are common and everyday. What Marx termed “the dull compulsion of economic relations” (1). In what follows, we wish to explore some simple everyday classifications in ELT, to challenge the “naturalness” of the current order.

Let us take as our starting point, a piece of paper, clenched nervously by a new student on the first day of a nine month language class:

Upper-Intermediate, Tues-Thurs 7-9, Building C, Room 205, Jeremy Harmer

The teacher will no doubt confirm the information and welcome the student to their new class or alternatively re-direct the student to the correct room (it is unlikely the student will have confused the day).

What is most striking about the note, however, is the crystallisation of meaning and power which the teacher is unlikely to immediately question, it is, after all, just a simple administrative device.

Later in that same class a curious student may enquire as to the difference between:

A: I went shopping yesterday.


B: Yesterday, I went shopping

We suspect the teacher might answer that Western speech and writing patterns privilege the information appearing at the start of the sentence, making yesterday more important in sentence B. We also suspect that the teacher is unlikely to draw immediate parallels between this and the administrative note the student showed them at the beginning of the class. This is not a criticism of the teacher but recognition of how everyday practices are infused with power but a power that we are unlikely to see simply because it is “everyday”.

What the note appears to represent is that an academy/college offering a language course has categorised the student along a continuum, most likely across 9 levels in Europe (this despite the Common European Framework of Reference for Languages suggesting six). Having identified a number of students also situated along the same or similar point of the continuum, sharing the same availability to study, is now willing to “open” a class.  Moreover, the choice of classroom will no doubt be decided on an available space to number of student ratio. Finally, a teacher will be identified who will be made responsible for maximising the possibilities that all students progress to the next point of the continuum. The teacher is from the very beginning the smallest cog in the giant language teaching machine; this even before the course book is introduced into the equation.

Now, of course each teacher will enjoy a greater or lesser degree of autonomy depending on the group and the institution concerned. Yet, we should not be blinded for one moment from the overarching institutionalisation of power in which the teacher is gripped. The student has not arrived by accident to the language learning but is propelled there by needs surfacing in modern society. Those needs are met in turn by the mediation of the language teaching industry.

This mediation is not fixed. In ELT there is renewed enthusiasm for Content and Language Integrated Learning (CLIL), where language learning is tied to the actual study of other content, for example, History. In such a programme some previous knowledge or aptitude for the content subject may be equally, if not more, important than a precise position on a language continuum.

What we would argue, however, is that there are few learning contexts which actually elevate the role of teacher (the teacher is often trapped with an immoveable curriculum whether overtly stated or not). This may not be such a bad thing. The teacher should have a function to satisfy the needs of their students and not vice-versa. There is a role, however, within in education for transformation; identifying new possibilities. Such a radical transformative learning context, however, would require new institutional practices and a wider society capable of supporting them and being, in turn, transformed by them.

In the meantime, we shall explore the fissures of contemporary ELT. We cannot substitute ourselves for a workers’ self-education movement that simply does not exist. We can expose terms like “teacher centred”, for the ideological nonsense they are but we cannot, at present create genuine student-centred classes because we live in a society where production is not based on need but on irrational accumulation for the sake of accumulation. This does not preclude, however, an approach in our teaching which seeks to critically deconstruct the everyday power relations that hold us in their grip, to disturb their seeming “naturalness” and place them within a political/historical context.

  1. Abercrombie et al 1980 describe this as the dull compulsion of everyday life

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