The Ever Pervasive Ideology of the Good Language Learner

What is a good language learner? Is it someone who learns a good language or someone who is good at learning languages? Or could it possibly be someone who has dedicated a lot of time and effort to the learning of a language we value and, therefore, we attribute the word good to them because we value their efforts and interest in doing so. Such questions go to the heart of the ideology of English Language Teaching. We do not, for instance, describe native speakers and the manner in which they learn their mother tongue in this way, as both the desire and need to learn such a language are seemingly unquestionable and indivisible. If desire and need are indivisible, we feel no need to say they are either good or bad language learners, or good for having taken the time, they are simply called native speakers.

Of course, some have asked how native language is learnt and there was an enormous, if essentially sterile, debate between Chomsky and Skinner on the matter. Whilst Chomsky had a very interesting and sharp critique of Skinner and his Behaviourist methodology, Chomsky never really specified the mechanism by which the infant was motivated to learn. However, this Cognitivist reaction to Behaviourism did lead later theorists of learning in general to specify how important the students’ motivations and attitudes were in learning. And it was these theorists who made a distinction (not for young infants mind but for older children and adults) between intrinsic motivations and extrinsic motivations, often arguing the former was a more powerful and sustainable grounds for learning than the latter (and indeed ethically superior).

Indeed such a distinction haunts ELT teacher training manuals, even if writers and students get rather tied up in knots with the whole subject. Here is what one TEFLer (H.D. Sewell 2003) has to say in an internet paper on the subject:

Motivation and a positive attitude have also been correlated with language acquisition (Gardner 1985 in Lightbown and Spada 1999:56). In one construct, motivation can be seen as either integrative, relating to a desire to integrate into the L2 community, or instrumental, related to learning so as to use the L2 as an instrument to achieve a goal. Gardner and Lambert (1959 and 1972:141 in Larson-Freeman and Long 1991:173-4) suggest that both types of motivation may be equally powerful, but in different learning contexts, although integrative may be more sustainable. In another construct, motivation can be seen as either intrinsic or extrinsic. Brown (2000:164), citing himself (1990), Dornyei (1998), Dornyei and Csizer (1998), and Crookes and Schmidt (1991), suggests that intrinsic motivation, motivation from inside, is more powerful than extrinsic motivation, motivation from outside. While these two constructs of motivation are related, it is possible for a student to have any of the four combinations of the two constructs.

Surely there are six combinations (intrinsic / integrative, extrinsic / instrumental, intrinsic / instrumental, extrinsic / integrative, intrinsic / extrinsic, instrumental / integrative) but this does not matter as Sewell rightly gives up on the idea:

The relationships between attitude, motivation, and successful language learning seem unclear. Gardner (1979 in Larson-Freeman and Long 1991:175) suggests that attitude affects motivation and subsequent acquisition. Crookes and Schmidt suggest that motivation research has failed to adequately separate motivation and attitude (1991:501). Lightbown and Spada point out that “If the speaker’s only reason for learning the second language is external pressure, internal motivation may be minimal and general attitudes toward learning may be negative” (1999:56). This would suggest ineffective learning, yet this external pressure may arise from the need for good English skills to get a good job, and thus may provide the student with instrumental motivation, which can be as strong a motivator as integrative motivation. It has also been suggested that it may be success that fosters motivation and not motivation that fosters success (Strong 1984:10-2).

But despite the overwhelming vagueness of the distinctions being used (intrinsic could extend to anything as could extrinsic) they do persist in ELT theory. The question is not whether they are useful, they are clearly not, but why they persist. And it is here we must turn to a general critique of educational theory.

 Comrade Illich’s Deschooling Society and its Liberal / Conservative admirers

Obviously we are 100% in agreement with Illich when he said this of education in 1970

The university thus has the effect of imposing consumer standards at work and at home, and it does so in every part of the world and under every political system. The fewer university graduates there are in a country, the more their cultivated demands are taken as models by the rest of the population. The gap between the consumption of the university graduate and that of the average citizen is even wider in Russia, China, and Algeria than in the United States. Cars, airplane trips, and tape recorders confer more visible distinction in a socialist country where only a degree, and not just money, can procure them.

Education was then and is even more so now, an essential part of consumer society. A society where producer and consumer are separated and their social relationship mediated primarily through exchange relations (and not use values), where a market exists for mass produced goods other than basic necessities and where products are defined by built-in obsolescence and new product introduction. Education is both itself a commodity with a range of variously priced products on offer and a means of stratifying the market and defining one’s access to other key commodities available on that market. It is, we might say, not an instrument of learning but an instrument of perpetual accumulation and social inequality.

But there is, however, an echo of Illich in less revolutionary ideas of society and what such views share with Illich’s is a belief in a higher form of learning, in a better student, a form of learning and a student for whom the pleasure of learning is sufficient in itself. Where learning has not been corrupted by materialistic values or interested parties and can be returned to its innocent origin. Almost like the worker who happily gives up their weekend to help their boss out, or the mythical miner in Stalinist Russia (Stackhanov) who dug superhuman quantities of coal, all for the love of what they do and not tainted by self-interest.

Here is what comrade Illich says of precapitalist forms of learning in the university:

The ability of the university to fix consumer goals is something new. In many countries the university acquired this power only in the Sixties, as the delusion of equal access to public education began to spread. Before that the university protected an individual’s freedom of speech, but did not automatically convert his knowledge into wealth. To be a scholar in the Middle Ages meant to be poor, even a beggar. By virtue of his calling, the medieval scholar learned Latin, became an outsider worthy of the scorn as well as the esteem of peasant and prince, burgher and cleric. To get ahead in the world, the scholastic first had to enter it by joining the civil service, preferably that of the Church. The old university was a liberated zone for discovery and the discussion of ideas both new and old. Masters and students gathered to read the texts of other masters, now long dead, and the living words of the dead masters gave new perspective to the fallacies of the present day. The university was then a community of academic quest and endemic unrest.

So, in following Illich, the Utilitarians argue that education has become a worthless trinket, of no useful contribution to society. Their common complaints concern Media Studies or Peace Studies, and that the current education system does not do enough to prepare students for the real world (there is most definitely a strand of this in ELT thinking). Conservatives argue, rather conversely that education has been cheapened by simplistic utilitarianism and that students lack a thorough classical education (Shakespeare, Greek and Latin, rugby etc) which makes them a well-rounded person and social leader. And, of course, liberals argue that the spontaneously good and natural qualities of individuals have been perverted by the state and other monopolies; they are seemingly unable to comprehend that the concentration of knowledge on the one hand and regimentation of the learning system on the other is an inevitable consequence of the market system they worship.

Comrade Illich cannot be blamed for these views but in his appeal to a utopian view of learning (and indeed of the individual with his overtones of Rousseau) he inadvertently gives air to the system he wishes to suffocate. Just as work could become a lot more interesting and meaningful for all outside capitalism, so could learning. But again, like work, learning faces the real dilemma that there are certain areas or aspects which are simply not desirable to us (either temporarily or permanently). They require an effort above and beyond any immediate intrinsic reward (if such a thing really could exist). Will the revolution really abolish having to clean the lavatory bowl or having to get up early in the morning or will the revolutionised simply learn to love doing so? This voluntarism on behalf of Illich offers no real solution to the education of the labouring classes, it is only an imperative that we should learn to love that which we have to do and that it will coincide with a hidden nature hitherto unseen.

Comrade Bourdieu and a Historical Perspective

We would indeed argue, and we are following Bourdieu’s excellent essay The Possibility of Disinterested Action very closely here, that this very distinction between intrinsic and extrinsic motivation and between good learner and bad learner is a result of historical forces, a series of profound ruptures in the previous social order. For example, there is no economic interest until we distinguish the economy from the domestic economy (i.e. the exchange of commodities versus the simple reproduction of our necessities) and no art for art’s sake until we stipulate that the production of art is not governed by that aforementioned economic interest now delineated.  This apparent rupture between learning and motivation (or interest) is itself a historical product of capitalism. If the artist claims to be producing art for art’s sake, then such alleged disinterest is only made possible through capitalist relations and if the learner claims to be learning for the love of learning, then they too are talking from within the very foundations of  capitalist relations.

Of course no such thing exists as a disinterested action, all action has symbolic meaning (is all part of what Wittgenstein might term a Language Game) in which the agent participates, with other agents, in a carefully constructed series of conventions in order to satisfy certain biologically and socially determined needs.

To quote Bourdieu specifically:

In fact, there exist social universes in which the search for strictly economic profit can be discouraged by explicit norms or tacit injunctions…. The behaviors of honor in aristocratic or precapitalist societies have at their origin an economy of symbolic goods based on collective repression of interest and, more broadly, the truth of production and circulation, which tends to produce “disinterested” habitus, anti‐economic habitus, disposed to repress interests, in the narrow sense of the term (that is, the pursuit of economic profits), especially in domestic relations.

Now Capitalism is enormously contradictory in general and in education in particular. Whilst capitalism undermines existing hierarchical relations of authority (religion, the family, cultural identity etc) through the dominance of exchange relations, it separates the population into two opposing major social classes, the bourgeoisie and the proletariat, and the former social class needs such relations (the very relations it is undermining) in order to justify its domination over the lower orders. It is from this contradiction that arise further contradictions in education

Capitalism in principle needs an educated work force but it doesn’t need it to be too educated, it only requires that it be trained in the skills sufficient to carry out the tasks necessary for capital accumulation. But, alas, like the payment of wages and the threat of unemployment, it must bribe and coerce the workforce into studying. This problem is further compounded with the need to use education to justify the hierarchies in society, but by making education less disinterested, i.e. the human capital theory where education is directly related to financial reward, it undermines its moral legitimacy. In short, the bumbling economics professor, who makes references to Greek mythology in their excuses for economic meltdown, might now seem less disinterested than they claim.

Modern capitalism seeks to impose 13 years of obligatory education on the masses by promising education is itself a joy (and thus unpaid) but also claim that the purpose of education is to seek financial reward. Is it any wonder TEFlers get all twisted up with their nonsense distinctions between extrinsic and intrinsic motivations, for the contradiction is written into the very nature of the educational enterprise itself.

Habermas, Dialogics and Reschooling Society

Habermas usefully identified a difference between instrumental action and communicative action, the former being goals imposed on others but the latter being  a set of complex open negotiations involving the actors. Freire and Ferrer i Guárdia (of course Ferrer i Guárdia predates the popularity of Habermas’ work) had it clear that education should involve this latter approach and thus make a more democratic and equal society.

We call this a dialogic approach because the student learns in order to transform themselves but also to transform the environment in which they live. To do this effectively learning must be contextual and reflective rather than passive. It must alter the power relations of society rather than simply replicate them.

This is the goal of comrade Illich but comrade Illich seeks to establish the same by abolishing formal educational structures. Thus we have a difference between spontaneous forms of education and a deliberate attempt to create a curriculum which prepares the lower orders to take power (or at least resist it).

Comrade IIlich was clearly aware that the Stalinist states were only paying lip service to such a libratory curriculum, and were in fact reproducing and indeed pioneering new forms of mindless capital accumulation. For Illich, therefore, it was necessary to deschool society to stop this domination taking place. However, this is surely self-defeating for if we follow his advice the community can only act by not acting. If it allows a vacuum in power then surely this vacuumn will only be filled by some other force. In short, and following Ferrer i Guárdia, the labouring classes must be prepared for power.

Ferrer i Guárdia stipulates that workers should be taught their own history in order that they change the future, which runs in an interesting contradiction to some of his own more spontaneous learning ideas which at times mirror those of Illich.

But what else of value can we learn from the ruling class if not the manner in which it prepares itself and its lieutenants for power? Is there anything more grotesque than their uniforms and their rituals of self-subordination? Look at the disgusting practices of fagging at Eton and their ridiculous uniforms of self-ridicule. We should not be fooled, however, for these wretched rituals of discipline are part of a careful physical, mental and spiritual preparation for power. Their born to rule arrogance is cultivated, it is not spontaneous. The architectonic dimensions of their education are nothing but the concrete preparations for rule over the masses. Indeed, even if their lieutenants are recruited from elsewhere, like the state educated sector, only their slavish devotion to the ruling class culture will assure them their appointed role as loyal servants.

Whilst we would not suggest replicating such a model, the task remains of combining the discipline required for learning and the attitudes required for taking power (solidarity and rebellion). The good learner must combine an assertiveness of their own needs with a willingness to submit to the needs of learning (where desire and need are not necessarily practically or immediately indivisible).

The good language learner, therefore, is both the student who asks for less homework (or no homework at all) or more homework. It is the student who seeks to negotiate the language learning curriculum in their own interests and those of their social class. It is the student capable, to some extent, of historicising and critiquing the very foundations of language teaching.

Our actions in the community as good teachers must be to prepare our students for power.

This is a reprint of an article appearing in FFG



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Occupy Empty Blogs, Occupy ELT

This blog is now occupied by the Friends of Ferrer i Guàrdia. Much as we appreciated the debate and discussion of MTG we now refer you to Friends of Ferrer i Guàrdia (FFG) where the discussion can be continued. With the permission of MTG we will now administer this building.

Occupy and Resist. Another world is not only possible but near.

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The Racist UK Government is “out of control”.

News today will have (or better said- should have) raised alarm amongst the UK education sector in general and the EFL sector in particular.  Responding to news last week that “Net migration to the UK has increased”, the Tory minister, Damian Green, has identified visiting students to be the problem and declared that the number of foreign students currently allowed into the UK is “unsustainable”.

The Tory party have an avowed policy of reducing net migration to tens of thousands so last week’s report by the Office for National Statistics, that net migration increased by 33,000 to 362,015 in 2009 had them claiming that the coalition government had inherited an immigration system which was “largely out of control”. On his return from a trip to India, responding to a figure showing the number of visas issued to students had increased by 35% to 362,015, Green claimed this number was unsustainable. He wanted to review these figures and was particularly concerned with the number of visas issued for sub-degree courses. These words will have particular importance for the UK TEFL industry, especially after the ridiculous English language level restrictions placed on students outside the EU wishing to come and actually study English in the UK.

Twisted mind.

What is particularly disturbing about all this is the lack of any reasoned analysis of the figures and the hateful racist attempts to detract attention away from the real issues facing ordinary people living and working in the UK. In the first place, the number of people migrating to the UK is actually falling and there were 4% less people arriving than the previous year (down from 590,000 in 2008 to 567,000 in 2009). Indeed, the net migration figure had been caused by a 13% drop in the number of people leaving the UK (down from 427,000 in 2008 to 367,000 in 2009). Moreover, as the new labour think tank Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR) point out, the picture has been highly coloured by the activities of British nationals rather than a great change in the activity of non-British nationals:

Declining net emigration by British citizens accounted for most of the increase in net immigration. Net emigration by British citizens was 36,000 in the year to December 2009, compared with 90,000 in the year to December 2008, a decline of over 60 per cent. Most of this decline in net emigration was driven by reduced emigration by British citizens (down23 per cent), although the level of British immigration/return also rose slightly. Meanwhile, net immigration by non-British nationals was stable at around 220,000 – slight decreases in immigration were counter-balanced by slight decreases in emigration. Declining non-British immigration is confirmed by data on National Insurance (NINo) registrations by overseas nationals – down 17 per cent in 2009/10 compared to 2008/09, and the lowest figure since 2005.

So if the UK government wanted to maintain the general picture of net migration from the UK which we have seen over the last three decades, it should assess why  British nationals are no longer emigrating in such numbers and why so many are returning.

Locating the causes.

Indeed, the rise in students visiting the UK and the fall in British Nationals emigrating is inextricably linked. Again we quote (this time at length) from the IPPR:

Falls in net migration from the new EU member states have helped to significantly reduce net migration since peaks in 2005 and 2007, and net immigration from these countries remains very low despite the most recent increases. With the expansion of the EU in 2004 only the UK, Sweden and Ireland fully opened their labour markets to workers from the new accession countries. The result for the UK was a rapid, substantial, and largely unpredicted wave of migration from countries such as Poland. However, this proved to be a short-lived phenomenon, for two main reasons. Firstly, there was an initial surge because opportunities to migrate had not been available previously and there was a ‘backlog’ of people seeking to move. Now that most of those (largely young adults) who wanted to come to the UK have done so, immigration is settling down at a lower rate. Secondly, most of those who came only planned to stay for a few months or years, so many of the initial ‘wave’ are now returning home. This is a trend made more extreme by the recession.

The recession has also had wider impacts on migration to and from the UK. Net migration has historically been correlated with economic growth, and previous recessions have seen the UK experience net emigration. Pre-recession levels of net immigration were substantially higher than those seen before previous recessions, so it seems unlikely that net migration will fall to the same extent as a result of the current economic downturn. However, it is certainly the case that changing economic conditions have led to a decline in immigration to the UK for work, and have led more migrants to return home. This is both because there is less work available now in the UK and because the weakened pound has made the UK less attractive to migrants who want to work here and send money home. On the other hand, the weakened pound has made the UK an attractive destination for foreign students. Dramatic increases in student immigration to the UK have been partly driven by this, and partly by active efforts by British further and higher education institutions to attract more overseas students, particularly in the face of uncertain funding levels for UK students.

The UK has seen net emigration of British citizens (including migrants who have gained British citizenship) for most of the last three decades, but this net emigration is now declining sharply. More British people are returning to the UK, but the most significant trend is that many fewer British people are emigrating to other countries. This seems likely to be due to the global recession. Some key destination countries for British emigration (e.g. Spain) have been badly hit by the economic crisis, which has reduced employment opportunities for British migrants. A weaker pound has also made it more expensive for British retirees on fixed incomes to move abroad, and for British students to study overseas….

Of course, Green knows that nothing is “out of control” and he himself was encouraging Indian students to study in the UK during his most recent trip there. He is well aware of the funding crises of British universities and knows how important overseas students are to keeping these institutions afloat. He is also aware, however, that racist scapegoating is a convenient tool in distracting people from the real causes of the problems afflicting ordinary people’s lives. Whilst we doubt his government will do much in the short term to restrict overseas students to British universites, we can expect more restrictions on the UK TEFL sector as the Tories attempt to secure some populist support while introducing more and more unpopular cuts in education, health and welfare services.

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RSA Animate IV: Smile or Die

The last of our RSA Animate series is this marvellous take on the “power of positive thinking” by American feminist and health care activist, Barabara Ehrenreich. Ehrenreich’s latest book, Bright-sided: How the Relentless Promotion of Positive Thinking Has Undermined America, which forms the basis of this talk, was inspired by her own experiences with breast cancer and dissatisfaction with organisations like the Pink Ribbon campaign (read critique here).

When we read Ehrenriech, we are reminded of the issues facing ELT teachers around the world and how groups like IATEFL with their obsessions with PLNs and twittering, successfully disarm political struggle and encourage people to see problems as individual and a matter of attitude.

Whilst we may not always agree with her political choices, she remains for us an outstanding example of honesty, resilience and hope. Enjoy:


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The Rat Race, The New Academic Year, and a Man and his Words Worth Remembering

As August slips into September, many ELT teachers will be either returning to work or beginning to negotiate their timetables (or maybe looking for their first job).  This is probably for many, including fair-minded Directors of Studies, the most odious and difficult time of the year. With a likely drop in student numbers in private academies around the world, this September will be particularly difficult. Of course, many schools will be keen to retain  whatever experienced teachers are still around (low pay obviously drives experienced teachers away) and will probably offer any remaining teachers the pick of the timetable. Few schools will have clear criterion onhow to distribute hours other than to honour existing contract staff with similar hours where possible. Many teachers who have taught in the same school for some years will feel disappointed with their timetables and unable to see the transparency behind the decision making. Some teachers will accept job offers, well aware that if another better offer comes along, they will abandon the first offer with little or no notice. In short, the industry shows itself to be particularly unpleasant at this time of year.

We should not leave August, therefore, without paying tribute the great Scottish orator and activist, Jimmy Reid, who died, aged 75, this month. In 1970, Jimmy Reid famously led a wonderful campaign to save the Upper Clyde shipyards and prevent six thousand redundancies. Rather imaginatively they organised a “work-in” rather than go on strike (not that we are against striking mind you) and attracted support from around the world. They forced the government to back down and extra monies were found to keep the shipyards working. Of course, ten years later the Conservative party were to make mass-unemployment a constant part of British life and whatever small advances  were made to rid the scourge of unemployment and its terrible consequences from the UK are now quickly evaporating under the current crises. There is a similar tale across the advanced industrialised countries.

In 1971, Jimmy Reid was elected Rector of the University of Glasgow, where, by way of acceptance of his new role, he made one of the greatest speeches of all time. You can read the whole speech here. However, for September and the new academic year, we have chosen these particular lines on the term “rat race” which he referred to in that great speech:

Reject the values and false morality that underlie these attitudes. A rat race is for rats. We’re not rats. We’re human beings. Reject the insidious pressures in society that would blunt your critical faculties to all that is happening around you, that would caution silence in the face of injustice lest you jeopardise your chances of promotion and self-advancement. This is how it starts and before you know where you are, you’re a fully paid-up member of the rat-pack. The price is too high. It entails the loss of your dignity and human spirit. Or as Christ put it, “What doth it profit a man if he gain the whole world and suffer the loss of his soul?

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RSA animate III: Daniel Pink and “from each according to their ability……..”

As a continuation of our RSA animate series we include this interesting piece by the former Al Gore speech writer, Daniel Pink . Below Pink discusses the limits of monetary reward and new ways to conceptualise drive and motivation. After all, there must be some reason why we teachers continue in this dreadfully low-paid industry; not only continue in it but spend extra unpaid hours reading and blogging about the damn thing. Importantly, he does not dismiss the factor of money in performance at work, rather he says, “once money is taken off the table”. So, no matter how interesting Pink’s ideas are, we are even more interested in this concept of “taking money off the table”. Call us cynical if you want but we suspect that Gore and Pink would be happy to see us working for less and less money and their pockets getting fatter, they certainly aren’t interested in the second part of the above qoutation, “to each according to their need”. Enjoy anyhow.

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Locked out by the TEFL Industry, Disability Rights Now!

In September 2006, Anne Margaret Smith, produced a stunning piece of research which formed the major part of her doctoral thesis.  It should have changed TEFL as we know it, but it didn’t.  Here is the abstract in full:

This study synthesises the literature from three fields of education (English language teaching (ELT), education and training for new teachers, and education for disabled learners) to develop an understanding of how new English language teachers are prepared for their responsibilities in an inclusive classroom, and to recommend changes to the present system that would further promote inclusiveness in ELT .A broad survey of ELT professionals in the UK was carried out to examine how initial training and professional development matched teachers’ requirements as they progressed through their careers. The branch of ELT known as EFL (English as a Foreign Language) is generally perceived by its practitioners to be student-centred and strongly inclusive in ethos, and so their experiences of and attitudes towards learners with disabilities and learning differences were also explored to determine what factors might affect the teachers’ ability or willingness to include learners who had additional support needs. This survey was supplemented by in-depth interviews with teacher trainers and course designers.

The findings suggest that EFL teacher training does go some way towards fostering inclusive beliefs and practices, but that because of the lack of an explicit focus on disability issues, many teachers feel under-prepared and lack confidence when asked to work with disabled learners. In the new climate of governmental control of ELT in the UK, new initial qualifications are being developed to comply with state-sector regulations. This thesis recommends that the opportunity is taken to fuse the inclusive features of the intensive TEFL courses with the broader PGCE courses, to offer ELT professionals the chance to gain a qualification that not only allows them to work in both the private and the state sector but also prepares them thoroughly for working in the inclusive language classroom.


Smith’s work was indeed ambitious and broad. She traces the complex histories of English language teaching and looks at historical trends of inclusive education in the UK. She also sent out questionnaires to over 51 accredited institutions in the UK and carried out in depth interviews with teacher trainers and other “standards personnel” from other key institutions and agencies to test her various hypotheses. What was clear was how unprepared staff were generally (for example business English teachers were not taught for this speciality, EAP teachers neither, and most teacher trainers had no extensive training in how to prepare new teachers), so it was little surprise, especially in the private sector, that teachers had had no training in issues related to disability in the classroom.  What was also marked were clear difference in responses to the questionnaire between State ESOL practitioners and TEFL practitioners working in private schools. See pdf below:



We would argue that the response to question d is a damning indictment of both sectors but reflects particularly badly on the TEFL industry. On a more positive note, Smith argues that attitudes are often related to experience and support networks. For example, those more experienced teachers (though this doesn’t account for wide differences between state and private sectors) have more positive attitudes to incorporating the needs of disabled students in their classroom and:

Those teachers who had actual experience of working with disabled learners exhibited generally more positive attitudes (at least in respect of the specific types of disability of which they had experience) than those who had no experience. They were more likely to agree that working with a diverse group of people made teaching rewarding, and were more likely to estimate greater degrees of participation in class for students with given disabilities.

Reminding us of the old Marxist principle that being determines consciousness.

Smith’s work is, in short, a masterpiece. It reflects the author’s wide experience and training in education and her commitment to a genuine inclusive classroom. This is not to say it is without fault, if we were not to critically engage with her research then we would be doing it and her a huge disservice, and we will indeed go on to criticise what we see are the limitations of her approach. For the moment, however, we will take Smith on her own terms and look at the impact (or complete lack of impact) of her work.


Calling time on “legacy qualifications”

Now last year, the blogger,26 Letters, wrote an informative guest piece over at Tefltastic about the differences/similarities between EFL and ESOL. An excellent discussion ensued concerning how politicised ESOL was compared to EFL and the relative merits of teaching in each sector. Smith anticipates this with her clear summary:

Since the surface differences have become less distinct, more deep-seated characteristics must be identified to account for the antipathy between EFL and ESOL professionals. It is difficult to avoid over-generalising, but broadly, the tone of the professional press catering for those practitioners who identify themselves as belonging to an ESOL tradition gives the impression that they feel they have the moral high ground, and points to their tradition of promoting social justice and working with some of the most vulnerable members of society. The pressures on them to attain government targets each year, however, must lead some to wonder if their private sector colleagues are not better off, in terms of retaining autonomy and educational integrity.

Moreover, in our own piece “60%: The Statistic that Shames IATEFL”, a discussion ensued about how unsatisfactory EFL qualifications were viewed by the state sector.  Smith’s paper helps put these discussions into stark context. Firstly, Smith’s research confirms that the four week course is clearly inadequate for dealing with issues of disability within the classroom (as it is, in our opinion, generally for preparing students for the multitude of diverse contexts they will face). Smith claims that such qualifications are seen as “legacy qualifications” as they reflect a different period and context (i.e. preparing new teachers as quickly as possible for a rapidly expanding ELT market abroad)

Secondly, the fact that contested political space (and issues of accountability) are often hollowed out in the world of EFL with “apolitical” references to inclusivity and diversity, does not mean that a flow of uncontested and unaccountable market led politics does not fill that void. For example, we will hear that the four week course is merely a preparatory certificate, it is best to leave such issues for the student and school to develop in response to the local context, meaning an individualised and market led “solution”. What we know, however, is that, in the public sphere, disabled rights (though still horribly neglected) are taken more seriously than in the private sector. For example, this is what the British public service union Unison could claim way back in 2005:

The role of the public sector in promoting barrier free work should be viewed as the role model for all employers. Trade union organisation has resulted in proper pay structures, fairness in recruitment and selection procedures as well as training and career prospects too scarcely found in the private sector. The Office of National Statistics has published the latest trends in the employment of disabled people in the public sector in Great Britain. The rate of public sector employment growth for disabled people was four times the growth rate for their non-disabled counterparts. The bulk of the job gains were in education and health, and the growth in employment of disabled people in both areas outstripped that of non-disabled people.


This is a clear example of a contested space, which is not so hollowed out by the “neutral” politics of profit making. Like 26 Letters, we despise the authoritarian managerial culture within state education (many recruits to EFL are “refugees” from this excessive target orientated/overly prescribed teaching context), but we also have to fight against the hollowing out of this political space by private organisations.  The four week training course is not just an issue for the TEFL industry itself, it is also an issue for the millions of students who are cheated by the industry and the thousands and thousands of workers whose salaries and conditions are kept low by this never-ending pool of cheap labour. (This is not an attack on the new recruits themselves but a call for better training and on-the-job support which will give them a better chance of a rewarding career as the years progress.)


Smith’s challenge was taken up in some part by the IATEFL conference in 2009. Dr Catherine Walters (drawing explicitly on Smith’s challenge) identifies better teacher training, greater visibility of disability people and issues in course books, changes to the accreditation scheme, a greater pro-active role from the British Council and a change in examinations (to reflect awareness of disability issues) as the way forward.  Unfortunately, she lacks the boldness of Smith to challenge the TEFL four week training course and she is sufficiently vague so as not to offend the people (the very people who put profit before the needs of disabled teachers and students) who so kindly sponsor the conference and pay for her “expenses”.

In short, if IATEFL can do nothing about low pay in the industry, if it cannot give teachers a say in the British Council run accreditation scheme, if it cannot force English UK to accept “whistle blowing”  from staff in its complaints procedure, then what chance has it got of making any progress  for disabled teachers and students? As we recently reported, Catherine Campbell, was sacked by Berlitz Japan for taking too long to recover from breast cancer (the company failing to enlist her in its health care policy in the first place). Now Catherine is no cost to Berlitz and she has considerable experience teaching in Japan. Her case is a clear illustration of conditions on the ground in TEFL. If IATEFL cannot challenge these practices (and show no interest in doing so)  then how can it defend the interests of other less powerful individuals and groups? When Dr Walters says we need to put pressure on the examining boards, what exactly is this pressure and why has it not be brought to bear before?

The wider debate.

As said before, we also have criticisms of Smith’s approach. Her use of the term “inclusive” draws on a technocratic and apolitical language employed by government bodies charged with tackling exclusion and promoting diversity and inclusion. Their work is based on the conservative theories of Niklas Luhmann. If we follow, Smith’s logic then all is reducible to government policies but we have no political economy of those decisions. She quite rightly recognises that New Labour’s obsession with league tables undermined the Warnock Report and steps to integrate disabled people into mainstream education. Yet this is seen as a “mistake”. What she does not see is that new Labour are carrying out a much older tradition of generating social problems by market led principles and seeking to colonise and shape people’s lives by intervening in the very problems society and their policies create. Society grows increasingly unequal but the government claim they are doing things for the most disadvantaged. We would ask how can governments who have institutionalised mass unemployment claim to be interested in the plight of the long term unemployed or unemployed disabled workers while the effects of their policies have enriched the wealthy at the expense of the population at large and disadvantaged groups in particular? In a competitive job market, where only graduates have a chance of reasonably well remunerated jobs, it is necessary to have a competitive education sector, where schools demonstrate their ability to produce better and better qualifications. This does not increase the volume of jobs, however, (other than reduce the number of applicants because they are busy studying and not available for work) but merely gives an ideological cover (lack of qualifications) for mass unemployment.

We say this because we believe she also overplays the inclusive classroom. For us an inclusive classroom which celebrates difference would be one not choked by form-filling, intrusive textbooks, government targets, unhelpful and inappropriate exams etc. Most EFL and ESOL classrooms look and feel the same, they are over-prescribed places of social discipline designed to perpetuate power structures, not to enable the flowering of autonomous action and collective decision making. Whilst teachers and students do indeed contest this space to make it more personalized and diverse, there is no mistaking the pressures (“we have to finish unit 8 this week”) we are under. Moreover, whilst a FCE (First Certificate in English) paper that is designed to cater for the diverse needs of students would be an improvement, the abolition of this rotten exam would be an even greater improvement. We are indeed, with the language of inclusion being asked to include everybody in an unequal society, and therefore, the language of inclusion is contradictory, it is always, “included to a point”.

The rights of disabled people to a social architecture that does not discriminate against them, the design of equipment and buildings to enable them to live fully, and the opportunity to participate fully in decision making and not be ruled over by a self-elected technocracy are indeed basic rights. Yet when we look at these things, they are also rights which able bodied people do not have. When streets are widened and re-designed for wheel chairs, cyclists and people with small children benefit too, as do we all when there are investments in public transport, when workplaces show greater flexibility to the needs of disabled workers they generally also show greater flexibility to parents and to carers. The language of “social inclusion” therefore is quite patronising because, as a society, we all desperately require the transformation required to provide disabled people with independent and fulfilling lives. This is not to dismiss the extreme discrimination disabled people face, and how relatively advantaged able bodied people are, or to recognise the need for concrete actions now, but to say that social justice is a common platform, and in fighting for disabled rights we are, indeed, fighting for everybody’s rights.

This said, Smith’s work is a powerful statement of what is wrong with ELT. But as Marx might have said, “researchers have only interpreted the world the point is to change it”.


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