As we update ourselves on the development of ELT during the last seven years, we find ourselves again and again colliding with the name of Scott Thornbury. This puts us in a rather uncomfortable position, for it appears “we come to bury Thornbury, not to praise him” (to paraphrase a certain wordsmith). This certainly leaves us a little uncomfortable because (and we wouldn’t collide with him otherwise) he represents a more progressive wing of ELT and is, at the end of the day, a real human being with friends, family and colleagues who deeply care about him. Moreover, he has made an unmistakable contribution to teacher training and support with the books he has written and conference talks he has given.
However, as our crossing with Thornbury in our somewhat popular blog post, Romantic Comedy with a Sinister Twist. A Marxist Critique of Dogme ELT, reveals our differences are both significant and seemingly irreconciable. We do not appear alone in this matter, and the blogger ELT theorist Goeff Jordan seems equally “riled” by what he describes as Thornbury’s “fence-sitting and slime sprawling”.
As we will undoubtedly drag Scott Thornbury’s name into future discussions on ELT theory and practise, (we couldn’t avoid doing so in a piece only this month) it might be opportune therefore to put such criticism in greater context. In short, we want to separate Scott Thornbury the man from Scott Thornbury the ELT phenomenon, though clearly the phenomenon is not entirely separated from the decisions and public pronouncements Scott Thornbury has made as a flesh and bone man.
We begin then with a short extract from WH Auden’s marvellous poem “Funeral Blues,” tellingly retitled by many as “Stop the Clocks”:
Stop all the clocks, cut off the telephone,
Prevent the dog from barking with a juicy bone,
Silence the pianos and with muffled drum
Bring out the coffin, let the mourners come.
Let aeroplanes circle moaning overhead
Scribbling on the sky the message ‘He is Dead’.
Put crepe bows round the white necks of the public doves,
Let the traffic policemen wear black cotton gloves.
This poem was popularised by the movie Four Weddings and a Funeral (itself the usual juicy bone to love and personal politics served up by Richard Curtis) where the poem is recited by Matthew (played by John Hannah) at the funeral of his beloved, flamboyant and joie de vivre partner Gareth. As intended, there is hardly a dry tear in the house. Yet, the popular reception of the poem has little to do with the context and meaning of the actual poem and tells us more about the modern audience rather than the poem or the concerns of the poet. Indeed, despite an ignorance of the original context of the poem one poetry lover hits the nail on directly the head when he proclaims:
In the end, though, I reject its main message. None of us are this important and we must remind ourselves daily that we and our loved ones are mortal. Still, our cares and concerns may yet endure in others who will follow us.
In fact, this comes close to the original context where a “state funeral” is being used to further the self-agrandizement of a dictator to the detriment of the person (a complex character) who has tragically died for reasons of the political ambitions of others, namely the aforementioned dictator. Who else would order such a monstruous event other than a dictator? For readers wanting to learn more about this marvellous work they can begin here:
And so we ask what is the meaning of Scott Thornbury, on both a surface and a deeper level. Is he a force for good inside a rotten industry or a “juicy bone” to keep the dogs from barking?
A Man for All Seasons
The first point we want to make is that Thornbury appears to be an avid reader if not an attentive or critical one. In this sense he is very much a product of the ELT industry and indeed modern business theory. Always on the search for “radical ideas” Thornbury is guilty of scratching the surface without digging deeper into their intellectual roots, their internal coherence, or their logical consequences. Put simply Thornbury is like a series of TED talks, short precis of seemingly interesting ideas without the necessary examination of the very premises underpinning the claims being made. It is this reason why he can’t see the troubling issues of power in the work of Von Trier which he is so quick to recommend, or the limitations and dangers of Sylvia Ashton Warner’s teaching methodology. It is also the reason why he gets Chomsky and other theoreticians so wrong.
Yet who can blame him when as teachers we are encouraged to pursue dubious ideas like “learner styles” without proper critical reflection, or use numerous articles (or TED talks) based on flawed and highly controversial premises. Indeed, perhaps TEFL teachers should be awarded an honorary Masters in Useless and Dubious Ideas for learning and promoting some of the most extremely ill-researched and reactionary ideas via textbooks and other shared teacher resources. The idea is always, as long as it gets students talking and “having fun”, who cares. In the world of business large tomes on business practice (the ideas and vocabulary seriously heavier than the tomes themselves) are being replaced by thin easily-digestible paperbacks. We might conclude that this is a positive step (making managers more pragmatic and “down to earth) but we might also conclude that this general dumming down is a result of the bankruptcy of previous ideas and the inability to generate reasonable new ones backed up by a body of reasearch/results. Chomsky, Krashen, even Michael Lewis and Jane and Dave Willis are far more demading of time and concentration than the practical pronouncements of a Scott Thornbury, Jerry Harmer or Jim Scrivener. We are not criticising those who want to offer practical advice (of which all three mentioned authors are fine proponents) but we need deeper and more transparent access to the premises on which it is constructed.
The second point is more related to Thornbury’s willingness to challenge the existing status quo while remaining very much part of it. His launch, along with Luke Meddings, of the DOGME intiative and the group set up afterwards did allow for teachers to explore (together) teaching practices which were not necessarily mainstream. It is also highly commendable that he has finally backed the campaign to set up a workers’ interest group within IATEFL and is also a supporter of the campaign for equal recognition of Non-Native English Speaking Teachers (NNESTs) within the industry. However, with all this there is a refusal to explore the powerful forces and material base which supports inequality, low pay and mechanistic teaching. Thornbury seems to present such inequalities, as “bad faith,”a lack of knowledge and commitment to radical new ideas and practices. Indeed without a proper critique of how power operates and its material base, there is little chance of challenging it and we are left with mere virtue signalling and a tendency to perpetuate the greasy pole of self-advancement at the expense of horizontal collective change.
Power in the A-Z of ELT
A case in point would be Thornbury’s outrageous treatment of “Power,” in his popular blog A-Z of ELT. While Thornbury has the merit of finally supporting the initiative to set up a teachers as workers group inside IATEFL, he also has the temerity of describing the group as such:
Meanwhile, a group calling itself TAW (Teachers as Workers) is lobbying IATEFL for Special Interest Group (SIG) status, on the grounds that it represents the interests of working teachers (‘pushing for the rights of ELT teachers in an era of precarity [sic]’), but, so far, with little success. It is a little odd, let’s face it, that a teachers’ organization (which is what IATEFL purports to be) can’t make room for a group that provides a forum for chalkface teachers. (emphasis in bold ours)
What on earth would be wrong with “called” and “in a spirited attempt to represent”? He also concludes, after giving a lengthy 2003 quote from a “respected source” in TESOL (Teaching English as a Second or Other Language), Bill Johnston, on their community:
I believe that all our talk of teacher professional development is seriously compromised if we ignore the marginalisation of ELT that is staring us in the face, that is, if we treat the professional growth of teachers as something that can be both conceived and carried out without reference to the sociopolitical realities of teachers’ lives. To devalue this central feature of work for huge numbers of teachers is to fail to grasp the significance of the drive for professional development. I believe that the ELT professional organisations have unwittingly colluded in this artificial separation of the professional and political. For many years, for example, the TESOL (Teachers of English to Speakers of Other Languages) Convention, the annual meeting of the TESOL organisation, was almost exclusively devoted to matters of classroom techniques and materials. These things are of course important and useful to teachers. What was lacking, however, was any sense of the sociopolitical contexts in which ELT is conducted, or of its role in those contexts.
Contrasting it with the style of TaWSIG:
So, don’t be put off by the somewhat hectoring rhetoric of the TaW collective. Even if it is unlikely to prosper, their cause is a worthy one
Elsewhere this would be called giving with one hand and taking with the other. Clearly, the people behind TaWSIG do not have either the social currency within the eschelons of IATEFL nor the space at conference to explain their ideas. If they appeared to be “hectoring” from the sidelines it is precisely because they are sidelined and denied the platform to express their ideas as Bill Johnston could.
There is also an incoherent reference to Nicola Prentis’ and Russell Mayne’s presentation at IATEFL conference on the invisibility of women in the higher echelons of ELT and in conference talks. Thornbury admits to not attending the talk or reviewing the figures but feels content to use the term “alleged invisibility”. He then proceeds to claim 1 ) having quickly checked their sites for lists of conference speakers, IATEFL is better gender-wise than other professions 2) gender is not the “real issue” but the exclusion of NNESts on speaker lists.
Now not being at the conference and not seeing in detail Prentis’ and Mayne’s research we did investigate Lindsay Clanfield’s survey on who TEFL practitioners felt to be the top people in ELT and (Thornbury tops the list) amazingly only one woman (Penny Urr) makes the top six, despite the greater contribution women continue to make to ELT theory and practise. Interestingly in Section W of A-Z, Thornbury completely rows back on his untenable position, accepting this invisibility and thanking Nicola Prentis for their long conversation and “inspiring this line of inquiry”.
But why does Thornbury get it so wrong in the first place? We would suggest the answer lies in his limited, liberal and convenient conception of power. Thornbury for example argues:
The recent IATEFL Conference at Manchester has been generating quite a bit of heat on the social networks on issues that, to my way of thinking, relate to questions of power: specifically, who has it? who ought to have it? and who has earned it?
The last question I think is very revealing about an organisation based on self-promotion rather than mutual support. The very notion that “power is earned” is certainly quaint and something being promoted at the time by the then UK Prime Minister, David Cameron ( It is no accident we borrowed our title for this piece from Richard Seymour’s excellent book, “The Meaning of David Cameron”) but far from reality. Indeed, it is often a self-justification from the privileged who refuse to acknowledge the privilege which secured their position and the unfair privileges they enjoy from holding such a pòsition.
At Marxist TEFL we are more inteterested in how power is mobilised rather than held, how power networks are often contradictory (capitalism exploits workers but it exploits some workers at the expense of others helping sections of workers identify with their nation rather than their fellow workers elsewhere in the world – or even region/ethnicity) but, most importantly, what are the material bases which support and promote this excercise of power (opportunity being far more important than intention).
We do not want to talk at great length on the subject of NESTs/NNESTs as we wish to deal with this in a forthcoming strategy paper discussing the TEFL Equity campaign (to which we give our support) . However, it is important to draw distinctuons in the world of ELT, between University dominated ELT (EAP), the highly regulated ESOL world, National Public Education systems (where most NNESTs are found), and the positively informal economy which is TEFL. Each one of those sectors will be differently impacted by the NEST/NNEST debate and it is simply not good enough to suggest that NNESTs are disadvantaged across the board. For example, throughout Europe NNESTs in the Public Education Systems will enjoy far better pay than most TEFL teachers – NEST and NNEST (in the UK or Europe) could dream of. This is not to say that Anglo-Saxon Universities do not dominate Second language Acquisition theory and ELT theory of how teaching should be done but they also dominate ideas of how langauge learning takes place and how all language teaching (including Japanese, French, German, Swahili etc) should be done.
It is also worth pointing out that teachers in the world of TESOL are far more able (returning to a previous point) to raise issues of working conditions at conferences, as they are of addressing issues of racism, gender disaparities, sexual oppression, and disability rights. There are material underpinnings for all this and it is simply too dishonest to suggest that it is simply an issue of a “blindness to the issues” or a lack of “liberalism and progressive politics” amongst practitioners.
Hard-working and Self-made
As stressed before we want to explore the meaning of Scott Thornbury and not the man himself. Indeed, as mentioned previously, Scott Thornbury is generally believed amongst many practitioners to be the leading voice within ELT. This no doubt will provoke both admiration and rancour. From what we can see (and we have not dug too deep on this occassion because it was not the remit here) Scott Thornbury has achieved his considerable success through much hard work and a capacity to communicate practical ideas to a grateful community of ELT teachers. His position does not appear to be based on a vast personal fortune inherrited from his family (allowing him endless time to attend conferences and write books rather than teach), or having family members on editorial boards for publishers. In his own words, Thornbury might be said to have “earned” the influence he wields in the industry.
However, for every Scott Thornbury there will be thousands of lowly paid teachers with precarious working conditions. Indeed, his recent book The CELTA Trainee Book not only implicitly supports the continuation of the same it also explicitly condemns thousands upon thousands of students to classes taught by inadequately prepared and poorly supported teachers. The idea behind the phenemenon which is Scott Thornbury is that we will climb a greasy pole to achieve greater personal success and a higher standard of teaching. Now where may we have heard that trickle down theory before?
The meaning of Scott Thornbury is the same meaning as Social Corporate Responsibility inside Starbucks, empty and distracting. If Scott Thornbury has been prolific (and he has been) it has been largely because he has tended to cut corners and avoided deep reading in exchange for a superficial representation of competing theories and social interests. Starbucks is not part of the solution to world poverty, climate change nor low pay, indeed it is a big part of the problem, and its greenwashing (and really some of its initiatives are enormously interestingly and appealing) is merely a means to disguise this fact. Similarly, Scott Thornbury with his barbed and qualified support for teachers’ rights, more “humane teaching” methods (again extremely interesting and appealing), and “higher standards”, sits in contradiction to his active promotion of the status quo. For those of us committed to real change, we are not interested in accepting a “juicy bone” (which isn’t near as juicy as it claims to be) in order to stop the dogs (like TaWSIG and Nicola Prentis) barking. We, most definitely, want the dogs to bark louder and louder; we want them to bite!
Update: since publishing this piece we have now found Prentis’ and Mayne’s survey results with a useful overview procided by Nicola Prentis here on One Stop English. We urge you to visit.