Power in the ELT industry


Last Sunday, Scott Thornbury discussed aspects of IATEFL’s  organisation in a thoughtful, well-measured post about power in the ELT industry. He quoted Bill Johnston (2003: 137):

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 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.

Scott’s post ended with the question “How cognizant are we (to borrow Johnston’s phrase) “of the sociopolitical contexts in which ELT is conducted”?  How is power distributed in these contexts? How could it be distributed more equitably?”

These are precisely the questions which those in “the TaW collective” as Scott calls us, wish to address. Scott backed the group, saying “their cause is a worthy one”, and it’s a pity that the lively discussion that followed his post included an unecessary argument about naming members of this fledgling group. It isn’t even officially formed yet, and those trying to get it off the ground are still thrashing out some basic questions about its aims. I’m sure I speak for all concerned when I say that we want as many people as possible to join in these discussions, and there’s no question of trying to hide anything. Just to clarify: the original idea was for TaW to be an IATEFL SIG, and it’s founders were told that they needed 200 people to sign a petition. Currently, about 160 people have subscribed (clicking on the TaW logo will open the subscription page) and some very animated and interesting talks are going on among us about how to proceed. Please do join in.

Steve Brown’s comment on Scott’s post was, I thought particularly good. He pointed out that

ELT is now a global industry… caught up in the whole Knowledge Economy thing. English is, to a large extent, a commodity that individuals, companies and whole nations want to acquire in order to develop their capital. The role of education as a means of empowering or liberating the individual through imparting knowledge and encouraging critical thinking that can lead towards social justice seems to have got lost as a result.

Scott replied

Thank you, Steve, for your comment – and for connecting the ‘commodification’ of English with issues of power and agency: so long as teachers are viewed merely as intermediaries in the transmission of ‘grammar mcNuggets’ then there is little chance that their authority will be respected or their status improved.

Well said, Scott. And well said Bill, Steve, Anthony, Nicola, Paul, Phil, and many others. It was an excellent Sunday discussion.

I should add that the short comment by Torn Halves led me to a blog which has some of the best political posts I’ve read for years.

9 thoughts on “Power in the ELT industry

  1. Hi Geoff,

    Great to see that you’re keeping the conversation going. A few things I wanted to point out. Actually, when me and Nicola ‘applied’ (actually it wasn’t a formal proposal just an email describing what we wanted to do) for the SIG we really weren’t sure how to do it. The only reason we applied was that Nicola knew a coordinator in one of the SIGs and they knew ‘how things ran’.

    If you look at the IATEFL SIG FAQs there’s no information on how to set up a SIG, we knew we had to prove demand but we weren’t sure how to do this, so I set up a Twitter survey, where teachers voted overwhelmingly in favour of a TaWSIG. Actually, I only got a full explanation of how to apply for a SIG by reading one of the comments – by Martin Eayrs – on Scott’s blog post the other day. It would be nice if IATEFL made this information publicly available (I can’t find it on their website) or if it is available somewhere, put a link from the IATEFL SIG FAQs page: http://www.iatefl.org/special-interest-groups/special-interest-groups-faqs

    Also, the 200 number is just something I landed on when setting up the TaWSIG twitter account. I know that the Learner Autonomy SIG has something just below 250 members and thought – ‘well if we can reach 200 that’s a good case for a SIG’. And we now have 165 subscribers to our mailing list. But apparently, you need only 50 IATEFL members to ‘prove demand’.

    Not straightforward, is it?


    1. I followed the discussions on FB and Scott’s post. Unfortunally, I don’t have the time to engage in those kind of discussions that go around in circles. I’m glad that TaWSIG has its own place for discussion now and last time I checked people were really busy already. Isn’t it weird that all that Nicole and Paul when sending the email asking for them to consider such a sig wanted for start was just that – to get these conversations going? I’m glad that last year they denied it. Now it is out there for the world. There is much to do, with or without IATEFL endorsing it.

      Thanks for writing your impressions so far Geoff of the whole movement around TaW and Paul for clarifying some points. I was also wondering about the IATEFL proposal and I bet other people are too. Even if it was informal, it still shocks me to know that they did not take any interest in at least discussing it further, refining the idea, but just shut the doors all together for such a SIG.

      Steve the picture is quite clear to me. To your first question, I’d give a big yes. And I had to laugh at the arrogance to say that a SIG can only exist under an organization. Clearly, people need to check what a SIG is outside the context of IATEFL, and what a SIG implies. If they do they will learn that in political science, a SIG is actually also very political in nature. 😉 I don’t know how any association can have SIGs without considering the social and political dimensions. But words are used differently in different contexts. Certainly, TaW is permeated by economical, political and social dimensions and can’t go any further without considering the historical and cultural aspects either.

      On a positive note, a lot has changed in the last 3/4 years actually thanks to iTDi and other innitiatives. We are not isolated anymore. More independent materials at a fair price have been published. More free and collaborative PDs are out there. And with more discussions going, more chance to change it even further. Watch and see! 🙂


  2. Hi Paul,

    Thanks for the clarification. And no, it isn’t straightforward, but that’s OK. As the old windbag Polonius wisely puffed:

    And thus do we of wisdom and of reach,
    With windlasses and with assays of bias,
    By indirections find directions out.


  3. And you’re completely right – we are still thrashing things out. But do we still want to be a SIG within IATEFL after the wall of resistance we’ve encountered?

    I can’t speak for everyone, but personally, no – not at the present time.


  4. Hi Geoff,

    Yes! And I don’t want to start another flaming war with IATEFL high-ups on your site. So I’ll accept some responsibility for being a relative ‘newbie’ to IATEFL (I can’t speak for Nicola Prentis) that might have affected the initial application for the SIG.

    But my previous point was that IMO, the process isn’t perhaps as transparent as it could be. And this is just a personal impression.

    But the IATEFL stage of the debate is over I feel.


  5. I found it odd that Scott’s post, which was really good and which covered such an all-encompassing issue, ended up receiving so many comments that focused on such narrow and (to my mind) irrelevant details, such as whether TawSIG should name its members or not.
    Is there a reluctance among the ELT community to actually address the big issues that affect us all? Is this a result of the lack of consideration for the socio-political in our CPD, as Johnston suggests? Is it too paranoid to consider whether there might be some kind of obfuscation going on – an attempt to cloud big and pertinent issues with lots of nitpicking?
    If we look at ELT as an industry, to find out where the power lies we need to find out where the money is; it certainly doesn’t lie with the teachers. If we look at ELT as education, we need to think about the impact of our teaching on our students, how their learning experience empowers them and, crucially, what they are gaining from their education that might allow them to become better agents of change, with a view to creating a more evenly distributed balance of power.
    These are the key areas for discussion, in my view.
    Thanks, Geoff, for quoting me above, and more importantly for keeping the discussion going over on your blog which, as we all know, tends to have a rather more radical slant than Scott’s. I might have to go and write my own post as well.


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