British Council Cultural Claptrap


In an article for the British Council website, Ian Clifford asks two questions:

Do learner-centred approaches work in every culture?

Is it time to challenge Western assumptions about education, especially when it comes to promoting ‘good teaching approaches’ in the developing world?

I bet you won’t fall off your chair when I tell you that Clifford thinks the answers to these questions are “No” and “Yes”.

Clifford starts by saying that most Western educators think learner-centred education represents “everything that’s good and wholesome in education.” Just in case that sounds a bit blasé, Clifford gets more scholarly and says that learner-centred educational practice can be traced back to ‘child-centred’ education which

draws on the work of 18th century philosophers such as Rousseau and Locke, who suggested that teachers should intervene as little as possible in the natural development of children.”

Unfortunately, this attempt at scholarship fails, since in fact Rousseau and Locke suggested the opposite. They were both pioneers in promoting child education where the teacher held absolute authority, and, in Locke’s case, children were expected to do exactly as they were told by teachers under threat of dire corporal punishment.

Clifford then asks “What exactly do these (learner-centred) approaches amount to in the classroom?” The answer to this important question is that some educators associate learner-centred approaches with group work, some think it means teachers let learners find out for themselves; and some can’t identify any method at all. You might think that this is not a very “exact” answer, but never mind, because the main point is to establish the different perceptions of learner-centred and teacher-centred approaches. While a learner-centred approach represents everything good, a teacher-centred approach is generally regarded as

“authoritarian and hierarchical, encouraging rte learning and memorisation, without any real understanding.”

Proceding with his absurd parody of the two approaches (in the West we blithely abandon learners to their own devices, while in the East learners bang away at drills and memorise things without achieving real understanding), Clifford cites Kirschner’s work,  which shows that

“leaving learners to solve problems for themselves leads to brain overload.”

Pretty persuasive evidence, don’t you think? And as if this scary brain overload weren’t reason enough to bury learner-centred approaches once and for all, Clifford goes on to give a skewed summary of two more studies. First, Clifford claims that a 2014 meta-study

“favoured ‘direct teaching’ over approaches that involved little teacher instruction such as ‘discovery learning’.”

Quite apart from the fact that “discovery learning” is not a method associated with ELT, if you click on the link and read the summary at the top for yourself, you’ll see that that’s not an accurate summary of the findings. Then Clifford cites Schweisfurth (2011) , who reviewed 72 articles about projects promoting “student-centred” approaches and concluded that they record ‘a history of failures great and small’. Clifford says that the “most important” reason for failure is “cultural mismatch.” He explains:

“Approaches to teaching based on a Western idea of the individual don’t fit well in cultures which emphasise group goals over individual needs. In such cultures, teachers are expected to be authoritative and learners obedient.”

This is a lazy, inaccurate, and misleading report of the findings. Nowhere in the entire article does Schweisfurth use the term “cultural mismatch”, nor does she say that cultural divergence is the most important reason for failure in any of the 72 cases studied. And of course she says absolutely nothing to warrant Clifford’s crude claim about the assumed roles of teachers and learners. On the contrary, she calls for analyses which “help to take us beyond the crude binary codes of Teacher-Centred Education versus Learner-Centred Education, or implementation success versus failure.”

Finally, Clifford gives “The case of Burma”, where, he says, various attempts to implement a ‘child-centred approach’ have failed. Who do you think have been called in to sort out the accumulated mess caused by the well-intentioned but misguided advocates of a learner-centred approach? Yes! The British Council – that hallowed institution famed for subordinating promotion of its own national culture to the greater mission of fostering global cultural diversity! Clifford proudly tells us that the British Council’s “English for Education College Trainers” project in Burma is going to

support local teachers to do whole-class teaching more effectively and interactively and in the second half of the year teach techniques to get learners learning from each other.”

Isn’t that just peachy, as we say in Henley on Thames.

Coming through, loud and clear, through the poor scholarship, the cherry-picking use of evidence, and the reliance on absurd straw-men versions of learner-centred and teacher-centred approaches, is a clear message. The West has been duped by lefty-liberals into accepting a dangerous, learner-centred approach to education as its paradigm, and it’s now trying to hoist this approach onto counties whose cultures make its implementation doomed to failure. We need to reject learner-centred approaches and go back to traditional “whole-class teaching”. The message is what you’d expect from a spokesman of the British Council (conservative, cautious, resistant to change) and it typically gets everything wrong. Pace Clifford, the West is not in the grips of a learner-centred paradigm in education, and there must be very few professionals working outside the cosy confines of the British Council who nurture such a paranoid illusion. More specifically, a learner-centred approach to ELT is not widespread in the West; rather, as I’ve argued elsewhere, ELT practice is mostly teacher-led and coursebook-driven. And while there is undeniably cultural resistance in many countries to the full implementation of a communicative approach to classroom language learning, surely we should be looking for ways to overcome this resistance rather than using opportunistic interpretations of multiculturalism to perpetuate the problem.

12 thoughts on “British Council Cultural Claptrap

  1. i was trying to work out the argument in the BC post, the conclusion is straightforward BC are advocating a balanced approach in Burma that includes both direct instruction and learner centered approach. I am stuck with what their premises are and whether they lead to their conclusion.

    So I had a read of this for more info – and looked at some links here

    if i read the previous correctly their premises could be stated:
    P1 Learner centered approaches are not working in developing countries like Burma
    P2 Burma is used to direct teaching approaches.
    P3 Direct teaching has the strongest evidence to support it.

    Conclusion : Burma should have both direct instruction and learner centered approach

    something is amiss i must be missing some premises!
    The BC guy does state in the pdf that some direct instruction studies support a balanced approach though both in the pdf and powerpoint slides the direct instruction evidence is given weight and described more.

    hmm anways thanks for highlighting this topic



    1. Hi Mura,

      Thanks for your comments and the links. I don’t think you’re missing any premises; I think you’ve just pointed out a contradiction in the argument. Still, we can be sure that the contradiction has no practical consequences. Any nod in the direction of a learner-centred approach which is included in the Burmese project is unlikely to do anything to threaten the authority of the teacher or a direct teaching methodology.


  2. Hi Geoff

    I too read this the other day and was put out by the ongoing efforts of people to create this binary opposition of advanced, evidence-based, learner-centred western approaches to second language learning and development, and the view of the impoverished teachers of “developing” countries who are imprisoned in their historical practices of the sagely imparting of knowledge about language to their students. My favourite quote by Rousseau is:

    The noblest work in education is to make a reasoning man, and we
    expect to train a young child by making him reason! This beginning
    at the end; this is making an instrument of a result. If children understood
    how to reason they would not need to be educated. (Rousseau,
    1762, p. 256)

    In my own practical teaching experience as well as the research I’ve done in second language classroom teaching and learning in a “developing country”, I’ve reached the conclusion (that many others have before me) that we ought to be more concerned about practices that by their very nature require teacher-led modelling and strategic management of the talk of the classroom. This is to promote student engagement where students and teacher are using language to think together, explore ideas, and open up the classroom discourse rather than shut it down. The teacher has a very central role in all of this. But I wouldn’t for a moment call it teacher-centred, or direct instruction, and definitely not curriculum (materials)-centred. I’d prefer learning centred.

    Rousseau, J.J. (1762), ‘Emile: Or, On Education’, Basic Books, New York.


    1. Hi Phil,

      Nice quote!

      You articulate well the crucial point that a learner-centred approach to ELT isn’t adequately captured by Clifford’s repeated description of it as “learners finding things out for themselves with minimal teacher instruction”. Any attempts by a teacher to involve learners in the design and implementation of a classroom-based course rely on that teacher accepting complete responsibility for the course; providing a clear and rigorous framework for the course which learners understand; assuring the coherence and cohesion of every lesson; providing expert input when required; providing scaffolding, motivation and counselling; and so on. What’s so lamentable about Clifford’s article is that it makes no serious attempt to objectively describe a learner-centred approach before arguing that it’s damaging UK education and is inappropriate for cultures which “emphasise group goals over individual needs”. .


  3. Hi Geoff,

    My own take on it is that the BC seems to be in the middle of an arse/elbow puzzle. They say that learners in Burma reject learner-centred teaching but do they reject only learner-centred teaching in L2 only? Have they attempted to mix direct instruction with learner-centred activities, gradually weaning learners away from lockstep teaching? Or is it page 58 of Isn’t English Brill? and share ideas with your partner about the reading comprehension questions?

    If the BC were serious they would have had people on the ground looking at schools, methods and needs (i.e. what can the BC provide that is useful and necessary, not just ‘native models’) rather than going in and saying what’s what, which is what appears to have gone on here.


  4. I enjoyed this post, Geoff. Thank you for sharing a critical view of an issue that often gets presented under biased (dare I say racist?) perceptions of cultural norms. Now I’d like to check some of those sources you mention!


  5. Hi Geoff – despite all of the above, there may be something in what Our Man in Rangoon would have us believe. Direct Instruction does have a reasonably impressive support base which is grounded in evidence. Joe Kirby wrote about it in his blog some time ago:

    I would hate for DI to be tarnished by its association with the business plan of the Burmese British Council! And it would be most welcome indeed to see greater exploration of how it might be brought into the EFL classroom (or, indeed, whether it belongs there).

    The danger, as you rightly point out, is that people use labels to refer to something else entirely. DI is not just the teacher at the front, droning on. It is mainly recycling and reviewing, plus introducing new concepts and checking that they have taken root. I believe that its adoption is best by The People in the Lab, who are our 21st century priests and priestesses. Woe betide anyone who stands up against Science!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hi Secret One – good to see you here.

      Nobody, surely, would deny that DI as a teaching approach has something to recommend it. The link you supply leads to an interesting blog post which certainly has lessons for ELT. The problem with the article I commented on is that it made such a bad job of arguing its case.


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