IATEFL 2017 Part 3: The Limits of Reform: Tomlinson’s Plenary

Brian Tomlinson’s talk Let’s listen to the learners highlighted the fact that learners are not consulted about the content of the courses that they pay for.

To quote from Adi Rajan’s summary , Tomlison says

We don’t listen enough to what:

  • they have to say about life
  • they have to say about learning a language
  • they need
  • they want

And yet:

Learners only learn:

  • what they want and need to learn;
  • when they want and need to learn it

Tomlinson then suggested lots of practical ways of involving learners more, which are well summarised by Adi.


The problem is, yet again, the elephant in the room! Tomlinson didn’t challenge the coursebook itself. He didn’t, that is, recognise that ANY coursebook which is used to implement a product / synthetic syllabus is fatally flawed. And thus, I have to diasagree with Adi, who opines that it was

a brilliant talk! Filled with insights from research, experiences from the classroom, practical strategies and the unsaid implication of the extent to which teachers like you and me are inadvertently letting the status-quo go unchallenged.

Yes, right, but unless we get to the root of the problem, which is coursebook-driven ELT, we’ll never get what close to what Tomlinson wants ELT to be. To be clear:

There’s little point in getting learner input into a coursebook if the coursebook still does the same thing, i.e., guide a grammar-based, PPP syllabus.

It’s interesting to note that Tomlinson’s talk, despite all its criticisms of coursebooks, prompted many to see it as an endorsement of coursebook driven ELT. In a long exchange on Twitter, Marek Kiczkowiak suggested that Tomlinson’s talk supported the use of coursebooks, and replied to questions by saying that Tomlinson had given good references to support this claim. I doubt that Kiczkowiak had read the references, and anyway, his attempt to defend coursebooks finally fell back on the tired and irrelevant defence that teachers don’t have time to do any more than use coursebooks.

Let me deal here with the oft-repeated refrain “Coursebooks are not the cause, but merely the symptom of the problem.”

It’s true, of course, that coursebooks are the symptom, but they’re the essential symptom of the commodification of ELT. The cause is not, as Robert  suggests, bad training, but the political organisation of the whole damn planet. It isn’t training, Robert, it really is not. You’ve got it wrong, because you lack a political framework and a historical perspective. Long before you started teaching, in the 1970s and 80s, ELT went through a glorious phase in the West of mad experimentation, where teachers tried every which way to help their students learn. No CELTA course demanded that trainees show their prowess in using a cousebook because coursebooks hardly existed. Coursebooks flourished in the 1990s as the ELT industry boomed: they were what the market needed. It’s as simple and horrible as that.  So coursebooks, I suggest, will do very well as a focus for criticism of current ELT practice.

Coursebook driven ELT is a reflection of global capitalism. The capitalists, including the biggest capitalists of them all these days, the State, want things to be run for profit. And that means that the multi billion dollar ELT industry just loves coursebooks, because they package a product into, here we go again, McNuggets. As the daft remarks of Kiczkowiak give sad evidence of, people get misled into thinking that it’s all to do with convenience. Educational values get chucked out of the window and we all get further away from our real goals.

In order to get back to, and on with, good teaching, we need to get rid of coursebooks.

Tomlinson had a lot of good things to say. What his plenary lacked was a critical evaluation of the data he collected and an appreciation of the need to go beyond tinkering. Coursebooks don’t need to be tinkered with, they need to be abolished.

6 thoughts on “IATEFL 2017 Part 3: The Limits of Reform: Tomlinson’s Plenary

  1. Hi, Geoff,

    The coursebook issue appears, to me, to be vastly complex and I’m not going to pretend I understand it well enough to categorically agree or disagree with you. However, my point about poor training was specific to the Blinding Stars problem I laid out in my post. Perhaps – I’m not claiming to know – the commodification of ELT and the dominance of the coursebook led to our current state vis-a-vis training practices.

    To be clear (and I feel a need for clarity, since I’ve already been misrepresented once, today), I am in no way asserting that poor training is the root cause of all that is wrong with ELT. My focus was more specific than that.

    But, I’m not convinced that ITT courses are, or need be, prescribed by the existence of a coursebook, or coursebook system, or what have you. There are plenty of schools (and I’ve seen a few of them) where the coursebook, if available to use, if not forced on the teacher, and where it is, the teacher can use it as he or she sees fit. Someone not so proficient in grammar may, for example, pull out the teachers book to check holiday collocations and polite expressions that inform a TBLT lesson on booking or complaining about a holiday. I’ve seen teachers and INSETT teacher trainers advise completely ignoring the grammar in the coursebooks and flipping straight to the ‘fun’ bits, usually at the end of a unit, or near the back of a teachers book. No need to follow a grammar syllabus, no need to stick with a synthetic syllabus, but a lot of teachers, I saw, stuck to the book because they lacked proper training.

    Whatever the root cause of all evil in ELT, better training of teachers in ITT courses would go some way to resolving the issue. At least, then, they’d have some of the means to gain independence from the coursebook, from the commodities of the industry. As they now stand, ITT courses could employ critical thinking modules and placements and all the rest of it. There’s no need to remain enslaved to the coursebook, even if the coursebook is primarily responsible for the current design of ITT courses.


    1. Hi Robert,

      Thanks for this. I agree, of course, that better teacher training would help enormously – especially if, instead of training people how to use coursebooks, it’s focused on helping teachers decide for themselves how to teach – hopefully consulting their learners.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Thanks for the mention Geoff. Coursebooks are rarely used in Adult ESOL contexts in South Asia so I have to confess this is not something I feel very strongly about but I completely see your point.


    1. Hi Adi,
      I think you did an excellent job of summarising the talks you covered.

      I’m interested to hear that “coursebooks are rarely used in Adult ESOL contexts in South Asia”. What materials are used?


  3. Learners only learn:

    what they want and need to learn;
    when they want and need to learn it

    I got lost in the various threads, but the quote above stayed in my mind, and struck me as quite silly.


    1. Hi Kevin,

      I agree. I suppose he’s referring to the interlanguages development lit. which suggests that teaching can affect the rate but not the route of such development.


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