* Demand High Part 2

Steve Brown commented on my post about Demand High and I’d like to develop our exchange here. I should make it clear that Steve doesn’t share my opinions of Demand High; I think his comments show this, but there’s the danger that he’ll be “guilty by association”. There was no collaboration between us whatsoever.


First Comment from Steve (abridged)

When I first heard about Demand High I was quite excited. I could recognise what Scrivener and Underhill were talking about .. in their criticisms of common classroom practice. I liked the phrase “going through the motions teaching” that Jim Scrivener used to describe lessons that demonstrated technical competence on the part of the teacher but didn’t involve much engagement with the learners and their learning. When he told us at IATEFL 2012 that communicative language teaching had got itself into a cul-de-sac of complacency I agreed with him. I thought that these guys shared my concerns that teachers focus too much on materials, activities and lesson plans, and not on learners and the actual processes of learning that they’re going through.

However, as you rightly point out, Scrivener and Underhill may be highlighting a problem but they don’t have a solution. If Demand High is simply about “tweaks” and “small adjustments” then this doesn’t cut it. We need far more radical change, as you suggest.

Your point about Scrivener and Underhill being part of the establishment is perhaps the most important one. They have benefited enormously from the ELT industry over the last 30 years or so. In fact, they are both influential enough to have shaped the industry to a considerable extent (how many CELTA centres prescribe Learning Teaching as required reading? How many classrooms have a copy of Underhill’s phonemic chart on the wall?), and this leaves them in an awkward position. If they were to call for wholesale changes in our approach to language teaching they’d effectively be contradicting a lot of what they have said in the past.

So yes, I agree with you that Demand High, as presented to us by Scrivener and Underhill, is a dud product in that it’s nothing more than a series of minor adjustments and repackaged ideas for people to try within the existing constructs of the average ELT lesson. It doesn’t go anything like far enough. Having said that though, I have a suspicion that Scrivener and Underhill would actually like it to go much further. I think they secretly realise that they’re part of a system that needs to be overthrown, but because they’re part of it they can’t be the ones to start the revolution. Maybe they’re too scared, maybe they feel they would lose credibility, maybe they simply don’t have a solution.

My Reply to Steve

Scrivener’s claim that communicative language teaching (CLT) has got itself into a cul-de-sac of complacency is both arrogant and self-serving. CLT is an umbrella term under which millions of teachers ply their trade, and Scrivener can’t know whether most teachers suffer from the condition which he so “perceptively” describes. If you read the dozens of blogs written by young EFL /ESL teachers, they can hardly be characterised as complacent. Scrivener’s claim is, in my opinion, best interpreted as the opening line to a sales pitch aimed at promoting loyalty to the Scrivener brand, which, as the market-savvy Scrivener realises, needs a new model. So the team who brought you “Spoon-feeding your Students to Success”, now proudly presents the new low-calorie (in fact no calories at all) Demand High. Having sold teachers materials, activities and lesson plans for the past 30 years, in 2012 Scrivener turns round and tells teachers that they’re using all this stuff complacently, and so what they need now is what he’s got for them: that very 21st century product: an attitude. And of course, this is not just any attitude, this is the Scrivener and Underhill attitude. The attitude has the cleverly-designed label “Demand High”, is glossily packaged in smarmy, aspirational doublespeak, and has as its secret ingredient the mysterious meme.

I don’t think Scrivener and Underhill are too scared to say what they really believe: I think they believe in the crap they’re selling.

2nd Comment from Steve

Maybe you’re right, Geoff. It’s certainly possible that Scrivener and Underhill (Scriverhill?) are genuinely unable to offer us any more than the blandness that is Demand High.

Your point about CLT is fair enough as well. It is an umbrella term that is used to include all sorts of practice, good and bad, and Scrivener doesn’t provide much in the way of evidence to back up his idea that CLT has become stagnant.

However, the fact that CLT is an umbrella term for pretty much everything that goes on in ELT is, in itself, a problem. A lot of “communicative” activities don’t really tie in with the original principles of communicative language teaching. I wrote a post a while ago arguing that CLT in its real sense has never really got off the ground ( https://stevebrown70.wordpress.com/2013/09/29/comunicative-breakdown/ ) and I think this has allowed it to be wrongly defined and misunderstood ever since. This woolliness then allows people like Scriverhill to present something equally woolly and all-encompassing.

Anyway, I agree it’s wrong to blame teachers for problems with our profession. We could perhaps blame the way they are trained though..?

My reply to Steve

An anecdote.

When I was in my fresher year at the LSE (1962), I was lucky enough to attend a talk given by Joan Robinson, the brilliant Cambridge economics professor who used parts of Marx’s work in her critique of Keynes. Despite its reputation for being left-wing, at that moment the LSE economics department was stuffed with aplogists for free market economics and led by Richard Lipsey who perfectly expressed the new liberalism.

The department was rightly nervous about Robinson’s talk and lined the front rows. So in sweeps Joan, in an evening dress that wouldn’t have been out of place at La Scala (and consequently would have been enough to provoke catcalls and boos from the young firebrands gathered in the Old Theatre had they not known of her work), and she starts to unpick the shoddy arguments of our man Lipsey. After a few minutes she asked the audience “What do they tell you here about Keynes?” Some brave undergraduate told her that we were told that while Keynes had rightly identified cyclical activity, his argument that the state should intervene to smooth out the booms and slumps was naïve and failed to take into account a number of complex factors. Prof. Robinson listened patiently to the list of complex factors, smiled, and said in her cut-glass accent:

“What’s so laughable is the sheer effort these chaps exert to make their ridiculous account sound plausible!”

The house came down! Hundreds of elated students jumped up from their seats and shouted approval, while the front rows yelled their protests.

Robinson’s remark has stayed with me. It asserts that the more implausible the argument, the more effort is required to promote it. Post-modernist arguments for relativism are a good example, Demand High is another. Demand High argues that a meme can affect progress in ELT. Since a meme is in itself nothing, Scrivener and Underhill are forced into increasingly ridiculous attempts to pump meaning into their dead construct.

My anecdote has another purpose, which is an aside. As an old-timer who has seen and sometimes been part of spirited debates, I note that there’s little spirited debate these days in the ELT world: robust criticism of the work of the ELT establishment is considered taboo. When I rant against the published pronouncements of members of this establishment (never, BTW suggesting that they’re not decent human beings), most people in the blogging world prefer to hide behind objections to its style and say nothing. “Don’t give this stuff oxygen” is the tactical response. So thanks for joining in, Steve.

To the issue, then. You say that CLT has often been “wrongly defined and misunderstood”, and that woolly thinking is the culprit. Well, yes and no. In my opinion CLT is none the worse for being wooly: the offence is to claim, as Scrivener often does, that you know the best (the highest?) way to do it. CLT was a reaction to a behaviouristic view of learning, and as such, I think it was a good development. Let me take you on a visit to the past.

CLT took off in the eighties, which was a tremendously inventive and invigorating time in ELT. Dissatisfaction with the accepted methodology, the “Direct Method” as it was known, spawned some whacky stuff, like Suggestopedia, Total Physical Response, The Silent Way and Curran’s Communative Language Learning, and all of us who were teaching under the behavioustic paradigm at that time were fascinated by these daring alternative approaches. We were challenged, we were restless, we were motivated to change. For those of us who lived through that time, Earl Stevick was a wonderful guide; his book “A Way and Ways” is still the best book I’ve ever read on ELT, and it had a profound influence on all of us lucky enough to have had access to the book and to him – he gave lots of fantastic workshops in ESADE Idiomas.

I remember the teachers room of ESADE Idiomas in the eighties as one of the most exciting places I’ve ever been in. It was buzzing with enthusiasm and energy. After a day’s teaching I went to the bar and drank mad amounts of beer with colleagues while feverish discussion of teaching raged. Somehow, through the boozy haze, I also spent hours reading books by people like Breen and Candlin and Widdowson, and planning the next day’s work.

We had a mad boss who insisted on experimentation and who, with his huge budget, brought us everybody who was pioneering new approaches. We had workshops by Zanon, a real zealot; by Caroline Graham (we bought her keyboard off her); by Faneslow; by Rinvolucri; by Stevick; by Candlin; by Riley; by Widdowson; and, yes indeed, by Underhill.

In different classrooms of ESADE Idiomas in 1985 you could find teachers using Streamline Departures to bang home the present perfect; teachers using Cuisinere Rods and pointing at weird phonetic charts; teachers asking their students to lie on the floor, close their eyes and listen to Cat Stevens singing Father & Son; teachers checking that everybody had read at least 5 of the 30 novels recommended; teachers doing drills; teachers using plastic skulls to show how to distinguish minimal pairs; teachers sitting outside the classroom so as not to influence the students’ discussion of how the course was going; teachers making surprise visits to other teacher’s classrooms; teachers pretending they were blind and asking students to help them put bits of a picture together; teachers asking students to talk about photos they’d brought in, and so on. Now wasn’t this CLT evolving, Steve?

As we went about our job, happily eclectic and flexible, the ELT market exploded and thus became of increasing interest to big business. The publishing giants pounced on a lucrative opportunity and “The Coursebook” soon pervaded ELT practice. I can’t remember the first one we used in ESADE Idiomas, but maybe it was Headway. In any case, by 1990 the coursebook ruled and everything changed. Like the new convenience food, the new coursebooks dulled the senses: they made life easy, but they weren’t nutritious. ESADE Idiomas became a dull place, went slowly downhill and closed in 2008.

So that’s the story. Except, of course, that it isn’t the whole story. ESADE Idiomas didn’t fail because of the almost compulsory requirement to use coursebooks. The vibrant life of the school, partly illustrated by different teachers using different materials and methods, depended on the interplay of a very delicate mix of factors, only one of which was the new role of the coursebook. Nevertheless, I think our lovely little world was seriously damaged by the arrival of these horrible books.


I’m an old armchair anarchist. I believe that we’d be better off without a central government and without a profit-driven economy. However daft you might find these beliefs, you might nevertheless agree that the current ELT establishment’s attempts to control the way we teach have a detrimental effect, and that we’d be better off organising things for ourselves. I suggest that we see Demand High as a botched attempt by these 2 establishment figures to develop a new product range in ELT (power training or some such bollocks) and that more, “better” versions will follow.

We owe it to ourselves to think for ourselves and to critically examine all the stuff that leading lights in our profession tell us. We should sniff out bullshit and explore for ourselves the values and practices so eclectically and chaotically expressed by the pioneers of CLT. As indications of what that might entail, I recommend Rose Bard’ Teaching Journal and Scott Thornbury’s various publications on Dogme.

Hello, Steve? Steve? I think he’s nodded off.


From Rose Bard:
Thanks Geoff for always encouraging me to keep going. I’m only a teacher trying to move from talking about what is good for learning to actually putting it into practice. When the educational institute started talking about moving away from traditional approach and exploring socioconstructivism, the language department was the only one sure that it was not our case. There was certain things that belonged to our field that was different from the other fields of knowledge, good for them, but not for us. Mainly our resistence lied in the problem that students’ lack of language knowledge, let’s put that way. I don’t know what teachers thought the socioconstructivism was, but I reckon they didn’t really get it. The view “get it right at the beginning”¹ dominated the scene and practice. The burning desire to see our students becoming English speakers was there in every teacher in our school, no doubt about that. But the problem was nothing had moved much away from the behaviorism and CLT or whatever that means to people is just a marketing label. The more I look into coursebooks, the more sure I am that we haven’t moved forward no matter how many fancy terms like learner styles are present in the material presentation or cool pictures and texts. In practice the activities are still get it right first. Can someone tell me why CBs syllabus are still grammar based? Well, here this is what publishers representatives say: teachers want that way. I nod when I hear this, but at the same they are right. Teachers in theory think of CLT, but in practice they are still making everything in the class about grammar and accuracy. Few years ago I read/heard Michael Swan say that no matter what you do to teach 3rd person singular in the present simple… Sigh! Still we see teachers looking for grammar activities and more trendy even games to practice grammar. It just makes no sense with so much research out there, we still keep doing the same things!

When I heard the term praxis the first time (back in 2008), I felt excited. I was never the type of person that follows people and neither want people to follow me. Hence why I respect students own belief about learning, whether they are right or wrong, is not the point. Freire argued that we only move from our naive way of thinking to a more critical thinking by the act of dialoguing, unveiling reality. In this case, a teacher learns while teaches, and a learner teaches while learning. This notion is kind of non-sense when looking at a classroom where the teacher rules.

My first access to ELT and a more socioconstructivist view of English teaching was when Scott Thornbury started talking and writing about it. By then, in 2009, I had been struggling on my own to connect ELT to critical pedagogy (let’s leave the political aspect of it out for a bit) 😉 Anyways, I’m grateful to somebody started questioning and for anyone that takes the critical path, one will not want you to follow them in anyway. It’s critical because as Freire said, it demands one to take a stand for what you believe in. Unfortunally if you are going to talk about industry and products, it will affect people because the industry is made of people not products.
Here is the article: http://www.teachingenglish.org.uk/article/dogme-nothing-if-not-critical

¹See Spada and Lightbown, How languages are learned.

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