Demand High: A Dud Product

Demand High is the work of Jim Scrivener and Adrian Underhill. My argument in regard to Demand High is this:

1. Two members of the ELT establishment have taken advantage of their position, their “leverage” as they say these days when talking of power and influence, to launch a half-baked product onto the ELT world and promote it by giving talks and workshops in as many places as will pay their vaunted fees and expenses.
2. The product is a dud and serves as an example of how dud products crowd the present ELT industry.
3. Teachers at the chalk face are handicapped in their work by being obliged to work with the dud products sold to their bosses.
4. Teachers should challenge the present ELT establishment by organising themselves into collectives.

1. Demand High gets its credibility from On High

The first step of the argument is very simple: Demand High has credibility because its promoters are stars: part of the ELT establishment. Personally, I find Scrivener’s oeuvre pedestrian, tedious and snobbish, while Underhill’s is very good indeed, but that’s not the point: the point is that Demand High didn’t get its exposure through the merit of its arguments but rather through its authors’ establishment status.

2. The Product is a Dud

Demand High is preposterous, arrogant, half-baked crap. It’s high-handed, condescending, bordering on offensive. It manages to encapsulate all that’s bad about current training programmes: the doublespeak, the appeal to raising the bar, making the most of oneself, asking difficult questions, demanding more, and all that and all that. The coyness, the laboured sincerity, the sort-for complicity; it’s carefully-crafted, yet unaware of its posturing, symptomatic of what Satre would call false consciousness. I invite you to look at their web page “What is Demand High” and then say what Demand High is. You won’t be able to, because there’s nothing of substance there.

Here are a few examples of Demand High rhetoric:

“Demand High asks Are our learners capable of more, much more?” What do you think the answer is?

“Have the tasks and techniques we use in class become rituals and ends in themselves?” You’re expected to say “Yes”. You’re expected to recognise the awful depths to which your teaching has sunk and to credit these seers with insight into classroom rituals and things you do which are “ends in themselves”.

“How can we stop “covering material” and start focusing on the potential for deep learning?” This is, of course, drivel, worthy of some bad advertising agency’s attempt to sell you a self-help book.

“What small tweaks and adjustments can we make to shift the whole focus of our teaching towards getting that engine of learning going?” Ah! Now here they can help! They can pull out their tired collection of classroom tricks, like the pronunciation practice stuff which Adrian first presented 25 years ago, a few classroom management tips, and so on. This, coupled with a deep commitment to the meme, should do it.

“We are proposing a demand that comes precisely at the point where the learner is capable of making their next steps forward – and helping them to meet that demand, rather than avoiding it”. How do we identify the point where the learner is capable of making their next steps forward? It sounds like these guys know something about how to tap into interlanguage development, but of course they don’t, or at least they don’t give any indication whatsoever that they do. It’s more hogwash.

“We want to explore:
• How can I push my students to upgrade their language and improve their skills more than they believed possible?
• How can I gain real learning value from classroom activities that have become tired or familiar?
• What teacher interventions make a real difference?
• How can I shift my preoccupation from “successful task “to “optimal learning”?
• How can we transform “undoable” or “low” demand into “doable demand”?
• What is the minimum tweak necessary at any point in any lesson to shift the activity sideways into the “challenge zone”?
• What attitude and action changes would lead to “Demand-High” teaching in my classroom?
• What is the demand on a teacher to become a “Demand High” teacher?”

To the question “But HOW can we explore all this, Oh Wise Ones?” answer comes there none. But just sign up for a series of very expensive workshops and we’ll work through it, OK? Because, in essence, Demand High is a meme. According to Wikipedia, a meme is “an idea, behaviour, or style that spreads from person to person within a culture. A meme acts as a unit for carrying cultural ideas, symbols, or practices that can be transmitted from one mind to another through writing, speech, gestures, rituals, or other imitable phenomena with a mimicked theme.” One might be forgiven for thinking that Demand High invites you into a cult where high priests help you get into the groove of Demand High teaching. But no; at least, not yet. All that Demand High offers so far are some very pedestrian ways of “upping your game” as a teacher. It’s spinned platitudes; it’s aspirational hype; it’s hopelessly unexamined educational values mixed up with unidentified teaching practice; it’s an appeal to “seriousness” where nothing serious is offered. It’s crap.

2.1 Demand High is a commercial product

Let’s be clear: Demand High is a sales pitch. It’s a commercially-constructed neologism (“Demand high what?” one would normally ask). Scrivener and Underhill are selling a product in a lucrative ELT market which turns over billions of dollars every year, and their customers are those who hire the teachers, the chalk-face workers, most of whom earn a pittance. These customers are managers in chains of ELT centres like the British Council, Wall Street, International House, etc.; or owners of language schools; or conference organisers like TESOL International , IATEFL, etc.. They pay for Scrivener and Underhill to put on workshops and presentations, and they also buy coursebooks and other materials written by them.

2.2 Demand High is one dud product among hundreds

Hugh Dellar’s successive attempts to promote the lexical approach are re-works of a dud product. Jeremy Harmer offers a variety of dud products. Most coursebooks that teachers are obliged to use are dud products, offensive in a variety of ways. For example, they misrepresent interlanguage development, gender differences, and cultures. The huge supply of supplementary materials that teachers use are similarly flawed. All this dross is measured by the over-riding criterion of profit, and considerations of educational value are bent to its demands.

3. Teachers at the chalk face are handicapped in their work by being obliged to work with dud products.

Teachers who attend a workshop given by the ever-so-caring-and-sincere Demand High advocates might be forgiven for feeling patronised and for trying to lynch them. Alas, they make no such attempts and, indeed, are often impressed by Underhill’s insistence that they demand high in attempts to help their students distinguish a shit from a sheet. The fact remains that most teachers are hampered rather than helped by the dud products that they’re forced to use in their jobs. The enormous interest shown by teachers in Dogme, and the almost hysterical reaction of publishers and their writers, highlights the conflict between good teaching and commercial interests.

4. Teachers should challenge the present ELT establishment by organising themselves into collectives

When capitalism delivers good wages for workers, including intellectual workers, workers tend to forget how badly they’re treated. In the ELT industry, teachers are suffering the consequences of an economic crisis for which they’re blameless and in Spain I know that lots of teachers are being paid less than the minimum wage. By coming together as a collective (avoiding official trade unions who disgrace their heritage and misrepresent their members) teachers have a better chance of getting not only better pay but also more control over how they teach and what materials they use. I know it’s easy to say and difficult to do, but the option is there. The Cooperative “Serveis Lingüístics de Barcelona”is just one example.I invite all teachers to use this blog to get a local cooperative going.


Demand High exemplifies what’s wrong with the ELT industry. I suggest that we tell Messrs Scrivener and Underhill to piss off; cancel our subscriptions to TESOL and IATEFL; boycott all sponsored talks in our workplaces; refuse to use the prescribed coursebooks; and adopt a Dogme approach to our teaching.

Note: I haven’t consulted the Dogme team about this post and they have no responsibility for its contents.


40 thoughts on “Demand High: A Dud Product

  1. Hi Geoff, and thanks for this post. When I first heard about Demand High I was quite excited. I could recognise what Scrivener and Underhill were talking about (at least I thought I did) 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. I even contributed to the Demand High website.
    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. They would also be snubbing the publishing companies and conference organisers who have been very good to them over the years.
    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. But if we all did as you suggest, Geoff, and liberated ourselves from the constraints that are placed on us by those in power, I think old Jim and Adrian would be quite pleased.


  2. Hi Steve,

    Thanks for taking the time to contribute this interesting comment.

    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.

    Liked by 1 person

    • 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. I also agree that there are plenty teachers out there who work hard to maximise learning opportunities without needing these guys to tell them to do it.
      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 ( ) 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.
      But I think I’m digressing here.
      Anyway, I agree it’s wrong to blame teachers for problems with our profession. We could perhaps blame the way they are trained though..?


  3. I don’t know enough about Demand High ELT to say if I agree (when I went on the website I felt I didn’t ‘get it’, possibly there is nothing to get.) I do appreciate the frankness here. Thank you.


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  6. Hi Geoff,

    Several times, after reading a post where you attack certain ELT people personally, I’ve thought about commenting. I didn’t, thinking that they probably didn’t need me getting involved. They still probably don’t but I’ve changed my mind. I’ve learned a lot from reading your posts – one of those things being to be careful to try to minimise the rubbish in any of my posts 😉 – but I just don’t get and don’t enjoy when your posts include personal attacks on people who, from my experience of them, don’t deserve them.

    I know, like and have had very interesting conversations with Jeremy Harmer. We don’t always agree but we can have good discussions and still finish as friends (I hope!). Yes, he is a very well known name in ELT but that’s because he’s written books for the new and training practitioners, as has Jim Scrivener. I read Jeremy’s book before I started teaching. Jim’s I consulted regularly in my first few months in the classroom. The books were helpful and supportive. I haven’t looked at them for a while in light of my subsequent experience but I believe they were useful at the time. Apart from Jeremy, I don’t really know the others very well. I’ve seen Adrian Underhill talk a few times and I’ve stood and had a beer with Hugh Dellar as well as also seeing him speak. I’ve enjoyed what they have to say and learned from them. I have never got the impression that they were looking to abuse their position as well-known people, to exploit others, or to sell a product other than the books they have written in order to make a living. Jeremy has never come across as arrogant. My impression has always been that he continues to question himself and others and to work towards better understanding of what good practice in ELT looks like.

    You have said that you don’t attack them as people but that is how it comes across in your posts. It means that I have shied away from getting involved in a discussion where people are insulted or from sharing what is otherwise very interesting material.

    All the best,


  7. Hi Carol,

    You state your opinion of Harmer’s, Scrivener’s, Underhill’s and Dellar’s published work and I state mine. You say I attack them as people, and I say I don’t: I’ve never said that they were arrogant people, or that they abused their positions. I criticise their published work and their public pronouncements. I also criticise the way they use their power and influence as members of the ELT establishment. There’s a difference between calling an argument in a text arrogant and calling the author arrogant; and there’s a difference between criticising the policies and actions of a public figure and criticising the private individual. If you choose to see these criticisms as personal attacks, then you, not I, are indulging in an ad hominem attack, and dragging emotions into what is intended to be a rational argument.



    • Hi Geoff, I’m sorry that I’ve misunderstood and misinterpreted and I appreciate the clarification. I’ll now reread the post in light of this and identify where and why assumptions were made and conclusions jumped to. Sorry for the interruption but thanks for letting me say my bit 🙂 Best wishes, Carol


  8. Hi Geoff,
    I totally agree that DH is a commercial product. 🙂 I prefer the term Praxis 😉

    How about fly high?
    About a year later…

    Without John FF, iTDi and my edu-heroes (my dear PLN), I would not have moved forward as much as I did.

    Ps. avoiding official trade unions who disgrace their heritage and misrepresent their members! Agree with this too.

    Point 3 is also true. I always thought that a publisher representative would be able to go to the school, do some sort of need analysis and then check the catalogue to see which CB would best fit a certain context. Then, the same publisher representative would carefully train the staff so that the author vision would meet the teachers at least half way. But none of this happens. They want to sell. Plain simple.

    If I could, I’d avoid not just the union but also the coursebooks with teens, like I said in the other post. No matter how lovely they look. I appreciate the efforts that authors put in writing them though, but they are still grammar based and predictable. I think If I had never had to work without them, I wouldn’t have seen the benefit of not using them at all. I’m also lucky to work with a DOs who understands that the material is just a tool and she encourages us to be more flexible with the material, change it as long as we keep the syllabus in mind. Better than having to cover every page.


  9. Dear Geoff Jordan,
    Reading your post was a liberating experience for me.
    The ST – AU – JS trio definitely have a cult following, and that sort of thing always makes me uncomfortable. The fact is, I’m conflicted: much of what they have produced I find solid and truly helpful to me in my profession. (Yes, there are imperfections. Inaccuracies, too. You’re not allowed to point these out, though, as ST, AU and JS are held to speak the unalterable gospel truth.)
    But I do not believe in blindly following gurus.
    I will not be so pretentious as to claim, in response to your posting: ‘Yes! This is exactly what I think, too!’ or ‘This is what I’ve been trying to tell people!’. These are your thoughts, and they belong to you. What I will say is that they resonated with me and made me feel a little less lonely and isolated as a professional who feels the need to question the agenda that creates this tiresome one-upmanship.
    Thank you for writing it, anyway. I’ll definitely be reading more of your blog entries.


  10. Hi Chad,

    I’m glad my post had such a positive effect on you; I’m not best-known for raising people’s spirits 🙂

    I suppose that “ST” refers to Scott Thornbury. In my opinion Scott is an excellent academic and his influence on ELT practice over the years has been consistently positive (thoughtful, innovative, progressive). I think Dogme is the best thing to have happened to ELT in the last 10 years.


    • Hi, Geoff.
      Oh, please don’t get me wrong – if I had a fundamental problem with any of the three people I mentionned, I wouldn’t keep buying their books and reading their blogs. Scott Thornbury, in particular, has (indirectly – I do not know him though would one day like to meet him) has my utmost respect. Adrian Underhill’s chart? And the book? Very useful. I don’t know Jim Scrivener’s oeuvre well enough to have an opinion.
      It is more the apostolic fervour of their followers that makes me uncomfortable. I once pointed out an inaccuracy (albeit, slight) in Mr Thornbury’s A to Z book and was looked at as though I’d committed an act of blasphemy. I am not new to teaching, but I am new to this particular circle: are we really not allowed to challenge these people? I feel as though I’m learning to keep my mouth shut, and I don’t like that at all.
      As far as DOGME is concerned: I’ve been reading up on a bit more and have even experimented with somewhat, with not unsatisfactory results. Your comment gives me pause; I will continue research and experiment. But what is *your* evidence for supporting it so unconditionally? (Am sure you’ve blogged on this; no need to answer if I can find it somewhere else.)
      Thank you for reading. Best,


      • Hi Chad,

        Thanks for the clarification.

        I don’t support Dogme unconditionally, but I agree with its key principles. I think Scott was right to cry halt to the increasingly pervasive use of commercially-produced materials in ELT, and right to emphasise the need for a negotiated syllabus where “the teacher motivates and scaffolds interactions between learners, providing instruction at the point of need, using materials contributed or accessed principally by the learners themselves”. For a bit more, see the section “Methodological Principles of Dogme” in the post here:


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  12. Thanks for this, Geoff. I too have found myself questioning what exactly Demand High had to offer me as a language teacher, and to the profession as a whole. I’ve attempted to voice my doubt about the whole thing – sparked off by this post, Carol and Steve’s responses, and a twitter exchange I had with Matthew Noble earlier in January. My thoughts are in the post linked to in the pingback above, but in essence: I don’t see very much in Demand High for me or others; I feel the same as you seem to about the way it has been milked into a series of workshops, courses, and conference plenaries by its proponents; and what worries me the most is the top down delivery of the whole thing – ELT gurus parachuting in to save us from teaching disaster is what it seems like to me.



  13. Pingback: Collaboration and discussion in ELT | Carol Goodey

  14. Hi Geoff

    I think your courage to be so open and criticise in such a down to earth straightforward way is great. Many of us are reluctant to do this because the ELT world is such a small circuit and things get too personal and feelings run high – I got DM-ed in the past for retweeting one of your posts and essentially I was told off . “You are either with us or against us” and RT-ing negative criticism, a simple act of dissemination, is seen as hostile.

    Dud products should be pointed out; so many people are followers and the Dellars of this world make such a huge noise, some people gasp in awe for no good reason – see the inanity of the famous Lexical Approach books the quality of which is totally laughable.

    Even commenting here is seen as an act of hostility.

    But we should be free to say what we think and still like (or not, as we see fit) the people behind the products, in the same way we watch bad lessons and still like the teacher.


  15. Dogme, collectives – I’d agree these are options, but not the only possible route for those who take exception to DH. But I personally think it would be better to focus on critical thinking in the classroom. This can be done within the confines of IATEFL, I think: it’s a broad enough organization. EAP teachers are already doing this, and John Hughes at OUP is also focusing on it in Business English contexts. Why turn one’s back on IATEFL and head for the hills when it has global reach? If DH is as flimsy as this post suggests, it shouldn’t be hard to challenge it and compete with it. Those who ask better questions generally get better answers – this principle can be transferred to the classroom and might make for an interesting conference presentation.


    • Hi Phillip,

      Thanks for this.

      Critical thinking is a good idea anywhere, and of course we should encourage it in the classroom. But It can’t in itself do much to remedy the problem I alluded to, namely that teachers are forced to work with a plethora of dud commercial products bought by their bosses.

      Action is necessary, and the best action, IMO, is to organise locally. Teachers should tell the boss that they’d rather spend the HR budget on 10 workshops where they get things done (e.g. producing classroom materials, organising peer-observations, improving IT skills) than send the D.O.S. to IATEFL and have 1 visit from a “highly-acclaimed writer and teacher trainer” who’s flown in from London to tell them what to do. And they should tell the boss that they don’t want some daft coursebook like “Headway” or “Innovations” to decide how they run their courses.

      I don’t share your optimism about IATEFL. Its function today is to promote the interests of the British Council, big teaching outfits, examination boards, and, above all, the publishing companies. Alas, critical thinking won’t budge them: only action will. I’m not suggesting we head for the hills, rather that teachers stay where they are and re-organise in such a way that they have a much bigger share in both the decisions which affect their work and the money which their work generates.


  16. Hugh Dellar alerted me to a spam post from Clarissa. Given how flattering it was, I should have known it was spam. 😦 Anyway, my thanks to Hugh.


  17. Pingback: Demand High ELT – is it really something new? | DELTA Course Blog

  18. Hi W..
    Difficult to give a short answer! Have a look at the posts on this blog on Hugh Dellar’s attempts to market the lexical approach.


  19. Pingback: The 2015 Quiz: A Round-up of High and Low Moments in ELT, 2015. | aplinglink

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