Kuhn famously used the term “paradigm shift” to challenge the account given by philosophers of science such as Popper of how scientific theories evolved and progressed. Popper said that scientific progress was gradual and accumulative; Kuhn said it was sudden and revolutionary and involved paradigm shifts where one way of thinking was suddenly swept away and replaced by another. A paradigm shift involves a revolution, a transformation, a metamorphosis in the way we see something and it has profound practical implications. Change begins with a change in awareness and perception. Our perception is heavily influenced by our past and by social conditioning, and most of the time we go along with the paradigm view / normal science / the status quo / the theory taught at MIT / the prevalent narrative. But there are revolutionary moments in history when we prove ourselves to be capable of transforming and transcending the prevailing paradigms which so affect our lives, and I wonder if we are currently approaching a paradigm shift in ELT?
The present ELT paradigm has these characteristics:
- Standard English is the subject taught.
- Vocabulary and grammar are the subject matter of EFL / ESL.
- SLA involves learning the grammar and lexicon of the language and practicing the 4 skills.
- A product syllabus is used. This focuses on what is to be taught, and, to make the “what” manageable, chops language into discrete linguistic items which are presented and practiced separately and step by step in an accumulative way.
- A coursebook is used. The coursebook is the most important element determining the course. It’s usually grammar-based and presents the chopped up bits of language progressively. Other material and activities aim at practicing the 4 skills.
- The teacher implements the syllabus , using the coursebook. The teacher makes all day-to-day decisions affecting its implementation.
- The students are not consulted about the syllabus and have only a small say in its implementation.
- Assessment is in terms of achievement or mastery, using external tests and exams.
The rival view of ELT has very different characteristics:
- Standard English is one variety of English; it is not the subject taught.
- Texts (discourse) are the subject matter of EFL /ESL.
- SLA involves the socially-mediated development of interlanguage.
- A process syllabus is used. This focuses on how the language is to be learned. There’s no pre-selection or arrangement of items; objectives are determined by a process of negotiation between teacher and learners as a course evolves. The syllabus is thus internal to the learner, negotiated between learners and teacher as joint decision makers, and emphasises the process of learning rather than the subject matter.
- No coursebook is used.
- The teacher implements the evolving syllabus in consultation with the students.
- The students participate in decision-making about course objectives, content, activities and assessment.
- Assessment is in terms of low-stakes formative assessment whose purpose is “to act as a way of providing individual learners with feedback that helps them to improve in an ongoing cycle of teaching and learning” (Rea-Dickens, 2001).
If this rival view were to be widely-adopted in ELT it would certainly constitute a revolution, a complete paradigm shift. But will it happen? When one looks at the arguments for and against the 2 views of ELT sketched above, it’s difficult to escape the feeling that the current paradigm is becoming less and less defensible, in the light of increasing knowledge of the the SLA process; poor results of classroom-based ELT courses; poor morale among teachers (apart from suffering from bad working conditions and pay, most teachers are denied the freedom to teach as they’d like to); and the increasing viability of alternatives.
Doesn’t the alternative seem so much more appealing? What’s better, that course content grows out of the experiences of the learners and is based on topics which reflect their reality, or that it derives from a coursebook made in London or New York? What’s better, that conversational dialogue is the essential component of the course, or that the teacher talks most of the time, gives presentations about English and leads the learners through prefabricated activities? What’s better, that the teacher follows orders and carries out a plan made by somebody in London or New York, or that the teacher is given permission to build the course as it goes along, involving learners in all the important decisions concerning objectives, content, activities and assessment? From both the learners’ and the teachers’ point of view, which approach is likely to lead to higher levels of interest, motivation, energy, engagement and satisfaction? Which approach is likely to lead to better results?
And don’t the replies to criticism of those who promote the current paradigm add further weight to the alternative argument? I’ve discussed elsewhere how some of the leading lights in ELT respond to criticisms of the current paradigm, and I think it’s fair to say that none of them has offered any proper defence of it. The gist of the argument is that alternatives are “unrealistic” and that ELT practice under the present paradigm is slowly but surely improving. As Harmer puts it, unafraid as always of using a handy cliché, “tests are getting better all the time”.
Another supporter of the present paradigm, Jim Scrivener, shows how little importance he gives to any real examination of alternatives. Scrivener simply assumes that teachers must run the show and that “Made in the UK (or USA)” coursebooks and test materials should determine course objectives and content. Rather than question these two fundamental assumptions, Scrivener takes them as given and thinks exclusively in terms of doing the same thing in a more carefully-considered way. In Scrivener’s scheme of things, everything in the ELT world stays the same, but the cobwebs of complacency are swept away and everybody demands high (whatever that means). So teachers are exhorted to up their game: to use coursebooks more cleverly, to check comprehension more comprehensively, to practice grammar more perspicaciously, to re-cycle vocabulary more robustly, and so on, but never to think outside the long-established framework of a teacher-led, coursebook-driven course of English instruction. Recently Scrivener commented that a good coursebook is “a brilliant exploitable all-bound-up-in-one-package resource.” No attempt is made to argue the place of coursebooks in ELT, but Scrivener does take the opportunity to caution on the need for teachers to be trained in how to use coursebooks. Some teachers find reading pages of coursebooks (in the sense of appreciating the links between different parts of the page and pages) “baffling” and so they need to be shown how to “swim” in the coursebook, how to take advantages of all that it has to offer. Apart from giving the impression that he thinks he’s very smart and that most teachers are very dumb, Scrivener gives more evidence of the limits of his vision: nowhere does he discuss training teachers how to do without a coursebook, for example. After all, why on earth would anybody want to do that?
In the same discussion of coursebooks on Steve Brown’s blog, Scott Thornbury eloquently summarized the case against them. I cut and pasted his summary on this blog, leading Hugh Dellar to tweet “Shocking disdain for the craft of writers & editors, as well as the vast majority of teachers from @thornburyscott.” This is typical of Dellar’s response to criticism of coursebooks in two respects. First it is badly-written, and second it takes offence rather than offering any evidence or arguments to the contrary. Dellar has made a number of comments on my criticisms of the dominant role of coursebooks in current ELT, but none of them offers any argument to refute the claim that coursebooks are based on false assumptions and that a process syllabus better respects research findings in SLA, and represents a better model of education. In all the recent discussions of teaching methodology, the use of coursebooks, the design and use of tests, teacher training, and so on, both in the big conferences and in blogs, nobody who defends the current paradigm of ELT has properly addressed the arguments above or the arguments for an alternative offered by Richard Breen, Chris Candlin, John Faneslow, Mike Long, Rose Bard, Graham Crookes, Scott Thornbury, Luke Meddings, and many others. These are met with a barrage of fallacious arguments and very little else.
While I believe that those who fight against the current paradigm have the more persuasive arguments, not to mention the more exciting agenda, I unfortunately don’t believe that we’re on the brink of a paradigm shift in ELT. The status quo is too strong and the business interests that support and sustain this status quo and its institutions are too powerful. The alternative view of ELT described here is essentially a left-wing view which is just too democratic to stand a chance in today’s world. I suppose the best that those of us who believe in an alternative can do is to argue our case and make our voice heard. Whether or not to compromise is another important issue. I was interested to see Luke Meddings propose a 50-50 deal recently: “OK”, he suggested, “just put the book and the tests away for 50% of the time!” I don’t feel comfortable with that, but he might well be on the right track.