I see no ships: Scrivener’s blind eye

In the Battle of Copenhagen (1801), British hero Vice Admiral Nelson put his telescope to his blind eye and announced that he couldn’t see the signal calling on him to retreat. He’d been ordered by his boss, Admiral Sir Hyde Parker, to turn back, but he ignored the order, carried on with his action, and won the day. He didn’t actually say “I see no ships”,  but it’s not a bad way to paraphrase his attitude.

“I see no ships” characterises the attitude of Jim Scrivener. Like Nelson, he’s well up in the ranks of the establishment, and, like Nelson, he can’t be accused, as so many others of his rank can, of slavishly obeying orders, or of incompetence. Scrivener has often been described as “the thinking teacher’s Jeremy Harmer”, and one can see why. In stark contrast to Harmer, Scrivener deserves a certain amount of respect for his scholarship, his writing, and his ethics. On the other hand, he seems to be as blind and as arrogant as Nelson when it comes to any critical appraisal of current ELT practice. A flotilla of small ships has already set sail in defence of an ELT world gravely threatened by profit-hungry publishers and related exam boards,  training  providers and teachers organisations, but Scrivener will have none of it: he sees nothing that he doesn’t want to see.

In Scrivener’s opinion, coursebooks have never been better: they continue to improve, they’re wonderful and they deserve their prominent place in ELT. Furthermore, Scrivener makes no public criticisms of the Cambridge Board of Examiners in general or the CELTA certificate in particular; or of the Pearson Global Scale of English; or of the British Council’s activities; or of the work done by any other pillar of the ELT establishment. He makes no effort whatsoever in his public pronouncements to critically evaluate any of this, preferring to focus on the failings of teachers.

Lulled by the false dictates of a badly defined CLT model in ELT, teachers have, says Scrivener, grown complacent. Teachers now prefer to entertain their students rather than teach them; they engage their students in careless conversation; they go through the motions of tired “communicative” routines to the extent that they’ve almost fallen asleep on the job. What we need, says Scrivener is for teachers to make more effort, to demand high.

So round the planet Scrivener goes, blinkers firmly fixed, trying to put things right. “Up your game!”, he tells teachers. “Do this” and “Don’t do that”. Upgrade the planning; tighten the control; tweak the feedback; don’t let mistakes go unnoticed, and on and on. As if the devil were in the detail; as if motivation sprang from technical prowess; as if a better, more demanding attitude and technique could fix it all. As if nothing were rotten in the state of ELT.

I don’t doubt Scrivener’s sincerity for a moment, but I question his judgement and I deplore his lack of critical acumen. To go back to the original analogy with Nelson, why is he so blind? How can he ignore the bigger picture? What makes him think that if teachers use a coursebook but demand high, everything will be well? What makes him think that the best way to solve the problems facing classroom ELT is to suppose that a coursebook-driven syllabus is ideal and that all we need to do is work on its implementation?

Scrivener suggests that teachers should polish and extend their box of tricks as they go through the sequence of PPP set out in the coursebook. Each unit of the coursebook should be treated in some kind of heightened way. Teachers should pay more attention to the concept questions that follow the presentation of some grammar point; they should pick up faster on this or that response of students to an artificial prompt; they should check students’ comprehension of some awful, messed-up, culturally bound written or oral text more carefully; they should organise their whiteboard display of The Three Conditionals, or Mr. Jones’ Garage, or Who Get’s the Job?. more attractively, etc., etc.,.

Scrivener’s brief is to train teachers to do the wrong thing better. He roams the world telling teachers that the skilful use of the coursebook is the key to good ELT practice. That’s his message. It’s hopelessly myopic and disgraceful in its refusal to face well-founded criticism of coursebook-driven teaching. There’s no room in Scrivener’s Teacher Education scheme for teachers to be presented with the research findings of SLA research which reveal the false assumptions that underpin the coursebook-driven syllabus, and there’s no room for the view that teachers should have the chance to engage in a well-informed critical evaluation of their classroom practice. Scrivener knows what’s best for ELT, and blow me down, as Nelson might have said, before Trafalgar at least, if it doesn’t exactly fit what’s best for the publishers.

Take a look at The Demand High website. The latest post is Where are we now?

“Now” is actually more than 2 years ago, and where they are now is this: they’re lost in their own perpetual attempts to reinvent themselves. They have nothing forceful to offer. Their latest invention is Learning-Centred Teaching. Geddit?  “Learning” not “Learner”. In other words, rather than invite the learner to participate in decisions about the what and how of their course, the teacher’s job is to impose learning, even though using a coursebook and its PPP methodology precludes the possibility of students learning what they’re taught.       

How can’t Scrivener see that the world of ELT is now dominated by commercial interests that pay scant respect for the educational values he claims to hold? How can’t he see that most ELT teachers are exploited? How can’t he see that the coursebook stifles the work of teachers and inhibits the progress of learners? How can he urge teachers to demand high, while at the same time stubbornly refusing to comment on the fact that coursebook-driven ELT makes such demands unrealistic and unfair?

You might say that encouraging teachers to demand high is a good thing to do whatever the circumstances, but that’s nonsense. The circumstances under which teachers do their job are far more important than any general exhortation to do your best, and Scrivener surely knows that. When will Scrivener stop pretending that everything’s OK?

By the way, Nelson’s flagship was HMS Elephant.

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5 thoughts on “I see no ships: Scrivener’s blind eye

  1. Not sure I understand the analogy. You think Scrivener is pretending not to see what in fact he can see, and is doing so in order to ignore an overly cautious instruction and embark instead on a much bolder, and ultimately successful, course of action?

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  2. Sorry not to have replied sooner to this, Patrick. You’re right, the analogy doesn’t really work. But Nelson’s boss, I understand, was right too; right that is in his estimation of the odds, and the Dutch could have, should have won. But of course he only fought the Dutch because they were giving support to Napoleon. Who would Napoleon be in the ELT world??? Anyway, I just meant to say that Scrivener refuses to acknowledge that there’s any problem with coursebook-driven ELT and refuses to see the growing opposition to it.

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  3. they’re lost in their own perpetual attempts to reinvent themselves. – that says it all to me. There is a lot of that in this biz, a lot of snake oil, a lot of money changers and a lot of false profits. Well said. Ecrasez l’infame.

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  4. Loved the article. Very well written. However, I must second that the analogy doesn’t work and instead actually jumbled the message for me as a reader. I’d have to recommend rethinking that element of the article entirely if I were your editor.

    It was quite an awkward read for me, on a personal level, as I fully agree with your points about the commercialisation of the industry and the poor state of ELT materials and their overbearing imposition on teachers, yet in my capacity as a teacher trainer and academic consultant, I also spend a lot of my time speaking with teachers and telling them how to improve their technique to make the best of a bad situation and deliver what their students need. It seems like your article somewhat condemns that practice.

    If I may be so bold as to interpret, though, I feel that you might reach the same conclusion as I do: Jim Scrivener is in a position of great influence within the industry and perhaps should use that influence at the level of publishers and syllabus makers to improve the environment for teachers, whereas perhaps because I do not have any such influence at that level, it is appropriate for me in the meantime to help teachers find better ways of teaching within said environment…? Would you agree there? With the underlying premise then being that, were I to reach a position of power or influence, I would direct my attentions at the publishers, etc.

    It certainly gives one a lot to think about, in any case.

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    • Thanks for your comments. I think we all have to do whatever we can, given our situation, to fight coursebook-driven ELT.

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