divided brain

About a week ago, I wrote a piece on “The Future of Language Teaching” for the Teaching English blog.  It seems to have been slightly controversial.

In it, I tried to paint a picture of what language learning might look like in twenty years’ time, drawing largely on themes and ideas I had come across in various talks and presentations at the IATEFL conference, as well as my own experiences as a teacher and learner.  In short, I argued that students of the future won’t need to learn languages at a language school as they’ll be able to do it all online.

You can read the full piece here: “The Future of Language Teaching – a case study from 2034

It was a deliberatively provocative piece which I wrote with the intention of opening up a debate on where we think language teaching should be going, rather than prescribing its demise.  Nonetheless, some of the comments and criticisms made, suggest in some cases a misunderstanding of my original post, or in others possibly the positing of a point of view without actually having read the subject matter at hand…

At the other end of that spectrum is the informed and ever eloquent Lizzie Pinard, who questions the role of the social side of language learning, and the lack of it as described in my post.  And she’s right.  I don’t mention it in my post, but that isn’t because I don’t think it’s important, it’s mostly because the picture of how my mythical student, Monica, was learning, was largely in my head and I just didn’t express it clearly enough.

Lizzie mentions three things that I’d like to pick up on:  (1) the social and communicative nature of language, (2) Young learners and the state school system (3) creating a classroom culture (after Holliday).  These are also things that arose in the different comments and discussions that arose on the Teaching English Facebook page after Lizzie and my posts were featured there.

So – point by point then:

(1)    I certainly didn’t mean to imply that language is anything but social or used for anything other than a communicative purpose.  I don’t see, though, how this belief mitigates against learning in an online environment.  People do, after all, communicate quite effectively online.  We are doing so now.  The conversations, discussions and chats that occur through social media sites like facebook and twitter are a testament to how technology, far from destroying the communicative imperative, has in fact enabled people to communicate with like-minded individuals around the world.  I didn’t describe this kind of scenario in my original post, but I don’t think it is beyond the realms of possibility for my fictitious employer, Camsonford ELT, to create forums and chat rooms for their students to socialise in.  I have a number of friends on facebook and twitter that I have yet to meet in person and I communicate with them well enough.


(2)    Young Learners and the state school system – fun in the classroom.  Like Lizzie, I work for a school that prides itself on the combination of fun and learning that we provide to our young learners and I think we broadly succeed in our goals.  And I agree that there are additional benefits to young learners learning in a classroom than purely developing their language skills.  And, like Lizzie, very few of our students are “remedial” – most are incredibly bright, switched on kids who aren’t in our classes because they are behind, but because they are ahead of the game.


But I don’t think this suggests a flaw in my premise, just a shift in the current dynamic.  Lizzie is right to point out that much of the business in young learner teaching is in making up the shortfall (perceived or otherwise) between what the state school system provides and what the private sector promises.  But the state sector is reaching across that gap and this is in part driven by better access to better teaching materials which are being pushed into the state sector by companies like my imaginary Camsonford ELT Ltd.  How many state schools still teach using grammar translation based materials?  I’m sure that in some countries, some teachers are still required to use such materials, but this is changing, and as the quality of state provision of language teaching increases, there must be a corresponding drop in demand for private sector services.


(3)    Creating the classroom culture.  Again, I don’t disagree with the point being made, but I don’t see why this can’t also happen online.  One of my more recent learning experiences was doing an online course and I felt it was actually one of the best collaborative learning experiences I’ve had.  All of us came together for a shared purpose and I felt that the way in which we helped each other to forge an understanding of the material was the first real demonstration of how the “Communities of Practice” principle actually works in the real world.  Now obviously, this is only one experience amongst many, but it demonstrates to me, at least, that it is possible to develop a shared communal culture in an online environment.


Other Points that arose in the various comments – both on Lizzie’s blog and in various places around Facebook – and my somewhat cursory responses:

  • Technology replacing teachers:  I don’t think teachers will be replaced, but I think the role of the teacher in 20 years will be quite different to that of today.  Also, I don’t think there will be many teachers left working in language schools
  • They said that back in the (insert decade here) about (insert technological innovation here).  And I’m sure they’ll say it again about something else!!!  Just because a technological innovation doesn’t bring the changes that were predicted doesn’t mean change did not occur.  Think about the ways in which we interact with other today and ask whether we did that ten years ago…
  •  Schools will never die.  Probably not, governments need to keep the kids off the streets somehow otherwise they might start thinking.  Language schools on the other hand? 
  •  Students gain confidence from talking to each other.  True.  And they can do this online quite happily, possibly even more effectively as they don’t have the embarrassment of making mistakes in front of people they know.
  •  Babies learning sounds from real humans, not the TV.  Child directed language is how babies gather their first language, this is true.  And as the commenter pointed out we’re talking about adult learning of L2, not infant acquisition of L1.  I don’t mean to suggest that computers will replace the role of caregivers in L1 acquisition, but I think it is a viable mode for L2 learning.
  •  You can’t get speaking from an online course:  Are you sure about that? Vocaroo is an online voice recorder, but live video and audio chat functions are also now a large part of social media trends, for example Google Hangouts, Skype etc.
  •  Focusing on students’ needs.  In many respects, an online course where the learner can choose exactly which parts of the syllabus is most relevant to them and interact with like-minded people from all over the world, as opposed to being forced into a compromise with imposed materials and content, focuses more accurately on learner needs than a school based class ever can.
  •  Being part of a neo-libertarian agenda.  I don’t know what that means, so I looked it up on Wikipedia and I’m not sure that isn’t the definition of every language school ever?  But in terms of promoting a free-market / laissez-faire capitalist ethic, I fail to see how my post gets anywhere near that.  Perhaps the commenter could clarify.
  •  Learners need guidance and direction.  And why should an online course not provide that?  Being online does not mitigate human contact, it just changes the parameters of how you define human contact.  Equally, anyone who’s used a course book will know that very frequently the materials provide a certain amount of guidance and direction, but online courses which involve mediators (or teachers) should also be in a position to provide such help as the learner needs.


But to come back to the problem of the baby and the bathwater,  I think any parent knows what the real procedure is:  you take the baby out of the bath, dry her off, blow raspberries on her tummy, fit a clean nappy and dress her back up – and you do all of this before you go anywhere near the bathwater.

The baby is the most important thing in the bath.  It’s what you love and hold dear to yourself, it’s what you choose to protect above all else.  What goes down the plughole is all of the stuff you don’t need.  Perhaps as we all negotiate our way into an uncertain educational future, what we need to do more than anything else is decide what it is that we wish to hold close and what we’re prepared to let drain away.

Update notes:  Updated 30/04/2014 to fix broken links, correct a comment on “babies learning L1” and add content to “You can’t do speaking online”.