Language Teaching FOR the Future
by Andrew Littlejohn, November 2001
As the clock turns quickly towards the new millennium, there is a need to consider where we are now and what lies ahead. Much of our classroom practice has a very long heritage, and draws on ideas shaped in a world very different from the one which we will inhabit in the years to come. This paper will explore some of the social and technological changes that we are predicted to experience into the next century and how these may bear on the practice of language teaching. These may include, for example, the increasing effects of so-called "McDonaldisation", processes of 'de-skilling' and 're-skilling', the displacement of national boundaries in favour of 'globalisation' and 'globalisation', and new forms of literacy.
As educators, we need to take into account the implications that social and technological change may have for the practice of language teaching, and to see our work in the context of such change so that , as educators we may be able to contribute to the creation of the social world which we hope for. Many commentators take a pessimistic view of the future, but it is clear that social and technological developments can offer both constraints and numerous opportunities. I will emphasise a shift from syllabus towards methodology, ideas from critical pedagogy, the need to structure the development of student decision-making, and a preparation for change. I will also give many practical examples of what this can entail in classroom work.
When I was just a little girl, I asked my mother what will I be?
Will I be pretty? Will I be
rich? Heres what she said to me:
Que será, será, Whatever will be, will be.
The future's not ours to
see. Que será, será
So ran the sentiments of
Doris Day in the mid-1950s, just half a century ago from where we stand now. This was a time of seeming confidence in the
present and the future, that whatever will be will be fine. Youve never had it so good,
British Prime Minister Macmillan declared. In
the West, this was a time of great optimism, dominated by the idea that we can improve
ourselves and our environment, and that social, economic, intellectual and spiritual
advance can all be planned for. The signs of this rational, technical approach to the
problems confronting us could be seen in every area of society while Frank Lloyd
Wright was designing houses which would blend into the environment and Utzon was putting
finishing touches to the sail designs of the Sydney Opera House, automobile engineers were
busy refining aerodynamics so that a car would move as effortlessly as a bird through the
air. While architects were designing
palaces for the masses the high rise buildings that came to dominate
city skylines in the 1960s - aeronautics
engineers were beginning work on Concorde, the plane that would revolutionise air
travel. Furniture and appliance manufacturers were producing sleek, mathematically
symmetrical designs for tables, beds, cupboards, and cookers and the lucky
housewife was greeted with one new technical innovation after another in the
What has all this got to do
with language education? Well, one of
the first points that I would like to make is that I think we can learn a lot about our
future by looking back. In other words, it
is important to see that our work in a social and historical context, since, like any
other area of social life, language education is likely to be responsive in its form and
scope of concern to the zeitgeist or spirit of the times. In the case of the late 1950s and 1960s, for
example, it is not surprising that the emphasis on rational, technical solutions was also
reflected in thought in language teaching then. A
dominant concern, for example, was to find the single right method, the
simplicity of behaviourist conceptions of learning and the introduction of language
laboratories and mim-mem as a technical methodology which would enable the
masses to learn. And, as the late 1960s
gave way to social fragmentation and the illusion of Doris Days era became clear, it
was also no coincidence that the rise in alternative ways of living, self-help
groups, a rejection of the establishment, and the emergence of do it
yourself philosophies were accompanied by a similar fracturing in language teaching
thought. Into the 1970s we have the seeds of a concern with humanistic, whole
person issues in the classroom, learner-centred teaching, the arrival of self-access
centres and the mushrooming of numerous fringe methodologies (mostly described
rather than practised, in fact), all of which aimed at rejecting the established language
teaching orthodoxy of the times.
A brief look at our past, and the context in which it arose, establishes the necessity for us to look at our context today and ask ourselves how similar forces of social change may be finding reflection in our classroom practices, something which we may not otherwise be aware of. The question is an important one, because it will be important for us to see if there may be differences between what is happening in language education and what we would like to happen. Education has a crucial role in shaping the future as we would like it to be, and this is no less true for us, involved in language education. This is something to which I will return shortly, but let me first turn to the social context of today and what it may offer for the future and suggest some links to what is happening now in language teaching.
SOCIAL CHANGE AND LANGUAGE
It is brave fool that ventures to
predict the future in so public a manner, but fool or not, I will try. The future
doesnt just happen. The future is a continuation of our present, and, as such, is a
development of factors that are at work now. We
can thus learn a lot from the analyses of social scientists working in the area of social
description. Many of these, generally
critical in their orientation, have
identified a number of key emerging characteristics of Western industrialised societies
(see, for example, Apple, 1986, 1988; Ritzer, 1993).
Some of the more significant of these are:
fragmented society a society divided
into smaller communities which extend across national borders. The notion of a
culture (shared by all) is being replaced by cultures - meanings,
customs, habits, and references that vary considerably, even within the same geographical
of national governments Globalisation
as a dominant feature, limiting the power and relevance of national governments.
Supranational governments and businesses exercising greater influence.
· rapid (dis)appearance of jobs Technology is causing the disappearance
of many types of jobs, but also the emergence of new ones.
In their lifetime, individuals may expect to have ten or more different
occupations. The ability to make choices and
decisions and to adapt will become essential.
of the market The force
of the market (advertising, consumer products, cost/profit analysis, etc) is now evident
in all spheres of life: education, health care, religion, the family, etc. Globalisation
is leading to standardisation in the market - the same products are increasingly available
of electronic media Electronic media
(television, computers, interactive video) now dominate as the principal means by which
people receive information and spend their leisure time.
Electronic media will far outweigh, for example, the influence that the school may
eclectic Elements from very different areas of life are combined and
recycled. Images from traditional life in
Africa, for example, are used to advertise fashion clothes. Individuals can decorate their
homes to look like houses from hundreds of years ago.
Pop stars sing and politicians speak at the funerals of royalty. At
the same time, the limits on what is expected are breaking down - with the result that it
is becoming increasingly difficult to be really shocked. Expect anything is the best
These general characteristics
represent very broad features which are to a greater or lesser extent reflected across
Westernised societies. It comes as no surprise that perhaps they are most evident in the
United States, the powerhouse of multinational corporate thinking. George Ritzer (1993), an American social
scientist, has also further identified tendencies in what he calls the
McDonaldisation of society in the United States the manner in which the
logic, priorities and modes of organisation of the worlds biggest hamburger chain
are gradually colonising other areas of social life.
Specifically, Ritzer suggests a number of aspects which define McDonalds
approach to business and human interaction. McDonalds,
he argues, is characterised by a very high degree of control he speaks of a
caged society where efficiency and total predictability are key, such that a
McDonalds is a McDonalds wherever you are in the world. To this end, every action in McDonalds is
routinised and scripted. Service assistants,
for example, are only permitted to use specific formulaic utterances in their dealings
with customers. In consequence, all
interactions are standardised and dehumanised. The product, also, is fully standardised
and controlled, with very little room for human error in producing a
non-standard, non-McDonalds conforming hamburger. And since hamburgers themselves
are largely unremarkable products, it is not the hamburger that is sold but a packaged experience,
an experience of fun and entertainment in going into a branch of
The most telling aspect of
Ritzers analysis, however, is not so much his critique of McDonalds, but his
assertion that similar forms of standardised, dehumanised and packaged interactions are
becoming evident in other areas of social life. The logic of the goals of efficiency and
predictability have, he suggests, now invaded not only other food and service industries
but also the media, entertainment, and crucially, for us education, such
that we effectively have McTV, McNews, McNewspaper,
. all offering increasingly
standardised, routinised products. This is
the bite-sized culture where knowledge is reduced to easily digestible forms,
compact nuggets of information that can be taken in and promptly forgotten,
bullet-pointed lists where salient facts are previously identified to reduce the demands
for cognitive work and ensure fast, effortless learning like fast food. It is also the development of
unit-credit approaches to University courses, where isolated courses earn
students credits which they can accumulate towards a degree. With this, too,
is the nurtured expectation that learning is to be fun the concept of
edutainment, familiar from computer software, is becoming evident in the
classroom, with teachers increasingly under pressure to ensure that their students
or customers as they are often now known have a good time
in the classroom.
Where does this leave us in
language education? My earlier assertion of
links between the wider social context and educational practice should lead us to ask
whether the forces of McDonaldisation are at all evident in our work today, and to look
hard at some of the recent developments in language teaching. In fact, we probably dont have to look very
far to identify some initial tendencies. The
first of these is, I believe, the emergence of what we can call McCoursebook. McCoursebook contains units of
classroom work, increasingly standard length bite-sized nuggets of two or four
pages, each containing routinised interactions that have the potential to produce exactly
the same classroom outcomes wherever they are used in the world, with whatever students. McCoursebook is, of its nature, a global
text, but it is not this fact that is its essential characteristic. Rather it is the way in which explicit scripts are
provided to teachers and students with the aim of producing standardised outcomes
rather than unique classroom events. The devices for doing this are now commonplace:
closed ask and answer routines, the gap-fill exercise with its easily
countable right/wrong solutions, questions the answers to which are all supplied in
accompanying texts, and invitations for personal contributions by students which are
reduced to the status of a warm-up before the real learning of the
scripted interactions is to be done. For
teachers, too, McCoursebook gives explicit indications of what precisely they are to do in
the classroom and even say. These
characteristics of coursebooks are now so common that we hardly give them a second thought
in fact, it seems that that is what a course book is and we assume
and hope that it is for the teacher and students to adapt, amend, omit as they see fit. But, in many schools and school systems
around the world this is precisely not what is expected to happen the
directions of the coursebook are a means by which predictability, accountability and
control are maintained by the hierarchy above the classroom teacher. It is also a means by
which inexperienced and often untrained teachers can be employed cheaply.
Just as the McDonalds
hamburger may be low in nutritional content, so too is McCoursebook. McCoursebook contains eclectic, random topics
which jump hither and thither, strung together by a focus on form. Texts about testing an atomic bomb lead on to
exercises in which students complete sentences such as They were making butter
. She was playing
her flute when
. atomic bombs, butter and flute-playing all united in
the exemplification of a grammatical form. Central
to McCoursebook is the separation between learning content and carrier content. Learning content is strictly identified as the
forms and uses of English. Carrier content is
the language which is used to present the language, and which it is not intended will be
retained by the student. The result is that
McCoursebook contains bland, trivial content and often, in secondary school aged
materials, an emphasis on the pop and consumer industries.
It is tempting to believe that
behind McCoursebook is a conspiracy of materials writers.
Alas, this is not the case. McCoursebook
is the way it is because it increasingly meets the expectations of teachers and students,
who are now used to fragmented and routinised products in other areas of their lives. McCoursebook is clear evidence that forces of
social change are now entering the classroom and structuring educational practice.
And while McCoursebook is selling
well and structuring our expectations of what should happen in classrooms, similar moves
are evident in teacher education. With the need for greater quality control
whatever that may be in an expanding market for language instruction, the teacher
certification business has expanded accordingly. Most
recently, we have seen how it is now rapidly moving towards global standardised
conceptions of what a good teacher is, a conception that is largely rooted in
a Britain-centred view of ELT and a British inspired weak variant of
Communicative Language Teaching. The model lesson, now generally structured
around the PPP (presentation-practice-production) framework is expected of
trainees, a script to be unfolded regardless of context, to be acted out with adults and
children alike, rendering schools detached from any wider educational goals in the pursuit
of an efficient, predictable means towards language proficiency. And again, it is not the global nature
of this teacher certification that is of concern. It is rather the standardisation of
routines and interactions that it proposes that may effectively stand between the
students and the teacher recognising each other as individuals.
There will be those who say that
this is simply the way things are going, that the claims I am making are exaggerated and,
in any case, our concern is simply to teach language we dont need to bother
about issues of content or the form of methodology as long as the foreign language gets
learned. Such a view I believe is naďve at
best and irresponsible at worst. It is an
illusion to think that our classroom practices have no other impact that the learning of
the foreign language. As educators,
particularly in the teaching of young students - we are uniquely privileged in helping to
shape the views that students have of themselves not only their view of themselves
in relation to language learning, but in relation to learning as a whole, and their
relations with authority figures. We may
shape, for example, the extent to which they see themselves as active agents in their own
education or passive recipients of transmission based education. It is also naďve to think that somehow English
teaching is untouched by ideology. Ideology
is ingrained in our practice, in the materials we use, in our attitude towards assessment
and evaluation, and the issues of relative power and control in the classroom. We may continue as contemporary forces lead us, or
we may stop and consider how we want things to be.
Beyond this, we also need to think about what we can do. If, for example, the nature of future society will
require continual change and adaptation on the part of our students, then we have to ask
ourselves whether the scripted, closed nature of the tasks found in McCoursebook are
really adequately preparing students. We
also have to ask whether the evident dangers for democracy in the emergence of
supranational corporations are best confronted by classroom practices which do not involve
students in real decision-making and real contributions to the content of their lessons. We also need to question whether the forces
of the market consumerism, pop appeal, and accumulation should be
reproduced in educational practice. As the
media more and more become centralised into the hands of the very few, and used to
persuade us to think and act in certain ways, we need to ask ourselves whether, as
teachers of communication, we should aim to help our students to develop a questioning
attitude to what they read, see and are told, particularly as, for many students, their
recurring contacts with English will be in situations of vested interests - advertising,
sales and marketing, inter-government relations, dealings with multinational corporations,
politically motivated media, and so on.
A FUTURES CURRICULUM IN LANGUAGE TEACHING
It is clear that any answers to
how we should respond if at all - to the issues I raise here will be a very
personal one. This will to a certain extent
depend on ones own sets of values and priorities, and indeed political stance. My
concern is that we move away from any tendencies which exist towards the
McDonaldisation in language teaching, and that we ensure that what goes on in
our classrooms is educationally nutritious. I
am also concerned that within the limited possibilities of language teaching, such as they
are, that we make a coherent, principled contribution to shaping the future as we would
like it to be. To end this paper, therefore, I would like to set out six principles that I
think could underpin developments in language teaching. As a set of desirable
characteristics, they may also function as a means of evaluating what we are doing now, so
for each one I have added a question which we can use to review our present
characteristics of a futures curriculum
The use of themes, topics,
projects to bind lessons together and provide coherence and a deeper focus and
Ask: Is there a coherent topic over a lesson or series
2 Significant content
The selection of content that is
worth learning and thinking about, dealt with in appropriate ways, which does not, on the
one hand trivialise significant issues or, on the other hand, make trivial things seem
important. A key topic could itself be
the future - attempting to raise students awareness of future developments and
discuss their own hopes, aspirations, worries and personal action.
|Ask: Is the content worth knowing or thinking about? Is significant content treated appropriately?
3 Decision-making in the classroom
A structured plan for actively involving
students in making decisions in the classroom, taking on more responsibility for what
happens in their lessons.
Ask: Are students required to make decisions?
How do they help to shape lessons, such that each lesson is unique?
4 Use of students intelligence
The use of types of exercises which
require thinking, beyond memory retrieval or repetition, for examples, and
involving students in hypothesising, negotiating, planning, and evaluating.
|Ask: Do classroom tasks require thought?
5 Cultural understanding
Tasks and texts which require students to
look through the eyes of others, to learn the relative nature of values, to understand why people in
different contexts think and do different things.
|Ask: Do texts and tasks promote cultural understanding?
6 Critical language awareness
To view all language use critically - that
is, to look beyond the surface meaning and ask oneself questions such as Why
are they saying that? What is not being said? and Who
benefits from what is being said? We
might for example ask students to think about deeper reasons for why the passive voice is
used in a newspaper headline or why particular adjectives are used to describe a consumer
| Ask: Are students asked to think about why language is used
Finally, we must not
believe that the nature of the future is a fact. The
future is one we shape. There may well be
developments that seem unstoppable, but it is incumbent upon us to look for opportunities
in these developments, to ensure that they enrich our lives by stretching our pedagogic
imaginations to the full. In language education and the teaching of the young, we have a
unique opportunity to help to shape the future as we would like it to be.
Ritzer, G. (1993). The McDonaldization of Society. Pine Forge Press.
Apple, M. (1985). Education and Power. London: Ark.
Apple, M. (1988). Texts and Teachers. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul.
|Andrew Littlejohn teaches for the Institute of Education, University of London, and is the author of a number of coursebooks including Cambridge English for Schools (CUP), a course for secondary-aged students which integrates English with wider educational aims. Other articles and a complete on-line A-Z of ELT methodology:are available at www.AndrewLittlejohn.net|
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