Who ordered the McNuggets?

nuggets-01

The first of a two-part series, by Scott Thornbury

“Nothing is particularly hard if you divide it into small jobs.” (Henry Ford)

ELT materials authors have recently been voicing their concern at the way the increasing digitalization and commodification of educational publishing might adversely affect not only their livelihoods but the status and integrity of their profession. The (often lucrative) royalty-based contracts on which many writers have relied in the past look set to be supplanted by a system of one-off negotiated fees. Worse, the ‘name author’ may soon be replaced by compliant teams of anonymous ‘item-writers’, many of whom may guiltlessly under-cut more experienced writers simply to get a foot in the publishing door.

The out-sourcing and fragmentation of content is not a new development: writers of ancillary materials, such as workbooks, teacher’s books, test and resource packs, have long since bitten the bullet and accepted the often nugatory fees on offer. Increasing digitalization has meant that a lot of content is not only ‘atomized’ but anonymous. And, as publishers, testing bodies and their institutional and political clients deliriously embrace the promise of ‘adaptive learning’ technologies, this trend is set to consolidate. The distinction between content-providers and test-item writers will start to blur, as will the distinction between named authors and out-sourced peons. As Neil Selwyn (2014: 129) observes, ‘One of the clear outcomes of the digitizations [sic] of education [...] is the reconstitution of education into forms that are reducible, quantifiable and ultimately contractible to various actors outside of the educational community.’

The commodification of education, including the reduction of content to the level of testable ‘bytes of information’, along with the relentless devaluing, de-skilling and disempowering of teachers that such commodification entails, should be resisted at all costs. And writers, like other vulnerable stakeholders, have not been slow in voicing their opposition. To their credit, their arguments are as much about the cynical disregard of educational values on the part of the multi-nationals as they are about any threat to their own well-being. Many ELT writers, after all, are former teachers and teacher trainers, and have a strong, even passionate allegiance to a model of education that is being brutally eroded by (in some cases) their current paymasters.

However, in defending their professional probity in the face of such dark forces, many writers overlook the fact that the ELT publishing industry (with them at its helm, it has to be said) had already gone down the atomization route long ago, even when the industry lacked the (digital) means to fully exploit this tendency. The view that language learning involves the incremental accumulation of discrete grammatical entities has long been enshrined in the design of coursebooks: witness these statements from publishers’ catalogues over two decades:

English structures are presented in small, manageable units and in incremental steps. (1989)

New grammar is introduced in manageable chunks and is given thorough and systematic practice. (1996)

Crystal-clear grammar boxes present target structures. (2002)

The course has a transparent grammar syllabus which progresses steadily throughout the course. (2009)

Of course, this ‘incremental steps’ approach blissfully ignores current thinking (both then and now) with regard to how languages are actually learned. As Long and Robinson (1998: 16) put it:

Of the scores of detailed studies of naturalistic and classroom language learning reported over the past 30 years, none suggest, for example, that presentation of discrete points of grammar one at a  time … bears any resemblance except an accidental one to either the order or the manner in which naturalistic or classroom acquirers learn those items. As Rutherford (1988) noted, SLA is a not a process of accumulating entities.

In a similar vein, but more recently, Rod Ellis (2008: 863), in reviewing the research to date, concludes, ‘Grammar instruction may prove powerless to alter the natural sequence of acquisition of developmental structures.’ And Diane Larsen-Freeman (1997: 151), coming from a dynamic systems perspective, reminds us that

Learning linguistic items is not a linear process – learners do not master one item and then move on to another. In fact, the learning curve for a single item is not linear either. The curve is filled with peaks and valleys, progress and backslidings.

Why, then, does the ‘accumulated entities’ view persist? Because, construed as ‘mcnuggets’, grammar offers a means of disguising the inherently chaotic and idiosyncratic nature of language learning, rendering it instead as systematic, predictable, manageable and, ultimately, testable. It is consistent with the ‘culture of positivism’ (Giroux, 1997: 11) in which ‘knowledge becomes identified with scientific methodology and its orientation towards self-subsistent facts whose law-like connections can be grasped descriptively’. Such a view of language lends itself to models of production, consumption and regulation that not only do not threaten the status quo but underpin a lucrative global marketing strategy. And, of course, when a grammar mcnuggets approach joins forces with digital delivery systems, it is a marriage made in heaven.

It is not just grammar that has been freeze-dried and vacuum-wrapped, either.  Communicative competence itself, as Leung (2014: 135) points out, has been subject to the same reductionist treatment. Surveying the way that social interaction is dealt with in two recent coursebooks, as well as in the descriptors of the Common European Framework, Leung concludes that

present-day curriculum and pedagogic manifestations of the concept of communicative competence have tended to work with an inert and decomposed knowledge view, and this view continues to enjoy widespread circulation, despite a body of work that has pointed to the need to take a dynamic view of the social dimension.

When communicative competence – the theoretical construct that undergirds the whole communicative approach – becomes ‘inert and decomposed’, you can safely consign CLT to the dust-bin of methodological history.

As Lin (2013) warns: ‘Language teaching is increasingly prepackaged and delivered as if it were a standardised, marketable product [...] This commodifying ideology of language teaching and learning has gradually penetrated into school practices, turning teachers into “service providers.” The invisible consequence is that language learning and teaching has become a transaction of teachers passing on a marketable set of standardised knowledge items and skills to students.’

What Lin fails to acknowledge is that this ‘commodifying ideology’ has dominated since at least the mid-1980s, and that materials writers, willy-nilly, have been complicit. To protest that publishers, in cahoots with software designers, are only now taking commodification to its logical extreme is to ignore a long history of curriculum and materials design predicated on a production-line view of education.

 

 

References:

Ellis, R. (2008) The Study of Second Language Acquisition (2nd edn.) Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Giroux, H. (1997). Pedagogy and the Politics of Hope: Theory, Culture and Schooling. Oxford: Westview Press.

Larsen-Freeman, D. (1997) ‘Chaos/complexity science and second language acquisition’, Applied Linguistics, 18/2.

Leung, C. (2014) ‘Communication and participatory involvement in linguistically diverse classrooms,’ in May, S. (ed.) The Multilingual Turn: Implications for SLA, TESOL and Bilingual Education, London: Routledge.

Lin, A. (2013). ‘Toward paradigmatic change in TESOL methodologies: building plurilingual pedagogies from the ground up’, TESOL Quarterly, 47/3.

Long, M. and Robinson, P. (1998). ‘Focus on form: Theory, research and practice’. In Doughty, C., and  Williams, J. (eds.) Focus on form in classroom language acquisition. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Selwyn, N. (2014) Distrusting Educational Technology, London: Routledge.

 

Next week: Writing by numbers: the myth of coursebook creativity.

54 Comments

  1. Change, by nature, will always benefit some and challenge others. But clearly this shift has come about for a reason: traditional content and content mediums are no longer responding to students´ needs or lifestyles. So, we need to evolve with our students, meaning that those that made up the traditional models will have to find new ways to participate. That´s life, and not just in education. If you´re not willing to embrace change and be flexible then you´ll most likely be left behind.

    Reply
  2. Another highly stimulating contribution to the great debate on ELT materials, Scott! Can’t wait for the next episode. While not attempting to justify the McNugget approach, I do think that the less linear approach to curriculum expansion enabled by digital materials is to be welcomed and explored, and may help us to facilitate much more personalised – and effective – learning in future.

    Reply
    • Less linear is good, Chris, I agree. But (as Philip Kerr has been arguing on his blog on adaptive learning) a device or app that is programmed to select those grammar mcnuggets that it considers you are ready for (i.e. it ‘personalizes’ your learning) is still a grammar mcnugget delivery machine, when all is said and done, and it is no more ‘personal’, really, than the Amazon algorithm that predicts the books you might like to buy.

      Reply
  3. Download the paper in Word (rtf) format
    Language teaching for the future
    Thanks, Scott. Very depressing, but true. Readers might also enjoy this article from 14 years ago (!), in which Dr. Andrew Littlejohn, author of “Cambridge English for Schools”, predicted the Macdonaldization of ELT, as well as the nuggets:
    Littlejohn, Andrew. 2000. Shaping our Future: Proceedings of the 7th ELICOS Conference. Elicos, Sydney, Australia.
    http://www.andrewlittlejohn.net/website/art/arthome.html

    The demands and changes in the future and how language teaching can (and should) respond – includes section on the ‘McDonaldisation of ELT’.

    Reply
    • Thanks for the link, Kate. I was aware of Andrew’s work at the time (his PhD on how coursebooks get written is a classic of its kind) although the MacDonaldization meme in fact dates back at least to George Ritzer’s book, The MacDonaldization Thesis (1998) which I’ll be citing in my next post. My tiny claim to fame is that I coined the term’ grammar mcnuggets’ in a plenary address at the IATEFL Conference in Dublin in the same year as Andrew’s talk in Australia, i.e. 2000.

      Reply
  4. Download the paper in Word (rtf) format
    Language teaching for the future
    Thanks, Scott. Very depressing, but true. Readers might also enjoy this article from 14 years ago (!), in which Dr. Andrew Littlejohn, author of “Cambridge English for Schools”, predicted the Macdonaldization of ELT, as well as the nuggets:
    Littlejohn, Andrew. 2000. Shaping our Future: Proceedings of the 7th ELICOS Conference. Elicos, Sydney, Australia.
    http://www.andrewlittlejohn.net/website/art/arthome.html

    The demands and changes in the future and how language teaching can (and should) respond – includes section on the ‘McDonaldisation of ELT’.

    Reply
  5. I’m not sure I can agree with the justification in this as to why material writers have been complicit in this McNuggetizing of language.
    First, are writers at the helm? I would think unlikely in the last 10-15 years (unless you’re a VERY influential author). Second, catalogue copy is rarely written by editors, or even seen by authors until publication. This is marketing-speak. It may be poor – but that’s another story. It’s weak, though, as hard evidence for how authors/publishers believe we learn languages.
    Carlsberg? Probably the best lager …? Nah, not even Jacobsen himself would believe that – were he still supping.

    Reply
    • Writers may not have been at the helm in terms of steering the ship, but their names were on the covers of the books that enshrined the ‘accumulated entities’ approach, as well as on the royalty checks, therefore they must bear some of the responsibility. And, no, I wasn’t using the publishers’ marketing texts as ‘hard evidence’, only as indicators of the hard evidence that lies inside the books, i.e. their tables of contents. You need look no further.

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  6. I don’t think teachers and writers (be they geniuses or the one-off peons like me) are entirely off the hook. Teachability always plays a role in what and how we teach. Breaking language down into chunks such as concrete rules for concrete situations or highly simplified dialogues makes it way easier to teach.

    At the same time, while the textbook may present grammar in discrete chunks, I don’t have to teach it like that. When my students are doing the practice speaking exercise for the present continuous, my feedback may include errors with preposition or idioms. I don’t think teachers follow the textbooks slavishly in other words.

    And to be fair, there are time issues. I would love to spend an hour on each of my 15 students’ first drafts, grappling with the communicative issues of each one. However, I don’t have the time to do it so at the very least, I can go over the most egregious grammar and syntax errors. And again, textbook or no, I will always try to push for as much editing of students’ essays on the grounds of communicative competence and grammar as a communicative tool.

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  7. I think that the McNugget approach in parts creates the illusion of learning and progress for students and teachers. And that in turn creates motivation. And motivation, as we know, is the key to language teaching. I’m not trying to pull a 3-card monte, I’m serious. I recognise the dangers of commodification and I have no interest in defending it (only in spelling it correctly), but having taught/trained/lived in an EFL context for 25+ years, and having observed the full range of successes and failures in the language learning process, I think there are factors at work that research and theory will always struggle to pinpoint. As a teacher (and learner) strongly biased against tidy packaging of grammar, I’ve resisted acknowledging what I see evidence for all too frequently, that for certain learners, the sensation of learning actually leads somehow to… learning.

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  8. Do you think a lexically driven approach to language learning is/was/could be less McNuggetish? Do you think a lexically driven approach to language learning would have preserved more of the writer’s status at the core of the materials creation process? Do you believe that lexically driven materials have been pushed to the fringes of language learning so that we could retain the bite sized grammar pieces at the core? BTW, I apologize for my leading questions.

    Reply
    • I would imagine it would be even easier to produce digital materials with a lexically-driven approach than materials with a grammar mcnuggets approach. I can even imagine it working as automatically-generated content – a computer picks a text with the right level of useful collocations for you, then prepares the match the sentence halves, open cloze, error correction tasks etc that the old books of that approach like Business Matters used to use. It would almost certainly also work better as that kind of self-study approach too, because I would be absolutely amazed if any of my students from 10 years ago remember one of the collocations I attempted to teach with an exercise or two in Business Matters and then speaking I tried to come up with to tie them together.

      Reply
      • PS

        If grammar mcnuggets is a relevant metaphor for the approach Scott’s post is about, isn’t trying to learn a language one collocation at a time like trying to fill yourself up by eating individual grains of rice with a toothpick?

        Reply
  9. Do you think a lexically driven approach to language learning is/was/could be less McNuggetish? Do you think a lexically driven approach to language learning would have preserved more of the writer’s status at the core of the materials creation process? Do you believe that lexically driven materials have been pushed to the fringes of language learning so that we could retain the bite sized grammar pieces at the core? BTW, I apologize for my leading questions.

    Reply
  10. This is definitely a problem, one I would say became a particularly serious one when the hardcore “teach one thing and quickly move on” approach of short courses like Clockwise became popular and spread more and more into other courses. Books like that worked reasonably well in the contexts that they were originally designed for, which is short courses in the UK. Students arrived in the UK in July basically having been taught the grammar back home but having lacked a chance to use it orally and with some misconceptions about it, so teachers could elicit the grammar, then move really quickly onto communicative speaking practice and skills. Freer speaking and more authentic skills work was easy to provide because students shared a common experience of being in the UK plus different countries and backgrounds they could share without any complicated setting up (lying games etc) being necessary to stimulate real communication.

    The problem starts when there is no one else to rely on to do the hard work for you, meaning the grammar really does use up the whole course, and when the context makes real communication and meaningful skills work in the rest of the time you might have available much more difficult. However, that approach of “You’ve learnt Present Perfect Continuous now, you’ll come back to it next year when you’ve properly forgotten it” is increasingly the main approach in language schools back home for the students too. For example, I know of several schools who have switched to short course textbooks from the big UK publishers for all their classes, most of which have students studying for years, and one school which has redone all its own internally-produced coursebooks with that approach. I absolutely see this as a step back from the Headway approach of spending a few lessons reading, listening and speaking about a single topic and one or two language points.

    I’d also like to comment on how much or not of a problem that “Headway approach” is, but first I’d be interested in hearing other people’s opinions on that switch to short course formats (usually double-page spreads on a single point, with little if any recycling of that in future units):
    - Is it really becoming more prevalent?
    - How much of a problem is it?
    - Is the switch to technology more of the same or an improvement?

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  11. There is nothing wrong with learning McNuggets (not a very helpful term). There is considerable vocabulary research that shows decontextualized vocabulary learning can be a huge facilitator in the learning of the form-meaning level of a word. Students know this – they have been learning from wordlists and word cards for centuries and it is overwhelmingly the number one vocabulary learning strategy. Research also shows that most teachers who learn a foreign language also do this when learning their other languages and often go against their own principles.

    Research shows students master the same new vocabulary items, both individual words and chunks, (over a month delay) up to 16 times faster from intentional decontextualized learning with word cards than from contextualized input. But does this mean we should only teach form/forms? No, of course not. We need a balance between focus on form/forms and meeting the items in relation to others in discourse as well as developing fluency over them. So let’s not suggest that focus on form/forms is all bad. It can be very helpful. But we need balance.

    And can we please ditch the idea that “presenting language in small manageable chunks” and “systematic practice” are necessarily bad, too. They are not. It’s what we all do every day. Our classes are broken up into chunks of tasks, as are the books, texts and other input we use. And yes these chunks need to be manageable – whatever the chunks are. There is hardly a course on the planet that does not adopt some sort of linear progression in the syllabus teaching one or several things (chunks) in each lesson (meeting the aims of our lesson plan), whether it be a full on grammatical syllabus, or a strategies approach (teach strategy A, then B, then C) or reading Text A then Text B etc. or whatever. It’s called scaffolding the learning on what you did yesterday. All competent teachers have some idea where the class is going (aims) and in that sense most courses and syllabuses are essentially linear sequenced chunks – even those of us who do not use published materials. The absence of scaffolding and sequence of some sort is called chaos, or reactive teaching without a focus. Does anyone support the idea overwhelming students with unmanageable amounts of unplanned, unsequenced, unscaffolded and random tasks?

    Ellis says instruction doesn’t disturb the acquisition process and is therefore not useful is NOT an argument against instruction. This is a false premise and a very unhelpful one because his claim has two embedded assumptions. A) that =presenting= items will lead to the =acquisition= (complete learning) of them and B) learning grammar is a matter of learning the product, not mastering the process. It goes like this. “If we know the order, we can teach the items in order thus help the learners. But because we don’t know the order and teaching doesn’t lead to acquisition, we should stop it.” This shows a basic misunderstanding of how grammatical items are learnt. Learners do not learn grammatical items in complete McNuggets even if they are presented as such. Grammatical knowledge is accreted over time, with learners adding more and more understanding of it with more exposure/use/ presentation. Explicit instruction of whatever chunk of language you wish to focus on is there to aid incremental knowledge of grammatical items. So can we please assume that teaching does NOT equal learning and retain the idea that teachers can teach chunks of language to aid the =process= of learning the item even if it may not lead to immediate acquisition?

    I do agree though that the recent focus of publishers on presenting their big new shiny digital products to atomize language instruction could be unhelpful if they do not focus enough on integrating knowledge and rarely promote massive comprehensible input as a major resource for all language learners. But I’m hopeful. Websites with a primary focus on comprehensible reading and listening are emerging. I just wish the publishers add their graded readers into their new products to get a more integrated and more balanced curriculum.

    Question. Does anyone know of a publisher that follows and explicit curriculum when writing its materials? Whenever I go to see a publisher’s display all I can see is they just publish materials to fill in slots – reading, listening, writing, speaking, 4 skills junior high, advanced grammar etc. I’ve no idea how their offerings fit a coherent whole. Or maybe that isn’t their job. Maybe it’s ours to pick and choose which of their materials fit our needs.

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    • The argument concerning discrete items vs holistic approaches is an old one and won’t be resolved on this blog (and I repeat that it wasn’t my intention to re-open this debate but simply to remind indignant coursebook writers that an atomistic approach is not something that Pearson have suddenly invented). The debate is also an ideological one (witness the invective exchanged, in the content of mainstream education, between promoters of phonics and whole language learning), which is another reason it won’t be resolved here.

      Nevertheless, there are plausible (to me, anyway) alternatives to working from a syllabus of pre-selected grammar items – which, I insist, is the syllabus that current coursebooks subscribe to, however much they prettify them with functions, topics, lexis etc. These include: task-based approaches, content-based learning, immersion, and emergent-syllabus approaches like community language learning or dogme. Sceptics will rush to point out that these are only possible in certain contexts, and I would rush to respond that, since they go closer to replicating first language acquisition experiences (always successful) they should perhaps be given more credence, and dismissed less facilely, than approaches that are purely instructional (almost always unsuccessful, at least in terms of ultimate achievement).

      In an attempt to reconcile the two positions (the atomistic and holistic) I can’t do better than quote the late Chris Brumfit (twice):

      “Developments in second language acquisition research make it difficult to see the learning even of foreign languages as distinct from the process of language use: learning is using and using is learning. (…) Of course, there are also formal activities associated with the learning – people learn vocabulary lists off by heart more than is commonly acknowledged – but these activities are preliminary to the language learning process itself, for only when the language items are fused into active meaning systems by the process of use, is the language system developing for the learner’s own purposes. We may learn the tokens of language formally, but we learn the system by using it through reading or writing, or conversing”.

      (Individual Freedom In Language Teaching by Christopher Brumfit, O.U.P. 2001).

      And

      “Language teaching is not packaged for learners, it is made by them. Language is whole people”.

      Brumfit, C. (1979) ‘Communicative’ language teaching: an educational perspective. In Brumfit C.J, and Johnson, K. (eds.) The Communicative Approach to Language Teaching. Oxford: Oxford University Press. p. 190

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  12. Always interesting to read your views Scott and the comments here are thought-provoking all.

    Here’s a thought of my own (something that doesn’t come easy on a Friday morning, believe me):

    As you rightly point out, there are and always have been teachers who, for a variety of reasons – some understandable, some less so, have churned out the McNuggets and played their part as little more than “service providers” ¬- dutifully following the coursebook in a linear fashion and avoiding more meaningful interaction with their learners while hiding behind their authority as the grammar experts in the room. You are certainly one of the people who has been instrumental in describing a more interesting, engaging and ultimately more productive and fulfilling role for teachers in the communicative learning environment.

    But by farming out the “spadework” side of language learning, which does, as you and Steve Oakes seem to agree, provide learners with motivation, structure and a sense of progress, to machines are we not actually liberating teachers from this burdensome task? If my students and I feel that a certain amount of mechanical practice and even rote learning can be useful, I would much rather that they do the majority of that on their own, with immediate feedback and remediation and (why not?) even computer-aided instruction, and leave me to what I love doing: teaching pretty barefoot and reacting primarily to my students and their emergent language.

    I suppose I don’t see it as an either/or proposition. These are still early days in adaptive learning and I expect that we will ultimately find the right balance with these new tools (thanks largely to interesting debates like these – kudos once again). But when it comes to me and a machine, I say let the machine be the service provider. I’ve got better things to do with my students.

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    • Laurie Harrison

      I actually think the publishers who are looking at adaptive learning, and the likes of Knewton, would completely agree with that, Brian. Computer-based adaptive learning is seen by them as part of the mix, not the be-all and end-all.

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  13. An interesting article and one I been troubled about for some time. I have been encouraging my teaching staff to focus on a student centered approach. We proactively encourage our students to play with English in the same manner a child does and this has produced some truly amazing lessons, as students start to understand English in a non traditional, no linear manner.

    By getting the students to dispense with patterns and linear thinking, and using alternative and critical thinking techniques, we are starting to witness a boost in TOEFL and IELTS scores as we encourage students to live the language not just learn it.

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    • I like the Pit Corder quote from above, it definitely chimes in with what seems to be happening in my beginners’ class. (and a quick note on my role as a coursebook – and grammar book – writer, complicit, yes, no doubt, but not always compliant!)

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  14. Learning a language is the practising of a skill – helping the muscles and brain to memorise sounds, inflections, stress patterns and grammar structures. Putting those in a book or asking teachers to follow a set path is patent nonsense. Do it as it arises and go the way it is going. Watch ice skaters. They know what has to be done to get where they want to go.

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  15. The sad fact that course books has had such a commanding presence in the ELT industry for well over 30 years reflects the poor understandings of language learning that have been in vogue for that time, and longer. The current eclectic views on language teaching allow teacher training courses to recommend texts as a viable way of learning languages, rather than encourage new teachers to set out on a path of learning and searching.
    Teacher trainers aren’t of course to solely blame for what has transpired. The overly right brained view of language learning has encouraged a lot of research however very little advances in terms of language learning outcomes.
    The reality is that we ALL learned our first language successfully. So we have what it takes – and the powers we employed do not somehow disappear just because we get a bit a older. What it took, amongst other things, were acute powers of perception and awareness and an ability to exercise control over oneself, not undermined by emotional filters and biases.
    There is precious little attention given to any of these areas in recent ELT discussions, with some notable exceptions like the work of Richard Schmidt.
    As far as the discussion about discrete grammar items and non linear learning, I believe there is some truth in both camps. The reality is that any skill, and language is fundamentally a skill, needs to be mastered skill by skill. You will never master playing the guitar unless you master the necessary control to produce one chord at a time and then do whatever it takes to master that.
    Course books on the other hand will never “work” because they parcel out learning in “average” chunk size bites, built on a view of learning that does not recognise the primacy of awareness and attention in learning. Awareness and attention arise under certain conditions, not because we have been told to pay attention, or because we believe it is “good for us”

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  16. Thank you Scott for an informative and thought provoking piece of writing.

    As I read it, and the comments that followed, I found myself wondering if this commodification process might lead to, in the long run, a greater emphasis on the need for quality instruction, and thus a higher demand for quality teachers. My thinking, perhaps naively, is that students will begin to wonder why they come to class at all if their teachers turn into service providers. If students can stay home and use their gadgets then what need is there to get up and go out to class.

    In this light, the teacher, and their ability to connect students language learning to life and the world outside will be a critical asset. It will also be sought after by students who begin to realize that, while they can pass the tests put in front of them, the real test of communication within the construct of our global world will find them wanting.

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    • Hi John, yes, I think you’re right. It’s likely that, once everyone has subscribed to the same program of adaptive learning, educational providers (universities, language schools) will need to distinguish themselves by offering some kind of ‘added value’ – in the form, perhaps, of face-to-face classes. Of course, this will cost – so it will only be available to the privileged, further exacerbating social divisions.

      On a related subject, I was intrigued to see, in a report in the local paper the other day, that Buusuu the online language learning provider, offers its courses free, but ‘you pay extra for the grammar’. Analyze that!

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  17. Lovely read, Scott – “love” the nugget idea (use it a lot meself).

    BTW – really love the “former textbook writer” bit ;-)

    Roll on Pt 02, I say…

    T..

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  18. If I understand Scott’s post correctly, it seems that a number of commentators may have missed the point.

    1. Scott is saying that the commodification and atomization of language and language learning is nothing new and is indeed something that course book writers have long been involved with (and, indeed, complicit in).

    2. As I understand, Scott is referring to values. Yes, of course in the Pearson/Knewton model of language education there will still be plenty of wiggle room for creative teachers to do something different. And of course publishing companies are in it for the money and it’s naive to expect otherwise. But there’s no getting away from the fact that they are trying to appeal over teachers’ heads to education ministries, school managers and students and at this in turn will put pressure on our profession and our professional values.

    I would personally add that it is disingenuous for the likes of Pearson to deny an attack on teachers.

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  19. Thomas,

    I do not think they are attacking teachers I think they are trying to disintermediate them much the way you would try to disintermediate a bug from your windshield.

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  20. Hi Scott

    Always a wonderful read, but I’m a bit lost. How big is a McNugget? I get the impression that “Present Continuous” would be on most people’s lists, but that’s a Big Mac meal in my opinion. With milkshake. Could you define a McNugget, please?

    I view Dogme as a method for finding “points of need”, a style of teaching with which I whole-heartedly agree. In Teaching Unplugged, p.20, Tip#8, Research, you (and Luke) suggest teachers help their learners to find irregularities and patterns in emergent language. Is this not McNugget making? Or are these just crumbs? Or is making your own what validates it?

    Gotta go. I’m hungry, all of a sudden.

    David

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  21. I think it’s important to keep in mind the centrality of order, linearity and incrementalism in all of this – the wood we risk not seeing for the nuggets, as it were. It’s the deference paid to this – as Scott so vividly illustrates, contested – view of language learning that traps the nuggets in individual units and makes coursebooks more indigestible than they might otherwise be. It’s this that makes responsive (rather than pre-emptive) teaching so difficult in a coursebook context, where the grammar point in question can exert a sort of gravitational pull on proceedings. Take nuggets out of the production line and it grinds to a halt.

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    • ‘Gravitational pull’ – I like that. The McNuggets have a gravitational pull on the whole system – not just via the exams, but in the way learners are informally assessed. Witness the story (relayed to me) of the teacher refusing to countenance a request from a student to move up one level: ‘No way,. Mohammed. Your present perfect stinks!’

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  22. I think it’s important to keep in mind the centrality of order, linearity and incrementalism in all of this – the wood we risk not seeing for the nuggets, as it were. It’s the deference paid to this – as Scott so vividly illustrates, contested – view of language learning that traps the nuggets in individual units and makes coursebooks more indigestible than they might otherwise be. It’s this that makes responsive (rather than pre-emptive) teaching so difficult in a coursebook context, where the grammar point in question can exert a sort of gravitational pull on proceedings. Take nuggets out of the production line and it grinds to a halt.

    Reply
    • ‘Gravitational pull’ – I like that. The McNuggets have a gravitational pull on the whole system – not just via the exams, but in the way learners are informally assessed. Witness the story (relayed to me) of the teacher refusing to countenance a request from a student to move up one level: ‘No way,. Mohammed. Your present perfect stinks!’

      Reply
  23. Fair point, Walton – you don’t have to teach the way the coursebook prescribes. But a lot of teachers do. To the extent that some scholars (e.g. Raman Akbari in Iran) have argued that the books ARE the method. When you have 30+ hours teaching a week, you don’t have much choice but to stick to the script – a point you make yourself. If that means that the content of instruction needs to be broken down into bite-sized chunks, so be it. But my point was that writers shouldn’t now huff and puff about the atomization of learning when it has always been atomized, and, moreover, it was they – or their predecessors -who atomized it.

    Reply
  24. Good point, Steve… and I’ve often considered doing a talk or article called ‘Grammar and the Placebo Effect’. I don’t think it’s only the students who are motivated by the (mistaken?) belief that learning a structure a day is learning the language: I think a good many teachers feel similarly empowered by the authority that teaching grammar mcnuggets bestows – and that this may positively impact on their confidence, which in turn may further motivate the learners. But again, as I mentioned to Walton, my argument is less about whether it ‘works’ or not, and more about the fact that writers are being disingenuous to express shock and horror that the behemoths of publishing are now exploiting such an approach to divest them of their authorial role.

    Reply
  25. Maybe those anonymous item writers create McNuggets while authors create Happy Meals?

    Reply
  26. Whether the “debate” is old or not, it’s still relevant for the vast majority of teachers. As Brian points out, why frame the ‘debate’ as a zero-sum game? It is not only disingenuous, but a straw-man argument to set them up in opposition as very few people only do one of them. As Brumfit says, we mix and match to do what we can given the resources and time at our disposal.

    And from what I can gather, Brumfit supports the idea of learning McNuggets as a starting point for learning the system, a point I made and a position you seem to support. So now I’m confused why you bashed the teaching of McNuggets in your post.

    Can’t we have a big tent?

    Reply
  27. McNuggets may be the starting point (although I have my doubts) but they tend to become the end-point: that’s my beef with them. (If ‘beef’ is the right word!) As Brumfit implies, teaching grammar is really ‘pre-teaching’, but there is no reason to suppose that pre-teaching is any more effective than ‘while-teaching’, i.e. teaching ‘at the point of need’.

    Start with communication and let the mcnuggets emerge when they’re needed – is another way of looking at it. A way, incidentally, that Pit Corder expressed all of 30 years ago: ‘Instead of grading the linguistic material that we expose the learner to, we should consider grading the communicative demands we make on him [sic], thereby gently leading him to elaborate his approximate system’ (1981: ‘Error Analysis and Interlanguage).

    Reply
  28. Brian, thanks for the comment. Yes – I totally agree – if some of the ‘spadework’ in language learning is relegated to (fun, engaging, adaptive…!) software, so much the better: that frees the classroom for the real stuff involved in language learning, i.e. the social interaction. To refer back to the Brumfit quote I posted earlier, the machines can deal with the ‘pre-learning’ and the teacher can scaffold the ‘learning through using’.

    Unhappily, this is not necessarily what the behemoths have in mind: they want to atomize the whole process, including the using, and basically close classrooms down for good (nasty dirty places inhabited by pinko unionized and overpaid teachers).

    Reply
  29. Laurie – you impute more benevolent motives to ‘the likes of Knewton’ than I do. Or Philip Kerr for that matter!

    Reply
  30. Laurie Harrison

    I guess so! I’m just going on my experience of talking to them quite a lot over the last year or so about this stuff.

    Reply
  31. I thought the original post was a bit more ranty than a usual Scott Thornbury piece and less evidence-based than the number of references would suggest, and this comment has absolutely confirmed my feelings:

    “they want to atomize the whole process, including the using, and basically close classrooms down for good (nasty dirty places inhabited by pinko unionized and overpaid teachers).”

    Who are they and what evidence do we have that most of them are mainly motivated by a desire to do away with teachers for reasons including their politics? And does that extend to TEFL (where teachers are rarely unionized and overpaid, and not all that pinko either in my experience)? The closest thing in TEFL would probably be the Wall Street chain (now owned by Pearson), but as far as I’m aware they’ve are motivated simply by the desire to make money and have never shown any desire to further eliminate teachers from their present system of five computer-based lessons for every class with a teacher. And although this is not a very good reflection on our “profession”, in many places Wall Street are one of the better schools to work for.

    Reply
  32. I thought the original post was a bit more ranty than a usual Scott Thornbury piece and less evidence-based than the number of references would suggest, and this comment has absolutely confirmed my feelings:

    “they want to atomize the whole process, including the using, and basically close classrooms down for good (nasty dirty places inhabited by pinko unionized and overpaid teachers).”

    Who are they and what evidence do we have that most of them are mainly motivated by a desire to do away with teachers for reasons including their politics? And does that extend to TEFL (where teachers are rarely unionized and overpaid, and not all that pinko either in my experience)? The closest thing in TEFL would probably be the Wall Street chain (now owned by Pearson), but as far as I’m aware they’ve are motivated simply by the desire to make money and have never shown any desire to further eliminate teachers from their present system of five computer-based lessons for every class with a teacher. And although this is not a very good reflection on our “profession”, in many places Wall Street are one of the better schools to work for.

    Reply
  33. Ok, Alex, I admit I got a bit carried away. But there is – in at least some of the edutech rhetoric – an implicit, and sometimes explicit, contempt for conventional schooling. Here is Papert, for example:

    The computer will blow up the school. That is, the school defined as something where there are classes, teachers running exams, people structured in groups by age, following a curriculum – all of that. The whole system is based on a set of structural concepts that are incompatible with the presence of the computer.
    (quoted in Selwyn, 2011)

    And teachers are always the first to be blamed for failures in education systems, hence any alternative – such as ‘virtual’ teachers – is a potential solution. Elsewhere Selwyn (2014) writes: ‘These virtual technologies could be seen as placing education firmly in the midst of the material “new” economy – standardizing and commoditizing education, reducing educational processes and relationships to forms that are easily quantifiable and recorded, distancing educational professionals from the process of educational engagement and thereby deprofessionalizing and deskilling the teaching profession’.

    The connection between ‘grammar mcnuggets’, on the one hand, and the deskilling of teachers, on the other, may seem far-fetched, but there are other professions whose status is or has been threatened by digital technologies: think of journalists, illustrators, translators, even musicians.

    Reply
  34. Thanks, Paul. I’m not going to go so far as to say ‘I rest my case!’ But I am encouraged by initiatives that are prepared to countenance what Claire Kramsch called ‘another way of being a teacher.’

    Reply
  35. Thanks so much for your response Scott. I absolutely see what you mean about widening the differences in education, certainly not an aspect of education to be wished for.

    A great discussion being had here. It has certainly provoked some personal reflection on my outlook of technology in the classroom.

    Thank you for starting this debate and allowing us a place to have it and be heard.

    PS- checking Busuu out now, interesting approach

    Reply
  36. ‘Coursebooks will never work’ is a provocative statement, Andrew! Advocates of coursebooks will argue that, of course they work – look at the numbers who use them and look at how many end up passing high-level exams like CAE. What remains under-researched, though, is whether they passed these exams because of the coursebooks or in spite of them.

    I guess, in the end, we have to be very cautious about ascribing success (or failure) to any single cause. But it is curious, you have to admit, that in enormous surveys of second language acquisition research, such as Ellis (2008) or Doughty & Long (2003), both of which clock in at over 800 pages, there is not a single index reference to either coursebook or textbook. How do you explain that?

    Reply
  37. :-) You are quite right Scott. Of course course books have been used in a variety of situations where learners have in fact achieved. The issue being was it that the course books that enabled that or some other factors.
    I am trying to rattle the cage a bit! The point I am making is that it is not the course books that enable that but other factors. There are learners who can transform any experience they are involved in, extract what they need and move on. Even in the worst of classes, there are learners who learn. That does not make that kind of class acceptable.
    If we want to improve the outcomes of all language learners, not just the ones who manage to get through then we need to address how in fact people learn languages.
    I dispensed with course books when I realised that they were preventing me from improving my understanding of how students learn as I had such little latitude to vary what could be done. In the same way as buying packaged meals will certainly stop people becoming good cooks

    Reply
  38. Yes, on reflection ‘attack’ was an inappropriate word to use.

    Reply
  39. The publishers are appealing to their customers–the ones who make the buying decisions. Those tend to be the education ministers and school officials, not teachers. Teachers are automatically disintermediated (am I using that right?) unless the admin chooses to listen only to their advice when buying books–does that ever happen anywhere? Has there been a change on that? Were publishers ever appealing to teachers before going over their heads?

    And bringing this back to writers, I suppose you might say that if the writer is paid by the publisher to do X job, they can either do X job or refuse to do it or present reasons why the job should be done differently. I have certainly felt free to bring up issues with the way certain items were presented and done to my publishers when doing writing work. But the final word belonged to the publisher obviously. And if I didn’t like it, just as with any job, I could ultimately quit. That might sound cynical and clash with the idea that teaching is somehow different from other industries, but at some basic level, work is work and a job is a job.

    Reply
  40. Hi David,

    Good question: I guess it is less about the thing itself than the way it has been ‘packaged’ and labelled, and the status it thereby achieves as being ‘important’, even iconic grammar, the attention it gets being out of proportion to its frequency or usefulness. The present perfect continuous would be a good example. As would the third conditional.

    For more on grammar mcnuggets, see this blog post from a while back:
    http://scottthornbury.wordpress.com/2010/09/18/g-is-for-grammar-mcnuggets/

    Reply

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