On Tyranny in the ESL Classroom: 20 Lessons from 20th Century Pedagogy

(Pace Timothy Snyder – originally this post was going to be “Democrating Backsliding in the ELT Classroom”, but I haven’t actually read the relevant materials for that.  The point is the same, though – a series of semi-political tips for not letting classes or institutions slide into tranmissive dictatorships.  The usual caveat applies:  I certainly don’t apply as many of these rules as I’d like, and in fact wrote this partly as a warning to myself.)

Do not obey in advance

Let’s assume your students have shown a pattern of reluctance to choose input for themselves or engage in self-directed learning, which is common in language classrooms around the world.  Do not assume that this pattern will continue forever, and do not change your teaching methods in anticipation of this reluctance even before it happens.  Do not treat your students as unready for communicative or other modern methods simply because previous classes may have been.

Defend institutions

Defend modern ELT in principle.  Many classes slide into teacher-domination because expedience seems to demand it – because teachers accept the unilateral authority that the forces of student expectation and curricular deadlines seem to require.  Temporary suspensions of student-centeredness in favor of transmission-style teaching should be resisted, not just because they do not work, but because they encourage the view that  researched and rigorous concepts such as interlanguage are inconveniences standing in the way of truly efficient impartation of knowledge.  In reality, of course, that efficiency is more a path toward perfunctory teacherly role-playing than toward learners’ mastery of English.

Beware the one-party state

Many classroom dictatorships arise not because a teacher arrogates power but because his/her pupils choose to cede it when given the option.  Do not take opportunities that students give you to take full control of the classroom, and do not use your authority as a teacher to consolidate attention and legitimate authority around yourself.

Take responsibility for the face of the world

The appearance of the classroom should not reflect the will of a single person.  The only writing on the whiteboard should not be the teacher’s, the only printed text used should not be from the teacher, and the only voice heard should not be the teacher’s.  Classrooms should physically manifest the priority given to students’, not teachers’, expression.

Remember professional ethics

Oftentimes, a teacher-centered class emerges because students feel pressure to play the part of the student as they understand it.  This part, which is often defined by passive receptivity and obedience, is not simply unconscious habit – students may see it as an affirmative moral value in itself.  That is, the job of the teacher may not be just to present a more interesting alternative to silent absorption of information, but actively discourage students’ preconceived ideas of “how to be a student”.  Students have their own professional ethics of classroom conduct, and teachers would do well to acknowledge their existence.

(Yes, this is the opposite of Timothy Snyder’s point on this subject.  Bear with me.)

Be wary of paramilitaries

Clusters of students that are apparently sympathetic to the communicative, egalitarian, task-based curriculum that the teacher is trying to effect may appear and begin to dominate classroom activities.  The existence of these seeming allies among the student population is welcome to a degree, but can begin to create a hostile environment for students who are reluctant to engage to the same degree for reasons of identity or ability.  Remember that the job of the teacher is not to give more advantage to students who are already advantaged because of a higher starting point or previous experience with modern ELT classes, or to signal a preference for those students.  The creation of a privileged minority of students within the classroom should be avoided.

Be reflective if you must be armed

For students: Being appointed, being selected, or volunteering to be group leader means that you are responsible for the maintenance of communicative norms within that group.  When you have power over your classmates, maintain norms of discourse that do not privilege particular viewpoints – yours especially – or consist only of participation by students who are already fluent speakers.  Some students will take the reduced numbers of eyes on them when working in a small group as an invitation to dominate the conversation or to shrink back into individual study.  As the local authority, your job is to prevent either of these from happening.

Stand out

Taking a modern, communicative approach may distinguish you from your colleagues in ways that are mutually uncomfortable.  You may feel that you are passing judgment on your colleagues’ or institution’s way of doing things by breaking from it.  Indeed, some teaching milieux may have norms so deeply established for so long that trying something new is seen as synonymous with questioning everyone else’s competence.  Be open about trying new techniques and approaches and be honest about their success or failure.  Be prepared to justify them with reference to research.  Above all, be honest about why you teach the way you do, and do not acquiesce to unjustifiable pedagogical norms no matter how many people with pages-long CVs are pushing them.

Be kind to our language

Do not adopt buzzwords needlessly, and certainly do not use them without understanding them.  “Learning styles” were a litmus test for being a modern teacher for 15 years or so, during which many teachers described their classes and students with the vocabulary of what turned out to be a false theory of educational psychology.  Many still use the terminology of “learning styles”, describing an activity as “ideal for kinesthetic learners” when they could just as easily call it “less boring than sitting still”.  By adopting this terminology, teachers have appeared to endorse a theory which was debunked.

Believe in truth

In some teaching contexts, a long career is seen as a substitute for reflected-upon experience and confidence in one’s methods as equivalent to knowledge of their efficacy.  Foreign language pedagogy is a field with a long history and plenty of research.  This body of research is mature enough to offer at least some tentative answers to long-standing questions in our field, such as how central formal grammar should be in classes and how much of a difference input makes.  Access to the current state of knowledge on questions like these, and more importantly, believing that the questions have answers that can’t be ignored in favor of a local or individual long-practiced method, is a step toward more effective and more justifiable pedagogy.


That said, the answers to pedagogy’s big questions may not come in an obvious form.  Sometimes a teacher will have great success with a method or technique that appears to come from the middle ages.  Commit to trying to understand how different teachers have success with different class styles and the principles underlying that success.  Above all, do not accept pedadogical prescription or proscription without the application of your critical faculties.

Make eye contact and small talk

Humanity can be brought to the classroom by simple engagement with learners as people.  Some one-on-one or small group interaction with the teacher not as a fount of wisdom but just as a person, and with the learner not as a receptacle of knowledge or target of remediation but as another person, can bring much-needed humanity back to the classroom.

Practice corporeal politics

PhD researchers who don’t teach and chalk-faced teachers who don’t reflect on practice or theory are a perfect recipe for each other’s stagnation.  Take theory that comes from people who haven’t set foot in a language classroom in years with a grain of salt.  You cannot realize good pedagogical theory without contact with learners.  I mean this in two ways – your theory will be useless if it doesn’t survive contact with actual people, and putting your theory into practice with your own students ensures that at least some people will benefit from it.

Establish a private life

You do not need to share as much with your learners as they share with you.  There is a happy medium between sterile professionalism in the classroom and complete shedding of boundaries.  Affective factors certainly do affect achievement, and that entails at least some rapport and sense of community beyond a shared interest in skillbuilding.  However, oversharing runs the risk of reducing the teacher to merely an affective variable and not an expert in either the subject or how to teach it.

Contribute to good causes

A local, institutional professional culture may fall short of maintaining pedagogical standards.  Sometimes, a national or international group, formal or informal, may function better as a community of practice for a teacher hoping to grow and keep up with current wisdom.  In any case, join (i.e., send money), attend, and especially present.  If a group of which you are a member is failing to provide something of value, you should provide it instead.

Learn from peers in other countries

ELT and especially SLA are worldwide fields, and different cultures, countries, and institutions around the world often practice radically different pedagogy.  Staying in one milieux for too long threatens to particularize your skillset; working in many countries or at least communicating with fellow teachers and learners in other countries exposes you to different sorts of problems to be solved and ways of solving them.  A frequent stumbling block in your milieux may have an extremely commonsense solution elsewhere in the world – and you may be surprised by the depth of thought that goes into an issue you thought only had one answer.

Listen for dangerous words

Pedagogy can be circumscribed a bit too cleanly by the words used to describe it.  “Syllabus”, “material”, “instruction”, “grammar”, “participation”, “master” and even “know” are all words that language teachers have good reason to take with several grains of salt.  If you hear these words being used as if their meanings were obvious, and especially if they are being used with obviously mistaken meanings, don’t be afraid to ask, “what do you mean?”  Often, the most useful discussions with colleagues and students occur over supposedly commonsense terms.

Be calm when the unthinkable arrives

Emergencies and exceptions are dangerous times.  The last day before the test might seem like a time when the norms of student-centeredness might best be suspended in favor of teacher-led review sessions.  This might even be presented as the only responsible option.  Of course, if teacher-centeredness is the most responsible path right before an exam, another exam will come soon, and the exceptional circumstance might be stretched a bit longer.  In fact, every lesson contains something of vital importance which seem to deserve priority over the luxuries of free student participation and self-directed learning.  There are always circumstances that would seem to make every class session a temporary exception or an emergency and cause the teacher to resort to a more “efficient” method.  Be very suspicious of exhortations or enjoinders because of the supposed unique circumstances of the present class period.

Be a patriot

Be a teacher, not a deliverer or keeper of information.  You can take for granted that you know the subject matter better than your students.  Knowing the metalanguage around your subject matter, including serious-sounding terms like “adjective clause”, makes it easier for you to convince other native speakers that you really earn your paycheck, but of course you will never catch up to Google search in your grammar knowledge.  Your job is bringing other people to a more complete understanding (see “dangerous words”) of the subject matter, not just knowing it yourself, and certainly not impressing your students with how much more than them you know.

Be as courageous as you can

If none of us is prepared to work for our betterment, then all of us will labor under mediocrity.

4 thoughts on “On Tyranny in the ESL Classroom: 20 Lessons from 20th Century Pedagogy

    • Well thanks. Do you feel a lot of pressure from students to take charge a bit more? I sure did when I was in Japan, although I thought they almost definitely would’ve immediately started checking their phones if I’d resorted to lecturing.


      • I do feel the pressure and sometimes I do cave in and then realise that when learners want the teachers to take charge the learners want the teacher to invoke the osmosis spell. I then feel bad and they feel bad. This usually happens when I pitch too high a task. Thanks for making me think even more.


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