Dialogue in ELT

I received some really interesting responses to my post on good working conditions in ELT – thanks for all the comments on Twitter, LinkedIn, etc.

One of the many comments that are worth exploring in a bit more depth was a tweet from paulw. He asked me three questions:

  • What is it that enables me as a white European person to have “good working conditions in ELT” in Thailand?
  • Is it the case that Thai people can expect such conditions if they go to the UK? (Answer: No.)
  • How many Thai ELT teachers do you have?

Answers to 2 and 3 are:

2 In an equivalent situation, I know nothing about the demand for learning Thai in the UK. I haven’t looked into this yet, but I suspect demand is low. This is a facetious answer, but I’m hiding behind the way the question was phrased. Having said that, I’m still not exactly sure what it’s getting at.

3 None. We have a range of nationalities represented on the teaching staff, but no Thai teachers of English.

Question 1 is really interesting, as it highlights what I think is one of the reasons why ‘critical acumen’ (as Geoff Jordan often puts it) in ELT can seem so sparse.

In ‘What is the Dialogical Method of Teaching?’, Ira Shor and Paulo Freire (1987) discuss the value of dialogue as a means to transform not only the classroom, but society as a whole. This is one of the most interesting chapters I’ve read regarding pedagogy, and the philosophy of education. The purpose of my original blog post on good working conditions can actually be summed up by one of the subheadings in that article:

‘Starting with reality and overcoming it’

I deliberately tried to avoid talking about ‘how great my job is’ in a subjective manner, and stuck with the ‘reality’ – the pay and perks. I mentioned in that post that we might not be sure exactly what we are aiming for when it comes to good working conditions, so I was willing to lay down a marker. That’s technically more ‘aspiring to’ than ‘overcoming’, and I was prepared for criticism as such. Less criticism than I expected actually…

Anyhow, here are a list of points that Shor and Freire make in the ‘…the Dialogic Method…’ that relate to paulw’s question. I’ll elaborate on them, but don’t expect a cohesive essay. This is a bit beyond my usual ‘any old clickbait’ remit:

  • Dialogue is not a tactic for manipulation
  • ‘Dialogue is a moment where humans meet to reflect on their reality as they make and remake it’ (1987:13) – love that quote!
  • ‘knowing is a social event’ (1987:14)
  • Nobody owns an object of study – understanding and ‘reality’ is co-constructed among participants in a dialogue. A teacher themselves may well (and would be encouraged to) rethink their own views and perceptions through classroom dialogue
  • Situated pedagogy, which I read as a respect or understanding of situated knowledge and experience as the fundamental aspect of co-construction, is integral to transformational dialogue.

I really value Freire’s perspective, and align with a lot of his thinking. I note the historical and political context within which his main contributions to educational philosophy and pedagogy came about, which as a white European (‘privileged’, middle-class, southern counties, male, etc) I can only attempt to comprehend, and cannot ever say I can truly ‘relate to’.

The low-intensity struggles (thanks Sarah Amsler for that term) I’ve encountered are in no way comparable to those which formed the background to Freire’s seminal works, but the dialogue between Shor and Freire addresses this very issue; situational ‘knowledge’ and experience are the building blocks of dialogue – i.e. we only arrive at reality through the interplay of such perspectives in dialogue. I consider what Shor and Freire are saying about pedagogy to relate to other contexts in which transformation can and should (in my view) occur. I mean ELT as an industry/profession.

To me, welcoming and exploring other views is what drives dialogue. paulw’s tweet is pertinent here – the mention of my identity as a white European. My identity, and the cultural, political, social, historical constructs upon which it is based, is absolutely integral to my views. However, the comments I’ve made or information I’ve shared cannot simply be categorised as the views of a white European. Neither can the suggestion that being a ‘white European’ is the reason I am in my position. Value judgements on other’s backgrounds and contexts are leading, and those who make them need to bear in mind that dialogue can remake realities for everyone collectively, not just affirm them.

The reality I shared regarding working conditions is one of many in the industry. It may well be a view that others dislike, as it is not representative of the way some perceive the industry. While (as a cynic) I would like to feel that paulw’s leading comments on my own identity were an attempt to manipulate dialogue towards his own viewpoint, I don’t think things are that clear cut. I feel the same about comments like this, from Steve Brown:

Thanks for writing this, Peter. Pointing out how good some ELT working contexts and conditions are is a good way of highlighting the extent of the inequality that exists in our profession. I’m sure that this will come across very clearly to many teachers living and working in the same country as you, but who find themselves in very different circumstances.

Both commentators are emotionally-driven in their desire for improvements in our profession, I totally get that. I envy it in some ways as I would love to ‘know’ what is happening in our profession. However, there may be an element here of ‘cynicism in the absence of easy answers’, as Freire/Shor put it. It feels like some commentators on Twitter follow this rhetoric of radical change in the industry because it is convenient. Not radical change being convenient (of course!), just the viewpoint of such. Nobody has time to understand all the contexts imaginable in which ELT is an ‘event’, so we go on what we know, generalize, approximate, and do a Brian Clough – just arrive at the idea that we are right. And, for a very liberal profession in which moderates/progressives don’t often reveal themselves, radical change and overhaul of the status quo (a term which seems poorly defined to me) is emotive to the extent that it’s self-affirming.

It is interesting how, despite my attempts to avoid filter bubbles and echo chambers on social media, especially Twitter, I feel that dialogue against views such as ‘working conditions in ELT are rubbish’ is just lacking. (‘Yeah, Pete – because that’s the reality of it’). Not enough realities are represented in the discussion, and I feel that might be because those realities feel cut off by the judgement of others. It feels like some commentators are seeking to own the object of study, ‘the ELT industry’, rather than promote discussion that might lead us to remake our reality of it.

So, anyway, that was a tangent. The question deserves a proper answer.

What is it that enables me as a white European person to have “good working conditions in ELT?”

It could be white European privilege, I accept that (in part*). It could be luck. It could be nepotism. It could be my willingness to ignore inconvenient truths about the company I work for. Equally, it could be my willingness to question the validity of those so-called inconvenient truths. It could even be that I’m a good teacher, I mean, let’s not rule that out.

*What enables a white European to pass judgement on another white European’s predominantly factual evidence of their working conditions in ELT?

My answer: nothing, because both people in question are more than just ‘white Europeans’.

 

Shor, I. and Freire, P., 1987. What is the “dialogical method” of teaching?. Journal of education169(3), pp.11-31.

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