Note: it has been more than three years that I stopped blogging at my site Six Things. But I was sitting in a conference the other day and I promised to myself: if I hear that trope or see that image one more time I’m gonna have to blog about it. Well, guess what? It happened and here I am, doing a one-off guest blogpost at ELTjam.

By trope here I mean ‘a significant or recurring theme’. I go to lots of ELT conferences, and over the past ten years I think I can safely say that there are a few tropes that exist in our talks, workshops and plenaries. Most often these have to do with education technology, and they are all very much in current circulation. Please note here that I am choosing the more neutral word trope, rather than the more negative word cliché! You will also note that I used the words ‘cool tropes’, because many edtech talks at conferences talk about the next ‘cool thing’. Although as you will see below, I am personally losing enthusiasm for them (the tropes, not the talks).

Image by Flickr user Pelle the Poet. Attribution NonCommercial 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC 2.0)
Image by Flickr user Pelle the Poet. Attribution NonCommercial 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC 2.0)

Trope 1. Classrooms today look like classrooms one hundred years ago.

Most powerful when backed up with a slide depicting a black and white image of an old classroom, and a colour image of a modern classroom that (hopefully) looks quite similar to the first image. This trope is often used as a preface to suggest that the world has CHANGED! And we have FALLEN BEHIND! What is left unsaid but heavily implied is that in classrooms of a hundred years ago very little to no real learning took place and that it was probably a pretty horrible place to be.

Trope 2. We have 21st century learners and need 21st century … (complete the gap)

Even though we are now more than 10 years into the 21st century, this is still a favourite catch-all term for anything that the speaker wishes to portray as new and challenging. We have 21st century learners who are supposed to be vastly different than the 20th century learners. They therefore need skills / tools / activities / teachers / methodology / pedagogy / classrooms/ schools/ teacher development, etc. etc. etc. that are 21st century. Sometimes the speaker suggests a 21st century ‘solution’ which sounds remarkably like 20th century solutions to some of the older members in the audience, but never mind.

Image by Flickr user Aikawa Ke. Attribution 2.0 (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)
Image by Flickr user Aikawa Ke. Attribution 2.0 (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

Trope 3. Young learners are digital natives. Teachers are digital immigrants.

Usually hot on the heels of any discussion of 21st century learners the trope of digital natives and digital immigrants is trotted out. Basically this suggests that anyone born before the creation of the iPod runs the risk of becoming hopelessly irrelevant. I’ve never seen any evidence for this claim, it’s just sort of thrown out there as a self-evident truth. To me, it smacks of teacher bashing and an us-vs.-them mentality but maybe I’m just too sensitive. Fortunately though, and within our profession, this is beginning to get some backlash.

Another variation on this trope is that anything a young learner creates using a digital tool is of unspeakable beauty and innovation (whereas teachers can barely get their heads around turning on an interactive whiteboard or downloading an audio file).

4 Traditional teaching / traditional teachers = bad. Just bad.

Worse than being a digital immigrant teacher, way worse, is being a ‘traditional teacher’, using ‘traditional methods’. ‘Traditional’, in our profession, is what one could call a boo-word. Now, it’s not usually explicitly stated that traditional is bad, it sure is implied. Think of phrases like:

Traditionally, teachers…

Many of the teachers in my context are very traditional, they…

The material the publishers have provided for our tablets is quite traditional, it…

Now, in a traditional classroom students are usually…

What kind of thing do you think will come after each of these phrases? I suspect that it is more often than not something that the speaker wishes to portray as negative.

I have to say that, while edtech speakers are quick to use traditional as shorthand for undesirable they are far from being the first. I’ve heard traditional used as a negative word for teachers and teaching in talks on creativity, communicative language teaching, grammar, the lexical approach, learner autonomy, games… you name it!

Image by Flickr user James Vaughan. Attribution 2.0 generic (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)
Image by Flickr user James Vaughan. Attribution 2.0 generic (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

5. You have the same amount of technology on your phone that put a man on the moon.

This trope is beginning to die out, but it’s still around. It’s based on Moore’s law that computer power doubles every eighteen months. Again, this usually sets the scene for a guilt trip about not taking advantage of this massive amazing power that our learners (who, remember, are all hugely adept at using it, much more than us) have at their fingertips. The last time I heard it, I found myself thinking: “So….?” The sharpest and funniest reply to this trope though comes from something I found on reddit, which says:

Your cell phone has more computing power than all of NASA in 1969. NASA launched a man to the moon. We launched a bird into pigs.

6. We are preparing learners for a future that we have no idea about.

There are variations on this trope, but they all boil down to the changing future and how education now is not equipped to handle it. The future is unpredictable, more than ever before! There are two problems with this. Apart from being a bit of a banal statement, I think one could argue that this has always been the case. The world of technology is certainly making changes quickly, but I doubt people twenty, fifty or a hundred years ago felt their future was absolutely certain. But there is another point, and that is that education is not merely about the future. It’s also about learning from the past, and the present.

An experiment you can try

So, those are my six. Want to try an interesting experiment? Make a 2 x 3 grid with each of these tropes written in a square. Go to an ELT conference. Tick each square when you hear the trope invoked in a talk, workshop or plenary. When you get all six, shout BINGO!

Kidding aside, as you can probably tell I have problems with these tropes. While they are often used by well-meaning teachers or writers in our profession, I think they can be part of an anti-teacher and anti-school discourse which I am not so comfortable with. The combined effect of them to me creates a feeling of fear, what some authors have even referred to as a moral panic in our profession.

Before I finish, I have to make a disclosure: I am equally guilty of using some of these tropes in my own talks! I’ve certainly made use of the 21st century learners trope, and if I’m honest with myself I’ve taken a few swipes at the poor old villainous traditional teacher. But I’m rethinking this now, and I’m going to try and be a bit more careful before invoking them from here on in.

Until the next tropes arrive.

What do you think? Have you heard these tropes in talks? Are there other ones I’ve missed out? Share a comment.


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