Six Cool Tropes in ELT EdTech

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.

84 thoughts on “Six Cool Tropes in ELT EdTech”

  1. Great blog. I hadn’t thought about the persistence of these tropes. Thought-provoking and helpful analysis.

  2. This is spot on Lindsay! This year’s IATEFL was full of these tropes and I agree, it is very easy to fall into using them and you’re right to question them. After all, how much are things really changing? Part of my job is to implement online and blended solutions in the school I work in, but I still see a high proportion of learners – young and old – who prefer the pen and the paper to the electronic alternatives. The traditional methods are as relevant as ever, yet the feeling in ELT is that we must adapt or die. I’m just not sure our learners agree with us there.

    • Thanks Andy. I’m not sure, perhaps things ARE really changing as much as everyone says they are. In certain areas, yes. But I think many people working in online training and education are finding that the change there just isn’t happening as quickly as in, say , online leisure pursuits. But there could be lots of reasons for this. I feel we sometimes beat ourselves up about this, sometimes via these very tropes.

  3. Hi, Lindsay! It’s great to see you blogging again, I was a big fan of Six Things. Well, I attended a huge conference here in Brazil last week, and I’m pretty sure to have heard all these tropes – and their variations – in talks and plenaries. Everybody was talking about changing times, as if everything we’ve been doing so far is totally wrong. Fortunately, the opening plenary had a very back-to-basics theme: the importance of listening to our students.
    One buzz word at this conference was gamification in ELT. Have you heard that a lot in other conferences?

    • Yes at a conference in Japan where the other plenary speaker had worked on video/computer games. It was buzz word of the conference. I haven’t seen any online games in EFL which are much more than get a reward if you score a point, and do not encourage communication – but perhaps I am wrong…

  4. If I could count the number of times this one has been trotted out: ‘Technology won’t replace teachers, but teachers who use technology will replace those who don’t’ – as if technology was the difference between good and bad teachers. Substitute anything else to see how daft this trope is, e.g. ‘Board-pens won’t replace teachers, but teachers who use board-pens will replace those who don’t…’ etc.

  5. Great stuff Lindsay. I and a friend actually did the bingo thing at a conference a couple of years back, but with edtech ‘buzzwords’ (PLN, app, etc.). The winner had to buy the other a beer 🙂

    On a more serious note though at the two major conferences I’ve been to so far this year I’ve found that other interesting new ideas seem to be coming back into the ELT mix in a big way. To me it feels like these have been lacking a bit at the expense of the tech discussion over the last few years.

  6. Why oh why did you write ‘kidding aside’ after your trope bingo card idea?? I think it’s an amazing idea. In fact, I think trope bingo could single-handedly bring traditional teachers into the 21st century.

  7. Thanks Damian. You are right that these tropes, as popular as they are, are not the ONLY thing going on (even though the noise they generate might sound like it). There are other new ideas coming out too from both within and outside the edtech area. In fact, I think these tropes are more common now that edtech is more common. The pioneers of EdTech in ELT weren’t using them so much a few years back.
    On a funny note, someone on Twitter suggested changing the bingo game to a drinking game when you hear one of these tropes.

  8. Great post! My personal pet peeve is the endurance of the digital native/digital immigrant trope. Mark Prensky came up with these terms in an article way back in 2001 (!) and there have been dozens of articles critiquing and debunking it in the years since. Even Prensky himself has moved on and now talks about “digital wisdom” (; why can’t the ELT world do the same?

    • Totally agree with you there Jennifer. I think that is beginning to change, especially with writers in our field such as Nicky Hockly and Gavin Dudeney speaking out quite strongly against that distinction.
      One of the most shocking videos I saw in relation to the digital native thing was this one ( It was shown in a plenary with no hint of irony. I don’t know about you, but I couldn’t stand it.

  9. Uggh. You’re so right! Why have none of us posted something like this already? I’m sure we’ve thought and talked about many of these and I love calling out the cliche. Now I foresee the word ‘trope’ taking over the discussion. 🙂

      • Wow. If that video tells me anything, it’s that at least the next generation will be well-versed in using adding echo-effects and emotional background music to their Youtube videos. Loved the shot at the end of the kid sitting in front of all the monitors with social media platforms which he’d be breaking the terms of service to sign up for, given his age.

  10. Lindsay, yes! Absolutely. I think if I hear the term 21st century + [whatever it is] one more time in any conference in the near future I might well jump off the nearest balcony. Seriously, though, what I feel is lacking from a lot of the technology buzztalk coming our way for the last, what, five years, is maybe more acknowledgement of the fact that there’s more to language learning than mastering content. So, yeah, app X is great for story telling, but how will it enable students to get there? I fear we might be headed for an era of ultra slick, sexy, state of the art apps that will do little more than ask students to fill in the blanks using the correct form of whatever. So much for evolution.
    PS: L o v e the bingo idea.

  11. Brilliant! Great post; except for # 5, I have also churned on the rest; perhaps because I don’t use all that technology on my phone! For # 4 I don’t simply want to get into that ‘Methods” debate. We should be thankful to the all those generations of experts who passed on these deep wells of collected information to us all.

  12. Well….

    I wouldn’t want to spoil the love in too much, but there is a grain of truth in some of these, or rather, it depends on how you present them. If you quote them then bring them down to suit your own purposes, then of course they fail miserably. But…

    2. 21st Century Learners
    Of course learners don’t change that much, but how they grow up, how they interact, how they create and consume has changed significantly. And it would be nice to think that sensitive, creative, caring teachers would at least acknowledge that and try to incorporate (where possible) some of those changes into their teaching.

    3. Digital Natives, Digital Immigrants
    I think most of us EdTech people left this behind a while back (see blog posts passim for the last three or four years). We prefer ‘digital residents’ and ‘digital natives’ because those terms do go some way towards describing familiarity, comfort, normalisation and more. It’s not an age thing – we’ve known this for ages. It’s an attitude thing. Prensky was mistaken, but there are many digital divides, some of them attitudinal, some literacy-based, some hardware and access based. But there are different tribes…

    5. Powerful phones
    They are. They do amazing things. They have amazing access…. Just because someone put a flying bird on a phone does not negate this. What you do with it is the important thing, of course.

    6. Jobs that didn’t exist
    Again, there is much truth in this. For centuries and sometimes for decades, 99% of employment possibilities remain unchanged. Then disruptions occur. Of course you might have used this around the time the Beaker people died out, or around the time the car took off, but it’s still true. Technology just continues to provide more disruptive moments than most.

    I wouldn’t get the bingo out just yet (well, maybe the ‘I’m more caring than you are’ one has some legs.


    • I agree Gavin, of course they have a grain of truth. Maybe even more than a grain of truth in some cases! It’s just that I think we’re using the same imagery and vignettes. Incidentally, I started myself seeing the problems with the digital native/immigrant thing after you and Nicky Hockly had started skewering it but not everyone is there yet.
      Regarding 21st century X, I think the expression is just too big. It’s like a huge canvas on which anything can be painted. Positive things, and some rubbish too.
      As for quoting these tropes to bring them down and suit my own purposes, well I’m probably guilty as charged. Please note here that I am not discounting everything else in these talks in particular. There may be great talks and ideas out there that use one of these as part of the window-dressing. Like some of my talks for instance. 😉

  13. The traditional teacher trope annoys me in its assumptions of traditional methods being inferior.

    I am beginning to wonder how often the Eurocentricity of ELT leads us into the belief that the way we are “supposed” to teach is the best way to teach?

    This kind of discourse is a powerful thing – so perhaps we need an alternative… An Annual festival totally void of sweeping generalizations…one in which all teachers…..

  14. Thanks Luiz. I hear you about the balcony. To be fair, there are many edtech people in our field who are trying really good things but it’s getting crowded now with lots of other stuff of the slick, sexy kind that you mention.

  15. Great post, Lindsay. I think I have been guilty of using every single one of these in the past. Outside of edtech, tropes occur frequently in ELT too, and I have one that we are starting to hear and which I predict we’ll be sick of by the time the next IATEFL conference comes around: Neoliberalism

    The recent discussions about Sugata Mitra’s work saw a proliferation of this and all of his critics rushed to their keyboards to hurl this ultimate insult in their blog post. Soon, nobody will be able to talk about alternative models to the status quo of ‘the teacher in the classroom’ without being called a ‘neoliberal’. In fact, I predict a proliferation of talks with flow charts illustrating this neoliberal conspiracy and showing connections between people in big businesses, adaptive learning, publishers and just about anyone else the speaker wants to connect (it being much easier nowadays to connect to anyone: see six degrees of separation)

    In fact, there will probably be a symposium at next year’s IATEFL entitled ‘ Critical pedagogy and the Neoliberal Conspiracy in ELT’ if you want to bring your Bingo cards (select from the following terms: neoliberal, adaptive learning, Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, pedagogical discourse, Pearson, Paolo Freire, World Bank, pedagogy, Neil Postman, de-schooling, global marketplace, knowledge transmission, neutral, big data, venture capital, the oppressed, vested interests, deskilling, value-free, Sugata Mitra, sexual orientation, social justice, McDonald’s, corporate, etc)

    • Well spotted, Graham! An article in a recent TESOL Quarterly branded plurilingualism as being neoliberal, and a forthcoming one in Applied Linguistics does the same with ELF. Is nothing sacred?!

    • In fact, there will probably be a symposium at next year’s IATEFL entitled ‘ Critical pedagogy and the Neoliberal Conspiracy in ELT’ if you want to bring your Bingo cards

      Dear Graham,

      This made me laugh quite a lot – in fact, I’ve just seen a talk at this year’s IATEFL that came perilously close to just this kind of thing.

      Freire seems to be making his way back into the limelight as it were too, so it seems even more likely.

      • Im not sure it’s fair or helpful to be so dismissive.

        Dear Thomas,

        I confess I’m a little baffled by your comment.

        In what way is being critical of Paulo Freire unfair or unhelpful exactly? More importantly, to whom is it unfair and unhelpful?

        That I didn’t dissect Critical Pedagogy at any length in what was after all a very brief congratulatory remark on Graham’s original comment hardly qualifies me as some kind of ignoramus – which is ultimately what I take to have been implied by saying that such attitudes are ‘not fair or helpful’ for being ‘so dismissive’ .

        As it happens, I do in fact think that Critical Pedagogy – of Freire, Pennycook and Giroux – s deeply flawed and have what I feel are quite legitimate reasons for thinking so – I’m not sure what sense that’s a problem …



        • Nikw211, I didn’t mean to imply at all that you were stupid. And I respect your right to disagree with Critical Pedagogy.

          But I don’t agree with equating ‘Postman’ or ‘Freire’ with (arguably overused) buzz-words like ‘neoliberal’ or ‘ adaptive learning’.

        • I don’t agree with equating ‘Postman’ or ‘Freire’ with (arguably overused) buzz-words like ‘neoliberal’ or ‘ adaptive learning’.


          I see thank you – the way I read your first comment did seem to suggest there was some issue with being critical of CP / Freire etc.

          I ‘m not really at liberty to speak on Graham’s behalf, but when he predicted that there will probably be a symposium at next year’s IATEFL entitled ‘ Critical pedagogy and the Neoliberal Conspiracy in ELT’ I’m fairly sure what he meant was that both Critical Pedagogy and Neoliberal Conspiracies have become fashionable topics, or tropes rather. I’m fairly certain he wasn’t suggesting they shared values (that wouldn’t make sense after all).

          (PS I’d never heard of Neil Postman until this thread).

          I’m all ears


          Perhaps ELTJam is not the best venue for this so to try and be as brief as possible:

          1) CP is a Marxist-inspired theory – as there have been literally no examples of successful Marxist-based communities (whether national or local, formal or informal), not a single one ever, I think this kind of obliges anyone drawing CP to justify why they are doing so, specifically in the face of these facts. I am not saying they can’t or shouldn’t use it, but I do think they need to make it clear as to why they are doing so given ‘applied’ Marxism’s historical record of abject failure;

          2) It seems to me at least that it is quite a coercive approach to education; I think those who claim that it is liberating are blind to the subtle pressures they are placing on their students to conform to the teacher-created culture of the classroom, and to the opinions and perspectives of the teacher. In short, I think it will likely lead to the opposite of what it claims to achieve and so is therefore a failure even on its own terms.

  16. Absolutely true that tropes outside of edtech occur in ELT. One that springs to mind is that of “the student who says her grandmother/husband/pet died and the teacher who corrects the grammar but does not respond to the content”. Or the teacher who doesn’t have “20 years experience, but one year repeated 20 times”. Or that students carry phrasebooks and not grammar books with them when they travel.
    As for neoliberalism… let’s see. It can be used as shorthand for negative and an insult yes definitely. As a theme it’s getting press right now, post-Mitra. Maybe you’re right. However, your bingo card is way too long! 🙂 I think a bingo card on the topic of “critical” could also easily be made (Bloom, Freire, 21st century skill, creative etc) as these terms are getting used for an awful lot of stuff.
    I’m gonna start a bingo card business for all conferences. Just need to find a corporate sponsor, of maybe I’ll go kickstarter.

  17. Great post Lindsay and quite a pot stirrer. Some great comments too. Here’s my tuppence.

    I agree with Gavin that all of these themes (though some more than others of course) are worthy of attention. I’ve used at least a couple of them, guilt free, to discuss issues such as interaction design and environmental psychology (trope 1), and to critique the lack of imagination of publishers and teachers when it comes to exploring the affordances of smarthphones as creative tools (trope 5).

    I take no issue with these tropes when they’re being used as rhetorical devices for framing valid arguments. The problem for me is when they are used lazily and unquestioningly as empty buzzwords. The ELT industry is full of such tropes (I seem to remember suggesting a game of ELT buzzword bingo to Gavin after last year’s IATEFL) and I think it’s worth considering why.

    One possible reason is that there’s quite an echo in the ELT chamber and what goes around tends to reverberate ad infinitum. This is just one explanation for why it’s apparently so hard to get rid of all the myths about language, learning and technology. At first, for me, the most shocking thing about the content of Russell Mayne’s IATEFL talk this year was that it was considered to be shocking.

    A second, less healthy reason might be that such tropes are actively used as a form of consumable capital by those who depend on them to sell talks, workshops, books and courses. In this context they become little more than advertising slogans, designed to make people feel less competent or less satisfied with what they have in order to sell them something ‘transformative’ and ‘new’. The edtech sector could be especially vulnerable to creating and propagating such tropes just due to the rate at which they atrophy. My concern here is that pretty much any new idea can quickly become stripped of context and separated from the thought and research that gave rise to it. This can quickly devalue ideas that do challenge the status quo, as before they have a chance to impact their target audience they are hastily repackaged and indiscriminately fed into the ‘trope machine’ along with ideas that never had any merit in the first place.

  18. I think the common fallacy underlying all these tropes is that technology is a good in itself. It isn’t. It’s a tool like any other teaching tool and , like any other teaching tool, it’s what you do with it that counts. Another fallacy is that ‘digital natives’, because they use social media in their private lives , will demand or desire lessons based on technology. It’s my experience that most of them ( uni students) don’t – they get enough of it outside class!

    • “It’s a tool like any other teaching tool and, like any other teaching tool, it’s what you do with it that counts.”

      With all respect, Jill, that too is a trope, if by trope we mean a mantra-like statement that is often repeated but seldom questioned. It elides the fact that there are good tools and bad tools. Or, at least, tools that are fit for purpose, and others that simply aren’t. Thus, if a technology (like television or gaming devices) that is used primarily to entertain, is imported into classrooms, won’t its educational use be compromised by these non-educational associations? Or if a technology like an IWB, that is designed primarily to transmit and display data is used in the language classroom, how easy will it be to adapt it to the needs of a communicative methodology? Or, if a medium like the internet encourages superficial engagement with texts, is it really an efficient means of language learning? As Nicholas Carr put it, in The Shallows (2010: 3), “in the long run a medium’s content matters less than the medium itself in influencing how we think and act.”

      ‘Don’t blame the tool if it’s used badly, blame the user’, you might say, but maybe some tools are simply ill-suited to our needs, and that the effort (and cost) involved in re-purposing them is futile. (Remember the well-intentioned but ultimately doomed attempts to turn language laboratories into self-access centres?)

      As Neil Postman put it ever so long ago, “Only those who know nothing of the history of technology believe that a technology is entirely neutral” (Amusing Ourselves to Death, 1985, p. 86.)

      • I guess that’s exactly what I meant, Scott! There could be good tech tools which need very little adapting – or there could be some whose function is primarily to entertain/nothing to do with teaching which could be adapted creatively by the teacher to inform and educate.

        • An interesting postscript on the moral neutrality (or not) of technology:

          “At this point, some sobering thoughts begin to surface. The first is Melvin Kranzberg’s observation that “technology is neither good nor bad; nor is it neutral”. Our technologies have values built into them, which is why Vertesi in her talk cites someone’s observation that “the iPod is a tool to make us moral” (because it encourages people to buy music rather than download it illicitly) and philosophers argue about whether surveillance encourages moral – ie socially approved – behaviour (think speed cameras).”

          • Scott,

            Are they the best examples? Isn’t it good that artists are paid for their efforts, and motorists are encouraged to drive below the (in the UK, generally) 30 mph limit above which deaths rise incrementally?

            At any rate, I’m sure that social pressure plays a far greater part in either of those two things these days. I also wouldn’t lump an iPod and a speed camera together – one has a much larger wagging finger than the other, I think.

            The gadgets in each case are merely visible reminders of something we may ignore. That someone may ascribe these qualities to them does not mean that they were designed for such a purpose (speed cameras seem to have been designed to collect badly-needed local council funds, more than anything), nor does it mean that that purpose is inherent in them either, nor that most of us view them in that light…

            That said, I’m tending much more towards the digital dissidence side of things the older I get. If you haven’t read The Circle by Dave Eggers, you might want to. It portrays a terrifying, but utterly believable future in which the link between moral behaviour and surveillance extrapolates to a very ugly endgame.

            I’m glad I won’t be around to see it all…


          • Gavin,

            I agree that the examples may at first seem somewhat awkward but they bring up interesting moral issues that also have a great deal of bearing on many of the conversations about education and technology in general today (and on this blog in particular I must say).

            I think that the central issue is one of choice. The examples of “moral technology” bring to my mind the debate in A Clockwork Orange where Alex is compelled towards good by fear alone, but, as the priest remarks, while “He ceases to be a wrongdoer. He ceases also to be a creature capable of moral choice.”

            The flip-side of this argument is given by the politician who states:

            “We’re not concerned with motives, with the higher ethics. We are concerned only with cutting down crime …The point is that it works.”

            Ok, just bear with me a minute for the connection with education and let me give you one more example of the effect of surveillance that might be illustrative. Bill Maher, who I must admit can often rub me the wrong way a bit, did make a very interesting, and decidedly unpopular-sounding argument (especially given the subject matter – racism) about the Donald Sterling affair. In a nutshell he found it strange that no one seemed up in arms about the fact that Sterling’s racism became publicly evident because he was basically bugged.

            I may be going a bit further them him here (though I doubt it) but if you listen to the video he basically advocates for everyone’s right to screw up and make mistakes in private because it is within that space that we often experiment with things that we can’t always get right “on the first take.” I’m not suggesting that’s what Sterling was doing, but I would say that if you think you have that right you also have to allow everyone else to have it no matter how unsavory you might find their views.

            You can watch the video here:


            With regards to education, and perhaps especially the Big Data/AL debate, it seems to me that one could make the argument that we might limit our students’ ability or desire to 1) make personal choices and 2) experiment/make mistakes, both of which, I certainly hope we can all agree, are vital to a learning, especially a constructivist view of learning where the ultimate goal is for individuals to take their learning outside of pre-prescribed boundaries to create something new and original.

            I personally don’t believe that such an extreme will necessarily be the outcome of the application of these technologies, but I certainly believe it is a debate worth having given the apparent inevitability of their implementation.

          • Gavin writes: “That someone may ascribe these qualities to them [i.e. specific technologies] does not mean that they were designed for such a purpose”. No, but these qualities – or values – that are ascribed become INscribed. This, at least, is the argument of cultural studies theorists, like Stuart Hall, who used the Sony Walkman to demonstrate that it is less the producers of a technology than its consumers who manufacture its meaning – and the values associated with this meaning. These values are less to do with the technology’s intended purpose than the way it is consumed and represented, and the identities that it instantiates. By extension, a technology that stands for ‘cool and hip’ may sit uncomfortably in a context (like a classroom) that is not cool and hip. And/or the coolness and hipness its presence confers on the classroom may be inimical to other purposes associated with classrooms – like learning. So, to argue that technology is neutral is just wishful thinking.

            To quote Postman (yet again), ‘Public consciousness has not yet assimilated the point that technology is ideology. This, in spite of the fact that before our eyes technology has altered every aspect of life during the past 80 years. For example, it would be excusable in 1905 for us to be unprepared for the cultural changes the automobile would bring. Who could have suspected then that the automobile would tell us how we were to conduct our social and sexual lives? Would reorient our ideas about what to do with our forests and cities? Would create new ways of expressing our personal identity and social standing? […] To be unaware that a technology comes equipped with a program for social change, to maintain that technology is neutral, to make the assumption that technology is always a friend to culture is, at this late hour, stupidity plain and simple.’ (Amusing Ourselves to Death, 1985: 162).

          • Scott,

            Whilst embracing a nascent digital dissidence I still don’t have much time for Postman and his views on technology, based as they are on a view of technology firmly grounded in the 1990s and before. I’ll take ‘Everything bad is Good For You’ over ‘Amusing Ourselves to Death’ any day of the week.

            I’d also venture that more modern pop-psych views of technology are in the minds of the middle classes chattering on blogs, rather than in the average person on the street. Ask someone about speed cameras, and they will tell you they are a cash cow for local governments, as one example – very few of them will express fears over a burgeoning surveillance society. While we’re all stroking our beards and discussing the inherent moral values of technologies over a nice bottle of claret, normal people simply use them.

            Although, of course, as you point out, I may be simply ‘stupid’, as Postman suggests 😉


          • If Neil Postman is too ‘old’ for you, Gavin, then maybe this will serve my argument better: ‘Technologies are neither neutral nor unbiased. Rather, particular technologies have their own propensities, potentials, affordances, and constraints that make them more suitable for certain tasks than others.”
            Koehler, M. J., & Mishra, P. (2009). ‘What is technological pedagogical content knowledge?’ Contemporary Issues in Technology and Teacher Education, 9(1). Retrieved from

            Or even: ‘Some technologies are born evil (cluster bombs), some acquire evil (TV) and some have evil thrust upon them (social networking)’ (Thornbury, 2014, AusChat) 😉

          • Whilst I like their TPACK model, I can’t really see what’s interesting about K&M saying that some technologies are better for some things than others are – it’s rather like saying tables are better for setting computers on than, say, tortoises.

            Stating the bleedin’ obvious doesn’t actually reinforce any suggestion that technologies themselves are inherently evil, bad, moral enforcers, etc. I would have thought that it’s the people who design them, or use them for evil purposes, who infer those properties on inventions. I find it all rather spurious. A piece of chalk, in the wrong hands is evil – but I would have though tit was largely the hands that infer the property on the chalk.

            Again, I think getting people to slow down when driving, or pay for creative work, is actually rather a good thing – and neither induce a middle class moral panic in me.

            No gadget is born evil – mostly they’re just a hunk of metal and other components. Now, people, on the other hand….

  19. Lindsay, we ran a similar bingo session when the Cambridge guys came to Dublin. Do add a couple from school owners/publishers side who advocate more unimpeded learning. Like the one that runs: ‘A teacher need to be more a guide by the side than the sage on the stage’ or my EdTech scare fave ‘Any teacher that can be replaced by a computer, should be.’

  20. Thanks for the post, Lindsay. It’s definitely one to chew on.

    I like what you say about the feeling of fear and moral panic engendered by these tropes. It reminds me somewhat of CNN or other 24-hour news channels. Things are said and re-said, and suddenly people believe they are true, or at least might be true. They are opinions usually, based on scanty evidence. Then somehow peoples’ own opinions are formed instantly on this inadequate information and without due consideration of, well, the facts. Pretty soon you have some kind of mass hysteria. I think we even saw that in some of the Sugata Mitra debate that’s been going on since his talk.

    ELT could definitely benefit from the ‘ more measured and disinterested approach’ suggested in your link. And more focus on research rather than opinion. But then, being measured won’t usually sell talks. And the ELT world demands a constant stream of ‘new’ ideas in the same way that the 24-hours news media demands events. If there are no events to report on, we just make them up, or overstate their importance.

    • I won’t go into Mitra here (he’s everywhere!) but the plea for a more measured and disinterested approach is worthwhile if we suspect ourselves of getting into a hysteria. As for the ELT world demanding a constant stream of new ideas, I guess I’d say 1) “ouch” (as in yes it’s probably true) and 2) are we different than other fields in that respect? The second is an honest question as I am not familiar with other fields as much in terms of conferences etc.
      Was it Widdowson who once said that every generation of teachers has to feel they are inventing something new to get rid of something old? Or am I imagining that?

  21. Thanks Paul, and I really think you’ve nailed it in your analysis of why they might exist, and why I’ve written what I wrote here. I was reading recently about the echo chamber effect and thinking a lot about it in ELT and my own experiences on social media.
    Your comment about ideas becoming stripped of context, devalued, repackaged and resold with other ideas also makes me think of how that has happened with words too. Words like “communicative”, “interactive”, “creative”, “motivating” and so on in selling coursebooks and other educational materials for example. I’ve seen these used and abused in our field, and here I’m speaking as a coursebook writer myself.
    Anyway, thanks for the very articulate and well written response, a really good addition to this discussion.

    • The uncritical uptake of ELT ‘tropes’ is echoed in an item on today’s BBC website, about the latest in dietary supplements: clay. A nutritionist dismisses claims for its health-giving properties as “a whole load of rubbish.” The piece continues: ‘He links it to a wider trend of nonsensical health fads emanating from celebrities. “Often with health fads there’s a tiny element of truth. Then it’s blown all out of proportion and a trend starts.”‘

      Sound familiar?

  22. Oh yes. The guide on side rather than the sage on the stage. That’s a wonderfully frequent one. That goes in for sure (is it a trope in the same way? doesn’t matter… it can go in the bingo).

  23. It sounds like Widdowson, but I’m not sure. Neither am I sure if we are different from other fields. I just think everything has got a heck of a lot faster because of the internet and the sheer speed of communication. Ideas are just propagated much faster, I guess. But then, mostly they’re just ideas, not proven facts and usually not backed by any kind of meaningful research. Which is fine, I suppose, as long as they’re not presented as The Truth.

  24. Hi Lindsay,

    This is really very funny, as well as accurate, and has brightened my day considerably (as it’s only just gone 9.30 am that’s not a terribly good start).

    Just one thing I’d like to add briefly is that in a significant number of talks I’ve seen by ‘gurus’ in EdTech there has been an overeliance on getting cheap laughs from completely decontextualised quotes such as:

    “I think there is a world market for maybe five computers.”
    Thomas Watson, president of IBM, 1943

    “There is no reason anyone would want a computer in their home.”
    Ken Olsen, founder of Digital Equipment Corporation, 1977

    Quite apart from the fact that they fail to point out that ‘computer’ would have meant something very different in 1943 and 1977 from what it means to a modern audience (and so these were probably fairly reasonable statements at the time they were made), it also ironically highlights the inability to experts to accurately forecast the future … and this in a talk … by an expert … forecasting the future … err, shome mishtake shurely?

  25. Nikw211 and Graham Stanley seem to be implying that referencing Paolo Freire or Neil Postman in an ELT talk is somehow a bad thing.

    Im not sure it’s fair or helpful to be so dismissive.

    • Thanks Alex. For the moment Six Things remains what it is, I have no idea how people can keep at it so long! But it was fun to test the water again.
      Nice post by the way, and ouch ouch ouch at some of those things. Very true and very sad.

  26. Ha ha Nik, I have heard this before yes. And yes you’re right it doesn’t really stand up to much. Another super frequent quotee (is that the word for someone always quoted?) is of course Einstein. Although usually in a positive way.

  27. Nikw211 says:
    A. CP is a Marxist-inspired theory.
    B. There are no examples of successful Marxist-based communities and “applied” Marxism has a historical record of abject failure.
    C. Therefore, anyone drawing on CP should justify why they are doing so.

    In reply, I’d say:
    1. The argument doesn’t follow.
    2. Critical Pedagogy questions inequalities of power, myths of opportunity and merit for most students, injustice and world poverty. Paulo Freire, Henry Giroux, Peter McLaren, and Ira Shor are influential CP writers. In the language of Critical Pedagogy, the critical person is one who is empowered to seek justice, to seek emancipation. Not only is the critical person adept at recognizing injustice but, for Critical Pedagogy, that person is also moved to change it. Those who disagree with the views and practices of CP should argue their case rather than make illogical and sweeping assertions about the “abject failure” of “applied” Marxism.
    3. Here are some “applications” of Marx’s work, a random list which I’ll stop adding to after 3 minutes: the trade movement in the UK; the feminist movement; macroeconomics; modern advertising; humanistic education; state education in the UK; the national health system in the UK; Surrealism; the Situationists; the Bauhaus; the Frankfurt School; the Mondragon corporation; the films of Jean Luc Godard; the music of John Lennon and Captain Beefheart; the writings of Jean-Paul Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir, Bertold Brecht; the academic work of Willhelm Reich, Herbert Marcuse, E.P. Thompson, Terry Eagleton, Noam Chomsky; liberation theology, ..

    • OT

      Dear Geoff,

      A quick housekeeping point – as this discussion is now clearly straying way away from both Lindsay’s post in particular and EdTech-related themes in general, I’ll try and keep this response as brief as I can – but perhaps if you were interested in discussing any of this further we ought to probably ‘move’ the discussion elsewhere, such as the Dogme group on Yahoo, as that group seems fairly open to the kind of topics and themes under discussion here. Just a thought

      A. CP is a Marxist-inspired theory / 1. The argument doesn’t follow.

      I’m afraid I don’t quite understand this first point: saying that CP is a Marxist-inspired theory is not an argument, but an indisputable fact; and that’s not even me saying that, but the proponents of CP themselves.

      If you are yourself a supporter of the principles of CP (as seems to be the case) and yet are genuinely unaware of its Marxist origins then you would appear to be proving something I alluded to in my second point above – that CP is sublty coercive and pushes people towards an agenda they may not necessarily be aware of themselves.

      Critical Pedagogy questions inequalities …

      This is a clear and useful summary, but I am already familiar with what CP is and what its central claims are – I’m not confused, I just feel that there are legitimate reasons as to why those claims are flawed.

      The goal of (English language) education is not, to my mind, to create cohorts of Left wing activists. You may of course object to the latter characterisation, but whether you do or not, it is nonetheless a legitimate intepretation of the critical person as outlined in your message.

      I am further troubled by CP’s apparent a priori assumption that students are suffering from a malady for which CP is the cure. It smacks rather uncomfortably of the charge of ‘False consciousness’ which is itself quite an odious concept.

      And it is really quite presumptous – is it not? – to assume that students are ‘already always’ disempowered, unable to recognise injustice and/or disinterested in seeking their own emancipation. How can students be expected to bring their own interests to the table under such conditions? Hence I feel that CP could coerce students into a view of reality that is not their own but that of the educators – and as that is not liberating or drawing on the student’s own agency then CP fails on at least two of the criteria it claims for itself.

      3. Here are some “applications” of Marx’s work …

      The problem with being brief is that obviously nuance and qualifications can get missed out – when I previously used the phrase ‘applied’ Marxism’s (please note the use of scare quotes) I was specifically referring back to the Marxist-based communities (whether national or local, formal or informal) earlier in the same paragraph – to clarify, by this I meant nations such as Hoxha’s Albania or Mengistu’s Ethiopia or informal groups such as communes and collectives (all of which can be said to have ended in failure, sometimes on a spectacular scale in terms of cost in human lives).

      Your use of ‘application’ is clearly a great deal more expansive than the one I was using so it makes a quite different point rather than being a refutation of the one I had made.

      In fact, I’m tempted to say that the list is so eclectic – Captain Beefheat, whoever that is, modern advertising (?!?) and the NHS in the same list – that it seems to be hard to pin down quite what your point was.

      Also some of those included in your list, Sartre, Eagleton. Chomsky for example, are what I would see as thinkers, critics ot theorists rather than doers or policy makers – which was the sense in which I was using ‘apply’.



  28. Hi Lindsay,

    I’m throwing in my twopence a bit late on this blog, but the trope that gets my goat the most is this: e-learning places the learner at the centre of the learning process.

    It’s not that e-learning can’t achieve this, but rather the implication that other media doesn’t even aspire to do so. It’s as if material writers sit down and think: shit, how can I best marginalise the learner?

    Also, the statement is almost never backed up with any real examples – it’s laundered as a fact that doesn’t need validation, and with an attendant ‘ergo’ that all e-learning is therefore good, regardless of content or design.

  29. Hi Nick,
    1. The argument that doesn’t follow is : Premise 1: CP is Marxist; Premise 2: Marxism has never been “successfully applied”; Conclusion: CP needs justifying.
    2. I studied Marx (among other things) for 7 years at LSE (Ralph Miliband was my tutor!) and 2 years at Berkeley, where Marcuse was the prof.
    2. You now discuss CP itself, which is fine; what I objected to was the faulty reasoning.
    3. There are many Marxist-based communities which have been successful, including educational establishments, university departments, publishing houses, artistic movements, businesses, hospitals, and even banks. But anyway, even if there weren’t any, this is not a good reason to question the principles of CP.
    4. I take your point about doers rather than thinkers. My list was deliberately random and was intended to illustrate the breadth of Marx’s influence. Marx didn’t live to see the final horrendous use to which his ideas were put, but he lived long enough to see what was coming and to declare “I am not a Marxist”. Neither am I, but I think we should recognise the enormous influence his ideas had, and avoid sweeping generalisations.
    Anyway, I agree that we mustn’t hijack this very interesting thread. Let me add that I enjoy your contributions and respect (almost all!) the views you express.

    • Dear Geoff,

      Apologies for not responding earlier, but I was unfortunately dragged away from Blogging by the pesky demands of paid work and have only just now cleared the decks of deadlines to pick it up again … which is a shame I was quite enjoying the to-ing and fro-ing.

      Anyhow, I totally appreciate that you may no longer be interested in this topic, but if you are (or even if you aren’t – !) I’ve transferred this discussion with a further reply onto Dogme Yahoo where, as it happens, there is a link to a related blog on CP.



  30. “The recent discussions about Sugata Mitra’s work saw a proliferation of this and all of his critics rushed to their keyboards to hurl this ultimate insult in their blog post.”

    A legitimate criticism is not an insult and, as someone who has used the word ‘neoliberal’ a fair bit recently, I think it is always legitimate to ask the question: Whose interests are being served by the introduction of [insert new thing/technology/device/app/idea here] into education? As David Graddol said at IATEFL, follow the money. Does that mean I’m a conspiracy theorist? No, and to suggest that I were would itself be something of an insult. As would the suggestion that I ‘rushed to my keyboard to hurl that ultimate insult’.

    Neoliberalism is arguably the dominant ideology of our times. To paraphrase Adam Kirsch, it is not conspiracy-theorist to raise concerns about its presence in education, it is intellectually responsible. There is certainly enough evidence (see Philip Kerr’s flow chart!) to at least be curious, isn’t there?


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