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Jim Scrivener - In ‘High Demand’

INSIGHTS: ETAS Journal Volume 31 No. 1 Winter 2013 

In ‘High Demand’: An interview with Jim Scrivener

Jim Scrivener is currently Teacher Training Ambassador for Bell. Previously, he has been Head of Teacher Training for International House, Hastings and Director of Education for IH Budapest. He is the author of a number of award-winning publications: Learning Teaching (Macmillan ELT, 1st edition, 1994) won the ARELS Frank Bell Prize 1995,  Teaching English Grammar (Macmillan ELT, 2010) won the HRH Duke of Edinburgh English Speaking Union 2010 award as "Best Entry for Teachers", and Classroom Management Techniques (Cambridge University Press, 2012) was “Overall Winner" in 2012. He is also the author of Teachers' Books and Portfolios for Straightforward (Macmillan ELT, 2007) as well as of two business coursebooks for OUP. Visual Grammar (Richmond ELT, 2013) is his most recent book.

Jim has worked in many different countries over the years and is a frequent conference presenter and course leader around the world.

ETAS Journal caught up with Jim to discuss ‘Demand-High’.

Hi, Jim! Though now it seems like forever ago, how was your summer?

Great, thanks! I was running the Bell Teacher Campus at Homerton College in Cambridge (which I always love). Then I had my first family holiday in years. I've got two young children and we had a lot of fun!

You’ve recently been talking about Demand-High. What is it? 

At its simplest, Demand-High is a few questions that teachers could ask themselves. The key one is: “Am I really challenging the full human learning potential of all the students in my class? Or am I somehow subtly asking less of them than they could achieve?”

So, it's a sort of new method?

No, it really isn't!  We are hoping that the questions we're asking might suggest small changes and tweaks to any teacher's work, whatever method they use, however they teach, whatever their context or experience. It's really just an argument that whatever you do, however you do it, there may be more potential to ‘go where the learning is’.

How did the idea for Demand-High come about?

Adrian Underhill and I have worked together for a long time. A few years back, we started on a rather unconventional research project. Basically, we had a regular cup of tea together and talked, setting out to reflect back over our careers and see if there were any important things we hadn't noticed or hadn't taken enough account of. Fairly swiftly, we realised that we had both observed a large number of lessons and had noticed some striking similarities. We felt that contemporary teaching seemed very good in many ways, teachers were better trained, materials were usually excellent, and students very happy.

But we also felt that we regularly saw lessons in which the challenge level seemed far below what the students were capable of. We thought we’d seen teachers who had become very good in basic classroom management and at ‘operating the book’ but were perhaps tending more towards a routinised ‘demand low’ turning of pages, avoiding the opportunities for really ‘getting their hands dirty’ by working up-close with the learning and language issues that arose in class.

We also felt that there was a widespread sense that most classes ran at the pace of the fastest three or four students - and this led us to wonder whether we could usefully advocate a kind of teaching that managed to satisfyingly challenge all the students in a class at their own current level.

In some ways, Demand-High is just an argument for good teaching and for researching ‘higher skillsets’ of teaching, but we do have some specific concrete suggestions as to what that good teaching might look like and how to achieve it.

Teachers may assume that Demand High requires more work or preparation. Does it?

I think many of the ideas we are talking about are to do with more aware, awake, alert, responsive, live teaching. We are enquiring about the ways that we listen, respond, question and challenge in class. I think that a teacher who starts investigating the ‘learning’ in her lesson (as opposed to over-worrying about all the tasks, fun, bits of paper, instructions, logistics etc) might well find that she has to prepare significantly less.

You’ve talked about ‘active interventionist teaching’. What do you mean by that? Do you think teachers fear intervening?

One of our Demand High proposals is that "It's ok to teach". That is intended to be a radical or shocking statement! And a counter to some misguided interpretations of ‘humanistic facilitation’ that see it as a charter for a sort of abdication of teaching responsibilities. The modern ELT teacher tends not to do much ‘hands-on’ work with grammar, vocabulary, etc. This is partly because they have imbibed a doctrine from teacher training courses, books, seminars, and so on (and I am also a guilty party here) that their main role as a teacher is not to ‘teach’ but to quietly back away and ‘let the students do the learning’. This was originally a valid message about allowing space for learning and for not over-helping or interfering, but it has become distorted and misapplied over the years. It has become a surprisingly common belief that learning will somehow magically happen, without teacher intervention, manipulation or support, if you set up certain sorts of pair or group activities.

When we argue for ‘active interventionist teaching’, we are not saying ‘talk all the time’ or ‘interfere to no purpose’ or ‘do lots of traditional upfront teaching’. But we are saying that there is a genuine, valid use of teacher intervention, teacher authority, and teacher talk: to create productive learning situations, to manipulate classroom activities to achieve greater benefits, to lead in ways that ensure that everyone is involved and challenged and makes steps forward.

We don't need to feel an imperative to always ‘back off’ from potential teaching / learning moments. We can make a more positive difference by making a well-crafted intervention than by studiously avoiding teacher talk and hoping the learning will happen by some unstated magical process. 

You’ve said that the feedback stage after an exercise has great potential to incorporate Demand-High but is often overlooked. In what way? 

Yes. This is something that I often focus on in workshops. That stage of going through the answers after students have done an exercise (individually or in pairs) has almost become the key teaching / learning opportunity in many contemporary classes, partly because it is one of the rare moments that teachers come face-to-face with problems, misunderstandings, confusions, and so on. These can be hurried through, swept under the carpet or, alternatively, we can allow a little space to do some fruitful exploration around them.

What is ‘rubberstamping’ and why should teachers avoid doing this?

It's a term I use to refer to the automatic, ritualised acceptance and praise that teachers may instantly give to a student's answer.

For example,

Teacher: "Ted, what's the answer to question 3?"

Student: "They have been to the zoo."

Teacher: "Excellent. Good. Well done."

Obviously, there might be many occasions when we need to fairly quickly check through some answers in this sort of a way. But if it is done all the time, it closes down many real opportunities for useful learning / teaching. The teacher's praise puts her ‘rubberstamp’ of validation on the answer. In doing so, it extinguishes the question. There is nowhere else to go. As an alternative, by deferring praise and validation, it gives that student – and others in the class – the chance to swim around in the question/ answer more. This is where we can start to really challenge each learner at their own level.  I call this "Going beyond Correct and Wrong". If a student's answer was superficially correct (right words in the right order), I can challenge them on saying it better, with better sounds or stress or intonation, or with a specific feeling or attitude. If a student's answer was weak and had errors, I can help them to get it better formed. There is always somewhere to push.

By not extinguishing a question and instead keeping it alive, I can work a little with different students and help them all to move some steps forward. Every lesson. And over time each small step adds up.

Many English teachers are asked to ‘cover’ a certain number of units or get their students through regular tests, to name a few ‘checkmark-the-box’ requirements. How can we push back on the assumption that student learning can somehow be quantifiable in these terms?

Demand-High isn’t anti-test or anti-assessment. I think that learning within a lesson or a course can be tangible and measurable. Of course, bad or inappropriate tests do have an immensely negative impact on learners, teachers and courses. I think the ideal would be that the learner herself would be able to evaluate her progress, be aware of what she has learnt, and what she needs next.

But yes, we are arguing against the idea (often imposed on teachers from above) that turning the pages, racing through units, and ‘covering’ the coursebook is any indication that meaningful learning has taken place. I think there is a strong case for teachers to start arguing back more clearly and forcefully to schools, heads of department, ministries, and so on who equate learning with the number of pages turned.

Where can our readers get more information about Demand High?

We have a website ( If you google Demand High ELT it should be the first hit. Quite a lot of other people have written articles and comments on it, as well. There are some videos of talks we have given. For example, a session I did for British Council is available here:

On a personal note, what’s next for you? Are you working on any projects or publications that you can share with us?

I’m just finishing the second volume of Visual Grammar for Richmond. It's a grammar reference and practice book where I've tried to find an alternative to the familiar dense pages of rules and explanations. Instead, I’ve offered strong diagrams and images that might help learners grasp and remember new items. The first A2 volume is out and I’m really pleased with how it looks. I hope people will also like the new B1 book, which will be published in March 2014.

Sounds exciting. We look forward to your new publications! On behalf of ETAS Journal, thank you very much for discussing Demand High in length and providing clarity on what it actually entails. We wish you all the best!


Julie Mangold-Kecskemeti