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Simon Greenall - Pragme

INSIGHTS: ETAS Journal Volume 29 No. 3 Summer 2012

Pragme - where common sense, intelligence, sensitivity, and instinct prevail: Simon Greenall’s modest proposal

Simon Greenall is the co-Editor-in-Chief of New Standard English for Chinese schools and the New Standard College English and Lower Level College Englishfor Chinese universities published by Foreign Languages Teaching and Research Press, Beijing, and Macmillan Publishing (China) Hong Kong. He has published many books including exam material, adult and secondary courses, as well as radio and television programmes for the BBC. Two of his best-known publications are the Reward series (Macmillan ELT, 1998) and People Like Us (Macmillan Education UK, 2002), which explore cultural values, attitudes, beliefs, customs, and traditions around the world. He has given workshops and conference presentations in 45 countries around the world. In this interview, Simon shares with ETAS Journal his thoughts about social media, cross cultural awareness, his inspirations, advice for professionals, and the future of ELT.

Thinking back to the beginning of your career, can you remember why you chose to become an educator?

Sorry to shock you, but I didn’t choose to become an educator. Since the age of 10, I’ve only ever wanted to be a writer. But when I left university, I was given a teaching post in France which was meant to allow me time to write. And I then discovered I liked teaching, I liked my friends and colleagues, and I also liked the students.

Nevertheless, the people I worked with were ELT authors themselves, and they helped me combine my job at the time with my original ambition, and so I became an ELT writer.

What advice would you give yourself if you could go back to the beginning of your career?

At all costs, avoid writing multiple-choice questions unless you really have to. Life is too short.

What do you enjoy the most about language teaching? And the least?

Travelling, meeting people, feeling I’m working at the top of my game. The least? Deadlines and stress, as one leads to the other.

What advice would you give to teaching professionals just starting out? What about those professionals with years of experience?

To the teaching professionals who are starting work, try to enjoy your work because it will show in your teaching, and in turn will make you a better teacher. But I’d also advise them to take their work seriously. Our students have a right to expect top quality teaching from a top quality professional, and the days of backpacker teachers is long gone.

To professionals with years of experience, please remember that however well you’ve mastered your own teaching context, there are other contexts which demand skills and materials which you may otherwise feel are irrelevant to your own circumstances, or even despise. For every one Dogme-style teacher, there’ll be 99 around the world who like, need, and respect their coursebooks. Because I work in China and in Palestine, I’m acutely aware that sometimes methodological evolution occurs in countries in the ‘rich west’, and other teachers are discovering appropriate approaches to their own social, educational, political, and economic circumstances.

What studies would you advise professionals to pursue, in order to further their career in education?

I’m not sure I’m the right person to advise on this, partly because my generation of ELT educators didn’t always need to get the diplomas and degrees which are required these days. But a practical teaching diploma is one which I’d respect very much, Cert or Dip TEFL, or something similar. 

Given your broad portfolio, what professional accomplishment are you most proud of?

This sounds like an invitation to boast, and I’m uncomfortable with that… However, I guess you’re interviewing for some insights! Sorry, I can’t say which single accomplishment I’m most proud of, because I’m getting too old to have survived in ELT with only one! I was proud of the success of the Reward series and being President of IATEFL was an incredible honour. The 10 years of work as co-Editor-in-Chief of three series of textbooks in China has been outstanding, with over half a billion units (books, cassettes, DVDs, etc.) being used by teachers and students. Oh, I’ve just been invited onto the Board of Trustees for International House… And maybe one more…? My first book, On Course for First Certificate, published in 1983. There’s nothing like getting a copy of your first book.

You are an inspiration to many ELT professionals. Who inspires you?

I got to know Michael Swan in France, and later, when we both came back to the UK, he invited me to write Effective Reading (Cambridge University Press, 1986) with him. Working with a friend is always wonderful, but working with Michael was like having a tutorial in textbook writing, ELT methodology, and Applied Linguistics. He’s always been consistently down-to-earth in his observations about ELT, and is ready to debunk anything which he feels is not as rigorous as it should be. I’m also a huge fan of Scott Thornbury. We obviously disagree on some issues to do with textbooks and other matters, but he’s consistently helpful, insightful, and constructive about ELT, explaining issues which are complex in a simple and accessible way. Technically, he’s also a brilliant writer. Just read that prose – it’s weighty, rhythmic, and he knows where to put a comma and a full stop.

On a personal note, what do you enjoy doing in your spare time?

We have family homes in Oxford and in the French Alps, and after so many years of travelling, it’s nice to get back home and see how the garden is coming along. I suppose gardening has become a bit of a hobby. Travel is still important, and I get itchy feet if I’m at home for too long. I spend a lot of time reading about places and planning trips. I also enjoy architectural history so I visit lots of stately homes and interesting cities. Although I’m a Londoner, my UK home is in Oxford, so I’m spoilt for choice here, and the Cotswolds are also very close. Oh, and I enjoy cooking very much.

Out of curiosity, what pops into your head when you think of Switzerland?

Rösti? No, seriously, since it was the first country where I spent a holiday outside the UK (also at the age of 10), it’s been an inspiration for all the travelling I’ve done as an adult. I so enjoyed the years when I came to ETAS conferences regularly, because it allowed me to explore new parts of the country. And since I’ve got the 2012 vignette on my car windscreen, I think about Switzerland every time I drive anywhere.

Let’s switch gears and talk about social media. You are quite an active user. When did you start? Which ones do you use and for what purpose?

No, not terribly active. I started nearly three years ago, when I stopped travelling to China, and when I realized I’d been missing out on the rise of tweeting, blogging, and Facebook. I check the twitter feed two or three times most days, and really enjoy new initiatives such as #ELTchat and #ELTpics. But I don’t blog … I should, although I’m not sure what I could contribute that has not already been said. Facebook, hmm. I find it quite intrusive, and after my account was hacked and I ‘sent’ Happy Earth Day cards to everyone (something my friends know is far too touchy-feely and serious for me), I closed it down. I do respect personal privacy, not least my own, and I’m concerned that there will become more and more abuse of this.

What are your predictions on social media and the ELT classroom? Are there any drawbacks to using these media in this setting? 

We need to watch how handheld learning will take off in developing countries, especially where most students don’t have smartphones. There’s a risk of further atomization of language analysis and language learning, because the more holistic experience of language use is less manageable on a handheld/non-smartphone device. Actually, this is also true for smartphones.

But I think there’s a greater potential in classrooms for both smart and old-style SMS devices and, of course, iPads rather than cumbersome and expensive IWBs (interactive whiteboards). In wealthy contexts these attract funding more easily than, say, teacher training, which should always be at the top of any school owner or administrator’s list of priorities. I suppose it’s because you can fix an IWB to a classroom wall, but you can’t do that to a good teacher.

You have an interesting book called People Like Us that was published in 2002 by Macmillan Educationand aims to build cultural awareness. Why is building cross-cultural awareness important to learners of English?

Because cultural misunderstanding can seriously impede communicative competence, and no amount of grammatically correct sentences will explain why a non-native speaker doesn’t say please and thank you in exactly the same places as a native speaker would. Even structurally simple utterances such as ‘What’s your name?’ and ‘How much do you earn?’ are socio-culturally complex. So it seems essential to develop intercultural competence, which will allow people to be aware of the possibility of differences in beliefs, attitudes, customs, and traditions. At the heart of all conflict on a local, national, regional, or international scale is cultural misunderstanding, and language teachers could be more successful than diplomats, soldiers, and politicians if we incorporated cultural awareness in our language class.

People Like Us aims to help learners explore their own culture and that of others. How does this avoid cultural stereotyping?

Stereotyping is not so much of a problem until it becomes prejudice. In fact, some of our greatest sources of pleasure in travel will come from experiences we have in a foreign culture which lead us to make sweeping generalizations.

Of course, the problem may be that many ELT classes are monocultural, and opening a window onto the world comes from the coursebook and not the students. But the key to developing intercultural awareness will always be developing an awareness of one’s own culture. It should lead to the enjoyment of recognising similarities between cultures, and to the celebration of difference.

How has this material changed in the past decade?

In the past decade, probably not so much. In the past twenty or thirty years…? Well, the period leading up to the mid-seventies was characterized by studying English where the USA, UK, Australia, and so on were target cultures, probably because people wanted to go and work or study there. This was the ‘English by double-decker bus and bowler hat’ period. Then my generation of native-speaker teachers tried to downplay or ignore the cultural origins of the language we were teaching. But in the nineties, we realized that with the rise in demand for English and with the increase in the numbers of English teachers who had studied the high cultural aspects of English literature, and Landeskunde/civiltà/civilisation, the link between language and culture was recognised and re-established, and sample cultures other than native English-speaking contexts are explored, to be used as a device to allow students to reflect on their own cultural background.

Speaking of cross-cultural awareness, you have worked in China and Palestine. How has your own personal awareness expanded? Do you have any interesting anecdotes to share with our readers?

Anecdotes … hmm. I’m trying to remember something useful. Personal awareness… People sometimes ask me if I’m coming back to mainstream ELT after twelve years’ working in China. Believe me, with 300 million learners of English, roughly 23% of all English language learners in the world, ELT is a huge business in China, and it feels pretty mainstream when I’m there.

As for Palestine… When the pages of your passport are being turned over with the barrel of a rifle by a 19-year-old conscript at a checkpoint, I feel a long way from the comfortable world of publishing, teaching, and conferences which I’ve known for so long. But we’re fortunate that English is seen as a contributing factor in achieving greater understanding in that part of the world, and an essential tool for the integration of the Palestinians into the everyday business of a globalized economy.

Have you got any other books in the pipeline? What can you tell us about them?

I wish! What do you suggest, Vicky? I’m still working in China and Palestine, but I’d like to do another international textbook series, because I’d enjoy the research, the planning, and the writing very much. But nothing in the pipeline. So if there’s a publisher reading this who has got any suggestions…?

What are some emerging themes to guide the future of ELT? 

That’s a tricky question. I’ve just returned from the IATEFL conference in Glasgow, and some of us were talking about how there were no obvious themes emerging from the presentations… Of course, we may not have been looking in the right direction, but all the same. Certainly, the rising use of technology is very significant, and it’s easy to overlook the fact that this is still all relatively new. But 10 years ago, we had insights into lexis and the use of corpora as a consistent theme, which have radically changed our thinking. Before that, it was skills and needs analysis, and even earlier, notions and functions.

And all through the period is the presence of grammar teaching. But where do we go next? A lot of the methodology which today use digital resources such as YouTube and so on, was first developed 30 years ago by the creative, fluency-focused work of Alan Maley and Alan Duff.

So, you ask a good question, and I’d love to engage in a discussion with anyone who has some ideas or who can prompt me to think of something really new, and with the potential to change our work and our lives.

There is a growing tension that exists between traditional language learning (i.e. using a coursebook) and non-traditional language learning (i.e. Dogme, social media). What are your thoughts on this dichotomy?

Dogme deserves to be taken seriously, but not as seriously as some people take it. I’d argue that a lot of the methodology has been around in learner-centred classrooms for some time, although it’s true that coursebooks are guilty as charged for some of the crimes they’re accused of – teaching grammar McNuggets, and by definition, not being materials-light.

But I think of the teachers I’ve seen in village schools in China and Palestine, and remember the times I’ve been limited by writing for a ministry-prescribed curriculum and to meet the requirements of state exams. And actually, there are teachers who need the support of the textbook, even if it’s not – in Dogme terms – the ideal device to encourage language learning. I’m concerned that despite the undertones of anti-establishment education in Dogme, and apart from its rejection of technology, it’s another ‘rich western’ methodology which is valid for teachers who have been well-trained and manage to get to conferences or even read ETAS publications.

I’m also uncomfortable about any proselytizing about methodology. The ‘vow of chastity’ and the ‘X pillars of Dogme belief’ make me extremely uncomfortable, not least because it makes a thought-provoking set of coherent ideas exclusive rather than inclusive to teachers who don’t have the opportunities, for whatever reason, to adopt them. I should add that this is a long way from the more modest intention of Scott Thornbury and Luke Meddings, whom I admire without reservation. But if you detect in this reply a socio-political rather than an exclusively pedagogical objection to Dogme, then you’d be right.

Actually, I’d like to establish a new movement in ELT called Pragme. Here are my eight pillars of Pragme.

  • Where no teacher feels using textbooks or technology disempowers them or downgrades their commitment or effectiveness
  • Where pragmatic good sense of adapting oneself to the needs of the learner, whatever they need, and however they choose to learn, is a mark of good teaching
  • Where teachers who are constrained by the requirements of a formal curriculum or exams don’t feel they’re in inferior teaching circumstances
  • Where the vast majority of teachers in the developing world are not patronized by ‘approaches’ and ‘methodologies’ from rich western countries which are inappropriate to their context
  • Where issues such as large class sizes or poor access to basic technology (such as a source of electricity) is acknowledged as not downgrading effective teaching or committed teachers
  • Where teachers are encouraged to use their own instinct, training, emotional sensitivity, and intelligence to provide an honest response to their students’ needs, whatever means they use
  • Where dogmatic principles are replaced by pragmatic awareness of the huge variation in teaching circumstances
  • Where common sense, intelligence, sensitivity, and instinct prevail

Would anyone like to join me?

As far as social media is concerned, I’ve seen wonderful presentations and read exceptional papers about what teachers are doing with blogs, apps, and so on. As long as all this methodology can be integrated successfully not just into innovative programmes of learning but also into existing courses without detracting from the primary purpose, which is to learn English, then I see nothing to stop us using the new technology. But go back and think about the atomization of language analysis and learning which I mentioned earlier, and remember that we should not lose sight of the holistic benefits of an earlier communicative methodology which has brought us, as ELT teachers, success, motivation … and employment!

As a coursebook writer, how do you see your job changing/modernizing, if at all?

I’ve always felt my responsibility as a coursebook writer is to enable language learning through motivating material and through making complex ideas about language simple to understand. It also includes making people want to learn English. There’s also another responsibility, which is to help teachers teach better. I sometimes think the textbook’s role as a TT device is overlooked. But some of us take it very seriously. In China, Palestine, and other ministry projects, it’s our job to interpret a complex theoretical curriculum document and turn it into something creative, effective, and practical. Textbook writing is an art as much as a science.

So, of course, textbook writers change and modernize all the time. We respond to trends and endless feedback, we learn what to include and what to ignore, and we respect our teachers and students.

But the change we promote is evolutionary and not revolutionary. So please don’t accuse us of not coming up with astonishingly new ideas. They simply wouldn’t get very far through the consultative process of writing and publishing materials.

Thank you so much, Simon, for your candid thoughts on such a variety of hot ELT topics, as well as for giving us a glimpse into the man behind the accolades. Thanks especially for sharing with us thought-provoking insights into language teaching that address the strengths, opportunities, and future of our profession.

Vicky Loras and Julie Mangold-Kecskemeti