Jeremy Harmer’s Six Questions for Pundits and Salespeople

Well, I really can’t ask for more of a special guest to launch the second “season” of Six Things after an extended summer break. I’m happy to present a six things list from none other than Jeremy Harmer, author of numerous books for teachers and learners of English and one of the most influential people in ELT today (according to my poll, the results of which will be released soon :-)!) Jeremy responded to my request with six questions of his own…

How should we react when someone comes to us offering a new piece of technology (such as an interactive whiteboard), a new coursebook (you can make your own list), a new pedagogy or approach (such as Dogme or Pechua Kucha) or a new activity (such as using playing cards to teach, or plundering the resources of YouTube)? I think there are six basic questions we need to consider:

Question 1: What is the pedigree?

We need to know where a new idea or piece of equipment comes from. Do its originators have a (decent) track record in the field? A good rule of thumb is always to be suspicious, for example, of websites where you cannot find out who is responsible for them.

Not all new ideas have to come from tried and trusted pundits, designers or publishers. On the contrary, ‘new’ people can offer fresh, original and exciting possibilities. But we still need to know who makes or promotes this thing, and what their motives are. This is partly because of question 2.

Question 2: Who gains?

If we adopt this new methodological procedure or buy this new piece of hardware or software, who will be the beneficiary of our purchase? If we can be sure that students will benefit, then it may be worth investing time and money in the project. The same would be true if we could say with certainty that teachers would really benefit by having their workload reduced, for example, or because their professional quality of life would somehow be enhanced.

Of course the person who is trying to get us to buy their new ‘thing’ or buy into their new idea will also gain money (or prestige), and there is no reason why this should not be so. But unless we can be sure that students and/or teachers gain, then that person’s gain will be our loss.

Question 3: Why is this the best way to do this?

It may well be that the new software (or hardware) that we are being encouraged to buy offers us exciting possibilities. But we need to ask for more than that. We need to be able to say that it will be the best way we can find to do what we want to do. If someone is offering us a new method or a new set of techniques, we need to be sure that they will be better for our students and for us that what we did before. Newness is not enough, in other words and although, personally, I am usually a fan of ‘the new’, it is important to remember this key question: is the new ‘thing’ the best thing or way to do what we want to do. Because sometimes the ‘old’ is just as good even though it is not so shiny!

Question 4: Does it pass the TEA test?

If teachers are expected to adopt a new procedure or use a new piece of technology, it needs to pass the ‘TEA’ test. T stands for training. Unless teachers and students are helped to understand the new thing or procedure, and then given training opportunities to try it out, it will usually fail. E stands for the whole area of equipment. We need to be sure that the new procedure or hardware, for example, is properly supported technologically. This may sound like an obvious point, but with major government-selected systems in various areas of life (health, education) sometimes failing even after huge financial investment, we should not underestimate the absolute need for teachers to be sure that the equipment is appropriate, is in place, and is properly supported by qualified professionals.

Finally, A stands for access. If the new technology, set of flashcards or collection of supplementary books is locked away in a cupboard for safety, it becomes inaccessible. If we have to take students down a long corridor to a computer room that has to be booked three weeks in advance, then the whole idea becomes significantly less attractive.

Question 5: What future possibilities does it open up?

When we adopt a new methodological procedure or piece of classroom equipment (or software), it is important for us to believe that it has a future. Many people are uneasy about one-size-fits-all methodologies, partly because they are closed to innovation and infiltration from the outside. A good rule of thumb is to be suspicious of anything that tells us what NOT to do or which does not allow cross-platform migration (in both literal and figurative terms). Whatever we buy or buy into has to have potential for future growth, and possibilities for future expansion.

Question 6:How can I make it work?

After reading questions 1–5 above, it may seem as if I am suggesting that teachers should be extremely sceptical about new ideas and technologies, and that, in general, we should reject the new in favour of the old. However, this is far from the truth – as I have said, I am dangerously attracted to ‘the new’!; where instant acceptance can be careless and ultimately dangerous, instant rejection can be deadening and stultifying. Before rejecting any new idea or equipment, therefore, we should ask ourselves how we can make it work for us and for our students. We need to look at the ‘best-case scenario’ and use that to evaluate what we are being offered, not only in a cynical mood of defeatism, but rather with a view to possibility and excitement.  We should never, in other words, reject something unless we have thought carefully about how we might get it work for us. If, however, after such careful consideration we conclude that the new ‘thing’ has failed questions 1 – 5 then (and only then) we have a justifiable reason to reject it.

(adapted from The Practice of English Language Teaching. Pearson Education 2007)

You can find out more about Jeremy Harmer at his personal webpage.

Published in: on September 1, 2009 at 7:27 pm  Comments (7)  
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7 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. Wise words, Jeremy. As a professional sceptic myself, I take your Question 6 to heart. I remember once being asked to take part in a video demonstrating a number of “humanistic” techniques. The activity I had been assigned really made me cringe. But I felt obliged to try it out a couple of times before the actual filming. I was somewhat ashamed to discover that the activity actually worked! It then became a regular part of my repertoire. (I’m not going to describe the activity – that’s not the point. And, anyway, it’s on film somewhere).

    This also concurs with what Diane Larsen-Freeman (citing Peter Elbow) calls “the doubting game” vs “the believing game”. In the face of innovation, scepticism is a fashionable, if rather facile, stance. Whereas the believing game “emphasizes a model of knowing as an act of constructing, an act of investment, an act of involvement” (Elbow 1973, quoted in Larsen-Freeman’s ‘Techniques and Principles of Language Teaching, OUP 2000). Playing the believing game “requires a willingness to explore what is new” (ibid.)

    If I could just play the believing game with Interactive Whiteboards, for example, if I could just believe hard enough, maybe, maybe they will work for me.

    (And pigs will fly!)

  2. I’ve always thought that this ‘doubting versus believing’ caper was a bit of a false dichotomy myself. I prefer a sort of ‘cautious approximation’ to the whole game of new classroom technology and stuff – or ‘suck it and see’, if you prefer.

  3. I agree with doubting vs believing being a false dichotomy (in principle) except that I absolutely know fervent doubters and I have met fervent believers! Scott’s example (the humanistic one) exactly matches experiences I have had, where, when I have finally had the nerve to try something (or where I have felt impelled to do so) it has turned out well – sometimes, that is, not always. But at least if you try, you know!

    • I guess it’s the agnostic in me that obliges me to look upon new technology and methods, etc, with the eye of a critical and experienced teacher. I don’t hold with the militant technophobes or the gullible believers, so I guess the religious analogy is fit here. Whether you’re a teaching Taliban, Scientologist, Humanist or just plain old Pagan or Atheist, we all need to use the judgement that comes with our experience and accrued knowledge – rather than prejudice.

      Am I making sense? I feel it’s time for a lie down…

  4. Thanks for the post, it is a very interesting perspective evaluating new technology.

    Effectiveness relative to cost has to be the ultimate measure of the value of a product of service.

    Organizations that are confident in their products will usually allow you a way of evaluating it’s value at little or no cost before making any kind of commitment. This way you can conduct a small pilot and measure effectiveness for yourself. This is always the best option for an off the shelf product or service.

  5. Excellent discussion! I think that because teachers teaching strengths and preferences are as varied as their students learning strengths and preferences some adapt quickly to new technologies and others have no use for them. It’s also a question of balance – do you want to spend time learning to use a new piece of technology or do you spend time focusing on quality of content? – As Jeremy says who gains? Personally, I enjoy exploring new technology. Finding new ways to present the same information helps keep me interested in what I’m doing. I have found that technology allows me to be in more than one place at one time and that’s very advantageous in a multi-level classroom. I have also taught live and on-line but find that some of the technologies need to be better developed, in other words, more user-friendly and higher quality to be useful. However the only way we will get to that point is to have those who can, plodding along and finding out the real, usable and useful potential behind new technology in the classroom.

  6. Thanks very much to everyone so far for the comments. Great to see people back here. Will contribute again something soon (am currently on the road).

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