Innovation has been one of the hallmarks of ELT in recent times, from task-based learning to English as an International language to computer mediated communication, and so on. An allied trend has been the development within the field of a ‘pro-innovation bias’ (Rogers 2003: 106–7), i.e., a belief that ‘the newer the better’, on the grounds that newer ideas are better than older ones. However, a growing body of literature (e.g., Markee 1997, Wedell 2009) has shown that many recent ELT innovations have frequently fallen short of the mark, both in terms of impact and the desirability of their consequences, and that a major cause of these problems has been a widespread failure to understand and utilize the lessons of innovation theory.
For example, extensive research has resulted in the identification of several major characteristics of innovations which predispose them towards success or failure (Rogers, 2003: 15-16). One of the main factors of this kind is the compatibility criterion, i.e., ‘the degree to which an innovation is perceived as being consistent with the existing values, past experiences and needs of potential adopters’ (Rogers 2003: 106). The higher the compatibility in these respects, the greater the possibility of success.
Within ELT, however, the main innovation dynamic has a built-in tendency to create significant INcompatibilities between most major innovations and their potential adopters. This is because most innovation work within ELT tends to occur and be aimed originally at (the ‘minority’)
‘BANA’ ELT setting (i.e., private language schools and other similar institutions, mostly located in native speaking parts of the world and operating outside the local education system), but ends up subsequently be exported wholesale to the very different (and ‘majority’) ‘TESEP’ type of setting (i.e., institutions that form part of the state educational system in non-native speaking locations). As Holliday (1994) points out, the two types of settings differ markedly in terms of physical characteristics (class size, etc.), overall goals of learning, educational philosophy, professional ‘culture’, and so on. As a result, many such innovations contain features which are significantly incompatible with the TESEP context. For example, with reference to task-based learning, Ellis (2009: 242) points out that:
Educational systems in many parts of the world place the emphasis on knowledge-learning rather than skill development, and a task-based approach to language teaching is not readily compatible with such a philosophy. A structural approach based on teaching discrete items of language accords more closely with such an educational philosophy.
The potential solution to this problem is for a much more bottom-up approach to ELT innovation to be adopted, whereby instead of one-way traffic from ‘on high’ flowing solely from BANA to TESEP settings, the attempt is made to artfully combine elements of existing practice prevalent in TESEP settings with new ideas, as in the case of so-called ‘task-supported learning’. In this approach, the task element, instead of being the central focus of pedagogy, as in task-based learning, becomes instead an adjunct to a main focus on ‘teaching discrete items of language’.
Such a ‘hybrid’ approach is strongly supported by another aspect of innovation theory, the ‘re-invention’ concept (Rogers 2003: 180-188). Rogers defines ‘re-invention’ as occurring when an innovation is ‘changed or modified by a user in the process of its adoption and implementation’ (ibid.: 180). As he also explains, there is evidence that ‘a higher degree of re-invention leads to a faster rate of adoption …[and] a higher degree of sustainability of an innovation’ (183). This occurs primarily because of the greater level of compatibility between the innovation and the local setting which the re-invention process creates. Thus, for innovation in ELT to be more successful, it needs to be properly grounded not just in the latest trends emanating from BANA-land, but, first and foremost, in the pedagogical realities and priorities of the TESEP setting.
Ellis, R. (2009). Task-based language teaching: sorting out the misunderstandings. International Journal of Applied Linguistics, 19(3), 221-246.
Holliday, A. (1994). Appropriate methodology and social context. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Rogers, Everett M. (2003). Diffusion of innovations (5th ed.). New York: Free Press.
Markee, N. (1997). Managing curricular innovation. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Waters, A. (2009). A guide to Methodologia: past, present, and future. ELT Journal, 63(2), 108-115. doi:10.1093/elt/ccn037
Wedell, Martin. (2009). Planning for educational change – putting people and their contexts first. London: Continuum.