ELT in Difficult Circumstances: From whose point of view? Reflections on a plenary at IATEFL, Manchester

The plenary by Harry Kuchah Kuchah at the recently concluded IATEFL conference held at Manchester was on teaching English in difficult circumstances: Challenges, possibilities and future direction. Yes, Harry dwelt at length on the challenges, but what impressed me most is the challenge that he put forward to the blurred ELT perspective that has distracted us over the years. Listening to Harry online during the plenary I wondered what is meant by ELT in difficult circumstances propounded by Michael West in 1960. DIFFICULT CIRCUMSTANCES? From whose point of view?
The definition of ‘difficulty’ as given by Michael West 55 years back betrays a note of insensitivity to the hopes and aspirations of millions of ‘non-native’ learners of English globally. “… a class consisting of over 30 pupils ( more usually 40 or even 50), congested on benches ( not sitting at individual or dual desks), accommodated in an unsuitably shaped room, ill-graded, with a teacher who perhaps does not speak English very well or fluently, working in a hot climate.” Hot climate, unsuitably shaped room, people not sitting at individual or dual desk’…….Well, these may be ‘difficult circumstances’ for an English teacher coming to India or Uganda from a country blessed by a cold climate but not for the English teachers who are born and brought up in ‘hot climate.’
It is intriguing to note that ELT experts of the west do not consider our ELT world ‘ideal’. For them “ a huge amount of ELT in the world today takes place in situations that are far from the ideal world of pedagogical excitement and innovative teaching that western ELT researchers and practitioners would like to think they inhabit” (Maley 2001).
The so called ‘difficult situations’ and the absence of the Eurocentric ‘ideal world of pedagogical excitement’ are misnomer in the context of teaching English as a global language. Drawing from his experience of teaching very large classes (over 200 teenagers and 100 children) in under-resourced contexts in Cameroon, Kuchah Kuchah demolished the myth of ‘difficult situations’ and put forward a context specific ELT pedagogy that does not care for the illusory ideal world of the west.
To quote from Harry, “Teachers are indeed confronted with various types of difficulties in their daily work lives and this makes a definition of ‘difficulty’ very elusive. What is more, the circumstances which one teacher considers favourable, might actually constitute a difficulty for another teacher.” Though Harry referred to Michael West’s definition of ‘difficult circumstances’ he did not go by that definition. He defined difficult circumstances as: ‘Those circumstances that are outside the control of teachers and learners, but which affect their daily experiences of teaching and learning significantly’. These circumstances are global and are not peculiar to the non-native contexts of English language teaching.

In his plenary speech, Harry examined the pragmatic responses of teachers in otherwise ‘difficult circumstances’ and advocated a bottom up approach by creating the right enabling environment for teachers incorporating students’ and teachers’ perspectives.
During his deliberations, Harry was very emphatic in projecting the contextual realities of ELT classrooms beyond the so called ‘ideal world’. Large classes, multigrade classes, multiple L1 influences are the norms of ELT classroom in many countries of the world. A class consisting of 30 pupils, sitting at individual desks, accommodated in an air conditioned room, taught by a native speaker working in a cold climate is no more the norm of English language teaching, it is an exception. English, the global language is being learnt by millions of children across the globe in contexts which do not follow the contexts eulogized by Michael West. The democratization of English has turned the table in favor of the pupils who sit in ‘an unsuitably shaped room’ in a ‘hot climate’.
When Harry spoke about learners as partners, he signaled the emergence of a new ELT pedagogy. Learners are resources and resource providers who can define the ELT pedagogy suitable for their specific contexts.
It is nice to know that Harry was instrumental in shaping an unusual bottom-up, context driven approach supported by the teacher association. He asserted that “teachers are more likely to accept pedagogic innovation when it is seen to emanate from, or be endorsed by their peers [and/or students].”
The plenary was highly informative, insightful and interesting from a pedagogic point of view.I was happy to note that Harry made a strong case for looking at ELT from the perspectives of the teachers and the learners who long for English in circumstances which are ‘difficult’ for people like Michael West. Thank you Harry for advocating and popularizing a ‘contextually appropriate ELT pedagogy’. I do hope that this plenary will inspire English teacher teaching English in non-native contexts to be more innovative in using a contextually appropriate ELT pedagogy.

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