The 4th Estate (In Education)

Like so many, so many, I’ve been perturbed by where our media culture is headed. There seems to no longer be any “4th estate” – the traditional and primary role of journalism, keeping the powers that be in check, doing oversight, asking probing questions and sticking pins and needles into the traditional soft, easy to swallow narrative. Doing what in many ways, traditional bodies, and organizations can’t do for themselves.

Now, many of you might rebut that this role has now been taken over by social media, nay, the people at ground zero. I think this is overstating the case. We still bend to authoritative sources and views. Even influencers become orthodoxy. There is still a dire need for a type of journalism that helps balance the scales of justice. Woodward and Bernstein, Nader, Assange, Hedges – there are so few out there.

However, I’d like to take the analogy and apply it to my own domain, education. I’ve been there 30 years, 20 of them in the trenches, 10 or so mucking about as a mentor, professor, author, consultant, speaker blablabla. What I’ve seen is how there are so few of the 4th estate in English language teaching. Not just muckrakers and those in leadership ready to challenge and expose the wrongs of the current narrative. But those who have their names out there and really call “a spade a spade”.

It seems when the 4th estate does become active, it almost seems like a miracle, an exception, of note when in fact it should be every day. For example, when this article on the “fast language” biz came out, it set us all into a flutter and frenzy. But we’d be wrong to share this as a shining success. Why? Well, it did nothing much. Why didn’t it change anything? Well, because it was an exception. The 4th estate works only when it is constant, always applying pressure – this is how culture is changed.

So these few words are a call for more out there in social media, in educational journalism, to challenge the moneyed narrative that testing works, that coursebooks work, that explicit teaching works, that synthetic syllabi work, that online teaching works just as well, that wordlists work and all the other orthodoxy that falsely infuses and counterfeits our classroom teaching. I could go on and on … just mention one jingoism and fashion-fed term and I’d be off to the races, be it ideology, social justice, race, native-speakerism, woke ELT, standardized English, prescriptive grammar, worksheets, flashcards, robots – check out my #eltpetpeeve hashtag on Twitter for my thoughts on many of these topics.

I know there are some online and in research doing the work of the 4th estate. But plenty few (I do like to throw in a delicious oxymoron in my writing, forgive me). Geoff Jordan gets under people’s skin but he tells it like it is and doesn’t walk a tightrope like so many, playing both sides for the sake of career and opportunity and maybe even just being liked. I’d put many of the “leaders” of ELT into this gray zone – Scott Thornbury to name one. Perhaps I’m being too harsh but I think he could go much further in calling out those plying tricks and trends in ELT. But there are far more other Illuminati in ELT, a much more deeper shade of gray.

The Adaptive Learning In ELT blog, I quite like and Philip Kerr does a great job bringing out the other side to common and assumed topics and approaches. Then, there are those who’ve stuck to their guns and arguments for a long time, they should be read and listened to – Stephen Krashen, Mike Long, Steve Kauffman. In the realm of ed-tech, big praise for the critical acumen of Audrey Watters. I do long for the voice of Babel’s Dawn to rise again from the dead. He really did so much in the realm of the anthropology of language. In the realm of general education, got to admire how Alfie Cohen stirs the pot so well. Kudos to Gladwell too – many don’t know of his work in education and especially the failure of our focus on credentials.

I’m on my last boat ride and will be sailing into the horizon. I just wanted to put out this call for more real, hard-hitting, calling things as they are, journalism in English language teaching. We all benefit from this healthy 4th estate.

Ecrasez l’infame – a la Voltaire. Decry the infamy.

Get my free collection of essays on Education, Teaching, Language and Technology – The Unbearable Lightness Of Being A Teacher.

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