To give my speech a proper kickstart, and to grab your attention, I’d like to state something obvious first: that we are teachers and that we work in the education sector. One question, however, has been on my mind for some time, namely, how much of what we are doing counts as genuine education?
We tend to associate education with getting knowledge and skills, but the Spanish speakers among us know very well that „educado” means so much more than just „trained”. That genuine education gives people not only sharp skills, but also certain qualities and depth.
And nowhere is that dual nature of education more clearly reflected than in languages, where the surface called grammar coexists with a depth called meaning.
However, for the past many years education systems all over the world have been growing increasingly one-sided.
The whole of education started to be perceived through the lens of skills, and all the problems of this world are believed to be solvable through corresponding skills, like the 21 century skills, for example, to deal with the growing ambiguity and uncertainty of our modern world.
As a result, the education that is on offer today is mostly reduced to the distribution of knowledge and the training of skills. Not least because this is the only part of education that gives in to commodification.
Our profession, English Language Teaching, has been commodified to an enormous extent, but before it all started with seeing language as commodity that can be measured, graded, scaled, marketed, and sold; the teaching profession has lost some of its prestige due to this, so it was only natural that many of us have been rebranding themselves as trainers; trainers of English.
I, for my part, don’t blame anybody. Many of us just wanted to work honestly and with dedication within a system that was given; and not to carry the torch of enlightenment. But what we didn’t realize, I think, was that the education we cultivated had suicidal tendencies.
Because everything that can be commodified can, by principle, also be made disposable once technology reaches a sufficient level of development.
It happened to warmth with the central heating plant, it happened to music with the stereo, to meals with frozen food, etc. and it is happening as I speak to education with search engines and the coming of advanced Artificial Intelligence, the like of ChatGPT.
The promise of technology is to liberate and disburden and provide life of fulfillment. But the idea of technology liberating and disburdening us from education hardly sounds like fulfillment.
If we assume that the real purpose of Education is to teach us how to think, how to exercise control over what we think, how to liberate ourselves from the doxa, how to choose what we pay attention to — if we get disburdened from this — then — in the words of David Foster Wallace — we are „totally hosed”.
We paid a high price for the industrial civilization because it cost us our planet, but this time around, with the coming of the information civilization, the bill may be even higher, because we may pay with our humanity.
So, it looks like we wanted to just teach, and be left in peace, but I’m afraid we are going to have to save the world now.
Some of you may ask, like Billy Pilgrim from “Slaughterhouse Five” — why me? Why us? Why English teachers?
But the answer is very simple: because we have access to the superpower called language. And unlike Billy, we are not stuck in amber, we can act.
The genius of language” — to repeat after a philosopher — “is so great that to meditate upon mere words leads to profound understanding.”
Understanding, and the resulting from it wisdom, are the missing parts of modern education.
They had to go because they were too hard to commodify, and they misbehaved. Take this: understanding didn’t help people to become who they decided to be, but instead, made them someone they never could have dreamed of being. A young person went to a business school and ended up as a teacher, or another one went to a law school and ended up as a senior caregiver. Now, what kind of business is that?
Some of us here may also be here because of that kind of accident. I am.
But coming back to understanding. Understanding means vitalization. Every time something is understood it starts playing an active part in our life. And education without understanding turns into a mechanical and dull process of memorizing.
If modern education finds itself in crisis today, with more and more young people questioning the point of school, it is because they lack genuine motivation for their choices, and the knowledge they learn is disconnected from themselves.
Now, because languages are natural vehicles of understanding, they can help us to recreate these connections.
Languages can help us to connect what we learn about to what we know, what we know to what we feel and what we feel to what we think.
Such connections are later the source of never-before-imagined thoughts, of creativity, originality, and joy, but most importantly, they help to produce “whole men”, that is, people who are in touch with their center, sure of their basic convictions like Christopher Columbus from the monument at the lower end of la Rambla, here in Barcelona.
That wholeness may be the source of real courage and real self-confidence. I say “real”, because it contrasts with the temporary and short-lived courage and self-confidence coming from entitlement all sorts of certificates. That, in turn, may produce certain intellectual discipline that adapts itself to new and changing circumstances, precisely because it is not attached to the narrow details of tomorrow’s technology or tomorrow’s world, that will soon become yesterday’s technology and yesterday’s world.
And this is, in short, what I meant when I said, in the teaser of my speech, that foreign languages could be the only school subject taught at schools.
However, to unlock the educational potential of English we need to change our current perception of it.
We need to stop looking at English as just another school subject and, most importantly, we need to stop teaching it in the same, linear way as everything else in school today.
We need to shift emphasis from grammar to meaning. What does it mean in theory, and in practice?
In theory, meaning cannot be imposed from outside, it is always materialized by each one of us from inside to outside.
In practice, it means moving away from teaching ABOUT language to doing something IN language and letting students use the language, experiment with, and construct the meaning.
Fortunately, there are more and more scientific arguments nowadays that this is how languages are learnt, and that is extremely optimistic, because once again, it turns out that proper language teaching has a lot in common with genuine education.
Further implications involve emphasis on meaningful conversations, run ideally in small groups or individually.
These are the conditions we have always wanted as teachers, but they were constantly denied to us in the world of scalable education.
Now, can we win against the scalable education powered by the powerful forces of the market as well as the interests of surveillance capitalists — the big tech companies who want to control our behavior and for who our goal — human consciousness — is a threat to their revenues?
Call me naïve, but I see some silver linings in the current situation.
I think that the growing fatigue with the current education might eventually contribute to our cause and reverse the trend.
There is a new wave of disruption happening as I speak. Disruptors using AI disrupt previous disruptors with even cheaper labor costs. But their fight takes place in the domain of the reduced version of education. They will always be pretending, and trying to sell it as real, genuine education, but it’s not.
If teachers and teacherpreneurs among us grasp the difference between reduced and genuine education, we should be able exit the current doomed competition, and start playing in a totally different league.
It will take time before we manage to explain the benefits of our version of education to a wider public and before the blind forces of the market start rewarding us materially, but with the quality we have got, the triumph is inevitable.
The stake of this turnaround is much higher than just effective teaching of foreign languages. The stake may be the future of education and the future of humanity.
Because if one day Elon Musk installs his Neuralink in our brains, and Sugata Mitra’s vision comes true, that “not knowing will become as unimportant as not being able to tell the time without looking at a watch”, we will be safe and education will be safe too. Because education, genuine education is immortal and it is forever enshrined in language.
This speech was delivered by me at the 2023 InnovateELT conference on 21 May 2023 in Barcelona.