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Harmless tiger; dangerous mouse by Simon Cox

Vaulted ceilings

To many people ‘theory’ can appear ‘both dangerous and useless; a joke and a menace; harmless and terrifying. A mouse and a tiger’[1]. For example, recently, in the stylish converted loft that we call the teachers’ room here in Newcastle, I mentioned to a colleague that I was doing a bit of research.  I was surprised to hear her ask what it was about and even more surprised (must have been on a Friday afternoon) to find myself begin to talk about ‘neo-liberalism’, ‘post-structuralism’ and ‘the dangers of the managerialist agenda’. To be fair, she lasted at least two minutes before she started to look uneasy, then her eyes began to roll and her head began to loll. It was another couple of minutes before she told me to shut up. ‘Why do you feel the need to talk such s**t?’ she added, constructively, and it did make me think. Theory underpins everything we do as ELT professionals, but most people seem very suspicious of ‘big ideas’. Perhaps we’ve just got the wrong idea about what is really on offer.

What’s keeping you awake at night?

At first, the imposition of seemingly abstract theory on the working lives of teachers, trainers and managers doesn’t seem very sensible. We’re all busy most of the time and, depending on where you are at in your career, you’re most likely to be concerned about that awkward student who always asks tricky grammar questions in front of the whole class, or that awkward CELTA trainee who asks tricky questions in TP feedback; or that awkward teacher who asks tricky questions about the photocopiers in front of the whole staff. Then there are other problems like applying for/completing modules of /trying to recover from – your DELTA, or the problem that your school is haemorrhaging talented teachers / cash / students / photocopier ink … and then there’s probably some kind of life too.  On the whole, when it comes to the idea of professional development, most of us want to keep it practical (and brief). Fair enough – as far as it goes – but what about those niggling questions that won’t go away? What about the sense that there must surely be a better, or at least, different way of doing things? What about the ‘big’ questions that keep you awake at night?  What do you do when your copy of Scrivener, Harmer or Thornbury doesn’t (God forbid) have all the answers? And where did they get that stuff from anyway?

Dropping the ‘J’ bomb

Another problem, of course, is that the academically-inclined don’t make it easy to love theory. All too often jargon and exotic name dropping (and the name’s usually French – ‘Foucault’ as in ‘you know’; rather than in ‘Yakult’) are often dropped into conversation like a breeze block into a paddling pool in an attempt to intimidate or impress rather than to add anything constructive. Ralph E. Lapp, a man most famous for, first, helping to create the atomic bomb and then, secondly, warning the general public that it might be quite dangerous; also pointed out the danger of a technical ‘priesthood’, where power is restricted to a small elite who are able to blind outsiders with science. Has anybody ever haughtily explained that you couldn’t possibly understand what ‘suprasegmental features of phonology’ are about until you’ve done the DELTA?

Practical Guru-ing in Use

One example of the way ‘theory’ works in practice comes from the work of Peter Drucker, who came up with some of the most influential ideas in leadership and management studies of the last 50 years. A pioneer in the world of business ‘guru-ing’, he was well known for his ‘plainspoken advice on how to get things done’[2]. A quick check on Wikipedia will show that he was the brains behind such notions as ‘the knowledge worker’ – the type of well-informed employee who can be trusted to work things out for themselves – which was a big deal in 1959. However, his greatest practical legacy is probably the simple collection of impressive sounding phrases that gets stencilled onto the walls of meeting rooms, pasted into employee contracts, stapled into tender documents, highlighted in advertising brochures…. and then generally gets forgotten about by everybody. Do you know what I mean? Yes, it’s …

Our mission

 …the ‘mission statement’, which was intended to provide a focus to the debates and negotiations that go on within all organisations. Its purpose is to offer a single, clear, and inspiring point of reference for the whole community of that organisation (and by ‘community’ I mean the wide range of people inside and outside the organisation described as ‘stakeholders’). Once the valued employee ‘buys in’ to this over-arching statement of company values & ambitions they can be trusted to go about their business empowered to do what is necessary to help the organisation achieve its goals and flourish. Is that how the mission statement works in your place of work? Probably not. Of course, there are those who criticise Drucker’s work for his naïve and idealistic view of human nature (and they may be right), but more significantly, I would say, is that his thoughts were much bigger than mere nuggets of advice to managers on how to get things done.  He had a philosophy which was based on a ’big idea’ of what ‘community’ is, where it comes from and what it should be. According to Thomas Donaldson, ‘Drucker knew that while his audience wanted practical advice, that advice must be rooted in the bigger world’[3].  Do you know how many of the practical ideas you rely on in your daily work are actually derived from complicated theories? Do you know the intellectual position being taken by the expert who is giving you advice? And don’t believe anybody who tells you that they don’t have a ‘position’ – we all do.

‘Everyday banality’ 

Which brings me to my final point. Some theories, as above, hold the possibility of pointing the way to new and improved practices in our workplaces – if we understand where they come from. But there are always hidden dangers. As Deleuze points out (apologies for dropping another French name), ‘there is something intolerable which lurks in ‘everyday banality’[4].  In other words, there are threats that lie in the assumptions of what people like to call ‘common sense’ when we forget that all ideas must come from somewhere and are open to question. A recent survey among ‘the planet’s biggest brains’ said that if we remember nothing else we should all remember the value of uncertainty[5]. One problem is that we spend most of our time trying to simplify the world around us, but we all know deep down that it’s actually a very complicated and highly contradictory place – something that’s as likely to be as true of each and every school and classroom in the world as it is of the global banking crisis or the failings of the English national football team.  It’s not easy to live with the feelings of doubt and uncertainty that we all feel when everything around us pushes us to be ‘sure’.

Post … everything

The theories often grouped together as poststructuralist (or something like that) generally act to deliberately criticise and obstruct efforts to over-simplify. The narrative of any type of organization can become unbearably restricted if its vitality is limited by a failure to realise that the world is an inherently confusing place. We need arguments. We need crazy ideas. We also need to develop awareness that contradiction and hypocrisy are unavoidable if the story of our working lives is to be of any real value to us. Can you see how the ‘story’ of your own workplace is being told, adapted and re-told?

‘Muffin top’

For example, I can hear a whispered conversation going on right now, somewhere over my right shoulder, between two teachers who are discussing the rights, wrongs and limits of socializing with students. Complicated issues such as this often bulge out of the hipster jeans of organisational norms and regulations like a ‘muffin top’ and even the most well-meaning attempt to ‘manage’ them can end up seeming like an unflatteringly tight leather belt. Far too often the conversations that go on within teaching organisations between the different stakeholders are limited to the things we are supposed to talk about rather than the things we really need to talk about.  Do you often feel that there’s ‘an elephant in the room’ in the place you work? Are there ways you could bring wider issues back into the day-to-day activities of the school rather than leaving them until they get exorcised in booze-fuelled rants in your local bar?


Part of the answer is, I believe, that we need to engage with the ‘big ideas’ of theory in a more open-minded and less inhibited way. Sociology, linguistics, philosophy and, even, evolutionary neuropsychology all have new ways to challenge us as individuals and as a profession. Wouldn’t it seem like a breath of fresh air to be able to add something new to some of the on-going debates at work that never get resolved? Don’t you have something unique to add to the debate that comes from beyond the narrow confines of the ELT world?

 So, finishing with a final French flourish, I return to the ideas of Deleuze …

‘It is a matter of introducing a kind of awkwardness into the fabric of one’s experience, of interrupting the fluency of narratives that encode the experience and making them stutter. It is through such stuttering and obstruction that theory opens – affords glimpses, insights, small chances for action.’[6]



[1]  MacLure, M. (2010) The Offence of Theory. Journal of Educational Policy  vol.25 no. 2 p. 277-286

[2]  Donaldson, T. (2009) A Frustrated Quest for Community. Journal of the Academy of Marketing Science vol.37 p.44-46

[3]  Donaldson, T. (2009) A Frustrated Quest for Community. Journal of the Academy of Marketing Science vol.37 p.44-46

[4]  MacLure, M. (2010) The Offence of Theory. Journal of Educational Policy  vol.25 no. 2 p. 277-286

[5]  ‘We must learn to love uncertainty and failure, say leading thinkers’ by Alok Jha. Published in ‘The Guardian’ (UK) 15th January 2011 (retrieved on 24th January 2011


[6]  MacLure, M. (2010) The Offence of Theory. Journal of Educational Policy  vol.25 no. 2 p. 277-286

Author’s Bio:
Simon has been a teacher, teacher-trainer and DoS for the last 17 years. He’s worked in places as diverse as Azerbaijan, Vietnam and Hull – most of the time with IH schools. He’s been with IH Newcastle in the UK since 2009, so he spends a lot of time complaining about being cold. He’s also researching for a doctorate in educational leadership & management. It’s taking a really long time!

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