Why PPP is a political issue

This was supposed to be my precise yet partisan part 2 of the critical pedagogy debate but Freire has waited long enough and can wait a bit longer. Somehow a number of different ‘as I write’ (aka ‘place of enunciation’) factors are pushing me towards this post about politics and PPP instead. In no particular order:

  1. What some regard as the tragedy of Brexit is playing out as properly peculiar parliamentary farce;
  2. I have been seriously questioning my precarious part-time position as tutor on a certain teacher-training qualification as in itself a tragic and maybe also farcical attempt to push back against a PPP and focus on formS hegemony written into the very fabric of the qualification itself, as well as into the belief-systems of the majority of teachers taking it—to the point that I have now resigned from that position;
  3. With colleagues at SLB (an organisation which this blog in no way represents) I am launching a Task-Based Language Teaching (TBLT) course which in some ways is aimed precisely at destabilising that hegemony and, perhaps precipitously and some will claim pretentiously, looks to install a new one; and
  4. Being in a period of quite intense personal realignment (don’t worry, I’m still enough of a Derridean not to trouble you with the details) I have launched myself on a self-prescribed course of Thomas Pynchon, philosophy and psychoanalytic theory, some of which has caused me to seriously question my previous positions on, and penchants for, poststructuralist thought in the Butlerian and Foucauldian moulds—even to the point that I now believe significant parts of my doctoral thesis were built on something a wee bit fishy. This is not (and this will get my good friend Geoff Jordan’s goat) a turn towards a more traditional rationalist position. It’s more like a further nod in the direction of Lacan (via Žižek, Todd McGowan, Alenka Zupanćić and, maybe most decisively as far as Judith Butler’s concerned, Joan Copjec). I await the inevitable pelters.

But all I want to say about that is that decisive interventions retrospectively rewrite history, in much the same way that many of us in the ELT profession who pass from the ‘structure of the day’, PPP model we were suckled on by the initial cert, to something more dynamic and meaning-focused, begin to negatively reevaluate the entire history of our approach to teaching language, and understand why, maybe, our learners weren’t really learning what we were teaching them.

I will not rehearse the arguments here; there are much better accounts of this than I could manage. Nor do I want to go too deeply back into an analysis of the pedagogic part of the debate surrounding Jason Anderson’s defence of PPP, on which Geoff thought I was too equivocal and probably stepping on his toes; except to repeat, as unequivocally as I can, that Anderson, despite an illuminating historical review, presents no evidence whatsoever to justify PPP on a pedagogic level. In fact, not one of the studies he cites even mentions PPP (which is, after all, only a lesson-staging model, not a methodology). Looking beyond Anderson, even when scholars examine PPP explicitly, such as in a study by Jones and Carter about teaching discourse markers (DMs), short-term gains are about as much as can be pointed to:

[T]he use of a PPP framework can be considered more effective [than the III framework]* because it resulted in a greater ability of students to use the DMs in the short term but this was not sustained over time. Test results show a decrease in the number of target DMs used from immediate to delayed post-test and there were no statistically significant differences between the groups’ usage of target DMs at the delayed test stage […]

Critics who dismiss PPP are both right and wrong. Clearly, it did have at least a short-term impact upon learners’ ability to use the target items in this study and many of these learners felt that it was a useful framework because it offered them opportunities to practise them. It would therefore be premature to claim that it is a discredited framework, as some have suggested […] However, it is also clear that practice within a PPP framework was not always considered as helpful by students in this context. For example, [… in some cases] it was not viewed as skill building but time wasting.

(Jones and Carter 2014)

(*III = Illustration, Interaction and Induction. It may involve more implicit instruction than PPP but remains within the ‘structure of the day’, focus on formS approach.)

Going back to Anderson, when it comes to PPP as a matter of policy we could also say that he too is ‘both right and wrong’ (if we avoid the temptation to echo the words of physicist Wolfgang Pauli, who is said to have remarked of a young scholar’s paper that ‘it’s not even wrong’). Etymologically, of course, policy has the same root as politics, that is polis or the city state, or group of citizens, by and for whom strategies of decision-making are developed. So, does PPP have more political validity than pedagogical?

First of all, Anderson notes that PPP is a matter of policy in the publishing industry, on the basis that it’s what learners really want:

Perhaps the strongest evidence of the preferences of English language learners does not come from research, but from their influence on materials design. The multimillion pound ELT publishing industry is consumer driven. Its most widely published and most popular titles are shaped partly by sales, but also by extensive consumer research, both into the preferences of learners in the case of self-study material, and also the preferences of teachers and learners for classroom-based materials. And what sales and consumer opinions reveal has been remarkably consistent; PPP has dominated the organisation of the majority of mainstream ELT coursebooks ever since Abbs and Freebairn used it for their Strategies series in the 1970s.

Anderson (2016), p. 17.

The absolutely crucial point missed by Anderson here—aside from the fact no evidence is offered to confirm that PPP is indeed what learners want—is that while the end users of ELT coursebooks (CBs) are students, the CBs themselves are already chosen as a matter of policy by schools (perhaps consulting the teacher and perhaps not), exam and national education boards, whose demands shape their content to a significant extent (see, for example, Şimşek & Dündar (2017), p. 971). The clear preference of the industry is precisely this one-size-fits-all approach and a focus on the development of easily measurable, granularised, declarative knowledge (i.e. knowledge of how to explicitly apply a rule, rather than the ability to spontaneously use the language).

In other words, taking us back to Žižek and his notion of the radical exteriority of belief, it doesn’t actually matter what students prefer, because the ELT industry does all the preferring for them. Students can happily (or not, in the case of Jones and Carter’s sample) get on with it, safe in the assumption that those subjects presumed to know—the teachers and institutions to whom they trust their education—well, actually know.

So maybe Anderson is so wrong that he actually gets it right. Or to put it another way, his ‘strongest evidence’ is so weak that it somehow leads us to the correct conclusion. I feel the same about his next point, which is about teacher training. PPP is popular among trainers on courses like the CELTA and Trinity Cert TESOL because:

PPP has a number of advantages, especially important on more intensive (four weeks) courses:

1. It is a common sense, logical framework for skill training […]

2. It is familiar to the prior educational culture of many trainee teachers (including many from the UK, where such courses are popular), a significant influence in much initial teacher training.

3. The prescriptive structure of PPP serves as a useful scaffolding artefact, especially beneficial for such trainee teachers often experiencing high levels of stress and steep learning curves.

Anderson (2016), p. 17

If there’s one thing that an education in critical theory gives you, it’s to treat appeals to ‘common sense’ with extreme caution. But let’s leave that aside for now. Let’s imagine that having been given this nice, prescriptive, logical framework that apparently chimes so well with how we learnt things before, we can do a bit of teaching. What happens when we take the next step and try to get the Diploma, the DELTA or—the one I’ve been more involved with over the years—the Trinity Dip TESOL? Is the learning curve now less steep? No, I claim—because most of us have done little else but PPP in the intervening period. Not because it’s evidence-based, but because, again, the industry we’re in, in which both Cambridge and Trinity are central players, demands it. The whole justification for PPP (and more broadly, focus on formS) in fact follows a circular logic in which the possibility of doing anything else is heavily proscribed.

Looking at Trinity’s ‘must pass’ criteria for teaching practice in their Dip, the key one of the four is:

LD 12: There is clear evidence of language / skills development taking place.

Helen Rountree, a Dip candidate giving the kind of advice many Dip tutors do, translates this as ‘teach them something new’. But that isn’t exactly it. First we have to understand that ‘something’ as a language point in most cases (the ‘skills development’ option often boils down to this too, e.g. teaching discourse markers to improve spoken fluency). Then you have to be able to point to evidence that they learned that something new. And given that each lesson is restricted to 60 minutes, the path of least resistance to passing LD12 is to adopt a focus on formS approach in which a structure selected with scant reference to student needs (these don’t feature in the must-pass criteria) is presented, practised and, we hope, produced by at least a few of the students before the timer runs out.

Does that really mean they learned it? Has there been ‘uptake’ or ‘acquisition’; has it become part of their procedural knowledge? Would that even be possible within the 60 minute showcase? Trinity, it seems, doesn’t care. And so Rountree is quite right when she gives fellow candidates her first piece of advice on how to prepare for TP:

  • Familiarise yourself with B2-C1 textbooks and build up a bank of activities and lesson ideas for grammar points which are found at this level.


Now don’t get me wrong, a Dip-level lesson simply lifted from a coursebook and delivered without much attention to learner difficulties or emergent language is unlikely to get too high a mark. But first principles really have not advanced too much since the Cert. And, crucially, it is very difficult to depart too radically from the model. Following a TBLT approach, for example, simply leaves the teacher with too many conundrums. How can s/he describe the ‘something’ to be taught when the ‘something’ in TBLT is a task, not a specific structure? Will the 60 minutes be long enough to get the students close to an exit task and the chance to demonstrate that ‘language/skills development’ has taken place? Will the tutor be satisfied that elaborated input, with a focus on form approach to output, perhaps with little explicit teaching, has got the job done?

Probably not, because the efficacy of TBLT (and other approaches that privilege implicit learning and respect learners’ needs and readiness to learn) needs to be measured over the longer term, and with other kinds of assessment tool than the final P of PPP. The hypocrisy of qualifications like the Dip is that they require teachers to be aware of multiple methodologies and concepts like interlanguage or learnability, but for TP purposes teachers have little leeway to depart much from what they’re already used to. Just about the most radical thing you can do as a tutor, if you want your tutees to pass, is to encourage them to try a communicative version of the Test-Teach-Test approach or something like Dogme, but insofar as discrete language points still need to be anticipated and worked on, it is most often the pre-chosen grammar that dictates the communicative element of the class and not the other way around. And this, in my book, is about as clear a case of the tail wagging the dog as you can get.

In the end, it is not only students who have their believing done for them—it is also the teachers. And this is where PPP is most obviously political. Qualifications like the Dip raise awareness of other possibilities while in practical terms keep teachers deskilled and dependent on CBs. Or to put it another way, they raise the skill level only in terms of improving the deployment of CB-driven, top-down methodology, making it just a little more student-centred and responsive. The students may benefit slightly, but the industry that propels all this benefits a lot more, because not one of its assumptions gets challenged in a significant way. And so teachers acquire more freedom to choose, as long as they make the only choice that’s practically available.

Anderson, Penny Ur (whom Anderson cites) and others, in their defence of PPP and dismissal of its critics, seem to claim to be standing up for ordinary teachers whose choices are heavily limited in this way. What they don’t see is their implication in the very ideologies which already limit such choices. To paraphrase Marx on Feuerbach, too many ELT writers have hitherto only interpreted the industry, and badly. The point is to change it—or, as a minimal first step, at least to understand it.

References (with thanks to Tom Flaherty and Chris Jones)

Anderson, J. (2016). Why practice makes perfect sense: the past, present and potential future of the PPP paradigm in language teacher education. ELTED 19, pp. 14-22.

Jones, C. and Carter, R. (2014). Teaching spoken discourse markers explicitly: a comparison of III and PPP. IJES 14, pp. 37-54.

Şimşek, M. & Dündar, E. (2017). Investigating EFL Coursebook Research in Turkey: Trends in Graduate Theses of the 2001-2013 Period. Educational Sciences: Theoretical Practice 17(3), pp. 969-1014