Decentralised Teaching and Learning

“Not all who wander are lost”. J R R Tolkien

Are you a friendly alien? BESIG in Graz

kunsthaus in Graz

Graz is dominated by the Kunsthaus, a big greeny glass blob covered with ‘nozzles’ nestled in among quaint Italianate townhouses. Locals call the blob ‘the friendly alien’ – and friendly aliens we were – a group of around 50 Business English teachers ready to set Austria on fire!

Well, by ‘on fire’ I’m speaking metaphorically. The only naked flames at BESIG were a few fiery discussions…

First of all a big thanks to the organisers of BESIG (Business English Special Interest Group). The event was extremely well-organised, yet intimate and fun. Andrzej Stesik and Julia Waldner were welcoming faces at the start of the weekend, Claire Hart and Roy Bicknell were wonderful Web Moderators and Marjorie Rosenberg made the overall coordination of the event look easy, which I’m sure it wasn’t. Also, thanks to all the participants for making this such a friendly event. Hats off to you all!

This was my first conference ever, and my first conference presentation. I was quite nervous, but it went well and everyone was very supportive . My presentation was a summary of the ‘experiment’ I’ve been conducting into decentralised teaching over the past 8 months or so.

What problem led me to decentralised teaching?

I found that alternative approaches to coursebooks and PPP didn’t help me to meet the needs of my learners in a new environment: working in a Berlin startup.

startupPeople there were working in decentralised teams and had different expectations of what an English lesson should be. So I needed a new approach: decentralised teaching! And priming is the first stage. My approach can be summarised as Nunan’s (1988) ‘Learner-Centred Curriculum’+Priming.

What is priming?

Oxford dictionaries online describe it as ‘Making (something) ready for use or action’ (an object). There’s also another definition related to Biology and Medicine:

to induce a susceptibility or proclivity in (an animal, person, or tissue):

This is what you’re doing with the priming stage: making learners susceptible to new ways of learning. You’re not trying to drag them kicking and screaming with a new radical approach (today we’re doing a Dogme lesson damn it!) but more to ‘influence’ how they learn and interact with the language.

What is the purpose of the priming period?

To ‘wean’ students off coursebooks

To gauge their response to new, and maybe unusual activities

To challenge, modify and reshape learner expectations

The last point is especially important. I’m sure many teachers have tried to short-circuit a class with an innovative lesson, or approach. But learner expectations are sticky! They persist and they are often resistant to change. Therefore, you need a slower process to reshape expectations. My priming period was approximately 7 months where I introduced new activities alongside the coursebook, though by the end we hardly ever opened the book. The priming stage needs to be adapted to your own learners, especially in Business English or ESP.

What is the role of the teacher in a decentralised classroom? Well, the teacher still retains some residual authority; after all, he or she is paid to carry out the job of teaching. But there has to be some ‘sweet spot’ in between the teacher controlling everything (the content, the timing, the pace) and the learners controlling everything (which would be chaos – at least initially). There’s been lots of talk recently about ‘teachers becoming obsolete’ in relation to Sugata Mitra’s work but I think that teachers will always be needed as designers and implementers – to craft schemes of work in order to achieve objectives. Ori Brafman and Rod A. Beckstrom talk about the ‘sweet spot’ between decentralisation and centralisation in their book ‘The Starfish and the Spider: The Unstoppable Power of Leaderless Organizations

In a way, finding the sweet spot is like Goldilocks eating the various bowls of porridge: this one is too hot, this one is too cold, but this one is just right.

However, if you’re constantly using coursebooks then you’re making your life a lot harder – you’re letting a small group of publishers and designers in a foreign country take almost all the learning decisions for you. This doesn’t really make sense, as you – the classroom teacher – have far more accurate information on what your learners like, and what they need.

One participant at BESIG asked a really good question: what’s the difference between your approach and ‘Learner-centred Teaching’. The answer that my approach is a road map for change – rather than a destination. My teaching approach is not an event but a process. We all know that learners should take control of their own learning but how do you do it? It aims to answer the question:

how do you get from dependence to autonomy in english language teaching?

Join me

Please find my presentation below (with music and a film inside!) and the presentation handout I used with it. The presentation tells the whole story of how I came to this project; what decentralisation is; how you can use it, and how you can DO it. If you have any questions or comments then please get in touch.

Finally, the whole point of me doing this presentation was to spread the word and encourage other teachers to do the same thing.

Devolve power to your learners . Create your own decentralised syllabus. Blog about it. Do it again.

Good luck.


Graz presentation in pdf format

Graz presentation handout


Kunsthaus in Graz. Courtesy of Matthias on flickr. Some rights reserved.


Beat CultureMidori. Courtesy of Free Music Archive.
Midori by Beat Culture is licensed under a Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 International License.


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