A future without teachers…?

Mike Grist Life Leave a Comment

Last night I went to a panel discussion at Regent’s University titled ‘The Future of English’ featuring several luminaries (the ‘great men’) of the TEFL (Teaching English as a Foreign Language) world.

TEFL is my day job.

David Graddol was there, who inspired my MA thesis. He writes about the megatrends of the world, like demographics, economics, military, culture and so on, and how they affect the role of English in the future.

For example- if China became the dominant cultural outputter (surpassing Hollywood in amount and quality, perhaps), then will we all be more likely to learn Chinese? Of course if that happened, it may also reflect a surge of creativity and artistry in China, which would likely also mean their economy would be vast and advanced, their science peerless, and so on.

Essentially, his answer is NO, no other language is going to surpass English for a long time, if ever. Though English itself is breaking down into regional dialects or even pidgins (like Singlish, Singapore English), getting divorced from its culture, and used as a utilitarian tool.

My thesis looked at how similar megatrends affected motivation to study English in Japan, and how changes in those trends may develop. It’s fun, big picture stuff.

He was on the panel and he talked about some of that, plus new stuff about how tech is changing the TEFL sphere. Have you heard of Grannies in the Cloud?


It’s outsourcing English teaching to grannies via skype. It’s basically disintermediation of teaching, where the middle men to be cut out are professional teachers. Crazy, huh? You’d think the one thing you can’t take out of teaching are the teachers. But maybe you can- with a lot of Massively Open Online Courses having a few teachers per thousands of subscribers- and a lot of the ‘teaching’ coming from peer collaboration.

It’s exciting stuff, but slightly worrisome for TEFL teachers. Add that to publishers trying to replace teachers with software integrated with textbooks, and yeah, it’s all a giant conspiracy to put me out of a job.

Plus, there’s new tech, with Google Translate coming on leaps and bounds, Skype offering simultaneous interpretation, and a new realization that most people who need English don’t need it much. Everyone is pressed for time, and if there’s a fast route around spending 100s of hours learning just to get to pre-intermediate level, people will happily take it.

*weeps in terror of a future without teachers*

I’m all for it, really. Think of all the millions of work-hours spent doing so elementary as ‘learning a language’. Everyone already has one language! Unless they learn languages for the love of it, spending time learning more than one is a waste, no?

We’re talking about endless lifetimes of human endeavor spent, just so we can communicate? I’m sure there’s something better all those people can do if tech can take over the translation duty.

Like working on their adult coloring-in, maybe. I hear it’s good for stress.

Also at the panel were Scott Thornbury and Paul Seligson, equally luminescent authors and teachers.

At the end of the discussion they asked for questions. My hand shot up. The mic came over.

“How can we future-proof ourselves as teachers, so we won’t be out of a job?”

Applause. Amazing question.

The answer was- well, stay on top of tech. Incorporate it into your classes. Become a facilitator of resources like the students’ mother tongue as well as Google translate and others, aiming to help students ‘communicate’ rather than just ‘learn the language’.


Afterward there were free beers and socializing. Scott Thornbury came right over to our table and we dug into meaty issues. After 30 minutes of that I hunted down David Graddol and listened to more fear-stoking conspiracy theories about disintermediating publishing companies.

What fun.

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