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Nelson's Column

Turning a blind eye to reality

May 08, 2011

Herd of humans? (2)

teacher-student.jpgI grew up in Dorset, a fairly quiet area of Britain. When I was a teenager, I used to like going for walks, reading books, playing strategy games and things like that. About the noisiest thing I did was play football. Everything changed one day while I was going for a walk by the local lake. A strong thought came into my head that I couldn’t resist.

The next day, I felt compelled to go to the headmaster’s office. I’d never done this before and nobody around me had done it either, so the headmaster looked a bit bemused when I went into his office. He looked even more bemused when I told him I thought there was something fundamentally wrong at the school. I said the pupils in the school were receiving things from society all the time, but we were giving almost nothing back, and I felt this was wrong.

The headmaster asked what I thought we should be doing. I hadn’t got that far. All I had was a vague feeling that something was wrong, so I had to think on my feet. The first ideas that came to mind were helping with children’s playgroups, visiting old people in the town, and organizing events to raise money for people in developing countries. The headmaster, of course, couldn’t agree more, and said I should organize a charity group in the school. My first thought was ‘Me! You must be joking!’ I just liked to be quiet, and had no interest in organizing things or playing a leadership role. But, under the circumstances, I felt I should at least try.

To cut a long story short, within a short space of time, almost all the pupils in the school had joined the charity, and we were doing some pretty wonderful things both locally and internationally. There was a lot of cynicism at first, but this was quickly overcome.

Without the group/herd, I would still have been going for walks by myself, and many of those around me would have been focused on their cars, hair styles etc… By joining together into a group/herd, we could go far beyond what we could do as individuals.

When I went to university, the same kind of thing happened. I turned up at Cambridge wondering what on earth I was doing in a place like that, but within a couple of semesters was organising Bangla Desh concerts and had built up a successful charity network. The same pattern has repeated itself many times with other groups/herds since then.

In my last post to this column, I was criticizing the herd, but here I am saying that herds enable us to achieve much more than we can as individuals. As Vygotsky pointed out, we can only achieve so much by ourselves. We need to be social animals in order to reach a bit more of our potential.

By myself, I could kick a ball against a wall, but I couldn’t play football. I was a winger with limited abilities. All I could do was run and centre the ball, so needed to play with strikers, midfielders and defenders. Everybody has different skills, and when these combine well, we can be an effective team.

By myself, I probably would have never got a publishing contract and, even if I did, my books would only have been read or used by teachers who were pretty similar to me. In the early years of David English House, I was surrounded by some great teachers who were often critical of the materials I was developing. Finding Out, for example, endured ten years of trial and error in this environment before it was published. Would it have sold getting on for 2 million copies if it hadn’t been for the critical input of the professional team around me? Of course not.

So what kind of herd is a good herd? In some ways, it’s easier to say what I think a herd shouldn’t be. I think effective herds need leadership, but not hierarchies, and those who lead need deep humility not arrogance, and shouldn’t be ambitious for position or power. When I was running David English House, I generally found that the best managers were those that I had to persuade to be managers. Those who really wanted to be managers on some level considered themselves to be above those they were managing, and so had issues with them (and with me!).

Over the years, I have often been regarded as a communist. I used to think this was because I had long hair, rejected many aspects of capitalism and studied social science. But, it still happens even though the hair is disappearing. I certainly think that if we want to create a good herd, we can learn a lot from Marx, especially from his 1844 manuscript, and particularly from his views on alienation.

By accident more than design, when I started that charity group at school, it became a collection of individuals or small groups each doing their own thing. I didn’t micromanage people, but focused on encouraging things to happen, and only got involved when necessary. Other organizers were able to have ideas and follow them through to fruition with a sense of ownership. With a fair amount of trial and error, I have tended to work in the same way when building other herds since then.

In Marxist terms, I think it’s important that each of us doesn’t feel alienated from the product of our labour, from the act of production or from our essence as human beings. This applies to me as much as it applies to anybody else in the same herd.

I was very conscious of this when establishing ETJ (English Teachers in Japan). There were things that I wanted to do such as the ETJ discussion list, the owners group etc…. I didn’t see ETJ growing by getting others to replace me in the projects I had started, but, instead, by encouraging others to start their own projects and make them part of ETJ. In this way, we could all be village craftsmen and we could minimize Marxist alienation. There would need to be some general policies, but these would be the minimum necessary, and would be decided by the coordinators of each project getting together and voting.

I don’t pretend this is the perfect herd by any means. It is one type of herd. It has its pros and cons, like herds themselves, and it will appeal to some people, but not others.

In my last column, I was arguing that herds are dangerous because they create cultures that control us, and now I’m arguing that herds are necessary for each of us to achieve a bit more of that great potential that all of us have. Yet again, I’ve said nothing about the classroom, but this apparent contradiction clearly has very important implications in the classroom that I plan to look at next time.

Meanwhile, it’s time for a bit of fun. Here are some more Communicate dialogues:

Mrs. Shakespeare at the doctor - from Communicate level 4

(Language target: Time clauses)


Doctor: How did you burn your ears?
Mrs. Shakespeare: The telephone rang when I was doing the ironing.
Doctor: But why both your ears?
Mrs. Shakespeare: As soon as I hung up, the telephone rang again.
Doctor: Well, you'll have to keep these bandages on for about two weeks.
Mrs. Shakespeare: When my ears are better, will I be able to listen to rock music?
Doctor: Yes, of course.
Mrs. Shakespeare: That’s wonderful! I never could before.
My husband says it disturbs him when he’s writing.

Glug and Zork meet Mr. and Mrs. Shakespeare - from Communicate level 4.

(Language targets: Reported speech and Tell ... to ...)


Mrs. Shakespeare: How did that thing get into my kitchen?
Shakespeare: They said they turned left in the living room.
Mrs. Shakespeare: Well, tell them to park in the parking lot.
Anyway, who are they?
Shakespeare: They said they come from another planet.
Mrs. Shakespeare: Oh, they’re foreigners.
Zork: She said we are foreigners!
Do you think they’re intelligent?
Glug: I don’t think so.
Zork: Ask them a difficult question.
Glug: What’s 11 x 7 ÷ 2.5?
Mrs. Shakespeare: Are you crazy? William, tell them to stay here.
I’m going to get the police.

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March 01, 2011

Herd of humans? (1)

herd%20of%20cows.jpgMy first full-time job after university was at a music agency. I’d been employed to take care of rock concerts and similar events at universities around the country, but on my first day I was asked by one of the directors if I could help out that evening by paying the artists at an event arranged by another section of the company. I dutifully turned up at the event to find that the artists were strippers. My job was to receive money from the manager of the club, and pay the girls.

I quickly discovered that my company was only paying the strippers 20% of the fee instead of the 90% that registered agencies were supposed to pay. When I realized what was happening, I talked with the strippers and said I would pay them 90%. They pleaded with me to just pay them 20% and not say anything about what had happened otherwise they wouldn’t get more work from my agency. So there I was on my first day’s work, having a business discussion with three completely naked girls, and faced with a moral dilemma.

I did what the strippers asked me to do, but after a few weeks of similar things happening, I could confront my bosses without the blame falling on any particular performers. My bosses told me I was naïve. They said what they were doing was normal in the industry. It was just business. I said I didn’t want any part of it, so they gave me the university section to run and said I could do things my way. After a few months, I left the company and set up on my own. A wonderful group of musicians asked me to represent them, probably mainly because I rejected some ‘normal’ practices.

If you met any of my bosses as individuals, you would think what nice people they were. They were certainly very kind to me, and I enjoyed spending time with them. Yet, when these people got together into a group, they abused their position of power over others. They often didn’t do this intentionally. They just didn’t question the ‘normal’ way enough. This was one of the first times I fully understood how caring human beings in herds can do things to outsiders that many would never do as individuals or to insiders in their herd. I don’t mean to single out my bosses and condemn them. I’m just giving an example of very common human behavior.

There are many kinds of herds – businessmen, soldiers, teachers, the managers, the workers, the company, the nation, the gang, the team, the family, the group of friends … the list is endless. It seems to me that herds develop their own normal ways of doing things, and insiders in the herd partly gain their identity by contrasting themselves with, and often putting down, outsiders. We often believe that we have a fixed personality and clear values, but I think we can think and behave quite differently depending on who we are with and which particular herd we identify with at a particular moment in time.

If you talked with people in Britain in 1981, you would have found that most people thought the idea of Britain fighting a war unimaginable. Yet, in 1982, we were at war with Argentina over the Falkland Islands, and many of those who had previously seen themselves as pacifists, and many who wouldn’t hurt a fly in their daily lives, were cheering on the fleet as it sailed to war. The national herd mentality had taken over.

When I was a university student, I used to hitchhike around Europe, sleeping in fields. On one occasion, I found myself stuck in the center of Paris with little hope of getting a lift (and no field in sight) and only enough money for the ferry across the English Channel. I hadn’t eaten for a couple of days because I’d lost my rucksack and the rest of my money in a fight in Rome (life was more exciting in those days), so I just sat down in a small park by the Seine in the pouring rain, wondering what to do.

There was a man sitting near me getting soaking wet, and I lent him my groundsheet to help him keep dry. It turned out that he was one of the leaders of a group of thieves. When some of the rest of the gang arrived, they offered to take care of me out of gratitude for helping one of them. At first, I accepted because I had little choice, but I soon found that I really liked being with them, and believed them when they said they only stole from those who could afford it. I didn’t take part in or witness any crimes, but I ate the food they provided me with, and gradually empathized with their take on society.

If I hadn’t had a home and university course to go back to, I wonder if I would have stayed longer and come to take their way of looking at things for granted. It seems to me that there is little, if any, difference between their situation and that of somebody working for a company that exploits others, puts competitors out of work, or doesn’t tell the truth to customers, but buys into the illusions generated by their company’s culture. We can just as easily fall under the sway of one group as another.

When I was about twenty, I remember being fascinated by the writings of R.D. Laing. I was particularly interested in his idea that we are hypnotized by society when we are children, and most of us don’t wake up from this hypnotic trance until just before we die. We then look back and realize how much of our life was an illusion. If we wake up too soon and question things too fundamentally, it’s difficult to get up in the morning and go to work. Laing focused mainly on how the family hypnotizes us, but perhaps it is every human herd that does this.

After reading Laing, I made up my mind to make it a lifetime goal to look critically at the ways I have been hypnotized, and try and see through the illusions generated by the culture of the country, the company or any other group I might belong to. Of course, I can never succeed, but recognizing that the illusions are there in the first place helps to some extent. As the great Leonard Cohen wrote, ‘Like a bird on the wire, like a drunk in a midnight choir, I have tried in my way to be free.’

This process inevitably leads to the questioning of national culture. My students often tell me they need to study Japanese culture deeply in order to become international people. At first sight, this seems a very encouraging stance to take, but, when I ask why, they generally say it is so they can explain about Japanese culture to foreigners. This is understandable, but disappointing. It comes across as almost nationalistic. I would agree that we need to study our own culture, but with the aim of seeing where our attitudes, opinions and behavior come from, so that we can try to free ourselves from these influences.

I suppose what I’m saying is that each of the almost infinite number of human herds develops a culture that helps bond that herd together and hypnotizes us to behave in certain ways and make certain choices. Much of the time, our choices, which appear to us as being freely made are, in fact, restricted or dictated by the cultures of the herds we belong to. Why is it that most people in one country ‘choose’ to belong to one religion and most people in another country nearby ‘choose’ to belong to a different religion? I don’t mean to deny the truth of any particular religion, but they can’t all be 100% accurate. It is also not a criticism of a belief in God (I have a strong faith, myself). Religions don’t have to involve God. Consumerism, individualism, capitalism, atheism or just about any ‘ism’ can be regarded as religions. To a greater or lesser extent, we buy into the prevailing illusions in our societies.

All of this creates dilemmas for us as teachers. Should we be focusing on developing our students’ ability to see through the illusions that control us? Should we be trying to develop cultures in our classes that will help children learn better? I expect many of us would say ‘Yes’ to both questions. However, answering ‘Yes’ to the second question, not only implies that there are ‘better’ cultures, but that we have the power and right to decide what these ‘better’ cultures are, and we have the right to create illusions that limit our students’ choices. Is this compatible with our ‘Yes’ answer to the first question?

Next month, in this column, I will look at these questions and at other implications of the human herd on the teacher in the classroom. I will also look at the effects of these ideas on the particular way I have set up voluntary organizations such as ETJ (English Teachers in Japan).

Meanwhile, here are some more dialogues from Communicate (level 3):

An alien’s perspective would, of course, be different.

(Language target: Expressing opinions and beliefs)


Glug: Do you believe in humans?
Zork: You mean strange aliens with two arms and two legs?
Glug: Yes, that’s right.
Zork: No, of course not.
Glug: Well, I do. And I think they’re intelligent.
Zork: Where do you think they live?
Glug: On Earth.
Zork: On Earth! Ho! Ho! Ho! That’s impossible!
It’s much too polluted!
Glug: Yes, but where does the pollution come from?
Zork: That’s a mystery.
But it certainly doesn’t come from intelligent humans.

Glug and Zork decide to search for intelligent life on earth.

(Language target: Reporting speech without changing the tense)


Glug: There is life on Earth!
I’ve found three different aliens!
Zork: Are they intelligent?
Glug: I’ll ask them some questions.
What’s 12 ÷ 3 x 2 – 7.5?
Seal: Aarf!
Glug: The seal said 12 ÷ 3 x 2 – 7.5 is a half.
Zork: That was quick! Ask the frog a question.
Glug: Have you read 'The Complete Works of Shakespeare'?
Frog: Redit!
Glug: The frog said he has read 'The Complete Works of Shakespeare.'
Zork: That’s very good! Ask the dog a question.
Glug: Which German composer was born in 1685?
Dog: Bark!
Glug: The dog said that Bach was born in 1685.
Zork: They’re all very intelligent!

Next month, Glug and Zork meet Mr. and Mrs. Shakespeare.

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February 04, 2011

The conscious and the subconscious

Why Nelson’s column? Well, one reason is that you’ll give an arm and a leg to have the column removed from the site once you see the bad jokes. Another more serious reason is that things haven’t been too good recently, and the best way forward seems to be to turn a blind eye to all the problems and dangers and sail on regardless. There are other reasons for the title that I’ll go into at a later date.

When David English House closed, I lost a dream that I and many others had worked so hard for over so many years. Fortunately, almost all our teachers and students have emerged unscathed from the turmoil, but, personally, things have been bad. I’ve lost my home and life savings, my personal life is in a mess, and I’ve now found I will even lose future royalties on my books. If I was ten years younger, this probably wouldn’t matter, but at 59, people around me are asking how I’m going to rebuild, what I’m going to do if I become sick or retire etc …

But, do these practical dangers really matter? Everybody has things to worry about, and most people around the world are suffering from far worse problems than I am. If we dwell on the dangers, there’s no solution. If we turn a blind eye, and just get on with things, and, more importantly, focus on supporting or helping others rather than on our own situation, life can be very rewarding and a lot of fun at the same time. In my case, I seem to be in a position to support teachers in Japan, so I think I should use that position and find ways to provide as much support as possible.

It’s an old cliché that we can be most creative when living on the edge and going through hard times, but I’ve certainly always found it to be true. I wrote ‘Teaching English to Children in Asia’ after a failed relationship. I didn’t want to meet anybody, so I just stayed in my room and wrote.

I started writing poetry when I was a child, but I could never write anything that was any good when things were going well. I also couldn’t write when I tried too hard or when the school asked me to write something for a special occasion. I had to be living close to the edge, stop thinking rationally, and just let go.

So now seems like a pretty good time to write. This time, I’m working on a new edition of Communicate. The first edition was published in 1994 and was very popular in Japan and Korea, but it feels old and rather dated now. In its day, many of the characters in the book had quite a cult following, and the bad jokes in the dialogues certainly got a reaction from both teachers and students.

I often get asked how one goes about writing humorous dialogues. With characters like Atchoo the Alien, Mr. and Mrs. Shakespeare, and the princess that became a frog, it has often been assumed that I must have been smoking something when writing Communicate, but I deny the charge.

For me, the conscious plan always comes first. The theme or the joke is always the last stage, and no compromises can be made with the rational plan and syllabus in order to accommodate a good joke or an interesting theme. I spend years researching and getting critical feedback on a precise language sequence that works for a wide range of teachers, and it’s only after going through that process that I start to think about things like jokes.

With Communicate, when I had completed the detailed syllabus, I tried to think of as many jokes as possible over a period of a few months, and wrote them down. Some were original and some were not. I then read through the list of jokes a few times. I didn’t memorize them. I just put them into the back of my mind somewhere.

At that stage, the dialogues where the jokes would go were just a collection of patterns that I needed to include. I knew exactly what the patterns were, but hadn’t attempted to actually write the dialogues.

I found that if I tried to think about the jokes for the dialogues in a rational way, I couldn’t write anything that worked well. So I decided to use a technique that had worked for me when writing poetry. Every morning, I would look at a dialogue for about twenty minutes, and focus on the problem that needed to be solved. I would concentrate on the language target and think about possible characters and jokes for the dialogue. At this stage, I could never come up with a good idea. I would then go to school, teach all day, and forget about the dialogues. When I got home at night, I would sit down, relax, and the dialogue would just come out. The jokes and characters that came from my subconscious in this way were generally very different from the ones I had been consciously thinking about in the morning, but posing the problem to my subconscious in the morning was essential to make this work.

Here’s an example:

The title of the unit was ‘Describing Trends’ and the target patterns I needed to include in this particular dialogue are marked in red below, and an extra related target is in blue. At some point I’d had an idea that the Shakespeare character in the course could be working on the name of one of his plays, but not have it quite right yet.

Mrs. Shakespeare: The price of paper is going up!
And the price of books is coming down!
We’ll never pay for those new curtains.
Shakespeare: I know! I’m writing more than last year,
but I’m making less money!
Mrs. Shakespeare: Maybe your new play will help.
But I don’t like the title!
Nobody will buy a play called “Omelet”!
Shakespeare: It’s a very good title! Omelets are becoming very popular.
Mrs. Shakespeare: Yes, but not plain omelets.
They’re going out of fashion!
Shakespeare: Well, how about “Ham Omelet”?
Mrs. Shakespeare: That’s better than before.
But something is still wrong.

I warned you about the bad jokes.

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