‘The reaction against modernism began in the 1960s with Jane Jacobs’ great book The Death and Life of Great American Cities (1961). Jacobs’ central insight was that the vibrancy of cities is the product of spontaneous interactions, and these chance encounters are the product of random historic development which cannot be replicated by ordered design.’ 

Why the ‘happiest’ cities are boring, John Kay, Financial Times, September 9, 2015




You’re right. It’s not a great picture. Sure there’s the iconic Torre Latinoamerican on the left, built in 1956 and for many years Mexico City’s tallest building. And there are some interesting looking mountains on the horizon. But what’s that socking great block in the middle? And why couldn’t it move just for a second while I took the picture from my hotel window?

I guess we all have examples of this genre: ‘Great shot – spoiled by office block.’ It could make an interesting theme for an exhibition.

But let’s go back to the picture – because it’s at least interesting, right? And I wonder how it would look if the office block wasn’t there. Maybe there would be a different problem with the composition. Because one thing the interrupting block does in this picture is to give context and perspective to the miles of buildings that stretch below. Without the block, and with an ordinary phone camera, it could all look a bit flat. Something similar can happen when we wait patiently for people to move out of frame as we snap a famous building, only to find that the pictures with the annoying people were the ones with the life.

Before you start thinking I’ve mis-titled a piece which was going to be about photos, let’s turn our attention to those interesting looking mountains on the horizon. Because one of them is smoking. I couldn’t believe my eyes when I realised what was going on: the highest point you can see in the distance is Popocatépetl, and I was looking at an active volcano.

As I promised in my first blog on The Night Sky, this series of posts explores spaces for learning, from big to small. And after talking first about The Night Sky, and then about The Oceans, it felt natural to consider The High Places.

And the more I thought about it, the less inspired I became. Because not much happens in the high places. I googled pictures of the summit of Popocatépetl, and apart from seeing clearly that it’s not a place for soft shoes, I realised there wasn’t much going on but the smoke. Geologists might disagree, but there wasn’t much active life. The few people pictured looked solitary. Nobody’s talking up there.

The real life is down below where people gather. The real life is in the messy middle ground of my picture, where there are fewer landmarks but more marks of life.

There’s always been a kind of built-in ladder for learning, embodied by grades, and there’s a whole lexical field relating to progress and upward motion to be derived from the titles of ELT coursebooks alone (think of the use of words and phrases like ‘progress’, ‘headway’, ‘up’, ‘let’s go’, and so on). This has been reinforced by the development of competing frameworks and scales to measure attainment, progress and teacher performance (just think of the rhetoric in Obama’s controversial Race To The Top programme).

But it’s dangerous to think of learning only in terms of reaching for the high places – standardised models against which we measure our utterances and our actions. This isn’t just because we need to value our classroom interaction for its own sake, and to seize the learning opportunities it affords us in the moment. It’s also because English itself is no longer one of the high places. It belongs to the world, and our professional perspectives on English – where we question the validity of native speaker models for pronunciation, for example, or where we focus on spoken grammar – are increasingly pragmatic.

When I teach in London, I still encounter students from all over the world who are longing to speak in class, who have had years of English tuition but don’t feel able to communicate. And this is despite decades of weak-form Communicative Language Teaching being disseminated in books and training courses. Sometimes people just need to talk.

Not everything that happens in class has to feed the unit or fit the level. As teachers, we need to allow our learners to encounter spontaneity and chance in class. We need to stop trying to make the perfect lesson through ordered design, and instead find ways to create the conditions for living lessons. To return to the quote at the top, I’m not saying that the happiest classes are boring. But I don’t think that boring classes can be happy. And when we think of the ways in which our students will encounter English in real life, it’s part of our responsibility as teachers to make some mess.

In the download are some ideas to help us get started.


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