What is Demand High Teaching?
I first heard of Demand High Teaching in March 2012, when Jim Scrivener and Adrian Underhill launched a low-key, no-frills blog containing a brief introduction to the concept. In their words:
“Demand High asks:
Are our learners capable of more, much more?
Have the tasks and techniques we use in class become rituals and ends in themselves?
How can we stop “covering material” and start focusing on the potential for deep learning?
What small tweaks and adjustments can we make to shift the whole focus of our teaching towards getting that engine of learning going?
Demand High is not a method and it is not anti any method. We are not anti-Communicative Approach. We are not anti-dogme. We are not anti-Task Based Learning. We are simply suggesting adjustments to whatever it is you are already doing in class – ways of getting much greater depth of tangible engagement and learning.”
A few months later, I attended a lively plenary by Scrivener himself in which he managed to pull off the nearly impossible: get me truly excited about yet another ELT trend – except that Demand High is not really a trend, but essentially a way of looking at teachers’ / learners’ roles and classroom processes, as he makes clear in this video.
Why did I feel the need to write this post?
Despite the initial hype, Demand High seems to have lost steam sooner than many would have hoped and I’ve been meaning to speculate about some of the underlying reasons for a while. This post, to be honest, was never at the top of my to-do list, but a recent article by Geoff Jordan, in which he basically shreds Demand High to pieces, made me change my mind.
I felt the need to make my voice heard.
I am a staunch advocate of Demand High Teaching and I would hate to see it relegated to ELT’s scrap yard. I found Jordan’s criticism, eloquent as it was, mostly unfair. I can see, however, why he calls Demand High Teaching “half-baked”: As a conceptual framework, maybe it’s still in beta and not ready for prime time yet. So how do we move forward?
The million-dollar question
To sell the idea of Demand High Teaching, perhaps the first thing we should do is turn the concept on its head, focus on demand low teaching and ask a shockingly simple, yet hardly ever asked question:
Do teachers regard what they do as “demand low” and, if so, do they see it as a problem?
If the answer is no, then why should they embrace Demand High – apart from bandwagon-jumping, of course?
In his plenary, Scrivener spoke very enthusiastically to a huge audience and I remember spending most of the session nodding in agreement. As I looked around, though, I had the impression that the empty gazes outnumbered the nods, the winces or the head-scratching, which, in hindsight, maybe begs the question:
To what extent was he trying to sell a solution to a problem that, in the audience’s heads, maybe didn’t exist?
Unless a case can be made that low demand teaching might actually hinder students’ progress, maybe we won’t get very far. This is easier said than done, of course. To begin to even consider going Demand High, teachers need some sort of evidence that their students are not learning enough or well enough. Trouble is, the demand low classroom – perhaps ironically – is the one in which this evidence is least likely to surface:
less risk-taking = fewer attempts = fewer mistakes = less learning
What’s at the core of the demand low teaching?
Advocates of Demand High Teaching often argue that we tend to underestimate students and, by doing so, fail to push them to their full potential. Maybe, but, honestly, I don’t think that’s what’s at the core of the issue. It’s how we view our own roles in the classroom that will determine, I believe, where we stand on the low demand / high demand continuum.
Most of us are a by-product of years and years of often theoretically-sound and eloquent-sounding – but ultimately disempowering – dogmas and solutionism from the Communicative Language Teaching recipe book:
“Step aside. Let students get on with their own learning.”
(But when should I step back in?)
“Remember: Focus on intelligibility.”
(This is easy! I hardly never misunderstand them anyway.)
“Why did you correct her? It was a meaning-based activity.”
(Oh, Ok. It’s just that I heard the same mistake thirteen times.)
“Watch your TTT. You’re talking way too much.”
(Right. So I’ll try to avoid activities in which I have to talk.)
“Avoid putting students on the spot.”
(Any student, at any time?)
“Controlled oral practice? You’re kidding, right?”
(Sorry. Gap-filling is ok, I presume?)
“Hmm… Is this meaningful enough?”
(Meaningful as in fun, relevant or full of meaning?)
“Remember: You’re a facilitator, not a teacher.”
(That sounds cool. What do I facilitate again?)
In other words,
I am being facetious here to make a point, of course. There are many activity types in which the most sensible thing to do is indeed to step aside, let students do most of the talking, delay correction and so on. But those of us taught and/or trained in the communicative era seem to have internalized the notion of minimal intervention as one of the main yardsticks against which to measure a successful lesson. By the way, I am talking about mainstream ELT, of course, rather than fringe methodologies, which, by the way, are still alive and well in many parts of the world. But I digress.
This sort of laissez-faire “learner-centeredness”, in the broadest and vaguest sense of the word, was the natural and inevitable swing of the pendulum after the audio lingual era, of course, where the teacher was nearly always in control of classroom processes and student output. But that was decades ago, and maybe the pendulum hasn’t swung back to the middle, which is where it ought to be. And the sort of “control” Demand High seems to advocate is of a different nature, anyway.
So, in order to move forward, perhaps we ought to stop looking at low demand teaching as a single, monolithic phenomenon, and treat it as a set of different but interrelated phenomena, rooted mostly – and I’m going out on a limb here – in the early communicative era.
Yet, Scrivener and Underhill – for reasons that I completely understand – seem to try to distance themselves from the notion of method or approach:
“Demand High is not a method and it is not anti any method. We are not anti-Communicative Approach. We are not anti-dogme. We are not anti-Task Based Learning.”
True. But, as I said, there’s a certain degree of tension between Demand High classroom processes and some of the method-related dogmas that seem to conspire against and undermine those very processes. In other words, if we agree that far too many teachers are simply going through the motions in class, with minimal intervention, because that’s what they think a communicative lesson ought to look like, I don’t think Demand High can afford to take a neutral stance in the realm of methodology.
Scrivener himself once said that Communicative Language Teaching has gotten itself into “a cul-de-sac of complacency.” I agree. But simply changing the jargon from “learner-centered” to “learning-centered” just won’t cut it.
Thanks for reading. If this post generates enough interest, there will be a second part soon in which I will argue – spoiler alert – that Dogme and High Demand Teaching are actually twins separated at birth. Well, not quite. But the former depends much more on the latter than might meet the eye.