In defense of Demand High Teaching

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,

“Be learner-centered.”

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.

27 thoughts on “In defense of Demand High Teaching”

  1. Melinda Morvay says:

    Wish there was enough interest so that you could give us part II, Luiz!

    1. Luiz Otávio says:

      Hi, Melinda.
      Let’s see how it turns out!
      Thank you for your interest.

  2. Excellent post, Luiz Otavio, and once again I have to say I agree with you. I remember watching Scrivener’s plenary at IATEFL 2012 where he was presenting this idea, and sitting with two colleagues who did their very best to rubbish the idea. I, like you, was hooked, as it brought to mind countless experiences of watching teachers go through the motions in observations. In fact it’s what got me thinking and writing about ELT mantras and teachers being critical and all that last year 🙂

    What’s always struck me about Demand High Teaching’ is that fact that it even needs the the first two words at all. Isn’t this really just ‘teaching’? The principles and techniques involved are what we strive for as trainers to bring out in our teachers, I think. It seems a shame that this got lost somewhere along the way and that there’s even a need for someone to stand up and say ‘no, that’s not enough, you can do better’.

    But needed it is, and I welcome it.

    1. Luiz Otávio says:

      Thanks, Damian.
      You’ve summarized it perfectly:
      “What’s always struck me about Demand High Teaching’ is that fact that it even needs the the first two words at all. Isn’t this really just ‘teaching’?”

      1. I second that Luiz and Damian. Hence my problem with it. DH can’t be even considered an approach imho. It would be totally ok for anyone to question and encourage reflection in order to change as you have put the roles of teachers/learners. But is there a need to label it? Anyway, I’m glad you wrote this post and I look forward to your second post Luiz. I wonder how could DH and Dogme be twins separated at birth! I’m really curious. 🙂

        1. Luiz Otávio says:

          Hi, Rose
          Hi, Rose
          Sometimes by putting labels on things we end up with a tighter, more sharply-focused conceptual framework that allows us to describe the current state of affairs and help to promote the change that is needed.
          But, so, it’s not an approach and it’s not intended that way – never been.

        2. I think there is a need to label it, Rose. I really do. And that saddens me somewhat. When I first watched Jim Scrivener talking about it, one of the first things he said was that he’d been watching hours and hours of observations, teachers ‘going through the motions’, and that struck a chord with me. I still see this. Teachers saying, ‘Good,’ when it isn’t, purely because with a little more attention and gentle push, that learner could have done so much better. So in an ideal world it shouldn’t need a label, no, but sadly it seems it does. But then if some teachers need that label to remind them to do so, I don’t really see how it’s a bad thing.

      2. Re: motivation to write this post, I don’t think Geoff was unfair. Reading Steve Brown comments and post, I see him saying the same thing about DH as a product/method/non-method but without the criticism that Geoff makes on the fact that as ELT well-known figures they should say what there is needed to be said. Steve on the other hand mentions the fact that this would be kind of going against their own positions (if I understand his words right. I apologize beforehand if that was not his intention, that is how it came across to me). Quite different from the stand that Scott Thornbury took when he raised his voice to advocate Dogme.

        1. Luiz Otávio says:

          Geoff’s article really rubbed me the wrong way – and Demand High is not even my baby…

          1. I think Geoff makes a habit of rubbing people the wrong way – I’ve seen him say some quite outright nasty things to friends before.
            Have to say though that I don’t think DH (if we’re giving it an initialism) is very similar to Dogme – they may have the same intended result, but come from very different places, I think.

        2. Hi Rose, Luiz, everyone,
          As I tried to explain in my own post (https://stevebrown70.wordpress.com/2015/02/01/jordan-scriverhill-and-guru-bashing/ ), after Geoff posted my comments in his second DH post, I feel that questioning the motives of Jim Scrivener and Adrian Underhill is unfair and irrelevant. However, I do feel that there is plenty about Demand High that is worthy of criticism. Like many people, when I first heard Jim Scrivener talking about the state of CLT as he saw it, a lot of it really resonated with me. When he and Adrian set up a Demand High blog with the strap line “A discussion about re-inventing our profession” I was very excited. However, my feeling is that in order to re-invent our profession we need to challenge the forces that currently have the power and control, specifically the TESOL qualification bodies and the publishing companies. At the moment, Demand High seems to be about putting the onus on individual teachers to make small changes to their own teaching, but to carry on teaching within the existing constructs that we find ourselves in. That’s not really re-inventing our profession, in my view.
          I have suggested that Scrivener and Underhill are not challenging the established constructs because they are part of the establishment themselves and therefore don’t feel like they are in a position to do this, even though they would quite like to. I might be wrong though. They might genuinely feel that the best way to make a positive difference is to influence our profession from the bottom up.
          But I think you’ve identified an important point here, Luiz. A lot of teachers hear about Demand High and think “Well, that’s what I do anyway” – even if it isn’t. Maybe what is needed is more exploration into exactly what is wrong with our profession, and this will allow us to have a clearer idea of how to re-invent it.
          I’m looking forward to Part 2, Luiz.
          Steve

          1. Luiz Otávio says:

            Hi Steve,
            Yeah. I agree. Maybe “reinventing our profession” was a little over the top. Maybe “teaching” shouldn’t even be in the label, since it’s such a broad term and screams method or approach: task based teaching / communicative language teaching / demand high teaching.

          2. Perhaps I’m sailing against my own argument here, but does our profession really need reinventing? Of course, like anything it needs to evolve, improve and develop, but I’m not sure turning everything on its head is the way forward. A series of small, cumulative improvements at the ‘front line’ seem the most intelligent way to go about doing this, to me.
            Big publishers are often criticised as being ‘part of the establishment’, yet they provide tried and tested materials in response to what teachers ask for. At the moment several of the big publishers are in the process of reinventing themselves in response to changes in the market, with dire consequences for writers, editors and (eventually) learners.
            I can’t really speak for TESOL, but the main ELT teaching qualification bodies (Cambridge and Trinity) are constantly undergoing reviews of their syllabuses, too – the Delta is in fact going through major changes this year in response to feedback from trainers and teachers.
            For me, the issue with DH is that it’s not an approach in the sense that it doesn’t involve a theory of language per se. Instead, it’s a collection of techniques which aim to get the most out of students. This is what I find so attractive about it, regardless of how it’s packaged, labelled and ‘sold’.

          3. Arizio Sweeting says:

            Steve, I totally agree with you that perhaps it’s time to challenge the control and power of TESOL qualification bodies and publishing companies. In 2012, I started a PhD on pronunciation instruction and teacher education in ELT motivated by a personal and professional feeling of frustration while observing trainee teachers in boot-camp pre-service training courses. For me, it seems that the current way that teachers are trained to teach pronunciation, for instance, seems to be more of a ‘production line’ for ‘Listen & Repeat’ machines. I might be running the risk of alienating L&R proponents here, but I feel that such courses are doing a disservice to novice teachers and to pronunciation instruction itself, as it provides them with rather limited experimentation. Yes, this might be a result of lack of time or the stress caused by not getting it wrong and failing a lesson (laugh). Some of my favourite observations about this issue actually come from watching the behaviour of fellow trainers. For instance, in the training room a colleague was once preparing for lesson consultation, and feeling pushed for time, they said, ‘Looking at these TP points, there is a lot of grammar for this trainee to present today. You know what? Not a problem, I’ll tell them to drop the pron.” On another occasion, another trainer asked, “So is there an alternative to L&R? “. What am I trying to say here? Well, I think that CLT (or whatever it is that we follow in ELT) is a very persuasive doctrine andit will take more than new labels to break its ‘iron fist’. As a teacher educator, I see value in DH. Even if an idea it one more step towards relinquishing thedogmas and solutionisms that CLT imposes upon ELT, as so nicely illustrated by Luiz in his posting.

  3. Clare Tyrer says:

    Thanks for posting. I’m certainly interested in reading part 2. I’m a bit undecided how I feel about the demand high ‘approach’ (not sure what to call it). I’ve now read three eloquent posts about it. I’m still sitting on the fence but good to have stuff to chew over!

    1. Luiz Otávio says:

      Thanks, Clare. Do watch the video if you can. It’ll help you make up your mind.

  4. Thomas Ewens says:

    An interesting post, Luiz. Thank you.

    You make an excellent point about DH still being in beta mode. And I agree with what Damian (above) says about Scrivener and Underhill having a relevant critique of contemporary, weak-form CLT.

    So, I wonder how DH will develop. Scrivener and Underhill are at pains to point out that DH is a meme. That means that we as teachers are free to ‘pick up the ball and run with it’. I think that’s the whole point. DH isn’t supposed to be a fully formed idea, but a starting point.

    1. Luiz Otávio says:

      Hi Thomas,
      Wouldn’t they need, though, a more coherent, less ambitious, easy-to-digest, easy-to-implement framework / set of guidelines if this thing is to gain mainstream acceptance?

      1. Thomas Ewens says:

        Hi Luiz,

        Hmm, good question.

        I guess you’re right. But, as I understand it, Underhill and Scrivener are just ‘throwing it out there’ and seeing what happens. It took the Dogme guys years and a lot of discussion in order to create their easy-to-digest framework. These things take time.

  5. Hi Luiz,

    You argue that “Demand High” is a good and timely response to the “fact” that “Communicative Language Teaching has gotten itself into “a cul-de-sac of complacency” where ”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.” You give no evidence to support this sweeping assertion, and ignore all the evidence of teachers worldwide who are not complacent. Perhaps you should consider the ironic possibility that the complacent teachers you refer to are a sub-set of those working under the stifling constraints of a CELTA-defined, coursebook-driven CLT methodology which Scrivener and Underhill played such an important role in fashioning. Even inside the unhappy confines of such a framework, there is ample evidence from blogs and local teacher associations that teachers are enthusiastically and energetically helping their students to learn, partly by doing exactly the kinds of activities which Scrivener and Underhill seem to think can only be done “properly” with guidance from themselves. Furthermore, there are hordes of enthusiastic teachers who reject the advice and coursebooks of UK-based, British Council backed experts, preferring instead to use locally-produced materials in a classroom where the learners work with the teacher to decide on content and activities which best respond to their language needs.

    In addition to the observation that your argument is as arrogant as Scrivener’s and Underhill’s, I think it’s also worth pointing out that your post demonstrates the same inability as theirs to give any coherent account of what Demand High actually means.

    1. Luiz Otávio says:

      Hi Geoff,
      My views on Demand High – well, forget the label – my views on whether or not it’s important for teachers to go beyond giving instructions, responding only to meaning and generally just going through the motions – have been shaped by own experience as a teacher educator.
      So when I nodded in agreement during the plenary I was looking back on the hundreds of lessons I’d observed over the years and on conversations with colleagues from the same background. I was thinking about all the students I’d counseled over the years who’d consistently told me they didn’t feel “they were learning anything.” And the list goes on.
      So, yes, anecdotal, small-scale evidence is all I have and anyone expecting otherwise will have wasted precious minutes on this post.

  6. In support of the anodyne suggestion that teachers should “go beyond giving instructions, responding only to meaning and generally just going through the motions”, I suppose “anecdotal, small-scale evidence” will suffice – why flog a dead horse, after all. But before asking teachers to make that extra effort in their classrooms, maybe you should make a bit more effort to raise the level of argument in your blog.

  7. The first time I have heard of ‘demand high’. Interesting and another attempt to put life back into the relationship between teacher and students which is the place where learning may happen. A welcome contrast to another day with another class sleepwalking through another ‘teaching to the test’ session.

  8. Luiz Otávio says:

    Nice way of looking at it, Richard:
    “Another attempt to put life back into the relationship between teacher and students which is the place where learning may happen.”

  9. Bia Bologna says:

    Thanks for your post. I have to say I completely agree with you!!

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