Hi, and thanks for visiting!

On May 21, 2023 I delivered this plenary speech at the Innovate ELT 2023 Conference in Barcelona, Spain. You can both watch the speech (big thank you to Ambra Pacchioni for the recording) and read the original script. If it stirred something in you, then you can't miss the episode number 420 of my podcast, Thinking Out Loud, where I elaborate on the problem of genuine education in ELT. At the bottom of the page, you will find the list of books that inspired me together with their key takeaways.

Jedrek Stepien
Genuine Education in the Era of Technology

Genuine Education in the Era of Technology

Barcelona, 21 May 2023

To give my speech a proper kickstart, and to grab your attention, I'd like to state something obvious first: that we are teachers and that we work in the education sector. One question, however, has been on my mind for some time, namely, how much of what we are doing counts as genuine education?

We tend to associate education with getting knowledge and skills, but the Spanish speakers among us know very well that „educado” means so much more than just „trained”. That genuine education gives people not only sharp skills, but also certain qualities and depth.

And nowhere is that dual nature of education more clearly reflected than in languages, where the surface called grammar coexists with a depth called meaning.

However, for the past many years education systems all over the world have been growing increasingly one-sided.

The whole of education started to be perceived through the lens of skills, and all the problems of this world are believed to be solvable through corresponding skills, like the 21 century skills, for example, to deal with the growing ambiguity and uncertainty of our modern world.

As a result, the education that is on offer today is mostly reduced to the distribution of knowledge and the training of skills. Not least because this is the only part of education that gives in to commodification.

Our profession, English Language Teaching, has been commodified to an enormous extent, but it all started with seeing language as commodity that can be measured, graded, scaled, marketed, and sold; the teaching profession has lost some of its prestige due to this, so it was only natural that many of us have been rebranding themselves as trainers; trainers of English.

I, for my part, don't blame anybody. Many of us just wanted to work honestly and with dedication within a system that was given; and not to carry the torch of enlightenment. But what we didn't realize, I think, was that the education we cultivated had suicidal tendencies.

Because everything that can be commodified can, by principle, also be made disposable once technology reaches a sufficient level of development.

It happened to warmth with the central heating plant, it happened to music with the stereo, to meals with frozen food, etc. and it is happening as I speak to education with search engines and the coming of advanced Artificial Intelligence, the like of ChatGPT.

The promise of technology is to liberate and disburden and provide life of fulfillment. But the idea of technology liberating and disburdening us from education hardly sounds like fulfillment.

If we assume that the real purpose of Education is to teach us how to think, how to exercise control over what we think, how to liberate ourselves from the doxa, how to choose what we pay attention to - if we get disburdened from this - then - in the words of David Foster Wallace - we are „totally hosed”.

We paid a high price for the industrial civilization because it cost us our planet, but this time around, with the coming of the information civilization, the bill may be even higher, because we may pay with our humanity.

So, it looks like we wanted to just teach, and be left in peace, but I'm afraid we are going to have to save the world now.

Some of you may ask, like Billy Pilgrim from "Slaughterhouse Five" - why me? Why us? Why English teachers?

But the answer is very simple: because we have access to the superpower called language. And unlike Billy, we are not stuck in amber, we can act.

And the genius of language" - to repeat after a philosopher - "is so great that to meditate upon mere words leads to profound understanding.”

Understanding, and the resulting from it wisdom, are the missing parts of modern education.

They had to go because they were too hard to commodify, and they misbehaved. Take this: understanding didn't help people to become who they decided to be, but instead, made them someone they never could have dreamed of being. A young person went to a business school and ended up as a teacher, or another one went to a law school and ended up as a senior caregiver. Now, what kind of business is that?

Some of us here may also be here because of that kind of accident. I am.

But coming back to understanding. Understanding means vitalization. Every time something is understood it starts playing an active part in our life. And education without understanding turns into a mechanical and dull process of memorizing.

If modern education finds itself in crisis today, with more and more young people questioning the point of school, it is because they lack genuine motivation for their choices, and the knowledge they learn is disconnected from themselves.

Now, because languages are natural vehicles of understanding, they can help us to recreate these connections.

Languages can help us connect what we learn about to what we know, what we know to what we feel and what we feel to what we think.

Such connections are later the source of never-before-imagined thoughts, of creativity, originality, and joy, but most importantly, they help to produce "whole men", that is, people who are in touch with their center, sure of their basic convictions like Christopher Columbus from the monument at the lower end of la Rambla, here in Barcelona.

That wholeness may be the source of real courage and real self-confidence. I say “real”, because it contrasts with the temporary and short-lived courage and self-confidence coming from entitlement all sorts of certificates. That, in turn, may produce certain intellectual discipline that adapts itself to new and changing circumstances, precisely because it is not attached to the narrow details of tomorrow's technology or tomorrow's world, that will soon become yesterday’s technology and yesterday's world.

And this is, in short, what I meant when I said, in the teaser of my speech, that foreign languages could be the only school subject taught at schools.

However, to unlock the educational potential of English we need to change our current perception of it.

We need to stop looking at English as just another school subject and, most importantly, we need to stop teaching it in the same, linear way as everything else in school today.

We need to shift emphasis from grammar to meaning. What does it mean in theory, and in practice?

In theory, meaning cannot be imposed from outside, it is always materialized by each one of us from inside to outside.

In practice, it means moving away from teaching ABOUT language to doing something IN language and letting students use the language, experiment with, and construct the meaning.

Fortunately, there are more and more scientific arguments nowadays that this is how languages are learnt, and that is extremely optimistic, because once again, it turns out that proper language teaching has a lot in common with genuine education.

Further implications involve emphasis on meaningful conversations, run ideally in small groups or individually.

These are the conditions we have always wanted as teachers, but they were constantly denied to us in the world of scalable education.

Now, can we win against the scalable education powered by the powerful forces of the market as well as the interests of surveillance capitalists - the big tech companies who want to control our behavior and for who our goal - human consciousness - is a threat to their revenues?

Call me naïve, but I see some silver linings in the current situation.

I think that the growing fatigue with the current education might eventually contribute to our cause and reverse the trend.

There is a new wave of disruption happening as I speak. Disruptors using AI disrupt previous disruptors with even cheaper labor costs. But their fight takes place in the domain of the reduced version of education. They will always be pretending, and trying to sell it as real, genuine education, but it's not.

If teachers and teacherpreneurs among us grasp the difference between reduced and genuine education, we should be able exit the current doomed competition, and start playing in a totally different league.

It will take time before we manage to explain the benefits of our version of education to a wider public and before the blind forces of the market start rewarding us materially, but with the quality we have got, the triumph is inevitable.

The stake of this turnaround is much higher than just effective teaching of foreign languages. The stake may be the future of education and the future of humanity.

Because if one day Elon Musk installs his Neuralink in our brains, and Sugata Mitra's vision comes true, that “not knowing will become as unimportant as not being able to tell the time without looking at a watch”, we will be safe and education will be safe too. Because education, genuine education is immortal and it is forever enshrined in language.

Thank you.

Photo by @GravellSam (follow him on Twitter)

Education has become increasingly focused on skills and knowledge distribution, commodifying the teaching profession. The rise of technology and artificial intelligence further threatens the importance of education. Jedrek Stepien argues that true education should teach us how to think, exercise control over our thoughts, and choose what we pay attention to. Stepien emphasizes the vital role of language in connecting knowledge, feelings, and thoughts, fostering understanding, wisdom, and creativity. The current crisis in education stems from a lack of genuine motivation and disconnected knowledge. Stepien proposes a shift in perception, advocating for a focus on meaning rather than grammar in language teaching. He emphasizes the need for meaningful conversations and small-group interactions. Despite the challenges posed by scalable education and big tech companies, Jedrek Stepien remains optimistic that a growing fatigue with the current system will eventually lead to a reversal of the trend. He believes that genuine education is immortal and essential for the future of humanity.


The Key Takeaway
Against The Tide
Roger Scruton
"Friendship is unquestionably profitable (...) but to treat friendship as a means is to lose the capacity for friendship. (...) So it is with education: the profit of education persists so long as you don't pursue it."
Common Ground
Florencia G. Henshaw, Maris D. Hawkins
How languages are learnt
Conversation: From Description to Pedagogy
Scott Thornbury, Diana Slade
General food for thought on conversations
Creative Understanding
Hermann Keyserling
"Every kind of grasping and taking in already means a vitalization of what is originally lifeless."
English For The 21 Century Skills
Sophia Mavridi, Daniel Xerri
General food for thought
English Language Teaching Now And How It Could Be
Geoffrey Jordan, Michael Long
Up to date knowledge on how languages are learnet + insight on ailings of our commodified profession.
Excellent Sheep
William Deresiewicz
"The first that college is for is to teach you to think. It means developing the habit of skepticism and the capacity to put it into practice. It means learning not to take things for granted, so you can reach your own conclusions."
David Epstein
"Our greatest strength is the exact opposite of narrow specialization. It is the ability to integrate broadly."
Reader, Come Home
Maryanne Wolf
"When nurtured, human language provides the most perfect vehicle for the creation of uncircumscribed, never-before-imagined thoughts, which in turn provide the basis for advances in our collective intelligence."
Skillful Coping
Hubert L. Dreyfus
"The characteristic feature of the modern world is not just that many of us have wider range of choices than ever before - choices about who to become, how to act, with whom to align ourselves. Rather, it is that when we find ourselves confronted with these kind of existential choices, we feel a lack of any genuine motivation to choose one over the others."
Slaughterhouse Five
Kurt Vonnegut
“Billy licked his lips, thought a while, inquired at last: "Why me?" "That is a very Earthling question to ask, Mr. Pilgrim. Why you? Why us for that matter? Why anything? Because this moment simply is. Have you ever seen bugs trapped in amber?"
Small Is Beautiful
E.F. Schumacher
"At present there can be little doubt that the whole of mankind is in mortal danger, not because we are short of scientific and technological know-how, but because we tend to use it destructively, without wisdom. More education can help us only if it produces more wisdom."
Mark Edmundson
Genral inspiration
Technology And The Character of Contemporary Life
Albert Borgmann
"The promise of technology is to liberate and disburden and provide life of fullfilment."
The Age Of Surveillance Capitalism
Shoshana Zuboff
"If industrial civilization flourished at the expense of nature and now threatens to cost us the Earth, an information civilization shaped by surveillance capitalism will thrive at the expense of human nature and threatens to cost us our humanity."
The Coming of Neofeudalism
Joel Kotkin
"Teachers make today part of the new modern clerisy - legitimizers of technology and big business' interests"
The End Of Education
Neil Postman
"It is true enough that much of the educators centers on the question, How can we use television (or computer, or word processor) to control education? They haven't yet got to the question, How can we use education to control television (or the computer or word processor)?"
The End of Solitude
William Deresiewicz
" The first purpose of real education (a "liberal arts education") is to liberate us rom doxa by teaching us to recognize it, to question it, and to think our way around it."
The School In The Cloud
Sugata Mitra
„Not knowing will become as unimportant as not being able to tell the time without looking at a watch”
This Is Water
David Foster Wallace
„Twenty years after my own graduation, I have come gradually to understand that the liberal arts cliché about teaching you how to think is actually shorthand for a much deeper, more serious idea: learning how to think really means learning how to exercise some control over how and what you think. It means being conscious and aware enough to choose what you pay attention to and to choose how you construct meaning from experience. Because if you cannot exercise this kind of choice in adult life, you will be totally hosed.”
©2023 Mentals