It is not my purpose here to assess the usefulness of the Cambridge Certificate in Teaching English to Speakers of other Languages (CELTA), except perhaps indirectly, or to analyse this increasingly popular qualification from a business opportunity/cost point of view; and neither do I want to recount my personal experience on the course in any great detail, suffice to say I took the CELTA in June 2014 at a language school in the UK. Rather I wish, as the title of this post suggests, to try and put the CELTA in a critical context; my self-appointed task is to de-familiarise, or ostranenie, the CELTA, to critique it from the point of view of an outsider looking in.
There is plenty of information online about the CELTA and most of it does indeed talk about the course from a judgemental/personal point of view. The general thrust of this discourse seems to suggest that the CELTA is not easy, but good for you: “Overall, it was a very positive experience. It was pretty stressful, but also worth it…” and so on. Critical remarks tend to be vague: “I found the CELTA to be overly prescriptive...It is commercialised...” etc. Some remarks are unwittingly critical: “They spoon feed you by those handouts, so embrace them!” Then there the cynics, the jokers and the misogynists, no quotes needed. Overall, a serious critique of the CELTA is missing, and this says a lot about the way the qualification has established itself as a respectable norm. I believe we need some assistance, some tools and a framework of analysis, if we are to make sense of what the CELTA is really all about.
Ivan Illich’s critical/polemical tract Deschooling Society (1971) is, I believe, an excellent place to start. Not entirely without problems, Illich’s ideas about schools and their role in society are so lucid and compelling as to be impossible to ignore; he puts the social and political back where they belong: at the centre of things. Very briefly, Illich states that universal education is not feasible, that all schools should be abolished, and that the way education is conducted is a huge con trick, and worse that the obsession with certificates and degrees is polarising. Illich’s arguments cover a lot of ground, and are subtle and deeply philosophical in places, but a lot of what he says is relevant to what I want to say about the CELTA.
Pertinently, Illich claims most people do not learn a foreign language as a result of sequential teaching in a classroom; they learn foreign languages as a result of odd circumstances, or because they need to learn a foreign language for a practical reason; qualified teachers are not needed. For Illich, licenses and certificates are the means by which teachers are made scarce, a form of market manipulation pure and simple. Virtually anybody, with a minimum of informal training, could be a language teacher at most levels. But oh no, the school — in this case Cambridge — convinces people that they have the “secret”; they know, and you don’t know, about teaching. Of course, the secret can be bought. And what secrets are we talking about here? In my opinion, the CELTA is a cobbled together medley of techniques and activities some of which are so divorced from the real world as to be absurd. What, for example, is the point of running around a room piecing together bits of a fragmented text? The CELTA’s compulsory attendance, unnecessarily long sessions, and refusal to allow anyone to bring any real world experience to the table, are typical of school courses everywhere and have nothing to do with successful learning.
The CELTA mirrors undemocratic and dehumanising mass education; it is both a symptom and cause of cultural domination. The fact that some CELTA trainees, if not all trainees, feel humiliated by this encounter with cultural power is a natural result of the assumed asymmetric power relationship between trainer and trainee. The tears, visible or not, say it all. Anyone who thinks this humiliation is good for them is suffering from Stockholm syndrome. Oh dear, I just had to look up how to spell Stockholm — I must be stupid. Certainly, “There’s no excuse for an English teacher to not get their spelling right...” But if you are Shakespeare, we will forgive you for not being able to spell...A discussion about how not to worry about misspelling words because we all do it and because the English spelling “system” is totally barmy might be more helpful here, but that would fly in the face of conventional wisdom, of common folk beliefs, of established power.
The real point of the CELTA is to create social division: henceforth there are two groups of teachers, one “qualified”, and one “unqualified.” The qualified teacher is the one who has been successfully indoctrinated in the mores of school, who has accepted what John Fairbank calls the dominant ideological formation of the institution. In our case, we are talking about Cambridge. But who is “Cambridge”? And why can’t we ever talk to them? In fact, one day, a Cambridge assessor did turn up at the school where I was undergoing the CELTA indoctrination, and after a few pleasantries made it known that she was not available for any critical discussion about the course; she was only there to do her job, to assess. Fair enough, but I had a lot of questions I wanted to ask “Cambridge”, like on what basis was consecutive ninety-minute-in-the-classroom sessions considered normal? Of course, you are not supposed to raise such questions; you are expected to accept the norms.
The central problem of modern education, as I tried to point out to one of my CELTA trainers on a sultry summer’s day last year, is assessment. The obsession with standardizing education by assessing it quantitatively is self-defeating because it creates the need for a pre-packaged curriculum and, as any English teacher worth their salt knows, the pre-planned curriculum is a dead end; it is a power wall on which your head inevitably comes to bang. As Ivan Illich points out in his brilliant book, all of life itself should be considered an education and valued as such, valued as much or more than any school certificate/s. The role of an educator should be to bring people together, to help the group function socially to address unresolved questions. Invoking the great Brazilian educator Paulo Freire, Illich states that students fail to learn because they are bound to the curriculum, course structure, and bureaucratic administration; because the teacher is determining what words should be taught instead of allowing discussants to bring their own words to class. Contrary to what Cambridge would have their trainees believe, Illich insists that lesson-planning and record-keeping are a colossal waste of time. Successful education, believes Freire, is predicated on starting a process which must be critical in nature, always questioning, and initiated by the learner. It follows from this that a student-centred approach to learning is entirely incompatible with lesson planning! Language teachers often get frustrated by the passivity of their students, but such passivity merely reflects the fact that the political lessons of the hidden, or implied, curriculum have been well learnt: the teacher knows, the students don’t know, and so the students must keep quiet and listen.
In the UK today, it is hard to do any sort of job without first getting, by which I mean buying, a certificate; it’s no use being self-taught. It is surely only a matter of time before toilet cleaners will be expected to get a national diploma in public hygiene before they are allowed to mop up our shit. The saddest thing is not that janitors will have to do this kind of shallow theoretical study, but that they will want to do it, that they will have been persuaded that it is good to undergo “professional development.” Demand will be created, those under consuming will be made to feel guilty, if not inadequate, and certificates will be sold creating artificial scarcity in the marketplace. Getting back to the CELTA, most English language learning does not need to be taught. Actually teachers should be guides who make social groups, connect people to resources, and pose questions; a teacher should be a kind of guide/philosopher/interlocutor. The CELTA is too prescriptive, but the alternative would mean a lot of teacher trainers would be out of a job, and Cambridge would be out of a nice little income flow.
Obviously, I would be a total hypocrite if I ever tried to dissuade anyone from taking the CELTA course; after all, I took it and gained clear social advantage from acquiring the certificate’s symbolic sheen. The difference between most trainees and I, no doubt on account of my age, life experience, advanced degree in education, and still critical mind, is that I never bought into the ideas on offer, I simply bought the certificate. Is CELTA training a complete waste of time? Clearly, no...viewed critically, the course is a wonderful experience, a perfect lesson in school life. For novice teachers, there are some real benefits from getting in front of a class and having a go at teaching. For others, in a whole month you can’t help but learn something, though what you learn exactly will depend to a large extent on what you bring to the table. Go for it.