Interview with Alan Maley

This interview was first published on ELTA Serbia newsletter (March 2019 issue)


Alan 2 - edited (1)

Alan Maley’s career in English Language Teaching began with The British Council in 1962.  After post-graduate training at the University of Leeds, he worked for the British Council in Yugoslavia, Ghana, Italy, France, PR China and India over a period of 26 years.  After resigning from the Council in 1988, he became Director-General of the Bell Educational Trust in Cambridge (1988-93). He then took up the post of Senior Fellow in the Department of English, National University of Singapore, where he stayed for 5 years   His last full-time post was as Dean and Professor of the Institute for English Language Education, Assumption University, Bangkok, where he set up new MA programmes. Since retiring from Assumption in 2004, he has occupied a number of visiting professorial posts at Leeds Metropolitan, Nottingham, Durham, Malaysia (UKM), Vietnam (OU-HCMC) and Germany (Universitat Augsburg).
He has published extensively and was series editor for the Oxford Resource Books for Teachers for over 20 years. He continues to write for publication.  He also remains active as a speaker at national and international conferences.
He was a co-founder of The Extensive Reading Foundation, and of The C group: Creativity for Change in Language Education.  He is a past-President of IATEFL, and was given the ELTons Lifetime Achievement Award in 2012.

Vicky P.: Dear Alan, first of all, you need no introductions in our community. I would like, therefore, to welcome you and thank you so much for agreeing to do this interview with me. It is a great honor indeed!

Alan Maley :  Thanks for asking me.  I don’t know whether you knew but Beograd was my very first British Council post, and I spent over 4 happy years there from 1962-66.  I also returned intermittently in the early 70’s to teach on the Federal Summer Schools held on Mount Tara and down near the Drina at Perucac.  But it’s a very long time since I was last there, so I look forward to being back and seeing what has changed.

Vicky P.: I knew you spent time in Beograd but not exactly when. Thank you for the details! Your career in English language teaching started back in 1962. You must have experienced quite a few changes in the way we have been teaching English over the past decades. Which one do you consider the most significant one over these years?

Alan Maley : I suppose it would have to be the change in emphasis from the mix of Grammar-translation, Structural-situational and Audio-lingual methods of the early years  to what came to be called the Communicative Approach, with a large dose of Humanistic influences, which came about from the mid-1970’s into the 80’s – and which still commands the field.  But I am always a bit wary about sticking labels on things. Teachers’ understanding and practice of ‘The Communicative Approach’ have varied widely, and still do. If, as some claim, we are now in the Post-Method Condition, then this is characterized, or at least it should be, by a focus on the nature of the relationships between teachers and their learners and among learners, rather than on the specifics of any particular method.

Vicky P.: You have also spent time traveling, working and living in foreign countries. Are there some memorable time(s), related to your teaching career mainly but not only, which you would be willing to share with our readers?

Alan Maley :  I have been extremely fortunate to have lived and worked for long periods in many countries in addition to the then Yugoslavia: Ghana, Italy, France, China, India, Singapore, Thailand, Malaysia and Vietnam. Of course, there have been many significant moments for me – moments which have contributed to my personal beliefs and development. Here are just a few of them.

For example, in Ghana I was working with primary schoolteachers in remote locations and minimum resources.  It taught me a lot about the ingenuity such teachers (and the kids) displayed. It also showed the value of teaching English through subjects like maths and science – long before anyone ever invented CLIL!  

In Italy, I was involved with the early days of LEND (Lingua e Nuova Didattica) – a transformational teachers’ association which showed just how much could be achieved when teachers acted together.  

France was a high point for me.  I was there right at the time of all the methodological ferment of the Communicative Approach, ESP, Humanistic beliefs, unconventional methods like Suggestopoedia and the Silent Way.  You name it, we had it. That was also when I found my feet as an author. And here I must mention another connection with the then Yugoslavia. I had met Alan Duff on the Federal Summer schools I mentioned earlier. He had then been a lector at Novi Sad University.  We immediately clicked, we were miraculously on the same wavelength, so when I had a vacancy as my assistant in the British Council in Paris, I invited him over. We then began co-authoring a whole range of innovative books. Something quite unique. Our writing partnership and deep friendship lasted until he died, in Ljubljana, in 2012.  I still grieve for him.

So, you see, every country I have worked in has brought something valuable to my personal and professional development.

Vicky P.: Creativity has been your main focus and concern, if I am not mistaken, especially in the recent years. Why did you choose creativity among the rest of the key 21st century skills? How difficult is it to educate for creativity? How difficult is it to fit it into the traditional structure of education? Or is there another way around it?

Alan Maley :  I am not sure if I chose creativity, or whether creativity chose me.  In fact, I am scarcely conscious of making a choice. Creativity is arguably the most salient and significant quality of human beings. Without it, we would have disappeared off the face of the earth long since.  It is ironic that creativity is highly regarded as a desirable quality in virtually every domain – the arts, of course, science, business – but it gets short shrift in education. If you doubt me, take a look at John Holt’s ‘How Children Fail’, or Ken Robinson’s ‘Creative schools’.  The fact is that schools are set up to suppress creativity because it is regarded as inimical to ‘orderly classes’, graded objectives and above all, exam results. My view is that we can introduce creative activities into our classes in a gradual way, so that their value comes to be acknowledged by authority and society at large.  This is now a critical moment because the ‘transmission of knowledge’ paradigm is of little or no use in preparing our kids for the fast-changing world they will encounter. We need to help prepare them for the unexpected, not for the predictable. It was my interest in raising awareness of creativity which led me to help found the C Group: Creativity for Change in Language Education some 5 years or more ago. (   )

Vicky P.: Thank you! I am actually a very proud member of the C Group from its very beginning. In your experience, what is the key to successfully implementing creativity even in contexts where it is believed (by parents, students and sometimes even teachers) that creativity is too elitist and has no practical value.

Alan Maley :  There is no magic word.  The only way to persuade people of the value of creativity in education (and life) is to patiently demonstrate how it works in practice.  I have never regarded creativity as elitist. We all have the capacity to be creative. Sadly, the way much education is conducted brainwashes children into believing that they are not, and can never be, creative.  This is partly due to a misconception about the nature of creativity itself. Many people still believe that creativity is a mysterious power conferred on a small elite. They fail to recognize the small acts of creativity we are all capable of in our everyday lives.  When a teacher trusts the ability of students to demonstrate creativity, for example, in simple creative writing activities, the results can be transformative, both for the students and for the teacher too.

Vicky P.: Do you feel that you have fulfilled all or most of your goals until now? What is the ONE thing you have not had time to dedicate to until now and, yet, you feel that you need to.  

Alan Maley :  Staying alive and in good shape physically and mentally seems like a pretty important goal – but I suppose that is true for everyone.  There are just two professional areas I would still like to know more about.

One is to understand better what contributes to the chemistry of the Teacher-Learner event.  This is something Adrian Underhill and I have been trying to unpick for a few years now. And in this connection, we will be participating in the third of a series of workshops on Spontaneity to be held at Wolfson College, Oxford on 30 March, just before IATEFL this year. (

The second is the idea of how teachers develop their expertise through their transformation of experience into action.  This is the subject of a book I am currently editing for the British Council: ‘Developing Expertise Through Experience’.  I’ll say more about this below.

Vicky P.: Recently you have published two haiku collections (both in 2018). Why poetry then? Why not, for example, writing short stories? What makes poetry more challenging to you?

Alan Maley :  It just so happens that those two books are poems.  And it is true that I probably write more poetry than anything else now.  But I also have a book of prose poems in hand, and a book of short memoirs from my childhood, and two books of short stories.  With all that in the mill, I have plenty of grinding to do. I have pretty well given up writing teaching materials and applied linguistics stuff.  Anything I might have to offer has either been said before, or is unpalatable to the conformist version of education we live in.

You are right that poetry is more challenging but therefore more rewarding too.  The great thing about poetry is that the writer submits willingly to the constraints of form – and this is a wonderful way of stretching the language to its limits.  The irony is that it is precisely the constraints which squeeze out a creative response. What the Chinese T’ang poet called ‘dancing in chains.’

Vicky P. : How do you relax? What is the simplest way for you to relax?

Alan Maley :  A bottle of good wine and the agreeable company of friends helps a lot.  The art of convivial conversation seems to be in decline – but I find that one of the most relaxing, and at the same time, stimulating of activities.  Walking in the countryside also relaxes me – and almost always sparks ideas for poems or stories. I also read a lot for pleasure, both fiction and non-fiction.  I try to read in four of the languages I speak – and find that keeps them fresh as well as keeping my little grey cells active. And I listen to a lot of music, mainly but not exclusively classical. I also write both poetry and prose as I said before.

Vicky P : What is your plenary talk going to be about? Would you like to tell us?

Alan Maley :  That’s a good question.  In fact, I don’t think we have agreed a topic yet.  One likely title for my talk could be: ‘Creativity: The What, The Why and the How.’  Another might be, ‘Developing Expertise Through Experience’. This is to be the title of a book I am currently editing for the British Council, due out later this year. The book consists of narrative accounts from 20 language teaching professionals worldwide. In their chapters, they recount key people, places, ideas and experiences which have helped shape their values, beliefs and practices.  This is based on an idea of Dr N.S. Prabhu, which he called ‘the teacher’s sense of plausibility’. My argument is that, in training programmes, we should be drawing more extensively on such experiences – in contrast to the current emphasis on algorithmic schemes: ‘Do this, then this, then this – and the result will be this.’ By focusing exclusively on the algorithmic paradigm, we deprive ourselves of the richness of accumulated experience and discount the value of teachers’ own experiences.  I think I am also to run a workshop on ‘Creative Writing – for our students; for ourselves.’ Or something like that anyway.

Vicky P. : Thank you so much for your time. It’s been a pleasure!

Alan Maley:  And for me.  I look forward to meeting everyone in Beograd in May.


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