Who was he?
John Morgan († 2004) was a teacher, teacher trainer, coursebook and resource book writer, and lexicographer. He was one of the key figures in the humanistic turn in ELT in the quarter of the twentieth century, a freelance teacher (1966 - 1974) and teacher trainer (1975 - 2004). As well as teaching on a number of British Council summer schools and specialist courses in the UK, he was strongly associated with Pilgrims English Language courses and for 15 years with Pilgrims summer teacher training programmes, and is fondly remembered by colleagues and by teachers who attended courses in Canterbury as an inspirational teacher and trainer. He also worked extensively overseas, training teachers in Latin America, East Asia and all over Europe.
As well as contributing to many Pilgrims publications, he formed a very successful writing partnership with Mario Rinvolucri, producing highly innovative teachers’ resource books, amongst which Once Upon a Time: Using Stories in the Language Classroom (1983) is probably the most frequently cited and most widely used. John was also an editor of Pilgrims Publications in Canterbury in the 1980s.
John Morgan inspired hundreds of teachers and fellow trainers, including many leading figures in ELT, who regard him as their mentor. He was a brilliant thinker, captivating storyteller, dedicated lexicographer and a natural teacher whose talent to make people think was exceptional.
Latterly, he divided his time between teacher training and setting crosswords. He was a much respected and sought-after compiler of extremely cryptic crosswords. He compiled crosswords for a variety of high-quality publications, including The Listener, and, apparently, he rejoiced when people couldn't crack his clues!
Place in HLT
Although John was an inspired and inspiring practitioner and a major influence in HLT, he was in Alan Maley’s words, “not very good at personal promotion”, and beyond a relatively small number of books and articles, hardly left behind what we now call a digital footprint. But the impact of his teaching and training endures for his students and colleagues around the world. And his place in HLT, therefore, is best represented in these extracts from the ‘Many-voiced Tribute to John’ featured in HLT Magazine (2004) a memorable portrait of John, painted with affection, admiration and professional respect. (source)
30 years of brilliant work that certainly has surpassed mine and that of some of my closest and dearest colleagues. (Mario Rinvolucri)
He had the ability to spark ideas off people - ideas they would not have come upon on their own. And that is a great gift. Professionally, he was extraordinarily creative, with an ability to hatch new ideas and to find a practical shape for them. His influence on the way we now conduct our teaching is vastly underrated, probably because he was not very good at personal promotion. Many teachers worldwide owe him a great debt. (Alan Maley)
John never gave the impression of having pre-meditated content. He very much trained according to his mood, his current thinking, and the journey he wanted to take his students on. His training was spontaneous. He practically thought out loud, and his students learnt to do the same thing. They learnt to think in new ways, and to think for themselves. (Sheelagh Deller)
I have been touched in some profound way by working and learning with John. I dare say there are thousands of teachers and students of English in almost every corner of the world who owe John something of a debt of gratitude for making their task more interesting; more enjoyable; more human. (Rakesh Bhanot)
One of the last articles I read by him began with a reference to a court case concerning breach of probation: a young man had walked out of a training course after being asked to role-play an apple. John used this anecdote as his lead-in to a short history of teaching methodology. As someone who had had learners and teacher trainees interviewing shoes, talking to chairs and imagining the world from a light bulbs point of view, John would have felt great empathy for the young man in court, and probably for his teacher, too.
Whatever his considerable personal charm and belief in what he was doing, John knew only too well that his approach often unsettled people in the classroom. He became accustomed to dealing with participants' scepticism but would always let people make up their own minds, believing that their puzzling was much more important than his professional credibility. For John refused to hide behind the institutional role of teacher/trainer as expert. He was much more interested in being able to respond to things which happened.
A theoretical outline of his approach would have helped many people to appreciate his gifts, but he was much more interested in examples than concepts. His writing about teaching, although always a pleasure to read, was pale in comparison to his excellence as a resource person. He could take almost any sample or source and build from it; and the same sample or source could, for him, be used in almost endless numbers of ways. He was a man of the oral tradition. (Gerald Kenny)
John Morgan could transform a vocabulary exercise into a magical moment of discovery, a small epiphany; he could make you bend and transform grammar into a journey of exploration; and some of those moments, twenty years on, have stayed with me, shaping my own practice. I remember his little bits of paper, with a word written on them and the energy they could generate when teachers brought to these scraps their own feelings and past experiences. We created collective feeling out of these fragments; they circulated amongst the group, they were rearranged into new patterns, they were deconstructed, co-constructed and reconstructed; they went forth and multiplied. The power of a scrap of paper!
I remember sitting in a circle in another of John's sessions, scribbling something on another scrap of paper and then sending that fragment out into the group where it would circulate and again grow into something rich and strange. Bits of paper, words, would acquire a life of their own. He could make words get up and walk about. And it was all driven by the participants; he had the idea, the spark: the rest was in the trainee's hands. He never talked about these magical exercises or analysed them; he just did them. This may have frustrated some participants who wanted to know why we were doing all this, in conventional terms. But he trusted the task and our reaction to it; the way it awakened feelings that nearly always lie beneath the surface in most ELT training encounters.
It was, I suppose, Dogme, years before others gave it that name. It stamped my own teaching and made me appreciate that teaching English as a foreign language could be much more than teaching the lexical and grammatical system. It was about reading ourselves, reading the world outside the window.
I remember John that summer at Pilgrims when the trainees just wanted to 'improve their English 'and John set out to improve them as human beings. The resulting confusion was a microcosm of the tensions and contradictions of modern ELT. Most teachers have a technocratic agenda - 'Improve my grammar' 'Teach me more words' 'I want to be idiomatic', 'How do I teach the exam class?'. John offered them the magic of self-discovery.
John's work is important in ELT; for me, it represents the educational soul of language teaching, and the challenge for those of who stay behind is how to weave that vision into the everyday fabric of a depersonalised, market-driven classroom.
For me, then, John Morgan's legacy can be summed in two ways: first, he was an ELT professional who was 100% a genuine human being, who made you ask: ‘Why are we doing this anyway?' 'Where does it fit into my view of human values?' 'In what ways are grammar and vocabulary a part of education, an integral part of our culture as human beings?'. 'What does teaching the language tell me as a parent, a friend?' The Q Book captures the questioning spirit of the man. But it is probably his storytelling book with Mario [Once Upon A Time] which is at the heart of his contribution to ELT as education, in the broad sense. It is a book that goes beyond a narrow definition of ELT as teaching a linguistic system cut off from our cultural roots. Even the vocabulary book is really about the stories words tell. It is EFL as a cultural practice. It is a kind of action - and a reaction to the dehumanising of language teaching.
Secondly, John's legacy, for me, is how to reconcile this vision of teaching 'humanistically' with the pressures and constraints of teaching 'just to earn a living'. It is the challenge of introducing an educational perspective into a technocratic profession.
Beyond the memory of John as a decent human being, with magic in his mind, the best tribute to him is that his ideas on ELT as educational practice, as human practice, will live on, in our hands. (Luke Prodromou)
And on a personal note…
There are no photos available, but these reminiscences paint a memorable picture of John…
I have a vivid picture of him playing the spoons alongside the Italian Irish band that provided the music one night by the Adriatic. He was totally caught up in the moment the music, the company, the atmosphere. (Alan Maley)
I have a photo of John and myself sitting together on the heather on a tor on Dartmoor. Without even looking at it, it brings directly to mind that generous toothy smile, the unruly hair and beard, those penetrating and ever-so-slightly disturbing eyes, and the whole great spirit of the man, as wild and unpredictable as a Devonish day on the moors. (Nick Owen)
And of course I remember his beard! White and stringy, curling down like a theatrical prop, at once revealing and concealing the thrusting energy of his personality. (Mike Gradwell)
Sitting on the floor listening to stories, John with legs crossed and rocking, a faraway look in his eye saying: “And he noticed a flake of snow floating past his nose and felt the overpowering need to sleep. So he went off into the forest and found a cave and made himself a nice deep bed of leaves and curled up, and as his eyes were closing he said to himself: 'I'm not a man, I'm a bear.’” (Melanie Ellis)
I remember him at a conference in Greece where he gave the final plenary. He subverted the whole pompous ritual of most plenaries by appearing from the wings onto a stage high up, a mile away from the participants and he sat down, cross- legged, Buddha-like on this football field of a stage. He paused. After a long silence, he began to speak softly, in a steady, almost story-telling tone. (Luke Prodromou)
A wise magician. (Ephraim Weintroub)