Who is he?
The man who redefined the word teacher.
The visionary Mario Rinvolucri began teaching at 23 in Athens, Greece. It was his first experience with English language teaching (he had studied Chinese at Oxford University), and he came out of it dissatisfied – the approach of the coursebook he followed as a beginner teacher seemed to him too mechanical for learning a skill so innately personal. After returning to Britain, what he brought back with him was the memory of the people he taught, their authenticity and vibrancy. It was this initial experience that made him consider challenging standard teaching methodologies and paved his path toward humanising language teaching.
Mario was born in North Wales into an intercultural family. The cultural differences between his Italian father and German Liverpudlian mother made Mario prone to embracing the idea of cultural relativism from an early age. He continued to deepen his understanding of other cultures throughout his life during his teaching experiences all around the world. For him, to teach means to relate, to be present with others.
Mario has always questioned orthodoxy. His infectious enthusiasm has fuelled his pedagogical methods from the beginning of his career. Variously described by those who know him as charismatic, generous, or volcanic, Mario’s teaching reflected his drive to pioneer doing the new, whether it was his now-famous storytelling approach (Once Upon a Time: Using Stories in the Language Classroom, 1983 in collaboration with John Morgan), his re-definition of teacher observation, practical exercises with students such as letter writing, or holding one-on-one tutorials with his students.
Never intimidated by error, he is mainly known for his critiques of the traditional coursebook. His iconoclastic vision has enabled him to access a powerful freedom and energy in teaching, and in the way he approaches language itself. For Mario, an applied linguist, language is a gigantic ocean you dive into, and you don’t have to measure its depth to trust that the water will keep you afloat. Mario sees language as something that is lived and he has always been interested in the intersection of language, psychology, and neuroscience.
Mario is a relational and practical teacher. For him, teaching is different every time it takes place, and always personal. His excellent people skills and dynamic personality translate well into the classroom – he knows how to read the atmosphere in the room and relate to his students accordingly. He can differentiate between what his students need and what stands in their path toward effective learning.
Enthusiastic about building a community of like-minded teachers, Mario began to pioneer HLT by creating Pilgrims language school in 1974 together with a group of friends and colleagues. The initiative first began with a summer school programme for teachers in Oxford and it set a successful precedent for all Pilgrims’ future summer training programs.
Humanistic language teaching at Pilgrims was based on an interdisciplinary approach, a combination of psychology, therapeutic processes, and most importantly, a radical rejection of formal ways of language teaching. In time, Mario became the editor of Humanising Language Teaching, the first free webzine for EFL teachers. Pilgrims continues to thrive and Mario has recently stepped down into the role of a Pilgrims Associate.
His first teaching publication, like many of his later books, was written in collaboration. Mario wrote Towards the Creative Teaching of English (1980) alongside colleagues Maggie Melville, Lydia Langenheim and Lou Spaventa. Since then, he has written or co-written some 40 coursebooks, some in Spanish or German. It comes as no surprise that Mario has always favoured co-authorship, as the principle of collaboration lies at the heart of humanistic language teaching. Grammar Games: Cognitive, Affective and Drama Activities for EFL Students (1985) is recognised as one his most influential publications, together with Using the Mother Tongue (2002), Humanising Your Coursebook (2002), and his English in Mind coursebook series (2010-2012). First and foremost a methodologist, Mario never wrote plain theory; his writing reflects the values and intricacies of the man himself. Attention-grabbing, entertaining, and above all practical, his coursebooks continue to inspire generations of HLT teachers worldwide.
Mario is a voracious reader and will read everything and anything that has to do with language. Currently, he is learning German. He enjoys spending time with his family, friends, and students. An ardent cook and gardener, he is known for hosting dinner parties in his garden at home in Canterbury. Mario likes to unwind in the bath - he considers water to be the best place to reflect upon his teaching!
On Becoming a Person: A Therapist's View of Psychotherapy
The Common Sense of Teaching Foreign Languages
Caring and Sharing in the Foreign Language Classroom
Teaching Language: A Way and Ways
Earl W. Stevick
Beyond the Smile: The Therapeutic Use of the Photograph
Place in HLT
Mario's place in HLT, or dare I say in ELT, is not about size; it's about the power of inspiration. To me, he's like a spider diligently working and creating an invisible but powerful network of amazing people.
I first met him in 2009 in Český Těšín. The only thing I remember from the conference, even today, is his workshop, with Mario sitting in the corner of the classroom. I wondered for years how one simple task (He gave us a sentence to expand only by adding a word before/after the sentence “She loves him”.) could keep us occupied and engaged for 90 minutes with his minimal involvement. Fast forward to 2017, and I found myself having lunch in Mario's garden, about to discover his magic.
And it's like all magic, very simple; he cares for people. No, it doesn't mean he's this eternally benevolent old man. What I mean is, he's human. When talking to you, he is there in his full humanity. Warm, but also occasionally combative; inspirational, as well as judgmental; an attentive listener, but also occasionally dismissive of your opinions. He's a full human being, not pretending to be anything else. With his passion for teaching, he has become a source of endless inspiration and energy for others.
He shows us that being human means caring for others and not worrying about perfectionism. Magic isn't in perfection; magic is in living and teaching while being true to ourselves and the people around us.
What he and James Dixey created when they founded Pilgrims was not simply a business enterprise but a richly creative space shared by a whole host of other talented and dedicated colleagues. Learning and nurturing cooperation are key for Mario because everything starts to move and develop when knowledgeable and committed people work together.