The Tesla Coil

December 6, 2009

Is ESL basically a doughnut?

Filed under: Dumb questions — Sputnik @ 5:16 pm

What are we selling here exactly?

What do I get if I buy a doughnut?  Answer: a doughnut.  And if I buy a TV? Well, there it is – 36 inches of pure flat-screen atrophy and joy.  But if I buy a place on a language course, what do I get then?  A teacher, his time, a room, some chairs, some desks, a board, and sometimes, usually extra, a couple of  books.  O, and some knowledge.  Kind of.

Kind of, because when I sell you a doughnut, I sell you a doughnut.  I don’t tell you the recipe, hire out my kitchen, make you buy the ingredients and then train you to be a chef so you can make your own.  If I did that you might expect me to pay you.  Similarly, if I sold you a TV, you would be somewhat miffed if you got the box home and it had a 6000-page manual on advanced electronics inside it and the 3700 components of a flat-screen all jumbled up together.  As a business model, only IKEA can do this, just.

But this is what we do when we sell English language instruction: we sell labour – our students’ own labour – back to them.

As a teacher, I can’t give my students fluency.  I can tell them what it sounds like.  I can model it for them, not unlike a gourmet demonstrating how to eat cake in front of a crowd of starvation-wracked waifs.  I can even tell them how to get it, but only one morsel at a time – see, here’s a crumb of cake, imagine how good the whole thing tastes.

But it’s a service, isn’t it?

Of course, I get it – ESL is a service industry.  We sell a service.  We’re like people who sell karate lessons or cookery courses.  We have an esoteric knowledge – we are experts, gurus, or, if you are called Swan or Thornbury, even swamis.  But, actually, not really.  For, there is nothing cryptic about English – there are more courses on the net than on a titled estate, more unopened books than in Gatsby’s library, and more pirated films than even Jonny Depp has starred in.  English has a ubiquity that lays waste to the claim that ESL teachers are some kind of purveyors of cipher.  English is not exactly the Engima code.

In short, we sell people information which is accessible for free on every corner of the planet.

How do we get away with it?  Well, I assume we don’t:  we are clearly not selling a product, or a transfer of knowledge, because if we were, we wouldn’t get away with it.  So what are we selling? I wonder if the recent call to arms by CLIL aficionados doesn’t hold an attraction precisely because it addresses this question, if somewhat obliquely, and not entirely convincingly.

ESL really is a doughnut, kind of

So, I come back to the doughnut, and not just for personal affiliations.  When I buy a doughnut, I’m not buying a doughnut at all.  I’m buying the experience the doughnut gives me – the flavours and feelings, the cream neuron hitting the jam electron and them all bouncing off the big fat ganglia which quiver only in the presence of fried food laced with sugar.  In short, the doughnut affords me 3.8 seconds of aesthetic ecstasy, like an abbreviated narcotic.

ESL is not a narcotic of any kind.  Indeed, the only illicit thing about it is the faint tang of masochism that attends to mastering the abstruser aspects of reported speech, for example.  No, the unique selling experience or USE of ESL is not of the hit-and-run kind.  To be sure the early gains of beginner and elementary students are enormous – they may perhaps get a little heady with the amount of things they can say after only a few short weeks.  But once they hit the buffers of pre-intermediacy, the ‘hit’, or the flow, is derivative less from the material itself and more from the experience.  This experience is of two parts.  One is the collegiate atmosphere, the random banter and in-situ friendships throw up by the ESL classroom.  The second  is a more intangible but longer-lasting feeling of self-improvement.

Thanks to more propaganda than Goebbels could dream of, learning English has come to be seen as a valuable thing to do.  If you study English, you aren’t wasting your time – you’re making something of yourself.  Sure, this is not the main driver of a refugee facing deportation and death unless she can triumph over the present perfect in the latest Home Office test, but for the vast majority of ESL students it has resonance.  This idea of self-betterment is what keeps people coming back week-in and week-out long after the honeymoon glow of elementary level has faded, long after they’ve stopped doing homework, long after they’ve even stopped being remotely interested in the subject.  They still keep coming, patting themselves on the back, getting that sense of well-being which comes as a kind of reflected glory when someone asks what they do with themselves of a winter evening:

‘O, I study English.’

‘That’s great.  Wow, I just eat doughnuts.’



  1. Great first post. I had a feeling from your comments that you had a blog in you! Fancy a guest piece on mine to get more people on here?

    Comment by alexcase — December 11, 2009 @ 5:57 pm

  2. Hey Alex – cheers. I’d be honoured to write a guest post for your blog. Do you have a specific date in mind or can I mail you whenever?

    Comment by theteslacoil — December 13, 2009 @ 5:22 pm

  3. Whenever and whatever, that’s my philosophy!

    Comment by alexcase — December 13, 2009 @ 5:55 pm

  4. Excellent – that’s certainly my approach to eating. I will endeavour to get something to you based on those criteria.

    Comment by theteslacoil — December 13, 2009 @ 6:05 pm

  5. PS, might be worth listing yourself on Onestopblogs as well

    Comment by alexcase — December 13, 2009 @ 6:18 pm

  6. Good idea – thanks. I’ll do that when there’s a bit more on here.

    Comment by theteslacoil — December 14, 2009 @ 10:45 am

  7. Great post, I really enjoyed it.

    I wish I could riff on the whole doughnut metaphor thing, but I’m feeling idea-less. So sadly, I’m just going to say something unfunny and probably obvious (sorry), but one that is brought to mind by the thinking about the input of the “customer” into the service they buy in our industry.

    Unlike most things, even most services, as you rightly point out the purchaser of the service has to be deeply involved in the process of receiving the “product” (in our case a greater command of English). The other variable that is different from other services is that the experience of your purchase is actually influenced by the other people who buy the same service. Whether through having a very small or a very big class, or through having a good group of classmates or having to deal with other students who damage your own experience of the process. You don’t get that with doughnuts.

    There’s a lot of ugly words in that paragraphs which I’m not terribly happy with (process, product, purchase, etc etc), but I think to make the point they’ll have to do (and also because it’s Monday and my mind is blank)

    Comment by Andy Hockley — December 14, 2009 @ 3:36 pm

  8. Cheers Andy – yes, that really is the hole in the doughnut theory. It makes me think of other products which rely on others to imbue them with any value, such as a football match where the crowd is instrumental in its own enjoyment, including any individual spectator. Of course, in ESL classes, students are also the players…

    Comment by theteslacoil — December 14, 2009 @ 4:16 pm

  9. Welcome to the blogosphere and I look forward to returning and reading more.
    For the second time tonight, I find myself following Andy and wanting to echo his words. I like the attention to the customer’s point of view and the phrase that resonated positively with me was ‘self betterment’.

    Comment by vicki hollett — December 14, 2009 @ 5:00 pm

  10. Thanks Vicki – yes, it’s always a good feeling to help people to feel good about themselves.

    Comment by theteslacoil — December 14, 2009 @ 8:05 pm

  11. Hi there Mr Tesla,

    Forgive me if I misunderstood your argument (which twisted and turned a bit too much for a Monday) but I would have to disagree with the “we sell people information” point. We don’t sell a product at all. There is no doughnut. Language in not a commodity.

    I think the closest analogy would be the cookery school. We show students techniques, and guide them through their application, but the learning of expertise comes from the students themselves. That could be described as a service industry where the service does not include any doughnuts, but lots of recipes, demonstrations, practice, tests, etc.

    Even if schools frame ‘language mastery’ as the product on offer (some even guarantee how much progress will be made in a certain time), I can’t help but think that language is not and cannot be a commodity to be bought and sold. Of course, this does not stop textbooks (particularly Business English texts) and schools from packaging it in this way.

    Of course, I agree with you 100% that it is the students (customers) who define what product they are getting – they add the value. If students want to pay to enjoy the spectacle of learning, or pay to get to talk to a native speaker, or just fend of aging, then so be it.

    But there ain’t no doughnut!


    Comment by Tony Watt / @cuppa_coffee — December 14, 2009 @ 10:40 pm

  12. Hi Tony – yes, I think I must apologise for the tortuous path of my argument because, in essence, that is exactly what I’m saying: there is no doughnut!

    Comment by theteslacoil — December 15, 2009 @ 10:00 am

  13. I wish I could get some of the adults I teach to believe I can’t teach them fluency. I try and emphasize I’m something between a coach and resource for learning English. Still struggling with it, but I think I’ve converted a few students into teaching themselves and taking responsibility for their own learning.

    Comment by cynicalsamaritan — February 15, 2010 @ 9:45 am

    • How did you do that?? I’m struggling with a few who expect me to ‘make’ them better at English, not just immediately, but yesterday. And they want (want!!) grammar grammar grammar (seems crazy to me tho I guess that’s how they’re sold EFL/ESL).

      Anyway, Tesla Coil, thanks for a few really engaging reads 🙂


      Comment by Mike Harrison — February 17, 2010 @ 3:58 pm

      • No worries Mike – I’m glad you enjoyed them.

        Comment by theteslacoil — February 17, 2010 @ 9:09 pm

  14. Hi Cynical Samaritan – that’s the dream – it’s great when it comes true.

    Comment by theteslacoil — February 16, 2010 @ 11:55 pm

  15. […] For more food-related EFL blogging, do check out the Tesla Coil: […]

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