Talking to Mario Rinvolucri

TimeJune 2, 2019 by ELT forum

Mario Rinvolucri is a founding member of Pilgrims and has worked with them as an EFL teacher and teacher trainer since 1974.  He is the co-author of many books about methodology of ELT. Some of his well-known books are Grammar games, Once upon a time, Vocabulary, Creative writing, Humanising your course book and many others. He is currently learning advanced level French C1-2, Albanian at a cheerful -A1 level both languages with private tutors. For German Mario goes to a group of old pensioners and wobbles along at a wobbly B1 level, sharing the group’s joy at having no teacher.  Ohne Lehrer kann man viel besser atmen!  He also helps a neighbour to practice her A2/B1 conversational Italian.

Earlier in his life he was involved in writing 20 ELF and DaF Teacher Resource Books , mostly  co-authoring with a wide spread of Pilgrims Teachers and Trainers.

As many of you may be aware, much of the Pilgrims’ archive was accidently destroyed so I wanted to get down on paper some of the school’s history over the last 45 years.  I hope you will find Mario’s in depth history lesson as interesting as I did.  I wonder if this could ever happen again in our fast changing world.

 What was your prime motivation in establishing Pilgrims in1974?

 I met James Dixey in the early seventies and we plunged into three writing projects: Get up and do it (published by Longman),  Well Said, that we published on our own and The Fun Course, still unpublished!  We met and became friends in the process of co-authoring. In 1974 James Dixey decided to create a language school to service the European summer market. This was HIS project, HIS entrepreneurial drive. In the spring of that year James bounced round   Western Europe “selling” his dream language course to anybody who would listen. Sucked in by his cheeky enthusiasm quite a number of serious people in places like Germany and Sweden promised to give his project a whirl. He told me at the time that he had spent around the price of a down -market car in getting those first courses off the ground.

Dixey chose his own old college, Keynes, in the University of Kent, as the place where the courses would be held. Between June 1974 and early September we were a teaching team of four. I can remember how precious those students seemed to us… a bit of a miracle. I am pretty sure that my teaching that summer was suffused with extra dedication and thrill.

In those heady days Dixey was determined to attract the best teachers he could and to this end he decided to pay us 10% above the going rate for this type of teaching.  As time passed James moved from being a Teacher Principal to being a proper capitalist entrepreneur and Pilgrims bit by bit lost its 10% salary edge. In the later seventies he generously offered to make me a partner in the business. My socialist instincts worked well and I declined his well intentioned offer.

That first Autumn James Dixey began learning real business skills. When, in October, it became time to settle up with the University for the bedrooms and class rooms we had hired from them, he noticed that the University Sports Centre were unable to give him a log of how much and when our students had used their excellent  facilities. He used this as a bargaining chip for holding up paying the main bill till the end of the year!  While this was going on he could gloat over the fees our students had paid Pilgrims in the April to July period, as they sat in Pilgrim’s bank account, gathering interest. (The fees, not the students!)

In the seventies of the last century how revolutionary was Pilgrims in comparison to other EFL institutions that were our commercial and intellectual competition?

By the time we came on the scene in the mid-seventies John Haycraft had established his chain of EFL schools in Spain, in UK and then Europe-wide. To do this he had to set up a system of training native speakers who were ignorant of their own grammar and who had no clue as to the HOW of language teaching.

He himself had been through a nine month long “Applied Linguistics” course in a University and a short, sharp, action-packed introduction to soldiering.( National Service) He created a month long course based on the military model which has now morphed into the CELTA introduc tory-to- EFL teaching course. Haycraft led the way that all of us were to follow : CUT THE GUFF AND LEARN THE HOW.

International House Hastings in the Seventies was experimenting with Gattegno’s Silent Way and digesting this fiercely mathematical  approach to EFL. Their pivot person, Adrian Underhill, lead the staff into a lot of work on the psychology of learning.  They were way ahead of us.

The work on Suggestopaedia was picked up by two UK schools, one in Folkstone and the other near Bristol. These ideas came from Lozanov in Bulgaria and focused on relaxation and using music as a fast way into language. These ideas also took root in Paris and across Germany and Austria.

By the late sixties Bernard Dufeu had been introduced to the work of Willy Urbain who had adapted Moreno’s work in psychodrama to teaching beginners a new language. Dufeu, working in Mainz, Germany, soon built up a well trained cadre of  “ revolutionary “ language teachers  working in French, German and English. Dufeu dropped Urbain’s title “Spontaneous Expression” to replace it by “Language psychodramaturgy”. By the late sixties Alan Maley and Alan Duff began writing their books for CUP that made all previous course-books look way out of date.

 Where did Pilgrims derive its ideas from in those first years?

Our kick into experimentation came principally from a marvellous centre in Brattleboro, Vermont, called the Experiment in International Living. Lou Spaventa and Carlos Maeztu were the carrier pigeons bearing the seeds of a new beginning across the Atlantic. From them we learnt about the work of Charles Curran, (Community Language Learning) Caleb Gattegno, Earl Stevick and many more. Looking back I guess the carrier pigeons were both amazed at our naive ignorance, but maybe pleased at our readiness to learn. In my own case that was often after a bit of choleric, defensive huffing and puffing!

Apart from scale, what has changed at Pilgrims over the past nearly half century?

We have welcomed new people to start new ventures in the area of language learning.

In the late seventies Dixey brought in Jim Wingate, an old friend of his, to set up children’s courses. Wingate was an indefatigable worker who could get by on 4/5 hours sleep. Wingate came with deep belief in the use and validity of his own training as an actor and singer. He was an excellent mime artist. An exceptionally powerful teller of oral tales, too.

Jim  refused to short-list his potential future teachers but travelled up and down the off-shore island  in a van determined  to get  a real , straight, one-to-one impression of the person, and a in as much depth as possible. (He felt CV’s were mostly bullshit!)

Wingate picked people as young as possible and gave them an intense training on the job. Was he a slave-driver?  I think he was, but many people who went through that mill have told me how grateful they are to him for what he insisted on getting from them.

It was not long before Dixey hired a city centre building in which to teach business English all year round. For thirty years this was the most conservative part of Pilgrims. The people who ran it found themselves taking on retired businessmen and senior ex-policemen. They were mostly people one generation older than the rest of us. It is not surprising that hardly any writing came out of this hard-working group who steered clear of the psychological aspects of teaching a language.

In the last five years all this had changed for the better with the recruitment of much more psychologically aware teachers who are not afraid to help students deal with factors that block some students’ ability to become proficient in English. Do all business students benefit from a counselling approach to language acquisition? To my mind the jury is still out on this one. 

About three years in, I think in 1976, we began to run in-service TT courses for people from across Europe. When I think back I realise we were flying by the seat of our pants.

Once these courses became eligible for EU grants the numbers ballooned. In the 1990’s. We were dealing, each summer, with around 900 two week-coursers. We soon began offering short training courses to people in their own countries: here are some of people we worked with, in some cases regularly for over 30 years:

Volkshochschulen in Germany and Austria (evening classes) – In Germany we worked intensively in Berlin, Hesse, Niedersachsen, Bayern and Baden Wurtemberg.

Centres d’etudes de Langue across France (Ecoles Consulaires)

Medborgar Skolan in Sweden (Evening Institutes)

Secondary teacher training in Jutland, Denmark

Teacher training groups across Italy, often organised by brilliant local trainers before all this work got sucked into the acid stomach of the universities.

 We found it made good marketing sense to offer plenary speakers to annual Conferences in different lands: APPI, Portugal,                                   GRETA, Granada, Spain Universidad Autonoma, Barcelona, TESOL France …….the list is a long one….

When Hungarian EFL teachers decided they wanted to know what we had been cooking up  in the West” , when they realised that political change was on the offing, several Pilgrims trainers went to Budapest and could not believe how deeply and enthusiastically these folk had been devouring the work of Maley and Duff. The Hungarian colleagues knew this work better than either of the Alans!

(It was this young, forward-looking Hungarian elite who forced me out of my doubts and made me realise that my own work as a methodologist was durable and serious)

[Self-belief is vital providing it doesn’t slip over the edge and become fatuous vain-glorification.]

 Pilgrims also began to win major TT contracts in places like the Netherlands (the Early Bird primary training scheme) and Castilla la Vieja (pain).  These were exciting jobs because here we had to deal with a whole teaching population, not just with the forward-pushing, keen teachers.

 Over much of the 0’s, 90’s and noughties I was the “pointsman”, deciding which trainers should go where. In this role I had to try and be fair and not gobble all the plum jobs for myself!  It did not stop me feeling twinges of envy as X went off to Y!

I was envious of people training young Chinese teachers in South and East China and for decent lengths of time like 3 months.

I was green with envy as some 10 different trainers who went to work in deepest Winter in Greenland. The stories they brought back!

One colleague went to the Faroes and really didn’t like it. GGGRRRRR… I dream that I would have loved it!

 A major part of our success has come from a natural wish that many of us simply felt like writing methodology books. Pilgrims encouraged this but rarely pushed anybody to

do it  “ for the good of the company”.  I was involved, with many colleagues, in co-authoring around 20 books.  I say “ around” as three or four never got published.)

In the 80’s we entered a co-branding exercise with Longman that, under Seth Lindstromberg’s expert editorship ,  produced 18 titles. Longman make clear why they wanted this partnership:  “we have a reputation as an EFL publisher for reliability and   seriousness, we need the woomph of Pilgrims reputation for crazy creativity….”

Sadly, yes, sadly, in the area of writing useful, practical, books we have done much more work than our competitors. I would love to read some of the books outstanding minds like Underhill (IH )and Bolitho (Nile)have YET TO WRITE.  Come on guys, I have been begging you to write more over the last three decades!

To sum up Pilgrims’ book publications; It is safe to say that people from our “stable” have contributed around 70 volumes to the resource book pool.  I am here including the Pilgrims Pre-publication list , what in-house we call the “ brown books”.

Had James Dixey not started out as a powerful classroom teacher and then teacher trainer I very much doubt the “brown book” list would have seen the light of day.

Before leaving the area of publications we are naturally proud of the 30 plus years that

Tessa Woodward has loved, sustained, and fed THE TEACHER TRAINER. How many technical editors have ploughed such a rich furrow for so long?

I managed to clock up just 7 years (starting at the turn of the millennium,) as editor of our webzine HUMANISING LANGUAGE TEACHING before Hania Kryszewska took over and carried it forward along new paths.

None of our competitors have thought fit to lay out the money we did to reach people

from  Peru to Tierra del Fuego, from Khabarovsh to Petersburg/Leningrad) and from  California to Halifax………..

Enough of this blatant crowing……..

 Four years into the new millennium James Dixey sold Pilgrims to Till Gins, who owns

OISE. Till was fascinated by this odd organisation he had bought. He spent a lot of time participating in the Teacher Training classes on our Canterbury Hilltop. Certain trainers’ work he genuinely admired and he showed this by sending these folk round his other schools to offer a TT input.

 Till Gins did all sorts of naughty things to help Pilgrims forwards. At the IATEFL conference one year in Liverpool he joined the manager running Pilgrims (im Wright) and me giving out Pilgrims brochures at the door leading into a major plenary. [This was definitely not allowed by IATEFL rules] “Can I help you two” Till asked with a wicked grin on his face!

Luckily we all three escaped the gallows!

A defect of the OISE modus-operandi  is incessant price rises. I remember Till once giving his management teams a pep talk about how one should be overjoyed to be paying 20 euros for a caffe latte in Piazza San Marco since one was enjoying QUALITY.

(I dreamt quietly to myself about just how much Venice needs a Weatherspoons and the concept of re-fills at no extra cost! I dreamt quietly!


How relevant is the humanistic approach to teaching in a World that values speed of results and technology?

 My answer comes in the form of questions? How relevant to the six month old foetus is the awareness s/he has of the people who come to see Mum during the nine months inside? How important to the 3-month-old child are the spurts of warm mother milk that the baby can feel this woman loves to “let down”. How come that the best language learning, (way the best) comes within the unique child-mother relationship?

I rest my case.

What are your hopes for foreign language teaching in the future?

May I give a roundabout answer?  In my 20’s I wrote a sort of sociology of hitch-hiking book. It nearly got published by Macmillans. They thought It would sell 3000 copies in the first year. They reckoned it needed to sell 4000 copies to make an adequate return. It was turned down.

I decided to self publish. I was thrilled to sell 1400 copies in the Spring and Summer of 1974. Some years later a Swiss -Australian found a copy of the book in a library in Aussieland and was so excited he decided to re-type it so  it could go up on the very young WWW. (He tracked me down and asked if I would be happy with Internet publication). The book is still available there today, years later, and reading it won’t cost you anything.

The future is there, for language learning work.  The web allows things to happen in the learning process that we have not yet begun to even partially explore. To read more about this keep an eye on the Pilgrims-Bridges new IDEAS BANK that will shortly go up on the WWW, edited by Pani Klaudia Bednarova.

author: Ben Gwillim, teacher at the Bridge

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