Achilleas Kostoulas

Applied Linguistics & Language Teacher Education

Young boys and teacher in a crowded classroom

Tissue rejection in language education

A question that comes up regularly in my language teacher education courses is why we can’t seem to find a ‘best’ teaching method. I usually respond that there is no such thing as a universally effective way to teach, because what seems to work well in some cases, often fails in others. One of the most effective ways to describe this phenomenon is the ’tissue rejection’ metaphor. In this post, I discuss what tissue rejection means in language education.

What does ’tissue rejection’ mean in language teaching methodology?

The term ’tissue rejection’ was first evoked in the context of language education by Adrian Holliday (1992), in order to describe the failed introduction of innovations in a teaching context. Specifically, he used the term as a metaphor for what happens when a teaching method, which works in a particular educational setting, is introduced into a different setting, and fails to catch on there.

BANA & TESEP settings

In Holliday’s early writings, he makes a distinction between what he called BANA and TESEP models of instructed language learning. This is a somewhat dated distinction, and Holliday’s thinking has evolved since then, but I will use it in this post, because its clear-cut lines help to make the ’tissue rejection’ metaphor more vivid.

In BANA (British, Australasian and North American) settings, language learning tends to take place in private schools or language learning centres affiliated to universities. In these settings, he argued, there is often a ‘relatively clear contract between institutes and mainly adult groups who come specifically to learn English’. By contrast, in the TESEP model, derived from the words Tertiary, Secondary and Primary, language learning does not usually have an instrumental objective (Holliday 1998: 12).

Each of these two models has evolved different methods, which are in line with local cultural expectations, learning materials and resources, classroom arrangements, and so on. For instance, in BANA settings, learners are likely to encounter ‘a process-oriented, task-based, inductive, collaborative, communicative English language teaching methodology’, which Holliday called the ‘learning group ideal’ (p. 54). In TESEP educational settings, on the other hand, it is more common to see more traditional, transmissive, form-focused approaches to language learning, because these are closer to the norms of mainstream education in such settings.

Importing BANA methods could lead to tissue rejection

The problem, Holliday argues, is that TESEP often tends to be perceived as less-than-effective, and BANA methodology is usually seen as the remedy to this problem. This is, in a sense, similar to a situation where a patient undergoes surgery, which replaces a failing organ (ineffective methods) with a healthier transplant (the learning group ideal). However, when such innovations take place, we do not, and cannot, replicate the entire BANA model in the new setting. Rather, what is transferred is a limited selection of methods, which often do not fit very comfortably in the new context where they are transplanted. The new method (the ’tissue’), which was effective in its original setting, then becomes a source of disruption in the new setting.

Model showing tissue rejection in language education: the learning group ideal, which is supported in language learning Context A, is disruptive in langauge learning Context B
Figure 1. Relative positions of the language learning ideal in different environments (from Holliday 1994: 105)

A common scenario of ’tissue rejection’ is when a language teacher tries to introduce pair-work or group-work activities in a class where learners are used to working individually, under their teachers’ guidance. In such a case, it’s likely that the learners start engaging in off-task behaviour, or become disruptive; fellow teachers might complain about the noise levels in the language class; and parents might question the language teacher’s professionalism.

What you need to remember about tissue rejection

The key thing to remember in this case is that the problem does not stem from the teachers’ classroom management skills. Rather, tissue rejection is rooted on the mismatch between the culture from where the method originated and the culture where it is being implemented. Returning to Holliday’s metaphor, it is similar to what happens when a patient’s immune system attacks an otherwise perfectly good organ that has been transplanted into to said patient’s body.

The ’tissue rejection’ image is a powerful metaphor that helps us to understand the social and cultural intricacies involved in teaching English worldwide. Although the premises on which it was originally grounded (i.e., the existence of two incompatible English Language Teaching models) have given way to more nuanced thinking, the spectre of tissue rejection is still relevant in at least two ways. Firstly, it highlights the need for language educators to be aware of, and sensitive to, the subtleties of local educational cultures. And secondly, it serves to remind us of the complex, and often unpredictable, ways in which different cultures of learning interact.

Some final words…

I hope that you enjoyed reading this post and that it was helpful to you. I would really be interested in reading about any stories of ’tissue rejection’ from your teaching experience. You can share your stories in the comments below — and also feel free to use the social sharing buttons to forward this article to anyone who might be interested.

If you have other questions about language teaching and learning that you think I might be able to answer, I’d be happy to hear from you.

About this post: This post was originally written in July 2015, in response to a question from a reader of this blog. It was revised with a new introduction in September 2018. The last update of the article was in February 2020. The featured image was taken by Twin Work & Volunteer @ Flickr and is shared under a Creative Commons BY-NC-ND licence.


4 responses to “Tissue rejection in language education”

  1. Costas Gabrielatos avatar
    Costas Gabrielatos

    Of course, more often than not, the rejection is (also/mainly) due to the way the transplanted methodology is perceived and used by teachers. That is, the methodology may well be compatible; it’s just interpreted and ‘applied’ in half-baked, misguided ways. In my teacher training days (in Greece), I used to present this to student-teachers as the “Shut up and do your pairwork” approach (to avoid).

    For a good discussion, see: Karavas-Doukas, E. (1996). Using attitude scales to investigate teachers’ attitudes to the communicative approach. ELTJ, 50(3), 187-198. doi:10.1093/elt/50.3.187.

    1. Achilleas avatar

      Very true

  2. Nadezda avatar

    You are just repeating yourself, Achilleas! Again brilliance! :)

    1. Achilleas avatar

      I am really glad you liked it :)

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