The Silence of the Audience

Conference PresentationThis is an image from the recent Iatefl Conference in Glasgow and it encapsulates one idea which we associate with conferences: the idea of the “speaker” empowered, up on his or her pedestal, dispensing wisdom to the hushed audience, in this case the audience are literally in the dark, so their role is to watch and absorb…(oh and then perhaps go to the session later on to ask questions, if it doesn’t clash with the other parallel sessions on at that time.)

I was reading Naomi Epstein’s thoughts on conferences, which you can see on her blog. She was writing about how it would be nice to have more than input sessions, which still seem to be the norm in most places, and suggested output sessions, one a day perhaps, where the dos and don’ts of various topics could be discussed, leading up to the publication of the discussion, conclusions etc. I, personally, think this is an excellent idea and leads me on to think about how conferences might change to reflect the times we are living in, using the technology available, but even more so, changing our mindsets so that we are prepared to consider doing things in different ways. We are all such creatures of habit though, and after all, don’t we all rave about how great things are anyway, without changing anything?

Oran Mor Murals
Oran Mor Murals: capturing the spirit

What happens at an English Teaching Conference at the moment?

In the English Teaching world it works like this: you go to a conference, attend a series of presentations, maybe look at book exhibitions and the like, meet friends and colleagues, make some new contacts and attend one or two events. Don’t get me wrong, doing these things is a great way to spend time and I’ve just had an amazing few days in Glasgow as I’ve said before in previous posts, I’ve learned a lot, been motivated by speakers and colleagues, and visited a bit of Glasgow including a wonderful pub called Oran Mor, where they have an amazing event called “A Play, a pie and a pint” so if you go to Glasgow I can warmly recommend it. So, I felt that it was well worth going there, and I’m already looking forward to Liverpool next year…

But… and it is a rather large “but”, there is a huge silence behind all of this and this is the silence of the audience. I remember my very first Iatefl, which was Harrogate 2005. I was thrilled to be there, and not least because I had won the Onestopenglish Methodology Prize, which enabled me to go that year. I had also been studying quite a lot of linguistics for various reasons, at that time, so it was wonderful for me to see names like Dave Willis or Mike McCarthy speak. I felt as though I was entering into a whole new world, which was charged with potential and this was further reinforced by the discussions that went on at the sessions. For the last few years though, maybe because I’ve been going to the wrong sessions, I don’t know, it seems to me that these discussions are simply not happening any more, or are greatly reduced. Most people (this includes me unfortunately) give their presentations and then the time is up, and everyone rushes on to the next thing.

Le Voyage dans la Lune from the film by Georges Méliès

Asking for the Moon

In some sessions you do group work and share ideas there, but the group work I did this year in sessions like Jane Willis’ talk or Tessa Woodward’s made me see that there was a great wealth of experience and wisdom in those audiences and wouldn’t it be nice to be able to tap into that as well. (Or am I asking for the moon here, when we are already getting so much?)

Iatefl, in fact, always ask for feedback and are constantly seeking ways to improve and expand what is becoming a bigger and bigger conference every year. This is a tall order for anyone. Two years ago, in fact, the Iatefl conference introduced the idea of the Interactive Teaching Fair, where presenters have a stand with posters, videos, worksheets, tasks etc. and at the beginning of this session present their stand for 2 minutes, like a type of intellectual bazaar. The audience decides which stands they are interested in and can then go and talk to the presenters. I had a stand on blended learning that year, and it was true that I interacted with a lot of people there, but at the end I felt that it had all been a bit too fast and furious, and I’m not sure that the people who came to my stand really had the chance to watch the video or do my guided discovery activity either. Maybe they did, or maybe it doesn’t matter if they didn’t because they may have chosen not to. But do we know whether they actually had that choice? After all, choosing not to do something when you know what is available is rather different from not doing something because you didn’t manage to get close enough to find out what you could do. The fair is a nice idea, but it needs to be honed and developed I think.

Twitter-Mosaik by wuestenigel on Flickr

The Ubiquitous fat, blue Sparrow

I liked this clever image of Twitter because it is symbolic of social networking for learning and sharing. It is true that in recent conferences audiences have been encouraged to participate in sessions by tweeting their opinions. This is one way for the audience to have a voice and in some cases, it is working well. In the Socialnetworking Symposium, for instance, the moderators had their own access to Wifi (as the Wifi provided by the conference centre, as often happens, probably couldn’t cope with such large numbers and was difficult to use during the conference itself, even though it had been working perfectly during the pre conference day). I remember the ELT Journal Debate in Brighton too, where the audience were encouraged to participate via Twitter, and that worked well too. Some people were distracted by the tweets streaming in, but that is, I think, a matter of getting used to it, and those tweets could then have been collected, collated and published leading on to even more discussion. This, then is one direction that conferences are going in, which I think is promising…

It still leaves me, however, with the feeling that we are creatures of habit, as I said before, and we take comfort from seeing things done in the way they have always been done: a presentation with the audience taking notes. (OK, We have Powerpoint and Prezi nowadays instead of simply having a speaker or a speaker with flipcharts, like the one I used in 2005… not so terribly long ago, in fact) but the focus is still on the speaker or the speaker’s content alone.

I just think it would be nice to have more space for discussion in the talks, so as to draw on the knowledge that is there in the audience, that

Captain Twitter by Christian Guthier net_efect on Flickr
Captain Twitter by Christian Guthier net_efect on Flickr

knowledge which we could share and enrichen by interacting with each other so much more. What if, I wonder.. what if the presentations were treated as springboards to discussion…, Then maybe we could all take flight…

Or maybe we can just keep blogging about it with each other, and attending #eltchat on Wednesdays. Anyway, just to give you yet another taste of Iatefl if you didn’t manage to get there this year (or, a few memories if you did ) here is my annual Iatefl Slideshow courtesy of Simply follow the link:

Make your own slideshow with music at Animoto.

10 thoughts on “The Silence of the Audience

  1. Hi Sharon – was interested to read your post.
    Thought you / others might be interested in reading how other industries are also questioning the ‘standard’ conference format >
    Very different industry but similar questions/ issues

    I think the IATEFL initiative that started in Harrogate was the first IATEFL ILF (Interactive Language Fair) – from what I saw, it seemed to me that it had great potential


    1. Hi Julian, thanks for the link, it’s interesting to see that others are thinking along the same lines. I’m sure the Iatefl Interactive Teaching Fair format does have potential, and yes, Harrogate was the first one ever, so it was a historical occasion. I think maybe fewer presentations with a varied format and more emphasis on discussion there too would be really good. The key I think, is in connectivity and building relationships, all of which could be done so mich better at these conferences with just a few small changes. Of course, I’m only looking at this from my viewpoint and I’m sure that for those organising the conference ther are all kinds of issues involved. However, at the moment in Iatefl standard presentations last 45 minutes, so 30 minutes could be used for the presentatioon and 15 for discussion. This would be a very minor, nut beneficial change.

  2. Having just returned from IATEFL too, I found this really thought provoking. I liked the way you were inspired by Naomi’s idea and developed it into your own post. I also felt this time at IATEFL that I benefit less and less from the sessions I attend but more from the interaction with the people I meet or know from Twitter.
    Great blog – will check your other entries too!

  3. nice to read this post and for link to naomi’s post, as i have too been dissappointed with the lecture style conference (, and there seems to be a groundswell of similar opinions in educator circles.

    in addition to ‘output’ i would talk about ‘building’ and ‘making’ so that we leave conferences with something ‘solid’, maybe even some sort of ‘digital artefact’ that was ‘built’ by conference participants?

  4. One way that we have dealt with this issue at the TESOL Convention in the U.S. is by a type of session known as a Discussion Group. In this format, the presenters serve as facilitators by introducing a topic, described in the program, and inviting the participants to talk about it. The challenge with this is that often, the participants would actually prefer to hear what the presenters have to say, rather than share their own ideas!

    1. Yes, I agree that there are some who want to hear what the presenters have to say, and people should be free to choose whether or not they want to take part in discussions. Some may just want to listen to the ideas being discussed. So why not try one 15 minute presentation limited to 1 or 2 main points, or a Symposium of 2 or 3 people making 1 point each (all of which are published in advance s that the audience can prepare questions, thoughts insights etc.) In that way those who just want to listen can listen and those who want to discuss can discuss.

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