Plenary, plenary, plenary

Why do we have Plenaries?

Plenaries are a recognisable feature of most conferences, but what makes us go to them and what do we get out of them? I think I can say that over the years I have learned so much from Iatef plenaries that it-s hard to know where to start, but I’ll give it a try.

1) Theatre

First of all there is the theatrical aspect. Sitting in a dimly lit auditorium full of people with the spotlight on a central stage is possible not a very popular image these days when it comes to education. There is, however, definitely, in my experience, an element of magic coupled with a sense of expectation, when a hush falls over the audience and the presenter appears on stage. Plenary presenters are the gurus, those who are at the top of the profession, and for many they are “names” that we only know from their books, or from references we have heard, but in a professional sense they are household names, at least in our ELT world.

2) Telling Stories

These are not presentations where there is a limited amount of time to put across one or two central ideas, there are moments where individuals tell their stories. They have a wealth of experience and knowledge, developed over years of practice and reflection, which they communicate to us. I have learned so much from inspiring speakers at Iatefl, that stays with me over the years. Some, inevitable strike a chord with me more than others, and others will strike a chord with you for different reasons. Iatefl often invites a speaker to close the conference who is “a bit different” connected to “English” but not directly related to teaching. This year it is the turn of Jackie Kay, who writes for various media including stage and television, she will, in her own words “be reopening the border country of the imagination.” Unfortunately I’ll miss this event as I have to leave on Saturday morning but it will be a lovely way to look back on the conference, watching the video once I get home. So don’t despair if you can’t go to everything. Iatefl Online is there to help you.

3) Themes

The plenary sessions tend to “set themes” for the conferences and these speakers ask important questions that help us to look at the “big picture” in ELT. David Graddol will be asking whether the message that “learners need to learn English for economic reasons” is really true, and whether or not that English is a good investment. Sugata Mitra will be telling the story of his “hole in the wall” experiments with children organising their own learning in public and open spaces.  Kathrine Graves will be looking at learning, teaching and curriculum design ans asks whether “inefficient” approaches to learning, that focus on the learners and their needs rather than getting through the curriculum as quickly as possible, are really as inefficient as they might appear. Finally, Michael Hoey, who is one of my personal icons will look at Lewis and Krashen, both of whom have been criticised, to see how corpus-linguistic research backs up much of what they say, and what the implications of this are for teaching.

5) A personal reflection

When I saw that Michael Hoey was going to give a plenary I went to my bookshelves and got out “Lexical Priming” (Hoey 2005) which I had read with excitement when it was first published and then not focused on too much in the intervening years, I admit. What I found when I was sitting on the airplane suspended somewhere between Venice and Amsterdam, and I reread the introduction, was that even though, consciously, I had not looked back at this book, subconsciously the ideas were there, in the background, colouring the way I think about and, therefore, teach language.

Priming is, in a nutshell, what happens in an individual’s mind when we hear or see a word or piece of language. We are “primed” by the word itself, by our own history and background, and by the context we are in, to expect a specific piece of language that will be combined either collocationaly or colligationally (grammatically) with that language. As I was sitting on the plane, mulling this over a (Dutch, I think as I was on a KLM flight) came past and asked me:

“Would you like a sweet snack or a salty snack?”

I answered without a second’s hesitation that I’d like a “salty snack” please, and it was only after she had moved on that it occurred to me that something “felt wrong” about that. Then it came to me that what I would normally expect was a “savoury snack” (In fact that it what it said on the box on the trolley, I later noticed). I understood this exchange, however, with not trouble at all, as the “sweet snack” primed me to expect an alternative. The intonation helped too, and I accommodated by automatically using the same expression. This is a process that I find fascinating and I’ll be reflecting on it length later but right now, I’m afraid I have to go to get ready for the first plenary.

Hope to see you there…





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