What’s the point?

What’s the point of teaching, testing, teacher training and conferences?

At the risk of sounding as though I’m copying Barry O’Sullivan, I may say that, at the beginning of this post, you are reading but you don’t know where this is taking you, and I’m not sure I do too, but I hope that it will all come together along the way.

The image I chose for this post is one of cycling along on a fixed course whilst everything blurs around you, and I sometimes wonder if this is what I’m doing. During every big conference, like Iatefl, there are moments of confusion, where the input from so many presentations becomes just a bit too much and these are then followed by moments where questions arise. At some stage, later on, usually after the event there come moments of clarity as well, where everything seems to crystalize (no pun intended!) into various themes or topics or ideas, and that is the answer, I think to my first question: what is the point of conferences? Conferences, of course, as we all know, are much more than presentations, they are, as a friend of mine put it, a time when you ‘hang out with your tribe’, something we all need to do. Then, however, we go back home and everything is swirling around in the background as you try to catch up on sleep and the hundreds of emails waiting for you, that you couldn’t answer due to the slow Internet in the hotel etc. Then, slowly, ideas and thoughts emerge from the surrounding blurriness and occasionally there are moments of insight. My insight is connected to the cyclist in the image above.

Cycling along without being aware of the bigger picture around you

I suppose most of us do this, to some extent, we go into our classrooms or our offices, and we do the work that is infront of us, to the best of our ability but how often do we ask ‘Where is all this leading?’ I am not referring to the paycheck or making ends meet. Most educators, I still believe, are not ‘in it for the money’ but do have some type of, if not vocation, belief in what we are doing. Barry O’Sullivan, in his incredibly thought-provoking plenary, managed to convince me that at best we are muddling along and that our assessment system is actually pretty much a case of trial and error, no matter, how scientifically we dress it up. Reliability is a term that is used a lot in testing, and actually, as he said, it actually only means ‘consistent’ not whether the test is consistently good or consistently ‘crap’ as he put it. We buy into the scientific principle that bigger is better so that if test results are reliable over large numbers than that must be a good thing, mustn’t it? Well, actually, possibly not. We don’t actually know. We only know that the numbers or the results are reliable, or consistent, not that the test is good or even valid, in that it tests what our particular learners need, and here I come to the second point from Barry’s presentation that I’d like to stop and think about. The ideas that testing, teaching, teacher training all need to be ‘local’ and not that they need to be developed locally, necessarily, but that they need to reflect local needs. Local, in this case meaning relevant to individuals, to you and to me and to each of our learners. This takes learner centredness to a whole new level, as Barry called for everyone to work together: trainers, teachers, testers etc. informed by standards with a capital ‘S’. If you’d like to see the plenary, where he says so much more and which, as my friend Sian said, was ‘a cracking plenary’, follow this link to the British Council online coverage.

Barry, in fact, encourages us to ‘create the future’. This really means stopping your bicycle, getting off, looking around to see the bigger picture and to start smelling the roses.

What’s the point of my teaching?

So, I went for a walk in the countryside near Verona where I live. OK, so I wasn’t really smelling the roses, but I was admiring the arrival of Spring, and a doubt that had been at the back of my mind for a while, surfaced once again. To put it bluntly, I was wondering what the point of some of my courses is. For instance, in my specific university course for third year undergraduates, I am spending  36 academic hours teaching language students to go someway towards being able to analyse discourse, something that has taken me years, in fact, to even approach being able to do, on a good day, and then, just for good measure, we are also doing an introduction to corpus linguistics and to translation theory and practice. This is all fascinating stuff, that I am personally quite passionate about but I am really feeling the time constraints, and I also feel that it is unfair to expect the students to be able to gain much expertise in these fields, so that is why I was questioning the point of it all, but, and there is a ‘but’, as Barry O’Sullivan said, we can ‘create the future’ so the point is actually, in my mind, to whet my learners’ appetite for these things, to teach them the value of critical thinking and not taking what they read, hear, watch or translate at face value. Hopefully, I can communicate my own enthusiasm to my learners and some of them will then choose to go more deeply into these things. So, my moment of lucidity is this: creating the future means whetting our learners’ appetites, catering for their and our own needs and putting what we do into a bigger context. As I walked with the dogs around the fields, admiring the blossoms and the wild flowers in the grass I actually felt a moment of peace. So, that you Iatefl and thank you Barry, for helping me once again to come back from the conference and clarify a whole range of ideas.

Getting back to normal

So, I hope that this little post has actually taken us somewhere, and tomorrow, when I go into clas, I think I will share the idea of ‘whetting appetites with my learners as I allay their fears about my expectations of them in their final exams. After all I want to be able to assess what they can do, and what will help them in their English, their lives and for their futures once they leave the university.

 

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Brighton Day Two: taking things into your own hands, blending learning, pavement poetry and singing barbers

Photo credit: skeeze on pizabay https://pixabay.com/en/seascape-beach-pier-ocean-sand-2275869Speaking out and blending learning

This morning dawned bright and sunny and spring was in the air as well as in my step as I set of for the plenary. Walking along the King’s Road with the sea sparkling blue on my righthand side was a few moments of pure joy, which set me off in the right frame of mind for the conference. The plenary set the mood for the day and it was a mood of courage. Dorothy Zemach, in an extremely polished but down to earth presentation, stood in front of the audeince and described the situation in the world of publishing, and she told it like it is, with no embellishments, cost cutting which leads inevitably to cutting the money available for authors, which, in turn, leads to experienced authors leaving the profession as they find that they cannot survive on the fees being offered. As a result quality suffers. She said a lot more, and despite the harsh nature of her message remained positive, as she argued for quality writing and urged the audience to go to publishers and tell them what they want and need.

As a direct result of this I went to the Pearson stand and asked, once again, (I’ve done this several times before over the last few years) why they have removed the concordance line option from the digital component of the Longman Dictionary of Contemporary English. It is a dictionary that I like a lot and recommend to my learners because of several features such as the collocations section or the activator, an extremely innovative idea in its day. I, and my learners used to like the concordance lines option that you could choose on the CD Rom, when we still had such things, because it reveals language patterning so clearly and can be used to study or explore collocations, verb patterns, meaning over chunks etc. This time, however, I decided to appeal to the marketing department of Pearson, so I said: I’ve just given a talk where there was quite a large audience of educators all interested in corpora, so perhaps it’s time to bring the concordance lines back. It would actually enhance the product without raising the price as you would get two products for the price of one: a dictionary and a corpus interface so an exclusive focus on lexical usage that would be a unique selling point for the product. You get the idea? If you want to get a result you have to try to speak the language that will get you that result. They seemed to be interested and said they would pass the message on and get back to me. Fingers crossed. At least, I felt that I had been proactive, so thanks, Dorothy, for that.

Practice and more practice

Jim Scrivener was next on my list of appointments. He was speaking about the value of practice, and getting back to basics. Among many other things he said that “the essential learning experience is doing it yourself”, which is not new but is worth pausing to consider in more depth. Some of what he said was deliberately provocative such as “Teaching hardly matters, learning does.” This was provocative but led to quite a lot of thinking on my part, anyway. I thought about the fact that in a university context where undergraduates have what are actually quite short courses to cover a vast amount of content the ‘lecturing’ is often the starting point, and it is then true that students need to take matters into their own hands and read, think, digest information and put new skills into practice. Some of this is done in class, but not all of it. To say that the teaching hardly matters though is, I think, wrong. The teaching can, and does motivate and help learners scaffold learning and foster it, when it works, on the other hand it can also have the opposite effect, if it is not done well, leading to completely disengaged learners who are simply sitting in a lecture hall, physically, but their minds and souls are elsewhere.

Scrivener stressed the need for practice when learning a new language and speaking to a musician later on this evening, we were comparing language learning to learning how to play a musical instrument, saying just how important practice is if you want to be able to play that instrument. In the same way giving learners exposure and the chance to use language in a variety of meaningful ways is, I believe, fundamental, although I believe that mindless repetition is not effective as engaged learners experimenting with language in a meaningful way, such as putting language into a context which is meaningful for them.

Having said that, however, many of us are under time constraints to ‘cover’ a syllabus which is not of our own choosing and time becomes a luxury in class. The answer, I think, lies in motivating learners as far as possible or whetting their appetites for more. If you don’t have time in class, encourage your learners to take things into their own hands. The classroom can be a springboard to a whole range of language activities that can be done privately, at home, or on the train whilst commuting, thanks to the wide range of apps that are available these days, or with friends or the online community in games. Apps such as Kahoot, which is being widely used at the moment enable teachers to set games for their learners to play offline, or even simply providing spaces such as Padlets for discussion and feedback etc, can be invaluable.

What sort of blend do you like?

No, I’m not talking about coffee! Connected to the idea of motivating learners to extend their learning beyond the classroom, which is by no means new,  are notions such as blended learning and the flipped classroom. I, personally, have blended my university classrooms for quite some time, partly because of the timetable constraints I just talked about but partly because I have large classes and many learners who live in different cities and sometimes miss classes for one reason or another. Blending the learning so that what we do in class can continue digitally online , which can then be integrated back into the traditional face to face classroom is very useful for many of my learners. Pete Sharma and Barney Barrett practically coined the term blended learning, at least as far as ELT is concerned, so I felt privileged to be able to go to their talk on best practices in blended learning to see what the state of the art is.

They actually said that there is no such thing as the perfect blend but that every situation can have its own special flavour. Traditionally more than 30% of the teaching being done online is considered to be blended learning but what is more important, they argued, is how those components fit together. The online components must complement the face to face ones and vice versa. I couldn’t agree more with this and those courses that provide extra online practice are doing just that: providing extra practice, which may be very valuable in itself but does not mean that learning is blended. Blending learning in a course means thinking carefully about which components it makes sense, in your specific context and for your specific learners or learning aims, to do face to face. Pete Sharma gave the example of a presentation course and said that fixed phrases that you might use in a presentation such as ‘This presentation is structured in three parts’ can be studied online perhaps, whereas it makes sense to do a dry run of the presentation face to face and then provide feedback, that might actually focus on helping learners with the phrases they had studied online and then put into practice in the classroom. This, to me, seems to be a very good example of a series of elements being blended together in a meaningful learning process.

Spring in the air

This was all extremely thought-provoking but today was a beautiful day and I have travelled quite a long way to come to Brighton. You know what I’m going to say next, don’t you? Yes, I took some time off from the presentations and went out for lunch with a friend and colleague, We sat outside at a pavement restaurant and enjoyed the sun and the sea whilst we discussed the sessions we had been to among other things. This is also what a conference is about, meeting colleagues, discussing ideas and extending the conversation whilst enjoying the place you are in. Brighton has always attracted innovation and has a quirky nature ranging from the Pavillion itself to the iconic West Pier and today I discovered one or two more examples of this in a pavement poet and a singeing barber as well. Take time out from the conference even though there is so much going on. Otherwise you will find that you can’t process everything and sometimes you just need to walk along the beach and read the pavement poetry :-).

Iatefl Day One: a lexical thread for me

IATEFL 2018 Day One: anyone for research?

The conference kicked off this morning enthusiastically as everyone gathered for the first plenary. Lourdes Ortega talked about the divide between research and teaching asking what research is good for. This provocative question is actually one that is well worth asking. So many teachers seem to fear research as being something which is inaccessible to them, or not related to what they are doing. Researchers are often seen as being unfriendly or negative towards teachers. Researchers, on the other hand, are also afraid, at times, of making recommendations for the classroom or at other times they go to the other extreme, claiming to have all the answers. If the researcher is a young PhD student this can be particularly galling for an older, experienced teacher, with a lifetime of pedagogical intuition developed by working with learners. The fact remains, however, that good research can both inform and underpin teaching, and a bridge should be built between these two worlds. Conferences go some way towards doing this, although it is true that they tend to have a bias towards either the theoretical or the practical. Iatefl, actually, has both. Publications such as ELT Journal also try to bridge this gap, as Alessia Cogo explained this morning in her ‘How to publish in academic journals’ session, stressing the fact that those who want to publish in the ELT Journal need to write about something that is both theoretical and practical, and relevant to the readership as a whole.

A Rose by any other name…

My own thoughts on this are that actually it is the name ‘research’ that puts people off. Teachers, in fact, are not so afraid of research if it is packaged as ‘classroom inquiry’ or ‘study’. It makes sense to observe what happens in your classroom and learn from it, so that means that it makes sense to do research. The fact that there are those, mainly in universities, who do this on a larger scale perhaps, and have more of a theoretical interest, should not mean that what they discover is any less interesting, or more frightening. The name ‘research’, however, for many teachers is off putting, they do not read academic journals, often because they do not have access to them, which is a great shame. Ultimately as Lourdes Ortega said, research finding s should be treated like other pieces of ‘knowledge’ and if they convince you they are useful but if they don’t, then, perhaps it is as well to treat them with mistrust.

Lexis, corpora and treasure chests

I like to choose various themes when I go to a conference and today’s theme was mainly lexis. I gave my own presentation this morning on two digital corpus interfaces, which are both user friendly and useful: Just the Word and Word and Phrase. If you missed this talk and are interested, or if you were one of those who didn’t manage to get the handout, here is a link to a Padlet I’ve set up, where you can download the materials and add your own feedback and thoughts or share your own experience with corpora in the classroom. I’d be very interested to see what others have to say. I use these interfaces as well as The American Corpus and SkeLL both as a resource myself when teaching and as a reference tool for learners who need to know more about lexical usage. I am convinced that corpora are a veritable treasure chest of ‘lexical gold’, in the words of James Thomas, and training our learners to be treasure hunters can help them to learn how to use collocations, colligations (gramatical combinations) and understand the meaning and tone or semantic prosody that words take on when they are combined together. Just to give you an example of what I mean, I looked at the word ‘regular’ and asked people what it means. The idea of ‘habitual’ came up or connections with time, and a glance at the results in a combinations search in Just the Word which draws on the British National Corpus (BNC) confirms this but also has examples such as ‘regular features’ where regular takes on a completely different meaning or ‘regular army’. Just the Word did not have another very common example, which is ‘regular coffee’ which refers to size. Learning to discover such meanings and combinations can be invaluable for learners.

Do some words matter more or the frequency fallacy

After my own presentation I went to see Leo Selivan’s talk which was also on lexis and actually touched on many of the things I did as well. He began by describing the topic of frequency and why frequency is often used as a measure of what lexis should be taught, the most frequent, but went on to say that things are not as simple as the fact that ‘80% of English text is made up of high frequency items. The fact is that those items do not exist in isolation and there are many aspects such as polysemy, for instance, that cloud the issue. Leo’s talk was, in fact videoed, so if you’d like to see more, here is the link.

Champagne and Ice cream

Meanwhile, in the exhibition hall it was just one long party, as far as I could tell. Every time I went past the Nile stand there was Champagne, others were handing out ice cream and later on another stand, I think it was Macmillan, were handing out wonderful slices of cake. To top it all off the sun came out and there was even a touch of spring in the air, so all in all, a very successful first day for Iatefl 2018.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Welcome to Brighton 2018

Welcome to Brighton 2018, come and join the fun!

The annual IATEFL conference starts officially tomorrow, Tuesday, but quite a few people were already here this morning, braving the blustery early morning rain to sign up for the Pre Conference (PCE) day. This is a day when each of the special interest groups (SIGs) organises a complete day dedicated to an interesting aspect of its ‘area of expertise’. I belong to the Tea SIG,, which does not mean that we sit around drinking cups of tea all day (although there was some of that as well) but Tea stands for ‘Testing, evaluation and assessment’. This year was dedicated to testing listening and the day consisted of very thought-provoking talks in the morning followed by lunch and then a practical focus in the afternoon as we mapped a listening activity and then developed items on it. These were then given a mini trial by another group who provided feedback. This way of structuring the day worked well, as everyone was fresh in the morning and receptive to the input provided in the traditional presentation format, but by the afternoon, I think, most people were happy to be doing something more practical. The idea was that everyone should go away, having learned something that both made them think and was practical too.

Authenticity or Reliability… Hey, what about both?

John Field began the day by calling for listening tests to be really designed in such a way as might realistically test what listeners at different levels can be expected to do. He underlined the need for ‘cognitive validity’ or rather asked: does the behaviour elicited from test takers correspond to the requirements of listening in real world contexts. His model of the way listening structures follows various stages, although they are not necessarily linear: decoding the sounds comes first, followed by word searches, recognising the boundaries between one word and another. Then comes parsing where different elements are recognised and labelled to some extent followed by the construction of meaning and finally the construction of discourse. In a nutshell, which I probably shouldn’t say, but anyway, what this means is that at lower levels the focus should be testing at word level and higher that this discourse meaning can be tested. He stressed that ‘knowledge is not recognition’ and if we are testing higher levels, we should be careful not to be testing complex cognitive processes which go beyond listening.  John said a lot more, and I have barely done his fascinating talk any justice at all, but it was a great start to the day and he left us with this thought: the perceptual prominence of any word or clause is central to a correct response to the item. If something is not stressed in some way in a listening text, then, it is not realistic to expect it to be identified and unfair to create an item around it.

Sheila Thorn, then, took over and talked about authentic listening. She has long battled for this taking on examination boards and doubters of all kinds. Her basic intuition is that so many people study a language and then go to the country where it is spoken and flounder around in the dark, understanding very little. Something is definitely wrong here. She suggests that rather than simplifying texts at lower levels we should be providing them with longer texts but testing them on the content which is comprehensible, so that they will be exposed to authentic listening bu tested on content that they can understand. She also stressed how unrealistic the idea of doing multiple choice tests whilst listening would be ‘in real life’. You don’t listen to a podcast and answer multiple choice questions, after all. She suggested that the tasks should be more natural and connected to summarising skills, which is similar to what we might do normally when listening.

Yes, but what about the Stats?

Rita Green talked about the need to collect statistical evidence when developing tests, which means trialing items, ‘playing the detective’ as you evaluate the data you collect and interpret it and only then can you actually bank those items if they correspond to your requirements, so that if, for instance, an item on a test proves to have distractors that are far too easy, or if very few people answer one question, these need to be looked at and either revised or dropped. She described classic test theory which measures mostly test taking populations and the tests themselves but she added that modern test theory takes things a step further actually examining individual test takers, for instance, and the degree of error associated with every item and every test taker. Modern test theory also looks at Fit statistics, which does not mean how fast the test taker can run away from the examiner but whether items or individuals perform in predictable or unpredictable ways. Care of course must be taken with how the data is collected and interpreted but Rita concluded by saying that ‘without field trials and data analysis we are working blind: the more valid the test, the more reliable the test scores.’

The Afternoon Session

After lunch attention tends to flag somewhat so this was the perfect moment to do something practical. Under the expert guidance of the afternoon moderator team: Thom Kiddle, Felicity O’Dell, Russell Whitehead and Russell Whitehead, we embarked on a voyage of discovery through the process of item writing. This involved firstly listening to a text and mapping it for gist, key points etc. and then comparing our results in small groups. We then wrote items for that text (our groups were assigned multiple choice). We began by deciding on the context, the learners, age, interests, needs etc. and whether we would allow them to watch the video or not. We decided not to as a text appeared in the middle, which provided the gist of the news story, s we would not have been testing listening. We then swapped items and trialed the ones produced by another group and added our constructive feedback. The items were then returned to the original writers. This was a perfect way to work in the afternoon, and whilst time was short, it gave a glimpse of what it means to be an item writer which, I think, was extremely valuable for all involved.

A few thoughts

All this gave us a lot to think about and the discussion with the panel later was interesting and quite lively at times. The question of test purpose was broached as were other issued such as Global English or test context, and test taker aims and needs. The thorny issue of whether or not to opt for multiple choice also came up and the answer was that although they may not be natural they are practical. Practicality was another key issue which jars somewhat with the notion of authenticity. To mark authentic tasks such as summarising requires a lot more ‘rater power’ than multiple choice questions. I, personally, do not feel that multiple choice items are ‘evil’, but they should be one of more options and the needs of the test takers must be central. It is useless for PhD students who have to write long articles or theses to take tests that only require 250 word essays. I know this is not listening but it is just as true of listening. the Ielts listening exam is not ‘academic’, even for those doing the academic version. For students who intend to do MAs etc. surely it makes more sense to test them on their abilities to listen to lectures. Apparently, Ielts, however, will soon be revised, so one step at a time, we are perhaps moving in new directions.

merry go round
All the fun of the fair

The fun?

If this all sounds quite serious to you and you’re wondering about the fun element, I have to say that serious things can be fun but a large element of this conference is the social side of things. Friends meet up at the conference and exchange their news and experiences, and new friends are always made here. This evening was the first event which was a welcome reception culminating in dancing, so things definitely got off to a good start.

Hope to see you around the conference. 🙂

Spring is in the Air

Taken from pixabay Credit: patriciohurtadopixabay.jpg

Spring is in the Air, so let’s get our digital life organised!

The temperature, at least, here in Verona, is getting milder by the minute and a few flowers are peeping out courageously into the world to see what awaits them. Thoughts turn to Easter and chocolate but also to spring cleaning and de-cluttering so it seemed to be a good moment to talk about organising our digital lives.

Digital Spring Cleaning

We all have different preferences when it comes to bookmarking our favourite sites and mine, I have to admit, range from the extremely ordered sites I use for teaching, to the haphazard, totally disorganised bookmarking in the favourite tab of my browser. So, who am I, you may be asking, to write about bookmarking? Well, yes, I get the point, but, in any case, here are a four useful sites that can be used for this purpose. I personally use Symbaloo, and have done for years, as the home page of my browsers but I also use Evernote to save Internet links, make notes and a whole range of other things. Somewhere in the middle come Protopages and Papaly, which I’m experimenting with, so I thought I’d share my thoughts with you and then we can all get organised together. 🙂

Everyone approaches their digital categorization in different ways. There are those who organise bookmarks directly in the tabs on their browsers, which is one way, but there are also other options which give you the option of creating your own personal digital dashboard. These sites provide for bookmarking, quick access to the sites you use the most and easy sharing with others as well. Here are four useful ones:

Symbaloo

https://www.symbaloo.com/

Let’s start with bookmarking, or making pages of sites that you use frequently and need easy access to. For the visually inclined Symbaloo is a fantastic site for bookmarking your favourite online destinations and it can also be made into the homepage of your browser. The format is familiar because the tiles (see the image above) look like the app tiles that are instantly recognisable on smartphones. Each webmix, or page, can be a different topic or area of your life with ‘tiles’ that you use to bookmark the sites you are interested in. Your webmixes can be private or you can share them with others, if you want to make a webmix for a particular subject, for instance.  You can also explore other public webmixes on any topic you are interested in, such as academic writing or Halloween, for instance, depending on your interests.

Papaly

https://papaly.com/

Papaly, defined as a social bookmarking tool, creates lists, which are called boards. They can also be private or shared in a similar way to Symbaloo and you can also import your bookmarks from all the most popular browsers. You can also access your social media accounts from tabs at the top of the page. So, if you prefer lists to pages, perhaps this is a good choice for you.

Protopage

https://www.protopage.com/

Protopage is another site that creates a visually appealing board where you can pin the sites you want to bookmark. These boards were designed with the initial idea of accessing new sites, when you first create a protopage you will be directed to a board with different tabs on it. The first tab is the ‘Home’ tab with default links to new sites but you can personalise by  creating new tabs, each of which can be used for bookmarking or even for adding sticky notes. Your protopage can be private, public or can be shared by means of a password.

Evernote

https://evernote.com/

If you  want a site to use, which is also an app on your smartphone, and where you can bookmark but also make notes, share them with friends and colleagues and add media, Evernote may be the answer for you. It is a freemium site and the free version is comprehensive of a range of options, such as organizing your links into notebooks, and tagging notes, which makes for easy searching later on. Popular in professional contexts for making notes at meetings and sharing them as well as creating a series of notes which can be made into a slideshow and projected, Evernote is an extremely rich resource.

 

 

Perpetual PD or keep on learning

pexels-photo-310983.jpegKeep on Developing

As William S. Burroughs said in ‘Junky’, “When you stop growing you start dying.” and this could just as easily be paraphrased to “when you stop developing professionally you start stagnating, so in today’s post I’d like to think about how much we invest in our own professional development (PD) in a world which seems

photo credit: Vincenzo di Leo @ https://www.pexels.com/photo/man-riding-bicycle-on-city-street-310983/

to be spinning round faster and faster, where technology is evolving all the time, and where standing still and doing ‘the same things you have always done’ in class is possible but would be like eating the same pasta every day when just around the corner there is a whole array of different types for you to enjoy. One of the easiest ways to participate in PD is by attending webinars or watching streamed conferences etc. all available at the click of a mouse, without having to travel anywhere, but there is also a rather special meeting which takes place on Twitter every Wednesday, run by a group of amazingly dedicated, hard-working volunteers, who believe in social networking to share and advance knowledge and professional practice. I’m talking about the Twitter event  ELTchat. It is IMHO an excellent form of ‘do-it-yourself professional development. If you’ve never been it’s well worth investing an hour on a Wednesday.

What is ELTchat

For those of you who have never heard of ELTchat, it is a virtual weekly ELT professionals meeting, where, for one hour, anyone can join in simply by going to Twitter on a Wednesday, either at 8 p.m. or 10 p.m. Central European Time (or even both, if you feel inspired) and following the hashtag #ELTchat, and joining the conversation by posting with the same hashtag. This initiative was started quite a few years ago by a group of people who believe in the power of social media to bring people together into what is known as a PLN (Professional (or Personal) Learning Network) where like-minded people meet to chat and exchange ideas, insights and questions about ELT. These meetings then actually extend to a real social network whose members offer support to each other as well as developing lasting professional relationships in ‘real life’. Each Saturday anyone who is interested can propose a topic for discussion the following week, and then everyone votes on the proposals. The top two proposals are then discussed in the Wednesday meeting.

How to join in

It is possible to take part simply by following the hashtag #ELTchat on twitter itself, but if you want a more streamlined approach Tweetdeck and Hootsuite both organise Twitter hashtag discussions into single columns which are very easy to follow. Marisa Constantinides has provided an excellent step by step guide on the ELTchat blog, to get you started painlessly with these resources. I personally use Tweetdeck, but it is simply a matter of habit.

It is a good idea to go to the ELTchat blog, housed on WordPress, in advance to get an idea of what is going on. The “latest” menu will take you to up to date posts as well as links to the topic proposal form. You can then think about your own:

ideas

positions

questions

Preparing is useful because once the chat starts it is fast and furious with public and private exchanges going on all at the same time. The first time I went, in fact, I just watched what was going on and didn’t dare tip my comments into the sea of exchanges for fear of being swept away. I also tried to follow the meeting on Twitter directly, which I found rather frustrating and was almost put off until someone recommended Tweetdeck to me, and after that I was set.

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Staffrooms of the Past and ELTchat of the Present

When I first started working here in Verona a long, long time ago, I was lucky enough to work for a private school which boasted a very professional team of teachers and our staffroom was a truly inspirational place (most of the time). We all taught in the evenings but we had the same 30 minute coffee break, which we spent together talking about what had or hadn’t worked in our lessons, sharing thoughts and asking for ideas for future lessons as well as social chit-chat. It was thanks to this particular classroom that I and a few colleagues published for Penguin books at the time I was involved in ‘Elementary Writing Skills‘ for instance and my colleagues wrote ‘Elementary Reading Skills’. Although they are somewhat dated now you can still find them in print and they were the direct result of a stimulating staffroom environment. Nowadays, everyone seems to be teaching at different times and this type of informal exchange is not so common perhaps, but this is precisely where an even like #ELTchat comes in and provides us with the staffroom of the present.

What is so Inspiring about it?

Twitter, you may think, is quite limiting, as you can only tweet a certain number of characters at a time, a challenge in itself. What happens, at least in my experience, is that the meeting acts as a brainstorming session and thoughts are still flying round in my head the following day. This may lead to reflection, you might find resources you want to explore further, idea for your next lesson or you might feel inspired to reflect and blog. #ELTchat is the springboard that launches you into a new process of development.

The ELTchat blog also contains an archive of all the summaries, written after each meeting, which is a veritable treasure trove of ideas, links and thoughts about all sorts of ELT topics. You can just search for the topic you are interested in to see when it was discussed and access the summary of what was said and the resource links that were shared. In fact, ELTchat was an Eltons finalist in 2012, precisely because it was such an inspiring, innovative idea, which can help so many teachers. I can also say that I have met some amazing colleagues there, and we meet up at conferences and even on our summer holidays at times!

There is a whole lot more to explore there as well, such as podcasts and videos, but I don’t want to overwhelm you. If you like the idea, just come along on Wednesday and I may see you there.

 

 

Revisiting reflection and cake baking

 

Revisiting a Short Reflection from 2010

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What follows is a reflection that I posted one rainy September day in 2010, and I have decided to revisit it seven years later to expand on the idea of reflection, something we increasingly leave behind as we hurtle through our daily lives.

Facebook can lead to Reflection

“It’s raining quite hard in Verona this morning so rather than going out and busily “achieving not very much” I decided it was the perfect time to sit down and reflect, or at least to write what I was thinking on Facebook. Feeling irritated, like so many people these days, with the overload of information we are all bombarded with, all the time, I wrote that information without knowledge and wisdom is like the ingredients without the cake. This sparked off a little discussion which made me reflect a bit more. (So, yes, Facebook can be used in all kinds of ways 🙂 ) In fact, making a joke, I added that cakes are also very dangerous, as we all know.

On reflection though this is not a joke because the power of the cake lies with the baker rather than  with the person who eats it. The baker decides what to put into it, and therefore what the effect will be. This is true of many things in life, not forgetting, of course lesson planning and teaching (Two of the many points in the learning  process. )

The person who eats the cake, or goes to the lesson, also contributes to the process though, by exercising choice. You can choose which cake to eat, how much of it etc. but we have to think about what it is that leads us to choose one particular cake and not another…. This opens it all up for even more thought and discussion.

In any case, reflection is the essential part of the process. If we just throw in the ingredients without thinking, or if the cakes we eat are mass produced by unthinking machines, for instance, the results will be questionable, at the very least.

So, I’m off to meditate now… and then I might bake a cake…”

Thoughts ten years later

My initial reaction is that not much has changed. We are still bombarded by too much information, in fact, even more so, and we are also struggling to process it all in the different ways we encounter it every day . The second is that reflection can be a one sided process, which would be like baking a cake that nobody eats.  If it leads to insights, though, and if those insights are shared, or applied in practice in the classroom, observing, reflecting, experimenting and then observing again, perhaps we can all learn from each other, build on our experience and the cake can only get tastier and tastier.

24 Hours a Day are not really enough…. or are they?

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One of the biggest problems when it comes to reflection is that many of us don’t think we have enough time to do it. Or rather, we get caught up in so much daily activity that stopping to step back and observe it all, is something that we simply don’t take the time to do.

I recently asked a group of university students what they would most like to do if they could do anything they wanted in that precise moment. What do you think the answer was? Well, no, they didn’t want to escape to a tropical island. They wanted to sleep. This says it all, in a way. Getting enough sleep is one of the most important ways of staying healthy and lucid, and yet here we all are, working too late, feeling stressed and carrying on anyway, and on top of all this I’m asking you to ‘reflect’! Well, when are you supposed to do that?

Digital Distractions

When I’m researching something, simply looking for ideas for my next lesson or even planning a trip, I tend to spend a lot of time navigating manically from one article or website to another on the Internet, without focusing to any great depth on any of them, always hoping to find exactly the ideas, flight or research I’m interested in the next one… The next one, after all, is only a click away. I can save them all and come back later, when I have more time. It’s a vicious circle, in fact, because it might have been better to sit and read one article through, rather than spending half an hour cataloguing articles that I am not reading. This is the siren call of the digital world and it takes up a lot of time. Taking time to do something like reflecting seems to be a waste of time. It isn’t productive. There is so much else to do. Strangely enough, though,  I find that taking the time to sit down and meditate, be mindful or simply breathe deeply stops my brain spinning round. It stops me multitasking and actually expands time. That’s the mental space that opens the doors to some of my most significant reflections and insights.

Recently, for instance, I was planning a lesson on discourse analysis which is quite a complex topic. I had been struggling to think of ways of simplifying it all without dumbing it down, and was not being very successful. I did not want to simply lecture students. I want them to be able to understand the basics of systemic functional grammar (in 8 hours at the most!), and I want to motivate them to find out more. Defeated, I left it and went to bed, and the next morning as I was walking down the street, after a good night’s sleep the image of clause complexes as planets came to me, all moving around their own systems, ‘process’ planets with satellites of ‘participants’ and ‘circumstances’ (I apologise for the jargon, but it is central to systemic functional grammar) so I made a Prezi which I called the universe of transitivity and suddenly just ‘knew’ how I was going to teach this subject. For all those who are interested, here is a link to the prezi :-).

None of this is new, of course. We have all experienced the way a good night’s sleep can help us to see things in a different light, and by taking the time to stop and  slow down, in fact, you actually do create more time for yourself, and you work better. Suddenly, you are doing something like writing a blogpost, for example, because you want to, because you have something to say, and not simply because it is on a list of goals that you have set for yourself. Suddenly you find yourself planning an activity to do in class with your students because it is meaningful, fun and relevant to them, rather than because it is simply the next lesson you have to do.

Finding time to make reflection part of your own professional development

This is a tall order, I know, for many teachers who are working heavy weeks, and barely have enough time to plan their lessons, let alone stop and think about them. I remember one Celta trainee I was working with, who said that our course was really good, and that he was learning lots of amazing things, but it was a pity that he had 40 hours of teaching a week and simply did not have the time to put it all into practice.

My advice to him was to “put it into practice’ for one or two lessons a week, rather than for all of them. I mention this because I know that writing a reflection journal, or even a blog, takes time. You don’t always have something specific to reflect about either. You may not have any insights for a few weeks, and then one episode in an exam, or a lesson, for instance, will start you thinking. That is when you can stop and take the time to think about it, and why it is memorable to you.

Reflecting by Asking Questions

Reflection is a skill that can be learned just as any other skill can. One or two moments of quality reflection can be invaluable but if you are not used to it, it may not be easy at first. You may feel that you have nothing to say or write. One way to start is by asking a few  WH questions:

What happened?

Where did it happen?

Who was involved?

When did it happen?

What did this make me think?

What might I do differently next time?

What are the implications?

Planning a little time once a month, even to sit down and take stock in this way can soon become a habit that can actually help you to put more into your teaching. You find that you are no longer simply baking a cake, but you are baking your own quality masterpiece and you and your students are having a feast. Personally, as you can see in the image below, I’ve moved on to waffles at the moment, since it was Pancake Tuesday this week, but I was still quite proud of my creations, just as I was proud of my transivity prezi.

I’d love to hear about your reflections too, and where they take you 🙂

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The price of freedom : a few thoughts on learner autonomy

How autonomous do learners actually want to be?

Is the quest for learner autonomy like reachinig for the stars or is it something that is both achievable and desirable? Is it something that should be explored purely outside the classroom or also in class perhaps together with teachers? Last week the TESOL Italy local group held a seminar in Verona on Learner Autonomy and Inclusiveness which raised one or two interesting questions related to my initial thoughts. The first one is the title of this post: what is the price of freedom? Or rather, how autonomous do learners actually want to be? The answers that were shared, even though this was largely on an anecdotal level, tend to confirm the idea that learners don’t actually know how to be autonomous and seek guidance. Jemma Prior began the afternoon by discussing negotiation in curriculum development and the way she does this in her Academic English courses at the University of Bolzano. One of the points that she underlined was Holec’s focus responsibility for learning lying completely with the learner:

“Learner autonomy is the ability to take charge of one’s own learning i.e.to have, and
to hold, the responsibility for all the decisions concerning all aspects of this learning…” (Holec 1981)
Hoping for learners to take responsibility of  ‘all the decisions’ is a tall order, particularly in a world where many contraints are imposed on both teachers and learners by institions, exams and simply the reality of living in the real world. Jemma mentioned a project in Belgium where learners had been given the freedom to design and negotiate their own course, but which had actually had very negative results and which would tend to underline the fact that learners, just like all the rest of us, find it difficult to cope with complete freedom and seek guidance. After all, the thinking goes, “I am paying to do a course so I expect some expertise for my money!”. At the time that Holec was writing, however, I thought it worth mentioning, many institutions were introducing self access centres, perhaps believing that by allowing learners to ‘take responsibility for their own learning’ they could save money and provide self access rather than teaching. These self access centres were ultimately, like the project in Belgium, doomed to failure in most cases, precisely because most of us look for direction and guidance.

Autonomy or Self Instruction?

Self access centres are self instruction centres and learners need to be autonomous to want to use them but self instruction is by no means the same as learner autonomy. Autonomy could be considered a psychological quality or a behaviour but it starts with the individual rather than being a collection of resources for learners. This is also one reason why very few learners are able to follow online courses independently or the sort of self access language learning courses that used to be available as cassettes with magazines etc. Nowadays we have a wealth of self instruction materials available in the shape of online courses, sites etc. some of which are more effective than others but despite this wealth of potential sources of learning many learners still do not know where to start, or lack the motivation and knowhow to be able to use them well. The eighties s was a time when many were thinking about autonomy and what it meant, and that is even truer perhaps today, with the increased onus on learners to ‘take responsibility’ for their learning but the definition of what autonomy is is not such a simple matter and David Little in fact calls it a ‘slippery concept’. For a concise review of some of the research see Little’s description here.
In our digital age this debate is beoming even more heated and urgent in education. One noteworthy case is Sugata Mitra’s ‘Hole in the Wall’ experiments which in his case, came to the attention of TED among others, and which then led  to further investments and research.  What he did, basically, was to set up computers on street corners in under-priveleged areas of India, like our ‘hole in the wall’ cash machines. These were provided in bright colours and designed for children to be able to sit comfortably at. He then simply left them to it in attempt to remove the teacher and to prove that children learn more effectively when their learning is more self directed. In his plenary at Iatefl in 2014 this had an electrifying effect on the audience (most of whom were teachers) and the debate continued long after. If you are interested I wrote about it at the time. He seemed to be heralding self direction as something new, although it was the self direction + technology that interested him, but I wondered what had happened a few years on and the results are, unfortunately that many of the ‘holes in the wall’ have been vandalised or are being used by older youths to search for all kinds of things that are not necessarily related to education.
Mitra, in fact is more interested nowadays, it seems, in his school in the clouds, which is more about self direction within existing  educational frameworks. I have no doubt that much of what Mitra says makes sense, and many educators are already doing this, but once again providing children is not enough and it is certainly not a magic solution to the problems of failing education systems. Tom Bennet, writing for TES in 2015 bemoans the fact that so many fell for this apparently ‘easy solution’ which he describes in damning terms:
“It seems to me that the more outlandish the magic bullet  claim in education, the more someone is willing to pay to subsidise it – and the less critical people become of it. But Mitra’s work taps into zeitgeists that are very, very groovy indeed: student-guided learning, the perpetually-approaching-but-not-quite-yet tech revolution of education, and the need to replace the ossified dogma of factory-farm learning. It’s like Ken Robinson regenerated into the next Doctor and the Sonic Screwdriver became a laptop.”
Well, teachers feel threatened when self direction rears its head, but scaffolded autonomy within a specific learning framework , is, to my mind, part and parcel of respecting learners and their needs, and in fact nothing new. I have, in fact, frequently given learners a problem or a task and asked them to solve it in small groups with the use of digital resources, and this type of guided learner self direction when monitored closely but not invasively by an educator, can lead to exciting results.
Photo credit: Comfreak on pixabay
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Scaffolding

Complete resonsibility for learning, or to return to Jemma’s Academic English in Bolzano, course design, then, even if the learners did want it, is difficult to achieve as most institutions have certain expectations in the shape of standard exam requirements and standard syllabi.  Jemma, in fact, explained that much of here course is not ‘up for negotiation’ but one part that can be is the portfolio which counts for 25% of the final exam. scaffolding learner autonomythe level of task negotiation or topic choice etc. is much more realistic and ultimately rewarding both for the learners and the teachers. Learners, who are provided with clear guidelines, within an existing framework, are, in fact, often very happy to ‘take responsibility’ for certain aspects of their learning, and teachers are able to help them taking on increasingly the role of facilitators of learning rather than providers. This leads me on to the second theme that came up in our seminar, which was the need for scaffolding, which all of the speakers underlined in one way or another.
Ann Margaret Smith from Lancaster, who talked about learner autonomy and inclusive education as being two sides of the same coin, mentioned how splitting thinigs into manageable chunks can help learners, telling them that they will be working on a 3000 word essay may be daunting whereas saying that the overall aim is to write an extended essay but that for the moment they would be focusing on ‘titles’ is much more manageable for learners. Elizabeth Beck from the British Council Milan, described their experiences in deveoping ‘learning to learn’ strategies with adult learners, and once again she mentioned that she had initially been quite surprised by the lack of awareness of how to go about studying, but was encouraged by the results achieved by integrating learning strategy work in class supported by separate clinics with materials developed to help learners navigate the world of language learning. I talked about using corpora in class, and once again stressed the fact that it is not enough to simply provide learners with tools. After all, you wouldn’t give a 17 year-old a car and say here’s the key, off you go, would you? Learners need to be provided with the right questions to ask, strategies to use resources effectively and also systems about how to motivate themselves.
Scaffolding, I strongly believe,  means providing the support for our learners to indeed be able to reach for the stars and actually be able to grasp them and even create their own starry firmaments. To reach these dizzy  heights one or two things that we can do to help is to provide the means for both learners and teachers to find out how to establish:
  • goal setting techniques
  • effective/ fun learning strategies
  • an awareness of the outcomes they would like to achieve
  • the motivation to keep up with it all.
  • what useful resources are available and how to use them one step at a time

 

Non embedded Reference:
Holec, H. (1981), Autonomy and Foreign Language Learning.Oxford: Pergamon.

Can you use that image?

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photo credit: Sharon Hartle

Well, I’m back from Iatefl, and am gradually settling back into my normal Italian life. One of the highlights of the week, last Wednesday was a lesson I did on ‘Intellectual Property’ with my advanced C2 class, who have to do presentations as part of their final exam. Many people use resources such as prezi or emaze to do this, which are public, open platforms, freely accessible by the world and his wife. As we live in a world where remix is the norm and images, video, music and other media are shared at the speed of lightening, often without much thought for ownership, it is important, I think, every now and then, to stop, take a deep breath, and question all this.

I have added a photo credit to my own image above, which I would probably not normally do,  (This is my photo, by the way, ) in a rather ironic way to make the point, but for many taking time to think about who owns ideas and content really did seem to be a wake up call, that meant looking at their practice, if not their lives, with new eyes.

What did we do?

Part One: Discussion and Reflection

The lesson began with reflection and the discussion of these two questions:

  1. “We live in times of theft, intellectual theft. When you can download just about everything and make it your own what incentive is there for artists to create any more?”
  2. “A remix is actually an original reworking of someone else’s idea, so as long as credit is given where it is due, it belongs to the remixer.”

This gave rise to various points such as the distinction between piracy and theft, which was not immediately clear to everyone. There is also a fine line between plagiarism and intellectual theft which we also explored, and it seems, at times, for some to be difficult to distinguish between expressing their own ideas and expressing someone else’s. This may seem obvious but when does an idea become so commonly accepted or shared that it is no longer necesary to cite its author? We, obviously, cannot cite everything so in our comunity, for instance, we  refer to ‘scaffolding’ because everyone knows what it means, without having to cite Vygotsky every time we do this.

Part Two: So, in practice?

So far, this was all rather theorectical, however, so the next stage reinforces what this actually means in the way we use technology. I had created a Facebook exercise for the Student Group (which is a closed group on Facebook), with an image I had created by adding special effects to my own photo of an art installation, inspired in fact by J.J. Wilson’s plenary at Glasgow Iatefl.

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During this motivating plenary one of the things he asked the audience to do was to look at differnt classrooms and create ‘I wonder……’ ideas with each other. I asked my learners to do the same, (and there are  prizes for the most ‘liked’ ideas). This time, though, I asked the class to look at this video and to say whther or not they thought it was intellectual theft. (I had added a link to an article about the original installation as well, both for those who were interested in reading about it and to give credit to the author.

Reactions

The class decided that this was not intellectual theft because the installation was in a public space and I was using my own photo, not claiming that the installation was mine. The power. however, of this exercise, I felt, was that it really made people think about how they use Social Media and the content they post. Some went away from that lesson looking rather worried and talking about closing accounts, a reaction that they would probably not have had from simply taking part in the discussion.

So, why is all this important?

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Reflection

Well, reflecting on what you do before you do it is a skill that often needs to be relearned in our world where everything can be shared at the speed of light, by the click of a mouse. I personally believe that respecting other people’s work, ideas and insights is etremely important and I hope that they will respect mine too. When you have experienced your own work being plagiarised or stolen in some way you will know how hurtful it can be. Why do we need to steal other people’s work when we can give them credit for it, ask them for permission to use it or…actually, even better, use our own work? Oh, and by the way, the reflection image above is my own photo taken in Glasgow, just in case you were wondering :-).