Are you an English educator, a teacher or a trainer? This is a blog which will point you towards my work, discussions and thoughts among other things that you can read and comment on too. You can look at ways of teaching English. You can share your ideas with us and you can spread our ideas to others. This is the basis of this EFL community
Although I am originally from Yorkshire, UK, I live in Verona and work at the universities of Verona and Bolzano, where I teach general English at all levels and some ESP too. My interests include technology in learning, e-learning and autonomous learning.
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.
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.
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:
“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?”
“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.
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.
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?
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 :-).
The conference finished yesterday and I was, like everyone else I met, “all conferenced out” so I went for a walk around the Kelvingrove area of Glasgow and the West End, partly to vlear my head and partly to be outside for a while. The area around the university was a lovely place to wander, look at the spring flowers and take in the greenness by the water, which was lovely. During this time I decided to write a blog about ten interesting points from my conference experience. There are thoughts that I wrote down during the sessions and which have made me think. So here are my ten pearls, (even though these are sctually only some of the pearls.)
Pearls of Wisdom 2017
Gabriel Diaz Maggioli: “we are experts at routinising our tasks”: he went on to point out that what starts out as innovative quickly becomes normal or even boring, so that teachers meet a new technology or idea and integrate it into their classroom but both teachers and learners soon see it as predictable. My thoughts on this one are actually mxed. In fact, I think, the more innovative ideas you meet and integrate into your teaching repertoire, the richer the whole process becomes, and whilst some things are repetitive, repetition can be reassuring and learners recognise little rituals that occur in the lessons that are actually a welcome structuring of their nlearning process, which is often not at all structured. It is true, however, that the continual search for new resources, new ways of doing things, new apps, new activities can become a destructive spiral if the “wow” effect is the only thing determining it. Most teachers, however, I think, and especially those who are searching for innovation, do reflect about their practice and integrate the new with the tried and tested into a meaningful code of practice which may be eclective but is still meaningful and varied enough to appeal to a whole range of differeing learners with their differing needs.
Sophia Mavridi: “What do people associate with you when they see you online?” A simple question but one that we don’t always stop to ask ourselves. I recently asked a colleague what he associated with my Facebook use, thinking he’d say that I posted too much that was realted to teaching, but what he actually said, was that I posted beautiful photographs. 🙂 So, I suppose, the message is to see yourself through other people’s eyes and to reflect on what they tell you. I recently looked at someone else’s Facebook Page, and it was what might be termed as “showing off”: a whole seies of this person with VIPs in photos, so the message I got from this was “Look at me and how important I am.” It was not a very positive impression, at least from my point of view, because I like to think that online use is an exchange or sharing of impressions and ideas, and I cannot learn very much from self aggrandizement. Each person, of course, projects only certain aspects of themselves online, but it is worth thinking about which aspects e re going to post, which ideas e are going to share and which moments, emotions and insights we are going to invite othrs into.
Peter Medgyes: “the proper use English affords privileges” This was said, I think, although I’m not quite sure of this, with reference to the Berlitz coastguard ad. which I blogged about earlier in the week. It underlined an idea that I think is prevalent in those who choose to study English. The language is often a means to acceptance indifferent communities, a passport to a better life and better job opportunities. “Proper” English, in my view, is not the use of a whole range of idiomatic phrases but an awareness of how to use language to express yourself in the best way you can. Language, no matter which one, empowers its user, because if you can express yourself articulately you can share your understanding of life with others. We are living in a world where knowledge and information are at a premium and I would actaully say that using any language “properly’ affords privileges.
Several speakers: “the wow effect is not enough.” This is a theme that comes up often in conferences and there had been a marked move away from those presentations of technology aimed at simply showing people how to use new techniques and tools, simply because they are ‘cool’. Cool tools are still great but there was a lot more emphasis on thinking skills and routines being developed by means of these cool tools. This is also a sign of the times, where technology has become such a normalised part of our lives it makes sense to ask yourself: is this the best way of accessing content or thought? This is not only true of technology but also of common classroom techniques. One of these is, for instance, cutting up pieces of paper with parts of a text on them that then have to be reassembled. Now, I would be very surprised if you have never done this (That is, if you are an ELT teacher). I have and still do, but I am very much aware of two things:
Make sure that the different parts match very clearly, so perhaps divide your text in the middle of sentences rather than at a fullstop, so that it is very clear which parts go together. If you don’t you will see learners trying to match up the way you have cut the paper rather than looking at the language. I know because I have resorted to this myself! After all, the aim is to put the pieces together correctly, however you do it…. isn’t it?
Be aware that if learners are doing this they are actually analysing the language and NOT reading the text. It is quite possible to put a whole text together and not read it at all. I have seen trainees on teacher training courses do this, with a txt about reading skills, and at the end nobody had actually understood the content of the text. So make sure that you have a very good reason for doing this. (I often do it to highlight lexical grammar items on Quizlet, such as “The reason……..” “…..why I sat this is”. If you do ask learners to put a jumbled text together, for whatever reason, then give them the chance to read it through for meaning as well, with enough time to do so.
Marcos Benvenides “Extensive reading simulates what good readers do (read all the time and for fun.)” This is an important one, I think. Marcos made the point that “smart people read” and for whatever reasons this tends to be true, but often learners (and their teachers) feel that they should be focusing on great literature or what the teacher suggests. (I am guilty of this myself, as I have set books for my university classes). Encouraging learners to read whatever they want to and to stress the fact that it is the habit of reading itself, and aiming for a regular reading habit, that brings benefits. Of course, there has been a lot of research on the subject and this seems to suggest that you should be reading something which you find very easy to understand, and it should be something that you want to read, whatever it is, which means it should probably be your own choice rather than your teacher’s.
J.J. Wilson: “compliant students answer the teacher’s questions but engaged students ask their own?” This is another interesting one, because it made me think of those students who I sometimes get mildly irritated with because I want to make one point in class and they ae going off in a whole new direction, on their own tangents. It is however, those tangents that may lead them off to the stars. So, I try to take a deep breath, not be irritated and to spend ten minutes or so with these learners, who generally are asking something because it has occured to them, and which means they are engaged. Some of these people, incidentally, are the ones who are still following my Facebook Student Group years after they have graduated.
“I wonder…” This also came from J.J.Wilson’s plenary. He showed us images of different classroms aaround the world and asked us to complete the thought “I wonder….” for each one. We did this in pairs or small groups and what I noticed ws that the more we did it the further we went into both the observation of the images and the ideas, which began by being quite simple but quickly ranged from the facetious to the philosophical and it reminded me of work done in art education by museums, which explore the way we look at images and all the different aspects, thoughts and knowledge cultural or otherwise that we bring to this activity.
John Field: “we draw on our knowledge of the world AS we listen not beforehand.” John Field dismantled the “traditional” procedure when approaching listening of doing pre-listening work whether discussion of pre teaching of vocabulary. He said, quite rightly that neither of these are sub-skills of listening and that we should perhaps spend more time on helping learners with precisely those parts of the texts that are causing them trouble, if we want to lead them “out of the fog” of listening in a second language. I agree in part, though, though because I see listening as part of an integrated skills approach, which are hard to separate one from the other. I may watch a TED talk about something I know little about, but I still have expectations and discussion in advance is meaningful in itself, although I agree that too much scaffolding is not actually helping learners deal with potential listening difficulties.
Gad Lim: “we are social creatures who like to interact with each other.” This was related to understanding new language, and the fact that frequency of exposure is key. The more you are exposed to a phrase, the more memorable it will be to you. He went on to say, however, that it is also the quality of that exposure that counts so that babies whose mothers talk directly to them are being exposed to language in a more memorable way than if they were simply hearing the language on TV and he cited studies to back this up. This made me reflect that we are social creatures and the quality of our exchanges does determine how memorable they are. I’m not sure what this means for classroom exchanges but if anyone has any insights I’d be really interested to hear them.
Sharon Hartle: finally here is one from me: “keep putting yourself in the shoes of your learners.” In a conference like this we are often asked to do things in the same way that we may ask our learners to and it can be a very salutary experience. If you ask your learners to answer a question or to discuss something, give them enough time to do so. If you cut things up and ask them to reassemble things do it for a reason which is very clear to all concerned.
Anyway, that’s it from me today. I have to get to the airport now and then… back home again. So, goodbye Iatefl2017 and Glasgow 🙂
The elf debate is still at the back of my mind, as it often is and the other day, here at Glasgow Iatefl, Peter Medgyes, in a very well presented speech which supported the importance of learning English as a language in its own right, rather than learning a not very well defined ‘elf version’, quoted this video as an example of one reason why in real life situations we need to be able to speak ‘proper’ English.
There is so much wrong with the stereotyping of this ad, which is actually a Berlitz advert, that I’m not sure where to start, both as far as language learning is concerned and as far as stereotying the Germans… However, my point here is not the stereotyping in itself but how relevant this is to the question of ELF. The point being made here seems to be very much in favour of traditional English models although who, in their right mind, in a context such as this, would react in this way??
I, personally, keep thinking that there is a distinction to be made between ELF as the traditional researchers such as Jennifer Jenkins or Barbara Seidelhofer, and others, see it and Global English as described by david Crystal as the usage of English as a lingua franca on a global scale. There is no denying that English is a global language, and this means that it is in rather a different position from other languages perhaps that are studied with the express purpose of contributing to or integrating into L1 communities. This means, in my view, and as I have said before, that when it comes to assessment we need to take into consideration the notion that our learners need to aim for clear expression rather than to adhere to unreachable native speaker norms, which has to be taken into account in assessment. When it comes to teaching, however, there still needs to be a clear model to present in the classroom, and this is the closest native speaker variety to those learners, so that in Europe this will probably still be British English to a great extent. After all, I may, in a test situation, decide that using ‘informations’ as a countable form rather than the traditional, uncountable ‘information’ does not impede the message particularly (although it will affect the grammar and text references that go with it when writing, which may well hamper reader comprehension). So, when testing this may be acceptable but when teaching we are sulely doing our learners a disservice if we do not point out that even though many now use this word in a countable way it is, actually, uncountable. The model that is presented, in fact, is often just that: a model, and then each individual will, as they do in their own language, develop their own voice and means of expression. As Peter Medgyes also said in his presentation, this is actually not ELF but simply the way we use language.
I can’t believe we are already half way through the conference. So far, in fact, it has lived up to its reputation of being a whirlwind of events, learning, meeting old friends, working and networking. Yesterday was the first day and there were various sessions that I attended, In fact they were all inspiring. I went to an extensive reading presentation by Marcos Benvenvenides, which I liked because I have long been a fan of reading and need to remind myself from time to time of how useful just ‘reading for fun’ at a non demanding level, can be for everyone, and particularly for learners.
I also went to a lovely session on ambiguity by Jonathan Marks, talking about punctuation in the tradition of ‘Eats, shoots and leaves’ but many other aspects of language that go to create ambiguity. In the end he concluded, however, that the context of use determines the meaning and that most of us deal with ambiguity n practice with no trouble at all, no matter how funny we may find such things in jokes.
Both of these talks were informative and fun, but I would like to write about two different sessions in more detail here. The first of these was a session by Sophia Mavridi who was speaking about ‘Portraying Yourself Online’. This was of particular interest to me, not as a teacher who portrays herself online, although that is true as well, but rather for my undergraduate and post-graduate students who are tying to enter the world of work. Her session provided me with several interesting points that I can pass on to my students to consider:
Your Digital Footprint
Sophia talked about the digital footprint each of us leaves behind us in our daily trek through social media, what we post, how permanent it may be and how unwary posts can come back to bite in the future, Examples of this were things like:
posting yourself drinking alcohol
posting yourself in a swimming costume
posting unguarded thoughts and opinions
The point was also made, however, that at times others may post images of you in a swimming costume, for instance, and the nature of socila media means that this is largely beyond your immediate control.
On the other hand she also talked about the things you can do to make sure you leave a postivie digital footprint:
posting comments to other people’s posts that go beyond the ‘great post’ level and actually say something more like ‘great post! I enjoyed it because….’ so that those who read can learn something from you as well.
Drawing a fine line between showing off and showcasing your skills
Creating an eportfolio on sites like ‘linkedin’ etc.
In any case, and Sophia did not prescribe her views of what was or was not apropriate but left it for us to decide, the talk provided food for reflection for both me and my university students.
The World of Elf
The second event that made me think, and is still making me think aday later, was the ELTJournal Debate about the motion:
“ELF is interesting for researchers but it is not important for teachers and learners.”
Peter Medgyes spoke for this motion saying that ELF is something that has been created by what he called ‘elfies’ who have invented their own ‘elfiology, which bears little resemblance to the English that learners aim to learn in order to express themselves in the ‘real world’. Alessia Cogo, on the other hand said that “Applying ELF in the classroom is a challenge but it is a challenge worth taking up”. The members of the audience had several comments to make on the subject including my own. I said that I feel the subject to be a complex one and three issues that come to mind are:
the language you teach depends on the audience you are teaching. If, for instance, you are teaching Academic English writing to PhD students who would like their work, perhaps, to be published, you would be doing them a disservice not to teach them a model of English that is accepted in that world. I could add, that whether or not it is fais, those preparing for external certification also need to conform largely to native speaker standards in the ‘Use of English’ sections of the exams they take. Jennifer Jenkins may claim that countable or uncountable nouns ar eon the way out, but if you use ‘informations’ instead of ‘insformation’ in an exam, you will prbably still be penalised. Of course, there are other factors to take into account. (I said it was complex) and most speakers, in actual practice. will willingly accommodate to each other if they want to communicate, this is not necessarily true of assessment criteria.
I said, in fact, that I think a distinction needs to be made between teaching and assessment. Whereas, I truly believe that assessment in the C21 needs to take Elf into consideration and could easily, partularly in speaking tests, take elements such as negotiation r accommodation, into account, it is more difficult when it comes to teaching. There is a danger of an ‘anything goes’ approcah being adopted at one end of the spectrum, where accuracy is not taken into consideration at all. This is also a disservice to learners, because whereas it is true that I can understand you if you do not use the third person ‘s’ in the present simple, it may be helpful for you to know that it exists, and that you may well have to understand it when it is used by others.
I also mentioned the issue of non native speakers, which I know is another subject, but which I thought was worth bringing in. Here I think that many excellent non native speaker teachers are pensalised around the world for their status, which I personally consider to be both unfair and unwarranted. Many of these teachers are in a unique position to help their learners precisely because they have gone through the process of learning the language themselves, so that they know where the pitfalls may be. These teachers, however, have also started from a native speaker model and this is the model that they teach to their learners.
Ultimately, I think it is unrealistice to expect our learners to aspire to native speaker standards when they use the language, but what we teach them has to at least start from a native speaker model. I may be wrong, and, in fact, at the end of the debate the voting was even on both sides. I voted against the motion, however, this was not because I believe that ELF should be taught but because I believe that English is being spoken as a global language and this does affect the way people use it so our assessment of use must evolve to reflect this, but not perhaps the initial models that we teach.
Whether you are still on your way, arrived yesterday or are planning to come later this week, I’m sure lots of you are thinking of Iatefl and Glasgow. I was told the weather would be cold and raining, and although there was some rain today it really was not very cold. Yesterday was a beautiful day with sunshine and blue skies. So, I think the key is probably to dress in layers. The weather reporter is actually promising better whether for the second half of the week. In any case, for those of us who were at the Pre Conference day today, it didn’t really matter what was happening outside as we spent the day in our SiG groups.
Joint PCE TEASIG and ESPSIG
This year our TEASIG group joined up with ESPSIG to host a joint event. The day was characterised by various series of shorter (15 min) talks followed by the chance to ask questions to everyone in each group, like mini panels. This worked quite well although there were comments that it did not really give people to go into the issues in much detail, which they would have preferred. There were also those who said that having a joint session meant ‘having to be interested’ in something they actually weren’t. One person who was of this opinion said that she belongs to TEASIG and was not interested in ESP, so she was rather disappointed. However, the fact that the two groups were going to co host the event was well publicised in advance, and it is important to try out new formats for events, rather than always following the same one. In fact the group was split, quite a few people saying that they liked to have the two groups together and the others saying ‘No’.
Read Before You Choose
I, personally, am interested in both assessment and EAP/EMI so I found the content to be relevant. I think the only advice I could give would be to look very carefully at what your SIG is planning and if you are not interested in that, go to something else. One example of this for me is the LTSIG, which I have been a member of for quite a few years. One year the focus was on young learners that I don’t teach, so obviously I chose to go to something else.
Anyway, I was wondering what other people thought about this? So here is a quick poll. Let me know what you think: it expires in one week.
It’s that time of year again when thoughts turn to travel towards the UK. Normally this is one of my favourite events in the year and this year, I am once more one of the official Iatefl bloggers.
These days, however, we are living in uncertain times what with borders being closed and EU citizens being treated as little more than pawns in UK negotiations with the EU, I feel that we are living in a dark world. Even so, Iatefl shines a light into my teaching world and each year I go home afterwards with a wealth of new ideas and renewed energy for the classroom so, despite fears that they might not let me back into Italy, once I’ve departed for Glasgow, I am bravely preparing to leave tomorrow.
Ten tips for a successful conference
Whether this is your first or tenth Iatefl conference you have to know that attending an enormous event like this takes a certain amount of planning so here are my ten tips for a successful conference.
If you are a speaker, prepare well in advance. This may seem obvious but Murphy’s law applies to conferences as well as other events. Do not rely on the wifi connection working, and make photocopies etc. in advance. If you have asked for 30 minutes, make sure that you can complete your presentation in 30 minutes, which requires forethought and practice. Having said that, the audience at Iatefl is generally extremely supportive so if problems do arise they will be on your side. I think the most important thing to remember when your nerves threaten to overwhelm you is that you have ideas that you believe in and you would like to share with others. That is ultimately what counts.
Don’t try to go to everything. There are so many things on, so many parallel sessions, the book exhibition, posters, evening events, etc. that sometimes you just get carried away by it all. This means that by Day three you will be exhausted. Remember every now and then to take time out, have a coffee, wander along the river or just take some time to sit down and relax. Then you will come back with renewed vigour.
I find it helps if I have one or two topics I am interested in. This year my topics are EMI (English Medium Instruction). writing and Lexis. That way you don’t get too distracted by all the parallel sessions.
Don’t be too rigid though. Sometimes you just need to go with the flow, and be ready to go to something that looks interesting even if it wasn’t on your original list.
Check the type of presentation it is. If a presentation is aimed at young learners, for instance, and you don’t teach them it might be something you are interested in precisely because you don’t teach them or it might not. The important thing is to know in advance.
Remember that some events will be available on video, so if a videoed event clashes with something else you are interested in, you can always catch up later.
Remember that Iatefl is also a very social conference, about meeting up with old friends and making new ones. Do not be afraid to go up to people and just talk to them, most people are very friendly.
Don’t forget to explore Glasgow as well. You can actually spend your entire time at the conference but that would be a shame, if you have travelled thousands of miles to be there. A walk into the city centre is a must, and the conference arranges excursions too, so check them out when you arrive.
The evening events are also generally very well organised and include parties, receptions, storytelling, theatre events etc. etc. The last time we were in Glasgow we had Scottish Country Dancing too, I think.
Finally, I think it is important to make the most of your time at the conference. Put your everyday worries on hold for the next few days and focus on professional development and FUN. See you there. (Please say ‘hello’ if you see me) 🙂
Yesterday I talked about various elements that I want to emphasise this year in my teaching so I decided today to explore one of these in more detail and the first one was “joy”
What is Joy?
A glance at the similar words, identified by SkeLL https://skell.sketchengine.co.uk/run.cgi/thesaurus?lpos=&query=joy in a search for joy as co-occurring with the noun the most frequently, show that the sensation of joy is more than happiness it is a sensation and is extreme, a synonym of delight, passion, enthusiasm, for instance. If we take a look at common collocations we can see:
tears of joy
fill with joy
sheer, pure or even unbridled joy
All this suggests that joy is a sensation that liberates us, it gives us a moment of release, where we feel such pleasure in something that it moves us to tears or laughter. The moment itself may be short but the memory of the emotion stays with us and perhaps brings a smile to our face when we think of it. How can all this translate to everyday life and the classroom in particular? Well I want to choose the elements of liberation and passion, which means going beyond the conventional, or received, breaking out into something innovative that you really believe in.
University, Exams and Breaking away from Basic Tasks
My learners are university students who are concerned with their exams and their grades, but to study just to pass your exams is missing the point. Sometimes it is important to remember what it is that drew you to this particular degree course, what it was that made you want to develop it further, and what your real motivation is. In short, where is the joy in the subject you are studying? What new heights can it take you to? These are very personal questions and the answers will differ for each one of us. I can only answer for myself.
Taking the first steps, walking and then running.
As a student I was motivated to pass my exams initially because qualifications are a key that may unlock doors in the future, but if I am honest, on some level I also craved the approval and acceptance of those I looked up to. As I have grown older I have learned that the criteria people use to evaluate students in exams is not always objective and that sometimes the most important thing is to live up to your own expectations of yourself. Those who do best or get the most out of a university course are those who go far beyond the basic requirements of a course, and who are passionate about what they are studying, the curious, the motivated, the ones who are brimming over with questions. In English exams students are often asked to write and speak and some do this as if they are following a basic recipe. Dictionaries contain guidelines for “problem/solution” essays for instance and show learners how to structure their writing. Whilst know these things is a crucial first step, it is just that, a first step. I don’t mean to belittle this first step as to know how to structure your thoughts or writing is essential, to know how to put words together to be able to express yourself well is also important, but learning is rarely a linear thing so we don’t often progress in a straight line and the fictional, structural aspects can be combined with other aims. This is when simply doing an exercise becomes transformed into the joy of a ride on the merry-go-round.
Spreading the Joy
Those who study languages supposedly want to use that language to communicate rather than simply going through the motions. Those who communicate best are the ones who speak or write because they have something to say, rather than just because they want to impress someone, or “do the exercise”. I find joy in language, for instance, when I express an idea well, or put together an utterance succinctly and clearly. I love language for the power of expression it gives me and the way it takes me to places and thoughts that I can explore like whole new worlds. I love reading other people’s thoughts too, and travelling for a while with them and then moving on, taking some of their wisdom with me on my journey and spreading it around for others as well.
Time Travel: One Example of how this works in Practice
To return to the ideas of liberation and passion, I think that liberation may well mean breaking through the confines of mechanical interpretation, particularly when it comes to classroom tasks. Passion means expressing something that is truly meaningful and relevant for you. I tell my learners, for instance, not to stop at the requirements for the exam but to set their own requirements that are even higher. So, for instance, if you are a B1 level student who is being asked to describe where you think you will be 5 years from now, close your eyes and visualise that situation with all your senses:
Where are you?
What is the situation?
Are you alone?
What can you see?
What can you hear, smell, feel etc.?
Are you talking, thinking, listening etc.?
Are you going somewhere or are you already at your destination?
By asking learners to really put themselves in the situation and to “time travel” the whole exercise goes beyond the requirements of the “exercise” and may create an experience where learners express their own “journey” in individual ways that tap into personal depths that they had not imagined possible. These learners may need help with the language they need to express these things but that is the beauty of the activity, and this is what brings an element of joy to learning. This is a classic visualisation process that may have different stages:
1) Visualise by listening to the questions and silently visualising the answers. (I don’t insist on people closing their eyes if they don’t want to.)
2) Preparation phase where learners write notes/ ask for vocabulary etc. rehearse their stories in their own minds.
3) Describe your experience to your partner(s) and ask each other questions about details.
4) Look at the exam question: in this case it was “tell your partner where you think you will be five years from now”.
I am constantly amazed by the experiences that emerge from exercises like this which are meaningful and relevant as well as taking my learners to exotic destinations in their own imaginations. Getting into the habit of wanting to express this in English is just part of the fun.
I was thinking that this is a new year and that I would like to start by blogging or writing in an attempt to get back into things, so I decided to look at the ingredients I would like to mix into my teaching recipe for 2017.
Survival in the Desert
Whilst we would all like to be working in supportive environments where our efforts are recognised, encouraged and we can truly flourish, this is sadly not always the case, and quite a few of us are working long, underpaid hours in difficult environments. At times it can be hard to keep the enthusiasm, energy and positive thinking up, particularly in the political, socioeconomic climate of our world, where so much is based on fear and frustration: the idea, for instance, that you should consider yourself lucky to have a job at all! Each working environment will have its own twist on this and I don’t want to dwell on it too much as what I want to do is to reflect on the way in which incredible flowers can bloom in the middle of a desert, so incredible teaching and learning can take place in the middle of negativity as
My own environment has its ups and downs too but I do consider myself lucky to be able to do a job I love with students who mostly support what I am doing. I wanted to take a little time today though to consider the ingredients I’d like to emphasise this year to make a heady didactic brew.
My first one is joy, and by this I mean feeling happy when you get up in the morning to go to work and to be able to interact with groups of individuals who can enjoy the learning/teaching process with you. This is one that I have to remind myself about otherwise it can become a case of getting up in the morning and focusing on the six hours of straight teaching that I have to do, becfore I crawl home exhausted. It is a question of how you look at things. I find that if I think about the individuals in my groups and what we are going to be doing together, it often brings a smile to my face, and whilst six hours of teaching are still tiring it is a creative tiredness, that comes from investing energy into something worthwhile. The second aspect to joy is that it can be an indgredient in the teaching itself. If the things you are doing fill you with wonder and joy, this will probably be communicated to your learners as well. It is the difference, I think between giving feedback on an exercise by saying:
“What’s the right answer to qusetion ‘2’?”
“Yes, what’s the right answer to question ‘3’?” etc.
“What’s the right question to question ‘2’?”
“Hmm, do we all agree? Do you think this is the only answer? When would you say this? What else could you say?” etc.
Basically, by taking basic exercises, and making them meaningful and natural for your learners in their own contexts and lives, we can take the most meaningless feedback check and transform it into a classroom conversation on all kinds of levels. As soon as content is relevant then there is enjoyment or engagement and agency.
You may think this is similar to joy, but recently came up against strong prejudices against “fun” and “games”. I was in a meeting about Academic English, where someone scathingly complained that his students had been on an English course during the summer where they “never did anything” and “spent the whole time using songs”. I didn’t say anything at the time, because I neded to work through this one in my own mind. Whilst it is possible that if you are studying engineering and need certain types of language to do th
is, singing songs may not be appropriate, I still can’t see why there was such a strong reaction to “songs”, and even if you are studying engineering I think that songs could be used in all kinds of profitable ways. There are so many ways in which music, rhythm and rhyme can help the memory as well as being fun, or a springboard to discussion etc. that what I finally concluded is that the problem was the idea that having fun is often seen as being a waste of time or childish. It is not part of the “adult business” of studying engineering or whatever the subject is, so the accepted thinking goes, although many may disagree. Einstein comes to mind, for instance: “Creativity is intelligence
having fun”. The prejudice against “fun” runs deep in our grey world of adulthood, but those who dare to think outside the box and have fun doing so often achieve surprising results. Creativity is also looking at things in new ways and “playing with the accepted wisdom” questioning things and thinking critically. Our brains like to play rather than be subjected to crashing boredom, or even just the expected and routine. My lessons this year will be full of fun and laughter in a very serious way.
I rather unfairly linked ‘grey’ to bordom above, whereas, actually grey is one of my favourite colours, if it is combined with others. The problem is when everything is the same colour and this could be grey, black, red, yellow or whatever, monotony leads to boredom and ultimately disengagement. I want my lessons to include unexpected moments that dleight us all. iIwant my learners to be there on the edge of their seats waiting to see what will come next, and not just from me or from the materials we are using but from each other as well. One of the most successful activities we do is ‘presentations’ and this is initialy because they are seen to be useful but then somewhere along the way the magic is cast and they become more than just useful, they are the chance ofr learners in small groups to share their own worlds with each other and the quality of what is communicated is astonishing. Colour means variety in som many ways, but it all has to be blended in a tastelful way. Too much and it becomes disorientating, the steps in the process need to be clear, leading to destinations that we all want to reach.
We all need love in our lives and we can build this by listening to each other. We can listen to what our learners want or need, work on the topics they have chosen or the language that they want to work on as far as our syllabus allows, and we can ask them to help us build our programmes, where this is possible. This may simply be in small ways, by giving them choices, or, depending on what you can do in your context, by asking them to help build the programme itself. Love is also the love of the language you are teaching and your learners are studying, by asking them what they like about certain collocations or phrases, which words they love to pronounce etc. What new ideas English can give them and how introducing metaphors from their own languages can enrich their English, for instance. You don’t have to love English to be able to use it, but if you don’t it become a code you use and not a language you live. Love, it must be remembered is the opposite of hate, and in a world where hate seems to be so prolific, perhaps a return to kindness, tolerance and growth is no bad thing.
Looking at a beautiful landscape of image, listening to uplifting music or finding the best aspects to a difficult situation: these are all examples of what I mean by including beauty among my ingredients. We could spend a lot of time discussing problems, particularly when it comes to learner eror analysis, or university essay writing, but we can also celebrate the language that learners are proud of producing, the beautiful turn of phrase, that someone has notices when reading/ listening/viewing etc., or has used themselves. We can celebrate the best solutions to a given problem, and masters of this are the Zanders in “The Art of Possibilty”. Benjamin Zander talks a lot about these mindsets and how positive solutions are simply a question of the way we look at things. He begins the talk about the transformative power of music in the video below with the example of two shoe representatives sent to somewhere in Africa to explore the market and one writes back saying there is no hope here as they don’t wear shoes. The other wrote back saying that there is a wonderful opportunity here as they have not seen shoes yet! To see more about the magic of classical music and other things see below:
Beauty is about transformation, I think. If you look at a sunset over the sea and feel lifted that is beauty, and the same thing can happen in the classroom when the language lifts the learners to a new level, and the teaching lifts the teacher too.
And so we come to the magic of it all. In fact, magic is not really an ingredient in the mix, it is what happens when the ingredients work together and are transformed into something totally new. This is what I want to happen in my work this year. I want to work together with my learners to produce an ongoing process which is magical. Oh, and if their English improves along the way we’ll all be happy too!