Blog as a book: “keeping the essence” is out this week.

The idea for a new book: why turn the blog into a book?


A few months ago, over a cappuccino with my friend, the idea of taking some of my blog posts and turning them into a book began to take shape in my mind. A book and a blog are two quite distinct things. Blogs are fluid, they move, can be edited and some read them regularly,  others just dip into them from time to time and there are those who stumble across your blog when looking for something very specific like, Halloween teaching ideas, for instance.

A book from a blog

A book is more of an object even when it is an ebook. It is  a much tighter product than a blog, it is an entity in its own right and serves different purposes. The main aim of my book was to discover and highlight some of the main themes that flow through the blog, such as exams or professional development. The book is designed both for professional educators already working in elt and also for those who are perhaps just starting out, or are doing training courses. The structure or  frame of the book revolves around questions, the questions teachers often ask or want to ask but don’t know who to ask. A question is followed by an adapted blogpost from this very blog you are reading right now, and the section concludes with discussion questions. A classic structure, perhaps but ine that can be used by individual readers thinking about their own teaching, and can be adapted by teacher trainers too. 
At the risk of blowing my own trumpet, I’m writing about it here because, you are reading my blog and it is only fair that you should know about the book too. 🙂 This blog is all about reflecting on your teaching practice, and that is just as true of the book. Reflection, I believe, is key in all areas of life.

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The art of gathering… even for exams

Exam time is here… again

Exams are on my mind at the moment. Exams are often on my mind, in fact but this period in the summer is one which is particularly busy for us here at the University of Verona. We tend to focus on content, tasks, levels, intake, grades and so on when we talk about assessment but today I wanted to think about the exam as a “gathering”.

Exams are part of our psychology

The idea of exams is deep-rooted in our society. As children we listen to fairy tales where princes are given tasks so that their worth, integrity and valour can be tested. Passing a test unlocks power and enables experts to practise their expertise. The idea of being wise, skillful and knowledgeable is one that we all buy in to. After all, the argument goes, we want to know that the doctors who are treating us or the pilots who are flying the planes we travel in, know what they are doing.

The question, however, remains of how suitable the test they are taking is. If a prince can slay a dragon, does that necessarily mean that he is a suitable match for the princess? Probably, yes, because if he can slay dragons then he can protect a kingdom too, and if that is the purpose of the test, then all well and good. It does not, however, mean that he will automatically be a good husband, because that is not what was being tested. The idea that the test should be difficult is also deeply ingrained, it should sort the sheep from the goats so that we can recognise the very best… or should it? In our present educational system we are moulded by humanistic thinking that puts the learner at the centre of the process. If, when teaching, we do this, fostering the best in each learner, then surely our exams should do the same, enabling the candidates to do their own, personal very best.

Competition

https://hartlelearning.files.wordpress.com/2011/08/inspiration-and-poetry.jpg”> Making the most of your own inner strengths: each test a world to discover[/caption
This, however, brings me to my second point which is that competition is also part of our world. This is reflected, for instance, in the hundreds of game shows that abound on television, on the Internet, on the sports field and just about everywhere else. When I was at school there was talk of healthy competition and how it brought out the best in individuals. Well, it does in some individuals but not everyone. In a learner centred system the problem with competition is that  there can only be few “winners” and the “losers” are doomed to think of themselves as such, which can condition them throughout their lives. If our system is truly learner centred, and that is a big “if”, then competition should be personal the competition you take part in with yourself to be the best you can be.

How not to organise an exam

The psychological importance of the way exams are organised is a key factor in how successful candidates are or are not in a particular exam. and it is an aspect that I think we may tend to underestimate. Part of this is the idea of the gathering as being a coming together of people, and how this “gathering” should be organised. We tend to take it for granted that those who take the exam can cope with it, but, speaking as one who has taken quite a few exams myself, the organisation of how candidates are gathered can actually be nerve-wracking for the candidates, even though I am quite sure that this is often completely unintentional.

I remember one exam I took, for instance, where we had taken the written part in the morning and those who, hearts beating frantically, rushed to the noticeboard to see that they were among the few who had passed, were then told to come back at the beginning of the afternoon for the oral test. I met a friend, had lunch and was, actually, quite relaxed by the time two o’clock came round, but little did I know that this was when the true ordeal was about to start.
We were all waiting together in a clinically grey corridor on plastic chairs that showed how much our comfort meant to those who had invested in them. Some people, who had taken the exam several times before , lost no time telling everyone how gruelling the experience was and then the examiners, three of them, arrived looking harassed, probably rushing there from a previous job or engagement that was still very much on their minds.

The afternoon wore on…
Each candidate was called in, took the oral exam, and was then sent back to the “waiting area” until the examiners reached a decision. Time after time, someone came out of that room, and in full view of everyone else said something like. “I’m very sorry you haven’t passed this time, we hope to see you again soon.” Can you imagine the effect this was having on all the other candidates? Some passed but a lot of people did not. I was one of the last to be called. I had spent several hours in psychological anguish waiting for my turn and was now so depressed by the whole thing that I said to myself:
“You are an adult human being”
“You can speak this language well”
“The examiners are human beings too”
“The only thing to do is to put the interview on an equal footing by smiling at them and talking to them, making jokes when appropriate and asking them questions too.”
“What have you got to lose?”
My strategy worked because I was one of the lucky few who passed, but I had a lot of experience and was able to talk myself into the appropriate frame of mind to be able to do the exam. How true was this of many of the others who were younger, less experienced and perhaps less confident than me? What, in fact, was the true test here: a language competence test or a psychological fitness test?

My point, however, is that none of this was intentional. The examiners were obviously unaware of the effect the way the people had been gathered was having and yet it would have taken very little to change things.

The power of the gathering

I have recently been reading an interesting book on this subject called “The Art of Gathering” by Priya Parker: https://www.penguinrandomhouse.com/books/319055/the-art-of-gathering-by-priya-parker/9781594634925/
She discusses many aspects of what is key in a gathering ranging from having a clear purpose to focusing on the participants in a gathering rather than the content, flowers, food etc. The purpose ostensibly in this case was to conduct an exam, presumably to assess language competence enabling the candidates to do their best. Small changes would have been helpful such as:

1) time slots for people to come for the exam instead of the whole afternoon;
2) a comfortable waiting area which is separate from the exam taking area;
3) an other waiting area for those who have already taken the exam, so that they can leave without being seen by the others;
4) something for test takers to do to lesson the anxiety of waiting ( a drinks machine, reading materials, information about the exam centre etc.)

These are just a few ideas off the top of my head, but there could be many more.

My exam last week

So, how would you do it? I can hear you all asking and I don’t pretend to have all the answers but I do try to focus on my students and their needs. Last week my third year university students did their final written test. There were about fifty of them in a university lecture theatre, which can be off putting. Some of them arrived about half an hour before the exam clutching their dictionaries with worried expressions on their faces. I asked one or two of them to do practical things like switching on lights or closing windows so that the air conditioning would work… just to calm them down a bit. When quite a few people had arrived I told them I’d be back in ten minutes and that in the meantime they could chat to each other in English to psyche themselves for the exam. (I organised them into small groups of four or five people and left them to it). When I came back the atmosphere was lighter, there was quite a bit of chatter and more people had arrived.

At this point, I could have given them a lot of procedural instructions but I decided not to. I handed out the papers,
Then I said something like:
“I know some of you are feeling anxious. This is an exam and it goes with the territory but please remember to breathe… Breathe, use the exam to show me how much you know and enjoy. Off you go!”
The atmosphere changed and they started work. I then went round to check the things I had to check with each student and wrote the other information they needed to know on the board. Half way through the exam I interrupted them for a minute, told them that we were half way through and could they please just read this important information.
They then went back to work and at the end handed in their papers and left.

Yes, I know that I could probably have done more, and despite my best efforts I heard some of them in the corridor terrifying each other with a post mortem of the exam…. Habits die hard.

Gathering starts well in advance of the event

018/07/helena-lopes-592971-unsplash.jpg”>Helena Lopes[/caption]I do think, though, that I did my best to
I do think, though, that I did my best to make the gathering conducive to helping them produce their best work. This, in fact, started well before the event of the exam itself. All those students knew exactly how the exam was organised, what sort of questions and tasks there would be and how it would be marked. They had been working on practice tests to prepare (at least most of them had) and they could contact me if they had doubts, which some did.

My students have a closed Facebook group and as the moment of the exams approaches I post lighthearted videos that are relevant as well as other questions or discussions that they can take part in, in an informal way. This pre-exam interaction is all part of it, I think, and helps to build a community spirit which then helps them feel that they belong on the day of the exam itself. The purpose of my exam is for students to show me that they can not only remember the content of the course but think critically about it and express that. I am not interested in perfection or perfectly memorised answers to questions. I see my course as whetting my students’ interest in certain areas of linguistics, translation studies and corpora. I do not expect them to be experts after one course. They know this too, and what it means is that, although it was clear that some people had not really prepared at all, they were in the minority and the majority , in fact, did well.

And finally…

I’m not saying that it is easy to gauge the gathering techniques needed in an event like an exam, but I do find it worrying, as I said at the beginning, that many exam organisers do not take these factors into consideration at all, or are unaware of how important they are. I’d be very interested to hear your experiences too. 🙂

Whatever Happened to Second Life?

Well, if you’re still reading after a glance at the title, and not sniggering as you mutter “Second what?” you are probably either very interested in technology or perhaps just naturally curious. I was initially attracted to the virtual world, because, well, yes, because I like technology, but because it gave me the chance to attend conferences from my own sofa at home, and being in Second Life gave me the feeling, to some extent of “being there” rather than simply watching a video, or attending a webinar.

The image you can see here shows me, or rather my avatar, attending the SLanguages conference in Second Life in 2012, and I was so enthusiastic about it all. The delegates, it has to be said, were either young, slim and attractive or, well, just strange. It was not uncommon to see pigs flying around, for instance. The presentation theatre, you can see on the left, literally took you out of yourself. Some people used to give classic presentations loading their slides onto the screen there, but others took us on workshops exploring this virtual world. I remember being teleported to art galleries, to a reconstruction of the Bayeux Tapestries and to an amazing place where you could experience Hamlet as never before and to a Danish design place where we wandered around houses and my avatar got stuck n a bath!

An Immersive, Democratic Space

Yes, but how is that connected to teaching? I hear you cry. Well, there were, and occasionally still are, many universities and campuses and language schools at the time, including a space created by the British Council and  and it was hailed as a democratic space for various reasons. I remember stories of the disabled or elderly feeling free to move around there or not to be discriminated against. One lady said that she was doing an English course and the other students just treated her as ‘a peer’ so for her it really was a ‘second life’. It was described as an immersive space because you could actually ‘move around’ or your avatar could and one school, I remember, teaching airline safety procedures, had created an entire aircraft where crew members could practise safety procedures. The possibilities were endless, limited only by your imagination, and a lot of money was invested in ‘building’. Workshops were held to teach anyone interested how to build and create objects, and we thought the future had already arrived.

Facebook arrived on the scene

Then, Facebook arrived on the scene and the Second Life users began to leave. It was not so much that Facebook was a competitor, but rather a sea change in the general way people were using technology. Social media was becoming more and more popular and smart phones were taking off. Nowadays, phones are much more popular, in fact, than computers and Whatsapp is king…. At least for the moment. So what happened? Why did a world that promised so much actually not catch on? There is no simple answer to this, but I remember balking at asking students at the university to invest the time in creating avatars, dressing those avatars, creating inventories of objects and learning to move around in a world that looks suspiciously like a game. Intellectually, I could see the promise but my heart, somehow, was not in it. There were also a few bugs with the beta version of the software, that was introduced, and it did not really work on smartphones (although I don’t know if that is still true).

All these things, however, might not have been unsurmountable but the basic problem, I think, was another one. It was, at least, as far as I was concerned, that although this was supposed to be immersive, it actually did not go far enough and Leslie Jamieson puts it perfectly in an article in The Atlantic written in December 2017, entitled The Digital Ruins of a Forgotten Future:

“One day when Alice and I met up as avatars, she took me to a beach on one of the Virtual Ability islands and invited me to practice tai chi. All I needed to do was click on one of the poseballs levitating in the middle of a grassy circle, and it would automatically animate my avatar. But I did not feel that I was doing tai chi. I felt that I was sitting at my laptop, watching my two-dimensional avatar do tai chi.

When I read this it struck a chord with me, because that was how I felt too. Watching my Avatar drink a coffee was simply not the same as actually drinking a coffee. Second Life was, and is, a breathtaking place, and I went back to visit last week, stopping in at the Edunation islands where I had so enthusiastically taken part in the conferences, but it was also a very sad visit because so few of the places I used to visit still exist and the ones that do were deserted.

So where is the future?

It’s hard to tell where the future lies, and in fact, most people, I think, embrace technology as part of their real lives, rather than wanting to escape to virtual worlds. Linden Lab, who created Second Life, have now created a new world called Sansar, which was recently launched to the public, which is a virtual reality space compatible with VR Headsets like Oculus Rift as well as being able to explore it on PCs. It aims to provide a democratic space where virtual reality experiences can be both enjoyed and created. As with Second Life, it has great potential. Virtual Reality in any case is predicted as being the next big thing, and it is certainly true that my learners, for instance, find the immersive experience of rehearsing presentations or job interviews with apps such as Virtual Speech and  Oculus or Google Cardboard headsets to be extremely useful, but once again, these are being used by putting smartphones directly into the headsets, so there is an element of slotting the virtual reality experience into your normal life. Who knows if this is the future or not. I am always open to new ideas but I must say that the whole Second Life story leaves me feeling a bit sad.

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.

 

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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