What’s the point?

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

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

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

Cycling along without being aware of the bigger picture around you

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

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

What’s the point of my teaching?

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

Getting back to normal

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

 

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

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

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

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

Practice and more practice

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

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

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

What sort of blend do you like?

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

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

Spring in the air

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

Iatefl Day One: a lexical thread for me

IATEFL 2018 Day One: anyone for research?

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

A Rose by any other name…

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

Lexis, corpora and treasure chests

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

Do some words matter more or the frequency fallacy

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

Champagne and Ice cream

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Welcome to Brighton 2018

Welcome to Brighton 2018, come and join the fun!

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

Authenticity or Reliability… Hey, what about both?

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

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

Yes, but what about the Stats?

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

The Afternoon Session

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

A few thoughts

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

merry go round
All the fun of the fair

The fun?

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

Hope to see you around the conference. 🙂

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.

pexels-photo-541522.jpeg

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.

 

 

The price of freedom : a few thoughts on learner autonomy

How autonomous do learners actually want to be?

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

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

Autonomy or Self Instruction?

Self access centres are self instruction centres and learners need to be autonomous to want to use them but self instruction is by no means the same as learner autonomy. Autonomy could be considered a psychological quality or a behaviour but it starts with the individual rather than being a collection of resources for learners. This is also one reason why very few learners are able to follow online courses independently or the sort of self access language learning courses that used to be available as cassettes with magazines etc. Nowadays we have a wealth of self instruction materials available in the shape of online courses, sites etc. some of which are more effective than others but despite this wealth of potential sources of learning many learners still do not know where to start, or lack the motivation and knowhow to be able to use them well. The eighties s was a time when many were thinking about autonomy and what it meant, and that is even truer perhaps today, with the increased onus on learners to ‘take responsibility’ for their learning but the definition of what autonomy is is not such a simple matter and David Little in fact calls it a ‘slippery concept’. For a concise review of some of the research see Little’s description here.
In our digital age this debate is beoming even more heated and urgent in education. One noteworthy case is Sugata Mitra’s ‘Hole in the Wall’ experiments which in his case, came to the attention of TED among others, and which then led  to further investments and research.  What he did, basically, was to set up computers on street corners in under-priveleged areas of India, like our ‘hole in the wall’ cash machines. These were provided in bright colours and designed for children to be able to sit comfortably at. He then simply left them to it in attempt to remove the teacher and to prove that children learn more effectively when their learning is more self directed. In his plenary at Iatefl in 2014 this had an electrifying effect on the audience (most of whom were teachers) and the debate continued long after. If you are interested I wrote about it at the time. He seemed to be heralding self direction as something new, although it was the self direction + technology that interested him, but I wondered what had happened a few years on and the results are, unfortunately that many of the ‘holes in the wall’ have been vandalised or are being used by older youths to search for all kinds of things that are not necessarily related to education.
Mitra, in fact is more interested nowadays, it seems, in his school in the clouds, which is more about self direction within existing  educational frameworks. I have no doubt that much of what Mitra says makes sense, and many educators are already doing this, but once again providing children is not enough and it is certainly not a magic solution to the problems of failing education systems. Tom Bennet, writing for TES in 2015 bemoans the fact that so many fell for this apparently ‘easy solution’ which he describes in damning terms:
“It seems to me that the more outlandish the magic bullet  claim in education, the more someone is willing to pay to subsidise it – and the less critical people become of it. But Mitra’s work taps into zeitgeists that are very, very groovy indeed: student-guided learning, the perpetually-approaching-but-not-quite-yet tech revolution of education, and the need to replace the ossified dogma of factory-farm learning. It’s like Ken Robinson regenerated into the next Doctor and the Sonic Screwdriver became a laptop.”
Well, teachers feel threatened when self direction rears its head, but scaffolded autonomy within a specific learning framework , is, to my mind, part and parcel of respecting learners and their needs, and in fact nothing new. I have, in fact, frequently given learners a problem or a task and asked them to solve it in small groups with the use of digital resources, and this type of guided learner self direction when monitored closely but not invasively by an educator, can lead to exciting results.
Photo credit: Comfreak on pixabay
https://pixabay.com/it/luna-star-artigiani-carta-da-parati-2077332/

Scaffolding

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

 

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

Ten Pearls of Wisdom from Glasgow Iatefl 2017

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

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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:
    1. 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?
    2. 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.
  5. 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.
  6. 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.
  7. “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.
  8. 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.
  9. 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.
  10. 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 🙂

 

What are you ‘sinking’ about? The ELF Debate continues…

The Elf Debate

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.

What do you think?

To Join or not to Join SIG Groups?

 

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.

 

Iatefl Teasig Webinar branches out to do Facebook Discussions

IMG_0598What are the Iatefl Teasig Webinars?

If you look at the image on the left you may be forgiven for thinking that the Iatefl Teasig (Testing, Evaluation and Assessment Special Interest Group) is a bit of an informal affair, and actually you would be partly right. Testing, evaluation and assessment is often thought of as being rather dry or difficult to deal with, so why not bring a warm association of a “nice cup of tea” into the picture.? In our webinars Neil Bullock and Judith Mader, the coordinators of Teasig, with a little help from me, have tried to keep an informal but informative style, reaching out to members of the sig but also others who are interested in testing and who might, in the future, become members of our sig too. The aim of the webinars is to invite interesting speakers who have something to say about testing, evaluation or assessment, to discuss their topic in a one-hour webinar. These are held regularly every few months (For more information follow this link to the Teasig site) on Adobe Connect, and are generally well received. We have been fortunate so far in having had some excellent speakers who really reach out, embracing the medium of the webinar and include the audience in their discussions. The discussions, however, tend inevitably to be “top-down” in the traditional sense. The speaker presents his or her ideas and the audience listens, comments in the chat box and asks questions. Speakers then answer some of the questions at the end of the session, or if there is not much time they answer them in a feature in the Teasig newsletter.

This has been successful so far, but we have now decided to take the process one step further to allow for greater exploration, discussion and sharing of resources by the participants. How are we doing this?

Why use Facebook for webinar discussions?

In the C21 we actually have the chance to question things like discussions and use social media to do this in interesting new ways. In the past conferences and seminars have often been about listening to experts and asking questions, learning something new and then going home. Now we have the chance to take the discussion further to reflect and share our insights with each other drawing on the largely untapped resource of audience experience and insight.  Instead of just “going home” or rather switching off the computer and heading towards a bar for a Prosecco (in my case) this week we extended the discussion of  ‘Assessing and Marking Writing” by Clare Fielder to take things further on Facebook. Why use Facebook?

Well, Facebook is a space that many of us know and use all the time, which means that like a familiar room, we can meet there to discuss the ideas that have come up, just as we might do in a café, for instance. Being “somewhere” that we already know makes people feel comfortable and willing to post their own ideas and comments in a freer way than they might do in the actual webinar chat feed. An added adva

Looking at old things in new ways
A Space for Reflection

ntage of extending our event in this way, is that although the actually discussion itself was synchronous with me moderating it, the posts actually stay online so that all those interested in the event can go back to see them. In fact, some comments were added after the event itself, which means that a whole new asynchronous exchange starts to develop. One person, for example, Aimee Johansen, watched the recording (avaiable after the event itself)  and then commented on the Facebook Events page, that whe had found it interested and it had reminded her of some things and introduced her to other feedback methods that she would not have thought of but would like to try out. I then asked her what she would like to try in particular, so the discussion continues even a few days after the actual event.  Kent’s research about Facebook use in class discussions shows clearly that students, for instance, are happier to post on facebook than on official course discussion boards, and even though our discussions are professional and not part of a course I believe the same principle applies. As in real life there are those who like to post and others who like to follow the discussion “silently”. Whichever way you choose to use the discussion is up to you, and catering for different needs is all part of the show. For all these reasons, and particularly because Facebook is so well known, then, and many are happy using it, this was what we opted for. This was our first experience, it went well and I hope it will get even better in the future.

What happened in the Facebook Discussion?

We used the Teasig Facebook Page, which has been set up and managed by Ceyda Mutlu. Ceyda had already set up an event to advertise the webinar, as she always does and Participants were directed to this page at the end of the webinar. Some people, in fact had already accepted the invitation to attend the webinar and had posted questions and comments in advance. This meant that the discussion was already underway, in fact, before the webinar had even started!

On the evening of the webinar particpants were directed to the “Facebook Event” at the end of the webinar, and I posted the questions that had come up during the event here. Clare had been speaking about using Correction Codes to provide feedback to learners on their writing and there was a whole range of questions. I myself had quite a few including a question about how to include this kind of feedback in courses where time constraints are already an issue. Clare had outlined some of the disadvantages such as learner participation, which often comes about because learners receive a piece of written work corrected with a code that they do not understand. Time, then, must be devoted to familiarising learners both with the process and the code. I’m a big believer in learner centred teaching and developing online dialgogues with my learners, possibly becuase I tend to have very large classes, so here is a post I wrote after the 2015 Iatefl Conference which touches on developing asynchronous dialgues with learners to provide feedback and growth, so I wanted to know what Clare thought about integrating all these things into a teaching system.

We all discussed these and other ideas and shared resources and screenshots to explain what we meant, etc. This was our first “live” discussion, but which I mean that there was a moderator and participants knew that we were all “there” at that particular time, and I’m sure that things will only get better with practice, but as a first attempt it went well, so if you’r einterested go along to the discussion and have a look :-).