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.
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.
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.