Category: Thoughts

Monday Morning Blog Challenge: which model?

file0001662874096June Blog Challenge

Since it’s the first Monday in June I thought I’d kick off the week with a Blog Challenge about models of English, which is something I’ve been thinking about quite a lot. Obviously, we all use English in different ways, depending on our needs, but is the model we are providing, and, above all, assessing the right one for our learners?

Which Model is right for Italian students?

I teach, as you know, in Italy, and our model tends to be Standard British English. The coursebooks used in state and private schools, and to some extent universities, are mass market globally produced books that come from the UK, on the whole. Even though there are some locally produed books, particularly for the eaching of literature, most of the books are not local, so how relevant are they to our context? Our learners, unless they are language students with a deep rooted interest in language, are motivated to study because they will use English, not to become part of a community where English is the L1 but to communicate in multilingual contexts. This begs the question of what we should teach them. If individuals with different cultural and linguistic backgrounds wish to communicate, of course they will need a model which enables them to understand each other, so, for instance, a local model which includes code switching between English and Italian or “Italian forms in English” will only work among Italian speakers, which rather defeats the purpose!

My take on this has always been to teach the standard British model, as we are in Europe, so it is arguably the closest one to us, and then to encourage creative use, such as adding local sayings, idioms and metaphors (in English) which enrich the language. So far so good. Students learn the basic model to the best of their abilities and then go off into the sunset using it as well as they can. The next problem is assessment.

What is lexical grammar?
What is lexical grammar?

Assessment

When it comes to assessment I think we need to be using a different model. In recent years, with the implementation of the CEFR the move has been to recognise what individuals “can do” when they are communicating, with an emphasis on skills rather than the lexico-grammatical system, although of course the two are closely interconnected. This, however, is where beliefs and traditions die hard, and some find it very difficult to be able to change their perspective towards seeing these learners as people who are using the language to commnicate, and recognising what they can do, rather than simply focusing on the errors.

I have a lot of sympathy for examiners. It’s a complex job which involves judgments that combine the application of criteria (if that is the type of examining being done) with beliefs and traditional habits. For teachers, in classrooms, and this, in my experience is true both of NESTs and NNESTs, what we notice first tends to be error. It hits you between the eyes, if you like, and is seen as something “broken” and many see the job of the teacher as “helping learners to avoid error”. Is it realistic, however, to expect learners to achieve high, almost native speaker like, levels of competence and do they need to do this? I believe that assessment means looking at successful expression and teaching means facilitating learners so that they can develop their own voice and expression tools, to the level that is required by the use they will ultimately make of the language.

So, what about the challenge? Here it is: a few questions for you to consider about your context.

  1. What context do you teach in?
  2. What is the dominant model of English taught?
  3. What is the dominant model of English assessed?
  4. Does this meet your learners’ needs?

I’d be really interested to hear people’s thoughts :-)

 

Out of the mouths of Babes…

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We all know what the expression “Out of the mouths of Babes” means: that children often reveal the bare truth that adults might dress in the famous emperor’s new clothes. This is also true of candidates doing Cambridge Speaking exams, and one of the little  gems that emerged from today’s exams came from a student, looking at photos showing relationships, where one photo showed a classroom with a very friendly looking teacher and a group of motivated looking g children group work of some kind. The picture above showed a group of people working in a team in an office. The student in the exam looked at the classroom image and immediately dismissed the notion that there could be any meaningful relationship between students and teachers by saying “Well, this one (the elationship) isn’t important because we know that between students and teachers there’s a war.” Then he moved onto the other image and said “This is more important because here people are working in teams, and this is good.” The implication then is that a) at school there is no group work, which is a bad thing, as cooperation leads to growth and productivity and b) that there can be no exchange between students and teachers. Both of these ideas probably reflect an alarming truth that exists in many classrooms and that we try to “dress in the emperor’s new clothes” by means of studies and statistics that do not tell us everything. If this situation is happening it is often not the poor, much maligned teacher’s fault but the fault of systems, programmes and expectations that put a whole series of constraints on teachers who are generally trying to do their best in the situation where they find themselves. How true is this divide? I don’t know. I’m sure that in some classrooms it is true and not in others, but what is worrying is that this candidate expressed this opinion as though it was a given and the other person in the exam nodded his agreement straight away.

Group workTo work in groups, or not to work in groups?

I keep hearing all kinds of reasons from teachers why group work is impractical in their classrooms, raning from the “I can’t move the desks” to “I can’t control the class” which usually hides a fear of losing control, because let’s face it. It is not an easy thing, if you have always taught frontal lessons, to hand over to your learners. For many it goes against one of the core beliefs that they absrbed when they were at school: the teacher is there at the front of the class, imparting knowledge. Although for some this may seem an antequated model of education with the “learners as containers to be filled” image, it is still a fact of life in many classrooms around the world, and, in fact, I personally think that there is definitely a place for frontal lessons, or frontal moments in a class, as well as pair or group work.

The next common excuse is that monolingual classes “won’t use English” in groups so the group is a waste of time. Well, on the subject of speaking the L2, let me refer you to my last blog post on the subject. However, the aim of group work, as the exam candidate above so eloquently said, is not simply to provide “language practice” it is also to provide a space for learners to explore ideas, to learn from each other and to reach conclusions by means of mutual support and exploration. For more on the idea of learners supporting each other see this post that I wrote following Sugata Mitra’s controversial plenary at the Harrogate Iatefl conference earlier this year.

Providing a Framework for Learning

Teaching of course is not at all the same as learning and the best we can hope for is often to motivate our learners to go out and take responsibility for their own learning. This also means providing choices in the classroom but also clear frameworks.

Confusion
Am I just feeling stressed?

A confused learners, who doesn’t know what he “should be doing” or what his teacher expects of him may well become stressed of demotivated, so it is useful to discuss the things we are doing in class with learners and the different ways in which they learn. Knowing, for example, when they can use the task they are doing to work on their spoken English or when they can use their L1 because it makes more sense to do so, in error analysis, for instance. A lesson is more, in fact, than just a glorified “spoken language practice” and whilst it is far from ideal to have a whole lesson conducted in the L1, which also happens, it is also counter-productive, at times, to go too far in the opposite direction and insist on the whole lesson in English, because this means as Guy Cook says, wasting a resource, which is the learners’ L1 which can be used to provide reassurance, to build rapport and to give information about the language they are learning which cannot be given directly in the L2. In monolingual classes the L1 is a resource that should not be underestimated.

So, if our learners, like the candidate in the exam, recognise the need for group work to do much more than practise language, then I can see no reason why teachers shouldn’t do the same. Group work has been coming in for quite a lot of criticism recently, but this, I think is often misguided. A colleague of mine said recently that her university students were loath to give their presentations in front of the class. Well, this is hardly surprising, if you consider that these classes often have 60+ students in them. It takes a very confident person to stand up and give a presentation in another language in front of so many. I suggested she tried getting them to give the presentations in small groups, and she reported back that it had really worked very well, and far from “deteriorating into the L1″ they had all taken the task very seriously and worked well. So here again we can see how the small group is a reassuring space inside the big one, and this was one more success story. So let’s move away from fixed ideas about what groups are for and challenge our own beliefs a but more, after all, it can’t hurt can it?

 

Do learners want to speak English… or not?

20131002-221141.jpgDo learners want to speak English… or not?

Most learners, if asked why they are studying a language, will answer that they want to learn to “speak that language”.  In fact, in English we collocate the ability to use a language speaking when we say “I speak German” for instance. This is not true of various other languages which,whilst often having the “speak a language collocation” also have other ways of expressing language mastery such as “Knowing the language” or other “being able” etc.

This is just an anecdote, so before you all rise up to contradict me, I’m not suggesting that the English don’t take the written language seriously, I’m just wondering how important the spoken language is for most learners. I personally, when I study a language, want to learn to do everything, and if possible straight away, because I want to be able to put things into practice immediately, which is why I love modal verbs. All you have to do is to learn the modal verb you want and then apply it to a whole range of infinitives, and Bob’s your uncle! You can use the language to express quite complex ideas before you have even learned the general verb inflections.

 

What do learners want and what motivates us?

If I really examine my motivation, I think this is because I am fascinated by languages and their patterns and the power they give you to be able to express ideas. This goes some way beyond the socioeconomic motivations that are being bandied about at the moment by those who look at language use, and what is “required for the work of work” as David Graddol did in his recent plenary at the Harrogate Iatefl Conference, whilst asking the question of how successful the global study of English has been, among other things. Graddol was simply presenting the results of his research so I am not criticising this, but I think that language learning, like any other type of learning is driven by a whole range of factors and motivation is an intensely personal phenomenon. Learning and learning motivation, I think, and I am firmly convinced of this, is tied up, as Dornyei says in his work on L2 Identities with our view of who we are. This is why, when I recently decided to reactivate my ailing Spanish, I began reading again but I also decided to go to the tertulias, or parties,organised by the Italo-Spanish cultural association in Verona, where you can listen to Spanish and use it to speak to other people about interesting topics, over a glass of Cava, without having to go to a traditional course.

What happens in the classroom?

Ok, so am I, as a teacher, shooting myself in the foot here, by saying I don’t want to go to a course. I don’t think so, because when I don’t want to go to a course, the reason is that I have already studied the lexico-grammatical systems when I studied Spanish at university. I then developed this knowledge by doing skills work both in Scotland and in Spain and I remember my tutor at St. Andrews University Prof. Bernard Bentley, who introduced the idea of tertulias which were similar to the ones here in Verona, except that we tended to eat, drink wine and play boardgames, but the one cardinal rule was that we used Spanish all evening. The tertulias were informal but they were definitely events that provided us, as students, with  learning opportunities. So teaching, I think, needs to provide both the cognitive study of the system, because, after all, if you do not know how to form a comparative adjective, you’ll be hard pressed to make comparisons, and the same goes for lexical and phonological aspects. Despite all the criticism of the poor, long suffering communicative language teaching approach, I still think that to teach learners to communicate with these rules in truly meaningful, and I mean meaningful, not just “meaningful on the surface”, frameworks, is the most logical way for us to work in our world. Classes are made up of individuals, who all have different needs, beliefs and desires (and this includes the teacher) and what happens in class is often a sort of “bargain” between teacher and learners, which is negotiated over a period of time and is not at all linear. But, what do learners really want? Are they like me or not?

What do learners want?

Obviously, the answer to the question above is “not” but on the whole most of my learners do want to be able to express themselves in English and to speak the language to communicate with others. This brings me to my second question: why don’t they speak English in class? This is a big one and I have been thinking about this for some time. Many, when faced with this problem, would blame the methodology: small groups don’t work in monolingual classrooms, discipline problems etc. etc. but I think it goes deeper than this and so let’s go back to the tertulias for a moment. As I said above, I haven’t used Spanish with any regularity for about 30 years, but even so it’s still there somewhere, and I can drag it out of the recesses of my brain, when I have to, which I noticed in Malaga in December, which is what made me want to reactivate it in the first place. So, on the way to the tertulia, I sit on the beus and think to myself in Spanish. I already know what the topic will be so I think about that in Spanish for a few days before I go (off and on of course in a very relaxed informal way) and I may even write a Spanish comment on the Facebook page. This is a mental and psychological effort and as I get closer to the venue all those feelings of inadequacy flood my mind. Will everyone else be better than me? Will I be able to say anything at all? I am motivated to speak the language though, so I grit my teeth and march onwards towards the bar.

Taking the plunge at the risk of losing face.

When I get to the bar I meet the next hurdle. This is a largely monolingual group. There are NS Spaniards and South Americans and it is fairly natural to speak with them in Spanish but there are also a lot of Italians and it takes a supreme effort to speak in Spanish to them, as everyone looks at each other in the eye, knows deep down inside that they can communicate much more safely in Italian, without risking either your intended message or your face, and so, to take the plunge and use the L2 has to be a conscious, risky decision. I, of course, am a language teacher, I know that I can take responsibility for my own learning,  and I am not so interested in “face” in this informal group setting, nor do I feel threatened in any way, so I don’t care if I make mistakes. I just want to increase my “communciative competence” in Spanish (See how much Hymes has influenced us all.) so I take a deep breath and start using Spanish. Other people join in and we all relax until the final hurdle of all…In comes a newcomer who discovers that I’m English, and guess what? Yes, he wants to practise his English… I leave the rest to your imagination.

A question of motivation but also of habit

As this salutory little story tells us, it is not so easy to “speak English” in a monolingual group but it is possible if the learners are a) motivated and able to take responsibility for their own learning and b) establish the habit of doing so. To illustrate what I mean I want to take two different monolingual classes that I teach and to compare them. They are both groups of monolingual Italian speakers, but the cultural settings and age groups are very different. One is an adult conversation group, where the participants come because they want to, and do not see it as ‘institutionalized learning’. They have been coming for years, are friends and speak Italian outside the classroom, but as soon as they come in they use English all the time because a) they are at a B2+ level and can do this and b) they have established this use of “English” in the classroom over years of lessons. (That doesn’t mean, however, that we don’t use Italian if we need to.). The other group is a group of young university undergraduates who are studying language and who say that they would like to improve their spoken language and do not have much chance to speak English outside class, but who are very loath to do so in class. I have spent years, like many of my colleagues bustling round classrooms exhorting learners to “Speak in English” with only varying degrees of success, so I decided that it was time to give them the opportunity to face up to what was going on.

Speaking in class

So I gave them this Powerpoint Presentation with a number of questions to reflect on (inspired by my own experiences at the tertulia combined with my observations of what happens in class).  The stuents reflected on these questions and we discussed them at some length (You can see the answers in the full presentation below.) What they finally concluded was that they did need to make the conscious decision to use English, and that by doing so they would actually establish the habit of using it. My bargain with them was to make it clear in class when they should be using English in communicative group work and when the aim of the group work was different such as error analysis etc. so that the use of Italian was fine. So, of course things haven’t changed overnight, and now I go round the class saying “Make the decision now, that you’re going to use English’ but here’s the thing. It is working and the learners do want to do it, so, in my book, that makes it well worth carrying on with.

This is the full Presentation

Who’s afraid of…_

 

Blended learning as a Social Process, Sugata Mitra at Iatefl and the Aftermath

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Blended Learning: face to face interaction with support from the digital world.

If you look at this image, you will see the essence of what I think of as learning in action. It isn’t a mill drill, it is meaningful discussion going on in the F2F component of a blended learning approach to teaching.

Learners interact with each other and with the teacher who encourages them to find their own paths and is there providing encouragement and direction where needed. I’m not going to cite all the people who advocate learning as a social phenomenon but I’d just like to mention Mike Harrison, who, in a recent blog post, reacted to Sugata Mitra’s vision of children huddled round computers interacting with machines in a wounded but dignified way and  said that the social interaction is one of the major aspects of what he thinks of as teaching, and I agree completely with this.

This is not a new idea, it is the essence of constructivist views of learning where knowledge is built socially and in my classrooms, at any rate, learners and the teacher work together to develop the process building a community which acts as a framework within which meaningful communication and learning may, hopefully, take place.

Why was there such an outcry after Mitra’s plenary?

The Plenary

The Interview


Sugata Mitra’s plenary, on Saturday 5th April at the end of the Iatefl conference, seemed to be suggesting that the teacher was an element that was no longer necessary. In his question and answer session that was held yesterday (April 19th) it seemed clearer to me that he was focusing on the learning process and was particularly concerned with areas of the world where teachers are not available, and how to promote learning in these places, rather than saying that teachers were obsolete, although his implication was that in the future the role of teachers must change. He advocates children organising their own learning with challenging question being asked that they can then answer or not, and with “granny figures” who provide support and admiration from afar. A key element, he said, was that the grannies should be amazed by what the children tell them and what they have learned. The teachers, then would become the grannies, as far as I can see, which is not too far removed from the role of “facilitator” which has already been widespread for quite some time.

Although there has been the whole gamut of emotions in the outcry to his presentation the question and answer session yesterday, which should soon be available as a video for all those who missed it, was interesting both for the answers Mitra supplied to the questions we asked him and for the discussion that went on in the chat box, which raised other issues.

I still have a few qualms about all this which I’d like to share with you. I’ve left it until now to publish as I wanted to hear what he had to say in the webinar first :-)

Watching the Sugata Mitra video and the interview made me think that:

Do Learners need or want direction or not?

Actually, he isn’t an educator and doesn’t claim to be (although he is Professor of Educational Technology…). In the interview he said that the role of teachers was something he was thinking about. However, he compares a SOLE  (self organised learning environment) session with a ‘lecture’ and the key word here is lecture, as this seems to be his impression of what teaching is. This may be true in some contexts but not all, and there are many educators who already work with both Internet- webquests and group work.

My thoughts on Non directed Learner Autonomy

In the webinar he said that a SOLE differs from a webquest because a webquest is learners interacting alone with computers to go to specific web sites provided by teachers, but this is quite a narrow view of what a webquest is. Guidance may be provided, but there is no reason why webquests cannot be done in groups and sites provided when asked for but learners do not need to be limited to these sites. I mentioned, in the webinar, my experience with learners who, when left to their own devices, are not necessarily autonomous, and may, in fact, be directed by the materials they find.

They often, for instance, stop at the first online dictionary they find, rather than comparing different ones, and yes, I admit it, they are the ones that I suggest to them. I have quite a lot of experience of online dictionaries and can tell them what I think is good or bad about them, and then leave them to make up their own minds.

It is also, I think,  something of a utopian view to think that everyone, when provided with materials, will magically become a successful independent learner. In fact, in the ELT world we have seen after years of experiments with such things as self access centres, that most learners are NOT able to direct their own learning as successfully as Mitra implies. Learners will go into a self access centre and their learning will be determined by the materials, which is a completely different thing from using materials in the guidance of an expert teacher in a supportive classroom, where learners can experiment, ask questions and teachers can adapt the materials, tasks, topics etc. to the needs of their learners.

I realise that this is not what happens in many classrooms, unfortunately, and I feel that my own context in Italy is a long way away from the experiments in India, where there were few, or even no, teachers available, but I simply don’t think that findings from contexts like these can then lead to generalised statements about teaching. What we need to do is to ask ourselves what the components were that “worked” and how these elements can be adapted and combined with successful teaching in ELT contexts, if we are not already doing this, albeit in different ways.

What are the Key Ingredients in Mitra’s SOLEs ?

The key ingredients are directed peer learning, with challenging questions and affect both the fun the learners are having, their motivation and curiosity and the support provided in the admiration that comes from the granny figures. This all seems, dare I say it, fairly standard for the elt world, but is it standard for mainline schools? The emotive comment of “factoring out the teacher” could perhaps, and I say perhaps, because I’m trying to be objective here, mean factoring out traditional top down teaching and the cognitive focus on lower order skills, or dumming down of learners, which has been changing in our field for many years. This is not true, however, of education authorities who insist on, as Mitra says, ignoring the Internet and banning its use from the classroom.

There are, of course, reasons why this is done too, and working s a teacher who has to juggle institutional constraints, aim for good exam results and promote motivated learning as well is no easy task. The criticism, I feel, however, should be aimed more towards the ministerial programmes, the systems that look at learning as a matter of ticking the boxes, and testing systems which are archaic and do not perhaps meet the needs of learners in many parts of the world.

So… I conclude that what he is saying, as many people have protested over the past two weeks, is not particularly new, on the one hand and an emotive response driven by fear for our jobs may well make us throw up our hands in horror, when what we need to do is think about how to organise our own systems and in particular our testing systems as the washback from these inevitably affects our teaching.

Finally, I still think Mitra was speaking more as a researcher, even though he said he was ‘trying to find a way for children to learn where there would not be a teacher’ so he did not give the children in India any help, but we are educators and we can give our learners help. We, as educators can focus on how to direct their learning so that it is fun, constructive and challenging, just like the image at the top of this post, where learners experiment with different ways of learning until they find what suits them best, in a supportive, meaningful community that is created in the classroom…. I think that’s the positive message, and many of us already do this, don’t we?

The Demand keeps growing higher, and higher…

Confusion
Am I just feeling stressed?

Quality teaching means helping the learners to learn without feeling stressed.

The theme of High Demand has stayed at the back of my mind all day today, beginning with Katherine Graves’ plenary this morning, when she spoke very eloquently about the way that what is often perceived as an inefficient use of classroom time in ‘bureaucrat speak’, where the key is efficient, cost effective outcomes, actually means quality teaching; to my mind this is an application of Adrian Underhill and Jim Scrivener’s “demand high teaching” meme that I was talking about on Tuesday. What it means is that classroom feedback does not stop at merely eliciting an answer and moving on, regardless of whether the learner has really understood all that it might imply. Katherine Graves’ example came from a mathematics class where learners needed to know the technical term “perimeter” but said something like “goes all the way round” and the teacher accepted this, as the concept had been communicated, but did nothing to help the learner come to terms with the word “perimeter”, which they would need to know for their school work. In the same way in a language class, it is not enough to go round the class merely eliciting answers and replying “Good” even when the answer is not particularly good, which does not help the learner. What helps the learner is to respect the fact that he or she is having trouble with something, finding out what that is and helping them to work through the process of understanding and producing the language, or understanding the problem, without feeling threatened or belittled along the way.

Words or Phrases?

My other main focus today was lexis, and Michael McCarthy’s presentation was as memorable as ever, as he discussed some of the data from the Cambridge Learner Corpus that shows learners have trouble with delexicalised verb + noun phrase collocations. He gave a series of examples which occurred across the board ranging from B1 to C2. What was interesting was that the same problems occurred, just that the word choice tended to become more complex as the level increased. With the example of “make” and “do” being mixed up, for instance, at B1 learners might say “make sports” at B2 “make work” at C1 the instances of confusion were fewer but they were still there with example like “make business” and at C2 “make wonders”. Some items occurred from B2 to C2 like “make research”. His point was that, as he said, when quoting Sinclair, that collocation is not fringe and although he did not really go into the teaching side of all this the implications are once again that it makes no sense to teach single words. Learners need to be focusing on collocations, phrases, and chinks as single units, right from the start.

What is lexical grammar?
What is lexical grammar?

The Lexical Approach or the Lexical Dimension

At the moment, grammar is still probably king with lexis coming second and being fitted into the lesson around the grammar. Michael Hoey will probably tell us tomorrow, in fact, that this is the opposite of the way we use language where it is the grammar that seems to be generated as a result of lexical choice. Michael Lewis also wrote about chunks, collocations and precisely the problems that were mentioned today but the problem of his “Lexical Approach”, which generations of teachers have tried to apply, is that it is not systematic enough for educators to build a curriculum around. Materials and teaching approaches need to be developed along systemic lines and based on sound principles, and whilst the principles here are sound, in my opinion, the system is lacking. This is why Ivor Timmis article in 2008 in the Modern English teacher was such a breath of fresh air to so many of us, because he put down in words what we were all feeling but couldn’t find the words to express. He said that what we need is not to radically change the syllabus we are teaching but to add a lexical dimension to it. This again brings me back to the demand high teaching theme, because what it means is that is not enough for learners to look at single words, which is still so often the case in the materials that are commonly available, but to look, as McCarthy said at “the company they keep“, to look at the collocations and the chunks and to work with them.

Collocation, of course, varies from one language to another, but, to come back to Katherine Grave’s point of respecting the learner and their language, this could actually be used as a resource rather than a problem, working on contrastive analysis in class, and playing with this phenomenon.

It’s quite late and I fear I may be rambling now, so I’m going to have a cup of tea and leave you until tomorrow, when the day starts with Michael Hoey’s plenary. I want a good night’s sleep so that I’ll be bright eyed and bushy tailed for that. (there are a couple of lovely collocations to sleep on :-) )

Gearing up for Iatefl 2014 in Harrogate…

Blogger-harrogate-300x300-bannerGetting the Most out of a Great Conference

Whether you are teaching in the UK or in New Zealand, or even a village in Umbria, you have almost certainly heard of the annual IATEFL conference, where thousands of ELT professionals gather in the UK to share their ideas, to network, browse publications, to attend the great “EFL related” evening entertainment:  ranging from cabaret acts and storytelling to music, general knowledge quizzes, Pecha Kucha ev and several parties and, of course we all go there to learn and develop professionally.

An Uplifting Moment in the Year

I’ve been attending this conference for quite a few years now and I must say that it is one of the most uplifting moments in my professional year. I always come home feeling recharged (if exhausted) with new ideas and insights to explore and put into practice. When you’ve been teaching for a while, you need this sort of event to recharge your batteries and to help you keep up your enthusiasm. The conference, as I said, is enormous though, so it is important to have some kind of game plan before you even start, otherwise the wealth of parallel sessions, not to mention the evening events will overwhelm you. So here are a few tips for a great conference. (I’m writing them for myself, by the way, but I thought I’d share them with you too.

merry go round
All the fun of the fair

Tips for a Getting the most out of the Conference

1) First of all, if you can’t come physically, don’t despair. Iatefl, together with the British Coucil, stream many of the sessions and others are videod so you can watch them at your leisure. Go to Iatefl Harrogate 2014 Online

2) Also the fact that so many sessions are videod means that you don’t need to panic if you can’t see everything. You can catch up later. So check which sessions are being filmed and if it clashes with something else, or, which sometimes happens, the room is full, don’t worry. You can see it later.

3) Use the programme well. It is an enormous publication with a wealth of information. I generally don’t carry it around with me as it’s heavy but I pull the coloured pages out from the back for each day and that is my working programme. It also helps you to see events you might otherwise miss. I noticed the “Open Spaces” event for this year, which I think looks very interesting.

4) Don’t try to do everything. I generally have several criteria I apply to the sessions I attend. (Yours may well be different but the point is you need to have some :-)

a) I look to see who is presenting to go to talks by people I’m interested in because I’ve read their books, know their blogs etc. and I try to see new people each year;

b) I restrict my sessions to fields I’m particularly interested in, such as materials development, e-learning and technology, learner autonomy. However, I don’t reject other things that may look interesting, and every conference seems to organically create a sort of intuitive “narrative thread” for me when I get there. I remember my thread in Harrogate 2010 was “Storytelling” and I seemed to see references to this all round me. In fact, I wrote a conference review that year, and it was based on Agatha Christie’s disappearance in Harrogate… It all went on from there.

c) Remember to take time out to relax, to have coffee and chat with people and to sleep, or just to walk around the city and have fun. One of my favourite places in Harrogate is Betty’s tearooms, where their aptly named  “fat rascals” scones are wonderful as is their tea. Just don’t go at popular times otherwise you’ll be standing in a queue for hours!

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Brimham Rocks: a magical place

Another venue I love in Harrogate is the Turkish Baths which have a real Victorian, Art Nouveau feel to them. Around the city there is also the wonderful countryside of the Yorkshire Dales and one of my all time favourite places to visit is Brimham Rocks, but you need transport to get there. This time out is essential as it also gives your brain time to rest and process all the input you’re getting, and you often come back with ideas you hadn’t even realised you were developing.

d) Finally I think it is in the spirit of the conference to share what strikes you with others, with your colleagues who could not attend, with others via Social Networks and with learners, who often get left out, but who, let’s face it, are pretty central to the whole process.

So, I hope you have a great conference. I’m off to pack now :-)

 

 

So what’s next? Web 3.0?.. Second Life? Or human beings communicating with each other?

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So what’s next? Web 3.0? .. Second Life? Or human beings communicating with each other?

Most people have some idea these days what we generally mean by Web 2.0 even though Tim Berners-Lee, who invented the World Wide Web in 1989 actually says that there is no such thing. What I understand by Web 2.0 is the transition from the top down communication that I grew up with where audiences received information from mass media, to a collaborative medium where content is, or may be, created by everyone. This has its pros and cons, that I’m not going to go into here in any great depth, but it is fair to say that whilst Neil Postman, in the eighties, told us that we had “no say” and could “do nothing” about the big questions, this was probably true, as most of the information was coming from the television to the viewers, or from newspapers to readers, so top down, from those in authority, to us, the masses, who did not even have the means to really know if what we were being fed was true or not.

Relationships and Communication, or Reaching Out.

This is no longer true, in the sense that now we can all interact with just about anyone, and videos that are making statements go viral everyday, as flash mobs are organised. Michael Wesch, in the video I include below, describes the way that the remix of an advert caused multinationals to renegotiate in order to protect the environment, and for whatever, reason they may have decided to do this, it has to be a good thing, and that was brought about by activity that was moving bottom-up, from us to them. The very fact that I am sitting here blogging means that I am not just scribbling my thoughts in a private journal as I used to do, but I am reaching out to you, and at least one or two people will read this and then add their own thoughts to the mix. This is, in my opinion, social construction of knowledge, and this, I think is what we mean by Web 2.0.

file0001662874096Is Knowledge an Object?

This is an image we all tend to associate with knowledge, and our education systems still buy into this idea. Knowledge is an object or a construct. Teachers can “provide it” for their learners, and learners can “acquire it” by studying, thinking and building up ever growing stocks of information. If we are very lucky some of our teachers will encourage us to think critically about this information and draw our own conclusions, but it is still knowledge as an object. Learning languages involves learning skills, and even these become objectified (I’m not sure if that’s even a word, but you know what I mean :-). In the language learning world we really should know better. Our learners all want to “communicate” which means “doing things with language” it does not mean memorizing volumes of metadata about iffy grammar rules, but even now, in the 21st Century, there are still classrooms whereoral exams mean speaking in the L1 about the systems of the L2, rather than actually using the L2 to do something meaningful. This is not, however, the norm, any more, fortunately, I have to add, and most classrooms nowadays reflect the shift that I mentioned at the beginning when thinking about the difference between the era of the television and our Web 2.0.

Knowledgeable or Knowledge-able?

Michael Wesch’s TED talk is entitled “From Knowledgeable to Knowledge-able” and, I think, this says it all in a nutshell. What our learners (and not only the learners but all of us, in fact) need to learn is how to use knowledge, what to do with it, how to communicate and how to find the reliable information they need to carry out the business of living. Gavin Dudeney in this presentation on Digital Literacies, said very similar things and one of the most memorable points he makes, I think, is that digital citizens envision technology as processes wuch as chatting, studying, blogging, skyping etc. whereas the technophobes are much more likely to think of technology as a collection of objects that are very likely to break down and cause them yet another headache. We’ve all been there, of course, and there is nothing worse than your computer crashing, unless it’s your car , with you in it, perhaps… Anyway, nothing is perfect but focusing on what we can do with technology rather than the devices themselves, seems to be a recipe for a more successful use. From this point of view, then, of course, what we need to do is to organise those processes, learn how to multitask, and in language learning, use the technology to increase our skills of communication in all languages.

Where next? Past, Present, Future or all three together?
Where next? Past, Present, Future or all three together?

Task Based Learning and Collaboration

So, whether your task is to get from A to B or whether it is to design your future, collaborating with others and learning from each other is, in my experience, one of the best ways to do things well. I know that I can study alone and probably do a good job, but when I work in a small team, the results are invariably better, as none of us is perfect and we can all teach each other something. I am thinking in particular about the process of writing exams, where, with the best will in the world, the items you write will not all be perfect, and sharing doubts etc. with a well-meaning colleague is a great help. This is why I am a great believer in task-based learning, particularly at B2+ levels, as it also has to be said, that learners who cannot use the language at at least an intermediate level tend to struggle when it comes to tasks, or they become so engrossed in the task that they fall back into the L1, as the task has become more important than the language they are using.

From a B2 level onwards, however, learners benefit much more from using the language to do meaningful activities and to actually create meaning with new language rather than artificial practice activities, but in order to do this those tasks may have to be scaffolded. It is rather daunting for learners to listen to native speakers doing a task, which simply provides a model that they will not be able to emulate. It would seem to be better to break the final task up into sub tasks in order to finally build the skills required to do the final one, so that writing an article about travel destinations to publish on a site like Tripadvisor, for instance, may start with work on the vocabulary learners may need, or some language work on the type of construction they may need when writing. Knowing how to do something is not the same as simply acquiring knowledge. Learning about how relative clauses work, because you are going to use them in a real life task like writing a Tripadvisor review, for instance, is a far cry from simply looking at relative clauses because they are the next item on the syllabus. There, are, of course, still issues, with task-based learning and one of these is how to build a meaningful syllabus based on tasks. I’m still looking for an answer to this. Any ideas?

Working together with Normalised technology

It seems to me that the real question is not whther we are in the era of Web 2.0 or Web 3.0, whatever that may ultimately prove to be, but whther the technology we are using is simply a “normal” part of the way we relate to each other on a daily basis. y learners are already using technology to work together on English tasks  this quite well, and having just seen some of the great texts they are producing on our class wiki space, I felt quite euphoric and had to write this. Without even thinking too much about it, they are just sitting there and creating something together. The technology has become, in the words of Stephen Bax, normalised, so that it is not what is important, what is important is the process they are carrying out and the ideas they are exchanging. The technology is improving all the time, of course, so that nowadays comments can be made directly into a collaborative text and this can be stored digitally so that everyone can work on it together. This, to my mind, is what the next stage is, and we are already embarking on the process. It has more to do with human relationships and what we choose to do than the technology we use to do it, although, as I said a the beginning, we are in the middle of a shift where a bottom up approach to communication is proving dramatic. How we use these systems depends on us, and Michael Wesch tells the Aztec story of the little bird who tried to put out an inferno of the burning world with a few little drops of water from his beak. He was doing the best that he could. If we all join him, then think how powerful that might be.

Here is the video:

“From Knowledgeable to Knowledge-able”