Revisiting reflection and cake baking

 

Revisiting a Short Reflection from 2010

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What follows is a reflection that I posted one rainy September day in 2010, and I have decided to revisit it seven years later to expand on the idea of reflection, something we increasingly leave behind as we hurtle through our daily lives.

Facebook can lead to Reflection

“It’s raining quite hard in Verona this morning so rather than going out and busily “achieving not very much” I decided it was the perfect time to sit down and reflect, or at least to write what I was thinking on Facebook. Feeling irritated, like so many people these days, with the overload of information we are all bombarded with, all the time, I wrote that information without knowledge and wisdom is like the ingredients without the cake. This sparked off a little discussion which made me reflect a bit more. (So, yes, Facebook can be used in all kinds of ways 🙂 ) In fact, making a joke, I added that cakes are also very dangerous, as we all know.

On reflection though this is not a joke because the power of the cake lies with the baker rather than  with the person who eats it. The baker decides what to put into it, and therefore what the effect will be. This is true of many things in life, not forgetting, of course lesson planning and teaching (Two of the many points in the learning  process. )

The person who eats the cake, or goes to the lesson, also contributes to the process though, by exercising choice. You can choose which cake to eat, how much of it etc. but we have to think about what it is that leads us to choose one particular cake and not another…. This opens it all up for even more thought and discussion.

In any case, reflection is the essential part of the process. If we just throw in the ingredients without thinking, or if the cakes we eat are mass produced by unthinking machines, for instance, the results will be questionable, at the very least.

So, I’m off to meditate now… and then I might bake a cake…”

Thoughts ten years later

My initial reaction is that not much has changed. We are still bombarded by too much information, in fact, even more so, and we are also struggling to process it all in the different ways we encounter it every day . The second is that reflection can be a one sided process, which would be like baking a cake that nobody eats.  If it leads to insights, though, and if those insights are shared, or applied in practice in the classroom, observing, reflecting, experimenting and then observing again, perhaps we can all learn from each other, build on our experience and the cake can only get tastier and tastier.

24 Hours a Day are not really enough…. or are they?

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One of the biggest problems when it comes to reflection is that many of us don’t think we have enough time to do it. Or rather, we get caught up in so much daily activity that stopping to step back and observe it all, is something that we simply don’t take the time to do.

I recently asked a group of university students what they would most like to do if they could do anything they wanted in that precise moment. What do you think the answer was? Well, no, they didn’t want to escape to a tropical island. They wanted to sleep. This says it all, in a way. Getting enough sleep is one of the most important ways of staying healthy and lucid, and yet here we all are, working too late, feeling stressed and carrying on anyway, and on top of all this I’m asking you to ‘reflect’! Well, when are you supposed to do that?

Digital Distractions

When I’m researching something, simply looking for ideas for my next lesson or even planning a trip, I tend to spend a lot of time navigating manically from one article or website to another on the Internet, without focusing to any great depth on any of them, always hoping to find exactly the ideas, flight or research I’m interested in the next one… The next one, after all, is only a click away. I can save them all and come back later, when I have more time. It’s a vicious circle, in fact, because it might have been better to sit and read one article through, rather than spending half an hour cataloguing articles that I am not reading. This is the siren call of the digital world and it takes up a lot of time. Taking time to do something like reflecting seems to be a waste of time. It isn’t productive. There is so much else to do. Strangely enough, though,  I find that taking the time to sit down and meditate, be mindful or simply breathe deeply stops my brain spinning round. It stops me multitasking and actually expands time. That’s the mental space that opens the doors to some of my most significant reflections and insights.

Recently, for instance, I was planning a lesson on discourse analysis which is quite a complex topic. I had been struggling to think of ways of simplifying it all without dumbing it down, and was not being very successful. I did not want to simply lecture students. I want them to be able to understand the basics of systemic functional grammar (in 8 hours at the most!), and I want to motivate them to find out more. Defeated, I left it and went to bed, and the next morning as I was walking down the street, after a good night’s sleep the image of clause complexes as planets came to me, all moving around their own systems, ‘process’ planets with satellites of ‘participants’ and ‘circumstances’ (I apologise for the jargon, but it is central to systemic functional grammar) so I made a Prezi which I called the universe of transitivity and suddenly just ‘knew’ how I was going to teach this subject. For all those who are interested, here is a link to the prezi :-).

None of this is new, of course. We have all experienced the way a good night’s sleep can help us to see things in a different light, and by taking the time to stop and  slow down, in fact, you actually do create more time for yourself, and you work better. Suddenly, you are doing something like writing a blogpost, for example, because you want to, because you have something to say, and not simply because it is on a list of goals that you have set for yourself. Suddenly you find yourself planning an activity to do in class with your students because it is meaningful, fun and relevant to them, rather than because it is simply the next lesson you have to do.

Finding time to make reflection part of your own professional development

This is a tall order, I know, for many teachers who are working heavy weeks, and barely have enough time to plan their lessons, let alone stop and think about them. I remember one Celta trainee I was working with, who said that our course was really good, and that he was learning lots of amazing things, but it was a pity that he had 40 hours of teaching a week and simply did not have the time to put it all into practice.

My advice to him was to “put it into practice’ for one or two lessons a week, rather than for all of them. I mention this because I know that writing a reflection journal, or even a blog, takes time. You don’t always have something specific to reflect about either. You may not have any insights for a few weeks, and then one episode in an exam, or a lesson, for instance, will start you thinking. That is when you can stop and take the time to think about it, and why it is memorable to you.

Reflecting by Asking Questions

Reflection is a skill that can be learned just as any other skill can. One or two moments of quality reflection can be invaluable but if you are not used to it, it may not be easy at first. You may feel that you have nothing to say or write. One way to start is by asking a few  WH questions:

What happened?

Where did it happen?

Who was involved?

When did it happen?

What did this make me think?

What might I do differently next time?

What are the implications?

Planning a little time once a month, even to sit down and take stock in this way can soon become a habit that can actually help you to put more into your teaching. You find that you are no longer simply baking a cake, but you are baking your own quality masterpiece and you and your students are having a feast. Personally, as you can see in the image below, I’ve moved on to waffles at the moment, since it was Pancake Tuesday this week, but I was still quite proud of my creations, just as I was proud of my transivity prezi.

I’d love to hear about your reflections too, and where they take you 🙂

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Can you use that image?

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photo credit: Sharon Hartle

Well, I’m back from Iatefl, and am gradually settling back into my normal Italian life. One of the highlights of the week, last Wednesday was a lesson I did on ‘Intellectual Property’ with my advanced C2 class, who have to do presentations as part of their final exam. Many people use resources such as prezi or emaze to do this, which are public, open platforms, freely accessible by the world and his wife. As we live in a world where remix is the norm and images, video, music and other media are shared at the speed of lightening, often without much thought for ownership, it is important, I think, every now and then, to stop, take a deep breath, and question all this.

I have added a photo credit to my own image above, which I would probably not normally do,  (This is my photo, by the way, ) in a rather ironic way to make the point, but for many taking time to think about who owns ideas and content really did seem to be a wake up call, that meant looking at their practice, if not their lives, with new eyes.

What did we do?

Part One: Discussion and Reflection

The lesson began with reflection and the discussion of these two questions:

  1. “We live in times of theft, intellectual theft. When you can download just about everything and make it your own what incentive is there for artists to create any more?”
  2. “A remix is actually an original reworking of someone else’s idea, so as long as credit is given where it is due, it belongs to the remixer.”

This gave rise to various points such as the distinction between piracy and theft, which was not immediately clear to everyone. There is also a fine line between plagiarism and intellectual theft which we also explored, and it seems, at times, for some to be difficult to distinguish between expressing their own ideas and expressing someone else’s. This may seem obvious but when does an idea become so commonly accepted or shared that it is no longer necesary to cite its author? We, obviously, cannot cite everything so in our comunity, for instance, we  refer to ‘scaffolding’ because everyone knows what it means, without having to cite Vygotsky every time we do this.

Part Two: So, in practice?

So far, this was all rather theorectical, however, so the next stage reinforces what this actually means in the way we use technology. I had created a Facebook exercise for the Student Group (which is a closed group on Facebook), with an image I had created by adding special effects to my own photo of an art installation, inspired in fact by J.J. Wilson’s plenary at Glasgow Iatefl.

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During this motivating plenary one of the things he asked the audience to do was to look at differnt classrooms and create ‘I wonder……’ ideas with each other. I asked my learners to do the same, (and there are  prizes for the most ‘liked’ ideas). This time, though, I asked the class to look at this video and to say whther or not they thought it was intellectual theft. (I had added a link to an article about the original installation as well, both for those who were interested in reading about it and to give credit to the author.

Reactions

The class decided that this was not intellectual theft because the installation was in a public space and I was using my own photo, not claiming that the installation was mine. The power. however, of this exercise, I felt, was that it really made people think about how they use Social Media and the content they post. Some went away from that lesson looking rather worried and talking about closing accounts, a reaction that they would probably not have had from simply taking part in the discussion.

So, why is all this important?

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Reflection

Well, reflecting on what you do before you do it is a skill that often needs to be relearned in our world where everything can be shared at the speed of light, by the click of a mouse. I personally believe that respecting other people’s work, ideas and insights is etremely important and I hope that they will respect mine too. When you have experienced your own work being plagiarised or stolen in some way you will know how hurtful it can be. Why do we need to steal other people’s work when we can give them credit for it, ask them for permission to use it or…actually, even better, use our own work? Oh, and by the way, the reflection image above is my own photo taken in Glasgow, just in case you were wondering :-).

 

 

Iatefl Glasgow 2017

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That time of year…

It’s that time of year again when thoughts turn to travel towards the UK. Normally this is one of my favourite events in the year and this year, I am once more one of the official Iatefl bloggers.

These days, however, we are living in uncertain times what with borders being closed and EU citizens being treated as little more than pawns in UK negotiations with the EU, I feel that we are living in a dark world. Even so, Iatefl shines a light into my teaching world and each year I go home afterwards with a wealth of new ideas and renewed energy for the classroom so, despite fears that they might not let me back into Italy, once I’ve departed for Glasgow, I am bravely preparing to leave tomorrow.

Ten tips for a successful conference

Whether this is your first or tenth Iatefl conference you have to know that attending an enormous event like this takes a certain amount of planning so here are my ten tips for a successful conference.

  1. If you are a speaker, prepare well in advance. This may seem obvious but Murphy’s law applies to conferences as well as other events. Do not rely on the wifi connection working, and make photocopies etc. in advance. If you have asked for 30 minutes, make sure that you can complete your presentation in 30 minutes, which requires forethought and practice. Having said that, the audience at Iatefl is generally extremely supportive so if problems do arise they will be on your side. I think the most important thing to remember when your nerves threaten to overwhelm you is that you have ideas that you believe in and you would like to share with others. That is ultimately what counts.
  2. Don’t try to go to everything. There are so many things on, so many parallel sessions, the book exhibition, posters, evening events, etc. that sometimes you just get carried away by it all. This means that by Day three you will be exhausted. Remember every now and then to take time out, have a coffee, wander along the river or just take some time to sit down and relax. Then you will come back with renewed vigour.
  3. I find it helps if I have one or two topics I am interested in. This year my topics are EMI (English Medium Instruction). writing and Lexis. That way you don’t get too distracted by all the parallel sessions.
  4. Don’t be too rigid though. Sometimes you just need to go with the flow, and be ready to go to something that looks interesting even if it wasn’t on your original list.
  5. Check the type of presentation it is. If a presentation is aimed at young learners, for instance, and you don’t teach them it might be something you are interested in precisely because you don’t teach them or it might not. The important thing is to know in advance.
  6. Remember that some events will be available on video, so if a videoed event clashes with something else you are interested in, you can always catch up later.
  7. Remember that Iatefl is also a very social conference, about meeting up with old friends and making new ones. Do not be afraid to go up to people and just talk to them, most people are very friendly.
  8. Don’t forget to explore Glasgow as well. You can actually spend your entire time at the conference but that would be a shame, if you have travelled thousands of miles to be there. A walk into the city centre is a must, and the conference arranges excursions too, so check them out when you arrive.
  9. The evening events are also generally very well organised and include parties, receptions, storytelling, theatre events etc. etc. The last time we were in Glasgow we had Scottish Country Dancing too, I think.
  10. Finally, I think it is important to make the most of your time at the conference. Put your everyday worries on hold for the next few days and focus on professional development and FUN. See you there. (Please say ‘hello’ if you see me) 🙂

 

Free resources and guides for corpora

A very useful post for any teacher wanting to start integrating corpora into classroom teaching by Jennie Wright.

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Thanks to everyone who came to my IATEFL session on making trouble-free corpus tasks in less than ten minutes. Here are the free guides and resources from the session as requested. I’ll add more later.

The ultimate guide to freely available corpora: http://www.corpora4learning.net/resources/corpora.html

The most popular corpora:
The British National Corpus (BNC): http://www.natcorp.ox.ac.uk/
The Corpus of Contemporary American English (COCA): http://corpus.byu.edu/coca/
The British Academic Written English Corpus (BAWE): https://the.sketchengine.co.uk/open/
The British Academic Spoken English Corpus (BASE): https://the.sketchengine.co.uk/open/

Guides for using corpora:
Lamy, M-N., & Klarskov Mortensen, H. J. (2012). ICT4LT Module 2.4: Using concordance programs in the Modern Foreign Languages classroom. In Davies G. (Ed.), Information and Communications Technology for Language Teachers. Slough: Thames Valley University. Retrieved from http://www.ict4lt.org/en/en_mod2-4.htm
TheGrammarLab. (2012, July 12).

COCA 01: Introduction to Using the Corpus of Contemporary American English. [Webcast]. Retrieved from http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sCLgRTlxG0Y

COCA Bites: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9bvpERRkEIQ

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Assessment is in the air at Iatefl Birmingham 2016

 
Formative assessment is all around us in almost every aspect of everyday teaching. 

 

 

Time for Tea: or testing, evaluation and assessment. 

I have been lucky enough to attend the Iatefl conference for several years now, and each year I like to select various themes to the sessions I choose to go to. This year, for the first time, I have been involved in The TEASIG webinars, and so one of my main themes for this conference was assessment. At the risk of seeming pedantic I am going to explain briefly what I mean by assessment in this article. My interpretation is perhaps a little broader than the more orthodox understanding of the term in the world of education. Testing, evaluation and assessment are often used almost interchangeably when it comes to exams but there is a difference: in a nutshell, a test is the practical method we use to measure our construct, the assessment is the whole process of measuring, which may include tests or other tools and evaluation, as it is often applied, is related to judgements about something, often before we use it , so that we might evaluate a digital tool to see if it is what we need to teach our learners to engage with lexis, for instance. The focus of assessment in our field is generally learners’ knowledge, skills and performance, but one thing that struck me in this conference was that actually teachers are surrounded by assessment, especially when it is a formative part of the learning process, they breathe it in every day in almost every interaction both with learners, teaching tools and with texts. In the PCE this year we touched on both formative and summative assessment but the main focus was what teachers need to know about summative test production and application. That is why I decided then to focus rather on the formative aspect when attending other presentations during the rest of the conference and I would like to share a few impressions about this with you here.

The PCE: What teachers need to know about assessment

The Teasig Pre Conference event provided us with a wonderful opportunity to discuss what teachers really need to know about assessment. Neil Bullock asked some searching questions that gave us all food for thought such as “If learning is so important why do assessment and teaching seem to dominate?” Or “why is so little attention paid to assessment on training courses?”, which was echoed on several occasions throughout the day. Neil works in the world of aviation and he also asked who would like to fly in a plane with a pilot who could not communicate with e air traffic control tower! This definitely gives you a very practical reason to advocate effective summative assessment.

Evelina Galaczi and Nahal Khabbazbashi followed on with a rich but practical session which provided us with six key questions when designing a test: “Why, who and what am I testing?”, “How am I testing and scoring and how is my test benefitting learners?” A key concept in this was that the test you design should not only be valid but also fit for the purpose you are designing it for. A perfectly valid test, for example, if used in the wrong context for learners who need to do something that that particular test does not assess, will be worse than useless for that purpose, even though it may be fine if used for the purpose it was designed for. Their focus was speaking and, to illustrate the point above, if your learners need to give formal presentations, then a general test that assesses conversation, interacting and giving opinions, may not be the answer for you.

Assessment Literacy

Later in the afternoon Vivien Berry and Barry O’Sullivan explored the concept of assessment literacy, which they said had been mistakenly interpreted to mean “testing for literacy”. Assessment literacy, however,in basic terms, means how literate you are when it comes to assessment. It is a very wide area and few of those present considered themselves to be at all literate but after the day’s discussions we felt that we were beginning to get an idea of what we didn’t know, which is, after all, the first step. Once again the feeling was that more training is required for teachers who are often required to develop tests of various types.

How educators feel

Speaking to various people at the conference I got the same negative reaction fairly often, which confirms the initial PCE idea that there is little training done on teacher training courses and despite this everyone needs to be involved in the assessment process at some level. Tests in fact,have negative associations for many of us, possibly because of our past experiences of stress related to high stakes test-taking.Throughout the conference, however, my initial feeling that assessment is in the air we breathe every day, was confirmed albeit indirectly by many of the discussions I took part in.

What about the rest of the conference?

When it comes to formative assessment the separation between teaching and testing i is by no means so clear as it is in summative testing, where, despite washback effects, the two processes are usually conceived of as being different. Formative assessment is inherent in methodologies where tools such as test-teach-test, or contrastive analysis are used, and teachers assess learner performance on some level every time they interact with them. Everyone attends different events, with a different focus, in a conference like this and my own focus tend to be related to lexis and corpora, so here is a taste of some of my impressions.

Looking at assessment in general and formative assessment in particular

On the first day David Crystal talked about language change, which led me to think that teachers need to assess the language they choose to focus on with their learners or to consider acceptable or appropriate for their needs. If many Internet users write “who would of thought it?” Does that mean automatically that this is an acceptable form for our learners or should we simply draw their attention to the fact that such changes are underway? Obviously teachers have to assess their learners and make sensible choices, but the question is when does a language change become an acceptable norm? Should discrete elements be assessed analytically in llearner production or should discourse be looked at holistically? Perhaps the answer is “both”.

Marcel Lemmens, who comes from a translation background, advocated an interesting approach to the formative assessment of writing. He held up a standard translation that had been marked, and was covered in red ink, saying, most of his learners would not even read the painstakingly detailed corrections, but would go straight to the mark. He called for the need to familiarise learners with the assessment criteria before dong the test itself And suggested a more holistic approach to marking an email, looking at stylistic features which would help learners to write more effectively, such as cohesion, register and perhaps choosing one or two specific language areas to focus on, such as the use of articles, so that the assessment would then be recycled back into the learning process, and the corrections would actually help learners to achieve their aims. Whilst this was thought-provoking, learner expectations also need to be considered. My learners, for instance, expect their tests to be “corrected” and any change which is introduced is generally better if it is gradual. So,for instance, this term,in one group, I introduced one assignment which was “corrected” in the traditional way, with a detailed correction code, followed by individual one to one interviews where the learner could discuss their self corrections with me. I also did activities that were labelled as discussions which were rated holistically and others where a general analytical scale was used that rated, task achievement, coherence and cohesion, clarity of lexical and grammatical expression, and comments were provided as feedback in these categories rather than detailed corrections. The beauty of work like this is that it can all be reintegrated into work being done in the classroom.

Diane Larson Freeman pointed out in her plenary that aspects of learning that are becoming increasingly sgnificant at this point in time are learner agency, relationships and interactions and the patterns that emerge from such complex interactions. By integrating the aspects noticed in formative assessment and reintroducing them into the classroom we are providing our learners, I feel, with exactly the sort of multiple affordances that will lead to different learners having the opportunity to exploit this work in different ways.

Corpora

Corpora and lexis are always areas that interest me so I attended several sessions on this topic and once again assessment in various shapes and forms kept rearing its head.Jenny Wright, for instance, gave an introduction to the use of The American Corpus (COCA) in the classroom focusing on such areas as adverb + adjective collocations, and providing a range of activities that teachers can produce very simply to sensitise learners to such areas and to practise them. Teachers may, for example:

1. Elicit learner intuitions abut the adjective collocate that follows various adjectives such as “bitterly”, “sincerely”or “deeply”;

2. Training can then be provided to show how to do a corpus search for colocation frequency;

3. Concordance lines can then be cut and pasted to provide a concordance line gap filler where the key word is missing.

 It is this activity which is interesting from the point of view of formative assessment as it is often seen as practice but what it is actually doing is testing comprehension or recall, particularly if it is done in a later lesson or part of a test-teach-test sequence. Activities such as this one are used in classrooms all over the world where they are considered to be practice… but they are part of assessment, in fact, since they provide tachers with knowledge about what learners can or cannot do.

To continue with the topic of corpora tools, Stephen Bax introduced his amazing tool Text Inspector, (http://www.textinspector.com/workflow). This tool assesses the difficulty of a text giving it a percentage score from zero to native speaker and a detailed analysis of the elements that make it so. It is freely available online and has been developed with links both to the English Vocabulary Profile which classifies lexical items with reference to the CEFR levels. It can also be used, of course, as a means of assessing learner written production, so once again, assessment enters the picture. Although Bax advised the audience to err on the side of caution, this is a tool which can be used both by teachers as an initial assessment of learners’ work and by learners who want to assess their own levels. This is an opportunity for learner oriented assessment in the purest interpretation of the term, perhaps, then, in that the individual learner can take assessment into their own hands and use it to develop their own power of expression.

Let’s not forget technology

Technology, of course, in the shape of corpora or many other tools such as the wonderful English Vocabulary and English Grammar Profiles (EVP and EGP)which are being developed to measure the level of various items with reference to the Cambridge Learner Corpus (for the EGP) and various corpora (for the EVP). This means that when developing reading tests, for instance, we now have tools to help us gauge the level of difficulty of lexical items, which in turn, can help us make mor valid and reliable tests. It is not only teachers, of course, who can use these tools but learners too and,in a world where user content reigns supreme, our learners can create their own “revision tests” or “progress tests” very easily and post them online to share with the rest of the class or even… with the rest of the world. So even though teachers do not seem to particularly warm to the notion of assessment, it seems clear to me that we are all talking about it and at Iatefl in Birmingham, assessment was definitely in the air.

10 Ted Talks Every English Student Should Watch

Very useful post here on how to use TED talks at home 🙂

IELTS Advantage

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TED is a series of informative, educational, inspiring and sometimes jaw-dropping talks that present ‘Ideas Worth Spreading’. Ted has attracted many of the world’s most important thinkers such as Larry Page, Bill Clinton, Bill Gates, Ken Robinson, and a few winners of the Nobel Prize.

There is an emphasis on informing, educating and opening people’s eyes to new ideas, making them perfect for the classroom. Students love these talks and really appreciate it when you take the time to make a lesson out of them. Teenagers, being the ‘YouTube generation’, also find them highly engaging and motivating. They come with transcriptions in most common languages, allowing students to read what they have listened to in English or their native tongue.

This post will list 10 TED talks I have found work particularly well in the classroom. I will also outline how students could use TED to improve their English at…

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Motivation and Teaching with technology.

Motivation and Teaching with technology.

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This year I’ve been doing quite a lot of teacher training both in university language centres and in secondary schools, here in Northern Italy and the topic I’ve been working on is training teachers to use blended learning in a principled way. This may not be new for those who are interested in technology but for many teachers it is still a bit like going into a dark forest where you’re not quite sure of the dangers or of where you might lose your footing.

Motivation

Motivation is a complicated thing, as we all know, and there are so many different things that come into play for teachers, but I would just like to mention a few of them, by relating them to a series of five questions about the use of technology in the classroom.

1) Intrinsic v. Extrinsic:

Do you want to use technology in class because you actually believe it enhances your teaching or is it an instituational imposition?

2) Identity

Do you see yourself as a teacher who is comfortable experimentinig with new technologies and learning how to use them?

3) Agency

Do you feel personally involved in the process of using technology with your classs, and are you investing youself in creating something meaningful for them and for you?

4) Competence

Do you feel able to use technological tools easily to help your learners?

5) Autnomy

Do you feel able to work autonomously with the tools or are you afraid that you are not using them as well as you might, or as well as some of the traditional tools you are more familiar with?

Changing your point of view

Burning the candle at both ends
The power of investing your own self into discovering new ways of working.

These are important factors, I think, that are sometimes overlooked and teachers in training courses become learners and need to approach new skills with their eyes open. Our motivation, as Zoltan Dornyei says in his theory of L2 selves, is closely bound up with our sense of who we are.

A Fixed Idea of who we are or an openness to growth?

Making the most of texts: each one a world to discover
Making the most of texts: each one a world to discover

I recently read an article which described two frames of mind, which tie in very closely I think to the idea of identity. Some people have very fixed ideas of what they are and if you tell yourself you are a “X” teacher (substitute what you like for the “X” traditional, tolerant, innovative etc. etc.) then that is what you will be.

On the other hand there is also the “growth” mentality that does not see identity as being so fixed but sees life as an exploration of potential in whatever field you may be interested in.

In a recent session I asked teachers to think about 3 stages in lesson planning:

  1. What can your learners do before the lesson?
  2. What will you and your learners be ding during the lesson?
  3. What can they do after the lesson?

The idea was to think about work that could be provided online for learners to do in advance, such as vocabulary preparation for a topic they would explore in the lesson. The “during” phase was designed to help participants think about what technological ools they could use in class such as images, polls, collaborative writing etc. etc. and the “after” phase was to think about work learners could do online after class such as discussions, writing, questionnaires.

One teacher, who was tryng to plan his online work said to me as I monitored their work:

“I don’t know how to do this. It’s not the way I work. I usually go into class and present my lesson. I wish I could do this and I’d like to see what others are doing.”

This showed me that the feeling of agency and competence were missing. This way of working, which to me seems very normal, was not at all normal to him and yet he was open to learning something new. He wanted to get to the stage where his identity was tied up with the lesson he was preparing, and that means, I think, being open to the “growth mentality”. I was quite humbled because it made me see that motivation and fear has to be taken into account much more than I had been doing.

Concluding thought

This all provided me with quite a lot of food for thought, anyway, and made me decide to talk about learners, teachers classrooms and materials in the Manchester Iatefl conference. I want to explore how technology used in a principled way can help us to  beyond our boundaries, both as learners and teachers. If you want to know more I will be speaking about this on Monday 13th at 5pm, so I hope to see you in Manchester.

Thoughts on Our Digital world after Reading “The Circle” by Dave Eggers

Thoughts on Our Digital World

As anyone who knows me is aware, I’m definitely an advocate of technology, using digital tools for work and running training sessions to help others blend their teaching techniques, but recently I’ve felt a growing sense of unease about the way many of us are using these ubiquitous tools. As usual we have tools with incredible potential but are we able to get the best out of them?

In his recent novel, “The Circle”, Dave Eggers describes a sort of technological Garden of Eden which is so alluring that most of those who work there sooner or later want to live as well as work there. This is ironic in that the every existence of this “oasis” depends on the rest of the world being its customers, and feeding its vanity. The company could be symbolic of any of the tech giants and it creates an ingenuous, brave new world of sanitised wealth for a favoured few.

The Importance of being Highly Rated

Mae, the heroine is enthusiastic and grateful to be allowed to work there in such a “cool” place, but her work, to a jaundiced outside might seem to be worthless. She begins by answering customer queries, but the aim is not only to solve their problems but to be rated as highly as possible, and if the customer rates her slightly lower, then she recontacts them to encourage them to change their rating. Why is this rating so important? Does it help to solve the customers’ problems? Probably not, and some of those customers insist on her taking a personal interest in their relatives etc. in a way that goes beyond what would be considered the “norm” in the “real world”.

Is this far-fetched? Well, having recently tried to get help from a well known telephone company, where you, the “highly valued” customer are passed from one apparently young, inexperienced person to the next I think that we are not too far away from The Circle right here and now. These people, working in a call centre somewhere, probably on minimum wages, are not always able to help you with your problem. They ask you the same questions again and again, whilst telling you not to worry (even though they are not solving the problem) and at times try to sell you an extra service to boot. You are also told that you will be contacted to be interviewed on their performance a couple of days after your call. Calls, in fact, that, if you happen to be abroad at the time, come in at quite a cost for you, the customer.

What this makes me think is that the rating, questionnaires etc. are a sort of sleight of hand designed to distract the customers and the callers to focus on something other than the main point. The workers in the call centres, of course, want to be rated highly so that they will keep their jobs, and the customer is imbued for a couple of moments with a false sense of importance, in that their opinions are being asked. This is the mirror that distorts a relationship which should simply be one of asking for help and receiving it. The focus on client satisfaction is probably more like lip service and I wonder whether it might not be better for everyone if companies like this did not focus on providing their staff with the appropriate information so that they can really help the customer.

What is Social Media actually for?

The need for recognition and to be “popular” with high ratings, of course, goes beyond the service transactions and Mae as the novel progresses, finds herself living a life of superficial protagonism, which we can see mirrored in our world every day on social media. My Facebook Page for students, for instance, constantly encourages me to “boost” posts to attract more followers, and as soon as I reach one target number of followers I’m provided with the next. My page, however, is designed for my students, and is not trying to attract customers, so why should I be interested in advertising it to as many people as possible. It is there for my students and those who are interested, and so I ignore the sirens beckoning me to sail towards the dangerous waters of “looking for high ratings” but I can see how easy it would be to get sucked into it. In the novel, just the fact of being visible is power and it means that Mae has the power to sell products because all her followers aspire to be like her in a world where there is little space for reflection and the most important life decisions are available at the click of a mouse. She, in fact, becomes a living advertising force, but loses her own identity.

What is worrying is, as I said above, not the tools themselves, but the way they are being used and presented to us. My Facebook Page for students, for example, is a wonderful tool. It gives me the chance to give learners extra pieces of information, to informally work on language and discussions in English and to do a whole range of things that would have been inconceivable just a few short years ago. My blog means that I can share my thoughts with others and learn from them as well instead of writing a journal just for myself. These are things that are well known and I will not dwell on them any further here, but when the focus of the site becomes to attract as many followers as possible it is adding a subtle sleight of hand like the questionnaires, where what becomes desirable for the users is superficial visibility and validation rather than real communication. The novel may seem futuristic or rather extreme with this cult like company, where everyone is seen to care for everyone else, but in fact nobody actually knows anyone else, or has the time to do so.

The Nature of Friendship

Real friendships involve listening and dedicating time and effort to the relationship, being there for others and caring about them not just when they are sharing their experiences with you but also when they are in trouble. This is the dark side of the social media coin, perhaps, as those who cease to blog may well be quickly forgotten. Using social media to foster relationships that already exist or that are then developed in the real world as well, is a wonderful thing, but a friendship that only exists online is not so substantial. In the novel, in fact, taking a weekend off to visit ill parents is frowned upon and even going off on your own is seen as being antisocial, unless you take photos and comment on the place “for everyone else”. Private space is seen as secretive and therefore negative behaviour, reminiscent in fact of the classic orwellian totalitarianism.

In fact, although we have not reached these extremes yet, we are already quite close to this, and many of us feel the need to “share” our activities constantly with our “friends”, for all kinds of reasons. In a Utopia, of course, sharing everything may be harmless, and the argument is often put forward that people don’t mind providing access to their data because they “have nothing to hide”. This was a common comment that people made when discovering that the government had supposedly been monitoring their calls in the USA. Allowing our data to be used in exchange for free tools like Google search, for instance, may seem to be a small price to pay, in fact this is an argument I have often used myself.

Undermining our Professions

I recently read Jaron Lanier’s book Who owns the Future?, (admittedly on my Kindle, as I keep saying, I am in favour of technology and love the way it makes my life easier) however, and he talks, among many other things, about Google Translate. This software, if we can call it that, seems to “magically translate” and it is getting better at it every day. How does it do this? By using texts that “human translators” have already translated and which are available online, to find similar phrases in different languages and to then “translate” them. This means that by putting our translations and texts online, translators, and this is just one example, are actually undermining their own profession. Lanier, in fact, claims that the crisis we are in is largely a result of this type of software on the Internet, which has already visibly undermined the music, photography and writing sectors and all those other industries that worked together with them. The economic crisis is not simply, according to Lanier, a question of politics and banking but goes much further than that. In actual fact, we do not live in Utopia, and giving our data away every day to those few who run the computers, even though they persuade us we are sharing with each other, means that we may well be actually undermining our own world, if we live in the real world, whilst the lotus eaters play in their insulated bubbles.

Final Word
Although, at times, the novel is rather forced the characters are intentionally two dimensional and reflect something that we need to guard against and the warning against danger is clear. There are many other themes in the book, of course, such as the speed that we work at, which is so fast and continuous that there is little room for thought or reflection. I am still convinced that the answer lies in education. I believe in the potential of the online world and benefit from it daily as I communicate, learn, research and work, but it is also important to know how to do this, where to look, when to resist the siren call of ratings and popularity drives, and the younger generation need to be taught how to stand back, take a deep breath and think for themselves before taking the next click. It is more difficult to see how our world is changing and will change in the next few years, but although we do not live in a utopia we do not live in a distopia either and hopefully there will always be a certain amount of balance between generosity and greed, altruism and selfishness, profit and loss, creativity and plagiarism. Incidentally, and perhaps most telling of all in the novel the one form of privacy that was guarded right until the end was the “intellectual property” of the company, and the most worrying result of company policy was that those working there seemed to lose any semblance of critical thinking. So maybe this is what we need: to use our resources as well as we can and to think critically whilst doing so.