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10 Ted Talks Every English Student Should Watch


Very useful post here on how to use TED talks at home :-)

Originally posted on IELTS Advantage:


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.


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 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.

Out of the mouths of Babes…


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.

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?


A Comment for Lizzie Pinnard and David Petrie’s Discussion of the Bleak future for ELT


Photo Credit: bigal101 on Morge File Free Photos

I have just finished reading David Petrie’s bleak vision for 2034 English language learning, and Lizzie Pinnard’s reply to this. David’s vision is of a bleak world (for language teachers at any rate) where learners are totally directed by what is available on the Net and left to their own devices to do placement tests and decide on courses, with no help apart from their computers. Lizzie counters this with her own discussion of how the social side of learning is  so attractive to many learners. I was writing my own comment, but as it seemed to be developing into something a bit longer than a comment. I thought I’d share it here as well. So here goes:

Adrift on the story Cyber-waves

As I read David’s provocative piece I felt quite sad for poor Monica cast adrift and at the mercy of the cyber-ocean waves that buffeted her to right and then to left. This all reminded me of the days when, in the nineties, companies tried to jump onto the self access centre bandwagon, or even earlier, when they all wanted to push language labs. The school I was working in in the eighties invested a huge amount of money in its language lab, which quickly became a white elephant, as have many self access centers around this planet. This is probably because learners generally need direction of some kind and if they are left alone like Monica in the blog post their learning will most probably be materials directed which means as Tomlinson said:

for many learners their experience of self-access materials has been restricted to basically closed activities requiring a narrow left brain focus and little utilization of prior personal experience, of the brain’s potential learning capacity or of individual attributes or inclinations.’ (Tomlinson 2011 Kindle location 8278-8284.)

Technology combined with Humanity

This is because, as you so rightly say in your title, Lizzie, I think, learning tends to be social and people need to communicate. This is why, when some friends and I recently set up a book club in Verona, and I mentioned it on Facebook, there was an immediate call for a group on Facebook where others could read the books and take part too, even if they couldn’t physically come to our meetings, or even as an added support if they could. This is technology and the Internet at its social best where people support and create learning rather than the bleak predictions for 2034 where learners are left to their own devices with no support or interaction. At the moment social learning sites such as Fixoodle are doing well precisely because people meet up on them and help each other to build their knowledge of language together.

English, holidays, cards and a fifteen-year long relationship

I personally have some learners who have been coming to class for more than fifteen years, and the English is only part of the motivation. They are now very class friends and also go on holiday together and meet to play cards. This is what happens when Holliday’s classroom “small culture” becomes a real “small community”, and what happens in that community is meaningful and socially constructed. A far cry from the $400 dollar online course, and the sad vision of mediators scrabbling for as many students as they can in call centre mode. The day education is reduced to this is the day that I’ll leave it.



Tomlinson, B. (2011) Introduction. In: Tomlinson, B. (ed) Materials development in language teaching. Cambridge: CUP. pp. 1-24.



So, what do you think?

merry go round
All the fun of the fair

Hi everyone,

I decided today that rather than give the highlight of the sessions I went to I’d talk to people at the conference to find out their thoughts about the conference. I aksed the people I spoke to just one questions:

“What has this conference made you think about?”

So, it’s only fair if I start the ball rolling myself and tell you what I think.

A Fantastic Roundabout of ideas and meetings

I’m actually exhausted at the moment, but in a positive way, and I’m fully intending to get my second wind and go to the Pecha Kucha soon. What I have to say though is that this conference has been packed with inspiration for me. last year was not so good as I hobbled around on two broken ankles (Yes, I know you’re tired of hearing about it but it feeds my martyr complex :-) ) so it was all a bit of a haze. This year has been one of the best conferences I’ve attended for ages, and I’m sure that when I get back these incredible ideas will begin to fall into place, so watch this space for more blog posts. But the social aspect was also really important and I’ve caught up with so many people here this year and connected with others who I only really knew through distancelearning or ELTChat.

So, I went to the Pecha Kucha, which was fantastic and caught up with more friends along the way, rounding the evening off with Yorkshire Sausages in Betty’s. (If you haven’t been there yet, make time to go before you leave, if only for a cup of their lovely tea.) Anyway, here are a few of the things people said to me, which are anonhymous, but I’ve specified the place these people are working in. I’d love to hear from you as well, so please add your answers to the question in the comments space below if you’d like to. :-)


The Social Side of things

This of course got some positive comments despite the hangovers that were walking around this morning after the CUP party last night:

The world is a very small place. (Jersey)

It’s about seeing people and catching up. (London)

The organisation

I admire the organisers and I’m enthusiastic about the whole project which is Iatefl: it’s quite unique. (Germany)

Inspiring! Everyone is always so supportive and the mentoring system works really well. Everyone’s friendly and the audiences are supportive. (Germany)

Thoughts about language, teaching and teacher training

ELT teachers are not following the Edtech trends easily which is not the case with secondary teachers, who are applying the technology. (Dubai)

It made me think how far the DELTA is behind the current thinking and what people are saying here. It also made me think about levels after David Graddol’s plenary when I was talking to people in India at a call centre for help with my mobile phone, and was passed along a chain of people with different levels until I reached somoeone with high levels who had enough language to be able to reassure me.  (Leeds)

The principle behind lexical priming is so beautifully simple. (Dublin)

There is a long way to go to bridge the gap between what is being discussed here and what happens in the classroom. (Russia)

I realise that there are many different routes open to me and that it’s easy to branch out. Culture can be an asset in the classroom and I got lots of practical classroom activities too. (France)

Organising your time at the Conference

Collaboration, communication and development. Sharing and networking (Rumania)

It’s really important to know how to choose what to go to and what not to go to. My conference has been a bit more hit than miss this year, and it was better last year when I had very specific aims about what I wanted to see. (Germany)

So there you are: a quick taste of what different people are taking away with them. :-)