The Dark Matter, or themes at the Iatefl Conference

 

Post Method EFL: a theme for this year’s conference

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As the sessions pass by and I go through the day at Iatefl I notice certain themes tend to emerge  within the conference, or perhaps what people say  simply reflects ideas I have somewhere in my own mind that are brought to the surface. Whatever the case it is a strange process that I notice happening every year, as one speaker takes ideas from another and weaves them into the fabric of his or her own presentation. As each day progresses I feel ideas and thoughts taking root and blossoming in the back of my mind behind any really conscious thought process. Anyway, this is starting to sound rather too esoteric so let’s get our feet back on the ground.

Going Beyond Limitations

On Friday, as I mentioned in a previous blog post, we rounded off the PCE session with a reflection on questions that may not be new but were related to our teaching practice as new technologies emerge. Diane Slaouti, whose focus was Theorising our Practice, cited Kumaravadivelu and his ideas about post method teaching and I would like to quote one idea from his 2003 publication Beyond Methods which is one of his goals to:

‘urge them [teachers] to go beyond the limited, and limiting, concept of method and consider the challenges and opportunities of an emerging postmethod era in language teaching.’ (p. 1.)

This is the idea I felt kept recurring today: the idea of going beyond limitations and exploiting opportunites. It began this morning with Donald Freeman’s plenary where he discussed the myths we believe  as teachers , and that may freeze our thinking. Our methods and beliefs, our instituational contraints our own fears, hopes and habits can all lead us to limit ourselves and the learning that might take place in our classrooms. He asked who takes responsibility for learning? Does the teacher take sole responsibility for learning? We were all thinking “Oh, no. My classes are learner centred” But how true is this? Who decides what is to be taught or focused on, when and how? How often do we think things to ourselves along the lines of: “Oh, I can’t do this. It won’t work with that class” which is a decision we are making as teachers rather than giving learning a chance to “happen”. So much of learning, which also came up several times on Friday, is informal or incidental, so it it worth asking where learning is happening and how we can leave space for it to happen in our own contexts.

Learners looking for information autonomously
What sort of question is a real question?

What Questions  do we ask?

 

This idea was taken up by Anrew Walkley who examined the questions we routinely ask in class, and who questioned the effectiveness of classic CCQs, in particular, both for grammar and lexis. Whilst I expressed my reservations about debunking these completely as these mechanisms grew out of a need to have feedback rather than simply asking “Do you understand?” before moving on as students smiled and nodded, even though some of them had not understood a thing! It is undeniable that when done badly CCQs or comprehention questions, as they were known initially, are worse than useless, and that they can only be used to check comprehension of a context for language use rather than focusing on the specific target language being clarified. Andrew illustrated this point very clearly with the use of nonsense language that he attempted to clarify to us. Here is my own invented example:

“Iatefl nisl Harrogate bret laa year.

CCQs

Is this the past?

Is this the present?

Is this the future?

Obviously you can only answer the question if you know the negative future form. The answer, for all those who want to know is “the future” as “nisl” is a negative auxiliary and “bret” is an infinitive so the translation is ” Iatefl won’t be in Harrogate next year. If you have already studied those forms, however, these questions may form a useful, quick check of comprehension. Andrew’s man point was that by asking and focusing on naturally ocurring questions in chat situations, and expanding learners’ repertoire of such questions, chat situations, which often pass under the radar in classes as teachers greet their classes with questions such as “What did you do at the weekend?” learners can focus on “real” referential questions (rather than questions designed simply for them to display their knowledge) and can develop the language they need to talk about topics that they choose, and that are relevant to them. Once again we come back to the idea of where learning is happening. Is it the teacher who decides the content or is it the learners?

Improvisation is not only in theatre and jazz

Looking at old things in new ways
Looking at old things in new ways

Limitations also appear when we adhere too closely  to our own, safe, familiar methodology, and our lesson plan can become a straightjacket that limits both teachers and learners rather than acting as a springboard for teaching, providing learning opportunites. Adrian Underhill also talked about an aspect of this with his session on the ‘dark matter’ of teaching, of the energy that appears when teachers depart from their lesson plans and improvise, identifying the best point to leave the lesson plan and to go somewhere else, to listen to what our learners are saying or what they need and to follow their lead. Lesson plans, in this way, might be considered to be the map which points the way whilst the lesson itself is the actual journey with all its delays, smells, dialugues and unexpected events. Lessons are social events with human beings and all their interactions which is what makes them messy but what also makes them wonderful and unique as , people open up their own thoughts and worlds to each other, and invite each other in. This is the point at which, as one person, who was sitting next to me said, “the magic happens”.

 

 

 

 

Getting the Most out of a Great Conference

An Uplifting Moment in the Year

I’ve been attending the Iatefl  conference for quite a few years now and, as I said in an earlier post,  it is one of the most uplifting moments in my professional year, even when you wake up to grey skies and rain. 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 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.

Blogger-Manchester-150x150px-bannerTips 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 Manchester 2015 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. This year it’s smaller than usual but is still quite heavy so if you don’t want to carry it around with you, pull the coloured pages out from the back for each day and use them as your working programme.

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 lexis, 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.

IMG_2366c) 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. I don’t know Manchester very well, but I’m enojying soaking up the atmosphere and looking at the architecture. Yesterday on my way back from the university I discovered Sackville Gardens, a lovely green space with a monument to Alan Turing, for instance.

There is also some lovely countryside around the city if you get the chance to go for a drive. Crossing the Pennines is still an exciting thing to do, there is something wild about the morrs that always humbles me. 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 have a good breakfast now before heading to the Conference centre for Day One  :-)

Learning Technologies PCE

Looking at old things in new ways
Looking at old things in new ways

Today I entered the hallowed halls of Manchester University, or to be more exact, the Ellen Wilkinson Building to be met by an abundance of coffee and cakes, Oh yes, and the LTSig organisers who had everything well under control. As we went into the lecture theatre, which true to the essence of technology had a sign up saying that it was equipped for “lecture capture” a new collocation that I hadn’t come across before, but then, we don’t do much capturing of lectures in my neck of the woods.

What followed was a whirlwind of “Mobile technology in action”, with three plenary speakers all of whom presented fascinating projects ranging from a project to assist language learning aspects of immigrant integration in the UK and other European countries, presented by Agnes Kukulska-Hulme from the Open University, to the “Digital Corner” project in Argentina and finally James Thomas introducing Hypal, software which he, with others, has developed at his university to annotate written work, to categorise errors and provide feedback and reflection.

The coffee continued to flow throughout and biscuits were readily available too, with the result that when lunchtime came I could hardly eat a thing, which was a crime as there was a buffet which can only be described as lavish. In the afternoon we had parallel 30 minute sessions where different people presented different technologies. I did a presentation on Socrative, which went down very well, particularly when we did a unicorn race. Iatefl participants are, of course, romantics at heart, shunning the rockets in favour of the more gentle, fabled beast.

I had the chance to go to another presentation by James Thomas on SkeLL which is the new software made available by Sketchengine, which is the well known corpus software, but the difference with SkeLL is that it is specifically for language learners, and can do single word or phrase searches. Its results are limited to 40 hits, but they are not simply the first 40 hits the programme finds but are sorted to provide different meanings and patternings. A fascinating tool which is well worth exploring. The final talk I went to was Vicky Saumell’s talk on Tellagami, a mobile technology tool I also use to send messages to learners on Facebook, from time to time, but she explored ways in which learners can use it and how inventive her learners are at “cracking the app” and making several short games, which can then be linked together into one longer video, as the free version limits you to 30 second recordings.

The day was rounded off by Diane Slaouti who works at Manchester University with Gary Motteram, thanks to whom we were able to be at the university, using the facilities. Diane provided us with a thought provoking end to the day asking if the questions we were asking were old ones or new ones, and whether the old ones need to be reassessed in the light of new technologies. For instance, one idea that emerged from Agnes Kukulska-Hulme’s presentation was the idea of “preparing learners for incidental learning” so the question that we need to ask is, perhaps how can we do this? How can we analyse learner needs so that we can prepare them well, with the language they need?

Another idea that struck me was the “mismatch between learner expectations and what teachers may want to do” which Diane mentioned with reference to Kumaravadivelu’s 2003 article Beyond Methods, which called for “principled pragmatism” in choosing what and how we teach. Not all, but some of our university learners, I feel, are not motivated to “learn” which is rather ironic since we call them “learners”. Some are, but many are motivated to get the piece of paper that says that they have completed a degree in the hope that it will help them find a job.

This is something, I think that we have to bear in mind, and the idea I took away with me, among others, was the importance of motivation, and how learning and therefore teaching starts with this. It is only be knowing our learners, talking to them and exploring their worlds that we can understand what is relevant for them and what we can do to help them want to learn. In our world incidental learning and informal learning are becoming increasingly common, so if we are the experts then the question is definitely how can we help learners use what is available to the best of their abilities in ways that will be fruitful for them. All in all, a lot of food for thought today, as well as the amazing food to eat. Well done LTSig :-)

So, now, in a Shakespearian frame of mind I’ll just say: put out the light… because tomorrow is another fine day here at the Iatefl conference and the adventure continues.

Arrived in Manchester

Welcome to Manchester

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Just a quick post to welcome all those who are coming to the PCE day today. I’m attending the LTSig so more about that later :-) The sun is shining and the coffee is flowing so, all in all, we’re set for an exhilerating day.

Follow this link for the slideshow

 

 

Welcome to Manchester IATEFL Conference

Feeling tired but enthusiastic after travelling all day yesterday. I don’t really know Manchester very well, even though I come from Yorkshire and nearly always fly into Manchester Airport when I’m in the UK. I wasn’t quite sure what to expect but the initial impact is amazing. The weather was wonderful yesterday which helped matters, and getting here a day before the PCE was a really good ideas as I could wander round the city centre, watch the world go by in Picadilly Gardens and then walk along the canal area before going back to the Premier Inn near the station. I made a little film for you just to remind you that whilst there’s so much going on at a fantastic conference like Iatefl, it’s important to take time out too, to stop, take a deep breath, look around and appreciate the host city you are in.

In short, as they say,I’m really happy to be here in Manchester :-)

See you soon.

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.