Experimentation Day

Pre- and Post Speaking: what goes on in your mind?

IMG_2748Yesterday was Day 3 at Iatefl, well Day4 for those of is who were here for the PCE as well. , added to which I was speaking today but not until 5.25 pm so the tension gradually built during the day and I had to do something to take my mind off it. I find that when I’m giving a talk, even though I’ve done it before, I rehearse it continually in  the hours running up to it, taking bits out here and adding comments there in my mind and, of course, the actual event was different again, when we got to it. I had opted for a 30 minute slot, which in hindsight was much too short for what I wanted to say, but in any case it worked quite well and there was a lovely atmosphere  in the group. When I actually arrived at my room, though, I discovered that Iatefl had decided to reinvent me and had given me a completely new name, as you can see in the photo. This was a bit confusing for some people who had been looking for the “old Sharon Hartle” instead of which the notice proudly procliamed a talk by Shanon Harper! Apart from that there were very few little hitches though.  What is undeniable however is that, for some reason, no matter how many presentations you give you always feel nervous on the day of the event. I decided in the morning that , because of this continual rehearsal process of my own talk, that goes on all day in my mind, I probably couldn’t focus on taking in a lot of new ideas, so I throught it would be a good opportunity to “do other things”  like interview a few people at the conference or do things that were a bit different from simply going to a series of presentations.

Experimentation Day

So how did I set about “doing something different”? Well, I started bright and early in the morning by going to the 8.15 pre-plenary session on writing for ELT Journal. These are “How to…” sessions that deal with various aspects of conferences and are often related to things like writing for Conference Selections, the Iatefl publication, or could be sessions to help those who are new to the conference. This talk was very interesting as we went through the mechanics of peer review and Graham Hall gave is all a series of useful tips for publishing articles in various journals. He was generally extremely encouraging, urging us not to “give up” even if we have our articles rejected as this happens to everyone. Even though this had meant starting the day with no breakfast, I was glad I’d made the effort to go.

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Then I gravitated to the exhibition centre where I looked in at the TELC stand. They were giving anti stress Telc men away (see photo) which I thought that was quite timely for me with my pre-speaker nerves. I used it all day, in fact. I talked to a few people who were relatively new to Iatefl and there were two main themes from these “interviews”. One or two said that they had been  struck by the international flavour of the conference, one, in fact, saying that she had expected native speakers and that it was incredible to be able to speak to professionals from all over the world, from Latin America to Nepal. Others said something that I found interesting which was that they would prefer generally not to do pairwork in talks, as they had come here to learn from the experts. I had been intending to a short pairwork slot in my own talk, but after this I decided to cut that, especially since my talk was at 5pm so people are generally quite tired by that stage. Anyway, it’s an interesting point which has come up before, so I was wondering what you think. Here is a short poll for people to vote on this:

Forum on Online Learning Platforms

I normally avoid events which last for more than one session as it means you miss all the parallel sessions from other speakers in two slots, but there was a very interesting forum on Moocs (Massive open online courses) which had come to my attention. This format included three speakers who spoke for 15 minutes each before taking questions which led to even more discussion. Peter Davidson gave us a short background of Moocs, Tam Connors-Sadek talked about managing a summer course from the administrational viewpoint using Google, and then Chris Cavey talked about the British Council Mooc “Exploring English:language and culture”. I have done quite a few Moocs, and I know that the quality varies considerably. One of the main questions is how to manage feedback and interactivity between intrusctors or moderators and the thousands of participants. Chris talked about how the participants supported each other showing examples of peer support in forums and the positive overall response that this had. This is something I have found too. On a good Mooc, if you ask a question in a forum the response comes from other participants and there are often varying degrees of expertise, so we all learn from each other, with the moderators interveining when they can. One of the questions from the audience was about feedback and peer reviews for writing skills on Moocs, and there again experiences vary, but it can be very rewarding for participants to beome reviewers, looking at each others’ writing from a different viewpoint and having their own work reviewed.

Designing Moocs is an ongoing learning process, though, and the downside is that it needs considerable motivation and drive to complete a Mooc so there is an enormous dropout rate. Gavin Dudeney raised the point that some are saying Moocs should become smaller and better moderator so could we not simply go back to calling them “online courses”? I don’t know that this is what matters particularly to me but what I think could be a good spin off effect is that universities may have to rethink their distance learning approaches and can learn a lot from some of the more successful Moocs.

Open Space

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An Open Space event at Iatefl is a sort of “conference within the conference”. I had intended to go to this last year, but it lasts for two hours, which means that you miss other things, such as a session on lexis that I wanted to attend.  This year, however, I decided to take the plunge and go for it. This was also because I was wondering if we could use this format in the local TESOL Italy group we’ve set up for the Val d’Adige.  It is a self organisation approach to conferencing, developed by Harrison Owen, and in our format the participants organised themselves into groups and each person selected an ELT related theme that was “on their mind” and that they were particularly interested in knowing more about. Of these two were voted as being of most interest to the small group and then a list was compiled. This process continued until everyone in the group could see a topic that was of great interest to them. The groups then reformed according to the topic they had chosen (as long as there were enough people to make it viable) and then discussed it together for 25 minutes coming up with a short summary at the end which was then presented and further crystalised into one question. The discussion was held not as experts exchanging their ideas but rather with a spirit of inquiry so that we could start to ask questions and push our boundaries of knowledge further. Adrian Underhill, who was moderating with Susan Bardhun and Ros Wright, emphasised this aspect and said it should be something that you feel you are “on the edge of”. I chose lexis and we discussed ways of introducing vocabulary to learners of all levels asking “Whatever happened to Michael Lewis?” since we had the impression that lexis is often a poor relation to grammar, even now in the C21 and this it is a fuzzy area that coursebook writers and educators have difficulty organising and that the clarification exercises available in coursebooks are often more akin to tests than teaching tasks. Our final question was how it can be systematically taught going beyond the single word to help learners “put it all together”.

This was an enlightening experience because it is, as Adrian Underhill stressed and “emergent form” where what happens is that the content comes from the participants and the discussion is transformational rather than transactional. Everyone takes part in a discussion that is of vital importance to them and the topics ranged from “Should we intervene in fluency? If so when?” to “Social Justice: what is the role of the teacher?”. By choosing the topic and then speaking to likeminded professionals about it, you can transform (or at any rate get the cogs turning) your own thought. It is an interesting approach that I will definitely come back to.

And finally, lexis again!

After my own talk there was still what the graveyard slot and I went to Jane Templeton’s talk on bringing coprora activities into the classroom. She described her own process of transformation from being initially very enthusiastic about data driven learning to an increasing awarness of its difficulty for learners. She then moved towards developing corpus investigation skills for learners where the corpus is used as a reference tool. This is much easier nowadays than it was in the past with tools like the popular wordsandphrases tool, part of the bigger American Corpus (COCA), created by Mark Davies. Learners can easily use this tool to search for collocations, as well as lexical grammar , register and connotations. Incidentally, Mark Davies has just introduced a new tool based on the general world of Wikipedia which I think is worth investigating for all those interested and I am very excited about the SkeLL tool, part of Sketch Engine, which has been developed with English language learners in mind and actually provides collocates in useful grammatical categories. I heard about this one last Friday in James Thomas’ talk and it is one of my Iatefl “discoveries”.

So, another packed day at Iatefl rounded off by a glass of red wine with a few friends.

 

 

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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.

Getting ready for Iatefl Manchester 2015

Gearing up for the annual Iatefl Conference

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Click here for Manchester Online

Hi Everyone,

Are you going to the Iatefl  conference in Manchester this year? Well, as you probably know, it is one of the highlights of my year. I look forward to this concentrated period of time when you can absorb so much and return home energised and raring to go back to work with new teaching ideas, as well as having the chance to catch up with friend that are normally scattered all over the world, but come together for this event.

I personally find this time of year a bit daunting at work. Most people are feeling rather stressed and tired, students are all worried about the exams on the horizon so an injection of pure inspiration is exactly what I need. One of the great things about this conference, as well, is that even if you cannot attend physically so many of the sessions will be streamed and videos are made that are available for up to a year after the actual event. This is organised by the British Council every year and you can join in by going to this address

So don’t miss out. Join in the fun.

My Blogging Plan for this Year’s Conference

Last year I blogged as a registered blogger for the first time and looked at the conference from various different viewpoints. This year I’m planning to start from the viewpoint of someone who is going to speak at the conference. It’s quite a long journey preparing for a presentation, creating it and then delivering it. It can be stressful or it can be exhilerating (with some stress of course but hopefully eustress!)

I thought I’d write today, before everything begins to describe my preparation process in the hope that it will be useful for you too. So, here goes.

IMG_0742The Speaker’s Viewpoint

This year I’ve decided to blog about the conference from the point of view of a speaker, and preparation, if you are giving a presentation, begins long before the conference itself or even before your talk has been accepted. It begins with an idea, something that is playing in your mind perhaps, over and over again, like a haunting tune. It keeps coming back to you at the most unlikely moments and growing into something bigger. This idea then becomes a message that you would like to share with other people. That’s probably the point where you send in your speaker proposal. It could be something you’ve been working on for a while or simply something you feel strongly about or something that is your area of expertise. In my case it is a mixture of all these things.

The first step is the Idea

In any case the first step in the process of developing your talk is to develop your idea and then to decide which aspects to focus on, especially if the topic is broad like blended learning.

My second step is to create my slides

Some people like to write their whole presentation out at this stage as writing helps them develop their ideas, but I prefer to work on my slides next, as I don’t want to get bogged down in the written form. When I speak, I want to do just that: speak, in spoken language that “talks to the audience”. So I create my ideas in frames (usually on Prezi) and then sleep on it.

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My third step

The third step is to write the proposal with the main points for Iatefl and to submit it. I won’t spend long on this because by this stage you’ve probably already done that.

My Fourth Step

A few months later I come back to the initial frames and change them being as ruthless as possible, eliminating anything that is not strictly connected to the main ideas. Then I work on timing: rehearsing the presentation to my captive audience “Haggis my pet cat” and recording a screen capture version that I can watch later to hone it down even more.

My Fifth Step

My fifth step is to produce a worksheet or a sheet with useful links etc. and contact details to give to participants at the conference. This is something I do before I leave because it’s generally easier to do photocopies etc. before you get to the conference venue itself. I also make sure that I have sceenshots of important web pages as you can’t always count on the Internet connection working and for my own peace of mind I like to be prepared. For the same reason I also make a portable prezi which can be downloaded and used offline as and when you need it.

Fly away on a story
Flying off to an enchanting time at Iatefl Manchester!

So, that’s about it. At this stage all I have to do is check in and fly!

See you there.

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.

TESOL Rome 2014: a moment of sharing and meeting.

TESOL ITALY 39TH ANNUAL CONFERENCE

imageThe annual TESOL Italy Conference has been going on this weekend, in Rome against a backdrop of blue skies and political agitation in an Italy characterised as ever by contrasts. Even being able to attend a conference like this is a privelege in theses times of economic crisis, and this is, I think, to some extent reflected in the quality of the content being presented and discussed here. This is a conference with a very friendly atmosphere where people felt happy to exchange their views with each other and by the end of the two days everyone seemed to know everyone else 🙂

The Advantages of Physically Attending a Conference

Online conferences and webinars are a wonderful opportunity for people to share knowledge and learn in ways that were simply not possible in the past but if I can, I still prefer to attend a conference physically, so why is this? Well, here are a few reasons:

1. firstly, you get the chance to “take time out” from your daily routine which means that you probably focus that much more on what is going on at the conference;

2. You get to see a wonderful new place like Rome and breathe in a different atmosphere;

3. You can physically see the body language of people, communicate directly both during sessions and outside by smiles, eye contact and a whole range of signals that are difficult to achieve online, although there other advantages to the online spaces, but more about that later;

4. Most of all the whole event is an adventure and this one began when I was sitting on a high speed train being whisked through a whole range of autumn colours and landscapes. I could already feel myself relaxing and I leafed through the programme reading abstracts and deciding which sessions I wanted to go to. There were some names I knew already but there were a lot of sessions being held by people I didn’t know. They were simply names on a timetable, but then I arrived and went to the sessions and over a coffee or a Prosecco I got to know some of the people behind the names, their worlds, experiences, hopes and fears and they got to know me. Our worlds for these two days began to coalesce, and now that I’m back in Verona I have this warm feeling of having made a whole new group of friends and colleagues as well as catching up with some old friends too.

However conferences are mainly a great opportunity to learn and to share knowledge so here are some of the main threads that ran through this rich tapestry.

Key Themes

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One of the key themes in this conference was inclusion which extends beyond the idea of special needs to encompass all learners with their various differences, seeing each person as someone unique with something to contribute to the group. Another key theme was CLIL which actually seemed to spark a rather stormy reaction from some of the audience, perhaps, as a reaction to some of the ministery’s less popular decisions and treatment of the topic in recent times. On the other hand, there were some high school students at the conference presenting their CLIL projects in an extremely professional way related to art and design with a project that took some teenagers to Aarhus in Denmark to investigate the architecture of living spaces and to participate in a design project themselves creating a bench. Another group tackled the complex topic of thermodynamic laws and the way in which household appliances create heat, which they did in a lively. entertaining presentation that was well choreographed and performed. I, for one, will never look at my fridge in the same way!

Lifelong learning and  Professional Learning Communities were two more threads. Nowadays PLCs  inevitably include the aspect of online professional development which I mentioned above but in her plenary, Deena Boraie also warned against those who seek to “stick a plaster” over a gaping need for development by creating portals with online content but no real support in using or learning from such resources. I, as eveyone knows, am very much in favour of technology and what it can add to teaching and learning but it doesn’t mean that I am blind to the abuse of resources. Like anything else, though, I don’t believe this is necessarily connected to technology itself but to the use people make of it.

Scott Thornbury made the point that the promises made by commercial technology are nothing new and that they are often mirages designed to sell.  There is no reason to use technology just because of the “wow factor” if something else will do the job just as well. He cited Marcos Benevides’ “nightmare” experience with ebooks, when he tried to use them in class with students constantly losing their passwords or having technology problems, which makes me think of the “The dog ate my homework” syndrome to some extent and Made me smile.  Marcos himself has created incredibly high quality ereaders and is one of their advocates, so coming from him these warnings are all the more poignant. and I agree wholeheartedly with all this, having attemptd to encourage my own students to download the ebook version of their coursebook, which was extremely complicated and we wasted a lot of precious classroom time trying to sort it out. There are also aspects to ebooks that may not be abvious and things that learners, or anyone else, need to know.  When they buy an ebook, for instance, and not the paper book, they are paying for the license and not the content, which means that they will probably only be able to access that content for a certain number of years, so although just buying the ebook is cheaper it is actually probably better to get the paper book and then download the ebook as well.

These commercial concerns are real, and like anything else, a great deal of care needs to be taken with the tools we use.Technological resources are the same as any other resources, and it is always how we use them that makes the difference.

if you would like to see my Prezi on the subject follow this link

Leo Selivan and Anthony Ash also gave a great presentation of online platforms and they themselves are the embodiment of the good things about the online spaces. They had not actually met “in the flesh” until shortly before their presentation, although they knew each other well online. Despite this they gave a wonderful performance presenting their content in the form of a type of informal conversation where one seemed to be chatting to the other and asking each other questions in a seamless flow. One of the pros of online webinars which I love (never being one to hold back when it comes to commenting and asking questions, myself) is the chat stream in webinars where you can ask questions during the session itself instead of having to wait until the end when you may well have forgotten your question.

Creativity and Mindfulness

imageThese were also threads running through this conference and John Angelori’s session on the mindful classroom was a small oasis of calm in the middle of the day. Elizabeth Evans also drew on some central tenets of mindfulness such as the need for moments of stillness, which I really liked. One of the pearls of wisdom she gave us was:

“Be still until the sunlight pours through and dispels the mists. Then act with courage.” ( Ponca Chief White Eagle)

I adapted this to apply to the principled use of technology in learning and my version goes like this:

“be still until relevance dispels the wow factor mists of technological tools and then act conscientiously with insight and courage.”

Making Assessment Relevant to the Learners

Sarah Ellis kicked off on Friday morning with her interesting talk on LOA (Learner orientated assessment) which is seeking to focus on the fact that formative assessment is an ongoing ingredient in the recipe which is teaching and learning and that summative assessment has to be the dish that we eat at the end of it.

I have to add here that food was another very important thread in the conference, being mentioned by more than one presenter and being sampled by everyone, in particular at the music and wine tasting on Friday, so it definitely wasn’t all work and no play.

imageCreativity and Assessment: combining the seemingly disconnected and making exam preparation more relevant for learners

Luc Prodromou took creativity up again on Saturday morning by reminding us that exams preparation needs to be relevant and memorable to our learners and that creavity can be described as connecting the disconnected, like the surprising combination of Alberto Sordi on the wall of a building in the amazing Garbatella area where the conference was held.

Luc gave us a whole range of creative activies including old Pligrims favourites and some new ideas too. Looking at exams preparation, for instance, might mean hiding song lyrics in emails that are written as exams practice. These emails can then be used in class as learners search for the Hidden songs”.

The last session on Saturday was well worth waiting for too, as Michela Romoli stunned us with her Introduction to Prezi and the prezi she had made itself, which is an excellent example of how effective this presentation tool can be.  To see it follow this link 🙂

 

imageFinal thoughts

All in all, the atmosphere at the conference was very friendly and inclusive and I certainly learned a lot as well as having the chance to catch up with lots of friends and make new ones. I also discovered an area of Rome: Garbatella (see the photo above) which is very interesting and as is the name itself which comes from a young lady who ran a hostelry in this area and was both “garbata” polite and “bella” beautiful: hence: Garbatella. There are some incredible buildings in this area which I find fascinating. So thank you Tesol Italy, for a lovely two days 🙂 Hope to see you all again next year.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Plenary

The Interview


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

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

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

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

Do Learners need or want direction or not?

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

My thoughts on Non directed Learner Autonomy

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

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

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

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

What are the Key Ingredients in Mitra’s SOLEs ?

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

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

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

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

Gearing up for Iatefl 2014 in Harrogate…

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

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

An Uplifting Moment in the Year

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

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All the fun of the fair

Tips for a Getting the most out of the Conference

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Brimham Rocks: a magical place

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

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

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

 

 

Thoughts from Glasgow Iatefl Day One

It’s been an energizing here in Glasgow today, and I finally got to meet a few of my Twitter friends. (hope I’ll be meeting more tonight at the ELTCHAT party 🙂 as well.

So, I thought I’d share a few of my impressions whilst they’re still fresh in my mind. A big thread running through the sessions I attended today was “interconnectedness” brginning with Adrian Underhill’s excellent plenary “Mess and Progress” where he explored the changing scenario of our perceptions of leadership, moving away from the “Braveheart” type of leader whose charisma takes us on inspiring us into winning battles etc. to a type of “post heroic leadership” where what counts is the relationships between people, and their interconnectedness, so that an organisatioon that listens to the experience and appreciates the skills of its members will flourish. He said a lot more, and much more eloquently, of course, but the hread of interconnectedness was then taken up again by Penny Ur who asked whether teachers should be taking research into account, and whether or not they did. The answer, she said, was that very few teachers read research, but she also added that being àware of the research puts teachers into a more powerful position. Basically if you know the reasons why something is a good educational strategy to adopt, you stand a better chance of convincing others.

A conference is not only the talks, either, and the chance to meet old friends and make new ones is an invaluable moment in my academic year, so I’m really enjoying it so far, and in that way I’m trying to make my relationships flourish too.

I’m not sure if the organisations in Italy will embrace new ideeas about focusing on relationships rater than respecting hierarchies. We have only recently moved on from Berlusconi who definitely saw himself as a leader in the traditional sense, and our universities are hives of status…

Ah well, it all remains to be seen. In any case, I’m off to the party. See you tomorrow 🙂

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