Glasgow On My Mind
April 2, 2012 4 Comments
This year’s ELT-a-thon in Glasgow was my third IATEFL conference, as well as my third as a speaker, but the first where I really got the feeling that EFL and ESL are fields in serious transition, with the path forward uncertain.
Personally, the conference week started off well (serendipitous meeting with Bethany Cagnol of TESOL France getting on the plane in Paris, sat together, good laughs); then took a turn for the worse when I got to my hotel late in the evening (restaurant closed, no other dining alternatives in vicinity, went to bed hungry like Oliver Twist) and then deteriorated further when I got my pre-conference SIG planning totally wrong, pitching up to the “Young Learners and Teenagers” event (the latter being my interest) only to find – mea culpa for not reading the schedule carefully – that the day’s talks were focused on the tiniest of tots and how to teach them.
Initially, my excessive politeness kicked in and I stayed put, deciding to tough it out despite my error. I felt compelled to make for the exit, however, when egged on to participate, along with the other 50 or so teachers present, in a “clap-hands-and-repeat” sing-along on the theme of “I’m happy / you’re happy; I’m sad / you’re sad” or something along those lines.
I must say that, as much as I admire primary school teachers and their endless quest for new ideas to engage learners of that age group, I fail to see why grown men and women are always exhorted to “join in the fun” at conferences like these. It seems something particular to the teaching profession and, I suspect, ELT in particular. You seldom see pediatricians affecting whooping cough at seminars on children’s illnesses; or fashion designers dressed up in Petit Bateau outfits at trade shows for children’s apparel, but for some reason when it comes to Young Learners and English, there seems to be this irresistible urge to “get down with the kids.” Baffling. I know I will get stick for this from some of those who were there, but please, it’s no criticism of your teaching approach: it’s just that I’m allergic to this type of forced presentation session “interactivity.”
While I’m in mild rant mode, I just want to point out the continuing absurdity of lumping in teenagers with Young Learners in that particular SIG. It’s a bit like having an “Aviation English and Glaswegian Street Slang” SIG: the two have absolutely nothing in common; the teachers of one group tend not to teach the other; and as a result the “Teens” part of the label always feels like a last-minute add-on with no real pedagogical focus upon it. A good example: the very comprehensive symposium on Teens and Technology on the Thursday afternoon was organized by the Learning Technology SIG, and was the better for it.
On to the Conference proper, which was a very special one for me as I got to see, live on stage, two of the authors I first read when studying TEFL: Jim Scrivener and Michael Swan. Predictably, they spoke to packed audiences, adding to the privileged feeling of having them at the conference.
Jim Scrivener’s talk, in particular, was highly thought provoking. His general message — that we are often guilty of “excessive niceness” in the classroom, preventing us from challenging our students more – was a brave one, and he followed it up with a challenge of his own: that we take time to think about where learning is actually occurring in the classroom, and to focus our time and energy on those valuable trigger points.
Scrivener also spoke about the problem of some teachers blindly following the course book. To be fair, this is sometimes a symptom of inexperience; and sometimes teachers have book-based lesson plans more or less imposed on them by their Director of Studies, school owner, or state education system. But Jim’s general point is still valid: textbooks are all too often used as a substitute for contextual analysis of learner’s needs and the creation of tailored lesson plans to address them.
As ever, the subject of “Technology” loomed very large across all five days of the Conference. The trickle of how-to sessions I first experienced in Harrogate on this theme has by now turned into a raging river, encompassing new conference agenda favorites like mobile learning and now learning with tablet computers. But to echo Scrivener’s point about asking ourselves where learning actually occurs, what worries me is that very few of these talks start by stating the pedagogical aims of the proposed technology-assisted task. They tend, instead, to just dive into an explanation of how to use the website, app or program in question, followed by samples produced in class and testimonials on how much the (usually young) learners enjoyed the activity.
The activities shown are, mostly, indeed engaging and do promote learning (or at least activity) autonomy and some language use in new and original ways. But I get the distinct feeling that most of them will end up being bypassed by other, newer types of digital activities, more flavors-of-the-month, in which case: why bother? Learning the sequence of required steps, getting used to the user controls, and getting a handle on the interface logic of any new digital device or online service takes requires a certain amount of trial and error, and takes time and practice. Once you’ve learned it, you can start to use it fluidly and unleash some real creativity. But, just like language learning itself, the key is in the repetition, the building up of confidence and self-assurance, and the pushing of the technology into the background as one’s increasing familiarity with it allows us to focus on the content, on the communicative objective. Compare the trepidation you felt just before publishing your very first post on Facebook, and the timidity of that message, with the nonchalance with which you now add to your profile status on a regular basis.
So it would not be a bad idea if, on the subject of learning with technology, we could encourage teachers to commit to a course-long use of a couple carefully selected tools, to be used both within and outside of the classroom, so that both the teacher and his or her learners can benefit from the flattening out of the technology learning curve over time, In short, let’s not swap the confining nature of the linear textbook with a de-focus created by a rather promiscuous use of too many of the newly available digital teaching and entertainment tools. They may be great conference subject matter, but – if used haphazardly and in an unstructured, short-term way – these may ultimately distract teachers from their core teaching objective. The danger, paradoxically, is that this might in turn ultimately drive some teachers back to the safe, secure, and comforting “home base” represented by the course book.
There is one last aspect of the IATEFL conference that reminds me about Scrivener’s point referenced above. It puzzles me that the one field directly related to “where learning actually occurs” in the most basic way, cognitive neuroscience, is still very much a side-show at conferences like these. Sure, James Zull’s eye-opening talk on the subject was positioned as a plenary, but one still gets the impression that talk of neurons, synapses and dendrites sort of sails past everyone’s head, and that the end-of-talk applause is more at the politeness end of the scale than demonstrative of real enthusiasm and agreement in a head-nodding way.
How can this be? Brains are required for learning, so if we want to understand how to teach better, we really need to get at the fundamentals of how learners learn, not just pedagogically but physiologically as well. To reprise my comparisons with other professions earlier in this post, can we imagine graduating engineers without a thorough understanding of physics, thermodynamics or the fundamental properties of metals? Would we award professional qualifications to agronomists who have not studied the chemistry of soil, plant cell structure, and the precise nature of photosynthesis? Yet millions of teachers venture forth from teacher training every year without a solid grounding in brain-based learning.
The more we find out about how the human brain actually works, the more we realize how much it changes over time (with very real implications on how we need to teach to different age brackets, like teens); how specific regions of the brain are primed to deal with communication generally and language specifically; and how pedagogical principles like the value of repetition can find very real support in an understanding of how stimuli move from input to intake to long-term memory. It’s a fascinating, evolving, and vital area of research directly related to teaching as a field of study and as an applied science, and I would love to see it occupy its proper role in the teaching profession, especially in language teaching, and at conferences like these. That said, kudos to IATEFL for bringing Dr. Zull over from Ohio.
In between the plenaries, the talks, and meeting up with existing and potential territory Marketing Partners for English Attack!, I managed to squeeze in about half a dozen chats with textbook publishers as well. It’s a fascinating time to be talking to the latter. Publishers are both interested in – and wary of – pure-play digital upstarts like ourselves. They are starting to finally understand that “going digital” means a lot more than adding an online “complement” to their course books, and that having a truly compelling and pedagogically valid stand-alone online offering is in fact expensive, requires a lot of hard work, and takes years to get right. Our message to them is that it makes a lot of sense to simply partner with the best of what’s out there, rather than try to compete with them when what we do will never be the primary focus of the mother ship. Will we be working with them more in the near future? We shall see: “Talks are ongoing,” as they say in diplomatic circles.
So, in conclusion, IATEFL 2012 was a conference at which the continuing “learning with technology” show-and-tell picked up further pace; it was a conference at which at least one of the ELT gurus present delivered a back-to-basics message unadorned with the usual Dogme trappings; and it was a conference at which the traditional backbone of the event, the publishers, showed signs of realizing that “the jig is up” without, for that, fully being able to say what their businesses will look like five years from now.
We know that ELT is changing, but, at its heart, is it really destined to be a transformative change? Perhaps we are simply and very slowly becoming aware that the fundamentals must remain at the core of what we do – and in fact we need to research these more fully and seriously than ever before, including on the cognitive level – but that the means to then implement teaching techniques based on these fundamentals will be available in more shapes, sizes and patterns that anyone could have previously imagined. Provided that we treat the best of the technology tools as stable, continuously used resources that build towards something, and not quick-to-adopt, quick-to-abandon gewgaws, we may actually be able to have our digital cake and eat it too. Roll on Liverpool!