Sugata Mitra @IATEFL: Neither outraged nor awestruck


Sugata Mitra delivered the closing plenary at IATEFL this past Saturday in Harrogate. Before the session was over, the Twittersphere started to go berserk. The reaction to his talk was very polarized; either he was being praised as an inspiring visionary or derided as a dangerous neo-liberal shill complicit in the dismantling of the public education system.

I don’t agree with either camp. First, I have to admit that I haven’t watched Mitra’s TED Talk, nor have a actually read the research articles he’s published on his projects (which should be the real basis on which to criticize/laud him; a lot can get played up or lost in a TED-style talk, even if it is dressed up as a plenary address as it was in this case).

I can’t comment on the teaching and learning of science or computer science. But in terms of language learning, what I heard him speak about in his plenary is nothing all that revolutionary. Reducing teacher talk time. Giving groups of students a task and letting them work it out with minimal interference from the teacher. Acquisition of social capital and/or instrumental motivation pushing learning. Production improving when there is a more acute sense of audience. All of his ideas are old hat in the world of ELT; they’re just tweaked and adapted to the particular contexts he described, and delivered in a breathless TED tone.

We have the same concerns about the methods Mitra described as we do when things like TBL and CLT are being applied in the language classroom: is everyone in the class learning, or are certain people dominating? Are the learners learning the right things, and at an effective rate? What happens to motivation to learn when the nature of the social capital being sought after or the instrumental motivation changes, or disappears? How and in what way can a teacher/guide/granny/whathaveyou interact to best maximize learning?

In terms of the broader picture in terms of the future of education, de-valuing and de-professionalizing of teachers, and dismantling of the public education system, everything lies in what Mitra was really proposing. He made a bunch of disparaging remarks about teachers and their usefulness. But was this simply his trying to adopt a humorous presentation style, or is he really proposing we get rid of teachers? Are his ideas simply ways to make do in under-served environments where very little learning is happening otherwise? Or is he proposing them across the board? I think we have to read his articles to find out.

I saw this talk as encouragement for teachers to think about how our role and our methodology should/must evolve in the face of developing technology, how we can best serve underserved populations, and how sometimes dire straits call for drastic measures to get ‘er done. A bit of self-reflection never hurts; nor does a little (or a lot) of debate. Mitra was actually an ideal plenary speaker in this way; better dozens of impassioned tweets than a a forgettable and nap-inducing talk, any day.


Digital Tools for EAP Reading

I wrote an article on Digital Tools for EAP Reading that appears in the July-August issue of IATEFL Voices.

In contrast to academic journals focusing on theoretical issues, IATEFL Voices is more geared toward classroom practice, which is right up my alley in terms of what I like to write and present about.

I wrote the article more than a year and a half ago, though, which means that if I were writing the same article today I might slightly change the app recommendations I make. And now that I’m the owner of a Nexus 7 tablet owner, I’d definitely include a section on Android apps!

Download: IATEFL Voices Jul-Aug 2013

IATEFL Liverpool: Day 3

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Session 3.2: Moving into academic management: tips for teachers. Stephanie Dimond-Bayir& Vicky McWilliam

A wonderfully accessible and interactive session aimed at new managers (of which I a one!) It looked at the broad strokes of managing, and how to leverage our skills as teachers into successfully managing programs and staff. There were experienced managers present ( all part of the Management SIG) who had lots to add to the discussion.

Session 3.3. A Dogme approach to coursebooks. Hugh Dellar 

An interesting presentation that first laid out the tenets of the Dogme teaching movement, and then showed how one can incorporate coursebooks into this approach, especially in terms of input. This is in contrast with the commonly-held idea that Dogme teaching is materials-light/free. What I liked about this idea, as well as other such as the Demand High, is that it encourages teachers not to simply recycle any particular teaching methodology or fad wholesale, but rather to think critically about what you want to achieve in a given class, and adapt, adapt, adapt: to the materials, to your students, to the language that emerges naturally in your class.

Session 3.4. Engaging the digital native: a form of cross-cultural communication
Jennie Toner 

In this session the presenter looked to disspell the myth of the digital native, using examples from her own university teaching in Turkey. I personally find that that thinking about ease of technology use and integration in terms of “natives” and “immigrants” is helpful, but that it is in no way a rule that corresponds with the year someone was born. We can all think of examples to the contrary of age-related ease with technology.

ELT Journal Signature Event: (online here)
The motion: ‘Published course materials don’t reflect the lives or needs of learners’
To propose the motion: Scott Thornbury 
To oppose: Catherine Walter

A lively and entertaining debate, if an age-old one. There were lots of good points brought up: the global coursebook’s capitalist and materialist imagery, PARSNIP (topics that are avoided in global coursebooks), etc.

At one point Catherine Walter brought up the point that perhaps she didn’t want her own reality represented in the coursebooks she used. In terms of global justice, maybe it’s a negative thing that students all over the world are repeating dialogues about going to the county club or going shopping in Manhattan. But in terms of learner motivation, social identity, and especially Dornyei’s ideal L2 self , etc., these books could actually be helpful. Many learners learn English for aspirational purposes directly related to “moving on up” in the world or because they aspire to a Westernized/Americanized/etc. lifestyle. Yes, many times this is due to global injustices, and based on a very narrow stereotype of what life in the West/America is like. But as misguided as these images may be, they may turn out to be quite a strong motivation for learners, and therefore power them to make great progress in their journey toward language fluency. So if the global coursebook can serve language acquisition in some indirect way, then perhaps they are not all bad.

IATEFL Liverpool: Day 2

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Day two at of the IATEFL conference was a day of extremes; it included some of the best stuff I saw at the whole conference, and one of the worst conference presentations I have ever seen!Since I subscribe to the “If you can’t say something nice, don’t say anything at all” school, I will refrain for ripping apart the absolutely atrociously bad plenary presentation, and focus on the excellent array of presentations and forums I was lucky enough to take in.
There were a few takeaways from the plenary, though: when presenting at a conference for an audience of your peers, don’t insult their intelligence. Don’t try to be funny, quirky, or eccentric to try to engage your audience; be knowledgeable, informative, and engage them intellectually but saying something of substance, and the rest is just icing on the cake.
Oh yeah, and organize your talk! I have bunch of handouts I usually distribute to my EAP students on structure and organization of an oral presentation which I’m happy to share. :)On to the good stuff.
Session 2.1. Jessica Mackay. The Ideal L2 Self: Motivating Adult Learners. (available online here.)
Her talk struck a particular chord with me as my master’s research also dealt with learner identity of university undergraduate students. Hers were Catalan and studying in Barcelona, while mine were Chinese and studying in Nova Scotia, but regardless, her talk included some great, and very practical techniques for harnessing factors related to identity and motivation with a class of undergrads.
Session 2.2. Shelly Terrell,  Transforming trends: effective integration of ‘bring your own technology’ . (The Prezi to accompany her presentation is available here.)
Shelly’s Twitter feed is a non-stop stream of great resources and links, and her presentation was just as informative. Though it was focused on young learners, it definitely got me thinking of how we can use learners’ own devices, and simple cell phones at that, to stimulate communication in the classroom.
Session 2.3. Double-header of short presentations on ELT publishing: What’s next in my career? Time to get published! by Nick Robinson and A steep learning curve: from teacher to writer by Thomas Ewens. 
Whenever I’m at a conference and see a presentation on ELT publishing, I usually attend, as I do do some ELT materials writing. Very often, the presenter is telling the story of how they got into publishing by accident years ago and what they’ve done since then. The problem is, many of the career paths I’ve heard described  by writers who started publishing anywhere earlier than 10 years ago are no longer possible, or relevant, in this modern-day age of digital publishing, and many old-school writers have little to now familiarity with digital publishing. So I’m happy to report that this was NOT the case with these two speakers. They had practical ideas, advice, and experience in the modern-day world of indie, on-line and traditional publishing; in particular, they referred to SmallEpic ELT Publishing and The Round.

Session 2.4. Leaders as listeners: developing people in a learning organisation. by Julie Wallis. 

This was a very hands-on workshop that incorporated theories of listening with practice.

One of the highlights of the whole conference for me was the forum discussion on Linguistic Imperialism, organized by the British Council, and available here.
The line-up of panelists was fantastic (Becky, R.K. Ndjoze-Ojo (former Deputy Minister of Education, Namibia), Sarah Ogbay (University of Asmara, Eritrea),
Robert Phillipson (Professor Emeritus, Copenhagen Business School, The Netherlands) and Danny Whitehead (British Council, Indonesia). One of the exciting things about attending an international conference of this type is the chance to see or even meet the people behind the names you see on course books, on on your MA reading lists. Phillipson’s writings on linguistics imperialism where an important part of the MA coursework, and hearing him speak was fascinating.
All speakers were eloquent and knowledgeable,  the debate was thought-provoking, and the whole event was well-moderated–something which is very important when questions are being taken from the floor.

Teaching Tips from Ferris Bueller

I went to a fun session at IATEFL Liverpool : Do something you don’t want to do, every day, by Sarah Milligan of the Macmillan English Campus. One of the five ideas they presented was for teachers not to be afraid of silence in the classroom, and they used this hilarious clip from the film Ferris Bueller’s Day Off to illustrate how not to do this.

That few seconds of silence when you ask a student a question, or when they ask you a question, is the time needed for the synapses to fire. It’s the time needed for a student to register the question and try to formulate an answer, or a students who have just overheard their classmate ask the teacher a question to try to come up with the answer themselves.

I think that sometimes as teachers we tend to associate silence with our not knowing the answer when we’re asked a question. Or with our students not knowing the answer to the question we’ve asked them. But thoughtful silence, accompanied with body language and eye contact that communicates the fact this silence is planned, can make all the difference to using silence as an effective tool.

IATEFL Liverpool: Day 1

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David Crystal Plenary (available online here.)
Sometimes a talk may leave you contemplating something tangential or not related at all to its main focus. David Crystal’s plenary session was, for me, an example of this. He dealt with the idea of blends, or the non-standard grammar “mistakes” that emerge in speech and are part of a descriptive, as opposed to prescriptive approach to grammar.


His talk was linguistic in nature as opposed to being specifically about teaching, but one take-home for me was a point he briefly touched on regarding the role of cognition in language processing. He gave a few instances of example sentences used to teach relative clauses from an ESL grammar book, but contrasted their front-loaded structure with real-speech examples, which tend to be end-weighted in terms of information. This particular example drove home the point for me that cognition can play a very important role in the classroom, yet we often ignore it. The way a task or exercises is structured can have a huge effect on a learner’s ability to deal with new language; bad task design can make it seem like a student is not yet able to use a certain language item, when in fact their brain is simply overloaded. It’s something to bear in mind when designing classroom activities as well as assessments.

Session 1.1: How to Demand High. Presenter: Jim Scrivener. (Available online here. )
I’ve recently come across the Demand High blogs and really connect with this “movement” as a way for experienced teachers to revitalize their practice, as well as for newer teachers to pus their teaching to the next level. I have often recommended it in the post-staff evaluation sessions I give. Jim Scrivener’s talk wasn’t a detailed discussion of Demand High, but rather an example of how to put it into practice.
Session 1.2: Designing materials for mobile language learning.Presnter: Mark Osborne
This was an interesting overview to mobile app design, and while not detailed enough to enlighten an experienced designer, it was perfectly pitched toward an ELT teacher or professional with interest in the area. Live Code was identified as an accessible tool for beginning app designers, and activity theory was the main framework through which he approaches app design. One interesting point was his characterization of the teacher as a “curator” of digital apps and tools for their students; this is definitely a role I identify with.


He posed some interesting questions as to how the ELT app scene in general could be improved. As in DAvid Crystal’s plenary, the issue of cognition in ELT came up, as he wondered if the latest research into leaning and memory being taken into account in app design. He also mentioned the trend toward “casual” apps: not whole language courses, but app centred around very focused activities. He urged ELT app designers look to non-ELT apps for inspiration and ideas for good design.

Session 1.3: Written observation reports – one size fits all? Presenter: Joanna Ridd 

While this session focused on a few very specific examples from International House’s staff observation forms and processes, I found it provided some interesting food for thought as to the importance of positive wording on the form (“Areas for professional Development” as opposed to “Areas for Improvement”, etc.), the need for clear points of action with dates for review, and teachers’ preference for clearly worded bullet points as opposed to feedback delivered in prose paragraphs.


Session 1.6: Teaching through the looking glass. Presenter: Adrian Tennant 

This was a next approach to identifying different teaching styles as characterized by the characters from Alice in Wonderland: White rabbit, Dodo, Caterpillar, Cheshire cat, Mock turtle, etc. While the concept was in the end more gimmicky than useful, it did set me thinking about different teacher “profiles”. I think after working in a few different contexts with lots of different types of teachers  you see certain patterns repeat themselves: the jaded uninspired veteran teacher, the cocky ex-pat, the keen, yet unknowledgeable newbie. I think these roles come into play as you manage staff or interact with colleagues; the questions is, how to best take advantage of this idea of teacher “types” in managing staff?


Session 1.7: Demystifying EAP (a bit) – an induction session for pre-sessional programmes. Presenters:Louise Pullen & Susie Cowley-Haselden 

A very useful session for anyone overseeing an EAP program (which I do), dealing with the issue of getting instructors with an extensive EFL/ESL background, but who are who are relative newcomers to EAP up to snuff on the terminology, practices and overall philosophy of English for Academic Purposes. They gave lots of ideas for activities from an induction session they run at the University of Leicester that I am looking forward to trying out.  One of the presenters has a blog on EAP, which I’m looking forward to checking out.

IATEFL 2013 Wrap Up

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In this day and age of live-tweeting and instant publishing, I know that information transfer is often instant. But here I am, almost two weeks after the fact, with my blog posts from the International Association of Teachers of English as a Foreign Language conference, held in Liverpool, from April 9-12. Better late than never!

IATEFL Online: Here is a link to videos of some of the conference sessions.

IATEFL Conference Program:  link to the full conference program.