Creating creative creativity in ELT. ExcitELT summary

Went to ExcitELT on Sunday. The theme was creativity, which is a horrible word in that it’s so positive and everyone wants to be seen positively or as nurturing/fostering positive attributes. Of the plenaries in the morning, what sticks in the midweek after? We develop skills and use these creatively, according to Stephen Ryan. Chhayankdhar Singh Rathore was saying that we create our relationships with our students. Of the afternoon plenaries, Lina Gordyshevskaya gave an overview of foreign language anxiety, and Drienne Verla Uchida did some stuff about rejigging a set curriculum that was set by administrators. The evening plenary stuff I remember was Russ Mayne and Julia Fearn-Wannan talking about cognitive biases.

The standout feature of ExcitELT for me are the hangout sessions, because they are dialogic. James York did a session on games and/versus gamification and which I learned about some games I want to find and try. Amanda Harper’s session on mixed media was informative. Peter Brereton and Shoko Kita’s hangout was hybrid presentation and hangout on creativity in our jobs, and these themes were touched upon by Julia Fearn-Wannan in her hangout on self-directed professional development, which was a must see given the name of this blog. Anna Bordilovskaya looked at creativity across cultures in the classroom and reinforced for me the impossibility of using creativity as any kind of metric for assessment because it’s so fuzzy and too subjective.

I missed the video plenary because of a mixture of ADHD-assisted ants in my pants and fatigue.

Anyway, glad I went. I kind of wish that some sessions were longer so as to go deeper. I think I should also have taken a rest for a session as well, but with interesting stuff available, the brain wants what the brain wants.

Reaction to Paula Rebolledo Cortés’ IATEFL Plenary

Unlike some of my favourite people on Twitter, I haven’t gone to IATEFL conference in Liverpool. It would have been nice to meet people I know face-to-face, especially colleagues in the SLB co-op. Anyway, this isn’t about that. It’s about Paula Rebolledo Cortés’ plenary on Teacher Empowerment. Loads of people were tweeting about it. I was wondering if it might live up to the hype, which says more about me (horrible, hard to please, cynical) than about her.

Against ‘gurus’

In my opinion, as somebody who tends to fixate on side details, I wondered about the tweets which said Ms. Rebolledo was sick of gurus. I guess yes, it was true but it wasn’t the kind of anti-expert stuff that’s sending half the world (at least) to hell. It was about claiming expertise in our own experience and also examining it carefully and reflecting and testing our assumptions. She was championing classroom research, which is very important, even on a personal level but also more widely because we can compare and contrast between classroom experiences and outcomes.

‘Empowerment’ doesn’t mean anything

One of the biggest things for me was that Ms. Robelledo seemed quite annoyed by spurious claims of empowerment made by people trying to sell stuff or promote themselves. Yeah, I know, I am blogging, and am part of a Task-Based Language Teaching course but I am not eating foie gras with Bill Gates in Davos. My main job is very much based around my 30-odd contact hours of teaching at universities. Anyway, empowerment happens when development and education are supported and appreciated but teachers feel. disempowered when this development and education is rejected.

So, this is a flashback to the immediate aftermath of my DipTESOL. All this effort and learning and what happened with the language school/agency I worked for? Complaints that I was teaching beyond the materials. What happened at school? I got to change things a bit, through ‘job-crafting’ (Wrzesniewski & Dutton, 2001; Falout & Murphey, 2018), often without permission, if I am totally honest. This is where I think I have to go off on a tangent about being empowered.

Empowerment is everything

You have power, at least some of the time. I mean, obviously there’s a difference between the circumstances of needing to get money to actually provide food and shelter in the short term and the slack that comes with having savings and low unemployment. In my case, I could just quit if I wanted to because I was with five different employers at that time. You might also have the power if it’s more inconvenient for your boss to fire you than to keep you even when you don’t agree with their decisions and undermine them when it’s justified. This sounds unprofessional, and I suppose it is if you see professionalism as sycophantic in support of business and capitalism; however, I see it as highly professional because I was supporting my own expertise and knowledge, and more importantly my students’ learning opportunities.

It’s the connection in my head between this plenary talk and Rage Against The Machine. “We gotta take the power back!” (Rage Against The Machine, 1992). My worry when I heard about this plenary was that it gives the corporate pigs at the ELT industry trough enough of an opportunity to assimilate teacher empowerment into the hegemonic narrative, and turn it into something it isn’t. There could end up being moves made to ’empower’ teachers through student monitoring exercises written into poor coursebooks that don’t address the needs or desires of the people in the room. However, what we could see is the teachers who can afford IATEFL tickets standing up to their bosses and not compromising on principles for the sake of purely financial concerns. Hopefully, this trickles down in stories to other teachers elsewhere and then maybe we might have a chance at getting the profession into the state it deserves to be in.

References

Falout, J., & Murphey, T. (2018) Teachers Crafting Job Crafting. In Mercer, S. & Kostoulas, A. (Eds.) Language Teacher Psychology. Bristol: Multilingual Matters.

Rage Against The Machine (1992) ‘Take The Power Back” in Rage Against The Machine (Track 3). Sony Music.

Rebolledo Cortés, P. (2019) Teacher Empowerment: Leaving the Twilight Zone. IATEFL 2nd April 2019. Liverpool.

Wrzesniewski, A., & Dutton, J. E. (2001) Crafting a job: Revisioning plus as active crafters of their work. Academy of Management Review 26 (2), 179-201.

How Have I Developed? How Can I Develop?

I think I’m a pretty busy person as a teacher, in that my teaching load is quite large (for a part timer at three universities, freelancer and co-op member) and I juggle quite a lot on top for continuous professional development. Sometimes it stresses me out – the actual balancing of the things I want to do with the things I should do and the things I absolutely have to do.

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Why on Earth am I so bothered about developing professionally anyway?

I don’t know whether it is pride in my work or not. Probably a sense of reward in knowing that I haven’t messed up, and have helped people learn something faster than Continue reading “How Have I Developed? How Can I Develop?”

Beyond Utility in Task-Based Language Teaching

As my two regular readers know, I am rather given toward task-based language teaching (TBLT). Quite often it has a good reputation (such as it being aligned with what we know about how languages are learned). However, it can get criticised as being rather utilitarian (see, for example, Richards & Rogers, 2001). In my opinion, and experience, it does not have to be this way.

Why does it get this reputation?

In the literature that covers TBLT we mainly see the following settings:

Continue reading “Beyond Utility in Task-Based Language Teaching”

4 Ways to Teach Like a Holistic Detective

The past couple of days have seen me on a total geeky binge of the Netflix show Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency. I got totally sucked in by the surrealism, stayed for the action, and who doesn’t love fantastic costume design? Anyway, this is not a review, it’s a post that asks what can oddball television shows remind you about teaching English.

Be Holistic

Dirk gets where he wants to be by being holistic. “Everything’s connected” he would say. So, while you might have a plan for a lesson, don’t be afraid to go off piste. Remember that you don’t teach lessons, you teach people. You need to react to the situation, not keep going toward something you’d planned upon even if it isn’t the right time. You’ll get there if you need to.

Be Kind

The people we teach probably look at their second language skills as a measure of their worth. This might lead them to look at themselves as not good enough. Dirk would make them feel better. He might make them feel like life is chaos (and it is when you’re operating in a second language), but that doesn’t mean that they of feel like an arsehole. Far from it. Be kind. Be a friend.

Don’t Ignore the Evidence

While Dirk says he isn’t the kind of detective who looks for clues, he doesn’t blindly ignore it either. Follow hunches, but assess them, too. If other people know about things consult them. If there are written records, read them. Inform your hunches.

Get the Fear Sucked Out of You

Teaching can be fraught with anxiety. Learners don’t always agree with us, which can lead us teachers into states of panic where we dwell on ‘people hating us’ and that ‘this lesson is going to be shit’. Sometimes, what you need is some terrifying punks to feed on your panic and help you out. Sometimes your most antagonistic colleagues might be the ones you need most. I know when I was still only about five years in to my career, there was a colleague who seemed very aloof. I thought he didn’t really like me, too be honest. But after a ‘bad lesson’ he was the one who called me out. “You’re not shit, you just had a lesson that felt like shit. There’s a difference. Shit teachers don’t care and don’t know they’re shit; good teachers have shit lessons sometimes and that’s OK. You live and learn.”

Any other reflections on language teaching linked to sci-fi/fantasy in the comments are much appreciated.

More Utopian Thinking

An air freshener called Sanity

Today has been a thinking day. First Achilleas Kostoulas posted about some nonsense, then Michael Griffin asked ‘Are we there yet?’ (regarding his imminent keynote-plenary thing at KOTESOL Gwangju) to which I replied ‘We haven’t even met the scarecrow yet.’ Mura Nava then asked ‘Why are we (teachers) not in driving position? Who’s driving?’ Which I replied to saying that we lack sufficient scholarly leadership. I think what I meant is somebody who can spread a message with credibility but who doesn’t dumb down. Somebody who makes people feel clever and worthwhile.

Continue reading “More Utopian Thinking”

This is a Journey into Sound: Part 1

Yes, it’s a comic.

Further reading

Best C. T. (1995) A direct realist view of cross-language speech perception, in Strange, W. (ed.) Speech Perception and Linguistic Experience. York Press. 171-206. Retrieved April 25th 2017 from http://www.haskins.yale.edu/Reprints/HL0996.pdf

Best, C.T. & Tyler, M. D. (2007) Nonnative and second-language speech perception. Bohn, O., & Munro, M. J. (Eds.). (2007). Language experience in second language speech learning : in honor of James Emil Flege. John Benjamins.

Flege, J. (1995) Second-language Speech Learning: Theory, Findings, and Problems. In Strange, W. (Ed) Speech Perception and Linguistic Experience: Issues in Cross-language research. Timonium, MD: York Press, pp. 229-273.

Flege, J. (2007) Language contact in bilingualism: Phonetic system interactions. In Cole, J. & Hualde, J. I. (Eds.), Laboratory Phonology Berlin: Mouton de Gruyter, pp. 353-380.

Kuhl P. K., Williams, K.A., Lacerda, F, Stevens, K. N. , Lindblom, B. (1992) Linguistic experience altersphonetic perception in infants by 6 months of age. Science. 1992 Jan 31;255(5044) pp.606-8.

How Do I Plan a New Course? A Guide

You get your schedule for the new teaching year. You have a new course to teach. Oh no! How much work?! Yes, it is a lot. Hopefully I can help streamline out the panic. Learn from my mistakes instead of your own.

Getting Started

What kind of course is it? Is it discrete skills, a mish-mash of skills, content, or merely an idea crafted by nymphs from a gossamer of buzzwords? This is going to dictate a lot about how you approach it.

If it’s all four skills, what can’t the learners do yet that you want them to do? If you aren’t sure, ask or have a good think. What kinds of people are your learners? Pope-Ruark (2018) advocates creating stakeholder profiles for your course. Put yourself in these different people’s shoes. Make them as realistic as possible. ‘Talk’ to them in your head. Ask questions to them and let them answer your questions and it makes this process easier. Yes, I know this sounds like the ravings of a man possessed but trust me here, or give it a try and if you don’t like it, try it your way.

Continue reading “How Do I Plan a New Course? A Guide”

2018: A Review

20171011_1616522143287734.jpgI’m writing this in snatched time while I’m walking to the supermarket. To be honest this year hasn’t been one of the best years for me, particularly my mental health. However, I managed to find the Holy Grail of a full-time job to start in 2019 though it has made me a lot more aware of the precarious nature of English language teaching more of which later.

Continue reading “2018: A Review”

Demystifying Task-Based Language Teaching

One of the hundreds of things that annoys me about language teaching1 is the use of jargon to the exclusion of all else when explaining how something works in a relatively simple way. Sometimes it’s not all that simple, but what could happen if we take the approach of keeping things simple and explaining everything as we go? Perhaps people will stop saying that the alternatives to the status quo in language teaching in general and English language teaching in particular are unworkable.

night-of-the-living-dead-group
Image: Night of the Living Dead, Public Domain.

With this in mind, I decided to write a book about Task-Based Language Teaching (TBLT) to demystify it and make it accessible to ordinary teachers who would like to try it but got put off it by the complexity and the density of the research literature. Then I put it off because my colleague in SLB Co-op, Neil McMillan, told me about his and Geoffrey Jordan’s plan for an online course to make TBLT a bit more viable. He then asked if I wanted to be a part of it. I jumped at the chance.

I’ve wanted to make TBLT less of a messy learning process since I had a messy learning process with it myself during my DipTESOL. It is with hindsight that I realised it really should not have been that way. If I had a mentor to guide me through the contradictory information regarding different task-based models (and there are some different ones, which I’ll look at below), and talk about how to sequence lessons and what the prerequisite work is before you even start teaching, I am sure that my stress levels would have been lower and my students might have had a couple of more straightforward lessons.

Generally speaking there are three main ‘task-based’ approaches.

1. The Nunan (2004) model, which uses tasks but really is just a Present-Practice-Produce lesson done as Produce-Practice-Present because the teacher has preset plans for focus on language items.

1a. The Willis & Willis (2007) model, which does pretty much the same as the Nunan model (in my opinion) but uses a task cycle and greater reflection but still with the focus on language items but advocating more focus on lexis.

2. The Ellis (2003) model, which mixes ‘real-world’ tasks with tasks that exist solely for pedagogy, using what Skehan (1998) calls “structure-oriented tasks” (Skehan, 1998. p. 122-123). Essentially, there will be tasks that are only there to induce use of certain grammar, vocabulary or functions. However, there is more room for Focus on Form (looking at language that learners have shown they need, rather than what the teacher presumes they need).

3. The Long (2014) model. The syllabus is created by needs analysis, and the typical language used to do it is sourced by an “analysis of discourse” (Long, 2014. p.??) Put simply, find out what learners need to do with the language and how it would normally be done. There is no looking at language just to shoehorn a language point into the lesson. Instead, there is only Focus on Form, again focusing on language learners have displayed a need for in their output (bits of speaking or writing that are not quite what would be considered an appropriate way to communicate within the group of people one intends to communicate with) or displayed a lack of understanding of in their input (i.e. bits of reading or listening that have not been understood).

SLB Co-op prefer the Long model, but acknowledge that it can be somewhat difficult for teachers without a university department full of applied linguists supporting them. This is why we are going to look at how we make TBLT workable in the real world.

The course, created by Neil McMillan, Geoffrey Jordan and I with guest contributions from Mike Long and Roger Gilabert, starts next year. To be a part of it you can find out more here.

1. Actually there probably are hundreds but there are thousands of things that I love – but anyway, I digress

References

Ellis, R. (2003) Task-based Language Learning and Teaching. Oxford: OUP.

Long, M. (2014). Second language acquisition and task-based language teaching. John Wiley & Sons.

Nunan, D. (2004) Task-Based Language Teaching. Cambridge: CUP.

Skehan, P. (1998). A Cognitive Approach to Language Learning. Oxford: OUP.

Willis, D. & Willis, J. (2007) Doing Task-Based Teaching. Oxford: OUP.