We’re at the mid-way point of the conference, and the first couple of days have yielded some interesting soundbites. Here are a few highlights…
1. “Give up trying to be right – it’s boring!”
…said Adrian Underhill in his Tuesday morning plenary, opening the 46th IATEFL conference in Glasgow. He identified two kinds of problems: difficulties
(fairly straightforward, definable, explicable, solvable with current thinking) and messes
(extensive, boundaryless, ambiguous, difficult to know where to start to solve it). He observed that our tendency is to default to ‘control’ when something needs to be done, rather than default to ‘connect’. This might work with ‘difficulties’ but it doesn’t work with ‘messes’.
The solution, he proposes, is to think systemically; and the quote above was one of several tips he gave on learning to do this. He suggested that abandoning a desire to always be right, and instead trying to hold opposing views within your head at once, can help you see unintended consequences of actions and appreciate more alternative points of view. This, he argues, is a better strategy for dealing with messes!
2. “Love, sex, money.”
This one comes from Luke Meddings and Lindsay Clandfield’s presentation of their new e-book project, ‘52
‘, full of ways of subverting ordinary classroom tasks and topics. There was quite a buzz of anticipation in the air before this session, and it wasn’t unmerited. The guys talked about PARSNIP – an acronym for the areas typically avoided by coursebooks due to their controversial or taboo nature (namely: p
ork) – and then about how 52 deals with some such topics.
They suggested a number of activities that can be used to subvert the normal order of things in a classroom (providing, of course, the teacher knows the students well enough to exercise some discretion and judge if these things can be covered in class without causing upset or offence). One such example they referred to as “love, sex, money” – three things which can be mixed in various discussion activities to subvert classroom practice of comparison and functional (opinion-sharing) language. For example, “Love without sex, or sex without love? Which is better?” or “Love, sex, money: you can only choose two. Which would you choose?”
Naturally, such discussions may be sensitive and won’t suit every classroom, but for students who are interested and willing to discuss traditionally off-limits subjects such as these, 52 offers plenty of ideas.
3. “Guess what I’m doing right now! I’m standing up!”
This was an entertaining quote from Ken Lackman
‘s workshop on Tuesday on how to use corpora to extend study of the lexical and grammatical patterns presented in coursebooks beyond the safe realms of controlled practice and into real language use
. This quote was intended to demonstrate that often, coursebook exercises which prompt language patterns such as “I am painting” or “she is standing up” (he gave a real example of these very phrases in a present continuous activity, but I’ll spare the coursebook’s feelings here and leave it anonymous) just don’t feel like real language use. So why get learners to do (only) this?
Ken showed how a teacher who can search a corpus to find and collate some real examples of real use of the present continuous (or particular verb-noun collocations, etc.) can create very simple activities that promote learners’ awareness and use of realistic language patterns. Importantly, even if learners do not get all the answers right in these activities, it is the process of noticing, discussing and reflecting on language patterns that is important for students’ learning.
4. “Give up trying to be interesting. Reach out and connect – it’s much more interesting. Start conversations with whoever’s there about whatever matters to them.”
Another tip from Adrian Underhill on learning to think systemically. Going back to what he said about our default strategy when things go wrong being to control, rather than connect, this seems particularly relevant to our classrooms. As he noted elsewhere in his talk, “disconnected humans do not yield capital.” Learning collectively but not connectively will not ultimately help a group of people learn together.
5. “What we thought they thought, they didn’t think!”
…said Clare Furneaux on Tuesday, talking about research she had done which revealed that university tutors often misjudge what their MA students’ writing was meant to say, and highlighted the importance of developing their academic writing skills so that they can express themselves more clearly. One key way of achieving this, she argued, was to encourage students to get feedback on outlines of their essays before they really got stuck into writing them, so as to encourage reflection on how they are approaching the discussion of the essay topic and the general direction of their thoughts and arguments.
Furthermore, Clare noted that the MA students in her study often completely neglected the reader, and that this may be partly the tutors’ fault – students often wrote to meet particular criteria or strictly stick to the essay question, and feedback from tutors rarely explicitly said things like “I [as the reader] couldn’t understand this part” or “I found this unclear”.
Perhaps this is something for us as language teachers to consider when giving our students feedback on their writing – writing is just as much about the reader (if not more) as it is about the writer.
6. “This collocation lark – it’s a native speaker conspiracy!”
This quote (from a student) comes from Shaun Dowling’s talk on Tuesday about lexical notebooks. He noted that Lewis’s (1993) Lexical Approach, while a great read, is sometimes a bit difficult for teachers to actually digest and put to practical use. One in-road he suggested is a lexical notebook – something students can create, with guidance from their teacher, to build up their knowledge of lexical chunks and collocations.
First, students need lexically-rich resources from which to notice collocations and time allocated in class for training in noticing and note-taking; next, students a notebook (obviously!), some guidance on possible ways to categorise their notes (with an example of a lexical notebook to use as a model/guide, if available); and finally, the teacher needs to maintain the good habits developed in these two initial stages, reminding students to keep taking notes and giving them feedback on their notebooks.
In his research, he found using such a tool as a lexical notebook really helped develop students’ noticing skills, that they naturally noticed and recorded frequent combinations of words (and worried less about what was necessarily a ‘strong’ or ‘weak’ collocation), and that they were found particularly useful by weaker students.
7. “All language is identity.”
This was a quote from Oliver Beaumont’s talk on Wednesday morning. He spoke about how language teachers can (should?) become language coaches, helping guide learners through the tangled maze of language learning to achieve their ultimate goals. The way a coach does this is by prompting the ‘coachee’ (in this case, a student) to positively visualise their future self, through questions and prompts like:
– What’s your goal?
– Where do you want to be in a year’s time?
– Describe how that will feel.
– What will you be able to do that you couldn’t do before?
– What new opportunities will you have?
By visualising their future identity (having achieved their language goals), students create a very distinct image, a reference point which will help the student to continue towards their goal. Importantly, this doesn’t only have to be conducted one-to-one between a teacher and student, but could be implemented in classroom activities such as mingles, where learners share their goals with each other, as well as some concrete steps they are going to take towards achieving them.
All in all, a generally interesting, often entertaining and sometimes thought-provoking first half of the conference. Looking forward to the second half…
P.S. I’ve been keeping a running-commentary sort of blog throughout the days here
with more extensive notes on most of the sessions I’ve attended, including those above, for anyone who’s interested in reading more.