Perspectives on developing a ‘learning organisation’ approach to PD – Part 1

This is the first in a short series of blog posts inspired by Adrian Underhill’s workshop on Developing a ‘learning organisation’ approach to PD, which he delivered at various locations in Australia recently. To find out more about Adrian Underhill, read his recent interview in the English Australia Journal.

AparnaAbout the author:

Aparna Jacob is a first-time Director of Studies at an LTO in Sydney. She is passionate about professional development for teachers and is keen on developing a learning culture at her organisation. She holds an IDLTM amongst other industry-related qualifications.


 

At his workshop on Developing a Learning Organisation approach to PD, Adrian Underhill highlighted a few key ideas that set me thinking about impediments to systems thinking and sharing learning that most Language Teaching Organisations (LTO) would face. Below, I examine some of the ideas from the session in the context of the LTO I work for and look at a few possible solutions.

There is no ‘arrival at quality’. It is not a rest state that you gain and retain.

Quality is an ongoing and permanent journey, driven by the constant inquiring activity of the organisation.

Like most small-medium private ELICOS providers, our LTO operates largely as an “organic organisation” (Robbins, 2011, p.451) characterised by a centralised head, the CEO, from whom all budgetary decisions flow. Vertically, there are few management tiers and departmental structures are uniformly flat with wide spans of control. Typical of an organic organisation, everybody is expected to contribute to all operational aspects and overall there is a low level of formalisation and structures, procedures and practices are flexible. Yet, within this system, largely due to what Charles Handy refers to as the dominant “person culture” (in White, Hockley, Van der Horst Jansen, & Laughner, 2008, p.36), initiative and quick decision making are the norm and any change is quick to be implemented. Profit, rather than a unifying mission and vision, is the driving imperative on which most decisions are based. Daily fire-fighting takes precedence over “systems thinking”. The LTO’s lean processes do not prioritise intangibles such as reflection, learning and investing in individuals. In such an environment, the term “quality” remains a catch phrase, an ever-elusive and mysterious state that we are constantly striving to arrive at.

How can a team of committed managers with individual IQs above 120 . . . have a collective IQ of 63?

 Peter Senge

The Academic and Marketing/Sales departments are often the two main departments at most LTOs. Conflicting priorities often mean they are at loggerheads over every issue from student recruitment, attendance monitoring to agent involvement. In the absence of a clear goal, not only do departments find it difficult to work together but it’s also not unusual for team members to compete against their teammates, focusing only on individual KPIs rather than the common goal of the team.

Such an environment serves as a hothouse for Handy’s “Person Culture” typical of small organisations. Charismatic individuals, keenly focused on self-development thrive and become indispensible to the organisation. This in turn can also breed an unhealthy “Power Culture” where the person who has the CEO’s ear has authority and can establish their own direct line of communication irrespective of hierarchy. Learning, in such an individualistic environment is not shared to benefit the team or the organisation as a whole. Such an environment instead encourages “knowledge hoarding” where knowledge is gained and not shared so that one’s own agenda and status can be furthered rather than add to the learning of the organisation. Individual learning can be wasted unless harnessed at organisational level.

 

Systems Thinking is the process of understanding how things influence one another within a whole.

Systems Thinking begins when we see the world through the eyes of another . . . and realise that our own perspective is just a point of view.

A systemic view of your school sees how everything is interconnected, healthily or unhealthily.

The various departments in the LTO are largely autonomous and solely responsible for their functions. For instance, marketing functions are only carried out by the marketing team and teachers are divorced from these activities completely.

This also means there is no real need to interact with the other departments thus resulting in departmental and knowledge silos and thereby the isolation of each department. The traditional dichotomy between the English teachers and Marketing Officers is evident at our LTO and the physical location of the two departments within the building contributes to this lack of interaction. The marketing department is located in the reception area so that the students have easy access to their Marketing Officers. Though teachers walk past the reception on their way to class, there is practically no interaction between the two departments.

This lack of interaction or awareness of one another’s roles results in further disconnection between the two teams and even a lack of tolerance. Teachers often view trial students or agent visits to their classroom and an intrusion and interruption. Without an understanding of the various courses, teaching methodologies or classroom management techniques used in the classroom, marketing officers are unable to promote the schools products, services or teachers adequately. This then results in the marketing team focusing on superficial aspects of ELICOS products like “native teachers only” or “guaranteed IELTS results” without fully comprehending the complexity of the learning products. Teachers, on the other hand, lack the time or training to understand the cultural background of the students in their class and may choose to view them purely as learners rather than as fee paying customers.

Human capital is not just having smart people . . . It is having smart people who are connected up . . .

Recent changes at the LTO have necessitated a few frank discussions between the two departments particularly with regard to communication and identifying causes of miscommunication. Pressure from above to meet common targets has also had a unifying effect and this has forced the two teams to cooperate, understand one another’s viewpoints, compromise and arrive at solutions together. Progress is evident when meetings are solution-oriented rather than a discussion of hurdles in the way.

Involving teachers and marketers to collaborate on meaningful projects like looking at the nationality mix in a classroom and making decisions on student recruitment, or allowing marketers to sit in on classes to gain a deeper understanding of products they sell, can provide opportunities to recognise the contribution of the other team and bridge departmental silo-isation. A discussion at the Underhill workshop has also resulted in the idea of Marketing Officers sitting in on classes with a few key observation areas in mind and use their understanding from these observations to better promote the courses. A meet-and-greet for marketers and teachers will also be held in the following months where teachers will develop a better understanding of the cultural background, learning styles and expectations of certain student groups.

Learning becomes not just something that staff do for themselves or for the benefit of the clients . . . but something that everyone does for the flourishing of the system itself.

A small LTO like mine is keenly focused on short term goals and immediate gains rather than developing a sustainable long term approach that involves investing in their human capital. Knee-jerk reactions and seeking quick-fix solutions to problems is the norm and this often results in unforseen long-term costs being incurred by the company. Responding to daily crises takes precedence over Systems Thinking habits like reflecting on our actions and consequences, examining our mental models more deeply, and seeing how our structure affects our behaviour patterns. Such reflection is essential to all LTOs as it will reveal the learning opportunities that lie just below the surface of everything we already do and transform the organisation into a learning “hot-house”.

The first step towards this is harnessing in-house expertise and sharing this knowledge that has already been developed using the time and resources of the company. There are no “universal” solutions to “local” situations. Therefore we need to be guided by knowledge and experience from the people in the local situations . . .

We need to develop local knowledge that follows the contours of the setting and circumstances we are in.

Honest inter-departmental conversations about working towards our shared goal, once identified, are an excellent starting point. Clarity of where we want to be means we can recruit the right people who can join us on the journey and help us get there. Any failures encountered on the way would only be opportunities for further joint learning. This way the entire school and its activities transform into an adventure park for everyone’s learning.


 

References and further reading

NB: You can see the slides from see Adrian Underhill’s presentation by clicking here

Pickering, G. 1999. “The learning organisation: an idea whose time has come? ELT Management Number 27. Available from: http://lamsig.iatefl.org/wp-content/uploads/2013/05/2-Pickering-The-Learning-Organisation-2.pdf

Robbins, S.P. 2011. Organizational Behaviour. 6th ed. Pearson Australia.

White, R., Hockley, A., Van der Horst Jansen, J., & Laughner, M. 2008. From Teacher to Manager: Managing Language Teaching Organizations. Cambridge University Press.

 

This post by Aparna Jacob

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

#AusELT chat summary: Conference Swapshop (9/10/14)

October’s Twitter chat got off to a bit of a shaky start as several people (who shall remain nameless) managed to forget that the clocks had gone back in Sydney . . . Anyway, sausages were burnt, direct messages were flying, but disaster was averted and we ended up with a small but productive discussion of everyone’s conference experiences. There was a particular focus on the recent English Australia (#EAConf14) and ACTA (#ACTA2014) conferences (click to see details and programs), but also – inevitably – some reflections of the nature and future of teaching conferences in general. The chat was moderated by Lesley Cioccarelli (@cioccas) – surely one of the most highly experienced conference goers & presenters in our community – and turned up MANY useful links and directions to pursue. You can read the full transcript here but this post aims to capture the most useful areas in more coherent form, with links, for your delight and delectation. So – enjoy!

There were three main areas that seemed to come up again and again:

  • Learning technologies
  • Pronunciation
  • Connecting teachers

And of course, there were also some other stand-out sessions that chatters had seen or participated in. So let’s take a look at these first.

Learning technologies

Learning technologies lecturer, author and go-to guy, Mark Pegrum (@OzMark17), recently wrote a blog post about the tech-related sessions he saw and participated in (as a plenary speaker and panellist) at the 2014 English Australia Conference 2014. It’s a detailed and thought-provoking overview, and his perspective is particularly interesting as he looks at the different layers at work, from practical sessions for the individual teacher, to observing how teachers are engaging in and using technology themselves, to how the drive for technology is having an impact at a global level. As he says at the end of his blog post:

Of course, not every presentation was about technology, but technology has become an increasingly present theme, mixed in – as it should be – with broader pedagogical, cultural and sociopolitical themes.

Mark’s plenary was entitled Walking and talking around the world: A snapshot of international mobile English learning, and you can see his conference slides here. Also look out for an interview with Mark in the April 2015 issue of the English Australia Journal.

Paul Forster (@forstersensei)’s #EAConf14 session on Engaging digital language learners had ‘rave reviews’ according to various sources, among them Nicki Blake (@Penultimate_K) who found it: “User-friendly and hands-on. Easy for those getting started in edtech to understand.” When @forstersensei was asked why he thought it had been so popular and he simply said: “I think there is still a lot of interest in technology and teachers are looking for ideas and training.” You can see the companion website Paul made here – if you couldn’t see his session yourself, this extremely clear, practical website will allow you to benefit just the same.

Michael Griffiths (@trylingual) is another #AusELT stalwart who presented on tech, this time on his research regarding Online PD: Current attitudes and behaviours of ELICOS teachers. Unfortunately he had to miss this chat, but his session was live-tweeted and there were definitely some interesting findings – not to mention some very nice feedback on #AusELT’s usefulness as a professional community of practice. You can see Michael’s presentation slides here.

Another #AusELTer, Lindsay Rattray (@ClassWired), also spoke at #EAConf14, along with colleagues Lachlan McKinnon, & Thom Roker on the topic of Digital literacies for teachers and students: A toolbox of practical ideas (click their names to see their pecha kucha slides).

Pronunciation

At #ACTA14, Arizio Sweeting (@ariziosweeting) addressed The paradoxical predicament of pronunciation: What is being done about it? and Shem MacDonald spoke on Exploring EAL pronunciation through who we are, and what we say. @cioccas was able to attend these, and spoke very highly of them: “standing room only at the 2 I want to . . . I’m guessing it shows teachers want more on how to teach pron.”

As further evidence of teachers’ increasing interest in pron, Lesley highlighted the popularity of the AALL Pron symposiums in Canberra (the next one will be on Friday 5th Dec 2014 – see details here) and mentioned that at the the pre-conference workshops at the 2013 ACTA Conference had been exclusively dedicated to pronunciation.

@ariziosweeting was particularly interested in this changing attitude to pronunciation amongst language teachers: “Aus is making good steps to promote it [pron] more . . . my forthcoming article on SpeakOut calls it the Sleeping Beauty to acknowledge the perceived change.” Arizio will be at the Dec 2014 AALL Pron symposium along with fellow #AusELTer and pron researcher Mike Burri (@michaelburri). Keynote speakers will be Graeme Couper and Michael Carey. As it happens, Arizio also has a popular blog on pron (Pron Central) and he will also be co-running an EVO session with Piers Messum and Rosalyn Young on Teaching pronunciation differently in early 2015.

Connecting teachers

@cioccas and @andrea_rivett presented a workshop together on PLNs at #ACTA2014 – as they met on Twitter this is surely a testament in itself to the power of the online PLN! By all accounts their session was very popular, so well attended that chairs had to be brought in from other rooms. Feedback was also very positive, with @cioccas noting that some participants “even said they finally ‘got Twitter’”

@sophiakhan4 asked “What did the audience respond to most?” and @cioccas said: “Probably our passion! And the tweeting with Post-it notes on the wall ☺ ”. This pen-and-paper version of Twitter was a great idea and can also be used as an excellent classroom activity!

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Thanks also to Lesley and Andrea also for spreading the word on #AusELT ☺

Other stand-out sessions

  • BzfzMqRCUAAWsmMNicki Blake (@Penultimate_K) took part in the GrEAt Debate at #EAConf14 along with Adrian Underhill and Chris Evason, opposing Pamela Humphreys, Mauricio Pucci and Phiona Stanley. Nicki described it as “a tongue-in-cheek look at the proposition that ‘quality is better than quantity’ . . . it was like your classic debate mixed up with some good old-fashioned lampooning.” When asked, “How do you prepare for that?”, she said: “‘You trawl the opposition’s websites looking for ‘dirt’ ;)”
  • Speaking of Phiona Stanley, @cioccas strongly recommended her session on Native speakers, intelligibility, and culture crossing: How native English speakers learn language grading on Cambridge CELTA at ACTA2014. Phiona also presented at #EAConf14 on Beyond ‘food and festivals': How to teach critical interculturality in language teaching, which was also the keynote at the UECA PDfest 2014 in Sydney, so several chatters had seen it and all agreed it was excellent. Phiona also had a very interesting article in a recent issue of the English Australia Journal on Lessons from China: Understanding what Chinese students want.
  • Adrian Underhill’s pre-/post-conf English Australia workshops on Developing a ‘learning organisation’ approach to PD also had a big impact on many attendees – so much so that we will be dedicating a few blog posts to it in the coming weeks. In the meantime you can check out his slides here.

In the latter half of the chat, we got into some more general ponderings on the state of conferences today and what we might be looking for in the future. Below you’ll find some of the issues we touched on and what was said.

Research or practical ‘take aways’?

@forstersensei said: “For me #EAConf14 was lacking that practical focus that teachers want. Research is great, but teachers (in particular) want something to ‘take away’”. @Penultimate_K agreed: “There has to be some “take home” value – that’s why your companion wix was so much appreciated” @cioccas agreed: “Same for #ACTA2014. Need a balance. CAMTesol is the best I’ve been to in that regard, but CLESOL too” (in fact several chaters seconded CLESOL as a conference that strikes a good balance between professional, academic and other strands). Chatters generally agreed that balance was the key – we need both research-based and practical sessions, but may conferences seem to weigh overly heavily on the academic side.

@sophiakhan4 thought this was interesting and suggested it may even be “an effect of reaching a ‘conf presenter’ level – forgetting about the nitty gritty.” She also asked if the seeming lack of practical sessions for teachers might be because “some confs are beyond the reach of ‘ordinary’ teachers? . . . so in that case doesn’t it make sense that the content caters to [those that attend]?”

@Penultimate_K thought this might be true, adding “ordinary teachers aren’t likely to be delegates – mostly management and researchers . . . Melb/Vic teachers [were attending #EAConf14] on group tix but mostly management/sales from interstate.” However, this surprised @cioccas, who said there were “lots of ordinary teachers at ACTA, ands most wanted more practical sessions”

Many chatters mentioned UECA PDFest and similar “teacher-centred” events as being important in bridging this gap.

Why are Aus/NZ confereces so expensive?

One of the key reasons “ordinary” teachers may not be attending conferences is because they can’t afford to go, as suggested by several chatters. @forstersensei commented on “the increasing cost” of attending conferences and @sophiakhan pointed out that IATEFL for instance is much more realistic financially. @cioccas had actually done the research: “I did a survey of the costs for ELT confs and EA & ACTA topped the list.”

@Penultimate_K added that therefore “if a company is going to budget for a conference, they are more likely to send s/one senior” @sophiakhan4: “Right. But they could send a HEAP of teachers to PDFest for the same $. Worth thinking about.”

@sophiakhan4 also suggested that “some of the $ of Oz confs is due to shipping in big name speakers – a needless expense?” @cioccas thought that “maybe just one big name would suffice each year” and chatters agreed, but both @sophiakhan4 and @ariziosweeting were in favour of seeing more “grassroots” presenters.

Are organisers/attendees making good use of social media yet? 

@Penultimate_K noted that at #EAConf14 social media was used “but mostly in the marketing stream not in the teaching stream”. @sophiakhan4 who had been following on Twitter said it was “a dramatic improvement from 2012! But tweeters were generally (not always) the usual suspects.” At #ACTA2014 @cioccas observed that “organisers used it for announcements but most people didn’t notice ☹ ”

@Penultimate_K commented that “use of ‪#socmed‬‬ channels to provide parallel info streams would go a long way to increase access” although @cioccas wondered “if Australian ELTs are up there with the ‪#socmed‬‬ yet though?” and @sophiakhan thought that that “tipping point” hadn’t arrived yet.

@Penultimate_K acknowledged this: “still being told to turn off mobiles & given hard stares when live-tweeting . . . Waiting for Aus conferences to embrace casting/video, extensive hashtag use, etc . . . conferences need to acknowledge that social sharing is a thing now. Not just acknowledge but cater for . . . “ @sophiakhan4 agreed, predicting that “ it will all be taken for granted 10 years on”, but also suggesting that right NOW, “if only 1-10% of the audience ALSO appreciates [social sharing] – [efforts to promote it] will fall fairly flat.”

@Penultimate_K agreed, and suggested that perhaps a social media approach “may be better for events like pD fests/UECA” because “people more likely to share practical ideas over ‪#SOCMED‬‬ than theory.” @sophiakhan4 wasn’t convinced of this, arguing that whether a session was practical or theory-based, “maybe both are too hard to get into a twitter soundbite” @Penultimate_K countered this by suggesting that ideas “could be shared in PLNs using other channels” to which @sophiakhan4 said “Yes but who writes a blog post? Who takes their own time to write a Facebook post about a PD session? Few people.” @Penultimate_K said “Few, yes. But we are here, sharing away. Now need modern-minded conf organisers to tap into this.”

Are conferences a dying paradigm?

Let’s give @cioccas the last word: “I hope not. I love the dynamics, the informal networking, serendipitous discoveries.”

This post by @sophiakhan4

Disclaimer: The views expressed here are those of the individuals, and not those of #AusELT in general or of English Australia.

5 Things to Remember when……..Covering a Class at the Last Minute

If you missed last month’s post, the first in this series, you can read our reflection on 5 things to remember when listening to your colleagues complain right here. This month, we turn to that dreaded moment….the one that happens to the all of us:
It’s 8:55, you’re nervously watching the clock thinking I’m almost there….five more minutes and my morning will be free (and I can finally get around to culling all those friends of mine on Facebook)….and in walks your DOS, silently, slinking in the morning shadows cast by shelves and shelves of dusty copies of Practical English Usage. She clears her throat and nervously taps you on the shoulder, your index finger quivering with excitement over the left mouse button as you feel time ticking down with a certain sense of cruel, twisted fate….happy Monday!!!

1) Stop, don’t retaliate and listen!

Cover happens to everyone – we’ve all had to do it, or better yet, drop someone in it at some point as a result of a bad oyster, broken leg, bike accident or torn skirt.  There is certainly something to be said for the reciprocal, karmic nature of the way teachers handle their contractual obligations in relation to covering classes….and if nothing else, we really need to remember that one day it will be you calling in sick and in need of help.
Talking about cover to some friends the other day, we noted that the stress teachers typically feel in response to the proverbial tap on the shoulder and nervous smile from the DOS is inversely proportional to the amount of time remaining before you need to walk into the classroom; When you’re asked to cover with two weeks’ notice most teachers barely notice, but when that tap on the shoulder comes at five minutes to the hour, there are some of us who need to change their socks, others of us who manage to fit a surprising number of cigarettes into the morning, and others of us whose profane vocabulary comes into its own.
That being said, we also feel that once the clock ticks past the hour, the students are settled, and pleasantries have been exchanged, things becomes eerily familiar (unless of course you happen to be covering for a teacher who did all the cutting a prep for you….and then you realise that they’ve cut up the materials for the wrong class……….which has NEVER happened to us or anyone we know…..ever….).
So, when the tap comes, and it will come at some point, is there really any purpose in complaining, doing your best Napoleon Dynamite impression or burning your way through a pack of cigarettes?  Stop, don’t retaliate, and get the basic information you need: When is the class? What room is it in? Which book are they using? Is there a plan or any notes? Do you have time for a quick visit to the loo? (Hey, there are some luxuries even the most pressed teachers need….) Is there someone around who can help you for five minutes to quickly do some printing and cutting up or bring it to you in ten minutes? Are your shoes done up, your pants on the right way and this morning’s spinach omelet safely removed from between your teeth?
Remember, even if there is a serial offender in your office, be frustrated with them – don’t take it out on the messenger, or the students.  A smile goes a long, long way.

2) Taking opportunities to develop – earning your stripes

There is a a lot to be said for aiming to be the most professional teacher you can be – especially in an industry that isn’t necessarily internationally associated with fiercely competitive entry requirements and performance review standards.  The TEFL world grew largely from the spread of John Haycraft’s CELTA-style short courses which championed the reality of teachers learning and developing practical skills in front of students, and figuring out what seems right, intuitively, in from moment to moment, and from class to class.
There is arguably no better way than to get back to this fundamental alignment of variables (I mean, really, have you ever been as nervous, or felt under as much pressure in front of a class as on your first observed lesson on your pre-service course?) than being put in front of a class at the last minute, and seeing what happens.
In fact many would argue that this is teaching in its purest form – when you have no security blanket of a lesson plan, there is no choice but to listen to your students and respond to them – and some of our best lessons and most insightful moments have come from those moments when we felt under the most pressure.
So, business needs aside, we would argue that the issue of cover, and its associated stresses are not only important and something everyone needs to share, but an essential part of continuing professional development.  Teaching, as an art form, is centred around the notion of teachers thinking on their feet and responding, from moment to moment in the classroom.  Our industry was founded on this belief, and what better way to earn your stripes than by spending more time on the front line, at the chalkface, in the spotlight…hmm, out of metaphors…

3) What really matters?

There are two types of teachers – those who fill in their registers, and those who don’t.  If you’re lucky enough to cover a teacher from the first of these two groups, well done.  If not, and frustrating as it may seem in the moment, you will probably gain significant perspective on life’s important things as a direct result of covering a teacher from the second of these two groups.
At the end of the day, your shoulder-tapping DOS simply needs a teacher in front of the class – that is the ultimate reason they have asked you to help out.  If there is no plan, and no reference to the last page they’ve covered, and you’ve still got 250 friends to cull from your list of Facebook friends…..chin up.  Given the other benefits, most of which will have a direct positive result on your professional development (and not necessarily on your sweat glands) life at this very moment could certainly be a lot worse.
So what really matters? Only that you remember to stay positive, keep a smile (even it it’s a slight grimace) on your face, and a professional attitude the moment you step into the classroom.

4) Contingency plans

Not wanting to sound like your mother-cum-CELTA trainer-cum-director (and what a complicated relationship that would be…) teachers really need to be ready.  We know everyone always says you need to have something ready for fast finishers, and we all pretend that we do, but having a reserve of flexible, portable, instant lessons really can make the difference between a one-cheeky-cigarette-kinda-day, and a 2-pairs-of-undies-kinda-day.
We’d like to share some of our all-time greatest last minute lessons, for your reading (and teaching) pleasure (can you spot the odd one out?). Keep in mind, these are not necessarily our lessons, but lessons we know work most of the time, with most ages, levels and abilities.  Credit for these ideas and references are listed below.
a) Guess what’s inside my head
If you’ve never done this with a class, you’ve never lived.
Teacher: Can you guess what I’m thinking of?
Students: Is it a carrot?
Teacher: No! Guess again!
Students: Is it a chameleon?
Teacher: No! Guess again!
Students: Is it the eternal struggle of ethnic minorities in former British colonies who have since gained independence from the oppression of White colonial expansion?
Teacher: Very close, keep guessing!
Thanks to Claire Steele for this one!
b) Dialogue Building
A very flexible lesson, with minimal preparation needed that features loads of repetition, writing practice and a role play.  We got this one from Scott Thornbury’s article on OneStopEnglish here.
c) Sentence Relays

Just when you thought running dictations couldn’t get any better…..Students line up in groups facing the board.  The teacher reads a sentence clearly twice for students to memorise. When you say GO! students race to the board to write the sentence, one word per student at a time, in a relay.  If you have 4 or 5 sentences ready to go, the students then write down all of the sentences they remember at the end of the activity.  This can then lead into question writing and speaking, a jazz chant, or if you’re feeling up for it, a cheeky game of guess what’s inside my head!

d) Dictaphone Stories

If there was one thing we learned from our DELTA, it was how to use a dictaphone in class.  And we mean, really use a dictaphone.  This lesson is actually adapted from Teaching Unplugged (Thornbury & Meddings), but you can find a short description here (Disclaimer: this is a link to James’ blog).  It is a speaking/listening and materials-light lesson that will challenge even the most annoying of students.

5) Enjoy the limelight

Collectively, we flog the catch phrase student-centred learning to death.  Should there be a time and a place for teacher-centred teaching?  Is it ok to be the centre of attention, add a sprinkling of funny remarks, those old favourite jokes (the ones that every class loves, even if you’ve been telling them for 20 years) and a little anecdote here and there?
Yes, of course it is, despite what your conscience might tell you.  There is a voice inside the heads of many teachers (not ours! not anymore!) that questions any move to take the spotlight, and any conscious decision to “play up a bit” in class.  Is it a CELTA remnant? No TTT! TTT is bad! Teachers talking in class ROB STUDENTS OF THEIR BASIC HUMAN RIGHTS! Pish. While we use this phrase very cautiously, what we are really talking about is the immeasurable notion of teacher-student rapport.  This is arguably one of the strongest factors to influence student motivation, which in turn is the single biggest challenge to overcome for any teacher or student. So have a chat, tell a story, make them laugh, get them onside.
Students typically enjoy the novelty of a new face, a new voice, a new rhythm in class and this deserves to be indulged.  In reality, the students might appreciate their cover teacher all the more, simply from the novelty of having a change.  So, while that dreaded tap on the shoulder at 8:55 on Monday morning might fill you with a sense of endless and unrequited social media errands, you may very well be delighted and surprised to find yourself in the spotlight of an interested, curious and interactive group of students – and this really is what most of us live for.

* By James Pengelley and Jane Pyper (Hong Kong), purveyors of Australian wit and bathers tans.

The views expressed in this post are our own and not those of #AusELT as a whole, or of English Australia

Getting ready for the #AusELT Article Discussion Group: Teaching pragmatics

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Many thanks to everyone who voted on which article to talk about in the first #AusELT Article Discussion Group, which is scheduled to take place from 13-19 October on the #AusELT Facebook page. The results were very close but the most popular topic turned out be pragmatics, via the article Teaching pragmatics: An action research journey, written by a group of colleagues from Auckland University of Technology, New Zealand. If you haven’t done so already, you can read the complete article here – but first read this post, which will give you some orientation.

Background

The authors, all teachers and researchers at Auckland University of Technology, Auckland, New Zealand, have collaborated on a four-year project aimed at developing materials and methodology for teaching pragmatics to second language learners. Pragmatics focuses on language used in context, and the “norms”, or socially and culturally appropriate ways to use language. I’m sure we’ve all had experiences of when this has broken down, either as speakers of an L2, when speaking with an L2 user, or observing at a distance. I have my own anecdotes that I can share over a coffee or beer one day that made me terribly embarrassed and humbled, all over a socially and culturally inappropriate comment. So, that’s what the article’s about.

As with many articles in TESOL and Applied Linguistics journals, it has more than one audience. As well as practicing teachers, it is also written for academic researchers, postgraduate and doctoral research students, teacher educators and teacher trainers. Let’s unpack the article a little so we can tease out some of the interesting activities and findings of these teacher researchers.

Article structure

  1. Orientation and background
  2. Methodology – three-stage process
    1. Stage one – teacher survey
    2. Stage two – developing materials
    3. Stage three – evaluating materials and methodology
  3. Report on Action Research projects that trialled the materials and methodologies
    1. 2010 – 14 undergrads in a Translation and Interpreting course, mostly Asian background, B2 level. Role plays with expert speakers in “face threatening” workplace situations.
    2. 2011 – 15 lower (A1 and A2) level students from refugee and migrant backgrounds (East Africa, SE Asia, Middle East, Pacific Islands). Semi-authentic role plays of invitations, using DCTs (simplified discourse tasks).
    3. 2012 – EAP students at pre-degree level (lower B2). Role playing “group project” meetings in university study settings
  4. Discussion of findings
  5. Implications for teaching and learning

This outline might help you read through the article more efficiently. I tend to look at sections of most interest first, and then read the whole article through. For example, you might want to read Section 4 first to see what they came up with, and then settle in for a more detailed reading.

Discussion focus

To focus on our discussion, before reading, have a think about this question:

How important is teaching pragmatics for your students? Think about the language backgrounds and the social and cultural backgrounds of your students. Use Figure 1 as a guide to pragmatic features.

We’ll start with this question in the Facebook group on Monday, and will feed in more questions throughout the week.

Thanks for reading!

This post by Phil Chappell (@TESOLatMQ)

#AusELT chat summary: Learner Autonomy, with Phil Benson (4 Sept, 2014)

Highlighted Section of Book

The #AusELT chat on learner autonomy on Thursday 4th September was once again lively, fast-paced and interesting. Phil Benson, Professor of Applied Linguistics at Macquarie University joined as guest moderator and supplied some pre-chat questions for people to think about beforehand. As the chat went on, it was clear that this was a subject that people often considered in their day-to-day teaching.

Phil Benson (@philbensonmq) started the chat with the first question, ‘What does “autonomy” mean to you, personally, in your own learning, teaching, or professional development?’ Several people answered with ideas about freedom to choose learning style and students not needing a teacher, book or other guiding influence in their learning. Others mentioned the possibility of making choices and decisions based on their own desired outcomes, as well as being responsible for their progress, which led to discussion of the role that perseverance plays in learning autonomy.

Motivation – the elephant in the room?

At the same time, @forstersensei asked the question ‘Is motivation the defining factor in learner autonomy?’ and this issue wove its way throughout the chat. @andrea_rivett raised the point that motivation is very important but that students need to learn how to be autonomous, an idea that many agree on. Phil Benson agreed that descriptions of motivation and autonomy include a lot of the same things. As @Penultimate_K said ‘I find you’re more likely to “push through” if your learning is self-determined.’ However, people agreed that learner autonomy might be something that needs to be taught or developed.

Phil Benson then asked whether ‘autonomy starts with being motivated but doesn’t end there?’ A brief flurry of discussion about whether motivation is in fact the starting point ensued, with @alicechik suggesting that imagination (the ability to imagine possibilities) was where it all started. Phil Benson explained that his model has ‘desire (motivation), ability, and freedom’ as three possible starting points and @alicechik suggested that motivation is perhaps the ‘externalised construct’, whereas desire is internalised. This led to discussion of the differences between extrinsic and intrinsic motivation, with @McIntyreShona and @MeredithMacAul1 mentioning the possibility to convert extrinsic to intrinsic motivators. @SophiaKhan4 added that the ‘right’ kind of experiences can help learners to become motivated, which @MeredithMacAul1 supported with her comment about learners setting goals, learning about resources and becoming more self-motivated. @TESOLatMQ then asked if that simply meant that students were ‘engaged’ in their learning, while Phil Benson agreed that motivation can be enhanced with ‘more ability or more freedom.’

Nature or Nurture?

@forstersensei then asked if the ability to learn autonomously is inherent or learnt, which @SophiaKhan4 answered by saying ‘Humans are creative, learning creatures [therefore] inherent’ while @andrea_rivett thought that it is rather learned through modelling and by doing. @Penultimate_K also chose inherent, since ‘from infancy we are motivated to reach out beyond ourselves and achieve goals.’ Phil Benson later agreed with this but lamented that students lose that motivation ‘either because of school or things just get harder to learn.’ @SophiaKhan4 raised the possibility that students are discouraged from being autonomous through ‘education’.

@forstersensei summed it up as ‘we could say all have the ability, but it must be taught/modelled at some stage.’ This became the main focus of conversation with @alicechik asking if autonomy is thus inauthentic if it has to be taught, which once more brought the teacher’s role back into the mix. Would it be so because it would be more the teachers’ concept of autonomy put into place, rather than the students’, thus possibly causing demotivation, as Paul Forster suggested and others agreed with. Doing what someone else wants you to do is not autonomy.

@SophiaKhan4, in a brief summary, grouped together Motivation, goals, goal setting and knowing yourself, adding that ‘autonomy is the default’ , while others mentioned that it is perhaps ‘culture specific’.

Phil Benson then commented ‘imagination, motivation, autonomy – I see these as things you can’t ‘teach’. It’s what do you do in a classroom to help them grow?’ The distinction between ‘teaching’ autonomy’ and ‘growing’ or developing it was seen as an important one because of the dangers of teachers treating it like just one more skill to teach. It was agreed that skills are associated with autonomy and that teachers need to shift focus to what we can do in a classroom to help students develop them.

The teachers’ role? What can we do to help?

The question of what strategies or activities can be used led Phil Benson to ask if the 10 strategies discussed here would help with ‘teaching autonomy.’ This was generally agreed but other strategies people liked were setting achievable targets and drawing on out-of-class experience, personalisation of content. This was an important point, according to many, who said that more needed to be done, not only by bringing materials into the classroom but also sending students out into society to complete tasks.

There was some discussion of the pros and cons of peer teaching, with Phil Benson explaining that ‘the point is in the process, not the assessment itself’. There was a sense that the amount of teacher scaffolding and direction necessary for the activity perhaps took away the effectiveness of it. @AgsBod explained that she found it difficult in ESL since students might not accept feedback from each other. Many agreed that students need to learn to listen to each other much more. David Block’s 1997 article,  ‘Learn by listening to language learners’, was cited and group work was suggested as a good way to encourage this skill. It was stated that giving feedback as constructive criticism is also a skill that people need to learn. As @SophiaKhan4 said, ‘[students] can learn from it and learn to focus on their own work in constructive, specific ways.’

In another thread, @andrea_rivett said that ‘being an active, autonomous learner is more productive than sitting there passively for hours’. However, @McIntyreShona raised the question of whether a non-autonomous learner is necessarily passive. @TESOLatMQ agreed that he has had very active students who were ‘over-reliant’ on teachers and other students. Phil Benson made the very good point that ‘active’ needed to be ‘more than what you can see on the outside. Mentally active…’

Final thoughts

Other points raised as the chat neared the end were the idea that ‘safety nets’ such as dictionaries, textbooks, teachers, etc. can be removed to encourage autonomy, while Paul Forster suggested that mobile devices could be brought in to do the same since students use them extensively outside the class to learn autonomously. @SophiaKhan4 said that this would depend on the learning context and @McIntyreShona mentioned time as a factor. @andrea_rivett felt that those traditional ‘tools’ could definitely discourage autonomy but Phil Benson asked whether dictionaries weren’t in fact good tools for autonomous learning. @Penultimate_K agreed that the potential for dependence on the traditional ed elements exists but the teachers’ role is to help students to ‘move beyond’ them.

Phil Benson asked how mobile devices are relevant to autonomy and several ideas were given, such as smartphone dictionaries, apps for learning, learning communities online, access to extensive materials for reading and research.

Winding down, Phil Benson asked ‘Autonomy can be defined as ‘the capacity to control one’s own learning’ with 98 characters to spare. What would you add?’ @alicechik added ‘over time and space with imagination and creativity.’ @Penultimate_K half jokingly threw in the term ‘heutagogy’ which our guest moderator liked. The hour ended with everyone saying how much they had enjoyed the fast paced chat full of ideas and learning.

Many thanks to Phil Benson for joining the chat and providing some thought provoking discussion throughout the hour.

Useful resources and reading

This post by @McIntyreShona

Introducing the #AusELT Article Discussion Group

MP900387490We have a new, regular activity for AusELTers – an article discussion group. The idea is for us all to vote for our preferred article from the latest English Australia Journal, read it, and then join in a moderated discussion of the article. Authors will either join in on the discussion, or respond offline to points raised and questions asked, facilitated by the moderator. For the time being, the discussion will take place on the #AusELT Facebook page (although this may change in future) and the first discussion is slated for 13th-19th October. The articles are all relevant to many of the contexts in which AusELT folk practice. They are primary research articles, that is, the authors have devised and conducted their own research study and reported their findings. In addition, each article has been peer-reviewed, meaning that the editor has invited leading TESOL scholars to review and offer suggestions for improving earlier drafts. We have some excellent reviewers who, together with the authors, have ensured you receive the best quality research reports upon which you can make some decisions about your own teaching.

In order to assist those who are new to reading research articles, the moderator will orient you by providing a summary of the research design and the overall purpose of the research. The discussion will not only focus on how the article can inform your own teaching, but also on opportunities for further research in any form. It will hopefully spark ideas for improving the quality of life in many classrooms! Each article has an abstract for you to read; after all, just as you can’t judge a book by its cover, you can’t judge a research article by its title.

The complete articles are all open access, freely available online here. The chosen article will be made available as a pdf and available for download on this page.

Teaching Pragmatics: An action research journey

Heather Denny, Graeme Couper, Jenny Healy, Flora MacDonald, Annette Sachtleben & Annette Watkins (Auckland University of Technology)

Teachers are often seeking ways to more objectively evaluate new approaches in teaching methodology. One way of doing this is to carry out classroom-based action research which involves teachers researching their own classroom practice, ideally with collaborative support from more experienced researchers. This summary article will trace a collaborative action research journey involving a series of such projects undertaken to test the efficacy of using elicited recordings of native-speaker roleplay to teach the discourse and pragmatic norms of interaction in communities of practice relevant to learners. It will outline the action research processes of planning and re-planning involved at each stage of the journey undertaken from 2009 to 2012 with learners at a variety of proficiency levels. It will draw out common findings which can be of use to practising teachers, and briefly examine the professional development outcomes for the teachers involved and their colleagues, and the benefits for learners.

Reading strategies in IELTS tests: Prevalence and impact on outcomes

James Chalmers & Ian Walkinshaw (Griffith University)

This pilot study explores whether and to what extent IELTS Academic Reading test-takers utilise expeditious reading strategies, and, where employed, their impact on test outcomes. In a partial replication of Weir, Hawkey, Green, and Devi’s (2009) exploration of the reading processes learners engage in when tackling IELTS Reading tasks, participants in English for Academic Purposes (EAP) courses underwent a mock IELTS Academic Reading test. They then completed a written retrospective protocol and a focus group discussion to probe their reading strategy use and tease out any underlying rationale. The analysis revealed that participants responded to time pressure, unfamiliar vocabulary and demands on working memory by employing a range of expeditious reading strategies which focused less on textual comprehension than on quickly locating correct answers. Their comprehension of texts often remained at the ‘local-literal’ level rather than the ‘global-interpretive’ level (Moore et al., 2012). Their test scores did not necessarily increase as a result. The findings, though preliminary, support further enquiry into test-taking strategies to understand the extent and the direction of impact on test scores.

Preparing learners for extensive reading through ‘reciprocal teaching strategies’

Karen Benson (Transfield Services – Welfare)

Studies on extensive reading report positive learner outcomes in reading, listening, speaking and writing, gains in motivation and expanded lexico-grammatical range (Day et al., 2011). With this in mind, two teachers at an English language college for adults in Sydney, Australia started to use graded readers in their classes. From the difficulties their students encountered they identified a significant gap in reading instruction in the General English (GE) syllabus at the college. A review of the syllabus highlighted that ‘reading’ was commonly taken from the coursebook and employed an intensive reading methodology. This was not preparing the students for successful extensive reading. To address this gap, a collaborative action research project was conducted to explore if and how the instructional technique ‘reciprocal teaching’ (Palincsar & Brown, 1984) designed to promote comprehension abilities in young L1 learners could be adapted and integrated in to the GE syllabus at the college.

So, without any more fanfare, please cast your vote! (NB: the poll options may appear in a jumbled order). Voting extended. Closes Monday October 6 at 5 pm DST

Your first moderator, Phil Chappell (@TESOLatMQ, Executive Editor of the English Australia Journal)

Poll results and Article for Download

The most favoured article is Teaching Pragmatics: An action research journey, written by a group of colleagues from Auckland University of Technology, New Zealand. Download the article at the link above, ore read it directly from the Journal website.

Discussion questions will be posted soon. Screenshot 2014-10-06 at 6.13.31 pm

5 Things to Remember when…….Listening to colleagues complaining in the office

This is the first in a new series of monthly posts called 5 things to remember when…..  The inspiration for these has come from our experiences working in a number of different schools:  Large schools, busy schools, schools with many off-site centres, awkward split shifts and unconventional weekend patterns, disorganised schools full of the familiar faces of less experienced and more experienced colleagues we recognised but never knew the names of.  With such a range of places to work, staff rooms to work in and colleagues to work with – we realise that delivering INSETTs and meeting the full range of needs of all the teachers in your context is an insurmountable task.  Indeed, there are some things that are important – dare we say essential – to the health of the workings and mechanics of a staff room, yet may not receive the explicit attention of a full training session.  And so, it is in this vein that we embark on our monthly escapade to look at a number of areas oft neglected, forgotten, resented and possibly taken for granted.  This month, we look at 5 things to remember when listening to your colleagues complaining in the office (insert brass regalia here).

Dealing with whingers (from Creative Commons)

Dealing with whingers (from Creative Commons)

1) Stop and take two deep breaths

(Especially if they are complaining about having to go to an INSETT, which you just spent hours putting together.)

In our experience, there are 3 types of people in most offices: those who love a whinge, those who love to stick it to the whingers and those who quite simply can’t be bothered with whingers.  Regardless of where you may fall on the spectrum (we personally have a foot in each camp, depending on day/time/blood sugar level/proximity of 20 screaming children), everyone is entitled to raise their concerns, should they have any, at work.

It’s important to remember that offices are in fact professional communal spaces and there is (or at least there should be) an unwritten rule about behaving in that space in a way that minimally impacts upon others (you wouldn’t walk into somebody else’s living room, take off your dirty socks and fart loudly, would you……or, would you….?).

It’s also worth keeping in mind that in many cases, office complainers merely want to be understood (and are possibly just in need of a big warm, purely professional, hug).  There is nothing more irritating than someone chirping up from across the room, in response to a publicly voiced complaint, in a way that aggravates and feeds the complainer and gives them even more reason to spend their precious work time spinning their wheels about (insert THAT book’s name here) Pre-Intermediate.  Being reactive is one of the least helpful things you can do in conflict situations, so hold off on offering your two cents worth.  Not every argument is worth getting involved in and above all…….remember….the walls have ears (insert cheesy Kung Fu movie zoom-in with added creepy music and evil, long-bearded man chuckle here).

2) Keep some perspective.

Sometimes (often…usually…delete as appropriate depending on your current context) complaints are genuine, and there’s something quite annoying going on at work. Let’s think of a purely hypothetical example, say, gosh, you find yourself teaching a class in the DOS’s office, as the school’s opened more classes than has classrooms and the students are balancing photocopies of a book on their laps as the books haven’t been delivered because the previous books haven’t been paid for and the distributors are withholding new stock. You are concerned about the level of professionalism at play. Purely hypothetical, of course, as no school would really let this happen, right? Riiiiiight. (tumbleweed)

Genuine concerns deserve to be voiced, as long as they are done so with the intention of precipitating change/improvement in some way.  And the hypothetical teacher in the above hypothetical situation certainly got their hypothetical whinge on. But when you’ve got through that sort of debacle, hearing the uproar from across the room that printer number 12 is out of order, and the inevitable question asked, “How can we be expected to maintain professional standards in this office without access to resources?!” (even though the massive and amazing printers 13-16 are in fact still working just fine!!) – just hang on to your sense of perspective – even if the complainer has lost theirs. Tell yourself quietly that one day this teacher will move on to a school with one mouse-powered photocopier squirreled away under the back stairs which breaks down every other day and is shared by sixty teachers. Console yourself that one day said whinger will understand how good they had it.

3) Don’t be dismissive….at first.

Along with being reactive, being publicly dismissive is antagonistic and not really constructive. Ultimately, we’re all entitled to our grievances – some of us find more appropriate ways  to air those grievances than others.

Sometimes I wonder if TEFL staff room design principles 101 ought to be a compulsory unit for anyone taking postgraduate management qualifications – a course which ought to be assessed by a candidates ability to recognise and complete appropriate staffroom conflict resolution lexis:

“That’s really……”   (interesting…..not trivial)

“What do you….” (mean by that….not think you’re achieving by involving the entire office floor in your disgruntled attitude towards the ambient temperature of the water cooler?)

“I’m really….” (sorry to hear you feel like this….not looking forward to the moment the lift doors close to take me home, thereby muffling the sound of your piercing voice and placing 3 levels of industrially reinforced concrete between you and I)

All said phrases ought to be drilled at induction, and permanently on display on the central staff noticeboard.  Remember that inviting the person to explain a little more about what they mean and why they are disgruntled may:

1) Give them the perception that you’re even the slightest bit sympathetic

2) Avoid direct confrontation

3) Bring the conversation that little bit closer to the point at which it is actually appropriate to say “I really need to get on with my work now, and by the sounds of it, so do you”.  And as always, beware the serial whinger….sometimes it IS actually ok to slap someone in the face with a wet fish.

4) Whose job is it, anyway?

Wouldn’t it be nice, if every time you had a question or issue, there was someone whose job it was to deal with and resolve that specific problem? Chances are it’s highly likely that someone in the building will be able to help.  Be it a senior teacher, manager, technician, cleaner or resident expert – perhaps the simplest solution to helping your colleague in need is to point them in the right direction?

If there were a motto we’d like to see printed on the footer of every TEFL certificate ever issues, it would be…..”Be an enabler”.  Help when and where you can (unless your colleague is complaining for the sake of complaining….in which case be a wet-fish-slapper.  Or unless they are complaining about you not having done something which actually is your job…in which case do your job.)

One of the more common complaints we have come across is the situation where teachers take issue with terms of employment that are actually clearly stated in contracts and job descriptions (and yes, we are totally guilty of this ourselves – 6am starts and late night weekend finishes….sound familiar to anyone?).  It is important to make a distinction between complaints that can be solved (i.e. when a person is asking for help) and when complaint cannot be solved (i.e. when someone is complaining for the sake of complaining, even though there may be a very clear and reasonable solution).  While one of these scenarios deserves attention, smiles and a friendly follow-up, the other one deserves – now we won’t say this is the most professional thing to do, but your discretion may indicate that the situation warrants it – a smile, patronising look of concern and a poignant rendition on the world’s smallest violin.

5) Stand up, when the time is right

Ultimately, there are things that are worth fighting for, comments that ought to be publicly challenged and contributions that deserve further explanation.

“God, I LOVE The Silent Way”……(please….tell me more…)

“I simply don’t have time to correct the mistakes I find in shared documents and materials”……(but somehow you manage to find the time to soap box about it!)

“We’re planning to change the terms of our contracts to allow administration the flexibility to pay teachers up to 3 weeks’ late”…..(rather than……….?)

The truth is that we are, by and large, all guilty of falling into the trap of simply feeling like a bit of a whinge – and given the fact that the TEFL industry generally doesn’t pay enough for its employees to necessarily feel like going the extra mile is really worth their time or effort, it’s hardly surprising. On an individual level, however, we can each make a small difference to the way we listen, show compassion towards each other, and above all, exercise the judicial implementation of wet fish.  Collectively, and cumulatively, small changes make a big difference.

* By James Pengelley and Jane Pyper (Hong Kong), purveyors of Australian wit and bathers tans.

The views expressed in this post are our own and not those of #AusELT as a whole, or of English Australia