IATEFL wrap-up by James Pengelley

Thanks to #AusELT member James Pengelley, who presented at IATEFL 2014 in Harrogate, for this guest post.


Healthy debate at IATEFL?

Sitting in the lower rows of the auditorium at Harrogate’s conference centre on a windy English Saturday afternoon, there was a distinct sense of survival that filled the air. With many delegates already on their journeys home, the few of us that had stayed to see the closing plenary session took a moment to acknowledge the intensity, the constant stimulation and the sense of achievement that comes from the onslaught of IATEFL week: that final hour, a final moment of collective stillness, being caressed by Scottish poet and novelist Jackie Kay’s rolling poetic words.

It was then that I realised, from all the information and ideas to have been exchanged, shared and cascaded throughout the TEFL world, my final memory of Harrogate 2014 would be Jackie’s image of an African man trying sincerely to wrap his head around the semantic, physical and mechanical implications of lesbianism. Oh…oh…oh…oh…oh…oh…oh….she recounts.

But then, as I have come to appreciate very quickly, that’s just how things roll at IATEFL.

The hardest part of the IATEFL experience, as my group of conferencees decided during our week together, is always going to coming back to the real world. Answering those questions.

How was IATEFL?

Did you go to some good talks?

Will you give us a debrief, or run an INSET?


So then, in all seriousness, what did I take away from the week? It’s hard to clarify all of that into one post. 500 speakers tend to have an indescribable amount of information to summarise (can you imagine walking into a room of 500 teachers and trainers and asking them collectively…Well, what do YOU think about teaching?). But as hindsight dawns on me, and the world of Twitter still to reach its IATEFL afterglow, these would be my take-home themes from IATEFL Harrogate 2014.

1. We need to demand high…of ourselves

To be perfectly honest, I have not jumped onboard the Scrivener/Underhill Demand High institution. But I did bear witness to a number of call-to-arms in the likes of Russell Mayne’s talk on pseudoscience, Steve Brown’s discussion on ‘preflection’, Cecilia Lemos’ adaptation of formally assessed observation programmes in Brazil and Alastair Douglas’ presentation on “One CELTA for all?”

The underlying current that tied these together was a need to truly question why we do what we do. Russell’s point being that unsubstantiated educational concepts (namely NLP and multiple intelligences) have formed a significant part of teacher education despite a total lack of objective data to validate such a prominence. Cecilia, Steven and Alastair each called on their own observations and experience to call into question elements of formal observations and CELTA assessment criteria and left me with a real concern: Do we need to spend more time looking at and investigating our profession empirically? If so, this would require us, as a collective, not just to question but to explore and quantify some of the concepts and ideas we take for granted – effectiveness and use of core features of “communicative” teaching such as concept checking questions (“ls this person talking about the past, present or future?”), instruction checking questions (“Are you going to write or speak to your partner first?”), or criteria-based observation assessment are some that come to my mind immediately. To say that I will be watching this thread eagerly at next year’s conference is a gross understatement.

 2. The Future of teaching

No discussion of IATEFL Harrogate would be complete without an acknowledgement of the chaos that followed Sugata Mitra’s plenary session: a landscape that continues to simmer online, on Twitter and the blogosphere nearly one week on.

Until Saturday morning, I was non-committal on the potential of platforms like Twitter have in a professional setting. And then, as a physicist-cum-educator took the stage at an international language teaching conference at the precise moment I was trying to locate any willing Australian citizen amongst the audience to witness a postal ballot for a federal Senate vote, a realisation dawned on me. The reality of being connected has total transformed the way people are present at large gatherings: the social interaction side of these events has been entirely slipstreamed into an existence of total, continuous and viral discussion.

Nonetheless, as the Twittersphere played its part in upholding the democratic process, the following was unfolding at the same time in response to Mitra’s plenary:


Screen shot 2014-04-12 at 8.27.36 PM

Screen shot 2014-04-12 at 8.19.46 PMScreen shot 2014-04-11 at 11.44.55 PM

Now how often, in any industry, do you get to witness an event that draws such accusatory motions from people generally regarded as leaders and role models? Indeed Hugh Dellar would, only 20 minutes later, walk onto the same stage and label Mitra’s talk “a neo-liberal, wolf-in-sheep’s-clothing-capitalist-takeover of the state system”. Them be fightin’ words.

I mean, in which industries other than politics and, evidently, teaching?

I feel it should be stated, and stated very clearly that heated and impassioned debate is a very healthy sign. Let me also state, that as I understand Mitra’s work, there is no suggestion that teachers ever be replaced (as many people may have understood), but rather, that SOLE – Self-Organised Learning Environments – in which students are given almost total permission, space and internet access to explore answers to questions that they set themselves – might increase access to a greater number of students in geographically, physically and culturally remote/distanced areas. The entire principle is based upon the notion that it will be most effective for those who are in greatest need.

There is a serious implication of this model when applied to mainstream schooling in developed countries, and the idea that perhaps we have been making assumptions for a long time that might not be correct is evidently upsetting for a lot of teachers. Fair enough. Remember, though that Mitra never claims this to be the solution, but one possible solution for a very serious problem.

But here’s the clincher. If we are to take away one message from this year’s IATEFL, what we need, as Hugh Dellar mentioned only minutes after going on the attack, is more reliance on knowledge, and less reliance on discussions of methodology (if anyone was at my talk on “Rethinking CLT” you’ll have heard the criticisms many people had of typical “communicative” methodologies and their assumptions). And that means evidence. We all have a responsibility to our profession to both listen to and demand high of each other, but until we have, or produce our own empirical evidence to substantiate our impassioned beliefs, surely there is something to be said for being supportive, and engaged and open-minded, as we would be on any other day in the classroom.

blogpicJames Pengelley is a teacher and teacher trainer with the British Council in Hong Kong, having previously worked as a senior teacher in Bogota. He was the recipient of the IH John Haycraft Scholarship for Classroom Investigation at this year’s IATEFL conference.

Email: thehairychef@gmail.com

Twitter: @hairychef

5 thoughts on “IATEFL wrap-up by James Pengelley

  1. elkysmith

    Hi James,

    Congratulations on your IATEFL talk and thank you for sharing your experience here. I did notice you on Twitter looking for someone to sign your Senate ballot – it didn’t make a difference in the end though 🙂

    In your post, you say that “the idea that perhaps we have been making assumptions for a long time that might not be correct is evidently upsetting for a lot of teachers.” Can I ask respectful what evidence you base this on? It seems to me that the criticism following Mitra’s talk (including my own blog post here: http://pedagogablog.wordpress.com – for another #AusELT perspective – I is expressing very different concerns and these have been repeatedly ignored, dismissed or misrepresented in the discussion. According to those who received Mitra’s talk more positively, the Mitra sceptics are concerned that teachers will be obsolete, will lose their jobs or have been forced to confront the uncomfortable reality that we’re not doing a very good job. I don’t think, for example, that Hugh Dellar is concerned about any of those things. He does, however, raise a number of other issues which you alluded to in the ‘neoliberal-wolf-in-sheep’s-clothing’ quote. It’s worth reading his post here for more: http://www.eltjam.com

    1. James Pengelley (@HairyChef)


      Thanks for your comment – yes the conference was a total buzz, and I’m really hoping to be able to get back there next year.

      As for the comment you ask about – well in the post above, I was trying to summarise one of the main tenets of Mitra’s suggestions: that kids will self-organise and teach themselves AND learn without the aid of a teacher – this suggests we need to seriously rethink our assumptions about what the teacher does and how effective we actually are in “teaching”. This is purely a conceptual assertion as Mitra’s demonstration of “learning” in his Hole In The Wall experiments was basically a computer icon recognition test (not all that relevant to EFL it would seem).

      A second thread of this is what I presented at IATEFL. For my paper this year I did some research into CLT. I distributed a teacher attitude survey asking teachers various questions about whether or not they teach “communicatively” and what they think that means in their classes. I suggested, based on these results, that the way we train out teachers (from CELTA and to some extent DELTA) does not match the way we find experienced teachers behaving (or technically, believing they behave, or should behave) when they are very experienced. My data does not suggest we are doing EVERYTHING wrong, but there are fundamental teaching behaviours that we imply to trainees are “essential” but seem to take a back seat in practice.

      The quote I gave at IATEFL was along the lines of “we are the only industry that trains our trainees in a way we don’t find them behaving when they are experienced. You wouldn’t say to a doctor, or a pilot, or an engineer….I want you to do this now, but when you graduate, you can do it any way you like”.

      Does that make sense?

      1. elkysmith

        Thanks for the reply, James.

        Your research sounds very interesting and I agree with your comments about teacher training and ELT. It sometimes seems like post-CELTA teacher development is a slow, painful process of ‘unlearning’.

        I was asking about the second part of the quote: that Mitra’s message was ‘evidently upsetting for a lot of teachers’. I don’t think I’ve come across anyone online who is upset at the suggestion that education as we know it could be improved. On the other hand, to talk in the general terms that Mitra did about current educational practices is, I think, insulting to the many educators of all kinds who do not fit into the narrow stereotype envisioned by Mitra (and others who stand to profit from the expansion of technology use in education – see http://adaptivelearninginelt.wordpress.com for more) and who are highly effective. Listening to Mitra, you could easily think that no such educators existed at all.

        You might also think that he was the first and the only person to introduce new ideas and practices into education – he made no reference to anyone’s work other than his own. I’m not sure that we would generally take seriously speakers who were so self-referential and apparently oblivious to others operating in the field. Just a quick look at the Harrogate program throws up the names of a number of others in the field who have built long careers on challenging unsupported assumptions and ineffective teaching practices.

        If teachers were as conservative as has been suggested in the post-Mitra debate, where is the passionate backlash against, for example, David Graddol? The questions he is asking are far more troubling I think but there are a couple of features of his talk which I think set it apart from Mitra’s and perhaps explain why it hasn’t generated the same emotion: academic rigor and nuance. For Graddol, it’s clear what questions we should be asking; the answers, however, remain elusive. For Mitra, the answer is clear and it is unambiguous: the internet. No wonder Mitra’s talk has been so divisive.

  2. James Pengelley (@HairyChef)

    That’s interesting – In his interview with ELTJam, Mitra comments that the only industry that has had a problem with his idea, or pedagogical principles is the TEFL industry. His conclusion is that TEFL teachers’ opinions or expectations of what constitutes evidence is different from his, where his expectations of evidence are peer-reviewed processes that underpin the universal Scientific Method.

    I think there are two key concerns here.

    One: that the TEFL industry was designed on corporate training principles back in the 70s, and there is a general lack of empirical training, and especially in the sense that TEFL teachers, who are essentially trained to be reflective practitioners who self-learn through reflective observations of their own practices, lack a certain appreciation of what empirical evidence and data collection constitutes, and the authority that quality data (especially peer reviewed data) bears.

    Two: Mitra undermines his own pedagogical authority by not referring to any other educational historical trends. He is, after all, a physicist, and in selling his message in an ignorant-of-the-educational-landscape manner, he comes across as self-indulgent. He also undermines his own ideas by not focussing on the pedagogical considerations of his SOLE or MIE concepts when he addresses teachers, he simply states the conclusions and consequences of his study. We are so used to being trained in methodology that of course this kind of saviouresque preaching is concerning.

    I am, however, strongly concerned at the general lack of regard that many of the more experienced members of the TEFL community showed towards Mitra’s data and the claims he is making. If there is data to support his work (and there is lots of it) the first step is to hunt out the data and review it and put it to the test in the TEFL context independently and NOT to get caught up in a hot headed egoist debate about why the neo-liberals are going to take down the education industry. It’s just a shame that Mitra didn’t pitch his talk in the right way to the right audience.


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