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:
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.
James 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.