The Unplugged Conference, Barcelona

May 24th, 2011
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“Were you there for the first one?” people may well ask in years to come, when the Unplugged Conference has become a regular feature on the ELT conference scene, perhaps even the go-to event of the calendar.

Even before I’d touched down in the city where I trained as a teacher and spent the early years of my career, I had a sense that we might be in for something special. Organised by the IATEFL Teacher Development Special Interest Group (TDSIG) and sponsored and hosted by OxfordTEFL, we would start by observing a lesson using real learners of English from the local community, led by Scott Thornbury and Luke Meddings, authors of the award-winning Teaching Unplugged. It would be a rare chance to see Scott and Luke put their theory into practice. We’d then have the chance to discuss the class with Scott, Luke and the learners themselves before an afternoon of small-group discussion organised around the principles of Open Space Technology. For those unfamiliar with Open Space (I admit that I was), it is an approach to organising events and meetings governed by four guiding principles and one law. The principles are:

1. Whoever comes is [sic] the right people.

2. Whenever it starts is the right time.

3. Whatever happens is the only thing that could have.

4. When it’s over, it’s over.

And the “Law of Two Feet” states: “If at any time during our time together you find yourself in any situation where you are neither learning nor contributing, use your two feet, go someplace else.”

(For more on Open Space, get over to Scott Thornbury’s A-Z of ELT for a great post.)

During my CELTA course, Scott came in to do a session on what he was then calling Dogme (Teaching Unplugged seems to be the preferred term now, but I’ve used them interchangeably in this blog post). The session stuck with me for two reasons: firstly because of a seemingly far-fetched anecdote that Scott told at the start of the session (that I’ve never forgotten but also never completely believed) about a teacher in Papua New Guinea who was forced to embrace materials-free teaching when the pack horse carrying all of the text books to the remote village where he was working fell into a ravine (or was it a river? Scott, please feel free to correct the details in my summary there; it’s been a long time since I heard the story!). To my chagrin (I should be more trusting), I’ve since learnt that the story is completely true. Secondly, I used the activity that Scott showed us in that session with many classes afterwards (it was based entirely around the contents of your learners’ pockets, and it never failed).

Looking back on it now, only two weeks into my teacher training and suffering from the input overload, lack of sleep, and adrenaline highs-and-lows of the CELTA, I think I made a critical mistake in my understanding of Dogme, a mistake that perhaps some of us continue to make: that it is all about what the teacher shouldn’t be doing. I came out of Scott’s CELTA session thinking that Dogme was basically just about not using coursebooks in your teaching. And I’ve since heard criticism leveled at unplugged teaching for the (mistaken) belief that it prohibits the use of technology as part of the learning process. But the Teaching Unplugged “guidelines” (for want of a better word) are not a list of what you shouldn’t be doing as a teacher. Rather, they are a set of useful principles based on the belief that the learner should be at the centre of what happens in the classroom: that lessons should be conversation-driven; that teaching should be “materials-light” (not, you’ll notice, “materials-free”); that lessons should focus on emergent language; and, as Luke put it on the day, that we should draw on “learners’ lives and learners’ language”.

When I later became a publisher, I followed the growing popularity of the Teaching Unplugged movement with interest (a lot of publishers do …). You might assume that ELT publishers consider unplugged teaching a threat to their business, but I didn’t see it like that. For me, the principles behind Dogme were a counterweight to my day job, a way of maintaining a balanced perspective. I could never be completely uncritical of Dogme, and I’m still not. But I couldn’t doubt its importance or deny that a lot of what it stands for appealed to me when I was teaching and still appeals to me now.

None of which is to say that I didn’t feel a *tiny* bit of trepidation about attending this conference. I’ve worked in publishing for longer than I taught. For a time I was in charge of a very well-known and successful adult general English course. I’ve written an ESP course book. My business card reads “Publishing Manager”. How would I be received by the other delegates? Would I be persona non grata? Would anyone else from the publishing industry attend so that we would have strength in numbers?

Of course none of the above turned out to be true (apart from the final point: there was no representation from ELT publishers — a shame, I think). The organisers and delegates welcomed me and showed interest in my perspective. And the more I reflected on it, the more I realised that I would have no qualms talking to a group of unplugged teaching advocates about what I do for a living. Apart from the fact that English360 isn’t a publisher (we’re a tool for teachers, a way for them to use and create learning content), I believe that what we do at English360 is very much aligned with certain elements of the unplugged teaching philosophy, especially in our “bottom-up” rather than “top-down” approach to materials development. At the root of what we do at English360 is the belief that learners and teachers know better than we do what they need most at this particular time, in this particular place, with these particular people. We can’t plan for every context that a teacher will end up in, but we can give them a tool to help them be better prepared for it: a platform for dynamic, flexible, personalised and localised course creation, a way of reinventing (dare I say “unplugging”) the coursebook.

But back to the conference. Scott and Luke did their thing, with the class of 16 learners sitting in a semi-circle, and forty-odd teachers watching attentively. To the students’ credit (and Scott and Luke’s), the large audience didn’t seem to affect the class dynamic. I won’t go into detail here about the class itself and the subsequent discussion and plenary (I’m sure great summaries of both will appear on other blogs), but it was electrifying to have the learners present for the post-class discussion, to hear their thoughts on being taught “unplugged”, to listen to them talking about their experience as learners.

A pause for a quick sandwich and a beer and then it was back to OxfordTEFL for the afternoon sessions. In the spirit of Open Space, it was up to us as delegates to decide what we’d like to spend the rest of the day discussing. We limited ourselves to six questions, each of which we would attempt to answer in a ten-minute presentation at the end of the day. I chose (unsurprisingly) to join a group discussing the question of whether the use of published materials could be compatible with an unplugged approach.

Despite being a small group (Principle 1: “Whoever comes is the right people”), the conversation ran and ran. We all agreed that the use of published materials was not at odds with Teaching Unplugged as such (in fact, it was, for many people, a reality of it): it just required an understanding that in teaching, as in all things, everything must be in moderation, meaning moderation in the use of published materials but also in the application of Dogme principles. When we presented our ideas to the rest of the delegates, we argued for this moderate, “non-dogmatic” approach to Dogme, and for a kind of eclecticism in our choice of materials and approaches. There are good published materials and bad published materials, just as there are good unplugged lessons and bad unplugged lessons. The key for the teacher is to know what will work best in this this context, with these learners.

Despite Principle 4 (“When it’s over, it’s over”), the day was over at exactly the time it was supposed to be, thanks to the organisational skills of Duncan Foord and his team at OxfordTEFL and the TDSIG. There’s an all-too-rare feeling you get as a group when you know that you’ve been part of something special, a kind of collective glow that sadly fades in the subsequent days. It reminded me of my CELTA, in fact. As the post-conference meal turned into post-conference drinks, we said our goodbyes and promised to come back next year and repeat the experience. (As an aside, Lindsay Clandfield made the excellent suggestion of using the “observed-lesson-followed-by-Open-Space-workshops” format as the basis for a “plugged conference” which would examine the use of coursebooks and technology in the same critical way.)

For me this was a benchmark conference, for its format, its content, and its participants. I left feeling energised and keen to deepen my understanding of Dogme, as a teacher, a teacher trainer and (whisper it!) even as a publisher.

Don’t miss it next year!

Some photos of the event courtesy of Graham Stanley.

11 Comments

11 comments

  1. What a great read. Thanks, Nick.

    “The two foot rule”. I love it and it reminds me of the famous chinese expression, “the teacher opens the door, but the students must walk through”…. AND KEEP WALKING :)

    I’m enjoying more and more what I hear of the dogme approach. How “in the moment” it is, and how even through the teaching of how to teach unplugged, it doesn’t state that it is the BEST way to teach… simply asking the question, and keeping it open. Exploration in the methodology, just as it promotes in the classroom. I DO hope to make it next year, or sometime soon.

    I’ve enjoyed also what I’ve heard from the english360 team, and look forward to following this blog a bit more.

    Enjoy your day. Cheers, Brad

  2. Many thanks for taking the time to comment, Brad.

  3. Very enjoyable reading this, Nick – captures well so much of what was in the air that day. It was also a great pleasure to get to discuss the lesson with you – there’s a very sharp teaching mind at work there and English360 must be lucky to have you.

    Definitely must do it again sometime!

  4. Thanks for the kind words, Anthony. Great to meet you in Barcelona.

  5. Hi Nick, it was great to meet you on Saturday. The conference did feel very special. I was excited (and nervous!) about teaching a lesson in this way – but even more by the idea of involving the learners in the plenary discussion. The fact that they all stayed after our ad hoc class, and that many contributed to the discussion (asking questions as well as answering them), was a tribute to the way the conference was organised and the supportive vibe we felt as we led the unplugged lesson. I’d like to think the unplugged bit helped too – they felt listened to in the lesson so were eager to participate in the discussion. Many thanks for this blog post – Luke.

  6. Hi Nick and everyone else, Thanks for the inspiration – I’m using it to try and guide my organisation to an innovative and intuitive solution using TU and a pick-and-mix tech approach, possibly including English360! Weird how self-organisation and collaboration helps at all levels with all stakeholders, isn’t it?

    Great to meet you all on Saturday, looking forward to the next one!
    - Carolyn

  7. Hi Nick,

    A very good reflection on what was a very inspiring conference. I must admit that since the weekend I haven’t thought of anything else. For me the potential that teaching unplugged has is limitless. It’s back to square one in terms of my style and approach to teaching and I guess my general outlook on how people learn.
    I am hoping to carry out some research in the new teaching year at my school. The idea being to teach two classes for the whole year unplugged. So if there is a conference next year (it would be madness not to) I might hopefully have something, in terms of research, to contribute.

  8. @Luke: You showed no signs of nerves on the day. The mark of a pro … ? It would be interesting to follow that same group of students for a while, especially if they went back into more “plugged” classes. Would they be more aware of the learning/teaching process? How would they feel about their course book? That kind of thing.

    @Carolyn: Many thanks for posting. Good luck with getting your organisation to move towards a combined TU / pick-and-mix teach approach. I’d be interested to hear how it goes. Drop me a line if you need any more information re English360.

    @Adam: The research project sounds great. Do you have a blog, Adam? It would be nice to follow the project as it unfolded. Could make for an interesting piece of “live-action” research.

  9. @adam,
    on the back of discussion about where to share research, I’ve created http://eltactionresearch.wikispaces.com for us all to share such stuff, so feel free to contact me if you would like to start using it.

    Anthony Gaughan

  10. Hi Nick,

    I´m currently in the process of designing a blog for the project. It´s all very new to me so it´s going to take a while. I´m using wordpress, but I´m not finding it that easy to navigate. As soon as I have it up and running and I have some more news about the project itself, I will be in touch.

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