The Unplugged Conference, Barcelona

May 24th, 2011

“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.


CC is for Customisable Coursebooks and Creative Commons publishing

May 18th, 2010

Lindsay Clandfield over on Scott Thornbury’s blog in his guest post on C is for coursebook outlines what’s wrong with many coursebooks:

  • They all look the same.
  • They all follow the same syllabus.
  • The grammar is wrong or misleading.
  • Texts serve merely as a pretext to teach discrete language items.
  • Texts and topics are Anglo- or Eurocentric and/or promote a western consumerist ideology.
  • Texts and topics are safe, bland and vapid.
  • Coursebooks are too big.

The 50+ comments that the post has attracted to date have reiterated some of the criticisms being made by many educators around the world.

1.    It’s difficult even for a teacher to identify the aim of coursebook pages
2.    Learning is non-linear, by nature course books are linear.
3.    Language learning is a dynamic, idiosyncratic coursebook aren’t.
4.    Publisher-driven projects often have the wrong focus.
5.    Coursebooks are often artificial and a construct of “some other world”.
6.    Cost are often prohibitive.
7.    Sheer number of different coursebooks can be overwhelming.
8.    Content is very often inappropriate.
9.    Coursebooks can alienate learners from the process of learning English.
10.    Coursebooks often teach a fossilized form of English
11.    They can be overly prescriptive and descriptive (to the point of giving the learners ‘nothing’ to cling to).
12.    They are predicated on a linear and incremental progression through a (fairly arbitrary) sequence of discrete grammar items.
13.    Materials that have been devised for a global market cannot easily accommodate local – and personal – needs and interests.
14.    The whole process is very top down.
15.    Coursebooks are mostly written for teachers (for parents, and head teachers, and ministries and inspectors and exam bodies ) rather than student
16.    There’s a belief that ‘progress’ can easily be measured.
17.    Publishers are bound to produce what is authorised by the ministries.
18.    After 20+ years of market-led material people are tired of it.
19.    Don’t include enough unscripted dialogues featuring non-native speakers
20.    …. and the list goes on…..

    From the  50+ comments so far we can see some of the suggestions or ideas that need to be incorporated to make the ideal coursebook or course material/resources

    • The internet
    • More user-generated content
    • Make it authentic because it is set up such that the student creates the content
    • Adapt and change according to the teacher’s preference
    • Make it customisable
    • Allow teachers /students to add specific local content / their content
    • Integrate with self-publishing elements
    • Educators can work with major publishers rather than against them or outside of them
    • Throw educators’ support behind innovations
    • Push publishers to consider and incorporate more changes
    • Teach unplugged
    • Use the text book as a grounding and supplement it as is relevant to the learning styles and personalities of the learners

    At present the Cambridge University Press material in the system is All Rights Reserved with the setting others may use but not change. I would simply add, real shift is happening now as educators are sharing content too. It’s great to be part of a project that promotes Creative Commons (CC) and seeing authors or course providers selecting “Others may copy and change your work.”.

    English360 creative commons

    This is an important move forward and I hope more authors will come on board prepared to do just that so that the 360° degree perspective can evolve further.

    Material is currently being authored for the platform under the CC licence, that’s evolutionary I find!


    Online language learning review

    February 18th, 2008

    Here’s a nice survey post by Curt Bonk of a variety of online language learning solutions out there, with short explanations and reviews. There’s a bit of buzz right now prompted by the NY Times article that came out Sunday (reg required).

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    Weekly business slang post on KnowHR

    January 23rd, 2008

    KnowHR is an all-around useful blog for BE professionals, and now it seems that they are doing a post on business slang every Monday.

    Here’s the first one.

    I actually heard someone say “incentivize” just yesterday.

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    Second language attitudes and income

    September 12th, 2006

    Via Seth Godin, some interesting statistics on second language attitudes in the US. Although it’s dangerous to make inferences or draw conclusions from these data, there are some interesting results.

    For example, when asked to assess the importance of learning a second language for someone in business, 52% of the lowest income respondents answered “very important”, compared to 28% for the highest income respondents.

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    English for military purposes: useful phrases

    August 11th, 2006

    Via this month’s Harper’s magazine (print only), some examples from the online English language learning phrasebook “Military English Learning” from the website of the Chinese People’s Liberation Army Daily:

    The principles of war can never be changed.
    A powerful navy must have smaller ships.
    Special Forces can penetrate into an enemy’s rear to gather information.
    This places the enemy on the horns of a dilemma.

    “Look, there is so much ammunition.”
    “Oh, so many weapons. Great!”

    “These are tanks, aren’t they?”
    “Yes. But this one is an armored vehicle.”

    Mass-destruction weapons bring more difficulties to the first aid.

    Counterterrorism is a topical subject.
    Every country should fight terrorists.
    Do you know the most terrorist event?
    It was the September 11 attack in New York.
    Thousands of people died unnatural deaths.
    The World Trade Center can never be mended.
    Bin Laden immediately became the most famous person of the world.
    Has he been dead or still alive?
    No one knows, I’m afraid, except himself.

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    Learning local languages

    July 26th, 2005

    Via Global Voices, an interesting post from Macam-Macam. CNN reports that

    Indonesia will require overseas people seeking work permits to master the local language if their jobs involve regular interaction with Indonesians, an official has said.

    I had a client in Buenos Aires, an enormous US multinational, and several of the senior managers for the Argentine branch were from the States. One of these expat managers didn’t speak a word of Spanish, despite having lived in Argentina for over 10 years. He lived in a English language bubble of family, work, and mostly expat friends. I always felt bad for him and the poverty of his self-imposed internal exile.

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    Is language learning always social?

    July 19th, 2005

    Always-worth-reading George Siemens bucks the trend and makes the case that most learning is not social.

    Now it’s pretty clear that language learning is a special subset of “learning” in general, and that the communicative essence of language learning pushes it way over towards the social end of the learning spectrum. Given.

    But as language teachers we limit our effectiveness by overplaying the “social learning” card. This can happen in two ways:

    1) Just because an activity is somehow “social” doesn’t mean it’s automatically good. “Let’s get our students in a chat room and they can communicate across borders!” is not necessarily going to be a productive use of our learners’ time because it’s social in nature. Activities such as this require careful preparation and set-up. Cultural factors may undermine effectiveness, as may student expectations (Paige Ware offers a fascinating diagnosis of what can go wrong, and why).

    2) And if an activity is not “social”, then it’s not automatically inferior. AJ Hoge has some nice stuff on extensive reading and its value to acquisition (here’s the first one I could dig up). Self-directed solo activities can be immensely rewarding; reading, browsing the web, watching movies, listening to music…all provide rich input and are a wonderful component of any course.

    This is not an argument against the social nature of language learning. The point is that we should select, design and deploy activities carefully, based on their intrinsic value, not on an easy fit into a over-generalized social learning paradigm.


    Excellent post on learning from the folks at Passionate

    January 27th, 2005

    This may have been kicked around already, but if you haven’t read Most classroom learning sucks, please do. Sample quote:

    The best learning occurs in a stimulating, active, challenging, interesting, engaging environment. It’s how the brain works. The best learning occurs when you move at least some part of your body. The best learning occurs when you’re actively involved in co-constructing knowledge in your own head, not passively reading or listening. (Taking notes doesn’t really count as being actively involved.)

    People complain that their kids can’t pay attention in school, then their kid comes home and spends two hours studying the elaborate world of Halo 2. Reading, absorbing, problem solving, using sophisticated mental maps, and on it goes.

    When learning is “presented” in a push model, your brain says, “This is SO not important.” You’re in for the battle of your life when you try to compete against the brain’s natural instinct to scan for unusual, novel, possibly life-threatening or life-enhancing things.

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