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.

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Brain candy: universal grammar, teacher credentials challenged

July 18th, 2008
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The New Yorker magazine is in the news this week because of its controversial cover.

But, there are two resources inside that are extremely interesting for language teachers.

The first is an article on the linguistic professor Dan Everett and his work with the Amazonian tribe the Paraha. Their language has a zen-like focus on the present, and…get this…no recursion. Since Chomskians hold that recursion is the essence of humans’ unique cognitive/linguistic capabilities, Everett’s claim is, as Stephen Pinker terms it, ““a bomb thrown into the party.” Fascinating article.

Second is a video of a presentation by Malcolm Gladwell that discusses teacher credentials and how they have zero correlation to teacher quality. It’s about 15 minutes and much of it involves discussion of US sports, but it’s all very much to the point and highly recommended.

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Infant psychology, prejudice, and native speakers

May 15th, 2008
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Fascinating article in the Telegraph about the work at Elizabeth Spelke’s “baby brain” research lab at Harvard, where they study infant cognition and learning:

More fascinating still is that Spelke’s lab has revealed a deep-seated prejudice, present in infants, that trumps racial bias: language. Dr Katherine Kinzler, though based in Harvard, spends much time running parallel studies in France. ‘Five-month-old babies will look longer at somebody who spoke to them in their language. Older infants want to accept a toy from someone who has spoken their language,’ Dr Kinzler says.

‘They like toys more that are associated with someone who has spoken their language. They prefer to eat foods offered to them by a native speaker compared to a speaker of a foreign language. And older children say that they want to be friends with someone who speaks in their native accent.’ Accents and vernacular, far more than race, seem to influence the people we like. ‘Children would rather be friends with someone who is from a different race and speaks with a native accent versus somebody who is their own race but speaks with a foreign accent.’

These findings make perfect sense according to two California-based pioneers of evolutionary psychology, John Tooby and Leda Cosmides. In the Stone Age, race was next to useless as an identifier, because most people would never have travelled far enough to see anyone of a different skin colour. Accent, vocabulary and dialect would have helped distinguish friendly tribes from foes. Tooby and Cosmides concluded that humans are born with a predisposition to divide the world along ethnic lines traced out by language and accent, more than racial lines.

Via Kottke.

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Sapir-Whorf hypothesis revisited

January 11th, 2008
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Here’s a neat experiment that seems to show that “naming” does influence cognitive tasks and task performance.

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Interesting new blog….

September 29th, 2006
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…on the origins of language, called Babel’s Dawn.

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The language of “be here now”

May 8th, 2006
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This is fascinating: universal grammar vs. an entire culture based on mindfulness. “The Pirahã are a unique people living without time or numbers, without colours or a shared past.” In additon to adding to the debate on Chomsky, some linguists say that, because the Pirahã can’t concieve of numeration, it is proof of the Whorf hypothesis. Others disagree.

“A people without terms for numbers doesn’t develop the ability to determine exact numbers,” Dr Gordon said in Science magazine. “The question is, is there any case where not having words for something doesn’t allow you to think about it? I think this is a case for just that.” But Professor Everett did not leave it there. “You could say these features of the language, these absences, are all coincidences. I tried to find a common thread to explain why the Pirahã were the way they were.”

That factor, he found, was all around and yet its significance had never been noticed: the culture and unique way of life of the Pirahã. In a paper published last year, Professor Everett says this, not their language, prevents the Pirahã from counting.

Because of their culture’s ingrained emphasis on referring only to immediate, personal experiences, the tribesmen do not have words for any abstract concept, from colour to memory and even to numbers. There is no past tense, he says, because everything exists for them in the present. When it can no longer be perceived, it ceases, to all intents, to exist. “In many ways, the Pirahã are the ultimate empiricists,” Professor Everett says. “They demand evidence for everything.”

Life, for the Pirahã, is about seizing the moment and taking pleasure here and now. “I suddenly noticed how excited they were whenever planes crossed the sky then disappeared. They just love sitting around watching people coming around the bend in the jungle. Whenever I came into the village then left, they were amazed.”

The linguistic limitations of this “carpe diem” culture explain why the Pirahã have no desire to remember where they come from and why they tell no stories.

The question at play here is “what is the causal relationship between language and culture?” Which “causes” the other? Or, are they so intertwined that they develop together, with neither “causing” the other….?

Imagine: they tell no stories. What would life be like without stories? My guess is that the Pirahã are so totally immersed in the here and now that they truly feel the stunning fact of existing and being conscious of that existence. The Pirahã don’t tell stories because the here and now is so amazing that they don’t need them.

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English Next 2006 report

February 25th, 2006
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I was on a Skype chat with Ken Beare of esl.about.com this afternoon, and he led me to this must-read research document English Next 2006. Researched and written by David Graddol, and published by the British Council, this is a follow-up of sorts to the well-known Future of English 1997 which rocked my world when I first read it so long ago. I haven’t read the new report yet but I managed a quick skim and scan and it looks most intriguing. I love the teaser on the British Council site: “Read English Next and find out why global English may mean the end of English as a foreign language” (as you can imagine this is what I scanned for!).

Ken’s got a new podcast site up named English Feedand his company site is Dialogue Consulting. And I posted on his project Tutopia a couple of months ago. Ken’s a busy guy!

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