“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.
- 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.”.
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!
It seems Spring is full of conferences and as we reflect or share our thoughts on what makes a “good” conference, I know that for me it’s about the opportunity of meeting online “connections” face-to-face. There’s a great buzz from human smiles and human minds exchanging ideas. It’s wonderful to be able to bump into people you might otherwise never meet.
Although online conferences such as the Virtual Round Table – which has just hosted its second event - are powerful and save on travel time, there is less chit chat over morning coffee or time to sit down and speak to people individually.
At TESOL Spain, held in Lleida in March we bumped into Ken Goméz plugging his wonderful notebook, that was a meaningful start to a super event. Since then, I’ve kept in touch by email and would like to share an interview on the Enlano English Learner Notebook project that Ken introduced us to.
Valentina: What are the benefits for learners using English Learner Notebook?
Ken: The main benefit is that the students will have an organised and structured notebook, this will help immensely when revising for exams or when looking for specific material already covered. It also offers sections such as the vocabulary by topic spider diagrams which students may otherwise not bother doing, and which is an incredibly useful tool.
Valentina : What is the English Learner Notebook (ELN)?
Ken: As the title suggests this is a notebook for learners of English as a second language. The aim of the notebook is to help students take effective and organised notes. This is achieved by dividing the notebook into specific sections for the students to note down the relevant information using pre-designed templates.
Valentina: What are some of the ways in which the ELN differs from an “ordinary” notebook?
Ken: At first sight the obvious difference is that the English Learner Notebook is divided into sections each with its own pre-printed design and each page numbered. There is also a short reference section at the back (grammar glossary, verb tense overview, phonetics etc.) for students to consult.
Valentina : How do you see the English Learner Notebook fitting in with digital vocabulary learning aids e.g collaborative mindmaps or online flashcards?
Ken: E-learning is obviously here to stay and a very powerful tool which should not be overlooked even by the traditionalists. I see the English Learner Notebook complementing this process. The student has the opportunity to note down for future reference the most relevant information which they gain from the e-learning sessions, as in a traditional learning environment. The fact that the student has to physically write down information also helps with the retention of that information.
Valentina: Who is involved in the “Enleno” project?
Ken: Enleno is very much a personal project which I developed while studying a CELTA course at the Hyland Academy in Madrid. I saw the need for students to take effective notes and decided to do something about it. The content of the notebook is by Catherine Morley who was one of my tutors on the course. Some friends of mine, ZAC design, helped with the layout and design. I am now in the process of getting the product out into the market. The notebook was on show at the IATEFL conference in Harrogate at the English Language Bookshop and further details on the English Learner Notebook are available at http://enleno.com/
Joe McVeigh‘s Intro to TESOL course put together a great slang dictionary last month. Slang is a bit like IT vocab – some of it gets obsolete quickly – so this is a nice example of what’s current in US universities. It also has audio examples. Follow the links off the post.
And in case you haven’t checked out Joe’s site, there are some great resources there – he’s the real deal – including some nice needs assessment stuff.
This would be neat for students of a certain ilk. Ask Philosophers posts a philosophical question every day and then has a philosopher give a short answer.
You could probably do some fun conversation and debate activities based on this resource.
Here’s a great essay (and taxonomy!) on how to disagree. The web enables a global conversation, and disagreement will be an important part of that conversation. Of all the forum threads I’ve participated in, I’ve learned the most from the threads that were intense debates, and Graham’s essay shows how to make those debates as productive as possible.
This would also be a nice resource for intermediate to advanced classes.
Guy Kawasaki’s latest project, the blog portal Alltop, just added an education section. You can get the headlines / post titles and mousing over the title gives you the first several paragraphs, so you can decide if it’s worth a read. Not sure how or why this is better than a feed reader, but I do seem to go to Alltop every morning….
And, as a teaching tool, Alltop would be a good resource helping students find content they are interested in.
German author Stefan Klien, in the New York Times:
Believing time is money to lose, we perceive our shortage of time as stressful. Thus, our fight-or-flight instinct is engaged, and the regions of the brain we use to calmly and sensibly plan our time get switched off. We become fidgety, erratic and rash.
Tasks take longer. We make mistakes — which take still more time to iron out. Who among us has not been locked out of an apartment or lost a wallet when in a great hurry? The perceived lack of time becomes real: We are not stressed because we have no time, but rather, we have no time because we are stressed.
From the TED blog:
Ben Kaufman, founder of Kluster, goes on stage to tell what he and his team have been doing — with the help of TED attendees and 1200 people around the world — since the beginning of the conference. Kluster is an online collaboration and decision-making platform. They set out Wednesday morning to develop a product, with some basic guidelines but “we didn’t know what it would be”. They set up a studio in the conference’s venue, and got 208 ideas submitted in 24 hours. Collaboratively, it was decided that it would be an education board game; the content for it was developed; a name chosen (“OverThere” — the logo was submitted by a participant online); the rules set; a tagline developed; a full prototype developed (photo). 72 hours, 1200 participants, a board game “of social awareness” collectively invented, developed and prototyped: a pretty awesome piece of work.
Check out the Kluster site.