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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The modern language teacher as a shouting deity

April 22nd, 2008
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From Arts and Letters Daily, here’s a fascinating article from The New Yorker about the EFL teacher Li Yang and his school Crazy English in China. It’s an amazing story:

He has built an empire out of his country’s deepening devotion to a language it once derided as the tongue of barbarians and capitalists. His philosophy, captured by one of his many slogans, is flamboyantly patriotic: “Conquer English to Make China Stronger!”…Li, who is thirty-eight, has made his name on an E.S.L. technique that one Chinese newspaper called English as a Shouted Language. Shouting, Li argues, is the way to unleash your “international muscles.” Shouting is the foreign-language secret that just might change your life.

His boot camp, mass psychology approach has lead to accusations of demagoguery, racism, and “huckster nationalism”, and even worse it would appear that he doesn’t use the communicative approach. But instead of dismissing his approach out of hand, I think it’s actually worth thinking about, because the Crazy English phenomenon touches on many interesting questions for language teachers.

Teacher as motivator
In China, Li Yang is the “Elvis of English, perhaps the world’s only language teacher known to bring students to tears of excitement”. Chinese newspapers describe him as a “demagogue,” and his classes “like cult meetings” and asked if he was “one of those cults where the leaders insist on being treated like deities.”

Li’s cosmology ties the ability to speak English to personal strength, and personal strength to national power….To his fans, Li is less a language teacher than a testament to the promise of self-transformation. In the two decades since he began teaching, at age nineteen, he has appeared before millions of Chinese adults and children. He routinely teaches in arenas, to classes of ten thousand people or more. Some fans travel for days to see him. The most ardent spring for a “diamond degree” ticket, which includes bonus small-group sessions with Li. The list price for those seats is two hundred and fifty dollars a day—more than a full month’s wages for the average Chinese worker. His students throng him for autographs. On occasion, they send love letters.

Students repeat “English is a piece of cake. I can totally conquer English. I will use English. I will learn English. I will live in English. I am no longer a slave to English. I am its master. I believe English will become my faithful servant and lifelong friend. . . .”

In his intensive courses, students run together at dawn and walk on burning coals after class.

Limits of traditional classroom approaches

He mocks China’s rigid classroom rules…He strives to be as unprofessorial as possible. On book covers, he wears a suit and tie, with his cuffs rolled up to the elbow, like a bond trader. It affirms his image as the anti-intellectual who has wrested English from the grip of test proctors and college-admissions committees.

Role of the affective filter

Li’s real power, though, derives from a genuinely inspiring axiom, one that he embodies: the gap between the English-speaking world and the non-English-speaking world is so profound that any act of hard work or sacrifice is worth the effort. He pleads with students “to love losing face.” In a video for middle- and high-school students, he said, “You have to make a lot of mistakes. You have to be laughed at by a lot of people. But that doesn’t matter, because your future is totally different from other people’s futures.”

ELF and the status of the native speaker

Li professes little love for the West. His populist image benefits from the fact that he didn’t learn his skills as a rich student overseas; this makes him a more plausible model for ordinary citizens. In his writings and his speeches, Li often invokes the West as a cautionary tale of a superpower gone awry. “America, England, Japan—they don’t want China to be big and powerful!” a passage on the Crazy English home page declares. “What they want most is for China’s youth to have long hair, wear bizarre clothes, drink soda, listen to Western music, have no fighting spirit, love pleasure and comfort! The more China’s youth degenerates, the happier they are!” Recently, he used a language lesson on his blog to describe American eating habits and highlighted a new vocabulary term: “morbid obesity.”

ELF, ESP and English language instrumentalism

His philosophy, captured by one of his many slogans, is flamboyantly patriotic: “Conquer English to Make China Stronger!”…A vast national appetite has elevated English to something more than a language: it is not simply a tool but a defining measure of life’s potential. China today is divided by class, opportunity, and power, but one of its few unifying beliefs—something shared by waiters, politicians, intellectuals, tycoons—is the power of English….English has become an ideology, a force strong enough to remake your résumé, attract a spouse, or catapult you out of a village.

What an amazing phenomenon – humans are endlessly fascinating.

Is it superficial and gimmicky? Yes.

Does much of it elicit the “yuck” response? To me, yes.

Do many students learn more English than they would have in a traditional classroom? My guess: absolutely.

And that’s what makes it interesting.

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Rocketboom and pronunciation

August 18th, 2006
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It’s like “Ship or Sheep” version 2006. Link.

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Language and memory

April 27th, 2006
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From Cognitive Daily, some evidence that links memories to the ability to encode experience in language.

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Language Learning 2.0

December 10th, 2005
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It’s a tremendously exciting time I think for our profession…there’s a language learning 2.0 zeitgeist now that is re-formulating approaches to second language acquisition for our networked world. Whether it’s P2P connections via Dekita, tools for free agent teaching such as Tutopia, or “unbundled” content via ChinesePod, we’ve got a new world on the horizon. I had mentioned ChinesePod a few posts ago, and their sister blog On Demand Training has some delicious language learning 2.0 insights in this post:

One way you can see this is through ‘unbundling’. ‘Unbundling’ is an inevitable consequence where people have too many choices, to much work, and too little time. If you cut out clips or passages from an article, or some mpeg scenes from a video, you’re unbundling. The network enables unbundling and allows people to consume content on their own terms: what they want and when they want it. We see unbundling at work all over the place: on ITunes people are buying songs, not albums, for example, while blog articles are typically short – they cut, paste, link, and summarize content.

On Demand Training is the first organization of its kind to unbundle language learning content from its traditional shackles. Lessons are discrete packages of focused input, rather than a rigamarole of graded exercises to be followed. The learner dips in wherever he wishes, whenever he feels like it. (If he wants to follow the lessons in a completely linear format, he can do that too.) Everything is designed for flexibility: Learning can be a serendipitous search, or a structured highway, depending on the needs, and learning preferences of the user.

No language learning program has been able to deliver anything like this level of flexibility thus far. (The existing online language programs are the least flexible of all. They tend to just offer layer upon layer of levels and leave the student to his own devices to get on with it.)

Great stuff…exactly the approach we’re taking with the English360 software as well.

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Implicit (language) learning

July 29th, 2005
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How would this correspond to the language acquisition vs. language knowledge distinction?

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