“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.
English360 are happy to announce that the winner of the BESIG* Open forum raffle is Mercedes Viola, who lives in Uruguay and has been teaching English to all ages for the last 20 years, but whose particular area of expertise is business English teaching. Having won the BESIG Facilitator Conference Scholarship, Mercedes attended and gave a presentation at the recent 45th Annual International IATEFL Conference & Exhibition which took place in Brighton from 15-19 April 2011.
Mercedes says: “As head of a business English consultancy firm, I work on the design and implementation of Effective Learning Experiences to our clients. I use the word ‘experience’ since this concept moves us from instruction to actions and interactions. I truly believe we need to get off the content bus and start thinking about using, designing and exploiting learning environments full of experiences and interactivity. We need to integrate learning tools that help situate learning and make it more contextual. Collaboration is vital.
I’m really thrilled to have won one year’s subscription to the English360 blended learning platform since it offers the possibility of creating tailor-made learning environments for my clients where they can enlarge their learning experience at their own pace together with a network of colleagues. It also offers my organization the possibility of exchanging resources with colleagues from all over the world, a crucial ingredient for our continuous professional growth.
I am really looking forward to starting this experience!”
*BESIG, the Business English Special Interest Group of IATEFL, is a professional body which represents the interests and serves the needs of the international business English teaching community. Its members are based in more than 65 countries, and are mainly teachers of Business English, both native and non-native speakers of English. BESIG’s aim is to help its members to improve their expertise in teaching Business English, and to facilitate making connections with fellow professionals around the globe.
The winner of the top-prize (a six-month subscription to English360 for a teacher and their 6 students which includes all 12 Grammar in Practice and Vocabulary in Practice titles from Cambridge University Press available in digital format on the English360 platform) is Femke Kitslaare.
Second prize (six Grammar in Practice titles) went to Giedre Budienne and third prize (the six Vocabulary in Practice titles) was picked up by John Arnold.
If you haven’t picked up your prize yet, please feel free to drop by stand 15 in the exhibition hall.
Here’s Pete Sharma speaking at the EAQUALS annual conference for school directors yesterday. Pete’s plenary focused on Six Technology Things (with acknowledgement to Lindsay Clanfield!) – six statements, six technologies, six controversies and six practical ideas, including ideas for grammar, vocabulary and language skills. And ways in which learning management systems for language teaching – English360 in particular – were radically changing the way in which we teach and learn. In a show of hands, it was interesting to see that more than a third of the ninety people in the audience felt blended learning was the way to go, over face to face and purely online learning.
Yesterday, 8th April 2011, at the his plenary session on school management, George Pickering reinforced the message by saying bluntly that “English360 is fantastic!” His key message to school members present was that the secret of success lay “in customising the learning at low cost”.
An important conference theme ‘Enhancing Classroom Language Learning: the Challenges for Teachers, Trainers and Managers‘, and many interesting questions being discussed one of which I’d like to copy and share here to get feedback from readers:
“What are the most useful and innovative resources available to learners to continue effective learning outside the classroom during and after their course?”
This is my first blog post for English 360 since I joined the team in the summer, but I plan to blog pretty regularly from now on.
Last weekend I attended the excellent BESIG conference in Bielefeld, Germany. BESIG, of course, being the Business English Special Interest Group of IATEFL. It’s always a great conference – my favourite of the year – and this year was no exception. The best thing about it, and this goes for all conferences, I suppose, is the networking. I’ve never been a great one for ‘rubbing elbows’ and mingling, but the nice thing about BESIG is that it’s so easy to make friends there. But in fact most of my BESIG friends are people I’ve met through discussion forums, blogging and social networking. (I could add tweeting, but I’m possibly the world’s least active tweeter … which I hope to rectify one day soon).
If you want to get involved (and meet some great people) I strongly recommend BESIG’s Yahoo group, which is always lively and useful. (You don’t need to be a member of BESIG to join, but you’ll need to set up a Yahoo! account, which takes minutes). BESIG also has a group on LinkedIn, which is a great way of building contacts. Finally, there’s also a BESIG Ning group, which is another way to get to know people. None of these will cost you any money – always an important incentive for me.
Anyway, I arrived in Hannover airport on Friday evening and was delighted to find I was sharing a car to Bielefeld with Mark Powell, the plenary speaker at the conference and one of my ELT heroes. I’ve just written the teacher’s notes for his latest book, Dynamic Presentations, so I felt a bit like royalty at the conference (not that anybody else cares about a lowly teacher’s book writer!)
We arrived at the conference just as the opening ceremony was finishing, so we missed the amazing news that English 360 had won the David Riley Award for Innovation in Business English and ELT. But the room was still buzzing from the news, and my English 360 colleagues were still grinning and a bit shell-shocked, I think.
The meal and networking event on Friday evening was excellent, and a great chance to catch up with old friends, meet some new ones, and even do a bit of business. If only there were such an event on the Saturday evening too – for me, this is what the BESIG conference is all about, but there just wasn’t enough time to chat to everyone I wanted to see.
Saturday morning started with an explosion of energy and good ideas from Mark Powell, who was talking about Lean Language: Streamlining Business English. In his new book, he mentions the importance of steak and sizzlein a presentation. Steak is the meaty part, the stuff that you learn and take away from a presentation. The sizzle is the excitement, the energy, the showmanship of a presentation. Think of the experience of a barbecue, where the smell and sound of the sizzling food is just as important as the food itself. A presentation that’s all steak will be boring. A presentation that’s all sizzle will be fun but ultimately not very satisfying. Needless to say, Mark’s session had plenty of both. The audience was roaring with laughter almost all the time, but there was also plenty of meat to get your teeth into (with aplologies to vegetarian readers). I strongly recommend watching Mark’s plenary here – the video’s not available at the time of writing, but I’m assured it’s coming very soon.
The rest of my day was pretty much mapped out for me – I attended the sessions I had a personal connection with. First I went to Mark’s second session , on presentation skills, which was every bit as brilliant as the first session. I also attended Nick Robinson and Mark Ibbottson’s session “From Marketing to Engineering: effective ESP teaching“, which was excellent. Nick and Mark have both written books for my series, Cambridge English for … (see image below), and they showed how to approach the same topic, high-performance electric cars, from two completely different perspectives, Marketing and Engineering, and how this illustrates some important principles in ESP course design – a particular interest of mine.
Afterwards, I went to Cleve Miller’s session on Performance-based Business English: Boosting ROI for both students and HR. This was also very thought-provoking: by focusing on particular performance events (such as an upcoming presentation or business trip), we can make our teaching much more effective. I won’t go into detail here – that’s something I’ll leave for Cleve to expand on in this blog.
My final session of the day was Ros Wright’s session on Nursing English: The Ultimate ESP challenge. (Ros is one of the authors of Good Practice, an excellent medical English course which is available on English 360). This is a field I’ve done a lot of work in recently (as editor and presenter, not, you’ll be pleased to hear, as an actual nurse). The topic was very similar to the things I was talking about at last year’s BESIG conference: the huge challenges facing nurses with low-level English in extreme situations. Ros focused on communication skills such as active listening and use of lay language, which can make all the difference in the work of a nurse. It seems that nursing is every bit as much about communication as a therapeutic skill as it is about medicine.
That was all I managed on the first day. My head was very much full as I tried to find my way back to the hotel. (Despite having a map in my pocket, I still managed to get hopelessly lost). In the evening, we had a nice get-together with the Cambridge University Press team and the English 360 team. It was nice for me to be in both camps: I was there as a Cambridge author, but it was also a good opportunity for me to get to know many of my English 360 colleagues, who I’d only ever met on Skype before. The global village we’re all becoming part of is wonderful, but there’s no substitute for meeting face-to-face.
The next day, Sunday, wasn’t very productive for me: I had my presentation in the last slot, 12.05, which meant I spent the whole morning preparing, practising, photocopying and generally getting stressed. I did manage to have some good conversations in the book exhibition, but I’m afraid I didn’t make it to any sessions.
My session seemed to go well. I was talking about Open-Source ESP, i.e. focusing on issues connected with sourcing authentic materials for ESP courses. It was a workshop, so I was delighted that the audience really got into the swing of things and offered plenty of good ideas of their own. I’ll have to write up my presentation in this blog in the coming weeks, so I won’t go into any detail now. But I will show a photo that Valentina took of me in full flow, talking about my diagramming technique for teaching contract-writing skills to lawyers.
Anyway, I’ll leave it there. It was a great conference, in terms of both professional development and networking (or rather, meeting up with friends). I’m really looking forward to next year’s event … in Dubrovnik, Croatia.
While at BESIG 2010 in Bielefeld, Germany, at Pete Sharma‘s Pre-conference event on “Business English materials in the digital age: what’s new?”, the English360 team are showcasing how to incorporate learner-generated content in blended learning programmes and demonstrating how Cambridge resources can be personalised.
Here’s a short video that explains the essence of English360 (made for us by the great folks at Atelier Transfert).
The International House 50th anniversary conference on “Biodiversity in ELT” got off to a great start today in Rome, Italy.
“2010 is the International Year of Biodiversity – established by the United Nations to increase worldwide awareness of biodiversity and its importance, and to enage more people in its conservation.”
During Margaret Horrigan’s great presentation on Biodiverse Teaching and her learning activities on the theme of “shoes” (see also her article on If I were in your shoes… from the IH Journal) she shared many super ideas on how to promote cultural awareness and sensitivity through respect for what is different among peoples.
The conference presentations will be shared on the IH wikispaces http://ihmanzoni.wikispaces.com/
I have also added mine to slideshare embedded here for your convenience
With the constant stream of information that flows in on a daily basis managing this never-ending overload and carefully selecting what it is that you really want to read or find out about has become an important 21st century skill. This applies whether you are keeping track of your social media feeds or are a teacher managing multiple courses online.
To help get more out of Twitter and channel the tweets I want to keep track of, I use Hootsuite . With its powerful dashboard I can view the information I’m interested in more efficiently via tabs and columns as well as check multiple accounts e.g vale24 or vale 360
Other educators I know are keen users of TweetDeck which is also a “fast and easy way to experience Twitter”. I also find Netvibes fantastic for collecting my favourite online content and accessing it all in one place from any web browser. I use it to aggregate news feeds, blog feeds, social bookmarks e.g. what my followers on Diigo are saving or talking about, secondary pop mail accounts I have and of course Facebook updates.
When using a web-based platform as an integral part of a teaching/learning programme, the same need arises. How can I be more productive and keep an eye on everything that is going on?
There is a lot to track when you use blended or online solutions for teaching; if you are overseeing or tutoring on multiple courses, you might need to access multiple course forums to post timely replies to learners. You might be receiving learner responses to your private feedback on their tasks or assignments and need to know whether comments have been added to pages that you have set up to increase learner interaction and exchanges. Obviously, going into each course to monitor this activity can be incredibly burdensome and time consuming for the busy educator so we are pleased to announce that we’ve just released a new widget on English360 which allows users to select their preferences for receiving these types of notifications.
For a school owner, that might involve tracking school memberships and new courses being created by school teachers. For teachers working collaboratively, receiving notifications on content that has been added, removed or published on the courses being designed can be extremely helpful in keeping everyone up-to-date on changes.
All users can modify and select their own preferences from their profile area by clicking on the Edit Notifications sub-navigation tab. The “News & Updates” notifications can be received directly on the platform from the Dashboard widget or via email.
Select what suits you best and then enjoy your “News & Updates”. Let us know how you manage your streams of information, it’s interesting to compare notes.
- 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!