Thursday, 5 April 2012

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IATEFL Issues: Work

The first of my reflections on the IATEFL conference...

One thing is for sure: teaching is hard work. It is time consuming and should probably pay more. But for me one of the questions that came out of the IATEFL conference this year was do we do enough of the right kind of it and furthermore, do our students?

The matter of student work was plainly laid out by Jim Scrivener in his talk "Demand High Teaching" (read more here). He posited that we have become too touchy-feely and too nice to our students. In his observations, based on watching classes all around the world and his discussions with Adrian Underhill, he has come to the conclusion that we need to demand more of our students. We have become facilitators, not teachers, setting our students up to do activities with unclear aims when we should be more involved in working with our students so they can actually discover and learn things about the language and how to use it.

JIm Scrivener introduces Demand High Teaching
Another talk along similar lines, Anthony Gaughan's "The Seven Deadly Sins of ELT", suggested that there are several techniques that are now considered outmoded but perhaps should be reconsidered. The sins that Anthony talked about (drilling, reading aloud, translation, use of dictionaries, teacher explanations, telling students they are wrong, teacher talk time) are pretty widely dismissed in modern ELT thinking, so it was fascinating to watch him present them in a new light. For me, this wasn't really a talk just about those particular techniques, but a wider question regarding the work that teachers do. I thought what he was really asking was for us to consider our decisions more carefully and to think more deeply about why we do the things we do, and as importantly in this case, why we don't do the things we don't.

In this sense, this was also about work. Not work in the sense of hours spent in front of a computer but rather in terms of time spent thinking deeply about what we do and not accepting things at face value. Many of us try to develop critical skills in our learners, and perhaps we need to spend a little time developing our own.

A different slant on this them was provided by Willy Cardoso, who spoke about teacher training and cultural baggage. He asked teacher trainers to allow space for trainees to reflect both on their teaching and their previous learning experiences. In his view, the value of these factors is underestimated by trainers. As a result, they unconsciously dismiss what can be learned from the trainees own cultural background which results in the domination of a western view of education. Trainers need to work at making the most of their trainees background.

Dave Willis makes the audience do some work
Dave Willis spoke about how the grammatical rules we teach our students do not reflect the reality of the English language as it is spoken. He drew attention to how coursebooks and subsequently teachers often teach written grammar as if it was spoken, when research shows they are quite different. As an example he showed how different verb tenses can be used to express quite different things (e.g. past tenses can be used to talk about the past, to talk about hypotheses, and to be polite). You are unlikely to find these in a coursebook, a grammar book or in our lessons.

The lesson we can learn from this is that we have to be more questioning and less accepting when it comes to the language as it is presented to us by figures of authority, normally in the published form. We need to have the confidence to question these rules if we are not satisfied with what they say. We, as teachers, are high level users of the language and we should believe
in our own judgements. Of course, this confidence doesn’t come overnight, it’s something we have to work at.

And going back to the idea of getting students to work, Luke Meddings and Lindsay Clandfield presented their new self-published resource book 52. The book contains an activity for every week of the year designed to encourage critical thinking in students (see here for an example). The activities they have created are specifically designed to challenge students, and also teachers, to think more and to consider issues of greater import than what you find in the normal ELT classroom. In simple terms, they need to work harder.

Luke Meddings subverts the classroom
As it goes, I’m very enthusiastic in my support of critical thinking activities. I’m not shy of rolling up my sleeves and working either. I can’t help but agree that we all need to do more work. The students need to become more industrious and not so spoilt, the teachers need to question themselves and the accepted teaching ideas of the time, and the trainers need to work on using their trainees culture to their advantage and give them more to reflect. It is to everyone’s advantage not to increase our workload, but to start to work better.

I’m indebted to Chia Suan Chong, Jemma Gardner, Sandy Millin and Laura Patsko for their wonderful and diligent blogging and tweeting of the IATEFL conference, including the talks mentioned above. Head over to their blogs to get a more detailed summary of each talk.


  1. It's really interesting to see how each person draws the threads of IATEFL together and interprets them in different ways. Thanks for linking to my blog, and great to see you again!

    1. It was great to see you too Sandy, and thanks for all the tweets!

  2. Hi James!

    Yes, it is more work for us. But I think those of us who actually take the time to do such reflection and "extra" work find it worthwhile, because we know it will be for the benefit of our students - as learners and individuals.

    Creating activities that have a critical thinking approach, that make students actually think and reflect have been a big focus of my work these days.

    I agree with you 100%. Not surprisingly I may add ;-)
    Great post!



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