MLearning, Mini-Whiteboards, and Emergent stuff…

As homework yesterday, my Advanced learners were told to take a photo of something that they might see between yesterday afternoon and this morning which they found interesting. The conversations and language that emerged was so unpredictable and so magical that I couldn’t help but blog about it.

This morning, I offered each pair a mini-white board and told students to sit with their backs to each other. Student A was then to describe the photo they had taken to their partners (Student B), who would then proceed to draw it on the mini-whiteboard.

When the pictures were described and drawn, the students would compare the drawings to the photo and then Student A would explain to Student B why they had picked that photo. This was a good chance for me to monitor and fill students in with words they needed to express themselves.

In open class, each Student A then took turns explaining their chosen photos to the rest of the class while holding up the drawing on the mini-white board.

What then took place was fascinating.

The first student had chosen to take a picture of the way people on the London underground kept to the right on the escalators. He started talking about how he was on one hand impressed by the orderliness of the British passengers, while on the other perplexed and uncomfortable with the clinical soullessness of such organized behaviour. This got the other students talking about the London underground and comparing it to the public transport in their countries. While the Japanese student remained not too impressed by the British tube system, the majority of the class being from Peru, Argentina, Brazil and Uruguay took the opportunity to start a rant about their countries’ public transport. Somehow, this led to a discussion about crime on public transport, and soon, several students were sharing personal stories of being pickpocketed, robbed, asked for bribes under different circumstances. Lexis like ‘Crime is rife’, ‘to deter sb from –ing’, and ‘to conduct an inquiry into the matter’ emerged.

Another student had taken a photo of the electrical plugs and sockets in London, and the engineers of the class started to share their knowledge about the preferred safety that three-pronged English plugs provided. The non-engineers started to protest, claiming that the UK was the only country where plugs were ‘upside down’ and different from everyone else, while the Japanese student pulled out his Japanese plug and extolled the virtues of how much more convenient the smaller-sized plug was.

On the topic of electrical household appliances, another student showed us her picture of her shower head in her host family’s bathroom, and complained about how she had to either hold the shower with one hand and wash her hair with the other, or crouch down really low to get the water over her head. We started talking about baths and showers and my South American students were shocked to hear that I had a bath every morning and that the Japanese student had a bath every night.

The Japanese student then showed us his picture of what he called the ‘crime-preventing bus stop’ in London and explained the structure of the bus stop and how it served to prevent anti-social behaviour. The conversation went back to crime at this point, and more crime lexis emerged: to press charges, breath(an)alyser, to have a hidden agenda, to congregate, etc. as we discussed how the governments in our countries tried to prevent crime, the advantages and disadvantages to arming our police officers, and the ways to deal with corruption and officers asking for bribes in the students’ countries.

The conversation then moved to the pros and cons of self-checkout counters when a student showed his photo of the supermarket checkout machines and we ended up discussing the evils of big corporations and how their bottom-line prerogatives could lead to staff redundancies and a worsening of the unemployment rate.

After two and a half hours of student-led conversation-driven discussions, the final student showed us a photo of the roads in London and professed to be confused by everyone driving on the ‘wrong’ side of the road. She had thought that only the UK practised such strange driving habits and was surprised to hear that there were other countries like, Malaysia, Japan, Thailand, etc. that drove on the left too. I stoked the fire by telling students that everyone used to drive on the same side of the road as the UK and that we were the original ‘right’ way of driving. Then as homework, I told students to google this and find out why certain countries drove on one side and some on the other.

Phew! Now, that’s a Dogme lesson!

Devil’s Advocate vs Phil Wade on Exams and Testing

This series is inspired by a conversation between Mike Hogan and myself about examining the controversies in ELT. We wanted to consider the different positions taken by different members of the industry. However, to do so, we’d need a debate, a disagreement of sorts. And it became apparent that we either tend to agree with members of our PLN (flying creatures of the same feathers and all that), or would keep an open mind and be fairly polite and supportive of one another (that is why we tweet and blog). Seeing that, the only way to get a real debate going was to actively play Devil’s Advocate (DA).

The following debate took place as an Instant-Messaging Chat on Skype. The statements of here are of the DA and in no way represent my beliefs about teaching. This is merely a tool to spark a dialogue between you, the reader, and all those involved in this project. You can find previous instalments of DA here.

The third victim on DA is Phil Wade.

Phil has taught in various schools and universities and is now teaching in-house managers and MA students. He is passionate about exams, and has set up and run courses for IELTS, CAE, TOEIC, and most other test. This has led him to become an examiner, work on pre-tests, and create a range of exam preparation material, tests, and online course. Phil can be found on Twitter and sharing ideas on blogs such as his own. 

Chia:  Phil, are you ready to be hot-seated?

Phil:  Famous last words. I’ve booked a hospital bed for tonight.

Chia: Hahaha…actually, from previous discussions, I’m of the understanding that you are the one with a gripe to air today…

Phil:  Oh, I’m northern so just like moaning. My gran once made a waiter go to a shop to buy tomatoes because the salad didn’t have any.

“You can’t have a bloody salad without tomatoes”.

Chia:  Hahaha…and your rant today is about exams? What issues could you have with them?

Phil:  Hmm. I have countless grudges against exams and the result they are having on EFL and students.

Chia:  I guess you are not talking about the positive effect that exams have in motivating students then?

Phil:  Motivating? Well, if putting pressure on students to pass some exam which often is not actually useful, then perhaps they are, but how about all the students who fail or aren’t allowed to do exam prep classes because they are too low. Quite de-motivating perhaps?

Chia: Being motivating does not mean letting everyone pass and giving everyone a pat on the back…

Being down on exams just because some students fail is like saying sports day is demotivating and scrapping it completely because some students would not get a gold medal.

In real life, there are goals, and there are targets to aim for. Exams provide that benchmark of achievement so that students have clear goals to strive for. And when these goals are reached, the student can feel a great sense of self-confidence and fulfillment.

Phil: Many school/university exams are made so easy that everyone gets 100%. There’s not much motivation or self-fulfillment there if everyone gets the same mark.

Marking is also very subjective and the examiner is the one who decides if answers are correct. To avoid this problem though, some places just use MCQ and GF questions.

Chia:  But let’s consider this: a teacher/school might give an exam simply to remind students to study and review their work, and might make it slightly easier so that the students’ confidence is boosted. Is that such a bad thing?

Phil:  Stress. That’s what a lot of my students say when I announce a test will take place or if you surprise them with one they may say it is unfair. Why not just set up an activity that requires them to use and demonstrate their knowledge? After all, that’s what we want, not just a lower order answering of questions or ticking of boxes…

Chia: Sure, students are going to tell you it’s stressful…but a lot of students do excel when given the competitive element and attempt to outdo themselves and measure their progress…

Of course, testing our students in the classroom does not just mean discrete item tests, but should definitely include activities that allow us to measure their communicative competence as well…But those are tests too, aren’t they?

Phil:  Of course, including the huge numbers in counselling or who commit suicide due to exam stress in Asia where depression amongst students is the norm, due partly to continual tests.  Testing communicative competency is a tough one, breaking it down into categories is very difficult and certainly open to interpretation.

Chia: It’s not the fault of exams as such but the fault of society that drive people to suicide. And you know that in Asia, the issue isn’t with just EFL exams but university entrance exams…. But since our topic today is EFL exams…

Phil:  OK. I will restrict my defence to EFL exams then as you wish. Wouldn’t you say parents camping out outside exam centres and jumping on candidates to find out what they were asked just to help their son/daughter get a better mark is a bit OTT? Or 18-year-old kids getting sent to the UK and not being allowed back until they get band 6 or TOEIC 750? Yet, this has led many students to be quite happy about failing as they get to stay abroad….

Chia: But many of these EFL exams such as IELTS and the Cambridge main suite exams aim to provide an accurate description of the student’s level and a benchmark of achievement for the students, don’t you think?

Phil: Benchmark of achievement? Achieving what though? Passing by any means necessary which includes memorization, buying papers and answers from the net, cramming the night before or planning how to meet every single band category? It’s this kind of exam industry that’s killing EFL .

As for IELTS, really? There are plenty of students walking round with 6 on speaking who can’t really speak and a whole lot more who did crash courses to get 5.5 who can neither write a real essay or debate. They learn IELTS English and cram in every trick, strategy and memorize phrases to get the band. What’s even worse is all the students doing FCE, IELTS, CAE general courses who just learn exam English every day…….

Chia: Really? I’ve often found that by talking to students for a bit, you can more or less judge relatively accurately what sort of IELTS bandscore they might be. e.g. I was speaking to this student the other day and I thought, ‘I bet you she’s an IELTS 6’ and true enough, she was. Doesn’t such regular occurrences testify to the fact that the exam is reliable?

Phil:  So, why doesn’t every 6 get a 6? Some get 5 or even 7? Test day nerves, being prepared, getting the right questions, time management, etc, all play a part. If your lovely student was asked to talk about her garden for 2 minutes but doesn’t have one, then what kind of mark would she get? And then how would she handle a 4-minute debate about open green spaces if she didn’t know about it or even understand it. There are cultural clash problems, examiner bias and training issues, not to mention the fact the many examiners can’t agree exactly on the scores, which is why there is some official difference allowed….

Chia:  Phil, you don’t have a Woolly Mammoth, but could you describe one for two minutes?

The student doesn’t need to have a garden to describe one…

I’m sure the student has heard of a garden or seen one on TV (thanks to the influence of Western TV and media) to be able to describe one.

If not, creativity on the part of the student could allow her to talk about not knowing what a garden is for two minutes, or ask to talk about something related to gardens that are more relevant to her.

Phil:  No and even less than no if I was from a country that didn’t have that on the curriculum. OK, I’ll be more specific about my garden example, ‘Do you have a garden?’ ‘What do people do in their gardens in your country?’. If you lived in a flat all your life in a big city and had intermediate level English without strategies to deal with that question, then you would get stuck. Many of these Cambridge exams, if not all, are made in England by seasoned examiners or people with many years experience, and every new batch has to be different. Yet the big markets for IELTS remain in India and China. This clash means that questions are often very culturally-bound and thus don’t work very well. While some are just daft and many people refuse to ask them…

Chia:  It seems to me that the issue you have is with the universal structure and format of the IELTS exam. Would you not be happier, as you seem to have suggested, with culturally and regionally sensitive versions of IELTS?

Phil: Regionally sensitive? Sounds good but how can you compare Xiao Lin in Shanghai with Sara in Paris then? That’s the problem. BULATS in a way is helping as it adapts to the answers students give, or so I am told.

Chia: But regardless of the cultural or regional biasness of the exams, couldn’t the candidates employ the strategies and tricks you were referring to earlier to cope with these issues?

Phil: Exam strategies and task item knowledge are useful, but some schools lecture 1000 candidates for 2 days and promise a score of 5.5. Having marked these students on their writing and speaking, you can see that they all just memorise answers and paste them together, but it’s often enough to get 5/5.5. They also ‘crack the codes’ allegedly by analysing so many reading/listening papers that they know what works and even the style of the papers. A more shocking example is that there used to be a website that listed all the speaking examiners and what type of questions they preferred and how to answer them.

Chia:  Using such illegal and underhanded means to try and get the scores needed is clearly unacceptable practice, but tests and exams do not always need to be the be all and end all. It can be a positive reinforcement to their learning.

Our students often come to our classes with an objective. And the objective often can be narrowed down to specific goals in communicative ability. Shouldn’t they want to know what kind of return on their investment (time and money) they are getting? Continual classroom testing can be seen as benchmarking and demonstrating progress to the student, as well as identifying areas on which they still have to work. Why therefore would your learners not want to jump at such an opportunity?

Phil: Continual classroom testing? Perhaps frequent informal pair/group tests for revision can maintain motivation and give students a good measure of how they are doing but nowadays aren’t we more about individual goals and progression? A bog standard test from a book cannot do so.

Chia:  We are talking about continual testing, but no one said anything about using a bog standard test from a book to carry this out. Of course testing should be tailored to the needs and goals of the students as well as what they have been learning. Good testing procedures can examine communicative competency and aren’t usually about discrete item tests. You can’t deny me that…!

Phil:  Continual assessment sounds like a DELTA discussion where everyone says how great it is but can’t agree on how to do it. I’ve had the argument many times and finally got to run some courses just based on continual testing. It really shocked students and they wanted to know how they would be assessed and thus we had to create VERY detailed marking schemes that cause a lot of time to get eaten up and long meetings about how to use them. Testing communicative competence is rather difficult. You could just give a general ‘participation’ mark but that is less reliable and open to scrutiny if someone complains, but then again so is the previous example….

Chia:  How about giving students a mark based on your own professional opinion and stop worrying about detailed marking schemes and criteria?

Phil:  Own opinion?

Chia:  You (the generic you referring to all teachers) are a professional, you should be able to do that….And if you aren’t able to, than you should be questioning what you are doing in the first place?

Phil: But isn’t that biased and based on if I like them or if they reached my standard? Consciously perhaps no but unconsciously there will be some bias. Why not swap classes and judge students you don’t know? I have had years of this problem where I set up mark schemes to test speaking and establish quotas for how many people can get A, B… yet teachers very rarely stick to them and just say “they were all so good” or “they are the nicest students I have”. Don’t forget, students are sometimes very good at playing teachers.

Chia:  Are you saying that teachers are any less professional than sports referees? Being unbiased is a fundamental part of who referees are. Are you saying teachers are only semi-professional at what they do? Unbiased objectivity is a part of their professionalism. Just like every sales person who leaves their conscience in bed when they go to work every morning, a teacher involved in testing should also leave their personal opinions in bed when they go to work.

Phil:  Oh. You’re trying to get me in trouble here. I can see the lynchmob waiing at the door. All I’m saying is that we are human and if a student is always late or was once rude to you, then that will naturally affect how you mark him. If we are talking about examiners, then I think there is research to show how they can be affected by body language, the time of day, if the student is the first/last candidate, if they are polite, eye contact etc. The same for the student in that if the examiner is tired and not very polite when they enter they may lose confidence. I even had 1 who just headbutted the desk as he couldn’t cope with it while many just stand up and leave. A completely professional person who cannot be influenced by anything would be wonderful but probably a robot, sounds like TOEFL IBT  (The online version of TOEFL with a computer speaking test so I hear)

Chia: It’s not testing as such that you are against but the influence external factors can have on examiners that you have your gripe with. If science fiction is anything to believe, then terminators, transformers and other robots should be engaged to do the testing…

Phil:  That is where we are headed as Cambridge are working on online versions of their main exams, and why not? I know that stuff like IELTS, FCE etc are very difficult to set up and aren’t run all the time while TOEIC can be run in your school quite easily but BULATS can be done online and you get the results straightaway, it’s cheapish too. We can’t stop technology and it will eventually be good enough to assess students but not now…..

Chia:  Are you really admitting that using technology and testing students online is the way to go?

Are you really suggesting that the practicality of running the test is more important than its reliability?

In an era where we are moving towards using English as a lingua franca and more concerned with one’s ability to communicate and to negotiate meaning… in an era when CEF has progressed to assessing one’s level according to ‘can do’ statements and not discrete item grammar tests, are you suggesting that online tests would be better than the professional opinion of a language teacher at evaluating the learner’s communicative competence?

Phil:  Well, it’s happening more and more. For instance, in translation, machine versions are becoming the norm in many places and are then just tidied up. We’ll get to a point where programmes can assess writing and speaking but I’m sure Nik Peachey can add a lot more to this.

It depends on who you are asking. It took me 7 months to set up and run and deal with an inhouse IELTS test, and it caused a lot of problems. I would also add that it was FAR less reliable than one in an exam centre. Why? Because students were relaxed, too relaxed, and it was sandwiched between other classes. If they’d gone to a centre they could’ve got ‘in the mode’ so to speak better. Yet, as demand rises we are seeing more and more inhouse tests for 200, 500 students or in Asia for 1000+…

Chia: Phil, you seem to be contradicting yourself here. Earlier, you said that students find tests stressful and that the nerves ensured that they weren’t able to perform at their best and show their level. Now, you are saying students are too relaxed and so couldn’t speak well???

Phil:  Contradiction? Perhaps, but not really. Overstressed is one thing, like in China where students break down and cry in tests or the police come and rescue them from traffic jams so they don’t miss tests or when they pay body doubles to replace them in IELTS speaking tests. By relaxed, I mean that developing an ‘exam mentality’ or being mentally prepared for the exam is useful. The trip to the centre, having breaks and doing the speaking after the other papers all in a professional ‘exam centre’ seems logical. Far better than leaving your maths class for 15 minutes to go to your usual classroom and do a speaking test for 15 minutes.

I am also against testing because of the backwash/washback effect it can have. In my last department students wouldn’t do anything unless it was for TOEIC so the first year, they were tested with TOEIC and had TOEIC-ish classes, then they did a TOEIC prep class and did the test and all failed then did another prep class and so on. Over 20% left with no diploma as they failed 4 times and missed out on lots of other courses. If we’d tested them on what they had learned, then I could have passed them. But companies demand the TOEIC, so we do it even though most students admit they will never need English and that they actually don’t need to speak/write, but what the heck, why rock the boat? This ‘failing culture’ makes some places look ‘superior’ and makes the exam companies and publishers lots of money. Teachers rake it in for extra classes and students re-sit classes, so it is actually in the interests of such schools to fail students. I do NOT agree with this at all!

Chia:  It sounds like what is needed is some kind of standardization of these exams and for teachers to recommend students to embrace exams for the positive backwash it can offer, rather than the negative ones. Perhaps it is the responsibility of the teachers involved and the examiners to provide appropriate feedback to the exam boards so that the exams can be more reliable, and not just be concerned about face validity.

Don’t you think that the professional teacher should be choosing the appropriate tests to suit their students’ needs, and guiding students by ensuring that the exam provides some structure to their learning process but doesn’t become the only goal in their learners’ journey?

Phil: Yes, feedback to exam boards is needed. IELTS do lots of research on the effects and use of their test, which is brilliant, but it still remains ‘an exam entrance test’ for many, while FCE, CAE are ‘exams for life’ which is silly as when you are 90 you probably won’t be as good….

You try telling students what test to take, good luck! They all have a goal and they choose TOELF, TOEIC or IELTS for university. The traditional way was TOEFL for the US and Koreans and French still love TOEIC. I have encouraged students to do CAE/CPE/BEC but if they aren’t motivated enough they wouldn’t put enough work in. I had 1 girl who had done FCE, CAE, CPE, IELTS and TOEIC. Why? Because her teachers needed measurable goals….

We got lots of low levels demanding high scores. I know that some schools are proud of their ‘100% pass rates’ and do this by only prepping students who already could pass…..

Chia:  Wait a minute. You were talking about negative backwash earlier and how students became obsessed with preparing for the exams. Shouldn’t exams be about testing the students’ existing levels? Why then the need of exam preparation classes? Don’t exam preparation classes do all the things that you disagreed with earlier? – You said that some schools just teach students exam strategies and as a result…’They all just memorize answers and paste them together but it’s often enough to get 5/5.5. They also ‘crack the codes’ allegedly by analyzing so many reading/listening papers that they know what works and even the style of the papers.’

Exam preparation classes shouldn’t exist. Students can do the practice tests on their own so as to familiarize with the test format. But ultimately, for an exam to be reliable in testing the students’ level, there shouldn’t be any preparation classes to help students fool the examiners…

Phil: I’ve had CPE+ students who decided to do the test for fun and passed but they got help. Teacher advised books, gave them tips and did mock speaking exercises with them….

There is an increasing amount of self-prep stuff out there from books to online stuff. There are even online courses with video F2F speaking tests and written analyzed essay marking. This blended approach is very good and is developing.

I wouldn’t say the prep class are there to fool the examiners but some are. The reason is demand. Students will get what they want if they have money. They are so obsessed due to parental pressure that they buy these ‘crash courses’. Some are also so busy that they have no option. I’m sure you have prepared for a test and not just revised everything you did. It’s like a driving lesson where you practice on the test route…

If, and I do emphasize IF, you insist on subjecting your poor emotionally distraught students to taking a test then prepare them with info about the format, the question types, how to answer them, time management tips, common topics and give them some practice. I really hate the ‘test by testing’ approach, which is based on the belief that students will get better by just doing tests while teachers go get a coffee.

Chia:  But there’s a thin line between giving students tips and exam strategies, and giving them templates and ‘codes to crack’, isn’t there?

Phil:  But give them the choice and which would they choose?

1. Here are lots of tips which may or may not be useful or

2. Here is an essay template you can use to answer any FOR/AG essay and get 5.

Chia:  They would choose to pass the exam and get good grades of course.

And whichever is the path of least resistance…

Phil:  Dada. Human nature.

Chia:  Therefore, because it is so difficult to draw that distinction between giving helpful tips and help with exam preparation and feeding the student with the way to getting the grade they want, shouldn’t exam preparation classes just be banned?

Phil:  Oh, Sneaky! I doubt most teachers (me included) know these tricks so it probably isn’t a problem but I really do think an exam teacher should get to know the exam they are teaching very well. They should know how it’s structured, how texts are designed and thus tested, common questions/topics and then help their students prepare at their own level.

There are some excellent BC webinars by Sam McCarter who just says he uses a text to prepare his students and get them to look at what could be tested and how. This is very useful and better than a 2-hour lesson of endless reading exercises. The same goes for a speaking/discussion class that brings in language, grammar and finally transfers it to an exam style. We can teach exams in a useful way and not just do exam style stuff that students soon get tired of. Last year, some colleagues and I did this and I was surprised that almost half of the classes were made up of students who did not want to take the test at all but enjoyed the classes and learned a lot. That was their motivation.

Chia:  Ah ha! So you are admitting that exams can be a source of motivation for students and can serve as a cherry on top of the cake…the cake being the enjoyable language learning that they are involved with that is designed not just solely to help them get better exam scores but also to improve their overall proficiency of English, thus helping them to achieve their personal goals and provide a return on their investment too?

Phil: I knew you’d say that. Sorry to burst your balloon but these students liked the class because they didn’t want to do the alternative, which was a TOEIC test test test prep class. They came to IELTS and just relaxed and still passed the TOEIC with high scores. These students were also happy, very happy to learn GE as they had never had it before, so in comparison to learning about plugs, electrical engineering and doing Scientific writing it was the most fun they’d ever had. In a language school students should be doing these topics already….

Chia: I suppose the type of test and what it is testing, and how the exam prep class is conducted, can make a big difference. TOEIC, although popular with the companies in Japan and Korea, simply isn’t reliable and students who take it are merely exposed to the negative backwash of retaking the test until they get the score they desire. On the other hand, a format like IELTS, although less practical and therefore more expensive to administer than TOEIC, seems much more reliable and IELTS exam preparation classes allow for flexibility and opportunities for students to actually make progress in their general level of English.

Phil:  Yes, I knew a kid who had done TOEIC 8 times. He was burnt out. I would agree that IELTS is probably the best and most regular test at the moment and the inclusion of speaking and writing can make a good class but the average coursebook doesn’t focus enough on those productive elements which most students get lowest marks in.

Chia:  So you are not entirely against tests or testing then, Phil?

Phil:  I am against exams taking over courses and schools and the negative effects they can have. I used to have students who had tests every week and they just went from cramming 1 to cramming another and learnt nothing. But, we can’t escape. They are still needed and useful and despite all the drawbacks will continue to be useful for quite a while.

Chia:  Indeed. Sorry for setting up some naughty little traps for you, Phil. I was after all playing DA…

Phil:  No, it was very funny!

Epilogue: Phil and Chia are still PLN-buddies who regularly banter on Twitter. Phil still works with exams and exam preparation courses, and any opinions expressed are Phil’s own and do not represent any organization he is associated with. Chia was only playing DA, as usual.

IH DOS Conference, 2012


Reproduced with permission of International House World Organisation

Anyone following the #ihdos hashtag and any member of my PLN would tell you, I was tweeting non-stop at the IH DOS conference last week, so much so that I was later asked the question, ‘When you tweet, do you miss things that are being said?’

My answer was a confident ‘no’. In fact, when I tweet, I find myself paying more attention to what the presenter’s are saying. It’s almost like the tweeting gives me a motivation to really understand and summarise the speaker’s message. Tweeting, to me, is like taking notes – taking notes in the form of tweets – notes that I can then look back on several days after the conference and write a reflective blogppost about – a reflective blogpost like this one.

The conference started off with an encouraging and bonding talk by Lucy Horsefield and Monica Green about the core values of the IH brand and what we stand for, while Sophie Montagne introduced the very eye-catching IHWO website and announced IH Prague’s role in hosting this year’s YL conference. Shaun Wilden then continued to fly the IH flag, talking about the IH World Assessment unit, outlining a continual professional development scheme for IH teachers, including the blog that could allow us to collaborate and get together in a way we’ve never been able to, and reminding us of the impending pub quiz the following evening.

After a much needed coffee break that saw old friends saying hello and new introductions being made, Neil McMahon was streamed into the conference room live from Argentina using the impressive Blackboard software. As Neil briefed us on the different IHWO resources available this year, such as the up and coming IH Live online workshops planned for March and November, the IH Language Rainbow, and IH teacher liaisors to facilitate teacher collaboration, Shaun deftly multi-tasks and ensures the smooth and successful video streaming with skills of an IT guru.

Reproduced with the permission of International House World Organisation

Following up on Neil’s talk about teaching resources, Trevor Udberg (IH Newcastle) shares his project, the IH Platform with great passion and finesse, encouraging schools and teachers to make use of online blogs to create a sharing philosophy. Outlining the advantages of sharing, Trevor states that sharing allows us to create a sense of belonging, to show off the great work our teachers are producing, to cherry pick from a wider range of resources, and help smaller schools to benefit. While acknowledging the fact that some teachers might be saving their materials in hope of a future publication, in a digital age where blogging and tweeting is becoming commonplace, Trevor has hit the nail on the head when he says that sharing can conversely help promote your work and get you that publishing deal you are waiting for.  A motto that is definitely worth repeating outside of the IH schools : Let’s Share!

From this point on, the conference branched out of IHWO-relevant topics into broader themes of interest to most TEFL teachers. One key track on the conference was the focus on the use of social networks and technology, starting with Shaun Wilden’s very energetic presentation. While providing a useful overview of what Twitter is, how it works, and what it can do for a teacher’s continual professional development, Shaun’s talk lived up to its title ‘What has #hashtagging ever done for us?’ by exemplifying the uses and advantages of hashtagging with the award-winning #ELTchat, Dave Dodgson’s blog challenge, and the international success of the recent TESOL France organized by Bethany Cagnol.

The talk was echoed and expanded upon by Emma Cresswell (IH San Isidro) who systematically looked at the pros and cons of using social media like Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn both for use in the classroom with learners and as a marketing and publicity tool for the school to target potential students and maintain existing ones. Giving examples that ranged from using games on Facebook to motivate students to using social media to keep in touch with students, to share information and  to open up channels of communication between students outside the classroom, Emma clearly convinced some of the DOSes in the room to consider the usefulness of social networking on digital media.

In a plenary talk the following day, Nicky Hockly debunks the myth of the digital natives in the most creative way by getting the audience to consider the tree octopus, successfully rallying support for saving it from extinction, only to reveal that a closer genre analysis of the ‘Save the Tree Octopus’ website shows it up to be false, much to most of our disappointment (I was ready to download that tree octopus ribbon and put it up on my blog!). Pointing out that our younger students, despite being labeled ‘digital native’, still need to be taught how to deal with media literacy, Nicky provides ways of conceptualizing digital literacies based on Mark Pegrum’s categories, focusing on language, information, design and connections.

Nicky then goes on to share some exciting ideas of using literal videos like the Harry Potter trailer together with the online subtitling tools such as to help students create stories and have fun with putting words to scenes from foreign films like the Downfall.

Another thread that took on more significance as the conference progressed, attracted the attention of teachers following the conference on Twitter and has seemed to acquired a life of its own in Blogosphere after the conference ended is the Dogme versus Coursebook debate. Alastair Grant kicks off the debate on Day One of the conference with his talk ‘Dogme Teaching in your institute’, providing a useful definition of Dogme, outlining the three principles of Dogme (materials light, conversation driven, emergent language) and showing that the collocation ‘a Dogme Syllabus’ does not have to be an oxymoron, while describing how he implements Dogme with his class over a whole term.

Starting with what Alastair called ‘Pedagogical Foreplay’ (and the rest of the ELT world calls a Needs Analysis), he uses a questionnaire at the beginning of his course to focus his students on their goals, their interests and the things that they can bring to the classroom. Convincingly demonstrating how listening, writing and reading skills can still receive their deserved focus by getting students to bring in texts, songs, genres which they are interested in and would like to work on, Alastair shows the audience a bingo-style grammar syllabus which he ticks off as each topic/language item is uncovered in a Dogme lesson. In order to add structure to the lessons, Alastair emphasizes the importance of getting students to keep lesson diaries – a written record of everything covered in the classroom. Result? Increased student motivation, a keenness for students to speak more, making the students integral to the construction of the course, a higher attendance rate, and higher levels of excitement all round!

The following morning featured the debate everyone had been waiting for, the Dogme battle where Jeremy Harmer and Luke Meddings went head to head, while the entire Twitter community held their breaths and tweeted madly (Okay, that was really mostly my Dogme PLNers…but there were still quite a lot of tweets!)

Jeremy starts off by comparing language learning to the decontextualized rote learning of music and begins to deconstruct each of the three ‘pillars’ of Dogme (Hey, we did have 10 vows of chastity before…so going down to 3 only demonstrates the flexibility and adaptability of Dogmeticians!). First, Jeremy asks if coursebook-based lessons could be conversation-driven too, then  proceeds to question if conversation-driven lessons are necessarily better, stating that Dogme perhaps neglects learners who are not people-smart and do not function well in interactions, preferring to get their knowledge in other ways. Just like the fact that some people actually do like packaged holidays, Jeremy compares that to people who do like coursebooks, and claims that some of the stuff found in coursebooks can actually be very interesting.

Jeremy then goes on to agree with that Dogme moments where teachers work with what students want to talk about can constitute good teaching, but asks the all important question: What if language does not emerge?

(As a Dogmetician, I worry that the term ‘emergent language’ might have been misunderstood here. Perhaps there is a need to define emergent language further here. I doubt if we are referring to the procedural knowledge students have or the language that is ready to be proceduralised in the minds of the learners. We are referring the output that students produce, within which there is always incidental language we can work with, providing the output + 1 or O+1…sorry, Krashen).

This all led to a mad flurry on Twitter, with tweets such as, ‘It’s not Dogme, it’s what teachers have always done,’ and ‘what if we just call Dogme good teaching?’  and a comment that some Dogmeticians are rather evangelical…

(Yeah, coz if you ain’t doin Dogme-style, you ain’t teachin! Hallelujah!)

Luke Meddings enters the boxing ring straight after Jeremy, highlighting the importance of motivation and relevance for language learning, reminding us that there are teachers out there who do not necessarily adapt the coursebooks and use them in a personalized way, teachers who use materials that aren’t even engaging them, teachers who do stuff just because it’s in the book.

Equating grammar exercises and countless gap-fills to slapping on too much Coleman’s mustard and never using all of it, Luke tells of Dale Coulter’s anecdote of his student, an education specialist, who flicked through the coursebook and said, ‘This is a linear syllabus disguised as a series of thematic units. But that’s not how the brain works!’ Funny how we can wax lyrical about how language learning is not linear and preach Krashen’s i + 1 and SLA theories about interaction and meaning negotiation for decades, yet still resist the idea that grammar/chapter McNuggets of coursebooks might not be the way to go.

Luke emphasizes that our students are coming to us with their English which we should be working with, and not for our English, and that materials-light therefore enables teachers to approach the class in a top-down rather than bottom-up fashion. Dogme lessons are therefore not one-off lessons that constitutes of the teacher winging it because they couldn’t be bothered to spend time pre-planning, but requires teachers to rigorously react on the spot, focusing on grammar, doing little drills and offering practice of a language point that has emerged. The time spent on pre-planning is instead used on post-teaching reflection which not only allows the teacher to evaluate what and how the emergent language has been focused on and the skills that has been practised, but also provides the teacher with opportunities to consider how they would review, recycle and reinforce what they have covered in the following lessons, providing for continuity throughout the course.

While maintaining that unplugging your lesson does not necessarily mean pulling the plug right out and that the amount to which you ‘unplug’ could be varied, the focus is on removing restrictions and being independent, creative and truly communicative.

Using the rule ‘Play Pause Play’ (another definition of PPP?), Luke shows how Dogme can also cater to the Ectenic learners who like systematicity and control of their learning by directing the focus on the emergent language in the ‘Pause’ stage of the lesson, while still providing for the Synoptic learners who prefer to go with the flow and just focus on fluency through the ‘Play’ parts of the lesson.

The success of this debate can be clearly seen by the fact that countless blogposts have been written since the conference discussing unplugged teaching. See below for some of them.

So, would anyone still think that I don’t pay attention when I tweet during conferences? ; )

Emma, Danny, Estelle, Luke, Alastair and myself - formidable Dogme pub quizzers

Devil’s Advocate vs Dale Coulter on Dogme and Newly Qualified Teachers

This series is inspired by a conversation between Mike Hogan and myself about examining the controversies in ELT. We wanted to consider the different positions taken by different members of the industry. However, to do so, we’d need a debate, a disagreement of sorts. And it became apparent that we either tend to agree with members of our PLN (flying creatures of the same feathers and all that), or would keep an open mind and be fairly polite and supportive of one another (that is why we tweet and blog). Seeing that, the only way to get a real debate going was to actively play Devil’s Advocate (DA). After all, it’s always healthy to rethink our views and justify them.

The following debate took place as an Instant-Messaging Chat on Skype. The statements of here are of the DA and in no way represent my beliefs about teaching. This is merely a tool to spark a dialogue between you, the reader, and all those involved in this project. You can find previous instalments of DA here.

Second on the hot seat is Dale Coulter

Dale currently finds himself in Rome where he is an English teacher.  He specialises in Dogme and reflective practice in teaching, both of which he has spoken about at ELT conferences in the past year. You can find out more on his blog here. Or follow him on Twitter here.

Chia:  Hi Dale, are you ready to be DA-ed?

Dale:  Hi Chia, great to be speaking to you, I guess I’m as ready as I’ll ever be for a DA-ing.

Chia: It is a well-known fact that you are a Dogmetician who have been practising Dogme ever since you finished your Celta. Many would argue that newly-qualified teachers (NQs) should not be attempting Dogme. What would you say to that?

Dale:  Interesting point, Chia. As a teacher trainer what would you say are the reasons why you’d be skeptical about your trainees attempting Dogme?

Chia:  Answering a question with a question…very cunning, Dale… Well, there are several reasons for the CELTA trainers’ skepticism.

For starters, NQs are not experienced or skilled enough to be dealing with emergent language and reacting to spontaneous and specific needs…

Dale: True, the teaching practice element in CELTA courses does not provide enough classroom time to prepare a teacher thoroughly to react to emergent language. Mind you, attempting a Dogme lesson doesn’t mean throwing the book out the window and unplugging your whole course. For instance, my first Dogme lesson was a 1 hour 15 minute slot as part of a three hour lesson. I think that somewhat minimises the the risk of ‘failure’, wouldn’t you say?

Chia:  Not really, because you could still have a 1 hour 15 minute flop, which could lose your credibility and destroy your confidence…something that NQs don’t need. NQs need confidence-boosting experiences, don’t you think?

Dale:  Definitely, a complete flop using any teaching method or approach is a big dent in the confidence of any teacher, not just an NQ. You need to be prepared for the lesson. Emergent language doesn’t just emerge on its own; the teacher needs to know how to exploit language opportunities in the classroom. It is also about the language the teacher selects to deal with, and how it is dealt with. I was definitely reassured by the fact that I had some experience of being guided towards learning to deal with emergent language from my teaching practice on the CELTA. We can’t underestimate the importance of knowing what ’emergent language’ is and what it means to deal with.

Take an experienced teacher who tried Dogme, for example. What if their lesson was a failure and they failed to react to students’ emerging needs and the language they were producing? I don’t think this is a criticism that can be soley aimed at NQs.

Chia: On a CELTA, one can get experience of dealing with emergent language through teaching practice, but they are mostly lexical items. What about grammar? Most NQs don’t know their grammar well enough to be able to deal with the questions or the emerging reformulations that are needed.

You said so yourself in a post on your own blog on November 12th (reflections on Tesol France) that NQs often think, ‘There’s so much I don’t know about grammar, I am terrified that my students might ask me questions’. This is from your blog.

Dale: I knew that one would come back and bite me one day. Jokes aside, what’s to say an NQ can’t pick up a grammar book and read it? Take a proactive approach to it by dealing with the lack of knowledge. Obviously you can’t read up on the grammar of the English language in one week, which is something I realised too, so I chose to do Dogme with a class that is least likely to throw up difficult questions: an intermediate level. After all, when teaching Dogme, you can always guide the conversation towards areas that you know students may have difficulties with – to make your life easier, and secondly, research those areas and make sure you feel confident to answer questions about them.

You know they don’t know X or Y and you can guide them towards that, almost like leading them towards a cliff then when they reach the edge, building them a bridge to the other side

Chia: Is that then not really Dogme? It sounds more like a planned lesson where you have manipulated the needs…

Dale: In that case, I guess I’m not a Dogmetician then, I just manipulate conversation driven lessons around the needs of my students and work with the language they produce. Guilty as charged…hahaha

Chia: Stop acting cute, Dale. But in all seriousness, conversation lessons can sound like a chat. As many opponents have said, Dogme could be seen as ‘winging it elevated to an art form’… Couldn’t students get that from sitting in a pub? Where’s the structure?

Dale: Of course, I’ve heard that one a million times before… for me Dogme has always been a manifestation of principled eclecticism in the classroom. It’s not like you’re hashing a lesson together at random, you’re providing the most suitable solution to what has emerged, which, obviously a NQ would have some difficulty with on a long-term basis, but generalising that all of them couldn’t I think is a bit of an insult to the ability of an NQ.

By the way, I remember one of my trainers saying that to me “a speaking activity should give students something more than they could get in the pub” …

Chia: And how do you give them that extra that they can’t get in a pub?

Dale: Well, firstly I think there’s a difference between conversation-driven and a conversation lesson. The former implies that conversation is the vehicle with which learners and the teacher arrive at their destination, the latter is like conversation as a road to learning, which is where some cynics have their doubts.

It’s a teachers’ job to pick on thematic or linguistic elements of conversation-driven time and use them for lesson content, that way what is taught is immediate and contextualised.

Chia: Yes, but NQs will not be able to differentiate between conversation lessons and  conversation-driven lessons, needless to say have the confidence or ability to pick out linguistic elements to use as lesson content simultaneously and spontaneously.

Having linguistic aims prepared and how these aims are to be achieved in each stage of the procedure does not only provide structure for the NQs but also for the students. Jeremy Harmer said that Dogme is like ‘jungle-path teaching’, i.e. a lesson with no plan and structure, and therefore no continuity…

Dale: So you are going to quote Harmer at me, are you? Let me quote one of my classes back to you. They said they believed I prepared more than any other teacher and that my lessons were very structured and organised. Doesn’t that pay tribute to the fact that Dogme is a form of principled eclecticism working on a materials-light level. Didn’t you yourself call it Improvised Principled Eclecticism?

Chia: Sshhh, don’t tell anyone, Dale. I’m trying to play Devil’s Advocate here.

Dale: No, you’ve raised a good point there about the perceived lack of structure. I think it’s a criticism levelled at Dogme very frequently.

Chia:  So what do you do in your Dogme classes that helps students to feel that they are well-prepared and well-structured?

Dale: I have always applied a lot of what I learned in CELTA and then subsequently in DELTA. You see, lesson stages, as such, still exist: there is still a stage in which you check meaning or form, practice, review, drill, feedback, practice. The difference is that they are not rigid in a Dogme lesson; stages are at your disposal when they are necessary, if they are necessary. Students feel like it’s structured because it is structured.

Chia: Are you therefore saying that it is important to teach CELTA trainees to write lesson aims and and execute the procedures and lesson stages they have planned? Isn’t that contradictory to Dogme principles?

Dale: Well, the teaching of linguistic aims, lesson plans, lesson procedures, achievement of aims etc is easier to teach directly to trainees, in the sense of transferring information from A to B.

By the same token it’s easier to assess and benchmark to decide on a general standard. Is this contradictory to Dogme? Without the foundational backbone that lesson aims and procedures provide, a lesson lacks structure, which is why I consider them to be important as a foundation to build on.

However, identifying positive teaching behaviours in trainees like dealing with emergent language, building on them and reinforcing them with positive feedback corresponds more with the demands on a Dogmetician. I’d say a lot of the cynicism about Dogme and NQs stems from the fact that training does not cover these areas. The ability however is there, it just needs pulling out.

Chia: The thing is Dogme requires the teacher to have a certain rigour and an ability to deal with emergent language, correction and reformulation whilst combining structuring, multi-tasking abilities and knowledge of language in order to come across as organised and well-prepared. NQs often are still struggling with these aspects and are not going to be as able to cope with combining them in a flexible and improvised manner.

Dale: Exactly, it takes a long time to become an expert in these areas, which required years of practice, positive models to follow and experience in the classroom, so why are we not focusing on these things right from the beginning, to give trainees a better start?

Chia: You sure you’re not digging yourself into a hole there, Dale? You’re right, it takes lots of years of experience honing the skill of dealing with emergent language. If done badly, it could either result in all talk and no language work, or even worse, teacher-centred explanations and lectures that are contradictory to the communicative approach to teaching.

Dale:  But Chia it takes time to refine the skill and the road is a long one. Which comes back to my point that why aren’t we starting the journey straight away?

And on the topic of communicative language teaching… many teachers work under different definitions of ‘communicative’, and there’s disparity between their ideas and what others consider it to be…but that’s another topic for a sequel to my first DA, perhaps?

Chia:  So you’re enjoying this grilling enough to come back again then? ; )

But, honestly, a common point made by CELTA trainers is the fact that many coming on courses like the CELTA already think that teaching English should be relatively easy simply because English is their native tongue. Introducing NQs to Dogme and dealing with emergent language at such an early stage of their teaching can mislead them into thinking that chatting with their students in English is all they need to do…into mistakenly believing that Dogme is easy.

Dale:  A very good point. You could also say that trainees may be misled into thinking that following the instructions in the teacher’s book, doing the practice exercises in the back of the book and teaching from page 1-100 is all they need to do. Coming back to Dogme though, I think in these cases the better-judgement of the trainer is needed. As I’m sure you know, each group of trainees is different from the last; some groups are stronger, some are weaker. Introducing elements of Dogme to a stronger group, pushing them to deal with emergent language and use their knowledge of the English language to help students pushes the trainees to their  i+1. To a weaker group though, I will admit that it is not a good idea to encourage them to use Dogme and could lead to such opinions. Like a hierarchy of needs, Dogme lies at the top and lower levels need to be satisfied first.

Chia: Are you therefore saying that Dogme can or should only be attempted if and when trainees are able to use the coursebook and when they are able to deal with shaping a traditional PPP/Test-Teach-Test/Guided Discovery lesson from pre-assumed lesson aims?

Dale: I think trainees should have the benefit of a ‘backbone’ to English language teaching, as I mentioned earlier, it gives them an invaluable introduction to the profession. With a stronger group that grasps these concepts with ease, and one whose beliefs about teaching fit with the ideas behind, then I would say yes. I think it’s up to the trainer(s) to assess the level of the group and provide suitable challenge for them. I think I’ve touched on another point here that’s important: how Dogme fits with a teacher’s developing belief structure.

Chia: What do you mean by that?

Dale: Well, let’s face it, everyone believes languages are learned and taught in a different way and some teachers just don’t see Dogme as a way of playing to their teaching strengths and/or compatible with what they believe about SLA.

If there is a group containing many trainees who have the experience of learning another language, the experience of being a language student, and from this have understood the need for communication, immediacy and sensitivity to students needs, then it makes a more fitting environment in which to attempt Dogme.

Chia: Hang on, Dale. I’ve got two questions I’d like to ask here…

1. Are you saying that if the trainees do not believe in the need for communication and immediacy, that if they believe in that languages are learnt by grammar translation or the Direct Method, or by completing countless gap-fill exercises, then we should not encourage them to attempt Dogme?

2. Are you saying that native speakers who have never learnt another language and have no experience of being a language student would be far less suited to Dogme?

Dale:  Ok, I’ll take your first question. No, I’m not saying we should settle for this and simple pander to their needs. I referred to a kind of hierarchy earlier. In this case, guided-discovery, test-teach-test etc would be the next level on the hierarchy. In this situation, a trainee must train to level and encouraging them to attempt Dogme would be pitching too high, don’t you think?

In response to your second question, I think that non-native speakers or native speakers who have had some form of language instruction/experience of learning another language have in their possession key abilities for Dogme and for teaching. One of them is empathy with their students, which makes a teacher more sensitive to students’ needs, both emotional and linguistic.

Chia: Interesting points there. Can I take this debate on a slightly different direction?

We have so far been arguing about the ability for NQs to use Dogme in conversation-driven lessons with language focus. How about the other skills like reading, listening and writing?

The Importance of Listening in Class

Dale:  As a Dogmetician, I’m sure you’ve considered this as well yourself.

Chia: Dale…I keep telling you, I’m not talking to you as a Dogmetician at the moment…only as a DA…

Dale: Sorry, it’s sometimes difficult to tell the difference, especially when I’m used to you playing the role of DA consistently in daily life anyway.

Back to the point, we bang on about being sensitive to our students’ needs and responding to them, but what if these needs are specific to writing/reading/listening? This throws up another question: how does a NQ handle these without coursebook materials?

It’s a good question and it focuses us even more on the difference between attempting some Dogme lessons and being a Dogmetician. Materials-light is sometimes confused with materials-free, and it would be wrong to think you can’t use materials altogether. Certainly if this were the case, skills that require materials would not receive focus. A Dogmetician, in my opinion, selects materials to teach skills which can be exploited for conversation, engage learners and provide space to deal with difficulties learners have when practising those skills.

I think some NQs would have trouble teaching reading, writing and listening skills without the supportive framework of materials. On the other hand, if a NQ wants to use authentic materials, use learner generated and produced materials, then shouldn’t we be supportive in this pursuit? After all, isn’t that what assignment 3 of CELTA is trying to encourage anyway?

Chia: What kind of materials could an NQ use to focus on such skills that still keeps the lesson a Dogme one?

Dale: I would recommend short texts, both listening and reading, and authentic. Your ideas for using BBC news were very helpful for me, also short newspaper articles, parts of short stories or even teacher-written texts. In creating tasks, try and move away from testing comprehension and encourage students to interact with the text, pick out language they identify as useful, share ideas about a text, have them create the questions, have them respond to the text, rewrite it.

Chia: NQs would have greater difficulty in selecting authentic texts and creating tasks for their learners, in addition to the previously-discussed ability to pull out appropriate language for learners to focus on and dealing with them in sufficient detail.

Dale: You’re right there Chia, in selecting appropriate language and creating tasks, experience puts you at a great advantage. That’s why, just like emergent language, it’s better to get NQs practising asap.

Chia: Wait…if you are using such materials, what then is the difference between a Dogme lesson and a non-Dogme one?

Dale: Maybe there isn’t much of a difference.

Chia: Maybe it’s just good teaching.

Dale: Maybe the labels aren’t important.

Chia: Yeah, maybe it’s the learners’ motivation and needs that should take centre stage.

Dale: Maybe Dogme is a platform that provides the most space for this in the classroom.

Chia: Maybe.

Dale: Wow. That was intense.

Chia: Thank you for letting me put you in the hot seat.

Dale: It’s been a great pleasure, Chia.

Epilogue: Dale and Chia still argue like siblings at a family Christmas dinner. They also love each other, especially when the exchanging of expensive gifts is involved… Dale was only expressing his own views and does not represent any organisation he’s associated with. Chia is, in fact, a Dogmetician too. She was only playing DA.

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