Tuesday, 3 May 2016

#IATEFL 2016 - Barefoot with beginners

This was a talk title that immediately took my mind back to the early days of building my online PLN. 'Barefoot teaching' is a phrase I remember from Paul Braddock's old blog to describe his experiment of teaching a group of teenagers without adhering to a pre-selected coursebook. Instead, he responded to learners' immediate needs, incorporated authentic resources based on the students' interests, and let the lessons flow.

Barefoot teaching - washing it all away
Image via pixabay.com
CC0 Public Domain
The other flashback to those days was the speaker Ceri Jones, who has been a key member of my network and an influence on my development over the years through her excellent blog, involvement in #eltpics, and work as a tutor on my Trinity DipTESOL course.

I've never seen Ceri speak though and neither have I met her (despite us both being at IATEFL Manchester last year!) so I picked this recorded session out to watch. This was not just a selection based on personal preference though - I was also intrigued by what an established coursebook writer had to say about teaching without any published materials.
The concept was made even more interesting by the fact that the group in question was a class of beginners. The idea of 'materials light' teaching is often associated with learners past the beginner stage, who have enough language to at least try to express themselves. In turn, that language becomes the starting point for the teacher to build the lessons around. But what do you do when there is hardly any language coming form the students?

Ceri gave an example from the very first lesson when a student said he was from an obscure village in central Spain. Building on that, extra language such as "where's that?" and describing where places are. This is the kind of personalised learning moment that I feel language lessons often lack. Perhaps with a standard coursebook exercise, this would have never come up. Instead, it stood out ehre as a learning opportunity.

The idea of lesson summaries was an interesting one. I have found it is common for students and teachers to leave an unplugged lesson feeling they have discussed and learned a lot but without a written record, it can be quickly forgotten. Here the summary acted not only as a record but also as a map of the barefoot journey allowing Ceri to trace where and when particular language points had come up and how they developed.

The past simple example was a very interesting one - it first appeared early on as something the students genuinely needed. With a focus very much on meaning and use, it was recycled and developed until the grammar focus finally came a couple of months later. This stands in stark contrast to the usual procedure of covering the grammar early on and gradually expanding the communicative use.

As a result, the students' own summary of the classes focused on topics and content whereas Ceri's summary looked at grammar points more - a reminder that student and teacher perceptions of learning are not always the same. The summary also provided a starting point for in-depth self-assessment of strengths and weaknesses in the language learned to that point, something that may be more difficult with a proscribed syllabus.

The progression of the students as shown by the writing sample was impressive. The emergence of grammatical elements such as the past continuous without them ever being formally taught was a strong testament to the strength of this approach. At times, we need to give learners a chance to play with the language and jump ahead in the syllabus to the language they need to use. When they need to use it, it is more likely to stick than when it's covered just because it's in Unit 5.

All of which serves a nice lead in to my next series of posts - some reflections on dogme... :)

Wednesday, 27 April 2016

#IATEFL 2016: Moving into Management

Having looked at the forums on technology and mobile learning in my previous IATEFL posts, I now turn my attention to a more recent focus in my career: management.

Image via Pixabay.com
CC0 Public Domain
Several years ago while working in a private college in Turkey, I was asked to assume responsibility for 'the language skills programme' with 4th Grade students, which meant writing the yearly plan, making sure teachers were on track with reaching learning goals, and making recommenddations for the following year. Later, the responsibility was extended to 5th grade, overseeing class blogs was added in and I also had to mentor new teachers. Officially, I was still an 'ESL teacher' but my role had morphed into a kind of management lite one.

I then went to Gabon where I had an official management role - Language School Coordinator. I was supposed to be in charge of designing the general and business English learning programmes, hiring and training teachers, placement testing and in-house assessment, and other logistical tasks like timetabling and scheduling cover. I was fine with all that and prepared for it but once I was there, I soon found myself involved in all sorts of other things - designing a brochure and website for the school, commissioning photographers, meeting company executives and HR managers, promoting the school at local events, conducting case studies and many more. These were tasks I struggled with, and it was all only compounded by my lack of French.... and I was teaching 20 hours a week as well!

At the British Council, I now have a slightly better teaching/management balance and I also have the support of an established system and clearly defined role, all aided by being enrolled on an academic management course. I still feel that I have a lot to learn about the management side of ELT though and that is why I picked out Shirley Norton and Karen Chambers' session "Stick or Twist: the Teacher to Manager Dilemma" for this report.

Shirley began the session with an overview of how she became a manager and it seems my story from above echoes hers - through a combination of chance and invitation, she acquired more responsibility until she got a full-blown management role and felt she wasn't truly ready for it. The option to a course (in this case the DELTM) helped her get back on track. Interesting that she found her employers saw the management course as an optional extra. Indeed, this highlights an issue in ELT with employers having a slightly warped perception of the available qualifications. The entry-level certificate is often seen as all a teacher needs. The higher-level teaching diploma is often seen as an entry into teacher training or management when it actually officially prepares you for neither. Specialist management or teacher training courses are then seen as not necessary, but as my own journey to this point and Shirley's story show, they often are.

Karen spoke as someone who had entered into management roles but then moved to teacher training before returning to teaching. She mentioned that a significant number of managers do not choose to become managers and a high number of them also receive no management training, which is a potential recipe for the managers being 'a bit rubbish'.

The need for training for managers is an important point and one that many schools could invest more time in. There was an interesting need highlighted as well for teacher training to retain staff. It seems counter-productive to take a good teacher out of the classroom to give them management responsibility as a 'promotion'. There have to be other options to keep good teachers doing what they do best while still feeling a valued member of the team.  Encouraging CPD through in-house training and sending teachers out to conferences and other events was highlighted as a way to do this and it's difficult to argue against that.

The idea of identifying key strengths in each teacher and encouraging them to develop them, whether they be materials development, marketing, or teacher training, is a vital one. This serves the teacher and the school better than forcing people into roles of responsibility that they are not keen on (like when a former employer tried to coerce me into joining an in-house coursebook writing project). I was also intrigued by the advice to allow teachers to take sabbaticals, work in different locations, or be relived of all teaching duties to work on a project while their jobs are held open for them - not something I have come across in my ELT career to date!

There were some different ideas shared in this session which moved away from the traditional management roles of the day-to-day running of a team. Investing in staff and offering opportunities are the way to keep good staff and develop better teachers and effective managers - language schools and ELT departments, take note!

Tuesday, 26 April 2016

#IATEFL 2016 - Forum on Mobile Learning

Having reviewed the forum on technology in the young learner classroom already, I have decided to stick with the "3-in-1" talk format with some thoughts and reflections on the forum on mobile learning. The teaching centre I work at has recently ordered a set of twenty iPads and as ICT Coordinator, it will be one of my major tasks throughout the remainder of this year to oversee their introduction to our programme and overall use. I am therefore looking forward to gaining some insights and picking up a few ideas for their use.

A different perspective on mob'le learning
Image via pixabay.com
 CC0 Public Domain
Valentina Morgana - iPad in the EFL Classroom
The abstract promised a look into on-going research into student and teacher use of iPads and perceptions of mobile learning. 

  • Valentina begins with a depressingly familiar tale - she was handed a mobile device and wished good luck by her employers. In her case, she seized the opportunity to engage in research. However, I am sure that the majority of teachers would not know where to start. This is one of the biggest issues that needs to be addressed with ICT in education - the often blind investment in hardware and software that is rarely backed up with investment in training.
  • The research project was designed to focus on how iPads are used in secondary schools. The deliberate selection of experienced and qualified teachers was an interesting one. As Valentina says, the issue is not whether or not the teacher is comfortable with using a mobile device but whether or not the teacher is comfortable with facilitating language learning.
  • After my mini rant above, it was encouraging to hear that the school where the research is taking place requested a limited pilot programme before taking the decision to purchase iPads for all students or not.
  • The 'wow' factor seems to be especially prevalent with iPads. I guess this is all to do with the evil powerful nature of Apple marketing. In my teaching centre for instance, there is a keen sense of anticipation about the arrival of the iPads. Strange then that a set of Surface Pro tablets has apparently spent the last 18 months here collecting dust...
  • Students expected iPads to be most useful for improving their listening and writing skills... Listening makes sense I suppose due to the easy access to digital media such as videos, podcasts and music. Writing puzzles me though - I have always seen mobile devices, even tablets, as cumbersome for writing anything other than short messages. Maybe I need to rethink that one.
  • The expectation that students would be creating content may explain the focus on writing. Tablets are essentially personal devices and students expect to be able to have options to edit the output to their own tastes.
  • A important point made by Valentina was that just because students use mobile devices regularly and with confidence in their daily lives, it does not mean they will be the same in the classroom. They need to relearn how to use iPads with educational goals in mind and this takes time and training.
  • Good to see the selection of apps was small and included pre-loaded ones. One issue with iPads in schools is that they often get overloaded with hundreds of apps with little thought given to how and how often they will actually be used.
  • Valentina reports that student engagement was high in lessons with the iPads but stresses again that this is not to do with the devices themselves. It is more to do with the experience and knowledge of the teachers in the classroom.
  • The multimodal affordances of tablets were also highlighted as students could easily access visuals, add audio clips to Evernote, and multimedia to Thinglink and do much more.
  • There was in the end a mismatch between student expectations and actual experiences of improving writing skills, showing that the idea of productive skills with iPads does need some further thought and development.
An interesting presentation of research that stands as a good example of how some time and thought devoted to training and implementation is a good thing. More training, less top-down purchasing please!

Kat Robb - Instant Messaging  with Learners
The subtitle of "chilled out chatroom or creepy treehouse?" certainly caught my attention! This raises the issue of considering how students feel about having their teacher pop up in their out-of-class life through class messaging groups.

  • We begin with the puzzles of Kat's context - pre-sessional university students who lack motivation for academic writing and a over-use of L1 which excluded some students from other nationalities.
  • An attempt was made to tap into the students' constant use of messaging services by setting up a group for the class on WeChat. Kat was keen to avoid being seen as infringing on her learners' social media space.
  • One sample activity was for her to send high frequency words from her students' writing to the chat group and have them find synonyms as quickly as they could - sounds like a fun gamified idea but it would be interesting to hear if this had a subsequent effect on their writing.
  • Moving into the more productive side of academic writing comes the idea of having groups produce and share a short summary of a lecture and sharing in through the chat group. Everybody could then read all the contributions and comment on them. This sounds good and student testimonials refer to increased engagement and a stronger feeling of belonging to a group.
  • Far from being a 'creepy treehouse' it seems the students felt more of a connection with the teacher through these activities.
  • Motivation, peer-to-peer interaction, personalised learning, an easily-accessible record of work - all examples of an effective application of technology rather than a flashy show of it.
For me, this talk emphasised the need to identify an area or areas in which an intervention is necessary and then forming a clear plan for tech use. When we just assume what students need and decide to use a device or app and "see how ıt goes," we won't get the desired results. Considered thought and decisions based on contextual and pedagogical principles is what tech needs to be what the students need.

Thursday, 21 April 2016

#IATEFL 2016 - Forum on Technology in the Young Learner Classroom

The great thing about IATEFL Online is not only the chance to get a little taste of the conference as it is taking place but also the chance to watch the recorded sessions from the archive at your leisure. So, that is what I am doing today. As the recently installed ICT Coordinator at British Council Bahrain, a language centre with approximately 2,000 young learners, this forum seemed like the ideal place to start:

Here are my reactions, typed 'live' up as I watched:

Maria Diakou - Snapshots from Implmenting Technology in Young Learners' Language Teaching Classrooms
 The first speaker's abstract promised a focus on 'practical, technology-enriched moments' from her teaching context in Cypriot primary schools.

  • Maria began with discussion of the issue of lack of engagement from YLs in class and the subsequent problems of bad behaviour and overly-strict teachers.
  • She then suggested technology as the solution as it taps into the fact that kids use tech as part of their daily lives - I would, however, qualify this by saying technology can be a solution if it is used in an engaging way. The same can be also said for activities without tech - the activity needs to be relevant, personalised and appealing to interests to encourage YLs to tackle it.
  • Games - this is definitely an area of interest for me as the teacher behind ELT Sandbox. The games shown here, however, were classic 'interactive' learning games. These make the language work aspect of being in the classroom more fun, but for me, they offer little more than a worksheet or activity book page in terms of learning.
  • Zimmertwins - as a tool for creating animated videos, I see a lot more practical use in this as it gets the students involved in being productive and creative. A lot of the technology they engage with on a daily basis is receptive - they watch, listen, and click to follow a pre-determined path. This tool gives them more possibilities to be active rather than passive users of tech and learners of language.
  • Storyboard That also works in a similar way, getting students to create comic strips with their own dialogues written through text. It also offers similar advantages in terms of allowing for creative use of language.
  • Dvolver was featured as an easy-to-use tool that allows creation of animation together with captioned text for dialogue. Maria made the good point that the ease of use means more time can be spent focusing on language rather than getting to grips with the tool.
  • Storybird also allows for easy use with a large selection of pictures and works well for getting students to engage with writing.
  • Voki was then shown as a speaking tools. By speaking through an avatar, shy students can feel more relaxed as they speak from 'behind' the character. I did, however, disagree with using this as an alternative to drawing a monster. In my experience, YLs always love the chance to draw and describe their creations. It's all about giving them personal ownership of the task and in this case, I feel that a picture created by the student achieves that more than an online image with limited editing options.
Overall, a useful selection of tools though the focus was more on what the technology can do and how it can be used - not so much on why it should be used in preference to other classroom tasks.

Amanda Boldarine - Young Learners and Technology: ways to intergate culture and parents 

This talk focused on meaningful use of technology to meet learner needs and engage parents in their learning.
  • Interesting start with data from research with Amanda's own students about their technology use outside the classroom - we often assume that kids are regular, confident users of all devices and software applications but it is a good idea to confirm this before making decisions on in-class use.
  • Encouraging that the initial question ("How can I maximise my students' language learning experience?") does not explicitly focus on technology. It is the learning experience that is important, not the tech tools.
  • Having said that, Vocaroo and Padlet are then featured as the tech tools of choice - this is qualified, however, as appropriate to the limitations of tech provision in the school context with only a computer lab available.
  • Amanda used Vocaroo to get students to listen to their own voices in English and reflect on how they speak, useful in making the tech use about more than simply using tech.
  • An real audience was also provided as the recordings were sent to their parents. This is important in giving the activity a more authentic feel.
  • Padlet was used to post rules about road safety as a follow-up to learning about them. The affordances offered over simply using paper was again the parent link.
  • This was also followed up by asking parents for feedback - this again makes it more than just another activity.
  • The final point was to emphasise that technology is not just about making learning modern or fun. It needs to be integrated into the learning process and evaluated in terms of what benefits it will have for your learners.
I liked the fact that this talk showed that a simple approach often works best. No need for a plethora of flashy tools. Simple apps can be used to help the students produce language and provide them with an audience by sharing the results with their parents.

Addicted or enraptured? Image via pixabay.com

Nicky Francis - Being Creative with Technology in a Young Learner Classroom
The final speaker in the forum proposed a focus on encouraging creativity with technology. I liked that the abstract also mentioned plasticine and yoghurt pots!
  • Nicky began by discussing the seemingly fixated and motionless appearance kids often have when they are viewing the screen, whether it be a TV, PC monitor, or mobile device and how these extended passive moments of silence can be disturbing. While I agree that a lot of technology engagement can be passive, it's also worth remembering that long before the age of digital technology, there was often criticism of people who spent ages with their noses buried in things called 'books'.
  • Speaking of which, the next stage of the talk presented a book - "It's a Book" (that is the actual name by the way, not an attempt at emphasis from me!). The concept of having an intensive course for primary including several hours of art was an interesting one.
  • The tech came in through a movie project but not with an online animation maker. Instead, it was a movie to be made with real world props (that's the plasticine and yoghurt post then!) and the students' own voices - a nice example of integrating tech but not in a way that allows the tech tool to dominate.
  • The learners then went through a process similar to that which Jamie Keddie talked about at last year's conference of choosing characters and a setting, writing a script, and incorporating chunks of language from the story - good examples of language at work while making a movie with the actual filming part being the end product.
  • One positive effect of technology is the way it can level the playing field between teachers and students. This was evidenced here by Nicky highlighting how she learned to use Movie Maker together with her students.
  • "Rough but real" - we can certainly hear the students' voices during the sample video in more ways than one!
This talk was a good reminder that technology in the classroom does not have to form an entire lesson. It can simply form a small part of a project. It also does not have to be something pre-produced and edited by the students. It can in fact be something entirely original. Finally, it does not have to be about the latest and greatest flashy tools. Digital video cameras and programmes like Movie Maker have been around for a quite a while now but they can be just as effective as more recent innovations as long as space is given to the learner's voice.

One little aside to finish on - each of the presenters apologised in advance for their learners' mistakes and less than perfect English. Why? I see and hear this a lot during presentations. It is not about the end product. It's about the process of learning. The mistakes in the sample projects make the whole production more real and more personal and that's nothing to apologise for. :)

Friday, 15 April 2016

#IATEFL 2016 - Self-motivated Professional Development

Time to move onto this month's second cycle of ten then...

You may have heard that there is a gathering of language teachers taking place in Birmingham in the UK at the moment called the IATEFL Conference. I had the pleasure of attending last year's event in Manchester but this year, I find myself unable to be there in person, instead experiencing it all vicariously through Facebook updates, Twitter feeds, and the online coverage.

I must say the online coverage is superb. Although it is logistically impossible to cover every session, the fact that non-attendees get to watch a few sessions at a time and place of their choosing (and for free) is great. Finding myself too busy to watch any full sessions over the last couple of days, I have listened to a few interviews safe in the knowledge that I can catch the presentations of interest next week, the week after or even later.

As a registered blogger, I will be reporting on sessions about technology in and out of the classroom (fitting in as it does with my ICT Coordinator position), academic management (ditto), reflective practice (as a personal area of interest) and any hot topics that come up (like the native/non-native debates that seems to be trending online).

I start with some of the interviews, particularly those featuring my fellow Teaching English Associates Kieran Donaghy, Lizzie Pinnard, Sandy Millin, Chia Suan Chong, and Vicky Saumell (whom I was interviewed with last year!) Ably hosted by Paul Braddock (back in the Paddock ;) ), they each responded to the following question:

"Some teachers have quite a negative view of CPD, especially as there seems to be little financial incentive for it. What would you say some of the more intrinsic motivational factors are that people could take into account when they think about their own professional development?"
That's a tough one! How can we get teachers interested and invested in CPD for its own sake? Luckily, I was not in the hot seat this time and instead got to hear everyone else's responses first before adding my own below.

Both Lizzie and Kieran mentioned how taking the lead in your own PD helps keep you out of a rut. Engaging with different ideas helps keep things interesting and there is always something to learn, with Kieran making the key point that you can then pass these things on to your students and colleagues, who will then in turn benefit.

Chia emphasised how easy it can be to download an article or bookmark a blog post and then read it one-handed (all demonstrated with the realia of a bouncing baby on her lap!) when you have a few free minutes. Sandy added that finding a main source of PD input such as the articles and blogs shared through the Teaching English Facebook page or a calendar of upcoming webinars can help you take a little and often approach - no need to read, watch, and join in on everything, however.

They also talked about the importance of going beyond your immediate area of interest, something that definitely chimed with me as I have learnt a lot over the years from teachers in EAP contexts, Business English teachers, and others who work in environments very different from my own. Good ideas are always good ideas and they can be adapted, experimented with and put to use in a variety of contexts.

Vicky added that curiosity helps. If you are interested in learning more about teaching and language learning, CPD is a natural progression. It is also important for senior members of a teaching team to lead by example and show other teachers what they can learn and how it will benefit them, something I intend to do in my new role.

Ease of access, learning new things and the benefits for your own teaching are all key points in promoting the idea of self-directed CPD. I would also add the ideas of reflecting, contributing and sharing. Don't just stop at reading an article or attending a webinar. Actively think about it and how it is applicable (or not) to your context. Try it out in class and then reflect on how it went and how it could be improved next time.

Share with your colleagues and also with the same online communities you visit. Comment on blog posts that resonate with you and reply to Facebook/Twitter updates that caught your interest. Relate your own experiences.

And slowly build up to contributing. Write your own blog posts (either on your own blog or as a guest poster on a blog you read regularly). Offer to host a webinar. Write an article for a SIG newsletter or an ELT magazine. Submit that proposal you've been thinking about to IATEFL for the 2017 conference or to a local event.

It's the same advice I give my students about working on their language outside class. Don't just read or listen. Engage with the information in front of you. Be pro-active and open-minded and you'll find CPD very rewarding indeed.

Thursday, 14 April 2016


So, there we have it. I now have a third line to add to the 'Professional Qualifications' section of my CV - along with the distant memory of the Trinity Cert TESOL and the distance learning of the MA in EdTech and TESOL, I can now type in 'Trinity Diploma in TESOL' (I can also apparently officially include the letters "LTCL DipTESOL" after my name but that might be difficult to fit on my business card!)

All that means in ELT terms, I have the 'double whammy' of higher level qualifications - an MA and a Diploma. In my new post, I find myself being asked this question: "which have you found more useful?" (often with "the Diploma, right?" tagged on to the end). Personally, I find such either/or distinctions unhelpful. However, having completed both programmes (with the slightly unusual order of doing the MA first, the reasons for which I have been through previously), a little comparison of the benefits they have brought me wouldn't hurt.

Image via pixabay.com
 CC0 Public Domain
Teacher Development
Let's start here with the main reason (or what should be the main reason) for any teacher taking a course. I often cite my MA as the moment teaching stopped being a job and started being a career. It really pushed me along in terms of considering and defining my beliefs as a language teacher and encouraged me to analyse what I did in terms of how it benefited my students. I experimented, I adjusted, I developed.

However, I was not assessed directly in the classroom. I was assessed only through the lens of my assignments. I could perhaps afford the odd false start or wrong turn in class as long as the long-term research goal was in mind. On the Dip, there was no place to hide. I needed to take all my knowledge and experience and use to it to showcase an effective learning experience within defined assessment criteria.

Of course, on both the MA and the Dip, perfection was not expected and there was plenty of scope (and indeed credit) given for identifying what didn't work so well and what could be done differently - a key part of any teacher's development

So, which one served me better? The low pressure action research rooted in my own context that the MA provided? Or the pressure-cooker live assessed observation of the Dip? Difficult to say really but one thing sticks with me - I finished my MA with the strong feeling that I was developing as a teacher. I knew I still had areas to work on but that was fine because I was equipped with the reflective tools to improve further. I finished the Dip initially feeling like I wasn't very good at my job. I had struggled to produce sixty-minute lessons that ticked all the boxes in the assessment criteria and it was a knock to my confidence. Several months on, I am able to view it more as the challenging and productive learning experience it was but at the time, I felt like I was back on my Cert...

There was much more to the Dip than the TP, of course, but as I explained in my earlier posts, the free hand offered by the research projects, exam essays and phonology interview didn't quite match what was required in the observed lessons. To out it another way, I felt my MA helped me move towards becoming the teacher I wanted to be but the Dip left me struggling to be the teacher defined by externally-imposed criteria.
Career Advancement
Another big reason for taking such courses - to get better jobs at better schools. So, which qualification has helped me more here? Well, it depends. Back when I started my MA, part of the reason was that my employers at the time in Turkey didn't seem to know what a Dip/DELTA was and how it was different from a Cert/CELTA. A MA on the other hand was something they did understand and my successful completion of it came with more responsibility at work and a pay rise.

The MA was also a key factor in me moving on to Gabon. It helped my application stand out and gave me a platform to discuss my research into teacher development and online learning during the interview. I started doing the Dip while I was there but again, my employers didn't seem to know exactly what it was.

However, the Dip has also helped me move my career forward. I would not be at the British Council now without it. For my new employers, the MA is an added bonus but the Dip is what counts. Other schools I applied at the start of this year were the same.

So it depends on your context. International schools and some university positions may value an MA more. Language schools and large organisations like the British Council or International House will most likely prefer a Dip/DELTA.

Even when you have both, it's not always enough. I was ruled out for several international school jobs because of my lack of PGCE or UK qualified teacher status. Now I am in a coordinator position at the British Council, my studies are not over as I have been enrolled in an Academic Management course to help me with that aspect of my job. I also have to take the CELT YL extension in the summer - a teaching centre requirement sue to the large volume of young learners we have here.

The courses keep on coming and the learning never stops!

On the face of it, the MA would seem to be the more likely candidate for offering specialisation. Mine focused on Educational Technology as well as TESOL and there were opportunities to do research and learn about blended learning programmes, online and multimedia course design, and teacher training.

It has to be said thought that the Dip also offers the chance to specialise, particularly through the Unit 2 projects. By conducting those aciton research cycles, I am now keen to learn more about classroom interaction patterns and learner autonomy. I also had the chance to continue the work on online teacher development that I started during my MA.

So both options have opportunities for you to specialise - you just have to take them!

Time & Cost
I often here that the Dip is a quicker option than the MA and it is also more cost effective. However, I would say that those claims are not exactly true. For starters, the Dip can take as little as three months (if you find a face-to-face intensive programme) or as long as a few years if you leave the research projects on the backburner for too long. An MA can take a few years if done by distance and/or part-time. It can also be done in a year if you go for a full-time onsite programme. Of course, the face-to-face option requires taking leave or potentially quitting your job but the same can be said for the Dip.

As for cost, in my case, the costs were about the same. As a direct comparison, the tuition fees for the Dip were considerably less than for the MA. However, once you add in the moderation fees and the flights, accommodation and other expenses for a month in Prague (affordable a place as it is), the total spent came to about the same. As my MA was online, the only other expense apart from the fees was the postage when I sent a hard copy of my dissertation in.

Books don't count as there were compulsory reads for both courses and (thankfully) free access granted to a number of online journals.

Learning something new
Another way to look at it is which course taught me something new? The MA seems the obvious answer again as the focus on online learning and applying technology in class introduced me to a lot of new ideas. However, the Dip also kicked my awareness of phonology into gear. There is always something new to learn!

The Best Qualification?
So at the end of all that, I will of course take the easy route and say they both have value to me in different ways. The MA enabled me to take huge strides forward in terms of my knowledge of teaching and my awareness of learning. I was introduced to the idea of reflective practice and never looked back and it opened doors for me as far away as equatorial Africa. The Dip allowed me to be where I am now and also forced me to take a long hard look in the reflective mirror (the results of which have been the ten days on this blog!)

But I was always say the best qualifications I have are not the ones on paper but the ones in my classroom - every student and every teacher I have had the pleasure to work with. And I am looking forward to expanding my range of qualifications when I get back into class tomorrow. :)

Wednesday, 13 April 2016

Out of the Dip, Part 4: Unit 2 Research Projects

And so finally, we come to the last part of the course I completed. Possibly the most time consuming and arduous but also ultimately, one of the most rewarding and possibly the part that reflected my day-to-day teaching context most closely.

Action! Research!
Image from pixabay.com
CC0 Public Domain

What it entails

  • Three projects based on your own research each written up as a 3,000 word assignment.
  • Part 1 - Observation Instrument (OI). The teacher designs, implements and refines a pro-forma for observing a particular aspect of other teachers' lessons. After observing ten hours of classes making at least two sets of revisions to your OI as you go, you write up a report of your findings including an evaluation of the pro-forma itself.
  • Part 2 - Developmental Research Project (DRP). The teacher selects an aspect of their own classroom practice to focus on and engages in a cycle of action research over a period of fifteen classroom hours. The report summarises and reflects on what you did and what you and your learners got out of it.
  • Part 3 - Independent Research Project (IRP). As the name suggests, there is more scope for pursuing your own interest in this one. You may again focus on an aspect of your teaching or you may explore teacher training, reflective practice, course design, in-house training programmmes... It's up to you. It's also up to you how you do your research - literature review, survey, observations, interviews, feedback collection - as long as it matches your research aims!
  • The projects really allow the teacher to explore their own context and what is directly relevant to them, their learners, and their school. For the OI, I had a general impression that teachers were not really exploiting the space in the classroom effectively so I investigated and drew conclusions for future in-house PD. For the DRP, I investigated using vocab notebooks to promote learner autonomy and engagement with language outside the classroom (something I could not incorporate into the assessed teaching practice). For the IRP, I further investigated the extent to which teachers use online networks for PD and how this information could be of use to the language teaching staff in Gabon, where offline PD possibilities are limited. The research was interesting and fruitful (a shame I didn't stick around to follow-up on it!)
  • It's useful for those who wish to move into more senior positions. For the DRP, I had to design a series of lessons for a specific group of learners, which of course will be of use in the future as I design courses in different contexts. It also made me more aware of my own development when experimenting and trying out new things. I was told the OI was a bit of waste of time as it wasn't directly relatable to everyday language school work but I have not found that to be the case. In my new role at the British Council, I wanted to get a picture of how everyone currently uses technology in class so I designed and revised a pro-forma for observations to collect data. This would have been a tougher task had I not done this project!
  • It allows you to develop areas of interest. I already had a long-standing interest in online professional development but I am now keen to examine classroom interaction patterns, learner autonomy, learner training, and lexis more.
  • It gives you a foundation for further professional work. There are blog posts, articles and conference talks to come out of the research I did.
  • Engage with your tutors about this early on. The sooner you start, the better. I don't just say that in terms of getting head start but the earlier you begin, the more time you have to make alterations or ditch an entire idea and move onto something else. I was lucky to have fantastic support and sage advice from Nicola for my research and it would have been more difficult had I not interacted with her as much as I did.
  • Try to complete the research before you do the TP. Through the data you gather and the findings you make, there will be useful ideas and things to be aware of that you can incorporate into your assessed lessons. 
  • Also, do not try to do part of the OI or the other projects while you are doing the TP. Yes, you are allowed to do this (for four of then ten hours I believe) but you will have so much other work to do, I would advise against it. Just focus on one thing at a time.
  • Set deadlines and stick to them. Applying for jobs provided the final impetus to get everything wrapped up so the qualification was confirmed rather than TBC. However, I did let things drift on a couple of occasions and I also heard stories of people who literally took years to getting round to doing the research. Best avoided.
  • Make notes as you read. Nothing worse than remembering a relevant point from some article you read a while ago and then struggling to find it. A list of notes, quotes and page references will be much easier to look through, and it will help you for the Unit 1 exam as well.
  • Spread the writing out. It is hard to write a 3,000 assignment, even harder when you try to do it in one weekend! Aim for writing 400-500 words a day and you'll be finished in a week.
  • Know the criteria! Once again, you have to make sure your project write-up focuses on the areas that Trinity are looking for. It's all there in the syllabus, including the weighting for each area so write your paper accordingly!
  • When you are finished, wait a few days before submitting it. Forget about it. Return to normal life, then read through it again and see if it still makes sense.
  • Check out these blog posts and video guides from previous Trinity Dip graduates: Observation Instrument and Independent Research Project.
  • Check out my old posts on preparing for and writing assignments - they focus on my MA studies but a lot of the advice is relevant here too.
Suggestions for Improvements

As with Unit 3 Phonology, I got a lot out of this unit (including a distinction!) so I wouldn't change too much. It would be nice if the kind of teaching work we do for the DRP could also be applied to the TP more directly. As I have previously said, I have focused on learner training with teens a lot in recent times and I was able to explore that in depth here. However, that had to all be put to one side for my observed lessons, and it's a shame the criteria don't cater for that.

I found my experience of having completed an MA, having written many assignments of similar lengths, and having engaged in large-scale research and data collection was invaluable here. I do wonder how I would have coped without that academic background. I think more needs to be done to ensure candidates are prepared for the rigours of research, data collection and processing, and academic writing, both within the Trinity syllabus and from the course providers side.

Once again, I will round off by asking you to share your experiences of Trinity Dip TESOL Unit 2 or any other similar research projects. One more post to go - Dip v. MA: which one proved to be better?

Tuesday, 12 April 2016

Out of the Dip, Part 3: Unit 1 Written Exam

"Of course, the big advantage of a course like this is the assessed teaching practice."

Check - that's one of the main reasons for taking it.

"You will also make a presentation and have a follow-up interview about phonology."

Check - that sounds tough but I'm prepared to give it a go.

"And there will be three research projects."

Check - that will be just like being back on the MA course.

"The final assessed component is a three-hour written exam."

Wait! What?

Yes, an old school, pencil and paper, sit-down and try not to get beaten bu the clock exam and that's the focus on today's review post.

You'll need to commit all these to memory!
Image via pixabay.com
CC0 Public Domain
What it entails

  • A three-hour exam divided into three parts.
  • Part 1 - Language Awareness consisting of five questions on grammar and lexis from which you must respond to four.
  • Part 2 - choose one from a choice of three essay questions on Teaching and Learning.
  • Part 3 - choose one from a choice of three essay questions on Professional Development/ Course Design.
  • It really puts you through the wringer in terms of what you know about teaching and you have to be able to draw on a range of experiences in order to give strong answers.
  • It gives you a chance to explain your ideas, beliefs, and best practices as a teacher in a high level of detail.
  • It forces you to read up on key areas that will also benefit your teaching practice and research projects.
  • This is also the main part of the course that goes into teacher training and academic management, which is useful for anyone considering those career paths.
  • As well as academic reading, referencing blogs, newsletter articles, conference talks and your own experience is also encouraged.
  • It can help create a stronger sense of empathy with our own students!
  • Preparation is key - brush up on your grammar, read up on aspects of teaching, learning and professional development and start doing it well in advance.
  • Practice planning and time yourself writing answers - a brief plan will be key if you are to write an effective 1,500 word essay in under an hour. 
  • You will also need to get used to writing at speed by hand. Don't spend ages researching, planning and typing your weekly assignment answers in the online course. Limit yourself to an hour and try to write by hand (send a scan to the tutor) so you can get used to exam conditions as soon as possible.
  • Part 2 (teaching and learning) can be quite wide-ranging but Part 3 usually boils down to: a) design an in-house PD programme or teacher development initiative; or b) present an outline and rationale for a workshop. Prepare for one or both of those and you'll be fine.
  • Follow the advice you give your own students about preparing for an exam and writing essays - don't leave it to the last minute, plan your answers, leave time to check them again at the end, get a good night's sleep before the test!
  • Make a list of useful quotes as you are reading. Categorise them by potential essay topics. Spend some time trying to memorise them so you can quote author and year accurately.
Suggestions for improvement
  • Cater to different teaching contexts - the grammar part would have been very tough had I never taught adults at B2+ level. There were questions about language points that I had never ever touched on it my extensive experience with young learners (cleft sentences or helping learners with signposting, coherence and cohesion in writing, for example). As these questions often demand specific reference to your own experience, it potentially leaves teachers of elementary young learners at a disadvantage. Also, in Part 2 of the exam I took, there was a quesiton about designing a course for students taking a specific exam. I have extensive experience of preparing students for Cambridge Starters, Movers, and Flyers but the options in the exam were IELTS, TOEFL, CAE and FCE. That meant I couldn't attempt the question having no recent experience of any of those.
  • A different approach to referencing - to get high marks, you have to be able to cite book and article authors from memory. This really caused me a headache especially as quoting the likes of Harmer, Scrivener and Thornbury is seen as 'not enough'. I say either drop the expectation or allow candidates to reference a sheet of notes. This would still require skill to pre-select references that are likely to fit a range of topics, use your time effectively, and avoid trying to crowbar everything you jotted down into the answer paper.
  • A more balanced range of topics across the exam - as mentioned above, Part 3 is quite predictable. However, Part 2 covers a wide range of topics. I spent a long time reading up on using authentic materials - video clips, news articles, digital games - only for a question to come up on using music. For me, that was too specific, especially considering the need to reference from memory. There were also other areas I read up on that didn't come up at all (learner training, use of technology, developing speaking skills) - all those memorised quotes for nothing! Part 2 needs a more focused range of topics with plenty of scope to adapt to different contexts and experiences.
  • Don't sit me in a small room with soft floorboards next to a guy who shakes his leg vigorously throughout the test - quite a specific situation I know but it was quite distracting!
Next post - research projects!