Thursday, 27 September 2012

Taking Classroom Management to the Next Level

“These kids think school is just a game.”

If you’ve ever taught young learners, I’m sure you’ve heard this at some point (or maybe even said it yourself). Computer games are no longer the domain of geeky kids with a Commodore 64 or an Atari in their bedroom. They are everywhere - on laptops, on home consoles, online and now on smartphones and tablets. Kids (and adults I would say!) are now playing games more than ever before.

Image by @acliltoclimb via eltpics

But is this necessarily a bad thing? Is there someway we could turn these kids’ love of computer and console games to our advantage? Some people say ‘yes’ through a process called ‘Gamification’ - the adaptation and application of principles and ideas from computer games to other walks of life such as the classroom.

I recently came across a post on the Digital Play blog, run by Kyle Mawer and Graham Stanley to accompany their book of the same name (which I don’t yet have by the way in case you were wondering what to get me for Christmas! Winking smile) The post suggested adapting the concept of ‘unlockable achievements’ (meaning the gamer receives an in-game trophy or reward for performing a particular task or reaching a certain level) for classroom management situations, such as everyone completing homework assignments on time or full class attendance for a lesson. Successfully earning an achievement results in gaining a ‘level’ and repeating the same achievement will mean ‘levelling up’.

This sounded like something my kids would go for so I decided to adapt it. In the first week, I established my class rules and negotiated some further rules with the class (this was done in a similar manner to last year with this post containing the details). At the start of this week, I introduced the concept of unlockable achievements (which they were all familiar with) and explained how I would use them to reinforce the class rules. That resulted in the following achievements:

  • ‘Ready to roll’ - earned when everybody is ready to start the lesson when the bell rings.
  • ‘Listen and learn’ - awarded when all the students listen to the teacher and are on task throughout the lesson.
  • ‘Completed in class’ - given when all activities (especially written ones) are finished within the lesson time.
  • ‘Perfectly polite’ - earned when students behave respectfully to each other during the lesson (no laughing at mistakes or interrupting when someone is talking and so on).
  • ‘Here’s my homework’ - obviously for all homework being handed in on time.
  • ‘English everywhere! - initially, this will be awarded if the students interact with me in English throughout the lesson but as they reach higher levels, they will go into ‘advanced mode’ and need to speak to each other in English as well.

I made a chart to keep track of the levels as they are unlocked, with rewards coming after the class has attained level 5. The rewards vary from playing a word game to watching a YouTube video to having a few minutes of free time at the end of the lesson. To add a little extra ‘gamified’ element, I have prepared a PowerPoint slideshow with the rewards hidden behind different boxes. The students choose a number and get whichever reward is revealed. Just to show them how it works, I gave them a ‘bonus’ reward the first time they earned a level as a little taster of what will come when they reach level 5.

Of course, it’s early days but most classes have got off to a positive start. They love the idea of ‘levelling up’ and are keen to keep track of the achievements as they are unlocked. At the moment, we are keeping it simple with class achievements only but I plan to introduce some individual achievements (although that could be tricky with 180 students in 6 different classes!) once they have got used to the idea.

Game on!

If you are interested in sharing some of your own tips, please do so in the comments or, even better, join me today (27th September, 2012) at 15.30 UK time for an online chat about classroom management and establishing rapport with students. The chat will take place on the Teaching English Facebook page - hope to see you there!

Tuesday, 25 September 2012

Breaking in the new

Finally, sometime on Sunday afternoon, the pain stopped. The first week of the new school year had caused an unanticipated amount of hurt, aching and misery, all of which had continued to have an effect through the first half of a much needed weekend break. Despite the relief, complete relaxation was not possible as the knowledge that the following morning I would have to face it all again lingered like a dark cloud on the horizon…

“Poor Dave,” you may (or may not) be thinking. “His new classes must be really difficult.” If only it were so. Difficult classes I can handle and hopefully change for the better. I am in fact talking not about my new students but my new shoes: blisters, red raw skin, pinched toes and an aching that goes right to the centre of my sole…s (pun very much intended!)


Not my shoes as it happens but rather the random shoes of some bloke called ‘blond avenger’ who uses Flickr.
They seemed quite comfortable when I tried them on in the store but the rigours of a full week of teaching (on my feet throughout the lessons, walking around the class, going from corridor to corridor and pacing the playground on lunchtime duty) really hit me hard. The first blister was forming on my little toe by Monday evening and more appeared as the week (quite literally) wore on.

Of course, I could have opted for more comfortable footwear later in the week to make life easier but I persisted, hoping that I could break in these new shoes quickly. Indeed, I got through yesterday with considerably less aching and today the pain is barely noticeable.

Here is comes… the tenuous link to my teaching that turns the opening paragraphs into a metaphor!! Image by ecstaticist

And that’s kind of how it has been with the new school year. I am going to six different classes, all new to me. Going into some classes is like putting on a pair of my summer sandals. Everything is comfortable and easy to manage from the beginning and it’s easy to do our lessons in a relaxed manner. With other classes, it’s been like stepping into new shoes - I am trying to get everything in place but the class (or some parts of the class, much like the area above the heel or around the toes on a new pair of shoes) is pushing back and causing a few problems, aches and pains.

But, as with the new shoes, time is needed to break them in. All I can do is be patient (one of the most important qualities in a teacher of young learners). They may not be ready for the lessons on time now, they may be reluctant to write or speak in English and they may be shouting out answers and comments or overly talkative but with time, persistence and (perhaps most importantly) consistency from me, it will get more comfortable and relaxed as the year goes on. Maybe they will never be as snug as my winter slippers, but those feelings of discomfort will soon go away.

But it’s not just a matter of breaking in the new shoes. They will need an occasional polish, just as I’m sure will students will need a reminder every so often about the best way to create and maintain an environment suitable for learning. And with the comfortable shoes, I’ll need to make sure they don’t get holes in them or become too scuffed up and start to fall apart. Even the best-fitting footwear needs a bit of sprucing up.

Over to you
So, if you made it to the end of this post, well done. Smile

And what about you? What metaphors do you have for ‘breaking in’ new classes?

Monday, 17 September 2012

Teacher-Learner Autonomy in Learning about ICT Tools - Guest Post by Phil Longwell

imageHi. I have offered to write a guest blog entry for Dave, partly as a thank you for his assistance this summer in providing advice and providing a test run for my interview stage during my MA dissertation, and partly because I have not written a guest blog before. I’ve never met Dave, not in the flesh anyway. Like a lot of good friends and members of my PLN (personal learning network, which has grown from practically nothing at the start of 2012, I have only met him virtually. This blog was one of the first I stumbled across when setting my own up in the beginning of the year as part of an ICT in ELT module. I later went on to write about blogging as well as writing about ICT tools on a new blog, here (, before going on to do a professional practice module, introducing a new technology or tool into an actual setting that I have taught in before. I continued to use the blog, although not required as part of the course, to share the remaining work on my MA, including using it to generate interest and attract participants into my research for my dissertation. It is that research which I am writing about here.


Image: Research Wordle

One virtue of being an autonomous teacher-learner is that an autonomous philosophy can be instilled in their learners/students, and who are, therefore, much more likely to develop autonomy if they are exposed to autonomous practices in the classroom. It helps teachers to stop being prescriptive and, instead, foster learning.

The issue of Teacher Autonomy is something I first discussed with one of the professors at the University of Warwick, Richard C Smith. As someone who has written extensively about Learner Autonomy and knows all the main protagonists in the field, such as David Little, Leni Dam, Phil Benson and Terry Lamb, I also questioned him on the issue of Teacher Autonomy. I was interested in how autonomous English language teachers are when it comes to learning about new technology and, more specifically, ICT tools. He pointed me in the direction of some dimensions he first tried to define in 2003:


The concept of teacher-learner autonomy relates to both the 'capacity' for self-directed professional development and the freedom from control over professional development.  There is also the dimension of self-directed teacher-learning in relation to professional development.  These are separate from but also the potential basis for professional action, which, for the benefit of my research, is when a teacher actually puts things into practice.  I used this concept to underpin the potential for action and actuality of something happening in practice.  It can also be the separation of the capacity of teachers, based on their perceived 'relationship' with technology, to learn about new tools, and their willingness to do so, given that relationship and other contextual factors, such as institutional resistance or other barriers. That ‘relationship’ – i.e. the extent to which teachers are competent ICT users – was used as a starting point.

The investigation generated taxonomy of current ICT/web tool usage, with comparative figures obtained for different tools that are not only used in the classroom, but those used in preparation or feedback. Furthermore, there was tools defined as those used as part of professional development, which are less to do with teaching and more to do with discovery and discussion of tools. The barriers to integrating tools into teaching was also investigated, along with current institutional support and/or training.

Institutions and employers are not always at the forefront of training teachers in the area of ICT and, especially, in utilising the myriad of web tools that exist, unless they have a specialist trainer or enthusiastic, knowledgeable director of studies. A lot of the impetus for learning about existing and new tools appears to come from teachers engaging with the online community. Indeed, many of those teachers I interviewed expressed how they were leading the way, compared with colleagues, in respect of their autonomous behaviour. This becomes even more essential when a teacher is self-employed or works freelance. With complete freedom from control over one’s own professional development, a high level of teacher-learner autonomy was demonstrated by those who took part in the research.

Plenty of autonomous behaviour was demonstrated. For many teachers, being self-reliant was something rooted in personality, with characteristics such as impatience mentioned by some. For others, it was something that had been learned, often at a time of life when it was imposed upon them, such as at university, when a learner’s hand is not held at every stage. When it came to learning web tools, many seemed to take the initiative and try them out first. Most learned these by practicing or experimenting with them, before looking for a tutorial or further help. A general impatience and an inability to wait for others to train them had lead many of those interviewed to take the initiative.

Those aspects of learning ICT and web tools which take place as part of professional development are those related to self-directed teacher learning and teacher-learner autonomy. As Smith (2003) notes, it might be possible for institutions to focus on developing the willingness and capacity for self-directed teacher learning, but the evidence was that this is only partially happening, at least from the teachers’ perspective.

Those employed as teacher-trainers did demonstrate that web tools were being promoted to their teachers and quite often informal training was given. They also gave some examples of trying to foster more autonomous behaviour. The teachers who were interviewed, however, painted a less positive picture in this regard and if they were fortunate to have dedicated training, it was not being acknowledged. The different perspective on actual training between those who were solely teaching and those predominately employed as trainers was an interesting, emerging feature.

The extent that teachers were self-directing their learning was high and many took substantial responsibility for learning tools. The survey had suggested that whilst the belief was that training should be given, teachers did not wait for this to happen. The interviewees partially backed this perception, as many teachers felt a frustration with having to do their own self-directed learning in their own time. While those that did invest substantial time being autonomous learners were rewarded by the amount of autonomy they created for themselves at work, for many that lack of political will was very much in evidence.

Although some described a lack of access to reliable technology, most reported an above sufficient capacity and a strong freedom from control to learn about and integrate web tools in their practice. This was certainly truer of freelance teachers, although they were not the only ones to have shifted their autonomous behaviour. For the most part, teachers reported support, if not training, by institutions, and were mostly free to teach how they wanted to.

Of course, any decent research should include some reflexivity and, in mirroring Dave’s own banner title, I reflected upon those who took part in the research. The fact that most of the 14 names who signed up for interviews, following the 106 teachers who completed my initial Taxonomy Survey, clearly demonstrating their autonomous behaviour in this area, was something that couldn’t be left uncommented on. There was an over-representation of teachers who had a positive relationship with technology, even if that has become more so over time. There were stories of how teachers had made decisions in respect of their professional development which sat primarily outside of their contracted work hours. They had increased their ICT knowledge and skills in their own time, as part of one or more online communities.

Drawing any conclusions from the whole data set proved difficult because of a huge variation in the wildly different teaching contexts of the participants. Despite some reflective drawbacks, a snapshot of current practice was obtained. As teacher-learners, substantial evidence was demonstrated of self-directed learning. In many situations, interviewees were at the forefront of integrating web tools into their teaching practice ahead of colleagues. Interviewees were keen to show they were taking responsibility for their own learning in this area. This was demonstrated by their involvement in extra-curricular activities and assisted by technologies which allow for self-discovery and practice.

The full findings can also be found at here ( and here (

imageBio: Phil Longwell is from Wells-next-the-Sea, Norfolk, UK. He has been a volunteer in Tanzania and a teacher in South Korea, China and Saudi Arabia. Following his MA, he is currently job-hunting. He has two blogs, one on ICT in ELT mentioned above and another, TPs TEFL Travels, which is more general and personal: He is on Twitter as @teacherphili.

Reference: Smith, R.C. 2003. ‘Teacher education for teacher-learner autonomy’ in Symposium for Language Teacher Educators: Papers from three IALS symposia (CD-Rom), J Gollin, G Ferguson and H Trappes-Loman (Eds.) Edinburgh. IALS. University of Edinburgh. Also available at:

Sunday, 16 September 2012

Really Getting to Know Them

There is a scene in the film Anger Management, a film starring Adam Sandler and Jack Nicholson, in which the main character (played by Sandler and, as it happens, called ‘Dave’ in the film) following a comical sequence of unfortunate misunderstandings finds himself attending an anger management group led by a somewhat unorthodox counsellor (played by Nicholson). At the start of the session, Dave is instructed to tell the group about himself in answer to the question “Who are you?”. He proceeds to talk about his job before being interrupted.

“I don’t want you to tell us what you do”, says the counsellor. “I want you to tell us who you are.”

Looking a bit flustered, Dave tries again, this time mentioning that he likes playing tennis.

“Not your hobbies,” comes Nicholson’s deep (and slightly creepy) voice. “Tell us who you are.”

Unsure how to proceed, Dave then asks for an example. “You want us to tell you who you are?” comes the mocking reply coupled with laughter before Dave finally loses it and shouts out “I don’t know what the hell you want me to say!!”

Image by Quasimondo

With a new academic year set to kick off here in Turkey tomorrow morning, this scene has spent much of the last week replaying in my head as I listen to colleagues discuss ‘getting to know you’ activities and ways they will introduce themselves.

Now, I firmly believe that getting to know new classes as quickly as possible is vital to establishing a firm foundation for a good year of learning. However, much like Jack Nicholson’s character in the film, I don’t believe that knowing about hobbies, favourite things or parents’ jobs is the way to achieve that. Nor does it make any difference if my students know that I’m from a small town in central England or that I’ve lived in Turkey for twelve years.

What I really need to know about them is what they respond well to, what motivates them, what they struggle with, what they need to improve and how I can help them. And what do they need to know about me? Not much really. I’m not that important.

(For example, there was one class last year that I had a really good rapport with. Lessons were looked forward to by both me and them, there was always a good atmosphere in class and they made a lot of progress throughout the year. I was invited to their end of year class party and received plenty of praise from parents for how I had motivated their kids. And yet, there were shocked to learn at the end of the year that I was British having spent all year believing me to be Australian (why? I have no idea!) They didn’t know basic facts about me but I think they knew who I was better than any of my other classes and I knew who they were too, without knowing where they lived, what their parents did for a living, or any of those other pieces of ‘personal’ information.)

So what will I be looking to learn about my new students tomorrow? First and foremost names. It’s a struggle to get going without knowing names so that’s always top priority. Luckily, that’s something I have a natural ability for and I will probably know most of my 180 students’ names by Friday (don’t ask me how - they just tell me their names and it sticks making me the envy of many a colleague, even those who only have 90 names to remember!)

Second, I’ll be looking carefully to see what they respond to. Will they pay more attention to what I say, what I write on the board or what I show them? What kind of humour (if any - my jokes are not always the best gauge!) will they respond to? Will they be more responsive when speaking, writing or involved in a different activity? The answers to all of these questions will inform what happens later this week and in future lessons.

Having said that, I will still do the classic ‘5 Things About Me’ activity. However, I will not be aiming to introduce myself or learn facts about them. I will be observing closely, looking for those things mentioned above: how they approach the activity, how they interact in small groups, how confident they are… All the other stuff - their favourite sports, favourite music, hobbies, brothers and sisters, etc. - will come up during the course of our time together but won’t necessarily form a part of finding out who they are.

  I’ll go a bit easier on them than Jack Nicholson’s character did in Anger Management though. Winking smile

Friday, 14 September 2012

WSP Rant #3 - “There are no dangerous Powerpoints; there are only dangerous presenters”

Having vented against delinquent teachers in the audience and mix-ups and mishaps by organisers, it’s now time to turn attention to that poor person who has to stand in front of a crowd of more strangers than expected who are most likely disgruntled about losing their free time for an ‘irrelevant’ session. Yes, time to take a bite out of the presenters….

Wait! That’s Shelly Terrell! She’s one of the best ones!! - Image by @clivesir via eltpics

(Please note: this should all be taken tongue-in-cheek rather than seriously. Don’t forget I occasionally present sessions myself and at some point have been guilty of some of the things mentioned in this post… so there).

Let me start (or continue as this is the third paragraph) with a confession. I ask that you do not judge or ridicule but that you hear me out. You see, the thing is….

…I actually like using PowerPoint…

There we are - I said it! PowerPoint is one of my favourite software tools to use. Sure, I’ve flirted with Prezi and other web 2.0 seductresses from time to time, but I keep coming back to good old PowerPoint asking for forgiveness. I use it as a backdrop when doing workshops and presentations, I use it in class to present and revise grammar and vocabulary and I use it to make presentations for my school website. I dabble with different themes, animations and transitions and embed images, videos and sound files to supplement the text.

And yet I find PowerPoint has a bit of a bad reputation amongst conference goers and the public at large. We hear of “Death by PowerPoint” as poor helpless teachers, having already lost a Saturday off, are subjected to slide after slide of uninspiring text, charts and statistics. It’s so bad, some of them have no recourse but to look at their mobile phones or chat to the people around them in order to avoid the cold creeping hand of PowerPoint Death. When the life-threatening danger has passed, out-dated clip art and overuse of bullet points and the Comic Sans MS font become the target of ridicule.

But it’s not really a PowerPoint problem, is it? It’s simply poor/deadly use of a simple tool. After all, a cricket bat may be used to play a game invoking rose-tinted memories of fine English gentlemen relaxing in the village green on a Sunday afternoon or it may be used rather more bluntly to bludgeon someone to death. Conversely, a machete could be lethally used to hack someone to pieces but it may also be a valuable device to cut your way through dense tracks of jungle in a bid for survival.

In the case of PowerPoint, it is a handful of presenters who are to blame as they load their slides with bullet-pointed text summarising quite specific academic research and proceed to read it to us for an hour. It’s not the software, it’s not the content - it’s the presentation itself that is the problem.

Nor is it just a matter of design. One conference I attended at some unspecified point in the past featured a speaker who projected a very slick and visually appealing slideshow: the theme used looked very professional and left ample room for the content; the images selected were clear and relevant; and the slides were not overloaded with text. However, the presentation itself was poor. At times, the presenter did not seem to know what was coming on the next slide and frequently spent long pauses shuffling through notes. We were then informed that the next few slides would show quotes from participants in a research programme. “Don’t worry,” came the assurance. “I won’t read it all out to you. I’ll give you a few moments to view the comments yourselves.” That sounded promising but then the slide appeared with a photo to represent the person the quote had come from along with a paragraph of about ten lines… and then it was gone as the presenter clicked on the the next slide. And then the next one! Now, people can read quietly faster than someone can read aloud but nobody can read that fast! At first, I tried not to show any reaction as that fear of looking like the simpleton who couldn’t keep up kicked in. However, murmurs of discontent soon rippled round the crowd and the presenter lost the audience after that.

At the same event, another presenter appeared with a much more basic PowerPoint: no theme, just a white background; Comic Sans MS in a variety of bright colours; and a selection of clip art that suggested use of Windows 95. But crucially, this time the bullet points were concise and relevant and the speaker was informative, engaging and interesting. There was hardly a mobile phone in sight and barely a bored puff to be heard.

At the end of the day, we should remember what we always hear about technology in the classroom - it’s not the tool itself that teaches, presents, engages (or bores); it’s how it is put to use and who puts it to use that makes the difference. If you’ve got something interesting to say, people will listen. If you’ve got something to read or got something that you’ve forgotten the contents of, people are going to switch off.

Thursday, 13 September 2012

Lessons on the Fly - Back down to Earth

Last spring, I wrote a series of posts entitled Lessons on the Fly about how I was preparing my students to take the Cambridge Flyers test using mainly student-generated pictures, stories and dialogues as the basis for our prep lessons instead of the swathes of past papers and practice tests used in the past. Well, we have just received the results so I thought it would be a a good time to reflect on the lessons and how well they prepared the students for the tests with the ‘proof in the pudding’ of their results.

What goes up…. Image by @cgoodey via eltpics

Those lessons marked the first time I felt I had really done something ‘unplugged’ over a sustained period of time and with a specific target in mind, rather than the odd dogme lesson here and there for a bit of variety. I enjoyed the lessons and it seemed my learners did too. Everything was very much student-centred and student-generated. Any material we used (pictures, texts, recordings) were created by the kids in the class and the language points and vocab we covered emerged from that, all of which was recycled and reinforced. Making their own exam-style activities appeared to give the students a much better understanding of what the different sections of the exam demanded of them and they approached the test with confidence.

I was eager to get hold of the results to see what effect those lessons had had. I looked through the scores given to my students in each of the sections (reading/writing, listening and speaking) and compared them with the other classes, whose teachers focused on past papers and sample questions during their exam preparation time.

Now, I can’t share the actual results and/or statistics we received publicly on the blog (school policy) but I can make comparisons between classes and draw conclusions so that’s what I will do….

And so, the moment of truth - when I compared the results my ‘unplugged’ students got with the results of the students who were fed a strict diet of past papers, the difference was…. very small indeed…

…must come down - Image by @sandymillin via eltpics

The average scores of my students were only slightly (as in a 0.05 kind of slightly) higher than those of the other classes. After all those stories we made, wrote and answered questions for, corrected, re-told and summarised, reading and writing scores were about the same. All the live listenings we did and all the authentic recordings we made resulted in my students matching the average of the rest of the year group. Only the speaking scores stood out as being higher than the average but that’s the easiest part of the test!

So those are the stats (in summary) but, as ever, what they mean depends on your point of view. You could say it’s proof that dogme-style teaching is not much more than a ‘conversation’ lesson, explaining the better speaking scores, or that an unplugged approach is not really suited to exam prep or young learners…. Or, you could say (and I do Smile) that these students were still able to do just as well as their peers despite not using multiple past papers or test prep materials. Just using the children in the room and their input was enough for them to get good scores, making all that photocopying redundant.

We should also look back a little. When I compare these Flyers results to the scores the same students got one year before on the Movers test, their averages went up in all three sections showing progress over time.
And, yet again, we should not let the exam dominate our view. Exams are not the be-all and end-all of learning and neither are exam results. I got a good reminder of that when I stopped at the supermarket on the way home today and, while mulling over this post, bumped into one of last year’s students. She told me she was excited about starting middle school next week but also sad to be leaving primary school behind, saying she would especially miss ‘lessons like that one when we drew a snow picture and wrote questions about it’.

I’ll take a lesson making a lasting impression on a learner over top marks in a test any time.

Monday, 10 September 2012

WSP Rant #2 (of several) - (Dis)organisation & (Mis)communication

Having had a go at teachers with double standards in yesterday’s post (thus kicking things off unexpectedly by not targeting the poor presenters), today I have taken aim and am ready to let fly at much more elusive and often unseen target - the people responsible for organising professional development events (I’m talking local or in-house affairs here, not conferences) and communicating information to the speaker(s).

If only we could be as well organised as these little fellas… Image by @purple_steph via eltpics

I have simply become fed up with the number of times I’ve sat down for a session only for the first words out of the speaker’s mouth to be: “Oh! There are a lot of you here…. I was expecting a workshop with about 15 people” or “Wait! You mean you all work in the primary school? I was told this would be for high school teachers!” Now, of course, this is not (always) the presenters fault. Indeed, I usually feel sorry for them having carefully prepared a session based on information passed on either by the school that invited them or the publishing/teacher training company that sent them (it’s happened to me too - I once prepared a 45-minute talk with enough handouts for 80 people only to find 12 people who were expecting a morning-long workshop!). Instead, it is often due to some breakdown in communication or lack of organisation in the time it takes from the session(s) being requested, dates and speakers being chosen and the actual event itself.

OK, but I can’t help but ask why?!? What is it that means a request from the primary school English department for a workshop on storytelling and drama ends up with a speaker prepared to do a critical thinking seminar with teachers of teenagers? If it’s the case that a speaker with expertise in the requested area is not available, why not just say so and suggest alternatives rather than just send some other seemingly random person? Or, upon receiving details of the proposed talk, why doesn’t someone check that it actually matches up to what was originally asked for? Who checks the expected numbers of attendees and why is this most basic piece of information so often miscommunicated?

(Also, if a speaker has been promised internet access, speakers and a projector, can someone make sure that they actually get it all? And that it works?)

And while we are here, on the organisation front, a key issue that needs to be addressed is the far too ambiguous term of ‘young learners’. One way to interpret this is as meaning ‘not adult’. However, the reality is that there is a huge difference between teaching pre-school children and 17 year-olds preparing for their university entrance exams. In fact, there is a huge difference between teaching pre-schoolers and first graders or 7 year-olds and 12 year-olds and this needs to be recognised when organising PD sessions. I once found myself at a workshop about developing critical thinking skills with both kindergarten and high school teachers in attendance. Although the presenter tried her best, it was impossible to make the session relevant to everybody and it ended up being another wasted opportunity.

All of this leads to a problem I touched on in my last post - that of teachers who don’t really want to be there or don’t see the point of attending such sessions. Why do they feel this way? Ask them and they’ll tell you it’s because the workshop/seminar is often disorganised or the topic/theme is not really relevant to their specific teaching context. So please, event organisers, department heads, school admin, training companies, publishers, presenters and whoever else is involved - can we please check and double-check that everyone knows what kind of session is needed, what the topic is and how many people will be there? And if we can avoid the temptation to tell every single teacher in the school from all the different year groups to attend, that would be great. Thus, we can avoid wasted opportunities and have well-taken ones with satisfied teachers instead. Winking smile

P.S. Having written this last night, I must say that we had a workshop this morning about the new books we will be using this year and the speaker knew exactly what to expect and the session was on the whole useful and relevant - more of these please!!

Sunday, 9 September 2012

Workshop, Seminar and Presentation Rant #1 (of several) - Double standards of behaviour

It’s been building for a while now, bubbling beneath the surface… It began as a slight feeling of uneasiness before growing into continuing annoyance and eventually manifesting as a good old fashioned slightly tongue-in-cheek (but only slightly!) blog rant.

The rant begins - Image by @dfogarty via eltpics

As a teacher, I have attended many workshops, seminars, presentations and other forms of ‘talk’  and, while I view them as an important part of my continuing professional development, I can’t help but feel some of them are a wasted opportunity. Sometimes this is due to some fault of the organisers and sometimes it is due to the speaker/workshop leader her/himself - but I will get onto them in future posts/rants. The first targets in my sights are the attendees… Yes, those ordinary teachers like you and me who make up the ‘audience’ at such events. Specifically, I’m going to rant about what I see as Double Standards of Acceptable Behaviour. Please read on….


Going down… Image by Nesster

Let me start with a few questions:

  • What would most teachers do if a student was using a mobile phone (or some other handheld gadget) in class?

Now, I know there are teachers out there who would look for some way to exploit it, incorporate the gadget (and therefore the student) into the lessons and ‘connect’ but I asked about most teachers. Most teachers I have come across would stop the offending gadget being used in some way, either by telling the student to put it away, demanding it be switched off or confiscating it. Agreed? Good - next question.

  • What would most teachers do if a pair or group of students was constantly talking and/or joking throughout the lesson?

Again, there are those who would try to find out what was distracting the students or exploit the topic of conversation dogme-style but, again, we need to think about most teachers. Tell the students to stop talking? Warn them? Separate them? Get angry? Wonder why they don’t take the lessons seriously? I think at least one of those options or some combination of them would be expected.

  • What would most teachers do if a student huffed, puffed and declared “This is boring”?

A show of anger at the sheer cheek on display might be in order followed by a reminder that it is not the teacher’s duty to entertain. Or perhaps the teacher would take it all personally, denting their confidence and adding to growing feelings of self-doubt.

So, if the above are true, why on earth do the very same teachers exhibit exactly the same kind of behaviour in workshops, seminars and presentations? So many times, I have been sat in a talk only to see teachers all around me checking emails, sending messages, viewing websites and even playing games on their smartphones or tablets. Or I have found myself unable to follow what the presenter is saying because people around me are chatting non-stop. They’re either gossiping, talking about plans for the weekend, complaining about being ‘forced’ to attend the current presentation or criticising the presenter and/or the theme of the session.

Would they allow the same kinds of goings-on in their classrooms? Of course not! And we are talking about teachers here - experienced, university-educated adults! If they can’t listen, pay attention and do a few tasks for 45 minutes, why do they expect 10-year old children to be able to do so?!?

I could end it there but I feel an urge to be constructive now that the steam has disappeared from my glasses so I will offer some thoughts on what to do about this issue.

Obviously, the best place for change to come from is within. Teachers sitting through a talk on a Saturday morning could just leave their phones in their bags, pay attention and just accept that this particular session may be a bit boring or seem irrelevant but hope that the next one will be better. Alternatively, we could just put it down to human nature in a ‘boys will be boys’ (and ‘teachers will be teachers’) kind of way…

Or… we could acknowledge that maybe our students don’t give their full attention in class sometimes because they are bored too and they have other things that they would rather be doing or other places they would rather be at that particular moment in time. We could then recognise that this is perhaps why they act up in class sometimes. We could then talk to them about it, involve them, incorporate their ideas, make the learning relevant to them. Engagement and attention then increases and distractions, complaints and teachers with self-doubt are not so common.

Of course, presenters at PD events could on occasion benefit from involving the audience, incorporating their ideas and making things relevant as well but that’s for a future rant. Winking smile

Friday, 7 September 2012

Materials Overload

The new academic year is almost upon us here in Turkey and it will be one with many changes, both on a national level and within my school as year groups are restructured and English teaching hours are changed. As a result, my school is using new course books this year, books we have spent the last few days patiently waiting for to see exactly what we have to work with (or without as the case may be).

And today, we discovered this is what we have to deal with:


What you see are ‘Teacher Resource Packs’ for second and third grade teachers. Contained within are flashcards (in both print and CD-ROM formats), poster packs, game cards and a cartoon story on DVD. In between columns, you can just about see activity books with grammar practice and reading and writing booklets just out of shot. Oh, and there’s no sign of the main course book or the teacher’s book yet.

Personally, I would not relish working with such an amount of material but I just reminded myself that I will not be teaching those grades and moved on.

Having moved on past the visual obstruction of the ‘triple towers’, I came across this sight:


These are the books I will be using… What you see are teacher’s books (30 for each level even though there are only 3 or 4 teachers who will use them), poster packs, vocabulary cards, audio CDs, teacher CD-ROMs, student CD-ROMs, DVDs, assessment packs, teacher resource packs and practice books. The main course book and a further set of CDs are still to come…

Two thoughts immediately entered my head: What a waste and what am I going to do with all this? I am sure most of what you see will hardly be used. With the limited hours we have each week and the additional readers and preparation for the Cambridge YLE tests, there is simply no way all of this can be used. Some might say “it’s better to have too much than too little” but isn’t this a bit over the top? We are in danger of collapsing beneath the weight of our syllabus. In fact, the table is also in danger of collapsing!

And it seems like overkill both in terms of the amount of material provided and the amount of paper and packaging used:


It’s been more than a decade since Scott Thornbury challenged the dependence on pre-prepared material in the world of EFL and I think I’ll leave you with his words which resonate with me right now more than ever before:

But where is the story? Where is the inner life of the student in all this? Where is real communication? More often as not, it is buried under an avalanche of photocopies, visual aids, transparencies, MTV clips and cuisennaire rods. Somewhere in there we lost the plot.

Thornbury, 2000