The breaking of the back was the making of the man.

“To make yourself, it is also necessary to destroy yourself.” (Patrick White, Voss, 1957)

I remember reading the above quote while I was travelling around New Zealand in 2009. I felt an immediate connection with the character in the book, a doomed pioneer who is determined to explore the Australian outback at all costs. I had in effect done exactly what he was talking about. I had called off my wedding, quit my well paid job just as the crisis kicked in, moved out of my flat by the sea and took all the money I had and went travelling to New Zealand and South America. It was the best thing I ever did, I’m sorry to sound heartless but it was. It was this reevaluation of life that led me to where I am today. Stripping everything back, deciding what it was I actually wanted to do and then choosing the path that led me to becoming an ELT teacher.

Now lets fast forward to the present day. I was lucky enough to attend the brilliant IH Barcelona annual conference last weekend. The line up of speakers was impressive and I was excited to see some old faces. There was no real theme to the conference as now seems to be the fashion, but throughout the conference and especially after a period of deep reflection the theme was evidently clear to me.

The conference began on the Friday evening with two excellent plenaries. The first was from Jessica Mackay (@JessBCN) My tweets from the session:

Jessica Mackay currently encouraging us to do research #IHBCNELT

Teachers are probably better at being able to explain their research to other teachers. It can help TD, be empowering & inspiring. #IHBCNELT

Research can help to refresh our teaching and make us rethink what we do in the classroom. #IHBCNELT

Sts benefit from a teacher who does research. That teacher is engaged, interested and cares about the class. Everyone wins. #IHBCNELT

A desperate need for research written by teachers for teachers. #IHBCNELT

It was a very inspiring start to the conference and had me sitting up, paying attention and immediately pondering what research I could do. The last comment above, was for me, a very powerful statement and something that I think is desperately missing from ELT. I don’t think research in a sense has to be about writing huge dissertations for your masters degree or papers and books laden with toilsome terminology. To be relevant and immediately useful for teachers on the ground it needs to be done in real-time, action research coupled with documentation through blogging. Easily accessible and open to comment and debate among other teachers.

Next up was Anthony Gaughan (@anthonygauhan), who was asking us, “Where are all the unplugged teacher trainers?” Anthony hit the ground running, wanting to know why Dogme/unplugged teaching was only being paid “lip service (at best)” when it came to teacher training. Why wasn’t it given more time, more attention? Why weren’t trainees being encouraged to teach without the coursebook and work directly with what their students brought to the classroom? His argument was compelling and backed up with his own experiences of unplugging his CELTA courses. He then laid out an unofficial mandate for how teacher trainers and future trainers could set about unplugging their own courses.

Course books are not essential! @AnthonyGaughan hits the nail on the head. #IHBCNELT

Ditch your timetable, work back from results, start with what they can do, ask them what they think. #unpluggedteachertraining#IHBCNELT

Stop writing TP points, don’t ask for lesson plans, devote more time to guidance, stop answering, ask! #unpluggedteachertraining#IHBCNELT

Teach with them, don’t judge, help, 3 good reasons-economy-flexibility-self sufficiency for doing #unpluggedteachertraining #IHBCNELT

I’m not a teacher trainer and far from being one, but this had me on the edge of my seat. I certainly hope I wasn’t the only one and I really hope that the teacher trainers who attended were paying attention. If we want to make a difference to teaching it has to be at the very root of the profession. Trainees need to be made aware that course books and materials are not the be all and end all of a successful lesson. Anthony talked about teachers walking unaided, with out the crutches of the coursebook to support them. If anything the bottle feeding of coursebooks to trainees is quite possibly what prevents them from walking unaided in the first place. The trainee needs to be trusted, encouraged, nurtured just like we do with our students, they must be made aware of the bigger picture and that picture can’t be found in a course book.

Luke Meddings kicked of proceedings on Saturday morning with his talk ‘Dogme, detour and drift:Learning from the situationists. He didn’t let us down. Taking us on a journey around the world, back in time and a trip to his mum’s loft.

His message was simple and hard-hitting.

School=exams=success. Real education is lost. @LukeMeddings sounds like he is building towards a rallying call. Revolution? #IHBCNELT

.@LukeMeddings: “When it becomes a revolutionary act to just teach instead of prepare students for the test, we’re in trouble.” #IHBCNELT

Education is becoming obsessed with results, statistics and exams. Teaching is now akin to feeding information into empty heads. Spoon feeding language and discrete grammar. Luke was willing to provide us with an answer to counter this tide of standardization and testing. Dogme!

Dogme could be the key. Focus on dialogue, no focus on discrete grammar points. learn a language thru spking Giving people a voice #IHBCNELT

I couldn’t help but agree. Luke, as well as Anthony, was bringing Dogme back to the forefront of ELT. It is a viable alternative in a world where very few people are willing to break away from the pack and do something different. And to get it started we need to breakdown a few barriers.

Dismantle the box we are put in as teachers. Then go on to dismantle the boxes our students are kept in. @LukeMeddings great talk #IHBCNELT

The conference moved on and so did I. Moving around the conference hall to see as many people as possible. Some great talks, combined with useful ideas and further food for thought.

At 15.30 I found myself at a loose end, so I drifted into the main hall to watch Phillip Kerr talk about “The adaptivity of adaptive learning”. It blew my mind!

Coursebooks are on the move and this is bad news for teachers. The big publishing houses and many other newly formed businesses are currently investing huge amounts of money into adaptive learning. Coursebook content is moving online, likely to become cheaper and more easily accessible, making the need for real face to face teaching less and less. Teachers will be relegated and learning will be about learners consuming grammar and lexical mcnuggets. You would think that to spend billions of pounds on adaptive learning, you would need good old-fashioned research to support its credibility as a learning method. Well think again. The method is fueled purely by what is called, ‘Big Data’. Big companies collecting personal information and recording internet habits and trends to tailor personalised learning courses.

Big data is something we need to know about. we need to be aware of the effect it has on us We need to talk about it! Phillip Kerr #IHBCNELT

Money talks and it talks louder than all the teachers in the world put together. But Phillip gave us some hope, eloquently pointing out the big problems adaptive learning is likely to face in the future.

Adam Beale ‏@bealer81  Feb 8

Language is socially constructed. Always has been & always will be. Phillip Kerr speaking about problems adaptive learning faces #IHBCNELT

Unfortunately he did end on a more negative note when he warned;

“Algorithm written coursebooks are coming … Good luck.” a chilling end to Phillip Kerr’s dose of dystopia at #IHBCNELT I’m scared anyway.

I’m not sue if I did Phillip’s excellent talk any justice, so I would highly recommend reading his blog, which you can find here –

So what about this theme?

All of the talks I have written about here struck a major chord with me. Almost like a wake up call, my own personal watershed moment. The theme was one of returning to basics, with the teacher becoming the most important learning tool in the classroom. Teachers researching their profession, teachers showing other teachers what is possible, teachers giving students a voice and freeing them from the ever-present pressure of exams and finally, teachers providing learners with the one true way of learning a language, face to face through dialogue construction.

This has inspired me to completely rethink my current teaching. As I hand back the most recent of the exams I have been teaching towards, I feel an uneasy guilt that I have become part of the system. A teacher that simply spoon feeds his way through the school year. I need a phase of stripping everything back again, destroying what I have become to then remake myself. Dogme, I believe, is key to this. It doesn’t mean a total disregard for coursebooks or materials in general. This is not a war or a rant against coursebooks, but a search for a viable alternative that utilises the teacher and creates a more meaningful way of teaching. I would like to prove that there is another way and bring this to the attention of as many people who are willing to listen. Like the doomed character at the beginning of the post I may well be wandering into my own personal desert, but at least I gave it a shot.

This air conditioned life has left me gasping for some real conversation. (Frank Turner)

How to teach

The Secret DOS

A bit of a polemic today, to mark the fact that I have woken up at some sort of ridiculous hour and now need to keep my brain occupied while waiting for the rest of the family to stir. The backstory: I am currently teaching a class that ranges from complete beginner to…well…to what exactly? I couldn’t possibly begin to tell you and I have been doing this job for over twenty years. Some of the students at the higher end of the ability scale are capable of talking, of joking, of communicating, but cannot spell, write, read or understand spoken English with any degree of accuracy. What placement test will ever be able to label them with certitude? At least one of the students in my class says absolutely nothing. When she is asked a question, she folds in on herself and tries to do that sort of physical…

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Do conversation-driven lessons make any sense? (Part 2)

Henrick Oprea

Language is quite a complex system – one which we try to organise according rules and norms. One of the common ways for us to think about such organisation is prescriptively, the way many of us were taught a second or a foreign language. If we look at what David Crystal says about prescriptivism, we will see that it “is the view that one variety of the language has an inherently higher value than others, and this ought to be imposed on the whole of the speech community. The view is related especially in relation to grammar and vocabulary, and frequently with reference to pronunciation.” And here we have the three pillars of what we learn when we study a language. If we don’t learn vocabulary, we won’t be able to get our message across as other speakers of the target language won’t know what we’re saying. However, if we…

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