Was the standard of presentations higher at this year’s IATEFL conference in Harrogate – or have I just got better at picking the right ones to go to? Whatever the answer, I have come away inspired by what I saw and heard, and I am once again in awe of the dedication professionalism and creativity of English teachers around the world.
The headline-grabbing flurry of reaction to Sugata Mitra’s closing plenary – some of it reasoned and some seemingly more of a response to quotations taken out of context or reactions to audience members’ blogged interpretations of what they think he said or meant – has somewhat overshadowed what took place in the previous three days. For discussions of this issue, I recommend first of all that you watch the plenary itself and then look at the blogs by Graham Stanley, Jeremy Harmer, and our own Chia Suan Chong.
I would like to concentrate here on some of the smaller talks – smaller only in the size of the room allocated or the number of attendees, but not smaller in their importance or the value of the insights they imparted.
Firstly, I was privileged to hear Vicky Saumell’s talk ‘Ways of promoting creativity in the classroom’. Vicky is a lovely person and presenter of great charm. Hers was a practical talk with plenty of ideas that teachers could take away and use with their own students. She illustrated her presentation with slides of her students’ work, and you could clearly see from these how inspired her students were and how the tasks and activities they were doing had really struck a chord. Asked to do a piece of writing describing their life as if they were someone else, the students threw themselves enthusiastically into accounts of being figures from the past, characters from plays, etc. And it was revealing that they didn’t play it safe and target only the easy subjects or things they already knew plenty about. They chose and researched their characters fully and carefully, one of them producing a heart-rending account of being a Jew persecuted by the Nazis. Proof indeed that today’s teenagers care about deeper issues than football and pop stars.
In fact, in Ken Wilson’s talk on whether global issues can provide authenticity and context in English teaching, only one teacher claimed that his students were only interested in sports and celebrities. Practically everyone else reported that their classes were keen to discuss supposedly ‘taboo’ subjects like sex, politics, gay marriage, and so on – the things that publishers ban from coursebooks, applying the PARSNIPS (politics, alcohol, religion, sex, narcotics, isms, poverty social class) rule. Commercial realities probably mean that these issues will never find their way into mainstream teaching materials, but they do inevitably come up in class discussions, and teachers have to find creative ways to deal with them. This was a thought-provoking talk and many of us wished the discussion could have gone on longer.
For sheer entertainment, laced with sensible, practical advice, you can always rely on Lindsay Clandfield and Duncan Foord. Their presentation on ‘Surviving Language Teaching’ had some useful tips for teachers, including some hilarious ones on body language, delivered by Lindsay and exemplified by Duncan. At the end of their talk they also recommended a presentation by Sinead Laffen (The hole in the classroom wall) and I am so glad that they did. This was a beautiful and inspiring talk on what happened when a group of CertTESOL teacher trainees were sent to teach a class the week before their course began, with no guidance or observation. The natural creativity of the trainees and their students, and the insights that they got into teaching before anyone had started telling them how it ‘should’ be done, were both fascinating and eye-opening.
If I were asked to sum the whole conference up in one word, that word would be creativity. And I think that bodes extremely well for the future of English language teaching, whether or not Sugata Mitra or anybody else actually envisages a future in which teachers are entirely redundant!