Random ideas for ELT people, plus guest blogs & travel notes


Spinal Tap's Nigel Tufnel - trust me, he's here for a reason...

Readers with reaaaaaaaaaally long memories may recall that sometime back in the last millennium, I started a blogpost called ‘Ten Things I Think I Know’.

After two posts, I only managed to arrive, coughing and wheezing, at Number 8.

For a while, it felt as if this ‘Ten Things’ was going to become a reverse version of Nigel Tufnel’s amplifier in Spinal Tap which, unlike other amplifiers that only went up to ten, went up to eleven. It certainly felt as if my ‘Ten Things’ was going to stall on número ocho.

Nigel Tufnel's amplifier - it clearly goes up to eleven...

But I’ve had a second wind, and here are the last two things I think I know about teaching. Actually, only one of them is about teaching – the other one is about writing teaching materials.

And there’s a small problem with the first one. I’m not even sure that I think I know it.

It’s about technology.

9       “Most teachers don’t live there.”

What I think is this – most teachers don’t know how to make maximum use of the classroom technology possibilities that are available. That part is easy. My thinking about this gets a bit foggy when I go into it more deeply.

There are teachers who have embraced the possibilities of new classroom technology, and there are others who haven’t. This isn’t a generational thing – there are young and old teachers in both camps.

What worries me a bit is that the teachers who effortlessly use web2 technology can’t understand that there are others in their profession who don’t understand/use it, either because they can’t or – much worse – because they don’t want to. And the teachers who do want to convert the teachers who don’t. In the nicest possible way, but they want to convert them.

Not only do they (the converters) think that the others are missing out on untold riches, they think they (the unconverted) are short-changing their tech-savvy students if they stick to old-fashioned classroom practices.

I had never really put this thought into words until I read one of Jason Renshaw’s thoughtful and immensely readable blogs.

In December 2009, Jason posted a blog which was entitled “Ditched course book deal means Raven’s Nest reopens for business

In it, he expressed in a very colourful way his distaste for writing ‘more of the same’ course material. The implication was that, with the fantastic technical advances available now, we should be able to abandon the current course book format and move on. Twenty-first century teachers deserve something which takes advantage of what is now possible, thanks to Web 2.0 etc etc…

Here’s a taste of his coruscating thoughts on the matter:

With this latest project in particular, I actually began to loathe the whole idea of writing a course book. Sitting down to write each day, I would have to force an increasingly bad taste in my mouth back down my throat, hoping my stomach acids would consume it quickly and pass it along to somewhere more appropriate in my digestive system.

I often found myself staring out the window of my office, thinking in despair, “Is this what it has all come down to? Is this what ELT writing is all about now?” Despite the blue skies outside, what I saw there was becoming increasingly bleak. Full of details and features, but essentially barren.

Gripping and colourful stuff. You can read the whole post here: http://tinyurl.com/ygrpby4

I felt a great sympathy with what Jason was writing, and yet I couldn’t agree with him. After much thought, I replied. This is part of what I wrote:

The problem for you and for most authors with good ideas is that there are a whole lot of teachers out there who want to use your book, but who don’t and/or can’t operate in your world.

For example, you and me live in blog/tweet world. For teachers who spend time there, blog/tweet world is like King Solomon’s Mines, full of riches and constantly replenished with new ideas and links. But most teachers don’t live there. This is sad perhaps, but it’s the truth.

The wonderful Shelly Terrell lifted the Most teachers don’t live there quote and ran with it in her excellent Teacher Reboot Camp blog. (http://teacherbootcamp.edublogs.org)

In her very thoughtful response, Shelly wrote:

After attending several conferences in the US and in Europe, I have seen that many educators do not visit blogs regularly, have not joined a ning, and will not join Twitter. Even if they have visited a website, how many actually visit these websites once a week or once a month? As an educator, I feel passionate about learning and I believe that all incredible educators feel the same!

After listing ways in which tech-savvy teachers can help their less favoured brethren, Shelly continues:

Technology is not the enemy and ignorance is not bliss. If we don’t show students how to use social media and technology, then we cannot complain when they use them in unhealthy ways.

You can read the whole of Shelly’s post here: http://tinyurl.com/yhcdwhp

When the dust settles on all of this, I still believe that a sizeable proportion of the educational community hasn’t got a clue about the technology which is available to them, and these teachers are much less tech-aware than the students they are teaching.

But.. and here is finally what I think…

Their lack of interest in new technology doesn’t matter if they have other ways of making their lessons effective and/or memorable.

As a post-script to this, here’s a conversation that I was involved in a couple of weeks ago.

I went to a hush-hush meeting in a hotel in a forest to talk about a new course book project. The participants included publishers, editors and writers, and various other people who put in an appearance to give of their wisdom.

I was particularly interested in the input provided by two people, the managing director and marketing manager of a company which provides summer school English tuition in small cities around the UK. They are a small-ish player in this competitive market, but they seem very successful. They cater for students aged between 14 and 21, and they had 16,000 students last summer, a sharp increase on the 12,000 they entertained five years ago. The company’s aim is to break 20,000 students in the next five years.

We talked about the kind of materials their clientele like. Eventually, the subject of technology came up. I asked what kind of technology was available to the teachers who worked on these courses.

The managing director was clearly uncomfortable with this line of questioning. He seemed to think that I thought his teachers were under-resourced. I had to persuade him that this wasn’t where I was coming from. I simply wanted to know what the teachers could provide and what the students liked.

“The students aren’t bothered about technology in the classroom,” he said flatly. “They do computer stuff in their own time.”

Then came his killer argument.

“As long as the teacher is young, the students are happy,” he declared. When everyone around the table expressed shock and/or surprise at this, he went on.

“I’m sorry, he said. “I’ve employed teachers of every age from 21 to 60. At least on summer courses, students prefer to be taught by someone who isn’t much older than they are.”

So now you know…

10     Most course book writers need to get out more.

I hope this doesn’t come across a smart-ass way to finish.

Like most course book writers, I enjoy the planning stage of writing a course almost more than the actual writing. The promotion phase is also great, with its varied and exciting travel possibilities, but there is always the chance that some sharp-eyed teacher will spot a typo (or worse, a factual error about the country you are in), which rather takes the shine off the occasion.

Back to the planning stage. Visiting schools and watching classes is essential to planning a book. Seeing how teachers and students deal with existing material is very informative.

I know I go on about the classes I’ve visited, but I’m very pleased that I’ve taken the chance to visit so many over the last 20 years. In that time, I’ve sat in on more than 500 classes in 30 countries. About a third of these class visits were part of English Teaching Theatre tours rather than book-oriented research, but I learnt a lot from attending them.

I co-wrote my first series of course books in the early 90s. The first place I went to do some research was Italy, and the first class I saw was in a Scuola Media school in Torino.  It was conducted almost entirely in Italian.

I was shocked. The kids loved it, and so did I, eventually. I’m pretty sure I learnt more Italian that day than they learnt English, though.

The point is this: if I hadn’t done the research, I wouldn’t have discovered that lots of state school teachers teach English through their own language. And not just in Italy.

I feel strongly that anyone who has ambitions to write course material should go through this rite of passage. And not just before they write their first book. They should do it again and again.

And yet I have good friends who are full-time course book writers who never do this kind of research. Some of them don’t do any author travel at all. They are happy to accept what the marketing and sales people tell them about local conditions. And they also feel uncomfortable about ‘parachuting in’ to a conference, and telling local teachers how to teach when they don’t know anything about the local working conditions.

My argument is simple. They should go, they should talk at conferences, and they should sit at the back of classes. The teachers will be pleased to listen to them, and they will learn lots from watching teachers who are working in circumstances that are completely different from the teaching conditions they (the authors) were used to in the good old days at International House.

That’s it. We can all get on with our lives now.

Comments please, especially about point 9.

Comments on: "Ten Things I Think I Know – The Final Countdown" (53)

  1. What an outstanding and truly thought-provoking post, Ken. It will definitely go down as one of the classics in the Wilson portfolio of thoughtful posts about our profession!

    As honoured as I am to get such a “starring” mention, and while you haven’t misquoted me, I do feel the wrong conclusion or connection has been made with regards to the quoted sections.

    From your post it appears I am getting nauseous that teachers are not more connected and tech-friendly, while in fact those comments were strictly limited to my feelings about writing the same old bland unchallenging material for coursebooks, because publishers insist on pidgeon-holing the world’s EFL teachers and students into a few limited (and very ‘tired’) approaches to learning the language. And yes, as a materials writer, I was starting to feel sorry for myself that this appeared to be the limits of my commercial writing universe.

    However, and just to continue that particular thread, I have to say my thoughts and feelings have changed since then, mostly because of some reactions and contacts that were made following that particular post. Eric Baber from Cambridge/English360 and Lindsay Clandfield got in contact with me to talk about some of these issues, and looking at the work they are doing and directions they are moving with ELT materials design and application, I have to say – the horizon looks far brighter. People like Eric and Lindsay have proved me wrong to a degree that allows me to raise my head again!

    Anyway, I don’t want this to detract from your great post here, because I do agree with almost all of what you say. I also wasn’t remotely shocked at all to hear the comment that students prefer younger teachers – I’ve seen that for myself in plenty of teaching/learning contexts.

    Thanks again for an excellent post.

    ~ Jason

    • Ken Wilson said:

      Hi Jason,

      ‘thank you’ and ‘I apologise’ seem to be the apposite phrases here.🙂

      Thank you for the nice comment, and I apologise if I mis-interpreted your original blog post.

      It did seem to me that one of your thoughts centred on the reluctance of publishers to embrace the new technologies.

      Like you, I’m impressed with Global and the direction that Lindsay has taken with it. In fact, I’m going to ask him if I can use the book as the basis of the content of my Macmillan webinar in April, entitled ‘In the end, it’s only a book.’

      Looking forward to meeting up at ISTEK.

      • I just came across this today (I am on the road currently) and will take a closer look later. But to briefly, and publicly, answer the question YES you can use whatever you like of mine as a basis for a webinar or anything else. I love the title of the webinar, which I think is quite interesting. I will try and log onto it in April – even if it’s from a hotel like now.

      • Mark Furr said:

        Aloha Ken,

        I have just read through all of this discussion, and I can’t believe that there have been no comments on:

        But.. and here is finally what I think…

        Their lack of interest in new technology doesn’t matter if they have other ways of making their lessons effective and/or memorable.

        In my view, effective/memorable lessons are those in which students feel that they have a valid reason to communicate. They are engaged and are working to successfully transfer meaning in the target language within the bounds of a specific discourse community.

        I’ve seen teachers giving lessons using cutting edge technology through which students are thoroughly engaged and are using all of their language skills to communicate in order to meet the valid requirements of the transfer of meaning though their second language.

        I have also witnessed classrooms in which technology actually interfered in the communication process. Most likely, this was because the technology was being used for its own sake, and the students had no real reason to complete a transfer of meaning.

        On the other hand, I have also witnessed teachers use little more than a sheet of paper or blackboard to produce lessons which gave students a reason to communicate and set up the bounds of the discourse community that they were expected to operate in. Again, the students were engaged and real communication was taking place.

        Thus, I wholeheartedly agree with your “conclusion” above:

        Their lack of interest in new technology doesn’t matter if they have other ways of making their lessons effective and/or memorable.

        I might even revise this to state that the technology used in a classroom (whether it be holographs or a simple blackboard) is in many instances irrelevant as long as the teacher is able to provide students with a reason to communicate that makes the lesson effective and/or memorable.

        Aloha from Kauai,

        Mark

  2. I can’t remember where I read it, but I seem to remember some research about writers and artists. The question was are they reclusives who live in garrets, penning away as the muse strikes? And what they found was the successful ones were normally haring all over the place, mixing with large numbers of people in a wide social circle.
    I haven’t had nearly as much experience as you with classroom research Ken, but just wanted to echo that I’ve found sitting in the back of other people’s classes hugely helpful too. And I feel so grateful to the teachers that have allowed me to. I think the reason it doesn’t happen more is probably cost rather than writers not wanting to. Likewise conferences.

    • Ken Wilson said:

      Oh Vicki – I DO hope you can remember the reference for the garret v running around artists!

      re costs etc – absolutely understand if this is an issue, but it wasn’t in the discussions I had with esteemed writing colleagues. And to be fair, it was the ‘I don’t want to parachute in and tell people how to teach’ argument which was the strong one.

      I have to be honest and say that sitting at the back of the class can be a very trying experience, and it hasn’t always been fun. I must say that since I started offering to take the last 15 minutes of the class, it has become a much more engaging experience, as I sit at the back getting quite nervous before my 15 minutes in the limelight.🙂

      • Vicki and Ken,

        I also agree that many conferences are too expensive. I was talking to Graham about this the other day how in America the ELT conferences are a bit different in atmosphere. One reason is because many of the speakers are sponsored by their schools and companies who have these expenses budgeted and I believe can write it off some of the expenses during tax season. The topics seem to be different as well. It’s a whole new experience, but I don’t know if many teachers who would like to attend the biggest conferences can afford it. This year I was fortunate, but I know many who considered not attending some due to the expenses of travel and so forth. If it wasn’t for the incredible people like you both that I have met and been able to read about then I don’t think I would ditch out the expenses for a conference. I think I would learn a lot from just reading books, blogs, or attending webinars. Conferences now have to contend with online professional development opportunities. The reason I attend is because I get to meet many wonderful people in person and see them speak. I have seen you both and others in the ELT world that I have met online and it has been truly inspirational. However, in America before I was ever online I wouldn’t have been convinced at all to pay the prices to attend the conferences. In other words, it is about the people for me and I believe this is the same for others. Therefore, I wonder how the ELT organizations are changing the schemata of conferences to include these various factors of online professional development and social media.

    • Vicki,

      I really would be interested in reading this very interesting research. I believe that when people travel a lot and mingle with different social circles that they truly benefit their outlook and experiences. I happen to think this is a problem with many children. I believe too many times they do not benefit from learning from other cultures or socio-economic backgrounds. Especially in some countries and rural areas many students may never meet another person of another race or socio-economic background. I think technology is great for this but I also realize in many areas broadband is not available to rural areas and poor countries.

      I know you were relating this to #10 but I think this also applies to education. Thank you for posting the highlights of this research.

      • Shelly and Ken,
        I’ve hunted around and I’m afraid can’t find that research. Very sorry about that. I must improve my filing habits and do hope it rings bells with someone else who can locate it because I’d like to read it again too.
        Shelly, I think it’s a very good point you make about its relevance in education to well. The creative benefit from sharing is huge.

  3. Simon Greenall said:

    Ken, you’re right. Sitting in the back of classrooms is the least, sometimes the only thing that textbook writers can do.
    Actually, I agree with everything you say, and Jason too (Jason is always right, so much wisdom) but I’m not sure what it is that I’m replying to – not your fault. Can I make a few comments or ask some questions?
    Should our (Ken and me) generation (the 54+ age group) just give up on the commitment we made to building up the profession?
    ELT was an even more discredited profession until people like you and others before us made a commitment to it.
    Being tech-savvy is not generational, and is not the mark of being a good teacher or an ELT practitioner. On a passing note, and not that you raised this, I don’t like the terms ‘digital immigrant’ and ‘digital native’ because they’re exclusive, which runs counter to our socio-political and educational backgrounds.
    The good thing about web2 and an awareness of the technological possibilities on offer is that it allows teachers and textbook writers at the very least to say, ‘That won’t work in the classes I teach/write for.’ The bad thing is that there’s a risk that technological awareness will be held up as the benchmark for good teaching. There are some other bad things, for which I pass on this link from the Observer:
    http://www.guardian.co.uk/technology/2010/feb/21/my-bright-idea-jaron-lanier

    In the markets where you and I work and have worked, China and (for me) Palestine, there’s some extremely effective teaching going on, and I’m sometimes hurt on behalf of my friends and colleagues that their hard work, and that of the huge majority of teachers who are not wired up, should viewed as inferior because it’s not patched into a Eurocentric, high tech and exclusive view of best practice in ELT.
    I have huge respect for Lindsay Clandfield’s work, seriously huge respect, and I think the 360 project looks fascinating, although I’d prefer Eric Baber talk about it, and not the person I heard.
    But I think the one-size fits all, international textbook series’ days are over, not because we can’t please most of the people most of the time – despite the concerned teachers who rightly want something new – but because it’s simply too expensive to publish.
    And to be honest, I’m not sure how you guys (-54 age group) will replace it. But I wish the same good luck as Ken and I had.
    Simon

    • Ken Wilson said:

      Thanks, Simon…

      I sometimes find a line in these comments which was the line I meant to write in the post, and you have provided one for me here: “There’s a risk that technological awareness will be held up as the benchmark for good teaching.” This nails it completely.

      Interesting also that you use the word ‘Eurocentric’ to represent the sophisticated techno-advanced thinking. It’s right here in Europe where I’ve found the majority of teachers who have problems keeping up. In fact, if you compare the equipment available to a teacher in Warsaw or Bratislava, it’s pretty ancient compared with what you and I have seen in Beijing high schools.

      I recommend that everyone follow the link you’ve provided to Aleks Krotoski’s article in the Observer. Digital Maoism – what will they think of next?

      Aleks is currently my favourite person on TV, even if she does bite-size the information about technology.

      Thanks again for expressing in clearer terms the thoughts that set off this post!

  4. I am in 100% agreement with you about the use of technology in the classroom – it’s just one of many ways to pursue an interest in the English language. Often, it seems to me to be better used for post- or pre-lesson work, connecting students outside of the classroom.
    If there is a problem with teachers who don’t like or care about technology it is the stuff they miss out on from other teachers. I am astounded by the quality of writing and the number of different approaches to what is essentially the same subject in the teaching blogosphere – it is constantly reinvigorating.
    In that regard, can I thank you for your wonderful ’10 things’ posts and venture to hope that it may turn into an ongoing series, or at least go to 11.

    • Ken Wilson said:

      Thanks for the Spinal Tap-ish suggestion of going to 11🙂

      You’ve made two important points. It’s certainly advantageous to encourage students to use their own technology outside the classroom. And I’m very taken with the web2 ideas re podcasts, class blogs, wikis and even texting between students as a homework activity. Just in case people think I’m against all of that exciting stuff.

      But your second point is also great – there is SO much to learn from our colleagues. And blog/tweetland provides much of it – so we should be thankful that the new technology has made this possible.

  5. Very thoughtful and reasoned post, Ken. On #9, technology, I’ve been speaking with a range of teachers about technology in and out of the classroom, and continue to be amazed at how excited some teachers are about it and how rejectionist others are. And you’re right that there is no one religion, no one correct approach: it you’re not familiar with something and you have found your own rhythm with other methods, and it seems to work, then you shouldn’t change just for the sake of change. That said, however, a lot of the discussion about ELT has the same familiar top-down feel to it as so much else in the field. Basically, it’s the school board that decides if they are going to go “edtech.” It’s the language school. It’s the teacher. However, in 99% of cases, these top-down decision makers are going to have a vision of technology, of the internet, of social networks, that is anywhere from two to five years out of date, compared with that of their students. So maybe the answer, if there is one, to the technology issue is for teachers to focus on the learning mechanisms, the language use and usage, and let students adapt that language the technology as they see fit. I can’t imagine that any teacher needs to teach an 20-year-old how to use LinkedIn to research a job; but they do need to make sure that the tone of the communication via LinkedIn is right and they need to make the students familiar with the correct formulae for expressing a professional interest on that sort of a platform. Technology, as ever, is just a means to an end, not the end itself, and it’s an area where we cannot hope to intelligently dictate what learners do and how to use it: our best hope is to guide learners in how to best express themselves within it.

    • Ken Wilson said:

      Hi Paul.

      thanks for stopping by.

      I’m always a bit alarmed when I see someone with your techno credentials leaving a comment, and then relieved to find that we are more or less singing from the same hymn book.

      Again, you have nailed a key issue in a single sentence: “In 99% of cases, these top-down decision makers are going to have a vision of technology, of the internet, of social networks, that is anywhere from two to five years out of date.”

      That sounds so grim, doesn’t it?

      But your final point about how a teacher can help a student with a LinkedIn profile is so much more positive. The teacher as enabler – it’ll be a long time before technology can provide that kind of personal help.

  6. Why does this argument go nowhere?

    This is how it always seems to pan out:

    1. a period of relative quiet with everyone just getting on with it;
    2. an outrageous statement of the kind “technology is the end of education” or “teachers who don’t use technology are negligent luddites”.
    3. a period of furious mud-slinging where platitudinous statements are hurled back and forth, of the type “technology is only a tool”, “books are technology, chairs are technology, doh!” or “what is the problem for which computers are the solution?” or “gaming makes you blind” etc.
    4. a period of reconciliation, in which everyone agrees that pedagogy comes first, technology should not be abused, it’s all about teacher education, good teaching is good teaching (with or without technology), technology is here to stay, blah blah (sfx of kissing and making up).
    5. a period of relative quiet with everyone just getting on with it.

    I admit to having been party to these ‘conversations’ myself. But I’ve come to realize that they are natural phenomena, like the weather, over which we have no control. One just has to sit them out.

    • Ken Wilson said:

      Hellooo Scott, thanks for stopping by…

      is there something to be said for all this stuff being so publicly aired these days?

      Back in the pre-blog days, one might sit in the corner of a staff room, feeling very alienated from the colleagues around you who seemed to see teaching in a wholly different light.

      Back then, the only alternative source of inspiration were books on the shelf, worthy mags and journals, and the annual conference. All important sources of information to shape your thinking but .. well, for me at least, the blogosphere has provided new and exciting immediacy to keep the grey cells ticking over, if that’s what grey cells do.

      • OK, maybe we are over-egging the Rodney King reflex (“Can’t we all just get along?”). So here is a thought: the one difference that technology really makes – and it would indeed be a shame if it were not used more intensively – is to allow language learning to use more current, more authentic input and to be more interactive, especially outside of the classroom. Fifty or even 20 years ago it would have been unthinkable to have learners view a video excerpt of a BBC or CNN news report of something that just happened that day, stop and start it to catch or re-hear specific passages, compare it with other video reports about the same event but seen from a different point of view, and discuss both the event and its reporting in writing and in real time amongst themselves and/or with a teacher. Today that is not only possible, it should be commonplace.
        There, I’ve said it. Let the tomatoes fly!

      • Don’t over-estimate the extent of the blogosphere. Most practising teachers don’t have blogs, don’t read other teachers’ blogs, don’t tweet even. Sadly, most teachers don’t have staffrooms either: I talked to a group in Madrid last week who seem to send most of their time on public transport. When they get home of an evening the last thing they probably want to do is argue the toss about IWBs on twitter.

        The blogosphere is tiny – you only have to look at the names of the people who post – the same names, the same obsessions. For the goldfish in its bowl all the world looks like, erm, its bowl.

      • Ken Wilson said:

        As a teacher who regularly used ‘old’ video news footage in class, I find it really exciting to be able to use a TV news report immediately, and do all the other things with it that you (Paul) suggest. But I don’t think that kind of activity is going to lead to any tomatoes being thrown.

        I think the arguments start when people say it should be ‘commonplace’ to have a class blog/wiki or to make podcasting an integral part of every class.

        And – let’s be frank, Paul – when your English thru computer games project hits the streets, THAT’S when you’re going to have the old guard up in arms.

        But, having attended your talk in Paris, I personally can’t wait for your stuff to be generally available.

  7. (That last comment was in response to Ken, not to Paul, I ought to add).

    • Ken Wilson said:

      Scott –

      the blogosphere is tiny? I presume this remark was made in jest. With 175,000 new blogs every day, the problem is the reverse – how on earth do you access all the information.

      My way is to take a punt on an unknown blog at least once a week. Some of them I don’t go back to, the rest end up in my burgeoning blog-roll, where you will find 50 very readable and interesting blogs, if you have the time to check one or two out.

      There are always (dreadful pun approaching) some interesting New Kids On The Blog.😛

      • I meant, of course, the ELT blogosphere. 50 blogs do not a summer make.

        Those of you out there who teach in institutions – conduct a straw poll: 1. who of your colleagues blog? 2. who reads other teachers’ blogs?

  8. Excellent points, and a bonus mark for the Spinal Tap reference! Agreed on the differing perspectives of those who use technology in teaching and those who don’t. I find myself maybe perhaps pushing new technology and websites on some of my co-workers. I sometimes forget the newest way isn’t always the best way.

    As for course books, I try to ‘get out of the course books’ as much as my EFL program allows me. Unfortunately, we still lean towards teaching to tests like TOEIC — but a few co-workers and I are trying to motivate our learners into improving general speaking fluency.

    • Ken Wilson said:

      Hi Neil.

      just to make sure I’m not getting the wrong message across – the newest way may well be the best way for you, and if you can influence your colleagues, then these methods will cascade.

      As usual, I find myself speaking on behalf of the little guy (and gal), for whom all of this is rather distant. A lot of them will want to dip their toe in the water, and they deserve better than to be told they are short-changing their students if they don’t use blogs, wikis etc. They deserve a more measured response, like yours.

  9. Second weigh-in here, and I’d like to challenge some of the conclusions that are drawn from the “most teachers don’t live there” (with regards to accessing materials and ideas through technology) assertion.

    I agree that most teachers “don’t live there” – in places like the blogosphere – but a considerable number of teachers visit there. Scott’s assertion that there may be only 50 active ELT bloggers (or blog comment-based participants) could well be true, but looking at visitation to those 50 blogs, I think a different picture emerges.

    My modest blog gets between 200-1000 visits a day, and this pales in comparison to blogs like Alex Case’s TEFLtastic or even our resident superstar Ken Wilson’s domain. The 10s of thousands of ELT blog visitors out there daily may be too tired to contribute or challenge, but they are clearly not too run down or apathetic to technology to do some regular looking and listening (and we can hope: thinking).

    Besides that, I worry that the “most teachers don’t live there” comment potentially erodes the fantastic influence and access that can happen when those few who do “live there” pass on or apply what they find.

    As a very modest example of this, I have an ELT resource site which I’ve donated complete and complimentary access to for teachers in remote or severely disadvantaged places in Nepal, India, South Africa, Iran, China, Korea, and even outback Australia (just to name a few). This is because an ELT person out there in those places, desperately short of resources, has somehow managed to get Internet access and has approached me asking for help. It has always struck me as interesting that people point out publishers and their hard-copy materials help teachers and learners in ‘difficult’ places and situations more than technology can, but a private provider of online materials can clearly reach out to and majorly enhance the teaching situation in places where publishers clearly NEVER go or seem to care all that much about.

    One computer, an Internet connection, and a teacher willing to look around (even for entire swathes of a province or state) can make a truly massive difference for a huge number of learners. I think it is narrow-sighted or even downright wrong to attempt to play down this sort of influence – and opportunity.

    • Ken Wilson said:

      Thanks for that, Jason…

      we sometimes forget the casually brilliant effects of the internet – transmitting information cheaply to corners of the earth where there are scant chances of an expert, a representative of a publisher or even a book turning up.

      The work you do for the ELT resource site is a great example to us all, and a way in which new-ish technology can be used to cascade good ideas of all kinds.

  10. mark andrews said:

    I share your worries Ken about trying to convert teachers to “the latest trends” whether they be twitter, ning, blogging, my latest favourite band or anything else for that matter.

    And as you and Shelly say, “many educators do not visit blogs regularly, have not joined a ning, and will not join Twitter….most teachers don’t live there.”

    No they don’t and as Scott says , if you are teaching in a school ” conduct a straw poll on: 1. who of your colleagues blog? 2. who reads other teachers’ blogs?”

    However, sharing our experience of blogs, ways of using twitter and the potential of ning classrooms might be of interest to some teachers.

    It’s nice to share things that we care about and are interested in, but not to do it in a way that makes teachers who are not familiar with “the latest trends” feel that they are deficient.

    Talking about these things and sharing ideas has nothing to do with trying to convert anybody to anything. It’s about understanding and not conversion. If understanding leads to change, all well and good, but I don’t think we should set out to change people. Understanding is usually enough in itself.

    When I finished my MA course in ELT at Lancaster, part of which was to do with becoming a teacher trainer, the final thing our tutors said to us was never try and be the messengers of “the good news”,. just go out to whatever job are lucky enough to have got, spend the first year listening, try to understand the context you are working in and make modest contributions when you think them appropriate.

    I haven’t always done it as well as I would have liked to, but that advice has stuck with me.

    Many teachers I meet teach 25 regular hours at school, an extra 10 private lessons on top of that, feed husbands and boyfriends and bring up children as well.

    They are usually underpaid, overworked and undervalued , and urging any teacher to take an interest in “any latest trends” without the necessary material, financial, emotional and local support usually needed, is something I find hard to do, as I go back to my comfortable 14 hours a week at university, teaching the motivated elite of Hungary.

    • Ken Wilson said:

      Thanks for that, Mark…

      I love your image of teacher who have to ‘feed husbands and boyfriends and bring up children as well’. I get a picture of a harrassed woman teacher arriving home between classes to find a man and some children sitting round a table, drumming impatiently with their knives and forks.

      The more serious point of being underpaid and overworked is a contributory factor in how much extra time teachers are prepared to put in doing some professional development.

      Having said that, if you factor in some online time in your free time, then the blogosphere isn’t a bad place to do some in-service training.

  11. Jason – I don’t wish to play down the influence of Internet access to blogsites etc, and I applaud your initiatives in helping disadvantaged teachers. I’m just a little sceptical about the claims that are made about the blogosphere. The maths don’t seem to add up.

    Take your figure of 200-1000 visits a day. Are these all by DIFFERENT people? (For example, I’ve been into Ken’s blog a dozen times today, each visit recorded as a hit, but I’m not 12 people).

    And how many of the 200-1000 visitors to your blog are the same as the 1000 plus to Ken’s? Let’s say you share a third. And let’s say we all share a third of each other’s visitors (while conceding that at least some of these visitors are the same person coming back for more). And let’s say there are 50 active ELT blogsites at any one time (because many are dormant for extended periods of time), and let’s say that not all of these are as visited as much as yours or Ken’s. And let’s say there are also many who only ever visit just one or two blogs, always the same ones. We’re talking about a busy community of say 10,000 at most active ELT blogsite visitors worldwide, the vast majority of whom are simply lurkers and/or Sunday afternoon bloggers. Now, how many teachers of English are there in the world? Ten million? Twenty million?

    I have no idea. But the proportion who are actively blogging must be miniscule.

    I’ll happily be corrected – does anyone have any reliable figures?

    • Interesting thoughts, Scott – to which I would respond:

      1. Considering how long blogging has been about (not to mention more wide-spread Internet access), I’ll take a figure of 10,000 active teacher blog visitors as a flying (and exciting!) start to an exciting way to spread and share ideas about teaching.

      2. Your figure of 50 active blog sites refers to a fairly limited circle (“ours” so to speak) and I think it vastly underestimates the number of teacher and teaching-related blogs out there in other languages, or in contexts that haven’t heard of or don’t give a fig about the ‘iateflish’ circle. When I think of Korea, China (+Taiwan), and Japan for example, they have an enormous number of very active ‘online cafes’, notice boards, blogs etc. that are frequented by a LOT of teachers on a daily basis. Besides the fact I think it’s a little arrogant (on our collective part, Scott – not yours personally) to assume our circle is the only circle worth listening to or contributing to in World ELT terms, I think we’re missing out on the potential ripple effect when the people who are part of more than one circle pass things on from/to other circles of online listeners.
      🙂

      ~ Jason

      • Point taken, Jason!🙂
        Some figures would be good, though, don’t you think?

      • Hi Scott,

        Yes – some figures would indeed be interesting, but in my opinion very hard to accurately nail down or interpret. Twitter and Facebook have changed the way I access and share information about teaching, with blogs being just one aspect of that. It’s a very fluid space, with increasingly fluid users coming on board.

      • At a conference in Barcelona yesterday, I asked the audience of around 400 people present how many had their own (ELT-related) blogs – I’d say around 50 hands went up. I asked how many read other people’s (ELT-related blogs) and another 100 or so hands went up, ie. around a third or more of the audience participate in the ELT blogosphere either activiely or passively. I was quite impressed – not only by this fact – but by the fact that they still saw some worth in coming to conferences.

        So, Jason, Ken, I stand corrected (and slink back into my hole).😉

      • Scott – that IS heartening news! I would be interested to know, however, how many of those blogs and blog readers were limited to the Spanish sphere only. As I mentioned above, I do believe there are tens of thousands more ELT-related blogs out there than many of us are aware of, but they are regionalised and perhaps limited by first language readership as well. I see that as a key challenge for the future in our ‘global’ profession: finding ways to stream all the different ribbons so that more people can learn from and talk to other teachers.

  12. Ken,

    I could write in biblical proportions in reply but will contain myself to one sentiment/thought…..

    I really think that it is “how” technology is used that is key. Even many who “preach” technology fail and don’t have a clue. Technology shouldn’t be something we mainly teach with — it should be something students learn with. Big difference. Let’s get back to “doing” and constructivism. Technology is great when the students are participating with it, in it, of it. But when it is a medium of instruction, it is like any other candy.

    So I argue, it is not that students are neutral about “technology” – they are neutral about technology as an instrument of power (which the textbook also is). They love technology as a tool to learn with and by.

    Let’s throw out our old teaching methodologies and give the mouse to the students. Then the clock will have struck one.

    David

    • Ken Wilson said:

      Hi David,

      nice point – ‘Technology shouldn’t be something we mainly teach with — it should be something students learn with’.

      You kind of suggest that teachers can let students get on with learning in their own way. Doesn’t that mean teachers need a deep understanding of the technology the students are using?

      • I really think, not at all Ken. No more so than a parent needs a masters degree in literacy in order to mentor/oversee their child’s reading.

        I think a teacher’s job when it comes to language, is completely different than a traditional “content” based subject. We teach a skill, not a subject. Let the students get on with it and DO. No apologizes for my constructivism either. I think there is WAY to much postering and man/woman handling in teaching. Strutting and cockadoodledoing and making airs – when in fact, the object is not teaching but learning. I remember when “teaching students how to learn” was in vogue. I could only smile and laugh during all the workshops on this topic. As if a teacher were, as per Stalin’s famous quote, “Engineers of human souls”. Everyone knows how to learn – learning is what we are all about (though I do recognize that a portion of us do have learning disabilities – but what about those with teaching disabilities?). Teachers just have to get out of the way.

        Students can get on fine without the teacher – regarding technology and learning how to use it. Teachers have to focus on outcomes – does the technology work and foster learning (or is it just going through the motions?). The teacher should be there to plan and assess outcomes. Guide and motivate so the students reach that goal. Long ago, a mentor once told me that the goal of all teaching is to disappear and rid oneself of a job. I still believe that.

        We also have to pause and think of how different the learner is today. I think that all considered, a teacher MUST use technology if it is available – that’s HOW the students learn. But again, not direct instruction but allowing students to learn directly, “do” directly with the technology. (of course you also need human contact – I’m not suggesting the absence of this either).

        I reread recently, Future Shock and the Curriculum. Shane even way back when (67), recognized the information overload beckoning. I think a lot of the comments here, represent that kind of dilemma. The dilema of “too much”.

        I would like to ask others one question. Is the use of technology (for language teaching) more important for a beginning teacher or an experienced teacher? Which should be using technology more in their own instruction?

        Cheers,
        David

  13. I love the tech part – I’d say I’m 100% of a converter and I do think using technologies is a must in the classroom nowadays because it is there for us, it’s available and in so many useful and interesting ways. There are great teachers who can do a brilliant job without all that, but making good use of technology is also a skill that many brilliant teachers can develop.

    • Ken Wilson said:

      Hi Luci, nice to see you here…

      I think I may have given the impression I’m against new technology. Anything but! When I see demonstrations of, for example, materials that can be used with an IWB, I wish I had a class that I could try them out with.

      You have the great advantage of working withing the Brazilian cultura system, so I imagine you benefit from the organisation’s bold (and expensive) modernisation of the tools available to teachers and students.

      All I’m saying is – don’t look down on people who would prefer to do things in a more old-fashioned way.

  14. Interesting conversation – and I have also mused on technology (or rather on what we should mourn the passing of, and what we should all definitely have) in a different place – on my blog, that is.

    But I can’t let some of the comments about technology pass here. The reason some people don’t use it is a question of teacher styles more than substance, often. The violent reactions for and against (which Scott mentions, and which he has himself been involved in) are natural but foolhardy. Keeping a clear head in the face of new IT is the way to go, generally, and the questions you always ask of new technology are things like ‘why is it the best way to do this?’ and ‘who gains if I use it?’ etc. I have argued before – and got myself into trouble for so doing – that fulminating about the ‘what” (the technology) is plain daft; talking about the ‘how’ (you use it) is what matters,.

    I can’t imagine why teachers would NOT want to be involved with the latest technology – always with a slightly ‘sceptical ‘eye. Well, if I can’t be 24 years old, what else can i do?

    Jeremy

  15. “I can’t imagine why teachers would NOT want to be involved with the latest technology…”

    I can. That’s where we differ. I RESPECT the teacher who has made the conscious decision not to use technology in her classroom, just as I respect people who have made the conscious decision not to have a TV in the house, or (like me) not own a car or an iPod. I can perfectly well imagine why they wouldn’t “want to be involved”. I may not want to join them, but I can imagine where they’re coming from. I don’t immediately assume they’re anti-social, unprofessional, in denial, out of touch with reality, or “a tad rude”.

    Failing to imagine how the other half thinks is, dare I say it, a characteristic of bigots. Knowing you’re not a bigot, I’m trying to imagine what YOU’RE thinking – and this is what I think it is: “I (Jeremy Harmer) love gadgets and stuff and not only that, I can see how marvellous they would be in a classroom, a classroom, moreover, founded on the communicative values that I have spent my life promoting. If I were a new teacher starting out now, I would embrace these new tools gratefully and wholeheartedly, and would want to use them to their maxmimal effectiveness to create language learning and language using opportunities. That’s why I don’t totally identify with people who – for whatever reasons – have decided to teach without them (even though I know that teachers have been teaching effectively without technology for much longer than I have been around). But I won’t pre-judge them – although I may try and persuade them!”

    Is that what you meant?😉

    • Ken Wilson said:

      Well, I’ve never seen such a long invented quote – I can imagine in years to come, people getting their wires crossed and using the Thornbury-generated Harmer quote in a thesis, as if it came from TGMH.

      Jeremy, I must say I was also surprised by the last line in your comment – “I can’t imagine why teachers would NOT want to be involved with the latest technology”

      It does sound a bit like “I can’t imagine why people who like listening to music would NOT want to be listen to it on an iPod”.

      • mark andrews said:

        I can imagine many reasons why teachers might not want to be involved in whatever aspects of new technologies they choose not to be involved in.

        Just been reading Mark Pegrum’s excellent book “From Blogs to Bombs” on the train back from a workshop in Slovakia and in it he says….” we are drowning in overlapping RSS feeds, tweets, Facebook updates, instant messages, text messages and emails and yet we keep adding more channels….Linda Stone, a former vice-President of Microsoft, suggests we now live in a state of “continuous partial attention”. In other words, we pay full attention to nothing and partial attention to everything as we desperately try to avoid missing anything important.”

        Today I did a two hour workshop, almost exclusively based on the participants talking to each other and listening attentively to each other, trying to focus general communication skills.

        In our increased online world I think there is a stronger and stronger argument for using classrooms to concentrate on paying attention to the other people in the room and having a pedagogy based on conversation with the use of little or no new technology.

        In Central and Eastern Europe, since 1989, teachers have had to teach more and more lessons to be able to carry out what my colleague Christopher Ryan calls their “expensive hobby otherwise known as teaching” and to make a living.

        There is very little time left after that for quality time sitting round with friends and family talking, or going out and doing things together and and just enjoying each other’s company.

        I can understand very well why, in their free time, teachers might not be developing themselves professionally either on twitter, blogs, however many ELT blogs there are, or taking part in online courses late at night.

        They may, however, be doing other interesting things which contribute to their development as language teachers which don’t involve using “the latest technical things”.

    • In a nutshell, some people are scared of new stuff.

  16. Ken Wilson said:

    Hi Nick…

    hm… ‘a lot of teachers in ELT abroad are not looking at this as a profession. It’s merely something to do for a few years and travel, then go back home’

    That’s a whole other can of worms. But if we accept that some people are only in ELT for ‘a few years’, they should get to grips with the possibilities offered. Otherwise, it’s like saying someone is going to be a taxi driver ‘for a few years’ without buying a city road map.

    • I completely agree Ken, but the game is what it is round these parts. Schools have to do their best to find professional and serious teachers.

      My two biggest conditions for employment are that you be interested in your students and that you are willing to develop. It continually surprises me just how difficult it is to find teachers that meet those conditions. It is a completely different issue though.

  17. I think we might need to get more specific about different aspects of a teacher’s job to address the value of technology.

    I can see how technology (especially via video) can improve the quality and variety of texts in the classroom. I can see how it can connect folks, reduce travel and thereby improve convenience. And I can see how technology can provide access to new information, ideas and perspectives. That’s really valuable, obviously, but technology isn’t the only way to equip ourselves with new ideas. And in the classroom, the students’ ideas are often the best ones to be working with.

    This might well me coming from a biased ESP standpoint, but I’m inclined to think that the chief value of teacher is an ability to work out where the ‘lacks’ in communication might be. And when we fail in this, it’s a major shortcoming. So observing what’s going on, evaluating, working out what to fix and how, and where to go next and how, are key teaching duties. It’s right that they take up the bulk of a teacher’s time and effort. Personally speaking, I don’t feel that this aspect of my job as a teacher has changed very much since pre-internet days because it’s not something that tech can help with much. It’d require a technology that could listen and guess what might be going on inside my students’ heads.

    • Ken Wilson said:

      Thanks for coming back, Vicki…

      you make a really important point about that special connection that is needed between teacher and students in order to really work out their needs, which can be really diverse, of course, with as many individual needs as there are students.

      I guess we have to wait now to see if this produces an exasperated response from those who feel that technology makes this easier!

  18. Hi Ken
    Wow, this blog post has generated loads of comments! I just wanted to say “thanks”, after having come from a rather packed day in Italy which involved doing two classes with large groups of rather nice Italian teenagers (part observation, then active participation) and a series of teacher’s room meetings followed by a workshop. I guess today is a day I feel virtuous about being “out there” but man am I exhausted.
    I too did my first research trips into Italy, for Straightforward over seven years ago. It was here I witnessed and understood much of what you talked about in your earlier posts (students in rows, what they care/don’t care about etc). It’s a very good eye-opener for an author I agree 100%.
    Apart from looking for material to blog about, I am now making a point of going to “do” classes or sit in on them (or at least try) in many places I visit.
    As for the other discussion about technology, I am sure that I could add something but it’s getting rather late… so maybe another time. Well done on such a provocative post!

    • Ken Wilson said:

      Hi Lindsay,

      first of all, congratulations on being Canadian on a week when you and your compatriots should celebrat not just success at the Winter Olympics but the friendly way in which they were organised.

      Secondly, thank you for your support in my writers-should-watch-classes campaign. Publishers have very capable research teams who provide clear and well-thought-out market evidence, but nothing can compare with finding out what’s going on yourself.

  19. Ken,

    I do love it when people refer to their learners’ ‘needs’ in such fulsome terms; to listening to their ‘needs’, to catering to their ‘needs’…

    Then I find myself wondering how the ‘principled’ choice not to use technology (hardly a choice one can compare fairly to not having an iPod at home – since one is a personal choice affecting only the individual, whereas the other has far wider-reaching effects) may conflict with a learner´s need to use the ‘naturally occuring’ elements in their backpacks (mobile phones, netbooks, iPods, etc.).

    The fact is one can’t have it all ways… either we do listen to our learners’ needs (and some of them will indeed feel a need to use technology) and we do add in some skills which will stand them in good stead in what are fast becoming knowledge economies, or we are indeed potentially guilty of being selfish, and listening to our own needs (or prejudices, fears) more.

    A personal choice not to own a car is not the same as a personal choice not to engage with technologies in our teaching practice. Anyone who makes such a comparison is failing to pull the wool over my eyes…

    Gavin

    • I think Gavin just made the point I was trying to make much earlier, but much more elegantly.

      If our fundamental task is to equip learners with the skills (including skills for further learning once they are no longer learning from us) which will help them navigate the real English-speaking world, we need to simply cover off those areas and situations which they are likely to encounter, using the language vehicles (conversations, phonecalls, e-mail, etc) they are most likely to actually use; and try to give them a feel for what is appropriate lexis, usage and use in these situations.

      That is not to say that there is no scope for 19th century English poetry or hand-written thank you letters in EFL; nor is it saying that we should focus on Txt-speak. But it is highly likely that our students will spend more time on Facebook, LinkedIn, Instant Messenger and Google than in the library perusing the classics; they will more likely buy airline tickets online than from a travel agency; and therefore it is just as important, in my view, to cover off the types of language required to navigate and communicate in these real-world environments, using the communications platforms encountered in those environments, as it is to develop the traditional language skills in the more traditional settings.

      Sorry Gavin if I’ve misinterpreted your points entirely, but I do feel that this is the gist of how many in our profession see technology as an enabler for building the types of language skills that learners will find most immediately and pragmatically useful.

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