Are two heads better than one?


This is the programme for an English UK North event, which is due to take place on 7th October. There are ten presentations, including a plenary, and all the named speakers are men. Unsurprisingly, it created a bit of a fuss on social media.

I haven’t been to an EUK North event but I did attend the conference organised by EUK in London last November. The opening plenary was given by Laura Patsko (you can see it here) and I did the closing plenary. There seems to be no video record of my talk – either it was terrible, or the people with the camera had gone home.

I checked the programme for the November 2016 event and, in between the two plenaries, there were presentations and workshops involving twenty men and thirteen women, including joint presentations by two or more people. Still not representative of the ELT industry as a whole, where there are far more women than men.

I can understand how the EUK North people must feel now that their conference plan has received such heavy criticism. I was involved in a similar social media spat when I agreed to do a presentation at the Society of Authors here in London in May.

The topic was doing webinars. I was quite excited about it – it was my first talk of 2017 standing up in front of real people (as opposed to online presentations, live or recorded), and it was also my first talk since I had treatment for a heart attack last December.

The other presenter was Nick Bilbrough, who started the amazing Hands-Up project/charity which provides video English lessons for children in Gaza. You can find out more about Hands-Up here.

The event was to be chaired by Gavin Dudeney. With his experience of webinars, and his profound knowledge of all things tech-related, Gavin was the perfect choice for chair. There was also an unrelated presentation in the morning, called The Educational Publishing Landscape: UK and USA, given by independent publisher Lionel Bender.

A one-day mini-conference, four presenters, all men. When I advertised the event on Facebook, there was a bit of a kerfuffle, similar to the English UK North one, and the result was that Gavin decided to pull out of the event. It was eventually chaired by Anne Rooney, the chair of the Educational Writers Group at the Society of Authors.

Anne was a great chair and the whole event went well but I was quite upset that my Facebook announcement had caused Gavin to withdraw. Quite apart from anything else, I had been looking forward to asking him to chip in with technical advice about the various webinar platforms that are available.

The problem of parity for men and women in terms of conference presentations, particularly when it comes to plenary talks, goes on. There are lots of organisations of women in ELT that are campaigning effectively to improve the situation, (check out The Fair List – so I’m not going to repeat their cogent and articulate arguments here.

What I will say, though, is that a step forward might be to stop thinking that plenary talks at conferences should only be given by only one person.

In 2014, I saw an excellent joint presentation at the British Council in London given by Katy Simpson and Laura Patsko, who gets her second mention in this blog. It was unquestionably a talk, not a workshop, with the two of them standing behind podia. The content was excellent and the way they structured it worked really well. Each of them would make a point and then hand over to the other with a well-thought out short introduction of what was to come next. Seamless and brilliant!

You can see the talk here.

At the time, Katy and Laura were working in different countries, Katie in Dubai and Laura in London, which means that they must have planned and practised the presentation remotely. It shows that you can do a first-rate joint presentation even if you don’t live cheek by jowl with your co-presenter.

After seeing Katy and Laura’s presentation, I suggested to a number of conference organisers that they should think about double plenaries. It would hopefully lead to more plenary options, and particularly for local non-native speaker presenters.

Of course, the gender and first language of plenary speakers should be irrelevant, but what I’m suggesting would open the door for more first-time plenary speakers working with rusting old hulks like me. In fact, it makes absolute sense to me to have a ELT conference paired plenary talk, where one of the presenters is an imported ‘expert’ and the other a local speaker.

It isn’t that difficult to organise. A few years ago at a JALT conference in Hamamatsu Japan, I had a conversation with Turkish teacher and digital whizz Özge Karaoğlu. I told her how impressed I had been with the talk she did about using digital tools in class, and she said how much she had enjoyed my workshop which involved teachings using lots of bits of paper.

We decided to put together a workshop called The Joy of Tech and No Tech and offer it to the organisers of an upcoming conference in Istanbul. They accepted it with delight. We did about ten activities, alternating between Özge’s digital stuff and my activities involving bits of paper.

With Ozge
The Joy of Tech and No Tech, with Özge Karaoğlu, Istanbul Turkey

It was hugely successful, the only problem being we were given a room with about forty seats and about a hundred people turned up.

I can already hear you saying – that was a workshop, not a plenary, and workshops are often paired presentations. You can’t do a plenary like that.

Well, I think you can. In my humble opinion, conferences would be greatly improved by a situation where at least one plenary was presented by a foreign import like me and a local expert like Özge.

With Skype and other contact media, it’s easy to prepare and rehearse for such an event. When people ask me how many times I rehearse a new talk, they seem to be surprised when I say I do it in full twelve times at home before I let people see it. It would the same with a joint plenary rehearsed over Skype. Nothing should be left to chance, and the segues between the two presenters’ sections have to be rehearsed too.

I have more or less retired from the conference talk circuit, but if I get an invitation to do a plenary in the next academic year, I will suggest that the organisers do something like this. There are problems of course, not least a possible increase in cost. But if one of the speakers is local, this won’t be such a problem.

From now on, I’m going to try to limit my conference presentations and do more training. Where possible, I’m planning to work with a local trainer. It just makes sense to me. I’ve already arranged three days of training in Moscow with a Russian co-trainer.

I’ll let you know how it goes!

PS – I’ve been told that the English UK North programme has been changed and there are now some women presenters. I can’t find a link to the new programme. If anyone knows it, please let me know.


13 thoughts on “Are two heads better than one?

  1. I want you to come here and do a plenary with me!!! 🙂 I love your idea as an outcome of your debate at the beginning of the article. It made me remember my second talk at the ELT Forum Bratislava (the year after we met there) which I did with my colleague from Malaysia, Anita Adnan. We also discussed our presentation on Skype and then put it together the few days before the conference when Anita flew in. It was one of those moments you never forget. Here is the recording: We talk about working together across the world. We enjoyed it so much!
    Love, Nina

  2. Great idea, Ken. It makes a lot of sense. It could also be a great way of introducing less experienced speakers to the conference circuit. Preparing and delivering the plenary together with a more seasoned presenter would be really beneficial. Let’s hope that the conference organisers take note of this.

      1. Absolutely. I’ve been to several conferences where even though the audience is in their vast majority local teachers, all the invited plenary speakers are foreign. The most unsettling thing about it for me is that the organisers are typically local too. So in a way they’re perpetuating their own marginalisation. It’s strange.

  3. Nice post Ken. I’ve never done a plenary in tandem but the Hands up Project is all about teaching in tandem and I think in most cases it works a treat. Having a teacher on the ground with the learners in the classroom, and then a ‘remote’ teacher connecting to the class through Zoom, or Skype can make for some really powerful learning moments. I like the way the kids we work with use the local teacher for language support before communicating with the remote teacher. And of course the remote teacher can’t so easily do all the classroom management stuff that the person who is with the learners can do.

    In my other job in London at Sharek, the Arabic teacher trainers do a lot of working together when they are training teachers. I think it works well having someone else that that you can say things to like ‘What’s your experience of this?’ or ‘Do you having anything to add to this’?

    Last Friday Luke Meddings came into Sharek and did a great training session on ‘Working with Emergent Language’ for teachers of any language. One of the things that made it so successful was that Luke regularly provided a space for the participants to demonstrate activities and to lead a reflection stage on them. This made the training feel very well grounded in the contexts in which the teachers worked.

    1. Hi Nick,

      what you say about remote speakers reminds me also of a Q/A session we did at one of the ISTEK Istanbul conferences a few years back. A number of us were on stage – I think Teresa Doguellli and Herbert Puchta were two of the other people there. And up on a screen was Jamie Keddie, talking to the audience from what looked like a bar in Barcelona. 🙂

  4. Dear Ken,
    Thank you so much for your talk or writing or I dd not know what to call it, I find it very inerestind and it is realy a great joy to receive news from you. I would like to know about the exact date of the the event next October, where and when exactly, can I come to attend ?
    I wish you a good luck and a very long life with your family and the all the ones you love.
    wahiba cherifi.

    1. Hi Wahiba,

      I’m not personally involved in the English UK North event in October. I used it as an example of the current debate on fair representation of women and men presenters.

      Best wishes.

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