I’m on a plane… I’m on a plane back from a conference… a very good conference, as it happens. But it was also one of those conferences that neatly summarises many of the problems and paradoxes in the conference goers life.
Firstly the plenary speakers – all white, middle-class, middle-aged+ Brits. One of the first plenary speakers on the first day apologised for being one of the first of a stream of white, middle-aged, middle class British men who would take the stage over the next few days. The rest who followed felt duty bound to say the same thing, I think (and they did). One of them – the only woman plenary speaker at leaast didn’t have to do the full apology. And of course we’ve had this debate before – firstly on my blog, and then on a series of blogs. We know why it happens, but very few like it.
We know why it’s mostly men (the profession being mostly women, it’s assumed that some ‘eye candy’ – such as it is in our profession – is a good thing). We know why it’s mostly Brits (they write global ELT course books and methodology titles, books which sell) As someone intimately involved with large conference organisation I understand and acknowledge the relationship between publishers and conference organisers, I understand why people get parachuted in to do the plenary sessions by publishers – I know how it works. But look – there must be good ‘local’ people working in the profession, people who know something about the country and the teaching there… Would it be too much to ask for some kind of balance – more gender balance, more local and superstar balance, and all that. It’s getting embarrassing for all of us.
Or is it? I have to confess to being on the other side of an obsession with travel. For the past three years I have travelled like a crazy person, accepting ridiculous amounts of invitations, and racking up a carbon footprint that would embarrass most people. I have had an amazing time, visited over forty countries, been to some incredible events and conferences, eaten wonderful food, spent social evenings with amazing people and slept in some lovely hotels. It’s been fantastic. At each event I’ve bumped into someone I know who was also doing a plenary or keynote – sometimes more than five or six times a year. It’s a huge industry and many of us enjoy being part of it.
And if you speak to an author and they tell you it’s all for the love of being in a session room sharing their knowledge with the audience, I would suggest you can take that with a pinch of salt…
Of course it is about that, but it’s also about being loved and appreciated, about being pampered: the cars from the airport, the lovely hotels, the social engagements, the love of an audience, the adulation, the photo opportunities, the video interviews and all the rest. It doesn’t sell more books, necessarily (and that’s actually irrelevant if you write methodology books as I do, royalty payments being what they are) but it validates careers, and it makes people feel wanted, loved and appreciated. Is that too high a price to pay for the carbon spend, or the closed doors to national speakers? I think, perhaps, it may be.
But I know for a fact that it does become an obsession – you travel and speak, therefore you are. I know at least one colleague who will not do anything other than plenary speeches – not for him/her the humble workshop or concurrent keynote – s/he is a plenary speaker! People fear disappearing if they tone down the travel, in much the same way they fear disappearing if they drop off the Twitter timeline, disappear from Facebook, etc. I’m not sure anymore if it’s sustainable or good, and that’s why from next year I won’t be saying yes to everything, and I’ll be choosing carefully – though I wonder if it will make a difference. I still want to visit new countries, meet and talk to new teachers, and share my work with them. I just don’t think I need to do it twenty-six times a year!
I can already envisage the content of comments which the paragraphs above might provoke (symbiosis, that’s what teachers want, it’s what makes a conference attractive and successful, it’s a shame publishers have such a strong grip, etc., etc.) – I’ll seal my predictions in an envelope and open it in a week or so
Anyway, back to that conference….
What of the poor teachers at a busy conference? I tried to put myself in their place over the weekend, tried to analyse the messages I was getting. I think first and foremost it seems I (the idealised local teacher me) am simply not doing much good in the way of service to my learners… I’m not using enough images or video, and not enough technology… I haven’t realised that translation is being rehabilitated and I’m missing the boat, I am slavishly following a syllabus and I’m not doing enough tasks or overt fluency activities. By the end of the weekend I’m sweating buckets… is everyone as bad as me, is everyone doing what I do?
And, if they are, how exactly are they ditching half the syllabus, and doing more fun, free, fluent task-based translation activities based around attractive visuals when they’re punished for deviating from the syllabus and have to get it all done each year. It’s one thing hearing from an expert that slavish addiction to the syllabus will mean it will mostly be ‘in one ear and out the other’ or lead to the great fallacy of ‘what I teach is not what they learn’, but quite another to be called into the academic director’s office and given a roasting for not doing the job you were hired to do. When I remarked on this paradox to one of my colleagues he made the point that the audience also contained ‘decision makers’ and that just seeding discussions around these areas might lead slowly towards a change. And I do take that point, but I still think teachers are given a hard time at conferences sometimes. There’s a lot of ‘we should be….’, but not too much ‘here’s how we do it… no, really, look – you can implement these changes by doing the following…’
As one of the delegates remarked to me, it betrayed an obvious shared history in private language school ELT on the part of the plenary speakers, and this may indeed lead to some misconceptions about what goes on in classrooms in state schools around the world. I think there’s a little bit of truth in that (the point was echoed by one of the plenary speakers himself), but I’m aware that some of those keynote speakers have worked globally with teachers in all sorts of scenarios, so I’m not sure how much weight that can be given. It may come down to a lack of local knowledge – and we’re back to the lack of local plenary speakers problem again.
In many respects I ended up feeling that for me as the imagined teacher, a lot of the conference was in one ear and out the other, and that I wasn’t really learning what they were teaching. But they were the distinguished foreign guests, so maybe it was my problem Perhaps the biggest problem was that the conference theme talked of ‘difficulties’ and ‘challenges’, so maybe it was inevitable that the tone should be a little, um, challenging…
My own talk didn’t aim to tell anyone that they were missing something, I don’t think. As the first outing for a talk on the history of educational technologies I think it went quite well, though it needs some reorganisation and I think it’s a bit too heavy in the middle, like a Christmas cake. The talk tries to make sense of twenty years (for me) of EdTech, and tries to map defined technology trigger points with dates, but also with approaches that have come – and occasionally gone – in the world of ELT. I need to reorganise it a bit.
The conference was amazingly slick and there were plenty of quality speakers, both invited from abroad and local ones.
Interestingly, and for the first time in a long time, this was a large conference (900+ people registered) that had no talks about dogme. The closest it got was a talk about doing tech lessons when you don’t have much tech, and I got confused by mentions of ‘unpluggged’! As with technology, I think there are many loud people online making a lot of noise about dogme, but the reality on the ground is very different – we devotees, both plugged and unplugged, are the 0.1% (at most).
Teaching unplugged and technology have that in common, though I suspect access to technology is outstripping licenses to do dogme – it’s the syllabus problem again: if you’re not allowed to make these changes, if you’re not allowed to break the rules, then these fancy methods and approaches are simply no good to you at all – in my last blog post I was asked if I’d observed any ‘dogme moments’ whilst I was in Russia observing classes recently. I’d be more likely to find a giraffe in a Russian state school classroom, frankly. They may all have Macbooks in Moscow junior schools, but there’s still a syllabus to follow, and no time to deviate for fun fluency tasks or ‘dogme moments’… Maybe that will change?
I talked a little bit about change with a coursebook writer at the conference this weekend. He was asking who was more likely to affect change in teachers worldwide – was it me with my online training courses and methodology books, was it him with his course books worming their way into schools around the world? Frankly I don’t really know – if it were a pure numbers game then I’d have to give it to him, but after reflecting on how much can realistically be done within large systems, I suspect we’ve both got about as much chance as each other of affecting any real change in systems. All we can hope for is that we have an affect on some people – and I suppose that’s the teacher’s lot as well.
It was a social weekend and I spent quality time with some lovely people and had some great chats and some great food and some live music. A couple of people were shocked to find out I’m not on Twitter anymore. Someone asked me what my Twitter handle was and I had to confess that I no longer had one.
And inevitably, as it does when I go out and about these days, the talk turned to what it was like not to be on Twitter or Facebook, and how I felt…. It’s interesting, in a way, because now when I go to events I actually find out things – during my Twitter days I would go to dinners and sit next to someone and they’d say “Did you know XXX has changed jobs?” and, of course, I did…. “Do you know YYY is going out with ZZZ”. Well yes, of course I did. Everyone does.
But now I don’t. Sweet release, you see… I don’t know who is seeing who, where people are travelling to, where they’re staying, who they’re having coffee with. And it’s odd, but I don’t care. I know where my loved ones and close friends are and I communicate with them as regularly as I can – we talk. I have rediscovered the joy of catching up with people face-to-face, or in longer, quality conversations on Skype, by email, etc. I am gone, yet not forgotten. Searching for me on Twitter yesterday I see there were people at the conference who mentioned me in passing – I thank them for keeping my memory alive
The day to day passes me by now – the last time I looked at Twitter was about six months ago. I sign in to Facebook to accept friend requests, but I never linger. I get a summary of Twitter, Facebook and the rest inside a beautiful app for the iPad called Flipboard. To ensure I really am not missing out on too much, I signed in just as I was finishing this blog post. I share with you here a random sampling from the first four boards from my Facebook account in Flipboard:
Love is like luck. You have to go all the way to find it. Even then, it depends on your luck to get it or be empty handed
Teen tweeter won’t apolgize to Kan. governor
Don’t hide emotions from your students. Emotions show that you care. And if *you* don’t care, why should they?
To love someone is nothing, to be loved by someone is something, but to be loved by someone you love is everything.
Ohio investigators probe shootings possibly tied to Craigslist ad
When you become calm and serene on the inside the world becomes more calm and serene on the outside
Dead ends are for those who do not want to see the truth
Dear Maths, I do not want to solve your problems bevause I have my own
Dear Google, Please stop behaving like a wife, kindly let me complete my sentence before you give suggestions
There was more, but you get the picture. After all that, I most surely do feel well developed Heady stuff, I think you’ll agree…
Now then, I really must get back to work