Saturday, March 15, 2014

TESOL Greece Interactive Plenary Panel

To finish off a busy day at TESOL Greece the plenary speakers of the conference were grouped together on stage for an interactive question and answer session.

From left to right: Eleni Lovaniou, Bob Obee, Lilika Couri (moderator), Michael Robbs, Herbert Puchta and David Bradshaw. 

The first question is finely honed to the theme of the Conference "Teaching in the 21st Century". What is the future of teaching and paper based materials in light of new technology?

Answers vary on this (and I am starting this post during the third speaker's answer) but everyone agrees that the best approach to these is the intelligent use to maximize teaching moments and take advantage of endless sources of content and context. New course books will need to find ways to stay current and bridge immediately available sources of data to the contexts focused on in the books themselves. They also agree that we must keep remember that technology is a tool like any other and not the answer (or, to play with a little Greek myself, not a panacea). 

The next question comes from a member of the audience. "Why actually learn when information is so easily available? Which 'lessons' are most important for learners to have?"

Herbert Puchta connects this question to personalization and the need for the information to connect to students life context.  Eleni Livaniou states that we need to learn to stimulate our brains, that visual and auditory stimuli are simply noise without the structure of learning processes that keep our brains working. Bob Obee states that language is not information and that language learning is an important skill for life. He admits that digital technology is getting better at replacing language learning (google translate) but wonders if that will ever replace real people who have mastered these skills. David Bradshaw extends this to the appropriateness of expression and the need of a human filter to critically react to and manage information. Lastly Michael Robbs adds the element of critical thinking, decision making and the life skills students develop in (well taught) classes. 

The following question from the audience asks if there is more motivation now than there was before the advent of technology (specifically interactive whiteboards). 

Bob Obee takes the first comment to tell a story about a school in Dubai that has changed entirely to tablets while simultaneously forbidding paper based materials. He claims that teachers in this school are struggling to adapt and effectively use the technology while student results and motivation have not gone up. The culture of the country also makes it so the easy availability of a means to recluse oneself behind a screen has further reduced student contribution to class. Eleni Livanou brings up recent research indicating that children become inattentive  and  struggle to multi-task when they are educated and raised primarily around smartphone/tablet use. She comments on the negative effects of this issue for cognitive development and social skill development. Herbert Puchta comments on how motivation is not related to technology: "a boring text on an iPad is still a boring text". Michael then continues by saying "great teachers are great teachers" and how technology helps some and hinders others, ultimately it is just another tool that can be used and misused. David finishes by agreeing that motivation is unrelated to technology. He makes an interesting metaphor to parents getting a fancy exciting toy, giving it at Christmas, and the child playing with the box and wrapping. He also addresses the important issue of the increased load on the teacher with the necessity of contingency plans for technology snafus and failures (no wifi, etc). 

The next question is "With technology in its current form, would it generate a form of extrinsic or intrinsic motivation?"

After the speakers struggle to clarify and understand the awkwardly worded question (essentially an unnecessary distinction drawn from the previous question), Michael Robbs begins by pointing out the increased force of intrinsic motivation, the need or want being a part of wanting to learn. He adds that sometimes students do get sucked in by the bells and whistles of technology but also at times the imposition of tech on learners or teachers can negatively affect motivation as well. Herbert Puchta states the that by definition the motivation could only be external in this question and thus extrinsic. David agrees that with millennials the use of tech will bring it into their comfort zone and help guide motivation. Bob Obee insists that it's ideas that make lessons interesting and motivating and not frills. Just because we think a tool is fun doesn't mean they will, we may have better luck with something better thought out but less fancy. Eleni agrees that it's what we do as teachers that stimulates motivation, technology is just one of the means of achieving this. 

Lilika takes us away from technology with "If you were to list the top 3-5 skills that today's language learner would need, what would they be?"

David beings with listening, an essential component to the development of the other skills, especially critical listening. As for research he mentions the analysis or sources and reliability. Michael Robbs adds to David's choice of listening with a Greek quote "we have two ears and one mouth". He also mentions critical thinking and problem solving. Lastly he mentions skimming and the ability to sift through lots of information quickly to make decisions of value. Eleni discusses social skills: interacting, listening, being able to read and communicate. She gives the example of kids who don't go to school but learn several languages through everyday interaction and socialization. She bridges this idea to research on skill development and interaction. Hebert asks who the learner is for age. For YL he insists it's basic thinking skills which would later evolve into other skills later in life. For upper teens he claims information management and looking for gaps in information and sources of information. Differentiation between fact, opinion and incorrect information. Bob talks about behavior and the reason behind misbehavior. He follows this up with the ability to structure information and take intelligent notes. Risk taking and reflection also useful to language skill development. 

The next question is about how assessment influences class work and materials writing. 

Michael states that assessments and tests influence class dynamics constantly, needing to teach the test and not what is best taught. He supports "creative insubordination" to include non-test-related material in classes despite syllabi. Herbert admits skepticism to assessment but also acknowledges the advantages of a level and consistent level across schools and countries. The benchmarks set by testing standards make language levels more meaningful and better set. David mentions inevitability of exams affecting coursework, particularly in environments where teachers are evaluated by student test scores. He echos Herbet's claim that test preparation does not need to be meaningless, and reminds us that many of the high stakes tests are in fact well thought out and reflect real language use which makes the distinction irrelevant. Bob claims the problem is teachers. Tests which can accurately assess language often don't need exam practice, yet many teachers see an exam prep class as a series of grueling test prep tasks that do not develop language and make things overcomplicated. Eleni finishes by mentioning assessment being related to expectations. Teacher anxiety is high when we are asked to prepare students for exams and this negatively affects self confidence and limits our abilities to teach well. 

The final question is "What is the latest burning issue in ELT?"

Herbert states that is hasn't changed in many many years. How can we engage students emotionally and develop thinking skills while also developing language skills. David talks about the issue of ownership of the language and the issue of native speakers and non-natives where inner and outer circle groupings change people's attitudes to language. He hopes we will be pragmatic and admit that English is moving away from a focus on native speakers and towards the irrelevance of native abilities in light of excellent teaching skills. Eleni brings up the necessity of teachers to change and adapt to benefit children learning. She brings up cultural influence on teaching and the emotional distance that can be created when teachers and students do not agree on the best format for learning. Michael echoes the English as a lingua Franca idea but chooses his hot topic as the morale of teachers at present. The idea that we are "just a teacher" which pushes morale down. He hopes we will find ways to raise this level of motivation and self image. Bob finishes  the panel discussion by stating the value of what we do, how we need to improve the value of what we do in class. He uses grammar teaching as the example of how we have not been able to answer this question well and find a solution to it. His ideal example is teachers who effectively differentiate in a class, being able to simultaneously deal with different levels and styles in one class. 

The final closing remarks from Lilika summarize the points made above. Finishing (very appropriately) with "Yay TESOL Greece!"  

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