Allow me to confess: I am not so sure all sessions at ELT conferences need to have a practical takeaway for the audience. I realize this might qualify as #ELTheresy but that is what is on my mind at the moment.
All too soon I will be presenting at the 2016 Seoul KOTESOL Conference. The main idea behind my 10 minute talk (I guess the title of the talk is another story for another day) is questioning the need for a huge emphasis on practical takeaways at conferences. The goal of “things you can use on Monday” seems to be unquestioned. I get the reasons for it. I really do. I know people get bored with too much theory and too much abstract stuff. I know attendees don’t like to be talked down to or lectured at. I am the same way. I am reminded of my post from earlier this year, “What Conference Attendees Want“and there seemed to be an emphasis on practical takeaways.
This year the Seoul KOTESOL conference has a strand on ten minute talks. From the material I saw it seemed that there was a strong emphasis on practical activities. I think Seoul KOTESOL should be commended for trying something different and ensuring that takeaways are kept in mind. When I was running a trainer-training course we often used the terms PWBAT (participants will be able to) and PWWAW (participants will walk away with) to keep this idea of takeaways at the front of presenters’ minds.
I suppose I just want to spend some time wondering about the emphasis on super practical takeaways and if it is a viable route. This blog post is an attempt to organize my thoughts and the post itself is a mostly disorganized series of ideas and questions.
Like many, I am somewhat full of shit
Or at least a hypocrite. Let’s get this out of the way early, shall we? As I thought through this topic I realized I have been somewhat guilty of the things I am wondering about. For example, I ran a workshop called “4 Activities I wish I knew when I started teaching” at CAMTESOL last year. I participated in the glorious #FlashmobELT movement and even presented on it a few times. Also, one of my first presentations ever was at the KOTESOL International Conference in 2009 and was called, “Some of my favorite Grammar Activities.”
Why (I believe) I couldn’t do a demo lesson recently
I was recently asked if I was interested in doing a demo lesson at a conference. While I loved the idea and found it innovative (and even exciting) I couldn’t get my head around what I might potentially do there. You see, most of my classes at the moment are extremely high level and a large percentage of these simply entail cycles of simultaneous interpretation and feedback and whole class discussion on specific language questions. I couldn’t see how this would apply to the majority of the people in the audience. Some of my other classes (also for future interpreters) are very focused on the language I believe students will need next year (along with confusions they are having) and I don’t do much in terms of actual activities so I was pretty frozen on what I could do at the conference so I decide to pass on the chance.
Is there such a thing as too practical?
I think so.
I usually find the whole theory vs. practice debate boring and overdone. I feel like many potential conference attendees would say there is no such thing as “too practical” but I think it is possible. I can imagine too practical being related to too prescriptive, too superficial, too limiting, and too specific. I guess these things need not always go together but I can easily imagine them doing so.
I am not sure if I am straying off topic here but… when it comes to talks about a particular tool (especially a digital one) I would rather just get inspired about the tool and see what can be done with it and what issues it can solve rather than get a step-by step tutorial in how to use it live at a conference. If I want to use the tool I think I can figure it out on my own and use the help pages from the good people who made the tool. I don’t need to hear someone tell me this stuff at a conference. I have been accused of being tech-savvy so I don’t know if this is just me but that is my current thinking on this sort of talk.
Is there a shortage of places to acquire activities?
I don’t believe there is. With all the books and blog posts and everything out there I am not sure if we need to go all the way to a place (not to mention showering, shaving, and looking halfway presentable) just to learn some activities when they are already widely available elsewhere. I think if we are going to gather together the best use of teachers’ time is probably not listening to one person describe an activity.
I do believe there is a shortage of places and opportunities for thinking and learning about how others think . In a previous post (“Confessions of an activity snob”) I wrote “I think there are more than enough places to acquire activities and not enough to acquire insights.”
How many activities do we really need anyway?
This obviously varies from context to context but my sense is that many teachers severely overate the amount of activities they will need to have in their toolkits.
“Do you have something for the 3rd conditional?”
In the comments on my aforementioned “Confessions of an activity snob” post ELT and ELTstew’s Ben Naismith wrote about how he might respond to this questing saying, “Well, what’s the context? Who are the learners? What are they interested in? What kinds of things do they like doing? What have you already covered?” I think these are great places to start and exactly get to part of my issue with the assumption that what works for one group will automatically work for another.
Maybe “Try this. It works!”Could be dangerous
First of all, I am not exactly sure what “works” means here and I think this is an important consideration. Also, as I said in the previous section I think the assumption that works in one classroom will automatically work in another is potentially recipe for disaster.What I really want to emphasize here is the importance of context.
I couldn’t have this subtitle without a mention of friend of the blog Russ Mayne and his series entitled, “Try this it works!” It would not be the first or the last time Russ and I disagreed on something but in this case I think his suggestion is not overly specific and thus probably avoids the kind of critiques I am making here.
Monday morning is soon!
Maybe I am just a worrywart but it makes me a bit uneasy when teachers immediately incorporate an activity in their next class without (I assume) fully thinking it through. Maybe I am not giving teachers enough credit and I should assume they will always think things through and make sure the activity is a good it for their learners and classes.
I realize I might not have been completely fair to presenters or attendees or organizers here. Sorry everyone. Maybe people are more thoughtful than I give them credit for and all these worries are needless.
Aside from my apologies for not giving teachers enough credit I cannot shake the feeling that I am tilting a windmills here and that the obsession for activities it not going to fade away soon.
Anyway, now that my membership in the curmudgeon club is assured for another year I will get back to working on the PowerPoint for my presentation. There will be cute animals.