600 Seconds That Will Eviscerate Ten Minute Takeaways

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.

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Windmill, image source

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.

Parting shots
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.

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18 comments

  1. timothyhampson

    Very interesting post Mike, and very timely for me as well. I’m not sure I 100% agree with you as I’m a big fan of practicality. Particularly at my first ELT conference, I was really desperate for things I could take back to the classroom with me. One of the sessions really informed how I teach pronunciation up until this day (literally this day as I was actually teaching it this morning).

    Now that I know what I’m doing in the classroom a little bit more, I don’t think I feel as desperate for take home activities. Reading your post the big question that I wanted to ask was ‘what ARE you looking for from an ELT conference?’ but then after wanting to ask it, I realised I wasn’t that sure myself. I think it’s some kind of mix of being able to meet people, being thought provoking and having that post-conference ‘ready to kick ass’ feeling.

    One last thing is that while organising excitELT, we were very keen on ‘things for Monday’ but I always imagined them as being broader than just activities to copy. I really like the idea of someone hearing a talk on Saturday and then wanting to experiment with a bunch of cool new things on Monday. I think maybe takeaways can be more than just activities.

  2. Paul Walsh

    Firstly, 10-minute talks? By the time the latecomers have arrived – it’s time to finish, no?

    An important question here is: Why are teachers so obsessed with ‘takeaways’ and ‘lesson ideas for monday morning’? Answers on a postcard…

    Imagine a medical conference with doctors asking: “Do you have anything on tonsillectomies – I’ve got one on next week!”

    • mikecorea

      I cannot believe I am so late to respond to this. After I posted it was the conference and then a variety of things.
      Very quickly on your comment…people mostly came for the whole hour which meant they saw 3-4 10 minute sessions. There was not a lot of coming and going between or around sessions.

      As for your question on teachers’ obsession with takeaways I really don’t know. I think it might be a response to the lack of takeaways in many sessions (read: one person just rambling on).I think this Monday morning obsession is something like a response to so many crappy sessions. I don’t think it is the right remedy but I can sort of see where it comes from.

  3. HL

    I’ve been doing presentations this week on integrating edtech in schools mostly focusing on digital literacies, online CPD and e-safety awareness – in other words, the reasons and responsibilities of using tech in the first place. Most of the audience just wanted a long list and descriptions of apps.
    Frustrating, if not bizzare, that they would come and give up an entire afternoon for a workshop, when, as you say, they can find that list at home, online. Maybe their takeaway was confusion and that will lead to questions? *optimistic*

    • ven_vve

      I’m not saying I would go to a conference/workshop just to get a list of apps, but can imagine that some – especially if they don’t use edtech all that much – would appreciate specific pointers on which app has been proven to work. Say I’m thinking about trying out screencasting (my example from Twitter) and am looking for a starting point. Sure, I can (and will) google screencasting and there will be a dozen posts with titles like “Ten Best Apps for Screencasting”. I’ll have to read them all, click through and try the apps out, maybe register, see if they’re all free, a bunch will already no longer be in use/supported… I can (and do) do all that regularly but it’ll take me as long as going to a workshop and if I have any questions I’ll have to ask online and probably wait longer for an answer, while at the workshop I can just ask the presenter.
      Just some thoughts that were going through my head as I was looking for a way to share ppts recently. I hope your workshops went well and that the audience(s) will have lots of follow-up questions. 🙂

      • HL

        My issue is when that’s all they want. Several sites and tools are actually in the presentation. There’s also a todaysmeet.com room for the sessions where there are links to many more and space for Ts to ask Qs. My problem is that they don’t seem to want to always know how to find these things autonomously – they aren’t that interested in setting up a PLN or connecting in spaces where they can find more info. They just want to be given the things they can use (badly?) immediately without any of the supporting context needed – no thought to e-safety awareness (they are all state school Ts) no link to life skills or even learning, just tech. No thinking.

  4. Zhenya

    Love the post! My favorite quote: ‘ 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.’ – A big question/discussion (presentation topic?), as it seems to me after reading your post, might be about ways to use teachers’ time once they/we do get together. Inspiring teachers to generate those activities for their own students might be the best takeaway ever (as far as ‘best’ exists of course!)

  5. Pingback: A few brief thoughts on training takeaways – theteachertrials
  6. Teresa Bestwick

    A lot depends as well on a teacher’s experience – ACEIA holds its annual conference in November, which is a time when a lot of new teachers are still finding their feet and settling in to new jobs having started the term mid-September or early October (possibly even as first-year teachers). Whilst it’s true that there are a lot of resources available for them online, perhaps it’s more comfortable to come along to a session and pick up some easy to use ideas from their peers. They may already be spending more time on planning than others as they get used to new books, new students and new systems so it could be a welcome relief to come away from the day with a handful of “tips and tricks”. (This admittedly coming from someone who presented a workshop called, “15 Things to Use on Monday”!)
    Also, shock horror(!), there are teachers who aren’t interested in the more “academic” side of the profession. ELT is an opportunity to live in an exotic location and so they’re looking to earn enough money to enjoy themselves. Linked to that is the question of whether teachers are attending the conference through choice – schools sometimes see an annual conference as the basic minimum in terms of CPD and so force their teachers to go along. At least if there is a variety of sessions on offer, those teachers will be able to get something out of the day.

  7. Alastair Lane

    First of all, I think it is very disrespectful to suggest that teachers just rock up without preparing their lessons. So, yes, it is true that you are not giving teachers enough credit.
    Secondly, a conference needs a balance of theory and practice. I have seen people like Michael Swan do amazing presentations which leave everyone with food for thought.
    However, most of my presentations are for secondary school teachers who are fully qualified and have already studied the various theories of language learning and how they impact the classroom. Most of these teachers are working with the same classes over a long period of time. In Spain, the school terms also tend to be very long because the holidays are concentrated in the summer months, without half-term or similar breaks in the school year. People working in that situation like workshops, especially at this time of year, because it can give their lessons an extra boost when their students most need it.
    Personal experience also makes me think that fun lesson ideas are exactly what teachers most like, especially if the activity is one that be be adapted and used in a range of different contexts. Those are always the slides that people take photos of with their smartphones, and the presentations which people ask me to make available online afterwards.

  8. Chris Ożóg

    ELT’s Mike Griffin,

    I like this post even though I didn’t get anything to take into my tutorials tomorrow morning. I like this post because I like to learn things at conferences and, to me, taking home two grammar activities is not learning. There are activity books and internets for that. I like to learn about corpus, about someone’s experiment in teacher training, about what random new classification table of great import Cambridge are bringing out next or about 1967 and all that. If I had a weak area that was addressing, such as the use of pheromones in ELT, I would totally go to a session promising me six activities on that. But that can’t be every session and I really don’t want it to be. As Alistair noted above, a range and variety are the key to providing the right balance. There may be more call for practical tech sessions as people need to be shown how to use things, but a conference can’t be all tech.

    ELT’s Ben Stew also makes a good point – his pheromones really wouldn’t work in my context.

    Thank you for writing – you should do so again.

    • mikecorea

      It has already been months but I will say this was among my favorite all time comments on this blog. The next time I see you in person I will tell you all I can about phermones in ELT. I can almost guarantee you will enjoy it. Thanks very much for the comments here.

  9. Clare

    At the risk of boring everyone by repeating what has been said above – I totally agree! I often feel that the balance has been tipped too far in the direction of practical take-away activities. I understand that pure theory is not very sexy, but I have always enjoyed, benefited most from, and attempted to give conference talks that provide some input for teachers/audience members to consider for themselves and make decisions based on their own context.

    On another topic: I do like the innovative ideas of 10-minute talks and show lessons at conferences! The IATEFL Research SIG often has short talks like this as part of their PCEs at the annual conference. A bunch of us presented our projects for 10 minutes after each other, and then there was time for mingling and discussing in more detail. The concept really worked out well.

    Anyway, thank you for this blog post and for saying what so many of us seem to be thinking!!

    Clare
    http://www.ClaresELTcompendium.wordpress.com

  10. robertjdickey

    Good conference management dictates that either their is diversity in the types of presentations (not just topics, not just coverage, but also presentation styles) or else the conferences is clearly labeled (“A research seminar”, “Workshops for the uninitiated”, etc).

    Something we are seeing more of at conferences is sessions labeled “101” – sessions for newbies.

    There needs to be more attention to the use of the label “Workshop.” Workshop means participants are not mere attendees, but actually do things, important things.

    When conference managers force proposals to fit “Workshop or Paper” they do a disservice — there is a place for the “Presentation”.

    Abstracts should tell conference attendees what to expect. That’s supposed to be part of the vetting process!

  11. Pingback: Kudos to KOTESOL | ELT Rants, Reviews, and Reflections

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