For English Teachers it’s time to skill up – and celebrate our success!

For English Teachers it’s time to skill up – and celebrate our success - Ilustration by Tang Yau HoongAt the beginning of this month I attended the Teaching for Success Conference at the British Council in Valencia, and got to see the always entertaining and thought-provoking Jeremy Harmer deliver a rather ominously titled talk. “Through a glass darkly: does ELT have a future?” centered on the technological disruption we’re beginning to see in our sector and the possible effects on teachers and learners. Harmer made quite clear that he was not in the business of making prophesies about the always uncertain future, and raised far more questions than he answered, but he did serve to get across one clear and solid message to the audience that might be summed up in a single word: Beware.

That technology’s impact on education, and ELT more specifically, can no longer be ignored is a sentiment being echoed elsewhere by technophobes and technophiles alike (as well as many of those in between). There was a time when it may have been easier to think that the inevitable tipping point into this new age of English Teaching everyone had been predicting for so long would never come, but, as Harmer said, employing a fairly well-known saying, “change comes slowly, and then all at once.” So, if this is to be taken as general truth, I’ll throw in another useful motto from my days in the Boy Scouts – “Be Prepared.” Continue reading

Innovations in how we measure progress

Innovate ELT Conference - Brian EngquistIn order to further prep myself for the Innovate ELT Conference in Barcelona where I will be giving a talk titled How technology helps you improve what your students can do I sat in on Ian Wood’s session yesterday at the Pearson Morning for English Teachers of Cambridge Exams event in Madrid.  Ian is something of our own in house guru on all things testing and is extremely adept at using clear language and metaphors to express quite difficult and meaty concepts from the world of English language assessment.

So, in that same spirit of clarity I would just like to sum up the thrust of Ian’s talk with this very simple, but important question that he reminded us we all hear from our students, but are often at a loss to answer entirely adequately: How good is my English?  All of us have our ways of dealing Continue reading

ELT Ideas for Secondary Teachers

Pearson Evens for English TeachersFollowing our visits to Zaragoza and Valencia last week for the Pearson Evens for English Teachers, Elena Merino and I would like to share our presentations with you as promised.

We hope these ELT Ideas for Secondary Teachers come in handy, and we certainly appreciate the thoughtful participation of all of those attending.  Your comments helped us to come up with a few new ideas as well! Continue reading

Baseball, culture and language

For Americans baseball is much more than just a sport.  There is a whole culture tied to baseball that tells us where we come from, what our values are and how we view the world.  It even influences how we speak the English language!

So I was very pleased to kick off our cultural talks for 2014 with a new presentation titled Play Ball! Understanding America through its national pastime in the beautiful Autonomous Community of Extremadura.  I visited the Oficial Language Schools in Zafra and Plasencia and had the opportunity to share my views on a sport which is still somewhat of a mystery here in Spain with almost 300 students at 3 separate talks.

I just have to say how welcome I was made to feel in both schools, and I would like to give an extra special thanks to Antonio, Raúl and Veronica (pictured below) who lent me a hand looking up some useful expressions that have their origins in the American pastime.

Baseball Vocab

Among some of the expressions they were able to “catch” from the talk were “to touch base”, “to take a rain check” and “to be in the same ballpark.”  Do you know what they mean?

UPDATE:  Today (7/11/14) I gave another talk near my “home base” in Madrid when I visited the EOI in Torrejón de Ardoz.  The woman below reminded me of something that I knew but forgot to mention in my talk.  Her name was Ana and she told me of her memories as a girl watching the American servicemen at the military base there play the men from the Cuban embassy.  Torrejón has its own special history of baseball as well!

Ana, who is one of the most intrepid beginner learners of English I have ever met, also thought I neglected to mention the film A League of Their Own and the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League.  A point well taken Ana.  I promise to do that in my next talk!

Baseball Torrejon

Teens, teen brains and exam prep

Ian Wood Madrid

Ian Wood’s visit to Spain last week was not only a wonderful opportunity for him to get the message out  about changes to the Cambridge exams.  At our Madrid and Seville events he also did us the added favor of looking at teenagers, teenage brains and exams with this thought-provoking talk:

 

Click on image to download

mission impossible

 

The teen brain is a topic which I’ve written about before, and so it was great to be able to follow up his talk with one of my own, Helping students help themselves with assessment.  It focused on implementing technology via the SAMR model to foster a Blended learning approach in exam preparation courses by giving students more autonomy and protagonism.

At the center of both of our talks was an emphasis on the teen learner as a doer actively constructing their own learning in a social context which is relevant to them.  Voice, choice, grouping, creativity and personalization were words that really jumped out at me on slides 18 and 19 of Ian’s presentation, for example.  And when he spoke about using media teens relate to, like texting for practicing writing skills, it really resonated with me as it is also similar to something I’ve been thinking about recently.

I know I speak for both of us when I say we sincerely enjoyed giving these talks and getting a chance to meet and speak to many of the teachers who came out to see us.  Thank you for all the energy and good vibes!

Changes to the Cambridge Exams and what they really mean to students and teachers

Last week Pearson took its Learning Journeys on the road in Spain, visiting almost 250 teachers in Madrid, Bilbao and Seville.  The topic was exams and so we considered ourselves extremely lucky to be able to count on Pearson’s very own Ian Wood (Product Development Director Assessment).  Few people have spent quite so much time in and around the world of ELT assessment as he, so his knowledge proved invaluable as he tackled an area of particular concern to his audience – Changes to the 2015 Cambridge Exams.

Some are minor changes on familiar exercises, others are entirely brand new tasks (Cross-text multiple matching anyone?), and still others are subtle (or not so subtle) changes of focus.  But all of them are going to impact the way we and our students prepare for these exams.

Thanks again to Ian for laying this all out so clearly.  Changes are always a bit stressful, but being well informed is a great way to reduce some of that anxiety.  You can have a look at his presentation by clicking on the image below.

And our deepest thanks to all of you who came out to see us.  We certainly enjoyed meeting and talking to you.

 

Cambridge Changes

 

 

For those of you who would like to view Ian’s other talk on teens, the teen brain and getting them ready for Cambridge exams, you can find it here.

 

 

 

5 Major Edtech Trends

Pearson Morning Madrid 2014

Last week in Madrid I had the pleasure of doing the second session at the Pearson Morning for English teachers at Adult Learner Centres.  It was also a distinct honor (and more than slightly intimidating) as Speakout author Antonia Clare kicked the event off with her superb and provocatively titled talk: Love and the Art of Language Learning.  All of us at Pearson sincerely hope those of you who attended the event enjoyed it as much as we did.

For those of you who could not be there, or those of you who were but wanted to have a second look, I am including below a brief summary of my talk: 5 major Edtech trends for English teachers to watch out for… and embrace, as well as the presentation itself.

 

From Content Delivery to Prosumerism

We started out by attempting to define Edtech and a quick look at a recent post at the site eltjam made it clear quite quickly that, if nothing else, it is a topic which is often politically charged and stirring up considerable debate.  And we also saw a rather funky example of some pretty serious content delivery from the 1960s that showed us that Edtech is not exactly a new idea.  But today instead of being almost solely about the delivery (or bombardment) of content, Blended Learning approaches are (or at least perhaps should be) increasingly about 1) putting learners in the driver’s seat as Prosumers (doers instead of merely consumers) and 2) providing them with a process by which to access their own individualized learning paths.

 

My five Edtech trends?  Well here they are:

 

Video

Though this may not sound very new, video is like the glue which holds everything together nowadays.  It is THE medium which almost single-handedly defines the Internet experience today.  It is now an integral part of what makes courses and online learning spaces work and has to be taken into account from the moment these products and services are conceived. They are no longer just an add-on or extra component.  And from Prosumer video tools like Movenote to things like eduCanon which allow you to curate your own video content, or sites like Kieran Donaghy’s Film English where a true expert in video shares his ideas for how to use them in class, we are witnessing a real democratization of this form of expression applied to language learning.

 

Mobile Learning

There are lots of exciting advances in apps and e-books which are certain to take us in very interesting directions soon, but at the moment much of this is fairly straight forward content delivered in a pretty traditional way.  The real value that mobile can add to you classes today resides in its ability to bring the learner’s experience into the classroom, not simply receive content.  Just as a video or voice recorder your students’ smart phones are probably still worth more than most of the apps out there.  And if you are going to use apps why not use those that your learners are familiar with?  For these reasons BYOD is still king in most contexts.

 

Social Media

I’ve spoken about this and backchaneling before, but in a nutshell: This is one way that we are speaking to each other today.  As language teachers we know that anywhere and anyway that communication is taking place, we need to be there.

 

Online Collaboration Tools

What I find interesting about experimenting with things like shared Google Docs is the way they help us to see that the most transformative kinds of changes (see my explanation of the SAMR model for evaluating technology use) that come about from using technology do not happen because of the technology itself, but because an emphasis is placed on the types of skills needed to use the tool to its full potential.  And the teacher working as a guide is key to helping students hone these skills to use these tools in new and unexpected ways.  This example of “Chrome Smashing” is a great example of how you need to get creative to redefine tasks and take them up a notch.

 

Adaptive Learning (AL) and Big Data

This is perhaps the most fiercely debated of today’s Edtech innovations.  Proponents claim data mining the information trail that students leave when completing work online will allow us greater insights into their needs, helping us to personalize their learning experience.  Others feel that language learning is too complex to be able to be measured, or that any measurement will only be at the “McNugget” level.  I actually believe that there is some merit to the McNugget argument, but only because these are very early days for AL.  We still have only a very preliminary idea of where this may go, but new tools are already being developed which measure student progress far more accurately and granularly than before thought possible, give automated and nearly instantaneous results, and can measure gains using much more meaningful “can do” descriptors instead of the simple completion of discrete McNugget-type content items.

 

Social Media and how we speak to one another

There was some rightfully worrying news for teachers on the BBC website today.

The UK’s largest teachers’ union, the NASUWT, released the results of a survey which showed that fully one in five of its members have been the targets of “adverse comments” by both pupils and parents on social networking sites.  The nature of the comments was sometimes so severe as to impair the ability of the teachers to do their job adequately.

Amazingly “fewer than half of [the] incidents were reported to the school or the police” leading union officials to call out for “clearer sanctions” against those taking part in such abusive behaviour and “a better system for removing offensive material from websites.”  Certainly you are going to find few people arguing with such measures, not only in light of the serious nature of the behaviour but also because of how commonplace it seems to be.

Still, my concerns go beyond what such punitive, after-the-fact steps will ever be able to remedy.  I worry that social media itself will be further demonized while the root problem, namely how we speak to each other, will continue to be ignored.

Social media and similar online communications tools hold huge potential for learning.  They give students, teachers, parents and institutions the ability to engage openly with one another outside of the physical class space and underscore learning as a social activity in the broader community.  Knowing how to use these tools is becoming vital to the way we interact with one another and solve problems together.

As a language teacher I tried to make clear in my last post that it is not the tools we use to speak to one another, but the content of the conversations and the rules and considerations we take into account when interacting that need to be given centre stage.  Facebook, Twitter and Instagram aren’t going away whether we like it or not.  It is imperative that we give our learners the communications skills they need to have respectful, constructive conversations be they face to face or online.

Punishing behaviour which does not conform to socially established rules is often necessary, but we first need to establish clearly what those rules are.  And in this rapidly changing world that is the kind of conversation that teachers, schools, students and parents need to be having.

Teaching students to tweet

Eight years ago today Jack Dorsey, the co-founder and chairman of Twitter, sent this first ever Tweet and things haven’t really been the same since:

Despite initial doubts from just about everyone as to how you could say anything meaningful in 140 characters it’s hard now to imagine the Internet without the famed microblogging site.  A tool which for many did not seem to have a clear use has managed to create its own impressive uber-niche in the communication landscape.  But what is Twitter exactly and is there any way to use it in our classes?

Twitter Skills are 21st Century Skills

To help answer the first question, consider this 2012 article from Glenn Greenwald – certainly one of the most influential and innovative journalists out there today – in which he details a specific instance where he used Twitter to crowdsource his readers to check the veracity of of a suspicious online Op-Ed.  Many saw this as an example of “further evidence … that people’s ability to verify info online is *rubbish*.

But Greenwald saw it differently, because not only was the suspect article quickly exposed by his Twitter followers as a hoax, but:

That happened by virtue of all of the strengths which the Internet uniquely offers, and which traditional journalism precludes: collective analysis, using one’s readers (tens of thousands of people, if not more) to help with research and investigation, instant and mass collaboration with other journalists and experts, an open and transparent analytical and investigative process.

I don’t know about you, but as a teacher hearing things like “collective analysis”, “mass collaboration” and “transparent analytical and investigative process” (all variations on core 21st Century skills) gives me real butterflies in the stomach – and I’m talking about the good kind.

The Backchannel

Nowadays we expect an article, a conference, a lecture or just about any event to come with a conversation, a comment section or a hasthtag.  And we no longer think of this as just background chatter.  The article, lecture or event used to be the end product but now it is the starting point for something even more important – a social conversation about what the publication or event means, what we think about it personally and where we want to take it.

There’s  a name for this – backchanneling.  As language teachers this probably rings a bell, because it is a term which was originally applied to spoken interactions.  During a conversation a speaker receives feedback from his listener in the form of “umms”, “ahs”, “hmms”, “reallys”, “you don’t says” and the like.  Though these interjections may at first seem largely irrelevant, they give the speaker some real clues as to the effect he’s having on his audience.  And if you don’t believe it, try being totally silent as someone relates an anecdote to you on the telephone.  Trust me, it won’t take long before you’ll hear a puzzled voice ask, “Are you still there?”

There are a number of reasons why backchanneling in virtual space via tweets has become a vital modern communication skill that we should begin to focus on with our students.  Firstly, it is no less important than the spoken variety.  If we are going to ask our students to come up with follow-up questions to keep spoken conversations moving why wouldn’t we ask them to practice the same type of skill in their online interactions?  Secondly, it is no less important today as a genre of writing than a formal letter or e-mail, and arguably, because of the ease with which we can publish it online, more empowering and consequential.  And finally, it can easily used by teachers and students to profoundly change classroom dynamics and give learners greater protagonism.

So, how do you get started?  Try TodaysMeet.

First of all I probably wouldn’t start by using Twitter.  While it is possible to set up a private Twitter group for your class there’s a much easier way to practice the fundamentals of backchaneling with your students.  Check out TodaysMeet where you can create a room (like a temporary hashtag) for an hour, a day , a week or even a year.  You then share out the URL, students access it, provide their name and join the conversation.  It’s really that easy.  The space is non-public, “self-destructs” after its time limit and provides you with an easy way to download the transcript to read through later or look at with your students.

And what can you use it for?  Here are 3 quick ideas:

1.  Increase Student Feedback and Interaction

When students are taking in any content, be that a lecture, video or even a reading text, allow them to use their mobile devices to text in their opinions, thoughts or queries.  Often feedback only comes when the teacher asks “Any questions?” but we know all too well that ideas don’t always occur to us at these pre-prescribed moments, and some students tend to dominate class discussion while others avoid the spotlight.  Letting them chime in when they feel like it or without having to speak out loud can help increase both the quality and quantity of interaction in your class.

2. As a Project Space

Working on group projects?  Why not open up a room for each group to share their ideas or any links they think might be useful.  This room can stay open for the length of the project and you can also join in as a teacher providing them with your own insight and tips.

3. To decide on focus for future classes

Monitor the discussions and use them as a springboard for future work in class.  If you think you’re out of ideas you often don’t have to look any further than your own students.  Social networking tools like TodaysMeet or Twitter allow us to gain some real insight into what our students are thinking, what their interests are or what they might be having difficulty with.

Baby Steps!

As always, don’t bite off more than you can chew.  Start out with something short and simple which can be done in a single lesson.  Begin with a discussion on the form, function and appropriate use of these mini-texts.  And end up by sharing and analyzing the transcript together, picking out salient points and useful contributions.  Then decide as a group how you want to use this information to focus future classes.

And most importantly, remember to think of it as not only  a classroom tool but a language skill for today’s world.

Social context, not just tech with teens

A few days ago,  I looked at why it’s important for us not only to teach our teenage students good English, but to do this while stressing higher order 21st Century skills at the same time.  Because adolescents’ brains are undergoing enormous changes in the pre-frontal cortex they are particularly receptive to work done on these social skills which are so vital to their future success as confident individuals who can work well with others.

Today I want to talk about how this impacts on the way we use technology with our learners.  And what I would like to suggest is that the most productive lessons on the use of technology for our teens (and maybe for us as teachers as well) actually have very little to do with technology per se, and a whole lot more with our awareness of  the social context in which we use it.

A particularly interesting model for the evaluation of technology use which was developed by Ruben R. Puentedura in 2011 called the SAMR model might be instructive here.  If you’re interested you can hear him speaking about it in this video, but let’s just quickly deconstruct the acronym to get an idea of what it’s all about.

Puentedura divides uses of technology into those which merely enhance the way you carry out learning tasks and those which truly transform those tasks and the learning process leading to improved outcomes.

Enhancement is represented by the letters S (Substitution) and A (Augmentation) of the acronym.  An example of substituting a technological tool for an existing one might be using a word processor instead of pencil and paper, or sending your teacher your work via e-mail instead of handing it in.  It’s kind of nice, but it brings little new to the table.  Augmentation goes a step further and the student might start to use some of the improved functionality of the word processor to format the document differently, add media or use a spell-checker, for example.  If you notice, what the students are adding to the task in both of these cases are mostly technical elements.

But ultimately I think students can do many of these things on their own.  What really interests me are the M and the R – the ways we can transform learning with technology.  Puentedura identifies these as Modification, where you can significantly re-design a task using technology, and Redefinition, where students are going beyond what was before possible, being empowered to employ the technology to carry out tasks which have never before been undertaken.  Obviously this level of outcome is precisely what we should want our students to aspire to as it impacts not only on their individual development, but ultimately on how innovative our society as a whole can become.

Putting aside what a truly transformative task might look like for a moment ,there does seem to be a great deal of agreement about the kinds of skills that are required to make them work.  In contrast to the almost purely technical skills required to carry out substitutional uses of technology, Transformation, as I read it, can only take place if higher order, 21st Century skills are thrown into the mix.

For Modification and Redefinition to occur we need to have prosumeristically-minded students who are able to collaborate with others, organizing information by applying critical-thinking , sharing it in an appropriate way which will impact positively on continued debate and stimulating future contributions by others.  In short we are asking for nothing less than to have them lend a hand in building up this vast shared construct we call human knowledge.

And this is where the teacher comes in.  When you think about it there is nothing particularly 21st Century about 21st Century Skills.  Were Communication, Collaboration, Critical Thinking and Creativity unheard of before 2001?  Of course not, but they have once again been put center-stage by a society which has seen an explosion of internet-based tools which demand a new understanding of these skills in a new context.  And the role of the teacher is to help our students transfer existing analog skills to a new digital and increasingly hyper-linked landscape.  But the trick is to see them more as social than technical aptitudes.

Take a Google doc.  It’s a fantastic tool for pushing our students in this direction – a shared document which lends itself to collaboration, shared insight, group editing and, hopefully, sharing or publishing – the ultimate in empowerment.  But when you open up a document it is still nothing more than a blank page.

Students are likely have the technical know-how to deal with all its bells and whistles, but how many really know how to work productively on a project with their colleagues?  How many have the social skills to undertake a project with that level of organization?  How many are prepared to give or receive criticism or correction from a classmate, turning their mistakes or someone else’s insight into a personal or collective gain?  And how many are aware of the power and risks implicit in pressing the publish button in today’s day and age?

Once again, this is where the teacher comes in.  When teaching with technology we are often under the impression that we need to master the tool.  But what is really true is that we need to help our students master the context in which they will use the tool.

And as teachers we already have these skills, honed over years of experience in getting students to analyze print texts, think of their effect on the target reader, the register and context they are written in.  It is only a question of transferring them to a new and highly public arena where titles pop-up in Google searches, footnotes have morphed into hyperlinks and even URLs can provide context.

In many ways things really haven’t changed all that much.  In forming literate members of society we have always started out with the basics with younger students, gradually increasing not only the linguistic difficulty at which we expect our students to read and express themselves, but also building their awareness of the social complexity into which our cultural artifacts are woven.  Known as “Digital Literacy” this is a logical extension of where our society is going and it obviously impacts very directly on how we need to see our role with our students  (if you need any more proof of this – or practical examples of how to approach teaching it I suggest you check out Digital Literacies by Dudeney, Hockly and Pegrum).

Our teens are moving quickly towards a future where much of their lives will be online.  We know that one of the things which can help them the most at this age is raising their awareness of social behavior, helping them to work together effectively  and empowering them to make their own critiques of the world around them.  If you open up a shared doc with them (or use any other tech tool for that matter) maybe you shouldn’t sweat the tech stuff so much.

Stick first and foremost to what you already know as a teacher – how to foment an understanding of communication in a broader social context.  And see it as an opportunity for a project that’s going to help them ask bigger questions about their future than which tab to click on to get the chat box to come up.  They’ll figure that part out for themselves.  It’s how they use that chat box with their classmates which is going to make the difference.