Every year the UK receives teachers from all over the world who get together for the IATEFl conference. This year it was held in –rainy?- Manchester where warm committee members and colleagues, mild weather, traditional breakfast and locally brewed ales hosted us for five days.
The event is organized in different types of events:
- Plenary: one speaker, usually a University professor, shares the context and findings of their last research.
- Talk: a short presentation of a topic
- Informal talks with researchers and speakers
- After conference entertainment events.
The Manchester 2015 conference has been a success and a source of inspiration for those of us who had the privilege of attending such a prestigious event. In this short text I will present some ideas that caught my attention and whet my appetite to keep on working on them. The aim of this summary is to share these lines with those who could not go this time –but might be there next year- and to foster further discussion and reflection upon these ideas.
The two ends of the conference thread, i.e. the opening and the closing plenaries, have set an agenda for the international English language teachers discussions. Professor Donald Freeman (USA) and Professor Harry Kuchah (Cameroon) approached the problems of current ELT pedagogies and methodologies from different but concomitant perspectives. The former dealt with three myths that hinder the improvement of the quality of instruction, the latter approached some issues related to Education-for-All pedagogies that impact on the way teachers and learners receive the authorities guidelines as regards to “how to teach better”. Kuchah was escorted by Professor David Crystal, who refreshed some issues related to Lingustics, apart from providing a highly enjoyable time to all of us, plus a closing poetry session by Carol Anne Duffy who was just breathtaking. In between these two thread ends, hundreds of presentations took place and voices from all over the world were heard and acknowledged by us all. Two of them I’d like to highlight are: the panel about teaching young learners in different contexts –where two Uruguayans presented a brief summary of their work- and a short talk about dyslexia. My intention now is to write down a short summary of them. In part 1 I’ll summarize Freemans plenary, in part 2 Kuchah’s and in part 3 an overall impression after the conference.
According to Professor Freeman, we teachers live under a certain control of three myths that, although they bring us together as a community, they do not let us go forward in the achievement of better teaching and learning. The first one has to do with “Direct causality”, in other words just like a pool ball hits another and gets into the pool pocket, then our actions in the classroom have a linear cause and consequence. The second myth relates to “sole responsibility”, we believe we share responsibility with other actors of the educational community but responsibility is not actually shared, it’s distributed among these actors. The third one, as Freeman says, has us in its grasp now, and it’s the myth of “Proficiency as a goal”. This last myth caught my attention in particular.
Freeman suggests that the language proficiency we pursue is grounded in nativeness, in the existence of a native world (proficiency lies here) and a non native world. This, he says, is a geopolitical concept leaving language use into
constrained boundaries. He reflected upon the need to “extend the horizon of the picture” of language knowledge we foster in our students. He compared our proficiency-as-a-goal current practice with this picture he took in Florence:
Considering the frame that the suitcase provides, the horizon and outer parts of the landscape cannot be seen. He called for the rethinking of proficiency as plural and to consider multiliteracy and particular contexts of social practice. Also, he defended the idea of having the opportunity of selecting what you learn, of directing your learning. To round off he quoted one of his Teachers, Caleb Gattegno who defended the virtue of not knowing: “You can be lived by your preconceptions, which will make you a bad teacher, it occurred to me that ”.
If I were to take one of Freeman’s lines of thought and reflect upon Uruguayan reality, I would suggest revising our conception of language proficiency in our context. Of course there are many forms of English instruction in our country, at institutes, at schools, and now at remote teaching points too. What we want our students to achieve is a topic to discuss in the Uruguayan community of teachers. What we teach, how we teach it, with what resources, are basic questions to start the conversation, is our teaching focused on our students in their context? Are we using methodologies that are embraced by the majority of the teachers? How do teachers make students learn? These open question trigger a deep discussion where many preconceptions and beliefs would immediately pop up.
Some days ago, when I was still in the UK, I had a very short but enthusiastic whatsapp dialogue with a colleague and proposed an informal forum with teachers who are interested in discussing this topic, how many of us would be willing to start an activity like this in Uruguay? Wouldn’t it be rewarding for our profession? All in all, I find pleasure in sharing Freeman’s final quotation:
“What you do about what you don’t know is, in the final analysis, what determines what you will ultimately know.”
The having of wonderful ideas
(to be continued)