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A Systematic Pattern – material considerations online and off

7 Mar

Image Credit: Pixabay

A Systematic Pattern. (Image Credit: Pixabay)

In many respects, the regular occurrence of systematic features is what makes a course a course.  It is these features which tell us that we are moving from one section to another and thus that we have indeed “moved on”.  Whether anything has been learnt is another matter, but from course design perspective, the impression of progress is important.  There are pedagogical and administrative concerns as well – you select material to help you fulfill the course objectives and you then group that material into thematically linked modules – the systematic features tell us that we are at the beginning of a module, half way through the middle or approaching the end.

The advantages are then that the systematic features orientate us to our position within the module.  When we encounter a particular feature we know (a) where we are and (b) what is expected of us (at least after the initial stages).  The unfamiliar then becomes familiar and allows us to function and contribute effectively, thus adding to our own feelings of accomplishment and learning.  The disadvantages are that these features can act as a bit of a straight-jacket – they might constrain learning by not allowing for experimentation beyond the task or they might constrain the teaching by not allowing the tutor to do something innovative.  Plus, it might all get a bit boring.

This is just as true for face to face courses as it is for online – coursebooks in fact make a virtue of their systematic features (or try to).  An example of this is Cutting Edge if you find your copy of the book and flick through it, you’ll find that the format of each module is broadly similar – some variation in layout and sequence perhaps, but the sections and design of the tasks is pretty much the same throughout.  I think where F2F courses differ from the online is that the F2F teacher is freer to just throw their hands in the air and say “You know what?  Today we’re going to….” – an online teacher, I don’t think, has that liberty.  The units and materials are very often “up there” and the tutors and participants simply access them as they get to them, though obviously the tutors control the rate of access and when materials get released.

There is then, much more reliance on the course materials in the online world.  The teacher is not so much of a resource as they are in face to face and the learners, who are often pushed for time and have busy lives elsewhere, tend to prefer only to do those tasks that they feel will be of benefit to them passing the course.  Very often what happens (and here I speak from experience of both a teaching and learning perspective) is that participants log in, cut and paste their answers into the forum and log off again.  There is reluctance – but not always – to engage in anything that doesn’t meet the course requirements and building the interaction between participants is therefore more difficult in the online world than in the offline world,

But you could also argue that the lack of rigidity and possibility of variance is a weakness in face to face teaching – the students are at the mercy of the teacher and have no choice but to participate in the lessons the teacher has provided.  If the teacher doesn’t really feel up for it that day and decides to put on a movie / documentary / episode of The Simpsons and ask a bunch of content questions at the end to justify showing the thing, what else can the students do?

It seems that the course itself is a thing that needs to have a programmed rigidity, or perhaps certainty would be a better word.  Whether it is online or offline, teachers need to know what they are going to teach and students need to know what they are going to learn.  Within that though, there needs to be flexibility to deal with matters arising and the opportunity to dive off into something useful and interesting that isn’t on the original program.  This is an area where I think online courses are lacking at the moment, but perhaps this too, as the medium develops, is beginning to change?

Image Credit: Pixabay

An Unsystematic Pattern? (Image Credit: Pixabay)

Note:  I originally wrote parts of this post as part of my training to tutor online, when I did the IHCOLT in 2o13 and I had a reflective blog related to my training.  I’m now rationalising that blog and am migrating some of the content here, rather than lose it all.  Since I did the IHCOLT, I’ve been working as an online tutor with IH OTTI and I have updated this post to reflect this experience and my changing thinking.

 

The case for and against RP

19 Oct

“Since being in hospital, the only people I have heard speaking in the UK prestige model of “received pronunciation” are some of the consultants and surgeons.  Everyone else in the hospital is from everywhere else.”

In a recent post, about the need for native speakers to be trained in how to speak to non-native speakers, I made the point that very few of the non-native speakers will have encountered anything like the variety of dialect and accent that exists in the UK, let alone all of the variations of standard English that exist around the world.

The 2015 Ethnologue entry for English gives population figures of 335,000,000 L1 speakers of English worldwide, and 515,000,000 L2 speakers.  Yet estimates of received pronunciation speakers in the UK suggest only about 2% of the population, or just over 1.25 million people, actually use this form.  In other words, 0.15% of the global English speaking community uses RP.  Which begs the question of why we bother teaching it?

Proportion of RP Speakers

It is a staggeringly small proportion and the prominence of RP as a model owes a lot to historical views in the UK relating to class and status, as well as the historical nature of the education system and the dominance of the public schools (the term used in the UK to refer to private, fee paying establishments).

Unlike every other variety or dialect of English, RP does not relate to where you were born or where you grew up.  RP is a class and status marker and became desirable partly because of that, and partly because of its adoption by the BBC as a broadcasting standard.  There is an excellent and accessible piece by the British Library on RP, which goes into the history and evolution of RP in more detail.

It is the reasons why RP was chosen by the first general manager, Lord Reith, as the standard for the BBC that gives us our clue as to why it is so widespread in ELT:  “Reith believed Standard English, spoken with an RP accent, would be the most widely understood variety of English, both here in the UK and overseas. He was also conscious that choosing a regional accent might run the risk of alienating some listeners.” (British Library).  In other words, Reith wanted the BBC to be understandable and accessible to the broadest possible audience and was concerned that using dialect would make programmes accessible only to certain speech communities.  RP, with it’s relatively unmarked patterns, fit the bill.

Ultimately, shouldn’t this also be what our students should want?  To be understood by the broadest possible audience?  I have encountered negative attitudes to non-RP accents and speech in the classroom, including one student who flatly refused to do a listening activity with an African English accent on the grounds that he was never going to go to Africa and it wasn’t a useful model for him.  Fair enough, but this does miss the point slightly.

In Sound Foundations, Adrian Underhill distinguishes between Rapid Colloquial Speech (RCS) and Careful Colloquial Speech (CCS), where an example of RCS would be two native speakers talking informally to each other (for an example, see the transcript and audio via the link) and where CCS is a slowed down, clearer and, well, careful version of the language.  “An internationally available example of careful colloquial RP,” he says, “is that of newscasters and announcers on the BBC World Service.”  Just to be clear, Underhill does not say that CCS is the same thing as RP.  Features of CCS are that the speaker slows down, enunciates clearly, and makes sure that word boundaries are discernible; these are not features of accent.

CCS then, is a productive target.  As with the BBC, we want to be understood by as many people as possible, and so we should adopt a form of speech that carries the greatest degree of intelligibility, or what might also be the lowest common denominator.  As an example of that, RP is a useful productive model.

For RCS though, Underhill suggests “that this style of pronunciation is useful as a target for learners to aim at in their listening skill.”  Which begs the question, why isn’t it used for such?

speaking

Without the benefit of asking coursebook authors, editors and publishers; I suspect the answer is probably pragmatic.  Firstly,  the listening tasks don’t only function to develop listening skills, they also function as pronunciation models so that students can consistently link the way they hear a word to the way they say a word.  Secondly, if you do decide to feature alternative dialects and accents, which do you choose?  How would you determine which are most useful to the learners?  Thirdly, what additional input is needed?

The Dialect Blog, which looks at the way English is spoken everywhere, has some great input on Jamaican English and was the source for the You Tube video below, which is the story of “The Night before Christmas” read in the Jamaican patois.  Watch it and then think about what you would need to teach for that to be comprehensible to a group of learners.  Or alternatively, if you have a group of over confident higher level students, play it for them and ask them to transcribe it…..

It is probably going to have to be up to the teachers, responding to the needs of their learners, who decide when and how to incorporate non-RP speech into their classrooms.  The British Library, which has been previously referred to, hosts a collection of 71 sound recordings from around the UK with notes on the dialect.  Some great examples include:

These are all interviews, some have dialect notes, some have transcripts, some have neither.  The sound quality can vary, particularly with the older recordings.  Most are about five minutes long.

As an instant, no preparation procedure, I would suggest a three listening strategy:

  • First listening:  tell the students who they will hear and what they will be talking about.  Ask them to find one interesting “fact”.  Feedback on any content the students manage to uncover, but then move the conversation to process feedback – how difficult was it to listen to?  What did you understand and where did you have problems?  How much was accent and how much was vocabulary?  If the recording has dialect notes, you may be able to provide some vocabulary items at this stage.
  • Second listening:  Ask the students to take notes.  After the second listening, ask the students to work in small groups to try and reconstruct a version of what the speaker said.  This obviously doesn’t have to be a verbatim transcript, but should broadly reflect the content and attitude of the speaker.
  • Third listening:  Students check their reconstruction.  If you have a transcript for the recording, students could listen and follow the transcript at the same time.

I would then recommend some form of content follow up.  For example, Nicola from Plymouth (as above) talks about life as a teenager.  How is her life different to teenagers in your country?

A further possibility might be for learners to record their own interviews, using their mobile phones.

***

Another way to find authentic speakers talking about pretty much any topic is to search for videos including the phrase VOX POP and your topic.  e.g. Environment vox pop, christmas shopping vox pop.  A vox pop is an on the street interview between a reporter and member of the public.  They are usually quite short and may feature two or three people giving their opinions on the same topic.  The search term “street interview” also brings up similar results.  You could develop these into listening exercises as above, but as they are quite short, you could just use them as a lead in to your topic, asking students if they agree with the opinions.  While this is a primarily content led way of using the videos, it does also serve to expose and familiarise students to non-RP voices.

Finally, here’s the Night before Christmas.

Enjoy!

 

 

Parsnips in ELT: Stepping out of the Comfort Zone

10 Aug

most requested ebooks

The concept of Parsnips in ELT has always intrigued me.  These are the things that you’re not supposed to talk about with your classes, the taboo topics that might get you into trouble or which your students might protest at.  These are the topics that mainstream coursebooks leave out.

And for a very good reason – coursebooks are market dependent and they rely on economies of scale to make a profit.  A coursebook that cannot be used in an entire region of the world because it touches on political issues that might offend ruling regimes means potentially losing money in sales.  But this leads to some interesting omissions and to a one size fits all policy that essentially has us teaching to the lowest common cultural denominator. And to what someone once described as “in-flight magazines for the grammatically challenged” (Scott Thornbury I think…?).

Personally, I see no problem in touching on Parsnip topics in the classroom.  The acronym stands for Politics, Alcohol, Religion, Sex, Narcotics, -Isms, Pork.  I think I’ve probably done lessons on all of these at one point or another and you can find at least two lessons on this blog involving pigs….

The key with anything like this is (a) common sense and (b) sensitivity.  If, for example, you happen to be teaching English to the highest cadre of the ruling junta in the benevolent dictatorship of wherever, then a lesson on freedom of speech and the democratic principle might not be advised (although some would argue that it was the perfect opportunity).  Equally, if you are teaching a lesson on a topic and notice the students are unusually silent, be prepared to ask them if they would prefer to do something else instead.  It is not our job to force our opinions upon our students, but we are not doing our jobs properly if we deny them the opportunity to discuss the issues of the day.

If you do enjoy spicing up your standard ELT menu with the odd root vegetable, then help is at hand in the form of a new e-book:  Parsnips in ELT: Stepping out of the Comfort Zone (vol. 1).  This ebook is free to download and is available in multiple formats (epub, mobi & pdf) and contains one lesson on each topic from a collection of authors including myself.

Parsnips in ELT Cover

Not everything in it might be to your taste and if so, you can do what my children do with their vegetables – push it to the side of your plate and leave it for someone else to deal with!  There is, however, enough in there for you to find something you like or to at least start you thinking!

The book has an accompanying blog where you can find some of the ideas from the book as well as a range of shorter ideas to stimulate discussion on the Parsnip topics with your classes: http://imagearies.com/wp-parsnips/.

If you try any of the lessons in the book, do let us know how they go!  We’re always keen to get feedback on the ideas!  Either leave a comment here or on the Parsnips blog.

Above all – have fun!

Free Online #BESIG Workshop – Personalised Learning Programmes

1 Jun

It’s my very great privilege to be running a free online workshop for the IATEFL BESIG next Sunday – 7th June.

BESIG is the Business English Special Interest Group and they have been running their weekend workshop series since February 2011, when Pete Sharma gave the first one on what I think was Networking in English.  Since then 48 other fantastic speakers have also given workshops!

The workshop is running at 2pm GMT on Sunday 7th June (2015) – to find out when that is where you are just click on the world clock converter.  It is free to attend and anyone and everyone is welcome, though if you miss it, the recording is only available to BESIG members.

I’m going to be talking about the importance of personalising the learning process.  There’s been some really interesting research that has come out of North America in recent years that has looked at improving effectiveness in education and which I think has clear lessons for all of us in ELT.  I’m also going to review ideas in needs analysis and course design and to see if we can’t tweak some of these ideas with technology to make it a more streamlined, less labour intensive and more effective process, as well as looking at ways to work with the student as resource in the business English arena.

It is aimed primarily at the BE sector, which isn’t to say that non-BE teachers won’t find something to takeaway also!

To find out more – visit the BESIG website.

It has the full abstract, together with the when and where and details of how to attend.

Hope to see you there!

IATEFL BESIG

Free Teachers’ Online Conference – Friday 8th May #IHTOC7

5 May

The annual International House Teachers Online conference is taking place over this weekend and it’s a great opportunity for teachers to drop in and take part in this free event.

On Friday 8th, 10.30 – 16.30 (GMT) there will be a series of ten minute sessions from teachers in the IH network – twenty three different sessions in all, grouped loosely together under the headings; The Big Picture, Fabulous Feedback, Rampant Resources and Culture & Nurture.

I will be giving a quick ten minute talk on essay structure for the Cambridge exams – and showing how using a colour-coded essay template can help learners to make textual connections and strengthen the organisation and structure of an exam focused essay.

Saturday 9th, 10.30 – 15.15 (GMT) focuses on teaching modern languages, with IH teachers of Russian, German, Spanish and French sharing their ideas in a series of one hour sessions.

Click here for the timetable, with information about when everything is happening.  Links to the online conference rooms will also appear here on the day.

Click here for the conference programme, with abstracts and biographies of the speakers and their sessions.

Make sure you get the timings right!  All conference times are in GMT.

Image credit: Frits Ahlefeldt-Laurvig. Reproduced underAttribution-NoDerivs 2.0 Generic (CC BY-ND 2.0) Licence.

Five Fantastic Film sites for ELT

9 Mar

Using video in the classroom is a great way to engage learners in the material, either from a topic perspective or with a particular language point.  Young learners in particular seem to love the moving image and it can be a great way of providing a change of focus or as a visually supported alternative to a standard listening activity.

These sites all do a great job of making film the focus.  Here they are in no particular order:

Film English

Kieran Donaghy’s award winning site takes short, authentic films and develops lesson plans around them.  Full lesson plans and any additional materials are provided.  Searchable by theme or by level, you can usually find something to work into your lesson.  The videos tend to be quirky and thought provoking and are usually good for discussion in a wider context.  My favourite:  The Adventures of a Cardboard box – because the sheer imagination of the kid in the video is fantastic and it’s great for any age of class.

The-Adventures-of-a-Cardboard-Box

 

Lessonstream

Not all of the lessons on Jamie Keddie’s site involve videos, but most do!  All the lessons on the site have plans and materials attached to them and are available for download.  Lessons are tagged by level and language point and there’s a great range of topics to work with.  These are also interesting and thought provoking videos that can stimulate some good classroom discussion.  Worth investigating.  My Favourite:  Business Cards – because of the kinetic typography video!  Which I love as a great way of using words as visuals!

Your-business-card

 

EFL Classroom 2.0

This is a lot more than just a video site.  A community based site with lots of resources to share in pretty much every area, the video section is a great place to dip into for short videos (most are under the ten minute mark) related to specific language points (e.g. question tags) or topics (e.g. Kenyan marathon runners).   This site does require registration, but it is free to do so.  There’s also videos for your own development – short snippets of Chomsky and the like, or people trying to explain Chomsky and the like!

My favourite:  too many to choose from!  There is a free pdf download of “Using Video in the classroom” which has some nice recipes that you can use with any video.

13/03/15 – Update:  I’ve been told that EFL Classroom 2.0 is now behind a paywall and that attempts to access it for free via facebook logins etc were unsuccessful.  I must have joined a very long time ago, because I didn’t know that it now charged for access.  My review was based on the idea that it was a free to access but registration required site and I’m not comfortable with recommending people pay for a service without making a much more detailed examination of what you might get for the money.  It may be that my informant just had a couple of issues with login details or wait times etc – so try it and see if it works for free for you!  

using video

 

Simple English Videos

Vicki Hollett’s site does exactly what it says – it provides a range of short videos that focus in on simple aspects of English, like “lend or borrow” or “have something done”.  These are instructional in that as well as providing a context for the language and demonstrating use of the language, there is also explanation and clarification.  There are interactive transcripts, but you do need to find a way to incorporate them into your lesson, they aren’t a lesson in themselves.  That said, they are a really nice alternative to a traditional language presentation from a coursebook.  My favourite:  Cook, Cooker or Chef? – because it’s something my students always get wrong and now I just give them the URL for homework!

Simple English Videos

 

All at C

This blog has fantastic range of videos aimed at intermediate levels and above.  Teachers of Cambridge English: First and Cambridge English: Advanced classes will find a lot to work with, including some videos that are aimed directly at these exams.  The procedures are clear and straightforward to work with and any materials you need to give out are available as pdf downloads.  My favourite:  Look up – because I love using poetry with students (and do so far too infrequently) and because it neatly encapsulates my relationship with social media!  The video link on the blog has gone awry, but a quick search of You Tube for “Look Up – Gary Turk” finds alternatives you can use.

Look up

 

 

 

United Nations Day – teaching resources

20 Oct

It is nearing the end of October and that traditionally means pumpkins, black cats, sweets or candy, and a bunch of superstitious nonsense that if it wasn’t for the whole “sweets and candy” component, would probably have disappeared a long time ago.

So this year, I have lobbied for United Nations Day to be the focus of our end of October activities instead!  And apparently I was convincing enough that my colleagues agreed with me….  Ooops.

So I thought I’d take a look to see what teaching resources are out there to help students understand what the United Nations is – and how you and your school can help promote awareness of our primary global institution.

What I found…..

The UN itself, appears to be living in a pre-technological age.  Their website is woeful, but if you want to look at it – it is here.

The UN Cyberschool bus, on the other hand, at least acknowledges that children might be looking at their webpage and has a number of games and activities that emulate functions of the UN.  The best known is probably the Stop Disasters game, which is quite good.  The other games look like they were coded by an eight year old and then got hacked or something.  Nonetheless, the UN Cyberschool bus is worth checking out, just for the sheer range of information if nothing else, and it is at least aimed at kids, which is more than you can say for the rest of the UN….

The Global Dimension has  a range of teaching resources that appear to promote critical thinking and active engagement with the processes and work of the UN, amongst other things.  Their “UN Matters teaching pack”  looks like it has loads of good stuff for the secondary age range.  Some of the stuff is labelled as free, which would suggest other bits need to be paid for.  I haven’t used any of this stuff, so if you do, please let us know how good it is in the comments!

The Guardian, who can usually be relied upon for socially responsible journalism / information, wrote a piece just over a year ago on “How to teach… the UN“.  This was apparently produced in the context of the crisis in Syria, but has wider applicability.  It was developed as part of the Guardian Teachers’ Network and so does have an educational focus, even in the materials will almost certainly need adapting for an ELT context.

The UNA resources:  I can’t  vouch for these at the time of writing, but these activities and background notes are at least designed for education and I suspect will probably prove more useful than the official UN resources!  Teachers’ notes and background information is combined with a range of activities for primary and secondary classes.  While I’ve focused here on the United Nations Day resources, there are additional resources on other aspects of the UN available from the UNA in the their “teaching section“.

UNESCO, as the UN’s cultural and educational wing, should be expected to provide some form of educational resource, but  their website is somewhat inaccessible – at least in terms of finding resources to use with language learners.  Or learners of any kind really.  There is a lot of stuff there, but you really have to dig through it to find anything useful.  They do however, have a primary school activity based on UN Day.  It probably wasn’t written by someone who actually teaches primary.  It is adaptable though, so it’s worth taking a look.

Finally, the Scottish Education sector has put together a  range of resources for UN day.  The first four are simple links back to the UN website and all that this entails.  The last two are links to downloadables for both primary (Human Rights) and secondary (Global Security) that even if they aren’t directly connected to UN day, should prove useful for the classroom.

Have fun!  And happy UN Day!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

dhdhdh

Cambridge First & Advanced in 2015

16 Oct

If you prepare students for FCE or CAE, then this might be useful for you.  Cambridge English: First (FCE) and Cambridge English: Advanced (CAE) have recently undergone significant revisions to their structure and organisation.

This has been on the cards for some time and indeed I blogged about it back in May.

Recently however, I gave an online workshop for International House, which was available to IH staff around the world, and which outlined the changes being made to these exams and discussed some of the implications of those changes.

The workshop was videoed and has been posted on you tube – you can watch it there or here, but it is about an hour long – so make sure you have a cup of tea or a glass of wine (depending on your preference or the time of day) before you press play!

 

Unfortunately, I suffered from the odd wifi glitch during the presentation, so service is interrupted every now and again.  I have, however, also posted my slides on slideshare, so you can download and view your own version – and watch any sections of the workshop that need some kind of clarification!

 

In the webinar I mention a number of coursebook reviews for the revised First exam.  You can find them here:

Any questions about any of this – let me know!

 

Write and Improve: An Online writing helper

22 Apr

Writing is probably the most difficult area for learners to improve on by themselves.  Writing demands an audience and if you have no-one to tell you how successful your efforts are – or not – then you are doomed to repeat your failures into eternity.

Cambridge English have, however, just released a beta version of an online, browser based writing helper.  Currently free to use and requiring only a facebook login (or email registration), the service allows learners to input their answers to one of the five questions provided (or submit a piece of writing of their own choice) and to get feedback on their efforts.

write and improve 01

In the screenshot above, the highlighted text at the bottom of the image is the submitted text.  The colour coding represents the program’s opinion of the learner level the different sections of the text represent.  The deeper the green, the closer to B2 level (or above) the text is – the more furious the reds, the closer to B1 level (or below).

You’ll also notice the “tabs” under the heading Detailed Feedback  these are meant to provide a closer look at what errors the writer has made and give suggestions for improving them:

write and improve 02

It’s worth remembering that this is still in the stages of testing and ironing out initial problems – and there are quite a few things that I think need improving!

As it stands, the feedback it gives is primarily linguistic and syntactical.  In other words it looks at the grammar of the sentences and makes suggestions.  And it doesn’t currently catch everything – as in the third sentence above; “I the town you can…” or the fourth sentence “You can go to the shopping”.

The text itself was an answer to a question from a Cambridge English Preliminary paper from a student studying at Intermediate level.  There is a lot of repetition in the text and very limited grammatical range.  The student has also some word choice issues – again there is a lot of repetition (a lot of which is repeated from the input) and some vocabulary inappropriacy.  The task was also a letter (replying to a penfriend) and there are a couple of genre features missing, though in fairness to the system – it didn’t know that as this was submitted to the free writing section.  Overall though, this is a piece of writing which I think is close to B1 level, but which is nowhere nearly sophisticated enough to achieve B2 level, as the system suggests.

I had some fun writing an error strewn letter of application for a summer camp job, just to test whether it does pick up on these things.  It doesn’t.

So who should use this tool?  It’s unfair to judge it too harshly at this stage of development but I don’t think the target audience of B1- B2 are actually the people who should be using it.  Students hoping to achieve a B2 certificate need to consider a much wider range of things to improve on and if this tool is to be useful for them, then it needs to more accurately reflect the things they’re being assessed on.  However, I think students who are at B1 level or below may well find it useful, as they will get to see the improvements they make to their texts improve their scores – as long as they don’t mind seeing their work highlighted in quite a lot of red to start with!

I have yet to try it with a class and I’m curious to see how useful students think it is, so that’s the next obvious test!  But in the meantime, why not check it out and see what you think:

write and improve04

 

 

#IATEFL 2014: The Sugata Mitra Debate

8 Apr

Well.  This one was controversial.  In some respects what Sugata Mitra said in his plenary on Saturday morning doesn’t even matter anymore, such was the debate it sparked and which still continues via facebook and twitter.

Mitra, it is clear, has his devotees and his detractors.  I don’t think I’ve ever seen someone receive a standing ovation in a talk that people actually walked out of half way through.  Do a Twitter Search for Sugata Mitra, and you’ll see what I mean.

So what did he actually say?  Well, if you know anything about him or his work, you’ll find that it actually wasn’t anything new – it was just a restatement of the research he’s done into self-directed online learning.  In a nutshell what he said was:

Kids in crap places don’t get good scores and this is because no-one likes to live in crap places, so the only teachers who stay in crap places are the ones who aren’t good enough to get jobs in good places.  Kids aren’t scared of computers and don’t worry very much about breaking other people’s stuff and if you leave a kid next to a computer for long enough they learn how to do things.  If you give them a challenge, they rise to it.  Therefore, do kids need teachers or can we just give them all computers?

I’m paraphrasing here obviously.  You might also begin to see why this provoked some strong reactions to an audience of educators.

I bumped into Mitra at Harrogate train station while we were both on our way home and I sat down and asked him about it.  This was not a formal interview, but he was nice enough to take the time and talk to me and answer a few questions:

I asked him why people had such extreme reactions to what he was proposing.  He said he thought it was because people saw it as the end of the teacher and that people thought he was saying there was no more need for them, and that they feared this outcome.  So in order to clarify this I asked him what he thought the role of the teacher would be and he said that this was what his research was focusing on now – where do the teachers take these new ideas.  He is experimenting, as he mentioned in the plenary, with a number of schools in the north east of England and some of the teachers are incorporating what he calls SOLES (Self Organised Learning Environment) into their curricular work, while others are using it extra-curricular.  It occurred to me at that point that it was better suited to content classes (e.g. physics / history) than language classes, but he said that language was the first thing to develop, even in native speakers who showed the same incremental increase as non-native speakers.

What I didn’t ask him, and should have done, was how that incremental increase was measured – was it only vocabulary or grammatical resource?  And I got the distinct impression that he sees no need for specialized language instruction.  I repeat that this is my interpretation, but in all his experiments the language development has been largely incidental and where language development was the focus (pronunciation) in one experiment, the kids performed well – but is this perhaps because pronunciation is not a creative aspect of language?  It is largely a question of the mechanics of speech and doesn’t require language, only mimicry.

It also, sounds terribly similar to Prabhu’s “Bangalore Project”, or the Procedural Syllabus, which Prabhu published in his 1987 book “Second Language Pedagogy” and which formed the basis of Task Based Learning.  I put this to Mitra who thought it might have some similarities but that he preferred to think of it a research based learning.

Or as Gavin Dudeney pointed out on facebook – webquests.

Watch it and decide for yourself – here’s the link to Sugata Mitra’s IATEFL Plenary video:  http://iatefl.britishcouncil.org/2014/sessions/2014-04-05/plenary-sugata-mitra

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Further Thoughts and reading on this:

The Donald Clark Plan B blog has some fairly harsh criticisms of Mitra’s methodology, research design and on the state of things now: http://donaldclarkplanb.blogspot.co.uk/search?q=Mitra

Wiktor Kostrzewski presents a more balanced view of the positives that both students and teachers can take out of Mitra’s ideas here: http://www.16kinds.com/2014/04/05/1422/

And here’s Mitra’s TED talk here: http://www.ted.com/talks/sugata_mitra_build_a_school_in_the_cloud

Finally, Graham Stanley has an extensive overview of the debate, and has managed to gather together a lot of differing viewpoints from various social media platforms – you should definitely read his take on it all: http://blog-efl.blogspot.co.uk/2014/04/iatefl-harrogate-online-sugata-mitra.html

Update:  more voices added to the mix:

When Graham Stanley wrote the piece listed above, he hadn’t actually watched the plenary, he was more collating, analysing and assessing the different viewpoints other people expressed.  He has now watched it and gives us his take on what Sugata Mitra said here: http://blog-efl.blogspot.co.uk/2014/04/iatefl-harrogate-online-sugata-mitra_7.html

Phillip Kerr looks at who’s doing what in Ed Tech and draws some interesting and unsettling links between some of the big players – including Sugata Mitra .  here: http://adaptivelearninginelt.wordpress.com/2014/04/06/edtech-and-neo-liberalism-fragment-of-a-network/

If you know of any others – please post them in the comments section!