Monday, 7 April 2014

The hornet's nest plenary

Recently I've had the utmost pleasure of attending two of the biggest ELT conferences around, the TESOL 2014 in Portland and, immediately after, the IATEFL Conference in Harrogate. A complete account, including what to do when you want to escape from a plane that just took off will follow shortly, when my sleep-deprived brain recuperates.

What got me thinking more than any other thing in both conferences is the last morning plenary in IATEFL, Sugata Mitra's talk on Schools in the Cloud. I refer to it as the hornet's nest plenary, because one of my PLN referred to the fact that IATEFL decided to invite prof. Mitra as kicking the hornet's nest. After seeing the responses on Twitter and Facebook, I'm inclined to agree. Personally, I enjoyed the plenary as it offered food for thought for days to come and was well executed. I think everyone's ideas deserve to be listened to and the listener is then free to either agree, disagree or just simply not care enough to make up their own minds.

Let me make it clear at the very beginning, I don't think anyone will ever replace teachers. We are more than educators and sorry to burst some techie's bubble, but a machine will not replace a teacher any time soon. First it will have to learn how to listen empathically, grade instructions for different levels as well as different moods and times of day (after-lunch dead-period, y'all know what I'm talking about here!) and patiently explain to parents why their darling will not learn if his idea of studying is falling asleep with a book under his pillow.

Learning by osmosis, totally legit.

Nor do I think that all students will teach themselves/each other just of their own accord. Left to their own devices if my boys, 15 - 19, are left with a computer in groups of four and instructed to find an answer to what is molecular biology, they will start playing games three times out of five. Or looking up naughty pictures. Or looking up things that are interesting to them, like the newest tech gizmos. I'm not saying it happens all of the time, but in some classes it does often enough that it would seriously impede their education if I wasn't there giving them the stink-eye when they try it.

I can hear your thoughts, go wash your brain out with soap!

Maybe the idea of minimally invasive school works for his context. I don't know, I haven't seen any numbers that would back-up this claim long-term, over generations. What I can be almost sure of (again, I can't be completely certain, I have no numbers to back up my claim, only anecdotal evidence) is that minimally invasive school for teenagers will leave a massive pool of children who can't see beyond next weekend sadly under-educated.

I'm sure many of you educators have noticed that some children tend to be excluded from groups. That's one of the reasons why groups need teachers, to ensure the excluded ones are included, that no-one is hogging the resources and that the Facebook status updating and Instagraming are kept to a minimum.

To be honest, I was surprised to see that the experiment with the hole-in-the-wall computers was evidently such a success. I'd anticipate the computers would be used mainly for playing computer games.

That being said, I'm also convinced beyond any shadow of a doubt that the educational system is in dire need of a revamp. I work in a public school and I can see that although it's full of very dedicated and knowledgeable individuals, the system itself could stand a bit of a make-over, starting with the size of classes and the classroom itself. Collaboration is, in my opinion, the way to go, but excluding the teacher might not be the best move. Although probably half the population in Slovenia is convinced we're good-for-nothing freeloaders that only hog the public finances.

There are some lessons to be taken from Sugata Mitra's experiment and from his talk. The bus ride back to London was a good chance for sitting down with my two good friends Sandra and Nina and coming up with a few thoughts we will take back to our classrooms.

  • Don't underestimate the little munchkins. Don't hold back the knowledge because you think it'll confuse them, they're smarter than they look.
  • Let them do some work on their own. Step back and let them organise themselves. Sure, it might backfire. It did in my classes often enough, but it succeeded more often, just enough to give me a reason to not stop doing it.
  • Never underestimate the power of praise. Yes, it's important to let them know when they're wrong, but it's also important to let them know you see when they're trying. I try to do that, but I know I don't do it as often as I'd like. Sometimes I'm afraid they'll stop trying, sometimes they tick me off (I'm only human) and I don't tell them what good boys they are.

So, my post-conference resolution? I can't ditch testing, and I can't, with a clear conscience, just step back and let students teach themselves, and I can't ditch instruction completely, with 30 people in a class that's a bit idealistic.

I can, however, make small changes. Let students participate in test-building perhaps. Let them do collaborative tasks. Let them alone for a bit and give them more freedom, within limits.

And give a kind word or two more.


  1. Lea, I really like what you wrote here, and I completely agree with you.
    I have watched previous Sugata's talks a long time ago, as well as the last one, and I just realized that many teachers have seen only this last one, at IATEFL. And then, they started raising questions and giving opinions. This has been going on for a long time, and it's offered food for thought, which is good. Your thoughts here are very well balanced. No schools without teachers any time soon, or ever, but there are some things that the man said that can be thought through.
    See you soon x

    1. Branka,

      thanks so much. What I probably haven't stressed enough was my conviction that we need to talk to each other and exchange opinions as professionals.

      What I actually missed the most and I think was sadly absent from the plenary was a proper Q&A session with him where we could have a proper debate.