“Teaching hardly matters, learning does”

Written by Amy Lightfoot – Assistant Director (Academic), Schools, English and Skills  

I’ve shamelessly stolen the title of this blog from Jim Scrivener, whose presentation I attended at the recent IATEFL* conference in Brighton. I’m not sure I entirely agree – good teaching clearly supports effective learning – but the sentiment interests me, not least because it seems to sum up one of the emerging themes of the conference this year: English language teachers need to remember what is truly important about the work that we do and not let ourselves get distracted by all the various trappings of the multi-million dollar industry that has grown up around ELT**.

In my experience, most conferences can be boiled down into a few key messages for participants to take away. I don’t think these are always planned or intentional – although the existence of a conference theme can help give them some direction – but instead the current collective consciousness of the profession often seems to emerge during the course of the event. Of course, these are subjective to a large extent, but conversations with others suggest at least some commonality. These themes aren’t shaped only by fads or trends within the profession, but also by the way the world is changing around us. Technology is an obvious example – many recent conferences have reflected on (and usually championed) the integration of technology into our teaching. But this year at IATEFL it was interesting to note people questioning the its role. As its use gathers pace, do we need to consider going back to basics and ensure that we are controlling the use of digital tools, rather than the other way round?

Similarly, there were questions raised around the publishing industry and whether it has lost sight of its true purpose. According to the hugely popular plenary speaker Dorothy Zemach, many publishers are focusing too much on making money and retaining their market share rather than ensuring the quality of their products and capitalising on the creativity of experienced ELT writers. She called upon teachers to be more discerning in their choice of course book and to question the motives when offered multiple wraparound elements for free which might actually just distract from effective classroom teaching and learning. Dorothy also questioned whether a one size fits all global approach to product development was really helpful, beyond the reduction in costs this provides for publishers. This was highlighted again in Barry O’Sullivan’s entertaining plenary, where he called for assessments to be made more localised and personalised to individual needs and context.

Brita Fernandez Schmidt from Women for Women International had a strong message for delegates about the purpose and power of English and education more generally: women supported by this organisation in countries including Nigeria, Iraq and Afghanistan have escaped poverty, violence and damaging ingrained social norms as a result of educational interventions. English has considerable power to enable positive change by generating hope and opportunity for a better life and as English language teachers we have the capacity to be agents of that change. To paraphrase Spider-Man, we mustn’t forget the great responsibility that comes with that power.

To return to Jim Scrivener’s statement, it is true that learning matters most of all, not only for our students but also for teachers. Attending conferences supports teacher learning – and hopefully as a result of that, their learners – not just because of the content and ideas shared in each session but also the learning that takes place on the sidelines. Networking with colleagues and meeting new ones is key, as is critically reflecting on the messages and themes that bubble under the surface, taking shape only as the conference develops.

What conferences are you attending this year? Our new conference calendar might help you to decide. If you know of others we should include, please let us know.

A selection of the best sessions from IATEFL 2018 are available to view online here.

Representatives from British Council India’s delegation to IATEFL (L-R): Amy Lightfoot; Nagesh Lohare; Urvi Shah; Radhika Gholkar; Ashok Chavan; Nisar Shaikh.

Representatives from British Council India’s delegation to IATEFL (L-R): Amy Lightfoot; Nagesh Lohare; Urvi Shah; Radhika Gholkar; Ashok Chavan; Nisar Shaikh.

*IATEFL: International Association of Teachers of English as a Foreign Language

**ELT: English language teaching

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