(Testing the poll function here before I try it with a class)

Are our Personal Learning Network’s becoming lopsided? Are we limiting ourselves by assuming all professional development needs to be technologically mediated? Are on-line networks better, worse, or just different to those we develop off-line?

In the pre-internet world, which I know many of you remember, how did you learn to become a teacher?


Please vote, and if you feel the need to enlarge on your answer, berate me for my unimaginative options, or point out that I am an idiot for any other reason, please comment in the box below!

Updates: I am writing follow up pieces for each of these techniques. Please read on….



An Interview With Hayo Reinders from darren elliott on Vimeo.

I’m by no means a gamer*, but I was fascinated to hear Hayo address the question ‘Do computer games really contribute to language learning?’ as keynote speaker at the 4th International Wireless Ready Symposium in Nagoya, Japan. The answer? They can, but…..

I meant to ask a little more about the institutional obstacles to success in incorporating technology into language learning. One thing Hayo alluded to in his talk was the difficulty in controlling who and what learners come into contact with in the online world. Here in Japan the age of majority is twenty, so technically many of my students are still children! My personal preference would be to give them a little training in online ‘smarts’ and let them free, but I realise life is not so simple and that we have a duty of care. How should we approach this problem, then? Do you think fears about security / ‘bad’ language / inappropriate content are justified? Or that firewalls and filters just end up shackling us?

It was great to finally meet Dr. Reinders and he gives a great interview here, despite being on a nine-hour time difference from his home in London. I first came across his work when I started looking into self-access learning and learner autonomy, and we discussed these topics too. For all things ‘Reinders’ I recommend his website “Innovation in Teaching”. As well as many, many fine articles you can find a clip of Hayo on Pakistani breakfast television…..

*apart from ‘Urban Dead’, but that’s more about my love for zombies than my love for computer games

Personal Learning Networks – the what, why and how from darren elliott on Vimeo.

A presentation at the 4th International Wireless Ready Symposium, Nagoya, February 19th 2010.

A good starting point for twitter. I’ve made a list of ELT professionals and educational technologists worth following… there are many more out there too, but these might get you started. Don’t forget to include a decent bio in your profile so that potential followers know you are a real person, not just a robot, a pornographer or a marketeer.

The reading and research for this presentation can be found on my diigo social bookmarking page – the PLN list and tags should yield most. I particularly recommend the works of Warlick, Downes and Seimens (all of whom are on the twitter list, too)

There are some great listservs in yahoo groups. I’ll start you off with the webheads group, and follow with ELT dogme. Both very different, but very lively. A tip – set to receive a daily digest.

If you are looking for blogs, onestopblogs has a good selection. Choose the ones you like, put them in your google reader… tweeters on twitter may have blogs of their own, check the profiles.

If you want something more involved, join a ning! Bloggers in ELT is a favourite of mine, Classroom 2.0 is very active.

But your Personal Learning Network should be just that  –  PERSONAL. Take your time building relationships with real people, don’t be afraid to turn off or cut out when things become distracting rather than helpful, and have fun!

An Interview with Ritsuko Nakata from darren elliott on Vimeo.

Ritsuko Nakata has been involved in English education in Japan for many years, training and mentoring teachers of young learners, developing the MAT (model, action, talk) method, working on the multi-million selling Let’s Go! series, and (of course) teaching children. We discussed all these things and more in the longest interview yet! Thanks again to Ms. Nakata for being so giving of her time and knowledge.

Extra Links

A 2001 article from Ritsuko about discussions with the Japanese Ministry of Education  (Monbusho) regarding English education in state schools.

And one from 2000.

Barbara Sakamoto’s blog about mentoring, featuring Ritsuko.

And an interview with Barbara, who worked on Let’s Go with Ritsuko.

A guest post by the mysterious Sputnik of The Tesla Coil, on A Book You Should Read.  Number two in the series, then, is a little book about chunks…..

‘Most people would succeed in small things,’ observed Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, ‘ if they were not troubled with great ambitions.’  This may certainly prove to be the ultimate fate of Michael Lewis’s classic 1993 work The Lexical Approach.  It was certainly not untroubled by great ambitions, as it proclaimed in its subtitle: The State of ELT and a Way Forward.  Such hubris, of course, grated with a few of the initial reviewers, for whom the subtitle announced an implicit condescension towards the existing ELT status quo, as if it really said, Everything is Wrong and I’ll Show You How to Make It Right.  Anca M. Nemoianu, for example, writing in TESL-EJ, complained of ‘the signs of distrust, and sometimes even disregard, for language teachers attitudes, knowledge, and classroom practices’ (August 1994, 1:2).  For me, however, the appeal of the book lies precisely in its vaunting ambition, its avowed purpose to lead us from the valley of professional darkness and into an enlightened state where we know what we are supposed to do, how we are supposed to do it, and why.

The first part of the book is nothing short of a relentless series of prompts.  Penned in the fiercest interrogative mode ever seen in the genteel and generally windless world of ELT field manuals, it is a quasi-cavilling, probing, harassing sort of questioning which compels the reader to undertake an anxious self-examination.  If Descartes famously holed himself up in the snug confines of a giant oven in order to arrive at the founding principles of Western philosophy in Discours de la Methode, it is not difficult to imagine Lewis composing his masterpiece in the more rebarbative circumstances of an infantry trench or a North Sea trawler.  It is deeply uncomfortable.  Assuming the guise of an Old Testament God, Lewis heaps scorn on the unprincipled teacher (yes, imagine – an unprincipled teacher), chastises the unthinking, and laments the fortunes of those whose classroom practice does not mirror ‘the values they claim to espouse’ (p.32).

Should the reader wish to become principled, he has to submit to a kind of coruscating doubt not dissimilar to the process adopted by Descartes.  With the combined admonitory talents of a  worried parent and a sergeant-major, Lewis asks us to reconsider some of the most cherished assumptions in ELT.  Don’t we, he urges, over-value explanations, structure, product and speaking?  Do we know why?  Shouldn’t we, perhaps, stress the importance of exploration, lexis, process, and listening just a little more instead?  In fact, shouldn’t we ask more questions, and stop rehearsing answers for which we can provide little or no philosophical or empirical underpinning?  Eh?

This, then, is the crux of the book.  It espouses a willingness, like all great dialectical thought, to attend to details and, by so doing, see in them the bigger picture itself.  This bigger picture is the approach of the title.  An approach , he remarks, ‘is an integrated set of theoretical and practical beliefs, embodying both syllabus and method.  More than either, it involves principles which in the case of language teaching, reflect the nature of language itself and the nature of learning’ (p.2).  It is not, in other words, a set of recipes for the classroom; rather, it is an elaboration of the precepts by which you might make them and the syllabuses in which they are contained.  The depth of this approach can be measured by its attention to the very tropes we utilise to describe language.  Lewis rails against the ubiquitous atomistic metaphor of the machine which governs our understanding of linguistic phenomena, and implores us to adopt an holistic one of the organism in its stead.

But, again, this book is so much more.  It is a wholly intemperate and inabstinent beast, immoderately invoking and provoking so many ideas it exceeds the summarising brief on the first few pages.  Lewis makes the case for this ideational largesse very explicitly, but was it too much for a profession which countenanced a four-week course as its entry qualification?    How did he hope to persuade the entire teaching nation with such a principled stance?  Nearly two decades after its publication, many of Lewis’s ideas have entered the mainstream – chunking, collocation, and a focus on sub- and supra-sentential grammar have all, to some extent, been adopted for use in textbooks and classrooms.  However, many more have not.  For example, how many of us have disregarded his reproof that teaching the conditionals, will as the future, reported speech, and the passive is ‘neither more nor less than nonsense’ (p.146)?  Of greater primacy is the failure of the lexical approach itself to change the manner in which we think about and teach language.  It has undone none of the suasiveness of the grammar-based syllabuses which still predominate in class and text.  Nor has it retarded the exam juggernaut.  And how many NESTs would retain their positions if they abandoned speaking as the central feature of their classes?

This raises the question of the role of thinkers like Michael Lewis in ELT.  Forming a nexus between teachers, textbook writers and more abstract university researchers in linguistics and education, such free-wheeling intellectuals or ELTerati are a rare but precious breed.  They have not only to amass an empire of research but also to find a practical expression for it and then persuade the teaching masses to use it.  Persuasiveness in teaching often has more to do with instinct and practicality than ideas.   Perhaps Teaching Collocation: Further Developments in the Lexical Approach, published in 2000, was a recognition of this problem and an attempt to address it so as to make it more likely that the lexical approach would achieve a kind of teaching critical mass.  It is certainly a more amiable read, and more practical than its elder sibling.  However, for a bracing encounter with a blazing mind working at its most acute, The Lexical Approach  is hard to beat.

Thanks Sputnik… and over to the mob to answer your question. Whither the thinker in ELT?

And I’ll throw in another for luck. Where is the line between grammar and vocabulary these days? Cheers!

A serious question on twitter this week, which I couldn’t answer in 140 characters. So, here is the full answer.

Don’t you just love being pigeon-holed? I’m a gen Xer, who grew up on three kinds of video – game, nasty and pop. Before me, the baby boomers. And after? Generation Y – the millennials. Students in university now, and young teachers in training, are the so-called ‘digital natives’. For them, traditional teaching methods are boring and inaccessible. We need to reach them differently, through the technology they are used to. Otherwise, we are doing them a disservice.

Or are we?

Don’t get me wrong. I love a good gadget. I’ll happily tinker with internet tools for hours on end. I am not afraid of technology. I agree that, in general,  “the youth” are more techno-literate than the old. But not all of them. And more importantly, not necessarily in the ways that we understand.

The myth of the generation gap

I know, I know… you can prove anything with statistics. And who knows how reliable these are? But it does seem that a lot of online social networking is being driven by those who should be old enough to know better. A third of tweeters are over 45 years old. The largest single group of facebookers are in the 45 – 54 age group. And yes, we can see that the very young are becoming more involved… but the so called digital natives who are supposed to be permanently plugged in? Not so much….

Where are you?

Of course, it could be that we digital immigrants are looking in the wrong places. We are getting all worked up about our brand-new web 2.0 when the kids are already on 4. The statistics which are most easily accessible are for North American teens in mainstream education contexts. But that is not who I am teaching – and if you are reading this, probably not who you are teaching either. Facebook means very little to my students. Twitter, even less. That is not to say that they are not using technology, but they are unlikely to be using the same technology as English speaking teens, or old people like you. In Japan, the most popular social software is mixi, and there is probably something similar in your local context. However, that in itself is a very limiting view of “digital nativism”

What does it even mean to be comfortable or proficient with technology?

Being comfortable with technology and willing to use it spreads far beyond internet tools, and the boundaries are blurring all the time. As online applications become more difficult to categorise (what is a ning?), so does the hardware which supports it. If you can watch movies on your computer, listen to music through a usb in your dvd player, and send emails from your mobile phone, what kind of crazy mixed up world are you living in?! But the mistake we make is to assume that all young students will be equally capable across the gamut of technology. This is simply not the case, either on a global to local scale, or within a classroom.

On a global to local scale, Japanese students do not react to technology in the same way as (for example) British students. I have never seen an interactive whiteboard (in use) in Japan. Wireless access is still quite uncommon. The mobile phone is quite a different animal, and the true technological and communications hub for the average Japanese person.

Critics of the technophiles often point out the unfair disadvantage that poorer nations have in educational technology, but Elwood and MacLean’s (2009) comparative study of Cambodian and Japanese students and their attitudes towards technology demonstrates that the relative strength of the economy does not necessarily correlate to techno-proficiency. Although availability and opportunity and age are factors, they are not the only factors.

Within the classroom differences are equally marked. In the academic year just gone, I had students who routinely recorded class discussions on their mobile phones for review, and used their phones to post to the class blog. I had students who put together very impressive powerpoint presentations without my input, and some who independently uploaded documents to the internet for classmates to check between classes. We made videos and animations together, and wrote online book reviews. On the other hand, I had students who could not format a word document correctly, who couldn’t send an email online without help, who couldn’t download pictures or comment on blogs. I thought the young people were supposed to be fluent… aren’t I supposed to be the one speaking with an accent?

A quick look on google scholar will toss up a number of interesting articles about “digital natives”, and the uncritical acceptance of the idea that “all kids are good with computers, so we should cater to them”. To be fair to Marc Prensky, who coined the concept in the first place, he himself has more recently talked of a cross-generational “digital wisdom”. Perhaps the best of the rebuttals is Bennett, Maton and Kervin (2008), who talk of the ‘moral panic’ of this generation gap. Teachers who don’t join in are lazy, out of touch or scared. True? Some of them, yes. But not all of them

So why use technology at all?

It is fair to say that not all young people are comfortable with all technologies. We might assume that they will become so after time, and as teachers we need to keep up. However, the rate of technological change and the demographics of uptake suggest that, now and in the future, most teachers and students will adopt new technologies at about the same time – when they make the mainstream TV news. People who are more adept at new technologies, and absorb them into their lives, may have an edge…. but why is it my responsibility to introduce such tools? I am an English teacher. Just an English teacher.

In a tweet? My answer is this.

It is wrong to assume that my students can only respond to technology, just because they were born in 1990 in an economic powerhouse.

Bennett, S., Maton, K. and Kervin, L. (2008),  ‘The ‘digital natives’ debate: A critical review of the evidence.’ British journal of educational technology Doi:10.1111/j.1467-8535.200700793.x