An Interview with Thomas Farrell from darren elliott on Vimeo.

Reflective practice is a way for professionals (in education, social work, medicine and many other fields) to assess their work and manage their own development. Even if you don’t know it by name you may well have engaged in a form of reflective practice in formal or informal training programmes. In this interview we discussed reflective practice, what it is, what it isn’t, and where it’s going.

I’ve done quite a lot of these interviews now, and everyone I have spoken to has been gracious and thoughtful. Some of the interviewees I knew little about before I spoke to them but in preparing for, and then conducting, the interview I have become interested in their work. On the other hand, Thomas Farrell is someone whose work I have been interested in for a long time. What would he be like in real life, I wondered? I enjoyed a long conversation with the charming Dr. Farrell at the JALT conference in Tsukuba, Japan last autumn. Both his plenary and his workshop demonstrated that academics do not have to be dry to be rigorous.

Dr. Farrell hosts an excellent website, where you can read more of his work. If you are looking for a book to start with, I think ‘Reflective Language Teaching: From Research to Practice’ published by Continuum is a very accessible introduction. His latest book is on my list when the next budget allocation arrives in April….

If you enjoy this interview please share it with your colleagues. You can also subscribe to the podcast via iTunes.

a class with no teacher from darren elliott on Vimeo.

I don’t blog about my classroom practice as often as I used to, but I still have a great interest in reflective practice. One difficulty in maintaining meaningful reflection is that your reflective needs change over time. A worthwhile exercise, then, is to revisit past practice. I have a blog, and a stack of notebooks from several years in the classroom. I like to look at what I’ve done and see how it fits with my current practice. How would I do this differently now? Have I changed, and if so have I changed for the better? Does this connect to anything I have read, seen or experienced since it happened?

I’m trying to piece together the genesis of this piece. About five years ago, I had a lovely class who I thought could do even better. To shake things up, I decided to opt out of my responsibilities for a week, and the blog post I wrote about that (and more importantly, the second post about the students interpretations of the experiment) generated a lot of discussion. A little after that I reviewed a book called ‘The Developing Language Learner‘, a book which made a tremendous impact on me. When I was involved in planning the PanSIG conference in 2013, I was keen to bring Judith Hanks, one of the authors, to Japan as a speaker.

This video is my presentation for the joint TED / CUE forum at JALT 2015 (if you don’t know the acronyms, don’t worry… I’m too far gone to pick them apart here). I always enjoy these events because you can see so many different ideas around a theme, but I particularly wanted to attend this forum because it was to be chaired by Thomas Farrell, someone whose work I have admired for a long time. The conceit was to present ten slides for thirty seconds each, but I just made a five minute movie and narrated it live.

I can now reframe what happened in this class through my subsequent reading into Exploratory Practice and Reflective Practice. As an experiment, I don’t think I’d be able to do this now. What is really interesting is to see myself as a younger teacher, and not necessarily a worse one. I’m very satisfied with my teaching these days, and that’s not good. Maybe I was a little less slick and a little less polished in those days, with a little less book learning, but I was probably a little more daring and possibly a little more engaged. Time to shake things up again?


For anyone who is still watching, I’m back from my blogging break just in time for classes to start tomorrow. The bigger picture is that teacher development passes through different stages, and in a pragmatic assessment of my blogging and tweeting I realised that neither was the most efficient way for me (personally) to become the best teacher I can – at least, not at the moment. So I took a trip back to England to take care of some family business, I spent some time thinking about photography, and enjoyed time with my boys before the youngest starts kindergarten next week.

The Lives of Teachers blog is not dead, but I will be posting more sporadically and focusing mainly on the interviews I intended to focus on originally. I have a backlog of podcasts to post, and a few future interviews in the pipeline, so please don’t unsubscribe! And apologies to any commenters in the meantime who have gone unanswered.

I am also working on a couple more sites which should be live fairly soon. The first is a website for teaching resources, mainly to direct my own students towards but also (hopefully) of interest to other teachers looking for class materials. The second is a blog about things I read – the other thing I have been doing a lot of in my blogging break. In order to concentrate on my own original research I am finding it useful to turn off the computer and measure my reading in pages rather than characters. Details of both these projects will follow.

To anyone starting the new academic year this week, students and teachers alike, best of luck and enjoy yourselves. Spending most of your days in a classroom is a privilege, and not an opportunity to be wasted.


I took this photo last week, as I do every year. I’m not a nature photographer, and I though I love living here I wouldn’t call myself a Japanophile, but there is something about an early blossoming sakura tree….

The hanami celebrations have been muted this year, and many people in Northern Japan will be making fresh starts in ways they had never imagined. If you want to help them, please start here – I recommend HOPE international as a Nagoya based group who have been doing sterling work collecting truckloads of stuff every day at the Hilton Hotel in Fushimi and taking it up to people who need it.

I was planning to write a post about first lessons, and the activities you do, and breaking the ice, and all that…. but it seems a bit frivolous. So, as the students return to classes, or start their university lives, what will we do in those first classes? Business as usual, or a fresh start?

I have recently started a Massive Open Online Course (MOOC) with the University of Florida. It’s free, open access, and for me non-credit. The first ‘assignment’ is to write about why you are taking the course and what you expect to gain from it. One simple and practical answer is that I want to find out more about elluminate, as I may be using to run a course myself at some point fairly soon. I also want to work my way around the resources and figure out which tools fit for which purposes. It is fascinating how fragile and yet how robust a course constructed entirely in the ether can be, something akin to a spider’s web… Google Docs, Elluminate, Twitter, Youtube, Blogger and various other applications, websites and software are all threaded together to make something which is exceedingly intricate and yet surprisingly sturdy. We shall see.

But this course comes at an interesting moment for me personally. I am preparing for a workshop I will be at this coming weekend, based on a presentation I did a year ago, and at the same time thrashing around a paper on the same theme. I can tell you the what and the how of personal learning networks with increasing certainty, but I am losing my grip on the why. Hence the existential crisis. I should stress that I still believe that personal learning networks are a ‘Very Good Thing’, but I am just unsure what exactly they are good for, and to what extent. I have a few inkings, but these also raise questions.

  1. I have a feeling that teacher development ceases at a certain point, provided that a teacher remains in the same context / position for an extended period. That is not to say that ‘old’ teachers can learn nothing new – there should always be tweaks, refinements… even new approaches. But major epiphanies and shifts in beliefs become less likely over time. This is reflected in the balance between available research devoted to development in novice and ‘expert’ teachers. Given this, I imagine that there is a shift in emphasis in the way that teachers use PLN’s, from self-learning to self-motivation. A feeling that what one is doing is valuable becomes more important for teachers as they enter their late career, to avoid burnout, bitterness or simply going stale. Being a part of an active community and taking on a role as mentor to less experienced colleagues can thus be mutually beneficial.
  2. PLN’s serve both autonomy and collegiality – autonomy in that they are self- initiated, self – constructed and self – maintained, collegiality in the way they allow for collaboration and mutual support. According to research, autonomy and collegiality are both very important elements of successful teacher development, but within institutions and in formalised programmes the balance can be hard to strike, leading to abandonment (enforced autonomy) or pressure (enforced collegiality). PLN’s can circumvent some of these problems by offering both greater control and greater opportunity for meaningful cooperation.
  3. PLN’s are extremely social, and can be quite high maintenance. The amount of off-topic banter, chat and sharing which tends to take place is higher than one might expect, although if one considers the PLN as an emulation / extension of a staff room, it is probably comparable to that which takes place in daily face-to-face interaction with professional colleagues. This may explain why ‘Facebook‘ is, for me at least, a far more useful PLN tool than ‘Linkedin‘. The ‘Personal’ in PLN doesn’t only refer to the unique and personal nature of each particular network, but also to the personal input one has to engage in to be accepted as a trusted member of the network. This in turn can be very tiring, and may lead to burn-out in itself.
  4. Connectivist theories propose that members of a network do not have to learn themselves, but that the network as a whole will synthesize shared knowledge to move understanding forward. Knowledge can thus be stored in ‘non-human appliances’, not internally, as in constructivist theory. This leads me to two further questions. Firstly, I am not sure whether connectivism is the entirely new theory it sometimes purports to be, but simply Vygotsky’s Zone of Proximal Development writ large – in both, the understanding takes place outside of the participants and relies upon a sharing of knowledge. More important, though, is the distinction between skill and knowledge. In some fields learner-participants have a need for and access to huge banks of knowledge, but their own full, personal understanding is not necessarily important. This is a suitable model for thinking about the ways in which advances in medical science research may be made. However, contrast this with the knowledge / skills required by a surgeon in practice. This learning must be internalised and available to be drawn upon instantly. Donald Schon talks about ‘knowledge-in-action‘, the sub-concious application of knowledge by an expert practitioner. I suppose the point is that teachers cannot rely solely on a PLN and that teaching skill needs to be practised, reflected upon, and polished. We require a combination of constructivist and connectivist learning to be a successful modern teacher.

What is interesting for me as I think about these things in early 2011 is that I have been in a position to write about and present on the same topics over the last five years or so. Thus I can track my own thinking from 2007 on to 2008 (and again) right up to 2010, via two separate blogs and whole bunch of tweets in between…

I have a feeling that this blog post might be quite an important one for me personally, as I try to pin down my thinking and pack it up in a handkerchief as I meander down the path towards a possible PhD (because everyone else is doing them, and I think I’d get a kick out of being ‘Dr., and, you know, what the hey…). If you have stuck with it thus far, thank you. Does it make any sense?

neon jesus

(My contribution to the #dogmeme, with advance apologies to Karenne Sylvester)

Teachers have a lot of people telling them what to teach, and how to teach it. Governments looking for cheap votes. Parents who want to abdicate themselves from the responsibility of raising their own children. Administrators who need to hit targets, meet budgets and check boxes. Publishers with units to shift. That is exactly why I engage in my own self-initiated professional development. When I visit conferences, talk to other teachers, blog, tweet, and do all that other stuff I want to hear what I could do. Or what I might do. Or what may, perhaps be worth thinking about. Sure, tell me what works for you…. but let me think about it and see if it works for me, please.

I am broadly sympathetic to the basic concepts of dogme. I certainly agree that coursebooks and pre-planned curricula built around grammar mcnuggets can be very restrictive, and that teachers should exploit emergent language, teaching affordances and other human unpredictables as best they can. I am not sure that this in itself constitutes a method, however… it is at best an approach. And if you are talking about the more rigorous, chaste versions of Dogme that might be called a method, then I am not really interested. I want to plug things in and interact with ideas from outside the classroom. I see it as equally restrictive to tie oneself to or deny yourself materials. This is the religious fervour to which I refer.

And as for the evangelism?  I believe that classroom methods are a negotiation (implicit or explicit) between the teacher, the learner (s), the context and the moment. For that reason, I believe that unplugged teaching has a very important role at the right time, with the right participants, in the right situation…. but it is not the only way. If I were teaching advanced adult learners in small classes in Europe, I imagine a techno-dogme hybrid would be fantastic. But actually, very, very few teachers, in the wider world of English Language Education, are teaching in such a context. In fact, very, very few know what Dogme is, or ever will. And we bloggers and tweeters, we conference goers, the movers and shakers, sometimes need to remind ourselves that we are not typical, that we are lucky to have some choice about how and what we teach. Teachers can be afraid, tired, confused, or just plain uneducated. Like students, they need nurturing, not hectoring. So let’s not assume that anyone who doesn’t teach Dogme is too self-interested, too stupid or too lazy to try it.

Is ignorance always a sin?

George Siemens’ recent post on this topic was a thought provoking one. I am not a man who holds particularly firm convictions (if you were feeling uncharitable you might call me a flip-flopper, but I prefer to say I am open minded). I don’t think Siemens is suggesting that these questions should be locked away and never re-examined, but it seems useful to take a step back and figure out what you have learnt. As I write, I am pretty sure about the following things.

  1. Teachers need to find a personal voice. There are many ways, but not all of them work for all teachers. Your own style must be congruent with your (sub-concious) beliefs.
  2. Students also need to reflect frequently on what they are doing and why. Indeed, it is their primary responsibility.
  3. You try it first, then I’ll help you fix it. I’m not going to tell you how to do it from the beginning.
  4. I would rather tailor my classes to allow the most enthusiastic students to flourish. Setting passing criteria drags everyone down. If you ask students to read five books, they will all read about five. If you ask them to read as many as they can, some of them will read twenty five.
  5. Education is a very dangerous treadmill, because students and teachers alike quickly forget why they are on it. Tests, textbooks and syllabi are supposed to serve learning, not the other way round.
  6. Technology is providing teachers and learners with all manner of marvellous opportunities, too fast for large institutions like publishing houses, universities and governments to keep up with. Too bad for them.
  7. English doesn’t belong to native speakers. I still don’t get how regional native varieties are considered ‘correct’ yet non-native varieties need to be fixed. If you can be clearly understood, your English is correct.
  8. Even the best teachers have bad days.

Now I am halfway through the second semester and I figured the students should know me pretty well. I put together this Teacher Beliefs discussion activity for some of my more advanced classes to find out. It was quite pleasing to find out that, generally, they do… and that in most regards we were in agreement.

Is there anything that you truly believe? Are you and your students aware of one another’s beliefs? Don’t take anything for granted…..

When Karenne Sylvester wrote recently about the frequency of blogging, on Janet Bianchini’s blog it made me think. Initially, I disagreed… I would rather have an occasional, top quality read than a regular second rate one. But then I realised that some bloggers are delivering frequent, good quality content. Shorter, maybe, but good quality nonetheless. Quality and quantity are not mutually exclusive. I also notice that there has been quite a slowing down in my google reader of late.  Although the hardy veterans (Alex Case, Karenne herself, Jason Renshaw and a few others) are plugging away giving us the good stuff, many of the second and third waves of bloggers certainly seem to be posting less.  Is this seasonal? My June and early July are pretty hectic, in this is reflected in my posting frequency. Now I’m in the lull between last classes and exam marking, so I’ve had time to write a little more (although no one read my magnificent archetypes piece… a real labour of love, that one!).

Does it indicate the fading of the flame, a natural burn off after the initial spark of enthusiasm?

I have a slew of interviews lined up (and these are very much the centre of this blog – anything I write myself is to fill the gaps in between) but I also want to stock up for the busy months ahead. I have a long, lazy summer planned… plenty of time to work like a blogging ant! How about you? Do you have anything in the tank? Are you getting tired of blogging? Or do you just want to kick back and recharge your batteries for a couple of months?

In the first, a tousled woman peers out of a darkened room into the bright sunlight, martini glass in hand, sunglasses shielding her eyes from the glare, stocking hitched, a bored socialite drenched in ennui. Her children will populate the early Bret Easton Ellis novels of the 1980’s, deadened by money, neglect and sex.

In the next picture, we see a beautiful woman on a city street. She looks concerned. Maybe she has $30,000 in her briefcase, ‘borrowed’ from the office safe. She might be worried about her lover (James Stewart, perhaps?) who has been acting strangely recently. It’s possible that she is being followed by a portly gentleman with a distinctive profile. Whatever, she’s a smart woman in trouble.

These are 8 x 10 stills from B-movies you have seen before. At least, you’ve seen films like them. You won’t have seen these particular films because they were never made. They are a part of a sixty-nine frame series created by the artist Cindy Sherman in the late 1970’s, each of which she starred in herself as heroine, starlet, woman in danger, sex kitten, sophisticate, ingenue…

Sherman has continued to use herself as a subject, transforming herself into ridiculously-breasted virgin mothers, sinister clowns and fairy tale goblins. This not-quite-first series, however, is her simplest and most direct – both visually and thematically. The artist is an actress, and she plays ‘types’…. vaguely familiar, known but unknown.

Korean artist Nikki S. Lee has gone a step further in her immersion, as a guerrilla method actor, like Sherman not a photographer but an artist who uses photography to capture her conceptual or performance art. She places herself entirely into her context and collects snapshots as an archetype archaeologist.

That’s archetype rather than stereotype. Whilst the stereotype is cliched, oversimplified, tired, the archetype is the quintessential embodiment of an ideal. The archetype represents a universal, instantly recognisable to anyone. One might say it’s just a question of positioning. Nevertheless, archetypes are common features in literature, in psychology, in cinema, as shorthand to help us understand and connect to narratives. The Child, The Shadow, The Devil, The Sage, The Mentor.

Lately, I’ve noticed archetypes emerge in my classroom. I have been teaching some of the same classes for three years now, and although the students change every year…. in many ways they don’t. Classes from the same department have a familiar charater and chemistry year on year. I am wary of allowing this to become a self-fulfilling prophecy, but as far as curriculum development goes (the narrative of teaching) I can work my story around certain archetypal characters before they actually arrive in my care.

Is this dangerous? Are there archetypes in your classroom? What are they, and do you use them to your advantage?

About a week ago I wrote about an experiment in silence with a class, and promised to come back with a report on the students’ reactions. It really was quite enlightening. This is what we all learnt.

1. A particular result may not mean what you think it means
Looking back through the many comments on my previous post (which was one of the most commented upon I have posted) it is interesting to see that we, as teachers, slightly misread the whole situation. As professionals, committed to our students, caring about them deeply, we all assumed that the end result (constant discussion in L1) springs from the joy of freedom, the taking up of responsibility and other positive emotions. Actually, according to the students, they were terrified.

“We actually thought that you were angry at us and abandoned us because we use too much Japanese in class.”

“I took it for granted that you were angry and you didn’t want to give our class.”

I don’t know where this leaves Krashen. Despite the cause being the negative emotion of fear, the result was very positive.

“To do task without your help was difficult for me. However, I were able to hear much English. And I could speak more in English than usual!”

“…if we have no teachers, we must think how we should study. However,this situation is very important to us too I think. Actually we try to look for the answer more harder than usual. I spoke in English more ,moreover I heared more opinions of them than usual. Though we had much difficulties, it was very interesting to me.”

Of course, anyone who has met me in real life will find this fear highly amusing. Teaching teenagers we do sometimes need to wield a big stick. However, I don’t want this to be the dominant motivating force in my classroom, which leads us onto our next point.

2. Although mystery can be effective, we must ultimately provide transparency

When the students realised what I was trying to do, they were very happy. This was a vital step in the experiment – revealing the mystery.

“But I read your comment , you tried to see our class from all kinds of directions.”

“After reading this article, I noticed you care about us more than I expected. So I’m happy that you are our teacher!”

“We were so puzzled! Me, K., M.,and M. were discussing about ゙what’s happening!?゙ through out the whole class.
K. and I were even talking about it the rest of the day!”

So had I left the class cold, with no feedback or no discussion of what had happened, the positives of confusion may have caused longer-term damage to the rapport we have been building. I kept the next class very light, and the students kept up their good habits from the previous class.

3. Perceived teacher beliefs do not always reflect actual classroom practice

If you had asked me before this class if I believed in learner autonomy and a hands-off teaching approach, I would have given you an emphatic yes. But what I was actually doing in the class belied this. It was only by removing myself completely from the lesson that I could see how students had been relying on me to prompt them, feed them and cajole them into using the language. In the last week, I have given many of my classes similar opportunities and they have all surprised me by speaking fluently in English for as longer than I expected.  Had I been unwittingly restricting learner autonomy by doing too much, by jumping in too soon, by shutting down an activity simply because I was ready to go on to the next one?

This is why I think reflective practice has never been done properly in mainstream ELT literature. The questions we are prompted to ask ourselves are always the same, and we end up giving the answers we think we should. What was good and bad about that lesson? Why did that activity succeed or fail? We will never really know unless we break the mirror and try to rearrange the pieces.

An invitation to experiment, then. This weekends homework – choose a class and do something you never usually do. Then report back and tell us how it went and what it revealed.