An Interview with Rubina Khan from darren elliott on Vimeo.

Rubina Khan is Professor of English Language Teaching and Teacher Education at the University of Dhaka, and joined us at the JALT National conference in 2013 as general secretary of the Bangladesh English Language Teachers Association (BELTA). We talked about her work with the association, and about English language education in Bangladesh, as well as the many joint regional projects BELTA is involved in. JALT’s connection, through the Teacher Helping Teachers SIG, is a very worthwhile long term project.

There are more interviews to follow, and if you like this please visit the archive for more. You can subscribe via iTunes, and I would appreciate reviews there if you have time. You can also find us on Facebook and twitter.


An Interview with Penny Ur from darren elliott on Vimeo.

I had great opportunity to meet one of my ELT heroes, Penny Ur, when she visited Japan for the JALT National Conference in Kobe in the Autumn of 2013. Her plenary went over very well, and I spoke to her after she had given another talk to a packed room. You can see the slides from those talks here, but first please check out the interview.


An Interview with Diane Hawley Nagatomo from darren elliott on Vimeo.

At the JALT National conference in Hamamatsu last month, I had a great time talking to Diane Hawley Nagatomo. Diane is a teacher, researcher and materials writer working in Japan. Some of her most recent research has been published by Multilingual Matters in the book “Exploring Japanese University English Teachers’ Professional Identity”, which we discussed in detail. We also talked about materials writing, gender in language education (Diane is currently co-coordinator for the JALT GALE SIG) and plenty more. If you want to read more several of Diane’s articles are available online and definitely worth looking at. Thanks for watching!

I was fortunate to meet Junko Yamanaka at the 5th Annual Extensive Reading Seminar in Nagoya, Japan. She is a well known figure in extensive reading circles, especially in Nagoya, and I have used several of her textbooks very successfully. We talked about her experience as a teacher, teacher trainer and materials writer, about education in Japan, and many other things. It was great to finally meet her!

Thanks also to the JALT ER SIG for putting on such a great event and doing such great work all year round promoting Extensive Reading in Japan.

I very much enjoyed meeting Keith Johnson at the JALT conference in Tokyo last week. We discussed a few aspects of what adds up to a very distinguished career in language teaching. More recently, Professor Johnson has focussed on expertise studies, wrestling with the difficult question of what makes an expert teacher…. and you might want to reconsider the pop-science of Malcolm Gladwell’s 10,000 hours. We also had time to discuss the groundbreaking book ‘The Communicative Approach to Language Teaching’, which he co-edited, and CLT’s impact on the profession as a whole. Many thanks to Keith Johnson for his well-considered replies to all my questions.

With only three weeks to go, the excitement is rising for the Realizing Autonomy conference to be held at Nanzan University in Nagoya on October 29th. The website for the conference (and the accompanying book) is constantly evolving, so keep your eyes on it. Part of the reason I am writing here today is to ask for your help, so if you can do any of the following, please chip in! You can contact me directly at, or drop comments in the appropriate comment boxes online. Cheers!


We are looking for someone with a knack and a camera to capture the event, and if you can commit we are willing to waive your conference fee.

Video Experts

If anyone is prepared to record and edit some of the sessions to upload to our website, we would do the same.

Must-see Nagoya

I love this place, and I want the out-of-towners coming in to go away with a great impression of Japan’s third city. There will be a plenty making a weekend of it, so what do you recommend? If you have any good ideas for things to eat and drink, places to visit in town, or short trips around the area, please click on the links and deposit your knowledge on the official conference website.


The social is already fully subscribed, and we are thinking about the entertainment. Our venue is equipped with an array of multi-media facilities (karaoke, anyone?) and we are considering various ideas. If you want to volunteer for a Pecha Kucha, we would love to hear from you! Other suggestions are also very welcome.


We are already expecting a great turnout, but just in case anyone hasn’t heard about the conference, you can print out the posters and flyers and spread the word.

The Day Itself

The schedule is now available on the website, and we hope to get a pdf version of the conference booklet posted in advance of the conference. Unfortunately, Richard Pemberton is unable to fly at the moment, but he will join us via the magic of technology and team up with Mike Nix to give us something very special. Tim Murphey will be start off the day in his usual energizing style, and we will welcome a host of other guests, speakers and presenters.

Thanks for your indulgence, everyone! Looking forward to seeing you all soon!





I haven’t read Malcolm Gladwell’s book Outliers, but I have heard enough about it to feel as if I have. The handy little factoid that is most quoted is the 10,000 hours rule; basically, that it takes 10,000 hours of hard practice to master achieve mastery of one’s given discipline.  What constitutes mastery, or practice for that matter, is the kind of significant detail which gets lost as original research is interpreted by popular science, and re-interpreted by the people who read popular science, and re-reinterpreted by the people who read the tweets of the people who read popular science. That’s where I come in.

Whether it’s a figure that stands up to scrutiny or not, it feels right. It’s a round number, for a start. It’s impressively big, too, but not unachievable. Worth checking to see if I qualify, I thought. It turns out, I’m some way short of being an expert. In the twelve years since I started teaching, according to my back-of-a-fag-packet calculations I have spent about 6,000 hours in the classroom. At current rates, I should become an expert sometime in 2017. Can’t wait.

One of the reasons I have been rather quiet on the blogging and tweeting front of late relates to this lack of expertise. This isn’t false modesty, and I am not fishing for compliments. I think fundamentally I can be a good teacher, and I have pieces of paper to prove it from people who have actually seen me teach ;-)

But I think for me at the moment I need to spend less time talking to others and more time talking to myself. That’s why I’ve started writing a teaching journal again – actually seven of them, one fat, lined paper notebook for each class of students I currently teach. Before class, I write my lesson plans, what I’ll need, some rough timings. During class I write notes to myself, about who is quiet, who needs a poke, who needs an arm around the shoulder and about what is working and why. And after class I paste in scraps of worksheets, draw diagrams of the state of the whiteboard, and scribble critiques . It’s something I haven’t done for a long time, but it has reminded me of what a technologically mediated PLN can’t do.  

  1. It isn’t a place to be truly honest. Even now, I am selecting my words carefully, but sometimes I just want to complain about something. Constructive? No. Mature? Not really. But everyone has to let off steam from time to time. Of course, you can’t do that online. Because it’s forever, and you will probably get sacked. Whereas if I want to go off on a vitriolic rant in my journal, no harm done.
  2. It isn’t a place to discuss the minutiae of your own classroom experience. For one thing, everyone would get bored. Even if they don’t, discussion quickly moves from the local to the global, from the specific to the general. This cross-pollination of ideas is very healthy, and I am glad to learn from teachers in different contexts. But at 9:20, I am the one who has to walk into that classroom alone, and I am the only one (along with the students) who can figure out how to make it work.
  3. It doesn’t promote reflection. Too  much information, no time to think about it. “Hmmm… I wonder what I should do about.. Oh look! Another tweet!”

So this is the step back I have taken. A step back to written lesson plans, to the nuts and bolts of a lesson, to exactly how I should set up a listening exercise, and all the other mundane stuff which a real expert teacher needs to know. With a bit of an effort, I might even make it before 2017.

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?

Searching the Cambridge CELTA syllabus for ‘culture’, I discover the following.

Unit 1 – Learners and teachers and the teaching and learning context

1.1 Cultural, linguistic and educational backgrounds

Demonstrate an understanding of the range of backgrounds and experiences that adult learners bring to their classes

A quick scoot around the Trinity CertTESOL site yields similar results….

Learning objectives

Successful trainees will be able to demonstrate the following on completion of the course:

b. awareness of the learning needs of individuals or groups of learners, and of the motivation of learners in a variety of cultures and environments

These organisations are the prominent international providers of entry level TEFL qualifications, and many of the trainees on these courses will go on to their first teaching jobs after receiving their certificates. A fairly large number, I would predict, would be NEST’s , and a lot of them would be going on to their first extended forays into foreign cultures.

I am at the preliminary stages of work on a paper at the moment, and I wonder if I could draw on the expertise of teacher trainers and trainees out there. Some questions, to help me get a feel for the topic.

  1. If you train NESTs on either the Cambridge or Trinity certificate, how do you interpret the excerpts reproduced above? What kind of input sessions do you give on ‘culture’, and how do you assess whether trainees have gained cultural understanding?
  2. It would appear, from the syllabi, that cross-cultural training focuses on what happens in the classroom. How well are trainees prepared for life / work abroad? (Or is that beyond the remit of a four-week course)?
  3. If you are a NEST who has taken an initial training course before travelling to a teaching job abroad, did you feel sufficiently well prepared?

These questions are very broad but any feedback is welcome. If you would like to answer but would rather not respond in a public forum, please feel free to contact me directly at Any response will be confidential and identities will be protected. If you want to forward this to colleagues who are not active in the blogosphere, please do so.

Thanks in advance and your help is much appreciated!

(hatsuhinode – the first sunrise of the new year)

The Winter holiday is a time above all to reflect on what has been and plan for what might be. Aside from what goes on in the classroom, I have a few things coming up in the year ahead.

  1. On the evening of January 14th I’ll be giving my first Pecha Kucha, with a bunch of very talented and interesting PKers thanks to Chuck Sandy. I’m drawing the pictures now. Is it cheating to use animation?
  2. Two days later I’m going to Yokohama to present on technology for Yo JALT! I love that city so I hope I get a chance to look around too. Please come and see one or both if you are in Japan!
  3. I have taken up a post as book reviews editor at a new journal based at the University of Central Lancashire, The Journal of Second Language Teaching and Research. There is a very strong editorial board involved, the journal is open to all, and the intention to offer early career researchers publishing opportunities is admirable. If you would like to review a book published within the last two years, or you have a book you would like to offer for review, please contact me at
  4. I am planning a new content course on ‘Digital Literacy’ for university students, which is a departure. I’m learning a lot myself in preparation.
  5. I am especially excited to be involved in a new book coming out in autumn, initiated by the JALT Learner Development SIG but taken up by a quality UK publisher with additional chapters by some very well-known writers in the field. I am also working on a conference to launch the book here in Nagoya, with some international speakers, which will (fingers crossed) take place in October.
  6. The blog is a going concern, and I hope I might have more chances to meet interesting people coming through Japan as well as a few possible skype interviews.

If you want to know more, or want to offer any advice, please let me know ; D

On top of all this, and most importantly, I can’t wait to meet the new students and keep tweaking the courses I am already teaching on to make them the best they can be!

I enjoyed 2010…. Here’s to a productive and happy 2011!