I’ve just been watching YouTube videos of the IATEFL Chile Conference that took place in July. I recommend that you watch them, because they demonstrate just how much we need new organisations to represent teachers. The conference plenaries show the same old faces trotting out the same old stuff, and there’s absolutely nothing here to make your heart sing, or, more mundanely, to make you think that the raft of real teachers’ concerns are being addressed . Did anybody mention the miserable pay that millions of teachers get, or zero hour contracts without pension rights, or appalling conditions of work? Did anybody question how teacher qualifications are decided on, or how professional development is organised? Was there any mention of teachers’ feeling of worth? Did anybody question the IATEFL statutes? Well of course not, because that’s not what the carefully chosen plenary speakers are here to do.
What we see in these videos is a show, a promotion of the stars of ELT who are supposed to enrich the lives of teachers in much the same way as going to see any other celebrity “live” is supposed to do. It’s a travesty of what a conference of working teachers should be. It’s proof, as if proof were needed, of the commercialisation of ELT.
Scott Thornbury gave two talks that he’d done before. His review of the history of ELT was a repeat of the plenary he gave just a few months previously at the IATEFL international conference, and his talk on his attempts to improve his Spanish was a version of what he’d already said years before. Like so many of the army of professional speakers who tour the world, Scott is almost expected to trot out the same old stuff time and time again. Like Elton John singing Candle in the wind, or Tony Blair chanting I’d do it all again, the audience doesn’t even expect to hear anything new; they just want to be in the audience where the celebrity entertains them. How long before Scott has to autograph the IATEFL programme pushed towards him by admiring fans as he leaves the stage?
Now guess who else gave a plenary in Chile. Guess who the organisers thought was worth flying 9,000 kilometres to address their teachers. Why, who else than that rightly revered, roundly respected, super scholar Jeremy Harmer! And once again Harmer demonstrated his uncanny ability to insult his audience’s intelligence without being booed off the stage. This time, Harmer chose to defend the coursebook, in a plenary titled Back between the covers: should coursebooks exist in a modern age. Please, before you do anything else, watch it by clicking on this link.
What did you make of that hour long talk? Maybe you can use it in some teacher training programme. Get everybody comfortably seated, play the video, and use this worksheet.
- How many times does he lose the thread?
- As a sub-set, how many times does he confess that he can’t remember what he’s talking about?
- How many times does he contradict himself?
- How many times (to the nearest 100) does he not bother (sic) to finish a sentence?
- How many times does he not answer his own questions?
- Is he bothered?
- Give 5 examples of where he resorts to what he really, really sincerely believes rather than to what might pass for a reasoned argument.
- Give 5 examples of how he misreprent the arguments he doesn’t like.
- Give 5 examples of where he shows an ignorance of emergentism and interlanguage research.
- How does Harmer come accross?
- How does he treat his audience?
- Give 1 example of something he said that you didn’t aleady know.
- Summarise his argument for why coursebooks are useful.
- Suggest what a plenary talk about the place of ELT coursebooks should discuss.
Now let me give my own view of the plenary. Harmer doesn’t inform or debate about the important issues involved, he blusters. From a discourse point of view, he looks to me like a confused, ill-prepared clown hired to appear at a 2 year old kid’s birthday party. Talk about impoverished input! Nevertheless, observe his general stage manner. It’s a display of authority: he knows he’s a powerful figure in ELT and he acts like it.
As to content, what did he say? Take away the endless pile of platitudes, ignore the sporadic Oh and by the way remarks, leave out the cascade of careless clichés and the endless homilies; in short, do away with the “noise” that always surrounds Harmer’s discourse as he stumbles around the stage like someone who can’t quite remember what he’s so urgently looking for, and what have you got? What do we get from all this pumped up but ultimately lifeless torrent of confident, disorganised clatter and chatter? What does it all mean? What does Harmer’s defence of coursebooks amount to? Predictably, it amounts to almost nothing. He gave an absurd summary of the arguments against them and then took the audience through some exercises to show that talking about music can be fun. From this he concluded with a trite re-hash of the old chestnut that it’s not the coursebook, it’s what you do with it.
“Two plenaries do not a conference make”, you may say. Quite right, and for all I know, great things might have gone on at the conference. But the plenaries do, I suggest, say a lot about IATEFL conferences.
As an alternative to the way IATEFL organises its conferences, I recommend that you look at the way ELTjam and Oxford TEFL organised their two Innovate ELT annual conferences in Barcelona. No plenaries; no good rooms, bad rooms; no grace and favour crap; nobody get’s paid for presenting. There’s a focus on issues that affect teachers’ lives; a genuine attempt to involve every single person who attends the conference, with no special attention to well-known names; an innovative mix of presentation formats; a marvellous range of social activities. I can honestly say that I’ve never attended any conferences with better content, and nothing, but nothing, compares to the wonderful cooperative, friendly, uplifting atmosphere that they managed to create. Of course there are ways that this great initiative can be improved, but the Innovate ELT conference shows the way forward, and it shows that there’s hope for those of us who want change.