Two Plenaries at the Chile IATEFL Conference, July 2016


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.

13 thoughts on “Two Plenaries at the Chile IATEFL Conference, July 2016

  1. Hi Geoff. I’m not sure if you are more aggrieved by the fact that I repeat talks or that my talks lack ‘critical’ content. Regarding the issue of repetition (which never used to be a problem in the days when filming and uploading talks wasn’t as common as it is now), I do have other talks (there are 16 listed on my website, which is appreciably more than many of the people you admire can muster, I suspect). With regard to criticality, I’m figuring you didn’t watch all of the ’40 years on’ talk in Chile, which does – I admit – share a lot of the content of my IATEFL Birmingham plenary, but, emboldened by distance, I did take several pot shots at a well-known coursebook which – I argued – singlehandedly killed off the communicative approach. Likewise, the subtext of my fossilization talk is that coursebooks maybe the cause of, rather than the remedy for, premature stablization. Is that critical enough for you? Probably not. 😉


  2. Hi Scott,

    I confess that I didn’t watch the whole of your “40 years On” talk, and I’ll go and watch it now. I’m very pleased to hear that you were more outspoken this time about coursebooks; to say that they “singlehandedly killed off the communicative approach” is quite critical enough for me.

    Your comment at the start reminds me of Groucho Marx who said “Those are my principles. And if you don’t like them, I have others”. 🙂


  3. I suspect that the experience of a conference is very different sitting at a computer, attending as a delegate or from the ‘inner circle’ perspective of a speaker, as you describe above. Have you been to any other conferences in person recently?


  4. My point is that you are comparing a conference that you attended as a speaker with a conference where you only saw two plenaries (and not in their entirety, as you admit above).

    As you didn’t answer my original question I still don’t know if you are basing your criticisms on first-hand experience or supposition.


  5. I thought I had answered your question.

    And, anyway, I still don’t get your point. My argument is that IATEFL does not pay enough attention to the real interests and concerns of its members, and that IATEFL conferences put too much emphasis on celebrity speakers trotting out the same old stuff. How will knowing whether or not I’ve been “to any other conferences recently” help you decide whether you agree?

    As the 2 plenaries themselves, I watched all of Harmer’s plenary. Are you suggesting that I can’t judge it by watching a video of it? I didn’t watch all of Scott’s plenary and I completely accept what he says in his comment,.


  6. Sorry if I’m not making myself clear. I’m trying to say a) you (I/we) can’t judge a conference only by its online plenaries and b) your personal involvement in a conference will colour your (my/our) perception of it.

    The reason I’m asking if you have attended any other conferences recently (and no, you didn’t answer the question) is because in my (albeit limited) experience, there are some great ELT conferences out there, with the vast majority of talks given (yes, even at IATEFL) by teachers on subjects of interest to other teachers.

    Like it or not, IATEFL often goes on to set the agenda for other conferences, including iELT. The plenaries (and yes, there were plenaries) at Innovate this year were on the subject of women in ELT, which Nicola Prentis had already brought onto the agenda at IATEFL 2015 and native speakerism, foregrounded powerfully by Silvana Richardson’s plenary at IATEFL 2016. Two issues that seriously ‘affect teachers’ lives’ and that have probably reached a wider audience because of IATEFL.

    So, apart from taking potshots at the usual suspects, what is your point, if I may borrow your question?


    1. OK – now I get it! But why didn’t you just make your (very well made!) point straight out?

      I really don’t want to get involved in any long ping pong game about this, but I did answer the question – the last conference I went to was the Barcelona Innovate: ergo, I haven’t attended any other conferences recently.

      I think it’s important to take pot shots at the usual suspects, I really do. .


  7. Thanks for this. I attended IATEFL Chile and was there for both plenaries. I agree with most of what you say of IATEFL practices regarding celebrities touring around the world and this view that teachers should be essentially groupies following the pronouncements of these superstars. The cherry on top of the cake at IATEFL Chile 2016 was that out of 7 plenaries, only one was Chilean and she had to apply for that privilge, was not paid and didn’t even have a sole presence in her time slot at the conference, with another presentation scheduled at the same time. Isn’t this another form of educational imperialism?
    Isn’t it time that local speakers aré given a primary presence? Isnt the notion of a plenary outdated as well?


    1. Hi Malba,
      I think IATEFL Chile does a local conference every other year in regions. The one in Santiago is international, on purpose, and that’s why you would see “guest speakers”. I am not sure they are paid. They might be sponsered by publishers. I have seen plenaries where stardom shines through (or rather, people like to be on stage–a surrender to vanity without star). But I am not sure the ones presenting in Stg qualify (well, it is a matter of personal affinity, I guess; I have found people likeable others detested and viceversa). In fact I am not quite sure how far one can become a superstar in academia. Appeal is not to the heart, but the mind. You either have something to say, even nutty, or you do not exist. I can’t think of anybody else but Chomsky who has reached star status, and then, if he appears on talk shows, it is his views other than linguistics he is consulted on; (I do not have statistics on this; I might be wrong).



  8. Hi Tom,
    The point is that IATEFL Chile has historically overemphasised the presence of international speakers over locals. These speakers as you well said repeat one of the plenaries they have already said in another part of the world without considering much of the context. As mentioned earlier, this year they decided to include the first Chilean speaker in the history of IATEFL Chile conferences.
    Isn´t this evidence of educational imperialism?


    1. Hi again,
      If I am not mistaken, IATEFL did a plenary panel on Chile’s language policy some years ago calling for a critical assessment of what can or should happen.



  9. Hi Geoff, perhaps you didn’t notice Paula Rebolledo’s plenary among the list of videos?
    Paula talks about the importance of Chilean EFL teachers investigating their own contexts for themselves (rather than just “buying” what the so-called experts have to sell). There’s also an interview with her,
    Is this just a rather tokenistic attempt to include a local expert into the mix (of an otherwise mostly white, male, native speaker menu of well-known plenarists)?…most probably, but it’s a start at least.

    Liked by 1 person

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