Still Working for the Man: Employability and Professional Voice

Employability, say ofsted, in their role as lackeys of the government and interpreters of policy, is the thing. We must prepare all students for the world of work, they say, they must all get jobs, become employees, make money and contribute to the economy. So it is that we leap joyfully bearing discussions about jobs, reading about wage slips and CV writing activities into a small outreach class of people who, for any number of reasons, are not thinking all that hard about employment. I am being, of course, more than a little facetious. It has a certain logic, budget deficit or no budget deficit, and actually gaining or improving employment employment is indeed what many learners want. Certainly, the more we can enable learners to make the full use of their capabilities (remember my civil engineer?) then the better it is for everyone. Win win.
Yeah…. Yeah but. 
For one, not every learner is necessarily looking for or planning to work, and many learners are already in work, and very happy with that work. So if we engineer a course specifically around ensuring economic output, sorry, I mean, achieving employment, then to what extent are teaching a course which meets the needs and aspirations of the learners? What if a learners aspirations are to support their family and community in other ways than simply making money for them? The “must teach employability” directive is making a clear value judgement about integrational and community aspirations, in that it suggests that these aren’t the right kind of aspirations to have. To my mind, the ethos of adult ESOL provision is for a far more wide ranging and open-minded provision, acknowledging a range of motivations and aspirations above and beyond simply getting a job, but this is being eroded by a government and their inspectorate who clearly don’t believe in it. 
The second issue is that of definition. It can very easily be argued for any ESOL learner, but particularly those at a beginner level, that learning any English is likely to improve their employment, yet to be observed not somehow making this link explicit is likely to lead to negative feedback. The concept of employability skills is either very narrow (interviews, CVs, work based interactions, form filling, contracts, etc.) or very broad (doing anything that will get you a job). I teach on ESOL for employability courses, and in this context the directive  to make the course content employment focussed is pretty much built in, yet even here the argument still holds that learning language structures and developing language skills is part of improving an individual’s employability. Indeed, it should be argued to the bean counters and the inspectors that this is not laziness, nor a sense of “can’t be bothered” but rather that there are reasons for this. 
Is there a danger of a creeping timidity in ESOL which means we won’t turn round and make this very reasoned and reasonable case when OFSTED come. This is about funding again: the negative impact of the cuts is not just on learners, but also on the ability for ESOL teachers to maintain a cohesive professional voice. When there is less money to be had, we are more conscious of the priorities of those who control the money, and this in turn could lead to reduced professional autonomy and the capacity to innovate: it is much safer for the our students’ classes and indeed for our jobs if we buckle down, fit in, and do as we are told, rather than ask questions and suggest innovation. Instead of coming at inspectors on the offensive, with professional integrity and with conviction, it is much easier to take a defensive stance, or even of servility and submission. Oh Great Inspector! At your command, employability will be shoehorned at every opportunity into my community class of people who are ineligible to work. It will be evidenced that my learners are only learning English in a work based context, even though that may not be the most effective, most interesting or most motivating context for that particular language point. Oh Inspector, Arbiter of Right and Wrong and Voice of the Treasury. Far be it from me, a mere teacher who is doing this job every day and didn’t pack it in ten years ago to become a consultant, to have any opinion about good practice. 
Perhaps I’m being unfair about inspectors, and indeed Ofsted in general, although I’m not sure that they deserve “fair” just on principle. Blog hyperbole aside, you have to ask questions about someone who sets out to become an inspector (question 1: Why? Question 2: No, really, why?) and the concerns about the politicisation of Ofsted are nothing new or unique. And there is at least an occasional display of awareness that education has roles other than merely churning out safe little employees, although I’m not convinced. And indeed, who can blame ESOL teachers for not wanting to rock the boat, pedagogically speaking: the best we can hope for in the next five years is neglect and an absence of change, after all. 
It remains, of course, that we are all working for the Man. The Man has tight reins and a big stick and he is not afraid to use them: He knows what He wants and where He wants to go. 

The carrots, I’m afraid, have all been eaten. 

Electric Toothbrush

I have an electric toothbrush. It’s one of the ones you stand in a charger and a little light blinks at you to tell you it is charging. Every now and again you replace the head. It’s a nice little contraption and usually does a good job of cleaning my teeth, as long as it’s properly charged.

Trouble is, I always forget to charge it. Or rather, I have to make a conscious effort to remember to charge. It’s a small thing, I know, but it’s a metaphor. You see, I know that charging the toothbrush is what makes an electric toothbrush work: I can tell you now that an uncharged electric toothbrush is not a good toothbrush. I know this: in fact, it niggles me when the battery is flat, and yet I still don’t remember to charge it. I’ll put it on to charge later, I think, after I’ve been to the loo. Next morning, the toothbrush is still sitting there immobile and rather pointless. 
And so it is with admin. I know how to fill in forms, make calls, operate electronic MIS systems, get students enrolled, keep records, write things up, and generally do that side of the job. It’s not a case of knowing : I truly can do all those things, although none of my colleagues (Hi!) would ever believe me. I have a sneaking suspicion that if put my mind to it, I can do most of these things in no time at all. I also know how important these things are, but somehow, like the electric toothbrush, it doesn’t happen. I can’t even pin down what it is: bad prioritising, perhaps, a little bit of nerves about confrontations (which, ironically, is actually worsened as the inevitable fallout of some administrative errors makes for more uncomfortable confrontations) and a little bit of procrastination over something that is less appealing. 
I want to draw a line here between administrative responsibilities of a teacher and ILPs, mind you. If targets are delayed, or offset, or attended to in a fairly token way, this is a fairly principled point: it is a genuine case of not doing them because I don’t think they have value. The admin I mean is the stuff that ensures that handy stuff like funding happens, that students are taking the right exam and are getting a useful and valuable experience out of things. Yet somehow it all falls into a psychological blind spot. 
I’ve tried things. I’ve tried using “tasks” in Outlook with no success, because it’s all too easy to click “dismiss”. I’ve had some success with a notebook and a long list of jobs, through which I have forced myself to work, but even there, I’ve too often ended up just shunting things onto tomorrow’s list, and then they get forced to the day after, then the next, and the next, and the next… I’ve made checklists of key jobs, and then ignored them, or forgotten them until it was too late. It would be fine if it was just about me. But it never is. In order that a student’s experience be as positive as possible, people around you work hard to make up for these failings, creating a ring of spreading ripples of annoyance and frustration. 
Coaching and mentoring is part of my role at college but at times I wonder if we forget that some of the administrative duties teachers hold are actually complex skills in themselves. To say “it’s just admin” and to assume that a teacher should somehow just know how to do it is quite dismissive of some skilled professionals who “only” do admin. Administrative work is  a skillset to be developed, and requires a degree of coaching and guidance in order for a new or even an experienced teacher to learn. It occurs to me as well that these things rarely, if ever, arise on teacher development programmes. Yet to do these things badly can have as negative an impact on student experiences as poor teaching. I suspect that the memory of the negative impact of bad admin stays with a learner longer than the memory of a bunch of lessons, good or bad. 
Yes, our primary role is making learning happen in the classroom, and I’m mostly OK at that bit. But time management and administrative duties are things I need to learn to do better at. Although it may take a massive improvement to become good at the administrative side of things, I reckon I can aim to become a little bit less shit at them. In a year on year development sense, I’ve done better this year than last, although that’s not exactly a grand achievement. As a start, I’m in the process of writing down all the things I’ve neglected to do, or done badly, and then I’m going to make posters or guides or something to stick on the wall above my desk. Possibly also tattoo it to the inside of my eyelids. 
I’ll make one for my bathroom as well. 

Working for the Man

I started writing this on the first day of a new government and I am sad to say that ultimately, I work for them. It’s a scary thought, really, but an accurate one. My salary is drawn from public money, paid to college from the state. This means that I am, as they say, working for the Man. And the Man, as I mentioned before, has a different idea about what my job is for than I do. This is, of course, politics again. The government have, and will continue to have, an impact on what I do not only in terms of how the courses I teach are funded, but on what my role within those courses is, and what is within my remit. 

Take political action, for example. One of the reactions to the most recent set of funding cuts was the production of some excellent teaching materials, which in turn supported and suggested positive political action on the part not only of teachers but also of students. This took the form of letters, of emails, of students engaging actively with the political system of the country they live on issues which are important to them. On this sort of thing I have no problems with supporting students to engage with legal protests, and I think that not only are these things important on a political level, but also as a great opportunity to develop language skills. 
There is a limit to this. If I took an issue to the classroom, or if a learner raised an issue, and it turned out that none of the learners was terribly interested in that issue, then it would be wrong of me to insist that the learners take part in action. If I took news of savage funding cuts to a class and the general reaction was “so what?” then what right do I have as a teacher to force that on the students, even though I am fully aware of the impact it may have. I do believe that students have a right to know about this sort of thing, but the choice of taking action remains with the students. Whether the government like the idea of my students knowing about their shabby approach to funding in FE is neither here nor there, indeed, I would be more than happy to irritate a few ministers, quite frankly, and in several cases would gladly do more than merely irritate. 
You can tell I don’t like the new government, can’t you? Not that I would go beyond the law on this one, of course, but I have taken and may well, in the future, choose to take action against governments. But my own antithesis to government is casting a further friction in my role as teacher, particularly with the roll out of the Prevent programme. Prevent, in case you need to know, a wider UK Home Office strategy which aims, as the name suggests, to identify and stop potential extremism and radicalisation within the UK, in part through training and supporting non-security services. A cynical person would argue, perhaps, that this is the government using education, health and social care professionals as de facto security services, (these services have been border guards for some time, after all) although the language of Prevent is about stopping individuals from harming themselves and others. Either way, I’m not sure I feel comfortable with the morality of the role, and certainly not with my own ability to make judgements on these things. It’s ambiguous at best: after all, to what extent can certain behaviours be clearly described as suggesting or leading to radicalisation?  Am I radical for my profound dislike of the Conservative party, particularly the prominent figures of Cameron, Osborne, May and Gove? I don’t think these are radical, (arguably quite normal, given that the Tories got in with a minority of the national vote) but they are strongly anti-government and a learner who expressed similar views wouldn’t, for me, get mentally flagged up as being some sort of extremist. Religious extremism would be every harder to spot: for this atheist, even moderate religious belief is a pretty radical jump
Even if it were that straightforward, there remain questions of trust and faith in a what should be a fairly objective professional relationship. Does it change something in the working relationship that you have with your students if they think you might report them for showing evidence of radicalisation? I think so. 
This comes back to the teacher’s role. It’s tempting to say “I am just an English teacher” and that is very much the basis of my perception of my role. However, we are becoming increasingly forced into positions where we are having a wider impact: teaching ESOL for employment, for example, comes with the uncomfortable awareness that if a learner doesn’t attend a certain percentage they may well have their benefits stopped (and let’s face it, with benefits cuts being imminent, job centre plus staff will be looking for any excuse). Yes, the learners know this, and by not attending they have responsibility for that risk, but that doesn’t make it any more comfortable. ESOL teachers have been almost border guards for some years now, checking learners eligibility for funding, and now we are being asked to step in as de facto security services. I would want to be able to discuss worries I have about a learner without the possibility or the responsibility that this would somehow be reported up to the proper security services. It is this direct link that worries me, and which creates the possibility of mistrust. Ultimately, however, I’m not entirely sure where I stand on Prevent. I think it runs the risk of creating issues of challenging trust and responsibility for teachers, and is unlikely to deal with the problem that it sets out to solve. Anyone smart enough to outwit their families and friends is unlikely to blab to their teacher, after all. 
I’m not saying we should create an apolitical landscape in our classrooms – for one, it would be impossible. We should embrace the political diversity of the classroom much as we do the religious, racial and sexual diversity, and not bowdlerise the curriculum. Learners should be encouraged to look critically at the issues in hand and to explore the ways they can do so safely and without harming themselves and others. ESOL is about enabling and empowering, and an inability to participate in political action is the challenge for many, not the extremism of a tiny, if dangerous, minority. That we may enable learners to challenge the status quo, however much this may be within the legal boundaries of the UK, may not be appealing to certain parts of the government who would no doubt much rather we peddle some sort of Little-Englander mentality where one knows one’s place, and doesn’t ask difficult questions. Sadly, for them, however, this government employee will continue to encourage students to participate, to challenge and to ask questions. 


This has been driving me up the wall these last few weeks – I’ve written four or five versions of this post and I’ve never been quite happy with them. So this is my last ditch to get something vaguely topical down about the election, and it’s essentially this:

How does politics have an impact on the ESOL classroom?

It’s a big question, hence my struggle to finalise a post on the subject, but I’ll have a go at it. 

First up, of course, is the direct impact of political decisions, and these are primarily around funding. Funding is the major headache for ESOL, and the last ten years or so have seen a consistent and regular cut or restriction to ESOL funding by both the Labour government and the more recent coalition. To track these would be an endless job, but in essence, funding has been cut to ESOL every year since 2006. There has been a lot in the news, of course, about the current cuts to adult funding across the board and these are inevitably going to have an impact on ESOL, but by far the most impressively sneaky cut was last year, moving the funding from a learner led funding model with a more open approach to guided learning hours, to a qualification led funding model: that is, basing funding on how many hours the Skills Funding Agency have apparently randomly selected would be needed to achieve a certain level. 

It’s enough to make people think of Skills for Life in the early 2000s as some sort of golden age of funding and support – in many ways it was pretty good, but also a time of profligate waste across the whole of FE: my college still has piles of “best practice” resources from the QCA and from LSIS gathering dust, and in ESOL we had awful, poorly thought through teaching materials presented as “exemplars” (we shall come back to these later), which were freely available, and expensively produced. There are CDROMS and DVDs and goodness knows what else and I don’t recall anyone ever using them. It really was quite insane. People also forget the more long term impact of the political tying together of ESOL and the adult literacy programme of Skills for Life. This was a bad decision at the time, and it has proven hard to undo, yet sadly, the areas of first language adult literacy and of adult second language learning could only ever cross over in part: the descriptions and analysis of language for both subjects is, and should be, different. The political discourse of both areas is different as well: adult literacy is often presented as a failing on the part of the education and social care systems, and is discussed in these terms: a lack of literacy is an illness to be diagnostically assessed, teachers are not teachers, they are “practitioners”. ESOL, on the other hand, are not learners who slipped through the gaps of an overstretched education system, but rather they are people who have come to live in the UK and didn’t or couldn’t learn English first. Yet the discourse around ESOL remains in the Skills for Life deficit model: as if a multilingual learner is someone who has missed opportunities, or been unable to take full advantage of those opportunities. The same thing seems to happen with EAL learners in schools: they are often used as a reason for schools being less successful, often in the same discriminatory breath or sentence as discussions around students with learning difficulties. Yet developing bilingualism is hardly a learning difficulty. Yes, ESOL learners are sometimes lacking in elements of basic literacy, but that’s not a reason to keep them classified under the same system of  ability and need. A genuine ESOL programme would move away from the literacy based descriptors of the now 14 year old core curriculum and focus instead on language based descriptors which reflect the true breadth of ESOL need and provision. This would, of course, cost money.

Ah yes, money. The economy has always been a big driver, and the low status of ESOL learners in that economy has always been clear in the government produced materials. Going back to the core curriculum materials of skills for life, students were widely presented as consumers and employees: recipients of the generosity of wealth and privilege, rather than creators of it. Aspiration was fine as long as those aspirations were low. This is a consistent theme, brought into sharp focus with focussed jobseeker provision based on direct referrals from the job centre, but also with the explicit focus from OFSTED on students becoming economically active at the expense of all other things. Classes may be focussed on student needs, as long as those needs are finding a job. And a low paid, low status job at that. Never mind the more long term, mature ideas like supporting families and community cohesion, or thinking about even the simpler benefits like reducing the amount of money needed on translation services in the NHS, or looking at ways of actively exploiting the high skills and qualifications of the civil engineers, social workers, nurses, teachers accountants and lawyers (not to mention the odd former professional footballer) who fill the seats of many ESOL classes. Nope: money in, money out. Preferably in time for the next election. 

In and out applies elsewhere, especially in, because ESOL learners are for the most part immigrants, and immigration is not so much a political hot potato as a real life version of pass the bomb between the main parties, fuelled by the rise of UKIP and the worst corners of the popular press. None of the major parties now would stand up and be blatantly in favour of open immigration, even though the facts around immigration and the cost of it are in fact far less dramatic (Google “immigration myths and facts” and you’ll turn up a lot of articles like this: than the now more or less standard and widely unchallenged discourse of being “swamped” and public services “crippled” by immigration. Perhaps for some it is simply easier to blame your financial worries on the people down the road with the different accents than it is to explore the malpractices and tax avoidance of the wealthy. 

However, the impact of immigration politics is largely not to do with the bare numbers of people in and people out. Rather, immigration politics is what has driven many of the changes to ESOL funding, and changes to the way that ESOL course are run. Job seekers courses are good examples of this, with new EU migrants now needing to stay in the UK for a certain amount of time before claiming benefits, and limits being placed on how long they can claim these benefits. This in turn restricts how long those learners can access their courses. The politics of immigration has an impact on how settled learners are: I know of at least two young people in their late teens who are spending half their lives worrying about whether they are about to be sent back to their own country where they have no support networks, and worse, no family to help them. That said, mainstream SFA funded ESOL has been shielded from this for the most part since 2006 when the Labour government then decided that asylum seekers and refugees were no longer eligible for funding. However, it is still there, and the impact of it goes through many aspects of our learners lives. 

There are lots of things I’ve not talked about, and which will wait, I think. I haven’t mentioned extremism and the Prevent programme, for example, and the moral complexities of how this might impact an ESOL classroom. Nor have I touched on the challenges of racism that students might face. Crucially, however, I haven’t tackled the theme of whether we should be engaging students in political activity in the classroom, but all of these, I think, will have to wait. 

If you are voting today, then enjoy it. Remember as well that for some learners I have met, to have a say in how their country is run would be an enormous privilege, and one for which they would gladly fight. I’ll see you all in the next government, although whoever wins, I don’t think ESOL learners are going to come out well. 

Action Research-ette Session 2: Guided Discovery.

So the second session looked like this. The class first did a reading activity with a text with lots of passives. I had selected a number of sentences from the text, and for the second stage, I had the students answering concept-checking type questions about the sentences, followed by a fairly straightforward sentence writing activity.
Ok, so the lesson. It was good that there was a lot more active student discussion and peer coaching and explaining, and opportunity for me to go round and support individuals who were struggling with it. With the previous session there was a definite sense that even with the most careful pausing and questioning there were still students who might fall by the wayside. This felt less of an issue with this session, and I was able to support or direct peers to support each other a lot more.
It was hard at times to resist explanations, in fact, I have to admit I did include the odd little explanation. However, on balance, I fairly consistently led by questioning and drawing out meaning and form.
The text-based nature of the lesson lent a sense of consistency to the lesson: a discussion led to a reading led to a grammar analysis led to some grammar practice, linked by the  context of the reading text. I think there were some flaws in the questions I posed and I want to go back and redo the question sheet: re-order the sequence, rewrite some of the language examples, and slim it down a little. The practice task was good, and like last time, completed with a fair degree of success. My intention was to follow it with a writing task, which I will probably now save til later on.
So, an initial judgement? Explicit explanations vs guided discovery? Hmm. Based on my own reflections, the guided discovery was better. The moving of the focus from me to the students, for example, was satisfying, although I could just have easily done my explicit instruction in a similar “read it yourself” way.
In fact,I’ve kind of blown the vague bash at a scientific approach really: I didn’t maintain enough similarity between the two lessons: the explicit instruction lesson, for example, was primarily me leading at the front, whereas the discovery lesson was students leading at their own pace. To make it a fairer test, I should have led the discovery questioning also from the front. It is something worth coming back to, I think: planning the whole process, including the lessons, at the same time, making sure this sort of thing is reduced.
But all is not lost! Atuff has come out of this. For one, I think, despite my reservations on the idea, that the clarity of focus of the “explicit” lesson went down well: the group responded  positively to this, and seemed a bit put out by the lack of this in the second lesson: a sense of “is this about passives?”. That said, some of the blame for this has to lie with my task design for this lesson, and that needs tweaking. However, I think this focus element is something to come back to, for sure: there is a balance to be struck there between guided discovery and clear focus for learning.
In both lessons the most positive, active elements were those which focussed on the students working: the structure of the second lesson allowed this a lot more, and, as I’ve mentioned above, enabled me to get in amongst the class a lot more, clarifying, helping; as well as enabling a lot more peer support: I overheard several conversations across the room with some proper “lightbulb” moments.
The one thing I disliked about both lessons was that being so planned on specific points, I had to close down some valid and interesting language work that emerged during the lesson: phonology in the first and comparatives and superlatives in the second. This was, I admit, partly because of the experimental nature of the lessons, but I have definitely missed that freewheeling aspect of language teaching. I know it’s not the done thing, and raises questions about the “clarity of focus” issue above in the sense that seizing learning opportunities like dealing with emergent language isn’t something which fits into the simple behaviourist input-output model of learning outcomes expected in UK FE. However, even with emergent language you can have a clear focus: “write five sentences using passives” can emerge during a lesson. But again, this is something to come back to.
Having a set “method” in both lessons was restricting, I think: bringing me back to the principled eclecticism concept: you go in with a range of tools and methods and you pick the most useful one for the moment. You do a bit of explaining, a bit of eliciting, a bit of open questioning, a bit of targeted questioning. You do what you think is going to fit best, and if it turns out you thought wrong, you change it.
So no grand statements, no great discoveries, but an interesting reflective journey! And that, to be fair, is what it’s all about.

Explicit Instruction: Action Research round 1

A few weeks back I mentioned a mini action research project. Using the power of hyperlinks, I won’t have to summarise it in too much detail, but I’m teaching two lessons, one deductively, with an explicit, presented set of grammar rules, and the other inductively, and looking at the lessons to see what worked best. I gave the students a quick test on two grammar points and will do so again after the lessons have finished. The grammar points are both revision, rather than new points, so i know that prior to this they have definitely encountered this before. I’ve chosen reported speech and passive voice for no more complex reason than the learners need to review them, and they both involve manipulating verb tenses, rather than identifying tense and aspect. (Incidentally, grammar fans, who can remember how many tenses there are in English?)

Last night I taught the “deductive” lesson with reported speech as the language point. The deductive input took the form of a very simple PowerPoint presentation, covering three slides. I presented this to the group explicitly: “we are going to talk about reported speech” and then talked through the slides and the rules as interestingly as possible, ensuring that I checked understanding and engagement, and gave students the opportunity to discuss ideas as we went along. The main practice activity was something I’ve used at this level before: a set of cards each with a sentence on, and the sentences were either in direct or in reported speech. In the back they then had to transform the sentence: so if they had George told Gerry he loved him. they had to turn it into direct speech, and if they had “I love you, Gerry,” said George. then they had to transform it to reported speech. The clever bit, if say so myself, was that the cards were divided up so that if pair A had a sentence in direct speech then pair B had the same sentence in reported speech, but ensuring that both groups had a mixture of direct and reported speech. This meant that they could then team up and compare answers. 
It was all very very meta. The was a lot of grammar discussion and analysis, and strikingly not many opportunities to personalise the language. This was partly because we didn’t get onto a freer practice activity, so I think I may have to make sure that this is also true of the passives lesson, and also to ensure that they do get an opportunity to do some sort of freer, more open practice task of both points in a future lesson. Time got out of hand, I think, because they are, for the most part, a fairly academic group who like like discussing and analysing language, and who seem to enjoy this kind of abstract work. Strikingly, there was no real context to any of this, again, something I will minimise with the passives lesson, although I may start that lesson with a reading task. It’s interesting, really, because it’s pretty much drummed in on teacher training courses that you must have a context for your grammar teaching, and yet there was no context here at all. I’d have been slammed by an observer, especially a proper communicative language teaching ESOL observer who would have criticised me for not linking it to learners’ lives, or indeed learners’ anything. 
I’m going to stick my neck out a little, however, and suggest that actually, in this particular lesson, that didn’t appear to matter. Throughout the presentation and the practice activity there was a lot of student engagement. Every time I asked a question at that stage every student had something to say, and I targeted questions to ensure that anyone flagging or who I thought might not be following things was brought into the lesson and challenged. While I was circulating during the practice task I noticed that a large number of students had taken extensive notes, although not all, something which the direct presentation could have facilitated because the students had time to do it, rather than thinking about it. 
Would it have been more effective with some sort of context? Possibly, although it was a recap of a wide range of reported structures so a context to cover all of those would have been a challenge to shoehorn in. Certainly the humdrum “real life” type context so beloved of the ESOL in FE community would have been nigh on impossible. However, I think that this is a whole other action research project, although with impending exams, will probably have to wait until next year. (But if I wrote it up as an article, I know that I would call it “Mrs Khan goes to the doctor: Context and setting in ESOL”)
So, high levels of student engagement, a practice activity successfully completed, and lots of notes. It was also kind of fun to indulge my inner lecturer. I sometimes do it on teacher training courses, which is bad of me, really. However, I quite enjoyed talking to and telling people stuff, and making sure that they understood what I was rattling on about. I think I made a decent fist of it too, as well as providing some good listening practice. I made sure that there were lots of opportunities for students to discuss ideas together, to question the students in their understanding. It didn’t, surprisingly, perhaps, feel wrong. I don’t think I’d do it a lot, but we will have to wait and see. 

A little thing about whiteboards

I had an interesting experience with an interactive whiteboard this week. I know that sounds like a bit of an oxymoron, but do bear with me. I was teaching in a room with a large IWB at the front of the room and a large regular whiteboard on wheels. I started with a text we were working from on the IWB but as the lesson progressed, and I left the text behind to focus on the learners’ language, the mobile whiteboard crept slowly but surely to the dominant position more or less entirely in front of the IWB, and Windows quietly logged me out due to inactivity. It looked, in fact, like this:

So, reasons for this? The first set of reasons is practicality. The IWB is, shall we say, a mature Smartboard, and perhaps a little less smooth to use than it once was. It’s also a lovely room well lit by that traditional enemy of digital projectors, natural sunlight, meaning that the display was hard to read without shutting all the blinds.this was even less attractive because it was a glorious sunny April day. The layout of the room is generally such that the board is significantly distant from even the students at the front of the room, with a large, heavy “teacher” desk in front of it, making it a small but significant distance for me to move back and forth from the display and for students to see the board clearly. 

The second is more about temperament. I still, as I’ve noted before, default to whiteboard as writing surface, be it interactive or non-interactive. I like the extended features of the IWB, for example being able to display and work with a text or handout, highlighting, completing and so on, but essentially it’s just a regular whiteboard with knobs on. I also don’t particularly get on with the software, Promethean’s exceptional exercise in counter-intuitive program called “ActivInspire” (Inspire! Actively! Yeah!).

The third issue was the nature of the lesson. We were focussing on present perfect for experiences, based on a couple of sentences from a text we had read the day before. It was very much about emergent language, as I had the learners suggesting the contexts and the experiences they would like to discuss. In this kind of lesson, the IWB system has to be damn good, because you can’t rely on masses of pre-prepared stuff, and the language grows and develops in the classroom and is recorded on the board. A pen and a writing surface is still the best method of recording this kind of “of the moment” thought process: how much success, for example, have you ever had with digital mind mapping systems? 

I’m not saying IWBs are bad, particularly, just that on that day, in that context, it wasn’t the best tool for the job. That’s a crucial point, really: a sentence which contains two of the most important prepositional phrases in teaching:

On that day

In that context

For technology and indeed any type of classroom practice, the best anyone can ever say is that it worked for that lesson and that lesson alone: in this setting, for a number of reasons, the regular whiteboard was simply the better of the two options.