Why do the Cambridge courses steer clear of technology?

The classroom is changing.

I’ve only been teaching English for three and a half years but even in this short time I’ve noticed the massive developments in the technology available to assist teachers in the classroom. Some of these innovations may be a little gimmicky, but there have been hundreds of really useful ones and it seems to me that many schools around the world (especially in North America) are switching over to take advantage of the new tools at their disposal.

I’m lucky enough to work for such a school and have had many opportunities to try out some of these websites, apps and other multimedia in class and with teachers during training sessions. In fact, the whole company recently switched over to Google for Education, giving the chance to collaborate in real time on documents, spreadsheets, websites and more. Teachers are encouraged to try out these new technologies in class with their students, and they generally receive a positive reaction when doing so.

Yet despite these huge leaps forwards in what we can do with smartphones and projectors in the classroom, it seems that the people who matter in ELT, Cambridge, haven’t been as quick on the uptake. So far on my DELTA course the most technologically advanced moment we’ve had is when one of the trainers put on a TED talk video as an example of authentic materials. When we asked whether the tutor could make the huge piles of handouts he’s given us available online instead, he said this was impossible, giving some vague, mumbled answer that left us all a little confused. I know from personal experience that this would take about 10 minutes if he shared the folder with us on Google Drive, so I can only assume that the powers that be have told him to keep it traditional and stick to paper handouts. The inclusion of technology was similarly lacking when I took the YL extension course last year.

I can have a guess at the reasons behind this reluctance to embrace 21st century technology. I assume that Cambridge would argue that these courses provide you with training that you can use anywhere in the world, without having to rely on computers and tablets and that they’re focused on teaching you how to teach, not how to use certain websites and apps. This is sound logic, and these courses are excellent preparation for any classroom anywhere in the world, but I still feel that they’re missing a trick by not at least showing trainees what’s available out there.

I think that most teachers would agree that the modern learner expects to use some type of technology in the classroom and is far more engaged than they are when just using the course book. Additionally, the argument that not everywhere in the world has access to technology is becoming increasingly irrelevant. Recent studies have shown that by 2016, 2 billion people will have a smartphone with Internet access, apps and hundreds of other features. Here in Vietnam, most people have at least two phones and they’re constantly using them to chat with friends, catch up on the  news, watch videos or even to create content for themselves.

I guess my point is that, if 21st century technology is so widespread and has such an impact on the daily lives of the students, then teachers should be using it in the classroom too, and by extension training courses like CELTA and DELTA should include elements of technology in them.

It might be a little hyperbolic to suggest that failure to make changes to these courses could result in them becoming obsolete. After all, Cambridge is where the money is in ELT at the moment and as everyone knows, where there’s money, there’s power. However, we are starting to see a movement away from learning in the traditional classroom, with apps like Duolingo and flipped learning models becoming more popular, and this, coupled with an increase in the availability and quality of online courses run by corporate giants like Google, could lead to a shift in who’s in charge in this teaching industry. Therefore, I for one feel that it’s time for Cambridge to embrace these changes, before the 21st century learning bandwagon leaves them behind.

Thoughts on writing: what should we really be teaching our students in the 21st Century?

We had our second input session on writing on Thursday and it brought up some interesting questions for me, but the one that I can’t get out of my head is whether the traditional writing activities we do in the classroom still have a place in the lives of 21st Century learners.

the main focus of the lesson was on three different approaches to writing: the product approach, the process approach and the genre approach. I won’t go into these here as anyone interested enough in teaching to read the thoughts of a random DELTA trainee on WordPress probably knows far more about them than I do. You might be interested to know though that the most popular approach in course books is the product approach, which goes a long way towards explaining to me why my students always produce fairly, unimaginative written work (I’m aware that this could also be down to the teacher…).

One of the activities that we had to do was walk around the room and assess some different writing activities taken from a variety of course books. This ‘gallery’ activity was less like a visit to the art museum and more like a police line-up of some of the worst offenders in the world of English language teaching. All the usual suspects were there, including:

  • The informal letter/e-mail to your pen friend
  • The letter of complaint to an electronics company’
  • The mocked up newspaper opinion piece on the town you live in

As I walked around with my partner, I couldn’t help but think about how irrelevant these writing tasks were in my life as a English man in his late twenties, let alone to the Vietnamese teens and twenty-somethings that make up most of the classes that I teach. I tried to think of the last time I wrote a letter of complaint with all the formality that the activity insists on learners using, or if I have ever written an e-mail to a pen friend full of information about my town and family or what I did on my last holiday.

This in turn got me thinking about better alternatives that could use the same or similar language, but that would better reflect the types of writing that people do nowadays. Below is a list of my suggestions of alternatives to the types of writing I’ve listed above*:

Letter to a pen friend? Try Facebook Messenger or Whatsapp style communications instead

If pen friends still exist (or if they ever really existed outside the world of language teaching) then no doubt that now they’d communicate over Facebook, Whatsapp or some other instant communication medium. This means we should be teaching students how to write in short conversational chunks and process instant responses, rather than focusing on the layout of an informal e-mail.

This activity could have the added benefit of giving the teacher the opportunity to teach language related to expressing anxiety in relationships:

“Both ticks are blue but he hasn’t replied yet, I hope he’s not mad at me.”

“Who’s this guy who keeps liking all her photos? How can I bring it up without looking like I’m jealous or suspicious?”

“He’s following me on Instagram, that must mean he like me, right?”

Try telling me that teens all over the world wouldn’t benefit from that?

Forget about direct feedback. In the 21st Century, passive aggressiveness and sniping from a safe distance are the two pillars of modern day complaints

Remember those well reasoned letters you used to compose to make a complaint about a good, service or company? Well those days are long gone in the age of online reviews. Had a crappy meal? Don’t tell the waiter, vent on TripAdvisor. Train delayed? Broadcast your dissatisfaction to the world on Twitter in 140 characters or less. Delivery slow on your latest Amazon purchase? Leave a one star review unrelated to the quality of the product itself.

The Internet has completely changed the way we deal with giving and receiving feedback and it’s time for course books and classrooms to reflect this. It would be far more useful to teach learners how to write reasoned reviews online than have them faff about trying to cram formal writing conventions into a letter written to an electronics company that no longer exists in the Internet shopping age.

“Newspapers, teacher? Nobody reads them anymore”

Newspapers may still be popular in some Western countries, but since I’ve been in Vietnam I’ve rarely seen anyone actually reading one. Nowadays people get their news and opinions in real time on a six-inch screen that they can access anywhere. Why not design tasks that fit this format? Instead of having a ‘write about your local town for the newspaper’ task, have them instead make a Buzzfeed-style list article with a clickbait title like “This family moved to the countryside and met some of the locals…what happened next is UNBELIEVABLE” coupled with a misleading image. You could even change the feedback format and give a prize to the student whose article generates the most clicks in a given period of time.

Obviously these are all just rough plans at the moment,but I hope they show that writing is changing and get you thinking about ways to adapt your lessons to fit the 21st Century model.

*Any course book editors looking for a fresh young talent, you know where to find me 😉

Note to self – materials lite does not equal planning lite

Today I learnt a valuable lesson: doing a lesson without materials doesn’t mean that the lesson doesn’t require much planning either. In fact, after today’s experience I would say the opposite is true.

A bit of context for you:

I’m three weeks in to an eight week intensive course to complete module 2 of the DELTA. We teach twice a week for one hour at a time and, depending on the week we are either formally assessed, observed but unassessed, or not observed at all by our tutors. Today’s lesson was the latter and the only other non-student in the room was one of the other sleep-deprived DELTA trainees.

In these unobserved lessons we’ve been encouraged to try out new things that we wouldn’t normally do in the classroom, as long as they have some sound teaching principles behind them of course, and to get feedback on these lessons from peers and students. It’s really a fantastic opportunity. You have freedoms that you normally don’t get in English language teaching institutions, and the fact that the students aren’t paying for the course takes some of the pressure off.

I’ve always wanted to try one of those materials lite lessons that I’ve heard so much about. Dogme without the theory or, as my American colleague so delicately put it “just you, some board pens and big set of nuts.” This style of teaching has always appealed to me. I reasoned that if I didn’t have any materials, then I wouldn’t need to do much planning. This unfortunately was not the case.

The lesson itself was on speaking and presenting skills and I went in with an activity I remembered from my CELTA course 4 years ago, where students are given a sheet of A4 and asked to write a topic that they’re interested in and know a lot about at the top of the page. They then sit in a circle and pass their papers around, adding one question that they want answered about the topic at the top of the page they receive. After several rounds the students take their paper back and set about answering the questions by writing responses. Then the teacher encourages them to organise the answers into a coherent and cohesive three minute presentation, which they then give to the class.

Sounds simple enough, right? Well it is, but a few problems came up that hadn’t been anticipated in advance, most of which can be fixed with a few minor tweaks. Here’s a little breakdown of said problems and what I’d do differently next time:

Problem 1:

No prior thought given to a model for the students

Result:

I ended up making one up on the fly, which lacked any relevance to the learners and made it difficult for them to understand what they had to do.

Tweak:

Think up a good example that would be relevant to the class you’re teaching. My colleague suggested “Daily life in Vietnam” which would have been perfect for my 9 native Vietnamese learners. This wouldn’t require much forethought as it’s information that I’ve already got in my head, and making it contextually relevant to the students would mean they wouldn’t be lost from the outset.

Problem 2:

Learners had too broad a focus for their presentations

Result:

It was quite time consuming going around and narrowing the focus on individuals’ topics. The trouble was that some were putting things like ‘nature’ which could end up in questions about anything related to the natural world. This would have made a three minute presentation impossible.

Tweak:

Again, a good model would have helped considerably. Using checking questions on the topic for my model to elicit that it’s quite specific would have made the task set up flow much more smoothly and allowed learners more time for producing, practising and feedback.

Problem 3:

Not enough time

Result:

Students were rushed and I had no time for feedback or error correction on their impressive presentations

Tweak:

Use the activity in a class that lasts more than an hour, or tighten up the task set up stages. A lot of time was wasted going over what needed to be done and giving my delayed, off the cuff example.

Problem 4:

No error correction or feedback

Result:

Although they enjoyed the task and produced a lot of good language, there wasn’t a really clear outcome for the lesson. This left them feeling a little lost.

Tweak:

Peer correction and practice in small groups. This upper intermediate group are really capable and would have been able to give each other a lot of help if there was a drafting stage. This would in turn have made the final presentations a lot better in terms of the language being used.

So, in summary, this could be a really great activity with some small, but beneficial changes. The positives are that the students practised important skills like giving presentations, which no doubt they will need in their future careers. They also had a great time and really enjoyed telling each other about their hobbies and interests, which was great to see. With the small adjustments mentioned above and a bit more thought about what I’m doing before the lesson begins, this could really be a fantastic lesson plan that I’ll be able to use for years to come.

Musings from a tired mind

I remember sleep. It was this thing I did every night almost without fail. I loved it so much that sometimes I’d do it for hours at a time, at night, or (and keep this one under your hat) during the day too. 7 or 8 hours of uninterrupted bliss. An escape from reality, full of vivid images and impossible moments. Sadly, it seems that sleep is now a thing of the past, at least for the next 5 weeks of so.

The intensive DELTA course at ILA Vietnam started a little over two weeks ago and since then those colourful dreams have been replaced by some of the world’s most boring nightmares. Where once fantastic adventures filled my unconscious mind, now only drab visions of incomplete assignments or teaching activities gone wrong remain. Well, they’re there when I actually manage to stay asleep. Much more common are the late night (and early morning) stresses over word counts, assignments, feedback and whatever else happened during the day the requires reflection upon.

Yes, the sad reality of life right now on this intensive course is that all I can think about, whether awake or asleep, whether I like it or not, is the course itself. The tutors warned us it would be this way, but I took their words of caution with a pinch of salt. “You’re just saying that to scare me” I thought, “it can’t be all consuming. They’ll be time for other things”. Sadly they weren’t wrong. The DELTA is my whole life and there isn’t much time at all for anything else. Every minute spent relaxing or ‘taking your mind off things’ comes with a free helping of guilt; if you aren’t revising your lesson plan or trying to work out if your phrasing of solutions in the background essay meet Cambridge’s (rather subjective) criteria for assessment, then you’re wasting time and setting yourself up for a fall at some point in the next week or so.

Yet, despite the lack of sleep, boring dreams and lack of a social life, I’m really enjoying the course. 8 weeks sounded like a long time before I started, but actually it’s flying by. And the progress I’ve made in such a short period is amazing to see. I came into the course having not seriously focused on teaching for almost 9 months and was concerned about how little reading I’d done from the suggested reading list, but none of that matters now we’re in full swing, and it hasn’t held me back in the slightest. I’ve found out about different methods, trialled some new techniques and gained a deeper understanding of what it means to teach skills in the classroom. Before the course I knew nothing of terms like interactive and non-interactive listening, or interactional vs transactional speaking, but even after two and a half weeks I feel confident that I could explain these to others and use them successfully in my own teaching. This is what I’d really hoped to gain from the course and thus far everything is exceeding my expectations.

There’s still a long way to go. I’ve only completed one of the four LSAs and have barely started on the professional development assignment, but I feel certain that, although the next 5 weeks will be full of sleepless nights and stressful days, I will enjoy them and will be a far better teacher than I was coming in to the course.

Coming up next will be some thoughts on the tutors, students, teaching practices and the first LSA but now it’s time to get up and start another long but fulfilling day on the all consuming intensive DELTA course.