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The Uni-Files

A candid look at EFL life and lessons from a university teacher's perspective.

January 28, 2013

What the fashionable English teacher is doing this year: The 2013 ELT collection

I managed to attend and present at a number of English teaching conferences in the past six months, allowing me to feel like I'm not so isolated from the real world, despite living down in savage Miyazaki.

Trendspotter that I am, I couldn't help but notice how many of the 'cool ELT kids' have moved in new directions over the past few moons. So, if you don't want to commit some horrible faux pas at your next ELT-related ball or state dinner, some inexcusable gaffe that will reveal your total lack of Eikaiwa-world sophistication, the pedagogical equivalent of wearing a leisure suit to your kid's high school graduation ceremony, you'd better read on.

1. Beyond the post-method era

Sorry, but if you think that saying you are post-method in your teaching style marks you as contemporary you are also likely to think that 'cho-beri-ba' is current hip J-street slang and that the 'Boku ikemen!' guy is all the rage on the Talento circuit now. It seems that we have now gone one step beyond post-method. Just ask Scott Thornbury.

In a plenary speech late last year in Seoul, Thornbury elucidated upon something that I had been slowly growing aware of-- namely that previously derided and denigrated methods like audio-lingual, grammar-translation, and their offshoots, are finding a place again modern, progressive methodologies (for the record, Paul Nation has said something very similar). Of course, these are just considered parts of the new eclecticism, the notion that these much-maligned methods do have a role and a function that can be used to produce something of use or value in the language classroom. But they are, in a limited sense, back.

So you can no longer snicker condescendingly when fellow teacher X walks by with their 1950's methodology showing. It's retro-hip, it's back-to-three-chords and a breath of fresh air, it's the-past-is-the-future.

2. Plain presentations; Whistles and bells are just so... 2008!

You know how the more prestigious the academic institution is in Japan, the more rundown its premises are? (Many of highly-ranked Kyushu University's facilities look like abandoned onsen town ruins). So it seems to be these days with academic presentations. With a few rare exceptions, the more prominent and qualified the speaker, the more their presentations are just plain, stark text.

Perhaps the subtext is, 'This content is so powerful and intellectually rewarding that I need no cosmetics to enhance it'. Unfortunately, I am one of those people who still uses 1990's style clip art in my presentations although, in my defense, I never ever used twirling and flashing animations to liven up slides saying, 'Introduction and Outline!'. Nonetheless, the current meme seems to be that flashy presentations, style over substance, are for salesmen, not serious academics.

3. Low-tech classrooms- Sensei, what's that big white board for?

There's money in edu-tech and private institutions in particular like to display their super hi-tech state-of-the-art language labs as a selling point to prospective students. There used to be a lot of presentation and seminars with titles like, "Using iPad Retina Mozilla as an E-Preposition Correction Tool" complete with a demonstration as to how this gadget could not fail but increase your students' TOEIC test scores by at least twenty percent (it's always about raising TOEIC scores somehow). But I've been told by more than a few conference planners and organizers that the number of attendees for such presentations is dwindling significantly.

So, as Che sang in Evita, "That's all gone now." I get a very palpable sense that teachers are suffering from gadget fatigue that the tipping point of electronic teaching aids has been reached and breached. I've talked to some teachers who feel alienated from their students by the intervening technology, becoming the pedagogical equivalent of sound engineers-- as opposed to musicians-- in a recording studio.

4. Beat-you-over-the-head, thick-as-natto-on-mochi, referencing (Sayonara, 2013)

I was taking a gander at The Lancet recently and noted how, for such a reputable journal, how thoroughly readable it is. It's not hard to grasp why. To put it bluntly, The Lancet, and an increasing number of academic journals, are not citation sluts.

You know what I mean, those journals that seem to think the more references you provide, the more 'well-grounded' or 'objective' the article is. Which leads to 'easy' citations, where the author has clearly trawled the Net looking for someone, anyone, to backup their claim that, "English is an important means of communication".

Not only that, but the citation method is moving to the so-called Vancouver-style (superscript in the text, simple reference at the end of the paper), as opposed to the clunky, bureaucratic, brain-numbing APA dinosaur. I'd like to think that as a native son of Vancouver that I have had some positive influence on this advance although it's more likely that editors have simply realized that by using the newer style people might actually want to read the journals!

5. Young guns and their hot, stiletto stats vs. dowdy teachers in sensible statistical shoes

When I was doing my Applied Linguistics MA, statistics was not a required part of the program. Consequently, while I'm good with mental arithmetic and can still probably give you the goal-scoring stats of every player in the 1974 NHL regular season, I'm at a bit of a loss when it comes to statistical analysis in ELT research. And I know I'm not the only one.

Perhaps I'm envious of youth. Some of these younger teachers are impressively well-versed in statistical nuance. It sure looks scientific anyway; all the variables have been quantified and all conclusions 'measurably objective'. But something leaves me cold with this approach, and, after speaking recently with some journal editors on the matter (three to be exact, with a standard deviation of 0.5), I realize I'm far from being alone on this.

The problem is when these young bucks display their research results in a presentation the slide often looks like it could have a screen shot of today's Stock Market Report from The Times, for all I can absorb in the ten seconds that I'm looking at it. You see, I'll believe them just as much, if not more so, if they tell me, for example, that, "Student breakdancing in English skills improved 5.9% when using the 'Timberlake Remix' as a soundtrack", if they show me a giant-sized '5.9%' on a slide, as opposed to what may be, for all I know, the Higgs-boson equation.

And the journal editors I talked to feel the same way, stating that they are exhausted (and sometimes bored) by bulky appendices of raw data gracing their journal's pages. So, perhaps this statistical minutiae has reached attrition, or has even jumped the shark-- although I bet that a few maniacs are even now trying to establish whether what I say here can be validated statistically.

6. I'll show you my culture if you show me yours!

Do oldtimers remember when textbooks, presentations, and articles about "Cultural differences" (Contrastive Analysis) and their apparent impact upon language learning and teaching were all the rage; when they were about as sexy as Kumi Koda? Now it seems they're as dated too.

I'd like to think that some of the things I've said and written on this topic (in short, that it fosters othering, increases a needles psychological gap between L1 and L2, and endorses monolithic stereotypes-- and that's without even mentioning that most fans unwittingly invoked the execrable hard version of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis) have rendered this once-fashionable corner of ELT into semi-consciousness.

The fact is that I see fewer and fewer academic journal articles these days extolling the dubious virtues of, for example, Hofstede's cultural categories (Hofstede is, for my money, the Emerson, Lake and Palmer of cultural theorists), and a quick perusal of six recent conference guidebooks revealed only two presentations of this type (I would have put that number at about twenty a decade ago). This, I say, is a good thing. Not only was most of this horrible social science but was also actively feeding students an already exaggerated diet of us vs. themness.

7. Are activist teaching SIGs slinking offstage left?

Is it just me, or has anyone else noticed that the fortunes of Critical Pedagogy-types ("The language classroom should be used as a place to subvert the system!") and Special Interest Groups that are basically activist communities are on the wane?

There's a lot to discuss regarding such interest groups but I'll leave that up to a (near) future post.

Any other ELT fashionistas out there keeping up on what the well-versed ELT teacher is saying or doing this year?

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I don't agree about SIGs since joning them is
ones choice, but I agree with #4 and #5.

Recently I had a article rejeted. I did not have at least 4 citations, plus it had to be in the APA format. I guess doing original research is not good enough.

Hi Brooks. Although we do have to ground some research claims with references, sometimes it seems to me that refusing a paper due to a lack of references is like a record company refusing to market a rock album because not all the tunes are in the canonical 4/4.

Re #2 I recall a fascinating presentation by Paul Nation that just involved him speaking and occasionally writing something on a white board.

Those dancing, 360 degree-spinning gimmicks and Google image photos to "match" the key idea (ie "The teacher's never ending journey to blah blah blah" plus picture of boat sailing towards the horizon.... "Motivating unwilling stuents..." plus cat asleep on the sofa) seem to be used by presenters with not a lot of interesting things to say.

It also seems to be a male thing.

Still, that has to be better than the "slide readers" who still crop up with an alarming frequency.

I resemble Rebecca's remark, often falling too far to the entertainment side of the equation (often tackily I think) when an academic focus would be more appropriate. I think the raw academic simple approach is better in those 20-30 minute 'read-your-paper' conference sessions, whereas a more entertaining, visual-kei approach will keep your audience more engaged during a lengthy invited session, such as a typical JALT chapter presenation.

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