… of Communication Games, Classroom Dynamics and Oxford Basics fame.
Can you give us a very quick biog?
Like everyone else, I sort of fell into TEFL – don’t know many people who actually set out to do it as a career from the beginning. I started out on the road to academe via a thesis in American Lit and teaching at Bordeaux University. I then strayed into EFL and made the (very tough) decision to leave France, get qualified and seek a more adventurous life abroad. I taught for a few years in Devon, UK, then did various development jobs with aid agencies. The first was in China, setting up a centre for postgraduate scientists to learn English. Second we answered an ad for a hardy married teaching couple to work in Tibet, developing an undergraduate programme for the University of Tibet. We found out how hardy in the winter when it was -8 inside our flat and my hair froze when I tried to wash it! Finally we worked in Madagascar, setting up resource centres for teachers in remote areas, (a job for which, as my husband Charlie said, a Diploma in Landrover Maintenance might have been more use than a Masters in Education!) and training a team of teacher trainers to staff them. Then back to UK where I was freelance for several years writing books, doing Teacher Development courses and consultancies in several countries and looking after a small daughter. We came to NZ in 2003 when Charlie got a job at University of Auckland and I got a job at Unitec.
What are you working on at the moment?
I have just finished writing a book on Motivation, co-authored with Zoltan Dornyei – his research, my practice. It is the first book in a new series: Research and Resources in Language Teaching. I am series editor and am very excited about it! The series aims to bring together researchers and materials writers to translate new research directly into practical classroom materials. I worked with Zoltan’s Future Possible L2 Self theory and created a set of resource materials for a ‘motivational programme’. Other books in the series are on Digital Literacy, Listening and Creativity.
Can you tell us more about your new e-zine, e.g. what the thinking is behind it?
Working outside Europe you see much of the material produced in Britain and Europe from another perspective – so much of it seems culturally and topically irrelevant. The thinking behind www.ELTmag.com was to provide a source of non-Eurocentric material that would have relevance in other parts of the world- rather than taking UK celebrities or Shopping in London as topics, using universal human emotions/ or specifically cross-cultural topics as the basis for materials. Through making it an edited – and later, I hope, peer-reviewed – magazine, I hope that it will include top quality materials.
What does the university get out it?
I think it is part of our department’s (and within that the Language Teacher Education team’s) aim of establishing itself as a centre of excellence for Teacher Education and Teacher Development.
With so much help available for free online nowadays, how do you see the future of TEFL publications like English Teaching Professional and ELTJ?
Those are two slightly different questions. I think academic journals like ELTJ have very little competition online and they will always be read and contributed to by academics and thinking teachers who want to understand new developments and research and its application to teaching. Similarly, I think MET and ETP fulfil a rather different function to most materials on the web. I did a consultancy recently on what was available online and concluded that much of it seems to appeal to teachers who are in search of material for tomorrow’s lesson, or a forum to discuss problems and issues, rather than teacher development. There are notable exceptions to this of course, for example Nik Peachey’s or Russell Stannard’s sites on using technology or Scott’s thought-provoking A-Z, but it seems to me that MET and ETP provide more in the way of TD. There is also the question of finding relevant and high quality material on the net. Mark Pegrum talks of teaching ‘filtering literacy’ to reduce the tsunami of information. It is quite hard to find quality materials among the proliferation of websites – there are quality websites (like this one!) of course, but there is also a huge amount of poor quality, old hat, plagiarised and even grammatically incorrect stuff and it is hard to find the relatively few good sites, particularly for beginning teachers, as I know from my trainee teachers. I think the question is not just one of learning ‘filtering literacy’ but one of editing. It may go against the grain of the democratic, egalitarian nature of ‘anyone can publish anything’ nature of the net, but I believe there is no substitute for an editor – the tougher and more rigorous the better. Of course it hurts to be told that your precious creation is not good enough and could be made better – but it is a necessary process!
Finally, to draw a parallel with newspapers, news is now available online but people still buy papers. I think there is that enjoyment to be had from reading a magazine that you don’t get online – the fact that everything is there for you perhaps, quality assured, and you don’t have to hunt?
Classroom Dynamics is one of my all time top ten TEFL books. Can you tell us something about how it came about?
Thank you! I didn’t mean to write it! I started out to write a book on learner training and as research sent a questionnaire to language schools called ‘Moaning and Groaning in the Foreign Language Staffroom’. I expected teachers would respond with problems like “My students can’t retain vocabulary items” or “My students always want to read every word” which would give a basis for devising strategies to help learners. But no one was worried about such things. Instead, 99% of replies were about problems with groups, crystallised in the statement, “My group just doesn’t gel”. So I did further research, analysed results into a set of characteristics of a good group and a bad group and sat down to try and dream up activities that might help transform the latter into the former. In some ways it is the most adventurous book I have written, as there was nothing existing about group dynamics in the language classroom, so it was uncharted territory. I would dream up titles for categories of activities like “Empathy activities” or “Creating a Group Legend” but have no idea what kind of activities might go in those categories before I started writing. The Motivation book is in many ways very similar – starting from research and dreaming up totally new kinds of activities, to not only create a vision of a future possible self, but also to “substantiate the vision” and “keep the vision alive”. Both books have been tremendously exciting to write – but also a bit scary!
I think after your Communication Games books and Reward Resource Packs there just wasn’t much need for more photocopiable materials in most teachers’ rooms. Do you agree, and has basically a version of that caused the lack of teachers’ resource books recently? Unless there is basically no progress in our field, isn’t teachers’ rooms full of ten or fifteen year old resource books (and people doing their diplomas and MAs using them) some kind of crisis?
If this is true, I think I’d have to know more about the situations in staffrooms and resource rooms. Is there a lack of Resource books? Or are staff sticking to well-tried favourites? I think there are two kinds of Resource books (to be simplistic) the Daily Bread kind and the Exotic Treat kind. The Daily Bread kind I guess are like my Communication Games which offer a range of material designed to cover most grammatical, lexical and functional needs, that teachers can easily slot into lessons to liven them up and provide extra practice. The Exotic Treat are those resource books that a teacher might pick up and read, thinking “Interesting, I haven’t thought of doing that before. Maybe I’ll find an opportunity of trying that out.” I guess Classroom Dynamics was more of an ET book and I hope Motivation will be too – other notable ET books have been, for me, Alan Maley’s Drama Techniques and The Mind’s Eye, Mario’s Dictation, Moskewitz’s Caring and Sharing. As you say, these are old now, but CUP is still publishing new resource books and Helbling seems to have a quite a few of the ET kind like Jane Arnold’s Seeds of Confidence. And of course I hope the Research and Resources series will provide some new directions and ideas!
Is there anything you would change about your books, e.g. the Communication Games series, if you could do a second edition of them?
Mainly a few pictures and update topical references . Add new games . New covers! All teachers I have talked to say they are still using them but the copies are very battered! Perhaps new format, e.g. CD? Specific links to coursebooks?
You’ve had lots of involvement with one of the few big series that is ongoing, the Oxford Basics series. What is the thinking behind the series and the secret of its success?
In Madagascar we did not see a single school with any books at all. The teachers had a cracked square of blackboard and the kids had exercise books or, often, just slates. It was very humbling. We were sent to help teachers and yet when we got there and observed in schools we just looked at each other and said, “Well, what do you do with no books? How do you teach with nothing?” So we spent two years there working out ways of teaching with no resources. We ran a magazine for teachers called IDEAS with activities (tailored to the national syllabus) which required no resources. When we returned to the UK, OUP was interested in publishing these. We wrote them for what Alan Maley calls the “silent majority” of the world’s teachers, but as you say they have been used in contexts far beyond the original plan and translated into Chinese, Japanese, and Korean, for example, and now there is a Basics teacher-training book, Introduction to Teaching English, which is translated into Portuguese and used in Brazil. I think it is probably because they are very simple and easy to use, also because, like ELTmag, we avoided narrow cultural bias and gave teachers suggestions for adapting to their own culture and circumstances. Finally I think that teaching without resources brings you closer to the students – there is nothing in between you, if you see what I mean. I am sure Scott and the Teaching Unplugged people would agree!
As someone who has taught with both a lack and an embarrassment of resources, what is your take on the technology in TEFL debate?
My take is a list of caveats really: (1) the big question about technology is: does it add value to your lesson? Don’t just use tech for its own sake but ask yourself “Is this the best possible way I could be doing this lesson/course? Or does a lo-tech alternative achieve the aims better?” (2) Be sure that technology doesn’t get in the way of relationships between people, group dynamics and classroom atmosphere. (3) Question the assumption that because you are teaching Generation Y, the “digital natives”, they will expect to be using technology. Just because they use it all the time in their private lives doesn’t necessarily mean they crave it in the classroom – the opposite might be true!
I read in another interview that you did a PGCE in TEFL. How did that compare to the usual TEFL training route nowadays?
It’s quite different! It’s a postgraduate qualification that gives qualified teacher status in the UK. It is (or was) a one-year full-time course. We all had to have at least two years’ teaching experience before being admitted to the course, and once admitted, do a three-week full-time observation in a UK primary school before the course began. So everyone began the course with quite a lot of experience. I had been teaching in a French university but a lot of people had done VSO, so we came with a huge variety of different experiences. On a one- year full-time course there is a lot more input. We had lectures on general education theory: psychology and sociology, as well as EFL. There was a lot more theoretical input. At London University we had weekly lectures from Henry Widdowson and Chris Brumfit. There was also a lot more time for methodology – we had a whole course devoted to phonetics for example, and there was a materials design project. Finally there was a lot more TP – a micro-teaching component, then four weeks with ethnic minorities in a London primary school and eight weeks in secondary schools in Madrid, in both cases teaching a half timetable, i.e. 3-4 hours a day.
You’re also doing a PhD. Not for everyone?
I guess not! For a long time I didn’t think it was for me actually – I would always rather write a book! But I have found a PhD that suits me. It is at Swinburne University, Melbourne and is by artefact and exegesis. The artefact has to be a creative work and is the main part of the thesis. I am doing my part of the Motivation book – the creative classroom materials. The exegesis has to be an analysis of the creative process. I am enjoying this a lot more than I thought I would!
How do you feel about the link between theory and practice in our field generally?
Not enough links between research and practice is bemoaned generally by researchers and practitioners alike. The researchers seem to feel that important insights they can offer are ignored by materials writers who go their own sweet way, writing from intuition rather than informed scholarly findings. Practitioners, for their part, seem to view researchers as operating within an ivory tower remote from the classroom. My new Research and Resources series and the Bridging the Gap section in ELTmag are designed to try and bridge that gap in our profession by creating partnerships between researchers and practitioners. I think the process of bridging the gap is one that requires compromise and adjustment on both sides – some research findings may not translate well into viable classroom practice and some classroom practice may benefit from closer attention to research findings. Certainly we found in writing the “guinea pig” book in the Research and Resources series that it led to a very fruitful dialogue and some rich discussion, involving some readjustment of the theoretical framework to form a logical classroom teaching sequence and also some reining in of my tendency to race off and explore different avenues, to ensure I stuck to what was within the research findings! It has been a fascinating journey!
Many thanks to Jill for answering my questions, and to LinkedIn for putting us in touch. It’s been a while since the last one, but there are 20 other TEFLtastic interviews here.