Death of ELT by PowerPoint (and other random thoughts on retiring after 35 years)

Bruce Springsteen: "When we kiss…" Not just going through the motions!

You could probably say I've had four different though overlapping careers — in language teaching, language teacher training, technology and ELT management.

The first of those I retired from (after 35+ years) a few months ago, though the number of contact hours I was doing was limited;  teacher training I'm retiring from at the end of this month; management I got fired from (to the relief of all involved!) many years ago; which leaves only another 10 or so years in technology to do (I'm only (?) 57, so it ain't over yet!).

I happened to mentioned this in a session a couple of weeks ago and someone (Mati?) asked me if, after 35+ years, I had any tips for teachers just starting out…


My #1 tip for teachers
Every class, every day, every week, every term, every year of your teaching career, try something new and never ever just stick with what you have done before! Your learners, your brain, your DoS — everyone, in fact — will thank you for it. Jump at any chance you get to do something different! A kids' class with a new book? Give it to me !

Trash all your lesson plans at the end of the year: you don't want to use them again next year, with the possible exception of the half dozen that were truly outstanding (see Engage, not entertain, below).

The worst thing that can happen to a teacher is that you end up just going through the motions, just repeating what you've done many times before. With each year that goes by, you'll have a fresh cohort of faces in front of you that, like it not, you have to teach the present perfect (etc.) to. For them it's the first time, for you the umpteenth: but teach it to them as if it was the first time for you, too.

Is there, to misquote Bruce Springsteen, still fire…?

Now it really does get random
But there's more to it than that. So, below, some random thoughts from someone who is content to have failed to learn all there is to know about teaching and learning…

You never stop learning to teach
Being a teacher is a bit like being a parent: you should be constantly asking yourself if you're a good one, are you doing everything possible for your kids, asking yourself  if you could be a better parent or teacher if you did more (or sometimes less!), if you tried something different.

If you're not worried and puzzled by that question, then you should be.

Attitude is everything

Two ways to go to conferences and workshops

Whether you're learning a language, or learning to teach a language, or trying to get your head round some piddling little technological difficulty that is driving you potty, attitude is everything.

If you go to teaching workshops and conferences (and you should!) you inevitably go to a few sessions that are a bit duff, or that just don't feel applicable to your teaching circumstances. But you can still get lots out of such sessions — if your attitude is right.

It requires a bit of lateral thinking sometimes but the attitude "This won't work with my learners because…" will get you nowhere; the attitude "This would work with my learners if…" can turn even poor ideas into great ones.

Around 20 years ago, in a workshop if I remember it rightly, a teacher suggested that her learners' attitude towards her, the teacher, and towards learning English  in general was just wrong and until that changed, there was no way forward. One of her much younger peers, whose face and exact tone of voice but not her name I recall, suggested that that was the wrong way to see things: that what really mattered was the teacher's attitude; that if that was right, the learners' attitude would fall into its desirable place.

That conversation changed how I went into young learner classrooms (as did, around the same time, reading a wonderful book by Herbert Puchta and Michael Schratz).

Best activities for technology enhanced language learning
I started out in language teaching before technology ever came along (and when it did it was at first just cassette recorders and then VCRs); but most of the activities that seem to have worked best with technology also worked without technology.

Favourite activities that technology enhanced (and if technology doesn't make the activity better, don't use it):

What they had in common:

  • They involved lots of talking and collaboration and not too much technology
  • They engaged people (see below)
  • Many involved using a shared digital space of some kind (Edmodo, Google Drive, private G+ Communities and WhatsApp have been among the most successful)
  • And — vitally — they produced lots of language practice and learning

Special mention for some of the fun things you can do with YouTube. Those of you who started out after the YouTube era began just don't know good life as a teacher is for you 😉 !

PowerPoint is WRONG for ELT!
Collaborative presentations given by learners make a fabulous activity for a language classroom, with Google Drive being a wonderful tool for that.

But at some point not so long ago, I noticed that all my peers and CELTA course trainees had suddenly started to use PowerPoint in their classes for literally everything: displaying images, explaining grammar points, exercises  — entire classes. You name it, I've seen it PowerPointed. Make that Over-PowerPointed.

That's got to be wrong! You've heard of Death by PowerPoint? Now we have Death of ELT by PowerPoint.

That's almost as bad as drowning in an avalanche of photocopies !

Whatever happened to good old chalk ?! Whatever happened to just asking learners if they'd ever been kitesurfing or whatever? When and why did it ever become necessary to PowerPoint it all?

Engage, not entertain!
No amount of technology is ever going to prove more useful than a single idea that the learners "bought" and responded to and were engaged by.

A working definition of a much overused word, "engaged": the learners willingly do the task the teacher has set and, vitally, get so "into" the task that, given they choice, they'd in fact rather being collaborating with their peers — in English, on THAT — than be on Facebook with their friends.

Here's one example, a picture of a motorbike I took in the street outside and which I showed to learners, asking them to come back to class with as many pictures they could find of different vehicles on the streets of Barcelona…

…  which they did and, a week or so later, had invented some pretty amazing "owners" of the vehicles they'd photographed (a number of whom "sold" their vehicles to other "owners").

You could have stolen all the images of the vehicles off of Google Images (and then PowerPointed them!) but they got so much more excited and engaged by their photos on their phones.

See also further examples and explanation for the same task.

A message from technical support
One from my time in technical support (TS) , in which I will be continuing for around another 10 years.

How many times have I had the following conversation or variations on it?

USER I want to be able to do this. I used to be able to do
it but it doesn't work now
TS That's no longer possible* but why don't you do this instead?
USER I don't want to do that. I want to do what I've always done!

*Possibly due to an unwanted Windows update 😉 !

We're there to help you in Technical Support, we want to help you but in the end you've got to help yourself and the best way to do that is to accept that technology moves relentlessly forward, and move forward with it. Life, they say, begins outside your comfort zone — and so does self-sufficiency in technology.

Step out of your comfort zone and you'll never have to have that same conversation with the Geeks again. We will have become unnecessary.

A message from another lifetime


On the wall of my office

And because I had half another lifetime in management, here's one thought from that time, and from my 35+ years observing what happens in schools: the worst thing a manager can do is to stand in the way of change, the next worst to do anything at all that makes the job of anyone under him/her harder in any way whatsoever.

Hanging on the wall of my office around the last 10 years there's been the photocopy you can see in the image above, an appeal for Leonard Cheshire Homes, which has a picture of a woman in a wheelchair and a sign saying "enabled" on the table.

What's the primary job of any manager (and of a teacher, and of technical support, come to think of it)? It's to enable people to do whatever.

Just one regret

If I could have my time again I'd be a teacher. I liked being a teacher. Often it was a challenge, often it was unrewarding and unappreciated, always it was underpaid but I wouldn't have swapped it for any other profession — except the crazy ideas which I once daydreamed of but could never have been (like a helicopter pilot, or a drifter in a Western, or a photographer).

Or a collector of quotations (which I was). Muhammad Ali said this; "Service to others is the rent you pay for your room here on earth" and teaching was, for me, a life of service and that was what made it worthwhile.

My one regret was that for 35 years I primarily served organizations rather than school children, who — I realise — weren't always any more thankful to you for your efforts than your DoS or Head of Department but who needed and deserved your service so much more.

If I could start over, I'd go back to where I began — in Primary and Secondary — and serve there instead.

And after 35 years, I'm glad I'm still a little naive.

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  1. … then, sad October for us teachers! Thank you for sharing so many ideas, tips and priceless advice both as a teacher (CiC) and teacher trainer (ih). I just want to say thank you for letting me understand how technology could help me as a teacher, … in a positive and meaningful way.
    I hope you enjoy your well-deserved retirement and … please keep the blog running!!


  2. Many thanks, Carme 😉 !

    The blog I probably will keep going, at least until I do REALLY retire (which is, as I say, still 10 years away ;-( !

    One of the things I used to say was that teachers should ALL retire at 45, and take a well-deserved rest then — something I stopped saying when I reached 45 myself 😉 !

  3. Thank you, thank you, thank you! You are an inspiration.

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