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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.

10 tips for success with classroom drawing

By classroom drawing I mean the teacher and/or learners drawing quick, simple, not necessarily "good" or realistic doodles to illustrate activities of all kinds, and which are going to help us to convey or explain language or concepts, and which can also be used in activities that will generate lots of use and practice of language.

I repeat: and/or learners — because classroom drawing shouldn't just be about what the teacher does; nothing in a classroom should just be that! You'll see that most of the drawing activities previously proposed here on this blog have in fact been that: things that the learner, not the teacher, draws.

Success with classroom drawing
To succeed with classroom drawing (perhaps we should really call it classroom doodling), we need to be clear about what (a) what is required and (b) what our objectives are.

Classroom Drawing 101

Required for classroom drawing: practice, which gives confidence, which gives success. Not required, talent

Objectives of classroom drawing

Objectives: #1, explaining and generating language. NOT an objective: realism

Once we have those things clear in our minds, then we're already on the road to success. Once we and/or our learners have pens in our hands and we plug them into our imagination, we have a super-powerful, multi-purpose tool that offers us infinite possibilities in language teaching and learning.

After that, once you've set your sights artistically low but linguistically high, the following tips will take you a long way further down the road.


  1. Get yourself a set of cheap drawing pens with different nibs (I like 0.3, 0.5, 0.7 and something thicker), and use them appropriately (e.g. 0.3 or smaller for eyes, 0.7 for a very dark beard or hair, for example
  2. If you want to do flashcards, however, visible from the back of the classroom, grab paper from the recycle bin (ideally A3 size) and go for a nice thick board marker
  3. With each object you draw, know what your best possible starting point is, and build the rest of the drawing up from there
  4. Build up a repertoire of things you have practised and can confidently reproduce as and when required, including a set of standard "people" in different poses (like stick figures), animals, vehicles, places (beaches, forests, dentists' waiting rooms, dentists' chairs…). Keep your eye out — everywhere! — for illustrations you can copy and use
  5. But never be afraid to have a go at something totally new, even in front of a class, or be scared of messing up or embarrassing yourself (if you never draw a space rocket or submarine, you won't 😉 !) or of having people laugh at your drawings… People laughed? Hey! You want laughter in a classroom!
  6. If necessary, go back home and find out (the Internet is a wonderful place — at times!) how you really draw (say) a crocodile, and then practise that
  7. Adding "clipart" to your search will give you lots of copiable illustrations – eg "clipart dog"; pick the simplest and if necessary, simplify those further
  8. Keep adding to your repertoire (if you think "The only thing I can draw is an elephant", or whatever, you need to get yourself some practice doing other stuff!)
  9. At my Conference session back in February, I gave away some desk-top, page-a-day diaries that our sponsors were kind enough to let me have. A doodle a day, five minutes a day, is a brilliant way to improve your drawing skills
  10. Putting your work on a blog or Instagram (even if you share it with only a few people) is something that will make a huge difference as it will motivate you to reach higher

Practice is the key. Practice leads to improvement — as these amazing examples on Bored Panda demonstrate.

And it's vital to understand this:

It's not a question of having the ability to draw anything. Rather, it's a question of giving yourself the practice to have the courage to try to draw things that might convey and clarify meaning; convey ideas; add interest, generate language, etc.

Here you have ideas for activities that use classroom drawing and we have further activities (content in Spanish) on our Spanish teacher training blog.

One cool photo for one fun, collaborative digital story

Above, an idea posted on IH Barcelona's Instagram feed.

The retro toys, photographed in a shop window, to be found all over Barcelona, are real fun as collaborative writing prompts with small groups of learners creating the stories of their drivers and passengers.

I've used these several times before ("What? Again?" a learner asked the last time I repeated the idea 😉 !) but really like the idea of a single suitable prompt and a couple of juicy brainstorming questions as the basis for a materials-light, language-rich classroom activity.

See these two previous posts for further information and what we did with this last time:

Tips for success with learner-centered technology

Tips for success with technology

The above tips were suggested during my OneStopEnglish webinar on February 10th. Here, I've added a few further notes to them.

1 | Find out what apps (etc) your students already use and start with those
If many of your learners are already using, say, Instagram, that's probably the place to begin. Their familiarity with it means that you don't have to teach them how to use it, and if some are unfamiliar, their peers can provide the technical support.

See also (5), below.

Conversely, if many of them are not really using things like Facebook at all, start with one that no one uses (Edmodo and a private G+ Community would be obvious choices; see also (4), below). The fact that they will only be using it for my class (plus the fact that I've made it private) has persuaded even some of my most technophobic learners to come on board.

And one that's caught me out: if they don't use email, don't use that, use WhatsApp instead!

2 | Don't touch the technology yourself, ever
I mean this one literally. If you have a computer and projector in your classroom, the best possible piece of equipment you can purchase is a wireless mouse and keyboard — and then put one of your learners on it. You want to show a YouTube video (or whatever)? Get one of your learners to do it for you. Handing over the technology takes so much of the stress off of the teacher!

You think technology "always" goes wrong in your classes? Make one of your learners handle it for you and you'll be amazed: it never seems to go wrong!

See also (5), below.

3 | Have your students use technology to create things
You can do wonderful things with YouTube but you don't just want to have your learners sitting there watching videos, something which they could be doing at home! And if your learners are simply passively consuming your PowerPoints, rather than creating their own, then you're perhaps using 1% of the potential of 21st century technology.

What you really want to be doing (and what lots of your learners really want to be doing 😉 !) is to have them use technology to create things — photos or text, or audio or video, all of which can be done on the smartphones you might actually have just told your learners to put away.

See also (6), below.

4 | Have your students set up a shared digital space
You get your learners to (a) create things; but after that they'll need somewhere they can (b) share them and (c) comment on their creations. The commenting is an important stage of your task design because it provides further opportunities to use language. That's where a shared digital space comes in, a class blog on which your learners are all authors, or an Edmodo group (great with teens!), or WhatsApp or a Google+ Community (those last two with adults).

You want to be using social media with your learners (though that's a term I generally avoid using with them, so as not to put anyone off!)

5 | Have your students provide the technical support; you provide the linguistic support
Using technology successfully in a classroom is very much a question of getting learners into good habits (backing things up, using safe passwords, keeping the noise level down, speaking in English… etc.). One of the habits I most strongly recommend you to get your learners into is to have them turn to their peers if anything goes wrong, rather than turning to you.

Especially if they're young, you want to identify which of your learners are great with technology, and make use of them. Your learners calling out "technical!" if they have a problem and your new assistants then getting up and going to provide that help is another great habit to get them into. Your job is to help with the language, not the technology! On the former, not the latter, you're the expert to turn to.

Here's possibly the best ever scheme for providing technical support in a school that I've ever come across, described by my son Toni.

6 | Create tasks that require your students to play with language, not just technology
Technology can be exciting and, yes, you can do amazing things with it. But I often wonder whether or not our learners get so excited about it that they switch into their own rather than the target language, or else fall totally silent (bliss 😉 !) and end up doing a lot of excited clicking, but not much in the way of language work and practice. The latter is what we're there for, after all.

I think it's probably best to devote the usually limited number of hours our learners have in class to them talking and we the teachers helping them to talk better, providing language and improving performance, as well as to things like pronunciation, intonation, etc.

To have this happen, in other words:

What I want to happen in my class

If in class we've provided them with the ideas and the language and the practice and the rehearsal, outside class they can do the clicking and editing that pulls everything together, preferably collaboratively, perhaps using the shared digital space we've set up, to produce a digital end product like a story or a podcast or a presentation to be rehearsed at home and performed in the next class.

The way to go is probably talk inside, click outside the classroom.

7 | Never be afraid students will know more about technology than you do!
One of your learners will always know more about some aspect of technology than you, some more about all aspects of it.

They do? Be happy, not intimidated! You need technical assistance? You have it sitting right there in front of you!

See also
What's the recipe for using technology successfully?

More on using technology in language teaching

Subscribers to OneStopEnglish have access to a series of articles detailing activities for many of the tools mentioned above.

Webinar Feb 10: Getting your learners to use technology

15 Years of OneStopEnglish

Join me February 10 for a free webinar celebrating 15 years (!!) of OneStopEnglish, one of my favourite sites for English teachers.

I'm going to be talking about how we can (and should!) be getting our learners to use technology, indeed one of my tips is this:

Don't touch the technology yourself, ever !!!

I mean that literally: put one of your learners on the keyboard and mouse (the best edtech purchase you can make: a wireless mouse and keyboard!) and literally don't ever touch it yourself in the classroom.

At the IH Barcelona ELT Conference this weekend, Rachel Appleby (@rapple18) tweeted this from the excellent plenary given by Lindsay Clandfield (@lclandfield):

But are there really that many English language teachers left who aren't using technology nowadays? Are there really language teachers who aren't turning on their projectors and exploiting some of the amazing things you can find on YouTube or (even better) Vimeo or VideoJug or (another of my favourites), Film English?

IH Barcelona (OK, in that case, me 😉 !) replied to the above tweet with this comment:

That's more or less what I'm going to be talking about in the webinar.

On OneStopEnglish, there are a series of articles I've written suggesting easy ways you can get your learners to use tools like Edmodo and G+ Communities, Google Drive and Instagram (and their mobile phones) for some language-rich, learner-centered tasks.

From a learner's point of view, they are so much more interesting than watching you, the teacher, plough through a PowerPoint it took you an hour and a half to prepare!

Join me Wednesday…

NOTE Full access (recommended) to OneStopEnglish is by subscription (see prices) but you can also obtain a free 30-day trial). There is also institutional subscription, which I recommend you recommended to your Director of Studies 😉 !