Reflections on the IATEFL 2018 Brighton Conference

The 2018 IATEFL Conference was quite an exceptional event. Maybe it’s because I hadn’t attended IATEFL for the last 4 years? Maybe. Yet I have a feeling that all in all the quality of the Conference was exceptional.

I think that a thread emerged which emerged organically out of the event was an empowerment of people’s voices. This came through in all of the three plenaries I mention, each providing a different perspective of voice. It also emerged in many of the subsequent sessions and in the informal conversations I had with conference delegates.

In any case, I felt that there was a sort of push for change and freedom in the air and perhaps this is also no coincidence and has a lot to do with the current IATEFL committee and the way they planned out the conference.

I’ll basically share the links to the plenaries here and mention the PCE and in subsequent posts I’ll delve more deeply into the specific talks and sessions I attended.

This is a shortish vídeo with some of my main thoughts about the conference.

Reflections on the 2018 IATEFL Conference

Pre Conference Event

Social Justice and ELT through the Visual Arts – GISIG and Visual Arts Circle Joint PCE

Visual Arts Circle site

Global Issues SIG

You can find a wealth of material on the site to inspire teachers.


Lourdes Ortega

What is SLA research good for, anyway?

I liked this plenary because it challenged us to critically think about the relevance of SLA research for the teacher and how this can indeed help inform our practice and debunk some myths which are being propagated.

Watch the plenary here:

Dorothy Zemach

Her plenary challenged the publishing industry to take a good look at itself and acknowledge a few truths which all of us have known for a while, but it’s been convenient to sort of not talk too loudly about it. Well, today Dorothy DID talk about it. And we’re all on a new page on the topic.

Watch the plenary here:

Brita Fernandez Schmidt

Brita gave an inspiring and clear plenary on how important it is for us to support women who find themselves in underprivileged situations. Being able to offer them educational support and access to English language learning can make the difference for them.

I think it also took us all out of our comfort zones and made us think of the importance of holding hands and working together for a better future for all. Collective initiatives really make the difference.

Watch the plenary here:

On subsequent blog posts I’ll mention some of the Conference sessions in more detail.

Classical music, language teaching and the participation metaphor

For a number of years I’ve been fascinated by how the world of classical music can be such an inspiration for the world of teaching and learning. I’ve been particularly interested in the changing face of the relationship between conductors and musicians.

It is almost impossible to divorce classical music from emotions. When well played, music can bring out emotions and feelings, which we have been trying to lock down inside of us and ignore. Music allows sublimation to happen.

Yet, when we look at the world of classical music and the rituals imposed in terms of listening to the music and watching it being played in concert halls, there has always been a stuffiness and rigidness in relation to how it is experienced. Complete silence has to be observed in the concert halls. People have to remain still during the movements. You don’t clap between the movements. If you do, you draw upon you the strictest of glares of disapproval. You are declared to be a philistine. For this reason, classical music has been largely associated with an experience, which is reserved for an elite, which understands these rituals and speaks this language.

If you think about it, this flies in the face of what music really brings into our lives. It is not supposed to be a rational and intellectual experience, but rather a spontaneous and emotional one. It is an experience which can and should be enjoyed. Both conductor and musicians can ensure this if they manage to enter in some form of dialogue with the audience. A bond has to be established.

This mirrors exactly the situation we face in class as we teach English as a foreign, second or additional language. We cannot divorce form and meaning in language learning. We need the structural linguistic framework of the language. Yet this only really makes sense within a meaningful context. Language makes sense when we are able to express our ideas and deepest of emotions.

We as teachers also seek to establish an interactionist dialogue between ourselves, the learners in class and the language being learnt. We no longer expect or wish for passive students in class. We welcome participation and exchange. To this end the traditional metaphor of language learning which is based on an input/output model, an “acquisition metaphor”, no longer works. We have moved into the realms of education and language learning, which is based on a “participation metaphor” which makes clear the dialectic relationship, which exists amongst the key players. It also de-objectifies knowledge and places participants in a position in which they may change places at any moment.

This is what brings me back to the world of classical music today. If previously conductors were the embodiment of the status quo of the classical world and musicians played a subsidiary role, albeit an important one, the audience itself had very little room other than to be passive spectators, allowed to react at the end with restrained clapping. Yet we see a new generation of conductors and musicians who are deeply committed to the “participation metaphor” as it were. The form remains important, but the expression of meaning and dialogic interaction has taken on a new dimension.

This is clear in the manner in which the conductor Gustavo Dudamel engages the orchestra and the audience in the concerts.  A close friend, who has been a cellist in the London Philharmonic Orchestra for over 40 years, mentioned this to me recently when he told me what it was like to play conducted by Dudamel. He was forced to find a new spirit in his playing and he joked that he rekindled his Latin temperament into his playing. However, it’s not just the musicians who are involved in a new form of dialogue. The audience is also being invited to participate more actively. Whilst some in the world of classical music may still frown upon this form of emotional engagement, there can be no doubt that it is bringing classical music into a new sphere and audience.

At the end of the day, this is what we are also searching for as language teachers and educators. We want this level of engagement in class. We want this enthusiasm. We want this level of participation and dialogue. It may at times seem excessive or boisterous and loud. Yet as an experience, there is nothing quite like it.

So, take three minutes once you’ve read this and watch the video of Gustavo Dudamel conducting the Simon Bolivar Symphony Orchestra in Caracas for a New Year’s Eve concert in 2007 (so the festive element is also defined by the celebratory moment. In other performances the orchestra plays more conservatively, but with another level of engement and life). They are playing the Mambo from Leonard Bernstein’s West Side Story Symphonic Suite.

Surely, this is where we want to get with our learners (the audience)?

Isn’t it also where we want to be as teachers (musicians/conductor)?

Additional links:

Anna Sfard – On two metaphors for learning and the dangers of choosing just one:

Click to access Sfard.pdf

Seeing both sides of the coin: how far do we really look at things before we jump to conclusions?

(Penguins heading for the Ocean – photo by Sebastião Salgado in his Genesis exhibition.)

A couple of years ago at the Sebastian Salgado exhibition this image caught my eye. Well, you can’t help but giggle at this photo and immediately imagine a number of reasons why that penguin decided to turn back.

  • S/He doesn’t want to be second.
  • S/He has just remembered s/he hates the cold water.
  • S/He has lost her/his nerve.
  • Can’t be bothered anymore.
  • S/He has seen the seals in the water and refuses to be cannon fodder.
  • Etc.

We can only guess and speculate.

The photo is a snapshot of a moment. We aren’t privy to what happened before. How did it all start? What provoked this change of direction?

We are also ignorant of what is about the happen. The photographer saw it all. But he solely chose to show us an image. And why was this?

Because this image provides a more striking possible narrative?

Because we are forced to speculate wildly as we see this image? We have been provoked from a place of passivity into critical thought?

So, we as onlookers have no additional information other than what we see.

This is the power of the image.

This is why images can be used to manipulate us and why we so willingly accept this manipulation. We are drawn in by a possible narrative. These narratives are based on our own individual and singular experience and history. There may be a similarity in the narrative we build if we come from similar realities. Otherwise, there is really no guarantee we will interpret things in the same manner.

So, this blog post is a first in a series of posts which will explore our reading and interpretation of images. It will explore how we as educators see things and how we can work with students to critically read images. Some of the posts will instigate teachers to react. Some will be dialogic in nature and will allow us to play with images ourselves. There is no specific direction or plan. This is much more of an exercise in instigation and critical thought and let’s see what we build collectively as a result of this.


The gateway to adventure

Kandinsky - Horse and Rider
Kandinsky – Horse and Rider

This post first appeared in the Cultura Inglesa Teachers’ Portal blog post section. It refers to three other texts written by colleagues. However, I felt that the reflection was something that might be relevant to other teachers as well. So, I decided to share it on my own blog.


A couple of weeks ago Guilherme Pacheco began talking about fostering learner autonomy and he drew a parallel with how horses are shown the way to water and then learn how to get there by themselves. He made the point that we as teachers should strive to achieve the same objectives with our learners, this is one of the main elements of the communicative approach. Then Paulo Machado wrote about Samurai warriors and teacher development as a path for continuous development, but which necessarily implies an understanding that change will be brought about in the way we look at things, and we need not fear this change. It’s the only way we can move forward. In our third post, Monica Freire discussed the importance of celebrating our achievements and allowing ourselves the time to recognize what new abilities and skills we have conquered, not only because it is good and important for us as teachers to look back and see how much we have grown professionally, but also to act as role models for those entering the profession.

And I want to continue with this topic of development, change and adventure. I want to come back to horses, but from a different angle. I want to talk about non-traditional paths, about non-linear options, about choices which may seem strange to others, but make sense to you at that given moment. I want to talk about that gut feeling that drives you to do something, to make a choice, but which you can’t explain to your best friend. You just know you have to do it.

Sometimes in our teaching career we have clear options shown to us in terms of how we can develop professionally. More often than not the options are related to certificates, diplomas and courses which provide you with a statement of the level you have achieved. This is an important and fundamental part of our teaching life. It will help us in our career paths, it will help us earn better salaries.

But there are moments in our teaching career when, for example, we confront a particularly challenging teaching situation and we ask ourselves: “Have I got it all wrong?” But it won’t be a certificate or a piece of paper which will allow you to reach the understanding you need to see the situation from a new perspective. You, in fact, need to immerse yourself in a new environment and context. More often than not, you won’t seek a traditional path, you will need to find the gateway to a new adventure. You will need to be quite open minded, open to new experiences, however strange and daunting they may seem at first. As long as the fear of the new does not paralyze you, throw yourself into this new adventure. The adventure may be as simple as learning to do something new which you had always wanted to, but had never found the time to do. It may be travelling by yourself for the first time. It might be deciding to go on a spiritual retreat. It might be deciding to join an association and meeting new people outside your regular circle of friends. It might be learning to tend to plants. It might be finding space in your life for a pet. It might be finding space in your life for a new partner, friend, companion. The only certainty we have is that if we do nothing, then we won’t be able to help ourselves overcome the challenges we come across both professionally and, of course, personally.

And where do the horses come in? Well, horses are the embodiment of a free and strong spirit, animals who are confident and carry you through any rough terrain, yet are also caring and good companions. And if you watch the link to the video of The Horse Boy, you will see how a non-traditional option, a seemingly crazy idea, and an understanding that if at times we don’t seek the well-known path, but rather something completely different, it may set you onto a good option, which will help you deal with your challenges from a different perspective and will give rise to new and exciting possibilities. And the change will help you professionally and personally as well.

(31/03/2015 – for the Cultura Inglesa Teachers’ Portal)