10 Things I Learned at ILC IH Brno, Czech Republic

What you learn before and after a conference can have just as much value as what you pick up in the talks and workshops. Luckily for me, the before, during and after of ILC IH Brno’s 4 the Young Ones conference were all brimming with insights – Friday evening to Sunday afternoon, well beyond the six hours at the conference itself! Here’s a summary…

1. Enthusiasm + organisation = magic

Friday 20.30 At dinner, Ben Herbert (British Council, Prague) was talking about his high regard for Anette Igel as a teacher trainer (and a person, of course – it’s hard to separate the two). His comment of how she combines high levels of enthusiasm and organisation simultaneously struck a chord with me. I find that I have genuine enthusiasm to start something, but once I go about it, the more regimented I am until it’s finished; rarely do the two qualities co-exist. Something to work on!

2. Be more human

Saturday 07.45 Chatting with Gianni (IH Rome Manzoni) over breakfast before the conference, he was telling me about his presentation with Kylie entitled ‘Retrotastic: revamping, revitalising, revisiting old favourites’. The main thing I took was that getting students in a classroom just to sit them in front of a screen the whole time offers nothing that they can’t do at home. Sure, one of my core teaching values is providing real life activities in class, and integrating tech has a role to play, but human interaction in all its form is the true beauty in any lesson.

3. No carrot or stick – just listen and respect.

Saturday 13.00 In Ben’s excellent session on motivating teens, he talked about a wild-sounding class he once taught, where a lack of discipline was his first obstacle. He won them over by listening to their preferences, getting to know them as people rather than ‘naughty teens’, and incorporating their likes into his lessons (Edurio is an excellent tool of you´d like this data through an online survey.) “What about the stick?” I asked in the QandA. “There is no stick” said Ben. This was very insightful: each lesson is an ecosystem of human interaction, and mutual respect is earned gently, not by force. My own tendency is to be attracted to the challenge of a direct mano a mano with misbehaving learners. “Oooooh a confrontation”, the voice in my head says, limbering up like a boxer, let’s dance”; but this is probably more to do with my own ego rather than creating positive classroom dynamics (I’ve just started reading Ego is the Enemy by Ryan Holiday – more on this another day I’m sure). Something else to work on!

4. Industrial model → agricultural model of education

Saturday 14.00 Another great session run by Kristyna (ILC IH Brno) focused on teaching multi-level classes to allow all learners to improve irrespective of current ability. She said her philosophy is inspired by Sir Ken Robinson’s 2010 TED Talk ‘Bring on the Learning Revolution!’, in which he talks about education being an organic process (agricultural model) rather than the mechanical process (industrial model) our traditional system is based on. Among many super tips was the idea of giving learners a choice of activities, rather than labelling them with a level. Some students might be comfortable out of their comfort zone (growth mindset), others know what they’re capable of, but telling a student explicitly that they are lower ability is, in the long-term, often a self-fulfilling prophecy; they become the label. Offering learners more choice was a concept brought back to Riga from the 2017 IH YL conference by our YL coordinator Sally, which has a number of psychological benefits such as ownership of learning and self-motivation (another of my main ELT interests).

5. Acting out idioms 

Saturday, 14.30 Like my session on word and sentence stress emphasised making pronunciation training physical, so too did Kristyna´s when looking at idiomatic phrases from Katy Perry´s song Roar. Like many good teacher training sessions, the key was putting ourselves in the learners’ shoes and trying it out ourselves. Getting into pairs and acting out a verse from the song brought the idioms’ meanings to life and was good, clean fun.

6. Attitude is everything

Saturday 20.00 I’m a mindset geek; I believe having a growth mindset, combined with strategy and grit, is key to improvement, whether it be as a teacher, student or piano player (anything!). Seeing Olya Pushchak (IH Lviv) at another IH conference was great, and that was before I knew how much commitment she put in just to get there. Lviv to Brno 16.00 Friday to 04.00 Saturday (slept on bus); Brno to Lviv 02.00 to 19.00 Sunday (slept on bus). Chatting to her about her motivation at dinner, she said something outstanding (I asked her to repeat it so I could write it down on my phone!):

“I don’t want my third year of teaching to be my first year for the third time”

Apply that drive to improve to any aspect of your life – job, hobby, relationship, life as a whole (personally, I don’t want my 29th year on Earth to be my 28th year for the second time). Imagine a staff room of Olyas! Hats off!

7. IH is an outstanding organisation to be a part of

All weekend, noted down Saturday 21.00 This is pretty much a copy and paste from my reflections on my last IH conference in Toruń, Poland in March: ‘Having worked in a private language academy in Spain for five years, I moved to IH Riga mainly because I wanted to be in the International House fold. I took a significant pay cut (taking into account salary-cost of living ratio) on the understanding that personal and professional development motivate me day-to-day like money never can. So events like yesterday  have fully justified the move’. Dave Cleary’s (DoS, ILC IH Brno) reminder of the IH philosophy of “excellence in teaching and teacher training” over dinner reminded me of this!

8. Peak-End Rule

Saturday, 21.15 This was another nugget from Dave, who I’ve learnt a lot from since we met in Toruń in March. The peak-end rule is a psychological heuristic saying that people judge their overall experience on how they felt at its ‘peak’ (i.e. most intense point) and its ending. We were largely discussing interview techniques from the points of view of both interviewer and interviewee, but the same applies to any experience – a trip, a film, a relationship (how it ends often overshadows all the peaks!) etc. etc.

9. Learners > professionalism

Sunday 14.30 I was reading the IATEFL Leadership and Management SIG newsletter from April 2017 on the bus back to Prague (I know, the fun never ends!), and Nic Underhill’s article Professionalism and quality: a tour d’horizon from 1995 caught my eye (it was republished as part if his obituary as he sadly passed away last year). Although I’ve listed one of my core teaching values as being learner-centred, recently I’ve been wrestling with the concept of professionalism in ELT, and why more teachers don’t treat it as a ‘proper’ job rather than a working gap year (I’m not being pugnacious – I started with the latter before transitioning to the former). But Underhill (brother of Adrian, a huge influence on my teaching – imagine a seat at that family dinner table!), wrote this:

We are not at the end of Quality street. The danger is that like the debate over professionalism it becomes a sterile and perpetuating activity which is an end in itself rather than a means to an end: satisfying customers.

This resonated with me: it’s more valuable to focus on students’ experiences rather than obsessing over how respected the job is. But doesn’t professionalism automatically improve student experience? Not necessarily. I should shelve that ‘chicken and the egg’ debate, get off that never-ending merry-go-round and redirect energy on being a daily model of a professional who prioritises his students.

10. Outputs > Inputs

Sunday, 14.32 Although written back in 1995, Nic Underhill might have used something like Edurio today to get quantifiable data on students´ perceptions in order to improve on the improveables (more coming soon on our work with Edurio at IH Riga this year!)

The question is to focus on ways of measuring the quality of the outputs of our activity, rather than the inputs and the processes the inputs are subjected to…Institutions should be assessed on the systems they have in place for collecting data on student attainment and student satisfaction.

What does this mean? Well of course lesson observations have a place at the table, but another seat should be occupied by asking the learners directly, instead of just second-guessing what may be going right and wrong for them.

As always, any questions or comments please leave a reply below or get in touch with me at james.egerton@tiscali.co.uk.


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