Critical Conferences 4: Academic or Practical?


I think one of the biggest problems plaguing today’s ELT conferences is that they are still modeled on an academic format.  That is, they are lecture-based, research-heavy, theory-heavy, and often focused on abstract concepts rather than practical classroom ideas.  They also favor presenters with advanced degrees and lots of published material (who may or may not actually have entered a classroom for years) rather than actual teachers who have decades of experience in the classroom.

Take a look at the first 3 presentation headings for an up-coming conference in China:

1)  Validity and Reliability Issues in the LargeScale Assessment of English Language Proficiency
2)  Optimizing the Limited Resources for More Efficiency in Teacher Development Programs in China
3)  Criterion-referenced Tests: Roles and Functions in Language Assessment in the Chinese Context

Does that sound like something that’s going to be immediately relate-able and applicable to your classroom teaching?  Would you guess the presentation is going to be stuffy and academic or down-to-earth and practical?

Although I think many teachers going to ELT conferences go with the mindset that they will be learning something that will help them improve their teaching in the here and now, many conference presentations only involve the recitation of dry facts and theories.

The problem is this:  those attending conferences are usually practicing teachers whereas those attending most other conferences are academic researchers.  In the conferences of most fields, and following the traditional academic format, research is shared and debated.  But this is not the background most teachers/conference participants are coming from in ELT and this is not what most of them want.   It is a fundamental flaw in the way conferences are set up.

In a great illustration of this, Melania from Romania would like to learn how to deal with illiterate, undisciplined, or unmotivated students instead of listening to the latest research from a presenters such as those in the US with state-of-the-art resources available in their classroom. In a similar vein we could ask:  how do we deal with overcrowded classrooms, how do we manage administrations that are distanced from education, how do we get our students to connect with English in ways meaningful to them, how do we promote learning for our students (rather than someone else’s half a world away).  IMO, these are the kinds of things most teachers attending conferences really need.

This connects to a comment of mine on Scott’s R is for Research post as well.  Why do we have professors flying in from Japan or the US to present on a small bit of action research done with their students at a conference in Turkey?  Is it really translatable to my classroom with Turkish students?  It comes from this same academic mentality that conferences are the sharing of isolated and niche-research projects rather than solutions to real class issues in a teacher’s specific teaching context.

I think there are conference organizers and presenters out there who get this.  They are the ones that model their plenaries and workshops on best practices in teaching.  They are the ones who provide interactive content that, as Alex Case often says is important, teachers can use on Monday.

The other issue I mentioned is the question of why there are so many presenters at conferences who haven’t been in an actual English language class in years?  How does spending the last ten years in academia prepare them for teaching teachers how to teach?  Why is someone who wrote a coursebook in Britain a better presenter than a local teacher with 10 years of experience in the local context?  These are some of the questions that need to be asked regarding many current conference set-ups.

I’m not saying there is no room for research at conferences, because some teachers do really like that (I’m looking at you Sarah :) ).  However, I think we should make a clear distinction between academic conferences oriented towards SLA and methodology research and conferences oriented towards teachers who want to learn how to best teach their classes in their own contexts.  At the very least, conferences should clearly mark or have separate areas for the two types of presentations/workshops.

How do you feel about conferences in this regard?  Do they often provide you with information and activities you find useful and applicable in YOUR classes?  Is there too much of a focus on an academic model?  How can we improve conferences to make them more applicable to practicing teachers?

Related Posts:

R is for Research on an A-Z of ELT

On Conference from a Different Angle on Melania from Romania

What Makes a Good Conference on Jeremy Harmer’s Blog

Critical Conferences 3: Expense and Exclusion

Critical Conferences 2:  The Cyprus Conference


  • By Gavin Dudeney, November 6, 2010 @ 2:36 pm


    I don’t go to too many conferences which fit into the type like the one in China you reference. In fact I’m more likely to go to a conference like IATEFL – where the large majority of speakers are working teachers or trainers.

    Of course you’ll get coursebook writers and methodology writers – but go to a session by Jeremy Harmer, Scott Thornbury, Lindsay Clandfield and all the rest and I doubt you’re going to find much stuffy research, but you will usually find materials and anecdotes from the classroom, practical ideas, etc. There may be a few references and a bit of research (otherwise people get shot down for not backing their theories up!), but mostly they will be by people who empathise, are experienced and can talk to people in a useful and human manner.

    Looking back over the two dozen or so conferences I’ve been to in the last two years, I can find only one example of the type of conference you’re talking about – and that was on systemic functional linguistics… not my thing, but plenty of people there enjoyed it.

    On the other hand I’ve been to a variety of events and see many dozens of practical workshops by working teachers. I’ve come away with new websites, new tools, some interesting teaching ideas and more.

    And thinking back to all those conferences, the plenaries have been mostly entertaining and informative – good caring people who do their job well. Only once in my twelve years of going to conferences have I found myself listening to the type of talk where someone puts their head down, reads from notes and tells people about something so divorced from their reality that they want to walk.

    So, I’m not sure about this – I’m on a 24-1 ratio against what you’ve noted (in the past two years). Maybe you’re choosing the wrong conferences?


  • By turklis1, November 6, 2010 @ 3:50 pm

    Hey Gavin, hmm, maybe I’m framing it wrong. I think it’s as much in the way information is presented as it is the types of information being presented. Looking at this year, out of all the presentation/workshops I’ve been to I can think of 4 or 5 that were done in what I’d call a learner-centered style. Let’s take your workshop that I attended for example. Difficulties with the room aside, you presented an activity, had us run through it, and then did a short discussion as much as possible on it. I think this is a good format for what we’re trying to do.

    Looking at most other workshops I’ve been to, I can honestly say it was simply a presentation/lecture format, which I think is generally unsuitable for what we’re trying to do, depending on content of course. But the choice of content is another element in the debate. As Mariana points out, is the choice of content relevant to the teaching context of most teachers present? Sometimes yes, sometimes no. How many workshops that you attend are based off of small research carried out by the teacher/trainer that end up as powerpoint presentations? For me, it’s been the majority of them.

    Let’s look at the conference I referenced in the post. Further down is a workshop on using video that sounds very practical. The question is, will the presenter simply run through some ideas with a powerpoint or will they take this learner-centered approach we keep touting? In my experience, it is mostly the former. What has been your experience? I think this is much of what I’m trying to say. People are still approaching these things as academic conferences even if they are giving practical ideas.

    As for plenaries by Harmer, Thornbury, Clandfield and company, I’d agree. They are very good and have always given talks oriented towards relevant, practical ideas. However, I’m of two minds about the lecture style format of plenaries and have talked it over with a number of people, including some of the ones just mentioned. As Scott once pointed out, plenaries prompt reflection and can serve as a focal point for workshops in a conference. I’d agree with that. However, I’m still not sure it’s the way to go. I’ve seen interactive plenaries modeled on more workshop type formats and even given them myself. I do feel that they are ultimately more effective in promoting the type of teaching we are advocating. Also, I can get very little more out of a plenary that I couldn’t get by reading the same speech online. Take Hugh Dellar’s now defunct blog. He simply posted his entire plenary online. This even opens up the subject for debate and interaction, which is rarely possible at the actual plenary itself (although as Jeremy often points out, this does still happen in a way in the coffee breaks). Wouldn’t it make more sense to do the same? Put your plenaries on the blogs, similar to what we do now, and save the conferences for workshops that can’t be done through a written format?

    This is a reflection of the academic orientation of the conferences. Instead of lecture style plenaries, couldn’t we replace it with something more interactive, something that promotes the teaching practices we advocate? I think these two formats can complement each other, but I lean towards the value of interactivity and practicing what we preach.

    Maybe I’m a bit off in whinging about people who aren’t currently in the classroom giving presentations, but I’d say the rest of it is on the right track (lecture style formats, presentation of research, favoring degree holding individuals with published materials over local teachers, etc.) Your thoughts?

  • By Gavin Dudeney, November 6, 2010 @ 6:21 pm

    No, I’m still not convinced – sorry! I just don’t see many of the sessions you experience, myself. I rarely see research, I see classroom practice – last year at IATEFL was a classic example of that – almost all the sessions I went to were teachers talking about their teaching… I just can’t identify with your experience of conferences at all.

    And actually, I don’t think ‘this learner-centred approach we keep touting’ is valid in all scenarios. sometimes, at conferences, I want to be told things, told abotu people’s work, told about what they’ve studied and the conclusions they’ve come to. I don’t always need happy clappy let’s all sit round on bean bags and discuss it sessions. Sometimes, often, I get a lot out of people telling me things. We’re getting dangerously near the dogme v grammar translation discussion again. What works for me doesn’t necessarily work for you.

    Plenaries are what they are – there’s a convention, If you travel as much as I do you learn to observe the convention in various countries. If you do a plenary at a university in Russia they expect a suit and tie and some serious talk. Who am I to tell them otherwise? Of course I usually try to subvert that in some way or another – without offending my hosts – perhaps some audience interaction, maybe a bit of video… small things. But really, culturally, you have to be sensitive to what people want and expect and are comfortable with.

    You don’t want to be lectured to (and I respect that wish) but some people do, some people like it and – in certain contexts – it’s the polite thing to do.

    Having said all that, I’d be hard-pushed to attach your ‘academic’ tag to virtually any conference I’ve been to in the past two years or so…

    Also on the subject of plenaries, Hugh Dellar and the rest of what happens around plenaries, there has been a fear for many years (and it stil exists among many people in the profession) that allowing yourself to be filmed, and putting up your PowerPoints will devalue your currency as a presenter – that people will simply watch videos than go to conferences.

    As I think we amply demonstrated with the IATEFL Annual Conference (and its online counterpart), people want to go to conferences. Sure, they’ll watch the video and read the PPT if they can’t – but since we started the online conference at IATEFL each year, physical attendance has risen. It’s less about the video, less about the PowerPoint and less about the materials – simply, people want to meet people, to chat to them and to see them in action. There’s a reason why rock groups often don’t mind illegal downloads – they make their fortunes (as Lady Gaga stated earlier this year) from live performances and the merchandise that goes with them.

    For that reason I’ve never refused a request to be videoeod, to be recorded, to share my materials online. It certainly hasn’t reduced the number of plenaries I do each year. On the contrary – more people see you, and more people want to have you at their event. I think you can get so much more out of a plenary than a recording – including the chance for a beer and a chat in the bar afterwards…

    Mostly if you do a plenary these days you are asked to do a follow-up workshop. This makes sense to me. a lot of this year I’ve done a vaguely theoretical digital literacies plenary followed by a practical workshop of those literacies in action in the classroom. This seems to me a sensible way to go. I like plenaries (giving them and watching them) and I like workshops – I’d hate to see one thrown out because people don’t want a bit of thought with their ’50 engaging grammar games for ten-year-olds on a Monday morning’ workshop.

    But as for academic – no, I just don’t see those conferences, not at all…


  • By turklis1, November 6, 2010 @ 7:00 pm

    Yeah, I don’t want to turn this into an either or thing either. I agree everyone has their preferences.

    I think the cultural expectations (and preestablished conventions) is a good point as well and I’d thought about it. Personally, I’d like to see the conventions move away from lectures, which is one reason for the post of course, but you gotta work with what you’re given.

    Interesting on the fear of recording having an effect on conferences/plenaries.. You sort of mentioned it once before, but I always wondered how wide-spread it was. I think you’re right, what people really want from the conferences is the interaction which is why people will always be willing to come. If you’ve seen a talk already, it gives you the chance to duck out and mingle more or go to something else you wouldn’t have been able to see otherwise, so it wouldn’t be a reason not to go.

    On the workshop bit, I’m not suggesting throw out some good old intellectual discussion. I just think it can be incorporated into the workshop rather than become the entire thing, on a powerpoint no less :P

    I’m surprised we’ve had such different conference experiences. As you go to far more it’s probably more representative. Still, I sat back and questioned my own and looked at all 8 conferences I’ve been to this year. Aside from the Cyprus conference, which had a lot of great stuff, the only interactive plenaries I can think of is one from Eskisehir and anything given by Ken or the Henry Brothers tends to have a high level of interactivity. I’m not saying if it’s not interactive it’s bad, I’m just saying I think it’s a more effective way to do them (and I do understand the difficulties involved when there are a couple hundred people in the room).

    In contrast, outside of Cyprus workshops and yours, I can’t recall a single workshop I’ve been to that wasn’t a powerpoint lecture or that involved more than 2 minutes of discussion/audience input. I mean, I’m usually presenting, so I do miss out, but on average I get to at least two workshops a conference and usually more. I’d add that many co-participants and presenters also talk about extensive powerpoint lecturing and small research projects, so I’m know I’m not alone on this. I guess we’ll have to wait and see if others have anything to contribute to the discussion.

  • By Gavin Dudeney, November 6, 2010 @ 7:05 pm

    Yep.. two voices isn’t a good sample :-)

  • By DavidD, November 7, 2010 @ 9:34 pm

    Hi Nick and Gavin,

    I’ll back Nick up a little here, not so much on the academic side of things, but on the number of ‘workshops’ I’ve seen at conferences in Turkey that are actually mini-plenaries with the presenter presenting and little else going on. I must admit, I’ve been guilty of this myself, especially the first couple of sessions I did but I think I’m getting better at involving the audience now. ;)

    I’ve also got nothing against lecture-style plenaries though and I’ve taken some good ideas away from them over the years as well as some food for thought. On the workshop front, despite what I said above, I have to say I hate the ones where you’re told to “stand in a circle and imagine you’re an extinct animal” or some such cringeworthy activity. Engaged discussion, however – that’s more like it!

    Another issue that has hampered some conferences for me is relevancy. When my employers first organised an ELT conference 3 years ago, the speakers in the plenaries were all discussing things they did with elementary level teens. While some of it was adaptable to other ability groups and ages, the fact is there are no elementary level teens at my school! And, yes, they were also refering to teaching classes of 8-12 students in Japan rather than the 30+ Turkish kids we usually have. But, credit where it’s due, post-conference our feedback was sought and changes were made. At last year’s event, 90% of the workshops were given by teachers from different branches of the school and the general feedback was positive with many saying the had returned to work with many new ideas to try out and much to discuss.

    Oh, and we also had the Henry Brothers doing a ‘stand-up’ (as in the comedy style rather than making everyone get up – althought they did that too :) ) plenary. I’m not so sure it was ‘interactive’ but it was great for adding a lighter touch to an intense day of talks!

  • By turklis1, November 7, 2010 @ 10:24 pm

    Hi David, thanks for the input. Again, to clarify or re-frame a bit, that is much of what I mean by academic is that they are lecture style presentations. To look at my own experience, I very much wondered if I was doing something wrong when I gave my first workshops at international conferences as I was the only one getting the participants involved. From the slightly strange looks I often get, I’d say that it’s not what they are used to either. I even had a pair of students once tell me that their instructor told them never to involve participants in a conference presentation and they were very surprised that I had.

    I agree, I think we can and do take something away from lectures. Yet, isn’t there a contradiction there? I mean, we say don’t lecture in the class, but then we do it when teaching each other. Not too long ago I was talking to a pair of trainers for the faculty of the University of Minnesota and they told me that there is loads of research showing improved memory, improved pass rates, and higher student satisfaction from interactive, student-centered classes. I have never thought student-centered learning was relevant only to ELT and according to these trainers, it’s not.

    When was the last time you saw a presentation at a conference on how to give a good lecture? I don’t think it would even cross most people’s minds, because its something we almost take for granted that people should rarely do in the class. So then, again, why do we do it? You go to a CELTA or TESOL course and demonstrating the techniques and practices you are advocating is a requirement, a requirement that gets left at the door of the conferences I’ve been to, despite Gavin’s claims to the contrary.

    I think irrelevance is partly the fault of the organizers as well. I’ve presented at conferences where I wasn’t even told the theme of the conference or the level of students generally taught until days before. Sometimes a theme is thrown together 2 days before the conference and then we’re supposed to magically make it fit even though they’ve already posted the subject of our workshop. So, this is partly the problem as well.

    Yeah, some teachers definitely don’t like the do the interactive bit. But I think to really get a feel for an activity you have to run through it with the group. Especially if you are doing a workshop for children’s teachers, unfortunately, you’ll be running through childish activities. I’ve noticed in my training that if you don’t run through it with the participants, they don’t get a feel of how it works and there are very high failure rates in the classroom when they try them. The trick is to treat the participants as adults but get them to enjoy participating anyway. Definitely not something easy to do I think. One way I’ve found that seems to work well for me is whipping through the activity and moving on to discussing it more. Also, perhaps modifying the content to make it interesting to adults and then discuss substitutions that would work for the age of students they teach.

    That’s great to hear your school listens to feedback and changed things. I think pooling resources within is often much more practical and beneficial than flying in someone not familiar with the context. Sometimes the best “workshops” I had at my school were simply share sessions whether it was materials or experiences.

    Yeah, you’re right with the Henry brothers. Maybe engaging the audience rather than interacting with them would be a better way of describing it, but I think the Henry Brothers are often hired for that entertainment level more than anything. They are a good pair to kick off or end a conference with, that’s for sure :)

  • By Darren Elliott, November 8, 2010 @ 4:41 am

    C’mon Nick, do you really need someone to tell you what to do in class on Monday morning? It’s a bit short-termist, isn’t it? Yes, some practical ideas are very useful, but personally I like to mix it up with something a bit more reflective, a bit more theoretical. I hear the complaints about irrelevance, but it is your job to meet the presenters halfway, to dig out HOW it might be relevant to your context. No thank you to spoonfeeding…..

    I don’t want anyone to read their statistics to me for half an hour, but that’s not because I don’t like research, it’s because I don’t like it presented in a dull and unengaging manner. One of the worst presentations I ever saw was a string of classroom activities – all perfectly useable on a Monday morning, but also things I had already figured out after a month of teaching.

  • By Adam, November 8, 2010 @ 10:11 am

    So much depends not only on the time of day but also on which day of a conference the session is. What you can tolerate/deal with at 10:00 am on day one is a lot different to what your brain can take at 17:00 on day three. This practicality, i.e. that conference goers are human beings who get physically and mentally knackered over the course of the event is massively overlooked. This is a shame when it should be such a fundamental consideration.

    I’ve been given some absolutely rotten times to give fun, tefl-tastic workshops (just after lunch) as often as I’ve had lousy time-slots to present heavy data-laden research results (17:30 on the final day of a three-day event). What on earth is wrong with conference organisers?

    There is a time and place for all sessions, but I’d love organisers to be (more) aware of what kind of session will be well-received when.

  • By turklis1, November 8, 2010 @ 10:29 pm

    Hi Darren, you’re definitely right. But I also think you know what I’m getting at here. Even if you’re giving research or theory, it should be given in a way that reflects our teaching beliefs. One good way of doing that is to run through activities. Workshops on drama should involve drama just as workshops on motivation should be motivating, for example.

    This is really my biggest complaint in this regard. Sitting through lectures on learner-centered teaching, lectures on motivation that bored me to tears, lectures on engaging students that had me constantly debating sneaking out. It’s this constant do what I say, not what I do approach.

    But, I should be more constructive and clearer here as well rather than just whining :) Rather than present research, why not give it to the participants and then have them interpret it for you, adding in their own reflections on how it relates to their students.

    Same thing with theory. I don’t need to know the history of task-based learning. In fact I really don’t care who invented it or when or what its theoretical predecessors were. How about give it to us (for me, preferably in activity form) and then lets run some guided discussions, create our own activities based on it, or something else along those lines.

    Still, even if I had to sit through a bunch of activities I found useless, I’d give props for at least trying to run the workshop in a non-lecture format as it shows me they practice what they preach. I’ve watched far too many presentations by people with Master’s or Doctorate’s after which I said to myself, “I would never hire that person as a teacher.”

    Again though, good point that not everything useful on Monday morning makes a good workshop. I’d be curious to know how many teachers are looking for that though. How many teachers prefer theory-heavy lectures and how many prefer practical activities at conferences. I do believe the scale slides towards the latter. Someone should do a Twitpoll :)

  • By turklis1, November 8, 2010 @ 10:34 pm

    Hi Adam, glad to have saved your comment from the spam bin :) I yelled at Aksimet for you.

    Interesting point on the timing. I agree with you, but I think it’d be quite hard from an organizational perspective to make that work and double check that everyone had optimal presentation times for their workshop material. Maybe if you could state a preference or recommended time on the application?

    One thing I’ve learned from conferences is to always clearly state in your abstract if people are expected to participate a lot or not as that will insure people are ready and interested in that. Also, anything at night on the last day is a wash. Not too many are gonna stick around :)

  • By DavidD, November 9, 2010 @ 10:15 pm

    Hi Nick,

    You make a good point that more training guidance is needed on how to run workshops. Many people probably come up with lecture style ‘talks’ because they’ve had it all thrust upon them with little or no help, similar to the way employess who know a bit of English get asked to translate lengthy business letters.

    My road into workshops has kind of reflected my early days as a teacher. I’ve had to find my own way around and move from delivering content centred very much on me to encouraging my learners/participants to generate thier own personalised content. As for running through ‘childish’ activities, I’ve recently added a meditation style ‘imagine you are a 10 year-old….’ feature to my workshops.

    One final word on the Henry Brothers: they did a session at the TED Conference last year and were followed by a guy giving a talk entitled ‘Promoting Critical Thinking Skills in an Exam Driven Educational System2. His opening line was “Oh, crap! How the hell am I supposed to hold your interest for an hour after the Henry Brothers?” At the very least, he got a laugh for that comment.

  • By John Henry Moorcroft, January 17, 2011 @ 11:02 pm

    Hi this is John “Henry” . Paul and I would just like to say thanks to Nick and David for your kind words. We do set out to give people a good time, get them out of their seat a little and give them some stories, poems and activities to try out themselves. As Adam says, a good conference needs a variety of pace, and definitely some jumping around at various points during the day to keep people’s energy levels up. And we’re happy to do it!! Hope to see you all during spring 2011. John

  • By turklis1, January 23, 2011 @ 2:21 am

    Hi John, your plenaries are always a lot of fun. It’s why you are famous in ELT throughout Turkey :)

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