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?
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