Apr 13, 2014

To confer or to concur?

Image by @sandymillin
via eltpics on Flickr
For the first time since it was last held in Harrogate (2010), I didn’t go to the annual IATEFL conference this year and - like thousands of other English teachers who couldn’t afford to go to the largest EFL conference in the world - settled in comfortably in front of my computer to watch it online. All plenary talks and selected presentations are streamed live on the IATEFL online website thanks to the partnership between IATEFL and the British Council. I was particularly looking forward to the talks by Prof Michael Hoey on 4 April ("Old approaches, new perspectives" - click HERE to watch the recording) and Prof Sugata Mitra on 5 April ("The future of learning"- click HERE for the recording) and highly recommended them to all my students (teacher candidates).

With Prof M. Hoey at the Lexical Conference
in London, May 2013 (Photo by Ela Wassel)
Michael Hoey's theory of lexical priming, which grew out of his work with the renowned linguist John Sinclair, offers a compelling view of how language works, a view which stands in direct opposition to that of Chomsky but which, unlike that of Chomsky, never gained wide currency in ELT circles. Besides being a distinguished scholar, Hoey is also a brilliant speaker who delivered the plenary with his characteristic wit. According to posts on Twitter from those in the audience (my live feed cut out at that moment) he even mentioned the special edition of HLT Hania Kryszewska and I put out last year as one of the key works in the history of the Lexical Approach which made me very happy and proud. In his talk, Hoey used evidence from corpus linguistics to provide support for the claims made by Stephen Krashen and Michael Lewis whose Monitor Model and Lexical Approach respectively have attracted a number of adherents as well as a number of detractors. In other words, very controversial figures.

However, the real controversy was saved till the last day of the conference when Sugata Mitra took to the stage. Famous for his ‘hole-in-the-wall’ project (where children in an Indian slum were given access to a computer built into - literally – a hole in the wall and taught themselves how to use it and picked up English along the way), Sugata Mitra presented his vision of future learning known as minimally invasive education where children can learn without professional support or supervision. While reactions from those – like me - watching the plenary online were, in the main, positive, Twitter was awash with criticism and even fury. Here are some comments posted on Twitter by those in the audience:

After the plenary the debate spilled over onto Facebook where it is still raging to this day. Sugata Mitra has been called "a manipulative money grabber",  "snake-oil salesman", "a madman with a microphone and money" and his rhetoric described as over-ideaistic, neo-liberal and dangerous. (Clicking on these links will take you to various blog posts and comments written in response to Mitra's talk).

Should teachers be taken out of the equation?
Prof Sugata Mitra at the 48th IATEFL conference in Harrogate
Interestingly, these reactions come mainly from ELT methodologists, coursebook writers and well-known bloggers (or, in Paul Read’s terms “gods and demi-gods of TEFL”) rather than from the general public who gave Mitra a standing ovation. In fact, some have called into question the IATEFL’s decision to invite such a provocative speaker to the conference, seeing it as an affront to teachers, most of whom fund their own way to travel from four corners of the world to the most prestigious ELT event of the year.

A number of blog posts written in the past week in response to Mitra’s plenary, as one witty TEFL-er mentioned on Facebook, has probably exceeded the body of Mitra’s own academic work. And this brings me to the main point of this post (I wasn’t going to summarise the talks here - IATEFL's registered bloggers have already done it for me). Is it all worth the ink, as it were? The outrage in the blogosphere about Mitra's plenary surprises me.

Do we go to conferences to hear things that we like to hear? Or do we want speakers like Sugata Mitra (and Michael Hoey) to help us take stock of our teaching, re-evaluate what we do in the classroom and, generally, shake us up a little? After all, the word “conference” comes from the verb “confer” suggesting discussion and an exchange of opinions. Shouldn't, then, the annual IATEFL conference be a forum for exchanging and sharing ideas and opinions where speakers provoke thought and push the audience's buttons?

By this standard, Michael Hoey’s talk should have also provoked a backlash from coursebook writers and publishers. As a matter of fact, he shouldn’t have been invited at all to a conference which relies heavily on sponsorship from the publishers because the “holistic” view of language he advocates goes against the conventional (and outdated) grammar/vocabulary dichotomy enshrined in most textbooks published today.

Not less surprising is the conspicuous absence of blog posts about Michael Hoey’s talk. I couldn’t even find any summary reports from the official IATEFL bloggers. The only reaction – critical, by the way – was written by Geoff Jordan in his blog.

Perhaps it’s because Michael Hoey’s session was not about technology, learning styles or critical thinking but merely about… language. Yes, that's what the second letter in ELT or the fourth in TEFL stands for, that trivial thing that seems to have ceased to interest language teachers today.

Click HERE for Graham Stanley's balanced summary of Sugata Mitra's talk and a long list of other blog posts written in response to it in the Further Reading section at the bottom


  1. An Excellent and reasoned blog, Leo. You are quite right: if conferences are for anything then it is to stimulate debate like this. If Mitra is wrong, then it is the debate and hopefully the research which comes out of his plenary at IATEFL2014 that will prove him so. If he is right, likewise.
    I also wholeheartedly agree with your comments about Michael Hoey's wonderful (and more important) plenary. Perhaps when all the present fuss has died down there will be time to digest what he said in a calm and considered fashion.
    Thanks again for bringing a slice of balance to the table!

    1. Hi Chris,
      Thank you for stopping by.
      I watched both talks online and if I hadn't been following the comments on Twitter at the same time I wouldn't have found anything provocative about Mitra's talk. I guess online streaming makes all the difference.

  2. hi leo,

    i think some people like the drama and sensationalizing and the blog hits :)

    for example my post was also about another of the speakers david gradoll and i contrasted him to the TED slickness of sugata mitra, though you chose to pick a quote from a commenter to my post that came sometime after the initial reactions from last Saturday. makes your post somewhat less balanced than it may seem :)

    be interested in what you make of my criticism re out of school factors on school achievement?


    ps commenting on here is still a pain had to try 2 browsers before chrome let me comment! when u going to go to wordpress?

    1. Hi Mura,
      I wasn't going for "balanced" (I like to throw in a bit of controversy myself now and again :) Nor was I trying to be pro or con. I just couldn't understand what the outcry is all about. I'll give your post another read.

      Thank you for your comment.

      P.S. Having just experienced what managing a Wordpress site is like, I'd say Never :)
      I am surprised you're having such difficulties. Sorry.

  3. Hi
    Thank you for your bold comments on the responses of some people who seem to be frightened by Mitra's presentation at IATEFL 2014.. You have raised very pertinent questions: "Do we go to conferences to hear things that we like to hear? Or do we want speakers like Sugata Mitra (and Michael Hoey) to help us take stock of our teaching, re-evaluate what we do in the classroom and, generally, shake us up a little?" We do expect the annual IATEFL conference to be a be an international 'forum for exchanging and sharing ideas and opinions where speakers provoke thought' and prompt us to look at ELT from diverse perspectives.
    It is really strange that some of the enlightened ELT specialists were caught unaware by Mitra's presentations. It seems that they were not aware of Mitra's talks at http://www.ted.com/talks/sugata_mitra_the_child_driven_education which has more than 1892045 total views till date.
    Mitra's presented his vision of future learning on the basis of his experiments done in various parts of the world. What he stated in the Conference is based on documentary evidences which some people may consider to be "too good to be true."

    1. Thank you for your comment.
      I am sure most have seen Sugata Mitra's TED talks. I guess when the same things are said at a teachers' conference they can be construed differently. But again, as I said in the reply to the comment above, I am not taking sides on the issue I just expressed my surprise at the controversy his talk stirred up.

  4. Thank you so much for this blog. I, too, remained flabbergasted at some of the responses to Mitra's presentation. I wrote to Facebook suggesting that quite a few people did not have seemed to listen attentively to what he said - and what he did not say. And your blog also demonstrates to me the inappropriateness of teh IATEFL Facebook editor banning blogs by members.

  5. I don’t get it. Sugata Mitra did some experiments with learners and he then talked about the results of his experiments. What is so wrong with that? And speaking about conferences, remember when they used to be about people sharing ideas about teaching instead of arguing about them? Are we really in a post-method world? Is it just about learning how to apply existing methodology to new media? Do we already know the best ways to teach? I think that Hoey and Mitra suggested that we may not. I think it’s time we got off our collective asses and our mobile devices and took a long hard look at the way that we are teaching.

    1. Hi Ken,
      I am glad we are on the same page there. Nothing to add, really...

  6. Um, actually, I am a registered blogger and I summarised Michael Hoey's talk:


    1. Hi Lizzie,
      Sorry, my bad. A quick look at some registered blogs - there were so many this year :) - drew a blank. I must have missed yours. My apologies.

      I repost your link here

      and will tell all my students to go over to your blog to help them better understand the talk (Lexical priming and, of course, Krashen are in our syllabus)

    2. :) No worries.
      Great post by the way - I fully concur (!) that IATEFL should be sparking off debate; I even encouraged it in my post-IATEFL round-up post - that we keep challenging each other so that our views don't become dusty and entrenched.
      Hoey's talk was very interesting, I thought. (I've heard him discuss his theory at s MATSDA conference previously, but understood it better this time round)

  7. Hi Leo,
    Thanks for sharing your views on this.
    I'm very glad IATEFL decided to invite speakers that promote debate. As far as I'm concerned, that's the whole point of a plenary, and one of the things I'm looking for at a good conference. I was at Mitra's plenary, and couldn't get on the wifi at the time, so was very surprised at the backlash when I managed to log on later in the day. I missed Hoey's plenary as it was the day after my birthday and I'd decided to take it slow ;) but it's on my list of things to catch up on, and I will almost certainly be blogging about it when I eventually get to it. It's recommendations like yours that help me realise what I missed, even though I was there.

    1. Hi Sandy,
      Yes I was surprised that I wasn't seeing your tweets in the feed.
      Having your birthday at the time of IATEFL must have made it super extra special. TESOL France often falls on mine and I'll hope you make it there one day - they always have good plenary speakers.
      Thank you for your comment.
      Good to see you here!

  8. Hi Leo,

    Great blog post! I agree with your premise; in my view, a conference should leave the attendee wanting to know more. Upon return, s/he reads (or rereads)/views (or reviews) the research, discusses salient points with others, etc. I've only been to three IATEFL conferences and each has broaden my knowledge base, whether I agree or disagree with the main thesis.
    I saw Hoey's plenary and loved it. I took more notes during his plenary than the other two I saw combined. It was not Hoey's talk played into my own thinking; it was more that he (along with Kathleen Graves) forced me to think and rethink my teaching.
    I could stay for Mitra's plenary. Although I do not agree with all his points, he too gave me food for thought. The backlash seems to foster on one thing (will we or won't we need teachers in the future). As someone who has been in education for over 30 years, this question is not new. Just a few short years ago in America, big business thought they could run schools better than educators. Teachers became more like bank tellers to them. But, in the end, teachers survived; some of these schools have not. I don't think we need to be afraid of that message coming from Mitra, but look beyond that and ask if this project is scalable. Will it work outside of a poor, highly illiterate environment? That is what I took away from watching his plenary later.

    1. Thank you for your detailed comment, John.

      I must admit when I am at IATEFL I usually skip plenaries but this year when I was following the conference online I watched them - because that's what was streamed live. I am now catching up on recordings of parallel sessions.

      I am also not afraid of Mitra's vision of future. On the contrary I think it would benefit those in remote, impoverished areas or, as you said, illiterate environments. Besides, talks like this really force us to took a long hard look at the way that we are teaching, as Ken pointed out above.

  9. Hi Leo

    I'm a registered blogger and will cover Michael Hoey's talk when I can - thanks for the prompt:)

  10. Hi Leo,
    I have nothing to add to what has been said concerning the IATEFL conference, since I haven't seen either one of the talks discussed here. However, I do agree with the comments made about conferences in general. I also believe that conferences are a place to discuss, exchange ideas, open up to new ideas and not a place to hear our own views confirmed - no matter how our egos may like it. Which brings me to the lack of controversy at the recent Israeli ETAI conference - Rachel Segev Miller was seriously missing as were other talks about the place of language in literature or thinking - and no I haven't misplaced any words.
    Great log Leo - plenty to think about...

    1. Hi Dominique,
      Thank you for taking the time to comment.
      As conveners of the Spring ETAI conference we tried to ensure a variety of topics (and opinions). For example, in the afternoon there was a session on mLearning and a parallel "anti-tech" talk in the room next door. But then we were selecting from the proposals that we'd received and I also felt certain themes or topics were missing. As regards Rachel Segev Miller, a former colleague was raving about her presentation a couple of years ago and I hope I can listen to her myself if she decides to present at the summer conference.

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