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Neil McMahon’s “Professionally Developing” (Reflections on the August 2011 ABS International Conference, pt 1)

I’ve just got back from my first conference this year. Disgraceful, I know, considering it’s already August!  Actually, I’m very lucky to have made it to this one, the ABS International Conference for ELT Managers and Directors of Studies, just before I return to Britain next month, thanks to colleague Celeste Batto. And I’m very glad I did made it because it gave me the opportunity to finally meet one of my digital PLN in person.

Neil McMahon has been part of my PLN for a while now and it was great to finally meet someone who, up to now, had just been a small box on Twitter.  Neil was giving a talk on professional development which I really appreciated and I’ll tell you why: it confirmed I am on the right track more or less, it gave me more information on course options available for further development, it filled in some gaps in my knowledge and it has given me some direction and focus for my next teaching project.

Before I go into any more details I’ll come clean and say that this post, a review of the talk, is actually homework given by Neil – yes, there was homework!  Homework #3: “share the ideas in the conference with your peers”.  If I’m completely honest, Neil, I was going to write this anyway but it’s good to know I’ve got your blessing. 🙂

So a lot of avenues for professional development were covered, all of which I won’t go into here but one in particular that piqued my interest was action research.

Action Research

Time being short we had to choose from the handout what we wanted to know about in more detail (a dogme presentation of sorts?).  Along with many other attendees I raised my hand for ‘action research’, mainly because I had a vague idea about what it might be but really was just guessing.

So boiled right down, action research is a project whereby one specific ingredient in the class is added or changed to see if it has a measurable positive effect.  This one change must be based on a specific hypothesis or question with the goal of proving or disproving it after a set period of time, like a month or a semester.  Here is a silly, basic example:

“Will the giving of a cookie to everyone who arrives on time improve the timekeeping of my students?”

Ideally you would have two groups in similar need of improvement, one is asked to improve timekeeping and rewarded with cookies, the other is just asked to improve timekeeping.  This second group is the control group and at the end of the month or however long you choose, the two groups are compared to measure for change.

So why do I like this?

Students tend to have a beginning, a middle and an end; the end coming in the form of a certificate, big exam, dramatic production, etc.  However, teachers often don’t have this end.  Even a new year is often a repeat of the previous year and new students still need to prepare for the same old exams in many cases.  However, something like an action research project can provide that arc and closure to a period of teaching.  It also turns the teacher back into a far more active learner of their profession.  It provides a wonderful opportunity to inject some enjoyment and interest back into your teaching, especially if you are tiring from doing the same level/course year in, year out.  On top of all this, such a project can provide a finished product to be shared with your peers for them to read, consume, consider and benefit from.

One other excellent point raised was that such research lends itself to closer work and collaboration with colleagues as one of you might teach the control group while the other does the experimental teaching, with collaborative assessment, review and write up.  I look forward to an opportunity to implement this soon.

Twitter, Blogs and PLN

It was reassuring when Neil moved onto this topic and highly recommended it.  I’ve been convinced of the benefits and opportunities afforded us by these amazing tools, but it’s always nice to hear someone else champion the cause as well.  He mentioned the recent online debate about EFL teachers as professionals or tradesman.  I’ve got to own up and say I missed that discussion but an idea put forward in the talk was that professional development was the tool by which we as teachers continue to improve, stay fresh and keep our work interesting, both for ourselves and for our learners.  I’m not sure if this really addresses the question of professional vs tradesman as both, if they are dedicated, will continue to actively grow and hone their skills.  Another suggestion I found on Twitter from Neil was this,

twitter is the realm of the tradesman, perhaps you need to blog to let your professionalism out?

It is here where I will put forward an idea of my own, which might be a little controversial.  Twitter, blogs and a virtual PLN are professional development for people who are serious about professional development (PD), those who only do the conferences and leave it at that are falling short of how much they could be developing.  Please don’t misunderstand me here.  I like conferences.  I enjoyed this one.  I think they have an important place in PD.  However, even Neil McMahon in his talk admitted that sometimes the most rewarding parts of a conference are the chats we have and the connections we make during the coffee breaks.  Well, those chats and connections are my digital PLN on Twitter and the blogosphere and I’ve loved every minute of it!  (Thank you to all of you!)

I think what puts people off further PD through a virtual PLN is how time consuming it can become.  “I just never have time.” is something I’ve heard far too often.  Further to this, there is no certificate awarded for 10 hours spent reading teaching blogs or for contributing and debating on #eltchat.  I find the idea of certificates for a conference somewhat ridiculous to be honest.*  I got one from this ABS conference and it probably won’t make it into my suitcase for my return to Britain.  Not because I didn’t value the conference, far from it, but the conference is the start of a chapter in my professional development, not the end, so a certificate to say “Congratulations, you started!” seems to be rewarding achievement before it’s happened.

I thoroughly enjoyed this seminar by Neil McMahon (check out his blog here, A Muse Amuses) and the whole conference in fact.  From the 15 pages or so of notes I’ve got plus a list of websites to get further handouts and view presentations again, I’ve got a lot to think about, consume and try out.  Thank you Neil and thank you Laura Lewin, coordinator of the event, for providing me with so many ideas to think about, organize and act on over the coming months of my teaching.

* I discussed this with a colleague of mine who informed me that career development and promotion for teachers in Argentina is based on a points system, these points being achieved by going to events such as these conferences or other extra-curricular activities.  Hence, the certificates act as necessary proof to aid career advancement.  OK, I understand the obsession over certificates that I’m seeing a little better now… however, I’m worried that it has moved the focus of PD from development of abilities to accumulation of certificates.

P.S.  Having read over my post I feel the need to make clear – this is definitely not an attack on conferences.  I’ll reiterate my point that Twitter, blogs and the virtual PLN define a teacher who is serious about professional development and that those who are only attending the odd conference and not following that up with one or all of these web tools are really kidding themselves.  This might seem harsh but I also reckon I’ll get away with it since anybody reading this blog, by definition, falls into my category of “serious about PD” 🙂

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Posted by on August 30, 2011 in Conferences, Reflections

 

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