IH Director of Studies Conference 2015

From the 8th-10th January 2015, I was lucky enough to attend the International House Director of Studies (DoS) conference at Devonport House, Greenwich. As with most conferences, there was a lot to think about, and the conversations between the sessions were just as useful as the sessions themselves, including many things I can build on over the next year, I hope! Watch this space ūüėČ

Here are some of my highlights from the sessions:

Maureen McGarvey – Doublespeak, Disconnect and Blah, Blah, Blah…

Maureen’s talk was focussed on the language we use as managers, how it is interpreted by teachers, and some of the particularly annoying phrases we should try to get rid of. Many of these became catchphrases of the conference, mentioned again and again, and even featuring in some of the team names for¬†the quiz. Here are some of the phrases she highlighted:

It’s developmental.

You’re the first person I thought of.

I sent you an email about this last week.

Customer journey

Managing expectations

Her advice is:

  • don’t use empty phrases, as they’re often lies (It’s not really developmental – I just can’t find anybody else to do it!);
  • make sure that what you’re saying is truly sincere, and that you’re not just saying it;
  • be precise: when we are not precise enough, anything we say can be seen as meaningless;
  • avoid patronising people – they can see through your language;
  • remember what it’s like to be a teacher! What they really want to hear is “I trust you.” and “I sincerely have confidence in you.”

Shaun Wilden and Nikki Fortova – Coming soon to a classroom near you…

Shaun and Nikki¬†showed us how to use the iMovie¬†app on an iPad to create fun trailers with your students. If you don’t have access to¬†iPads, you could also use Mozilla PopcornMaker or WeVideo on Android. Students could also use their own iPads. Shaun told us about the ‘guided access‘ function which you can use to lock the iPad on a single app if you want them to use the teacher’s one.

They suggested creating trailers as part of a task-based lesson, with the main language practice being done during the planning and collaboration stage rather than in the trailer itself. Another alternative would be to have a competition with students creating trailers to advertise the school. The Learning in Hand blog has planning templates, and links to examples of trailers made by students. I’ve also found this step-by-step guide to¬†using iMovie trailers in class.

To show us how easy it is¬†to make a trailer, we had 20 minutes to produce one for the 2016 IH DoS conference in groups of 8. My tip would be to watch the trailer structure before you start planning, as this will give you a better idea of what the final result should look like, then use the planning sheet, then come back to the app. Unfortunately, our group ran out of time, but I can certainly say there was lots of language and it was great fun! Here’s one from a group that did finish:

Alastair Grant – Keeping your teachers at the cutting edge of teacher training (and thereby keeping your teachers)

Alastair is the DoS at IH Montevideo, a school which I think I have a lot to learn from. They provide teacher training courses for schools across Uruguay, including a highly respected two-year degree¬†and academic consultancy. I’m pretty sure Alastair and other teachers at IH Montevideo would be happy to talk to you about it if you have questions ūüôā

Speed dating

This was a return to a successful format which was tried for the first time last year. This time 7 presenters, including me, gave 15-minute talks to small audiences sat around tables, one per speaker. At the end of each 15-minute slot, the speaker moved to the next table, meaning they did each presentation four times, and each audience saw 4 of the 7 presentations.

My talk was inspired by a question from Daniel Miller, the DoS at IH Quito, on the IH DoS forum. He asked us to suggest ways to help new teachers settle in. My reply was so long that I thought it was perfect for a speed dating session¬†ūüôā Here’s an 8-minute recorded version of the talk which I did the next day.

Sandy presenting at the speed dating
Sandy presenting at the speed dating

Anthony Gaughan – The Se7en Deadly Sins of ELT

This was the second time I’ve seen this talk. The first was at IATEFL Glasgow – here are my tweets from the session¬†from 2012, going in reverse order (press CMD/CTRL + F and search for ‘Gaughan’ to go straight to the relevant section).

Anthony is a very entertaining speaker, with a lot of ideas to make you think. The sins he discussed were:

  1. Drilling
  2. Translation and use of the L1
  3. Students using dictionaries in class
  4. Teacher explanations
  5. Reading texts aloud in class
  6. Telling students they are wrong
  7. Teacher talk time

He asked us what problems people have with each sin, then went on to debunk some of the myths that surround them and offer ideas for how they can make our teaching more time efficient and effective.

Michael Hoey – All in the Mind: Corpus linguistics and lexical priming

I’ve never seen anybody move quite so much while presenting as Michael Hoey! The energy he put into his talk was amazing, and, somehow, he managed to get through 289 slides in 50 minutes without it feeling rushed or dull – well done, that man!

You can watch Michael Hoey’s IATEFL 2014 plenary on a similar subject below, or by following this link.

I’ve heard the term ‘lexical priming’ being bandied about for a while, but I didn’t really understand what it meant until I heard Hoey speak about it. Essentially, it is the way that we store lexical items (words or phrases)¬†in our brain, and the information about those¬†items which we automatically store alongside them, for example:

  • collocations (‘a word against’);
  • semantic associations (knowing that it’s normally used with sending and receiving communication – ‘hear/say a word against’);
  • pragmatic associations (normally denial – ‘wouldn’t hear a word against’, and hypothetical –¬†‘wasn’t prepared to say a word against’).

This information then ‘primes’ us to use the lexical item again within similar constraints, namely with the same collocation/semantic association/pragmatic association. Repeated exposure to the item, and negative evidence about what is not acceptable (e.g. ‘drinked’ to a child or L2 learner) helps us to refine our use of each piece of lexis. That’s a lot of information for our students to learn and store, and a lot of repetition required to get there!

The theory seems to make a lot of sense to me, and is something I’d like to find out more about. I also started noticing instances of ‘priming’ around me all the time, which I’d never thought about before.

Lou McLaughlin – Managing Cognitions in the Workplace

This was a talk which I didn’t really understand from the title, then spent the whole thing¬†figuratively nodding my head, and wondering how I could apply it in my training courses!

Lou¬†used Borg’s (2003)¬†definition of cognitions as ‘beliefs, understanding and knowledge’, which I shortened in my head to ‘beliefs’, as it helped me to understand the idea, although I know Lou would probably cringe at that! Her talk was about the potential disconnect in the relationships between various people in the workplace due to their cognitions, for example:

  • teachers and DoSes: teachers might not agree with the way the DoS thinks things should be done, and vice versa;
  • front-of-house¬†and management: the ideas management have about school culture may not be fully understand by front-of-house staff, which can be a particular problem when they are selling the courses – Lou gave¬†an example of receptionists saying that YL students ‘play games and do colouring’ with no real understanding of what happened in the classes and how learning takes place there;
  • trainees and trainers: trainees can be very resistant to ideas presented by trainers, making it harder for them to meet the requirements of a course and/or making them unlikely to get anything from it¬†because of the conflict with their beliefs, so they reject it automatically.

This talk is one I think (hope!) I’ll have in the back of my head during any future training course, as well as if and when I work as a DoS again. Lou suggested mentioning the idea of cognitions explicitly on the first day of a training course, and acknowledging immediately that some of the ideas may conflict with trainees’ beliefs, but that they should still consider them and not reject them outright. I’d be interested to see whether this idea works, and have asked Lou for suggestions about how to do this. She’s also an advocate of a ‘whole-school’ approach, where admin are as much a part of CPD and training as the teachers are – I believe this is the only way to have a great school.

Andrew Walkley – Part 1: The questions we ask

Andrew’s talk at the DoS conference last year¬†was one which really got me thinking, so I was pleased that he was given the opportunity to extend on the theme in two 90-minute workshops at this year’s conference.

‘The questions we ask’ was centred on the idea of making our questioning more reflective of real life, and thereby allowing breakdowns in interaction¬†to happen, which provide an¬†opportunity for real learning to¬†take place. For example, rather than using traditional¬†CCQs¬†to check vocabulary concepts, we can ask questions that encourage students to actually¬†use the language, or respond to it in some way that would demonstrate their understanding, e.g. you’ve taught the word ‘binge’ and you ask ‘What other things can you binge on?’ If the students say ‘dancing’, they’ve probably misunderstood. This also helps them to find out about acceptable collocations, and gets them using the language in sentences immediately.

There was an analysis of¬†the input related to questions and question formation in three coursebooks, highlighting that many books include lots of examples which don’t really reflect real-life usage, but are instead focussed on manipulation of the question form. Andrew, of course, promoted Outcomes¬†[affiliate link], the series¬†he wrote with Hugh Dellar, as an example of books which have natural questions ūüėČ

Andrew discussed how we can make the questions¬†we focus on in class more useful and more relevant to real life. For example, when we¬†prepare to ask students ‘What did you do at the weekend?’, we should consider common responses and the kind of language we can teach to extend the conversation, so if they answer ‘I went shopping’, we can teach them clothes, things, compliments… Gradually, students will produce longer, more natural-sounding conversations in collaboration with each other.

He also advocated practising language with the most common associated question forms, e.g. we should spend roughly 80% of our time on present perfect questions practising the ‘Have you been…?’ construction, since it’s by far the most common.

One of the best points from the questions part of the workshop was that in real life, it’s unusual for you to get the response ‘Ask a partner’ or ‘What do¬†you think?’ when you ask a question, so we should just answer our student’s questions if it would be more natural to do this!

The end of the workshop was about questions we can ask for reflection on our lessons. I think these would make a really good post-TP (teaching practice) reflection task for CELTA trainees:

Andrew Walkley –¬†Part 2: The words we teach

Andrew and Hugh are firm believers in the lexical approach, and to start this session, Andrew gave us a simple question to make our teaching more lexically minded:

What vocabulary did you/are you going to teach today?

For me, the most striking thing from this talk was the idea of collocations of collocations, and the different ‘networks’ that can be associated with words. If we teach in lexical sets, we often focus on the words in isolation, but consider the words and phrases that you would associate¬†with ‘old car’ and ‘new car’ and how different these might be. Andrew said it’s important to teach the words around the words you’re teaching, since it can be difficult to turn a lexical set into real/natural usage, particularly because of this problem of the differing networks of words around them.¬†He¬†used a great metaphor for the way we acquire and store lexical items¬†by comparing¬†them to shoes: you¬†normally store them in one place, but you acquire them at different times in different places, and not always in a planned way.

Because coursebooks are unlikely to change, we need to learn to exploit the language they include, particularly in the texts they contain. Training ourselves and our teachers to identify the frequency of language is a good first step, as purely by discussing frequency we start to notice the language which appears around our target items. You can also think about exactly why words are more or less frequent, particularly if we think something appears more/less frequently than it actually does. He recommended three sites to help us identify frequency:

  • Phrases in English – a concordance¬†search showing frequency per million of the search item at the top of the page;
  • Red Words Game on the Macmillan Dictionary site – a game to identify frequency based on the Macmillan star system, used throughout their dictionary;
  • Compleat Lexical Tutor frequency trainer – another game to identify frequency, this time based on where it appears in a list from most to least frequent (e.g. top 2000, 3000-5000 etc).

He offered some ideas for activities you can use in the classroom to take advantage of the lexis in a text or to encourage SS to notice the networks around words:

  • Challenge students to remember the co-text around words you’ve recently taught, e.g. “____ ______ advantage ____ _____ lexis ____ ____ text”
  • Take key words or phrases out of a text, and use this as a prompt for SS to remember the whole text. SS could also select the lexis to do this themselves.
  • Create questions using the new vocabulary, e.g. How do you know when someone is¬†angry? Why else might you feel¬†exhausted? These questions can also be used as revision in the next lesson.
  • Create a gapfill, where the gaps are not the TL (target language), but other frequent words in its network, e.g. You must be really¬†pleased you ______ your driving test. They have to process the meaning of the TL correctly to know what to write in the gap.

One way to create our own lexical sets, rather than relying on lists in coursebooks, is to create our own text, then consider how the language could be edited. Andrew gave the example of a story which starts “I was robbed on holiday.” This generates a completely different, and probably far more practical and useful, set of lexis than just teaching ‘crime’ vocabulary would.

Andrew and Hugh have recently launched lexicallab, where you can find out more about their ideas and their work.

[Those two sessions should probably be a post in themselves!]

Beverly Whittall and Jenny Bartlett – DoS Survival Skills: Reflective Practice in Management

This was my final talk of the conference, and was a good place to end as it led into my post-conference reflection, of which this post is just a small part.

Beverly and Jenny recommended factoring in time to reflect on our management practices and on particular incidents in our working week, in the same way that we would encourage teachers to reflect on their teaching. One of my favourite questions from the session was:

Is this a 10-minute problem?

If we’re busy, rushing to class or trying to get things done, and a teacher comes to us with a problem that’s going to take more than 10 minutes, we can’t listen to them properly. We need to schedule a proper time to listen, and choose the correct place – in the corridor on the way to class might not be appropriate! This shows that we respect our teachers, and want to listen to them properly. By reflecting on and trying to improve our listening skills, we can act as role models, and perhaps show our teachers how to listen more effectively to their students.

We also need to notice good things that are happening in the school, and encourage teachers to share them, rather than only focussing on problem areas.

Their most important tip, though, was that we should take time for ourselves, and make sure we relax. Here’s a poster of 50 ways to take a break¬†which I really like:

50 ways to take a break poster

On that note, I’ll finish this post, and I’m looking forward to next year already!

(P. S. This was my second DoS conference – you can also read about my first DoS conference.)

7 thoughts on “IH Director of Studies Conference 2015

  1. Hi Sandy – we had a lot of similar highlights. I’m still trying to process all the information but your summary is a great help ūüôā Thanks for sharing and it was good to put a face to the name – we sat next to each other at lunch on Friday!


  2. Hi Sandy,

    This post directed me to some interesting videos. And I really love the 50 ways to take a break poster. I think I’ll use it in class tomorrow. ūüôā Thanks for sharing.


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