Thursday, April 03, 2014

IATEFL Plenary: Kathleen Graves

I have been looking forward to Kathleen Graves plenary for the IATEFL conference in Harrogate (Thursday, 3rd April, 9.00 am UK time). Katherine wrote an excellent book, Teachers as Course Developers, that I devoured while I was studying my M.Ed. module on course development at the University of Manchester, UK

The research of Kathleen Graves mainly looks at "the role of classroom practice in curriculum renewal and supporting teachers’ professional development as central to successful educational and curricular reform." 

The title of Kathleen's IATEFL plenary is 'The efficiency of inefficiency: an ecological perspective on curriculum' and in the abstract, she talks about her talk referring to the move by many Ministires of Education in the world towards "a curriculum driven by efficiency", where the aim "is to get learners to learn as much as possible in as little time as possible with the fewest resources necessary." 

Kathleen first came across the phrase 'the efficiency of inefficiency' in the book God's Hotel by Victoria Sweet. In this book, efficiency experts visit the hotel and look at everything, but talk to nobody in an effort to examine the efficiency of the hospital. The experts decide that some of the best aspects of the hospital are those that are the most inefficient. The secret of patient care, argues the author, is inefficiency, and long term healing, not short term results are at the heart of patient care. 

This struck a chord with Kathleen, as she thinks the same is true in education, particularly in ELT. Efficiency seems to be a particular concern of Ministries of Education. Students feel they are being prepared for tests rather than prepared for life. The process of learning is not about efficiency, one that can be reduced to test scores, but it is a human dynamic, one that takes time.

Giving an example of a transcript of a teacher and student working through a problem, she points out that although what the teacher does is not efficient, the teacher creates an atmosphere where the teacher enables the learners to work things out for themselves. 

Kathleen believes just as "we can have a high standard of living, but a low quality of life", that when the aim of education is focused on standards, it is easy to lose sight of the long-term goal of education and it is better to have an ecological approach to the classroom (see image above) and learners should be active participants in the classroom. This is an environment where teachers and learners are engaged actively and which they define their own meaning to what they do. Rather than short-term results, the long-term education is the focus. And "learners are sources of knowledge as well as learners of knowledge."

Kathleen then shared a video of 10 year-olds taken in a classroom in Los Angeles, and asked the audience to look at the people and interactions, activities and autonomy and agency going on in the class. In the video, which initially is shown without sound, it is difficult for us to judge what is going on because language is missing from the picture. We are shown the video ('Out West' from a series Do you speak American?) again (this time with sound) and we notice a lot more about the classroom. Language plays a role on a social role, but it also plays a role on a symbolic level - the learners have their home language, which in this case is AAL (or AAVE), is something to value. The home language in this case is used as a basis for contrast with academic English in the video. 

The efficiency experts may question the value of teaching the learners to use the linguistic terms that describe the difference between AAVE and academic language, and Kathleen compares what is seen in the video with a typical exchange in a classroom that takes as its starting point that students are deficient because they use 'sub-standard language'. The problem with this approach is that it devalues the language of the students and ultimately, it devalues them. In the video, the students' own language is valued and they are able to use a meta-language to compare both varieties of language. 

As for results, the approach in the video showed the students made gains in social skills, in problem-solving, etc. These are gains that will serve the students in life, not just in school. Whereas, the other approach led to students asking fewer questions. The students knew they were going to be corrected and rather than risk embarrassment, the students became silent. The approach had the opposite effect to what was intended. Students had very little agency or autonomy - the expectations were that the students would repeat what was said and was thus very limited. The focus was on the end of result rather than the learner and on the long term.

Kathleen ended her plenary with a quotation from Leo van Lier (see image above), which she encouraged us to reflect on during the conference. 

What was said in Twitter during the plenary

Fewer conference participants are tweeting at the IATEFL conference this year, something I think which reflects a general drop in Twitter use in ELT (a shame, but this is for another post on another day). However, there were a few users giving interesting commentary during the plenary. I've included what I think are the best of these below.

Most tweets were similar to Marjorie Rosenberg's (i.e. quotations lifted from the talk), which are very useful as they cherry pick what Kathleen said. When people are tweeting in this way from a conference, it allows those who are not present to follow what is being said and to (albeit in a limited way) participate in the conference, even when there is no live stream. Hugh Dellar's comment, however, adds personal reflection to this and such it adds content to the plenary. Hugh wasn't the only one to do this (see image), with Jim Scrivener voicing doubts over Kathleen's drawing conclusions of what was seen in the video. 

A recording of the plenary was made, which you can watch on the IATEFL Harrogate Online website. It will also be embedded in this post (below) when ready.

Update (4/4/2014): the recording still hasn't been made available, which seems to indicate there may be a problem with it. 


  1. One of the reasons why fewer people are tweeting is almost certainly because the internet system at the convention has basically died - pretty much no-one can get access to the wifi, so it would only be people with a UK phone who can use 3G who will be tweeting.

  2. Thanks for that, Andy - it now makes a lot more sense. A pity that the wifi isn't working well as it would really change the dynamic of the conference

  3. Duncan Fitzhowle1:09 am

    The problem with the video is that Kathleen Graves hasn't given permission for it to be used or so I was told by the conference organisers when I asked why it was the only missing video. Mmmmm

  4. I would agree with Andy Hockley. I wanted so much to send more tweets about the conference to friends back in Malaysia, particularly on this talk by Kathleen Graves. I had to, however, rely on the poor wifi at the conference centre, and that didn't help. It's a pity indeed.

  5. Thanks for letting me know, Duncan - it would be a shame if the video were not made available, but I see that it seems unlikely that it will be now. Cindy, I remember that being a problem the last time IATEFL held a conference in Harrogate. Let's hope things are better next year, as increasingly, it is becoming an important way that conference delegates interact with each other and with others who are not physically present.