TESOL Thoughts

Reflections on Teaching and Learning

On Concrete Takeaways

By Matthew Noble

At first I tried to choose a single presentation, event, or moment from TESOL16 to write about here. I racked my brain and retread the padlet I’d made. All in vain. Why? It wasn’t because there weren’t presentations, events, or moments that were meaningful and memorable. It was just that my attempt to unyoke and then select an event among a discrete number of events was an unconsidered reflex. Then a twitter conversation with @uncoeuraweigh, @michaelgriffin and others reminded me that it’s simply not in harmony with how I actually experience and like to think about teaching conferences in the first place.

I believe the conversation was sparked by Mike’s blogpost deconstructing the notion of ‘concrete takeaways’ in conference presentations being important. I resonate with everything he said there and I’d extend it, in spirit, to entire conferences. In doing so I’m not attempting some kind of nihilistic or apathetic negation – far from it. Instead I’m making a claim about the nature of the truly important ‘takeaways’: they’re anything but concrete and it’s in their very nature not to be easily objectified. I think they’re as often creative destabilizers than something that comes along and directly strengthens what you do on Monday morning.

For some reason as I write this I’m heading Diane Larsen-Freeman’s voice in my head. This is what she’s saying:

There is a need to move beyond input-output metaphors to embrace …complexity theory with its ecological orientation – one of affordances. Affordances are two-way relationships between the teacher and the environment. Affordances afford opportunities for action on the part of teachers, provided that the affordances are perceived by teachers. In this way, teachers create their own affordances. Thus, affordances restore agency to teachers. This also partially explains why teachers’ developmental patterns are different.

That’s from her iatefl plenary abstract but I changed ‘learners’ to ‘teachers’. The ‘presentation/conference takeaway’ thing has the distinct flavor of the input-output perspective, and it feels too simplistic. Not unlike how the dynamics in a lot of conference sessions feel. Mike writes: “I think if we are going to gather together the best use of teachers’ time is probably not listening to one person describe an activity”. Feryok (2010) writes: “Teachers sharing common experiences may…share an ‘attractor state’ with stable cognitions”.

Just in case you’re still waiting for my ‘takeaway’ from TESOL 2016, that was it. That, and Jeremy Harmer saying 999 forgettable things and then saying “After asking a question, wait. Just wait! Wait a bit longer. Because the best language practice the students get in class takes place in their heads”. That hundreth thing Harmer said, I also took away.

I loved TESOL16 in Baltimore. Bring on TESOL17 in Seattle!

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