Monday, 25 April 2016

Reflections on not going to IATEFL

Taken from
If you remember the movie Forrest Gump you'll recall that Tom Hanks managed to gormlessly turn up at key moments in US history. Unlike Forrest, I have somehow contrived throughout my career to miss out on key moments in ELT's recent history (though I am frequently gormless at the standard moments that I manage to turn up for). For instance, despite going to a lot of ELT talks in Dublin at the start of my career, I managed not to go when Scott Thornbury rocked up with his Grammar McNuggets. I arrived in Trinity College to do my masters shortly after David Little of Learner Autonomy fame had moved on and I became outraged about learning styles ages after Russ Mayne's IATEFL talk.

Continuing the pattern, I missed out on IATEFL this year. Judging from the reaction on Twitter, it looks like I missed out on a good one. Silvana Richardson's talk seems to have been the standout (Marek has a good overview of the online reaction to the talk). But as well as that, I'm raging to have missed out on talks by colleagues or the chance to chat in real life to people whose height I can only guess at. Fortunately, IATEFL have a really good website where you can watch loads of the talks (and then claim it as CPD). If you squint at your monitor and spend the whole talk trying to think of a smart question, you could almost be there.

The first one I watched was Silvana's talk on discrimination against 'Non-Native' teachers and found it really moving. A lot has been said on it already but what really struck me was the description of how teachers react to this discrimination. Some pretend to be 'native' while others avoid any mention of their background. I've expressed my outrage about this topic before but watching this talk alongside a 'non-native' teacher who is far more qualified than I am (and who has endured this kind of thing), I just felt really, really sad. A good chunk of people in our industry are either treated like shit or made to feel shit. We can do better.

Last year, in one of my writing classes, we were working on a group writing project. As it was a formative assignment, the topic for the writing project was fairly arbitrary (the year before, we did something on social media in education). I decided to take this native/non-native issue and set that as the topic. I thought it would be interesting for the students and also interesting to hear their perspective. The aim of the project was to write a short essay about which type of teacher was better suited to teaching English. I took a fairly hands off approach and simply guided them in terms of coherence and developing ideas. As it was a group writing project, I got to listen to them discussing their ideas as well as reading their final essay. I expected that from the start, they'd say 'natives' were preferable but that as they read a bit more, they might adapt their position. In fact, from the start, they disagreed with the idea that a 'native' teacher was always best and continued to do so until the end. Their views were far more nuanced than I had expected.

Not a very scientific bit of research, I'll admit, but it does make me question the notion that students are as in thrall to the 'native' tag as parts of our industry are (an interesting game to play - go to the 'About' sections on the homepages of these language schools in Dublin and see how far you get before depression at how many trumpet the nativeness of their teachers sets in - I managed 4 before I gave up).

I feel a bit bad about that last bit - it's a bit sarcastic and sneery. But I've decided to leave it in because I think that here in Dublin (and elsewhere) we do need to question the casual acceptance that 'native' is best. It exists. Before I got into blogging and tweeting and reading up on this a bit, I would have been just as guilty of trumpeting my 'nativeness'. That is why a talk like this is good. But I worry that here in Dublin, I'm not the only one missing out.


  1. Very interesting, mate. I'd love to hear more about the project and the essays. You could make an academic publication out of it. I remember a similar study done in the US. It'd be very interesting to analyse the data and see if it can be published. Let me know what you think.

  2. Thanks Marek. To be fair, it was fairly ramshackle - I would have planned it out a bit better had I thought about it more. But I think I have the essays saved somewhere in work so I'll check with students if I can share them. I think it would be an interesting project to repeat. I had tried the group writing project before and found it an effective writing pedagogical tool and when repeating it and casting around for topics, I thought it would be good to involve the students. Mostly, I was curious to find out what students think as their supposed prejudices are cited as reasons to hire only 'natives', which seems a bit unfair on them - so my aim wasn't too scientific - really just to get their take on things.

    1. Sure. Good to find out that they aren't as prejudiced as recruiters would have us believe. As Silvana points out in the plenary, there's no evidence in literature to suggest that the majority of students buy the native speaker fallacy. Would be great to actually record the sts too and analyse both essays and the conversations. Would make a very interesting paper.

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  4. Thanks for this. Agreed, it would make an interesting paper. For a talk on the latest research in TESOL Q on this whole area check out