IATEFL Conference Fears #1


April 15, 2015 by helenwaldron

Dear Readers,

Facebook is full of photos showing teachers having fun at the IATEFL annual conference, so I feel a bit rotten writing about fear.

But I was surprised how often fear was mentioned in the few talks I could access on Sunday.

Take Jeremy Harmer’s talk: “Why Teachers Should Love Testing.” The Jeremy Harmer, who wrote the handbook introducing trainee teachers to the wonders of the English language teaching world, used in almost every teacher training course.

Writewell and I are lucky enough to do next to no testing . Our business clients don’t want to be tested, they just want to be good at their jobs. Most learners of English, however, don’t have this luxury. Testing is, and remains, a central part of learning and teaching and one which teachers and learners both generally dislike.

According to Mr Harmer, this is wrong. Tests are a proof of quality, nobody wants to be operated upon by a doctor who hasn’t passed his medical exams, and nobody wants to be in an aeroplane flown by a pilot who’s never passed his pilot test (there is a gap in the logic here). And nobody wants to employ a non-English speaker who once made a bad spelling mistake, I suppose.

Tests, he said, are effective because they force students to work hard. Tests prey on students’ fear of failure.

Errm. So that’s a good thing?

When Writewell and I test, it is normally in the form of assessment tests and at the request of HR, because previous trainers have done it and because HR likes to have figures on file. Testing may be a fact of life, but it is usually for someone else’s convenience, not the learner’s.

In adult and young adult education it is ineffective because testing tries to make language learning the centre of the learner’s world, whereas the truth is that learning English is often actually only a secondary issue, a necessary evil, on the way to a primary goal.

Jeremy Harmer argued that tests are getting better and better … algorithms are now more reliable than any humans….oh, and there’s a new test out by the company that paid his conference fees.

And it’s up to us teachers to make testing more sexy. We need to “get students to get inside the tests”, to get students to think about the design of tests, get students to organize their own test revision. All good stuff, but only necessary within the confines of testing in the first place.

He did mention that his own sponsors had created a new global scale of English to replace the old CEFR, which is good, because the old CEFR with its 3 levels, all highly open to interpretation, is not very adequate.

Then he berated us for our lack of courage. We are just being passive, we are fearful of change.

So there you have it, teachers too fearful to change a situation which would still be centred around learners being frightened into learning.

We were shown an inspirational clip of a brave little girl and told an anecdote about change and guitars.

Well, I’ve been rereading Harry Potter and I can tell you he doesn’t become a teacher at Hogwarts at the end of Volume Seven. Neville Longbottom does. And here at Speakeasy and Writewell our experience has been that courage isn’t the antidote to fear. The only way to dispel fear is by trust.

To lighten things up I’m including a clip of me in class, getting passionate about testing even before I take my hat and coat off. That’s Writewell on keyboards.

More fear tomorrow.

James Speakeasy


7 thoughts on “IATEFL Conference Fears #1

  1. […] whether to walk barefoot over a path of broken glass, or brave the quicksands next to the path. Fear? FEAR? Are you kidding me? I have PhD students who have done years of research, left home and hearth and […]


  2. Adam says:

    I don’t mind the CEFRL all that much; after all, it is and has only ever meant to be a guide on which to base things, rather than the be all and end all of level descriptors. The trouble is that in the vast majority of cases it has been taken as gospel. Virtually every major publisher is guilty of taking the framework too literally rather than going to the bother of considering how it might be interpreted in varying contexts.

    Liked by 1 person

    • helenwaldron says:

      Yes, you’re right, of course. The idea was good, but it quickly became a millstone because it was taken so literally (and yet remains so subbective) and – only having three levels – is often frustrating for the learners (it makes it even harder for them to see progress). It’s also hard for teachers dealing with students who are clearly put in the wrong level – it’s very hard to “tweak” students down a whole level. All in all, too reductive.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Adam says:

    I was talking about this with colleagues today; apparently the original intention was to have ten levels; pressure from publishers to have something that resembled the classic ‘elem/pre-int/int/upper’ formula brought about the levels we know and, er, love.

    Liked by 1 person

    • helenwaldron says:

      This is interesting. Ten levels wouldn’t have given outside stakeholders such an immediate idea of (supposed) student ability, but would have been kinder to students who feel so overwhelmed at the thought of progressing from an A2 to a B1 that they give up. Wasn’t self-motivation meant to be about setting small targets?

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Marc says:

    Excellent stuff, Helen. Nobody is scared of tests. They’re scared of paying the best part of fifty quid to spend an hour or two marking A, B, C or D because some gimp in HR wants a TOEIC score of 700 as threshold to promotion/pay rise. Teachers test anyway – can my student do X, Y or Z? OK, let’s move toward bettering those next lesson; if they’re fine, let’s tackle something else. Bloody nonsense. And cheers for The Associates!

    Liked by 1 person

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