What follows is the text of a talk I just gave on the closing day of IATEFL 2014 in Harrogate, UK.
Hello, I’m Anthony.
Are you sitting comfortably? Good: then I’ll begin..
First things first: thank you for coming.
Some of you have come a very long way to be here.
You may have turned down other opportunities for spending your week.
You may have taken time off work to come here.
You may have had to negotiate with your husband, wife, partner, children, friends or employer to explain why spending your time here with us instead of there with them was a priority for you.
You have invested time and money in the hope of gaining something that turns out to be worth this investment of time and money.
This investment of hope.
I think we have all made this same investment.
But in making this investment, do we realize what we have done?
In coming here, we have tacitly taken on a role, at least for the moment, in a very particular narrative –
A narrative which says that development, in this case teacher development, resides somewhere distant from our daily work, or daily practice.
It is something that does not inhere in our daily practice; it is something separate from it.
Development in this narrative is something that, like the crock of gold at the end of the rainbow, needs to be sought, hunted down, in a place typically somewhere removed from our normal working space and time.
It is to be found only after a long and perhaps arduous journey – a quest, of a kind.
This narrative of development as a quest is very common as the basis of the fairy tale.
In most fairy tales, the young protagonist, usually through unfortunate change in circumstance, is forced out into the world to seek her or his fortune.
After many trials and tribulations, this bold adventurer succeeds in finding reward – usually a long time after leaving home in a place far, far away.
Sometimes they return to their point of origin bearing the scars of their journey and the bounty of their reward; sometimes they remain where they found their reward.
Either way, the promise is: after seeking their fortune, they live happily ever after.
Such narratives are important because they teach us that change – especially forced change – is a natural condition of life, and that by actively meeting it – especially on its own turf instead of our own – we have the chance of winning a great personal reward.
However, what we perhaps also learn from fairy tales is that rewards are never close at hand, never local, never something we have access to in our normal surroundings and circumstance.
This darker side to the narrative of fairy tales leads us to view personal growth as something for which we need to leave our normal lives behind.
In our modern, connected world, it does not take long to find contemporary examples of this narrative – of professional development as fairy tale.
Take the phenomenon of the Professional (or Passionate) Learning Network, PLN. Or take conferences.
The term PLN and the phenomenon it represents has mushroomed in the last five years or so thanks mainly to platforms like Twitter which enable people who would otherwise have virtually no access to each other to communicate and exchange ideas. Conferences provide a similar opportunity.
I appreciate that our lives as teachers are richer in many ways with such things than without them.
But consider this for a moment:
The world of the PLN is a kind of fairy tale world.
It is inhabited not by people as such but by their avatars – the people you follow online and who follow you are digital presences representing people – that is to say, they are aspects of people, a selected presence.
A selected presence equals a character.
The character presented and which we follow is usually the best possible side of the actual person or, should they wish to be provocative, the worst possible side (hello to all the trolls out there).
So everyone is either super nice or super nasty – much like a fairy tale.
Then everyone’s lives are always exciting and adventurous in the PLN – everyone is constantly discovering awesome rewards (in the form of links to blog posts or the like) and sharing them, thus helping everyone live happily ever after.
At the same time, it also increases the pressure to find and offer equally rich ideas in return to the community, as it is through contributing to the community in this way that relationships are built.
However, we do not have relationships with most of these PLNers in the normal sense of that word.
The word “tweetup” has been coined to describe actual physical meetings of tweeters – the mere fact of this might tell us that there is something fundamentally different going on here.
While I am sure some of you actually have real friendships and professional relationships with some people in your PLN, more usually we never meet the people whose tweets we read, links we follow, comments we reply to.
I follow 200 people on twitter and almost 2000 people follow me.
I have never met, and will probably never meet, the vast majority of these people, even though I value what their being part of my professional life adds to it.
So if we consider these to be “relationships” in the normal sense of the word, we would also have to say we have a relationship with a news-reader whose broadcasts we watch or an author whose books we read.
And by the way, because online communities – unlike real communities – are generally self-selecting and homogenising over time, we lose online the important catalyst for change and development presented by engaging with (and – crucially – being forced to engage with) opposing views and positions.
This is a real problem for development in just the same way that a flower sometimes needs frost as well as sunshine in which to thrive.
I think all this is important and problematic because I suspect that online networks have distracted us from one basic notion:
that development is easier to maintain and to make cohesive when you have real relationships with people close to your practice – people who can actually support you right in the here and now of your work.
I guess that most committed users of social media for their own development will reply to what I’ve said so far with my favorite question, which is: “so what?”
I simply want to point out that what this use of what I would call distance technologies like social media reinforces if we are not careful is the underlying belief that developmental potential is something which is primarily if not entirely non-local, non-immediate, and non-relational.
That is to say, if we are not careful, phenomena such as the PLN, or even conferences like the one in which we are participating, can strengthen our tendency to see development as something which we need to depart from our usual surroundings to obtain, something we cannot acquire in the moment of practice, but rather at a remove of time from it, and something we cannot gain through the immediate relationships we have in our local lives.
And I would also say that the more we rely on such distance technologies to provide us our sense of development in this way, the more dependent we become on them to enact the storyline of our reflective life.
We may begin to engage in development more as a consumer of the scripts of others than as the author of our own development.
This loss of authorship would bring with it a very real loss of liberty in a specific sense: the liberty to find development wherever you happen to be and with whomever you happen to be with, without requiring anything more than that.
To see this happening, take a look at people’s twitter or facebook feeds and see how frequently, posts like this appear: “I love twitter because it provides me with the opportunities for professional development that I do not have in my local context.” or “just got back from that wonderful conference – work blues already settling in”
There is a flood of these after every conference and after this one will be no different.
It’s natural to grieve for something, like an enjoyable conference, when it is gone but this grief is also a symptom of our misconception about what development is and where it is.
This misconception is that many of us explicitly or tacitly associate development and its positive rewards with something that we feel is denied us “at home”.
So development has become for many of us a commodity that we do not expect to find in our own parlour; we feel we need to find it elsewhere.
Like anything that becomes viewed as a commodity, especially one that is considered essential and rare, and also if it is one that we think we do not already possess, development thus viewed acquires a price – a market price.
This may be in the form of money – think of what it cost you to come here for example.
It may also be in the less obvious but more valuable form of time.
What else could you have done with the time that you are spending here?
Purchasing the development that you hope to find here today is costing you something that you cannot get refunded.
Henry David Thoreau said that “the true price of something is the amount of life you have to give up to get it.”
From this perspective, events such as this conference, which take up four days of your life or longer, or so-called “continuing professional development” programmes run by your school or institution (which are actually nothing of the kind, but are in fact simply teacher training), or up-front teacher training such as diploma level courses and so on – are very costly, as the price is days or even months of life.
Like any commodity that we have paid for dearly, we are likely to be jealous and protective of it.
I can be savagely proud of my diploma certificate or my state teaching licence, or my conference attendance record, and will fight tooth-and-claw to have them accepted as being a worthy proof of my own development.
I suspect that some of you might feel the same.
But when I think about it, all they can really prove is my ability to meet the arbitrary benchmarks and evaluation instruments of a given qualification.
We are also likely to value these over other experiences we have had.
Take for example the experience of having a challenging project dumped on you, and the steep learning curve which you then found yourself dealing with.
Such unpleasant tasks get passed on to people not because they are the best-suited person for the job but because they are available, often with the salving words: “it’s a great developmental opportunity for you.”
In the end, you may feel very proud of yourself for having managed a difficult task, and you may even feel the experience was “good for you in the end” – but do you value such experiences as professional development more than your teacher training qualifications, MAs in Applied Linguistics or weeks at conferences?
Would you trade your teaching certificate for one of those difficult career moments?
No, I didn’t think so.
Now this is interesting, because in terms of long-term developmental benefit, the unwelcome project dumped on you may have been more beneficial to you than the training course.
This will sound counter-intuitive and perverse, but such events are perhaps more likely to lead to definite and on-going development than training courses, conferences or the like.
My fellow TDSIG member, Duncan Foord, says something about this in his book, The Developing Teacher.
If you read the book, you will find at least two things that I think are interesting.
Firstly, there is the suggestion that un-planned, un-expected, un-looked for demands can lead to greater development than planned, arranged, sought out opportunities.
I said earlier that fairy tales are good for teaching us to accept unsought change as natural and positive in the long run if we leverage the opportunity it presents; this would seem to be borne out by research into professional development – a case of a fairy tale coming true.
Secondly, when you look at Duncan’s book as a whole, about 80% of the ideas for professional development never “leave the building” – that is to say, almost all of the ideas for getting better as a teacher are driven either by you working with yourself, your students, your local colleagues or your management.
As a vaccine against the idea that professional development needs to be something you travel to and invest lots of time and money in to “get”, I think this is a shot in the arm well worth taking.
So, there are alternatives to looking for development removed from your current working context – and they can be found in the here and now of your practice.
The trick, it seems to me, is to get more into the habit of spotting them.
It’s easy to recognise a training course or a conference when you see one; it’s a little harder to see the development potential in the class currently going wrong in front of your eyes (or going right, for that matter), or in the colleague who for some reason you just know that you’d hate watching teach, or even just the unexceptional passing moments in a lesson.
In some of the time we still have together, I’d like to try out 4 simple ideas intended to focus us on just such small, local, everyday leverage points.
IDEA #1: What’s that mean to me?
1) the name of a colleague you have never seen teach but think you would love to.
2) the name of a colleague you have never seen teach but think you would never, ever want to.
3) the name of a model student you would like to clone and have in every class.
4) the name of a difficult student you would quite happily never have had in your classroom.
5) a word that describes the best lesson you taught in the last month.
6) a word that describes the worst lesson you have taught in the last month.
7) a simple question that has puzzled you about what is good about your teaching.
8) a simple question that has puzzled you about what is bad about your teaching.
Now, swap papers with your neighbours and talk about each note. Ask questions to find out more about each note from the person who wrote it. See what happens.
IDEA #2: What’s going wrong here?
During a lesson, when you notice an activity going wrong, stop and focus the students on the problem. Ask them to identify the cause(s). Get them to suggest alternatives to avoid the issue in future. Move on.
IDEA #3: Self Observations
Take 30 seconds at any stage of a lesson and consider the following questions:
1) What is happening right now?
2) How do I feel about this?
3) Can I improve what is happening for some or all of us by:
doing something more?
b) doing something less?
c) doing something different?
Take action (or not) and repeat later in the lesson.
IDEA #4: Words of the Week
Each lesson, write down a word or phrase which sums up your feeling about the lesson. Group these by class/course/institution (for freelancers).
After 5-10 lessons, review them? Is there a pattern? Positive or negative? Can you identify a cause?
We have some time for questions or comments, so over to you…
Thank you very much for coming.
I hope you think it was worth the time you spent.
Enjoy the final plenary. Travel home safely and – despite everything I have said – hopefully see you in Manchester next year for IATEFL 2015.