Collected thoughts on Sugata Mitra at IATEFL

In one sense, for me, it all started with this tweet:

(BTW why didn’t he do a Q&A session immediately afterwards?)

It came up in my timeline, quickly followed by others like this one:

And this:

I think it was around this point that I watched Mitra’s talk and then read Wiktor’s blog post in which he said this: “Clearly, when you ask about how learning can improve – and try to discuss the future of education – you’re becoming very unpopular.” This was problematic because not only did Wiktor apparently not question Mitra’s constant assumptions and generalisations (e.g. all ‘good’ teachers in India want to live in Delhi*), but he was piling on more assumptions and generalisations: that the negative reaction to Mitra’s talk was because we were ‘not prepared to have our minds changed’ and we were ‘expecting to hear that the lessons we’re teaching are just fine’. 

There were several other blog posts and many tweets along similar lines. Another common theme (along with the implication that some of us ELTers were scared of the ugliness we might see if we looked in the pedagogical mirror) was that we were scared of losing our jobs or becoming obsolete. By this time it probably would have been wise to disconnect and do some gardening or something constructive but instead I decided to vent my growing frustration:

I think that the criticism of Mitra is easily misunderstood as simple concern abt job losses when the concern really is much broader and deeper: teachers applauding the further encroachment of neoliberal ideology into education under the superficially appealing guise of ‘learnification’, with no real evidence [given] or asked for. What are Mitra’s education credentials really? His background seems more that of a technologist. Also, Microsoft are one of Schools in the Cloud’s key partners – what do they stand to gain frm Mitra’s edtech advocacy? These are the questions which get lost when Ts stand and applaud Mitra & dismiss critics as simply being afraid of losing their jobs or having to [face] the reality that they’re obsolete and/or ineffective.

A couple of themes in post-Mitra IATEFL discussion that are really starting to grate: 1) That if I reject Mitra’s evangelism that I’m having difficulty dealing with having my beliefs and practices challenged. Sanctimonious garbage. 2) The suggestion that we should at the very least be grateful to Mitra for triggering this debate. Rubbish. It’s proved to be needlessly polarising and I think that’s largely due to the disingenuous and simplistic nature of Mitra’s IATEFL talk – so much glossed over and taken for granted. It’s also an insult to the great work of many others in our profession and PLNs to suggest that we needed Mitra to lead us forward to the promised land of student-centred education.

Many of the ‘others’ had presented earlier in the conference and I wondered, “If we want to give standing ovations to academics who are making us think deeply about troubling questions, why not David Graddol?” It is a bit unfortunate that all the ‘debate’ about Mitra’s talk distracted from issues raised in Graddol’s plenary. (As an aside: Mitra came to IATEFL after TED. Do you think Graddol would get a TED gig if he wanted one?)

Then there was the #eltchat during which:

My response was:

Who says it IS a choice between grannies and nothing or even Ts who aren’t good enough for Delhi? I think that’s a faulty proposition. There are perhaps other ways to address inequality in India or elsewhere  and, more than anything, it takes political will. We shouldn’t swallow the economic rationalist argument that there isn’t enough money to fund public education properly so we’ll let private interests ‘disrupt’ it. Rather than reducing inequality in education, there’s a chance that Mitra’s proposition will actually serve to further entrench it. 

I elaborated on that in a blog comment:

One of the prominent themes in the discourse of edtech-as-a-movement is the inevitability of reducing expenditure on education globally. It comes up again and again, often accompanied with references to the global financial crisis. If something like that is repeated often enough, the result is what Freeden calls an “impenetrable and non-transparent shield of self-evidence” (quoted by Neil Selwyn, in Distrusting Educational Technology). That shield could also be called ideology and there is a strong ideological, neoliberalist imperative for reducing public expenditure on education and allowing private enterprise to take over.

But I don’t see it as inevitable that nations should be reducing expenditure on education. I see it as just one possible government response to changing demographic and economic circumstances but, again, that ideological shield of self-evidence masks this. In the case of Australia, where I’m from, our government could reduce funding for education to help address our budget deficit. Or it could raise the GST to generate additional funds for education – if it feels that widening access to high quality education is a high enough priority for the nation. Or it could increase the tax burden on coal-fired electricity generators. And so on and so on.

To link this discussion to another heated discussion that’s arisen out of the IATEFL conference, the inevitability of reduced expenditure on education was also a theme of Sugata Mitra’s talk. If you assume that, globally, the ability of governments to fund public education is decreasing, then Mitra’s work might seem like a very pragmatic and innovative response. To me, even if I accept that assumption, there’s a sour note of fatalism in what Mitra is saying: we can’t afford to invest in good teachers, so let’s try to get by without them. Shouldn’t we be calling for a change of economic priorities and INCREASED public funding of education?

This criticism of Mitra and edtech more broadly does not imply that education in its current form cannot be improved. I think the key point, which is easily missed in discussions of edtech, is that we should really be asking what education could be globally if we TRULY made it a priority and funded it properly, as opposed to surrendering it to private enterprise in the midst of neoliberal post-GFC rhetoric. If we really want a more equitable world, where everyone has access to high quality education and the economic opportunities that provides, should our governments and we as citizens not take more responsibility?


A bit of background: When the IATEFL Harrogate program first came out, I saw that Mitra was on it but wasn’t particularly interested in watching his talk. I watched his TED Talk and read his TED Book about two years ago, and at the time I found it all quite thrilling. If he’d spoken at IATEFL a year or two ago I probably would have responded very differently.

However, my perspective on educational technology really changed earlier this year though following the #AusELT chat with Scott Thornbury. It made me question some of my assumptions and encouraged me to read Philip Kerr’s blog posts on adaptive learning in ELT. Before doing that, I thought I knew what adaptive learning was all about – reading Kerr’s posts I realised that I didn’t have a clue. I then went on to read Neil Selwyn’s Distrusting Educational Technology. I’m currently reading Joel Spring’s Education NetworksThese are both books that I think are highly relevant to the discussion of Sugata Mitra’s talk and educational technology in general – I strongly urge anyone interested enough to read this post to read at least one of them.

On page 7 of Distrusting Educational Technology, Selwyn writes:

So why do so many intelligent and well-meaning people appear to suspend their disbelief when it comes to digital technology and education? Is educational technology really…a ‘consensual hallucination’ on the part of techno-romantic educationalists? Is educational technology a bold but ultimately doomed attempt by those who are brave enough to ‘dare to dream’ of a better educational future? In my mind, it is all too easy for the critical onlooker to excuse the field of educational technology in these forgiving terms

The standing ovation following Mitra’s talk seemed to me to be a startlingly vivid realisation of this ‘consensual hallucination’ (although I’m sure not everyone who applauded could be described as ‘techno-romantic’).

'Untitled' by Akue,

‘Untitled’ by Akue,

[* Lindsay Clandfield ripped into this one in his blog commentWhat if this thinking were extended to other professions? e.g. We know it’s difficult to get good doctors in remote places. We know it’s difficult to get good cops in remote places. We know it’s difficult to get good services in remote places. If we look to replacing these human services with tech fixes that enable us to keep the good teachers, doctors, cops etc in the wealthier cities then what are we doing to our citizens in remote places?]

My favourite blogposts on this topic:

Developmental stages: Why would anybody be a Dos?

I wrote this in May last year but didn’t get around to posting it.

Recently I was reading this summary of a May 2011 #eltchat on what makes a good DoS and was particularly struck by this: “given the difficulties and poor financial reward, why would anybody be a DoS?!” Why, indeed? It’s a commonly-expressed sentiment, usually put simply to me as”Better you than me.” In the hope of making the prospect of becoming academic manager of an Australian ELICOS college seem more appealing, I’d like to give my answer to that question, “Why would anybody be a DoS?”

I’ve just completed one year in my first DoS role and these words have come back to me many times. It probably sounds a bit scary, but I would also say the same thing about teaching: early on, I found it extremely challenging on a number of levels, and I seriously considered packing it in; after six months, I started to relax a bit, and began to actually enjoy it! Those are the two extremes: terror and joy. It’s mostly not like that, of course; there’s a great deal in-between.

  • Before becoming a DoS, I’d spent a bit of time as an Acting DoS; I’d guess this is a common experience for DoSes. My time as Acting DoS added up to seven weeks and included a four-week stint. By the end of that period, I’d decided I knew what DoSing was about and I didn’t like it very much; my experience of the job boiled down to numbers: student numbers, room numbers, capacities, limits, targets, numbers of students starting, numbers of students finishing, and phone numbers (for relief teachers). By the time I’d gotten through the first six months in my current DoS role, though, I’d realised that as an Acting DoS I’d had to deal with the all the worst aspects of the role and none of the best. Now as DoS, the ‘numbers stuff’ generally doesn’t worry me – I get it done and then I’ve got time and energy to focus on the aspects of the role that attracted me to it in the first place: improving the experience and outcomes for students, contributing to teachers’ professional development and helping to raise teachers’ morale.
  • (With ever-decreasing frequency) I’ve longed many times to return to the simplicity, purity of teaching. Now I’ve (mostly) got to grips with DoSing, if I really want to teach, I can make it happen very easily! This week, for example, I’d spent hours evaluating newly-developed A1-level materials and realised I’d completely lost perspective on what A1 learners were capable of so I arranged with a teacher to take her one-hour A1 grammar lesson. She observed me and kindly said afterwards that she’d learnt a couple of useful things. I learnt that I can actually still teach (not sure about other DoSes but I worry about that sometimes) and also gained a better understanding of what our A1 learners are capable of and the likely effectiveness of the materials we’re developing.
  • At the beginning, I also just wanted to feel competent and professionally adequate again; I hated the feeling of not knowing whether I was any good. Of course, I had exactly the same feelings when I started teaching: I thought fondly of my call centre job and how simple it was – just me, the phone, the computer and the customer!
  • I’ve often felt out of my depth, especially regarding the HR aspects of the role. Maybe it’s not such a great thing that many academic managers don’t have any formal HR training, but then many university lecturers don’t have any teacher training and manage to be very effective. I’ve had a lot of HR ‘firsts’ – the first contract I drew up, the first senior teacher I hired, the first teacher I fired, the first performance appraisal I conducted, the first senior teacher meeting I ran – but once you’ve done something once, you’ve done it and you’ve acquired some experience you can build on.
  • One of the biggest challenges has been developing a DoS ‘voice’, particularly at staff meetings. At the end of last year, one of my colleagues mentioned my tendency to say “Perhaps we should…” at senior teacher meetings – I wasn’t aware of it, but it was a very useful piece of feedback and I think I’ve greatly improved the way I run those meetings since that comment. I realised around the same time that to sound like I was in control, I had to actually be in control. Initially my meetings were unstructured and others did most of the talking; following the “Perhaps…” feedback, I established a more formal structure to the meetings and ensured they happened every week by moving them from the busiest time of the day (first thing in the morning) to the afternoon. As a result, the meetings are much more effective.
To sum up, the aspects of being a DoS that are most apparent to others seem to be those which are least appealing; it’s perhaps hard to get a sense of how rewarding the role can be until you’re in it. There is certainly a steep learning curve, but that’s true of teaching and, in fact, most things in life that are really worth doing. But along with that learning curve, there are amazing opportunities to develop professionally and personally.

PD Fest, March 16 2013: Catching Up & Getting Ahead or How I Learned to Stop Worrying & Love Twitter

These are the links to accompany my presentation at English Australia PD Fest. If you came along to my presentation, drop me a line – I’d love to hear from you!

My Prezi

New Media Consortium (thanks @trylingual for sharing last year’s Horizon Report with me) 


Nik Peachey

Digital Literacies – What is Digital Literacy?

Using Evernote in the classroom

Damien Herlihy & Zeke Pottage’s VoiceThread on using VoiceThread in the classroom



George Siemens & Connectivism (thanks again to @trylingual for introducing me to connectivism last year)

Cisco & the Internet of Everything

‘Discovery Listening’ revisited (again) – a joint post with Arun Warszawski

Last May – almost a year ago! – Rachael Roberts posted here and here about an approach to ‘teaching listening’ that Magnus Wilson named ‘Discovery Listening’. It inspired a very skeletal post from me, which I’m now finally getting around to following up, thanks to the lively #AusELT chat we had on the topic two weeks ago.

I started teaching in 2001 and spent my first couple of years following what John Field refers to as the ‘Comprehension Approach’ to ‘teaching listening’ (thanks Rachael Roberts for the link). I became increasingly aware that students found listening to authentic spoken English very challenging and also felt it was an important marco-skill to develop; yet, the coursebook listening activities never seemed to hit the mark. Getting students motivated to listen to the recordings more than once or focus on the transcript was bafflingly difficult. Then in Semester 1 of my MEd (TESOL) in 2007, I had an opportunity to delve into the topic properly and came across Wilson’s ‘Discovery Listening’ article and, in the same issue of the ELT Journal, an article by John Field which complemented Wilson’s article and provided more of the theoretical underpinning.

The light finally came on for me when I read these articles and I immediately put into practice a variation of Wilson’s Discovery Listening. What Wilson describes is essentially dictogloss, albeit an extension of it which encourages greater learner and teacher reflection on the actual listening process(es) itself, as opposed to simply the product. I had already been integrating authentic listening materials into my lessons, having recently come across StoryCorps, so I combined them with Wilson’s ideas and the simple step of giving students control over the recording itself, generally while working in small groups. This is what I’ve started referring to as the ‘Discovery Approach’ – a sort of homage to Wilson and Field.

At this point, I’ll hand over to my very talented friend and colleague Arun Warszawski (see his bio at the bottom of this post) to explain the ‘Discovery Approach’ (or ‘listening dictation’ as Arun calls it) in more detail:

Arun and I first started discussing this about 4 years ago and have had many more chats about further refinements to it since. We’ve also both had a lot of success with this approach with a large number and wide variety of classes/students. I’ve also run ‘Discovery Approach’ workshops in different locations and have received (as far as I can tell!) very positive responses from teachers each time.

One of these workshops was at the English Australia PD Fest in 2011. Here are the slides:

After slide 7, I distributed the following ‘Discovery Approach’ lesson plan:

The comments on slides 8-10 are from a class of Advanced-level GE students (some of whom had just successfully completed a CAE exam preparation course) who applied the ‘Discovery Approach’ to ‘decoding’ this StoryCorps recording. I think they reflect closely the student responses both Arun and I have had following the many ‘Discovery Listening’ sessions we’ve run.  I’ve included expanded comments here:

Slides 13-16 show ‘decoding’ errors of various types I observed in two separate classes – one Intermediate and one Upper-Intermediate/Advanced – when attempting to ‘decode’ this classic StoryCorps recording. (Apologies for the arrows getting jolted slightly out of place!)

The most recent workshop was at the end of January this year and I’ve been struck by the particularly strong impact it’s had this time:

  • A number of teachers immediately adopted the approach and have been using it regularly since the session three weeks ago.
  • Teachers have been sharing the enthusiastic feedback they’ve received from students with their colleagues in the staffroom.
  • Teachers have been talking about how the students were highly engaged in ‘decoding’ the authentic texts they were provided with.
  • One teacher reported that the students were still working in their groups during break time, engrossed in ‘decoding’ the text.
  • Teachers of classes ranging from Elementary GE to FCE have reported success.

It’s personally very rewarding to see such a significant and immediate impact but I think it reflects a couple of things:

  1. Many students and teachers (at all different stages of their careers) struggle to make the dominant, Comprehension, approach to teaching listening work for them.
  2. The ‘Discovery Approach’ is an effective alternative to the Comprehension Approach because it is simple: by giving students a challenging text and some autonomy in the classroom, you create an environment in which they can support each other in the ‘discovery’ of new/problematic features of spoken English and their abilities to decipher it.

I’d also like to think that it’s an example of a Demand-High approach to teaching listening :-)

After completing his CELTA at International House in 2008, Arun Warszawski spent the next four years teaching General English, IELTS and BEC-Vantage courses in Brisbane, Australia. He now resides in Montreal, Canada, where he has continued to teach.

Experiences with technology: Second conditional & Socrative

Some of you will be aware of Socrative already but, even if you are, you may not have actually tried it out in class. I learned about it from Paul Forster (@forstersensei) at the English Australia PD Fest in March, but only very recently got my first chance to use it with students. It’s a ‘student response system’, which means that you can get the students to respond to questions, tasks, quizzes using their mobile phones and all their responses can be quickly displayed in various forms on the screen for the whole class to see. Perhaps the best way to explain it is to describe how I used it in class recently.

I was filling in for a teacher on Pre-Intermediate General English and we were doing an exercise from the coursebook which required students to discuss a series of second conditional questions.

The first part of the activity I did as normal:

  1. I asked the students to stand up, bring their books and gather in the middle of the room.
  2. We talked through the questions together and checked any unclear/unfamiliar language.
  3. Students discussed the questions in pairs. I circulated, monitored and interrupted where necessary to give feedback.

At this point, I would usually write some of the things I heard up on the whiteboard and talk together about what was good, how we could correct any errors, etc. In this case, though, I decided to use Socrative. Watch this video to see how it works.

If you want to try something like this out in class, you’ll need to set up an account in advance (it’s completely free and easy to do).

  1. I asked the students how many of them had phones that could access the internet – 10 out of 12 did. I paired the two students who didn’t up with students who did.
  2. I asked them to open up using their phone’s web browser. They did this without any problems.
  3. As the students were opening up Socrative, I logged in as a teacher and selected a ‘Short Answer’ activity from the teacher’s menu.
  4. The students then ‘joined’ my Socrative ‘room’ using my unique room number.
  5. I then asked the students one of the second conditional questions from the NEF speaking task, e.g. ‘What would you do if someone offered to buy you a fur coat?’
  6. The students typed their responses into their phones.
  7. Gradually, all the students’ responses were displayed on the screen for everyone to read – you can see these in the image below.

  1. Next, I asked the students to vote on the responses by selecting on their phones the response they found most interesting/amusing/etc.
  2. The results of the vote were displayed on the screen and we congratulated as a class the student whose response had received the most votes.
  3. We did this for two of the second conditional questions and then I asked students to tell me using Socrative whether they liked using it or not and why. You can see their responses in the image below.

I was actually surprised at how positively the students responded to using Socrative in class. There seemed to be quite significant effects on the students’ motivation during the activity and, from my perspective, also the quality of the language they were producing. These effects can of course be achieved without Socrative and mobile phones, but, for me, this experience showed me clearly the potential of using mobile devices in the classroom.

Two interesting points to note from the images above:

  1. I don’t know what ‘kick ur joint’ means – perhaps because of the anonymous nature of the task that particular student felt more comfortable contributing something seemingly random/irrelevant?
  2. Two of the students commented at the end that they didn’t have much battery life left and were perhaps worried about using it up early in the day.