A single room with a single book

3 Apr

“A book is a physical object with special attraction that has been, is, and always will be the same.”

Koshiyuki Morioka, quoted by odditycentral.com


There’s a bookshop in Japan that only sells one book. Or more precisely, multiple copies of one book, with a different title chosen each week. It’s simple, it’s beautiful, it’s brilliant. So on a recent trip to Tokyo I took the time to seek out Morioka Shoten, a single room with a single book, quietly inhabiting a ground floor room of the Suzuki Building on a Ginza backstreet.

Simplicity can get complicated

If you’ve ever worked on any aspect of product development, or if you’ve ever tried to explain the ‘rules’ for the use of articles in the English language, then you’ll know just how difficult it is to keep something simple. A clear vision, sharp focus and zero compromise is essential if you are going to keep your idea on track. It’s perhaps no surprise then that Morioka Shoten was born from the vision of one man, Koshiyuki Morioka.

A little help from your friends

However, Mr Morioka didn’t go it alone with this venture. On a single sheet of paper he outlined his vision at an event where Masamichi Toyama was speaking. Mr Toyama is the President and CEO of Smiles, which ‘turns the whimsical into real business’, and whose corporate philosophy translates as follows:

“We seek to find new value in things that in our hectic day-to-day lives, are taken for granted and ultimately overlooked. To polish this carefully, to bring this value to even one more person – that’s the kind of thought behind our corporate philosophy.”

Mr Toyama decided to invest, and the ‘single room with a single book’ was brought in to being with help from Tokyo and London-based design engineers, Takram.

Multiple layers of simplicity

Takram helped to develop the brand and are responsible for the logo, a simple rhombic shape representing both an open book and a single, small room. This really is minimalism at its finest. Even the date on which the bookshop was first opened, the 5th of May 2015 (or 5.5.15) suggests a desire for every aspect of this venture to be ‘just so’. The whole concept embodies the idea of ‘slow reading’ and what is beautifully described by Takram as ‘blissed conversation between readers and authors’.

The book is the star

Whilst it’s easy to get carried away with the design aspects of Morioka Shoten, it’s immediately evident as you walk into the room that it’s the book that sits centre stage. The concrete floor and plain white walls mean that the focus of your attention is on the narrow table in the middle of the room, showcasing the chosen title. This is complemented by a small selection of related artwork and a beautiful cabinet of drawers acting as a desk and counter. But perhaps most importantly of all, the author is there too. Because rather than just a place where you can buy a book, this is where books develop into conversations, into art and and into new ideas. Events are held most evenings and the author is encouraged to spend as much time in the bookshop as possible during the week that their book is showcased. On my short visit I met not only Mr Morioka and the author and artist, Atsumi, but also the Editor of a Tokyo-based fashion magazine and the designer of the lampshade that hangs at one end of the room. Oh, and his adorable baby. This is a place for people to meet, for the beauty of printed books to be appreciated, for art to be enjoyed, and for ideas to be nurtured.

We need more of this.


Learning from the games industry

14 Mar


Publishers are struggling with the digital world. I don’t feel the need to add any caveats to that, because it seems to be an almost universal truth that from international news media organisations through to educational course book publishers (ELT included), everyone’s desperately trying to work out how they’re going to survive and flourish. At present, it’s the smaller, younger, more agile businesses that appear to have the upper hand, but with so much uncertainty and seemingly constant change, you’d be brave to do anything other than spread your bets.

At a recent conference, a talk on what we could learn from the games industry caught my eye, primarily because I was vaguely aware that this was an industry embracing change and innovation. As it turns out, the global industry is embracing it to the tune of $90 billion plus, though that number is being regularly revised. Upwards.

Now maybe it’s because I grew up with Binatone, Atari and the ZX Spectrum, but the talk, which began with some personal anecdotes about games in the 1970s and 1980s, really struck a chord with me. However, I’d like to think it was more than just nostalgia, as it reminded me that the games industry is so successful (it was described as an ‘economic phenomenon’, growing much faster than the music and film industries) because of the magic combination of creativity, talent and genuine innovation, or what the speaker, Dr Jo Twist (CEO at ukie), perfectly coined as the ‘power and beauty of games’. Some footage at the end of the presentation from a new game developed by The Chinese Room took my breath away and, as someone who has dipped in and out of games over the years, reminded me of the pure joy of discovering how the industry has moved on every time I stumble upon something new.

In brief, here are a few facts from the talk (which may or may not surprise you) and some valuable lessons all publishers could learn from an industry that was ‘born digital’:

  • The top five game spenders are the US, China, Japan, Germany and the UK
  • Six billion people globally are game players (don’t call them ‘gamers’!)
  • The average player is 30-something and 52% are female
  • The biggest mobile game market is China
  • Mobile game companies are most commonly less than five years old and have fewer than 25 employees

And what can we learn?

  • Respect your customers. They’re people, not ‘gamers’, not ‘users’, not data. Speak to them on equal terms, involve them in product development. Understand the importance of online collaboration and communities (see steam and twitch).
  • Embrace and actively seek out ‘evangelists’ for your products. ELT publishing is unlikely to ever inspire a character like PewDiePie (for the uninitiated, have a look at the number of views before dismissing the video), but the principle of getting publicity from experts in the field, who have no direct affiliation with the publisher, is far more powerful than publishers merely pumping out their own marketing messages.
  • A tiny piece of the Chinese market can translate to massive success. But you’ve got to be thinking mobile, and never forget that it’s complex and volatile, especially for foreign publishers. See this recent Outsell notice as a warning.
  • Being agile, taking risks, diversifying, experimenting, learning quickly from mistakes, all of these things have gone from desirable to essential. No publisher is going to survive the next few years by plodding along and making half-hearted nods towards agility and flexibility. This ELT Jam post illustrates just how tricky that may be for some.

Clearly this talk has had an impact on me, as one week on, I’m working in St Petersburg (my first time here) and rather than filling my free afternoon with a wander around the beautiful streets, taking in the amazing architecture, I spent it exploring the Museum of Soviet Arcade Machines. Though given the number of 10p coins I shoveled into arcade machines in the 1980s, maybe we can put that one down to nostalgia.

Going Underground

26 Aug

Amazon have announced the launch of Underground – a (potentially) disruptive new model for mobile app distribution, designed to make premium app content free and therefore bring an end to paid-for apps and in-app purchasing. How does it work, why have they done this, and what might the implications be for educational apps and ELT? Well, it breaks down like this:

Access to free, premium apps

Owners of Android devices can download the ‘Amazon Underground‘ shopping app directly from Amazon (it’s not on Google Play) and gain immediate access to free apps. Amazon have launched this in the US, the UK, France and Germany, but presumably access for more countries will be coming soon. Of course, this is early days so don’t expect to choose from the million-plus apps that you’re presented with on Google Play. This new model is dependent on content providers – app developers – buying into Amazon’s vision and it will therefore take time to build up content. However, Amazon have managed to launch with an impressive range of apps, so if you’re an Android user and a fan of Fruit Ninja or Angry Birds (or if Office Suite Professional 8 is more your thing), it’s well worth taking a look.

Importantly, this is not Amazon Prime or a similar subscription service. It is completely free. You do have to register with Amazon, and therefore become a part of their eco-system (if you’re not already), but you didn’t seriously expect this offer to be completely catch-free, did you?

 If premium apps are free, how do developers make money?

Unlike Google Play and the Apple App Store, where developers make their money from download payments, in-app purchases and/or in-app advertising, with this new Amazon model the end user pays nothing, it is instead Amazon who pay the developers.

With a ‘usage per minute’ model, developers receive royalty payments from Amazon based on the number of minutes users have accessed their app(s) for. In theory, this will help to maintain quality, as developers will only be successful if their apps are good enough to continually engage users.

 So isn’t this just another way for developers to monetize their ‘free’ apps?

No. Amazon have imposed some strict (and some slightly vaguer) rules about the kinds of apps that can be distributed through this model, and one of those rules is that the app must be available for sale elsewhere (essentially, Google Play or the Apple App Store), so this rules out the multitude of low quality, free apps currently bulking out the app stores.

It’s also worth noting that any apps with in-app purchasing have to be re-built to strip out this functionality, and whilst in-app advertising is permissible, in-app advertising that rewards users with in-app purchase items is not.

What’s in it for Amazon?

More customers registered with Amazon. And data. Lots and lots of data.

Are Google and Apple quaking in their boots?

Unlikely. At least, not yet. If this new model takes off, and users start to drift way from Google Play, or switch from iPhones to the likes of Samsung and Sony, then Google and Apple will have to react, but there are a lot of ‘ifs’ and many of the question marks will be around content. There’s little point in having a thousand free apps if the one app that every teenager wants is only available for iOS or on Google Play. Presumably though, there are mums and dads funding their teenagers’ app purchases who will be wishing Amazon every success with this new venture. The importance of getting the right content mustn’t be underestimated, and it’s an area where Amazon, and others, have struggled with digital products such as eReaders, when ‘paucity of content’ in some markets dramatically inhibits sales.

Any benefits for education and English language teaching?

Amazon’s focus appears to be on games though clearly, free educational apps would appeal to many schools (and parents), but if you don’t pay for your content, you are at the mercy of developers who can, at any point, opt out and withdraw their app(s). Not great if you’ve integrated something into your curriculum and it disappears part way through the academic year. For primary and secondary schools there’s the added complication (possibly an impassable barrier?) of Amazon registration. The model appears to be geared much more towards individuals, and simply not designed for the distribution and volume purchase needs of educational institutions. That said, if a sizeable opportunity arose, no doubt Amazon would find a way…

For ELT then, perhaps of more interest is the potential for adults studying by themselves or attending language classes and needing some supplementary support. There is of course no shortage of this kind of material freely available online and on the app stores, but why trawl through hours of dubious grammar explanations on YouTube if you can download – and access offline – quality content from reputable digital publishers? Naturally, this is dependent on said publishers seeing value in distributing their apps through this new Amazon model when they might be doing perfectly well with the more traditional sales channels. But is any developer really happy with losing a third of all their revenue to Google and Apple? And wouldn’t it be nice for your lovingly created app to be sitting with a relatively small selection of ‘premium’ content rather than frantically waving for attention as it drowns in a sea of cheap, poorly executed rubbish churned out from someone’s bedroom in South East Asia? (Rubbish apps from other parts of the world also available.)

OK, sounds interesting. And finally my Fire Phone purchase makes sense!

Umm, no. The Fire Phone is not supported, and neither are Generation 2 or earlier Fire tablets. Bad luck.

Check out the Twitter chatter on the Amazon-led hashtag: #actuallyfree

Is the UK the worst place to teach English?

4 Jul

A little while ago a post by Russell Mayne about teaching English in South Korea caught my attention. The post is a good three years old now, but a quick search through some of the links suggest that the issues that are being touched upon are still very much relevant. Amazingly, it seems that the mandatory HIV testing of foreign English language teachers in South Korea is still being debated, and a quick Google search reveals extensive grumbles about the way English language teachers are treated by their employers (and others) in South Korea.

Russell, however, clearly states that he’s never taught in South Korea. And I can assure you that in pretty much every country with an ELT industry (and yes, I do believe it’s an industry), you will find tales of woe and discontent from teachers who have worked (or are working) there. Is South Korea any worse than anywhere else? Or, as the comments on Russell’s post suggest, is it the usual mix of good and bad employers, and good and bad experiences? Perhaps the demand for English language teaching, and sheer number of teachers, skew the facts, and actually the percentage of happy teachers is no different from anywhere else, but this would require a level of research beyond a quick Google search and some anecdotal evidence.

I would like to propose, however, that the situation in the UK is worse than South Korea for English language teachers. Like Russell, I have absolutely no evidence to back this up, but I do have personal experience, and I can confirm that it was teaching in the UK – not teaching in Asia – that drove me out of the ELT classroom.

To be clear, it’s been 10 years since I was last ’employed’ as an English language teacher, and I use that word cautiously, as at no point in the UK was I ever offered a contract. I returned from teaching in Japan (where contracts, a small amount of paid leave, and assistance with accommodation were pretty much standard) to study for an MA in Applied Linguistics, with the intention of furthering my ELT career. I figured that if I studied full-time, I could pick up a bit of part-time teaching work, and I was right, odd hours here and there, or a few weeks during the summer, were not hard to come by. It was when I started to look for something a bit more permanent that the state of the ELT industry in the UK started to become clear.

Like South Korea, and any other country, some of the employers I came across in the UK were lovely, others, looking back, were miserable, bitter, cave trolls. One of my interviews (for a few hours of one-to-one tutoring) kicked off with a written grammar test, presided over by one of said trolls. It was a crap test, for a crappy ‘job’ at a crap school. But it wasn’t unusual.

Lots of English language teachers eventually find themselves back in their countries of origin, hoping to continue their ELT careers. Language schools, universities and colleges need teachers, but private language schools in particular have work that’s seasonal. After obtaining my MA, I was looking for a permanent, full-time contract, and was repeatedly told that worries about student visas and the number of students coming in to the UK meant that there was zero job security and no commitment to taking on permanent members of staff. I eventually found myself working in a private sixth form – no contract – preparing low-level Chinese students for the IELTS test which was completely inappropriate for their level, but which they needed a magic 6.5 from in order to scrape into a UK university. On both sides, it was sad and demoralising. These kids were great at maths, great at science, but were doomed to forever struggle with English, because instead of being guided towards being better language learners, they were focusing on practice exam papers, supplemented by materials I wrote myself – in my own time – in an attempt to motivate them with level-appropriate texts and activities. After 12 months and regular clashes with a course coordinator I gave up and abandoned the ELT classroom for good.

Now perhaps I wasn’t destined to be a teacher, or I just quit too easily, but what I saw when I came back to the UK was an industry where qualified and experienced teachers where being routinely screwed over by a system that placed little value on what they did, paid only for teaching hours (preparation, marking homework and creating materials, whilst often expected, was rarely rewarded), and was centred around some of the most expensive cities to live in the UK.

Having now forged an ELT career outside of teaching, I get to see a wider range of scenarios, and there are of course plenty of happy teachers, good jobs and fair employers out there, but I’m not convinced that there’s been huge improvements over the past 10 years. UK language schools pop up in the news from time to time when they close up shop and turf students and teachers alike out on the street, a lot of people I know are working on a temporary basis, or juggling several part-time roles, or going freelance not because they particularly want to but because they don’t really have a choice. And the pay, on the whole, is terrible, particularly given the cost of living in many UK cities. Suddenly, a 12-month contract, wage you can live on, help with housing and compulsory HIV test doesn’t look quite so bad.

TESOL to IATEFL: from building bridges to twistin’ my melons (man)

11 Apr


As I travel up to IATEFL Manchester on a train with surprisingly good free wifi (well done Virgin Trains!) here are some thoughts on my trip a couple of weeks ago to the other side of the Atlantic, for TESOL 2015.

The theme of this year’s TESOL conference was Crossing Borders, Building Bridges. I guess a nod to the fact that it was held in Toronto. However, as I have a serious allergy to tired metaphors I made a conscious effort to avoid talks that had shoehorned bridges into their titles and abstracts. This random strategy seemed to be effective, as on the whole, I found the talks I attended engaging and enlightening. Here’s a couple of highlights:

D J Kaiser – Pronunciation

Firstly, great name. But also a really engaging speaker. D J Kaiser talked about research he’s doing into pronunciation apps. He’s downloaded 100+ iOS apps and is working his way through each of them, blogging as he goes. The presentation gave a whistlestop tour of the first 20 apps he’s assessed and reviewed, and by the end of it, I couldn’t help but think, no-one’s really nailed pronunciation apps, have they? Issues include:

  • Apps that focus on accent reduction, rather than improving intelligibility
  • Voice recognition software that isn’t up to scratch, or is poorly calibrated
  • Lack of meaningful feedback

The apps D J Kaiser has downloaded vary from free (some with in-app purchasing), to around $50 USD, with an average of $2.89 and a median of $0. My feeling is that if you’re going to produce a pronunciation app with any real educational value, it needs to be designed with a specific learner in mind, both in terms of age and first language. And given the amount of investment that would be required in terms of voice recognition software, figuring out how to give useful feedback, applying expertise in pronunciation skills and language learning methodology, and creating something that works beautifully on a tablet or smartphone, I can’t really see it being viable as a standalone product. Perhaps part of a wider skills-based course, delivered online or through an app?

Anyway, D J Kaiser has over 80 apps to work through yet, so I’ll be keeping an eye on his blog and Twitter account to see if he turns up any pronunciation gems:

djkaiserphd.wordpress.com / @djkaiser_phd

Andrew Nye – Professional Development

Andrew is a colleague of mine from a few years back, when I was working for what was then Cambridge ESOL, now rebranded as Cambridge English Language Assessment (I guess clarity being favoured over brevity there). I couldn’t travel all the way to Canada and not show an ex-colleague some support so I dutifully took my seat, but within five minutes was pleased I had. I knew Andrew would be a competent speaker, what I hadn’t realised was how far the Cambridge English Teaching Framework had come, and how good it looked online.

There is some overlap with the Cambridge English Teaching Framework and the work I do on ELT professional development titles, but until attending Andrew’s talk, I must admit I hadn’t really engaged with the details and with the background to the project. In short, it’s an incredibly well-research framework that helps language teachers to establish their own areas of competency and then build a plan for continuing professional development. It’s based very much on the idea that the difference between a good teacher and an excellent teacher is awareness of areas for improvement. And as illustrated by a great Alice in Wonderland quote, you can’t really be expected to work out which way you need to go, until you have an idea of where you need to go:

“Would you tell me, please, which way I ought to go from here?”
“That depends a good deal on where you want to get to,” said the Cat.
“I don’t much care where…” said Alice.
“Then it doesn’t matter which way you go,” said the Cat.

The beta version of the tracker, which places you on the framework, can be accessed here:


I attended a few commercial talks as well (interesting to see Rosetta Stone branching into blended learning and classroom materials, and employing a curriculum consultant), and of course caught up with friends and colleagues from both sides of the Atlantic. Now, as I fast approach Leeds, time to get myself ready for IATEFL Manchester. Whilst I’m adverse to trite metaphors, I was hoping for a few more Manchester-based music references in this year’s list of IATEFL talks, but sadly there’s little evidence of this at a first read through the programme. However, hats off to the speaker who’s squeezed ‘Twistin’ my melons’ into his title, I’ll definitely try and make it to that one. Step on!

Dispensing with the education and technology bullshit

2 Jan

A recent Tweet from Scott Thornbury led me to paper written by Neil Selwyn (Monash University, Melbourne) on Minding Our Language when it comes to education and technology. The refreshingly no nonsense sub-heading reads:

why education and technology is full of bullshit … and what might be done about it

I have a professional interest in education and technology (or Ed Tech, as it loves to be known), particularly in the context of language teaching. However, what really drew me in to reading Selwyn’s paper was the ‘bullshit’ in the sub-heading. In all aspects of life, bullshit irritates me, and this irritation grew a few months ago when I had the dubious pleasure of dealing with both estate agents and used-car sales people at around the same time. These two professions, in the UK at least, have embraced bullshit to such an extent that the patter flows straight out of sales people’s mouths with no apparent engagement from their brains. I picked one of the used-car salesmen up on this and he managed to cut out the nonsense for all of about two minutes, before slipping back into sales mode, managing to cram ‘one careful owner’, ‘trouble-free motoring’ and ‘handles beautifully’ into one convoluted sentence.

Now whilst I have little hope for these professions (the vague, meaningless language is almost seen as part of the selling and buying game) I’d like to think that anyone working in a profession with links to education would take the time to engage their brains and think carefully about the language they’re using. I challenge anyone involved in English language teaching to attend a conference in 2015 where education and technology isn’t either the main focus of the conference or prevalent in the vast majority of talks being given. I’m not suggesting it shouldn’t be on the agenda, but the language being used in presentations and discussions needs to be clear and meaningful, as there’s way too much bullshit creeping in. Rather than reading any more from me on this, I urge you to take the time to read Selwyn’s paper as it’s a far better researched and persuasive effort than I could manage. Here’s a short extract:

Ed-Tech Speak is highly political in both its nature and its effect. These should not be treated simply as benign or neutral words, terms, phrases and statements. Instead, these are powerful means of advancing the interests and agendas of some social groups over the interests of others. As such, this limited linguistic base is a serious problem for anyone concerned with the democratic potential of digital technology in education.

If you find yourself agreeing with the argument being presented, I have made my own small contribution to the call for cutting out the bullshit, with an Ed Tech Bullshit Bingo card. Print it out, share with friends, take it to conferences and meetings. It’s not going to solve the problem, but it may go some way towards raising awareness. Suitable for ELT professionals of all ages.

Why don’t teachers use eBooks for professional development?

28 Aug

post by Mike Griffin on why Korean students don’t use apps for learning English made me think about some work I’ve been doing recently that involves teachers. Without going into too much detail, I’ve been looking at the potential for ELT professional development eBooks and trying to establish why there seems to be very limited demand for digital versions of existing print titles.

Now, given the title of this post, I guess it’s worth pointing out that I’m aware that there are language teachers out there already buying professional development eBooks. However, all the evidence suggests that most aren’t, despite the proliferation of laptops, tablets and eReaders, and the ease of purchasing eBooks online. The vast majority of language teachers and ex-language teachers I know, myself included, have at least a couple of ‘classic’ ELT methodology books on their (physical) bookshelves, and the more fortunate ones will have a well-stocked resource library where they teach, giving access to both practical guides and theoretical texts.

So at a time when Amazon and many others are telling us eBook sales are booming, why is the ELT industry still so wedded to print? Here are a few of the most common responses I’ve heard from teachers:

  1. eReaders are for fiction, tablets are for apps and social media. Reference texts and methodology books don’t really suit either device. Print is best because I can quickly find what I want, and I can bookmark and annotate pages.
  2. I don’t buy books for professional development. I rely on my library or school, where the only option is print.
  3. Publishers are not giving teachers the incentives to purchase digital. Digital needs to be cheaper, maybe up to 50% cheaper, and there needs to be extra features like audio, video and interactive exercises.
  4. There are so many free online resources, including blogs, journal articles and social media communities, with content more suited to reading on mobile devices, so there’s no need to buy methodology eBooks. Or print books for that matter.
  5. I do read eBooks, but I don’t pay. I only download free PDF versions, you know, the ones you kindly make available on those Russian websites.

This is of course all anecdotal and there are counter-arguments to every one of these points. You can bookmark and annotate eBooks, there is potential for excellent search functionality, the expectation of more content and features for a considerably lower price can be challenging but if approached sensibly can be addressed, and whilst there are some fantastic, thought-provoking bloggers around, this is content that should arguably complement rather than replace cutting-edge, high quality methodology and applied linguistics publishing. Finally, if you need convincing that downloading pirate PDFs is damaging and unacceptable, take the time to read this ELTJam post.

The potential is there for digital delivery to improve the reader’s experience when it comes to methodology and reference titles (in ELT beyond), and for publishers to deliver content in more flexible ways through subscriptions, disaggregated content and library services. However, if print is what most language teachers want (and what teacher trainers and lecturers insist on putting on reading lists) how much time should publishers really spend trying to convince them to switch to digital? And is it a case of switching, or would teachers appreciate redeemable codes for free or low-cost eBooks bundled with the print books, thereby putting a single purchase on both their virtual and physical bookshelves?

I don’t think there are definitive answers to any of these questions, and ELT publishers are either going to continue scratching their heads or, as we’re already seeing (mentioning no names), abandoning professional development publishing in order to focus more energy on the blockbuster courses where there’s greater profit to be made. Whilst I’m all too aware of the importance of keeping publishing profitable, I don’t believe that should be the only driver when it comes to methodology and applied linguistics. Quality publishing in this area is what stimulates debate, brings about change and essentially underpins the professionalism in ELT. What I hope digital content will allow, perhaps combined with print, is more – not less – professional development publishing, better accessibility to ‘classic’ titles, and the ability to reach a greater audience through more flexible content delivered at a lower price. This is simple and yet incredibly complicated, so do get in touch if you have a global solution, and in the meantime, please step away from those illegal downloads.

Step away from the stage

3 Aug
microphone on stage

In my teenage years I was a huge Van Halen fan. There, I’ve said it, it’s out there. Now no matter what you think of men in Lycra, ridiculous guitar solos and the excesses of 70s and 80s American rock, there is little doubting that Van Halen knew how to put on a show. In fact, in the early 80s they were putting on some of the biggest touring rock performances that the world had ever seen. There are some great Van Halen stories (honestly, look them up) and with front man David Lee Roth, they provided the media with no shortage of rock n roll quotes and cliches, “I used to have a drug problem, now I make enough money”.


Anyway, an MTV interview with David Lee Roth – I think around the time he was forging a solo career – has always stuck in my mind. It was on the subject of performance:

“If you can’t do it in a white t-shirt, a pair of jeans, under one white light bulb … you can’t do it.”

Now I’m (painfully) aware that ELT and Marketing conferences are not full of rock star performances, but then again an Eddie Van Halen guitar solo from Jeremy Harmer really wouldn’t seem appropriate anyway. However, the idea that a genuine ability to perform is only truly revealed when you strip it back to the bare necessities, is for me just as true for conference presenters as it is for musicians.


I was reminded of this at a recent conference when a corrupted file meant the presenter found themselves standing in front of an audience without presentation slides. And yet they still managed to deliver an engaging, coherent and structured presentation. I doubt many speakers I’ve seen over the years could do the same if stripped of their PowerPoint crutch at the last minute. Yet surely having an engaging story to tell, or information to impart, should be the foundation of any good talk?


If an audience has chosen to come and listen to what you have to say at a conference, then I feel the least you can do as a speaker is carefully think through what you’re going to present, ensure that you have something worth saying, and rehearse, then rehearse again. The worst presentation I attended at IATEFL earlier this year was for what promised to be a case study of a new online professional development resource. About halfway through, and following a series of holiday snaps and lame metaphors about climbing mountains (supported by more dull holiday snaps) it became apparent that the online resource had yet to launch and the presenter was wasting both his time and the audience’s. Over the course of 30 minutes he proceeded to commit the following presentation sins:


1. Cover up your lack of anything meaningful to communicate by throwing together  some ‘amusing’ or visually stunning PowerPoint slides.


Although in this specific case the amateurish nature of the slides was what added an additional layer of irritation, I’m just as wary of iPad and MacBook users employing whatever software is in fashion. You can bet your extortionate conference fee they’ll have spent five times longer selecting images and animating their slides than thinking about and rehearsing what they’re going to say.


2. Blindly ignore the fact that your talk has nothing to do with the title and abstract you submitted 6 months ago, and stumble through a narrative that you sketched out in the bar last night.


Some people have a real talent for thinking on their feet and ad libing in front of an audience. However, most of us don’t. If heckling was more acceptable at professional conferences, perhaps some of the less self-aware presenters would start to get the message.


3. Read what’s written on your slides, word for word.


Like many people, and presumably you too if you’re reading this blog, I’m pretty good at reading. So if I’m part of a captive audience and I’m presented with a slide with words on, I’ll read them. I don’t need the presenter to read them to me. Technology should enhance what’s being presented, not serve as an autocue for the speaker. Conversely, if you include a slide that’s impossible to read, and introduce it with ‘sorry you can’t read this’ why have you bothered showing the slide in the first place?


Of course there are times when visuals are important, product demonstrations for example, and I’m not disputing that technology can add value to a presentation. However, I think an unplugged conference would genuinely bring out only the best and most competent of public speakers, and those who really had something to say. If you’ve got something great to talk about, then feel free to jazz it up with PowerPoint, Keynote, a brass band, dancing bears or whatever takes your fancy. But if the basics aren’t in place may I kindly suggest you sit back down in the audience until you have something worth presenting?

We must stop meeting like this

15 Feb


Keeping it brief

I worked in a police station for a couple of years. Not as a police officer, but it was a public-facing role, so I’d often attend the briefings at the start of each shift. These briefings were short, direct and focused. Everyone listened. There was always an opportunity to ask questions, but ask something stupid or obvious, and you faced the ridicule of your colleagues. Questions were rare. If you wanted more information, you could usually find it in a report.

The Japanese art of anti-meeting

Fast-forward a few years, and I found myself in my first teaching job in Japan, at my first weekly teachers’ meeting. I was bursting with ideas and opinions, but no matter how tentatively or respectfully I framed my comments, no-one seemed in the slightest bit interested. It took me another week or two to realise that these weren’t really meetings, they were briefings. You sat, listened and agreed. There was no agreeing to disagree. No serious discussion. The only real amusement to be had was to treat these ‘meetings’ like a game of poker and try to establish who really agreed with the decisions that were being communicated.

Meeting overload

Now working for an international publisher, having just one meeting a week is a distant dream. I spend an average of two hours a day in meetings. That’s 25% of my working week. And given that a meeting generally requires more than one person to be present, I’m sure I’m not a unique case. Many of these meetings are useful and necessary. Many others are not.

When I call a meeting, I think carefully about what I want to achieve, who needs to be there and if a face-to-face meeting is really necessary. I’m respectful of people’s time and will always circulate an agenda in advance so as not to spring surprises on anyone. I haven’t been trained to do this, it just seems like common sense. However, after (okay, to be completely honest, during) a particularly unproductive and painful meeting I was required to attend recently, I decided to Google good meeting practices to see if anyone had positioned themselves as an expert on the subject. No surprise, I guess, that quite a few (thousand) people have. Sifting through all the ‘5 steps to awesome meetings’ nonsense, I came across this little gem in the Harvard Business Review: Make Every Meeting Matter

Don’t always have a meeting

Many of the points made in this short HBR article are blindingly obvious, yet the problem in my experience is that the blindingly obvious is regularly missed. Meetings all too often become the lazy, default reaction to a problem or challenge, and almost become an excuse not to get on with addressing an issue. Why think something through yourself if you can pass your problems on to a group of other people to discuss (and rarely solve)?

Perhaps one of the most useful suggestions made in this article is ‘don’t always have a meeting’. Meetings are not the only way to collaborate or to distribute information. And if what you really want to do is simply discuss something, then go and have a discussion. A chat over coffee may well be what you need, not a windowless room full of people wondering why they’re there.

“If you can consistently have good, productive meetings then your company is going to perform better.”
Frances A. Micale, Not Another Meeting! A Practical Guide for Facilitating Effective Meetings (Oasis, 2002)

Think it through

To conclude, if you want an informal chat with someone, arrange an informal chat. Don’t call it a meeting and then bring in half a dozen other people just in case they might have something to add. And if a meeting is necessary, then so is an agenda. Just because you’ve been mulling something over for days, doesn’t mean I have. I’m useless at mind reading and I don’t like surprises. Every hour spent in a meeting is an hour that’s not spent doing other work, so make sure there’s a purpose to the meeting and some tangible outcomes. In short, please, please, think before you meet.

Thoughts on Rethinking Grammar

5 Nov

A few years ago I was given some sound advice from a friend who works as a bricklayer:

Never trust a tradesman who criticises the work of others.

A good tradesperson should assess a job and tell you what they need to do, how long it will take, how much it’s likely to cost and what the end result will be. If they spend most of their time criticising the work that’s been done before, they’re either lacking knowledge in how to do the job, or they’re making the problem out to be worse than it really is (with the ultimate intention of fleecing you of a bit more cash). Straight criticism is easy, coming up with practical ideas and solutions is much more difficult.


I have this advice in the back of my mind not only when I’m getting a quote for new guttering, but also in my working life. I’m not adverse to criticism, on a personal level I find constructive criticism very beneficial. And there is, of course, a place for debate in marketing, and in ELT publishing. However, if the criticism is little more than a humourless tearing apart of an idea, a piece of work and/or an individual, and it’s not equally balanced with alternative ideas and solutions, I very quickly lose interest in – and respect for – the critic.

Alarm bells therefore started ringing when a colleague forwarded the following abstract to me for an Andrew Walkley and Hugh Dellar lecture at Westminster University, London:

Traditionally, teachers have been encouraged to think of grammar as essentially meaning the official canon as laid out in such books as Raymond Murphy’s English Grammar In Use. In this provocative, challenging talk, Hugh and Andrew will suggest that this is a profoundly limited way of looking at grammar. Alternative viewpoints will be put forward, and the implications for classroom practice will be considered.

Singling out another author’s book in your abstract is not common practice in the world of academia, so I was very curious about how Walkley and Dellar were going to tackle Murphy.

Now given the preamble above, it’s probably worth making a couple of things very clear before I launch in to a summary of the lecture:

  1. Spoiler alert! I am not in any way about to suggest that Walkley and Dellar are the cowboy builders of the ELT world. In fact, far from it. I found myself nodding in agreement through much of the lecture.
  2. I work, from time to time, with Raymond Murphy. However, the views expressed in this blog, for what they’re worth, are entirely my own.

So, to the lecture itself. Split into two parts, the introduction to ‘Rethinking Grammar’ was led by Walkley who questioned how we define grammar and ‘grammatical correctness’, using Toby Young as an example of the kind of pescriptivist that many of us love to hate. Young is a soft target – have a quick look online if you’re not familiar with his (many) opinions – and the attitude to grammar that he represents (essentially an obsession with form over meaning) is not difficult to pick apart. Walkley finished the first section of the lecture with an open question:

What is grammar and how should it be taught?


Dellar then took over with a review of the different ‘types’ or definitions of grammar such as words and their functions, rules and forms, tenses and verb phrases, syntax and so on. He went on to advocate a more lexical approach to learning and teaching grammar, through fixed expressions, lexical chunks, discourse, collocation, etc. None of this I disagreed with. The lexical approach is not a new idea and the practical ideas for implementation mentioned by Dellar at the end of the lecture (drills, gap fills, extensive reading, guided discovery, etc) are older than I am. What I would question is whether teachers need to turn their backs on grammar reference books like Murphy’s and course books with grammar syllabuses, in order to implement a lexical approach. Dellar was openly critical of English Grammar in Use, implying that anyone who worked their way through the book from start to finish would unlikely be able to communicate effectively in English at the end of it. But what is being forgotten here is that English Grammar in Use is a reference book. And like other grammar reference books, it was never written to be worked through from start to finish. In fact, it was written to bring grammar out of the classroom and to allow more time for communicative language teaching, as Murphy explains in this 2011 video:

I attended a conference session by Professor Namba recently, an academic in Japan who advocates a very similar approach to Murphy. You focus on meaning, and only when students start to struggle with a particular area of communication do you parachute in a grammar book and focus explicitly on form, either in class, as homework, or a combination of both.

Course books, to a lesser extent, are also materials that good (or even mediocre) teachers can pick and choose from in order to meet the specific needs of their students. Admittedly, many are designed to be worked through unit by unit, and quite often this is led by a ‘traditional’ grammar syllabus, but we’re going back to a similar point. It’s down to the teacher to use materials appropriately. If you plough through every exercise in a course book, in order, you’re as unlikely to be meeting the needs of your class as if you dumped a copy of English Grammar in Use on their desk and told them to get on with it. 


So whilst I’m in full agreement with the approach to grammar Walkley and Dellar are advocating, and I appreciate the time constraints of public speaking, I’d like to have heard a lot more about new approaches and practical solutions, and much less bashing of Murphy,  Young and traditional course books. Perhaps some time spent looking at modern, blended, corpus-informed course books would also have added a little more balance, rather than just picking the worst examples from old publications. Telling us ‘the road is long’ and then trotting out a list of techniques anyone on a CELTA course could quote is not particularly inspiring and doesn’t really do justice to the extensive research and experience that I’ve no doubt underpins Walkley and Dellar’s work. I have huge respect for anyone who risks shaking things up a bit and challenging the status quo, but from the content of the lecture I saw, this is less punk and more soft rock.


I’d welcome comments and debate on any of this and you can see Walkley and Dellar’s presentation slides for yourself here:

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