The Experimenters @IATEFL 2012

“I mean somebody with the wit and the guts to go and do and create. And, that I believe is what education is all about” – Gordon Pask, 1974

This post is dedicated to the memory of Gary Boyd who taught me about and inspired me with systems thinking and cybernetics for educational practice. He and Gordon Pask, the guy in the Youtube clip above who on another clip someone commented that he’d make a great Dr. Who character, began the Educational Technology programme at Concordia University in Montreal, the oldest EdTech programme in North America where I am now a student.

IATEFL Conference 2012, Glasgow

This week I’ve been to some very encouraging talks and presentations at this year’s IATEFL conference in Glasgow. A key theme that I’ve found running through all of the sessions I’ve attended thus far is that of experimentation; in learning design, in research, in educational leadership, and but not at all least, in teaching.

Adrian Underhill kicked things off with his opening keynote, Mess and Progress, based on systems thinking for leadership, emphasizing the need for post-heroic leadership and flat hierarchies in the many educational contexts around the world. This notion of experimental leadership at the policy, institutional and individual level was effectively carried forward in the following presentation on Tuesday, ELT in Action, by the international A.S.Hornby Educational Trust Scholars, including speakers from Ethiopia, Nigeria, Sudan, Sri Lanka, India, Venezuela, Mexico, Uzbekistan, Bangladesh, Indonesia, and Yemen. [Find out more about the Hornby scholars in an interview with three participating scholars at this IATEFL conference].

Systems thinking is very closely connected to cybernetics and Gordon Pask in the televised broadcast above was a leading cyberneticist and educational technologist experimenting with processes in education, arriving at his famous conversation theory which the second IATEFL keynote speaker, Diana Laurillard, draws upon in her renowned book, Rethinking University Teaching – A Conversational Framework for the Effective Use of Learning Technologies.

Laurillard’s new book, Teaching as a Design Science – Building Pedagogical Patterns for Learning and Technology sold out at the conference. The book along with the tool she introduced in her talk, the Learning Design Support Environment (LDSE), which you can download for free from the LDSE project website, encourages sharing and collaboration between educators to lead, experiment and innovate with learning technologies and to build collective knowledge in this important area. In order to succeed, this collaborative effort will require openness. On Diana Laurillard’s slides she mentions OER – Open Educational Resources – in several places, but perhaps she needed to gloss OER and open practice more overtly to the 2000+ audience at the IATEFL conference because only one person who came to my session on open corpora and OER for ELT had ever heard of the term before. This is despite the popularity of Russell Stannard’s work with free Teacher Training Videos (TTV) which are OER for teacher and learner training with technology in ELT.


Flat Hierarchy

Flat hierarchy is the model followed by and experimented with by open education practitioners who choose to embody openness in their everyday practices for reducing barriers to and increasing access to education for all. Openness promotes “communal management by distributed stakeholders (users/producers/contributors) rather than a centralized authority (owners, experts, boards of directors, etc.)” (definition via Wikipedia on Openness). The term OER was coined ten years ago by UNESCO and this year OER stakeholders will convene virtually and in person in June 2012 to establish further international goals for the open education movement. Watch this space.

Returning to Adrian Underhill’s Mess and Progress, he ended his talk on a high note by performing his song, The Reflective Practice Blues, singing the need “…to reflect and not to neglect to try out something different everyday…” Basically, we can’t afford to continue to work in silos as it’s far too costly, both in the sense of wasting resources through the duplication of effort in creating similar copyrighted resources, and also in the sense of wasting potential opportunities for what could be if we would only open up to sharing what we do and the outputs of what we create so we can experiment with and improve upon these things. Underhill captured this ethos in his keynote with the following awareness-raising activity:

“Talk to the people sitting next to you to identify if you work somewhere where…

  1. it’s easy to get people to listen to an experiment with new ideas and suggestions

  2. when one person learns something new, everyone hears about it

  3. making mistakes is part of learning, you can be open about it and it’s not career limiting

  4. staff members of all ranks give each other plenty of quality feedback from above, below, and sideways

  5. everyone is involved in discussing school policies before adoption

  6. one department knows what people in another department are thinking and they help each other” (Underhill, A. Opening keynote address, IATEFL Conference 2012, Glasgow)

Is this reminiscent of your workplace and who you are in your working practice? Would you consider yourself to be an Open Educational Resource? If not yet or not completely, how can you become an experimenter in your practice to help open things up for yourself and others?


Leave a Comment

  1. This is a great blog, Alannah. I agree wholeheartedly with the 6 points you posted from Underhill’s keynote speech. Feedback, discussion, and the sharing of ideas and experiences are so important. I’ve had several frustrations recently which have stemmed from the resistance of one department to try something new even when academic and market research strongly supported it (but we haven’t given up yet – still working on persuasion tactics). A culture of sharing and cooperation benefits any organization, but especially ones involving education. I’ve worked in schools where everyone shared their teaching ideas with great pleasure, and in others where lesson plans were treated like government secrets. I know which had happier, more effective teachers!


  2. Thanks, Anne, for your interest and for taking the time to share with a very insightful comment. I wonder what is feeding the resistance you’re experiencing with the department you mention here? Do you think it’s within their organisational culture to consult both academic and market research, or one of these more strongly than the other or not at all in both cases? Often I find that sources of trust and inspiration for what is valued when venturing into something ‘new’ are not articulated in the explicit sense but rather sensed and expressed tacitly, perhaps bound up in endless anecdotes which can be time-consuming and exhausting to wade through but probably really worth it, especially combined with your persuasion tactics.

    Open government is what I’d like to respond to with your brilliant analogy (it literally made me laugh out loud) of some teachers’ holding teaching ideas and resources to themselves as being akin to keeping government secrets.


    • Lindsay and LukeI’ll be at IATEFL this year, I was last there as a student votelneur in Harrogate in 2010. So I’m looking forward to seeing many more sessions this time, including yours about your new E-book.But, frankly, I’m disappointed there’s not much happening on this blog at the moment. I think we need a few more posts please guys to get us talking!There’s definitely a gap in the market’ for an ELT Materials Development blog at the moment I think, particularly now the English Raven has branched off into other areas.And I think there is an awful lot of potential for an excellent blog and discussion forum about materials development, task design, subverting coursebooks, critical thinking etc etc, but it hasn’t really seemed to have got going yet unfortunately.Perhaps people could post up their own experiences of a lesson or a classroom task which was subversive’ in some way? To get us going.


      • Thanks for the encouragement with getting going with this blog again, Lucia, it’s definitely been on my mind.
        The Glasgow IATEFL was my first and I was a little freaked out by all the textbooks and software that were being sold in the exhibition hall of the conference which seemed to be counter-acting the great teaching points and resources that many of the practitioners presenting at the conference were sharing willingly for free. There is a great deal of duplication of effort in the ELT publishing world – the same grammar points, slightly different lexis, topics, tasks, a few new pics – all packaged in shiny new covers….but amounting to the same stuff we’ve been seeing and using for the past couple of decades imho.
        Yes, times and technologies have changed allowing us to self-publish and to go beyond the boundaries of the EFL textbook as we know it. I guess this is why Web 2.0 is often referred to as disruptive technologies. Just to get the ball rolling with some freeware resources in ELT which I recently talked about to the Open Education crowd at another conference in the UK, here is a link to a presentation I did on free corpus-based resources – FLAX, the Lextutor, and AntConc:


  3. It really was a faiatstnc PK, and one of the highlights of IATEFL. My first experience with PKs was at the Virtual Round Table conference. There were some excellent ones done there too. It seems like it would take a lot of preparation and tons of guts. Congrats again. I really hope you start that blog, and join some of us who only blog when we feel like it (my schedule on my about writing etc.)Cheers,Tara


    • Yes, Tara, getting going with the blogging is key and the IATEFL blogger badges were are great way to jump in for me and no doubt others at the event whom you are referring to here. Can you let me know your blog’s URL, so I can follow you? Cheers and all the best with your blogging also. Alannah


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