Scott Sommers’ Taiwan Blog

Conferences Presentations and the Classroom Teacher

Posted in Uncategorized by Scott Sommers on April 17, 2009

Last week, I gave a presentation in my department about how to present papers at TESOL conferences. The goal of the presentation was to help teachers with little research experience to understand the best way to approach conference presentation. This post is based on my talk.

The Problem

The majority of foreign teachers involved in English teaching in Taiwan, and probably even all of Asia, see themselves as classroom teachers. The bulk of these teachers have master’s degrees and many of those with doctorates began their careers in English teaching with this master’s degree and only got their doctorate later. Some large number of them have degrees either in Education or an MA in the Teaching of English as a Second Language (TESOL), a degree that was created largely to feed the demand for such teaching positions.

Many of these degrees are not research degrees and did not require a dissertation or research paper for their completion. Holders of such degrees often describe to me a perceived professional role like that of the MFA or MBA – as a skilled practitioner. It is not uncommon to be told by holders of these degrees that they are ‘qualified’ to teach English, in contrast to people like myself, who hold degrees outside TESOL or Education.

As I mentioned in this post, the role for teachers with this background is shrinking. Increasingly, MA TESOL positions are being converted to staff positions or pushed downstream into countries that lack the economy to offer competitive salaries. Increasingly, the better TESOL jobs are being replaced with research faculty. MA holders who are not willing or able to upgrade their academic qualifications are still being forced to conduct scholarly research. Universities in Taiwan have always had faculty evaluation systems, but recently, these evaluations have taken on a much more serious tone. The school where I teach is an example of this. Newly-introduced faculty evaluations tie job security, in part, to research output, regardless of one’s department. The result of this is that faculty who have always seen themselves fundamentally as classroom teachers are now being forced to enter the world of academic publishing and presentation.

The TESOL Conference in Taiwan

A typical TESOL conference in Taiwan is terrible. In fact, I have been to all the major conferences in north-east Asia and they are all terrible. This does not mean that TESOL conferences in general are bad. TESOL, which is the American English teaching organization, holds an annual convention that is quite good. Outside of TESOL, there are also many high quality conferences in Asia for other academic subject area. It’s just that the quality of TESOL conferences here is abysmal.

And in fact, the push for faculty to be involved in research has significantly lowered the already low standard of research at these conferences. Increasingly research at conferences is plagued by bad design, improperly used statistics, confusion about the conclusions, conclusions that are not properly linked to previous research, and – ironically for language teachers – presentation that is so poor it’s hard to understand.

The cause of this is pressure on unprepared faculty and students to present their work in public. Often such presenters are unprepared graduate students or researchers who have picked a topic that they are not technically prepared to handle. This may because of their lack of background or because they are not experienced enough to know their topic is just too difficult to manage.

Fortunately, the solution to this is straight forward. Classroom teachers should stick to talking about what they know about, and that is, how to teach in the classroom.

Talking about What You Know

I view many of the teachers I work with as extremely talented and motivated educators. I think they have a lot to share with each other and with instructors at other institutions. I am equally as certain there are instructors at other institutions with knowledge and experience in the classroom that we would find important.

What kind of knowledge and experience am I talking about? For example, at last year’s conference sponsored by the MCU Department of Applied English, my colleague Judy Lewis spoke about her experience implementing the Common European Framework of Reference. That’s right; all Judy spoke about was her experience using the CEFR in her syllabus. But it was great. I was there with another facuty member and we felt it was a meaningful and interesting discussion. A more recent example comes from last Saturday and National Chengchi University’s College English Conference at which my colleague Joe Lavallee and I spoke. Following our paper in the same panel was a presentation by NCCU’s Cheryl Sheridan. Her presentation, entitled Scores and Comments: Expanding the Feedback Arsenal talked about different kinds of feedback you can provide for writing classes. While the design was not strong, the concepts she discussed were innovative and exciting. She is clearly an experienced classroom teacher and was able to convey very powerfully the importance of this work for student language proficiency.

One of the problems I have encountered with this message is the interpretation of ‘research’. This message has repeatedly been meet by comments such as, “What you’re talking about isn’t research” or “Research is numbers and statistics.” In all honesty, I am deeply confused by such remarks. In conference presentations, researchers often find it necessary to provide information about student response in the form of statistics to indicate student feeling or the effect size. Sometimes these reports are quite sophisticated. They don’t need to be and, for much of this kind of work, should not be. Sophisticated statistical analysis is certainly not a requirement for presentation at a TESOL conference.

My Advice

I have said earlier that my solution is straight forward. My advice is equally straight. Talk about what you know about. What is it that do in class that you’ve thought a lot about? For me personally, it’s the way I manage group presentations. For colleagues I have spoken with, it’s how they deal with plagiarism. For others, it’s the way they teach writing or incorporate elements such as literature or film into their lessons. But whatever you do, if the strongest, most well-throught out aspect of your lessons are how you incorporate music into the class, don’t go straying off into some arcane topic, like learner motivation or teacher professionalization.

Sometimes it’s not enough just to talk about method. Sometimes you need a record of student response. Don’t make it complex. All you’re doing is asking the students what they thought about the lessons. You’re doing it in a rigourous and reproducible way, but really, all it is a record of their thoughts.

Final Comments

I don’t think I’m saying anything more than common sense. After all, who should be speaking at TESOL conferences? Graduate students? Teachers of academic subjects? Textbook writers? Who is better suited to speak about TESOL than experienced classroom teachers? I want to say this more powerfully. Classroom teachers should be speaking at TESOL conferences. In fact, speaking at TESOL conferences is the proper place for language teachers. It should be their space, and if it’s not, that’s because it’s a bad conference.


One Response

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  1. Hall Houston said, on April 30, 2009 at 5:54 am

    I agree completely. Excellent post!

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