Thursday, April 11, 2013

IATEFL Liverpool - What Business English Can Teach the Rest of ELT

Over the past several days I been listening to interesting ideas from around the world from the General English community (I haven’t attended any BE talks).  The larger world of ELT is full of amazing people.  But I also see areas where common practice in Business English training might help our colleagues.  So, here they are...

Lessons should matter to the students.  I am still fairly fresh to this profession, but apparently this idea of relevance is quite new in the theoretical approaches.  Surprisingly, this focus on making lessons engaging, unique, and useful to the learners in the class appears to be a wave in ELT.  In fact, it is so intuitive that I hear some BE trainers talking about how they have been doing this on their own for years just by feeling but without ELT recognition.  Suddenly, research appears to be validating what has been going on for a long time.

In other words, many Business English Trainers are developing methods and lessons which go far beyond anything being presented at IATEFL.  When it comes to focusing on the learners I see hesitation in the larger ELT community.  Dogme is the perfect example. 

I went to a popular talk yesterday by Luke Meddings and Burcu Akyol on the areas of overlap between unplugged and connected teaching.  Mr. Meddings started by saying that Dogme was now 13 years old, but then felt the need to (re)outline its principles at length.  Dogme’s principles can be distilled into one word... relevance.  He seemed to be answering critics of the approach through his talk.  I was asking myself why... hadn’t Dogme arrived? Wasn’t it accepted as a valid method of the teaching, at least by some communities?  But I guess not.  So apparently relevance of teaching is doubted by many.  On the other hand, when I met a BE Trainer from Berlin in the next session he said, “Well, [Dogme] is really a non-debate, isn’t it?”

Just to clarify the concept of relevance.  I am using this in many ways to include...
  • Content should relate to the learners’ lives in a meaningful way.
  • The language should be brought to where they are and integrated into their lives.  In BE we are often in-company, dealing with real world events.  For school age learners this means taking the language into their social network spaces, for example. 
  • Learners are the center of the lessons, discussing their thoughts, expressing their real selves through English.    
  • Teachers should focus on skills and language the learner needs, both now in and in the future.

Finally, BE trainers take it for granted that no publisher could ever write a fully relevant course book.  This is why we so rarely use them unless standardization is required.  But I think we can help share our experiences in designing and guiding relevant training. 

Customer Service

The idea of stakeholders and customers seems to be lost.  Overall, I tend to hear phrases like “get your students to...” and “make/have your students do...”  But I have yet to hear anything like, “If your students want/need/lack, do...”

But the latter is the everyday reality of Business English Trainers.  In conversations with other trainers here we speak about flexibility and accommodation all the time.  We are so focused on the customer that we are a chameleon of approaches and methods.  But the talks here in Liverpool show that categorized teaching persists.

The second part of this is many teachers fail to realize the customer / stakeholder relationship of their profession.  While we speak about satisfying the needs of the learner, manager, HR, and procurement all the time, I never hear parents, children, ministries, and school administration being mentioned (when they are, it is merely as a barrier to something the teacher wants to do).  These concepts are actually so closely related we need to have an expert step up and compare this.  Overall, I feel we have been successful at balancing these interest groups but many of the complaints in General English show substantial conflict exists in their field.  We can help.

(Section below added April 12)

On this point, I attended a talk from the British Council on a project to help public school teachers in former East Germany improve their English.  The project director gave the audience a set of lessons learned from the challenges they faced dealing with the education ministry, the teacher training institute, the teachers themselves, and the trainers.  While the project was and continues to be successful, there were several contractual and coordination issues which caused strain on the various relationships.

I believe that someone working with companies to design and implement Business English training would have been a great addition to the BC team.  Many in the field are adept at conducting stakeholder analysis and identifying the tensions between expectations.  I had the impression that BC was picking up some of these lessons by trial and error.  Without question, the organization has a depth of talent in teacher training, but many BE trainers know that managing stakeholder expectations is a key ingredient.  In essence, because we work with businesses, as businesses, and talking about business, we think more like businesses.


I have been attending various talks from the SIGs this week.  One was from Sandy Millin.  She is a popular blogger, recently finished a DELTA (or is close to finishing), and one of the inspirational people I follow online.  She presented a very useful overview of International House Newcastle’s Personal Study Programme.  I was interested because it was part of the Learner Autonomy SIG day.  The guided self-study program IH has set up is great but it is still a work in progress.  I think BE trainers may even have larger issues with learner autonomy than General English self-funded (or parent-funded) learners.  I think we can add our experiences to the Lerner Autonomy discussion.

Ms. Millin did a great job.  In fact, she displayed the best presentation skills I have seen at the conference so far (well-rehearsed, clear message, calm in voice and manner).  Her intent was to share and spread.  Her audience, however, was clearly expecting more.  She faced a series of challenge and opinion questions at the end (prefaced by politeness of course).  As I was leaving the room I heard two conversations about how her ideas would not work.  The best of these was how the teachers in the self-study room had not received the proper training as tutors.  The participant’s school had instituted something similar and they had received “loads of training” on tutoring.  I still can’t quite understand.  If a qualified English teacher (at DELTA level in this case) is not suitable as a tutor, who is?

The point is... many in ELT do not understand innovation.  Innovation is the formulation of an idea which is feasible, desirable, and adds value.  IH Newcastle has a profitable and feasible idea which helps learner autonomy.  The desirability from the learner’s side was left somewhat unanswered (the price/time was bundled into overall order), but Ms. Millin was clear that motivation is a work in progress.  This is innovation in a simple form.  It is a small, but useful, step toward learner autonomy.

Private language schools (like IH) are businesses and their product is education.  Therefore, they need to consider new ideas with a business mindset.  Even public schools and universities are pseudo-businesses.  They provide education and must demonstrate value.  In Business English we think about this all the time.  How can I differentiate myself through approach and methods?  Will my clients find this blended learning tool useful and desirable... and how should I charge for the time to run it?  And so on.  But in the larger world of English teaching, the thinking is different.  New ideas are prodded and poked and we dismiss them on the backs of completely frivolous concerns.  Instead, let’s change our perspective on innovation.

So, this post does include some sweeping generalization about both ELT and Business English.  I know the reality is much more complex.  But looking down at Liverpool from the top of the Ferris wheel next to the center... this is what I see.  I learn every day from talented teachers in the ELT field like Mr. Meddings and Ms. Millin.  But I think as BE Trainers, we can and should give something back.  I think next year I’ll submit a presentation.

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