Friday, August 8, 2014

ELTA Rhine Workshop - Solving Challenges

On Saturday, August 23rd, I will be leading a workshop with ELTA Rhine in Cologne to talk about some of the difficult aspects of teaching/training Business English.


When I completed my CELTA I was always uncomfortable with the idea that the method was hidden from the students.  I had the feeling that we should work as wizards behind the curtain, leading participants through a series of pedagogically sound activities.  Over the years, I have become more and more comfortable with transparency in the classroom.  I feel it helps me build a better relationship with the participants, provides space for feedback, gives them more control over their learning and may even help them become more autonomous learners outside the class.

The same is true for workshops like the ELTA Rhine event in a few weeks.  I want the event to reflect how I train and I want the participants be involved in developing the content.

So, with two weeks to go before the event, let me outline what is going on behind the scenes.

Step 1 - Gather Information

This step is currently under way.  I am using several resources.  Questions I have sought to answer:

What topics and speakers has ELTA Rhine covered in the past or will cover in the future?
Resource:  ELTA Rhine Website

Unquestionably, the answer to this question makes me a bit nervous.  The list of speakers reads like a who's who list of ELT authors.  These are the people at conferences I am trying to introduce myself to with the hope that they might remember my name.  As for the topics, I see that the events have covered a wide range of topics but that there is room for discussion where the rubber meets the road of Business English.  There is also a mix between the novel and the classic.

Decision:  I don't want to cover areas which have already been discussed.  I also don't want to cover something which someone else can do better.

What does the audience look like?
Resource:  ELTA Rhine Events Coordinator and Participant Survey

Everyone knows that the key step in preparing a talk/workshop is to understand the audience.  To achieve relevance, we need to understand the audience's situation and expectations.  First, I spoke with the events coordinator to get an idea of attendees.  Are they mostly freelancers working in companies?  Do they work in schools or universities with prescribed curricula?

I decided to augment this information with a participant survey to get critical information about the audience.  The first question of the survey is designed to get 'demographic' information.  The second question is designed to gauge the emotional response to Business English.  The third question is set up as open response to get an idea of teaching styles and ideas for how they view Business English.

Decision:  I am speaking to an experienced group and we have much in common.  I will share the results of the survey in the workshop (they are anonymous).  A workshop in its true form (creating value/intellectual property) is the best fit because the collective knowledge is greater than mine alone.

What topics are most important to the participants?
Resource:  Participant Survey and Social Media Monitoring

A common pitfall is assuming that certain topics are important simply based on the audience profile.  For example, it may be tempting to think that if the audience is made up of freelancers then administration skills and tips are interesting.  Likewise, if the audience uses a coursebook, then maximizing published materials would be the best topic.  But when dealing with experts, they have probably already found the answers to these questions.  The same is true in my classes.  In a group of marketing people, talking about presentations for the 10,000th time is not really that helpful.

So, I wanted to do a mini 'needs analysis' to find out what topics are important to the audience.  What do they need/want?  For the survey, I created a ranking question for the participants to order which topics are most important.  The topics were a mix of topics I feel comfortable speaking about in front of experts and listening to social media/blogs.

Decision:  The results have been eye-opening for sure.  As of now, "Designing Customized Courses" is well in front, with "Leading Materials Light Lessons" in second place.  "Handling ESP Needs" and "Needs Analysis" are bringing up the rear.  This is not what I expected.  I'm very happy that I didn't choose a topic I wanted to talk about... I probably would have wasted everyone's time.  I won't divulge which topic it was. :)

What are the constraints?
Resource:  ELTA Rhine Events Coordinator

There are constraints in every situation.  In particular I am looking at audience size, time and training aids.  First, we have 2.5 hours to discuss content.  The workshop is 3 hours but I will have to factor in a break and socializing.  Second, it appears that the event will be fairly intimate (less than 50 attendees).  This means that going into more detail will be possible.  Third, I am thinking about whiteboards, technology, table set up, etc.  I am still thinking about how to augment the training aids to reach the goal.

Step 2 - Creating 'Prepared Flexibility'

Once I have the information, it is time to starting creating a framework for the event.  I wrote a blog post a while back that "I Only Have One Lesson Plan" and that still holds true (I delete or revise my blog to reflect changes.).  I want to find the right balance between control and chaos.

So first, I am outlining the goal of the workshop.  In this case, the goal is to create a product which collects and organizes the collective knowledge of me and the audience.  I am still not sure what form this product should take.  Perhaps it is a handbook (Word document), perhaps it is a slide deck... maybe a video.  I am not sure yet.  But my goal is to hand ELTA Rhine a prepared product to deliver value to their members, first and foremost to the participants.

To do this, I am working on several things.  First, I am dissecting the needs/wants to figure out what I want to say.  Can I break this down into "Three Steps" or "5 Tips"?  For example, if customizing courses remains the main focus, I analyze the process into several topics areas:
- Recognizing decision points in class (where are the opportunities to improvise and customize?)
- Performance-based training (relating to test-teach-test for skills)
- Identifying language gaps and skills gaps in participant performance
- Avoiding the "hard Business English" trap and driving our students away (e.g. writing reports) - The making them eat their broccoli problem.
- Assessing resources for customization, taking far away content and adapting it to a customized need

This step includes creating slides, thinking about vignettes and documenting activities from the past.

Another step is to plan for contingencies.  Because I am giving up control to the audience, I want to be prepared for unexpected events.  I will start with known issues.  Some people have dominant personalities.  They might wish to dominate the session or a group.  What will I say to that person?  Someone will ask a fundamental question which brings my entire approach into question.  How will I deal with that?  Perhaps a participant will contribute the "TED Tip".  This is the activity, tip or resource which everyone already knows.  What will I say to help them save face but also move the discussion further?  Finally, how will I handle external issues like dry markers, a hot room, late attendees, etc.?

Finally, which activities will support the goal, deliver my message and promote productive discussion during the workshop?  This is where is all comes together.  I will devise a list of workshop activities.  I will think about what materials I need to reach the goal.  For example, right now I am designing an "Activity Description Sheet" for participants to fill out as the discussion evolves.  The sheet will be a simple form which documents successful activities.  This form will help me create the final product.

Step 3 - Refine and Rehearse

A common mistake is to take the list of activities and create a final plan.  I will not sit down and prescribe which activities will go where.  I will keep the entire list in mind and select the most appropriate during the workshop.  However, I will create a framework within the constraints.

So far, I have divided the session into various time blocks. (Grammar note for teachers:  I originally wrote that sentence in the past simple, but I changed to the present perfect for British sensitivity.)  I have a general idea of how I will organize the participants.  I also have a pretty clear idea about how I will collect knowledge and transform it into useful information.  I am creating the slides to express my message.  I have a plan for topics which are not covered due to constraints.  I have a list of 'challenge questions' to push the audience.

Next, I will rehearse the workshop.  I will stand in my office and give the workshop... in real time (I will actually rehearse what I am doing during group work for the 3 hours).  I will rehearse the contingencies and I will make sure that the various possible activities are time neutral - meaning they can be replaced without affecting the constraint.  I will rehearse collecting ideas.  I will assess the rehearsal based on the audience profile and survey responses.  Additionally, I will focus on the instructions.  I will rehearse giving the instructions for each task.

This rehearsal will continue all the way up to the event... on the train to Cologne... in the taxi from the train station... in the few minutes before the event.  The goal of the rehearsal is to be completely comfortable with the chaos of giving up control.  Inevitably, the participants will surprise me... but hopefully I can rehearse 90% of the contingencies.

Yes, this is the same as my training.

Back to revealing the wizard behind the curtain... I have recently pulled it back even further in the context of socializing.  My participants often say they need small talk and socializing (I distinguish the two).  They are also amazed at how easy it is for me to conduct socializing and assume it is a native speaker thing.  I now deal with the fact that the language is not the constraint for socializing, it is cultural and personal.

I recently said to participants (in a group).

We have talked before that trust is built on competence and character.  We also know that building personal relationships is important for making communication work.  The same is true for us.  I want you to trust me and I think a personal relationship will make learning easier.

When I came here today, I thought about you.  I thought about your daughter because you said she was preparing for her A-Levels.  I thought about the small talk.  I said to myself, "I should ask about her daughter."  I thought of sentences to ask like "So, how did the A-Levels go?"

Joachim, you told me last time that you were planning your honeymoon.  I came prepared with questions about your honeymoon.

How did that feel for someone to remember what you told them and ask about it?

So, in the spirit of the workshop... how can you make this an activity?  Would you like to write a comment?

Planned flexibility... the method of the workshop and perhaps a few tips for trainers.  If you haven't registered and you'll be in the best city in Germany on August 23rd, please come.  I can't promise excellence, but I'll do my best.








1 comment:

  1. Hello Charles,
    I was looking forward to your workshop as soon as I heard you were coming to Cologne, but am disappointed that I have to miss it because of a family wedding in England that day. Now that I've read this, I'm doubly disappointed but hope you'll write a report which I can then read afterwards.

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