Tuesday, May 13, 2014

My UK Trip - Harrogate Day 2 (Teachers Research!)

Previous posts on my UK trip:
My UK Trip - The Beginning
My UK Trip - Harrogate Day 1

Preparing for the Presentation

My scholarship also covered the membership for an IATEFL Special Interest Group (SIG) of my choice and a registration for its pre-conference event. I chose the IATEFL Research SIG (ReSIG). I submitted a poster presentation proposal for the ReSIG PCE. I didn't expect it to be accepted, but it was. Lying down on my bed at the Cairn Hotel room the evening after my long wonderful walk around the lovely town of Harrogate, I regretted submitting the proposal. I thought about how wonderful it would be to enjoy this first time experience of attending the IATEFL without having to be stressed about a presentation. Well, it was too late now, so there was no use whining about it.

Presenters were not required to produce professionally printed and potentially expensive posters for the presentation. I could put together some A4 or A3 papers to make my poster. Information should be kept to a minimum, and they encouraged using a lot of pictures. The pictures should act as prompts for further discussions. So, here's a snapshot of what I hope could pass as a poster for my presentation at the IATEFL ReSIG PCE, laid down neatly on the extra bed in my hotel room.

I managed to find a use for that empty bed.

I remember something from the e-mail that says we have to speak for 3 minutes, but I didn't let that bother me. At that time at least.

So that night I just spent a few minutes to plan how I would like to arrange the pieces of paper on the panel tomorrow. When I was satisfied with how it looked like, I left it there on the bed. Then I tried to make myself sleep by watching the roulette game on TV.

The Day - Tuesday, April 1st

I started early that day. I got dressed and headed down to the hotel's restaurant to have my breakfast.

Tea and toast at the Cairn Hotel

After breakfast, I sat down at the lobby for a few minutes to send some Facebook updates for my family back home. The Cairn Hotel is beautiful, but I hated the fact that Internet was only available at the lobby. No Internet in the room, can you imagine that? That was the one thing that made my life a little bit harder in Harrogate. My life depends on the Internet; it's like oxygen to me. Well, maybe not like oxygen exactly. But I think you know what I mean...

The Research SIG Pre-Conference Event

I arrived at the HIC before eight, and went straight to registration. There were already many people there. After collecting my name-tag, my conference program and my conference bag, I headed to the room where the Research SIG PCE was going to be held.

I was early.
The chairs were arranged in small circles of six, and I took a seat at the circle in the middle of the room. I made some new friends. There were two Chilean lady teachers in my circle. They were both doing their PhD in the UK. There was also a gentleman who is a university lecturer from England. Another gentleman, a Japanese university lecturer, joined us a bit later. We introduced ourselves to each other and chatted about our involvements in teacher research. I thought it was a good start for me. I was feeling good. I thought it was going to be a great day.

The event started with a welcome message from the ReSIG co-ordinator, Richard Smith. He introduced us to the three key speakers, the experts in the field of teacher research - Donald Freeman, Anne Burns and Dick Allwright. After further introductions to the event and some announcements, the first round of poster presentations began.

The ReSIG committee explained how the presentation was going to be conducted. Each presenter would be standing next to his or her poster, and each would be given three minutes to talk to the audience in the room. After all presenters had talked, the audience would be given an hour to walk around the room to have a look at the posters and to ask the presenters questions about their posters.

I felt my stomach squirmed. I looked around the room. It was packed with more than 50 people. Can I skip the 3-minute talk to the audience? Dear Lord, what have I gotten myself into?

Presenters in action. You can watch videos of the presentations on the ReSIG website:

One of the posters that attracted me. It was on how teacher research changes teachers' practical knowledge and the classroom dynamics. Watch the presentation here: http://resig.weebly.com/becky-steven--jessica-cobley.html

I had the opportunity to see researches conducted in various contexts, and I learned so much. I also realised one thing. All of the posters and the presentations were extremely good. These people are experts. Why on earth did I send the proposal? Why Cindy, why?

What have I gotten myself into? 

Tea break was over, and it was time for the second round of presentations. It was my turn to present. Despite the anxiety and the near-panic attack, somehow I managed to get my pieces of paper together and put them up on the panel provided for me.

There you go. My humble poster.
I was the second person to present. I remember very well how I was frantically searching for a good excuse to back out while the first presenter was presenting. Before I managed to do anything to 'save' myself, my turn arrived so I had no choice but to just do it. 

Well, I did it. I spoke to the audience. It was the longest 3-minutes in my life, and I was really, really glad when it was over. Phew! 

Here's the link to the video of my presentation: http://resig.weebly.com/cynthia-james.html

It was the longest 3-minutes in my life.
Screen capture from the video on ReSIG's website: http://resig.weebly.com/cynthia-james.html

 I was talking to Dick Allwright in this photo. See the three fingers on the bottom right? They are his.
Photo credit: MariaJesus Inostroza

Creating the Balance

After the 3-minute talk, everyone got up and walked around the room to visit posters and to talk to the presenters. A few people came and talk to me, and we had some quite interesting discussions. I learned that teachers and educators everywhere share the same thoughts when it comes to the issue of too much emphases on examination-oriented activities in the primary classroom. I observed a variety of reactions. Some educators that I had the chance to talk to were totally against the idea of having a standardised examination at the primary level. Some showed quite strong reaction - they told me that they were disgusted by the idea. Haha. A primary school teacher from Russia told me that her country doesn't have any standardised examination for primary school children at the moment, but it seems the people responsible for the education policy in Russia are currently considering the idea. That had made her very worried.

We talked a lot about my research objective - to create the balance between examination-oriented activities with meaningful language learning in the classroom. People asked me if I received any kinds of resistance or objections from the school admins, or the parents when I first started the project. I told them that resistance and objections are quite natural, especially in the beginning. For some reasons, not many school admins like the idea of exam classes spending too much time on singing, doing arts and other fun stuffs. They want the children to bury their heads in the books, and spend most of their time in school doing exam drills. So, I did actually got into some troubles at the beginning. Lucky for me, the parents had been a bit more understanding. I guess the parents want their children to have fun with learning as much as I do, and they can somehow understand what I was trying to do.

Someone said, "I hate to ask this question. But how did the students' perform in the exam after you did all these?" I told her that after I did what I did, my students' performance in the examination had improved by leaps and bounds. There had been dramatic improvements in the percentage of passes, particularly for the English language paper, for the past three years. Here's my conclusion: it is possible to have fun with learning and still get good results in the examination.

Someone left us all with a very thought-provoking question: Every educator throughout the world seems to be aware of the negative impact exam drills have on children's learning. So why isn't there more top-down interventions from the authorities to deal with this issue once and for all?

Why indeed? I wish I have the answer.

What I Learned

Compared to everyone else in the room, my experience in research is equivalent to zero. Attending the ReSIG PCE had been a very enriching and satisfying experience for me. I learned more about how research can help me improve my classroom practices. There's one quote that I managed to catch from the PCE: Not all researchers are good teachers, but good teachers are almost always researchers.

The experts also talked about making research more contemporary and accessible for the group of people who would benefit from it the most - the teachers. They talked about the importance of publishing research findings, and sharing them with the world. I learned that publishing shouldn't be limited to academic journals publications. Teachers can publish and share their researches through various means - websites, blogs, teacher sharing sessions and etc.

Looking Back

One of the experts pointed out that one of the frustrating things about academic research is that it is hierarchical. The academic world tend to value only researches that are done by academics in the ivory towers. Not much acknowledgments are given to researches done by the actual classroom practitioners - the teachers. Teacher research are not given the exposures and promotions that it deserves.

To some extent, I would say that I agree with these observations. They reminded me of a conference that I participated in not long ago. It was a conference mainly for universities academics. I was, perhaps, the only school teacher there. I presented a paper which I thought had made quite an impact on those listening to me at that time. People actually approached me at the corridor during tea breaks to talk about what I presented. More than a dozen people stopped me by the hallway to offer me encouraging feedback.

It was a small conference, and they had invited only one keynote speaker. He was there in the room while I was presenting. He came to me right after I finished my presentation to congratulate me. "I find it inspring," I remember him saying.

I should be flattered by all those attentions, but I wasn't. The minute these people learned that I was only a school teacher with no post-graduate degree -  I wasn't even a master candidate - the way they talked to me changed. I could see them making an effort to lower down the level of the conversation a bit. It was crazy. Perhaps the most hurtful of all was the remark made by that very keynote speaker who congratulated me earlier. "I had so much admiration for Cynthia. What she presented was brilliant. But she's a nobody, she comes from nowhere."

He told everybody that I had presented brilliantly. But that part of what he said sounded like a distant murmur to me. This part, however, reached my ears and my heart very loud and clear: She's a nobody, she comes from nowhere.

Well, I would be the first person to agree that I'm indeed a nobody and that I come from nowhere. But does that matter? I have deep passion for research. They all agreed that what I did was brilliant. Does my background even matter? Why the need to bring it up and tell the whole world that I come from nowhere?

In this ReSIG PCE however, things were very different. Nobody seemed to care that I'm a mere school teacher from a rural place in North Borneo. All that they care about is what we have in common as far as research is concerned. I could feel no rejection. On the contrary, I felt supported. All these great people would be the people that a nobody like me would turn to when I need help with my research practice.

Exploratory Practice

Dick Allwright spent most of the one-hour Q&A session sitting by my poster and talking to me. I know who he is, I read his book for one of my university courses last semester. And now there he was, just a few inches away from me. And he was talking to me and showing a lot of interest in my so-called 'poster' and my attempt at conducting an exploratory research. Dick Allwright is the leading expert in the field of exploratory practice. Damn, I was so nervous. But he's a very nice and sweet gentleman, he gave me lots of encouragements and positive feedback.

After the Q&A session ended, the three experts were invited to give their commentaries on all the presentations. In his commentary, Dick Allwright specifically referred to my poster presentation as a good example of exploratory practice. He pointed out that in my project, it wasn't all about the teacher - the teacher didn't do it all. The students were a big part of it, they were very much involved in the process. According to Allwright, that's what exploratory practice is all about. Coming from him - well, he's Dick Allwright for goodness sake! - well...I don't actually have the words to express how I felt at that moment.

One thing's for sure - I was glad I didn't back out when I felt like I wanted to.

Dick Allwright talked about how research helps teachers develop an understanding that is beyond words.
Photo credit: IATEFL ReSIG

The key speakers: Dick Allwright, Donald Freeman and Anne Burns
Photo credit: MariaJesus Inostroza

With my new friends from Chile during lunch break

My conference goodies. The Yorkshire tea is delicious.

Mission 1 - accomplished! Now I can happily enjoy the rest of the conference. :-) 

Till the next post! -ccj


  1. NOBODY is perfect. You are NOBODY!! ;)

    kudos cindy... proud to have a Malaysian English teacher like you... keep up the good work!

  2. So inspiring teacher.


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