Monday, March 26, 2012

Dogme in the BE Classroom. Really?

Returning from Glasgow I realized that the conversations I had in the corridors and over dinner were truly eye-opening and the real take away from the conference.  Definitely, the presentations were good and insightful, but the chance to speak with the most experienced and talented trainers in the industry has caused more reflection.

Of course, one of the issues on my mind was the Dogme trend in ELT.  It has appeared so often in blogs and online discussions, it is difficult to miss.  As a Business English Trainer, I am fascinated by the approach and how it could be implemented in the classroom.  My goal in this post to share my persecptions on Dogme and offer some solutions for how we can incorporate the best parts into our training.

I have had several problems with what I have read, even pinning down what exactly it is.  In my reading I have boiled it down to several what it is and what it isn't (but I could be wrong):

  • Extremly learner-centered.  Trainers should remove many (if not all) external materials and resources from the classroom which impose ideas, emotions, roles, and pre-formed learning paths.  As drivers of the content, the participants create the class and lessons through collaboration with the trainer and each other.
  • Focused on binding language to pre-existing concepts within the learner.  Through the self-expression created in the Dogme classroom, the students are more receptive to language input which helps to refine, clarify, and give meaning to their ideas.  Thus, the theory is that students will learn faster because we are not asking them to communicate through a pre-determined language structure, rather giving language to the communication goal.
  • Flexible.  Because learner self-expression is unpredictable, trainers must remain flexible to harness, highlight, and build upon emerging language.  Formal materials limit this flexibility.
  • Focused on emerging language.  Emerging language could be expressed language forms which should be spread across the class or could be when the expressed meaning is clear, but a language gap impairs clear transmission.  One example of the second case is when students are faced with trying to express regret without knowing past modal verb forms.  Even a quite fluent learner will hesitate, realize they don't know how to express it, try to translate it from L1, and find the best possible work-around.  It is the trainer's job to afford these opportunities, recognize them, and fill these gaps with a lasting learning point.
  • Superfulous conversation.  Goals do exists and it is the trainer's duty to guide topics and discussions which will lead to these objectives.  A focus on progress is built into every lesson, and learning points should be recycled to reinforce learning and demonstrate improved performance.  To this point, a lesson log is crucial for the trainer to record and prepare for the next lesson.  Otherwise, training points could easily be lost and forgotten.
  • All touchy feely.  While yes it is based on self-expression and interaction within the student group, it is not a group of people coming together and talking about their feelings and emotions.  That can happen, but it isn't Oprah's book club.  Learners are expected to learn and teachers are expected to teach (or rather facilitate learning).
  • Materials and technology free.  From my reading it seems that these two items are both welcome in the classroom, but we should be very selective about why they are included.  Do they afford and reinforce the process of self-reflection and communication?  Do they enable the learners to express what they want and need to express?  Or are we simply bringing in a listening because it is the next step in our off-the-shelf learning plan?
Now, I have several problems with this approach in the BE classroom.  And honestly, if done correctly, I feel task-based activities may be better suited to the needs of our learners.  But I think many of the elements of Dogme are already present in some BE classrooms.  First, our clients expect a personalized training plan.  They also expect us to help them refine what they are already using in their job.  In fact, I think it is difficult as a BE Trainer in the one-to-one or small group setting to ignore the Dogme approach.

But here are the challenges I see for Dogme...

  1. The Messi Analogy  There are many outstanding footballers, but there is only one Messi.  He seems to be able to do things on the field which defy explanation.  He can see moves before they are made, he is unbeliably quick, always calm, and gives every motion a flurish of creativity.  I tend to think that in order to pull off Dogme and make it effective, a trainer would have to be as talented as Messi.  The trainer would have to have the experience to see the dialog before it happens, guide this discourse through the students themselves, recoginze the emerging language and then have the supreme flexibility and creativity to set an activity to utilize the training point.  Wow.
  2. Too many levels of listening  As a trainer, I am quite adept at listening to my students at various levels.  What are they saying (content)?  How are they saying it (accuracy)?  What are they not saying (language gap)?  What emergent language are they using?  I know I can do all four levels of listening sometimes, but I have to be 100% in the moment.  Of course, I cannot be 'on' in every minute of every lesson .  The risk of Dogme is that if I drop one of these levels of listening because I am distracted, tired, or unmotivated, the progress aspect of the lesson deteriorates.
  3. It can't be taught  I am not sure how new trainers could learn such flexibility and language awareness.  I have digested massive amounts of activities ideas, approaches, tasks, and language features in my first three years of training.  I dove into the field with passion and enthusiasm.  I am still far from having the flexibility needed to make it work.  I am not sure how this could be taught in a course less than 6 months.
  4. How to create affordances which replicate BE situations?  I am struggling with the idea of creating a environment in which we can really practice the skills needed in the learners' jobs.  One of the benefits of TBL is that we can model what right looks like and work from there.  In Dogme, we are working together to develop a suitable task situation.  In some BE classrooms the desire to improve their job performance is less motivating than other factors.  I could see conflict here between the Dogme approach and what companies expect from the training.
So, these are the challenges I see.  I think they can be overcome.  For example, I think we can train the different levels of listening by using authentic learner discussions in the trainer development setting.  I think the internet provides a great opportunity for us to develop the flexibility to respond to emergent language.

Also, I think the approach is perfectly suited to BE, specifically in-company courses in which we are faced with the challenge of adapting training to meet a variety of specific needs.  And I would like to think that many of us in BE are using this approach well, particularly in coaching.  Therefore, we should add it to our training toolbox, but understand that until it is more-fully developed it has a certain place and certain time.

Dogme Resources:

Scott Thornbury  check out his articles under "Works"
His blog

Blog from Emi Slater, Phil Wade, and Dale Coulter

Outstanding paper from Martin Sketchley "Incorporating Dogme ELT in the Classroom"

Teaching Unpluggled co-author Luke Meddings

Chia Suan Chong, a highly skilled and innovative Dogmetician

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

IATEFL Glasgow Conference Notebook - Day 1 (Part 1)

The day started out extremely well.  I aslept in, had breakfast in the hotel, then went back to sleep for a bit while watching BBC 4.  I am quite sure that the BBC channel I chose to watch says something about my character, but I don't know what.  I am also sure that my falling back to sleep also says something.

In any case, I missed Adrian Underhill's plenary session.  However, judging by the reaction on Twitter and the audience size, summaries of his talk are probably fairly easy to track down.

So after relaxing I hit the conference in full force, attending each session.  I will not be able to deal with all of the talks I attended today, but I hope to get to them all soon.

1.  Global Business Etiquette 101 by Nikolina Korecic

Ms. Korecic, a business English trainer in Croatia, advocated cultural training as part of the BE classroom and suggested several methods to do so.  Perhaps her most effective method was a discussion activity in which the participants give their culture a color and then explain why.  It was clear during the practical activity that this would certainly generate cultural self-reflection and aid communication.  Other metaphors for culture included fruit, football teams, and the standard iceberg, tree, and onion.  She also references the importance of cultural awareness in the context of ELF, continuing the discussion from Monday's BESIG PCE.

I think she is correct that BE involves cross-cultural communication at some level.  The questions remain open, however:
  • How much does culture affect our clients ability to communicate?  When have we reached the right balance of cultural awareness?
  • How can we train our participants to recognize when culture is interfering with communication or goal achievement?   Then how can they acknowledge it, repair it, and continue?
  • If ELF is emerging as a common communication medium, is there a standard global business etiquette that is also emerging?  I would argue that there is.  Yes, it may be an adapation of Anglo-Saxon or Western communication methods and behaviors, but it is being standardized.  Participants are putting on this international culture just as they put on different clothes.  For example, I have trained leaners on working with the Middle East, and they come back and say it was wasted because everything was just like Europe.
  • How do we handle cultural issues where they are really causing hovac, in virtual teams?  The classic business etiquette training such as hand guestures, eye contact, behavior, etc. doesn't apply here.  But communication styles and cultural expectations are destroying web meetings, emails, presentations and the like.
I would love to see more from Ms. Korecic on these issues.

2.  Training Virtual Communication Skills by Jackie Black and Jon Dyson (York Associates)

Ms. Black and Mr. Dyson gave a great introduction to web meetings, the technology businesses are using, and exercises to practice these skills in companies.  However, judging by the audience response, this area of BE is still quite new.  This is something we need to get on board with quickly.  In fact, in many cases we can take those old business travel sections out of our syllabi and replace them with web meetings, online collaboration, and messaging.  Companies are cutting travel budgets and using web meetings to replace them.  As communication experts we need to understand how our clients are talking to each other and master that format.

The presenters from York Associates are clearly ahead of the game (as I would expect from their company) and are basically using standard teaching activities such as role-plays, decision-making execizes, etc. and adapting them to the web meeting context.  For me, as a trainer who uses web meetings quite often, I found their idea of assigning roles to keep the participants engaged to be quite useful.  These roles include note-taker, time-keeper, challenger, etc.  Another great idea was the one slide business card of the participant, which they can prepare as they like at home and then present in the web meeting.

They also identified a series of language focus areas for learners to perform well in this context, such as numbers, checking and clarifying, and turntaking.  I would say the only thing they missed was words to talk about technology and software such as margin, spreadsheet, column, font, header, etc.  But overall a great presentation and BE trainers should sit up and assess their online collaboration competence.

So, those were the first two from today, and I hope to get to the rest in due course.

Friday, March 16, 2012

The Trainer as a Change Agent

I would like to relate a story about some recent classes I have had and analyze how they reflect the challenges of the trainer as a change agent in the company.

Twitter in my Classroom

Over the past few weeks I have taught variations on a social networking debate lesson.  The activities and performance tasks varied depending on the group, but the basic elements were the same.  First, we discussed the term social networking and what it means.  Then we changed perspective to that of a company, and discussed why a company would want to engage in social networking sites.  Next, I presented how their company used social networking by bringing up Twitter and Facebook on the projector.  Then I showed them how JetBlue, an American airline uses Twitter with 1.6m followers in its CRM.  Finally, groups were formed to develop possible pros and cons for a company using social networking and they debated their findings.

From @Jetblue
What happened in every single lesson was that I spent much more time than planned explaining how Twitter worked and they debated amongst themselves how horrible it was.  Not one single person was able to see the customer relationship benefit from using social networking.  In fact, one participant even questioned why the company would ever need more than print ads in trade magazines and targeted emails to spread company information, while others in the class nodded in agreement.  I honestly didn't know what to say.  I had expected that Twitter would be new, but not that it would be seen as evil so quickly.  So, in the end, one side had to assume the pro role and with my help find possible benefits. 

This relates to my recent post on the BESIG World Blog, which I was so honored to participate in.  Special thanks to Claire Hart (@claire_hart), Carl Dowse (@carldowse) and Mike Hogan (@irishmikeh).  In the blog post I talked about how we need management support to bring about organizational change.  I use the example of trying to incorporate BELF into communication. 

So what does it take for the English trainer to impact change?

1.  We need a sponsor and a mandate

As I talked about in the BESIG blog, we need managment support and we need to know what they want to change.  A sponsor is worthless without a mandate and vice versa.  The most common change we will probably encounter is communication style.  This includes telephone calls, meetings, presentations, emails, etc.  If we are teaching BEFL, we are teaching a global standard of communication, not only in words and grammar, but also in style, register, and politeness.  This change requires support and understanding from management.  At an organizational level, this means we might be changing company templates and norms.

We also need to know where management wants the organization to go.  Where does the English program fit into strategic objectives?  Are we part of a push to adopt globalization?  Are we part of a program to accept new technologies and knowledge sharing?  If not, forget it.  Teach the lexis, grammar, skills and go home.  If so, how can management support us?  Can they come to the lessons?  Can we include them in email distro lists and blended learning sites?

This means our training needs to be sold as a means to strategic objectives and advertised to the participants as a rounded communication training course.

2.  We need to know how much change is possible

Within any change management program we need to know where we are compared with where the participants are.  We are taught that within any random sample, the results will have a normal distribution and create a bell curve.  Matching this with the Law of Diffusion of Innovation, we should have early adopters, members of the majority, and laggards in the class.

But this is not true because recruiting, company culture, and stagnant diversity mean that most participants will belong to one group.  For example, Google hires only innovators, This means there will typically be a disconnect between the trainer and the participants.  I think that bringing the participants forward one level in the adoption of innovation is great step.  We should realize that rapid change is not possible.  It must be step by step.

3.  We have to understand our participants perspective of change

Individuals typically go through several stages when adopting change.  Normally, they are:
  1. Shock
  2. Denial
  3. Frustration
  4. Depression
  5. Experimentation
  6. Decision
  7. Integration
Depending on the level of change we are involved in, we need to understand where our participants are in this process.

Some general rules I have found:
  • Participants/Organizations normally order an English course as a transition from depression to experimentation.  Our performance in the first several lessons makes a huge difference.
  • When learners are confronted with the concept of learner autonomy, they oftean enter the shock phase based on their previous training and expectations.  The trainer must then understand that real autonomy will begin later.  They must then recognize and support the experimentation phase.
  • Talking about technology, we need to assess the company culture, recruting, and diversity to understand which topics will cause difficulty in the classroom.  For example, my story about Twitter (at innovator stage in Germany) was too far for the department (late majority).
  • When using technology in the classroom (m-theory, Prezi, blended learning, etc.) we have to understand how willing the organization will adopt it.
  • There is generally low cultural self-awareness and the learners can benefit from seeing how their culture communicates compared to international methods.  Because culture (general and office) affects the rate of adoption, it helps to tell them where they are and use benchmarks (like the Jet Blue example).
Are we ready to change?

So, assuming we know these three things, we can build change into our syllabus.

First, ask for the sponsorship and mandate for change.  Sell our qualificiations as communciations and cultural experts as well as language teachers.  Build the relationships with management.  Ensure they know what we are training and how it benefits their company.  Talk to management when we see organizational communication problems.

Second, understand the organization and it members.  Assess where the participants are on the innovation curve before establishing course plans.  Embrace early adopters and use them as peer voices.  For example, ask the early adopter participant to give a presentation on how they use their smart phone/new software/process, etc..  Peer comments will go much further than what we say.

Finally, be sensitive to the various stages of change.  Help the learner get through the depression stage as fast as possible.  This is also the part when they are most likely to drop the course.  Disguise change strategies as English lessons.  Using my Jet Blue example... the homework is to monitor JetBlue and create a telephone dialog between a customer service rep and a customer about a case discussed on Twitter.

I belive that by selling and delivering change, we are offering a great value to our customers, improving our participants' communication skills, and driving better English fluency.

Back to the Twitter in my classroom story.  I think I tried the right thing and maybe I was even able to move one or two participants forward.  Using Jet Blue as a benchmark was a good idea, as was assigning pro and con roles.  However, from this lesson I do not think I created adoption.  The subject may have been a bit to far for the group.  In this case we have the mandate but sponsorship is lacking.

Friday, March 2, 2012

10 Tips for ESL Presentation Coaching

For me, one of the most rewarding experiences as a trainer is to rehearse actual presentations and web meetings with participants.  For them, it is a huge confidence boost and helps them stay on message during the real thing.  For us, we gain valuable insight on the business, and are better able to provide targeted follow-up training.

This situation, however, requires trainers to change roles and expectations for the training event.  When setting up the training there are several keys to success.  First, try to have the training in the same environment as the real event.  If it is online, set up a web meeting.  If it is in a technical training room, reserve the training facility.  Second, try to get the presentation before the event to help you prepare.  For the most part the rehearsal will be participant led, but walking in with some warning of what you are about to see it helpful.  Third, make sure the participant brings a printed copy of the slides to the training.  Constantly changing between presentation view and edit view in PowerPoint disturbs the flow of the rehearsal.  It is better to make written notes on the slides for later reference.  This also allows the participant to review what we covered after the training.  Finally, try to enlist the help of a colleague to sit in and also give feedback and take notes.  This person will help refine the content of the presentation and can augment trainer feedback.

Once the training is arranged there are several tips for a successful coaching, here are ten.

1.  Audience Analysis

More than likely, the presenter has been so wrapped up in the details of the presentation that they have forgotten about the audience.  First, elict as much information about the audience as you can.  Who are the attendees?  What are their jobs?  What do they expect to get from the presentation?  Second, because most presentations are given to other non-native speakers, try to find out what level of English we are talking about.  Very often I see slides come back from the translators at a higher level.  We need to make sure the audience will understand what we are presenting.

2.  Modelling

It is helpful to give the participant a starting point by modelling the introduction or certain key parts of the presentation.  This could include key diagrams and graphics or particularly complex topics.  Remember to keep the model at the level of the participant.  So, if the presenter is B1 and the audience is assumed to be A2, keep the language appropriate.  Setting the bar too high is demotivating for the presenter.  We are hoping to avoid the phrase, "Oh wow!  You should give this presentation."

Modelling also provides the opportunity for the trainer to highlight discourse markers like "First..", "Next...", and "Let's take a look at..." as well as topic and slide transition phrases.  The model is only to get the ball rolling and should be as short as needed (typically 1-2 minutes is enough).

3.  The slides as an aid / hindrance

The slides can both help and hinder the presenter.  The presenter will naturally want to use the text from the slides as much as possible to help them find the words.  This causes several problems.  First, it normally distorts their body language and reduces the impact of their voice.  Second, if the attendees are not clear about the meaning of a bullet point, explaining it in the same terms will not help their understanding.  Finally, overusing the text often disturbs the flow of the explanation.  The presenter explains bullet point one... stops... reads... then explains bullet point two.  This makes it difficult for the listener to get the context of the slide and how all the parts fit together.

On the other hand, slides can provide a great reference for the presenter to organize their thoughts and signal where discourse markers should be placed.  I advise my learners not to have written notes or slide presentation notes because they already have most of the information on the slides.  Instead, we should look how we can use the text to aid the presentation.  I recommend placing some key words in bold, italics, or in different colors so that when they look at the screen they can quickly identify the main points before speaking.  Often, I will also have the learner turn away from the screen or close their eyes and simply talk about what they know on the subject.  This helps give the slide more flow and explains the text in different words.

4.  Timing

In most cases, the English presentation is copied or adapted from a presentation in L1.  The learners often fail to realize that presenting in L2 will take much longer.  Sometimes to fit the presentation into the allotted time slot, difficult choices must be made.  For example, if the most important information is at the end of the presentation, you might want to consider reorganizing the slides.  We don't want to be rushing to finish during our main point.  I find that the same number of slides and amount of content will take at least 50% more time than in L1 (depending on level).

This is also a time to remind them that going faster is not really the best answer.  Because the audience is also non-native speaker, they will need more time to to read the text, listen to the presenter, and understand the material.

5.  Audience Multitasking

Expanding on this, it helps to shows the presenter what the audience will be doing during the presentation.  In L1, it is possible for the audience to read, listen, and think about the material simultaneously.  In L2, this is a huge challenge.  Often, the presenter will change slides and dive right in talking about the material.  I typically tell the learner not to be afraid of silence.  Give the audience a moment to digest the material.  Don't ask them to read and listen at the same time... they will stop doing one or both.

6.  Two-way Communication

Many business presentations are inherently one-way communication, but in the L2 environment two-way communication is crucial for the presenter.  The audience will be very hesitant to interrupt them with questions and if they don't understand the material they might be too embarrassed to acknowledge it.  I encourage the learners to state at the beginning that if the audience doesn't understand something, let the presenter know.  The presenter will also often try to avoid two-way communication to minimize the demands in English.  They present a slide, transition, and start talking about the next.  Encourage the participant to stop, ask for questions, watch for non-verbal communication, ask for feedback, etc.

7.  Realistic Changes

Most of these training events occur shortly before the real presentation.  It would be great to be part of the drafting process, but that is not always practical.  So when making suggestions for changes we need to be realistic about how much time the learner has.  A rule of thumb is that for small edits, estimate 5 minutes per slide.  For text reorganization, 10-15 minutes per slide.  For larger reorganization and changes, 20-30 minutes per slide.  We don't want to make recommendations and then either stress the learner to make them (giving them less time to consider our feedback) or cause them to doubt the quality of the presentation.

8.  Content Gaps

One helpful thing during the rehearsal is to listen for topics they are not covering.  Have they assumed some kind of prior knowledge because they are an expert?  This is where having the colleague in the room can be very helpful.  When I am reading the presentation before the training, I am thinking of what questions the audience will have for the presenter.  Sometimes we find topics that the participant has simply forgotten to include in the presentation.

9.  Limited Language Input

This is not really the time for language input and correction.  Vocabulary retention is minimal in this context and improving accuracy should not be the aim of the training.  That said, any glaring cultural errors or errors which could cause significant misunderstandings should be corrected.  Occasionally, I will monitor for accuracy, but mostly only to drive future training.  In this scenario, we need to give the learner as much confidence as possible, pointing out verbs tenses doesn't help this effort.  I will, however, listen for words or phrases which are overly used, such as "overview" or "in this environment" and try to help the learner find other expressions.

10. Review and Summarize

Finally, save some time at the end of the training to review what you have covered, distill the feedback into general concepts, and make task lists prior to the presentation.  The coaching event is a stressful time for the learner and they have probably not had the chance to take everything in.  Also, they have been 'on stage' and have not had the opportunity to stop, take some notes, and really consider the feedback.  This review and summary stage helps them implement the advice they have received.

Of course, after the training event, check back with the learner to find out how everything went and congratulate them for a job well done.  The students will be thankful for your feedback and truly grateful for helping them make a great impression on their audience.