Reflections on Donald Freeman’s Plenary at IATEFL, Manchester

Donald Freeman’s plenary ‘Frozen in thought? How we think and what we do in ELT’ on the opening day of the IATEFL Manchester conference on 11 April 2015 was a wakening call to the ELT teachers who are often immobilized by their preconceived notions of teaching in general and English language teaching in particular. It is really unfortunate that we as English teachers often tend to accept uncritically the traditional notions for what ‘good ‘ teachers ought to know and what they are supposed to do in their classrooms.
In a very lucid and lively manner, Donald examined three myths that we live by in ELT and analyzed our preconceived ideas about how teaching and learning work, about the teacher’s role, and about the classroom goals of English instruction.
It was nice listening to Donald when he demystified the three ‘myths’: (1) Direct Causality which is based on the belief that teaching makes learning happen, (2) Sole Responsibility which is based on the assumption that the teacher makes critical decisions, makes teaching plans and prepares materials for the desired learning outcome, (3) Proficiency is the goal of ELT, a myth that is grounded on our assumption of ‘nativeness.’
Donald argued that these three myths should not go unscrutinized and unchallenged, because, if they go unscrutinized and unchallenged, they can undermine teachers’ professional confidence and impede training and research.
There was, of course, a note of caution. Donald pointed out that (a) Myths are not ‘right or wrong’, (b) Each myth has useful and misleading aspects and (c) Unpacking the distinction helps to ‘thaw’ our thinking.
While I started listening to Donald, I was wondering why on earth myths exist in the field of education. Donald was , of course quick in reading the mind of the audience. He pointed out that myths exist because (a) they organize our work, (b) they help establish what we do as teachers and (c) they bring a shared understanding.
Referring to the myth of ‘Direct Causality,’ Donald pointed out that the teacher creates opportunities and his ‘moves’ are connected to learners’ moves. The myth of ‘Sole Responsibility’ makes teaching a game of chess, but Donald asserted that teaching is actually a ‘distributed opportunity’ and not the sole responsibility of the teacher. He quoted the remark of one of his Brazilian students who had told him, “When you teach, you have to manage what you can’t control.”
Regarding the third myth, Donald was quite straight forward. He asserted that ‘nativeness’ is a geopolitical and not a linguistic construct. We should not think of ‘proficiency’ in the singular, Donald reminded his audience. Instead of ‘proficiency’, we should aim at ‘proficiencies’ which are always situated in particular contexts and are conditioned by a particular social practice.
Donald’s presentation was highly pictorial. The imageries drawn by him, the lively pictures shown by him and the convincing arguments put forward by him made his plenary a memorable one. A highly thought provoking plenary that set the ball rolling at IATEFL Manchester Conference.
Donald’s plenary at IATEFL was a highly balanced academic discourse on the theories and practice of ELT and I do hope that it will prompt the teachers attending the Conference to ignite their frozen thoughts. Why should we be frozen in thought after your plenary, Donald Freeman?

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