All we need is fun? A review of InnovateELT 2018

When I saw the word “fun” in the title of this year’s Innovate conference, I’ll admit I was skeptical. It reminded me of an article I’d read a few months previously entitled, ‘Millennials Don’t Want Fun; They Want You To Lead Better’, which got me thinking: if we replaced ‘millennials’ with ‘students’ and ‘lead’ with ‘teach’, would that be a fair reflection of the needs of our students today? Moreover, could we extend this viewpoint to incorporate teachers, namely that they also don’t want fun at conferences, and instead want their practices to be challenged?

1. Inspiring the grassroots

Go to most ELT conferences nowadays, and one is met with the same tried-and-tested but tired format: lengthy plenaries delivered in cavernous venues by a select few ELT ‘Hall of Famers’ designed to draw in the crowds, before said audience disperses into various seminars on an array of topics that, over the years, have already been covered from numerous angles. Contrast this with InnovateELT, and one thing immediately stands out: teachers are provided not just with a platform from which to have their voices heard on topics that matter, but are also offered the support required to ensure they succeed. By showcasing those who otherwise may not have the opportunity to deliver a plenary or presentation, an array of hugely talented individuals in the ELT profession have emerged, and it was a genuine pleasure to witness some of their talks.

2. Fostering interdisciplinary imagination

Indeed, diversity is key to the success of this conference, and that doesn’t just extend to gender and language proficiency. InnovateELT is fast gaining a reputation for being interdisciplinary, with a number of speakers this year coming from UX backgrounds. Whilst I may not necessarily agree that all UX design principles can be fully applied to ELT, it is intriguing to connect with professionals from other industries, and I wholeheartedly believe that ELT stands to learn a lot from other ‘less-traditional’ fields, as was mentioned by Busuu’s Kirsten Campbell-Howes in the final plenary. In doing so, we can hopefully begin to move away from recycling the same old conference themes that appear to have our industry going around in circles, and truly advance discussions on very real struggles affecting ELT.

3. Challenging key concepts

InnovateELT has proven itself to be adept at posing challenging questions to its attendees and the wider ELT industry in the past, and with this in mind, a reasoned discussion on ‘fun’ has been well-overdue. A quick search online conjures up the notion that fun has become something of a pervasive influence, an adhesive that binds together the various building blocks of learning. But does it need to be? At the end of the day we are educators, not ‘edutainers’, but is this merely part of a greater problem, namely the idea that society has been “dumbed down”, and if so, is this societal trend pervading the ELT sphere? Regardless, as educators we should not just be candid with our learners and admit that language learning can be an arduous task, but focus on helping them develop strategies to navigate the more treacherous parts of the process. Why does hard graft need to be cloaked in shallow entertainment and vacuous promises to make learning ‘fun’?

4. Stimulating social interaction  

Irrespective of how we package learning to prospective students, it is fundamentally a social process, with a number of my students revelling in the opportunity to have a network of peers that function just as much as a support network as they do a sounding board. This is as true for students as it is for teachers, and considering that English language teaching can be an incredibly isolating experience for those constantly on the move, events such as InnovateELT serve an important purpose in providing teachers with the opportunity to bounce ideas off one another and surround themselves with other like-minded individuals. The next step is to work out how to best ensure these initial ideas can flourish post-conference.

In short, with my initial fears of fun trivialising the hard work related to learning entirely unfounded, InnovateELT challenged me to think about how and why ‘fun’ has become a dominant feature in the language classroom. Learning, whether it be in one of our classrooms, or indeed at conferences, should be inspiring, imaginative, challenging, stimulating, and of course, innovative. But fun? Conferences, along with schools, should help us become more competent, more curious, and ever more confident in what we do. With this in mind, InnovateELT 2018 was a roaring success.

Tom Flaherty is a freelance English Language Teacher, Materials Developer, and Teacher Trainer based in Barcelona, Spain. He is also a member of SLB, a cooperative of language professionals in Catalonia. Recently graduated from an MA in Applied Linguistics, he plans to start a PhD in the same field from Sep 2018.

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