Sunday, November 12, 2017

Lessons for Canada?

The penultimate session I attended on Friday, day two of the two-day 2017 TESL Ontario Conference, was "Task-based Language Teaching Implementation Experiences: Lessons for Canada?" by Yuliya Desyatova of the University of Toronto. The conference brochure's blurb of this presentation says:
The Belgian experience of introducing Task-Based Language Teaching (TBLT) is analysed with the goal of drawing parallels to the implementation of Portfolio-Based Language Assessment (PBLA). Participants are invited to discuss benefits and challenges of different implementation models. Opportunities for further participation in a research project on PBLA and TBLT in Canada will be offered.
If you did not get a chance to see Yuliya's presentation and would like to see the slides, they can be found HERE.

Yuliya starts with a Venn diagram that highlights a few of the differences between these two projects and the one thing they have in common: tasks. One big difference that wasn't given much focus, one that I want to add here and now, is that in Canada the vast majority of settlement English teachers had been trained in communicative methods and task-based learning. I believe that TBL was already the norm in Canada before PBLA. It would seem that in Belgium, this was not so. Their big TBL project had the goal of helping teachers shift away from a teacher-centred model that focused on grammar and toward TBL. 

This is an important point, since it is not TBL itself with which I and many others take issue.

I was intrigued to hear Yuliya relate to us the vast amount of empirical research that was done in Belgium before classrooms were disrupted. All materials and syllabuses were developed before the classroom piloting began. There was no train-the-trainer model in Belgium, and for that the DSL students and their instructors should be eternally grateful. Experts were brought in to the "several hundred" school teams to do the training, coaching, supporting.

From Yuliya's report, it sounds to me as if the entire implementation process put the teachers and students in the driver's seat. There was room for a cycle of action and reflection, feedback and adjustment, at many points along the way. In other words, teachers were recognized and respected as the experts on our own classrooms that we are. In the end, the role of interaction between teacher and learner was acknowledged as key.

I hope that everyone reading this will help Yuliya with her research project.

Now, then.

On Friday my supervisor and her boss reached out to me to see if I wanted to send some feedback along to someone high up in our organization in another city, someone who will be attending an NLAB event in December. Through no fault of my superiors, I was given notice at 1:20 with a deadline of 4:30 to submit something in writing. 

At first my heart was pounding. This was the chance I'd been waiting for! Why didn't I have something all typed up and ready to go in my back pocket? I raced against the clock, grateful that it was computer lab day and that my literacy students are almost completely self-sufficient now once I get them logged into Spelling City. I was also feeling thankful for that grade 7 typing class that gave me my 60 wpm keyboarding speed.

It wasn't until after I'd typed and sent that I went back and re-read the printout of the email that had been left on the desk in front of me. I saw the words "send us your feedback based on the following categories..." and "recommendations to better support the successful implementation and continued use of PLBA...."

My heart sank. I realized that once again, the type of feedback I and so many others want to give does not fit into any of the categories. They only want to hear how to make this sustainable. Nobody wants to hear from you if you believe it is not sustainable and for good reason.

I suppose that going forward I need to specify that there are two types of feedback, and I am only comfortable at this time giving one of those two types. At this time, I am not interested in talking about the materials we need, although of course we can always use more. I am not interested right now in talking about better compensation, although of course there needs to be an immediate stop put to the practice of expecting teachers to spend so much off-the-clock time propping up PBLA that we end up working for minimum wage or less. We do deserve regular raises matched to inflation and cost of living adjustments. But that will not make PBLA right. I am not interested in talking about training unless you are open to ditching the entire train-the-trainer model. Your patient is bleeding out, and you are talking bandaids.

I believe that the "bucket" of psychological impact, stress, work-life balance and morale issues fit into the second category of feedback. If you really want to address these problems, then you must be willing to stop limiting feedback to only that which "contributes to the sustainability" of this experiment. You must be willing to say, "Tell us what is happening to your classroom and to your life under PBLA EVEN IF what you tell us does not "support the successful implementation" of this (broken) model. You must be willing to say, "We care that much about you and our mutual clients, the newcomers."

In short, I want to know where the panel of stakeholders is that is willing to talk about the cracked foundation of the entire project. Who is willing to sit in a room and watch Yuliya's slides? Who is willing to watch Norm Friesen's talk and open up the floor to discussion with a good cross-section of teachers, not just pre-chosen representatives? Who is willing to send out a survey to all teachers in Canada that does not shoe-horn us into questions that only fit a narrow set of pre-determined categories? Who is willing to admit that this entire misguided experiment must be put on hold until all the parts are in place, starting with solid, peer-reviewed research? And who has the gumption and integrity to start talking about the notion of conflict of interest in this whole thing?


  1. It's truly astonishing - and disheartening - that so many great hard working intelligent teachers who know (on the front lines as we are) this isn't working, have no one to scream to, no one to listen to us, no one to support us. The list of things that are wrong about PBLA (and I agree wholeheartedly that it is a broken model which cannot be successfully implemented) just gets longer and longer up to and including the fact that so many other critical aspects of our teaching are being ignored. Where are the workshops and PD events about how to deal with students' emotional problems and PTSD? Where's the friendly camaraderie we used to have in the staffroom ? Where are the school events and activities? EVERYTHING is about PBLA now. This is a deeply flawed mess that has only ever felt like something being jammed down our throats for no reason other than satisfying the funders. If we show signs of dissent we are flagged...scolded....reprimanded... it's unreal. Someone somewhere has to know how to stop this train! thank you Kelly for staying on it. Soon we will have lost all of our truly good teachers. Those that can retire early will do so, the rest (as is happening already) will simply find another career and ESL programs will self destruct.

    1. Dear Used to Love My Job,
      You are not alone. Today another colleague announced she is going to half days in order to re-establish her work-life balance. She can't take it anymore: the PBLA paired with the lack of push-back from our higher ups. Ironically, hers might be the resignation that finally wakes them up. We've had two quit and two go to half days since PBLA came down the pike, and in three of those four cases PBLA was a major contributor to the decision to quit. We are talking about the best and brightest of our team! This pisses me off. Yes, it is happening already. A beautiful field of work is self-destructing. --K

    2. Correction: Portfolio Based LANGUAGE Assessment

      Dear I Used to Love my Job and Anonymous, I have been thinking about your posts and they break my heart. I am angry at the powers that be but mostly, like you, I mourn the loss of the unified ESL community that I worked with and volunteered with). I am heartsick that I ( well, we) am cast as "a resister", "the enemy" by former friends (Leads and Trainers) due to the divisive Train the Trainer model and I feel let down by my professional association which I served with all my heart as a dedicated volunteer for many years.

      Kelly, I could have gone to TESLConference - a paid day, money towards registration but I could not bear to see the anxious faces lined up to get into the Portfolio Based Language Assessment sessions (to try to get magic formulae to make "implementation" less painful....) I did not want to hear the distraught and desperate conversations in the corridors. TESLOntario Conferences (and Affiliate conferences) used to be a joyful moment to reconnect, recharge, learn,renew our commitment to our profession. With the dark spectre of Portfolio Based Language Assessment present at every turn TESLON 16 did not add to my professional development (although I went to as many workshops as I could trying to understand the rationale, the agenda,the expectations for improved results for the newcomers. I even went to the Panel discussion and read a prepared statement about the issues.)
      I was left with a profound sense of despair and pessimism and I this year I simply did not want to expose myself to the total disrespect for teachers' voices, and disregard for members' needs, that is now present at what used to be a highlight of my professional year.

    3. Claudie,
      What a mess. :( I missed you at the conference, but I understand completely what you mean. K

  2. The TESL O conference was an eye opener for many about the facist implementation strategy. Humiliation tactics...if you can't implement the flawed PBLA then there must be something wrong with YOU! Makes me sick.

    1. Dear Anonymous,
      It makes me sick, too. I'm glad more are opening their eyes. --K

  3. Good Morning,
    I would like to find the names of the creators of PBLA. Who sat on the first and following iterations of the program? There are several groups that need this information so that solutions can be sought. There certainly must be someone out there who has names and dates. Does anyone have any published documents that list the people involved? Please post the web addresses or documents here. Don't list the names. That can be gleaned from the documents. Something needs to change. MPs and MPPs are listening.

    1. Anonymous Nov 26 4:45,
      I certainly hope they are listening. --K


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