#Iatefl2015 Donald Freeman’s Plenary Talk

Frozen in thought? How we think and what we do in ELT.

Donald Freeman ‘s plenary

Donald Freeman began his talk with the phrase  “being frozen in thought” which he explained as being stuck in the way we think. He moved on to talk about a notion that exists. The notion of thinking and reasoning in teaching. This is how we use ideas to explain and justify/ give reasons for the way we think.


Reason about something is an internal process while give reason for something has to do with addressing the public.

How Annie the teacher is connected to myths of teaching

Annie is a teacher of Spanish. Donald visited her to give guidance and make suggestions regarding her teaching. It was a Friday afternoon before a vacation and the teacher started with group work which didn’t go that well. She then moved on to pictures. Again not much success. Then she reached for Bingo and finally the students were engaged. After the observation, Annie said, “Bingo is the only thing that works”.

Why did Bingo work? (Donald Freeman’s thought bubbles)

Donald Freeman's thought bubbles after hearing "Bingo is the only thing that works"

Donald Freeman’s thought bubbles after hearing “Bingo is the only thing that works”

What does this show? Teacher thinking is connected to how we induct teachers. It has to do with the ways of organizing minds and our public actions.

This brings us to the main part of the talk. Myths. Teaching Myths. “It’s important to mention that these myths are not right or wrong” said Freeman. We just need to question them.

But first, let’s see what Donald Freeman said about why myths exist.

  • They organize our work
  • Help establish meaning of what we do as teachers
  • They create communities that accept the same myths. They bring a shared understanding

1st Myth: Direct causality

Teaching makes learning happen. Think of it like a game of pool during which the teacher shoots balls.  One ball propels the other. The teacher hits different balls, hitting different aspects/ learners. So, according to this myth, learning takes place. We actually organize our schools as if that works, but classrooms don’t actually work this way.

 But the teacher creates opportunities. The teacher moves are connected to the learner moves. Teaching is more a relation of influence and less a relation of cause and effect.

2nd Myth: Sole responsibility

“ When things work/don’t work” we, the teachers,  have responsibility. How? Well, among other things, the teacher:

  • Makes critical decisions
  • Plans
  • Prepares material/ content

So, the teacher has responsibility. In this myth, teaching is like a game of chess. The teacher makes a move, then the learner makes a move. The moves the students make reshape the moves that the teacher makes (decision making). There is an interaction between moves.

But responsibility is distributed not really shared. One move/ decision / action shapes the next move. This creates an opportunity to teach for the teacher, to learn for the learner. When the moves line up, it is seamless. If the moves don’t line up, then we see the sole responsibility surfaces.

Myths 1 and 2 have to do with all teachers/ educators. Myth 3 is connected to English language teaching.

3rd Myth: Proficiency is the goal of English language teaching

The right thing about this is that we create opportunities for the learner to learn. What’s frozen in this case, is the relationship between the classroom and how we think it travels outside the classroom.

Proficiency in the classroom is grounded in an assumption of nativeness. Nativeness is associated with language proficiency and non-nativeness with striving for nativeness. The problem with these terms is that both are misleading. Nativeness is geopolitical not linguistic, and proficiency is conceptually a problematic idea. In fact, proficiency tries to describe how people get good at a language, and this will follow them outside the classroom. But how do we define getting good at a language? Language is like water. Language is connected to time, place and experience. Language travels. How can we describe a language that travels? We use the concept of general language proficiency when we refer to what students can do, but this is classroom bound. How does this connect with the outside world? Think of a suitcase. What’s in the suitcase (classroom language) does not reflect what’s outside the suitcase (the world), it extends it, it is part of it.

Screenshot of Freeman's slide. Sculpture in Florence, Italy

Screenshot of Freeman’s slide. Sculpture in Florence, Italy

The relation between what’s in and out of the suitcase is what researchers refer to as horizonal knowledge. What’s in the suitcase is part of what’s outside the suitcase (look at the picture).

Horizonal knowledge

Example of horizonal knowledge in mathematics: Deborah Ball teaching 2nd graders to subtract. Students were asked to create rules of how subtractions work. A child came up and said, “You can never subtract a bigger number from a smaller number.” So, what do you say in this case? It is right for 2nd graders, but later on it’s not quite right?

 Horizonal knowledgee in the language classroom is the suitcase problem. In the classroom we give language attributes it doesn’t have (like putting it in the suitcase). We give it grammar, skills, voice, levels and so on.  All these allow us to chart the relationship of what is happening in the classroom and what hopefully will happen outside the classroom. According to John Trim, “Funny things happen to language when it goes to school”. We call this suitcase general language proficiency.

But there is not just one proficiency. We should be looking at proficiency plurals which are always situated in particular contexts and are bounded by a particular social practice.

Donald Freeman then moved on to talk about Bit.fall

Bit. fall

What is Bit.fall? It’s a sculpture by a German artist (Julius Popp). He explains it as, “A machine that controls falling drops of water that creates words”. What’s the connection to the classroom?  That’s what we do in the classroom. We have words that are like drops and we hope that they will turn back to water outside the classroom.

Bit fall-ing for teachers.

Donald Freeman talked about research that has been carried out regarding a version of English that teachers can use when teaching. A panel managed to discover what some of this language may be. Thus, the language for teachers was bound (like in a suitcase). This lead to the understanding that, general language proficiency for teachers and language in the classroom are different. So, in the case of teacher talk we have specific contextual proficiency in the classroom.

 Donald Freeman concluded his talk by pointing out that these myths have elements of truth but also elements of distraction. He concluded his talk with two final slides, food for thought..

Closing Remarks

Screenshot of Freeman's slides.

Screenshot of Freeman’s slides.

Screenshot of Freeman's slides
Screenshot of Freeman’s slides

This was my first attempt to write a blog post as a Manchester online registered blogger for the #Iatefl 2015 conference. I tried my best to give you some of the main points of Donald Freeman’s talk. For more information and to watch the video, press here


3 thoughts on “#Iatefl2015 Donald Freeman’s Plenary Talk

  1. Pingback: Iatefl 2015 Chris Smith’s talk | My Elt Rambles

  2. Pingback: IATEFL Manchester 2015: Two plenaries | Sandy Millin

  3. Pingback: Recently Read: The IATEFL edition | Achilleas Kostoulas

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s