Finding Universality in Telling Details or How Sandy Millin Rocked me with her IATEFL Presentation on PSP


our class Quizlet sets

In the corner of I.H. Newcastle’s large, well-lit “Personal Study Program” room, the one with the slanting ceiling and at least one teacher always on duty, there is a couch.  It’s not an especially fancy couch.  It is, if I remember correctly, olive colored.  The cushions look indented, like it’s been sat in and enjoyed for a while.  It looks comfortable.  It’s a place where students can sit and chat.  It’s also one of the small details that Sandy Millin threaded throughout her IATEFL talk on the ups and downs of her school’s Personal Study Program.

Some of the other telling details included a list of Internet resources available to her students on the PSP computers.  I’ve included a list of the sites that I currently use or think could be effective for my own learners, but which hadn’t really been on my radar:

I also learned that while a fair number of the PSP students use Quizlet, the most used internet resource in the PSP is the BBC iPlayer simply because it is the easiest, a kind of path of least resistance learning tool. And best of all, I learned later in the presentation that students can get stuck in a rut and use the same resources over and over.  By best of all, I don’t mean that I think this is a Wahooo-I-Love-It great thing.  I mean that I am currently going about instituting a similar self-study time and dedicated room in my own school.  And I’m pretty sure that my students could easily fall into the one-and-only-one-resource-rut.  It’s something I hadn’t really thought about before I watched Sandy’s presentation and an impediment to learning that I think I can help my students avoid now that I’m aware of it.  I’m thinking about setting aside some mandatory after school time once a week for resource training.  There might be a terrifying student uprising some grumbling, but it’s better than letting the students watch and re-watch the entertaining videos on Learning English Kids for an entire semester.  So thank you very much Sandy for getting me thinking about “task variation.”

In fact, as I was watching, I managed to take three notebook pages with ideas sparked by Sandy’s presentation.  From setting up specific corners in the room for conversation, reading and listening, to breaking the one hour study session down into 20 minute blocks to help students maintain concentration and make better use of their time.

Lately, when I attend a conference, I hear a lot of presentations which are given in a special tense I’ve started to think of as the highly probable conditional.  It’s a kind of airy tense peppered with cans, mights, coulds, and mays.  Or perhaps it’s not really a tense.  Maybe it’s a genre, one that can be recognized almost entirely by what it lacks: an absence of direct reported speech from students, a clear indication if students enjoyed what is being discussed, and details that give the material a sense of specific place and time.  No matter how good the ideas presented might be, I feel like I’m standing on a rocking train and trying to hold onto a subway strap made out of smoke.

I should probably admit that I’ve used this tense in my own presentations more often than not.  I’ve also written dozens of blog posts in this genre.  Usually because I have a desire to make what I do in my class, in my specific context, more useful for a wider audience.  I’m worried that if I add in too many details about my class, teachers will shake their heads, shrug, and think, “Yeah, but my situation is different.”  But the fact of the matter is, different doesn’t mean non-applicable.  Watching Sandy’s presentation, I was struck by how it was the narrow focus on I.H Newcastle’s Personal Study Program which allowed me to contrast it with my own teaching environment and fill up page after page with notes.  So in the future, I think I’ll go over my presentations and cut out as many of those auxiliaries of probability as possible and replace them with the kind of concrete details that made Sandy’s presentation so useful to me.  Because sometimes an olive-colored couch is more than just a place to sit and chat.  Sometimes it’s the spark of an idea for redesigning an entire program.


8 thoughts on “Finding Universality in Telling Details or How Sandy Millin Rocked me with her IATEFL Presentation on PSP

  1. i guess what you describe about concrete vs more abstract talks maps onto big attraction of of the places i work at has a self-access centre but it is woefully underused, and having just checked sandy's slideshow presentation the reasons are similar. i read elsewhere (no idea where now!) about self access centres that getting students to own it by giving them responsibility to run it is one path to greater use?a friend of ours runs a private language school (teaching French to mainly Japanese students) and on a visit there i was blown away by their setup. you immediately feel at ease in their self-access space and students just seem to want to hangaround in that space (again reminded of another article this time on built environment beneficial effects on learning).anyway thanks for another grt conf write up kevin.mura


  2. Thanks for this great post, Kevin. I've added Sandy Millin's presentation to my 'to watch' list.One thing that particularly struck me about this post was when you highlight the lack of students' reactions in other posts and presentations. While watching presentations, I've realised that this is an important element for me. (I had even made a note on this in a 'thoughts on presentations' list I have growing in the background!) This has been missing in presentations that I've found less than convincing. No matter how rooted in research, or how many quotes they include, or even what materials they propose, if I don't feel they've been tried out with actual learners – and I can't see it working with my learners – I'm wary. But, even though I don't have access to a space like you describe above, and my learners are a different bunch than what Sandy will be working with, because it's actually been tried and because (I'm assuming) learners have reacted positively, I'm already mulling over ways in which I could adapt the ideas to my context. Like you say, 'different doesn't mean non-applicable'.Thank you for, once again, highlighting a talk worth paying attention to. Carol


  3. Kevin, you have too much time on your hands! I came here to link a recent post of yours to a new one of mine only to find it buried down the page!Your 'tense' – I refer to it as the 'hedge tense', AKA the basis of traditional linguistic academic discourse…It could still be somewhat useful nowadays when discussing some of the more useful theoretical perspectives on learning, but perhaps at conferences such presentations should be categorized ahead of time as 'hypothetical' or 'theorettical'? I trust you realize that if possible this comment should be considered a suggestion rather than an opinion or even a claim? 😉


  4. Hi Mura,I would like to give you the magic "Post Value Boosting Award" for this comment. The virtual certificate for adding 100% to the value of this post is now zipping it's way to you even as I write this response. The idea of putting students in charge of the study room is just fantastic. It's an idea I probably wouldn't have come up with no matter how many hours I spent worrying and preparing, but it's just golden. My students are very used to having to help do things in school (like clean the halls, MC at school ceremonies, etc). It's just the way things work in Japan. So having them help select, organize, sign out and in materials wouldn't be seen as much of a burden and could help get students involved right away.And I do think a lot of what will make the space successful or not has much more to do with my relationship with the students and their relationship with each other than the materials I provide. Hopefully I can keep track of what's going on over the year and let people who are interested know what is going on.Thanks again for helping to make this post 100% better. And let me know what you think of the certificate.Kevin


  5. Hi Carol,I'm so with you. In Japan, teachers have to have at least 3 published "research" articles in order to even apply for most university positions. Which means that teachers do research to gather data to write a research article which they then present at a conference. That means I usually go to a conference presentation, raise my hand, and ask, "But did the students have a good time?" While an important question (and I think even the presenters think it is important) it's not one of the cogs in the machine. Anyway, enough of my mini-rant. Most conference presentations do have moments in which a real classroom becomes visible. And I know that everyone who takes the time to put together a presentation is trying to make learning and teaching a language a little bit easier/interesting/smoother/whathaveyou.Would very much like to hear how you might adapt some of Sandy's ideas to your context. On a side note, my wife and I spent 15 minutes tonight playing with the Lyrics Training site. If there are tablets or computers available, I'm having a hard time imagining ever printing out a song lyric sheet again.Thanks again for the comment and space in my reply to vent for a bit. Kevin


  6. Hi Tom,Love the idea that this kind of vague genre is a "hedge tense." That makes perfect sense. It's a great way to present ideas without having to take much responsibility for how those ideas might actually play out in a real classroom. Just another reason why I'm going to be a bit more careful when presenting ideas which are purely hypothetical. Which will still happen a great deal on this blog as I love to imagine what's going to go down in my classroom. But maybe I will will add a warning before I start letting the flowers bloom inside my head.Much thanks for the 'suggestion'Sincerely,Kevin "I have no time on my hands, free or otherwise" Stein


  7. Dear Kevin, I'd love to add your brilliant blogpost to my Pinterest IATEFL board. However, because there are no images, it cannot be pinned. Isn't it a shame Pinterest won't let us save posts that don't have images?Regards from Brazil from another member of the iTDi family,Márcia


  8. Hi Marcia,Seems like a shame to let such a nice offer pass by without a bit of effort on my part. I added a picture (slightly random image of my programs Quizlet account). So if you are still thinking of adding the post to your Pinterest board, I would be certainly appreciate it.Thank for dropping in and always nice to get in touch with another member of the iTDi family.Kevin


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