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InnovateELT conference 2020: A reflection on lessons we have learnt

At the end of last year’s InnovateELT conference, which aimed to take stock of the last 5 years of ELT, Dan Barber gave an impassioned plenary – or call to arms, rather –  to the ELT community. We cannot stand idly by as the planet struggles to come to terms with and manage the climate crisis. He declared a climate emergency on behalf of our entire profession and thus the theme for Innovate ELT 2020 was born: Be Part of Solution. 

We started to look forward again and question our place in the fight. Environmentally, absolutely, but also in terms of how we want to value ourselves and move forward in this ever-changing, tech-driven world.  In January we were writing blogs on the greenest way to travel to the conference and scrambling to think of ways to make the next IELT the greenest yet. We were getting out our carbon calculators (naturally I carry mine wherever I go) and booking trains over flights. I think we were going to feel altogether quite smug with ourselves and rightly so. 

2020 had other ideas, however, which forced us to reevaluate and cancel the conference. Twice. Third time’s the charm they say, and this time we moved the whole thing online. 

Well you can’t say we’re not resilient. And I’ll tell you one thing, this year’s conference certainly was a lot greener…

Putting our (plastic free) money where our mouths are. 

Dan couldn’t wait to get in front of everyone again (albeit on zoom) and was joined by Christopher Graham in one of the opening plenaries to discuss their progress with ELT footprint and to consider if we’re being radical enough in our approach. It’s been a whole year (and what a year it’s been) and now “tough questions need to be asked”, said Christopher. 

And that’s exactly what they intended to do in the busy open panel discussion later in the day where they pushed forward their call for change in the ELT community in the post-covid world and delivered a vision for what the working week could look like in 2040. Four-day weekends and twice the holidays? Not quite. 

The conference certainly wasn’t light on talks that directly addressed the things we can be doing to make a difference. Marc Vicente gave a plenary entitled “The 4 Pillars of Sustainable Education” on Saturday morning, speaking about how educators will play a key role in generating a lasting effect on our society, economy and environment, which nicely set up Elen Evans for her talk which simply asked the question, “What can we really do?”

There was an impressive amount of useful, applicable knowledge passed on through these talks from speakers who clearly place us in the middle of the climate battle, rather than clinging on for dear life at the end (phew). I was left feeling like the ELT community was sharpening its tools in that respect and just how important this was was further emphasised again by Dan Barber whose session entitled “Give all your Lessons a Sustainability Twist” asked that we don’t simply teach lessons on the Environment, but gear everything we do towards generating the need in our students to consistently keep up the fight. If battling climate change and decreasing biodiversity all the time sounds exhausting, don’t worry, he made it seem very manageable. 

Was there a pandemic? I hadn’t noticed

Well, if you weren’t comfortable teaching online before, I’m sure you’re a dab hand now! The unmistakable secondary theme of this year’s Innovate ELT conference was always going to be the bizarre year we have all had and how we’ve all had to come together to adapt pretty sharpish to a very different world of teaching (and conferencing). 

The coffee breaks were a surprising success of the conference (“They’re my favourite bit!”, said Oxford TEFL Director Duncan Foord) despite the fact they happened in a zoom garden and with a distinct lack of coffee, it seemed (not to mention the customary vermut!). Jedrek Stepien, who held a drop-in-session to introduce his style of getting students talking through posing intriguing questions seemed to enjoy them so much he stopped what he was doing to join the chat from the comfort of his car. Conversation flowed like the wine we’d normally be serving but there was a clear theme: How are you coping? Coping with the restrictions. Coping with teaching with a mask on. Coping with the sudden reliance on technology. Coping with unstable work. Coping with keeping teens interested online. 

The conference had you covered. On day 1 Tatiana Myronova gave a demo lesson on this year’s most essential skill – the zoom class. Dianna Bauducco tried to help us all tap into one of life’s great mysteries – Generation Z – asking us to stop thinking that ‘teens are just teens’ and accept the new challenges this new hoard of socially conscious teens pose from a marketing perspective. Diana explained that they are “…shaking and testing our classroom management and teaching repertoires” and it’s difficult to disagree. Who hasn’t had a teen class that you were sure would be a hit only for it to fall flat and leave you scratching your head? Maybe it’s time to think about the specific needs of Generation Z. 

Ceri Jones looked the lockdown straight in the eye with her plenary “Lockdown Learning Curve”. Ceri spoke of the effects of being forced to live our lives online during the pandemic and how it expressed the digital divide quite clearly. I was surprised to learn that only 50% of the world’s learners have a computer in the home and only 57% have access to the internet. She said that “…the opportunity to interact with a teacher in real time” was what everyone was missing. And who can’t relate to that? As another attendee, Jessica Mckay, posted on twitter after the plenary, it has been “the loss of human contact” that has had the biggest impact. We in the ELT world surely relish that very aspect of our jobs, right? You know. Interaction. Face to face. With people. Remember? 

Moving on is easy

Because being part of the solution is about taking the chance to reflect not only on the skills we need to reach our learners and make engaging classes (although there was certainly an abundance of sessions on that, from Raising Autonomous Learners and Learning with AI to Teaching English through Theatre and How to Teach Tracks) but on our values in the current climate. 

Going back to one of the opening plenaries on day 1, Teresa Bestwick set the tone for why, as teachers, that starts with us valuing ourselves and our importance as ELT professionals.I was relieved to hear her admit to succumbing to imposter syndrome (phew, someone else!). Me personally? I think I’m probably somewhere between imposter types 1 and 2 – the (ahem) expert and the perfectionist…that’s right. Prove me wrong. 

Sometimes it’s hard to think, looking around at the seasoned pros at the InnovateELT conference, that we can feel like a fraud at times and it’s worth taking a moment to recognise our importance. After all, I think those of us who were lucky enough to keep working during the lockdown certainly gave our students a bit of stability in chaotic times by keeping up with our classes and giving people a bit of purpose. Or was it the other way round?

“Only Fiona Mauchline can get away with talking about quantum physics before I’ve had my morning coffee”, claimed Tim Hampson on Twitter about Fiona’s plenary “From the Front: Faces, Hearts and Voices”. You might worry that the InnovateELT conference was reaching beyond its grasp there in a 15 minute plenary, but Fiona was addressing the mad year we’ve had and why now more than ever it’s time to work on representation in our sector in terms of gender and native/non-native parity.  Fiona and Equal Voices in ELT (EVE) are taking the lead on that and it was good to see that InnovateELT conference this year received their official stamp of approval. This year saw the conference’s highest ratio of women at about two thirds, and when you consider our profession is about two thirds women, well, that makes sense! 


I said at the beginning of this post that we are resilient, and I wasn’t joking. After everything that has happened this year no one was sure that the conference would take place, and I know I was pretty unsure about the online format. An InnovateELT conference without beers in the garden?! Preposterous. But in the end the theme, “Be Part of the Solution”, took on another meaning outside the themes and topics of the talks, plenaries and drop-in sessions. It was a call for us to step up and build something positive out of this train wreck of a year. 2020 messed with the wrong profession and we weren’t going to take it lightly, be that in terms of fighting the climate crisis, making sure we have our ethics in place or figuring out how to do our jobs from behind a computer screen. We came together and demanded the conference happen regardless, and we learnt a few things about hosting events online in the process.  

And the online format really did work. Who knew technology really was our friend after all? Surely this is another big takeaway from both the conference and our year. We even squeezed in a pub quiz because we didn’t get enough of those during lockdown. During the quiz and the coffee breaks two lucky winners received a couple prizes – an Oxford TEFL Teacher Development Course worth €350, and a discount on a Trinity DipTESOL course

Tamara Parsons had the task of leading the final plenary of the weekend before Duncan Foord wrapped things up. She said that as professionals “We need to continue to add to each other’s work, help each other take strides forward and overcome the obstacles that we face”. After a weekend of fascinating talks, she didn’t want the momentum to be lost and the information we had learnt to be forgotten. After the huge learning curve of this year I think her message was read loud and clear: If we know something,or learn something new, “…for goodness’ sake, pass it on!”. I think we all realise just how important that is now more than ever.  So go forth! And continue to be part of the solution. It doesn’t stop here. 

Some questions for the future?

So what about this online world we have found ourselves in? How do we come back from this? Do we even want to? This conference has certainly given me a lot of confidence when it comes to staying good at our jobs while online, but it does make me wonder about the future. If things return to normal, will we simply go back to working in schools and forget a lot of what we’ve learnt? Could a mixture of online and face-to-face students in one lesson be more commonplace? 

In terms of the conference itself, if we want to commit to the environmental ideals so many people have presented this weekend, how would we need to adapt the event in the future? Answers on a postcard please…

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