Written by: Steliyana Dulkova,  Freelance Teacher, Veliko Turnovo, Bulgaria

Novi Sad, April 8-9 2011, Serbia

Here I am, sat on the train from Novi Sad to Beograd sighing with relief, after  taking a bus in the wrong direction which rather than taking me to the central station, took me to this small train stop. I was lucky that during the weekend the train actually stops there. Chewing some almonds that I bought with my last dinars I am looking through the window observing the changing scenery outside the train. We are travelling alongside the river bank of the Danube. It is so beautiful. Spring has come here already (in comparison to the cold weather in Bulgaria) and the various greenery has thrived in abundance. I grab a pen and a piece of paper so I can put down any fresh thoughts and impressions from the conference before they fade away during my trip back to Bulgaria.
I am quite a naturalist in my beliefs and lifestyle and I have to admit that what left the most vivid impressions from the conference was that a great deal of the plenaries and workshops talked about how much technology and mainly the Internet have affected, are affecting and will affect learning, teaching and what is more striking our brains and ways of perception and thinking.
Jim Scrivener gave it the first kick with his opening plenary “The New Science and Skills of Reading”. I have become aware that watching TV and constant browsing on the Internet has been slowly pushing aside the old-fashioned romantic way of reading paper books; that more and more people prefer the Internet because of the immediate access to the abyss of information. But what I haven’t been aware of is that the main influence comes from the speed, actually! That is what Jim called it. Speed is like a drug that we are getting more and more addicted to. Speed combined with the abundance and variety of information, reachable within a click or two of the mouse. But what really threw me was the fact that actually all of the above has influenced and changed our reading style, or at least to a lot of people, especially people from the younger generation. Scanning and skimming for information, reading every other line, trying to extract as much information as we can for the least possible time. This is what the minds of the C(yber) generation are, as David Marsh called them later on in his plenary. Checking your emails, texting a friend with one hand and skyping with the other, while the TV is on.  “An ecosystem of interruption technologies” is what Jim called it, citing Nicholas Carr and his book “Shallows” which was quite often referred to in the plenary.  We like being interrupted is what Carr also explains in his book. We develop new skills and multitask way of thinking and acting. And at the end of the day, may be this is what the future citizens of the globe will need. Multifunctionality, “discovering emergent meaning among contexts that are continually in a flux.”

Jim Scrivener

I find myself scanning my notes, looking for key words to take me to David Marsh’s plenary about the C( yber generation). I wish I could press Control+ F, so the little search box can pop up.  I’m going through  Christine Coombe’s  wonderful plenary on “ 10 Characteristics of a Highly Effective Teacher” out of which “ being street smart”, “ a lifelong learner” and “ life outside the profession” were the ones that I decided I  should consider more closely.
With the corner of my eye I come across a sentence that had really copy-pasted itself in my mind: “Teach the students the skills, not the test’’, Tony Green, as far as I remember, on tests and teaching. Yes, there it is his name, scribbled further down in my notepad. “Washback – positive, negative…”. My eyes shift towards the train window, gaping at the darkness outside and browsing my memory trying to recall what exactly washback was. May be for most of you it is a term that you are already familiar with but for me it was the fist time that I came across it. As far as I understood it was something about how adequate tests are when it comes to really testing the students’ knowledge. Students and the teachers focus on test preparation and memorization of a test pattern, neglecting the development of other beneficial skills in the L2 learning which would be really practical to the students in their further usage of the target language and would also support the successful passing of the test.
Girls laughing loudly while talking on a loud speaker to a couple of other friends on their mobile, which is playing some music at the same time, takes me back to my notes. David Marsh’s “Inside the minds of the Internet generation” of which I was reminded just now by those girls. “Integrated technology -integrated entertainment….” Same idea coming into the picture: multifunctionality- one thing serving many functions. A phone used to be a phone only, nowadays on top of that is a camera, an mp3 player, a data carrier and can be used to browse the Internet. This is why we need to resort to integrated learning if we want to be competitive with the surrounding ocean of information and media. Not learning English for the sake of learning English but use it as a scaffolding around which content is built or call it CLIL- Content and Language Integrated Learning. Students from  generation C are like sponges- their short-term memory is being strengthened by the constant exposure to English which is all around and the principle use as they learn and learn as they use is very much applicable to them. You may as well convince them to be more hard-working in their language classes by telling them that language learning develops various other skills and it will help them to become better at gaming, was an interesting point that David made. Learning a foreign language from an early age, or simply being exposed to it while browsing the Internet or playing a computer game, places the knowledge of the new language in the human brain in place where it overlaps with the knowledge of the mother tongue, compared to learning it later on, which positions it in a completely separate area. So the model of thinking that the new generation has is very different. They think in a mixed way using both languages, so the approach for teaching should be different.
And to top up the innovative methods and techniques in the terms of technology that the poor language teachers should master, I attended a workshop on using text messages in the classroom. The workshop was held by a couple of Macedonian teachers who really thrilled me with the idea that texting can be used in the classroom and even if not with real phones, at least with checked sheets that contain only 160 squares ( the same number of characters that one can use in a text message).  Of course there are pros and cons as you would imagine- won’t it lead to bad grammar and spelling but then it helps to serve its main purpose which is to get the message across and it can also be used to make students aware of the proper register according to the receiver of the message- formal, informal…

I am interrupted by the whistle of the train. I had transferred to the train for Sofia and have been travelling already a few hours. It is getting quite late and my writing muse feels a bit exhausted. I close my notepad, turn the light off and I lie in the darkness listening to the monotonous rattling of the train which sends me drowsing. I love it and I hope that they don’t change it soon with some high speed Japanese like trains that will be absolutely sound-proof.