TD: Building a personal learning network

Following on from a previous blog post, which discussed seven ways you can develop as a teacher whilst planning (and thinking about planning) your classes, I’ve decided here to write about how you can develop a personal learning network – a multi-faceted network of resources to help you continue your development as a teacher. I’m not sure about any of my readers, but I can be quite a terrible procrastinator, so I’ve also included some tips and advice that help me actually focus and study: hopefully, some will be of use to you as well.

Stage One: Getting Organised

Stage Two: Find Resources

This is where your “personal learning network” (or PLN) comes in. Really, a PLN is just a fancy way of talking about a developing collection of materials and methods you regularly use to learn new information and consolidate what you already know (it’s also a lot quicker to say). I have a list of the TEFL blogs I browse most regularly (for interesting, new lesson ideas, as well as for new classroom techniques and cool, online tools I can try out with my classes); and I also recommend getting hold of a free RSS reader (I use an old version of NetNewsWire) so you can read these blogs without having to laboriously visit each of their pages online.

Apart from blogs, Twitter can be a very useful resource – perhaps, especially, #ELTChat, which is a weekly online forum of EFL teachers exchanging ideas and resources on a pre-arranged theme. The chats take place every Wednesday for one hour, at noon (London time) and again at 9pm; and you can visit the ELTChat website here for more information. There are also various free discussion boards around the internet dedicated to TEFL matters. One I like is the ELT Dogme board at Yahoo! Groups.

There are some other excellent, free resources: online magazines like Humanising Language Teaching; the series of articles on aspects of English language teaching, videos, conference calendars and webinars hosted by the British Council; the BBC World Service’s page for EFL teachers; and so on. I keep lists of particular favourite resources for vocabulary, pronunciation, speaking, listening, reading and writing; and you could also look at Larry Ferlazzo’s Websites of the Day, which is a splendid compendium of websites for EFL teachers and students. Finally, YouTube, Vimeo and iTunesU can be great places to find recordings of talks and seminars by various EFL luminaries: for example, you can watch Scott Thornbury being interviewed about Dogme, or Jim Scrivener’s IATEFL lecture on using situational presentations to teach grammar and vocabulary.

Besides all the free stuff, you might like to subscribe to magazines like English Teaching Professional or Modern English Teacher (ET Professional seems to have a far more extensive and easily-searchable archive if you get the online subscription, which seems strange to me seeing as they’re both published by the same company), or more academic collections such as the excellent ELT Journal, the digital subscription to which allows you to browse and download their complete archive (thereby being one of the best TEFL bargains I’ve ever seen), as well as preview some forthcoming articles. And, of course, there’s a huge amount of really good ELT books out there – the trouble is, they’re mostly quite expensive to buy in print, and usually unavailable (at least, legally) in digital form. Hopefully, this situation will soon change.

Stage Three: Make Effective Notes

There are many good books and online articles (for instance, see here and here) explaining how you might do this, so I don’t intend to labour the point here. A good approach to studying reading material (which works well for me) is as follows:

  1. sketch out what you already know about the topic, either as a spider diagram or a list (this is list A, and should take no more than 5 – 10 minutes);
  2. skim through the article or book (sub-)chapter, focussing on the main points (5 minutes);
  3. make a quick list or spider diagram (B) of what you’ve noticed so far – try to visualise how the information hangs together (5 minutes maximum);
  4. read the article/book chapter more carefully, this time highlighting key passages and making marginal notes;
  5. write another list or diagram (C), then compare it with B and see if you can join them together, visualising how the information connects (5 – 10 minutes);
  6. read the article again, checking for any key points you’ve missed;
  7. sketch out a final spider diagram or list (D) summarising the article, then compare it with your B+C sketch and try to combine them, visualising the connections (5 – 10 minutes);
  8. compare your B+C+D sketch with A, and try to join them together, picturing how they coincide (5 – 10 minutes).

This seems like a pretty (and perhaps overly) involved way of conducting research; its advantages are that you are revising material as you’re studying it, you fit in the new information with what you already know about a particular topic (which helps to remember it), you get a good overview of the text before you read it in detail, you’re engaging your visual memory (which is particularly powerful), and there is a variety of tasks, which (hopefully) helps keep the study period interesting as well as focussed. It’s a good idea to experiment with the above approach to discover what suits you – and remember always to adapt your approach to the material (the above method really would be overkill if the article you wanted to read was a mere five paragraphs, for instance).

Stage Four: Revise Your Notes

For every hour of new material you study, I recommend setting aside an hour to revise it. This revision hour is best spread out over a week: 20 minutes to half-an-hour one day after your initial study period; 20 minutes two days after that; and 20 minutes a week later.

A good way to start each revision session is to sketch out what you remember from your initial study period, then compare it with the final (A+B+C+D) sketch you made at the end of that session, and try to remake that final sketch (or even add to it, now that you’ve had time to digest the material). If you do this, you’ll probably find you don’t need 20 minutes by the end of the week, but perhaps only 5 or 10.

After that first week, it’s a good idea to revisit your notes (again, begin by sketching what you remember before you look at them) after 2 or 3 weeks, then again one month after that, and finally 3 months after that. This way, you should find that what you’ve studied gets transferred from working into long-term memory. You’ll never remember to go through all these steps, of course, so I highly recommend using some kind of diary or calendar to help you! If you like, you can turn the act of revision into a game, with rewards (and, perhaps, penalties), to keep it fresh and interesting. Again, remember the importance of flexibility: it doesn’t really matter if your first revision period isn’t exactly 24 hours after your initial period of study, and so on – though it shouldn’t be much later.

Stage Five: Share Your Knowledge!

This is perhaps the most rewarding stage. It feels great to be able to share what you’ve learnt (as long as your students are appreciative!) and we’re lucky that there are so many free ways to do this. WordPress.com, Typepad, Blogger, Edublogs, and Tumblr (amongst many other companies) all offer free blog platforms for you to spread your particular word; you could also post on discussion boards, Tweet resources and ideas, contribute to TEFL journals (like Humanising Language Teaching, above), make and share new materials based on ideas you’ve digested, and so on. The world is your shrimp, or whatever it is.

Sources: Apart from the psychological studies referenced above, I’ve adapted various ideas from The Mind Map Book by Tony and Barry Buzan, Use Your Head by Tony Buzan, Study!: A Guide to Effective Learning, Revision and Examination Techniques, by Robert Barrass, and Study Skills for Dummies, by Doreen du Boulay.

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