Using project management principles in the classroom | IATEFL webinar summary + reflections

The reason I’m singling out this webinar out of the eight or nine events that comprised the IATEFL online conference which took place last weekend is its title. Using project management principles in the classroom (with the subtext – bring out the team player in your learners) was certainly full of promise for someone like me who frequently works with organisations where everything happens through the all-encompassing framework of the project.

project management

The speaker, Nathan Arthur, described the gaps between university and work which EAP does not bridge. He suggested that project management principles could help resolve this through a “subtle paradigm shift”:

  • In the physical layout of the classroom to make it look more like a conference room
  • By using real plays (where Ss presumably play themselves or present their own views) instead of role plays
  • EPM (English for Project Management) in lieu of ESP & EAP.

He also discussed how current EAP objectives could be extended to make them address EPM needs:

Develop academic skills >>> Develop professional skills

Develop critical thinking >>> Develop team thinking skills

Guide Ss through realistic situations for university >>> Ss manage themselves through realistic situations for the workplace

Focus on the core skills for academic study >>> Focus on the core skills needed for workplace teamwork

Nathan went on to describe how Ts can run projects using the framework of a project cycle (Initiation, planning & design, executing, monitoring & controlling, closing) and offered an example of a task he’d conducted which involved revamping the university newspaper.  He imposed some constraints on the Ss in terms of cost, scope and schedule and expected them to work with a team of 10 to produce the first run of the newspaper in 3 weeks. He also assigned a project manager. There are some tasks associated with each of the project cycle stages (e.g., brainstorming during planning). Nathan explained that he didn’t correct them or provide language input during the activity (by which I assume he means over the course of the 3 weeks) but waited till the end to provide guidance on words such as milestones, green light or sign off. He also added that he observed some cultural issues (Chinese deference to hierarchy & French uncertainty avoidance) but it wasn’t entirely clear how he dealt with these.

He then mentioned four roles based on his observation of student participation in projects: dominator, shrinker, shirker and joker. He suggested that these transformed into four leadership types, dominator, supporter, delegator and coach (drawn from The Mindful International Manager, Comfort & Franklin, 2011). This mapping seemed quite arbitrary to me – for instance, why would it be natural for the humorous student to take on the role of the coach?

Nathan also coaches students on debating; he had an interesting idea around getting Ss to debate for and against two types of chocolate bars (Mars vs. Bounty). He also spoke about bringing team building activities into the classroom to bring out language and teamwork (spaghetti & lolly pop towers etc.) and made a brief mention of Kapla blocks for similar tower building activities.

Finally, he presented a list of ideas he hadn’t tried out yet but could be used for classroom projects:

  • Create your own start-up
  • Build an app
  • Publish a book of poems/short stories
  • Write an exam/syllabus and have Ss teach the first class
  • Go on field trips to film festivals and write film reviews

During the course of the webinar, there was an ongoing discussion in the chat box about whether the approach being discussed was really just a form or combination of TBL and PBL. One attendee in a way concluded this discussion when she stated “It is TBL, but I think the point is that EAP is sometimes too far removed from the actual target after conclusion of the uni course.” I agree that EAP is divorced from the real language needs that Ss face when they join the workforce but I also feel that Nathan’s suggestions, while undoubtedly interesting and potentially useful, don’t go far enough to bridge that chasm.

Several years ago at a BESIG event, Evan Frendo spoke about mirroring contemporary project practices in the tasks we design such as adopting the framework of agile methodology (popular in IT) and setting up scrum calls because these would better prepare Ss (whether they are already working or about to start work) for the actual challenges they face on the job. A key difference between agile and waterfall (its traditional project management predecessor) is the degree to which it is iterative and relatively egalitarian. Agile promotes a sense of ownership and a spirit of speaking up and sharing. These are invaluable skills for the modern workplace and if we can help shape the language that Ss use while enacting these business skills, they can potentially be more confident, fluent and accurate when it comes to the real thing.

To equip Ss to be successful team players in projects at work, we need to provide language input and feedback within the context of projects that attempt to replicate work patterns in the industries they are headed towards (not just generic college projects) where the T takes on the dual role of project delivery head and language coach.

Image attribution: Project Success by ken fager | CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

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One thought on “Using project management principles in the classroom | IATEFL webinar summary + reflections

  1. You might check out http://edu.ifixit.com/ for three authentic writing projects (i.e., with a REAL global audience) that we’ve been using with our native English-speaking students. We are specifically teaching project communication. But I can see how the projects might be used to build language proficiency with NNS, too.

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