Conference bug: pairwork


April 25, 2011 by Willy Cardoso

So much has been blogged about IATEFL 2011. Great posts, great reflections, great!

I was going to write about the Dogme Symposium, but then… others are doing it so greatly, that … you know…

Then, I thought about technology – not that techy technology – technology as the scientific method and material used to achieve a commercial or industrial objective. This I suppose it the real meaning of this word, I really want to discuss how teaching is technologized. (interesting, isn’t it?)

But as you see, those were both demanding posts and it’s bank holiday,  I’ll deal with them later.

For now I give you something lighter, though equally debatable.


A few times during the conference when I met someone who was presenting and righteously inviting people to come, I asked: Is it a workshop or a talk? Regardless of the answer I’d ask: Is there gonna be pairwork?

Because, you know, a talk is a talk, guess what you do? yeh, you talk – and people listen. And I found out many conference-goers, like me, don’t want to spend even 5 minutes out of 45 talking to the person next to them about something the presenter presumably knows more about.

And honestly, presenters generally don’t really care about your opinion, it’s not that they are going to get what people say in the first 5 minutes and plan the talk/workshop around that, from there. (which would be just great in fact, think about it: an audience-centered workshop for the student-centered advocates, who believe in the co-construction of knowledge – sounds more congruous)

But NO, pairwork culture has pervaded our field and I can’t see why, oh my…

two of my mates doing pair-work

(do you see that forehead on the left corner of the picture? I tried to be nice, I smiled and asked the forehead so, what do you think? but it didn’t want to be my pair in that activity. Not my fault this time)

So, there’s this session titled How to teach using Zrunf and this other one Critical Sbyrt to enhance classroom horfgast.

and they went something like this:

Presenter 1: Welcome everybody, da-di-da-di-da. (…) Talk to the person next to you about how you use Zrunf.

 next door

Presenter 2: I’m so glad you’re all here (…) I wrote a book about Critical Sbyrt (…) I have 13 years experience in classroom horfgast. (…)  I’ll give you 3 minutes to talk to the person next to you, please, write down your own definition of Sbyrt and horfgast.

first session

Willy: So, what do you think?

Random lad: Erm… I don’t know.

Willy: me neither.

Then they talk for 3 minutes about ‘life’

second session

Willy: tap tap tap (silent – he was smart enough to sit next to nobody and even smarter to bring his iPod, now he can check his Twitter feed until the presenter gets to the point)

Presenters 1 and 2 (in unison): So, any ideas?

Random lad: I think that.. bla-bla-bla.

Presenters: Right, good one. From my experience/research/notes/books/musings/guess these are the three key points of Zrunf/Sbyrt/horfgast.

You see?? WHAT IS THE POINT????

Although conference organizers make it clear that workshops should be interactive (and for that they even allow 1h30!) Little is reinforced when it comes to talks, in fact in the middle of all the acronyms and abbreviations found in small print next or below abstracts, which no-one reads, there should be a PW or non-PW.

I don’t know if this happens in other types of conferences, but I don’t like it.

Do urologists warm up their audience by asking them to talk about their favorite metaphor for prostatic hyperplasia?

more pairwork?


39 thoughts on “Conference bug: pairwork

  1. This is a genius post, Willy! Finally! Somebody said it! Presenters take note. We’re at the conference to see YOU. We can chat with the person next to us during the coffee break.

    Now, I’d like to see a talk that’s 100% twitter oriented, meaning we have to chat for 2mn with someone not sitting next to us (heck, in another country), on twitter and then feedback to the group. Now that would be neat. Any takers?

    Again, great post, Willy.

    • A daredevil idea, Bethany, to pairwork on Twitter (?!) I’m sure I would hate it! 😉

      Last year, I was at a session which had an online backchannel, I think it was Nik Peachey’s, can’t remember, but it was quite interesting, although I didn’t log in because my mobile was primitive I enjoyed the idea. But again, if you stay too much online during a talk/workshop it means it’s not that captivating.

  2. David Warr says:

    Great post, Willy. Funny, anecdotal and a deep, dark point.

    • I do not disagree that you are at the conference to see the presenter; however, you are also there to learn. Listening to some one talk is not an effective way to learn for most of the population. Interaction, application and sharing stories increases an attendee’s learning greater than 60 percent.

  3. hartle says:

    Yes, good post and a good point, althpugh I think there are discussions and discussions… The 5 mi ute warm up may well be quite useless, ut having enough time to discuss questions that come up as a result of a talk is a different matter. There are often people iin the audience that have things to share too, and after all, that is what we go to the conferences for.

  4. He he – I love it! I was careful to sit next to people I knew would have something to say, but still, you are absolutely right – even so… and my comments were not the best either (random lass comments)

    I didn’t use any this time, I must admit but last year I did – though it was to try out some silly games I included in my talk – this seemed to be welcomed

    So, unless it’s fun and games, no pairwork?

    But you are right – there has to be a very good reason – and in most sessions I went to there wasn.t

    Cheers Mr Cardoso

    • Marisa,

      I was at your session last year in Harrogate. The work you got us to do was to demonstrate activities we would hopefully do with our students, I did at least with mine. That is okay, actually it’s recommended I guess, that participants get a flavor of the activities, no problem with that. Lindsay Clanfield also prepared plenty of action for his audience this year, and it was great because that was the point of the presentation.

  5. Hear Hear! So true! It’s EXACTLY as you described it!
    The only excuse for talking to your neighbor should be if the presenter presented a strategy and then gives you 3 minutes to try it out.
    Your post should be included in a presenters pre conference package!

    • Oh thanks!! But I heard presenters don’t often read that 😉

      I agree with you regarding “the only excuse”, not sure if it’s the only but the best one (see what I wrote to Marisa)

  6. richardwhiteside says:

    Hey Willy, I think you have a point, but I don’t necessarily think that you are right to dismiss the idea of pair work entirely. Also, are you saying that all pair work is bad or just that if there is no feedback to the speaker then it is pointless? I have a feeling that there will be a load of people coming on here saying, yeah, damn right, nice one etc, but I think there’s more to it. Although your imagined dialogue is very funny!

    I’m no expert and I’ve never done a ‘talk’, only workshops. I don’t know if I ever want to do a talk, because I don’t want to stand up there like a preening know-all espousing my genius to the room. Frankly, I’d say that there were very few speakers that I want to spend more than half an hour listening to without some sort of break, let alone and hour or more, without a chance to chat to somebody about what is going on. Perhaps this is just me, but for various reasons, I want the break that the pair discussion offers. I want to share my emergent thinking with somebody else and listen to what they are thinking about whatever is being talked about. I also want the opportunity to re-engage with the topic, because by about 40 minutes I’m probably drifting off (especially in a stuffy room after lunch), unless it’s a very good speaker and let’s be honest, most IATEFL speakers are ‘just’ teachers like us, they aren’t professional speakers and they aren’t stand-up comedians.

    In fact, that’s a big point for me, more or less everybody is a teacher (i.e. not an academic expert or something), so to be honest, I think that the speaker doesn’t necessarily know more than everybody in the room, they certainly don’t necessarily know about everybody’s context. If you are a real expert like Tom Farrell, Scott Thornbury or Jeremy Harmer, then it might be more likely, of course.

    It seems to me that you’re following the argument that nobody is worth listening to unless they are a renowned expert. I may be wrong here, but that’s how I’m interpreting this. In that case, there wouldn’t be much point interacting on blogs, because most of us aren’t published academic geniuses.

    I would argue that what pair or group discussion offers is the opportunity to engage with what the speaker is saying by sharing an articulation of thoughts with a peer. I don’t think there even needs to be feedback to the presenter, they probably would like to know what everybody thinks, I would, but there perhaps isn’t time. The benefit, as far as I can see, is a moment of shared reflection which can be a good thing, although perhaps it depends on the person you end up working with. Maybe when I was next to you you thought I talked too much or something!

    Urologists don’t want their audience to discuss prostatic hyperplasia because there is presumably little to discuss, but that is a science and teaching is an art, therefore everybody has something of benefit to share, as far as I can see.

    Anyway, just thought I’d chip in. Cheers.

    • Great point of view, Richard! Thanks a lot for that. Let me answer your questions.

      – No, I’m not saying all pairwork is bad. See comment to Marisa.

      – I overheard people sharing similar thoughts at the conference. That they need a little ‘break’ every twenty minutes or so, to talk a little, move a little, share experiences, etc. One person next to me at the coffee queue said “I can’t learn just by sitting there for one hour”. So, I understand that but I just don’t feel the same, I don’t feel like I need to talk to anyone at that moment, I do appreciate it later on, certainly. We talked with each other about the blog symposium afterwards, didn’t we? It’s fine.

      – That most ELT conference speakers are not professional speakers, that is a valid point and one worth of more attention. That, coupled with the fact that most people drift off after 20 minutes makes me think why, why, why, why don’t we have 20-minute talks? Everybody loves TED Talks, right? It’s not only because they are in fact great, it’s also because they are 20-minutes long.

      – You say, “It seems to me that you’re following the argument that nobody is worth listening to unless they are a renowned expert.” Then you say why you may be wrong, and that’s exactly why you’re wrong 😉 , I wouldn’t bother to write a post like this, much less to reply to your comment if I thought otherwise. I have plenty of academic stuff to take care of (and hey, you do too), and here we are, blogging.

      – Let’s talk about a good example of a conference session. Dogme Symposium – we listened to each speaker for about 20 minutes, and then had 3 minutes to talk about it, reflect, go to the bathroom, whatever, how does that feel? What do you think? (remember: I was right next you)

      – Finally, there’s so much to talk about science you wouldn’t believe it. For me, it’s not a matter of school, field, or genre, it’s about purposefulness.

  7. Hi Willy

    Great post and a thought-provoking one as well! I got the participants doing things during my presentation and hopefully they didn’t mind!! I can’t imagine talking for 45 minutes without some sort of interaction with the members of the audience…

    I like Bethany’s idea re usingTwitter as a feedback tool very much. If everyone in the audience was on Twitter, then I think such an activity would be cool and cutting edge, but only for a short time. At the end of the day, the presenter giving a talk should really be the main focus.

    It was great meeting you face to face for the first time!

  8. Tara Benwell says:

    Actually one of the highlights of the conference for me was sitting beside Eva B and chatting during the “pair work” assignments during Jeremy Harmer’s session. We mostly stayed on topic and I got to know her better. She talked about one of my writing challenges that she had tried in her class and I learned about a drama assignment she did that could inspire a new project on MyEC. It was fun being a student with Eva!

    • and isn’t that great??

      I have ‘listened only’ to Jeremy for a whole hour, plenary. And done his pair work things for over 2 hours once, workshop. Both great experiences! Lately, I also learned it can’t go wrong when you walk into a room where Ken Wilson is in charge. These guys are great speakers, great communicators, whether it’s a workshop or a plenary. And I’m sure they know how to structure them accordingly. My rant is about going to a session which is a research report and well you know… talk to my neighbor.

      Thanks for that! Next time I’ll follow you or Eva into sessions.

  9. richardwhiteside says:

    Good comeback!

    This made me laugh out loud: “Everybody loves TED Talks, right? It’s not only because they are in fact great, it’s also because they are 20-minutes long”

    How right you are!

    I was sure about the incorrectness of the ‘renowned expert bit’, but I thought I’d leave it in, as had I not known you I might have believed it. I agree that the dogme symposium had it spot on, but perhaps it would have been tedious had we been sitting next to an unresponsive forehead. As for science, I’ll take your word for it (I realise really), but what I was getting at was that there’s a bit more ‘this is how it is done’ in medical science than there should be in teaching, I think.

    Purposefulness – that just about sums it up I would say. Perhaps that should go on the conference call for speakers – ‘If you intend on using pair discussion…’

    Next year if you’re in the audience, maybe some people will think twice! ; )

  10. David says:


    I’m glad you qualified things in your response to Marisa! It is all in how it is done, the purpose. I’m always in favor of “tasting” an activity or idea.

    Not much to say – everyone had great comments. Like Darren, like Richard, I think a lecture should be an opportunity to share our ideas – I’m not for the old school, glassy eyed looking up at the lecturer/expert type of thing. Not much good for anyone in that. I’ll also add – what if your blog didn’t have comments? That’s what I’d think of a presentation without the opportunity of the audience to stir, mix, share, meet.

    great post.


    PS. I prefer group work in workshops/lectures. Can be pair, 3s, 4s or 5s. I also like doing it at the start or as a break me upper….. If you keep the gas on and going dead ahead – I don’t care who you are, you will dull someone after 15-20 min.

  11. Hmm, I think I’m going to wait a bit until I do a talk! I hope you didn’t mind to much talking and drawing in my ISTEK workshop? There was a purpose there I hope.

    Did you see I was clever in Chia’s and sat next to Luke? I didn’t know too much about her topic so didn’t mind talking to a partner too much. I do get where you’re coming from, though.

    • It would’ve been quite boring if I had to draw ‘the whole’ dinossaur on my own. Of course there was a purpose! And I was lucky Shelly was around that day, the women next to me didn’t want much talk.

  12. crazykites says:

    Hi Willy, I´m in work sneakily checking my reader while I wait for the classroom to be free and I´m in the reception in front of the receptionist and two photocopier-fixing dudes (all Spanish apart from me) chuckling away at this post! Thanks for the laugh. Now, back to work! 🙂

  13. DaveDodgson says:

    Hi Willy,

    I would say I certainly agree with you when it comes to pairwork with no feedback and therefore no real purpose. While you were at IATEFL, I was at a conference here in Turkey listening to guy prattle on about creative thinking when all of a sudden he said “chat with a partner – how would you sell a pizza in less than ten words?”

    I looked at the woman sat next to me hoping that she would do the talking and she looked at me in a manner that suggested she really didn’t want to sell me a pizza. The only exchange uttered between us was her saying “I don’t even like pizza” and then, the speaker brought the ‘pairwork’ to an end and told us that the best answer he’d ever heard was “we deliver our pizzas in sexy outfits!”

    “So what was the point of that?” said the woman next to me. Exactly. (We chatted properly between sessions and she was a nice person with interesting ideas to share – just not about fast food.)

    This is the worst kind of pairwork, both for conference sessions and in class – just to fill time before the speaker/teacher annouces the correct or best answer.

    However, some ‘pairwork’ ideas are much more useful. Sessions like Mike’s at ISTEK where we work through activities we might use in class are good as there is (usually) an aim and a task to complete. At the same event, Luke Meddings asked us to speculate as to how the artist in one of the paintings he showed had achieved the effect of a white house on his canvas. That was an interesting mini-discussion (had with Shelly) and we genuinely wanted to know the answer.

    Anyway, I guess I’m trying to say pairwork and ‘discuss in pairs’ moments in talks are fine with me, as long as there is a point beyond breaking the monotony and the audience are not just told a definitive answer or ignored afterwards.

    Just remembered that we were sat next to each other in Gavin Dudeney and Nicky Hockly’s mLearning talk at ISTEK. Wasn’t there a brief ‘discuss in pairs’ question in that session? Something about what mobile devices we use or how we use them in class… Perhaps the fact I can’t clearly remember a mere three weeks later is a sign that you have a good point after all 😉

    • Thanks for that, Dave!

      I feel the same regarding the three examples you gave from ISTEK Conference.
      In all three though, I had someone I already knew around, that made it easier. I don’t know how silent it would’ve been in Luke’s session if the person next to me was a ‘stranger’, I find some people are not so keen on chatting when it comes to creative/divergent/critical thinking in workshops, there’s a hidden fear of sounding silly. (same happens with blog commenters sometimes)

      “as long as there is a point beyond breaking the monotony” <- I like that!!!

  14. Alan Tait says:

    Another vote here for TWENTY MINUTE talks.

    At even the most humble national conference there are a dozen talks on, and I always want to see three of them at 9 o’clock, three at 10.45 and so on. If they were all 20 minutes long…

    And Guy Kawasaki is on our side:

    Good idea, Willy.

  15. Alan Tait says:

    Oops, messed up the Kawasaki link:

    • LOL! Willy, & guilty as charged 🙂

      Thought long and hard as to whether to include a “chat with the people next to you” element in my IATEFL talk, and in the end I decided that I would, because the theme was about finding practical solutions to tech problems. Hope the people who were in the audience got that, and found it useful… certainly there were some very interesting points made during the feedback afterwards.

      Personally, I don’t mind it if there is a purpose to discussion breaks during talks, though like others I’ve found myself stuck in situations at conferences from time to time where nobody could think of anything to say and we either sat there awkwardly in silence fidgeting, or chatted about something entirely different to fill the time.

      20 minute talks would get a resounding yes! vote from me, too, and the way that the Dogme Symposium was structured also gets a big thumbs up… 45 minutes to an hour is an awful long time to just sit there listening to someone; even when they are talking about something you find really interesting.


      • Sue,
        If you:
        – “thought long and hard” about it.
        – decided to do it because you judged it meaningful
        – had good feedback from audience
        – reflected and realized all that.

        mission accomplished!

        Moreover, it’s your style, and if it’s your style and you’re aware of the pros and cons of it, perfect. I wrote this post mainly because as a member of the audience many times I don’t think the presenter thought about these things, it’s just ‘automatic’ to ask people to talk in pairs. Another reason was because for me it is important to know the difference between a workshop and a talk, and plan accordingly.

        My ISTEK workshop had (as far as I know) plenty of room for participants to talk and ‘do’ stuff, and there was not a single moment of ‘chat with your neighbor’. Not because it’s bad, but because it would be pointless in that session.

  16. Diarmuid says:

    In full agreement. As for people who feel they cannot listen for more than an hour and still learn something, I’m glad I don’t go to the cinema anymore, I’d end up spitting into their popcorn.

    • Brilliant!

      I hear many people say they are ‘disconnected’ after 20 min. In that case, they lost 66% of their learning ROI. Imagine all the university lectures, conferences, meetings, feedback sessions, TPs, lesson observations, you name it! They’re never 20min only.
      So… should people improve their attention span, walk out after 20min, or press for shorter sessions???

    • Richard says:

      Depends on the quality of the film, did you watch Titanic at the cinema? I was coerced into it and wished I had an ‘off’ switch.

      I don’t necessarily want to be lectured about teaching, I want to learn and I thought education was moving away from lecturing? Is it an effective mode of learning? We’ve all sat there doodling and scribbling notes to friends, I’m sure, now we tweet instead.

      • I liked Titanic! Especially because I was sitting next to the girl I liked and since the film was quite emotional we got to hold hands that day. (oh, so long ago – that probably didn’t happen, I might’ve watched it with my mates and laughed at all the people who cried during the movie), what I may be trying to say is that there’s so much more in the room than the presenter or the film that in the end I find it still worthwhile to attend workshops and all. Apart from my occasional indifference to talk-to-your-neighbor moments, I’ve met quite some interesting people that way.

        re: lectures. I like the idea, I don’t mind to listen for 1 hour, in many cases I even prefer that. The problem is that there are many lame lecturers out there.
        Last term in Bath, I had good lecturers that were *not good* at mediating discussions. So, I did have some good 40 minutes of input with lots of food for thought and material to research further, the handouts with questions and even role-plays were also very well prepared, but then it was all ruined by the lecturer’s skills as a facilitator/mediator/moderator, whatever you call it. Also, it was mainly ruined by the total unpreparedness of my classmates, but that’s another story.

  17. Great post!

    I thought the idea of the ‘pair share’ was to allow listeners to attempt to articulate their current understanding of a concept, and possibly hear an alternative understanding from their partner before being lead through an experience that might deepen/challenge/justify and lead to newer, (dare I say?) better understandings.

    So as well as a social function (that admittedly can be counter-productive), there may be a cognitive one.

    But it might well fall between two pedagogical stools by implying that we all have something worth saying, only to be followed by a ‘transmission model’ of teaching that tells us that actually we haven’t!

    Done well, the session leader would engage with people’s ‘current understandings’ rather than just allow them to be aired and then go off on their own path. Though you could argue that the connections should be made by the audience/learner not the teacher?

    Not sure I’ve added anything to your post, you decide!

    • I decide???
      (If I had to decide I wouldn’t allow comments 😉 )

      You put the underlying beliefs of ‘pair share’ very convincingly. That’s what most of us want from it, but we know it doesn’t always work that way. Maybe because we chose the wrong stool at the wrong time.
      Teachers and educators have been ranting too much about the ‘transmission model’. I see it as a valid model, one of many models, with countless examples of its benefits, the question is when to use it.
      I bet that if everything becomes dialogic and “let’s-talk-about-it-first”, we wouldn’t change much for the better.

      My main problem with the issue raised in the main post is that everybody does it.

  18. Agreed. (How’s that for succinct?)

  19. Işıl Boy says:

    Totally agree with you, Willy!

  20. Glennie says:

    I couldn’t agree more. I find it very irritating. I feel like I’m being manipulated because I know that whatever feedback I might give to the group from my chat with my partner, the speaker will simply briefly acknowledge what I say and then carry on with what s/he was going to do in any case.

    Do these people make their students waste their time in the same way?

    Pairwork has to have a purpose.

  21. kylieliz says:

    Interesting post! I myself am fairly adverse to pairwork, though I think maybe it is growing on me. I don’t know . . . good thoughts! Thanks for sharing!!

  22. Lexical Leo says:

    Hi Willy

    Thank you for pointing me to this post!

    I can’t say that I agree. I understand that sometimes pair work is just an excuse to make the talk more “interactive” when in reality it does not enhance the presentation in any meaningful way. In which case you end up with the “chat with a person next to you” type of scenario you describe above. But there are plenty of reasons why these interactive bits can truly enrich your session. I don’t want to repeat what’s already been said in the comments but I think these bits are particularly important at teachers conferences because the presenter here has a dual role: It’s not only transmission of expert knowledge but also the way it’s delivered is something teachers can learn from. I believe it’s what Tessa Woodward calls “loop input” although she doesn’t refer to conference talks but rather teacher training sessions in general.

    If anything I’d complain about sessions marked in conference programmes (IATEFL or any other) as “workshops” with a speaker rabbitting on for 60 minutes without any audience interaction or participation involved. But this is just my opinion and I admit I like to talk and cannot keep quiet for 60 mins 🙂


    • Hi Leo
      Yes, the same ‘bug’ goes to workshops where there’s no one ‘working’, just the presenter speaking.
      I think that once there’s a clear, and let’s be honest, very easy to understand, distinction between a talk and a workshop – and usually workshops last longer – why do some presenters ignore it?
      Having said that, I think that even in talks, especially long ones, there can be some pair work or whatever provided it is ‘essential’. But never because it is ‘how it is done in TEFL’ so I’ll do it too.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

receive new posts by email.

Join 485 other followers


Events 2015

IATEFL Manchester, UK
10 April, 2014
TDSIG PCE: Challenges and Rewards
More info

IATEFL Manchester, UK
12 April, 2015
Talk: Initial teacher training: challenges and innovations in course design

23 March, 2015 - Kragujevac
28 March, 2015 - Belgrade
Theme: Assessment: who is it for?
More info



%d bloggers like this: