Teachers in Turkey, No. 5 - “It WAS the worst of times, it IS the best of times…” by David Mearns

The latest contribution to Teachers in Turkey comes from David Mearns, who, like our previous two guests Adam and Işıl, teaches prep classes in Istanbul, although his are high school prep classes rather than university ones. David was in attendance at my workshop at the ISTEK Conference last April and, while we both agree that traditional error-focused written feedback is not always the most effective way to help students, our alternative approaches are quite different. Unfortunately, I was unable to attend his session on video feedback so I’m very happy that he has written a post about it for us!

David’s post discusses how he managed to implement an extensive drive to include more technology in his classes and how the arrival of netbooks, IWBs and video feedback has impacted both his own work and that of his students. He has also kindly provided some videos of his students talking about their experiences with the new technology as well as an example of his feedback. Plenty of food for thought here and we look forward to your comments!


When considering where we are now at a crossroad for change in ELT, I am reminded of the opening line of a classic piece of English literature, A Tale of Two Cities, written by Charles Dickens,
It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope...
Dickens wrote this more than a hundred years ago with an aim to inform through narrative commentary about the terrible state of affairs with social deconstruct, authoritarian regimes, huge gaps between rich and poor and a general sense of little hope for the European peoples at that time. However, if we look at his narrative there seems little change in the general world scheme of things since that time, and it is with that I would like to parallel his observations into our world of ELT.

I believe that we have had the worst times, and the best times are upon us when we, as ESL educators and ELT practitioners have the opportunity to make serious and fundamental changes in our teaching practices to make a difference to the students we face every day and give them hope. I write of course about how better teaching practices and the embracing of ICT can help us all to move out of the Darkness and into the Light.
My allusion to Dickens nearly ends there, although always on my mind, so that I can give forth a reason to believe that we as progressive educators can move with the (best of) times and develop as tech-savvy teachers in order to engage our students in quality lessons that include the wonders of ICT and web 2.0 applications.

But before I can tell of my eureka moment, and how I changed my approach to teaching, I would first like to give some background to my own situation. I moved to Turkey in the Spring of 1996 with my CELTA firmly in hand hoping to change the way ‘foreign’ students adopted and learned English. I had the course books, the grammar books, the realia prepared in CELTA projects and, of course, the buzz-methodology at the time: Communicative Approach with the focus on the PPP paradigm of methodology as my main tools for the job. I felt good. I believed in myself that “I could not fail”(!) Well, in fairness, that self-confidence and over exuberance did bode me well for the first few years. But increasingly I could see that the method was flawed in many respects and that students more often than not baulked at its very core, since they had grown up in a school system that did not cater to such “whimsical” notions of pedagogy. Students became disengaged and disenchanted with my style, and more alarmingly for myself I became less and less of a teacher as I simply could not fully engage my students, thus becoming disengaged myself. I recall the five stages of grief to further illuminate my point: DENIAL, ANGER, NEGOTIATION, DEPRESSION and ACCEPTANCE. I was going to work stuck in variations of the first four states of mind and practice. The fourth stage ultimately taking over and making me a very unhappy teacher. It was not until the summer of 2007 that I finally came to the decision to change; it was either make the change or give up teaching for good. I enrolled in the Aston MSc TESOL Distance Learning programme, and it was then, throughout my R & D, that I saw the extraordinary opportunities for us as teachers to embrace the use of technology and start to make changes in our teaching practices.

By sheer definition of a distance e-Learning programme I was involved in working alone (for the most part since the Aston programme was set up in such a way that people enter at various times of the year and course, therefore, the collaboration for different modules at different times meant it was difficult to find study-pals), which, yes meant that I did feel very isolated and vulnerable (boohoo), but it also meant I had to dig deep and find the resolve to make it work (I know now that Aston has set up an Istanbul office to reduce this trauma). But it was who had chosen to make a change; I had decided I needed to be a better teacher, and I had realised that if it was going to work, I had to do it. This sense of ‘I’, autonomy and self-motivation can not be underestimated in the human framework. It is something for me that I have experienced and which has taught me that in order for students to do the best work they can, they have to want it themselves. Without it we are raging against an indestructible machine; thus it is imperative that we as teachers transfer the learning to them; instil in them the need for autonomy and ownership of their own progress and learning curve.

msc gradu
David at his Masters graduation - there is light at the end of the MA tunnel!
One of the most disheartening times was during the distance-learning written feedback that I received for research papers. Not having that one-to-one time with my advisor definitely tested my emotional construct and drive to continue. It was the best of times for me with what I was reading, researching and learning, but it was also the worst of times when I would receive lower grades that what I thought I had deserved for all the work I had put in (I recall waking at 5.30am on Xmas Day, 2009, to work on a draft paper due for the January deadline). In hindsight and on reflection, I know that what I went through both emotionally and pedagogically during those times has made me a stronger person, and, even more importantly, aware of what our students go through. However, it was with the type of feedback that I was receiving that led me to consider the idea of better feedback to students. Although what the advisors were writing was essentially true, I felt that the way it was presented, written and relayed to me had me feeling very negative (anger; denial) about my own ability. There was no denying these lecturers knew what they were talking about, but I couldn’t help but feel further isolated and vulnerable. In search of some sort of comfort, I noticed around the time that two UK academics, Billy Brick and Russell Stannard had been experimenting with Video Feedback using desktop recording software for giving feedback. I contacted them both and thanks to them I was hooked on technology as a means to engage students and reach out to students who were having a tough time getting to grips with their work. Video Feedback within the Writing process subsequently became the focus for my dissertation. I was now totally hooked on how much good technology could bring to the distance-learning paradigm.

An example of video feedback on written work provided by David

The school where I am now currently employed has a strong and clear vision for the future. The IT department is intent on getting to grips with technology for the classroom. So much so that it was decided to set up a pilot-program for the floundering Hazırlık (preparatory) program. I say floundering because of the lack of a properly structured curriculum that allowed students to develop and grow for the year that they were involved doing twenty hours of English a week. After much deliberation, we came up with one student - one netbook, and IWB for both sts working on netbooksclassrooms, surround sound and projectors. This was supported by an online ESL software package that would allow me to use both e-learning and classic styles of teaching, in and out of the classroom. The time was extremely exciting and full of nervous energy. I went into the classroom in those first few days of semester one, 2010, with a passion I hadn’t felt for years. Could we make the Hazırlık students more engaged? Could we get them to further develop their English skills and learning curve? Would the investment and effort be rewarded with success and a fruitful learning environment? Well, the answer: Yes, and No! (at least at the beginning)

The initial feelings of dismay from the students still sticks clearly in my mind. They simply could not believe that they had been given a netbook that they were allowed to use in class at all times. They were in shock that a teacher and school would simply hand over the hardware, software and transfer of educational ITC-knowledge to them; students who had gone through a system where they had been criticized for failure, criticized for not learning and criticized for not wanting to participate. Other students passing the room with everyone involved busily on their netbooks was heard to say, “Yaa, Hazirliklar, şu eğitim, internet café gibi!” (Urgh! This prep program is more like an internet café). I instructed them on what was allowed and what was not, i.e. proceed with the work on your netbook and focus on the tasks in hand. First Mistahazırlık sts in library with netbbooks and netbooks doing researchke! I had naively assumed that since we were giving them this opportunity to work with technology, and full internet access that they would simply follow suit. THEY didn’t! I was increasingly finding that Facebook and other social interests were infiltrating their workspace. Even students who would normally be engaged anything up to 100% of the time in classwork would be directing their attention to the ‘fun’ part of the internet and not doing the ‘fun’ classwork I had assigned. After one month of this disappointment I called for a meeting with the administrators warning them of my observations and insisting we had to put in more structured policies and directives for the students. Note, dear colleagues, this is a major warning to those of you out there considering a switch to technology. Make sure you have all your bases covered. It is imperative that the students know what, why and how they are expected to use the technology. Of course, I warned them from day one what was expected, but teenagers as they are, rarely listen at the outset. So, please take my experience as a lesson, have the students gradually introduced to the concept, let them get their heads round it, and then further integrate the technology. For this year I aim to only give one period a day over to the netbooks for the first month until they see it is a benefit for their learning, not as an excuse to surf the net for their very different means, thus disengaging from the lessons: the very thing I was fighting against.

That was the downside. Now for the upside, and what an upside it is. Having watched and observed Hazırlık classes for fifteen years I have seen lack of interest, disengagement of all students, lethargy, boredom and of course serious discipline issues as a result. I can honestly say that apart from minimal discipline issues (and these would have happened no matter what, with the personalities concerned) all of the above were completely eradicated by the use of technology in the classroom. Not only were the netbooks an overwhelming success in getting students engaged for the whole year, but also with the daily use of the IWBs. Even if people reading this cannot get netbooks to the students, please fight to have IWBsIWB collaboration in your classrooms. This is something that has so transformed the atmosphere and interactivity of my classes that observers have been amazed. I was probably observed twenty times this year as news filtered through that what ICT and IWB, netbooks and technology were doing to this student-demographic. Traditionally, Hazırlık has been viewed as a place that only the most robust of teachers can deal with. However, it is a place where those experienced teachers amongst us will do anything to avoid. I know, I was one of them. Even as an HoD, I remember allowing teachers to do whatever they had to do in order to survive. Now, it is different. Teachers now want to be a part of it. Teachers from primary through to high school are coming to observe the dynamic environment; administrators are walking away with smiles on their faces knowing that they have made the right choice to invest in the tec. Of course, I know that it takes a teacher with enthusiasm to drive such a program, and it also takes a teacher who knows a bit about the technology. But that should not put anyone off. It is there for us all to adopt and adapt to so that each year group can have the same experience as my Hazırlıkkers (sic). However, I must stress that it is no good for schools to simply buy in the equipment and hope for the best; believing that teachers will simply make the leap. It is imperative that substantial professional development workshops are put in place before the technology can even be remotely considered.

Feedback on the feedback from two of David’s students

It is with this final point that I come to the importance of getting it right, before you can get it right. I learned a lot from my experience last year of simply putting the equipment in place and software to boot, in the hope it would work. It didn’t! It took a readdressing of the issues after the initial month to set it right on track. This year, I will be implementing classic styles only with a leaning towards the technology (primarily in respect of netbooks) at the outset. On the other hand, I sts on netbooks in classwill be using the IWBs from day one. I will be using the ESL-software daily, but only for one hour until the students are used to the concept. I will be introducing Moodle, Edmodo and a wiki (to be called Wikilık), Triptico, Visual Thesaurus, and Video Feedback via Camtasia plus a plethora of wonderful ICT tools acquired via Twitter (btw, the greatest ELT platform that I have yet to find and use). I believe that with the experience of one year doing this at the classroom level, and still a novice for sure, I will continue to make changes in respect of further engaging my students and making them see how technology can make their learning experience a truly ‘fun’ one. Alluding one final time to Mr Dickens, I do strongly believe it is a time of hope for us all, and if we simply decide to make a personal change as teachers we can make a difference and accept that if we are to succeed it is entirely up to us to take us out of the dark and into the light.

David Mearns MSc TESOL

More feedback on the use of technology from one of David’s students
David Mearns is originally from the north of Scotland and has spent the last 15 years in Turkey as an English teacher. He is married to a great woman from Izmir who has supported him through it all as he tries to convince people of the need for continuous change and personal growth.

David doesn’t have his own blog at present but he is considering it (and I think you’ll agree he definitely should get started!)

In the meantime, you can follow him on Twitter: @davidmearns


  1. I can NOT wait for his own Blog !

  2. Thanks again for this great post David and also for providing the videos - great to hear from the students' side!

    I've had a similar experience to you with feedback on my MA. Usually, just a feedback form with a breakdown of the grade and an annotated copy of the assignment is sent back. While it is very useful, it does feel a little detached. One of my tutors, however, gives feedback via short audio recordings, which feels much more personal. It does still lack the 'conversation' element though (that being said, the tutors are still open to further discussion via email).

    It's great then that you use video feedback, not only for the personal touch, but also to initiate a dialogue which ultimately leads to the student redrafting and improving their work.

    I also find myself incredibly jealous of the fact your school agreed to such an extensive investment! I am still struggling with one terminally-ill PC in class and a projector that's not much better. I will be showing your post to my HoD in the hope it sparks renewed interest in serious investment, both in hardware and the necessary training in its effective pedadgogical use.

  3. David - You are working wonders here. Great to see you are as innovative as ever. I would agree that Twitter is an amazing tool (it brought me to this link). We are going 1:1 with our own Preps at RC this year - We think we are covering our bases but please be in touch for a bit of collaboration. Regards, Cyrus

  4. Isn't the best approach to written feedback a balanced approach of video feedback, teacher written feedback as well as discussion with the students? Although video feedback has benefits with voice, it is still monologic. I am a firm believer that dialogic communication is more beneficial than monologic communication.

    Anyhow, it is an interesting development for the provision of written feedback and I am all for learning about new techniques and developments in CLL.

    On a side note, I have almost finished my MA in ELT and the personal feedback that I have received from my supervisor and other tutors have been invaluable for my development. Written feedback followed by a brief meeting with the tutor was incredibly useful and I was able to learn more from these dialogic conversations. If my tutors/supervisor provided video feedback, it would also feel detached with little interaction or dialogue.

    Anyhow, it is nice to see some teachers developing and incorporating technology outside of class.

  5. Barkan Tekdoğan20 August 2011 at 16:22

    Great experience and great article about what everyone should expect from e learning. This Will help and Show the right way to everyone who is pushing for or avoiding e learning. I can't wait to read or hear more of your experiences. Congrats mate. Keep going further.
    Barkan Tekdoğan

  6. Hi Dave thanks again for your feedback (you could have done a video fb though :-).

    It has been a very innovative way for students to get their feedback. As people can see in the short vids, they really found it invaluable in their context. In reply to Martin, I too believe the best way is a balance between video, written and and one-to-one feedback; however with more emphasis on vfb, since the students can go home and re-watch and re-adjust,rethink and redraft whenever, knowing that they have the relevant information and suggestions recorded visually to further improve their work.

    I alluded to my own MSc situation and the feedback I received at the beginning of the course, because I was not in a position to meet my tutors being that it was a distance MA, and at that time several tutors were not really into technology (their own admission), so I was left with at times too much inadequate written feedback. In addition, that form of feedback is also a viable method if you are an adult who is willing to address any issues brought up, and have the opportunity to do so. But as recent research has shown the majority of young learners, who I teach, simply don't read written forms of feedback for whatever reason. As you, Dave, noted, VFB sets up a 'pseudo' dialogue and although monological, the students really appreciated having their teacher 'around' at times of struggle and frustration. It is also important to mention Martin, a typical 7min VFB can relay approx. 1500 words of assistance and support (source: Stannard). No teacher would be willing to write that amount of commentary or feedback for every student, and it would also be impossible in 7mins in any case.

    The whole VFB was as a result of my own disappointment from WFB and the negative implications that can be so easily misunderstood when you are under pressure and blinded by your own 'closeness' to your work from extensive effort within the distance MA paradigm. It further led to an attempt to outreach those students who don't care to write, ever, and as a result of VFB I had extraordinary returns. On first draft returns students across both classes made a (mean-average) 18% improvement on their papers.

    The bottom line for me is that if teachers can give face-to-face feedback it undoubtedly has its advantages with the personal touch and literal tactility. However, if distance learning is the situation you find yourself in and working with 14yr olds who hate to read and write, VFB wins hands down.

    Thanks Cyrus for the post. I will be in touch next week to hear how your meeting goes at RC. I would love to offer any insight for your entry into 1:1 and ICT this year
    20 August 2011 16:19

  7. Thanks, Barkan. I do hope to get my own blog up and running, but it might not happen as I plan to have 3LMS for my classes this year: Moodle; Edmodo and a Wiki- so I hope Dave will accept more for this platform and forum

  8. Hi Dave,

    I was in your session at İstek this year and I was one of those who were amazed by the new way of giving feedback for written assignments you told us about. Following that we also tried out some free programs for the same aim and the result was great.Unfortunately not lucky enough to buy a software for our school but may be in the future:)

    Please start blogging so that we could learn about more inspiring ideas from you,

    Thanks and best wishes,

    Emine BC

  9. So sorry-Not Dave but but David:)

    Emine BC

  10. Darn it!!! The blog-graveyard just swallowed my comment and I cannot get it back. Anyway, in response to Martin, I agree that face-to-face is valuable, but I was not in a position to get that as my MSc was a distance learning degree. I, therefore, decided to start experimenting with VFB after receiving less than favourable written feedback on assignments; of course that doesn't mean they weren't invaluable as suggestions, it is just that misinterpretations of text can be made very easily, especially when one is stressed out at the end of an email. VFB offered to remove that, and when I piloted it with 11th graders they all responded very favourably. I knew then that I was on to a good thing. From that my research led me to conclude remarkable returns on essays done within the process of drafts post VFB. In my dissertation the study led me to conclude that from draft one to draft two the 26 students increased in the mean score by 18%!

    This method seriously engages students young or otherwise. Of course, if you are an adult and can have the opportunity, and will to read the written comments, plus have the opportunity to discuss it with teachers, it can be very beneficial. At the end of the day, my own context is far less important than that of the Turkish teens I teach, who hate to both read and write. This method of fb engages them and I have all students writing on penzu.com and keeping electronic journals because they know I will send them a video feedback which they find quirky and unique. In addition, Martin, Stannard(2006)found that in a typical 7min vfb, 1500 words of support can be relayed. No written feedback can compare to that, well not for each student at least.

    So, I do agree that it is not perfect, but it is certainly an alternative method for teachers to consider if they want to engage the majority in the writing process.

    Thanks Cyrus and Dave for your positive response to the hardware in the school. I will get in touch next week Cyrus to ask about your 1:1 meeting and sortie into ICT and Web 2.0

  11. This is a fantastic piece of blogging, Mr. Mearns. I await your blog 'with four eyes' as we say around these parts. Until then, I'd love you to contribute a guest piece over at my place.

  12. Adam bey, thank you for your kind words. I'd love to contribute to your blog. I'll be in touch via email with suggestions on the subject matter

    kindly to the mastermind behind, "A Year in the Life..."

  13. What a great post David! Even though you and I have come up with several additions and changes to the Hazirlik program for this year, the biggest one being UBD, of course, we wouldn't be nearly anywhere close to where we are without your guidance and enthusiasm to first implement such a program, and then your experiences from last year. You quickly learned what works and what needs to change. I am totally excited, and feel extremely lucky, actually, that I get the opportunity to be your teaching partner this year in the Hazirlik program. By this time next year, I hope that your blog will be about the incredible success we had this year!

    Brentson Ramsey

  14. Cheers Brentson. Your words of encouragement keep me enthused with all the work we have ahead. But, ı know, you are the man to be colleagues with. I too am very pleased for the upcoming year. It goes without saying that we are both fortunate to be in this ICT world...so ever onwards and upwards (is that a euphemism for ipads in class 2012?


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