Conferencing Outside the Box

Marcos Benevides


A bit of opinion in your JALT News this month: Given the proximity and of this month’s national conference, “Creativity: Think Outside the Box”, I thought it might be a good time to remind everyone of other conference innovations happening regularly within Japan. Here is a sampling of some of the best ideas I’ve personally come across recently.

At the time of writing, I have just returned from four incredible days at Tokyo Equinox 2010, which has been described to me by a half dozen veteran conference goers as “The best ELT event [they] have attended in years.” Although it is perhaps not fair to compare conferences since they tend to be so different from each other, I can perfectly understand what these participants meant.

The brainchild of Steven Herder and the crew at MASH Collaboration, and supported by JALT, Pearson-Kirihara, and Toyo Gakuen University among other venues, this multi-date, multi-city event featured Scott Thornbury, Paul Nation, and a variety of local presenters. It was a major event, yet a small conference, with a deliberate and carefully implemented—almost TED-like—grassroots feel. Among the many innovative events was a walk up Mt. Takao with Thornbury, and a series of high-energy Pecha Kucha presentations. The downtime was perhaps as important as the presentations themselves; opportunities to slow down, to laugh, to connect, and to brainstorm are often not consciously factored in at conferences, but it was integral to Equinox.

Actually, I should disclose that I had a small part in the genesis of this event, through a lucky coincidence that to me perfectly encapsulates what JALT is all about. After the 2009 conference in Shizuoka, Steve and I happened to be returning to Osaka together when we ran into Thornbury and Cambridge representative John Letcher on the Shinkansen. Taking a chance, we introduced ourselves and invited them to dinner. Lots of sushi and beer later, Steve had convinced Scott to return to Japan the next year—and the rest is now conference history.

It isn’t necessary to host an internationally renowned author for innovation to occur, of course. Other smaller conferences that I have highlighted before in this column also fit the “outside the box” bill. For example, Nakasendo Conference <>, Joint-Tokyo Conference <>, and Osaka Tech Day are each “outside the box” in their own way. Nakasendo was an idea hatched by a JALT member, Michael Stout, who wanted to put on an event bringing together different teaching organizations in the Kanto area. Joint-Tokyo is innovative in its presentation format, linking five or six presenters sequentially, rather than in concurrent sessions. Tech Day is a great example of how JALT members can get involved at the chapter level to target a specific topic they feel needs to be addressed. The point is that each of these events—indeed, all JALT events—grow from members like you, putting an idea up and then following through on it. It’s what this organization is all about.

There have been many outside-the-box moments at the international JALT conferences too. Most recently, the workshop by presentation design guru Garr Reynolds, of “Presentation Zen” fame, kicked off JALT2009 to a strong start. Although not an ELT teacher, Reynolds has had an incredible impact on presentation design for teachers in Japan, which has raised the ante for presenters at all conferences. This year, the “Design for Change Contest” <> event, organized in Japan by Chuck Sandy and featuring TED Talk Alumna Kiran Bir Sethi, promises to be just as exciting in its own way, connecting issues of student empowerment and autonomy with the world outside the classroom. And of course, these days JALT attendees include not only distinguished authors and researchers, but also high profile bloggers, Twitterers, Facebookers and Second Lifers. While the significance of this last point may not yet be clear to some less “wired” teachers, it clearly reflects the cutting edge of ELT in Japan.

Indeed, with the amount of conference information available on the Internet, one thing that has become abundantly clear to me in recent years is that Japan really does hold its own—indeed, often leads the world—in the quality, scope, and innovation of its ELT conferences. The annual JALT conference should surely be counted among the Top 3 annual international ELT events. I would also not be at all surprised to know that we have the greatest number and variety of well organized, smaller conferences in the world.