An Interview with Kieran Donaghy

25th February 2022

Members who attended the IATEFL Virtual Conference in June 2021 will remember Kieran Donaghy and his plenary session 'Embedding a culture of empathy in English language teaching' at the beginning of the second day of the Conference. Syke Annamma Kumaran has interviewed him for Views. 

Syke: Hi Kieran Donaghy, it’s my pleasure to interview you! You taught English for over 30 years and now you are training teachers. Could you tell us about the hard nuts in teacher training?

Kieran: I think that any teacher training course has to give teachers the training to meet their students’ needs and promote positive change in the classroom and beyond. I feel that teachers need to learn to think deeply, critically and creatively about teaching and learning, and that can be done through classes that are varied, practical and hands-on, but with reference to relevant theory. When teachers have this thorough background in theory and practice, they are better prepared to intelligently and compassionately serve their students.

Syke: It was really great to watch your plenary session at the IATEFL Virtual Conference.  Please tell us about the necessity of empathy in ELT in this time of the pandemic.

Kieran: In my opinion, during the pandemic teachers have thought first about compassion and empathy, and then about technology. Teachers have shown incredible compassion and empathy for their students and have supported them and generously given their time. 

I would argue that the EdTech experiment during the pandemic has been a stark reminder of the vital importance of schools not just as places of learning but also of socialisation, community and caring. As we move from pandemic education to post-pandemic education, teachers will have to care for students who may have suffered COVID, whose relatives may have had COVID or even died from the virus, who may have mental health issues, and whose learning may have been negatively affected by the pandemic. This is a huge challenge which requires an enormous amount of empathy. With the support of profoundly empathic teachers, post-traumatic growth and wisdom among our students may be possible, but teachers need the right conditions to be able to help their students, and face-to-face classes, where the constant human dialogue necessary for caring and learning best take place, are an essential part of this. Teachers may also need training in social and emotional learning of which empathy is a key component and trauma-informed practice. When the inevitable reimagining of post-pandemic education comes, we should reimagine how we can optimise language learning and, as an integral part of that, we should also reimagine inclusivity, entrenched underfunding, and teachers’ pay and conditions.

Syke: Thanks, Kieran! I know that you wrote a brilliant book on film and video activities. Do teachers accept this idea in their lessons?

Kieran: Thank you for your kind words about Film in Action. It’s always difficult to know if the ideas and activities in a resource book have been accepted by teachers. I have received lots of positive feedback on the activities from teachers around and the publisher of the book has told me that in its first year, the book was the best-selling book in the history of the DELTA Teacher Development Series. The book was also shortlisted in the prestigious English-Speaking Union English Language Awards in the Resources for Teacher category.

Syke: As the founder of Image Conference, could you share the strategies you employed at the beginning of this venture?

Kieran: The Image Conference seeks to explore the possibilities which visual texts and visual multimodal texts such as film, video, photographs, paintings and video games offer to both language teachers and language learners. The rationale behind the conference is that today we are saturated with visual stimulation and that the visual image has become the primary mode of communication. In the twenty-first century, the ability to interpret, analyse and create images is an integral part of literacy. The aim of The Image Conference is to put images at the centre of the language learning agenda and offer guidance on using images critically and creatively in language teaching in the age of the Internet. The Image Conference brings together leading experts and practitioners in the use of images in language learning who share their experiences, insights and know-how and provides participants with an excellent opportunity to enhance their competence in the innovative and creative use of images. IATEFL has played a key role in the conference as the first edition of the conference was held in conjunction with the IATEFL Learning Technologies Special Interest Group.

Syke: Thanks again, Kieran! Could you share your insights on “English Language Learning in the time of pandemic” to teachers all over the world?

Kieran: First of all, I would say that teachers have done an incredible job adapting their teaching during the pandemic. They have now experienced remote teaching and learned new digital skills. They have seen that an online environment can still allow language students to engage actively with each other and appreciate the positive impact learning technologies might have on language learning. So, I can recognise the potential that technology might have in post-COVID English language education and I believe we should listen to the advice of digital pedagogy experts such as Sophia Mavridi, Graham Stanley and Nicky Hockley who have been proposing a principled approach to online teaching and learning for many years. I have two master’s degrees specialised in digital technology and consider myself fairly tech-savvy. We should certainly consider what teachers like about teaching online and what works best online, but we should also consider what language teachers like about teaching in physical classrooms and what works best in face-to-face classes. One of the things teachers would seem to miss about the physical classroom is the social interaction with students. Physical classrooms allow this social interaction, the constant human dialogue essential for language learning to take place which is much more difficult to achieve online. Nonetheless, the edtech industry would seem to see the current crisis as an opportunity to demonstrate the benefits of online learning not just in this current emergency but as a normal mode of education into the future. While there are obvious benefits to EdTech providing teachers and learners with access to digital content, these benefits work best in harmony with - not as a replacement for - face-to-face learning. The technology industry, supported by international organisations such as the World Bank and the World Economic Forum, consultancy firms and investment banks may well argue that online classes have been extremely successful during the pandemic and that this mode of learning should become the new normal. However, I think we should be critical and question this hype, and consider that it is possible that they will attempt to use the pandemic as a pretext to increase privatisation of education and reduce the number of physical classrooms and this will undoubtedly be to the detriment of effective language learning. 

About Kieran Donaghy

Kieran Donaghy is a freelance award-winning writer, international conference speaker and trainer. He is the author of books for students and teachers of English as a foreign language. His publications include Film in Action (Delta Publishing), Writing Activities for Film (ELT Teacher2Writer) and Video, The Image in ELT (ELT Council) and Language Hub (Macmillan). He trains teachers in Barcelona and online at his specialist teacher development institute, The School for Training. His website Film English has won a British Council ELTons Award, an English Speaking Union Award and the MEDEA Award. He is the founder of The Image Conference and co-founder of the Visual Arts Circle. You can find out more about Kieran at his author website

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