Copernicus 2.0: native-speakers are no longer the centre of the English-speaking universe

This weekend I presented the results of our first “Europa Report” read-through at the Association for Teaching English through Movies (ATEM) Nishi-Nihon Conference, which was held at Hyogo University of Teacher Education here in Japan. Here are some highlights.

Images: Start Motion Pictures; Magnet Releasing; NASA; JPL; Jan Matejko; Stockfresh; morgueFile

The Greek philosopher and scientist Aristotle believed that we were the centre of the universe. The sun, the planets, the stars – everything – rotated around one, single point: the Earth.

In the 16th century, however, there began a revolution. The Polish astronomer Nicolaus Copernicus argued that we are not the centre of the universe, and everything does not rotate around one, single point.

There was just one problem: Copernicus didn’t have any evidence.Continue reading “Copernicus 2.0: native-speakers are no longer the centre of the English-speaking universe”

Realising in fact what has been dreamed in fiction…


“Life imitates Art far more than Art imitates Life,” wrote the Irish author Oscar Wilde. “Life holds the mirror up to Art, and either reproduces some strange type imagined by painter or sculptor, or realises in fact what has been dreamed in fiction.”

This was certainly true when we did part 1 of our first “Europa Report” read-through on Saturday. Our five participants in this ‘test flight’ came from five countries spread across three continents and 14 time zones, and they were absolutely magnificent – it was thrilling to listen to them!

But just as we got to the point in the script where a solar storm ‘fries’ the ship’s communications, we suddenly lost Skype contact with the person playing the role of William Xu, our mission commander… (Fortunately, William was able to rejoin us a few pages later!)

I’m going to be presenting the results of this study in January at the Association for Science Education Annual Conference, which is being held at the University of Reading in the UK.

Interestingly, the town of Reading brings us back to Oscar Wilde: he spent 18 months in Reading Gaol (prison) and, after his release in 1897, wrote the poem “The Ballad of Reading Gaol”.

“Collaborate! Communicate! Improving cross-border communication and teamworking within STEM”

I’m going to be presenting the above paper on International Day (“Science Education without Frontiers”) at the Association for Science Education Annual Conference 2015 (University of Reading, UK, 7-10 January).

Juno-spacecraftImage credit: NASA/Bill Ingalls

I’ll be talking about the results of our SkypeRead:Europa project. With the support of Start Motion Pictures, we’re bringing together STEM practitioners from across the world to do read-throughs of the movie “Europa Report”. The aims of the project are to improve English-language communication and teamworking skills.

STEM stands for Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics. It’s an area where cross-border collaboration is becoming increasingly important – but it’s also an area where, according to studies, there is a lack of “teamworking” and “communication” skills.

We’re just started recruiting non-native English-speaking STEM professionals and students for our SkypeRead:Europa study. If you know someone who might be interested in joining us, we’d love to hear from them!

Language, emotion and social connection

“In an era where mankind seems to be faltering, to be viewing the future with fear, we stepped forward and attempted something bold.”

This is the opening line from the script of the movie Europa Report. It was also the opening line to my pecha-kucha presentation (20 slides x 20 seconds per slide) at the FAB5 International NeuroELT Conference last weekend!

1) “In an era where mankind seems to be faltering, to be viewing the future with fear, we stepped forward and attempted something bold.” This is the opening line from the script of “Europa Report”, a movie …

2) … about a scientific, multinational mission to search for life on Europa, one of the Galilean moons of Jupiter. This is what scientists do: where mankind seems to be faltering, they boldly step forward and work across borders.

3) In 1919, for example, right after the end of the first world war, the English astronomer Eddington led a mission to an equatorial island to record a solar eclipse and demonstrate that spacetime is curved – as predicted by the German physicist Einstein.Continue reading “Language, emotion and social connection”

The most thrilling and realistic depiction of deep-space travel since “2001”?

We are enormously grateful to the BRILLIANT team at Start Motion Pictures, who have VERY generously given us the script for “Europa Report” to use in a special SkypeRead project for scientists and engineers.

“Europa Report” is the story of a manned mission to search for life on Europa, an icy moon of Jupiter. called it “one of the most thrilling and realistic depictions of deep-space exploration since ‘Moon’ or ‘2001: A Space Odyssey’.”

We’ll be doing read-throughs of “Europa Report” with cross-border groups of STEM practitioners. STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) is an area where international collaboration is becoming increasingly important, as this report by the Royal Society highlights.

But there are barriers. This report for the UK government, for instance, found that STEM graduates lacked “broader behavioural skills” such as “teamworking” and “communication”.

The aim of SkypeRead is to use the excitement and pressure of a movie read-through as a way to develop teamworking and communication skills. The project was inspired by neuroELT, an emerging field that combines neuroscience and English Language Teaching. An important idea within neuroELT is that “emotion drives learning”: things that excite the brain are things that get processed and gain potential for future recall.

I’ll be talking more about the project at the FAB5 International NeuroELT Conference in Kitakyushu, Japan, next month. Together with Tom Gorham (from Komazawa University in Tokyo), I’ve been appointed programme co-chair for this conference, so I’d also like to pass on my enormous thanks to the FAB conference founders: Robert Murphy, Marc Helgesen, Curtis Kelly and Tim Murphey, plus Joseph Shaules.

Eddie Jemison on the “chemistry and mystery” of teamwork

Later this month I’ll be presenting “To infinity and beyond! Using Skype group calls to do cross-border read-throughs of movies” at the 6th International Symposium on Digital Technologies in Foreign Language Learning (March 29, Ritsumeikan University, Kyoto).

As part of my preparation, I talked to actor Eddie Jemison, best known for his role as high-tech expert Livingston Dell in Ocean’s 11, 12 and 13. He provided some wonderful insights into the teamwork behind three of the greatest ‘ensemble movies’ of all time.


Photo from – Photo by Michael Caulfield

In the extract below, he shares some fascinating thoughts on creating “a net of goodwill”, and providing a “safe place” where people can be themselves.

Q: With Ocean’s 11, Steven Soderbergh [the director] said the challenge was “to have camaraderie … without having it look like the cast were having more fun making the movie than you are watching it.” In general, this is a key objective for many different kinds of teams: achieving camaraderie, but not simply for the sake of it. Was there anything in particular that helped the Ocean’s 11 cast to hit the perfect sweet spot (camaraderie with a higher purpose, if you like)?

A: There was real camaraderie on the set and it was hard to put your finger on where it started.

My guess would be from the leader, George Clooney. He was the leader in the film and on set as well. He and Brad Pitt seemed to bond and they cast a net of goodwill to everyone on the set, not only the 11 actors but to the entire crew. They knew everyone’s names, talked to everyone equally, but humour was by far the tool that broke the ice. Good jokes, bad jokes, bawdy jokes, impressions, comical bits, pranks, practical jokes, playing characters, stories. Every one shared stories at any and every moment. Funny stories, personal stories, embarrassing stories, stories about other people.

George Clooney really enjoyed setting people up and pranking them. There were basketball games on set, balloon fights, little contests that came up in the moment, who could out do someone else in some small task, teasing. And at night, everyone hung out together, casual parties, drinking, dinners, many many poker games.

It came from the very top, too. Producer Jerry Weintraub went to great expense to make sure that the entire cast had a safe place at the hotels, away from the crowds, to hang and talk and drink and share stories and meals. A safe place to be loud and be themselves and not movie stars.

The environment on set was always fun, always lively, always loose. Game playing and in-jokes kept everyone on the same team and on the same page. There were times that Steven Soderbergh had to calm us down, redirect the energy, but with all the respect we had for him and with so much general goodwill, it was easy to refocus and get back on track.

It is difficult to say what the right mix is, where camaraderie gets in the way of creativity. I’m not sure there is a formula to it or an exact limit to fun before it gets in the way of work. The best you can do is feel your way. There were times during Ocean’s 12 that I personally thought it was more fun than productive, and yet my best memories are from that film in particular. There were times during Ocean’s 13 where I felt it wasn’t nearly fun enough throughout.

It is difficult to judge the balance. There is a chemistry and mystery at work and it is difficult to control, but certainly the cues for camaraderie come from the top and work their way down. None of the smaller actors like myself or the crew members would have known how to behave if it weren’t for Jerry Weintraub setting the stage for fun, George Clooney and Brad Pitt slinging their arms around everyone to form a brotherhood, and Soderbergh shaping the energy into good work.

Cross-border business teams and the entertainment arena

Business Review Europe logo

The following article is from Business Review Europe (January 28, 2014).

SkypeRead can facilitate team building across thousands of miles by getting groups of international colleagues together for read-throughs of movie scripts

More and more companies are abandoning traditional organisational structures and creating cross-border teams of people who live and work thousands of miles apart.

But there’s a catch. Nancy J Adler, the S Bronfman Chair in Management at McGill University in Montreal, puts it like this: “Interconnectedness through modern technology has deluded many people. There is the false assumption that just because we can reach anyone in the world so easily through e-mail or Skype, we are therefore all the same.”

Differences in culture, workplace norms and language present very real challenges to cross-border teams. Not surprisingly, team-building is becoming an increasingly important area for global companies.Continue reading “Cross-border business teams and the entertainment arena”