GoldieBlox: Engineering toys for girls

GoldieBlox is an engineering toy developed for girls by Debbie Sterling. Kept in “girlish” colors and materials, it comes with a storybook telling of heroine Goldie and her friends, and how Goldie gets them through their adventures by engineering solutions. The story is accompanied by a platform where the children can reconstruct her building designs.  Debbie Sterling explains her motives in developing this toy on

“Engineers are solving some of the biggest challenges our society faces. They are critical to the world economy, earn higher salaries and have greater job security. And they are 89% male. We believe engineers can’t responsibly build our world’s future without the female perspective. GoldieBlox is here to bring the female voice into engineering.”

She has raised the necessary capital to take this toy into production through a funding platform called Kickstarter, which since its launch in 2009 has funded over 30,000 creative projects. Her highly successful pitch? “Our girls need Goldie“. And the great marketing videos starring her “development team” (average age about 5) show that she is just the type of role model a modern girl needs, and really understands her target market. The first of a series of GoldieBlox sets is currently in the pipeline, with several others now lined up to follow.

Here, for reference, is Debbie Sterling’s blurb on Kickstarter:

Debbie is the creative force behind GoldieBlox. She studied engineering at Stanford (Product Design, ’05) and has made it her mission in life to tackle the gender gap in science, technology, engineering and math.
Debbie writes and illustrates Goldie’s stories, taking inspiration from her grandmother, one of the first female cartoonists and creator of “Mr. Magoo”.
Prior to founding GoldieBlox, Debbie served as the Marketing Director of Lori Bonn, a national jewelry company. There, she learned the ins and outs of bringing a product to market: from overseas manufacturing to sales/marketing to product fulfillment.
For the past 7 years, Debbie has also served as a brand strategy consultant for a wide variety of organizations including Microsoft, T-Mobile, Organic Valley and the New York Knicks. She gets the power of branding, every step of the way.
Debbie got her first taste of social impact work in 2008, when she spent 6 months volunteering at a grassroots nonprofit in rural India. This experience helped pave the way to finding her true passion: inspiring the next generation of female engineers.

Toy dealers here in Germany should sit up and notice. Germany prides itself as the land of engineers and toy design, but not since Playmobil in the 70s has anyone come up with anything with this kind of potential. And even Playmobil doesn’t require much in the way of building skills or imagination. Lego is still the king of building tools, but most of their toys relating to engineering seem to be made for boys. There is nothing really creative in their current product line to excite a girl.

GoldieBlox should be great for children, boys or girls, who want to learn English. The combination of listening to a story being read out and then being able to work hands-on is ideal. I’ve ordered a few sets, but of course ordering individual sets is not economical.

Debbie Sterling’s pitch at SOCAP12 is an excellent model for elevator pitches, by the way! (Link to video)

Teacher colleague Gabrielle Jones has just started up a blog and shared a lesson on Social Commerce.

I’m considering using the GoldieBlox story in the Business English book I’m working on for Cornelsen, but don’t know whether the creative start-up angle is relevant for the Deutsche Mittelstand we’re producing the book for.

GoldieBlox is a play on words, Goldie Locks being the main character in the English fairytale, The Story of the Three Bears, which is relatively unknown in Germany.

Presenting science to your peers

I gave a morning workshop yesterday on scientific presentations to students of Geoscience and updated my approach a little. It now includes the concept of creating storytelling cycles of tension and resolution (situation, complication, resolution, example), as explained by presentation guru Andrew Abela, whose book, Advanced Presentations by Design, I have just ordered. Also see his excellent Extreme Presentation Method website, which showcases his thought-provoking, well-structured approach.

Ian Badger on Listening, and apps for teaching

I had the opportunity to hear Ian Badger speak at MELTA in the mid-2000s, and even back then he was saying we should be teaching the English people need at the workplace, not the standardized language codified and prescribed in Business Engl9780007423217ish course books. Now he has an excellent book/audio CD, Collins English for Business: Listening, which I’ve been recommending wholeheartedly to learners for self-study.

Using a self-study book in class for teaching when I am the only one who has bought it is always treading a very fine line in terms of copyright infringement. MELTA recently held a webinar on the topic, broadcast by BESIG/LTSIG, which a small group from ELTABB attended. (Read Khushi Pasquale’s excellent review.)

In my compact classes for assistants, I have been using a few of the really wonderful audio selections from the book to exercise my learners’ listening skills. I give them an introduction to what we will be doing, and then quickly dictate a few content-related questions to them, or a line to recognize or differentiate. We then listen to the selection. After  discussing the answers, they get two more questions to build lexis.

Frankly, this does not work ideally, because a listener really needs more visual support when doing a listening task, a book or worksheet, to focus his or her attention. The problem is that, in my real world of teaching, there is no way I can get everyone in a class to buy a book, especially not when it is a supplement. And I’m definitely not allowed to photocopy. Even extracting a short text and putting it into the script I write myself as a quote, attributing the source, would mean having to explicitly ask for permission from the publisher. I have avoided that so far, though perhaps it might be a way forward.

In any case, now I’ve bought the Collins Business English Listening App, containing the same audio. An app is naturally geared to self-study. However, I can also use it in teaching: With my iPad hooked up to a projector, from now on I’ll be able to go to the selection and play it, and while we listen I’ll be able to let the learners do the interactive exercises, much as they would with more standard classware products, projected to the front of the class, with them giving and dictating answers, or reading along in the transcript.

I’m not sure whether this is legal. However, if I just use the material as an extract, and I use it well, I would argue that I am doing far more to recommend the publication to potential customers than to damage it through unauthorized use.

I really think apps can change the game in teaching. Tablets are the future. They may be pricey, and Apple may not be the business machine of choice in the corporate world, but more and more learners are getting them, and “getting it”. I just hope publishers see the light and start making apps explicitly for teaching, as classware. There should be apps to purchase bite-sized bits of content and to present that content in class; apps to buy for home study; and apps to select and push content around, e.g. allowing us to upload tasks and completed work to a wiki-like course site. And they should be simple, and preferably all-in-one. It’s what English teaching professionals are waiting for.

Reposted below is Ian Badger’s presentation at IATEFL 2012, which contains some of the excellent audio collected in “Collins Business English: Listening”.

It would be wonderful if he were to come to Berlin to give a workshop at ELTABB. That’s way up on my wishlist.

Nancy Duarte: The secret structure of great talks

In her great analysis of famous speeches, presentation guru Nancy Duarte ( says that the most effective talks, the ones that make people change the way they think, move back and forth between what is and what could be. She analyzes Steve Job’s introduction of the iPhone speech and shows that the way he marvels at his own products is what compells the audience to feel the same way. She also shows how Martin Luther King built emotion by evoking song and scripture.

Every genre of speech has its own way of moving between what is and what could be, and engaging the listeners, and what’s right in one genre can not be transfered to another. In science, I’d say it’s the enticement of unexpected results, a good challenge to accepted thinking, and the outlook onto new horizons worth exploring that make an academic audience not only sit up and listen, but want to engage in science.
Since there is unfortunately no transcript on the TED site for Duarte’s talk, unlike for many other talks, you might as well watch it here.

Watch it on the TED site.

Focusing on communication strategies instead of language per se

Last Saturday Evan Frendo gave us at ELTABB an absolutely excellent presentation on the latest research in Business English, focusing on four key areas: English as a Lingua Franca (ELF), Communities of Practice, Intercultural Communication and Lexis and Genre/ Corpus Linguistics. His presentation and handout are here: scroll down to the bottom for all the links.

In discussing ELF, he quoted, among others, Alan Firth saying that the practice of communication has been overlooked by the general focus on lexico-grammar. Despite its relevance for our business clients, Evan said that teaching practice will presumably only begin to change when the big testing organisations budge and develop new standards. How exactly the level of skills in practical communication can be tested to standard levels is still unclear. Even so, a few key elements have become central in my teaching, and are learnable: Jennifer Jenkins’ Lingua Franca Core, being able to analyse and apply successful communication strategies, and successful listening comprehension across varieties. I can well imagine them becoming a part of a set of new testing standards that extend the old ones rather than throwing them overboard entirely.

I saw the relevance of prioritizing communication strategies again yesterday. I was teaching back office skills to a group of management and team assistants and administrators at Mundipharma in Limburg. They’re part of an international corporate group where 1/3 of the staff they normally address are based in Germany, and 2/3 are based in Britain. As they wrote practice emails and we went through them, it became very clear that it was far more valuable to discuss how their British colleagues would respond to their direct formulation of requests and orders, and how to reformulate them to reach both the Germans and the Brits, than to nitpick minor errors in their use of the tenses and prepositions.

ELF, or BELF, will also be the focus of the BESIG pre-conference event at IATEFL with Vicki Hollett, Chia Suan Chong, Almut Koester, and Mark Powell speaking. I’ve decided to go and am very much looking forward to this. Have to sign up today, I think, to still get an early bird discount. I’ve never been to Scotland…

iCloud: iUnderstand

This is one of Steve Job’s last presentations, still explaining “his” products with inspired simplicity and clarity.

Focus with me for a moment on his metalanguage (often called signposting), that is the language he uses to take us from one point to the next. Metalanguage or signposting varies widely between presentation types, and is generally very different in product marketing, say, than in a presentation of technological developments to other specialists. Likewise metalanguage in academic science presentations that rely heavily on visuals will differ completely from those in economics, with their charts and empirical data, or from lectures in philosophy. At one level the difference is connected to the way each type of presentation communicates concepts. The more abstract and involved concepts get, the more difficult it will be for the audience to relate to and follow the speaker communicating them, and the more necessary it becomes to talk about what has already been said and to connect it to what is coming up next. In other words, there is no one formula for signposting, no instant phrases to learn by heart and simply apply to presentations. One size does not fit all. Every genre is different!

Just listen to the type of metalanguage Steve Jobs uses. It’s unbelievably simple:  Introducing a new product: “You like everything so far? (Audience: Yeah!) “Well, I’ll try not to blow it.” Moving from one feature to the next: “So that’s Contacts; here’s Calendars. Works much the same way.” Each statement backed by the trademark big, beautiful pictures. His authentic and communicative body language suggests that everyone is really getting the message. He doesn’t explain the technology in a way that goes over anyone’s head. And should anyone not get it completely, he draws them in, not through information, but through

  • Empathy: “Keeping those devices in sync is driving us crazy.” “You might ask, Why should I believe them? They’re the ones that brought me Mobile Me. It wasn’t our finest hour, let me say that, but we learned a lot.”
  • Emotion, quasi-religious feeling and humor: “Some people think the cloud just a hard disk in the sky… We think it’s way more than that.” “The truth is on the cloud.”
  • Reassurance: “It just works.” “Pretty cool.” “It’s that simple.”

…and his audience laughs and believes it understands. A socially very powerful approach. Remember we are talking about an app that takes all of the information on your personal phone and removes it to an external something, somewhere, which should at least invite questions. But no, it’s all good.

It’s really an understatement to say that Steve Jobs’ iconic presentation style perfectly matched the Apple image. As a consequence of these presentations, Jobs was Apple. He’ll be a hard, no: an impossible act to follow. RIP.

The future of business English trainers

I’m thinking about professional development, where the next years will take me. At the moment there is a lot of work to prepare for a few compact seminars, and more translation work for a client, so I’m not exactly unemployed. Still, having gone through the Trinity DipTESOL (still have to write up two papers, but apart from that I’m done!) and seeing my teacher colleagues working at schools makes me wonder: Should I go back to fulltime teaching? Try to become a DOS (director of studies)? Keep up my current motley collection of jobs? Or am I better at other things that I need to focus on to develop?

Transferable skills are what everyone talks about in job qualifications. So what transferable skills has an English trainer like me acquired in 13-14 years of experience? I can teach, I can write (in two languages), I can translate. But many newcomers compete for those very same jobs. I’d love nothing more than to work in a close-knit team, and am still hoping that I will find one that will have me.

One USP is my ability to put it all together for specific clients, e.g. for one group, designing a syllabus, preparing and writing materials, correcting and coaching written work, providing coaching before presentations, even setting up connected tech support. Or, for another client: translating presentations, knowing what language level to pitch the translation at so my client can actually give the presentation, understanding intercultural issues as a trainer to modulate the language, and then coaching in preparation for the meetings and presentations. The key (at least for me) is to develop those good client relationships and to give them more and more sophisticated services, rather than expanding my client base just for the sake of expansion. In fact, what I do has turned more and more into language consulting.

Scouting around, thinking about what might be around the next corner, I just watched James Schofield’s interview at last year’s BESIG. He’s one of the most inspiring trainers out there, a prolific writer (and a really good one), a teacher trainer who has held many sessions at BESIG and also at MELTA in Munich, and here he talks about a typical skill, namely the ability to manage groups and facilitate meetings. This seems to be an area that he has been developing, and it sounds very interesting indeed.

Are you thinking about your own professional development? How do you answer this question: “Where do your see yourself in 5 years?”

James Schofield
Summertown Readers: Ekaterina, Peril in Venice, Room Service, Double Trouble
Business Spotlight short stories (ongoing)
Course: Double Dealing (with Evan Frendo, Summertown, 2004-2006)
Course: Compass Langenscheidt (with others)
Course: Collins English for Business. Speaking (with Anna Osborn 2011); coming in 2012: Workplace English 1&2