Here’s the second tranche of the ten things I think I know about teaching and learning. They may seem a bit obvious or lacking in gravitas. But they’re here because the thoughts expressed keep occurring to me.
6 Most classes are seated in rows.
I’ve mentioned before that I did most of my teaching at International House London, where classes of fourteen were seated in a semi-circle. I also worked part-time in a Central London FE College, where there were up to forty in a class, all seated in rows. It doesn’t take a genius to know that this is a much tougher situation for the teacher.
However, it wasn’t until I started sitting in on classes to research books that I realised what a tough situation it is for the students, too.
The whole process of observing classes is fraught with difficulty and potential embarrassment, particularly if you are watching a state school class of moody teenagers. You either meet the teacher beforehand or – much worse for her – you swan into the class with the head teacher after it’s started. The head is all smiles but still casts an eye round the room to see what state it’s in and leaves with a pointed look at the teacher not to give a bad impression of the school.
Either way, the teacher is already a bag of nerves because you’re going to watch her. She introduces you to the students, and you can hear the slightly desperate plea in her voice, the underlying message of which is: “Please don’t muck about today and make me look like a klutz.”
You smile, wave, one of the brighter sparks says “How are you?” in a loud voice and the rest snigger. And then you go and sit at the back of the class.
Only when the lesson starts do you realise what a ridiculous idea it is to try to conduct a lesson where everyone is looking at the back of everyone else’s heads. If you’re on the back row, everything you hear is muffled, and the effect is often made worse by the hoodies worn by most of the boys in front of you.
Memo to writers of internationally famous course material mainly used in PLSs: this is the real world of state secondary school teaching.
The row-by-row set up results in the bright ones sitting in the front two rows, the cool gang leaning their chairs against the back wall, and the rest sitting in between. The serious point being that it is very hard to hear what other people are saying and whole swathes of students are excluded from what’s going on.
Memo to self: always remind teachers about this in talks. Encourage them to ask the students at the front (usually the ones who answer all the questions) to turn round and repeat their answers to their classmates. And teachers – please don’t just repeat the answers. If someone wants to know what another student said that elicited a smile and an excited “Good! Well done!” from you, tell them to ask the student directly to get the answer.
7 Reading aloud is (mostly) a complete waste of time.
Still on the theme of ‘Notes from the back of the class’, I wonder why so many teachers set such store by having students read texts out aloud.
Observing classes, I’m often without a book. I don’t usually mind this because I like seeing how the class deals the material in front of them.
Sooner or later, there’s a reading text in the book. This is what happens.
Teacher: OK. Look at the text on page 26. Piotr, read the first sentence, please.
Piotr: Mount Evvnnn, nvvn .. fnnn, fnnnn, fnnnn, fnnn….Nepal.
Teacher: Thank you. Ania, read the next line.
Ania: (In a slightly higher pitch) The first mmmmnnn, fnnn, fnnnn, fnnnn…Norgay.
And so it goes on. And on.
Why do people do it? No one is listening. The rest of the class are just reading the text.
I always ask teachers why they do it and they give some reason or other along the lines of giving the class speaking practice, which is very hard to achieve.
Hm, up to a point, Lord Copper. ***(see end of post)
But the best reason I heard for doing it was this: if they don’t read the text aloud, then the class goes very quiet.
Right. Because people are reading.
If you REALLY think it’s important for there to be sound when people are reading, then choose a course book where the reading texts are on the audio tape. Like Smart Choice 🙂
If the reading text isn’t on the audio, I have a solution which I recommend at workshops: ask your best readers to stand up, face the class, and read the text. And tell everyone else to close their books. Yes, close their books. If the class don’t understand something, they have to put up their hands and ask.
But… but… surely now it’s a listening activity. Groan… yes, it is at the moment, but it was YOU who wanted to have people read aloud.
If the above solution seems wrong (because the same students will always do the reading), put the class in teams and assign each team a reading text, all the way through the book. Tell them at the beginning of term that they are responsible for that text, and they should work on it every free moment they have. They should find out what the new words mean, and if there’s a new structure being taught, they have to work on it themselves, and be ready to explain anything new to their classmates.
Should put the fear of God in them, but BOY will they concentrate!
8 Most students don’t like talking to the whole class.
When editors and authors sit down to talk about a new course book project, the usual buzz words fly around – the new material has to be communicative, stimulating, motivating, etc etc.
One of the words that never seems to cause any argument is ‘personalisation’. It’s a sacrosanct fact that every unit of every course book must have something that will allow the students to personalise the material.
Before I say anything else, I have to say that this obsession with personalisation leads to some hilarious classroom events. I remember watching an elementary class in Poland where the language under scrutiny was have/has got. The teacher dutifully told the class to follow the instruction in the book which said: In Pairs: Ask your partner how many CDs and cassettes he/she’s got.
Leaving aside the fact that the instruction was written in language much higher than the students’ level (Don’t worry, the teacher will translate if there’s a problem), the end product was quite magically surreal, like a scene from a Samuel Beckett play.
This is what I heard from the two boys sitting nearest me.
A: How many of CD and cassette you have?
A translated his question into Polish
B Uh… CD no idea, maybe threety? Cassette, no idea.
A: Uh… same.
As the teacher had given them five minutes for this activity, they then proceeded to speak Polish until she came nearby and they repeated the earlier exchange.
I don’t wish to make fun of students in this situation. Being an elementary student of a language is plagued with frustration. There are so many things you want to say that you can’t. But some of the activities we give students to do in the name of personalisation are basically a waste of time, as the exchange above demonstrates rather well.
But I have a bigger objection to the whole idea of personalisation being a desirable aim for ALL lessons. I believe that teenage students would rather talk about ANYTHING but their own lives in English in front of the whole class. At that age, there are things you want to talk about to your immediate support group, in your own language and somewhere where you feel comfortable. We’re asking them to say these things out loud to a large audience (which may include people they are really not friends with) in a foreign language.
Even the simplest information about your immediate family can cause embarrassment to a teenager. Most teachers are sensitive enough to avoid questions like ‘What does your father do?’ in a class where there are lots of single parents, or in a town where there is high unemployment.
But imagine being asked about brothers and sisters and finding you are the only only child in the class. Some people might feel pleased to be unique, but most teenagers hate being different from the herd.
On the other hand, if you ask them about the sports, music, video games they like, this is good safe neutral territory. (And also personalisation, I hear you say – but I’ve made my point about the personalisation activities I have a problem with).
I’ve only talked about three things! And already too long! I will save the last two for another post.
*** If you don’t understand the reference to Lord Copper, check out this link.