My nine-year-old son was in class when his friends spotted it. They crowded around the window. A strange-looking creature had attached itself to the outside of the pane. The teacher joined in. She had no hope of recapturing the children’s attention because a large, horned beetle, to a nine-year-old, may as well be a unicorn in fancy dress.
The teacher, who I’ll call Miss Julie, got the janitor to bring the beetle inside. Then Miss Julie began to ask the children questions. What were the beetle’s features? How many legs did it have? What colors were prominent?
The children went online and discovered it was a female Eastern Hercules Beetle. Why was it called Hercules? Because it’s North America’s heaviest type of beetle. The children weighed it. They found out about its habitat and why it might be stuck to the window. Then they wrote about it in their science notebooks.
My son told me about this episode in an unusually enthusiastic manner, and I’d bet my last dollar he’ll be able to recognize an Eastern Hercules Beetle for the rest of his life.
Unless Miss Julie had secretly placed the beetle on the window before class, this was a perfect example of rapid-response, abandon-the-lesson-plan teaching.
Of Mice and Men
Rapid response teaching is a reaction to teachable moments. The teacher recognizes opportunities for real-world learning and acts upon them. She either deviates from or abandons altogether the lesson plan … which leads to the questions: Why might we abandon a lesson plan? How responsive are we to teachable moments? Won’t chaos reign if we ditch the plan? And how experienced must you be in order to improvise a lesson?
Let me deal with why first. Here are four reasons to abandon a lesson plan:
*The plan was no good. You badly overestimated or underestimated the students’ abilities or interest in the topic. The result is that the students are now (a) totally confused, or (b) snoozing in the corner.
*The plan was good for some students but not others. Half the class was engaged and the other half was silently sulking. To increase engagement for unresponsive students, you made an on-the-spot decision to add, subtract or modify a stage.
*The plan was fine but in the course of the lesson the class became profitably sidetracked. Someone took a tangent. A conversation escalated. Most of the students were engaged. They were producing lots of language and there were opportunities to learn. Or a large beetle appeared on the window.
*The plan was fine but outside factors scuppered it. You were about to listen to a recording when a road worker outside began operating an extremely loud drill. Only two students out of twelve showed up for class so you abandoned the planned group work. Remember Robbie Burns’s line: “The best laid schemes o’ mice an’ men / gang aft a-gley” [often go wrong]. It’s as true now as it was in 1786, when he wrote it.
Many teachers – particularly early in their careers – feel nervous about ditching the lesson plan. It’s the map that gets them from A to B. On the occasions when we do abandon the plan, I think it’s important to maintain a few chaos-prevention principles. Here are five:
*keep underlying goals in mind;
*let students take control of the discussion but be prepared to moderate;
*go on tangents but make sure these are leading somewhere;
*keep track of issues raised and language used so you can “loop back” to where the conversation began;
*afterwards, assess the success of the lesson in terms of goals achieved and student motivation.
Teacher as facilitator
In the role of teacher-facilitator, the teacher brings others into the discussion and keeps the conversation moving. She might clarify certain points and act as a provider of necessary language. She might consider summarizing the arguments, but always with the caveat that a teacher’s summary is inevitably weighted to the opinions she agrees with, and also teachers’ summaries usually put an end to the conversation. She might take notes on errors and interesting expressions used and get students to reflect on these afterwards.
The experienced teacher’s actions and oversight will prevent chaos because she has well-honed classroom management skills and a repertoire of pedagogical activities and strategies. She trusts herself to find a path out of the woods even without a map.
A Whale of a Time
Years ago in a small town, a whale washed up on a beach. When a local teacher heard about it, he took his class to see it. Many years later, one of his pupils recalled this episode:
“We looked at it, we listened to it, we went up to it to touch it (it could not move much), we ran away from it when it opened its massive mouth, we threw water on it, we made faces at it – we did all sorts of things. From that day on we all knew exactly what a whale was.” (Wadsworth, 1978, 54-55)
Whales or beetles? It doesn’t matter. What matters is getting to grips with the real, linking the world of the classroom to the world beyond it.
I recently gave a talk to a group of young teachers in Brazil. Several were in their first year as professionals. During the talk, I mentioned Action Research (AR). This was met with looks of incomprehension. What on earth was this gringo talking about? When I inquired, it turned out that no one present had done any AR, and most had never heard of it.
It’s an interesting term. Research normally brings to mind the turning over of old bones to make new skeletons. Action is movement – a leap from A to B. Put together, Action + Research means research that leads to a change in practice. It’s undertaken using structured methods and documentation, and it produces observable, usable data.
AR starts with a practical problem or issue, which we turn into a question. The observation “My students don’t work well in pairs” becomes “Why don’t my students work well in pairs?” This is sometimes called problematising.
Problematising can be applied to any area of language education. In my experience, it’s often used to examine classroom practice and affective issues – “How can I motivate my students?”; “Why don’t they do any homework?”; “Why do they revert to L1 when I put them in pairs?” – but it can refer to broader issues involving, say, the learning environment, administration, or parental involvement.
Once the problem has been identified, the next stage is to come up with a solution. We then experiment repeatedly with this solution, and monitor its effectiveness. Finally, the teacher/researcher evaluates the success or otherwise of the experiment.
The process I’ve described is a cycle of question-experiment-monitor-evaluate. (There are various similar sequences for AR, depending on who you read: e.g., plan-act-observe-reflect.) An optional stage for those who want to disseminate their AR is to write up and publish the findings.
As stated earlier, AR requires structured methods. We are not only observing what happens, but why it happens. For this reason, we need some insight into the participants’ beliefs and thoughts about the issue.
This is where it sometimes gets tricky. People, like sub-atomic particles, behave differently when observed. This is sometimes known as The Observer’s Paradox. Formerly troublesome students suddenly act like angels when being monitored. Because of this, AR requires methods that are minimally disruptive to the classroom. These might include questionnaires, checklists, interviews or journal writing.
Some Action Research projects
Sometimes a classroom issue doesn’t need to be solved using the full cycle of AR. A simple inquiry might solve it. Years ago, a colleague of mine at a private language school in London told me his class was wonderful from Monday to Thursday, but they turned into zombies on Friday. A little questioning uncovered the fact that Thursday evenings were Happy Hour at a local bar. Apparently, Happy Hour turned into Happy All-Night-Drinking-Session, so the students rolled into class on Friday morning barely able to speak.
Other issues do require a fuller AR investigation. Here are some I have heard about or participated in:
*Listening to fast speech – the students couldn’t process fast, connected speech. They gave up after twenty seconds or so. The teacher experimented with playing BBC radio headlines every morning for a month while the students took rapid notes.
*Homework – several students didn’t do it because they didn’t see its relevance. The teacher experimented with autonomous learning tasks, e.g. students chose a youtube video in English, watched it for homework, and reported back the following day.
*Student strategy use – some students had poor learning strategies. They didn’t take notes in class or write down new vocabulary or edit their essays. So the teacher included strategy instruction, plus reinforcement, over a semester.
*Regular reading – the teenage students didn’t read enough in English. The teacher persuaded the school to buy graphic novels. He asked the students for a report on one of these books as part of the final grade.
AR is a great tool for professional development. It incorporates academic rigor with practical problem-solving, and is part of a general trend in education for what is known as “reflective practice.” But it goes beyond reflection. That’s why it’s called Action Research.
For those interested in discovering more, here are some excellent introductions to AR:
- Burns, A. (1999). Collaborative action research for English language teachers. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
- Burns, A. (2010). Doing Action Research in English Language Teaching: A Guide for Practitioners. New York: Routledge.
- Freeman, D. (1998). Doing teacher research. Boston: Heinle & Heinle.
- Wallace, M. (1998). Action research for language teachers. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Many years ago, I was asked to teach an Advanced student one-to-one. He was a Spanish politician. He’d been moved out of the Advanced class because it was too easy for him. Within a minute of meeting him, I realized his English was as good as mine. Horror of horrors, he already knew the Third Conditional. What could I teach such a rare creature? In a blind panic, I asked him why he was at a language school. It turned out he didn’t want to be taught. He just wanted fluency practice. He proceeded to talk non-stop for several weeks, and, like most politicians, he didn’t want any correction. In the end, I loved teaching him. He had hilarious anecdotes and all I needed to do was listen.
Teaching Advanced classes isn’t usually like this. It’s a challenge. Here’s what I recommend for teachers of super-motivated, super-sophisticated Advanced students.
Profile the Learners
Find out what motivates them to keep improving and where they are on their learning journey. The term “Advanced” contains the widest spectrum of all the levels: it can be anything from post-First Certificate (B2) to post-Proficiency (C2+). Although Advanced students should be fluent and fairly accurate, their ability may be unevenly spread across the four skills. Some are good speakers and poor writers; others great readers and average listeners, etc.
Go Easy on the Grammar
If they’ve been studying formally for a long time, Advanced students will have seen certain items of grammar six times or more. They can probably quote you the rules of the Present Perfect in their sleep. Teaching more and more obscure grammatical items (e.g., cleft sentences and inversion) may not be that useful for them. Instead …
Focus on Vocabulary
Don’t focus on obscure “hundred-dollar” words. Low frequency vocabulary items are low frequency for a reason – people don’t use them much. Advanced students often need to learn more collocations and combinations with common words. A good example is phrasal verbs. These rarely contain difficult words, but they often have multiple meanings. Pick up, for example, has about 20 meanings: we can pick up bad habits, signals, diseases, people, pizzas, and suspected criminals.
Highlight Idiomatic Language
If the students’ first language has Latin roots, they probably don’t have many problems with formal English. The latter uses cognates from Latin languages. But many Advanced students need help with colloquial or idiomatic language. The meanings of idioms, proverbs, and prepositional phrases are frequently un-guessable. In fact, English is full of odd combinations of simple words: a loose cannon, a couch potato, a wet blanket, a tough cookie.
Go Beyond the Syllabus with Authentic Materials
When possible, use authentic materials as a source of language, and “mine” the texts. Text-mining involves analyzing written and recorded material for useful language – an essential skill for teachers and Advanced learners. Often, this language includes little phrases and chunks that don’t appear in any syllabus. Just listening to my colleagues for two minutes, I heard: “you’ve got to be kidding me,” “nice try,” “I have mixed emotions about it,” “well-deserved.” I’d bet my house these aren’t taught in any coursebooks on my shelf.
Don’t Let the Students Play it Safe
Advanced students have advanced avoidance strategies. If they’re not confident about using new vocabulary, they find ways to avoid it: circumlocution, paraphrasing, changing the subject. And so they stay firmly on their plateau. Through vocabulary games and speaking activities, encourage students to experiment and take risks with language.
Point out Fossilized Errors (but don’t keep insisting on the correct form)
Most Advanced students, completely oblivious, have been making the same errors for years. Maybe the errors were never picked up (that phrasal verb again!) or the student never learned the standard form. Fossilized errors are a natural part of interlanguage and often occur because of L1 interference. Point out the error a few times; try writing the incorrect and correct forms on the board for the students to analyze; and get students to transcribe short recordings of themselves, focusing on accuracy. And then leave it. If it’s a fossil by the time the student gets to Advanced, like most fossils it’s usually set in stone.
Advanced students are often very specific about the tasks they need to achieve in English. Tailor the homework to their individual needs. They may have to write academic essays or give presentations or discuss world politics with their in-laws. Whatever their task, our job is to facilitate it.
Critical and Creative
Use critical thinking and creative activities. When using texts, dig deeper, looking at tone (irony, humor). Get students to question author intention (persuasion, entertainment). Ask them to probe critical features of writing (bias, omissions). When planning tasks, get students to brainstorm ideas and invest time and thought. If your instructions include verbs like make, create, build, illustrate, devise, and come up with, you’re asking for creativity. Such approaches can push Advanced learners to the limits of their language use and beyond.
And finally …
You may not find a genial chatterbox like my Spanish politician in your class, but Advanced students tend to be self-starters: motivated, organized and curious. If you can find ways to harness their curiosity, teaching them can bring terrific rewards.
OK, I’m not going to suggest that a global, multi-billion-dollar, once-every-four-years spectacle like the Olympics is comparable to an English lesson. For starters, in my classes at least, there are no fake robberies or gold medals for best student. But look hard enough and we can all learn a thing or two. Here are six points that occurred to me:
1. Preparation beats adversity
Rumor has it, an Olympic kayaker was practising in Rio when he crashed into a submerged sofa. This story may be apocryphal, but in the lead-up to the Games, the media’s focus was clearly not on Olympic glory. Brazil’s woes took the headlines: the Zika virus, the failing economy, the impeachment of the president, and the unfinished facilities. But in the end, the Rio Olympics were a triumph.
What’s the lesson for educators? We worry constantly about how our lessons will turn out. Human interaction always involves an element of unpredictability, but if we prepare well, the chances are we’ll avoid disaster.
2. Being there means you’ve won already
In Rio, there was a Refugee Team from countries including Sudan, Syria, and the Democratic Republic of Congo. Having fled their homelands, these athletes were effectively stateless. Several of them had lived in refugee camps, and one of them had crossed the Mediterranean in an inflatable boat. The Olympics is child’s-play to them. Their triumph was to be there at all.
We don’t always know our students’ life stories – what they’ve suffered and sacrificed to be there. Particularly in ESL contexts, some students may have escaped great danger to reach the host country. For them, obtaining any form of ongoing education is an achievement.
3. It’s about the participant
There are coaches and fans and journalists and sponsors. But the Olympic Games are about the athletes. In Teddy Roosevelt’s words, “The credit goes to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood.”
Education involves teachers and managers and institutions and publishers, lesson plans and materials and tests and equipment. But ultimately it’s about students. Experienced teachers understand that the focus isn’t on themselves; they realize the limitations of their lesson plans. Learning takes place inside the student’s mind and there’s only one person who can control that.
4. Try something new
The Rio Olympics had two new disciplines: rugby sevens and golf. These were an unqualified success. Fiji won its first ever gold medal (for rugby) – a great achievement for a small, underfunded country. At the Tokyo Olympics 2020, five more sports will be added, including skateboarding, surfing and baseball.
Educators, try something new! It might be a game; a role play; a change of classroom set-up (put the furniture against the wall!). Get the students to do a 10-minute teaching slot; combine classes to team-teach; bring in a speaker; take the class to a gallery or museum or park. You never know how it will go, but breaking free of routine often pays dividends.
5. Uphold the spirit
Many of us recognize that elite sport is tainted by corruption, commercialism, and performance-enhancing drugs. So forgive us our cynicism. But the Olympics always has feelgood moments and heartwarming stories, too. Usain Bolt secured his legacy as the greatest ever sprinter, but he also volunteered to guide a handicapped athlete in the upcoming Paralympics. In the women’s 5,000-meter race, Nikki Hamblin and Abbey D’Agostino tripped, crashing out of contention, but helped one another up and over the line.
Education is about people coming together in an act of transformation. Students collaborate, work together to complete tasks, and develop a classroom culture. These factors are as essential as good sportsmanship is to the Olympics.
6. Involve the community
Several reliable sources claim that communities in Rio were displaced in order to secure the Olympic site. And just how involved were the people of Rio in decision-making about these Games? While the favelas (shanty towns) were represented artfully in the Opening Ceremony, no one actually from the favelas would have been able to afford a ticket to see it. At least one Olympic superstar knew this. When U.S. basketball player Carmelo Anthony had a day off, he went to a favela and played ball with local kids. He later posted a message on Instagram: “I discovered that what most people call creepy, scary, and spooky, I call comfy, cozy, and home.” Anthony had been raised in a rough Baltimore suburb, so he could empathize with those kids.
Education is always more powerful when we do two things: (1) go into the community, and (2) bring the community into the classroom. The most effective learning isn’t separate from the outside world; it’s part of it. Wherever you are, investigate the possibilities for involving the community in your students’ learning. It enriches both.
1. Read deeply
Take any subject related to English Language Teaching – linguistics, pragmatics, theories of Second Language Acquisition, etc. – and read all you can: books, blog posts, journal articles. Then try to relate your reading to your classroom practice.
2. Do Action Research
Action Research usually begins when we identify a problem or issue in class. We experiment with a solution and monitor its effectiveness over a period of time. Finally, we evaluate the solution. It becomes a cycle: identify, experiment, monitor, evaluate. An extra stage of Action Research may be to write an article about it, to share what we learned.
3. Write articles
Writing articles changes our relationship with the profession. Instead of being consumers of other people’s research and ideas, we become producers of both. We join a community that drives the conversation about our profession. The good news is that, with the preponderance of online journals, there are now more places than ever to publish articles.
4. Write materials
Material that is tailor-made for particular students at a particular time and place can have big advantages over mass-produced commercial material. And writing materials is a great way for teachers to develop because it raises our awareness of aspects such as pacing, variety, creating and sustaining interest in a topic, balancing the four skills plus grammar and vocabulary, and balancing individual study, pair-work, and group work.
Collaboration could mean joining a SIG (Special Interest Group), working on specialized curricula, choosing materials, team-teaching, or doing collaborative lesson planning. Inevitably, collaboration demands that we conceptualize and justify our ideas – a good way to develop professionally.
6. Teach a new course
“Some teachers have twenty years’ experience; others have one year’s experience repeated twenty times.” Bearing in mind this well-known adage, we teachers need to get out of our comfort zones and teach classes we’d normally avoid. Depending on where we work, there may be opportunities to teach Young Learners, teenagers, Business English, English for Special Purposes, etc. Great teachers are often those who expand their horizons and thus keep learning on the job.
7. Give workshops
Find an interesting subtopic of ELT – something new or underrepresented in our field. Research it and come up with engaging ways to present it to colleagues. Giving workshops uses many of the same skills as teaching. In fact it is teaching, with the added twist that you’re teaching teachers, a surefire way to get critical feedback.
8. Keep a teaching journal
Make notes on your lessons. What went well? What didn’t? Why? If you keep a journal for long enough, you’ll begin to see continuities in your teaching: patterns and sequences you repeat, activities you rely on, materials you love, islands of safety in the shark-infested waters of the classroom! You will also see how your teaching subtly changes throughout your career.
9. Become a mentor
When experienced teachers help new teachers with lesson planning, troubleshooting, school routines and bureaucracy, interesting things sometimes happen. The person being mentored brings a fresh perspective and may question things that the mentor takes for granted. Being a mentor is great for the mentor’s development because it forces us to analyze and explain the things we do in class.
10. Use PLNs
Your Personal/Professional Learning Network might consist of bloggers you follow, facebook posts, tweets, friends in the profession, podcasts, clips on youtube, journals and newsletters. Your PLN is probably in a state of constant flux as you discover new outlets – other bloggers, other journals – which keep you up to date with the profession.
11. Participate in conferences and courses
Courses usually guide participants along a common path towards some useful destination (e.g., a certificate or a degree). Conferences may provide opportunities to explore a little – to go off the beaten track and find out about things we’d previously neglected. Whether we prefer convergent or divergent routes, conferences and courses give structure to our development and allow us to learn by interacting with our peers.
12. Learn a new language
Doing this will remind us of the challenges our students face: of how time-consuming language learning is; of how elusive words are even when we’ve heard them a dozen times; of the intricacies of grammar and pronunciation; of how listening comprehension can be like trying to catch butterflies in your hands. It also reminds us of the roles of the teacher: mentor, facilitator, cheerleader, expert.
13. Look at developments in other fields
Many developments in ELT originally came from elsewhere: Audiolingualism came from behavioral psychology; cloze tests (gap-fills) from Gestalt Theory; “input” from computer processing. Humanistic teaching methods, the use of recording devices, Big Data – all were imported into ELT from the big wide world. The “feeder fields” from which ELT takes its ideas include technology, sport, psychology, music, and many others. Whatever is in society will eventually filter down to ELT. Great teachers tend to be curious about such developments and look for their educational applications.
14. Learn from great educators
Read and re-read the great educators of the past: Vygotsky, Montessori, Dewey, Freire, Ashton-Warner. Delve into your ELT gurus once again: Harmer, Thornbury, Burns, Douglas Brown. Our interpretation of their work changes as we change and grow more experienced. Inevitably, we begin to ask ourselves, “Where do I fit in? What do I believe? What kind of educator am I?”
15. Examine critical moments
Anyone who has taught for any length of time will have experienced a mini-crisis or a full-blown disaster. A student starts crying; a fight breaks out; a power-cut occurs during a video; the whiteboard won’t switch on; the students riot or fall asleep. What do we do? We fall back on our training and experience, and we remember these are human beings in the room and the best way to deal with human beings is to talk to them. Afterwards, in tranquillity, we reflect on what happened and learn from it.