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You’ve all got to work it out for yourselves!

February 11, 2013

A couple of years ago I was doing a reading task with my Intermediate students. They had finished answering some questions focusing on specific information and, as you do, I asked them to compare their answers with each other. I did my usual (rather cursory) job of monitoring, and I noticed they weren’t really talking much to each other. “Have you all got the same answers then?” I asked, assuming they had checked and found there was nothing to discuss.

“No”, they answered.

“So why aren’t you talking about your answers?” I asked.

“We’re waiting for you to tell use who is right”, they said.

To begin with, I was angry with them. They were supposed to use differences between their answers as an opportunity to examine the text more closely, to justify why they were right, to convince their partner to change their mind. I envisaged these stages of my lessons as opportunities for authentic communication, chances for them to consolidate their ideas, or to identify where they had gone wrong and rectify their mistakes.

On reflection though, I realised I had created an environment that allowed them to get away with not doing that. They had quickly cottoned on to the fact that I would ultimately provide them with the answers. While they were happy to have a go at answering the questions themselves, they weren’t prepared to “waste” any more time talking about the answers than they felt was necessary. Besides, if you think you’re right and your partner is wrong, it’s a bit uncomfortable having to explore that scenario further.

My reaction at the time (so, pre-reflection) was to lose it a bit.

“Right”, I said, petulantly, “I’m not going to tell you the answers. I’m going to give you more time to look at this again. If there are any differences between your answers, this means one of you is wrong. Look again at the text and find out who it is.”

What happened next was one of those moments of intense productivity that can be so rewarding for the teacher as well as the students. Once they realised I was serious, the students looked again at the text and discussed why they had arrived at their answers. I monitored a lot more closely this time, asking questions to keep the pairs on task but making sure I didn’t give any answers away. I then “pyramided” the discussion, putting the pairs into 4s, and then larger groups, until the whole class had reached a consensus on the answers to the questions. They then told me, and instead of saying “Yes, that’s right” or “Hmmm, any other ideas?” I asked “Why do you think that’s the answer?” and they were all able to tell me.

Since then I’ve taken this idea of student-centred feedback (or non-teacher feedback) further. I jigsaw the questions, so half the class answers the odd numbers and the other half answers the even numbers, then they get together and peer-teach each other. I give the board pen to a student and make them take on the role of teacher, eliciting the answers from their peers and writing them up. I sometimes leave the room, saying “OK, when I get back I want to see your ideas on the board”. They always do it, though I sometimes come back before they’ve finished and they send me away again. But I know they’re not trashing the place and they know I’m not outside having a fag. We trust each other.

I think the question of trust between teacher and students is very important, and it’s very closely related to expectations. If you expect more of your students you need to show them that you believe in their ability to meet those expectations. Before this critical moment happened with my Intermediate students, I don’t think they thought I believed they could get the answers right, and as a result they didn’t care much either. By refusing to provide the answers I was forcing the answers to come from them. Moreover, by expecting the answers to come from them, I was demonstrating that I believed they were capable of achieving this. It really worked as a motivational tool but it also greatly improved my relationship with the group.

So, it’s important to remember the purpose of getting students to compare and discuss answers together – focus on the process, encourage peer learning and teaching, develop learner autonomy etc. – it’s not just to give the faster ones something to do while the slower ones finish. But I think a more important lesson that I have taken on board in the last couple of years is that if you want your students to achieve more, you need to show them that you trust their ability to achieve on a daily basis, and give them opportunities to prove it.

  1. Paul Duffy permalink

    and…it takes ages!!!

  2. Yes, Paul. Well, I suppose it depends what you mean by ages. It’s certainly one reason why I struggled to get my head round the 2-week courses in KL. Maybe it’s an argument against the short course…

  3. In the words of Timothy Leary ‘Think for Yourself’, but a lot of other cultures dont encourage, in fact discourage this.

  4. Absolutely, Hugh – that’s a very good point. A lot of cultures find the whole concept of active learning really quite alien. Perhaps I could be accused of imposing my own cultural norms on my students. Or are we talking about different pedagogical ideas rather than cultural ones?

  5. R. Kirk Moore permalink

    Thanks for this. Over the course of 5 years of teaching EFL in Spain, I’ve found myself in the same or similar situations more and more. I’ve resisted making the students work things out for themselves, because it seemed too demanding and not really in line with communicative language teaching. But then we’re all just going through the motions and sure, we may “cover” lots more in the book, but what are they really learning? It’s helpful to hear from others who’ve come to the same point and see how you’ve worked on improving things. Thanks again.

    • Thank you, Kirk. I agree that teachers and students can often find themselves ploughing through activities rather than engaging with them. Should we blame the materials for this? Or the way teachers are trained?

      • R. Kirk Moore permalink

        I’m not sure there’s anyone to blame. I think that what I need to do is use the materials more effectively. One way to do this would be to what you did with your class. I’ve often been more concerned with “covering” language points and exercises in the book, but then few of the students seem to have actually learned them. It felt like we were tourists instead of travelers: we “did” the present perfect just like you can “do” Paris in 24 hours, but what do you really get out of it?

        I think putting the ball back into their hands (which in my view is essentially what you did) and giving them work (in the form of activities, questions, homework, whatever) that makes them manipulate or play with the language in different ways is a good way to start. Neither empowering them nor getting them to play with the language requires a change in the materials. Instead of being carted around in a coach, you can take the metro yourself and in addition to taking a picture of the Eiffel Tower, you can sit there and sketch it, walk around it, do a handstand and see what it looks like upside-down…

        As for the way teachers are trained, I think my professors tried to get me to do what I’m talking about when they trained me, but it was difficult for me to actually see it. I’ve never been good at making the jump from theory to practice, and so it’s in the classroom that I’ve finally begun to see what they meant. If I were asked to set up a teacher training program, I’d reduce the amount of theory (by no means take it out entirely) and require far more observation of experienced and effective teachers.

  6. I like your travel analogy, and the need to allow students the chance to “get off the bus” and play around with the language. I also think you are right that you really need to get lots of experience before you can really get your head around what good teaching is all about.
    Have you looked at the Demand High blog yet? Jim Scrivener and Adrian Underhill are suggesting we start looking at ways to challenge our students more, to identify when learning is taking place and to consider what we can do to to maximise the learning experience –

    • R. Kirk Moore permalink

      Yes, I have seen the demand high blog, thanks.

      Thinking about this a bit more, perhaps it would be useful to change teacher training a bit. I only know how it was done where I was trained, but there we spent *a lot* of time writing lesson plans. Perhaps it’s just me, but I’ve found that when I write up a detailed lesson plan and follow it, my classes typically go worse. Or perhaps I just missed the point in all that lesson planning, but in the end I think it encouraged me to “just get through” activities, i.e. to “cover” things rather than think about why I was having the students do what I was having them do. Thinking back, I can see now that the trainer who directed my student teaching tried to get me to see this, but I think I’ve really only understood her now.

      Well, sorry to get so personal here, but really, it’s been helpful for me to see some convergence between your reflections on this and what I’ve been finding myself doing in the classroom recently.

  7. You are spot on about lesson planning. There is such a focus on this in initial teacher training courses, along with the assumption that a detailed plan will lead to a successful lesson. It’s only after you’ve been teaching for a while that you realise that this isn’t the case – the most detailed plans can lead to unsuccessful lessons and some of the best lessons are ones that are only loosely planned.
    I must write something about this…

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