Image courtesy of Keith Kissel
I have a feeling this is going to be a rather short post, but this thought has been taking up space in my brain for too long and needs to get out. I also have a feeling that this isn’t going to be as clear as it seems to be in my head at the moment. Here goes nothing.
I think we have become lazy when it comes to preparing lessons. Okay, that is a bit harsh, but I think there is at least an element of truth to that. When I became an English language instructor back in [date as been removed to protect the age of the writer], we didn’t have the internet; we had to make our lessons from scratch! Actually, that isn’t entirely true, we did have a shelf full of books with some lesson ideas and photocopiable activities (thanks, Jill Hadfield!). I remember spending hours planning, prepping, cutting, glueing, copying, stapling, etc., just to get ready for the next day (I even used stencils and clipart!). I wouldn’t say that my lessons were anything fabulous (actually, I shudder in horror at some of the things that I did), but I did attempt to tailor my lessons to the group I was teaching.
My fear at the moment is that we have become so reliant on the what and not on the why. What I mean is we have become so reliant on ready-made lesson ideas, that we fail to take the time to look at why we are doing what we are doing in the classroom. Download, print, handout and do. That has become the common fallback in the language classroom. How many teachers actually take the time to look at the reasons why we are having students do what we are having them do? Sure, there is an element of trust in regards to the person who created it. Maybe we know them or know that they are of the same mindset as us, but do they have the same students as us? Each situation is different and we need to approach it that way. I know, I know, we are overworked and often underpaid with barely enough time to get ready for class. That I get. What I would like to see is some pre- and post-class reflection on the lesson and what we could change. As we teach, we should be thinking about what the students are doing and why we are having them do it. We need to have a better measuring stick than “well, they learned something”, or “they looked like they were having fun”. Just because a student is having fun does not mean what you are doing is accomplishing anything meaningful. That enjoyment is often as helpful as potato chips; it fills the tummy (or time in this case), but it doesn’t actually provide any nourishment (or lasting impact in this case). In fact, I would say many of these activities are not doing much more than wasting time (or ‘filling time’ if you want to tone it down a bit).
Everyone has an opinion on how people learn languages and how it should be taught. One of the things that we talk about in the MA TESOL course on curriculum development that I assist with is the three main philosophies of language education (POLEs): product, process, and praxis. What seems like simple an academic exercise that has little bearing on the classroom is actually a fundamental part of language teaching. No matter who you are or what your thoughts are about this subject, you have a leaning towards one of those three POLEs. It is doubtful that you land smack dab in the middle of one of those three, it is more likely that you adopt a more varied approach, but you still lean towards one of those three.
Product-based learning looks at the teacher as the dispenser of knowledge. This is typically seen in the lecture led classroom. Students download the information and spit it back out in practice exercises and tests. Process-based learning sees the teacher as facilitator and knowledge and something is acquired through working things out. The balance of power shifts more towards the centre as students start to take control of their learning through the guidance of the teacher. Praxis-based learning is putting the things you have learned into practice. This is where the things learned in the classroom have a bearing on the lives outside of the classroom. Students take control of their learning and their lives through the empowerment gained through knowledge.
As I said earlier, no one really falls directly into any one of these categories. You may be more product-process or process-praxis, but what you think about learning should some out in what your classroom looks like on a daily basis. When you simply take lesson ideas from someone else and don’t reflect on the philosophy of language learning (POLE) that underpins this material, you risk giving over your classroom to someone else who may have a vastly different philosophy than you. Also, how effective is that lesson idea? Are you basing it on what someone else said worked well? What does well mean to them? What is their POLE?
I realize that we are not talking about life or death issues here, but our students are often investing money as well as their time and we need to respect that. Yes, we also don’t have time or money to waste, but we are getting paid BY the students (for the most part) and we need to honour that by doing whatever we can to help them grow. Even if we weren’t being paid, we need to respect one another and stop thinking about ourselves all of the time.
Lastly, I feel this desire to just grab whatever comes our way bleeds into our professional development. We are too easily swayed by whatever appears to makes sense or comes from someone we respect. I have a revelation for you, no one is perfect, not even the ‘experts’. Stop and think before taking something to heart. Maybe dig a little deeper to see if it fits your POLE, your classroom, your understanding of the situation. When we did this before, we only hurt ourselves, our students, and those in immediate contact of ourselves. Nowadays, we spread this through the power of social media. Don’t just share something because someone you know did or that ‘expert’ did, take time to reflect on it first. If it fits with what you see as productive and valuable, then share away!
Well, I was wrong. I started off saying that I felt this was going to be a short post, but instead I babbled. This isn’t unusual for me, I tend to do this all of the time. I hope it made some sort of sense and that it causes you to become more reflective as a teacher instead of reactive in the classroom. Comments, criticisms, and thoughts are always welcome.