I was just wondering how much we as teachers notice when we are in the classroom, whether we can achieve our aims at all, and whether this actually matters.
There has been a lot of discussion recently about dogme or getting back to focusing on our learners and their needs rather than bring tied by materials and lesson plans etc. This is a direct development, it would seem from learner centred thinking, which is fairly generally accepted as a good thing. At the same time the idea that teaching should be “demand high” has also been talked about a lot for the past two years and the idea that we should make our materials really work for us, not just skipping mechanically through feedback procedures, for instance, but taking the time to really go into things in a memorable way for our learners.
Both these schools of thought are complimentary to some extent in that they reflect a respect for the learner and the learner’s needs rather than the “planned lesson” with its aims, materials and procedures, where the learners themselves are almost like actors reading their lines.
So I was wondering, in the light of all this, what is actually happening in classrooms. Whilst I am sure that sensitive, experienced teachers all over the world listen to their learners’ needs and plan for them, there is also, largely as a result of official training courses such which need to “measure” teaching competence in various criteria linked ways, the obsession of “achieving our aims” but our aims may not always be the aims or even needs of our learners.
Yesterday, for example, I was watching a trainee teacher doing what she thought was a reading lesson in an elementary class. She was doing this because she, as a teacher needed to practise teaching this skill. In the lesson she set a gist question which very few of the learners actually heard or understood. They read the text, because she had told them too, but when she came to check the answer to the question it was clear that nobody even remembered her having asked it. It was a question, in fact that they could answer without even reading the text: what type of food is good and what is bad? An experienced teacher, of curse, would have made sure the learners had understood the task and knew that they were supposed to ask it based on their reading of the text. This teacher is a trainee and is not experienced enough yet to know how to do this, but what was interesting was that after the lesson she said, “They all seemed to want to talk so I let them!” Tis is true, in fact, they re Italian learners on a Monday afternoon, who were very interested in talking about food, and what was good or not. Ketchup came in for a lot of criticism, in fact. So the learners got a lot of space to increase their oral production in a freer context and enjoyed this. What they did nit do, however, was really develop their reading subskills, and since this was the trainee’s aim in her lesson planning, it did not really bode too well for her. She was given credit for being communicative, listening to her learners and thinking on her feet, but not for her lesson planning.
As far as the learners were concerned it was a nice, enjoyable lesson, and an experienced teacher would have been able to plan for the discussion and to draw in the emergent language that arose, but being able to adjust your aims during a lesson is, in any case, a valuable skill in learner centred teaching so how important is it to be able to achieve your planned aims?
The most important lesson that arose from this teaching practice session, in my view was that teachers need to know what a certain task will give rise to. If you think or know your learners need to develop their reading skills, because they need to study, or for professional purposes, for instance, you need to be able to set tasks that will help them to work on these areas, so you, as a teacher, need a fundamental understanding of what’s happening when students are working in the classroom. In the same lesson another trainee who was working on developing listening skills asked the students a gist question that could be answered in the first few seconds of the text, which meant that a) the lewrners had forgotten e answer by the end if the text, (I certainly had) or b) had not understood the instruction at the beginning so were just listening or c) since they had been given the exercise for the next part of the lesson as well, they went straight into the “listening for specific information” stage of the task.
What this seems to suggest is that learners, on the whole, do what teachers tell them to, when, and if they hear and understand the instructions. If they are given a worksheet, many people automatically start to read it and to do the exercises they see there, so this means that the onus really does fall on the teacher to be skilled enough to give clear instructions in class and to set tasks that will help the learners do what they really need to if we are going to respect learner needs. If university students, for instance, need to develop e subskills of reading to help them with their studies then the teacher should be able to select materials and set appropriate tasks that will lead to these outcomes. This is why, in my opinion, it is essential for teachers to learn how to define and achieve their own aims. In this world we are surrounded by an ever – increasing wealth of materials, which as those who propose a dogme view of teaching quite rightly balk at. For those beginning their teaching careers today, the world of resources is a rich but confusing tapestry, and it needs patience, skill, time and understanding to be able to see the interwoven patterns between materials and tasks, but it is precisely this skill which helps a teacher to go beyond the surface and to provide e type of demand high teaching that will help make learning and language both fun and also relevant and memorable.
So, did you achieve your aims today?