Thursday, 30 May 2013

What makes a successful lesson?

I've just been reading 'The Map Is Not The Territory' over on The Secret DOS's blog, which discusses the efficacy (or not) of lesson planning. Speaking as someone with over 20 years' experience of EFL, I can say my relationship to prepping for classes has waxed and waned over time, and involves several variables, including:

  • in the early years, not having any experience at all, leading to the creation of exquisitely immaculate lesson plans, taking hours of artisanal labour and minutes of actual lesson time
  • the amount of paper available to write down (this was pre-pc) an LP. Several of these were literally created on fag packets.
  • being observed/inspected/gang-probed by OFSTED, leading to monumental edifices of LPs
  • knowing the materials and class so well that it feels like a waste of time to create an LP
  • pretending to be investigating Dogme ELT and saying stuff like, 'Ha! The LP is ANATHEMA to Teaching Unplugged!'
  • Hangovers.
I am, of course, writing slightly tongue-in-cheek, he said, slipping in a disclaimer for the benefit of future employers.

However, The Secret DOS's article got  me thinking - what does make a successful lesson? We've all had lessons that we've prepared to the finest edge of perfection, but which in class fly in very much the same way that a heavy brick doesn't; Then again, we've gone into a lesson without so much as a really badly-photocopied worksheet in lieu of preparation, and ended up having something incredibly productive. 
The trouble is, it's hard to empirically demonstrate exactly what it is that makes a given lesson successful, as there are so many variables.

I thought I'd give it a go, though, using the Power Of A Popplet
I've had to strip out some variables, such as Will To Live Sapped By The Fact It's Thursday Afternoon, but I've kept the salient ones in. Having said that, I've also probably missed a few as well, but seeing as I started this as a bit of fun, I actually think I've ended up with something useful.
So, tongue now firmly planted in cheek, does this mean we can create an equation for a successful lesson? Let's give it a try:
Ls = Ti{Texp(yt+knCl/knMat) +Lp+Ei+M/TintM} + Si{Skn(knCl/unCl+unInst+knBhvr+knT/Cl)+i(t/cl+mats)+FcX+Sint}>0
where Ls= Lesson Success, and Ti (teacher input) plus Si (Student input) is greater than 0.

Of course, I now expect this equation to appear as gospel truth in the Daily Telegraph.

What do you think? Have I missed anything? 

If the Popplet doesn't for some reason appear above, here is the first draft as a pic:

Tuesday, 21 May 2013

ESOL and Digital Literacy in my college

I've been 'attending', if that's the right word, the Virtual Round Table Web Conference this weekend, although I couldn't participate as, such as I would have liked due to other commitments. If you haven't heard of it before, it's an annual conference on language learning and online technology, and how we can integrate the wonderful world of IT ever more deeply into the teaching and learning process. There were some excellent presentations and debates, but if you wanted to start off anywhere, I think I'd have to recommend Gavin Dudeney and Nicky Hockley's presentation on Digital Literacies, an area which is has far wider implications for education than just language learning.
Anyway, it got me thinking about how we use digital literacy and e-learning with our ESOL students, and where we'd like to take it in the future. I thought I'd give a snapshot of the situation in my workplace and what we've experienced/discovered.
We currently use Moodle as our VLE. in previous years, we had Blackboard, then migrated to Moodle a couple of year back. Unfortunately, it was a rather dodgy iteration of the software, and really quite glitchy - things wouldn't save, uploading materials took ages, and there was little attempt at encouraging learners to use it. Where it was used, it was frequently as a repository for word, excel and pdf documents - in other words, as nothing ore than a glorified filing cabinet gathering digital dust. Teachers didn't trust it, didn't understand it, and didn't use it. Combined with a server that was temperamental and a college wireless network that would throw hissy fits at unexpected intervals, and you can understand why it was all a bit unloved.
However, in summer 2012 we installed the latest iteration of Moodle, and I set about experimenting and installing course areas for ESOL. Rather than set up a separate course for each class, I decided to keep it relatively simple, and establish a learning area for each level, e.g. ESOL E1, E2 etc. This meant that the learners (and the teachers) could share materials quite easily and I felt it might foster greater group interaction.  We also had a regular 45-minute IT room slot in the teaching schedule for each group, along with an easier way to access Moodle from home, plus an increase in the number of available PCs around the college.
Here are some of the key things that we have found from this setup:

  • Probably the single most successful thing on Moodle is the use of forums and chats. Our Entry One  learners, for example, are producing work not only more prolifically, but more accurately. Learners' written output has increased by at least 100%, and they are happy to access the VLE from home. The use of fora does vary from class to class, but in many ways this is dependent on the teacher's attitude towards using it.
  •  The clearer the layout, the more likely the students are to use it. Just like a good coursebook, design is vital to engaging the learners' interest. I've been experimenting with various styles and layouts throughout the year, and the most useful way of getting higher usage rates is by using photos/pictures with hyperlinks to other areas and exercises. It also makes Moodle much easier to use if you're accessing it via tablets/mobiles.
  • Some teachers are still frightened that they are going to break the whole Internet by doing something wrong on Moodle. I'm helping to work on that one. Students pick up on teachers' attitudes, and we really have to ensure that the instructors are digitally literate.
  • students do want to engage with IT, but sometimes they lack either the equipment, the time, or the knowhow (and sometimes all three) to use it. having the 45-minute slot may seem minimal, but it acts as a vital gateway for our less digitally-literate learners - and some of the teachers, too.
  • as learners increase their language knowledge, they engage more with digital literacy. It's striking how the higher the class level, the more likely that students use their mobiles to support learning, for example. This is actually a bit odd - why should your language ability have any impact on how you use  IT?
  • students are very wary of creating non-written output, e.g. voice recordings or video. To be honest, this may be because the teachers themselves are wary, or worried that they may have to spend inordinate amounts of time helping the learners upload stuff. Something I hope to tackle in the future.
well, that's a few things I've noticed here. As to the future, I'm aiming to create much more of a blended learning experience using Moodle across the board, plus some specialised near-autonomous learning modules in Academic English, and, specifically for ESOL, a Citizenship course. The question remains about how to fully engage both instructors and learners into using IT more efficiently.

Thursday, 16 May 2013

Finding the Right Blend(ed lesson): Creating or Curating the Content?

I've been up to my eyeballs in using Moodle in my college since September, and working out different ways to blend learning from the screen to the classroom. One issue that I find, and I'm sure others do too, is creating my own content for online use. Sometimes, I just want to sit my learners down and give them something that'll work right out of the tin, but when I go Googlewhacking various ELT/ESL sites, I find so much that I get overwhelmed.

The question is this: should we create our content or curate it from a variety of different sources?

right idea, wrong method?
On the face of it, creating the content should be what we do - we know our learners, we understand their needs, and we should tailor our materials to fit their requirements. Any teacher with sufficient experience can make things for the class, and make them well. The problem, however, is TIME. When do you have enough of this precious commodity to actually sit down at a keyboard, sketch out your ideas and develop interactive content? Also, there is the issue of the amount of time it takes to create and the amount of time it takes to actually use the resource. I once spent about three hours lovingly crafting something, only to get completely deflated when my learners banged through it in five minutes flat. And if you're not confident with your IT skills, it adds another obstacle to making efficient online content. The other thing to consider is that you want to make content that can be used again and again, not just as a one-off. What's the point of spending an hour making something for five minutes of student interaction?

I know I'll find an easy 5-minute exercise in here somewhere..
So what about curating the content? We do this all the time with our classroom materials after all - we get our textbooks and resource books, choose what we feel will be most useful for the learners, and deliver it. Simple. The trouble with online content however, is that a) there is SO MUCH of it and b) a lot of it is poorly-designed, or has weak content, or doesn't actually lead anywhere. There are literally millions of sites that do gap-fills, or have a little video with a little task, or wordsearch puzzles, but I sometimes wonder what the LEARNING point is. You also have to consider how the online content 'fits' into the lesson, or how it can be embedded into your VLE. It's possible to find all the content you need and send it to your learners as a list of links, but from my experience, appealing visual content, delivered in a context-based environment, e.g. in a course page on Moodle, is most effective.

As ever, it's probably best to compromise, at least at the beginning. Creating your own content is time-comsuming, but once it's done, it's done - for good. Here are a few points to consider:

  • start off with the scheme of work for the year/term. what content can best be delivered online, and which should stay in class? how do the two types of learning interact with each other?
  • which content could be most efficiently created by you for online content? Consider things that you do again and again - for example, certain types of input (for me, this might be explaining a grammar point). Why not film yourself, or convert a Slide Show into a movie format. 
  • search through online materials carefully. There's no point in reinventing the wheel, and if you find good content, use it - and most of the time, it's free anyway.
  • Think how to present the materials - where do they go in the online content? How do they lead into what you do in class? How do they support the learner? Can you grade the work done, or track the learner's progress? 
  • A very important point - will the learner actually be able to use the content? You have to remember that some students are not that technically savvy, and putting up online work they can't access is the same as them doing nothing at all. We have to consider, in some circumstances, that alongside teaching them the subject, we may also need to teach them IT skills.
However you want to do it, from making your own bespoke course to curating materials from a wide variety of sources, I'd encourage you to experiment as much as possible until you find the right blend for you.

Wednesday, 15 May 2013

Four types of language interactor, part two

Following on from the last entry, this one looks at what we can expect and what we can do with our different types, and also what they bring to the table, learning-wise and how (or to what degree) they interact with the language.

The Tourist
From a teaching perspective, the tourist is not the most promising of pupils. They are unlikely to engage with the language to any great depth, nor attain a very high level of fluency. They may use only a few set phrases - indeed, they may actually be happy to achieve only this. This type of learner is likely to be encountered in informal learning situations, e.g. a tourist in the real sense of the word, or, dare I say, an EFL teacher on their first overseas posting, but also in more formal class environments, especially in primary and secondary education, where the focus is  on the language as a study subject.
The Tourist generally has little real motivation to learn a language - it has minimal 'value' as a medium of communication.
You might think that the Tourist brings nothing to and takes nothing from the language, but in fact this isn't the case. When you look at the number of loan words in English, for example, you have a demonstration of the Language Tourist in action.
In terms of engaging this kind of learner into a deeper understanding of the language, it's a difficult one. One way forward could be by making them notice the use of common vocabulary between the their L1 and the target L2. It may also be beneficial to point out the advantage being able to 'actively' use another language is. Ultimately, however, it really does boil down to the individual learner and their perceived need of the L2.

The Commuter
The Commuter type of language interactor is perhaps the one type of learner we are most likely to encounter in our classes - typically, they are motivated to learn the language, and will have a relatively low affective filter. They approach language, as it were, from a professional perspective - that is, they go into the language for specific purposes: getting an exam, entry to university, for work purposes etc. While this kind of learner is , from the teacher's perspective, ideal, the issue may be that they are technically very competent, but may not actually be that productive, except within their own range/width of knowledge. It is in this way that they resemble commuters: perfectly able to reach goals within the Language City, but a bit lost when outside their comfort zones.
In some ways, we need to encourage this kind of learner to be a little bit like a tourist  - that is, get off the beaten track of their own interests and explore a bit - but also they should be encouraged to believe that they can achieve mastery of the language - that is, they are able to become a citizen or denizen.

The Citizen -
Now, you might think that you won't get many Citizen-type language interactors in your class, and this could well be true if you're overseas in a monolingual group. However, when you're teaching in a so-called Native English Speaking country, you are far more likely to encounter this kind of learner. I deal with Indian, Pakistani, Nepalese, Ghanaian, Kenyan, Tanzanian and Singaporean students, to name a few and they all speak a variety of English already. Well, that should be easy then, shouldn't it?
Wrong. In fact the Citizen can be one of the hardest to teach. After all, they already speak English - what we are doing is teaching a different variety, with different conventions. What we can end up doing, if we are not careful, is make them feel as if their own variety of English is inferior, which of course is a massively demotivating thing. The Citizen has, as it were, their own map of the Language City, and know their own district inside out; When they come into the classroom, we are effectively giving them a new map of a new district, strangely familiar to the one they know, but soon disorienting, and this in turn can lead to disillusionment. For this kind of learner, we need to use their native knowledge of the language to help facilitate learning in others, and also carefully target the kind of language knowledge, whether in systems or skills, that they need, without devaluing their own language variety.

The Denizen
If you have ever taught ESOL/ESL, you will more than likely taught The Denizen - someone who needs to be in the Language City because of personal circumstances, and is required to engage with the language whetehr they like it or not. This group of language interactors can be problematic, as the range of motivation can be enormous. Some Denizens are highly motivated, and in fact are closer to being Citizens; Others are lost, confused and angry, and resent the language entirely. Some Denizens are fluent and efficient communicators; some retreat in acculturation and reach a level of language knowledge that is sufficient (but only just) for them. Denizens, unlike Commuters, may lack learning skills and strategies, or not be able to analyse language in the same way.
However, Denizens are perhaps the great bringers of variety into language. They introduce new expressions and phrases, or retool language into new and interesting forms. Over time, they become citizens in their own right, creating a new district in the Language City, as it were. From the classroom perspective, the more realistic the situations used - that is, real-life issues that the learner is likley to encounter, such as using Council facilities, or applying for a job - the more likely that their motivation will be kept high. Encouraging the confidence to tackle seemingly insurmountable situations is the way to drive this kind of learner towards fluency and, crucially, belief that they 'belong' within the language.

Well, this one way to look at how language users can interact with a language. It has the advantage of being a very flexible, dynamic model, as it should be clear that people's interactions over time can change: tourists can become commuters; commuters, denizens or citizens; denizens can create their own 'district' (=variety) of the language over time, and become citizens in their own right, and citizens can become denizens in another variety of the language, and so on. Give it a try with your own classes - which of your students would you say are Tourists, Commuters, Denizens or Citizens?


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