Great Expectations and Slow Teaching

I have been wanting to write this blog post for some time, but I wasn’t quite sure how to frame exactly what I wanted to say, so I just sat down in front of the computer and started to write. I hope, by the end, it makes some sort of sense.

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Working in a bigger school means I come in to contact with more teachers and inevitably leads to more discussion about lessons, students and what’s going right and wrong in the classroom.

Recently we had our mid-term exam period. Different classes going through all sorts of exams and then the inevitable marking period and report writing that teachers have to go through. It was during the exam marking part that I suddenly started to think about expectations. More importantly, teacher’s expectations and it was exasperated phrases such as the ones below that got me started.

We’ve just done this in class! Why aren´t they using it correctly!

We´ve covered the present perfect a million times and they are still using the past simple.

We covered all this in the revision lesson. Why can´t they just get it right!

This continued for the whole week. Teachers shaking their head´s, tutting loudly and furiously scribbling red pen over their student´s exams.

I remember being like this when I first started teaching. Constantly worrying as to why conditionals or the passive weren’t being produced by my student´s even though we had covered them several times that term. Getting worked up at every little mistake and then leaving the class blaming myself, then the students and at times the coursebook.

It wasn´t until I started teaching proficiency students last year that I realised I was looking at it all wrong. In every proficiency coursebook there is always a review of some of the most basic grammar building blocks. Past tense, future forms, conditionals, the passive and so on. Sometimes it´s really basic stuff, but the students still make mistakes with it. Even if they have been studying English for many years. It was then that I realised I needed to play the long game. I needed to lower my expectations. My expectations of what it is actually capable of teaching a student, who you only teach for an average of 2 or 3 hours a week. I needed to lower the expectations of the students, who had been sold a course that guaranteed improvement in the their English, without fail. I was being too hard on myself and on the students.

Let´s face it. It takes a native speaker until they are about 18 yrs old to be a truly proficient speaker of their own language. I´m basing this purely on my own thought process and experience by the way. No research or Google searches. This obviously depends on educational background and other varying factors. You then go on to university or into the working world and you are faced with a whole new world of language. Whether it is based around your studies or the area of work you have gone into. You grow older and pass through a multitude of different experiences that you have never encountered and you have to learn new functional language, lexical sets and ways of using all of this new language input correctly. In effect, you never truly stop learning language.

So, should we really expect our students to absorb a coursebook over a nine month period and then instantaneously regurgitate it perfectly, either through the medium of paper based exams or during pair work?

Of course not! Take the pressure off yourself, enjoy the process of learning and stop worrying about learning the past simple in two weeks so that you can then move onto the next unit and start worrying about the past continuous.

Teachers must be patient, unafraid of contrasting “difficult” examples, and not expect too much too soon. (Michael Lewis, The English Verb, 2002)

Your worry and stress will only carry over into your classroom and the student´s will pick up on it. Although, this is easier said than done when you have pressure from other sources.

The fact that we have to test/assess/evaluate our students every term doesn´t help us in this matter. Targets. It´s all about hitting bloody targets! Showing results, showing progress, getting return on investment. The culture we live in breeds this kind of need/want. The constant strive to get ahead, be the best and get the top job. It´s putting teachers in a pressure cooker and who only knows what pressure the kids are under.

Parents have expectations of both the child and the teacher. Unfortunately, it is the teacher that takes the brunt of things when the child isn’t performing well. I’m sure we have all had to deal with the angry parent laying blame at your door because the report you wrote was actually an honest portrayal of their child rather than the standard “make it sound good, so we can get more money out of them next term” rhetoric. Yet, I also feel that the schools themselves help to feed these expectations by assuring students and parents alike, that after one year of hard study at a particular level, they will be ready to move up to the next level. Of course this depends on whether they pass the exams they have each term. The exams that are based exactly on the work covered in the book, heavily grammar based and have a low pass mark that basically ensures even the weakest student can scrape through and feel as though they are progressing.

I appreciate that the above is a generalisation and not all schools work like this but I imagine there are a few people thinking they work in a school/business that does operate in this way.

What I’d like to see is ‘Slow Teaching’. You’ve heard of ‘Slow food’, right? Anyone who has taught from a B1 coursebook and above, must have come across it!

Slow Food is an international movement founded by Carlo Petrini in 1986. Promoted as an alternative to fast food, it strives to preserve traditional and regional cuisine and

encourages farming of plantsseeds and livestock characteristic of the local ecosystem. (wikipedia, 2013)

I would love teaching to adapt this thinking. Away with the rush and tear of pacing schedules, making sure you complete 75% of the coursebook and ensuring you give homework every lesson so that the students use the activity book and we can justify asking the parents to fork out an extra £20 for it. Instead of welcoming the students on the first day and telling them that by the end of the course they would have covered x,y and z. Tell them that what ever happens, happens. What comes up in class is what’s taught.        (Promoted as an alternative to fast food) Don’t lie to them by saying if they do all the exercises and homework they will instantly become a better student and speaker of English. Be honest! Tell them that learning a language can be a long, hard road. It’s not easy. It can be fun, it can be rewarding and is worth the effort, but that effort must come from within.(encourages farming of plantsseeds) Step away from the coursebook, do something different, try a new approach and make it relevant to the students.                          (characteristic of the local ecosystem

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It’s just a thought. It might just work. At the very least it might make your life a little less stressful.

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8 thoughts on “Great Expectations and Slow Teaching

  1. Hi Adam,
    Of course! I wholeheartedly agree, and I would love to teach like that, to work like that, to have fun with my students. And we do! We have wonderful lessons and great fun, but the final aim is still looming, hovering above our heads, creating the pressure and this unhealthy approach of covering this and that item, because my students are expected to know that by the end of the course.
    It’s actually great to read your post right now. I’m in the middle of preparing the end of the training course English exams. As I am the only teacher in the house, I have this peculiar position where I teach and then I also prepare the final exam and test them. I could, in an ideal world, create something completely different and assess my students in a brand new way. Maybe not at all, maybe we could simply learn the language for communication’s sake not for the exam’s sake and then in the end, instead of all the end-of-the-course pressure, I could give them some personal and thorough feedback (it would take me the same amount of time as preparing and marking the boring tests) I guess I would do it tomorrow, in this new world!
    However, being a public school, I might have an inspector at my door any minute … and bla-bla-bla, you know the rest of the story.
    Having said that I must still admit that I am marvelously free in what I do and how in my classrooms. I know that in the end, something between A2-B1 is expected, but otherwise … no fixed plans, no predestined program 🙂 So if Mr Baumgarten jumps, we can talk about that, if North Korea starts playing the bully again, we’ll talk about that or if suddenly I notice that irregular verbs are fading into the background, we’ll practise that for a change.

    Sunniest greetings!

    • Hi Sirja,

      Thanks for the comment and sorry for the late reply.

      I can understand you situation and the pressure you must be under to produce results. I guess the blog post was more of a ‘ in a perfect world’ idea, but I’m glad to know that I’m not the only one who thinks the same way.

      I have always wondered how much we could achieve if we could skip all the exams and pre-exam revision and actually focus on the task in hand, learning a language, rather than just ticking the boxes and hitting needless targets.

      Good luck with the exams and keep fighting the good fight.

      Adam

  2. Interesting read, Adam.

    I think this is something you will encounter throughout your teaching career and so I’m happy to see that you’ve already adopted such a healthy attitude.

    In my opinion, much too much is made of the need for instant productive level mastery of the language. In many cases, a lot of what is presented can be done so with the aim of getting learners to recognize the functions and structures of language without having to place the burden on them of being able to produce it perfectly. That can – and should – come later.

    • Hi Adam,

      Thanks for the comment and sorry for the very late reply.

      I was discussing the point you make about recognizing functions and structures just this afternoon and I found myself repeating exactly what you had written to one of my colleagues.

      We were discussing the past perfect and he wanted an exercise/activity that would get them producing the required structure and I mentioned that it would be very forced and unnatural to do that and he was better off highlighting the use and form and clarifying why it was used etc. Especially as it was the first time they had come across it. There were mumbles of agreement and a quiet “yeah you’re right”, before he scuttled off to look in new English file to find an activity.

      I understand the production stage but at times it seems so forced and I wonder if they really benefit from it. I would rather spend time showing them a full range of examples to highlight how it can be used than force a communicative activity on them that is just a vehicle to force out mechanically produced and grammatically correct sentences.

      Anyway, it’s late and I’ve rambled long enough. Thanks again for your insightful comment.

      Adam

  3. Great read, Adam. And, of course I’d totally agree, sitting here as I am, writing yet another report on students, not really for the students, but for the college. So they have a constant list of the students who are at risk, and so we can ask for help to support them or show how we are doing so. Do we get support? No. It’s just another bloody report for the bureaucratic shite (‘scuse my language) that comes with the FE territory.

    “It´s all about hitting bloody targets!”, this sums up all that is wrong in education today!

    Bit of a rambling comment, but my brain is a bit fried.

    • Hi Mike,

      By the sounds of it, your situation is worse than mine and if Gove gets his way it might well become worse.

      Feel free to rant as much as you want.

      I keep reminding myself that teaching is why I do the job and this usually overrides any anger or resentment I feel towards all the bureaucracy that comes with it. This isn’t to say i just put up with it! I fully intend to work hard to try and get things changed where ever possible to make teacher’s lives that little less stressful, allowing them time to actually concentrate on what they are paid to do.

      Adam

    • Hi Laurie,

      Glad you liked the blog and it’s nice to hear I’m not alone in thinking this way.

      Teaching with excitement and exploration. I like it!

      Thanks for the links I will check them out.

      Adam

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