If there is one thing I have learned during my time as a teacher, it is to never judge the atmosphere or potential of a classroom until it has students in it...
Image: Chris Campbell
Sometimes you read a blog post about teaching/learning that just sticks in the back of your head, returning regularly with a gentle knock to remind you that the issue it raised still resonates in your subconscious and could well be worth thinking about more.
Mark Andrew's excellent Making the most of classrooms, they are real and we need them more than ever (from October last year) is one of those posts for me. It is an elegant (if rather lengthy) appeal to seriously consider the idea that language classrooms are their own special social contexts -- real ones that are extremely useful and worth nurturing. As in, they are not (or don't need to be) contrived pseudo-gatherings where the real world (and its language in use) outside is replicated inside as a sort of stage(d) production.
It took me a lot of scattered reflection about my experiences as a teacher to come around to the conclusion that Mark is absolutely spot on here. Classes that have "worked" (and my criteria here is broad: worked in terms of positive atmosphere, positive learning, motivation, good results on formal tests and achievement of learner-realised goals) for me over the years have almost invariably exhibited characteristics that could be strongly linked to the idea that there was a genuine (and successful) social setting at work. These settings involved groups of learners who had come to know many (if not most) of the other students quite well, cared about the progress of the group and not just exclusively themselves, and drew certain levels of comfort and confidence from a regular and familiar group dynamic. There was always room for different personalities and preferences, of course, but there was a genuine respect for the group. The language development that sprang forth in these classes was oriented around real situations (and references to real situations) generated quite naturally in the classroom space -- a social setting unto itself.
I received an avid reminder of this during some quick remarks/feedback from a class towards the end of term last year, which I blogged about here. That got me thinking about what had gone on in that class, and with other classes I had been teaching at the same time, and a long list of what I feel were "successful" (or success-generating) classes going back more than a decade. It also had me searching about for Mark's article again!
Now, I want to go on with this notion a bit, as it has become inextricably entwined in some other things I have been thinking about and experimenting a lot with lately. Those things are task-based learning and more innovation in terms of classroom materials.
It occurred to me at some point that, for those of us who agree that a language learning classroom represents a genuine social setting of its own with huge potential for learning, it is worth considering:
- Course materials that actually facilitate and encourage the development of a "real social space" in the classroom;
- Task-based learning as a facilitative approach in this endeavour (and this to some extent merges with the priority above, and got some attention in my post Tasks undone in ELT publishing).
I'm not suggesting that these new materials or TBLT completely replace a range of other (evidently appropriate and useful) learning materials or teaching techniques. What I am thinking about is how they might get more inclusion in existing approaches, and how they could really capitalise on the notion of building and nurturing this classroom social setting.
So, as a sort of brainstorming activity, I mapped out a series of books (or kits might be a better word for the idea) that worked on the notion of making the classroom and its participants the central priority or focus (or starting point?), with task-based learning being the primary mode of delivering a range of goals and associated activities.
The first book/kit (being the one I might want to use first with a group, either prior to or in combination with other learning materials) ended up with the title:
A Class of Our Own
and featured the following progression of units/goals:
1. Here! (creating roll calls for the new class)
2. About us (creating learner profiles to share/get to know)
3. Needs and wants (an exploration of learners' own needs/wants from the course)
4. Our space (having learners decide on classroom layout and organisation)
5. A duty roster (creating and participating in useful routines for the class)
6. The class blog (self-explanatory, but designed and built by the group)
7. Getting together (exploring potential to get together outside of class times)
8. Learning unboxed (designing and sharing effective learning/study strategies)
9. Class exhibition (how to feature and share the learners' achievements)
10. Our exams (basically, group-generated ideas and procedures for testing)
11. Evaluation cards (settling on effective ways to evaluate at the end of term)
12. Feedback forms (designing effective feedback forms for/about learners and teacher)
Some of those are still very scratchy and I'm not sure how viable or valid they might turn out (as I said, it's a brainstorm), but the general idea here is to have the learners get to know each other and take some control over and responsibility for the social/learning space that they are going to become participants in.
Does this sort of thing promote and "help" the idea of a group, a shared endeavour in a classroom space?
Still pondering it, myself, but it intrigues me!
From there, I was able to generate another half-dozen or so theme-driven kits which worked outward from the classroom but made that group and space central to them. These included titles/foci like:
- On the Map (activities/goals based on learners' local countries and communities)
- Out and About (the notion of getting out and travelling/doing things outside one's own country)
- A Class Magazine (with different sections and features)
- Innovate! (basically oriented around work and career -- but with a focus on innovation)
- English Club (learners creating and expanding a club beyond the confines of the classroom)
- 'Tis the Season (basically a set of activities oriented around celebrations/festivals)
- Global Eye (having the class/group watch and participate more in world events)
Again, it's just brainstorming, coming up with rough ideas (and they're even rougher at this stage than the A Class of Our Own idea!).
But what do you think?
Would it be worthwhile/desirable/feasible to have a sort of kit whose focus is predominantly on facilitating and building the classroom as a social space? A place the learners might want to make and call their own?
Or -- if an attractive notion -- can most teachers already facilitate most/all of this on their own without much in the way of guidance or ideas?
Or, alternatively, should this concept just become another (of admittedly many) destined to fall off the edge of my "out of the box" ideas collection?