Power to the Learner?

At the InnovateELT conference this year titled “Power to the Learner”, I asked the question, ‘What do students say they get from their teacher?’. I wanted to know how closely their experience aligns with what the ELT profession says about good teaching.

I looked at feedback from about 100 students at Oxford House who were asked to write down three things they liked about their classes. The students are mainly Spanish / Catalan adults in a private language school in Barcelona in small groups at a range of levels including general English and exam preparation classes.

So here are the top 6 most mentioned. You might be surprised by the results.

  1. The teacher is patient.
  2. The level of the class is good for me.
  3. The teacher resolves my doubts. (Spanglish for “the teacher answers my questions”, yet somehow much more poetic!)
  4. The class is dynamic.
  5. The teacher corrects when we do mistakes (sic).
  6. We practise speaking.

Looking at these results my initial reaction was akin to that Eurovision song contest experience when some terrible dirge inexplicably wins and all the songs you liked are nowhere in sight. Do my years of classroom experience, ELT  qualifications, dedication to professional development amount to nothing? Where is language awareness in there? What about teaching techniques, etc, etc, etc… None of this seems to matter. According to this feedback, I just need to be patient! Seriously? All I need to do is be patient!?

When I reflected a bit more on patience and what it might mean, I calmed down a bit. I thought about the work of my daughter’s tennis coach and the hours of knocking balls back to her and her classmates. Patience includes empathy for the endeavour and encouragement when she gets frustrated. The Irish refer to one to one classes as “grinds”. This is what teachers do, we grind out results, we are patient.

My daughter’s tennis teacher also gets a tick in the other five categories by the way. (substituting tennis for speaking in number six of course!) And his work is well done with those six areas covered. I wonder, then, why English teachers need more than six categories to assess their competence and why are we using language to describe things we do which doesn’t match what the learners call those things?  Teachers say they develop communicative competence, students say they practise speaking. Teachers develop critical thinking skills, students enjoy discussing interesting topics. Teachers discuss mobile learning, students do homework on the bus. Teachers plan a task cycle, students have a conversation and get some correction. And so on.

Top 6 things students likeWhat would happen if we aligned the language we use to describe what we do with the language our students use to describe what we do?  Imagine, for example, that the students’ top six feedback points listed above (or something like it) were the observation checklist for teachers on CELTA and DELTA courses, or chapter headings in Jeremy Harmer’s “How to Teach English”. Imagine teachers talked about teaching in a way that a B1 student would understand. Imagine that students as well as teachers and teacher trainers participated in giving feedback to teachers or even assessing them? Would that give power to the learners and would it be good for them?

Something else I noticed about the student top six is the absence of any reference to methodology. Point four about the class being dynamic I think refers to the class being participative and varied as opposed to chalk and talk lectures from the front which many students have experienced in language classes at school.  Isn’t it sad that ELT has failed to grasp or at least failed to put into practice what to tennis coaches and music teachers is obvious, namely that to improve a skill you need to practise doing it, and practise it a lot.  The ELT methodology wars of the 20th century and skirmishes of the 21st seem to have escaped our learners, fortunately for them, if this top six is anything to go by.  No mention by them of the audio-lingual method, grammar translation, direct method, dogme, communicative approaches, learner autonomy, lexical approach, TBL, PPP, TTT, OHE, NLP, ARC, OMG…

I am reminded of a line from a favourite band of mine from the late 80s, Carter USM, “If love is the answer, what was the question?”  This makes a great substitution drill to start a conversation about why we and our students do what we do and what other options there are on offer to achieve the same aims. If the communicative approach is the answer what was the question? If an IWB is the answer what was the question? And so on. Let’s try one.

Teacher A: If learner autonomy is the answer, what was the question?

Teacher B: Maybe something like, how can we help students practise more on their own? How can students get more benefit from their time in class? How can students motivate themselves?

Looking at this conversation it strikes me that teacher B’s questions are compelling in that they directly address practical concerns for teachers and students in clearly comprehensible language. The answer “learner autonomy”, therefore seems more mystifying than enlightening.

To conclude here are three questions I had after reflecting on this research:

  1. Are English teachers overcomplicating when we describe and discuss what we do, taking us further away from each other, our students and an understanding of our work?
  2. If learning English is like learning tennis, why don’t we teach it that way?

Should we be aligning our language (and thinking) with students to facilitate the inevitably collaborative endeavour of creating a language class?


(This article was written by Duncan)

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5 Responses to Power to the Learner?

  1. Can you give us the answers to these questions?
    Are English teachers overcomplicating when we describe and discuss what we do, taking us further away from each other, our students and an understanding of our work?
    If learning English is like learning tennis, why don’t we teach it that way?

    • I’m speaking for Duncan here, but I’m guessing that he meant both these questions to be rhetorical – it’s clear from the post what his answers would be!
      Good to hear from you, Stephen – thanks for the response :o)
      All the best,

  2. Totally agree Duncan, we are always doing bits of language and not focusing on what they really want – I blame the course book!

  3. MarkWalker says:

    Hi Dan,
    Great post, thanks for that. I know it’s not the central point of the post but I’d like to make a comment on patience. I’ve recently started to slow things down, give learners much longer to engage with materials, concepts and questions, and take a more “deep learning/slow learning” approach. Instead of pushing and “covering” material I’m letting the class “unfold” and develop according to their pace, not mine. I’m really pleased by how much better the classes seem to be when learners are provided with the space they need to grow into. The new message I seem to be sending to the learners is one of confidence: “I believe in you and know that you (and everyone else) can learn given the time (and my patience) you need to do so”.
    Would you agree?

    • Hi Mark,
      Thanks for commenting, and so it’s taken me so long to reply! Of course, I don’t think any teacher would disagree that patience is a virtue in the classroom, especially in light of Duncan’s students’ responses to his survey. Learners (if they’re anything like me with my Spanish) are acutely aware of the time they need to formulate answers to questions, for example, and the consequent patience required on the part of their interlocutors; so a patient teacher is a good teacher.
      I’m really glad you have found an approach, or attitude, in your lessons that is working for you and the learners. My only question here is to what extent we balance the pace needed by the students struggling the most in a class with that of the high flyers. I suppose two dangers of a ‘slow learning’ approach might be that a) more advanced students may feel frustrated at the lack of progress and b) the teacher lowers their expectations of what students can achieve over a fixed amount of time. I’m sure that you’re aware of these dangers and that when you say ‘slowing things down’ you take these into account, and I guess that’s one of the skills inherent in the craft of teaching – finding that balance.
      Good luck with your class!

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