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Let it go

Updated: Feb 10, 2021

It's been a while since I've written a post but conversations with students today on the MA TESOL and Applied Linguistics at Durham University inspired me to get back to the blog. Thank you to them for that. So, what will the topic of this post be? Well, it's one for us teachers, mostly language teachers, but I guess teachers of all subjects. It's all about what that famous (and perhaps slightly irritating if you've got kids and have heard the song a billion times or more) Snow Queen tells us: Let it go.

Deviation means disaster... or does it?

Got to keep to the plan?

As beginner teachers we grip tightly to our ten times typed out and changed lesson plan as we nervously enter the classroom. It's a bit like how I imagine actors feel when they step out on stage. You walk down the corridor, palms are sweaty, heart's thumping in your throat, open the door and there you are, fully exposed on that stage. All those faces looking your way and waiting. And you, searching your memory - have you remembered your lines? In Covid times, it goes a bit differently. It's more like sitting in your armchair waiting for the clock numbers to change in the corner of your screen before you hesitantly hit the 'Start' button and wait anxiously, not knowing if you've entered the right Zoom room or not and wondering when or if any other faces will magically appear so you don't have to keep staring at your own big, tired face glaring painfully back at you. As the faces appear, whether in the class or on the screen, that clock begins to tick down on your plan and it's time to begin. Got to stick to the plan. You've planned it. They need all of it. You've planned it, they'll have to do it. No deviation. Deviation means disaster. For anyone who's done CELTA or any other English language teaching certificate, you'll know how meticulous the lesson plan has to be - and how you'd best keep to it - because if you don't, there may be scathing comments to contend with at the end. In reality though, in real teaching, the plan is just that - it's a plan, and as we know in life, things don't always go to plan.

Tick tock tick tock

Let's consider how our English language for cooking lesson might look. Present the vocabulary items and Margot doesn't know what a Brussel sprout is. Reluctantly, you have to head to Google for a picture because all your definitions have resulted in more frowns and shoulder shrugs. Ahmed wants to tell you about the best meal ever that he cooked for his mum on her birthday and you smile (OK, maybe grimace) as you watch the clock tick away those precious minutes from your plan as Ahmed is finally moving to the dessert and you try once, twice, three times to interrupt so you can move swiftly on. Onto the language part. It's the imperative, perfect for the cooking lesson. Here you go with your explanation on the board. You've practised it. You've even read it out to another teacher friend. It's crystal clear, they say. You can't possibly think of a clearer way to explain it so you throw it all out there. You've got just three minutes for this part. Isabella doesn't get it. Can you explain again? So you say it all again. She can't possibly not get it. You've taken it from the English grammar Bible, Raymond Murphy's English Grammar in Use. What other way is there to explain it? Isabella's face is still just puzzled. Try again, basically saying the same thing but with slightly different words. She's got to get it this time. Nope. The light's definitely not on and time is ticking. You look nervously at the lesson plan. This was not in the plan. Need to move on to the next part. Tell Isabella, there's no time now, she can come and talk about it after class. You've got to move on.

Aristotle - Ancient Greek philosopher and teacher

We aren't Aristotle

You're at the exercise section, keeping it controlled. There's a right or wrong answer because that way, you can squeeze more in to the time - and well, we don't want any unexpected answers. That would throw us off track. And we certainly don't want anything too open-ended because that could lead to questions we don't have the answers to - and a teacher must always know the answer. The teacher is the fountain of all knowledge. The teacher is Plato, they're Aristotle. The class revolves around the teacher, the giver of all knowledge. The students, well they are just the receivers, there to listen, there to learn. And the teacher, well they have to know everything because that is their job. And the learners have to listen and nod and stay quiet because that is their job... Except we aren't in Ancient Greece anymore and research shows that lecturing learners doesn't always result in learners learning. Instead, it may rather lead to Leonardo falling asleep as your lengthy explanation goes on and on and he's lulled by the lullaby of teacher talk. The learners are there but they're not. If you're teaching rigidly to the plan and trying to be the fountain of knowledge, of course, the fact that the learners are there but not really there, might entirely escape your attention. And therein lies the problem.

Beethoven did not become Beethoven by listening alone. Beethoven became Beethoven through practice.

The gift of practice

Teaching this way may also see Ahmed leave the classroom feeling really pretty disheartened because he didn't get to the best part of his story, which was without a doubt the dessert. And Isabella? Isabella is still none the wiser on the imperative because in the end, you had to try ten different ways to explain it when maybe, if she had just had chance to try it for herself, maybe she would have got it just fine. The point is, we don't have to be those Ancient Greek philosophers anymore with learners sitting at our sandalled feet. There's plenty of research to show that learners learn much more by doing than by passively listening to all we think we have to teach them. Sure, we want to share with them our wisdom, our knowledge, our expertise but there's a much bigger gift we can give them than that, and in the language class, above all else, that is time to practise. A chance to use the language, to communicate, to interact with others and do so in a way that is real and meaningful to them. Think about if the language were a piano. A great pianist does not become a great pianist by simply sitting and watching their teacher play the piano. Beethoven did not become Beethoven by listening alone. Beethoven became Beethoven through practice. He became a great pianist by sitting in front of the piano and tapping on the keys, trying out the notes for himself, hearing how they connected, making mistakes and trying again, and then practising again and again and again until he reached a perfection he could be happy with, and then practising some more. Our language learners are just the same. They cannot possibly become great language users by listening alone. They need practice and they need the opportunity to practise - and in our classes, that is the biggest gift we can give them.

Going against instincts

For many of us, giving the floor to our learners can be uncomfortable. For those of us who are new to teaching, it means relinquishing control. It means possibly letting the lesson go in a direction different to our perfect plan and that is just plain scary. For those of us who have grown up in an education system that still sees the teacher as the centre of the classroom, standing high over the class and imparting knowledge to open ears, it can be extremely foreign. It can be dissatisfying even. You can be left feeling useless, like you've not given enough, not said enough, not shared enough of your pearls of wisdom. But in reality, by stepping back, by giving your learners the stage, you've given them the best thing you could give them - a chance to practise. And of course, you are not being useless whilst they are the ones in the limelight. Whilst they talk or whilst they write, you do not step back and stop. You look and you listen. You monitor for errors, for things done well, for things to focus on for next lesson, you learn about your learners. You learn about what they like, about who they are, about what they want, what worries them, what they're good at, and what they need your help with. Then, you give them feedback and that feedback informs the input you can give them next time. That time to practise, to use the language, is your time to gather vital information about how you can best help them to improve and to be successful language learners. It's an essential part of our job as a twenty first century teacher, often labelled in the literature as 'the facilitator'.

Let it go

So, what's the point to all this? The point is, we have to listen to the Snow Queen. Sometimes we have to let go of our plan, let go of our control, let go of many things we've learnt or been told before, and take a step into the unknown. We have to let the learners take the lead. We have to release ourselves from that immense expectation and paralysing pressure that the teacher will know all. We cannot possibly know all, and it is OK to say that when the class creeps down an avenue we may know little about. It is absolutely acceptable to say, Isabella, I don't know the answer to that but I will come back to you later after the class. Or, Ahmed, can I pair you up with Isabella and see if you can help her to understand the imperative? It is more than OK for the learners to learn from each other, and not just from the teacher. In fact, the research shows learners will learn more in discussion and practice with each other than they will listening passively to the teacher. It is also OK for you, the teacher, to learn from the learners. We are all always learners and for me personally, that is one of my greatest joys in teaching - all the things I learn from my learners! In other words, as teachers, we too have to practise. We have to experiment and we have to hand over the spotlight to our learners so they can do what they came to the class to do, learn the language. And to learn the language, they have to use the language, to practise it, and we, well we, we have to "let it go".

Further reading:

Haenen, J., Schrijnemakers, H., & Stufkens, J. (2003). Sociocultural Theory and the Practice of Teaching. Vygotsky's educational theory in cultural context, 246.

Jones, L. (2007). The student-centered classroom. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

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