For many of us, the classroom is more than just a physical space, it is also a psychological construct where we have self-imposed strict rules of how to act, behave, conduct a lesson and respond to our learners. As we develop as teachers, I’m sure most of us will admit that we are guilty of bad habits creeping into our lessons, whether it be by relying on that tried and tested activity or by giving in to immediate L1 translation to quickly convey meaning. It’s no surprise then that forcing ourselves out of our comfort zone is the best way for our growth and development, but as we gain knowledge and confidence it appears that it becomes extremely hard to do. What would once daunt us as fresh-faced new teachers, barely make us lift an eyebrow these days after what we’ve experienced over the years.
Sometimes it feels as though the more I learn, the less effective I am, and this is a thought that terrifies me. I’m not sure whether it’s because my awareness of how my students are developing has improved with experience or whether there is a deep-rooted fear of failing and therefore perhaps I’m not challenging myself as much as I think I am. That said, there are many things I have tried in my lessons to push myself out of my comfort zone to try and develop. While they may not seem ground-breaking or be practices to adopt across all lessons, there are lots of things we can learn from trying these different experiments. By dedicating lessons to these ideas, I have learned lots both about my own teaching and about my students. Below I have outlined 5 ideas that you can use in lessons which I highly recommend trying.
The mystery box
This is an idea that came about after an interesting conversation during a CPD session about the dogme approach, and the importance of engaging students by making language learning relevant to learners’ needs and interests. The idea behind the mystery box is to ask a colleague to put together a box of five or six mystery objects which will provide the stimulus for your lesson. The contents can be anything from song lyrics, to a photograph, a plastic spade to a poem, whatever the person wants without any real connection or reason. You as the teacher cannot know or see what is inside the box until you open it in the classroom, and walking into class unprepared, you must select an object, or objects, and use them as a prompt for teaching. How you choose to deliver the lesson is up to you, you may choose to involve your students in the object picking, asking them what the objects represent, or you may choose to keep it private. By walking in with no plan, you are going to put your imagination into overdrive and hopefully produce some interesting learning points.
The benefits of class observations and peer observations are well recognised. As teachers our ability to learn from others never stops, making others’ insight such a valuable tool in developing our own teaching. Tag-team teaching is an interesting take on this, it’s the WWF of the classroom. If your teaching context makes it possible, ask a colleague to teach a lesson with you. Tell them your aims of the lesson and give them time before the lesson to look at any material that you want to choose and then ask them to join you in the classroom. During the lesson, at any point they can jump in and take over or you can ‘tag out’. Obviously, try to do these changes between activities to eliminate confusion, but you’ll see a very interesting take on the lesson, from something as simple as how they set up activities, how they conduct feedback, or just simply a different perspective on how to achieve the aims you set out. After the lesson, which may or may not be a success, take time to sit down with your colleague and reflect on how the lesson went, what could have been improved, and why you both made the choices you made.
The Silent Way
Caleb Gattegno, the man behind the famous methodology once said, “Why should I talk if my students can?” and this is the driving force behind this CPD experiment. While we are all aware of this approach, many of us may never have really tried it out. The importance of silence in the classroom is in my opinion fundamental in helping students to have the processing time that they need to truly assimilate the language. For one lesson why don’t you try to teach without speaking. Silent drilling, hand gestures, cuisenaire rods, and using students to model correct pronunciation, teamed with effective boardwork can help students really focus on the target language, increase STT (obviously) and teach you lots about your own presence as a teacher.
On the floor
Sometimes we are so caught up in the physical constraints of the classroom, the regimented structure of desks and chairs, that it has an unconscious effect on how we deliver our lessons. To see how your teaching can be influenced by your surroundings, try changing the layout of the classroom, delivering a lesson to students sat on the floor on rugs or floor cushions. Push back the desks and see whether a new layout can release the inner child in both yourself and your learners. Or remove desks and set your classroom up as a ‘gallery’ providing tasks around the walls for your students to work on in their own time and where you take on the role of the curator, giving input but allowing students to work at their own pace. You might be surprised with the results.
The best way to be wholly involved and engaged with a lesson is when you are totally concentrating on it without any distractions. So, to take this to the next level, can you banish notebooks and paper from the classroom and present an entire lesson where students can not write anything down? This focus on oral-drilling, from grammatical structures and forms to introducing collocations, will make students really focus on their own production. With such a strong focus on communication, students will gain all the benefits of drilling, grow confident in their adoption of the target language and not be distracted by scribbling anything down. Record the lesson and distribute it after the class on a digital platform to give students the opportunity to listen again (providing extensive listening practice) make notes in their own time and do any assigned written practice.
Do you like the sound of any of these ideas? What other experiments have you tried in the classroom? Let me know in the comments below.