I suppose every teacher has their favourite type of activity. I’m really into information gap activities, i.e. activities which require students to speak and work with their classmates to obtain the missing information. And once they’ve acquired the information from their classmates, they can fill the “gap” and complete the task or activity. During these activities, students need to communicate clearly in order to successfully complete the given task.
Most of my classes work best if you get them to work in pairs or groups. An otherwise reticent group will turn into a chatterbox once I ask them to discuss, compare and share in pairs. Some coursebooks have ready-made information gap activities. To give an example, Student A must read a text on page x, while Student B turns to a different page to read another text on the same/related topic. Then they share what they’ve learned.But I mostly design these activities myself. The good news is that practically any exercise or task can be transformed into an information-gap activity.
Below are just a few examples I’ve recently used.
Pictures: I ask Student A to look at a picture for 30 seconds. Student B looks at a different picture on a different page. They close books and describe the pictures from memory. Then they can contrast both pictures without actually looking at them. Students look for the common theme and other similarities, as well as for differences. This can be a springboard for the topic you’d like to focus on in the lesson.
Gap-fills: I like to create two versions of a gap-fill, i.e. I use the same text but omit different words for Student A and different words for Student B. They work individually first and then they share their answers. If they are unsure about an answer, their partner helps them by describing the missing word.
Student A: They work 1 _____________ first and then they share their answers.
Student B: They work individually first and then they 1 _____________ their answers.
Keys: Students complete two run-of-the-mill exercises. When they finish, I give Student A the key to Student B’s exercise and vice versa. They check answers by sharing the keys. This is a time-saver and it’s much more interactive than sharing it as a whole class. Your only task is to monitor.
Half-a-crossword: This is by far the most favourite activity of mine. As the title suggests, you create a crossword where Student A has some words while the others are missing and Student B has the ones Student A needs. The task is to complete the whole crossword by exchanging the information.
A variation on running dictation: Each student picks a certain number of words from a list/text. They write them on a piece of paper. Alternatively, you can ask them to choose a longer sentence, e.g. from a coursebook text, or you can dictate one. Student A stands opposite their partner, a few meters apart. Student A remembers the first word from the list/sentence and runs to their partner. They describe the word and when Student B guesses it, they write it down. Student A runs for another word. When they are done with their list/sentence, they swap roles. The task is complete when both students have written the whole list/sentence. This could be done with pictures as well (see Activity 1).
Drawing: Find some suitable paintings/visuals on the internet. For example, like me, you can google the most famous paintings of all time (our topic was ART). Show one of them on the screen. Student A faces the screen and describes the picture to their partner who can’t see it. After a certain amount of time, they stop, look and compare their drawing to the original painting. Then they change roles. To make it more interesting and fun, before they can look at the original, they compare their drawings with other students’ creations. You can later set up an art exhibition (if students don’t mind displaying their products).
These are only a few examples of information-gap activities. The list is endless. And as I mentioned above, any task can be designed as an activity where students simply need to make a little bit more effort than usual to complete it, which, I believe, is something we should always strive for.
A few weeks ago, I attended another great conference here in the Czech Republic. From the plethora of great workshops the 29th P.A.R.K. conference had to offer, I’d like to mention two. I specifically picked these two because I found the topics very close in essence; it seemed to me as if they almost mirrored and complemented each other, which was probably strengthened by the fact that the presenters occasionally referred to each other throughout their speeches. The interesting thing is that both presenters, Simon Gill and Mark Andrews, have first-hand experience with my native culture – they both used to work here at Palacky University in Olomouc and Simon actually lives nearby with his Czech wife and two kids (if I remember correctly). So it won’t come as a surprise that the underlying theme (at least the way I saw it) was English as a foreign language and its connection to the L1/L2 culture.
Mark Andrew’s topic was Czenglish. I can’t help mentioning that many, many years ago, Mark was my BA thesis supervisor, which he probably doesn’t even remember given the fact that he’s such a globe trotter. Now, it might seem like tooting my own horn when I say I have been in direct contact with quite a few ELT gurus throughout my career, but it’s definitely not an exaggeration. And so it was a great honour that at some point, all of a sudden, Mark mentioned my blog and one specific post I had written a long time before – yes, the one about Czenglish. He kindly asked me to stand up and say hello to the audience, which I childishly refused. 🙂 #humblebragging
Simon Gill raised a few interesting questions. The one that comes to mind first is What are the reasons for English these days? He introduced an acronym – TENOR (teaching English for no obvious reason), which I found really amusing. I immediately remembered the dichotomy of intrinsic vs. extrinsic motivation; sometimes people JUST do something because they want to. And there is no obvious motivation behind it, i.e. there are no external goals or objectives they feel pressured to meet. If I asked my students, most of them would probably state two reasons from the list below and that would be that English is the language of the internet and that potentially, it’s a passport to a better future. Or they simply have to do it since it’s part of the school curriculum. But many of them don’t even think about the whys and they just do what is asked of them without consciously realizing that they are actually doing it to have more options in the future.
The last slide below shows a list of Czech expressions which are hard or impossible to translate into English with word-to-word equivalents. These are culture-loaded expressions which have a typical meaning in a particular culture, i.e. Czech culture. So, for the sake of accuracy, you usually need to provide some additional context and/or explanation. This proved to be an interesting exercise for me and my students. I think there should be more practice like this because, after all, we often need to verbalize our own cultural experience when talking to foreigners.
So, the overall message I got from Simon’s talk was this: it’s not always important to strive for native-like perfection when learning/teaching English; it’s more important to stay true to ourselves and our cultural backgrounds. On the other hand, the takeaway from Mark’s presentation was that we should be mindful since some elements of Czenglish may cause a little bit of confusion but are eventually understood by a native speaker. All in all, he encouraged us teachers to introduce the concept of Czenglish in class. I’m definitely for and I’d add this should be pursued without putting too much focus on native-like accuracy. In other words, we should occasionally point out some of the more ‘tricky’ errors – particularly those that may lead to all sorts of embarrassing situations. We definitely want to avoid major cross-cultural misunderstandings, but primarily, we want to train our students to get their message across fluently.
I really liked this simple, low-prep activity I learned about in a workshop delivered by Ben Herbert at the ILC International House Brno Brilliant Conference earlier this month. I have since tried it with most of my classes and, regardless of their level or age, it has always worked well. It’s definitely good for students who tend to be restless and who like to move and touch things. Plus there’s nothing more blissful for the teacher than watching the most serious students smile during an activity. 🙂
From the perspective of your lesson objectives, the activity can serve multiple purposes. You can use it to pre-teach vocabulary or to practise the vocabulary you covered in previous lessons. It can be used as a springboard for a speaking activity and it also involves a listening practice element.
I’m going to present the no-prep version.
·Get students to form pairs.
·Give each pair a sheet of blank paper and ask them to cut it up into 16 pieces (this number is easy to manage, even without scissors).
·Choose a text you want to work with (plus the recording of it). Ideally, it should be a longer text, such as a story or an article.
·Select 16 vocabulary items you want to focus on (this is the number I usually work with but it can be different in your context). These can be difficult words you want to pre-teach, keywords you’d like students to use to retell the story, etc.
·Dictate the words. Students write them on the slips of paper. If the expressions are new, write them on the board first and ask students to copy them.
·Do the pre-teaching, if necessary.
·Get students to shuffle the cards and spread them on the desk face up so they can all see them well.
·Play the recording. When a student hears one of the words, they grab the corresponding card.
·The student with more words is the winner.
To make it a little bit more challenging and fun, ask students to place their hands on their shoulders. This will make the competition a bit fairer, especially if there are only a few words left.
The good thing about this type of activity is that it makes students focus – even the most easily distracted ones will sit tight and alert. From a linguistic point of view, it encourages learners to predict, i.e. by hearing the context, they can guess what vocabulary items might potentially come next, which is a useful skill to practise.
Since I like to recycle my teaching materials, I always use the cards multiple times in the same lesson (and in the subsequent lessons as well). For example, I ask the students to put the words into categories or to add collocates. As I mentioned above, at some stage, I get them to retell the story using the words. Later on, they can play a describe-and-guess activity in groups. Another option is to collect the cards from all the pairs and place them on the floor. This time, the students are sitting in a circle with the words in the middle. Play the recording again (or ask somebody to read the text). You can encourage the students to get hold of the same word more than once. Alternatively, you can place the cards around the classroom and students have to look for them. Finally, you can use the sets to play Pelmanism (a memory card game in which a pack of cards is spread out face down and players try to turn up pairs with the same number). This is called killing many birds with one stone, right? 😀
If you happen to follow Philip Kerr’s blog, you will know that he has recently published this post called AI and Teacher Training where he talks about ChatGPT. In short, ChatGPT is a new AI chatbot that is trained using machine-learning algorithms and can understand open-ended queries. Not only does it comprehend orders, but it also understands the language – even Czech (my native language).
Well, it probably doesn’t come as a surprise that I, as an English teacher, find this tool truly fascinating. Not only can ChatGPT answer questions, but it can also write essays. This could come in handy in many situations in the classroom. For example, we can use the tool to train our students to give detailed answers when answering questions during exams. Also, ChatGPT could be used as a research tool for the students to find suitable material for their essays and presentations. And finally, it may be very useful for the teachers themselves if, for instance, they need another source to prepare for their lectures, conferences, webinars, etc.
What I also like about ChatGPT is that it remembers what the user said earlier in the conversation but most importantly, it is trained to decline inappropriate requests, so it should be relatively safe in the classroom.
Plus, it can definitely be fun to use. Alternatively, you can teach students how to diplomatically avoid answering odd questions, how to be polite when answering sensitive questions, etc. Here’s an example.
I’m not saying that this is something you can’t do with a simple Google search, but the fact that you can actually see the bot typing the answers in real time, so to speak, is fascinating indeed. Also, if you type How old amI into the Google search box, you’ll never get a genuine-like answer, such as the one from the bot. Well, I admit it may even appear scary to some, especially if you’re a fan of sci-fi movies related to the topic of AI. 🙂
One way or another, we should be careful and warn our students about ChatGPT’s limitations. Some argue that the biggest problem with ChatGPT is it often fails at accuracy. It sometimes writes plausible-sounding but incorrect or nonsensical answers. Users have discovered that ChatGPT makes up historical and biographical data. Also, it can generate discriminatory results. So, we teachers need to constantly encourage our students to verify their search results. This, in fact, can be a useful skill to learn and practise anyway. Our students should be aware of the fact that these days, they should not trust anything they come across on the internet unless they check different sources and look at the information from various angles.
All in all, if nothing else, ChatGPT can be a great tool for students to practise asking good questions. I’m deliberately not saying ‘correct’ questions because the bot will provide answers to wrongly formed questions as well, which may not detrimental after all, especially if our aim is to focus on the content and some sort of ‘communication’ instead of grammatical accuracy.
Anyway, below are some of the questions I asked when I first played with ChatGPT and the answers I received. You can see for yourselves how useful or ‘accurate’ they are. 😉
What is the meaning of life?
The meaning of life is a question that has puzzled people for centuries, and there are many different answers to this question depending on one’s beliefs, values, and personal experiences. Some people believe that the meaning of life is to seek happiness, fulfilment, or purpose, while others believe that the meaning of life is subjective and can vary from person to person. Others may believe that the meaning of life is to serve a higher power or to contribute to the greater good of society. Ultimately, the meaning of life is a deeply personal and philosophical question, and the answer will likely be different for everyone.
What is love?
Love is a complex mix of emotions, behaviours, and beliefs associated with strong feelings of affection, protectiveness, warmth, and respect for another person. It can also include deep romantic or sexual attraction. Love can be experienced in many different forms, such as the love between family members, friends, and romantic partners. It can also be described as an action or a choice to care for and support another person. Some people believe that love is an important part of a happy and fulfilling life and that it is a fundamental human need. Others may view love as a mysterious or elusive concept. Ultimately, the meaning and experience of love can vary greatly from person to person.
Is there life after death?
The concept of life after death is a belief that has been held by many different cultures and belief systems throughout history. Some people believe that the soul or spirit lives on after the body dies, while others do not believe in an afterlife. There is no scientific evidence that proves or disproves the existence of an afterlife, and it is ultimately a matter of belief and faith. Beliefs about the afterlife can vary greatly from person to person and can be influenced by cultural, religious, and personal experiences. It is important to respect the beliefs of others and to recognize that people have the right to hold their own beliefs and opinions on this topic.
The other day, I came across the concept of logotherapy. At first, I was rather confused by the fact that it was mentioned in the context of education – since it’s a term mainly used in psychotherapy – but as I further explored it, it started to make perfect sense.
So, logotherapy is a therapeutic approach that helps people find personal meaning in life. It’s a form of psychotherapy that is focused on the future and on our ability to endure hardship and suffering through a search for purpose. Logotherapy was developed by neurologist and psychiatrist Viktor Frank and is based on the premise that the primary motivational force of an individual is to find meaning in life. In other words, Frankl believed that humans are motivated by something called a ‘will to meaning’ – a desire to find meaning in life. Also, he believed that life can have meaning even in the most miserable of circumstances and that the motivation for living comes from finding that meaning.
Frankl believed in three core properties on which his theory and therapy were based:
Each person has a healthy core.
One’s primary focus is to enlighten others about their internal resources and provide them with tools to use their inner core.
Life offers purpose and meaning but does not promise fulfilment or happiness.
Logotherapy proposes that meaning in life can be discovered in three distinct ways:
By creating a work or doing a deed.
By experiencing something or encountering someone.
By the attitude that we take toward unavoidable suffering.
So, what does all this have to do with teaching, ELT, education, etc.? First of all, I strongly believe that apart from teaching English, our primary goal is to enlighten our students about their internal resources and to provide them with tools to use their inner core. We, teachers, can help our students to find meaning through creativity and creation. Also, we can offer opportunities for them to experience something meaningful in the classroom as well as outside of it. Finally, we can dig deep through all the layers of what we see on the outside and find the healthy core each student has.
Second of all, logotherapy, or the realization of its basic premise of it, can help us start the healing process aimed at ourselves. We teachers also have healthy cores and we definitely have the power to realize that even though life (or our job) does not automatically promise fulfilment or happiness, it definitely offers purpose, so the only challenge is to discover it – through creativity and work. And even though we may suffer now and then, or feel unfulfilled or dissatisfied, it’s the attitude we take towards this sort of ‘hardship’.
Thirdly, there’s the question of motivation – a concept so often debated in the context of ELT and education in general. Once you find a purpose in doing something, for example learning a language, things become easier for everybody involved – for the student as well as the teacher.
From the above, it seems that having a meaning or purpose in life correlates with one’s overall health, happiness, and life satisfaction. So, through logotherapy, we teachers could kill several proverbial birds with one stone. We could simply make the classroom a happier place and our work even more meaningful. After all, once the teacher is happy, the students are too (and vice versa).
In April 2021, I wrote up my blog post about the 3rd P.A.R.K. Online Conference. It seems like ages ago now although it’s just 18 months. Things were so different back then and by ‘different’ I mean, well, not precisely satisfying for us teachers. So before I even begin this post, I need to pause and give a moment of appreciation to the P.A.R.K. conference organizers who, even in the time of greatest despair, didn’t give up and gave us hope by keeping up the good job, albeit in a slightly different format.
But here we are – in November 2022. It seems that finally, things have got back to normal and once again, we can live, breathe, attend ‘real’ conferences and learn from people face to face. And I must say that the 28th P.A.R.K. conference has probably been the most enjoyable experience in the professional world so far. Mind you, the previous conferences there or elsewhere had been as good as this one; the line-up of presenters, the atmosphere, and the catering standards had always been top-notch. Still, this time, I felt more present and focused than ever before. So I wonder… is it my age, my experience or the fact that we have become more appreciative after having been through so much recently?
Maybe it was the enthusiasm, joy and authenticity with which the presenters delivered their talks which resonated with me so much. And to be honest, we all got an enormous boost of energy right at the start because the conference was kicked off by the amazing Hugh Dellar. I had already known Hugh from the online environment and had highly appreciated his work. But once I saw him present face-to-face, I was impressed – by his cordial personality as well as his insights on teaching. In his opening plenary, he spoke about motivation. And I need to make the long story short here because otherwise, it would be a very, very long post (and I have some other things to cover here). So, here’s a summary of the tips Hugh gave the audience on how to motivate students:
Listen to your students (identify their goals and needs, listen to the content of what they say, simply make the most of the people in the room).
Talk to your students (don’t worry about your TTT).
Tell your students about yourselves (show them you are a normal person).
Teach your students useful things (what they actually need to say or what they would say in L1).
Teach the class first and the coursebook second (don’t worry about the number of pages you need to cover, skip or elaborate if need be).
Be careful how you correct (overcorrection can destroy people’s confidence; your goal is to help students to say things in a better way).
Test your students (but in a less frightening way, provide positive feedback, use instant revision activities, get students to re-tell texts and re-do tasks, gap words in your board work).
Worry less about the topics (even the PARSNIPs, let students ‘bring’ the topics to the lessons).
Worry more about the language and anecdotes (sometimes it’s the language that drives the interest, not the topic; any text has language that may be useful to students).
Look deep into your coursebook (a good textbook has little bits of speaking often, teaches useful language, and has conversations in L2 that resemble the ones they have in L1).
All in all, Hugh’s approach seems to be very personalized, student-focused, as well as practical, which definitely resonates with me.
And then it was time for the first workshop of the day. From the plethora of outstanding presenters, I chose to see my favourite methodology teacher of all time – Nikki Fořtová. I remember as if it was just yesterday; I was applying for my master’s programme at Masaryk University in Brno and during the oral examination, she was there on the committee – as inconspicuous and humble as I have always known her since. And then, two years later, when I was taking my final exams, she was there too, sitting quietly in the back of the room, taking notes. In the meantime, we had a lot of fantastic methodology lessons with her. So it’s not surprising that I always try to see her – because of my nostalgic memories and because she is such an amazing professional.
Nikki started her workshop in an unusual manner – she didn’t just say Hello, my name is … and I’m going to talk about X and Y. No, that would be too plain for Nikki. Instead, before she even started formally, as if by the way, she bombarded us with tips from the virtual world, such as youglish.com, where you can learn how to pronounce tricky expressions by listening to authentic videos which contain the word you searched for. Or textingstory.com, an app which enables you to write a text conversation, create a video from your story, watch your creation on the screen, and share it with your students. Then she offered a few handy classroom activities which can potentially make your coursebook more engaging. Throughout her workshop, I learned that, for instance, running dictation can be done in groups of three, not just in pairs. I learned how to erase a permanent marker from the whiteboard (by drawing over the marks you’ve made in a permanent marker with a dry-erase marker). I also discovered that according to research, you can either pre-teach vocabulary or teach it later – it doesn’t really make a difference. And learned a new word – maven. 🙂 And I’m definitely going to try the run and rip activity she demonstrated. And finally, she showed us an amazing platform called blooket.com, something I had never heard of before but am eager to explore. On this website, the teacher picks a question set and a unique game mode. Then, the website generates a code that players can use to join the game on their own devices. After the game starts, the players will answer questions to help them win.
Just before the lunch break, I saw a talk by Charles Stewart. This was a new ELT figure for me and I didn’t quite know what to expect, so I considered it a step out of my comfort zone. But you know what they say: only if you leave your comfort zone do you really start growing. Charles’s workshop was called Let’s Talk About Progression, from B1 to C2, but the main theme was speaking, namely how to achieve excellence in it. In his view, excellence entails speaking fluently, naturally, and accurately. It also means using body language appropriately, knowing what to say in a particular situation and context, and having plenty of time for planning and rehearsal. He also pointed out that it is important to balance fluency and accuracy. Although many teachers would probably suggest that fluency is far more important, we should also aim at accuracy. Teaching it doesn’t have to be a nuisance, though. He advised that we can teach language structures covertly and inconspicuously. For example, you can give your students a list of have you ever questions before you even teach the present perfect. Students will naturally deduce how to use it long before you explain how things work. Also, he stressed the importance of feedback. He believes that some of the most learning he has done was through feedback. We talked about different ways of providing feedback, e.g. sandwich feedback (positive + constructive + positive), triangle feedback (3 different things a student did well or 2 positives and 1 negative/constructive), or two stars and a wish (2 good points and one thing to improve). Apart from formal teacher feedback, he mentioned the importance of self-reflection and peer feedback. Throughout the talk, it was clear that there was this pattern emerging – the rule of three. Charles called it The 3rd Time Lucky.
In his after-lunch workshop, Hugh Dellar talked about magic. Yes, he believes teachers can make magic in their classrooms and that’s one of the reasons he still keeps doing this job. He shared a few moving anecdotes from his own teaching career and he also recalled one of the best lessons he’d ever taught – it was one of those moments when he felt hopeless and desperate and almost wanted to give up but then, something magical happened, which, in the end, changed things completely.
After this beautiful, emotional introduction, Hugh spoke about the ways of turning a lesson into something meaningful and useful. As he already mentioned in his opening plenary, one of our primary goals as teachers is to help students say what they want to say – in better English. So, it’s a good idea to board students’ real-life stories, reformulate what they say and then encourage them to use the ‘upgraded’ version. To achieve this, the teacher should try to make space beyond controlled and free practice activities, even when they seem under pressure because they have a lot to ‘teach’. He advises us to leave space for chat, small talk, stories, and banter. He says that we should keep in mind that lexis is far more often the issue than grammar. Don’t worry about the syllabus too much. When a student needs a word, they are ready for that word. Also, accept the fact that students sometimes say things that break conventional taboos (they even bring up PARSNIPs), which can be unpleasant for the teacher to deal with. Some of the most unpleasant ideas we have to deal with in class sometimes emerge in response to the most mundane questions. In the same vein, personal responses will often emerge after fairly impersonal questions. So, all you need to do is to provide the language the student needs and then perhaps explain why you disagree. This can help you take the heat off a difficult situation and you will still be able to provide some useful language to that particular student as well as the rest of the group. Remember, though, that you only get better at turning student output into whole-class input with practice. All in all, the process of working with the language is more important than the product. So, learn to travel off map more. When something interesting pops up, be ready to ditch the plan. Learn how to enquire and explore. Even if magic doesn’t happen immediately, at least you have provided opportunities for it to potentially emerge.
And finally, here comes the closing plenary by Nikki Fořtová – the proverbial icing on the cake. You may think that one could already have enough of a presenter they saw earlier that day, but no, you can never have enough of Nikki, simply because she is amazing and she has so much to offer. So I stayed fully focused till the very end, taking notes, trying not to miss anything important she had to say. Her topic was called Seven Habits of Highly Effective Teachers from Someone Who’s Spend 21 Years Trying to Adopt Them. David Koster, the most important guy behind the scenes, had introduced the topic as a bit of a tongue-in-the-cheek one, so we were ready for some fun. And yes, it was playful indeed but quite deep at the same time.
So, what do highly effective teachers do, according to Nikki?
They turn up (they stick with their students and are available for them; they show commitment).
They bring T.E.A. to the classroom (trust, empathy and appreciation).
They are organized (they clean and purge and they have a logical filing system; something to remember: according to research, students do better in tests in an organized classroom).
They take risks (Nikki mentioned a few memorable things here: the fixed vs. growth mindset, the quote by Henry Ford: “Whether you think you can, or think you can’t, you’re right.”, and the metaphorical journey leading from the comfort zone to growth).
They avoid being happiness hoovers, i.e. they avoid sucking the joy of every situation (tip: you can always flip a negative statement into a positive one, e.g. This class just can’t learn. > Every student has the potential to learn).
They reflect and have bouncebackability (tip: apply the ALAC model: acting > looking back > assessment of essential aspects > creating alternative methods of action > acting > … )
They recharge (tip: help yourself before you can help others, say “no” in a nice way, i.e. hit the pause button, use the Time Management Eisenhower Matrix (a task management tool that helps you organize and prioritize tasks by urgency and importance. Using the tool, you’ll divide your tasks into four boxes based on the tasks you’ll do first, the tasks you’ll schedule for later, the tasks you’ll delegate, and the tasks you’ll delete.)
And that was it. After the raffle, I was headed home – happy, recharged and full of optimism and new ideas to use in class. And I feel the same now that I have finished my post. 🙂
I’ve always known that there is a fine line between being too passionate about what one teaches and being excited about passing knowledge on to their students. It is generally believed that it is essential for a teacher to be enthusiastic about their subject, and whenever I discuss this with my students they always tell me that they appreciate teachers who are passionate. Of course, there are students whose primary goal is to understand and learn quickly and effectively, and they don’t really care if the teacher loves what they do or not. In other words, their intrinsic motivation is high enough for them to be distracted by the teacher’s excitement or the lack of it.
I’m saying all this because I believe I’m very passionate about my subject (English as a foreign language). It’s crossed my mind a few times though that sometimes my zeal can actually be detrimental to my students – or at least to some of them. This can happen when, for example, I’m too creative, original, artistic, inventive, or innovative. As a result, what I do is almost overkill. Too much of a good thing, as it were. So, those students who like to learn in a calm and structured environment may feel a little confused and disoriented.
I’ve come across this post by Paul Moss called LEARNED HELPLESSNESS AND THE CURSE OF KNOWLEDGE which discusses both terms in detail. My curiosity was piqued by the former concept – learned helplessness – which is a state that occurs after a person has experienced a stressful situation repeatedly. This person then comes to believe that they are unable to control or change the situation, so they do not try — even when opportunities for change become available. After seeing this video, which beautifully demonstrates how a teacher can ‘create helplessness’ in the classroom, so to speak, I realized that maybe, some of my most original and well-intended activities were quite confusing and didn’t lead to much learning. They may have been beneficial for the fast learners and/or talented students but they were useless and even frustrating for the students who performed in the mid-range and lower.
In my defence, most of my students are fast learners and talented, too. But still, I sometimes take it for granted and forget about the ones that may have had a bad day or the ones who simply don’t get the point of an activity that I consider absolutely amazing. In his post, Paul Moss offers several tips on how to design a course effectively to avoid learned helplessness and the curse of knowledge. I’d add that if an activity seems too confusing or even pointless to some students, it’s vital to explain the teacher’s reasoning behind it. In fact, I believe it’s always good to tell students why we are doing what we are doing – not just when they feel lost (which may be too late anyway).
In conclusion, I’d like to say that I still believe that passion and excitement are good things. However, their intrinsic nature is emotional so they need to be consciously controlled by reason and logic. Specifically, they need to be guided by purpose, aim and intention.
I sometimes ponder this: What is it that makes my job so enjoyable for me. Why is it so that the longer I have been a teacher, the more I love being one? You know, it sometimes crosses my mind that I should be a little burned out … a bit worn-out after so many years of doing the same thing. But I’m not.
Don’t get me wrong; I did experience moments of despair and fatigue in the past, most of which took place at the start of my career and also quite recently – during the remote teaching period. But eventually, I learned from that experience and now I can use the newly acquired and assimilated knowledge and skills to enjoy what I do even more.
But I’m spurting big words here. Life consists of small moments which after all, create the bigger picture. The small pieces of a mosaic are what is important. But what are they?
What first comes to mind is my experience, without which I would hardly be able to fully enjoy anything related to my profession. Not that I didn’t enjoy my job when I was younger and inexperienced. I did. Those joyful moments, however, were rarely planned for. Neither were they too permanent for that matter. I mostly experienced sporadic, spontaneous moments of happiness, followed by instances of hopelessness in quick succession. Just like a rollercoaster. Ups and downs, the ebb and flow. But that was an inevitable part of my evolution as a teacher.
My age is another important factor in the interplay of light and shadow of being a teacher. It’s obviously closely related to experience. However, what I mean is that the older you get, the more easy-going, relaxed and tolerant you can become and thus, you create more space for enjoyment. Also, without trying to sound too dramatic, you realize you have less and less time left. You realize that there will be a point in the future when you won’t be able to do what you love anymore … for whatever reasons. And finally, the older you get, the more you appreciate working with children and young people in general. And the wider the gap, the more you can gain from it. ¨Some say that grandchildren may often have a better relationship with their grandparents than children have with their parents. That’s what I mean.
Related to all the above, you gradually have better relationships with your colleagues and bosses. You know your stuff so you’ve become immune to all the potential trickery and abuse. In other words, you know your worth. You can easily navigate yourself in the world of your profession – you know what to look for and what to discard and fake and useless.
And finally, the everyday moments of joy – when a student approaches you and tells you that she enjoys your lessons. Or when they come up to you and ask for help, which you can easily provide. When they beam with enthusiasm and energy in your lessons. When they tell you that you are their favourite teacher. When your effort is appreciated by your boss or a colleague who has just observed your lesson. And so on and so forth. It’s right here in your hands and has always been. It’s just that you can clearly see it now.
One of the things I’ve always liked to have in my life is control. It sounds a bit authoritarian but I believe it’s one of the basic human desires no matter what anybody says. This has also long been one of my deep-seated convictions about teaching and classroom management. So, as a teacher, I like to have the upper hand in class, too. Not that I crave power because I like the feel of it, it just feels safer to hold the reins and be in charge. To be more precise, deep down I believe things go more smoothly and effectively, i.e. students learn more when there is an order as opposed to chaos.
When I was younger, I often lost ground when things slipped out of control in class, especially with younger kids. Consequently, I would feel really bad about myself. In my book, it was always my fault. Luckily, it’s much better now because a) I’m more experienced so I don’t often let things go out of control – simply by taking precautions, b) if it does happen, though, I have some strategies and coping mechanisms to handle the situation, and c) I’ve come to realize that after all, losing control may not always be a bad thing. I’ve learned it the hard way, though…
I’ve learned there are many situations when things can’t be controlled. And you have to accept it. When a bee flies into the classroom, there’s not much you can do to stop the disorder and confusion immediately. People feel threatened in such situations. It’s their basic instinct to start screaming and jumping around like crazy. Well, you, the one in charge, can kill the bee (which I’d rather not do) or let it out (which I always opt for), but this intervention takes time. Needless to say, by the time you handle the situation, the class has already fallen apart and you’ll need a lot of energy to restore some kind of ‘law and order’. When your student gets so sick that you need to call an ambulance in the middle of your class, you can bet your bottom dollar that you will never be able to resume the lesson. It’s so strange, you know … when the sick student is safe and in good hands of the paramedics, your teacher-self automatically wants to pick up where they left off because you feel you owe the other students. But it’s not possible and it’s actually insane to think you can simply rewind and start over. And let’s face it, it’s you who desperately needs the restoration, not the students.
It may sound too harsh but apart from being a control freak, I also like to mentally abuse myself. When I feel things have slipped out of control, I always ask myself: What would people think if they suddenly entered the classroom? What would they see? Chaos. Mayhem. Havoc. They’d simply see the opposite of what a normal lesson should look like and I’d probably have to explain myself, which automatically adds to my dissatisfaction with myself as a teacher.
But sometimes I’m kind to myself, which is happening more and more these days, so when things slip out of control (because kids are having too much fun during an activity or something has just upset them), I force myself to stop and quietly observe. In other words, I do not jump up and interfere right away as my true nature dictates to me, but I take a step back, metaphorically and literally speaking. And sometimes things settle down after a while without the slightest intervention of mine. The chaos in front of me gradually reshapes and remoulds itself into something perfectly harmonious. It’s just a bit noisier. Sometimes I realize that things are actually perfectly fine even though at first sight, they may look a bit disorganized. And oftentimes it is not chaos at all; I just see it that way because I’m such a despot.
This is not to say that I believe that all of a sudden, things can go all liberal. What I’m saying is that it’s often the teacher’s (read: me) focus and perspective that need to change. And although there has been a lot of self-flagellation in this post, I still believe I’m a good teacher and particularly my classroom management skills are my strongest suit. I just think that I could be happier and more content if I just let it be. 🙂
So, we are currently finding ourselves in the post-covid situation. Well, whether it’s really post covid is a question I’d rather avoid elaborating on. One way or another, we are back at school having regular face-to-face lessons and it seems things have truly come back to normal at school. By normal I mean we are in the actual classrooms doing the things we used to do. But normal doesn’t necessarily mean the same.
Truth be told, last year around this time, we also felt things were getting back to normal. Except they weren’t. Schools were closed again. With this in mind, I can’t help constantly feeling on my toes. The other day I even caught myself looking at my timetable, drafting a potential Zoom schedule from my classes. In other words, I was considering all the possible combinations for the ever-dreaded scenario – the lockdown.
Not only that, I’ve been intentionally training my classes, especially the new ones, to navigate themselves in the online platform that we were using during the last lockdown. Ironically, although we spent quite a long period of time in the online realm, I’ve come to the conclusion that people (me included) tend to forget soon and quickly. For example, when I wanted to design a quick online activity for my classes back in September, for a moment, I was struggling to remember how things worked. For that reason, I thought students may have the same problem.
What I’m trying to say is that I decided to keep one foot in the online environment in case things went south again. So, we do tests on mobile devices rather than on paper. Some homework is online too. This blended approach has some advantages as well as disadvantages but overall, I’d say that there are more pros than cons. As always, it’s the notorious internet connection that makes our lives difficult. But so far, we’ve always figured things out. If, for instance, a student doesn’t have a phone at all (yes, there are some who don’t), they can borrow my laptop.
On a more positive note, one of the major advantages is that the feedback is instant. Also, in order to work properly, the quizzes need to be designed immaculately. So I tend to put a lot of thought into the actual design, especially into the decisions regarding what I want to test. As a result, not only do I feel more content and in control but I think the students feel the same way. The younger students told me explicitly that they actually like this approach. I mean, they are at school and they are allowed to touch their phones! Wow!
There’s one thing I’m still on the fence about – does this type of online testing allow for cheating? I obviously monitor the class all the time but I know there are ways to outsmart the teacher, so to speak. Students can make print screens and they can easily share their answers via some messaging platforms. They might google answers as well. Anyway, I’m aware of all these potentialities but I’ve actually never seen anyone cheating so far. So, fingers crossed for us.
Having said that, that doesn’t mean I’m some kind of an extremist as far as technology is concerned. I’m well aware of the fact that mobile technologies, and especially social media, can be truly damaging if not used wisely. But as I said earlier, we need to be prepared for the worst scenario. If students are stranded at home again, they will be forced to use mobile technologies no matter what we think about their negative effects.