Tuesday, 3 June 2014

Educate Me

My previous article talked about the idea of using anecdotes and real-life examples to liven up a class and to create an emotional link between teacher and student. I argued that it was a great way for teachers to show their value in the classroom. A good teacher will use examples that not only make the target language clear to the students but will also increase the level of engagement in the class. A less good teacher will be limited to passing information to the students with the level of engagement far lower. At the end of the last article, I acknowledged that the ideas involved were not rocket-science or brain surgery, but even though they were relatively simple concepts they were key to creating classes that go further and do more. The same is true of the idea that I wish to discuss in this article. It us really simple, but really does go a long way. 

For this piece, we are going to deal with an idea that I believe can be considered a methodology in itself. I call it 'Educate Me'. To give you as full a background as possible into the way it came to pass, I shall talk you through some of the classes that acted as its catalyst. The first of these was a one-on-one conversation class with a student who wanted to improve his English in order to take a job in the oil industry. The guy was the closest thing to a bona fide genius I have ever met. He could talk lucidly and with great authority on scores of subjects. His explanations of renewable energy and economics were genuinely outstanding. After each class I would walk out of the room and say to myself, "Wow, I feel like I am the one who has been educated". 

Thanks to Julian - the young oil trader- I began to look at the dynamics of an English class and began to think about whether or not I could change them. I began to ask myself whether I should be looking at the balance of education in the classroom. Could I be shifting it from teacher to student? After all, the classes we had done had been flush with STT and the student had expressed himself clearly and openly - he was also very happy with the classes. I was not specifically thinking about changing anything about the classes with Julian because they had been very successful. Rather, I was wondering if I could recreate the context that had worked so well with him with other students. This was when I decided to work in what I called the "Educate Me Framework'. Basically, I wanted to create a context in class where the students were happy sharing and explaining. I wanted to give them the opportunity to speak in great detail about a subject that interested them.  

At no point am I going to claim that the words above are in any way revolutionary. They do not shatter the earth or break any ground whatsoever. Any teacher who has done a TEFL certificate or a CELTA knows the importance of creating an environment in which the students are happy to speak. However, I do believe that in certain situations, 'Educate Me' can give a little something extra. To give an example of this, I want turn use another student with whom I did face-to-face conversation classes, let's call him Michel. Unlike Julian, Michel was not talkative or outgoing and our first few classes felt like pulling teeth. Michel was a high-level manager who considered himself extremely important and just a little bit above the classes he was having. He saw himself as a VIP and wanted to set himself apart from other students that came to my school - such as Julian. Each week I would head to class with prepared materials that Michel would scoff at before moving onto subjects he considered more apt and more befitting of his status 

I was not enjoying the classes at all and Michel clearly didn't think he was getting much from them. So, after some serious soul-searching, I thought about using 'Educate Me'. The question then became how I would do this. I needed to wrestle enough control of the class from Michel to set up a framework. I managed to do just that at the start of the next class. To setup the framework was relatively easy. I began with a bit of flattery by stating that I presumed Michel was very well respected in his field - in this case catering-management - before explaining it was an area in which I was not hugely well-versed. This approach worked a treat. The next 45 minutes flew by as he pontificated in outrageous detail on the intricacies of managing restaurants and catering major events. 'Educate Me' was a success. From that point on, classes with Michel became infinitely easier. I also applied it with several other students really took to the idea and began to open up a lot more than they had previously when we had used prepared materials. So, what are they keys to making it work? How is it best implemented? As I stated before, it is not rocket-science, but there are a few key issues. 

The first is getting to know your students. If it is a face-to-face student like Michel or Julian, it is important to get to know them as much as possible before the course or in the first class. The more information you have at your disposal, the better. It is also worthwhile to research the students area of expertise so that you can ask sensible and probing questions. If you wish to use the concept in group classes, it is a little more difficult because you have more people to get to know and you also have to balance the amount of time each student has to talk. However, if you know enough about each student, it is possible to create a fantastic knowledge-sharing experience. 

The second key facet to 'Educate Me' is the framework and how you set up the activity. I would argue that there are two elements here. The first is to be nice and clear that you - as the teacher - want to change the dynamic of the class and have the student educate you about their areas of expertise. Even if the student is discussing something you know well, it is important to ensure that you give them the opportunity to take control and speak more. The teacher's ideas and opinions on any subject are secondary to getting the student speaking fluently. The second area to focus on is the way the teacher encourages the student to speak. This is where we get a little more technical. It is vital for the teacher to begin by using the type of vocabulary that encourages speech. Words such as 'explain', 'describe', 'tell' are great here. So too are phrases like 'in your opinion', 'based on your experience' and 'with your insight'. It is also extremely important that when the teacher asks questions that he/she uses open questions - who, why, what, when, where, which, how - so as to keep the conversation open and moving. 

The third and final key to 'Educate Me' is that the teacher needs to show interest in what the student has to say. Obviously, this is much easier if the student is a genuinely interesting person. For example, it was really easy for me to look interested when I was speaking to Julian because he was a fascinating person. This is the ideal scenario that we are looking at. However, it its is not always quite so easy. Michel was not so interesting and the small details of the catering industry left me rather cold. However, whether I enjoyed the subject or not was irrelevant. My job was to look like I did. Simply put, I faked it, That may not sound great, but it is a fantastically useful technique. As long as the student does not understand that the teacher is faking interest, they will be encouraged to speak. 

'Educate Me' is nothing outrageous in terms of teaching technique. However, applying the rather simple methodology can go along way in encouraging students to speak and interact.

Monday, 2 June 2014

Examples and Anecdotes

I want to begin this article by discussing a class I used to teach at my last school in FranceI believe it was a great example of the ideas that is blog is all about. When I started this blog, the basic premise was to look at ways in which the teacher can go beyond simply passing information to the students. In my first article, I argued that in the modern world - with its prevalence of electronic resources - in order to continue to be relevant and to continue to offer value to studentsteachers need to differentiate themselves from the huge array of online help that is now available to students. A good teacher will do more than just parrot information. When I started the class that I want to discuss hereit was not designed to be an example of doing something more. However, it quickly evolved into just that and taught me some valuable lessons that I would like to share here 

The class was a Q&A session called AskPaul. The reason I chose to focus on AskPaul is simple: originally it was a class designed simply to pass information to my students. There was nothing more to it than that - I was aiming to market myself as a grammar spouting robot! The idea was that the students would come for an hour and ask any grammar and vocabulary questions that they might have. I would answer them, obviously. My initial objectives were, if I am being frightfully honest, rather modest. I simply wanted to answer a few questions and wanted my students to feel that I was available to them if they had queries or concerns. At first, it started out just like that, but after a while things began to change. 

If I continue with the motif of complete honesty, the first couple of classes were a tad underwhelming. The class served its function with the students getting the grammar clarification they sought, but I would not feel comfortable employing the adjective 'inspiring' in association with my first few efforts. I was doing little more than a robot teacher or an internet site with detailed grammar information. The students asked questions; I answered them. That was it. My boardwork was impeccable and my explanations 100% accurate, but there was a gap in the heart of the class.  

At this point, I began thinking back to a previous job I had held working for a company that provided Business English and soft skills training to major companies operating in China. After just a few weeks at the company I noticed that some of the teachers were far more popular than others. Those that the students grew to love all had one thing in common: they used stories and anecdotes to help them explain the points they were trying to make. In order to succeed, it was something I also needed to do. Therefore, as I planned the classes and seminars I delivered, I constantly sought ways to include real-life stories and anecdotes. This worked well in China and it worked well again in France when I began to do the same thing for AskPaul. Suddenly, the students began to buy in a lot more to what I was saying, attendance in the class started to rise and the feedback I received was overwhelmingly positive. 

If I were to end this article here, it would make a valid point: that stories, examples and anecdotes add colour to any class. However, that would make for a rather simplistic and one-dimensional piece of writing. Even though have made a valid point, I feel the need to go a little further. I want to pose the question, why does using examples and anecdotes make our classes better? Why do students engage with the material more and why is the impact of our academic performance heightened? 

I want to look at two major points here. The first is the easiest to describe and is also the most practical. Basically, by using real-life examples, the teacher bridges the divide between theory and practice. Students get to see the language they are practicing applied in real life situations and used in such ways it is easier to see both its purpose and the usage. This, though, is the least important if the two aspects. In the introduction to this blog, I talked about separating teachers from electronic resources. I talked about doing more. Examples and anecdotes are a fantastic example of this. When I use anecdotes I always try to use things that have happened to me and stories from my past. This allows me to bond with the students and allows them to get to know me not just as a teacher but as a person. It creates an emotional link between teacher and student. This will most certainly help the students to remember what they hear. They might not remember a cold and calculated grammar example - no matter how accurate it is - but they just may keep a fun anecdote in their mind just that little bit longer. 

The advice in this blog is not earth shattering or ground-breaking. However, it is a great first example of the simple things a teacher needs to go to operate in the twenty-first century.

Our New Environment

I have spent the last ten years working in the TEFL field. In that period I feel that I have witnessed some pretty momentous changes and have very much enjoyed watching my job and the resources that accompany it develop exponentially. The evolution of the internet and the rise of mobile technology has changed the landscape in the way we communicate in our everyday lives and also in the way we learn. The idea of the traditional teacher standing at the front of the classroom imparting information to the passive students is now a little outmoded. No longer is the teacher a font of knowledge. No longer is he or she an oracle of knowledge the students could never possibly hope to attain from other sources. The world has changed. Information is far more readily available.  

There is so much information available online and so many modern resources available to students that teachers suddenly find their role open to question. There are countless websites and apps that offer students access to English grammar and vocabulary. Anyone with access to a computer or a smartphone can find breakdowns of every tense, the conjugation of every verb and untold vocabulary groups all at the click of a mouse. They do not need a teacher to write it on the board anymore. The function of the teacher as a conduit of information looks increasingly redundant. 

I am sure we are all aware of the differences technology has made to both teachers and students. I remember in the early part of my career teaching at a state school in China. This was about ten years ago. The classrooms there were still very basic. I used chalk on an old-fashioned blackboard. The students in that class checked words in paper dictionaries that they carried in the school bags - it all sounds rather Dickensian doesn't it? Fast forward to today and even those students in a small town in northeastern China will be looking stuff up on the web and will have electronic dictionaries or translation on their phones. I remember the students listening to me intently. This was not because  I was such a riveting speaker but because I was the only source of English they had. Not anymore. They can go on YouTube or utilise any number of apps to find electronic help. Their need for my explanations of the Present Perfect written in blue and pink chalk is far smaller than it was. 

I also spent a year during the early stages of my career in the hogwans of Korea. I had a little more technology at my disposal there, but the same trend of technological development will also have its impact in that environment. In fact, Korea is leading the way in employing technology where it once used real-life teachers. Because walking-talking teachers are an expensive and often complicated investment, many of the state schools there have taken to using robot teachers to host classes for lower level students. That's right, robots teaching classesI guess it goes without saying that they are not doing high-level conversation classes or teaching complex business English lessons, but they are capable of doing simple phonics and vocabulary classes. This may sound like an academic version of 1984, but in starkly practical teems it is actually a pretty logical step. Why spend money on a human to do something technology can do much cheaper? 

Of course, the robot is not the same as an actual human teacher. That much is obvious. But the situation is representative of teaching in the 21st century. Teachers need to differentiate themselves from electronic sources of information. If real-life teachers do not provide more than the average robot, they are not really worth the investment. If all a teacher does is give information, the robot is a cheaper option that never gets tired, never shows up late and never asks for a pay-rise. This means that if teachers are not careful we could face a Terminator style battle against the machines to keep our jobs.  

Whilst that last point may be a slight exaggeration, the idea of technology marginalizing actual teachers in the classroom should not be discounted and is something every teacher should be considering. I recently read the book 'Think' by Edward de Bono. In the main, I found it a tad dull and outrageously self-aggrandizing. However, he did make one fantastic point. He argued that since almost the entirety of human knowledge is now available online, the teacher is something of a wasted resource if all he/she does is pass information to students. He believes the role of the teacher needs to change. The teacher has got to do something more. This is going to be the crux of my blog. It is going to examine the ways that teachers can offer more. How do we separate ourselves from technology? How do we banish the robots? What makes us different and what can we bring to our students?