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.

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