For language teachers: Why it’s not all about you!
Traditionally, in most classroom settings, the teacher takes centre stage. They are the expert, and what they say goes. This is also a cultural aspect of education: in both Islamic and Confucian traditions of education, the teacher is seen as a central figure, whose authority dictates the learning activity that goes on in the classroom. Even in institutions which pride themselves on their student-centredness and progressive approach to student-led learning, most classrooms still feature a screen or board on one wall, implying that the teacher’s place is at the front of the room, and that this is where the learning ‘comes from’.
There are many reasons why teachers are the centre of the learning environment in academic subjects like maths or history; these disciplines are to some extent knowledge-based, and that knowledge does come initially from the teacher. Yes, logical reasoning and critical thinking skills are important to these subjects, but without the teacher there to set the learning in motion, and to be the ‘expert’ in the room, or at least to present the material being studied, most school subjects cannot be effectively delivered.
The language classroom, on the other hand, should prioritise student activity over teacher control. In fact, the more teachers control the interaction in the classroom, and the more they teach from the front of the room, the fewer opportunities for learning moments may come about for students. Teaching does not equal learning, and often these two actions are inversely proportional, with more learning coming about with reduced teacher interference.
The essence of language development is skills-based. Knowledge of grammar patterns and vocabulary can be developed through exposure to listening and reading texts rather than teacher-led explanations and examples. Practice is essential, and a whole language can be learnt without a teacher being present at all. This is shown by people who migrate to other language environments and pick up the language that they need without attending formal classes at all. The same learning outcomes that an elementary group of learners might work towards in a lesson about food, numbers and money vocabulary are equally possible for a motivated learner going to a market and shopping from individual stallholders every week, and aiming to successfully get everything that they need in another language through personal contact with people.
There are many ways that you can make teaching more about the students than about you. Prioritising questions over explanations is one way - almost any teacher statement can be turned into a question, facilitating thought and discussion about the topic rather than simple absorption of the. Teacher’s ideas. Using pair- and group-based tasks is another way. By instructing a task and leaving a group of four students to complete it together, so much more student activity is made possible.
The language educator’s role is not redundant, however. There are many useful and productive actions that a good language teacher can design into classes. However, these actions are quite different from those of a traditional school subject teacher’s. The main spoken contributions of a teacher (though very minimal, by comparison to student activity) should be to set up a lesson topic through which to investigate the language focus, to instruct tasks and to provide feedback and error correction.
Of these important routines in a lesson, the most value to learning is shown through post-task feedback. This is where students have worked on a task together, shared their ideas, and are ready to present what they have done to the room. The work done in post-task feedback is student-driven as it is based on their ideas and responses, and the teacher should be reactive to those ideas rather than dictating ‘correct’ or ‘incorrect’ ideas too quickly. Comparing a student-led lesson (or lesson stage) and a teacher-led class (or activity), student-led stages will produce far more evidence of learning (or not learning, which is equally useful) and ‘lightbulb moments’ as compare to a traditional, teacher-centred activity.
Common insecurities from teachers often focus on what they themselves are doing: ‘Am I presenting this clearly?’, ‘Am I speaking too much?’, ‘How can I teach this language?’. In fact, these questions don’t matter - by focusing only on their own activity, teachers risk becoming more concerned with what they are doing, not what their students are learning. Flip these questions to focus on the students, and you will start to gather much more useful information to develop how you are doing things: ‘Do my students understand this? How do I know?’, Are my students following my speech? How can I tell?’, ‘How will my students respond best to this language?’ - these are the questions to ask, in order to build a truly student-centred teaching environment.
The examples above show that once a teacher starts thinking outside of themselves and what they are doing, and starts being receptive and responsive to student talk and ideas, there will not necessarily be more learning going on in the classroom, but there will be infinitely more evidence of learning, which is the only way to know the outcomes of the activity being performed. Without this evidence, it is difficult to gauge the success of what the teacher or the students are doing, which leads to both teachers and students working through materials in a kind of vacuum, without knowing the progress that they are making through a course of study.
So, take every opportunity to step back, build opportunities for student talk and aim for student-driven demonstration of what you are working with in the classroom. Only then will you really appreciate the learning that is happening as a result.
Language Point Teacher Education Ltd. delivers the internationally recognised RQF level 5 Trinity CertTESOL over 12 weeks, part-time in an entirely online mode of study, and level 6 Trinity College Certificate for Practising Teachers, a contextually-informed teacher development qualification with specific courses which focus on online language education or online methodology.
If you are interested to know more about these qualifications, or you want take your teaching to a new level with our teacher development courses, contact us or see our course dates and fees for details.