In this series of articles, we are looking at some common teaching actions which more often than not simply don’t work. If you find yourself doing this in the classroom, think about why you are doing it - if you don’t have a clear reason, or evidence that it helps students to improve their language in practice, it may not be the most effective way.
Any conscientious and dedicated teacher wants their students to learn as much as possible in the lessons that they teach. Teachers are busy people, and often have curricula to follow, tests and exams to prepare their students for, and an expected amount of material to work through in a given period of time. However, if we want to maximise the learning that goes on in our classrooms, we need to take a realistic view of our place in the learning process.
The concept of ‘maximising learning’ is risky in language education. Unlike in other, more knowledge-based subjects (such as history or geography), language development is a process which takes a combination of input form a teacher, investigation of language used in context, restricted work which enables learners to try out the forms that they are learning, and time and space for learners to integrate what they are learning into their own ideas and language use. This is not a process which can be rushed, or which works to a set timeline according to a syllabus - learners operate at different speeds and have vastly different ways of engaging with what they learn.
‘Maximising learning’ does not mean moving through as much material as possible in a given time. It means enabling as many learners as possible to develop as much as possible in the time given. The key words here are as much as possible. This means as much as it is possible for the learners to learn, not for the teacher to teach. Teaching at students from the front of the room is a one-way process which prevents open discussion and exploration of ideas by the learners. Moving through a curriculum at a proscribed (and probably faster than is comfortable) pace, from page to page, chapter to chapter, can make teachers and students feel like robots, with no say in their own stage of learning, and little opportunity to open wider discussions about what they are studying.
The goals of language education should be focused on the learners and their development. The harder a teacher works to explain, instruct and lead the activity in class, the more time is taken up by their talk, with them at the centre of the activity that goes on. The more a teacher talks, the less opportunity there is for students to put what they learn into practice independently, and so the less actual language learning goes on. To put it another way, the more a teacher teaches, the less the learners learn, and the less evidence we have of how their language is developing as a result of the activity they perform in class.
It is not a teacher’s role to teach as much as possible, but to find ways to avoid the situation where there is too much teaching and not enough learning going on. This means knowing when to speak, and when to step back and let the students explore what they are learning. More inductive methodologies such as task-based and top-down approaches aim to achieve this balance in favour of learning. There is almost always an alternative to over-teaching, so it is important for us to consider the alternatives to explanation and teacher-centred ‘chalk-and-talk’ approaches at every level. Less is more for language educators, so the sooner we step back and let students get on with learning, the more effective our work will be.
Tom Garside is Director of Language Point Teacher Education. Language Point delivers the internationally recognised RQF level 5 Trinity CertTESOL 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.