focus on learning


January 22, 2013 by Willy Cardoso

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Teaching, in addition to providing opportunities for learners to examine, practice and reflect on language (or subject matters), should also be about finding those opportunities for learners to examine, practice and reflect on learning. Learning as an individual and learning as a group. The implications are manifold; a simple and automatic classroom routine of ‘working in pairs’ for example will acquire a much richer value if teacher and learners are explicitly aware of why they are working in pairs and what kind of learning they can expect from working in pairs; also, what responsibilities they have with each other when working in pairs; and very importantly, learners will also be aware of what the teacher’s responsibility is when they are working in pairs and thus can measure their expectations and performance accordingly. Consequently, through a joint investigation of classroom routines, teacher and learners will be empowered to decide whether what they do and how they do it match their reasons for being there (to teach and to learn), that is, the why of the whole being in a classroom business. The trick is: teacher and learners will only be able to enrich conventionalized, taken-for-granted classroom routines if they talk about them. If, instead, for every lesson teacher and learners just walk in the classroom ‘minding their own business’ and conforming to how things are – things which they haven’t even examined together – the classroom experience will have all the potential to be a wasteful experience. We don’t want that, do we? So we better start talking more about learning with those who are actually doing it – the learners.


9 thoughts on “focus on learning

  1. “So we better start talking more about learning with those who are actually doing it – the learners”. Well articulated and well argued, Willy. And shouldn’t this ‘talking about learning’ be conducted in the students’ L1, where possible, especially at lower levels (where, in fact, it probably matters most)?

    • It would be more productive if it was in students’ L1 I think. And I don’t think it is too difficult to happen, except in monolingual English-speaking countries. But the majority of beginner students are in their ‘L1’ country I believe, and studying with ‘L1’ teachers. So their linguistic context would enable what I argued above, though their cultural context may not.

      • Rose Bard says:

        Interesting point about L1. I totally agree Willy that cultural context would be the major problem for this reflective practice to take place (at least where I live). Most teachers believe we must not speak in students L1 at all in class, but do use L1 outside the class which is first of all a matter of losing great opportunity for engaging in real language usage interaction (especially when comes to online interaction). And even though their speech is against the use of L1 in class, they have to admit that they do use L1 anyway, but this is at the end is not something planned. So, because they don’t believe in the benefits of using L1 in class, don’t use it as an ally and in planned moments, and the students are unable to convey their messages in L2 yet, they would not accept the use of L1 to talk about learning process and work on goals/expectations as they would feel that they would not have the time to spare and was taught that learning takes places by using L2 all the time.

        That is a fact where feedback from students are based on if the students liked the lesson or not, but the lesson is not just about likes and dislikes but engaging in real learning, therefore it is about learning effectively. And if they have the chance to reflect on the process of learning, they will find out that a class they had was so awesome, but language learning didn’t really take place if such a movie or some games ( I hear that from students who spent a whole class watching a movie they liked, with popcorn and friends in class for example or they laughed a lot). I really believe students should have the chance to become a learner and be able to evaluate their own language development and not just a number in a school where teachers have all the control, for that you explained very well what it is necessary.

        “So we better start talking more about learning with those who are actually doing it – the learners.”
        Not an easy task when we also have students who think just like those teachers. 😀 But totally the best practice.

    • Thanks for raising this topic, Willy. Yes, the WHY is terribly important. I have begun to preface my classes with the Why question, because I sometimes see the blank stares (I probably asked the same thing of my teachers) that say, “Why on earth do I need to know this?”

      Yes, we teachers tend to fall into habit of doing what we have always done (as you put it – “conventionalized, classroom routines”) and assume the learning will happen. I’m somewhat new to teaching, so I tend to be more self critical in everything I do/say. I m always probing to see what they take away from my class. If I keep getting the blank stares, I return to the drawing board, um, lesson plan, and start from scratch. Hard work? Sure. Exciting? Definitely!

  2. Kath Bilsborough says:

    “The trick is: teacher and learners will only be able to enrich conventionalized, taken-for-granted classroom routines if they talk about them.” This makes good sense but sometimes it’s hard work getting ‘teachers’ to understand the purpose of/usefulness of/need for certain classroom routines, especially state school teachers. I was recently told off for rearranging furniture in a classroom I was subbing in in a PRIMARY school! The biggest argument against doing pair work seems to be ‘it gets really noisy’ (no comment) … but getting ‘learners’ to think about why we are using a particular way of grouping or ‘correcting’ or whatever else we’re doing … is the only way for it to work well. I wonder if there’s a way to bypass all the teachers and speak directly to all of their learners!

    • I didn’t say what I think is desirable is easy. 🙂

      But look, underlying what I tried to argue above is the tentative principle that no pedagogical decision is inherently good, that is, it is only by analysing it in context and including its participants that we could say with more certainty this or that works, this or that is good teaching. In the end, if I exaggerate a bit just to make a point, saying pair work is noisy or that it is dialogic and interactional is the same thing if it is only unfounded parroting of said context’s professional discourse. There needs to be an investment in the things we say and do as a consequence.

  3. Hi Willy,

    I once ran a teacher training course in Curitiba and I was shocked when a complete novice stood up and gave a brilliant class. When I asked her how she had got her insights into teaching she told me that she had had a teacher for over a year who had always talked to them about why they were or were not doing certain things in class. It had been done in English, but that was because they already had some command of the language.

    This experience was key in showing me that it is very important for students to know why they are doing tasks in class. Not so that they can become teachers, but so they are aware of the aims of each exercise and what they are learning from it. I think students are much more likely to be active learners if they know why they are doing the exercises we ask them to do.

    The fact that my trainee teacher experienced this when she could already communicate in English proves that it is never too late to start talking about this kind of thing.

  4. Nati Gonz'alez Brandi says:

    Hi Willy, just read your comment, and I may even ask you to quote you in my talk in IATEFL because in a way this adds to my main point which is avoid observing the teachers you mentor exclusively based on expected procedures taken from Methodology handbooks or CELTA standards (e.g. does s/he give instructions / give an example and then check them? typical boxes to tick, which we have in soo many schools) but instead focus on how much s/he is training those learners, how aware teacher and learner are of the learning process that’s going on, how engaged in learning this community is. Thing is as you’ve pointed out above, if we engage in this kind of practice, there are no boxes to tick, cause there’s no right or wrong, we can only reflect on that classroom in that particular context and seeing if learning is going on is truly challenging and sometimes impossible to answer, but I guess we can see if teachers are at least trying and if learners are trying to become responsible for their learning as well.

    Another empowering thing about this post is to find out that there are teachers who are trying to swim against the tide in some contexts and include this practice, like some who’ve commented above. Thank you again Willy!

  5. I am still navigating the storms of my first year in teaching, but I can definitely say that I’ve seen what you are talking about make a difference in my classroom. My students are only 5 and 6 years old. My limited perspective didn’t believe that they could actually understand the reasons why we do certain things in the classroom and why they should want to make it work. But when I finally stopped trying to force them to do our routines and, instead, started talking to them about the thought process behind our routines, all of a sudden they had a reason to stay on task. They had a reason not just to follow the routines but to accomplish the goals behind them. My only regret is that I don’t do this enough. Thank you for the reminder.

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