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Being Purposeful

A while back I found myself playing baseball in one of my lessons. I say baseball but really it involved me throwing a plastic ball and my five-year-old student taking swings at it with a plastic bat. Not my idea of a dynamic English lesson, but it was his, so I played along to see where it would lead. And I was glad I did, I was very glad...

Curtis has put me on the spot. He's asking for ideas to change traditional lessons into lessons for adults, he's suggested that we should teach adults differently from children, but I disagree. I think at its root our teaching should be the same. There need be no difference and I think there are strong reasons why there shouldn't be.

Allow me to explain why.

A long time ago, much, much longer than this sentence there was a master-thief. One day he decided that it was time for his son to learn the family profession. The son chose to agree and that night they set out together. Before long they entered a large house and found the treasure chest. Together they opened the chest at which point the father pushed the son inside, re-locked the chest and went home. Now, you may be thinking that the boy was afraid. He wasn't. He was surprised but he also knew and trusted his father. After a while the son hit on a plan and began making a loud and horrible noise. It woke the family guards who soon realised that the noise was coming from the chest. Brandishing weapons the guards opened the chest. No sooner was the chest open when the son leapt out and escaped through a window. The guards chased after him. Realising that he could not outrun them the son paused at a well. Picking up a large stone he dropped it into the water and hid in the shadows. The guards heard the splash and gathered around the well. Some time passed and seeing nothing the guards assumed the boy had drowned. They left and the boy returned home to find his father waiting for him. “Now, my son,” the father said, “I have taught you everything I know.”

This is an old Taoist story about...well, you can decide for yourself. Curtis provided a list of characteristics of adult learners, but I'd like you to consider in what way is the list exclusive to adults? Children are ready to learn and natural problem solvers. They strongly need to understand the world and are highly motivated to do so. They can direct their own learning and they learn from experience. Children can be every bit as independent and interdependent as adults.

When we let them.

What is it that stops us? Fear? Ego? A sense of responsibility? Love? It certainly isn't because we have perfected a perfect system of education. It certainly isn't because school is essential for learning. There are enough unschoolers around the world to demonstrate that locking children up in school is neither necessary nor preferable.

Locking children up in school? Ho hum, here we go...

And there they don't...

This is one of the key differences between children and adults. Adults are generally free to go. If an adult doesn't like a class the adult can walk out the door. This is much less true for children. We don't allow them that power. We tend to demand subservience and acquiescence. School is in the business of teaching children to learn on command. Now it's time for this. Soon it will be time for that. Next it will be time for something else, so don't get too interested in what you are doing, don't get too interested in learning something. Following the direction of the teacher is much more important.

One reason I tend to freelance is because it helps me avoid the situation where I'm working with a captive congregation. I think one of the basic freedoms is being able to decide what one gives one's attention to at any given time. I think lessons at school should be non-compulsory. Adults don't appreciate being forced to do something, and neither do children. I think offering genuine choice is important for all learners. This doesn't mean turning up to a lesson without a plan (though this can be a viable strategy), but it certainly does mean being willing to adapt and even junk a plan depending upon the response of the students. It also means where possible, making plans with the students.

In conjunction with planning the teacher can change the way that lessons are constructed. A very powerful idea is that of STRUCTURES, which lies at the heart of Spencer Kagan's approach to co-operative learning. Spencer Kagan suggests that rather than teaching and using activities we use structures. A structure is a particular method of interaction. It is content free. For example, in Inside-Outside Circle half the students make an inner circle facing outwards and half make an outer circle facing inwards. Students can make pairs with a student on the inside working with a student on the inside. Then the inner circle can rotate and students get a new partner. This allows them to repeat the content with a new partner. Students get a chance to repeat content but remain fresh because the partner is new. What content? Any content! That's the point, by definition a Structure is content free:

ACTIVITY = STRUCTURE+ CONTENT

Inside-Outside Circle could be used for practising a dialogue, a language pattern, vocabulary review (perhaps by giving flash cards to one circle), virtually anything. It can be used with adults and children a like precisely because the content is not fixed.

Teaching students structures – patterns of interaction - greatly increases the efficiency and flexibility of a class. Once students know a few structures it allows the teacher to create activities on the spot. A teacher that can create activities on the spot can be much more responsive to the mood and inclinations of the students.

Moods and inclinations? I spend a fair bit of time working with toddlers and they are very good at making clear what they are interested in. I've discovered that toddlers will learn a lot more if I follow and support their interests rather than pushing them to follow mine. This is not to deny that I have more life experience and overall knowledge and that I shouldn't make use of it, but it does mean acting with care and it means acting with deference. I can make suggestions and offer choices but that doesn't mean using my status as teacher to get my own way. I can learn to hear and accept, “no”.

Essentially, Curtis is asking us to give adults more respect. I think we should give children more respect as well. When we do so, there is a lot we can discover. I began by telling you the story of a baseball lesson. I'd like to end by finishing with it. As I mentioned, baseball wasn't my favourite content. My student already knew words like catch, hit and throw. I wanted to honour his choice of activity but I also wanted to extend his English. So while pitching the ball I began to deliberately throw the ball wide or over his head. I did it very deliberately and said, ‘oops! I did that on purpose” He thought it was a great game. I'd make a mock apology and then do it again. We had a good time. A couple of weeks later we were playing baseball and again I was pitching. My student kept missing the ball. This went on for about a minute before I realised what he was doing. He was missing the ball on purpose! I said, “You're missing the ball on purpose!” and he giggled and said, “yes!” That was a couple of months ago. Now he seems to have incorporated the concept and the language to express it into his repertoire. He did this without any formal teaching at all. Fantastic! But even more fantastic is the realisation that when we make communication genuine and respectful, language learning possibilities explode. Adults are older than children and some may be wiser, but truly both are deserving of respect and the more respect we show, the more our students will learn.

February 2004
(Think Tank Column for ELT News )

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