Moodle: A Year Off

Last year, I carried out a bit of research into how ESOL learners perceive and feel abt the notion of online and blended learning, and I had grand plans, or plans, anyway, to trial some sort of blended element to one of my courses this year: adding an online element through the VLE as an adjunct to the main course, and linking into the main course as its been taught.

It didn’t happen. In fact, for most of the classes I taught this year, the VLE generally has been a non-event: not unused, for sure, but much less promoted and enforced as I might have done in previous years. Strangest of all, I spent a significant chunk of this year teaching ICT, a context in which VLE access might be seen to be somewhat integral for all sorts of reasons.

There are several ways a person could react to this. There might be knee-jerk outrage that I might be so openly rejecting best practice in elearning as espoused by my institution. Frustration, perhaps, as well as outrage, that someone so evidently capable of using the VLE without much specific effort has simply failed to engage. Yeah, whatever. So sue me. I’ll put it in my action plan for next year, if you like.

However, the only really interesting reaction is to ask questions about why this might be. which is a great question, but I’ll tell you what, I don’t really know. I’ve always blown hot and cold on the VLE as a general thing, often finding it too staid and dry, with clunky interactive tools that are much easier to replace with externally sourced things: Google forms and documents replacing quizzes and assignments, for example, emails and the occasional Facebook update forming communication and feedback channels for student work. And you know what, there has been paper: real texts, bits of cut up paper, photocopies, all the stuff that works bloody well without the extra fart-arsing of logging into a system, whether through college devices or BYOD. Controversial, I know.

There just hasn’t been a need. There hasn’t been a gap that the VLE has had to fill. There has been no process which could have been more efficiently or effectively managed through a college VLE. Indeed, for some of my courses, the VLE would have created an extra layer, extra stuff to do, an extra barrier to learning, and arguably not an enabling thing at all.

And let’s not forget that the notion of a VLE as the be all and end all of online or blended learning is essentially flawed. From a certain perspective a VLE has many benefits: tracking learning, monitoring engagement, that sort of thing. I can see that, although that is at least one of the reasons a VLE is just so horrendously dry and tedious.

I’ll tell you what, though,  we’ve been blending all over the place. Most digital technology use in class is no longer special, and lessons are connected in ways which were simply impossible in the past. The biggest visible impact, of course, would be student’s own devices: I’ve done whole ICT sessions with students using their phones to carry out search activities, for example. The interesting thing there, of course, is that the activities themselves tended to be printed on paper to enable more comfortable switching between task instruction and the web search. Sure multi-tasking smart phones are pretty average these days, but it’s still not easy or smooth on anything smaller than a tablet simply because of the physical dimensions involved. Student devices feature most prominently as reference sources: dictionaries using either spoken or written words, google images to find simpler meanings, that sort of thing. Apps have had very little impact, apart from dictionaries. I think the paid for nature of that aspect places significant limitations, although some amusement was found with the google translate app which can sometimes show translations of printed words floating on top of the original in a very cool augmented reality stylee. We’ve had some iPads at one of our centres: I’ve used them a few times with maths: researching prices, for example, or number based information to form the basis of some numeracy practice. 

And I’ve got to admit the interactive whiteboard has really come into its own this year for me: being able to manipulate an audio recording, then annotate the answers to the questions has worked well this year, and generally using the IWB as part of whole group checking of answers, as well as simply as a projection screen has been fairly normal. In one class we managed to bring to life the inexplicably common subject of house types by looking up students’ houses using Google Streetview. Quite why words like “terraced house” and “semi-detached” which are neither high frequency nor terribly useful are so often taught at low levels is always a bit of a mystery, but still, we did, and it became real.
Then there has been my own use of technology to develop resources. Just because the students haven’t used the tech themselves doesn’t mean the tech hasn’t had an impact. I create a lot of my own resources, using, yes, digital technology to do so, utilising the web as a source of authentic texts, both written and spoken. Then there is the cation of resources, digital and otherwise using technology: I created a neat little jigsaw speaking activity using a photo of the college canteen menu with the prices blanked out: I took the picture with my phone,  and then edited it in word using text boxes to cover prices.  Easy as pie, and an authentic, realistic, communicative speaking task for a group of beginners. I emptied my wallet onto a table and took a photo of the (edited) contents to teach money and simlar vocab: this formed the presentation on the whiteboard and the practice and speaking work that followed. 

Still, by all means, tell me I’ve not being using online learning. In one regard, perhaps, I might as well not have bothered using the technology at all if it isn’t tracked through the VLE because there is no evidence to an outsider that any of this happened. This is hardly a reason to use a VLE, of course, if the impact on learning is negligible. I have scant respect for this kind of auditing “evidence” of learning in lieu of professional trust, not least because fifteen students accessing the VLE every week for ten minutes isn’t proof of anything apart from, well, accessing the VLE. I’ll concede I don’t think I’ve been innovating particularly, mind you. All I’ve been doing is making use of the technology in a way which is normal, without forcing in the technology because someone thinks it’s best practice. This “normal” technology is embedded in a way that the VLE could never be. I have been using the VLE with one group, my evening class, fairly regularly as a support for and extension of lessons, or for people who miss class, because I know it works well in that manner for that group of students. 

But for the rest of the time? It’s just not the best tool for the job. 

Buffers And Filters

It’s very easy, I think, to polarise discourse around management. Too easy, in fact, to draw a simple line between us and them, and it was this kind of discourse which led to me being somewhat disillusioned with the whole notion of unions.

I am going to draw a bit of a line, albeit a wavy one with many many exceptions and caveats, and that is between those who teach, and those who don’t. And on that line, with a foot in both camps, so to speak, there exists what I think of as the toughest and most challenging layer of management. In a small college these may simply be heads of department, but in larger colleges there exists a layer of a manager between head of department and teacher. I’ll call them team leader, as that is close enough to what they have been called at at least two colleges where I’ve worked, but they might be called something else in other colleges.

Essentially, all management roles in education are buffer zones: interpreting diktat from above into terms and conditions which are clear to the next layer down. The role of the next layer down is to reinterpret said diktat into palatable terms for the next layer down, and so on and so on. As the message gets handed down, as with all forms of translation, something inevitably gets lost, and even occasionally added to by an individual’s personal interpretation. Going back up the chain from here goes a succession of evidence that that drive has been implemented, that the rule has been enforced, gathering bureaucratic weight as it goes, so that a simple sentence in a senior leadership meeting carries the same heft as thirty teachers gathering various bits of data. I can only assume it is carrying all these heavy words around which justifies senior manager salaries, but I wouldn’t like to say for sure.

So anyway, at the other end of the management scale is our team leader. On one side, they are charged not only with implementing whatever policy or strategy that has been passed down to them themselves as teachers, but also with ensuring that other people do the same as them. And, as with any strategy, neither the team leader nor the teachers may necessarily agree with said strategy, which can create tensions. After all, it’s one thing to have to implement a policy or strategy you don’t agree with, but then a whole other ball game to persuade other people to implement said strategy.

In short, at this level, the team leader is stuck. They have to operate as a kind of buffer between the policy diktats and the people most directly affected by them: teachers and learners. Go much beyond the team leader level and you are at least one step removed from teaching staff, and maybe two steps removed from students as individuals: crossing a line where people become condensed into statistical data. But the team leader directly links to teachers and to students, but, and this is important, needs to be seen to be toeing the party line.

I think it’s the hardest job in a college. I sometimes get a taste of it when I run training based on cross-college priorities and strategies, or things handed down from OFSTED, where you can’t just replicate the same training as everyone else. Every group of staff you speak to, every teacher, is different and has different needs, and sometimes, as is the case in ESOL, the subject teaching simply fails to fit adequately into the standard paradigm of “best practice”. (Remember, kids, don’t get into a car with anyone who uses phrases like “disseminate best practice” and means it.)

And it’s hard. The hardest training sessions I’ve ever run have been promoting something I have doubts and questions about, and I rather suspect it shows. So I think about how hard it can be to have to be thinking in those terms all the time when you are in a role which restricts the freedom you have to question things. You can’t say “well, we just have to do this” because that’s hardly going to inspire that person to engage. You have to enthuse and engage with these things yourself, regardless of your opinions and misgivings. Yes, you can encourage discussion, but you will, at some point, very likely to have to come down on one side, and that side, very often, will have to be the official side.

Remember as well that the people in these roles are often also teachers, people who spend a significant proportion of their working week in a classroom with students. Doing, essentially, the same job as everyone for whom they are responsible, but with the added pressure that they may feel that they should be doing it right, all the time. Failure is not an option, because credibility is linked to success. Doing the same job, but getting all the pressure from those more distanced from teachers and learners, while at the same time dealing with the day to day frustrations of teachers and learners. It’s a fine line to walk, and walked for what is probably about the price of a large cappuccino and a muffin a day.

Language & the ESOL image problem

Three things this week came together quite serendipitously. First was walking past a British Sign Language class, and seeing the tutor not only teaching BSL, but also using BSL to communicate ideas. The second was a conversation with two non-ESOL teaching colleagues about the SOLO taxonomy and the notion of using “higher order” questions. The third was a tweet from Scott Thornbury, “The problem with EFL/ESL teaching is that, unlike maths, history etc, there is no subject. So the language itself becomes the subject.”

So this set me thinking. You see I think ESOL in further education setting has a bit of an image problem. There’s a perception in some corners that we should fit in to everything else, that something which applies to sixteen year old joinery apprentices can be applied without modification to a group of beginner ESOL students, and that our reluctance to do so, or questions asked about it in order to make sense of it in ESOL terms is seen as ESOL teachers and departments being awkward, stroppy, and obstructive. Don’t get me wrong, mind, because like any teacher, ESOL teachers can indeed be stroppy and obstructive, and I get that. However, there is a serious point here: there is a single and profound difference between ESOL and, with the exception, perhaps, of my colleague teaching BSL, every single other subject teacher in a college can communicate directly and unambiguously with their students.

Let’s take questioning as a good example of this. When teaching a subject through a shared language, one quick, effective way of challenging students is to ask questions which probe deeper into the subject, moving from straightforward knowledge of details (“Name three types of…”) to more complex, evaluative and critical questions (“what might happen if…”). This is generally seen as good practice, and, I think, quite right too. When I think of CELTA, for example, I might ask students initially to identify how to use the past simple, and then challenge them to analyse the problems faced by second language learners in using it, or what the barriers might be, or to compare how the past simple is used as a simple,e past reference ce and how it used to describe a narrative. This sort of range of questioning or task-challenge works to push students into thinking beyond just knowing a fact. (For the record, however, you do need to know the fact before you can start to go beyond this. What is commonly referred to as “lower” order questioning is not necessarily worse or less important – if anything it is the most important type of learning without which all the rest is impossible.)

Trouble is, all of this, every element of this, is entirely language dependant. It assumes on the part of the speaker and the listener a shared language with a fair degree of linguistic complexity. Don’t let snobbery get in your way here: my fictional joinery apprentices have access to an astonishing array of linguistic talents, even those ones who failed GCSEs. The fact that they can understand a question like “what might happen if you used an alternative timber for this?” is a demonstration of a fair amount of language skill.

So we have to consider carefully the value of time spent in training or reading about this when you remove that language skill. I simply cannot reliably ask my students “how would you change the verb if it is irregular?” Instead I have to get there a different way. The primary way I use questioning is not to expand in this way, but to apply successive “lower order” questions to build complex knowledge. “Read this sentence: I visited my sister. Am I visiting my sister now? Tomorrow? Before now? Good.” Then the next day I come back and start up irregular verbs, checking and eliciting concepts again using simple questions.

None of this means that ESOL students are incapable of thinking in those terms. Remember these are diverse classrooms on a scale incomparable in FE, with teachers, doctors, university lecturers and civil servants sharing a room with hitherto uneducated housewives, farmers and factory workers, none of which can be used to make assumptions about language learning aptitude. To use terms associated with higher order thinking, synthesis, creativity, evaluation and hypothesising are required of ESOL students from the get go when they are challenged to use language in new and unique situations. It’s just that we, as teachers, can’t use the language as a means to get there.

So we have to critically evaluate everything that a generic trainer says. Teachers are pragmatic people, after all, and would like something useful that we can use in our day to day classrooms, and an interesting curio like the SOLO taxonomy has limited, if any applicability. Ditto Bloom, although it could be used for task design, perhaps. Ditto Socratic questioning, flipped learning,  negotiating learning targets, sharing and self assessing SMART lesson outcomes. These are language dependent concepts, and this is the key to everything.

Until you’ve taught an ESOL class, none of this will make sense to you. I’ve seen it in CELTA teaching practice where a qualified teacher in another subject tries over-complex questions to a low level class and suddenly realises that they might as well have just whistled and farted for all the good it’s done. The good trainees are the ones who realise that they do have to change their paradigm, and alter their classroom behaviours accordingly. Because that is what we are talking about: for a generically trained teacher of a vocational subject, the nature of the ESOL classroom in a UK setting is radically different.

And this can indeed make ESOL teachers seem obstructive when it comes to implementing college-wide initiatives or training opportunities, but they are simply trying to make sense of it all, to take those initiatives and challenges and make them work in their context. And that context is different, profoundly and radically. It’s also what makes ESOL such fun to teach.

Episode VI: Return of the Teacher

Everyone likes a trilogy, right? So this is my third post on the theme of observation, in particular my own: if my last post was the Empire Strikes Back, with the empire triumphant, then this my Return of the Jedi. Hopefully not Revenge of the Sith.

Anyway, it occurred to me that meek and weary acceptance and passivity is very possibly the very worst way to approach lesson observation feedback. After all, grade or no grade, judgement will be passed, and the comments will go down against your name somewhere, probably on a spreadsheet. So time, instead, to gather my big guns, my justifications, arguments and my “yeah but no buts”. Not defensive: if there is something wrong, I’ll be the first to admit it, but definitely veering towards being on the offensive. Proactive, not reactive, for those of you who like things a little less martial.

First the lesson. That probably deserves a capital letter: The Lesson. Essentially three stages. The first stage was homework feedback. The students had been set homework to write advice using “should” for a hypothetical learner of English. I’d marked this ready to give back. To lead into this, I did a bit of a board based task on using the definite article to describe a unique item: something which many of the students had made mistakes with, along the lines of “You should use library.” It was the Queen’s 90th birthday too, so, swallowing my darker republican tendencies, I asked the students to talk in pairs and write down why they thought today was special. This led to the students writing sentences along the lines of “today is the Queen’s birthday.” Sort of. Then I gave the homework back: the majority of students had completed it, so I asked them to work in groups to discuss the errors and suggest changes. They did this remarkably well, with guidance. This probably lasted about 20 minutes in all.

Naturally, of course, students were still making mistakes with should, so I’d planned a longish recap activity. It’s also good to revisit language in a different context, so using the theme of health (linking to the theme of the rest of the week) we briefly (and somewhat unsatisfactorily, I have to admit) revisited parts of the body, and (equally unsatisfactorily, to my mind) revisited ailments and illnesses. This then led to a series of PowerPoint slides with different illnesses on: “I have a cold.” Students worked in pairs to write advice on mini whiteboards “you should….” I monitored this, used peer checking of good sentences, asked for group feedback or suggestions on sentences with errors on, and so on. The eliciting and practice here took a second slot of 20 minutes.

The final stage was meant as a free practice activity: students received a slip of paper with one of the problems on and had to ask each other for advice, at least three times, and decide which was good advice. This closed with a brief group discussion on the advice given, followed by a fragile and tenuous link to the next half of the lesson. At this point the observer left.

I liked the tripartite structure. It flowed neatly and made sense. There was no shoehorning of awkward bits and pieces. I liked that I had students working in pairs to compose sentences, and using the mini whiteboards gave me a chance to use peer correction by getting students with correct sentences to show them around the room. This then allowed lots of self correction (call it peer and self assessments if you like). This also made it very easy for me to check students and to go round monitor it. I enjoyed giving students the chance to self correct, and the subtle shaming (for want of a better word) encouraged a couple of students to sheepishly dig out their homework and hand it in, which presented later opportunities to feedback. I thought my lead in was a fairly engaging bit of fun, with a serious purpose to it.

But. But.

As I mentioned in my last post, I used the five minute lesson plan, and I was feeling less than well-disposed to the whole process. Aside from the overall structure, there was nothing much else in place until about 45 minutes before the lesson began. Even then, I spent most of my time checking resources and marking the last bits of work. I essentially took the decision that I would take the hit in the formal lesson planning document, rather than on the content and structure of the lesson. There was a lesson plan, and it was all there; it just wasn’t very good. The outcomes were fairly “rigorous” (i.e. completely false representations like “be able to write five sentences…”) but not differentiated to the different skills and levels in the group, with the exception of one student in the E1 group who is definitely a beginner writer.

And I’d say that this was where the lesson was shakier. It’s a big group at E1 and as such covers a pretty huge ability gap, with students doing all sorts of different qualifications. Because of the hurried planning, mostly, none of this came out particularly in the plan, nor especially in the lesson. So I could have moved students round into ability groupings, for example, giving me chance to push those stronger students, or tailor activities to the exams they will be taking (after all, we all like differentiation by negative backwash).

Would this have made a difference to the students’ overall learning? Probably. Not significantly, maybe, and the lesson would have run the risk of becoming dour individualised workshoppy bleurgh at one point. I am sceptical of the individualisation priority, but that’s not an excuse (although it does sound like a spy novel). I know that this is not the official view, and my own opinion is mostly a hunch, not an evidenced stance, and as such, doesn’t pass muster. And if I had spent an extra half an hour on the lesson plan, using a full lesson plan, I probably would have included this kind of detail. I’m not entirely convinced by the five minute lesson plan, I don’t think: but then perhaps I’m just an all or nothing kind of guy.

More time planning would have probably nudged me to remember things like formal reviewing of the learning outcomes. Again, I’m sceptical about this as a universally applicable practice, but I know that it’s generally expected, and takes no time at all to do with minimal negative impact. However, at the end of the two hour lesson, I did do a formal review: grouping the students into small groups I asked them to think of things they had learned in the lesson: groups of 3 had 3 things, 4s had 4 things to think of. This elicited, yes, that’s right, giving advice with should, and using the, as well as the work from the second half of the lesson. The brief plenary closed this lesson nicely, and would have been good to do in pairs at the end of the observed section before moving onto the writing half of the lesson.

So if we are casting around for blame, where do we look? It’s easy to say “the planning form”, but that’s not really true. I think it could work for someone else. Time management outside of the lesson? Definitely. Absolutely. Let me be clear, as well, I am fully responsible for this. I had some time in the week, and as such I mismanaged it. Mea absolutely culpa.

And it wasn’t a bad lesson. I’ve observed far worse, and taught worse. Students learned some stuff, and proved it to themselves and to me. So all in all, nothing to be ashamed of, not really. I’ll see what the feedback brings.

Observed

So if happened, finally. In the penultimate hour of my teaching week, after 7 previous teaching sessions across the week: I got observed.

And I’m not going to blog about it, or at least not about the lesson, anyway, because I can’t. Not because of some professional boundaries stuff, but because I can’t actually remember what happened.  So much so, in fact, that I rather hope my observer will be able to tell me what happened.

Partly it was the psychological pressure. It’s hard, really hard, to keep the momentum of planning and teaching at that kind of level, which sort of makes me wonder what is so different about being observed that you feel a need to go above and beyond. Part of it, of course, is paperwork. For the lesson in question, for example, I had planned a lesson, of course, but hadn’t written it down on a formal lesson plan: by the end of my four days waiting, this was, quite frankly, a right royal pain in the backside. I’m not a fan of doing stuff for the sake of audit/observation at the best of times, and this was far from the best of times. I was using the five minute lesson plan, or a version of it, but by Thursday morning I was feeling so grouchy and resentful that my handwriting and attention to detail had deteriorated considerably. 

There’s also the simple issue of physical tiredness: from Wednesday lunchtime through Wednesday evening and then Thursday until 3pm, it’s back to back lessons, with a brief spell for sleep and food. There wasn’t a lot of room there for writing out lesson plans, and normally I have enough time in between sessions to plan (small P). This rod, of course, I made for my own back: while my colleagues, apparently, were busting a gut over the weekend, I spent my weekend walking, cycling, watching movies, being with family and so on. Let me be clear as well: it’s not so much that there weren’t plans in place, just no Plans. I can’t do a week’s worth of lesson plans in advance: I always fiddle and adapt and add stuff up to the minute before the lesson, by which time I might as well have just done a lesson plan on the day. And if I don’t adjust it in any way I will think to myself “I don’t need to plan” then forget the plan itself. It’s worth nothing that the one memory I have of the lesson is never actually consulting the plan while teaching: planning, as the name suggests, is something I tend to do before the lesson, and once planned, the lesson just happens. Everything else just then slots into place. I keep a copy to hand, of course, but it is usually just in case, rather than actually being something I refer to in the lesson.

This isn’t, by the way, a pre-emptive set of excuses for a poor lesson. I am deeply unsympathetic to excuses of this sort, I’m afraid: an evaluative lesson observation is what it is and I’m lucky enough in the last few years to be observed by people who recognise this, and don’t use it as a proxy assessment for what you do over the whole course. This means that the feedback, for the most part, is for the learning in the lesson itself, and in this case, I think I’m probably OK, and if I’m not, then I know I can deal with that. Yes, I was weary, and somewhat manic by the beginning of that lesson, essentially running on caffeine, but that’s not an excuse. It might explain some of the more bonkers moments, perhaps, but if it was generally a bit shit, then that’s my problem not the system’s. I could have spent more time earlier in the week planning in advance. I could have been, no should have been, more organised so that when I spent time printing schemes and so on in the week before, I also planned the lessons. I could have chosen not to completely reorganise my scheme of work for my evening class so I could fit in a lesson around an interesting news item, and therefore not spent time planning those activities, writing questions and analysing language ready for teaching. I could have not changed my mind about the entire second half of the lesson on Thursday morning. I could have simply found a bunch of relevant pre-published resources and relied on those instead for most of my lessons, rather than spending my time writing resources (although I am rather pleased with what I made for my maths class, my beginners and my Level 1/2 evening class). There is a LOT I could have done differently to offset the tiredness, and it’s too easy, lazy, even, to want to lash out at something outside yourself.

Essentially, all I am saying is that I was tired, a bit overwrought, and quite frankly a little bit away with the fairies, and the most interesting thing to come out of the whole process so far is that I feel weirdly disconnected from the lesson, somehow. Me being so emotionally and mentally distanced from what happened in the lesson is an unusual, slightly discombobulating  experience, and being particularly unable to articulate what went well and what didn’t is frankly weird. At some point I am required to write up some sort of reflection – and this is probably going to provide the biggest challenge of all, because I’m damned if I could tell you what happened in the lesson.

But there is a lot to be pleased about: don’t get me wrong. It might have been an arduous week, but I know the feedback is not going to lead to a grade with automatic consequences, for example, and that I am going to be able to discuss the lesson on a fairly equal footing with my observer, rather than waiting for the number and the associated misery. And I want this new ungraded system to work, really work because I know there are people who are sceptical about such things. I want to be right, and them to be wrong. 

So I’ll be interested to hear the feedback. The feedback will be useful, and hey, who knows, I may be bloody fantastic when I’m slightly off my head on tiredness and caffeine. I doubt it, of course, but let’s wait and see.

Observation: Reactions and Purpose

Hey ho. It’s observation week this week, so it’s time to dust down the lesson planning forms, polish up various forms of supporting paperwork, and generally pull up my socks. I don’t mind, especially as we have done away with the pointless process of graded observation: there have been compromises but then that was inevitable. However, it would be inappropriate of me to comment on that process here, and anyway, if we’re going to have observation for primarily performance management purposes, as opposed to having it for primarily developmental purposes, then hey, compromise is going to happen, isn’t it? I’d like to have a formal observation by a specialist of me teaching my specialism, which hasn’t happened for a couple of years, but as is normal in these cases, this is highly unlikely.

I always find people’s reactions to the announcement of observation fascinating.

There are some people, for example, who react like they have been asked to show their dubious tax dealings, even when you have just suggested an entirely informal and non-critical peer observation on a reciprocal basis. They bluster and fluster, suggesting that you are an entirely unwelcome intruder on their sacred space, impertinent to suggest that there might be other people in the class apart from themselves.

Then there are the swans. Externally, everything is fine, and they sail to the observation serenely and calmly, hiding the fact that underneath this, they are panicking, planning, preparing resources and generally being quite anxious about the whole thing. Occasionally there may be moments, flashes of stress, the odd sigh, perhaps, but this is quickly covered up with jokes and comments. They probably post blase comments on Facebook about how they are chilling with a glass of wine and a movie, but in reality they are mainlining espresso and throwing an all weekend planning bash.

While on an avian theme, then, let us not forget the ostriches. Yes, I know full well that a frightened ostrich doesn’t bury its head in the sand – they may not look the smartest of birds, but evolution would rapidly do away with a species of bird which chooses not to run away when danger approaches. That’s not the point, anyway, because there is such a thing as a teacher who sticks their head in the sand, carrying on regardless, doing whatever they normally do for their observations. La la la, they sing, their heads buried safely away, the observation isn’t actually happening to me, no no, not me.

There is, perhaps, a small, horribly organised and naturally confident minority who embrace the whole thing because they cut no corners, and have everything in place. These are also people who do every lesson by the book: SMART learning outcomes aligned to individual targets, shared and carefully selected “real life” resources of the “Mrs Khan goes to the doctor” variety, with differentiated workshoppy elements to the lesson, all of which is closed up with the students doing a neat reflection at the end. These people do this every single lesson, every day of the week. And yes, I hate them, but take solace in the fact that so do their friends and family, who almost certainly never see them.

At the opposite end of the scale you find the serial winger, Seat of the Pants Simon, Last Minute Laura, or simply Jammy Jason. A weird hybrid of the Ostrich & the Swan, these people have the knack of pulling it all together at the close of play, buoyed up by a natural instinct for the job and an ability to pull together a few decent lesson plans and drag their paperwork into place just in time.

The gamer is a new variety, or at least has had their job made far easier in recent years with the introduction of electronic diaries and timetabling. The gamer spends a portion of their time not planning but marshalling data about their observer’s timetable and planned meetings and triangulating the most likely time for an observation. They see the whole process as a system to game, even down to thinking about a potential observer’s preferences and peccadillos, and carefully planning lessons around these. 

But why do these reactions occur at all? Why the fear, the panic, the gaming? I guess we have to go back to the main purpose of observation: assessment. Graded or not, there will be expectations and criteria to be met, and consequences to those criteria not being met. These range from the severe, linked to capability procedures, to the pleasantly useful, developing as a teacher. The more severe those criteria, the more an observation becomes a summative process: a final exam showing all the development work you have been doing in the last year. You are on display, naked, and entirely at the mercy of the observer in a way that you never are in any other aspect of your professional life. Even though you are just as exposed to your students, the relationship is a completely different one, and one which does change when that relationship becomes critical and evaluative, when students are unhappy with the lessons, for example. 

Losing the grading system goes a way to reducing this, but not completely, by any measure. However, and this is really important, that’s OK. As long as the tensions induced in any observation are acknowledged; that a manager doing an annual evaluative observation is clear that the purpose of that observation may have an impact on the teacher’s reaction, or that a teacher trainer takes on board the nerves of their trainee, or that a peer observer recognises the impact that their presence might have; then that’s fine. It’s hard not to see the process as a challenge to a professional set of judgements: it’s what the teacher and the observer do with that challenge that counts. 

Spending Time Writing

Last night I did a writing lesson, or at least a lesson working towards the production of a piece of writing. Based on a short video, students watched half, reporting to their partner what was happening, before switching roles. This was followed by a quick review of past tense structures and a writing of a report of what happened from the point of view of the protagonist. Traditionally, of course, the discussion, planning and perhaps drafting of the text might happen in class, with the the final writing taking place for homework, but for this lesson, I chose to use the allow the last twenty minutes, or thereabouts, to ask the students to produce the final written report. This was done more or less in silence. 

Setting writing for homework is always problematic. For one, not every student will complete it on time, or hand it in when you want it handed in, meaning that any follow up activity is inevitably stymied. And even for those students who do hand it in straight away, you have no idea how long the students spent on the writing, nor how much help they got from online research, books, or a family member who can write well in English. So how realistic is it as a “pure” measure of their ability? 

By bringing the writing into the class you can create all sorts of extra benefits. For one, the “creative” element of the writing process is reduced: students can collaborate on the development of ideas, minimising the amount of “I don’t know what to say.” You can also control the amount of support each student gets. In my lesson, for example, I allowed collaboration and phone/dictionary use all the way up to the final version, but allowed students to decide how much they wanted to collaborate. This produced some interesting results. Some pairs worked very closely, and produced very similar pieces of writing: for these students, the key value was in the collaboration and the discussion. These students received feedback from me and from each other throughout the process, but also spent rather less time on the final draft, concentrating on spelling and punctuation rather than the lexical and grammatical elements. Those pairs who only really collaborated up to the planning stage ended up spending probably about half an hour on the drafting and writing up stages, and as a result, received less peer and teacher feedback during the process. For these students, the extensive feedback will come in the next lesson, when they will get the written feedback on their work. The that lesson will take a bit of management: some students have very few errors, and will need very little time to review them, but some students will have extensive questions to ask, and may need more time to check. 

The fact remains, however, that all the students spent at least 20 minutes of a lesson simply sitting and writing, and I was ok with that. The are some people who would be uncomfortable with this, and there is a belief in come parts of the ESOL teaching community that the majority of time should be spent speaking wherever possible, usually cherry picking the statement from the NRDC Effective Practice Project that “talk is work in the ESOL classroom”. Certainly an observer who had arrived some 20 minutes earlier for an observation would not have had much to observe, and may have chosen to be critical of the fact that the students weren’t engaging in speaking, and that observer and I would have wasted significant time during feedback with me justifying my decision against their prejudices. 

In lesson, you see, I think it worked. The silent(ish) writing was an appropriate culmination of a lesson which centred on narrative tenses and a punctuation review, giving lots of opportunity for differentiating the process of writing as well as the evaluation and feedback on the writing. The in-class writing also allowed for a psychological closure of the topic and themes: there was little or nothing left hanging over into the next lesson, and I will have something for all students to do in terms of checking feedback in thr next lesson, rather than having to take in work,negotiate deadline extensions and so on. The task is complete, the lesson done, and the learning can be carried through into the next lesson where students are given guided feedback for self and peer correction. What could be wrong with that?