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?

A Long Ramble on Evidence and Change. No, really, it’s long. 

I read with some interest a post on “Six Useless Things Language Teachers Do.” I like this sort of thing, and it’s why I read Russ Mayne’s excellent blog not to mention several other blogs, and numerous books around a general theme of evidence based practice, and on the theme of challenging sacred cows. I particularly enjoyed the “six useless things” post because it challenged some of my own holy bovines: recasts, for example, being largely ineffective. This error correction strategy is something we teach on CELTA, although not, admittedly, as a key one, and it’s definitely one I apply. I think that if I do use it, mind you, it’s as an instinctive, automatic response to a minor error, rather than a planned or focussed technique. 

More of a challenge for me was the second point: not so much the dismissal of direct correction of written errors, as this more or less chimes with my own stance on this. I’m not sure it’s totally useless, as the piece suggests, but I certainly don’t think it’s much good. The challenge to indirect error correction (using marking codes, etc.) is more of a tricky one. I agree, for sure, that students can’t be expected to know what they have done wrong, but I wonder if there are perhaps one or two errors that a student can self correct: slips, silly spelling mistakes, “d’oh” moments which they know on a conscious level but perhaps forget when focussing on fluency (present simple third person singular S for higher level students. I mean you). I wonder, as well, if there is a pragmatic aspect here. Most teachers are working with groups of students, not individuals on a one to one basis, and using an indirect marking strategy, combined with making students do something about it inside class time, means that you, as a teacher, are then freed up to go round supporting students with the mistakes that they can’t self-correct. Context also counts for a lot here: a groups of beginners is radically different from a group of high intermediate students not only in their language level, but also in their meta-language level. Often, but not always, high level students have been through the language learning system a bit, have an awareness of meta-linguistic concepts,  and, crucially, are used to thinking about language. 

I could go on, but this isn’t about trying to pick holes, or a fight! It’s a naturally provocative piece, with a title like that, how can it not be? It’s also, as far as I’m concerned, correct in many of the other points, learning styles, of course, learning to learn, etc., although on that latter one I’d be interested to know how much time should be spent focussing on learning strategies: I’ve got 90 hours, tops, to help my students gain a qualification. How much of that time can my students and I afford to spend on it? If a one of session is minimally impactful, then I think I probably won’t bother.

What this shows you, and me, however, is that as a teacher I am terribly, horribly biased. I come to the job now with many years of courses, teacher training, reading, research, conference workshops, observing teachers, being observed, getting and giving feedback, in-house CPD, and, of course, a bit of classroom experience. This is bad. Bad bad. Because I have developed a set of routines, of practices, of “knowledge” which are, in fact, very hard to change. Oh, I may make lots of noise about research, about innovation, about challenges and being challenged, reflective practitioner, blah blah blah, but a lot of it, I worry, is so much hot air. 

Take one of my favourite bug bears: SMART targets for ESOL learners. Now let’s imagine that some university somewhere funded some formal research into SMART targets. And they did a massive study of second language learners in a multilingual setting which showed, without question, that students who used SMART targets to monitor their learning achieved significantly higher levels of improvement when compared to those who did not. Let’s imagine that a couple more universities did the same, and found very similar results. In fact, there developed a significant body of evidence that setting SMART targets with students was, beyond a shadow of a doubt, a good idea. Pow! 

Now, in our fictional universe, let’s also imagine that I read these reports and am struck by the convincing nature of the evidence which runs entirely at odds with my opinions, beliefs and understanding. I have to wonder that even, in spite of this, I would be able to make the massive mental leap of faith and accept that I am wrong and the evidence is right. Could I do it? On a similar vein, if it turned out the evidence was all in favour of learning styles; that technology is, in fact, a panacea for all educational challenges; and that there is a fixed body of objective Best Practice in Education which works for all students in all settings all the time, if all this turned out to be true, could I align useful with all this because the evidence told me so? 

Probably not. 

For one, if all these things turned out to be true, I’d probably have some sort of breakdown: you’d find me curled up in a ball in the corner of a classroom, rocking backwards and forwards muttering “it can’t be true, it can’t”. More importantly, however, what this shows is that evidence and facts can say what they want, but the pig-headed stubbornness of a working teacher is a tough nut to crack: it would take a long time for me to adjust, to take on the changes to my perceptions and to work them into what I do. It might not even happen at all: even in the best case scenario, I think I would probably want to cling on to my beliefs in the face of the evidence. 

Unless something chimes with our beliefs about our practices, unless we agree in our professional hearts that something should be true, then short of a Damasecene epiphany in front of the whiteboard, it’s going to be extremely hard to embrace it. Let’s not beat ourselves up about it, mind, because that’s not going to help. And don’t let’s beat up others either: we are, after all, only human, and I have a suspicion that, regardless of our politics, one of the things that professional experience leads to is some form of professional conservatism. How do we get past this? 

Expectation, probably, would be a good place to start: it’s too easy for leadership and policy makers to declare that a new practice, with an evidence base, of course, is good and should be enforced. How effectively that gets taken up depends on the size and the immediate visible impact of that practice. When I am leading a training session, I start with a very simple expectation: that everyone go away with just one thing which they can use with immediate and positive impact. It’s u realistic to expect more, and if an individual takes away more than one thing, then that’s a bonus. To expect more than this from any kind of development activity is probably unrealistic, and actually, so what? If someone takes on a new idea and puts it into place, then that’s a success surely? We can apply this also to evidence based practice: make small changes leading up to the big change, and the big change will much more likely happen. This is often not good enough for some leadership mindsets, who demand quick, visible changes, but that is a whole other barrier to teacher development which I’m not going to explore. 

Time, of course, would help, but given that FE in particular is financially squeezed and performance hungry, this time will need to come at the teacher’s own expense. No time will be made for you to read, discuss and understand research (and God forbid that you attempt to try anything new during formal observations) so that time must be found elsewhere. Quite frankly, however, even I would rather watch Daredevil on Netflix of an evening than read a dry academic paper providing evidence in favour of target setting. (Actually, I think I would read that paper; so, you know, when you find the evidence, do let me know: because I’m sure that ESOL manager and inspectors have seen this evidence and are just hiding it for some random reason. After all why would such a thing be an absolute requirement?)

Deep breath. 

I’m sorry this has been such a long post: it’s been brewing quietly while I’ve been off and I’ve been adding bit by bit. But there’s a lot that bothers me about evidence based practice. Things like the way learning styles hangs on in teacher training courses, and therefore is refusing to die. Things like the rare and to easily tokenistic support for teachers in exploring evidence and engaging with it. Things like the complexity of applying a piece of evidence based on first language primary classrooms to second language learning in adults. Things like the way the idea of evidence based practice gets used as a stick (“You’re not doing it right, the evidence says so.”) while at the same time being cherry picked by educational leaders and policy makers to fit a specific personal or political preference. Not to mention the way that the entire concept of needing any evidence can be wholeheartedly and happily ignored by those same stick wielders and cherrypickers when it suits them. An individual teacher’s challenges with evidence which runs counter to their beliefs is a far smaller one than when this happens at an institution or policy level. A far smaller challenge, and an infinitely less dangerous one. 

It’s all about the plan.

It’s been a while since I blogged about planning, but it’s one of those things that comes back again and again. After all, planning is one of those things that suffuses every part of our jobs, it’s just that teachers, and their observers, have a habit of conflating planning lessons with “filling in forms appropriately” which are two different things. Remember, the primary purpose of a plan for a reasonably experienced teacher during any sort of formal observation is to show that the events in your lesson are not happy accidents, but things which happened because you wanted the students to achieve a specific learning aim (remember what I was saying about half-assed definitions of student-centred?) Keep this in mind, and things get a whole lot easier.

Anyway, by way of structure for a post, I thought I would work my way left to right across a “classic” lesson plan, covering the various things which people need to think about during planning. Consider this not so much as a how to, or a top tips, but rather as a series of roughly linked ramblings. After all, I don’t really do Best Practice, indeed, rarely do I go for good practice. I just go for  “practice” and hope for the best.

LEARNING OUTCOMES/OBJECTIVES/WHATEVER

These tend to come at the top of the page, and heaven knows I’m critical of the obsession with performance goals over learning goals, but still, there does need to be a point to the lesson. These can be things like practice a set of skills, for example, or learn a language point, whatever, as long as you remember, once decided, to rephrase them as SMART outcomes in order to keep those who believe in such things happy. I always think there’s a bit of a weird conspiracy cycle here where everybody says “do smart outcomes because my manager thinks they’re good” probably all the way up several tiers of management until you find someone who actually thinks that “write five sentences using present perfect” is evidence of learning anything. Still, it’s a hoop through which we must jump, so let’s work with it. If you are struggling with this, my tip, unofficially, of course, is to start with an aim or two (practice reading for gist and detail, say, or use present perfect for experience) then write the lesson plan out. Once this is done, and this is crucial, you identify where in the lesson you ostensibly show that the students have learned those things. From there you create your specific outcomes: will be able to read a text and identify at least five details (don’t make it too specific, mind you…. Yes, I know, I know), will be able to answer five questions using present perfect to describe experience, and so on. It’s a cynical manipulation, perhaps, but hey, it works for me.

TIMING

I’ve got to admit, this section is probably my most pointless section, and absolutely always done for the observer. I used to time lessons CELTA style, (3 minutes, 5 minutes, etc.) but have long since abandoned this in favour of clumping together groups of task into 30-45 minute chunks. This is largely psychological: I know, consciously, that if I write 10 minutes on a plan, then this is not tying. However, on a subconscious level this makes me anxious, and I have to remind myself that it doesn’t matter, which makes me more anxious, and I slowly retreat into an internalised vicious circle of worry. So I stopped with the whole ten minute timing thing. (But don’t do this on CELTA kids…) The paper planning, if you like, was getting in the way of the actual planning, so I stopped.

PROCEDURE

Sometimes this is divided into teacher activity and learner activity, sometimes it’s just “teaching and learning activity”. Personally I prefer the latter, because when I have the two columns I tend to write “teacher sets up activity” in the first, then actually write a description of the activity in the second. My top tip here is to write the lesson plan from the point of view of the student. Training courses tend to concentrate on teachers, because duh, developing teachers is what training courses are about, and some teachers need to write extensively about what they will be doing during a lesson (bloody narcissists, always writing about themselves!) However, I know that for me, I always write about what the students will be doing first, then fit in my bits round that. I do get moments of fear when I see someone planning a lesson which has things like teacher does X, Y, Z, shows this, explains that, etc. but then says “students listen” or (on a beginner lesson plan) “students listen and take notes”. Don’t get me wrong, I know telling people stuff can work, just not when you aren’t interacting with them, which rather neatly brings me to the next column.

ASSESSMENT

Sometimes this is assessment for learning, which ought to give you a clue. Top of my facepalm moments here is when someone writes Q&A. I mean really? What does that actually mean? To me, it means “I have no idea what to write here but it was OK on my non-specialist PGCE, so I’ll sling it here. Asking some sort of concept checking question, perhaps, with some built in peer discussion before managed feedback, then absolutely. But actually this is terribly straightforward: if you are walking the room, checking what students are doing, giving feedback as appropriate, then duh, that’s assessment. If you are asking students to check answers with a partner that’s assessment. If you are taking in work and marking it, that’s assessment. Piece of cake. And if you thing teaching is just telling people stuff from the front without checking it, then you don’t deserve to be doing it.

RESOURCES

I’m going to be controversial now and say these should be the very last thing to worry about. Whenever I’ve coached people and they’ve started off with “well I want to use this resource” I just want to curl up and die.  You know that they are not going to take kindly to suggestions like “why don’t you change that activity” because that will mean the agony of perhaps not relying on a handout designed to be as homogenous and dull as can be imagine. This is how you do it: three simple questions, in this order:

  1. What do I want students to learn?
  2. How can this best be done? What activities might enable this?
  3. What resources do I need to help me?

More often than not it goes the other way round. which is so very very wrong. I’m not saying that a published resource might not give you a better idea, or an interesting new slant on the activity, nor that published resources are rubbish. You just select the resource to match the lesson.

CURRICULUM REFERENCES

Really? You still have to put this? Sorry, nothing I can do to help you, except encourage you to make up a couple of new core curriculum references, just to see if anyone is checking.

BUT WAIT:

NONE OF THIS MATTERS

None of the paperwork, the planning,  the careful trackers, the schemes, absolutely none of it matters unless what you plan turns into a useful, meaningful and effective chunk of teaching and learning. Look at this way, if you get pulled up on skimpy planning this is an easy if frustrating fix. Get pulled up on shonky learning, and you’re looking down the barrel of a long and probably stressful process, especially if your institution hasn’t been able to move out of the Dark Ages and still grades lessons. Quite frankly, you’re far far better off planning light but planning well: just write what you need to remember, maybe add a couple of bits for an observer to show you’re not winging, then go and teach a lesson. Spend time thinking about the students, thinking about creative & engaging lesson ideas, thinking about careful assessment, and useful, relevant content. Don’t waste a disproportionate amount of time (i.e. ten minutes) thinking about the myriad bloody boxes in a word document.
Because when it comes to planning lessons, it’s not about the plan, it’s all about the lesson.