Unplugged Trousers

This is likely to be my final reflection on a specific lesson with the beginner group I have been teaching, and as promised, I went in naked.

Not, I should add, actually naked, but rather the lesson was stripped of trappings and faff, all that lesson plan and prepared resources stuff, to see what would happen in that group without all this.

The trousers in the title, by the way, refer to a Terry Pratchett metaphor about multiple universe theory, when a decision is made, it sends you down one leg of the “trousers of time”. (Also notable in introducing the word bifurcated to me which I have yet to use!) But this is a post about, among other things, decisions.

To use a nice tired metaphor now, the lesson was definitely one of two halves. The first half was more of a responsive, “in the moment” lesson using what was to hand, and the second one a more premeditated half of the lesson.

But both halves offered situations where I had a decision to make regarding where we were going: Scrivener’s “jungle path” analogy.  This was absolutely a jungle path, and the process of decision making was me cutting that path out for the learners. The first decision came right at the start of the lesson: our normal teaching room is being used for a book sale project by our 16-18 learners, and all the tables were covered with books, bags, files, pencil cases, and an entirely random pair of large glass goblets.

Two possibilities then: to build a lesson out of those things, or to move rooms. Had the group been ALL close to E1, and therefore capable of understanding instructions and more abstract tasks more easily, I might have gone for the former, and got ss to do things with the items: what can you do with it? Why did you pick it? Etc.

But I opted for the move. Why? I was concerned how much the absolute beginner in the group would be able to contribute something to such a free discussion and so the session would run the risk of becoming quite excluding of them as individuals, never mind not actually benefiting them. The move also enabled another task which hit me just as we walked down to the class: directions. What was interesting here was that I started “planning” by deciding what I might do to teach directions.

However, that didn’t happen. Not at first. A little explanation about the next three weeks, admin stuff, led to me asking the date.

Which led to the normal response of “13 June”. Like in the last lesson around go/went and am/was a moment which achieved effective communication and could quite easily have been left as is. But my decision here was not to leave it, but to address the clear inaccuracy, so I used peer correction, mainly to see if anyone else would pick up on what the problem was. This didn’t work either, so I used finger correction (i held up four fingers and said “I want four words… [finger] 13th [finger] June”) which elicited the definite article, and then I had to supply the preposition, with the whOle being written up on the board and time made for the learners to make notes.

I then added some dates to the board, asked the learners to supply the correct structure, revealed that the dates were my children’s birthdays and my wedding anniversary, then asked the learners to write down their own dates and tell their partner what they were (my father’s birthday, etc.) we had to do a little work on the spelling of months in the meantime, but it was nicely, if briefly productive, and led to some learners writing down their sentences as further practice.

All well and good. Except that, and here is another “trousers of time” moment, almost all of the group were either omitting or misusing possessive “apostrophe s”. And I could have just corrected it quietly, and been done with it, but here again was another learning opportunity, especially as the dates stuff was for most of them revision. So I borrowed my colleague who had come in for a bit of peer observation, and held up his pen. “What’s this?” …. “Whose pen?” etc. then write example on the board, and cue lots of holding up random items with the same prompts. “now look back at your writing.” then lots of good learner centred self correction.

Time here, I felt, for a break. This is a long post, so this might be a good time to go make a cup of tea.

After the break was the second moment where the lesson could have gone in two directions. I had the vague idea to cover directions based on the fact we had changed classrooms, so opened with the question “Where are we?” assuming that the answer would be “college” from whence I though I could whittle it down to “in the classroom”. Never assume! The answer I got was “school”. Again, I addressed the error with a questioning look, and got “college” from another students. “what’s the difference?” I asked. It was fascinating to watch the answers develop from hand signals to indicate small height, to “kids” and “children”, to “adults”. There was here another fascinating moment: in terms of the almost visible cognitive processes going on as one learner in particular started to answer, fell silent, and instead of filling the gap for him, I again opened it up to the rest of the group. No significant answer, lots of thinking and, crucially <em>silence/em> for a few moments until the original learner came up with “university” (albeit mispronounced). A lovely lovely moment, and it wouldn’t have happened if I’d leapt in and told him.

So, back to the trousers of time, and I contemplated exploring life stages here. This would have been the more natural route but I decided to go down the route of the idea which had formed in my head at the beginning, and had, owing to the first activity giving me time to do it, formulated in my head what might be called a plan. This was for me the less successful decision in the lesson, and less successful because of the “plan” in my head. Whether that was due to the quality of the plan, or the act of planning I wouldn’t like to say: this is the plan, and is more or less as it happened:

  • T asks ss to work in pairs to draw a map to show the route back to our original room. They can go and check their route if they like.
  • Ss draw map, then are given individualised instructions to label the diagram, and not to worry about spelling at this stage: aiming at writing fluency not accuracy.
  • T then elicits/checks crucial vocab (turn left / right, etc.)
  • Ss write directions as instructions using vocab. Focus on imperative and use of capitals and full stops for some ss.
  • They then swap papers with another group who have to follow the directions and see if they are right.
  • Whole group collaborates with teacher as scribe to write accurate version on the whiteboard
  • We then closed with a little recap/discussion of the lesson, and a simple general discussion around which month is the best month to come to your country.

So to what extent was it both “unplugged” and learner centred?
I think this is where the challenge is here. For me part of the essence of this kind of teaching is about teachers and learners spotting gaps in which a learning opportunity can be developed. However, we are talking beginners, so it’s very hard to spot those gaps, perhaps simply because there are so many. As a result in the lesson you, as a teacher, make decisions on the learners’ behalf.  And because I made that decision early on in the lesson, despite a very learner responsive tangent or two, I had a half formed, and workable plan in my head, which perhaps interfered with the “natural” flow of the lesson, but which also gave a structure to the lesson in the second half.

A dogme attitude (I perhaps would resist “approach” here) involves this kind of moving with the lesson as and when it does, but here, for this class at this level, the compromise has to be that the teacher makes decisions about the direction for the classroom based on what they know about learning and teaching in an ESOL context. For some learners, particularly at higher levels, a more open lesson “structure” can be taken, and this can work well because the learners have the personal resources to come up with the language. At this level, you can keep the principles, perhaps, but make some sacrifices in order to do so.

It was learner centred, in that I made those decisions based on the learners. But I would have liked to have had much larger room for negotiation in the lesson, perhaps, which would have been beyond the level of the learners.



  1. It’s interesting that you are questioning how The Plan (However loose/vague) hindered rather than helped the learning in the lesson. The ITT and OFSTED-driven observation model has such a focus on planned learning outcomes, planned assessment (for learning!) activities and planned step by step procedural guide. What if tutors were supported in exploring this planning model, as well as this non-planning model.

    Just as un-conferences are being explored, maybe tutors should be trialling un-teaching! And as @online_gordie said : give it a go and take the flack when it comes.

  2. This is a wonderful blog post about the use of Dogme ELT (albeit unconventional as the previous commentator suggests with OFSTED) with an ESOL beginner class. When I first started teaching an absolute beginner level of immigrants at a local charity, initially I was preparing for each class but then I noticed that the classes were too constrictive. For the following two months, I would walk into class and react to what had emerged during the lesson. Once, I asked the learners how they were and they were unable to reply so we looked at positive and negative responses. It was extremely successful and I managed to persuade the charity to focus on Dogme ELT. I think that ESOL and Dogme ELT is worthy of research in the near future.

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