Should have, would have, could have…

I had a conversation with a colleague last week about a lesson she had taught. We were comparing similar events, as the conversation progressed, but what suddenly struck home to me was that we were both focussing on what we should have done.

This little realisation caught me off guard, and when I mentioned it, it took our conversation down an entirely new path. We began to look at our comments and reflections critically in and of themselves. “Why did I say that? Why was I thinking like that?”

We were not looking at what happened in the lesson, but rather looking at what we should have done. This isn’t the same thing. It’s not quite the same as being negative, as you have immediately dressed it up as a positive, constructive action, but by focussing on should have done, you have now focussed on what didnt work in the lesson.

There’s nothing wrong with this, of course. One of the great benefits of any feedback is that you can develop and learn from it. But our own reflections need to incorporate and identify what was particularly good so we can do more of that. And focussing on the good, in particular why it was good, can help to inform the rest of our pratcice by carrying over the ideas and the concepts to other areas of our practice.

For example: in my class today there was a particulalry lovely moment at the end when one of the beginner learners stood up said that she had found the lesson particularly useful. Which, aside from the compliment, set me thinking about whyshe had enjoyed it. What had I done well in that class which led to her positive opinion?

Unfortunately this was a passing remark as she left the room, and so I can only draw on my own reflections. The session was loose and flexible in structure, meaning there was opportunity for extra bits and pieces which were unplanned and arose in the lesson, but which, at the same time, had a well judged number of what I shall call language blobs (chunks, structures, vocab), challenged this particular learner’s spoken and systemic knowledge of language and at the same time gave her room to focus on where she was less able: writing and listening. In this lesson I think I managed to achieve, in what is a fairly complex group (like any beginner ESOL class), a fairly good balance of linguistic challenge and literacy challenge, meaning that the pace was well maintained, and the lesson focussed. I also, as I have begun to do with this group, allowed for linguistic downtime: I’ve cut back on “thou shalt speak only English” (go on, you try it in a language you can barely speak), and in open discussion-type activity, encourage learners to try and translate what they have said, sometimes allowing stronger learners to suggest the language to the less strong, sometimes insisting that the learner who is speaking have a go.

What can I carry forward from this? Think more carefully about what language is selected. for that group: only a small amount is likely to emerge in the classroom, so there needs to be more brought in, and from sources other than me. The topic was clearly and immediately useful (reading instructions o. medicine packets). I also helped some of the less able readers to show how they could gain understanding of a simple sentence by using just one or two words to make sense of the sentence: the main reding task was matching instructions to diagrams. By identifying one or two key words in each sentence (stir, pour, kettle, etc.) the less able learners were able to complete the task, which gave their confidence a boost, and which demonstrated and gave practice in a useful reading skill.

Reflection and feedback is not just about the positive, of course! Things go wrong, and need to be thought about. However, this is where the “should have” focus can still miss a crucial point. By emphasising what should have happened, you run the risk of avoiding the negative so much that you don’t really get to the bottom of what went wrong and, most importantly, why it went wrong.

So what went wrong in the lesson? It was far from perfect. Attendance was poor today: partly to do with the poor weather, partly to do with religious observances, and partly just a number of personal issues. There were definite lulls in the pace, even if on average it was pretty good, which meant that for a few minutes at least some learners were less engaged than they could have been. I didn’t really set the lesson up very well: again because of the religious observances, the learners were dribbling in, and I didn’t really do a very good job of engaging the learners who had arrived on time. (To be fair, I’m normally better at this!) I forgot to make a recording for a listening activity, meaning I had to read it aloud, which meant that the learners struggled to identify that this was a discrete listening task, and not just listening to me saying stuff.

Why were these things a problem? Attendance is an issue not just for the learning of those who miss lessons, but also for those who come: a larger group makes for more interesting and varied classroom interactions, rather than each learner working only with the same person in a very static interaction. I know that this is still one of my major areas for development, which I think is partly due to a kind of phone-shyness, but which dates back to when I had full cost fee paying students where I got used to reasoning that if they paid, but didn’t come, then that was their problem. Pace is important because if you keep the pace at an appropriate level, then learner engagement is likely to be higher: you avoid those “staring out of the window” moments. Learners dribbling in is one of those things in an ESOL class which just happens, so not engaging learners who do arrive on time is unfair on those learners who lose out on valuable learning time. And the listening? I think it’s good for learners to be exposed to a number of voices and accents, but also because when you read aloud you run the risk of placing stress in unnatural places, and varying the stress and intonation, giving prominence to different sections each time.

Interestingly (reflecting on reflecting) I had to consciously stop myself from saying “could have” about three times there. Actually identifying how I could or should have done things isn’t always as illuminating as thinking about what went wrong, and actually focussing on the positive first has made me think harder about doing that sort of stuff more, rather than dwelling on the alternatives to what I did do.

There’s nothing wrong at all with “should have /could have” – it is really useful. It is a powerful means of positive and constructive feedback. But to focus on doing more of the positive, and actually think about why the the bad stuff was bad can be just as informative.


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