Having Moments. Reflection in action on action. Or something.

I was covering a class on Tuesday evening and I had a couple of little Moments. You know Moments? They happen when an idea hits you in the middle of a lesson, you try it and it works. It’s so good that you decide to take it away, refine it if necessary and it then slots into your general repertoire of teaching techniques. (You can call it a toolkit if you like, and put it into a “pack” but repertoire sounds way more sophisticated and less soulless-middle-management naff.)

Anyhow, those Moments. The first was a refinement of something I’ve described before: grouping students according to level by putting a letter in the corner of the handout before you give the activity to the learners, then getting them to sit with people with the same letter. This is fine when you know the group, and have a clear idea of what their strengths and weaknesses are. What it’s not so good for is when you don’t know the group, as in this case. So what I did was rather than have the letters in advance, I merely watched the students as they worked individually through the task on the handout then went round marking up the papers based on how they were doing. Arbitrarily, I used London, New York and Tokyo as my three codes, which had the rather pleasant effect of being able to say “right, here is London, here is Tokyo and here is New York” as a means to get the learners to move around the room. Thus I got the stronger students working together with an eye on an extension task (which wasn’t needed) but which gave me the chance to ask them some more analytical, challenging questions about some of the grammar, while being able to support some of the less able learners.

The second Moment was while they were working. I had a few spare copies of the handouts, a grammar review gap fill task from Instant Grammar Lessons (recomeneded by a brilliant colleague). Rather than getting the students to feedback to me, or to check their answers against a displayed version on the board, I gave each group a “master” copy of the task and got the groups to agree on set answers which they would write collaboratively on the “master”. (This had the interesting side effect of the higher level learners spending the same amount of time as the lower level learners, because they were too busy arguing over a preposition.) Only one group completed the whole thing, (interestingly not the strongest group) and the others were at different stages of the task. I then got each group to nominate a “spy” to go and check each other’s work and come back to say what they had noticed, and in this way I managed to ensure that all the learners had checked and clarified the right answers,. I closed with a plenary on the small handful of unresolved questions and problems, and then we moved into a speaking task to close.

To be fair, this “spy” idea is really something I’ve been doing for a while, but with less of a silly metaphor, perhaps. For me this was about bringing together different ideas: controlled groupings, collaborative learning and discussions, peer assessment and evaluation, all those things, and happily with very little teacher input, little by way of teacher control of the input and output but with distinct learning happening: lightbulb moments happened for a whole bunch of learners during the lesson.

I followed the lesson up with some very similar ideas the following evening with another group, and tightened up some of the stages, especially in terms of pace and time, and it became a much more effective little trick. It was also interesting applying it to a class that I already knew, and I had already made a few decisions about where I would group people. No doubt I will take this and refine and develop it a little over the next few months and they really will solidify into my practice properly.

Having Moments requires a bit of confidence: there’s a lot to be said for having the idea, noting it down, maybe then going and researching and refining it a little before then applying it, using a fairly traditional action research model, as this takes away some of the nerves around it. Arguably, as well, from a quality assurance point of view, it could be said that we should be careful in these things so that our learners get the best experience possible. Then again, sometimes the perfect time to put that idea into place is during the lesson you are teaching when the idea occurs.

By and large, and perhaps predictably, I am inclined to just jump in and see what happens in these situations: after all, you are unlikely to have massive, profound practice changing Moments, and they are likely to be smaller “tweaks” as in my example here. I like to think, however, that I would be prepared to try something quite radical if I thought it would be better for the learners. It’s a gamble, if you like, based on past experience, knowledge, and an understanding of what is happening right there in front of you. Most learners in my experience, are pretty understanding of things not working out in a lesson occasionally: nobody, after all, is perfect. And so, fear of it not working should never put you off, because even if it doesn’t it’s a valuable learning experience for you. Sometimes a lesson going wrong can be the most useful thing about it.

The teacher learning that happens in these sort of situations is arguably the best teacher learning there is. Moments like these are worth at least a few hours of teacher development workshop, and much more likely to have a long term impact on my teaching practice.

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