So the second session looked like this. The class first did a reading activity with a text with lots of passives. I had selected a number of sentences from the text, and for the second stage, I had the students answering concept-checking type questions about the sentences, followed by a fairly straightforward sentence writing activity.
Ok, so the lesson. It was good that there was a lot more active student discussion and peer coaching and explaining, and opportunity for me to go round and support individuals who were struggling with it. With the previous session there was a definite sense that even with the most careful pausing and questioning there were still students who might fall by the wayside. This felt less of an issue with this session, and I was able to support or direct peers to support each other a lot more.
It was hard at times to resist explanations, in fact, I have to admit I did include the odd little explanation. However, on balance, I fairly consistently led by questioning and drawing out meaning and form.
The text-based nature of the lesson lent a sense of consistency to the lesson: a discussion led to a reading led to a grammar analysis led to some grammar practice, linked by the context of the reading text. I think there were some flaws in the questions I posed and I want to go back and redo the question sheet: re-order the sequence, rewrite some of the language examples, and slim it down a little. The practice task was good, and like last time, completed with a fair degree of success. My intention was to follow it with a writing task, which I will probably now save til later on.
So, an initial judgement? Explicit explanations vs guided discovery? Hmm. Based on my own reflections, the guided discovery was better. The moving of the focus from me to the students, for example, was satisfying, although I could just have easily done my explicit instruction in a similar “read it yourself” way.
In fact,I’ve kind of blown the vague bash at a scientific approach really: I didn’t maintain enough similarity between the two lessons: the explicit instruction lesson, for example, was primarily me leading at the front, whereas the discovery lesson was students leading at their own pace. To make it a fairer test, I should have led the discovery questioning also from the front. It is something worth coming back to, I think: planning the whole process, including the lessons, at the same time, making sure this sort of thing is reduced.
But all is not lost! Atuff has come out of this. For one, I think, despite my reservations on the idea, that the clarity of focus of the “explicit” lesson went down well: the group responded positively to this, and seemed a bit put out by the lack of this in the second lesson: a sense of “is this about passives?”. That said, some of the blame for this has to lie with my task design for this lesson, and that needs tweaking. However, I think this focus element is something to come back to, for sure: there is a balance to be struck there between guided discovery and clear focus for learning.
In both lessons the most positive, active elements were those which focussed on the students working: the structure of the second lesson allowed this a lot more, and, as I’ve mentioned above, enabled me to get in amongst the class a lot more, clarifying, helping; as well as enabling a lot more peer support: I overheard several conversations across the room with some proper “lightbulb” moments.
The one thing I disliked about both lessons was that being so planned on specific points, I had to close down some valid and interesting language work that emerged during the lesson: phonology in the first and comparatives and superlatives in the second. This was, I admit, partly because of the experimental nature of the lessons, but I have definitely missed that freewheeling aspect of language teaching. I know it’s not the done thing, and raises questions about the “clarity of focus” issue above in the sense that seizing learning opportunities like dealing with emergent language isn’t something which fits into the simple behaviourist input-output model of learning outcomes expected in UK FE. However, even with emergent language you can have a clear focus: “write five sentences using passives” can emerge during a lesson. But again, this is something to come back to.
Having a set “method” in both lessons was restricting, I think: bringing me back to the principled eclecticism concept: you go in with a range of tools and methods and you pick the most useful one for the moment. You do a bit of explaining, a bit of eliciting, a bit of open questioning, a bit of targeted questioning. You do what you think is going to fit best, and if it turns out you thought wrong, you change it.
So no grand statements, no great discoveries, but an interesting reflective journey! And that, to be fair, is what it’s all about.