On Monday, I delivered a reading lesson. I’m quite pleased with the materials, and with the level of analysis involved – reading a pair of texts for gist & detail, then a really meaty dig into the language used – connotation, metaphor, rhetorical questions and collocations. (By the way, the question about man or woman writer was just to get the students to think.)
So here’s a question. Two questions, in fact.
What, exactly, did the students learn?
How did I know this?
To put it another way, what were the learning outcomes? You can see the resources, and therefore the shape of the lesson – have a look and think about it first.
This is what I said:
- read at least one text and be able to identify the gist
- read at least one text and be able to extract grammatical and lexical detail
- identify how we can use linguistic features like connotation, metaphor and rhetorical questions to achieve an effect
- develop a better understanding of collocations and their meaning.
On the face of it, perhaps, the first two are OK and unremarkable (we could say how many details per student, to make it more measurable), but the last two would leave me open to criticism – not particularly measurable and lacking in specificness (because when it comes to SMART the only ones which generally count from an audit perspective are the first two).
We didn’t get round to the collocations, but the metaphors, rhetorical questions and connotations provided plenty of focus for the lesson. What was lacking, I first thought, was an opportunity to put this sort of awareness into practice – we had lots of “input” but limited practice. Thequestion, I think, is to ask what kind of practice would have been appropriate. One activity might have been a series of discussion questions to personalise the vocabulary uncovered in the lesson, although I’m not sure what they would have been: “Have you ever plundered a village after a battle?” “Did you slash your budget when they stopped your benefits?” “Are you moderate or fundamental in your religious views? Why?” etc. (I am being facetious, of course.) Perhaps something around reviewing short texts for other, similar examples. Then again, however, I think the lesson was around awareness raising and moving forward with new vocabulary and the skills to deal with new vocabulary and new images, awareness that a writer may well be playing games with you, applying subtle (or not so subtle) tricks to develop ideas more effectively. There was also a sense of learning about the hidden culture of a language: the use of violent and criminal imagery when discussing politics and finance, for example, or the well meaning jargon of aspiration and opportunity employed by public sector employees and journalists. Not all of this is easily “extractable”, and is often a combination of linguistic features, and perhaps there is no place here for application, not in terms of making the tasks achievable and realistic for Level 2 ESOL students, only for evaluation and analysis. Not yet, anyway.
At the end of the lesson I asked the students to think about what they had learned in the lesson. They wrote down things like these:
All good – focussing on the language we looked at. What was really striking was that without prompting and reminding the students didn’t consider the reading as part of the learning, despite the clear outcomes shared at the start. I could have reviewed them with the students more carefully, but I suspect that this would simply have been parroted back to me in the student feedback activity.
All of which brings me back round to the learning outcomes themselves. I was tempted, in an attempt at micro-rebellion, to write on my scheme of work for the lesson a super-SMART outcome for the lesson: “Students will be able to read two texts on ESOL policy and identify 8 details from those texts, and those texts alone” This, after all, would be the only reading outcome we could honest say has been evidenced as part of the lesson. It would not have worked had the outcomes been reviewed. “Too descriptive,” an observer would say, “What are the students going to be able to do as a result of that activity?” “be able to do”? I don’t know. I know that this group of students can read a text and make sense of it already. Therefore the lesson was merely giving them practice in it, so “students will have had practice in reading a text. etc.” would have been a much more honest outcome. This would have come under fire, of course: “it’s not SMART. Where is the evidence of learning? It’s not enough just to practice – you need to supply evidence that something has been learned.”
I could have not had the reading outcome at all, perhaps, and focussed on the language analysis later on, but again, my erstwhile observer would have (rightly) slammed me on this one too: “You should have had a reading outcome as well for a two hour lesson where students spend over a third of that time reading.” And round and round we go.
My students were right, of course. The texts were primarily a way into the language, but not the primary aim of the lessons. Learning outcomes are knotty like that – the quest for evidence of learning can make the expression of that learning problematic. After all, the only real evidence I have of the students’ reading skills is that they can read those two texts, not that they are capable of universally applying those skills in any setting. And with language, particularly complex, idiomatic language, it can be hard to evidence an understanding without applying that language, but sometimes application of that language can be hard, or even unrealistic, and even when it is apparently possible, it still doesn’t mean that the students have learned anything in a replicable manner.
That’s not to say a lesson shouldn’t have clear aims/objectives/outcomes. I like my unplugged lessons, and there is always room for emergent language in lessons, but there needs to be a balance between these and more clearly focussed lessons. But the semantics and purpose of outcomes needs to be evaluated and considered more carefully rather than the usual blind acceptance we go for.