Democracy, Control & Student-Centredness

On Wednesday,  some colleagues and I were discussing the notion of democracy, arguing, with the aid of only minor ebriety, that a classroom is an essentially non-democratic environment, despite the best intentions of the teacher, and their personal political beliefs.  Interestingly, the next morning, I taught two very different classes which set me off thinking about the nature of democracy in teaching and learning and the notion of student-centredness*.

In one of the classes, a beginner one, I set about making things open to student decisions, if not strictly democratic, while in the entry 1 class later in the day I was far more autocratic and controlling in my approach.

The beginner group was a lesson on shops and shopping, but also an opportunity for the students to practise using reference materials. We started with a recap activity on days of the week: each student got a postcard sized bit of paper with a letter on it (M, T, W, Th or F) and had to write the rest of the name of the day. On the reverse of that I then asked the students to write a sentence about what they do on those days, and for students who are really struggling to write I asked them to tell me and then either simply wrote it for them, and asked them to copy what I had written. I then mixed the cards up among the class and had the students ask each other “What do you do on…?” to try and find who the card belonged to. This took a while, not just because the students were beginners, but also because when they were asking each other about what they did they began to genuinely communicate with one another. It was in far from accurate English, with a smattering of translations, recourse to Google translate and hand gestures, but it was actual, genuine communication between students. I sat back and observed, only providing feedback on key errors leading to communication breakdown and on the main structure – days of the week and present simple.

In the second two-thirds of the lesson we talked about shops. I elicited some key shops, drilled the pronunciation and checked the spelling. I kept this fairly teacher-led – I wanted to set some boundaries for the next stage. I then had the students find the appropriate page in a photo dictionary (Longman, although other dictionaries are available…) then in pairs to research two to four words that they thought were useful or new to them. Things got a bit freewheeling at this point. My main focus was for students to research and then to share and perhaps peer-teach their words, which we did, but also ended up discussing how to ask questions about where to find things in the supermarket, before closing on “How often do you buy…” This was a little poignant – of the class only two people ever did the shopping on their own, and one of those two lives alone and has no choice. One student had an opportunity to use “never” when asked if she goes to the supermarket. I love, however, how these little insights into students lives come through at these times: how often people have to go to the job centre and how they feel when they go there, how one student is the main carer for a disabled family member (a beginner!), how one student spends her free time working with her son on their garden. It’s these things that you rarely get when you close down the classroom and become fully autocratic.

Which is what I did in the afternoon. By contrast, this group is a lively Entry 1 class of sixteen students. My choice of lesson (note “my”) was based on a listening task around cooking instructions. The text was from Listening Extra, a resource book which I love, and had two key tasks: sequencing pictures and then completing the information on the ingredients list. I started with students completing a task in groups of deciding which food would go with which verb (fry, boil, bake, pour, etc.) as well as getting students to add verbs as appropriate. I wasn’t planning on getting into the distinction between whisk and beat, and thankfully we didn’t go near whip but overall there was very little student contribution at this stage. We expanded a little on the verbs and also on measurements by checking in the photo dictionaries (again!) and had a group then class discussion on which food would you measure with which measurements (a metre of spaghetti, anyone?) this linked into the main listening task, and we closed with the students sharing a favourite recipe.

There was masses of teacher control here. Very little, if any, room was made for tangential or non-focussed questions. This was teacher-as-dictator, even at the end with the sharing of recipes: I was pretty harsh on task focus and made sure they were sharing recipes, and not, say, comparing cuisines of different countries, because I wanted to be absolutely sure they were taking the chance to use some of the vocabulary from the start of the lesson.

The irony of all this, of course, is that had both lessons been observed, I would have got slammed on the lack of focus on the first one (not entirely unfairly, but never mind) and priced for the clear outcomes of the second. Yet the second was not in any way at all student led. Don’t get me wrong, students were doing lots of the work, I wasn’t “teaching from the front”.  But students had very little control over what was happening in the lesson. Very little indeed. From a planning perspective this was absolutely not student led.

“Student Led” What a lovely phrase, so flexible in meaning. For example, I could describe my second lesson as “student-led” by saying that the theme of the lesson was of interest to the students (food; after all, we all love food), contained valuable lexical items and an opportunity to practise grammar, as well as developing the listening and speaking skills of those students preparing for an exam and that they had a chance to personalise the language towards the end. Student led, obviously.

Never mind, then, that the college selected the exam board, the teachers selected their exam, and the course content, based only partly on the negotiated needs of the students, as measured against an outdated & un-evaluated government curriculum document with arbitrary level descriptors which fail to reflect the complex reality of students’ interlanguages, on a course design heavily influenced by funding restrictions, exam backwash and policy directives, both internal and external, in terms of hours available. We might only have about 90 hours in which to initially, assess and then cover all the gaps in a group of 15 students, not to mention summative assessment which might knock a few hours off the end. Add in a couple of strikes, some tutor sickness and teacher training days and you’ve got about 70 hours of classroom time in which to cover the entirety of a curriculum level.

Specific pedagogical practices are imposed. Students are expected to engage with unchallengeable teaching and learning practices such as using SMART targets (remember that neither teacher nor student has the freedom to reject these “best practices”). Computer assisted lessons and VLE use are expected regularly in spite of the fact that a significant number of students would need specific ICT training in order to make best use of these things, training for which there is neither time nor money. Effective autonomous online learning, and indeed learners take classroom time to develop and support: online learning should not be used as a cheap, lazy proxy for face to face lessons.. (And no, students shouldn’t need to be accessing online learning to make up any funding hours shortfall.  This, quite frankly, is a poor excuse, which misses the critical point about the funding of learning.)

Many of these anti-student led accusations could be levelled at the first lesson, of course, and indeed of any ESOL class the country over. there was a lot of teacher control, still. I had selected the pages of the dictionary, which dictionary, and how we were going to tackle the vocabulary. Of course I did. Where this differed is that the sentences and much of the vocabulary content, were selected in the lessoin by the students based on their own criteria. Not much more student led, perhaps, but still more so than the previous one. What marks it out as different, and perhaps in only a small way, was the self-selecting nature of the content. Students genuinely made their own decisions based on their own criteria.

Neither lesson was better than the other, mind you. I just think we need to be clear that student-centred, democratic lessons are unattainable and unrealistic, and, crucially, not necessarily desirable. Some control from external bodies or teachers is inevitable, and even, in the case of the teacher anyway, necessary to maximise learning. That doesn’t mean teachers and students should be blindly accepting of that control – healthy criticism, even scepticism, is useful and productive. Criticism requires creativity, innovation and rigour from both those criticising and those being criticised. There, perhaps, is the much-vaunted British Value of democracy; democracy and indeed individual liberty. It’s just a shame that on so many many levels students and teachers are granted neither.


*Let’s not worry too much about the largely philosophical, if fitfully interesting, distinction between the words “learner” and “student.” For most teachers we are only really using both words to mean “people who come to our lessons”, and on this day to day, practical level it simply doesn’t matter. I’m saying “student-centred” today, and I might say “learner-centred” tomorrow, and care precisely not at all.



  1. As always, a good read, Sam. Thanks! I was mentioning to someone at the weekend about goal setting and SMART targets in ESOL in England. It’s interesting to see them described as unchallengeable. From tweets and other posts, this is the impression I had formed but don’t know much more about it than that. If you had the time (and inclination) would you be able to point me towards other posts you’ve written on this? Or where to find current ‘guidelines’? Many thanks 🙂

    1. I think I’ve blogged about smart targets several times! was the first anti-targets one, but also this one: (I might have hidden that, I’m not sure if the link will work!) and most recently here and, like learning styles, SMART targets are a bugbear of mine. In a nutshell, the concept of targets that specific doesn’t really chime with my understanding of how language learning works (or how learning anything works, really) and nobody has been able to say “read this research here and it shows that this thing is effective.” What worries me is that the ILP (and therefore the smart target) has become embedded in OFSTED and the common inspection framework, senior managers and inspectors are now of a generation that trained up in the early days of skills for life when the notion was first being generally touted, and therefore for whom it is an unquestionable fact. It is the done thing. What also worries me (I blogged about this too) is that ESOL (and maybe FE in general) is politically very weak – a politically unpopular arm of a politically unpopular aspect of education: the Cinderella department of a Cinderella sector. ESOL practitioners are too busy fighting their corner for funding to be able to fight their corner for pedagogy: too eager to please, to do the right thing, to fit in, and reluctant to ask questions of those imposing their pedagogical assumptions.

      I might be wrong on that last point, indeed, I hope I am, but that’s how it feels at the moment.

      1. Many thanks, Sam. The link to the possibly hidden post didn’t work, but the others were very interesting. Sounds very frustrating. We aren’t under the same type of inspection regime where I work and so we have some leeway. But ILPs still feature quite strongly and I’m interested in trying to understand why they have become such an unquestioned good, justified as being valuable to the learner rather than as a convenient way to provide evidence to funders and inspectors.

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