Groups, Needs & Personality: I think you’ll find it’s more complicated than that

I’m currently teaching two Entry 1 classes. They both attend three days a week, are broadly similar in terms of nationality mix, gender and indeed language learning needs: both groups have members who are working above Entry 1 in some respects, working towards various different qualifications and one or two members with comparatively limited literacy. In each group there are students with similar social and economic backgrounds and situations: parents, recent arrivals, former refugees, workers, and so on. You jammy git, you may be thinking, easy scheme of work planning!

And in terms of scheme and course content, you’d be right. There’s a degree of overlap, especially as one group started a week or so after the other, and the focus of the lessons is broadly similar, and from an external perspective it’s pretty straightforward. Unfortunately, this is the trouble with the cold computational model of course planning common in FE: identify required input, deliver required input, assess required input, input successful: there is much much more to it than that.

In reality, the two groups are deeply, profoundly different, and I’ll tell you now, it’s nothing to do with the students’ individual learning needs and motivations, and it is everything to do with personality. Personality, to paraphrase Samuel L Jackson in Pulp Fiction, goes a long way in the ESOL classroom. It influences all sorts of things. Group H, as I will call them, has many many extrovert, confident personalities, while Group D (and why not D?) has confident people, for sure, but far fewer extrovert personalities. Group H has a core of students who have been studying together for a year already, Group D is newly formed this academic year. In group H this core acts as a kind of glue, even when spread out around the room according to learning needs, they still interact well with each other. The core also gives a sense of cohesion for the other students to connect to. At the moment this is lacking with group D, but you can see it beginning to form amongst the students – the terms and conditions of group interactions, and the settings of the friendships and relationships being established. It’s interesting to observe, and the only disappointing thing is the way it will change when both courses finishes in January.

Personality, while perhaps not a fixed concept, is something which is hard to consciously change, and depends on a range of innate and learned factors. Certainly it is beyond the abilities and, arguably, the remit of the ESOL teacher to change personality, linguistic relativity notwithstanding. But the individual personality mix in a group has an impact on a number of things. Take, for example, the types of activities you choose, and their relative effectiveness: in my tentative micro-study of these two classes, group H responds well and confidently to free flowing, dogme-influenced lesson activities, group D is more tentative, and responds better to slightly tighter control over pace and activity, preferring a more “traditional” structure. That’s not say that group D can’t or won’t respond, but that they are, perhaps, developing their confidence as learners, and need at times greater guidance. And that’s absolutely fine. No single technique or activity, no strategy, no policy, works for all students all the time: I’ve spent years criticising the imposition of SMART target setting based pretty much entirely on that notion. But at least on activities, methods and resources my professional judgement is trusted enough that I have freedom to adapt things to those students. It’s not just activities, but also the nature of feedback: group D have, so far, responded really well to guided feedback: where I’ve suggested changes to writing, for example, they have a go and make the changes without prompting, experimenting as they go. Group H, despite their apparent confidence, generally prefer a lot more guidance, and like to have a longer explanation before making changes, although, and again, this is because of the god intoersonal relationships they have, there is a lot more natural peer teaching going on: stronger students will support weaker without being asked by the teacher.

I’ve blogged before, I think, about the essential falseness of the classroom setting: the language of the classroom has its own authenticity separate from the “real” English of the outside world, and any attempts to integrate this realism are undermined by this disconnected classroom microcosm. It’s impossible in a language classroom to ever fully replicate the complexity of genuine interaction, and neither should this be the aim of the language lesson. Indeed, we should perhaps be looking not at developing authentic language but rather the authentic ability to cope with the unknown, to handle the unexpected and the complex. This “separate universe” view applies to personality too. When students come to class they assume a status, a role in class that is different from their role in their “real” lives: not necessarily introvert to extrovert, but perhaps a discovery of added confidence when they realise that they are by far the strongest student in the class, or a deference borne out of a realisation that despite their verbal fluency and confidence, they need significant support for even the simplest writing task. Perhaps some students, when they arrive, see that they have the chance now to change where they were, and consciously decide, for a few hours each week at least, to have a go at being a slightly different person.

All of which makes for interesting teaching, and is one of the reasons, perhaps the main reason, that this job is as interesting as it is. It’s a constant challenging creative process, making that present simple lesson work for that group of students, or re-modelling the lesson on the fly because the activities are just not engaging the students (and again, that’s not just about stretch and challenge). Indeed, it’s the days when you repeat a lesson and it goes more or less exactly as it did the last time that you get almost this sense of disappointment, a feeling, almost, that you have in some way let the students down. Without this variety, teaching could so easily become as tedious a job as working on a packing line, just with added stress.

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