Purposeful

Here’s a question for you. How do you go about making an ESOL lesson “purposeful”? ESOL lessons can, indeed should be wandering and tangential, building on opportunities that arise, but this doesn’t have to be at the expense of being purposeful 

As a starting point, let’s clarify what we mean. Oxford dictionaries give us three options

  1. Having or showing determination or resolve
  2. Having a useful purpose
  3. Intentional

It would be fun to discuss the first of these, but I think that would be semantic nitpicking of the most irritating kind, and we would end up talking about resilience or similar. 

And I don’t really think that the second meaning is terribly pertinent. Or rather it is pertinent but it is sort of the whole point of language learning in a second language environment: it’s the motivational wood we can’t see due to the trees. ESOL learning should have a useful purpose: it’s not academic study for the sake of it. ESOL students usually have a useful purpose behind their motivation for learning, and while humdrum daily reality shouldn’t be the only context for learning (although it’s a lazy quick win for an observation) it is, however, the main context in which students wil be using the language. 

No, I rather suspect that when you hear talk of purposeful learning, the meaning is the third: learning activities should be intentional. This suggests a couple of things: conscious engagement on the part of the students; and a clear something that the students can take away from the lesson. 

Conscious engagement, then. It’s becoming widely accepted, I think, that a lecture, if delivered interestingly with learning checked throughout, can be a damn good way of getting a stack of information across. No problems there, as long as what you are teaching can be taught using the same language as your students. But even for teachers who share a first language with all their students, then there is still a need for the students to make use of the language: theory and practical in one lesson, if you like. Engagement is crucial for production of language, that crucial stage of language learning which consolidates the learners’ understanding, tests it out, and provides you as a teacher some idea of how much or how well the students have learned. 

Which brings me to the second, and I think the most pertinent point: students taking something away from the lesson. I’m going to stick my neck right out on this one and say that in none of my lessons do I expect my students to come away with the target language or language skill fully developed. Not a single one. And neither should you. Students might be closer to full automatisation of the language point, be better able to apply a language skill, but I would be very surprised if I taught something in lesson A and the students were able to the reproduce exactly and in other contexts that language point in subsequent lessons. I was praised once because of apparent “deep learning” when a student had a lightbulb moment about relative clauses in an observed lesson, but despite this, the student was still unable to generalise and apply the thing she had apparently “deeply” learned. 

The problem is that we aren’t dealing with knowledge as discreet from application, but rather we are dealing with knowledge and application simultaneously. It’s of limited value to ask students to tell you the rule: it’s a start, and it does have value, but I’d genuinely question “explain the rule” as a sole learning outcome. I’d be looking at application of the language: what can students do with it?

But this then raises the big question: what are the learning outcomes? The usual “SMART” definition is of no help here: the S is fine, I think, but as soon as you go down the rest of the acronym you end up with a description of the activity. But if your outcome is simply “be better able to use passive voice”, then, how do you assess the learning taking place? Well, you listen to the students, you read their writing, you assess their performance in controlled and freer activities, all sorts. And different learners might demonstrate their skill in different ways, in an often unpredictable manner. And either way they will only be a bit better able to use the language, so why pretend to anyone that “use passive voice accurately and independently in six sentences or utterances” is at all meaningful. SMART outcomes limit and restrict learning in this context and dogged insistence on creating measurable performance is only going to lead to contextualised, limited and unrealistic performance. 

Assessment is part of the problem with this sort of atomising of language. I’ve taught enough higher level students who’ve “performed” at a particular level but have clearly not learned. I have had level 1 learners still struggling both conceptually and productively with first person present simple, and yet they and the system believe that they are “working at” entry 3. They’ve got a certificate and everything. This creates frustration all round: a student who believes they have achieved a level, a teacher who has to cope with managing that discontent. Summative and formative assessment based on tidy outcomes too easily reduces learning into neat observable tics, when proper formative assessment is complex and ongoing. It’s listening to students and correcting spoken language, reading what they have written and telling them what needs changing (and how).  Expressing these things as assessable outcomes, however, creates the false impression of achievement: take an outcome at face value and you have to say “so what?” So what if a student can use third person singular in six different sentences at entry 1: they’ll still be making mistakes with it three years later in a level 1 class. And if I say “oh it’s ok, what I really mean is “know a bit more about third person singular”, then what’s the benefit of the measurable outcome? None that I can see. What does a learner understand from that outcome? All of which assumes, of course, that we can set that outcome without teaching the language point first.

But saying, for example, a non-SMART intention like “today’s lesson will focus on passive voice, vocabulary to do with the environment, and practising reading for gist” is purposeful. For  one, students have a chance of understanding what this means. They can see how the activity they are doing is likely to lead to them knowing more about the language point, or developing that skill.  And as long as you are given the opportunity to listen to and carefully monitor what the students are saying and doing, and think about what they are likely to know about that language, then there should be no concerns with students being bored or lacking challenge. Setting the measurable outcome is well intentioned but deceptive at best, blatantly mendacious at worst. Purpose is perfectly achievable without specific outcomes, but it does involve being clear and honest with the students about what will be happening in the lesson. 

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