Unplugged in 3 rounds.

Like many (well, 100 or so) in the UK ESOL community last week I managed to rush home to pick up a webinar run by Scott Thornbury on an “ecological” approach to ESOL: essentially drawing together ideas from dogma, participatory education and task based learning and applying them to the UK ESOL context: that is, teaching English to migrants in an English language setting.

A couple of things struck me: first was that this was a very similar line to the approaches I’ve described at various NATECLA workshops: using the lives of the students and the language contexts in which they live and work as the starting point for learning, and within that, enabling and using the students’ emergent language arising from the those contexts as the course content, rather than teacher selected grammar and vocabulary items. I don’t mean in a situational “Mr Khan goes to the chemist” sense, but rather using planned classroom strategies to open the learning space to whatever language the students need: creating a space for language to arise through interaction. You create interactions which expose gaps in the communicative skills of the students and you fill them. It’s not winging it, in the sense of planning and thinking about the how of the lesson, but leaving the what up to chance. This is a bit of a distance from the standard model of FE (in which I work), which requires that there be teacher dictated learning aims for every lesson, with teacher dictated activities and teacher selected content: the content and “aims” originate with the students on the day. We move from aims and outcomes, and the dreaded SMART, and instead we look at affordances and thus learning opportunities: not so much we will learn to we have learned.

There’s a lot of skill and understanding involved: where some language arises, you’ve got to know whether to explain and analyse, perhaps expand and practice, or whether to simply “infill” the correct form lexically, so to speak. You’ve got to be on the ball, listening to the students across the room, to decide whether one students’ language is something that will benefit everyone, and is whether it is worth sharing with the whole class. You need to know your students: how are they likely to respond to your lesson structure? How will they engage with each other? Which students are likely to produce more complex structures and who is likely to need more support?

So anyway, inspired, or perhaps reminded, by the webinar, I thought I’d have a go at an explicitly “unplugged” lesson. I had three groups of students at level 1, two on Thursday morning, and one on Friday, and I did a sort of mini-action research project by using the same basic lesson structure to see what happened.

As a stimulus I used pictures of various places around town. I chose relatively significant places: supermarkets, libraries, the job centre, the council offices, and fairly commonplace ones: a cash machine, a railway station, a chemist. I quite like these as a stimulus: they’re familiar and reusable: one set of 25 A4 colour photos (ssh, don’t tell the boss) can be used on multiple occasions. Plus there’s lots that can be done with them.

I divided the lesson into rounds, rather than stages. Round 1 was simply identifying the places. Each group of students received an envelope with some of the images in. They looked, identified and discussed their ideas before handing the photos to the next group. Repeat as necessary until everyone’s seen all of them, then a bit of teacher led plenary to pull together answers and ideas, and to share the emergent language. And what a lot there was, even at this stage. In one group, we ended up with zero hours contract,minor ailments and insufficient funds; with another we had time waster and pass the buck; and in the other a clarification over the difference between jungle and woods.

For round 2, the students worked in pairs to identify problems which might arise in these places. This is where it got really interesting. With the first two groups the focus was much more squarely (but not purely) focussed on problems in the places themselves (being overcharged, refunds, benefits problems, a card getting swallowed, that sort of thing). With the third group, the issues more often focussed on outside: looking at issues around parking, transport services and so on. This was significant because this influenced how the third round played out.

Round 3, then, was intended to have the students writing a dialogue based on one of the problems identified. However, the most appropriate response to, say, a lack of parking, isn’t to harangue the guy on the front desk of the council office, but rather to write, or email, the relevant department. So where, in rounds 1 and 2, the emergent language was relatively similar, particularly, as you might expect, with the two groups based in the same geographical area, the language arising for Round 3 was radically different not only in the individual bottom up language (grammar, vocabulary, etc.), but also in the types of language interaction the students needed in order to deal with the problem.

There is much talk in FE, and indeed in education generally, about meeting individual needs. The traditional ESOL approach to this is assess students, identify areas for improvement, design course to meet these needs. This is all very lovely and idealistic, and perhaps in the early Skills for Life ESOL class maxing out at around 12 students it might even have a little value. As class sizes have swollen to 18+ students, the reality is that across the course everyone will probably need some exposure to pretty much everything. What this sort of approach does is create a learning environment which is based entirely on individual needs: after all, whose language are we working with? Where are the gaps in communicative ability coming from? In some ways, this approach is far closer to the holy grail of individualised learning than anything which involves various formalised assessments, target setting and the rest: it’s assessment for learning in action, if you like, making use of what you learn about your students in the lesson to maximise their subsequent learning, unfettered by planned aims and teacher dictated content. Plus it probably winds some people up, and that, quite frankly, is reason enough for anything.

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