(Controversially) Teachable Moments

Things went a bit pear shaped this week. Thursday morning I went into class ready to a nice, predictable “reflect on last year, discuss thoughts about this year” task (using an hourglass as a metaphor) and discovered that more than one student had had a couple of really rough experiences last year so very quickly reverted to a mundane reading task which I’d used with another group earlier in the week on the theme of motivation and why goals fail. This was with the intention of following this up on Friday morning with a bit of a discussion about resolutions, and thence to engage students in a bit of negotiation about what we were going to do in the coming term, and even, if they wanted to, set themselves some targets. After all, I’m OK with target setting if it’s something someone thinks will help them to focus – it’s standing over students and saying “You must have targets and they must be SMART because it’s the rules” which I object to. However, any discussion of this is a moot point, because it didn’t happen. We might do something about it next week, but given my antipathy to target setting, and the fact we’d just been reading about why goals and targets fail, I doubt it.

The plan, insofar as there was detail, was to start with students thinking about what challenges and hopes they had for the year ahead. I calculated how I was going to support those students who might struggle with this emotionally (by keeping the focus fairly light for those students) and had arranged to get students to write their challenges on post its, work in (socially distanced) pairs to compare and ctaegorise their challenges & hopes, to be followed by a whole group sharing and advice giving activity, and some small group presentations, perhaps. From this, I imagined that there would be plenty of opportunities for teachable moments arising, so I fully expected it to expand into the whole lesson.

But life, being life, managed to not let this happen. For one, we had a really poor turnout, due to illnesses (not covid) and other challenges, and as a result I was down to six students. Now, the challenges/hopes lesson was really planned for a much larger majority in the lesson, as there was still going to be a part where we honed down which topics or themes we were going to focus on for the term, and I wanted there to be a more community / democratic focus to that task as I hoped it would stimulate content for future lessons. There had been a nicely productive chat for the first 15 minutes or so, but I could sense this was fading away to a natural conclusion, and I was hunting out the resources for a grammar lesson looking at future forms, based broadly on one I did online last year, and therefore not needing handouts printing (meaning I could move into smoothly, rather than having to leave the room).

And then one of the students (let’s call her A) asked an interesting question loosely linked to the conversation they had all been having. I’ll have to paraphrase briefly as the thrust of the question took some time, but the question was this:

“Why won’t the UK rejoin the EU?”

Old news, perhaps, and a question overshadowed by covid the last couple of years, but a valid one, given the background of the student in question. More importantly, indeed, most importantly, every other student in the class had an opinion. There were grumbles about prices increasing and shortages of certain products, but also a debate emerging over the benefits and drawbacks relating to EU membership, with some students citing reasons for leaving with which they agreed.

Talk about an opportunity. This was a theme about which everyone had an opinion or at least a hunch of a feeling, and about which it was really really simple to draw up a quick table on the board, put the students into two groups of 3 (for maximum opportunity for discussion) to come up with a list of pros and cons of rejoining the EU.

Who needs starters and plenaries, aims and objectives, powerpoints and lesson plans when the world hands you something like this on a nicely polished plate?

Except, and this is a good except, it went even further off. In one group a small side debate arose on the theme of benefits fraud, which hooked in the other group, and which then rose up to dominate the whole class until:

“All Muslims do benefit fraud.”

That sound you heard last Friday at about 10.30 was my jaw hitting the floor. It was a shocking moment, perhaps even more so when you consider that the speaker in question was herself Muslim. The subsequent silence was, as you can imagine, more than slightly awkward.

But again, gloriously, wonderfully teachable. I felt that this was definitely one of those moments where I needed to step in before some sort of row broke out, so we tried to clarify carefully what the student was trying to say. In an attempt to do this, another student added “I think all Asians commit benefit fraud.” Now, as it turns out, the general thrust of this comment was basically “it’s not just Muslims,” and so it was clearly a misguided attempt to mollify the students in the room: although the speaker in this case was not Muslim, she was Asian. At this point, the one non-Asian and non-Muslim student in the room was maintaining a very careful silence!

So where to go with this? There were two points here: the social expectations around equality and respect, and the question of how to actually say what you are trying to say. As a starting point I wrote up “avoid making generalisations” and used both students’ sentences as a means of eliciting/presenting a more appropriate way of saying it – I think we settled on “Based on my experience, many of the people in my area are committing benefit fraud.” What was really nice about this was that during the discussion which followed those language elements started to crop up – “based on my experience…” “I’ve often found that…” “some people often…” This is a Level 2 group, and I admit there’s not a lot here which is Level 2 complexity of structure, based on simple lexical or structural criteria. However, if you look up from grubbing around simple grammar and denotative meaning, and start to consider more complex socio-lingusitic elements, about recognising the power in the words you use and using language to offset that power, this is definitely Level 2. This is alluded to in the ESOL Core Curriculum (at various points on pages 19-22 here, since you ask), by the way, but rarely picked up in assessments and exams, and certainly when I reflect on my own teaching experiecnes, not something I often explicitly teach.

This wasn’t the end of it, of course! The discussion ranged in that lesson from this to various other social issues – fraud in general, child abuse, refugees, the situation in Palestine (as you can probably imagine, this was an especially passionate part of the discussion), corruption and bribery, and a whole host of other things. In fact the original discussion about EU membership fell very much by the wayside, and we only really used it towards the end to bring the conversation back online when it was beginning to drift away.

So what did we learn from all this? First up, I really enjoyed pretty much giving up the general control over the thrust of the lesson, and the feedback from the students was very much that they enjoyed the chance just to speak. They did say that they wanted more error correction, which I think would be a good way to close off a lesson like this – collecting spoken errors and feeding them back for a whole group correction exercise, for example, but I think this could be quite challengiung when you as a teacher are involved in the discussion directly. It’s easier with more structured small group discussions, however, and I would definitely do that. The vocabulary developed was amazing – “cash-in-hand” “loophole” “catch redhanded” “businesses exploit desperate people” and so on, and as I always find in this kind of free-ranging lesson, much richer than I would ever be able to “teach” and also much more valuable.

For myself, I have sometimes found with lessons like this that it can become a bit of a lecture, where I hold forth on a topic in response to a student question, and so I made a specific effort to throw discussion questions straight back to the group rather than respond directly. Even language focussed questions I tried much harder to get the group to address the question, rather than answer the question myself. In general, I think this worked well for this lesson as it drew on the collective knowledge and increased opportunities for students to talk. This did mean a shift, slightly, in the power balance of the classroom – thinking about that last blog post, there remained a sense of “Me Teacher, You Student” but it was much less about me delivering input and more about filling gaps, re-cconstructing language in line with what students were trying to say. The lesson was negiotiated, in that sense, rather than imposed.

Given the strength of opinion, I think I might follow the lesson up with a more generative task around challenges for the new year, and get the students to consider global, national, and regional concerns as well as considering their own personal concerns for the year ahead, and use these ideas a themes for future lessons. I also want to start bringing in more effective “capture” strategies which capture this emergent language and form it up for the students. This is for two reasons – most importantly for the students and for subsequent lessons where revisiting the language will be possible. The second is more for my own research into how this kind of emergent language can form the syllabus, and how it does this,. At the moment the interactive white board is proving invaluable for this – I filled three screens’ worth and was able to export this into a pdf for students, but this definitely needs something for the students. From next week I am going to get the students to start keeping a learning diary of sorts to complete each week to reflect on what they have learned and how they are percieiving the lessons.

What also really has me thinking is that I need another research question – not just about pereceptions of the syllabus emerging, but also who is responsible for what in that curriculum. However, that, I think is a question for another day.

One comment

  1. I was impressed by the teaching method that throws back the questions to the group instead of straightly giving out the answer, and I agree that the role of the teacher is to fill up the gap, rather than deliver input.

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