There is no spoon.

I have, for right or wrong, better or worse, been teaching maths to a group of 16-18 year old ESOL learners, and it’s been a bit of a ride, with a tricky bunch of students and Captain Laidback Softypants at the helm, with only a very vague idea of where to go with all this numbers n maths n stuff. It’s not been a total disaster, but neither has it been much of a success, and it occurs to me that rather than great teachers and educationalists, the role model I need is Keanu Reeves.

Do you think that’s really air you’re breathing?

I’ve spent 11 weeks killing myself with this maths lark. I am Keanu in the Matrix when he fights Morpheus in the dojo. I’m wearing myself out generating materials and lesson ideas, and really, I don’t have to. This is partly down to loose planning. Loose planning is fine if you are confident enough in your subject. (I’m not. I’ve been putting off division for weeks.) Loose planning is fine if you have a bunch of subject based activities you can pop out of the bag at a moments notice. (I don’t.) Loose planning is fine if you have a motivated and engaged group of adults who want to be there and are curious to learn and practice. (Yeah, right.) Loose planning is rubbish for a group of excitable young people who would, it seems, rather be having sex with or fighting each other than learning anything to do with maths: and let’s face it, who can blame them?

So this is something I have been tightening up a lot, and I’ve been going back to almost CELTA era timings (3 minutes: give instructions, five minutes do activity, 3 minutes check in pairs, etc.) and, of course, resource chasing.

Don’t get me wrong: I’m good at what I know. I can, I’m proud to say, take pretty much any given text and turn it into a passable lesson for most levels in ESOL. This very morning, in fact, I devised a reading task based on a sheet of tips on presentations, and knocked up a neat, smart looking handout, after a change of plan in the last fifteen minutes before the lesson. I can, and have, walked in with a bunch of Lidl store brochures and made a good fist of a level 1 lesson out of it. I’ve done a beginners lesson with nothing more than a pile of slips of paper and a chat about clothes. This sounds like boasting, but really, it’s just what I do. It’s the ESOL version of that bit at the end of the Matrix where Keanu Reeves defeats Agent Smith without even looking at him: you don’t think about it, it’s just a thing you do.

“Bloody wolves chasing me through some blue inferno”

The flip side of this, however, is that you forget there is a world of resources out there. So my mouth nearly hit the floor when a colleague came over with a book, yes a whole blessed glorious book of maths activities, carefully devised and tight through to practice various skills at the appropriate level. Then this afternoon another colleague, hiding very well the scorn I am sure she was feeling, pointed out that we have a whole shelf of books. A whole SHELF? Sure I’d seen the rulers, calculators, dice and so on, but books with photocopiable sodding pages?

It simply hadn’t occurred to me to look.

Suddenly, I’m Keanu in Dracula, mangling a British accent and being out-acted by everybody else around, even Sadie Frost, and wondering what on earth I am doing. I do this in ESOL too. Last week, I was teaching a lesson on understanding and giving directions, and the last thing it occurred to me to do was look in a book. Passives? Mangle-force a lesson out of a couple of passing passive sentences or select a nicely graded, focussed activity from a professionally written resource book or coursebook?

Guns. Lots of guns.

Sticking with Keanu as a metaphor, there’s a scene in the Matrix where he and Trinity set off to tackle the three Agents and rescue Morpheus. The time now is not only to rely on the self, but also on resources to support the self: in this case guns and a massive bomb. In my maths lessons, clearly, I need guns. Lots of guns. And then I can still roll with the lesson, to adapt and focus the resources to the specific needs of a lesson, but I also have the hardware, so to speak, to take out a class of 16-18 year olds with the educational equivalent of some slo-mo kicks and a couple of machine guns.



I have, it has to be said, reached the end of my tether. I’ve had a go at co-operative, collaborative activities. I’ve tried lecturing. (for a few minutes, anyway).  I’ve tried “Just sit down and do this worksheet and bugger the consequences”.  But the only thing which has so far managed to engage the brains of my Monday afternoon 16-18 class for more than five minutes is competition.

I hate competition. I’m not intrinsically competitive, otherwise, if I were, I would be writing a blog about being the youngest head of OFSTED in history. (I am big headed, mind you). I really don’t get satisfaction out of being “better” than someone else, and generally find that attitude to be obnoxious, and, well, childish. I do get the occasional twinge of competitive envy, it must be said, but it passes quickly.

I do use competitiveness. I use it a lot at home, for example to get my children to go upstairs at bath time (“Last one up the stairs is a ….”) consciously choosing “don’t be last” rather than “be first” not for any particular ideological reason, but because otherwise you end up with tears of “I wasn’t first…” which is frankly a bloody nightmare in a three year old at bedtime.

I don’t use it for adults, at least not often, partly because “who can be first to..” is pretty juvenile and simplistic as a motivational tool and ESOL adults get enough patronising crap thrown at them in their educational careers  (starting with Comic Sans and finishing with “We’d love to invite you onto our vocational course but your Level 1 Functional Skills qualification isn’t the same because you’re an ESOL student”).

But the teens seem to love it. Or at least it spurs those who need the spur on to participate properly, and has a negligible effect on those learners who don’t need the extra motivation. So competition it is.  This led me to thinking about how to engage them more fully in more complex activities across the course, and, after reading this I thought I would try gamification as a means to engage the learners, especially as some of the stuff they are supposed to do for the PSD element of the course is impressively worthy and well meaning, and therefore excruciatingly dull.

Gamification in education works on the principle that there are rules and rewards in a (computer) game model and that learners engage more with this because there is clear structure, clear boundaries and the possibility of winning. It takes all the things that make you play Angry Birds or Grand Theft Auto V for hours on end and applies them to the classroom. Computer games in particular are increasingly complex in their systems, and even something like Angry Birds has enough complexity built in to make you play more. I am a terrible sucker for Angry Birds, and will, when prompted after completing the whole game (all of them so far), go back and try to unlock extra levels and rewards. Game design is complex stuff.

If all this seems to be a bit cheap and popularist, consider this. In order to be successful at a game, you have to learn things. In order to win at Grand Theft Auto you have to learn how to steal stuff, pimp cars and generally be unpleasant to people. In Angry Birds you need to learn that the blue one is useless, and that in the Star Wars version, at the end of the Moon of Endor stage, there are two pigs hiding in the bunker. You have to learn, and you learn by playing. So this can be applied to education. All the teacher does is set up challenges and tasks so that learners have to learn about your subject in order to win the game.

I have started with a few basic principles. There must be systems, rules and boundaries. There must be rewards. There needs to be a winner, or at least some sort of hierarchy of success. I also want something which can involve fairly complex ICT activities. I want there to be an element of unpredictability and student freedom, but also a set up where I have some control over proceedings. I must admit there are some slightly sinister behaviourist elements here with which I am a little uncomfortable, but I am building my own project on collaboration and shared responsibility (the whole team wins or the whole team loses) with the hope that this inspires a degree of commitment to collaboration.

So, here’s the game.

I’ve nicknamed it the New Atlantis Project and it follows the SimCity model. Students work in small teams to design and develop a new country in an archipelago continent called New Atlantis. There are enough countries for one per group plus one extra (for me, later on). The teams will then use their countries to compete with each other in the face of different challenges which I will be presenting each week. The first week involved designing the countries, their flags and their general layout. We did some preparatory search and reading work on different countries, (ICT – carry out online research)  before forming up into groups to develop the islands and the layout. Rewards will be in the form of points which can be used to buy resources for the country (ICT – spreadsheets) and challenges will take the form of wars, economic disasters, natural disasters, political uprisings and so on. Points will be awarded for how effectively learners deal with it, which they need to do collectively (PSD – working as a group). I’m thinking that the challenges will be presented to the group in the form of newspapers and articles which they then need to respond to.  In order to respond, learners will need to produce reports, spreadsheets, presentations, and participate in other non-technical challenges in order to gain points. My own role, in the initial stages, is guide and general purpose deity. I plan to sit outside the game to begin with but later I have the extra island and the challenges that that could bring.

I have no real idea how long it could last. It might fizzle and die, especially if I judge the challenges wrongly. However, if I get the challenges right then this could run for some time. I don’t plan to spend every hour of every session on this, of course, but rather it will take up perhaps an hour or so of each lesson, or provide a framework to hang other content on. We will see how it goes, and, as ever, the starting point and the finishing point will, of course, be the learners.


One of the big challenges with teaching younger learners, (although not limited to younger learners) is the tendency to leap into a task, whizz through it, and then yell, as quickly as possible “finished!”This is annoying on two counts – for one there is the issue of what to do with the learners once they have finished, and the second issue is that the learners spend their time looking at achieving the end product without actually recognising the learning done in the process of getting there. The same thing happens when you ask a question to the class: they all leap in with hands shooting up as quickly as possible, or even yelling out answers in order that they be the first to answer the teacher. This isn’t the same as misjudging the abilities of the class: that is, however accidental, basically the teacher’s fault. This is learners racing to complete.

But why is this so important? After all, the learning outcomes will have been met by the learner completing the activity, (that’s why they are called “outcomes”, surely?) opportunities for feedback have been given. Why the beef with working quickly? And why punish learners for their enthusiasm?

The problem with whizzing through the task like this is that there is no time built in for learning. It’s all outcome. Learners miss things, forget aspects, don’t pick up on subtleties and very often make mistakes because they aren’t looking properly. A task or a classroom question may have different levels of understanding: a surface understanding and a deeper understanding, and the latter will probably be missed by a learner focussing on finishing first rather than on finishing well.

So, I figured I needed some strategies to deal with this.

First up, the simple tactic of having something else to lob at the early finishers. This is fine, but it doesn’t really encourage a more careful, reflective approach to learning. Ditto extension tasks and other ideas which basically just give them more work: yes, they need challenge and they need stretching, of course, they do, but they also need to learn to reflect on the processes they are going through.

A second easy tactic is making sure they are going back over written work and make sure they are happy with it. However, this only works once, and doesn’t work at all if they’ve got the answers right. There is a variation on this, which is to get the learners to explain why they think a given answer is right. I tend to ask this a lot at higher levels in ESOL anyway, and I think I will be trying it more extensively with written work as well as spoken classroom questioning. I’m also harsher marking the earlier finishers, for example underlining a spelling error that I might let go with another learner (assuming the activity is not specifically about spelling).

A third one I have tried is the thinking time strategy. I infuriated some members of my 16-18 class on Wednesday by telling them I wanted my answer after a minute, and not before. The minute was awkward, with the learners initially fidgeting and whispering, but in the end they probably thought about their answers for an average of 30 seconds rather than the usual 2 microseconds. It wasn’t a tricky question, more of an opinion, but the answers which I got were more carefully reasoned, more articulate and generally better than they had been on other equally easy topics. If I were using this on, say, a grammar question then the praise would not be the right answer, necessarily, but rather for the best and clearest answer. This could (possibly) work for a paper based activity by simply requiring students (E2 upwards?) to write an explanation for some or all of their answers.

There is an old one I’ve used before to deal with the desire to whizz through without thinking or reading the whole rubric and exam paper first – devise a mock test which covers about two or three pages, and then at the very end of the test is the instruction “Do not answer any of the other questions” or similar. This should, at least, introduce a wariness amongst the learners, as well as serve as a useful reminder. Of course, you would have to be ready for the students to finish very quickly!

I think that collaborative activities which absolutely require co-operation for success are also useful in this regard: I’m thinking of jigsaw type reading tasks, where student A has some answers, student B has other answers and only be sharing effectively can they complete the activity. The discussion here also requires more effective justification of the answers, rather than “this is right and this is right and this right.” I have always disliked excessively competitive activities, and, according to Lightbown and Spada in How Languages are Learned they are generally less motivating than collaborative activities. I do find a blend of the collaborative and competitive more effective: team based competitions, essentially.

So these are all things I’ve tried, and to be honest, most of them are basically about stretch, challenge and differentiation. The one thing I do want to get is the activity which is nasty in the same sense as the “do not answer any of the above questions” idea is nasty and will catch learners out for not completing something more reflectively.
So some ideas I might try:

– A handout based task which has, as its last instruction, “go back through the questions and think of two alternative answers to each one” or similar.
– A gap fill with an unnecessary gap and an extra word which could go in the gap, and then tell the learners this after they have finished, to force them to go back through and examine each answer carefully.
– Related to the last idea: include a question or two for which there is no “right” answer, or indeed any possible answer.

It sounds mean, trying to catch learners out like this, but the point, as I said at the beginning is that I don’t want to be mean or discourage them generally. I just want to discourage them from racing through, and I want to encourage them to do something not just first, or even simply correctly, but to do it so that they learn from it. It’s not a big ask, is it?

Chocolate Teapots and Tantrums

So there it is. The last of my big ESOL “I don’t want to do that” moments has come and gone. That’s right – I have finally been persuaded into a 16-18 ESOL class, and, even more astonishing not teaching them actual ESOL but teaching them ICT and PSD.

it’s a long story how I came to do this, but a major part of it was around not reading emails properly and thinking about their implications in enough time – or, as you might prefer it, my own silly fault. It’s also a long account, which has spread over several unpublished and unpublishable blog posts, of the challenges and the barriers that I faced when planning for this particular course. To ease your brain and to keep myself in check, I shall reduce it to bullet points:

  • some minor concerns about the age group and behaviour issues – in itself not a big issue, but the prospect of dealing with a group this emotionally complex was worrying for a fairly laid back teacher, who has never really had an issue with the wearing of caps, chewing of gum, and all those things, and certainly never had to deal with major emotional moments and arguments resulting in learners having to be removed from class. I am, it must be said, a great big softy, and this sort of thing is very new to me. But this, in itself is not a problem. You learn, you try things out, and I know the theory and have some ideas around behaviour management, so it’s a fine time to put some of them into practice.
  • ICT: The exam content for the functional skills ICT is, well, very functional and not a little dull. “Open file X, copy and paste data from file X into spreadsheet Y, use this data to make a menu for your friend’s new cafe, sit in an appropriate position so that when your you fall asleep out of boredom, you don’t cause major injuries”. Don’t get me wrong: I like technology and enjoy using it as a teaching tool. But the idea of teaching IT in and of itself is really not exciting for me, it’s not fun or attractive in the same way that social media is exciting, or the subtle distinctions between the ways in which we use the present perfect are exciting, or the brilliant way in which learners learn language is exciting.  There are questions here as well about identifying levels and skills in ICT, including my own, hotch-potch, suck it and see approach to IT learning (informal and mostly self taught would be a good summary of my IT learning). This means, simply, that I don’t know, really, what the requirements are for each level, and am not intrinsically motivated to find out. I will, of course, for the sake of the learners, but it’s not going to be an exciting read.
  • PSD – possibly even less interesting than ICT, this part, frankly, is awful. It’s not at all something I would ever come to teach while knowing what it is, and I find some of the topics and content a little patronising, and definitely not, for me, engaging. I have another post about this aspect of ESOL brewing in my head, but if we leave it at that – that I simply find it hard to engage with the content. Not to mention the irony of someone like me getting learners enthused about personal action planning and being healthy…

So these, then, were the things niggling me through the summer break, like a spot just out of sight. And like a spot, I niggled and scratched at the worry, and made it worse and it became less a spot and more of a suppurating sore.

So I approached this week with something in between nerves and dread, amidst a cloud of grumpy tweets and Facebook updates and occasional (internalised) temper tantrums.

And now the first week is over, and how was it?

Photo 11-09-2013 16 23 45


In an amazing display of predictability, it was alright. Indeed, one of the two groups was, in fact, a pleasure to teach right up to the point where we all realised that the key to the laptop trolley had gone missing (for understandable and unavoidable reasons, it later transpired) and that therefore the IT session was more of a “how many fillers can you pack into a 4 hour lesson” exercise (Answer: lots). Even then the learners showed remarkable restraint in not asking to go home for at least an hour. We all admired the laptop trolley sitting in its corner like pilgrims at some sort of technological equivalent to  the Kaaba, but the technology not so much wasn’t working inasmuch as it was simply not available. It was a wonderful, very expensive chocolate teapot. Unfortunately the activities I had planned were not the kind of thing one could easily do in a more open, less directly supervised location like the college learning centre, so it was getting to know you and discussion stuff all the way. There were some activities which I might have been able to use, but which would have then needed repeating, or at least recapping extensively the following week so they could link to the next activity.

The other group was also hindered at times with technical problems, but fortunately this group largely had access to the technology, meaning they could make PinBoards to talk about themselves, type up a document as a means of assessing their word processing skills, and generally do the lesson I had planned.

Very few of my concerns raised themselves: both groups being well behaved, quite motivated, and generally interested. I’m told that IT is the exciting one which everyone loves, and mentions of Facebook pages, moderated open house on mobile phone use, and an opportunity to play with Pinterest (which was new for most of the group) bore this out. The groups were on task, and I succeeded in my main outcome for the lessons: to get them not to call me “sir”. (It was a simple case of refusing to respond unless they called me Sam, and it worked.) It also gave me a focus for some later lessons – not least a lesson on online security and privacy after one learner showed me his Facebook details without having to log in.

I’ve managed to come to a compromise on the ICT & PSD content as well – a series of projects which will generate most of the tasks they need to complete for the PSD assignments, all delivered and assessed online with minimal paper based resources, rather than leaving the two strands discrete and, let’s be honest, a bit dull. With any luck, the PSD elements will be complete by March, meaning we can focus on the exam elements of the ICT.

So. Not that bad then, and, much to the annoyance of summer holiday me, I can feel just a teensy touch of excitement and curiosity to see how this will go. PSD is still so much personal development fluff but my own internal compromise has been reached meaning I can start looking forward.

Challenges remain, of course, and these seem to be common to most teenage learners I have taught, to whit:

  1. The “sir” thing. Yuk.
  2. The tendency to treat each task as a race, focussing on product and outcome and not on the processes needed to get there.
  3. In conection with the last one: endless cries of “Finished”. I’m going to devise an activity to catch learners out on this one. Not sure what but I’m working on it.
  4. A love of competitive activities (I hate them)
  5. The relentless pace. Oddly, this wasn”t an issue for me this week, but I will need to be tighter in my planning for these groups in order to maintain focus. cf. challenge 2.
  6. Keeping the interest of the learners on the course.


As I grudgingly admitted above, it’s OK, in fact, and I’m actually looking forward to the challenge. There are things here I am familiar with, and prepared for, but there will be new experiences and challenges as the year progresses. It’s going to be a steep learning curve, but , I hope, an interesting one.

Mind you, I might change my mind in a few weeks…