learning

Can’t

“I want to ride my bicycle/I want to ride my bike” sang Freddie Mercury in 1978. I’m not sure how genuine his sentiment was, but I tell you now after four weeks of being off the bike, it’s a fairly accurate approximation of how I feel. 

Let’s be clear, I’m not a skinny whippet clocking up 100 miles each weekend, and neither am I prone to throwing a mountain bike around the trails. But I do like to ride my bike: I like the ease of travel, the happy speed/efficiency ratio, the schadenfreude of passing people in big expensive cars stuck in traffic, the satisfaction of climbing a really big hill, the joy of freewheeling down the other side, the contemplative meditative state you achieve, and the sweet open freedom of movement. 

You’ll excuse me for gushing. But I’ve come to enjoy riding, and now, owing to an accident a few weeks ago, I can’t. This is only temporary, thank goodness, but even so I quickly started to come up with a long list of the things I couldn’t do while my arm was in a sling. I couldn’t support myself on that side very well, I couldn’t open jars or get those plastic seals off the top of milk cartons, I couldn’t sleep in the way I liked, I couldn’t hold a book while lying down, I couldn’t pick up my children when they fell over, or wrestle (you need a small boy in your life to understand this), or give them big-two-arm hugs. There were wider consequences: family routines had to change to allow for the extra time it takes to get to work without a bike, I couldn’t go swimming with them, I couldn’t drive on family trips, I was limited in how I could help around the house. As a result of not riding, and the longer journeys, I have come to resent work quite a lot for being nearly 90 minutes away from home, resenting meetings that over-ran by five minutes, resenting stupid relocation of one building to a site on the other side of town to the railway station (a 10-15 minute walk, after all, is an easy two minute ride) . Then there is the loss of  freedom of movement, not the pretend freedom you get from car ownership (free to pollute, free to pay car tax, free to pay for maintenance, and free to sit wasting your life, fuming and frustrated in traffic jams) but actual freedom where it takes you the same amount of time regardless of traffic, regardless of delays, and with a journey, even at rush hour that is always exhilarating and usually fun.

It’s healing now, of course, and now only some of those things remain true. And none of them are the big profound things that might have faced me with a damaged spine, or a lost limb, for which I consider myself very lucky. I’m still alive, as well, which is a big bonus. And all this time I’ve been able to clothe myself (just), wash, eat, cook, clean, read, write, work (only two days off), and in fact do almost all the other things that make me happy. Even though the hugs have been one-armed but they have still been hugs. So it’s not been bad, but the sense of “can’t” has been consistent, and still frustrating. 

So it was I found myself wondering about what you do go through if something properly serious happens: if you know you are never going to be able to do all those things, how long does it take to get past that frustration? How quickly does wistful wishing become outright despair, and how much support do you need to cope with it?

I also found myself thinking of my students: out of all learners, the migrant learning the language of their host country is almost universally defined by what they cannot do. Sure, we mean well, but the very nature of what ESOL teachers do is defined by what or learners can’t. And this sense of can’t must surely be more profound than my shoulder-related niggle: not just in class but in day to day life. Students come to class because they can’t help their children, can’t talk to officials, can’t cope at the hospital, and even if they can find a job, they can’t find a job commensurate with their skills and qualifications.  ESOL students are so often defined by what they can’t

I know ESOL teachers celebrate our students, their abilities and achievements: of course we do, and we must. To offset the deficit frustrations of not being able to use a language, we learn what our students can do, what skills they have: it’s what makes the job interesting, after all. They’re not helpless babies to be pitied and petted, but adults with knowledge and experiences, often a world away from our own comfortable existences: knowledge and experiences which we celebrate, share and engage with. 

Which brings me back to the far less important matter of my arm, and enjoying and celebrating the many things which I can do. So I’d anyone wants me, I may be reading a book, writing a blog post, drinking, eating (probably too much), and, of course, hugging my children. 

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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.

Nobody Expects Dimples

This week I taught two lessons which reminded me of the richness that letting the students lead on the content can create. The first lesson was on Tuesday night – a Level 1/Level 2 group on the theme, broadly, of “life stages”. It was meant as a build up to a listening activity based around this recording from the BBC’s excellent Listening project, but took on a bit of a life of its own.

The activity was a variation on the game of consequences. At the top of the page I had printed “Be born”. Students worked in pairs and added the next thing that thought would happen. They then passed it to the next pair along who added another idea, and so on. I mixed things up a little, taking a lead from a chapter in 52 by Lindsay Clandfield and Luke Meddings and every now and again asked the students to put something bad as the next event.

Some of the language generated was fairly predictable: go to school, get a job, retire, etc. But once the class warmed up to the task, the list almost became small, occasionally tragic biographies: have a breakdown, have an affair, get expelled, drop out, recover, get kicked out, bring up children, and, my personal favourite, have a mid-life crisis prompted by a pair of students talking about men of a certain age. The students were trying to express an idea, lacked the necessary language to do so, and my job was simply to fill that gap.

Something similar occurred with another class, this time Entry 1. Like the life stages task, this was intended as a precursor to something else, but also grew beyond the bounds of the planned activity.This time, students were brainstorming / researching in dictionaries vocabulary to do with physical appearance. Each group had a sheet of A3 paper – one group used this to brainstorm words to do with hair, one with body, one with face and one with skin. I was a little nervous about the last one, what with the potential for racist overtones, but in fact this provoked arguably the most useful chunks of language: greasy skin, oily skindry skin, and sensitive skin. The face list also took me by surprise – one student pointed at her cheeks –

“What are these?”

“Cheeks.”

“No.” Irritated by her stupid teacher. “These.”

I looked more carefully, a little nervous about staring, and the penny dropped:

Dimples!

In both cases, the new vocabulary arose from the students needing specific sets of language to express a concept. The task gave a setting for the vocabulary, and linked it all together, but ultimately the words were the students’ own words. It would never have occurred to me to teach words like sensitive skin or dimples despite the students in question having both – sensitive skin in particular is useful for a student who is resident in the UK. Having a breakdown, an affair or a mid-life crisis is unlikely to make it into most teacher-selected syllabuses, but nevertheless arose because the students had a need to talk about them. And again, these are not unusual or unlikely phrases – you could find them in most newspapers, magazines or online with a fairly high degree of frequency. Both groups, took great delight in exploring the new language, playing with it, using it.  “I read about a man in Poland, he had a mid life crisis and…” “Can you have just one dimples?” “Do you know good [indicates rubbing cream into skin] for sensitive skin?” 

There is an element of luck to this, for sure: with another group on another day we might have just the expected language. This isn’t some form of “best practice” that can be packaged up and rolled out at a training event. There is an element of skill as well. This wasn’t dogme, unplugged teaching per se: the activities limited the range of emergent language into a reasonably predictable collection of terms. We weren’t about to start talking about finding a job or how to make chapati, after all. A little control, a little setting of boundaries, if judged carefully, can make for a surprisingly productive lesson. You need to judge, as well, if the language is going down a dead end, explain well, and, arguably most importantly of all, capture what has come out. In this case I had the A3 sheets, and the lists of vocabulary (many of which were copied or photographed). For the level 1 group we had key terms on the interactive whiteboard which I have turned into PDF handouts and sent out. I’m in the habit of recording new words and concepts on a regular whiteboard next to the interactive one, then taking a photo with my phone. The A3 sheets were photographed, uploaded to google drive, and on display on the interactive whiteboard in slightly less than a minute, with virtually no impact on the flow of the lesson. The emergent language was captured and shared. 

The language was practised as well. For the level 1 group I closed with a speaking task – asking have you ever..? in pairs using the consequences sheet. For the Entry 1 group, one  I had the photos on the board, I elicited the relevant structures (“I have got…” and “I am…”) and had the students tell each other about themselves before reporting back to the whole class using “he’s/she’s got” and “he/she is…”. I also think I missed an opportunity or two: the level 1 class could have written short fictional biographies, for example. The entry 1 class will be following it up properly: putting the descriptive language together with the work we did last week on daily routines, and creating a profile of an individual based on photographs and other images. 

There is, I think, always a place for teacher led decisions on language content in some lessons, and students like to have a little direction. They are, after all, not stupid, and can smell an unplanned, undirected lesson a mile away. But you can create an activity and the conditions for language to emerge within the lesson, while still giving the lesson a sense of structure and purpose. Sometimes, as well, specific forms are unlikely to ever simply “emerge” in this way, so a bit of teacher-led is necessary: while we are under pressure to get students to pass exams and achieve external curriculum aims, then there has to be a fair portion of teacher selected content. 

But there is still a lot of freedom there, of course, which means there is plenty of room for dimples. 

Marking

I don’t enjoy marking. No, scrub that, I hate it. It’s tedious, takes time, is largely uncreative, and just generally meh. I used to mark papers for an exam board back in the day, and nothing filled me with dread more than a sheaf of writing exams, even for the princely sum of 50p a paper, or whatever it was. Marking is like cleaning out the fridge: you know it’s important (have you seen your fridge lately?), and when it’s done it feels like you’ve done something valuable and useful, but ultimately it’s still a chore. There’s no quick fix, either, you just have to bite the bullet and get on it. 

Ok, so there are some workarounds. Take reading and listening comprehension work, for example. I don’t think I’ve personally marked an in-class reading or listening activity for literally years, because I get the students to discuss their answers and compare before sharing any answers and getting students to self check. If it’s a case of right or wrong, or one word answer, and you’ve been checking the students while they compare answers to make sure everything is ok, then teacher marking after the fact is overkill, unless you have a more than usually psychopathic audit process requiring the teacher’s pen on everything.  The benefit for students is minimal in this particular context, particularly when measured against the learning benefits of the peer discussion itself.

That’s not to say that all marking is unnecessary, or bad, or pointless. Far from it. It will, of course, be an entirely pointless exercise if you just hand it back and it disappears into student folders or bags, never to be seen again. But if you set up routines that ensure the work is reviewed then useful, productive feedback on any work is useful for students, highlighting what they can do well, and what to do about any language areas they need to work on. (And no, that doesn’t mean setting targets in terms of use present perfect correctly in five sentences: much more useful and meaningful than abstract language goals would be actions for students, for example, saying things like “read page X of a grammar book”).

All of which is why I make sure students have time to review marked work in class. Making time in class also shows the students that reviewing marked work is a valuable process and part of learning. It’s perhaps optimistic of me to hope that this encourages students to review their work outside of class as well, but it’s a nice I do make a bit of a rod for my own back sometimes, mind you. I start marking a piece of writing for one student with all sorts of detailed comments. By the time I get to the sixth this complexity has faded off considerably. Certainly deciding in advance on the nature and quantity of feedback would make a lot of sense: just a marking code? Marking code and comments? Action points? Areas for personal improvement? There’s got to be a bit of a payoff here between time available, personal stamina and an honest evaluation of what, if anything the students are going to do with the feedback. 

Marking work, particularly productive written work, be it a couple of sentences or a couple of pages, is useful. It’s useful because it’s probably the main way as a language teacher you get to see students producing language that is combination of  their instinctive language produced without thought, and of the language forms that they have consciously been thinking about, perhaps even checking. Spoken language, for the most part, tends to rely on the “automatic” language, because it is produced on the fly. So a piece of writing gives you a lot of information about a student, and what language areas they are struggling with: marking forces you to analyse and categorise these errors, and this, in turn, should influence your teaching. Marking work constructively like this also helps students know what is wrong and what they could do about it, and making time for enforced error correction and review in class absolutely encourages students to engage with thinking about their personal weaknesses, and taking action to address them (even if it is just for that lesson). Hopefully it also encourages students to draft and review work before handing it in, although I suspect this is wishful thinking. 

However good all this is, mind you,  makes not a jot of difference to how I feel when faced with a heap of marking to do. But I still can’t stand doing it. Sorry, and all that, but I’m just not that noble. 

To Do

Möbius_stripI’m wary of writing to do lists. I can just about manage to write one for a given day, particularly on days like today, when I’ve not got a lot by way of teaching, but a bunch of other stuff that I need to get done, but beyond that they have a tendency not to be motivating reminders of tasks, but depressing records of your own personal failure, an uncrossed list mocking you with a smug reminder of what you haven’t done. Perhaps it’s the way I use them, I don’t know, but I sometimes struggle with the whole notion that life can be compressed into neat little tasks to be robotically ticked off, as if granting profound meaning to a stack of chores.

But at least a to do list works in theory. After all, you are dealing with concrete, measurable tasks leading to specific results, like “mark 15 functional ICT papers” or “email B about X” or indeed “plan lesson for tomorrow’s evening class”. This last, of course, is where I’m going with this. After all, we generally set our students a kind of “to do” list when we plan and share learning outcomes with them, and it’s part of the teachers job to know what is realistically achievable in that time, and to check that the “to do” list becomes a “have done” list.

Ah no, I hear you think, the learning outcomes are not a “to do” list at all. They are a “to learn” list. Really, you think that, do you? I disagree.

It’s all in the phrasing. We refer to learning outcomes, not aims. An outcome, in all its performance management glory, is usually talked about in terms of observable behaviours, and post observation teachers are usually grilled with interrogatives like “ah ha, but how do you know they learned?” Because really, imaginary observer, how do you know they didn’t? A focus on observable evidence means that all I can say that my students have done in a lesson is produce the evidence to meet the learning outcome, not necessarily learned the things inherent in that. I’m going to pitch this outside ESOL, too, because in ESOL pretty much any teacher in the world could tell you that “use present simple third person singular to write five sentences” is a cheap proxy for “learn present simple third person singular” but that it is very unlikely for that student to have learned such a thing in any convincing way. So if I think of a training session I ran only recently during which I aimed for teachers to “identify and evaluate methods of stretch and challenge”, what I actually wanted was for them to learn one of them and then to apply it. Achievement of the former is only gong to be an educated guess, and the latter something I would struggle ever to find out, short of fitting CCTV to classrooms.

So when we share learning outcomes with students, and ask them to measure their own performance against these outcomes, what are we asking students to do? Some students, perhaps, are knowledgeable enough learners to recognise the learning subtext of an outcome, while others when presented with with an outcome will be able to recognise this aspect of the learning outcome, while the rest is more or less meaningless. For others, perhaps, they read this achievement at face value and wonder what they are actually going to learn? When we share those learning outcomes and ask student to self assess against them, are we effectively peddling a lie to our students about what learning is?

Things get worse when we consider that we use the same methodology for composing individual goals on an ILP – what are we saying that a student has learned if they have achieved a personal target of “use present simple third person singular in five sentences”? A student covering that language point is unlikely to be able to understand it: so we resort to making it more meaningful “write five sentences about things my friend does every day” or something similar. At this point, any awareness of transferable language knowledge has been well and truly lost and we are left with a task, not an outcome. Even in the bizarre world where a student could develop the language ability to be able to meta-analyse grammar in this way, but at the same time not actually know that language point then what model of language learning are we following? I don’t think anyone believes that learning anything happens in neat, observable, evidenceable steps, aside from auditors and similar.

All we can say for sure about learning is that it’s an internal, individual process. It’s probably not even cyclical, really – it’s not that neat. I suspect we’re dealing with a kind of complex spiralling variation of a möbius band, where things are learned, then forgotten, then learned again. If we are using achievement of a learning outcome or individual target as a means of tracking learning, then we do have to wonder what it is we are tracking exactly: to my mind we are tracking performance, not learning – achievement of said target or outcome is simply an example of performance, and one which fails in terms of reliability and validity when considered as assessment.  and if it’s an example of performance, then a list of learning outcomes or ILP targets is indeed a simple to do list, and only loosely linked to learning.

There are other implications too. Achievement of observable behaviours in the form of learning outcomes, whether individual or classroom based, is a self fulfilling prophecy of sorts: we use this achievement as evidence of success for all sorts of classroom practice: “in study X, teachers applied technique Y and this was a success because students achieved the lesson’s stated outcomes” but if the measurement scale is questionable then what does this mean for evidence? I’m personally not sure we can dismiss evidence based practice on this justification, because something was achieved in those lessons, I just have questions as to exactly what that something was.

Even if we accept that the aim is genuine, but that the outcome is false, learning is not restricted to the teacher set, teacher driven, teacher shared learning goals. Students take all sorts from a formal lesson, and not all of it is predictable and measurable. Which makes me think. I have a lesson this week which is free from exams and the rest, so I might try something. I’m going to teach a lesson and not share the outcomes (I’m told this is bad practice, but never mind). But there will be things I have in mind for the learning in the lesson, call them outcomes if you like. Then, at the end of the lesson, I’ll ask the students to tell me what they are going to take away from the lesson, what they learned, what skills they practised, and see how much a) they can articulate these things, and b) how much their perceived achievements marry up with my aims/outcomes/whatever.

Better put that on my to do list.

An Adult’s Learning

bicycle

 

I finished traditional formal education at the age of 21. In that time I attended primary school, secondary school and university, plus a brief incomplete stint at my local FE college. It’s hard to quantify the impact of that learning on the rest of my life, with most of my memories of those experiences being social and interpersonal rather than but in the intervening years, I’ve learned a lot of stuff I can pin onto direct educational experiences.

For one, of course, there is my entire professional learning. Learning how to be a teacher, and developing as a teacher. All of that process occurred fairly late on, as I did my Cert TESOL at 24, the DELTA aged 26, and then turning that into a formal FE qualification at the ripe old age of 31. There has been a whole bunch of other stuff as well – the e-guides training which I did back in 2007, the various funded research projects I’ve been involved with, various conferences and workshops, training days and other such things all of which have conspired to contribute to my development. Tracking that, of course, is a more challenging task – a straight course is nice and easy to fit into a measured pattern of development but the reality is that with the exception of the Cert TESOL & the DELTA, my main development as a teacher has been incremental and ad hoc: learning which occurs in little snippets on a need-to-know or perhaps on a want-to-know basis.

Much more interesting, however, is all the other learning I’ve been doing in that time. I’ve learned how to wrangle a computer, and developed a fairly high level of brazen confidence, if not actual skill, in using various forms of digital technology. I’ve learned to be a passable baker of bread, and can knock out some pretty decent biscotti (although like my fellow former resident of Wessex, burning cakes is a bit of an issue.) I’ve learned confidence and road skills on a bicycle that make many of my nearest and dearest wince when I mention them (“Yeah, obviously there’s room and time to get through that gap and beat the lights”), not to mention a developing skill set in the actual repair of bicycles. This last is the most surprising – I am pretty inept when it comes to practical things, so the fact that I am developing an ability to do something like bike repair is pretty impressive.

What unites all of this learning is motivation. Sometimes this is “professional”, in the sense that I want to know more about how to do my job, or how to do it better, or exploring an aspect of my work.  Sometimes it is a combination of frugality and curiosity as it is with the bike maintenance, extrinsic motivation that I can save a bit of money, along with the satisfaction of being able to do a thing which I would have previously considered to be beyond my skills and abilities. Sure, it’s not rocket science, but for someone as maladroit as I, it’s incredibly pleasing that I have stripped a rear wheel hub and put it back together (and been able to ride it for a while too), removed and refitted a bottom bracket, and a number of other tasks. I’m certainly at a point now where I will consider doing a job myself rather than taking it to a bike shop, including even stuff with cables, although they still unnerve me. In short I want to learn those things either in and of themselves, or as a means to a specific end, and for me that is one of the things which typifies adult learning.

The other interesting thing is the absence of formality in much of this. This is learning without planning and often without, or in spite of, teachers (we’ve all had those training events, right?). The formal input for much of the learning, including the “professional” stuff has been primarily self-selected, using things like books, websites, and online videos as demonstrations, and in some ways the self-selection has been more effective than if the content had been selected for me. When you learn on a need-to-/want-to-know basis you ignore the non-essential information and focus much more closely. If you come on a course, inevitably, some of the content will be taught but not immediately applicable, and therefore unlikely to stay fresh. (As an aside, consider this: if I attend a training session and “achieve” the learning outcomes within that session, does that mean I have permanently learned those things? Unlikely, I think, unless I can apply or re-practice those skills. Otherwise that learning will only remain temporary and within a short span of time, perhaps even only a week or so, I will no longer remember how to do it. So the point of the learning outcome was what, exactly?)

Learning informally on a need-to/want-to-know basis does have its drawbacks, mind you. For one you end up with gaps in your knowledge – my IT knowledge is made up of lots of little bits of very precise, clear understanding mingled with whole chunks of stuff I have no clue about: I can knock out all sorts of crud in MS Word, but give me something like Publisher and I’m floundering. 

Sometimes the inevitable trial and error process means that things can take longer (even if you perhaps learn them “better”) and that sometimes that sense of success doesn’t happen. Sometimes the source of learning is flawed or inappropriate – I almost destroyed the threading that held the bottom bracket cartridge inside of my bicycle frame because I was following the wrong instructions, which would have very possibly had to lead to some very expensive work by a professional. Certainly the brakes on my old bike are decidedly dodgy as a result of incompetent fiddling.

Whatever. The fact remains that adults do and will continue to learn, and this is very often in spite of considerable barriers. Formal bike maintenance is not currently offered at any price at any of my local FE colleges, although there are bike shops in the area who sometimes run courses at a cost. Formal, certified training would cost upwards of £300. To be fair, this is pretty niche, but if I wanted to gain formal training to bring my IT skills up to a more acceptable level, then I would be looking at significant cost in both money and, of course, in time. These are, of course, among the toughest barriers for an adult to overcome when it comes to learning. If I want to do an MA to advance my career, for example, I’d be looking at a huge cost which is simply impossible for me to imagine. Would any potential benefit justify the debt? Unlikely. Is there a course that is intrinsically motivating alone for me to do? Not that I know of. But learning to fix a bike can be wedged in around the rest of my life, and indeed has immediate positive benefits.

The benefits of riding a well maintained bike are easy to see and predict, as are the benefits of a specific training course, but the benefits of adult learning are far more than the base and pathetic economics of current FE priorities. When I can learn something I relax, I switch off: bike repairs and baking are fundamentally different to my professional life, so participating in those things helps me to switch off in a much more profound way. Learning to repair a rear hub was frustrating and fiddly, but the total engagement with working it out and then doing it was absorbing in a way that even the best entertainment can manage. Entertainment helps you block it out, but it’s so often a transitory sensation which merely masks rather than refreshes. Learning something new and different helps you to reset completely. 

This sort of impact is hard to see and to evaluate because it is complex. But naturally when the current education system is controlled and managed by those who see FE, indeed all education, as a simple input-output system creating wealth for the wealthy, something as complex and socially beneficial as adult learning doesn’t stand a chance. 

Processs, Product and The Perfect Lesson Planning Form

I’ve been experimenting with the five minute lesson plan recently. I’m not in the mood to add links, but it is very easy to come by: just Google it. Basically it’s a single page lesson planning proforma with lots of boxes and arrows which you complete by hand. It’s been formally approved at college as a possible lesson plan for observations, so I thought I would give it a try. To be honest, it’s got a bit of work to go on it. Most of the page is taken up with stuff about the lesson, leaving not much room for detail about what is going to happen in the lesson itself, which for me rather defeats the object. I mean, the point of a lesson plan is to help you to decide what is going to happen in the lesson and when it is going to happen. The clue is in the name, right? Well, perhaps.

The Big Kahuna Form
This is the traditional full fat one you use for lesson observations. You know, it probably has lots of boxes for things like learning outcomes, timing, teacher activity, learner activity, differentiation, assessment, self evaluation/reflection (which I usually just delete: why use a box when you have a blog?). It’s probably got some checklists on it for things like equality and diversity, embedding maths and English, all that stuff. The thing I like about this is its ability to spell out to an observer precisely why I am doing something in class. LOOK, it says, THIS IS THE DIFFERENTIATION BIT. AND THIS IS WHERE I AM EMBEDDING SOME MATHS. AND THIS IS THE ASSESSMENT BIT. AND IT’S NOT JUST A LUCKY ACCIDENT. This is what this plan is for, for me, anyway.

The Five Minute Lesson Plan
If the Big Kahuna is full fat, this is semi-skimmed. There’s still space for stuff like assessment and differentiation, but you’re supposed to be able to fill it in by hand, in no more than five minutes. A nice idea, and I think with a bit of tweaking, this could work, although I like the idea of a lesson plan for an observation being a bit more “in your face” in its approach to showing an observer why you are doing things. When done well, it gives them, and you, nowhere to hide.

The Blank Piece of Paper Plan
Also known as the “back of yesterday’s handout” plan, or the “tapped out using the Notes app on my phone on the train” plan. You are probably thinking that for me, most formal lesson plans for are not so much there for my benefit, as for the benefit of showing to an observer that I know what I am doing. You’d be right: my preferred planning document is indeed a blank piece of paper. Usually it starts off as a few bullet points, aims in the top margin if necessary, then decorated with swirls and arrows and comments and extra bits, and crossings out and so on.

The No Piece of Paper Plan

This is where the lesson arrives fully formed in your head,or simply that the stages are so clear, or familiar, there is just no point in writing them down. It’s unusual, for me. Like I say, the process of writing helps me to plan. But for some people this can work and does work well.

Processes & Products

There is a distinction here between planning as a process and a plan as product. Planning on a blank piece of paper is a process, a way of thinking through what is going to happen, whereas the formal plan is more often a product. I’m not allowed to pace the office talking to myself, which is my other way of thinking things through (*call me an auditory-kinaesthetic learner, however, and you and I will have to step outside for a Quiet Chat) so I am limited to scrawling notes on pieces of paper. Very often I will never look at the plan during the lesson: it is the act of planning which is important for me, not the plan itself. That said, I don’t do one plan for the observer and another for me, because that, to be honest, is just stupid. If you can find time to do this then you can find time to plan a better lesson. If the situation requires a full fat plan, then I plan straight onto there and print it out for the lesson.

I suspect that no plan suits everybody all the time, partly because if there were it would have made its way round the world by now. This, for me, is a good thing, because it shows up the diversity of not only the different types of lessons and learners we teach, but also the diversity of who we are as teachers. What works for me may not work for you. What works for me teaching a teacher training session may not work for me when I am teaching an ESOL class. What works for me with Level 2 ESOL may not work for me with Beginners.What works for me on Monday may not work for me on Thursday.

Isn’t that wonderful?

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