Mrs Khan went to the post office, the dentist, the bus stop, the sewing shop, the cafe….

I take it back, sort of. The criticisms are still there: the sometimes punitive over emphasis on “real life” for example, where observers and auditors of a particularly narrow mindset may criticise your planning for not linking to learners lives, as if this is the be all and end all; the notion that an ESOL for employment course should only link explicitly to employability skills; and the necessarily fake nature of some pedagogical dialogues. There are still issues with all these things. 

However, I did take the decision to go with a few “situational” sessions, but rather than using published materials, my first idea was to start with the crucial vocabulary. To this end, I took a walk down my local high street, taking pictures of a the various shops and services along that street. I live in a completely different area to where my students live and work, but focussed on my area for two main reasons. Firstly, I’m lucky enough to live in one of those areas where you have almost every local shop you could possibly need, and more: a couple of  cafes and restaurants, a small supermarket, an old fashioned greengrocer, a barbers with a rotating barber’s pole as the sign, a florist, a butcher, a small DIY shop, a brilliantly useful hardware/homeware shop that sells more or less everything, a couple of takeaways, a superfluity of hairdressers, nail bars and beauty salons, and, of course, a post office. As a range of potential situations and vocabulary, this was simply too rich to pass up. The second reason was far more pragmatic: I teach in a very large town, and the students are scattered across the various suburbs of the town, so the centre of the town is the only really mutual area that is familiar to all the students. I don’t know if you’ve been to a British town centre recently, but this one is stereotypically bland, with little to distinguish it either from other similar town centres (except the surpassing ugliness of one pedestrian precinct), or to distinguish the shop fronts visually from one another. Therefore, to find the same sort of easily identifiable range of shops would have taken something of a trek to find, whereas my own local area was a simple matter of walking home after taking the children to school. So yes, there was a slight stone-built cottagey tweeness to some of the pictures, but they worked as an effective stimulus for vocabulary. 

PowerPoint was king on this one. Each photo was loaded into a presentation, which was then used as a stimulus to get the students to name each shop. They worked in groups and wrote down the name on mini whiteboards, which meant I could check the ideas easily, and the students could peer check both word and spelling. After this eliciting stage, I have the students a  (black and white – austerity measures!) print out of the presentation, and asked the students to work individually to add the names of the places. This meant that a) they all had a practice in writing and spelling, and b) they all had a record of the key spellings. 

On the day, I followed this with a focus on functional language, and I wish I hadn’t. I typed up possible “things people say” for each place, and had the students work in groups to discuss which sentence went with which place. This was with a view to then writing up mini dialogues based on each sentence, and a focus on polite language. In practice, there wasn’t really time to move onto the functional language forms, and I rather wish I had simply revised present simple and adverbs of frequency with them and had the students talk about how often they went to the different places. Instead we finished the matching of utterance to place, and only really had enough time to do a bit of a spelling / vocab recap at the end. 

So as a follow up in the subsequent lessons I used a couple of different ideas. I still liked the idea of working with a dialogue, so accessed a couple of rather brilliant listening activity on the EsolNexus website. Some of the students are doing listening as part of their final exam, and really need to work on this. The first was a series of sounds from around the town, which was a nice revisit of some of the vocabulary from the day before, and students had to say where they thought it was, and then justify this using present continuous (“it is a playground. Children are playing.”) which was a nice chance to revisit that language. Then there was a listening based, of course, in a post office. I liked the listening though: it’s fast, for one, and includes a natural switch halfway through from a transactional conversation (sending a parcel) to an interactional one (“its busy in here today…”). It also had some complex bits of language that you might not expect at this level: a pointlessly applied reflexive pronoun, for example, and an unusually placed “anyway”, which provoked some discussion among the more able students in the group, although the biggest challenge, I thought, was the strong London accent, but in fact, the students coped admirably well with all this. 

So next up comes the functional language. I’ve cleared a lesson to concentrate on request forms, and hopefully will get to exploit the sentences from the first in this little trio of lessons. I probably should have done this as the second lesson, but I wanted the listening to provide a few more examples of some of the forms we might use in a transactional situation. I think I’ll go back to my sentences from lesson 1 and get the students to highlight which ones are questions, and then eliciti all the ways we can ask for something, before then getting the students to expand the sentences into role plays which they can then share and practice. 

So yes, Mrs Khan does indeed go to the post office in my lessons, just not all the time. 

Nailing It

I’ve got a bit of a confession to make. For all my woo, do it without paper, learner centred stuff, I actually really love resources. In particular, I really enjoy making my own. A lot of people might say that I make a rod for my own back, in terms of time and energy spent, when, because of our tendency to share resources and schemes of work in a shared drive, I could access loads of suitable resources, and yet I still make or design a lot of my own resources. I have to have the resources to fit the lesson I have in mind, rather than alter the lesson to fit the resources. This means a lot of published material is sometimes almost there, but not quite enough, and the same for shared resources from colleagues: they are good, but they don’t do exactly the job for the lesson I have in mind;I am, in short, a picky bastard.

There are several drawbacks to this: not least the quantity of time and effort, (although very often I can create a worksheet on a given subject in more or less the same time as it might take to find one). These aside, however, and challenges still remain. Lesson and materials design is essentially a form of writing (hands up ELT professionals who would give it all up to be a novelist/poet/playwright) and like any writing, is something of a process of trial and error: version 1 is ok, but lacks a proper follow up, version 2 has a better follow up, but needs tweaking at the start, version 3… well, you know what I mean. Eventually it all comes together: half lessons, mini lessons, and so on eventually gather all the bits to become proper, meaty lessons.

There have been a few of these these “coming together” moments in the last two weeks: my Halfords lorry – reading/review of definite and indefinite articles lesson, my ICT sessions on keyboard shortcuts and on online safety, and my “make a poster describing people / revising present simple third person singular” lesson. It’s very satisfying when you finally crack that elusive final practice activity, then watch all the component parts link together properly, tweakable to take into account the various needs of the class, nicely bookended with clear opening and closing activities: very satisfying indeed.

This is probably the main reason I stick with it. Sometimes, indeed quite often, you nail it from the off, and the materials and the lesson idea come together beautifully. Sometimes it takes a bit of trial and error, a bit of bodging and persuasion, but it does come together. Sometimes, of course, you try it, it bombs, and you simply don’t bother going back to it. But you end up with materials and lesson ideas that not only suit you but also the lesson, the students and the context: they just work. Sometimes I think this does make for lessons which are too personalised to me and the way I teach, but hey, I’m paid to teach, not to design universally applicable teaching materials. If you can’t make the resources work for you, well, you know what my answer is to that… 

Language & the ESOL image problem

Three things this week came together quite serendipitously. First was walking past a British Sign Language class, and seeing the tutor not only teaching BSL, but also using BSL to communicate ideas. The second was a conversation with two non-ESOL teaching colleagues about the SOLO taxonomy and the notion of using “higher order” questions. The third was a tweet from Scott Thornbury, “The problem with EFL/ESL teaching is that, unlike maths, history etc, there is no subject. So the language itself becomes the subject.”

So this set me thinking. You see I think ESOL in further education setting has a bit of an image problem. There’s a perception in some corners that we should fit in to everything else, that something which applies to sixteen year old joinery apprentices can be applied without modification to a group of beginner ESOL students, and that our reluctance to do so, or questions asked about it in order to make sense of it in ESOL terms is seen as ESOL teachers and departments being awkward, stroppy, and obstructive. Don’t get me wrong, mind, because like any teacher, ESOL teachers can indeed be stroppy and obstructive, and I get that. However, there is a serious point here: there is a single and profound difference between ESOL and, with the exception, perhaps, of my colleague teaching BSL, every single other subject teacher in a college can communicate directly and unambiguously with their students.

Let’s take questioning as a good example of this. When teaching a subject through a shared language, one quick, effective way of challenging students is to ask questions which probe deeper into the subject, moving from straightforward knowledge of details (“Name three types of…”) to more complex, evaluative and critical questions (“what might happen if…”). This is generally seen as good practice, and, I think, quite right too. When I think of CELTA, for example, I might ask students initially to identify how to use the past simple, and then challenge them to analyse the problems faced by second language learners in using it, or what the barriers might be, or to compare how the past simple is used as a simple,e past reference ce and how it used to describe a narrative. This sort of range of questioning or task-challenge works to push students into thinking beyond just knowing a fact. (For the record, however, you do need to know the fact before you can start to go beyond this. What is commonly referred to as “lower” order questioning is not necessarily worse or less important – if anything it is the most important type of learning without which all the rest is impossible.)

Trouble is, all of this, every element of this, is entirely language dependant. It assumes on the part of the speaker and the listener a shared language with a fair degree of linguistic complexity. Don’t let snobbery get in your way here: my fictional joinery apprentices have access to an astonishing array of linguistic talents, even those ones who failed GCSEs. The fact that they can understand a question like “what might happen if you used an alternative timber for this?” is a demonstration of a fair amount of language skill.

So we have to consider carefully the value of time spent in training or reading about this when you remove that language skill. I simply cannot reliably ask my students “how would you change the verb if it is irregular?” Instead I have to get there a different way. The primary way I use questioning is not to expand in this way, but to apply successive “lower order” questions to build complex knowledge. “Read this sentence: I visited my sister. Am I visiting my sister now? Tomorrow? Before now? Good.” Then the next day I come back and start up irregular verbs, checking and eliciting concepts again using simple questions.

None of this means that ESOL students are incapable of thinking in those terms. Remember these are diverse classrooms on a scale incomparable in FE, with teachers, doctors, university lecturers and civil servants sharing a room with hitherto uneducated housewives, farmers and factory workers, none of which can be used to make assumptions about language learning aptitude. To use terms associated with higher order thinking, synthesis, creativity, evaluation and hypothesising are required of ESOL students from the get go when they are challenged to use language in new and unique situations. It’s just that we, as teachers, can’t use the language as a means to get there.

So we have to critically evaluate everything that a generic trainer says. Teachers are pragmatic people, after all, and would like something useful that we can use in our day to day classrooms, and an interesting curio like the SOLO taxonomy has limited, if any applicability. Ditto Bloom, although it could be used for task design, perhaps. Ditto Socratic questioning, flipped learning,  negotiating learning targets, sharing and self assessing SMART lesson outcomes. These are language dependent concepts, and this is the key to everything.

Until you’ve taught an ESOL class, none of this will make sense to you. I’ve seen it in CELTA teaching practice where a qualified teacher in another subject tries over-complex questions to a low level class and suddenly realises that they might as well have just whistled and farted for all the good it’s done. The good trainees are the ones who realise that they do have to change their paradigm, and alter their classroom behaviours accordingly. Because that is what we are talking about: for a generically trained teacher of a vocational subject, the nature of the ESOL classroom in a UK setting is radically different.

And this can indeed make ESOL teachers seem obstructive when it comes to implementing college-wide initiatives or training opportunities, but they are simply trying to make sense of it all, to take those initiatives and challenges and make them work in their context. And that context is different, profoundly and radically. It’s also what makes ESOL such fun to teach.

It’s all about the plan.

It’s been a while since I blogged about planning, but it’s one of those things that comes back again and again. After all, planning is one of those things that suffuses every part of our jobs, it’s just that teachers, and their observers, have a habit of conflating planning lessons with “filling in forms appropriately” which are two different things. Remember, the primary purpose of a plan for a reasonably experienced teacher during any sort of formal observation is to show that the events in your lesson are not happy accidents, but things which happened because you wanted the students to achieve a specific learning aim (remember what I was saying about half-assed definitions of student-centred?) Keep this in mind, and things get a whole lot easier.

Anyway, by way of structure for a post, I thought I would work my way left to right across a “classic” lesson plan, covering the various things which people need to think about during planning. Consider this not so much as a how to, or a top tips, but rather as a series of roughly linked ramblings. After all, I don’t really do Best Practice, indeed, rarely do I go for good practice. I just go for  “practice” and hope for the best.


These tend to come at the top of the page, and heaven knows I’m critical of the obsession with performance goals over learning goals, but still, there does need to be a point to the lesson. These can be things like practice a set of skills, for example, or learn a language point, whatever, as long as you remember, once decided, to rephrase them as SMART outcomes in order to keep those who believe in such things happy. I always think there’s a bit of a weird conspiracy cycle here where everybody says “do smart outcomes because my manager thinks they’re good” probably all the way up several tiers of management until you find someone who actually thinks that “write five sentences using present perfect” is evidence of learning anything. Still, it’s a hoop through which we must jump, so let’s work with it. If you are struggling with this, my tip, unofficially, of course, is to start with an aim or two (practice reading for gist and detail, say, or use present perfect for experience) then write the lesson plan out. Once this is done, and this is crucial, you identify where in the lesson you ostensibly show that the students have learned those things. From there you create your specific outcomes: will be able to read a text and identify at least five details (don’t make it too specific, mind you…. Yes, I know, I know), will be able to answer five questions using present perfect to describe experience, and so on. It’s a cynical manipulation, perhaps, but hey, it works for me.


I’ve got to admit, this section is probably my most pointless section, and absolutely always done for the observer. I used to time lessons CELTA style, (3 minutes, 5 minutes, etc.) but have long since abandoned this in favour of clumping together groups of task into 30-45 minute chunks. This is largely psychological: I know, consciously, that if I write 10 minutes on a plan, then this is not tying. However, on a subconscious level this makes me anxious, and I have to remind myself that it doesn’t matter, which makes me more anxious, and I slowly retreat into an internalised vicious circle of worry. So I stopped with the whole ten minute timing thing. (But don’t do this on CELTA kids…) The paper planning, if you like, was getting in the way of the actual planning, so I stopped.


Sometimes this is divided into teacher activity and learner activity, sometimes it’s just “teaching and learning activity”. Personally I prefer the latter, because when I have the two columns I tend to write “teacher sets up activity” in the first, then actually write a description of the activity in the second. My top tip here is to write the lesson plan from the point of view of the student. Training courses tend to concentrate on teachers, because duh, developing teachers is what training courses are about, and some teachers need to write extensively about what they will be doing during a lesson (bloody narcissists, always writing about themselves!) However, I know that for me, I always write about what the students will be doing first, then fit in my bits round that. I do get moments of fear when I see someone planning a lesson which has things like teacher does X, Y, Z, shows this, explains that, etc. but then says “students listen” or (on a beginner lesson plan) “students listen and take notes”. Don’t get me wrong, I know telling people stuff can work, just not when you aren’t interacting with them, which rather neatly brings me to the next column.


Sometimes this is assessment for learning, which ought to give you a clue. Top of my facepalm moments here is when someone writes Q&A. I mean really? What does that actually mean? To me, it means “I have no idea what to write here but it was OK on my non-specialist PGCE, so I’ll sling it here. Asking some sort of concept checking question, perhaps, with some built in peer discussion before managed feedback, then absolutely. But actually this is terribly straightforward: if you are walking the room, checking what students are doing, giving feedback as appropriate, then duh, that’s assessment. If you are asking students to check answers with a partner that’s assessment. If you are taking in work and marking it, that’s assessment. Piece of cake. And if you thing teaching is just telling people stuff from the front without checking it, then you don’t deserve to be doing it.


I’m going to be controversial now and say these should be the very last thing to worry about. Whenever I’ve coached people and they’ve started off with “well I want to use this resource” I just want to curl up and die.  You know that they are not going to take kindly to suggestions like “why don’t you change that activity” because that will mean the agony of perhaps not relying on a handout designed to be as homogenous and dull as can be imagine. This is how you do it: three simple questions, in this order:

  1. What do I want students to learn?
  2. How can this best be done? What activities might enable this?
  3. What resources do I need to help me?

More often than not it goes the other way round. which is so very very wrong. I’m not saying that a published resource might not give you a better idea, or an interesting new slant on the activity, nor that published resources are rubbish. You just select the resource to match the lesson.


Really? You still have to put this? Sorry, nothing I can do to help you, except encourage you to make up a couple of new core curriculum references, just to see if anyone is checking.



None of the paperwork, the planning,  the careful trackers, the schemes, absolutely none of it matters unless what you plan turns into a useful, meaningful and effective chunk of teaching and learning. Look at this way, if you get pulled up on skimpy planning this is an easy if frustrating fix. Get pulled up on shonky learning, and you’re looking down the barrel of a long and probably stressful process, especially if your institution hasn’t been able to move out of the Dark Ages and still grades lessons. Quite frankly, you’re far far better off planning light but planning well: just write what you need to remember, maybe add a couple of bits for an observer to show you’re not winging, then go and teach a lesson. Spend time thinking about the students, thinking about creative & engaging lesson ideas, thinking about careful assessment, and useful, relevant content. Don’t waste a disproportionate amount of time (i.e. ten minutes) thinking about the myriad bloody boxes in a word document.
Because when it comes to planning lessons, it’s not about the plan, it’s all about the lesson.

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.


Giving Bad Whiteboard

When we do CELTA teaching practice we have a space on the lesson planning forms for a whiteboard plan. It’s a funny space: four roughy 5x3inch rectangles labelled 1-4. It’s also, for the last few years, been more or less ignored in favour of printouts of IWBs or PowerPoint Presentations. My regular readers, all three of them, will be reminded of my occasional ire towards all things interactive, but this is not one of those times. Rather this is about how learning to make good use of a regular whiteboard is actually a useful thing, and many of the things that make good whiteboard can also be used to make good PowerPoint or good IWB. The reality of things is that you may or may not have an IWB or even access to PowerPoint, but you will almost certainly have access to some form of regular whiteboard, and I think they need to be used well. 

So here, in proper controversial style, is a list of the things that I try to remember when I am freestyling on a whiteboard. You can call them “dos and don’ts” if you like, or God forbid, good practice. But I’ll stick with “stuff I try to remember”. 

1. Have a basic shape in your head. Essentially, for me, a normal landscape rectangular board is a square with two columns, one down each sideline the board. You may prefer one column, or the size of the board may dictate that only one is realistic, but I work on the ideal principle of two. If I am being very organised, one of the columns is used for vocab, the other for grammar, or something like that, but essentially these side columns are where you write stuff to remember across the lesson with space in the middle which can be rubbed out regularly. 

2. Have more than one colour pen. You don’t need a rainbow, like the CELTA trainee I saw once with eight colours: two is enough, four is plenty. The reason? Highlighting. If I am writing up a key sentence to demonstrate a grammar point, for example, I will write the key bits of the grammar in a different colour to the rest of the sentence. Then I can use this colour to write up the rule once it has been elicited. You could use one of the colours to write vocabulary you need students to remember, or simply to make different bits stand out. 

3. Learn to draw, but don’t worry about it. I once attended a workshop on “cartooning for teachers” which was very interesting and gave me some basic techniques. Most useful of all, however, was the message that all you have to do is get the idea across. Take a reindeer, to use a real example from my own teaching: basically it’s got four legs and antlers. So I do a sort of generic four legged animal shape and stick antlers on it. It works. Some things are better if you can use google images: the difference between a bee and a wasp is a million times easier that way. But you can get most ideas across with some very simple line drawings.  

4. Remember that a board includes your commentary on it. You may not be able to draw, but at the same time as drawing or writing, you are probably also explaining or eliciting with questions. To use my reindeer example above, I would probably be talking about Santa, about sleighs, maybe Rudolph, (because, let’s face it, when else does the word reindeer ever come up in class?) and reinforcing the whole “antler” thing with demonstrations and hand movements. 

5. Board work can be an organic, growing process. Rather than the fixed “here is the information” encouraged by PowerPoint, and, albeit to a lesser extent, by a pre-prepared IWB slideshow, a whiteboard allows you elicit example language from the students, then build up the grammar analysis through questioning and checking. I have to be honest and say that that stage of a lesson is probably my absolute favourite part, and probably the hardest bit to learn how to do.

Taking a sentence from a student, or from a text, then breaking it down and putting it back together, checking with all the students, getting them to work out the rules and the systems, either as a whole class, or increasingly, for me, by getting the students to discuss together in small groups first, is the crucial bit, and if you get that hit wrong, everything afterwards tends to fall apart. I’m not dismissing the rest of the lesson, not at all, because it takes skill to devise practise activities and knowledge and experience to select the language practice tasks, and to plan and set up the warm up activities, and these bits of the lesson, particularly the language practice opportunities, are absolutely vital. However, those bits, somehow, are very often “set it up and off you go”, whereas creating and developing and eliciting and building up language analysis has a degree of spontaneity and risk. I think, as well, that getting a language idea across is somehow the essence of what we do as language teachers (cue angry dissent: I told you this wasn’t a best practice list…)

6. Easel type whiteboards are rubbish. Rubbish rubbish rubbish. They don’t even have a place in executive meeting rooms these days. 

7. In the event where you have to clean off the board (for example because your employer thinks diddy whiteboards are acceptable) but it has lots of useful information on it, check with the students first. If they haven’t written down notes, then make time for them to do so. Alternatively, or as well, get them to take a photo of the board, and do so yourself so you can share it electronically if you want to. This also serves as a good prompt for the next lesson when you want to revisit the language. 

8. Don’t just sling words up in random fashion. At the very least try to aim for a nice list to one side, even if you are doing nothing else with the thing. 

9. Consider this: if you are using PowerPoint or an IWB, and you know which vocabulary you are going to use or which sentences you are going to need to to illustrate your point, then plan it into your presentation, rather than using the board. That said, I do think planning all the animations so that the core elements appear when necessary is a massive drag that takes about half an hour to work out and fouls up horribly when you forget the sequence of animations/reveals, compare to a few quick sentences and lines on the board, but it does mean you avoid mess. An IWB can avert some of this, but God help you if you slightly cock up a line and can’t move it without moving significant chunks of the rest of the text. 

Hmm. I think that’s it. I should probably go back through and replace the guidebook “you” with a more personal “I” but I can’t be bothered. You know that there’s no such thing as best practice, and that I am hardly the one to tell you what it is. I don’t think that IWBs and PowerPoint are useless, or that they have no place. They can be used and used well but in a different way and with different considerations. Using a regular whiteboard, however, is something of a dying art, particularly in the technology obsessed educational establishments of the UK and the US, and yet they are still present in most of the world, and indeed in lots of settings in technologized countries: teach in a community centre in the UK, for example, or in a workplace setting. So it’s worth knowing how to use them. 

A little thing about whiteboards

I had an interesting experience with an interactive whiteboard this week. I know that sounds like a bit of an oxymoron, but do bear with me. I was teaching in a room with a large IWB at the front of the room and a large regular whiteboard on wheels. I started with a text we were working from on the IWB but as the lesson progressed, and I left the text behind to focus on the learners’ language, the mobile whiteboard crept slowly but surely to the dominant position more or less entirely in front of the IWB, and Windows quietly logged me out due to inactivity. It looked, in fact, like this:

So, reasons for this? The first set of reasons is practicality. The IWB is, shall we say, a mature Smartboard, and perhaps a little less smooth to use than it once was. It’s also a lovely room well lit by that traditional enemy of digital projectors, natural sunlight, meaning that the display was hard to read without shutting all the blinds.this was even less attractive because it was a glorious sunny April day. The layout of the room is generally such that the board is significantly distant from even the students at the front of the room, with a large, heavy “teacher” desk in front of it, making it a small but significant distance for me to move back and forth from the display and for students to see the board clearly. 

The second is more about temperament. I still, as I’ve noted before, default to whiteboard as writing surface, be it interactive or non-interactive. I like the extended features of the IWB, for example being able to display and work with a text or handout, highlighting, completing and so on, but essentially it’s just a regular whiteboard with knobs on. I also don’t particularly get on with the software, Promethean’s exceptional exercise in counter-intuitive program called “ActivInspire” (Inspire! Actively! Yeah!).

The third issue was the nature of the lesson. We were focussing on present perfect for experiences, based on a couple of sentences from a text we had read the day before. It was very much about emergent language, as I had the learners suggesting the contexts and the experiences they would like to discuss. In this kind of lesson, the IWB system has to be damn good, because you can’t rely on masses of pre-prepared stuff, and the language grows and develops in the classroom and is recorded on the board. A pen and a writing surface is still the best method of recording this kind of “of the moment” thought process: how much success, for example, have you ever had with digital mind mapping systems? 

I’m not saying IWBs are bad, particularly, just that on that day, in that context, it wasn’t the best tool for the job. That’s a crucial point, really: a sentence which contains two of the most important prepositional phrases in teaching:

On that day

In that context

For technology and indeed any type of classroom practice, the best anyone can ever say is that it worked for that lesson and that lesson alone: in this setting, for a number of reasons, the regular whiteboard was simply the better of the two options.