Assessed observation 3, part 2

The discussion which Barbara and I had immediately following the lesson which she observed was actually fairly in-depth, which was greatly appreciated, but also left less in the way of new ideas to discuss and reflect on when we met again afterwards. What we spoke about, however, has borne relevance to events at school and in my teaching even in the relatively short time since the observation, so the link between our discussion and my recent teaching will be the focus for this post.

When we met for the second time we talked about what had happened after the class, which was in keeping with the end product – orientated nature of the task. The students went on to compile the results of their questionnaires, and write a report about what they had found out a few days later. What I hadn’t been able to incorporate, however, was the feedback concerning socio-cultural awareness. As Barbara pointed out, I sent the students out for the street survey poorly equipped for an actual conversation about some of the issues they had selected for their questionnaire focus. I expected them to take responsibility for the topics and questions they would find out about, and for the process of finding their information, making some fairly serious demands of their autonomous learning, but I didn’t really provide the support that this level of autonomy merited.

Some of the topics they had included fox-hunting, capital punishment, homelessness, and other locally sensitive issues – issues about which people the learners encounter are quite likely to hold different opinions from their own, and are possibly going to be more widely informed about, especially in some cases. There are two considerations which I should have acknowledged here. The first, and most immediate to the lesson, is the possibility of an unpleasant encounter with someone who the students might accidentally offend through lack of awareness. It’s not a classroom environment, which can be managed by the teacher, but a context in which students are relying on themselves as a judge of socio-cultural appropriacy. To maintain in this context a safe and relaxed learning environment, where learners feel at ease and confident enough to develop and use their language skills, I should have prepared the students with some background knowledge about their areas of research. As a student suggested in class, they could have researched the topics themselves before creating their questionnaires, to ask more pertinent questions, to be ready for a productive discussion, but also to build a bit more cultural awareness about the areas they were dealing with.

As I discussed in Critical Incident 2, in my teaching context – teaching foreign language learners who are staying in the U.K independently, often for the first time – our concerns as teachers are pastoral as well as academic. This is not only a legal matter of responsibility for learners’ well-being, and following safeguarding procedures, but a result of our role in their language learning experience. As I said in that critical incident, I’d venture that a teacher who is familiar with the country and socio-cultural context where the language is being learned has a notable effect on the overall experience of a student in that environment who is not. Certainly more notable than a vice-versa situation. When teaching in Chile, my students had far more of an impact on how I behaved from day to day than I did on them – they were my source of socio-cultural awareness. In my current context, we – amongst others – are their sources, and need to remember this. Interaction with their surroundings should be a key part of their language development, hence their decision to come to the U.K in the first place. We need to make sure this is a comfortable and achievable experience for them, otherwise their language acquisition will be affected, and more importantly, perhaps their quality of life.

This is especially true if we are expecting them to take autonomous roles in their language learning, and if – as I did in this lesson – we centre their learning around their autonomous engagement. This leads into the second consideration which I should have acknowledged in my planning for this lesson, which is the general observation that I need to invest more into my learners – more energy, more expectation, and more support – if I truly want them to achieve what I ask them to.

This is a thought which has crystallised in the last week or so, but as soon as it did I realised it was a product of the synthesis of quite a lot of previously disparate threads of reflection within this blog. Again, several individual chunks or mini-chains of reflective thought have, after more experience and reflection, revealed a bigger answer. This is one I’m not sure I particularly like though.

(N.B: Thinking back to the beginning of this process, when we were asked to consider frameworks for reflection and I decided it was too early to say, I now think that experiential reflection is my natural inclination. More to follow…)

A further critical incident will deal with this on a more narrative level, but the relevance of this idea to reflection on this observation is as follows. The task for the learners demanded autonomy from them. I was there in a facilitating role, but I could have done far more to support them, and make sure they got the best possible learning outcomes from the use of their independent thought and actions.

Essentially, through neglect of learner training and investment, and skipping straight to the part where I expect autonomy from my learners, the learning outcomes of the task were, I feel, less than they could have been. Including a research element would have given learners their own voice in discussions about their chosen areas, and equipped them with the knowledge needed to interact on a deeper level with the language input they received concerning these areas. Analysis, comparison and synthesis of input would have become more complex had their concept of the topic been more detailed, and the questions they asked could have produced more complex results and findings, upgrading the level of the input they were dealing with. The tools at their disposal to explore the language points would have been more powerful and varied. Moreover, providing fodder to form their own personal opinions would have created more meaningful communication, and use of the target language – when planning their questionnaires with other learners, and when researching responses to questions which they had created from their personal, informed views. Their reaction to and synthesis of their findings would also have far more meaning to them, and be more relevant to them, the more they could engage with the topic. In summary, one or two key support stages could have drastically developed the learning outcomes of the task, and made it genuinely meaningful. By limiting my investment in the learners, and limiting the support I provided for the exercising of their autonomy, I limited their achievement of their potential in this task.

This general theme sprung out at me a few times this week. It bears relevance to not only the exercising of autonomy, but to expectations on learners to develop socio-cultural awareness, and to change their attitudes to learning and in-class behaviour. It was in connection with these areas that it struck me, as I will explain in my third critical incident – reflections from previous peer observations and video reviews all fed into it. It felt quite momentous to be honest, like a dam breaking; one of the most fundamental revelations so far about how I need to develop my attitudes and practices.

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