The most recent peer-observed lesson I taught was observed by Matt, who I’ve worked quite closely with at different points in this process. Our personal aims regarding what we wanted to identify and evaluate in the lesson happily coincided in places, and the feedback overall was instrumental in providing more definitive answers to some of my lines of enquiry into my teaching practice, as well as giving new directions and angles to some others. As has often been the case, most of the major take-away points fit into broader discoveries I’ve made about the relationship between language learning theory, my own beliefs and attitudes, my practice and my own perception of the latter two. In this case these were classroom management to create better opportunities for learners’ use of the language, graded instructions and instruction checking, and controlling my own interventions and behaviour to allow learners to develop their language as fully as possible in terms of exploring meaning and use through communication.
The lesson was with an A2 ‘General English’ afternoon class, and as is my institution’s policy in these classes, the aims were centred on vocabulary and skills. There were four students, all male and between 17 and 30, one of whom was Brazilian and three Arabic speakers. The class had been going for a while and, it being small, we’d built a really relaxed, positive atmosphere, although individually they’re all very conscientious students who embrace learner training and work on their study skills – a really enjoyable class to teach. Matt observed both hour-long sessions, but in our dialogue afterwards we mainly focused on the first, so that’s the lesson which I’ll mainly be discussing here.
The aims for the lesson were reviewing and producing vocabulary to describe feelings in the first session, and in the second, working on communication over the phone and via Whatsapp voice messages. This was a listening task followed by the learners recording and sending voice messages to each other, and extracting the key information. One intended outcome of the listening task was the learners becoming more familiar with language used in these situations, and another to practice getting key information from short recorded messages, but primarily the aim was to raise their awareness of the factors that make a voice message easier to decode and get the key information from. The aim of the final activity was to practice producing clear and effective messages, and to further practice decoding them, with the intention of remodelling and improving the recordings after sharing them for the first time, based on other learners’ feedback on their clarity and effective communication.
Our own aims for the observation were fairly similar in places, as I’ve said; mine were: to create a student-centred lesson based around the learners’ communication with one another, moving focus away from me and onto their language skills; to ensure instructions are appropriately graded and checked when setting up tasks; to maintain a focus on the aims and learning outcomes of the lesson. Matt wanted to investigate my exploitation of the materials for the lesson, the appropriacy of timing of the lesson stages, and my impulse to intervene – we had talked about the latter during our video peer-review. The main crossover in our evaluative aims was between student-centredness and teacher’s interventions, and to a lesser extent, the focus on lesson timing corresponded to my focus on maintenance of lesson aims and learning outcomes.
At the beginning of the lesson, as usual, T asked SS to share what they had been working on in the morning with each other. As discussed in Assessed Observation 1, this is now a regular feature of my classes, to promote peer-teaching and autonomous identification of opportunities for language practice. Pairs of SS were then given slips of paper with adjectives for feelings (which had been presented in the previous lesson two days before) and asked to organise them into positive, neutral and negative. I value fractal recycling; within an activity, within a lesson, within a week, etc. This provides opportunities for learners to familiarise themselves with new language and skills, but also to have frequent, signposted chances to make communicative use of them, both within one activity and over the course of weeks. (This process has really helped me to recognise this as a personal principle, and to ensure I put it into practice as a matter of habit, which I now do – the blog works!).
Having discussed and categorised the adjectives, SS moved to the board and wrote them in relevant columns. They then sat down and discussed their choices with a new partner, explaining any differences. Instructions here were to focus on pronunciation of the target language, and explanation of meaning to justify whether each adjective described a positive, neutral or negative feeling. There was no immediate error correction. I feel that these first stages of the lesson demonstrated to me the value of the conclusion Irene and I made in Peer Observation 3 – when checking instructions and setting up the task, ICQs were focused on the rationale and end goals of the activity, not on the details of the instructions. For example, “Why are you with a different partner?”, “Why do you need to say the whole word, not just point?”, and “How can you explain what you chose to your partner?”, instead of “How many categories are there?”, or “Where do you need to write the words?”. This ensured the learning outcomes of the activity were met, and I could see whether SS entirely understood what was expected of them. Matt highlighted this in our discussion afterwards.
After SS justifyied their choices to their partners by explaining the meanings of the adjectives, T started whole-class feedback, eliciting further explanations of boarded vocabulary and negotiating with the class whether they were positive, neutral or negative. At this point, pronunciation was heavily focused on and immediately corrected, and each individual “non-target like” pronunciation – or mistake, if you like – was drilled with the class, relevant phonemes and syllable stress being shown on the board. Because of previous feedback and reflections, such as Peer Observation 2 and Assessed Observation 1, which language and support went onto the board was a focus. This formed part of my personal evaluative goal of maintaining focus on the lesson aims, and avoiding cognitively overloading learners to the detriment of these aims. As such, emergent language that wasn’t part of the target language wasn’t put on the board or focused on. A couple of examples are ‘wallet’ vs. ‘purse’, or making questions using the present continuous – pretty diverse language points that could have taken up lesson time and student cognition. The only things which went on the board were the target language, phonemes and syllable stress, fitting the aims for that lesson.
In the last stage of the first session, SS were given a list of situations, and were asked to make personalised sentences about their feelings in those situations using the target language. They then guessed which feelings other SS had connected with which situation, and asked each other about it, then justified their choices. Again, more holistic ICQs made sure this task was set up and carried out exactly how it was intended to be, and the opportunity it provided for personalised use of the target language, post clarification and drilling, was fully realised by the learners.
However, in our conversation a few days afterwards, Matt highlighted this particular choice of task to end the first lesson as maybe not supporting my personal aim of creating a student-centred lesson, and not being as constructive as possible towards my lesson aim of practicing communicative use of the language. It also interacted with his evaluative focus of materials exploitation. He pointed out to me that contextually, the language was still being used in relative isolation; only in sentences, and conversations about the lexical items themselves. The format of the task was not very open, but more of a semi-controlled practice. If learners had done a freer production activity, the target language could have been more widely contextualised and used more meaningfully. Learners could have related their new lexis to their wider experiences and the rest of their language, and made use of it in a more creative and communicative way. For example, they could have planned a story – invented or true – about themselves or somebody else using their choice of the adjectives. This could have been developed into making a comic book, which would present an opportunity to connect descriptions of characters’ feelings in particular situations to visual demonstrations of this. In terms of centring the learning process around the learners themselves, and their own use of the language, this would have been far more effective than what was essentially a sentence-completion task. I feel that the lesson was effective in achieving its aim to review and practice production of the lexis, but something like this would have really developed the learning outcomes.
Interestingly, by remaining hyper-focused on my specific lesson aims – as per my personal goal for this observation – I might have been too blinkered to spot that opportunity for developing those aims; there’s a difference between expanding and building on the potential learning outcomes for learners, and overloading them with disparate aims which don’t feed into one another. More could have been done to fulfil the aims of the lesson. In a way, it’s adding upwards to the aims, as opposed to adding outwards.
It’s also interesting to note that my aim towards learner-centred learning led me to set up lots of SS-SS activites, but didn’t lead me to think of extending the learners’ responsibilities and agency – autonomy, I suppose – within those activities. This is often a consideration of mine in other lessons, an example being Assessed Observation 3, and I regularly apply it in my day-to-day teaching, but it’s something I don’t think about as much with lower levels. This peer observation was a very good demonstration that the potential for learners’ autonomous language use to make their production and practice more meaninful and contextualised is not limited to B1 and above.
This itself is a great example of a discrepancy between my beliefs and practices; If you had asked me, I would have vehemently denied that giving learners more autonomy in their production of language is only a valid route to better acquisition with higher levels. However, it turns out that whatever I saw my beliefs as, it didn’t occur to me to extend learner-centredness in this A2 class by allowing more autonomous control; I limited it to interaction patterns, and using their experiences as a resource, and didn’t go beyond that.
In terms of interaction patterns, Matt made another valuable comment. We’d recently reviewed videos of each other teaching, and the concept of “sage on the stage vs guide at the side” was introduced to me (see the post on ‘Video peer-reviews’). Essentially the idea is about shifting along the spectrum running from didactic to facilitative. The first three stages, in fact the bulk of the lesson and language practice, were ostensibly learner-centred in that interaction patterns were S-S, and the onus was on the learners to negotiate meaning and define the use of the target language. There wasn’t any planned explanation, presentation or demonstration from the teacher at all; that was in theory restricted to the class feedback stage and pronunciation drilling, just before the final stage of the lesson.
Despite the planning and staging of the lesson though, I managed to pretty much constantly disrupt the interaction patterns that the learner-centredness relied on. Matt, unbeknownst to me, had been timing the gap between me setting up a task and my first intervention, in line with his personal aim of investigating his and my impulses to intervene in activities. I’m embarrassed to say that a few of those timings were in the area of 30 seconds! In the post ‘Video peer-reviews’, I outline my newly defined opinion that intervening is not necessarily counterproductive by any means, but the reasons for interventions in S-S activities define whether they’re beneficial or not. On reflection, a lot of the interventions I made in my learners’ interaction in this lesson were based on me wanting to fill a gap in understanding, or to provide an answer that wasn’t coming easily – essentially, removing the onus from learners and assuming it myself, spoon-feeding them answers when none were forthcoming. This is the opposite of what I wanted to do. I think it comes from me wanting to make an activity go smoothly if it seems to be stuttering. This is a habit I’m trying to train myself out of – I’m practicing allowing difficult and challenging moments to happen in my classes in order to serve the ‘greater good’ of learner development. In my ongoing quest to develop learner autonomy, my itch to intervene unnecessarily appears to be the most immediate hurdle.
I think part of the reason that I found intervention so difficult to avoid in this lesson was the way I set up the classroom; it’s a small class of four, as I said, and the tables were still in a horseshoe pattern from the larger class that morning. I was sitting close to the students, creating a job-interview style effect: four of them in a row, and me sitting in front of them. Café-style, or islands, as I constantly find myself saying, would have helped shift the focus away from me.
From this observation and the feedback from it, I’ve learned that the conclusions I drew from observing Irene’s lesson regarding the nature of successful ICQs are useful, and can be successfully applied. Frankly, I had been doing this in classes ever since then anyway, but this was the first time I was able to get another teacher’s opinion on the subject, and it was reassuring to have some confirmation. Otherwise, I was shown how I can increase the focus of the learning process onto the learners themselves, at any level, and crucially a way to ensure my practice and behaviour in the classroom doesn’t interfere with what I set out to do according to my principles about language learning: control and consciously monitor my urges to intervene.