Last week, on Thursday the 4th, I went to observe Matt’s lesson at Oxford International, from 9.00-10.00. Matt’s class was B1 level, of very mixed nationality, and was a new class to him. I would have stayed for the whole morning session if I hadn’t needed to get back to work, but even the one hour revealed enough to be getting on with. The dialogue we had afterwards was probably what made it so productive. I learned things which contribute to areas I’m trying to develop, and was given some different perspectives on areas I’m trying to reflect on – new ways to deconstruct my current attitudes and practices, and reconstruct them more fittingly to my principles. Discussing our thoughts about teacher roles gave me an entirely new angle on my reflections on classroom management, and some points I observed during the lesson taught me more immediate routes to develop my classroom management approach. Instruction giving also came out of our discussion. This is a point which then rose again in my fourth assessed observation this week, despite me thinking I had dealt with it. Another reflective direction which was pushed forwards by this peer observation was teacher interventions in student-led activities, as discussed in ‘Peer Observation 5’, and ‘Video Peer Review’.
The lesson was based on appropriacy and formality of different greetings, and the procedure began with students suggesting different ways to say ‘hello’. These were put on the board and students were asked to classify them according to formality. Matt used realia – lots of different hats – to elicit different social contexts, wearing a tiara and imagining he was the Queen, for example. Students then worked on pronunciation, specifically tonic stress and intonation, classifying and practising a variety of greetings and introductions for business and social settings, before they moved on to ways to say goodbye, at which point the part of the lesson I was observing was over. The whole procedure was based on students negotiating meaning and practising use between themselves, and the teacher setting up the activities, eliciting and modelling intonation of the target language, and opening up feedback to the whole class.
One of the first things I noticed during the lesson was instruction giving and setting up tasks. In the first feedback stage, students were expected to read the list of greetings they had made in groups out to another group member at the board, who would then write them up. This was not fully understood by all the students, and although they all ended up putting their ideas onto the board, some copied from their own notes, some went up in their whole group, and others wrote it individually from memory. Soon afterwards, when ‘alright’ was elicited as a possible greeting, students were asked to practice the rising intonation of that greeting on their tables – only one table actually did this. Others discussed formality of greetings in their own language, others sat and read their notes, and others spoke about the other language on the board. At no point was the positive learning atmosphere affected, and students remained engaged with the general point of language focus, but if Matt had wanted a particular task to be done in a particular procedure, his instruction giving didn’t work. Having thought about this and mentioned it to Matt in our discussion later that day, I suggested that this was because it was unclear to students whether or not he was actually setting up a task.
We labelled this as ‘signposting’; in the instances when the attention of the whole class was gathered, and clear imperative instructions were given, students immediately got on with it in their groups. There was not any evidence of students misunderstanding the language, and the tasks were not complicated. The difference, I felt, was that sometimes the format and delivery of teacher language was immediately recognisable as direct instructions to the whole class, to set up a stage of the lesson, and other times it was indistinguishable from a passing comment or a suggestion. At those times, tasks were not set up successfully. We thought about what constitutes ‘signposting’ teacher language, and body language and volume of delivery are important, we both agreed. Where you stand, who you look at, and so on work together with the projection of the language to make it clear that you expect all students to follow an instruction.
Having noticed this once, I spotted it again as a potential factor in a very minor breakdown in classroom management when Matt was closing an activity, to move into an open-class feedback stage. He directed his language at one particular table, expecting all the students to focus their attention on this interaction so they could be brought into the feedback as well. The other students didn’t realise this was expected of them, and continued the activity – speaking, for personalisation, about when they might need formal language in the future. Matt was then forced to interrupt the students he was speaking to, break into other students’ conversations, and start again. This is a relatively common occurrence in my lessons too, that is, students not realising they are expected to finish an activity and move into an open class stage. ‘Signposting’, then, seems to be a key to setting up and closing tasks successfully – letting students know via body language and language format that this is a structured point of the lesson. It’s something I had never thought about before. One does naturally do it, but being aware of its role in ensuring clarity will hopefully turn it into a useful tool in managing procedure in class. I feel like now I’ve noticed this, it will keep popping up in my reflections, and I hope that will help me to control and use it to improve my instruction giving, and perhaps other areas of procedural and classroom management.
Slightly more recently, this Wednesday (the 10th), instruction giving and setting up tasks re-emerged as a problem in my fourth assessed observation. I thought I had “dealt with it” as during this process I’ve developed new techniques that work well, but both this peer observation and that assessed observation in combination demonstrate that there’s always more angles which reward consideration – such as making the intended function of your language clear – and that it doesn’t do to mentally shelve an issue which has arisen and been tackled. I should stay focused on developmental goals, up to, including and after the point of automatisation of any new strategies.
These points of the lesson, giving instructions and moving the procedure forwards, were some of the infrequent moments at which Matt intervened in the interaction pattern of the class. We spoke about the idea of “sage on the stage vs. guide at the side”, and it’s discussed in ‘Peer Observation 5’ and ‘Video Peer Reviews’. From observing the lesson, it was clear that Matt had taken this very much on board, and his teaching style had been noticeable altered by his reflections in this area, now occupying an almost entirely facilitative role. He let tasks run, only bringing up the points at which he might have intervened in whole-class stages. This allowed him to open up any feedback or error correction to the whole class, both providing an opportunity for peer-teaching, and ensuring that all students benefited from any feedback or language upgrade that might emerge. One marked area of change was error correction. In previous observations, Matt had mentioned to me that he felt he over-corrected and intervened when it was unnecessary, or disruptive to the communicative purposes of some tasks. He said that he had found this a difficult habit to change. Any error correction done in this lesson, however, was entirely focused on the target language and skills that formed the learning outcomes, and was mostly delivered so as not to intervene in ongoing student-student interaction. If he was asked to intervene, he would open up the question to the whole class – in these instances making good use of ‘signposting’ – to make sure everyone had an input and benefited from the feedback. I mentioned this in our discussion later, and suggested that being introduced by his colleague to a labelled principle of teaching – “sage v guide” – within which he could categorise particular practices – such as his error correction – has helped him to exert conscious control over several habits which previously he hadn’t.
This suggests to me that categorising, labelling and defining ideas and goals in your head leads to easier noticing of habits which fit into them, and easier correction of them. Conscious and enforced reflection leads to taking control of previously unchecked or unconnected behaviours; in intentionally filling the guide role, he seemed to effortlessly control his application of EC by sticking to a broader principle within which this issue fell. Here, then, is a further argument for a deliberate and conscious reflective process, and maybe it supports that process being informed by labelled ideas from teaching and learning theories.
Something which definitely helped Matt in his facilitative role was the physical classroom set-up of islands. It feels like I’ve mentioned islands, how they can help foster a self-reliant attitude in learners, and how I keep forgetting to use them a million times now, without any real effect on my teaching habits. When I have used this layout for a classroom, it hasn’t worked as well as I imagined it might. This time, though, watching this lesson, I had a thought which will hopefully shed some light on the constant reappearance of this theme in my reflections as something I haven’t fully utilised. It looked as if the room was designed with table islands in mind; the positioning of the board and the IWB screen, for example. I asked Matt afterwards and he confirmed that yes, the tables in all of the rooms of Oxford International are always in that configuration. This was the first time I’d observed a lesson using islands and I could see how it was drawing the focus of learners onto each other, and away from the teacher, unless the teacher chose to intervene. This was happening so naturally for the students that I think their expectations of the classroom layout had helped to form their expectations and attitudes concerning their role in the classroom. On the occasions that I’ve tried it at Eurocentres, learners haven’t taken to it very easily, and are still not accustomed to focusing their attention by default on working together in small units. In this lesson, it made a clearly observable difference in learner-centredness. Students didn’t wait to contribute, but shared their language with their table. Class wasn’t dominated as much by more forthcoming learners or more confident producers, because there were smaller pods within which SS were operating. There was no reliance on the teacher to establish and create interaction patterns; learner-learner interaction developed spontaneously and naturally. This was an example of what this table configuration can provide if learners are used to it. I need to make permanent changes if I want them to stick, not occasionally experiment, especially if the changes I make are, like this one, aimed at moulding learner attitudes and expectations of their own roles.
Another point of discussion during our feedback led to a new revelation about possible reasons for my approach to classroom management, sociocultural learner training, and other areas involving ‘difficult conversations’ – something I wrote about in ‘Critical Incident 3’. I thought that my lack of engagement with some areas which I’ve noticed other teachers applying their energy and time to was a result of laziness, to put it bluntly. Whilst I don’t think that was entirely inaccurate, something Matt said during our discussion has made me consider possible deeper reasons behind my unwillingness to confront particular issues in class, which I feel merit a critical incident and some more focused reflection – I’ll explain further in ‘Critical Incident 4’, but essentially it was suggested to me that there may be psychological factors in my unwillingness to have difficult conversations with students.
All in all, this final peer observation – which actually may not be the last one I write about here, seeing as I find them so useful – gave me some concrete action points to follow up on such as committing to a new classroom layout with a view to more permanent shaping of learner roles in my lessons. It also expanded my awareness of the potential in classifying and categorising different avenues of development, in order to enable a teacher to hold themselves more diligently to improving and changing particular habits, such as Matt’s progress with error correction by way of identifying a broader pattern under which it falls. In addition, it provided me with another aspect of giving instructions and setting up tasks, which we have labelled as ‘signposting’ (in accordance with the above idea that classifying and labelling concepts like this helps to consciously hold yourself to their standards), which – seeing as ‘Assessed Observation 4’ demonstrated that instruction giving is by no means a closed file for me – should be useful in my continued efforts to develop in this area.