Critical Incident 5

This reflective event, the last Critical Incident I will record here, really compounded my appreciation of the value of this process, and this element of it in particular. From one perspective an increased sensitivity to your own shortcomings can be uncomfortable, but from a wider one, the ability to notice your mis-steps is the cornerstone to personal development. Bridging the gaps between current practice and the possibilities of enhanced practice in the future relies entirely on this. This critical incident once again neatly demonstrated how the frustration of realising you’ve made an error is eclipsed by the enthusiasm instilled by tangible developments and improvements in your teaching – as long as I keep this in mind into my future career, I’ll keep benefiting from the critical self-evaluation, and staged reflection over time, that this means of reflection provides.

This incident was interesting because it’s resolution came from retrospective refelction. The event that helped me develop happened months before the event which triggered the development.

Earlier this month, I was observed internally by academic management at the school I worked at, Eurocentres. During the feedback, I was shown that I had been dropped a grading band, from ‘above standard’ to ‘to standard’, in one of the criteria because I hadn’t written the aims of the lesson on the board. This is part of Eurocentres’ policy, so it’s required of teachers. I knew this but had forgotten; I had always thought it wasn’t of much importance to do this so allowed myself to quietly, uncritically dismiss that piece of feedback. I put it down to the school being precious about their policy, and didn’t really take it seriously. I didn’t question my observer on the point and moved on – altogether, not good reflective practice from an observation. It was rather uncritical of me.

Later on that day, for a reason I can’t remember, I was reminded of a student who had left recently. Specifically, I remembered their first lesson in my B2 afternoon class last year. It was a ’21st century skills’ lesson which I’d put together. The skills focus was recognising and synthesising key information from multimodal online sources, and presenting the synthesised information through the same medium. To achieve this, groups of learners were researching holiday options in South Africa (I think), in order to make an infographic itinerary for a selected style of package holiday. This learner, after about half an hour in the computer lab, put his hand up and asked ‘What’s the point of this?’, which I remember because it was so direct that I found it a little bit amusing. I explained the skill sets being developed, and the learner was satisfied. I recall being pleased to have pedagogically justified the lesson I’d created, and impressed that the student had asked that question at all. My initial reaction was: ‘Why don’t more learners ask this?’, but I never really followed it up.

So, when I was reminded of this student on the same day that I received feedback from the internal observation, this question came back into my mind. Suddenly, I saw the relevance it bore to my feedback, and I started to belatedly investigate the incident more critically.

This led to the realisation that probably, many more students think ‘Why are we doing this?’ than ask. It took courage to ask that question, especially as a new student. I’m glad to have been able to provide a response, and it clearly focused the student who asked and gave new purpose to their application to the tasks. I realised then that I had given instructions what learners should do, and how they should go about it to best develop their skills in line with the learning outcomes, but I had not explained why I wanted them to do it – they were probably unaware of the rationale behind the lesson. I hadn’t explicitly explained the point for their skills development. It immediately seemed very likely that many of my learners had been unsure of the validity of what we were doing in some of my classes, which was a pretty unsettling thought.

It was this which helped me to appreciate the significance of making learning outcomes clear at the beginning of a lesson, day or week. Students were always able to access a weekly plan on the online platform, but despite encouragement most didn’t; anyway, the wording of the curriculum learning aims is not aimed at clarity for students. I do explain aims, and I do make real-world application and validity clear through tailored end-products. I don’t do this as a matter of course, however, and there is no routine of explaining learning aims and outcomes at the beginning of a lesson – or putting them up on the board, to clearly signpost their significance.

I feel foolish for missing that link. I also feel grateful for the influence that critically examining and compiling experiences from my teaching practice has had; it has made it possible to view an archive of experiences and connect patterns between them. It’s trained me to be more holistically aware of the implications of the past years of teaching, which is far more valuable than being critical in a case-by-case sense. Otherwise, this link wouldn’t have been made.

I have, in this blog, described the benefits in my eyes of constructionist lessons and activities, fractally justifed by an end goal to provide a spur for more meaningful communicative or receptive skills use, and purposeful/personally motivated use of language. In a different but equally important sense, providing learning outcomes would also infuse the learners application and use of the language with purpose. Not in the sense of meaningful communication, but in the sense of noticing and cognitive application; if they all know unequivocally the central purpose of what they are doing, they can hopefully apply their processing power to developing their skills in accordance with the particular learning outcome when they see the opportunities to do so. Making the learning aims signposted and explicit as a matter of routine could really help learners apply their cognition in the most effective way possible.

The action points from this were fairly straightforward: Write learning aims on the board. In addition to this though, it requires concise and accessible wording of learning aims, which I’ve found interesting in itself. I’ve now actually left my job at Eurocentres, but this topic has come up in several interviews I have had since – I’m glad I caught myself out before an employer did.

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