The autonomy class

This class has 34 students signed up. Today 26 signed in, tho when I did a head count, only 12 were actually in my room (some were nextdoor in my colleague’s classroom). Where were the others? Some borrowed a video and went somewhere to watch it, but that still leaves a few unaccounted for. Should we be concerned about these? Should we know where they are?

Several students (7 altogether) were preparing for an English vocabulary test the next period. I spent some time with some of them, asking them questions about the test, how they are tested, etc: do you need to know how these words are pronounced? Do you need to know how to write them or just recognize them? Do you need to recognize and understand these words when you hear them? Do you need to know how to use these words in a sentence?

I’m not sure how I feel about these students working on another teacher’s materials; I tell myself that they are studying English, so…. Would it be possible, or even worthwhile, to find out if they would LIKE to study in this way, even if they didn’t have a test next period. Does this signify some students might prefer to be given vocabulary items to learn and then tested on them later?

There is one group of students who usually hang out together: about 7-8 girls, who revolve around one who acts as the leader. She is competent and confident in speaking English, and I’ve nicknamed her “the sensei”. Today she organized her group and they decided to use flashcards (I don’t know how they came to this decision: it would be interesting and useful to find out) for about the first 40 minutes of the class. They then tried a board game that my colleague has made. Usually my colleague explains how to play this game orally (his explanation is done orally, not the game, well the game includes a lot of speaking, too), but as students in this class are working individually or in small groups, he prepared a page of instructions in English.

Just before class began, I was talking to my colleague about the fact that some of the materials we provide for the students are obviously language-learning materials (like the SRA reading lab); others are less obviously language-learning materials – they are more like prompts or stimuli – like the reproductions of graphic art, or the Crazy 8 card game. Do they require explanations? A written manual? How about an explanation on audio? Or a video? Perhaps a video made by students themselves? One of the reasons we are thinking about such questions is that we are thinking of going shopping for more materials and equipment, including materials and equipment to MAKE more materials for this class. With all this in mind, when class began and the young lady I dub “the sensei” came in (right on time, as always), I asked her opinion about this. True to Japanese form, she gave a “no comment” comment (“dou deshou ne!”), but I’m hoping I’ll get a response at some future time.

Would having instructions be helpful? And what KIND of instructions, seeing as one of the factors we are taking into consideration is learning style and intelligence (as in Howard Gardner’s Multiple Intelligence Theory, see here, here, here and here)? I think both my colleague and I would prefer to let students “play” with the materials and come up with their own ways of using them; we feel that part of their lack of motivation/interest is a general lack of motivation/interest in studying/learning generally (not just in English), and we also feel that one of the reasons for that might well be the years of information-transfer teaching that they’ve received since childhood. While we may feel we are just being “helpful” and giving them a helping hand, we might come across (to some of the students at least, especially the more disaffected ones) as “oh, here it comes again – the teacher telling me what to do”.

I spent the whole class walking around asking people what they were doing, or just observing. I took some pictures too. Two girls were using the crazy 8 card game. I watched for a while. They soon figured out the game is like one called Uno, which a lot of Japanese know. They were laying down the cards slowly, reading the name on each and figuring out what it meant or what the Japanese name was. Later, I saw that they had listed words that they had learned and added the Japanese translation. As Japanese students think that “learning a word” means simply knowing its Japanese translation, I asked the girls to say some of the words, and was pleasantly surprised to see that they had either figured out or looked up the pronunciation.

Two boys were preparing for a (different) teacher’s vocab test. I asked them which teacher, and what kind of test it was (what do you need to be able to do?). I was unable to resist playing “teacher” and pointing out that knowing a word doesn’t have to mean just knowing its Japanese translation. I got a glazed look for my trouble. That’ll teach me!

Four boys were listening to songs on the MD player. They said the 2 MD/cassette players were usually very popular, but today the boys had come early and as there was no-one using them yet, they took the opportunity. One of them is a rugby player who recently had an operation on his shoulder and is still undergoing physical therapy.

A few more boys were wandering rather listlessly around looking for something to do, or something interesting. They were looking at the picture books Come Look With Me also here, and I Spy, also here. I was interested to see what they would do with them. I talked to them about how they might use the pictures, but a few moments later I saw the boys had gone.

There was also a group of students who were sitting chatting. Some of them had some SRA reading cards. One was asleep. One was playing with her mobile phone. Two were writing something. I went over to see. The girl playing with her phone suddenly stopped, looked at me, then glanced at her neighbour. They all looked at me with a deer-in-the-headlights look. The SRA reading lab box has color-coded, numbered reading cards which include a text and some comprehension questions; it also includes answer cards for the questions. Three of the kids had cards with the answer cards, and were clearly busy just copying the answers. Another was doing the same thing with a song.

Well, at least today I managed to get around and talk to almost all of the students who were in the classroom. And I felt that was a step forward!

One thought on “The autonomy class”

  1. The ideas behind this post made me reflect on various aspects of the world of teaching and learning a foreign/second language but especially on our role as teachers/counselors. When we started this profession, we had our first teacher training courses where we were given theories of language acquisition (LA). These theories transformed into activities to carry out in class. By the same token, textbooks, put in our hands, had this rationale behind them. There is a LA theory supporting all activities for the classroom. So we as teachers ‘know’ what is best for our learners, which activities, really foster learning and which don’t. This way we have moved from audiolingualism to functionalism and so forth.

    This morning, I went around our self-access facility and saw that all (mostly) of our materials contain tasks, which are teacher (or material designer) led and they are just a series of instructions, instructions and more instructions. Because we know what is the best activity for students to do and what is not. We are always looking for the most effective way to learn, maybe through a specific methodology or through guided activities, that in the best of cases, have been researched and have lots of literature supporting them.

    So what happens between LA theory and learner autonomy? If we give learners freedom to choose what to do with language resources, will they go back to audiolingualism? or grammar translation? I know that every stage of development in ELT has something to offer to the learner, but will they waste their time jumping around in between methods? Or is autonomy applicable only in other learning decisions but not in the type of activities? I am certain students can come out with useful ideas of how to work out language resources but what does that mean? are we finding an option to language aquisition theories and research? Also, are our students ready for this type of selection or are they going to work with autonomy at other levels but not on this one?

    Interesting, isn’t it?

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