To tell or to ask?

My colleague with whom I teach an autonomy class, recently expressed his concern that students were not making as much use of the different materials available as he would have liked: they seemed unimaginative. That was his analysis, and so his solution was to “teach” them different ways in which they might use the SAME material, e.g. a short video clip. I was half-convinced, but a part of me thought the analysis wasn’t complete. There might be other reasons why they don’t show much “imagination” in their use of materials, reasons that might have nothing to do with imagination but more to do with motivation, with their ideas of what “learning” is, with their particular objectives (get thru the class with the mimimum of hassle and yet still get the credits, for example), but I wasn’t able to identify them at the time, and I was swayed by the reasoning that exposing students to different activities, or ways of using a particular medium, was important training, training that would help give them ideas about how they could learn. After all, this is one of my objectives in the freshmen classes I have.

[Does it make a difference if one calls them “students” or “learners”? Does it make a difference to the way I think about these people in the classroom?]

So my colleague prepared a video clip from “Titanic”. I still would not agree to just “teaching” them: I thought that was against the principles of autonomy that we subscribe to. So I suggested that, instead of us demonstrating different ways of using this video, or instead of having them work through different activities based on the video, we could show them the video clip and have them brainstorm different ways it might be used. As clues, we put a box of possible reasons at the bottom of the handout: for listening, for pronunciation practice, for reading, for vocabulary, etc. We also intended to give a short talk at the beginning about the difference between studying English and learning to use English. For this purpose my colleague brought a tennis racket, and proceeded to demonstrate “studying” the tennis racket, and then using it. We then showed the video clip, with the sound off, then let them fill out the handout with 10 different ways of using it, while he and I wandered around asking questions and making comments.

A couple of students simply copied “for reading, for listening” etc, 1 onto each line, and within a minute or so had “finished” the activity. On seeing this, my colleague was moved to say a few words.

More effective, though, was us walking around and asking questions: HOW would you use the video for pronunciation practice? This seemed a difficult question, so I simplified it by asking, “OK, you put the video into the cassette deck, push “PLAY”… and… ?” My colleague had thought this whole thing would take 10 minutes. We were still at it 75 minutes later! We weren’t able to talk to all the students: a few (right at the front!) were sprawled across their desks, fast asleep. We let these dogs lie. However, the conversations we had were quite productive. It was clear to me that it was only by sitting down and talking things through with them individually or in small groups that we were able to get them to understand what we were driving at.

Whether this will have any effect remains to be seen. Watch this space.

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