A Gathering of Students at Rota NMC

Information Gap Exercise: Foreign English students are placed back to back, each with a slightly different image (see example above). They communicate in English to discover differences (e.g. 'The man is wearing a hat. vs. The man is bald'). This activity becomes a challenge for those participating & often interests those watching as they imagine how they could do it better. Also, 4 or 5 pairs of students can "play" at the same time. The above images are for a lesson on 'describing people' and were made using I-Pad & 'photo to comic' app.

Extreme Teaching

by Paul F. Watson
July 2016

Extreme Teaching: During the last few years, 'extreme sports' has become a 'buz word phrase'. I recall teaching English in Thailand, and I must say that foreign English teaching is the closest parallel there is to extreme sports. And it is certainly the same for students! Foreign English teachers walk into a classroom of strangers who do not speak a common language, and yet we are somehow expected to produce observable results in one semester.

A Source for New Approaches: We are captive to the idea that the teaching methods we recall from our school days are right ;but, there is little basis for such a conclusion. Can we not look at extreme teaching/learning circumstance for insight into more effective methods?

Foreign English Methods: I was lucky to receive teacher training at St. Giles College in San Francisco. St. Giles teaches native English speakers to go over seas and be effective -- even without a common language. I did it in Thailand and it worked. So, how is it done & what are the methods that can be used here in America?

Concepts for Foreign English Teaching:

Compassion in Teaching: Mr. Jeff Mohammed asked the question, 'When do you tell a student he/she is wrong?' He unsuccessfully went around the room searching for the answer. When we all failed, he told us 'You tell the student he has done it wrong when he does not know his utterance was wrong. Telling someone they are wrong when they already know is simply 'student bashing'. Rather, at their hesitation we should smile, pause, and say 'yes, yes', the wave of a hand can invite spontaneous student self correction. That self correction is true learning ...'

Other fields of Endevour: I do not believe that a carpenter's apprentice program consists of long lectures. Friends of mine took welding classes --- lots of hands on, a little instruction. Every Union Hall in the country has figured it out!

Application to Math: Math is probably one of the most challenging classes to teach in a creative, learner centered way. I have taught math, so I will use it for my example. The teacher should try the following method; but, the method will have to be modified for large classes. Unfortunately, larger classes create control problems & necessarily reduce student freedom.

  1. Very brief lecture (10 minutes maximum). Use visuals where possible (e.g. for fractions, use graphic examples involving pizza. For percentage, use elastic rubber bands marked with quantities etc..) Work 2 typical homework examples.
  2. Assign the problems. Allow students to work in pairs and threes. For math, changing the boring social dynamics is key to effective learning.
  3. Circulate around the room & stop idle chatter. Keep them focused. No music!
  4. Where possible, use projects. (e.g. estimate materials for building a gymnasium. Go outside & measure heights of objects with shadows using ratio and proportion. For rate, time and distance lessons, watch the carpenter down the street. Challenge the students to compute the distance using the delay in impact sound etc.. Create a monopoly game with money in metric denominations (kilo bucks, and mega bucks). For an advanced trig class, challenge students to develop an equation for the height of an object that can barely be seen at 1 mile. In introductory algebra classes, use the pythagorean theorem to estimate distances between islands on the global, when latitude & longitude are known (works best if you are teaching on a Pacific Island). Developing such methods is time consuming so do a good job & keep the successful projects for use next year. Where possible, employ games that involve math.
  5. At test time, use multiple tests to stop cheating. Be open to teaching opportunities -- even during tests. You may want to answer a question even during tests. You may want to get a student started on a problem.
  6. For math, the key is to change the social dynamics of the class & allow greater social interaction (but keeping them on task)
  7. Be nice. Stressed students don't learn anything!

Applying the Method in Your Classroom: These methods will require more from the teacher, and 'the system' does not afford teachers much time. But if we are committed to teaching, we must strive for excellence & stop following the tired mule down the same furrow. It will take several semesters to build up a collection of exercises, but you can change the classroom social dynamics with little effort. This should be done gradually so you do not loose control of the classroom.

Opportunities in All Classes: Opportunities for social studies teachers and English teachers are many. Ideas are easy to come up with; but remember that students learn by writing & their own critical evaluation of writing. Group projects are fun and can be educational. Coaches & art teachers already do the 'hands on' thing and usually well. Foreign language classes are pretty challenging; but, games can be created with only index cards & a pen (effective methods were outlined above). Information gap exercises (see image & caption above) are fun if the teacher creates masters by modifying Manga Cartoon with pen and white-out (I used an I-Pad & 'Image to Comic' App). Conversations between 2 hand puppets can work. Assignments involving Internet Pen Pals overseas often energizes students & creates a lasting interest. These are just a few ideas to stimulate creativity. In the end, you will have to find your own way; but, I am sure it is not behind that same mule!

Conclusion: We must focus on Learning far more than Teaching. Always remember that students learn by doing -- not by watching the teacher. We must focus on inspiring -- not control and authority. Large classrooms & heavy teaching loads in America have led down the path of 'straight rows' and 'long lectures'. Neither of these are effective. We must create a more open, more social environment in the classroom while maintaining reasonable control (a challenge, but it must be done). Concurrent with this change in classroom sociology, lectures MUST go short and activities MUST become the mainstay of classroom activities. IF any administrators & school board members are reading, we MUST reduce teacher loads and use teacher workshops to inspire this kind of thinking. We must have Inspirational Zealots as department heads to drive positive change (If we have the wrong leadership, they must be replaced). Without leadership, none of these things can happen!

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Paul F. Watson

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