Apr 10, 2012

Shift away from topic-based teaching

This post is in reply to an enquiry we received from a teacher who was curious about SpeakYourMind but was puzzled by the design of the teaching material she had been sent as a sample.

“I see exactly where you are coming from in terms of the questions you ask about the design of the teaching material -- in fact it brings home just how big our job is in showing our work in a different light. By now I'm so used to the background thinking that I forget perhaps just how much we have to work on emphasising the underlying differences between Speak Your Mind and orthodox teaching in its various forms.

You're quite right, there is no real logical link between ‘themes’. 'A Theme' or ‘a Topic’ is not what holds a SyM lesson together - certainly not in the conventional sense. There are multiple underlying strands, but these are more to do with the on-going development of learning and of the language itself than with lesson-wide 'topics'.
The succession of ‘unrelated’ mini-topics that you see in the SyM books or that you listen to in a classroom, pick up and rework previously introduced words or grammar – the unrelated topics in a single lesson are in reality pulling together language that is being learnt over a larger time-scale. The single lesson is not ‘self-standing unit’ that it is in conventional teaching and the role of the ‘topic’ or ‘theme’ is not dominant, and the focus of interest on language and learning is more at the forefront. With SyM language is not confined to the lesson where the relevant theme has been dealt with – language is presented relatively briefly and then recycled regularly over time in a way that theme-based books do not manage and that is largely beyond the scope of teachers in theme-based lessons.

In conventional topic-based lessons, relevant new language may only erratically emerge, or its appearance may be perceived as secondary to the ideas being communicated. New language may appear and then just as easily disappear, to be recovered only by the conscientious students (or those fortunate enough to have the time) who will later go back and seek it out. Theme-based lessons -- and theme-based course books -- do not provide adequate principled recycling of language, so what ultimately remains from each individual lesson may be insubstantial in terms of learning -- the lesson may have left and enjoyable impression, but little in terms of tangible progress. This is not to say that we believe that learning is only measurable in terms of new words learned – ‘feeling at ease with a language’ is as much a part of what we aim to achieve as anything else, but motivation and a sense of self-efficacy are often intrinsically linked to a real sense of improvement and advance.

Of course, people have an affinity with theme-based lessons – they comply to tradition. When we study geography or history or literature, we settle on a subject that requires a depth of understanding and analysis -- skipping from one thing to another may not be the most appropriate approach. Apart from this academic tradition, in CLT -- which is still often regarded as being 'modern' -- topic-based lessons tend to be attractive because they mimic discussions that a group of interested people may be involved in in their own language (and usually through their own spontaneous choice): it's like dinner-table talk. Because the lesson then resembles one familiar aspect of a ‘real-world experience’, it gains validity in the eyes of the teacher and also, although not necessarily, in the minds of the students.
Nevertheless, real-world experience often involves situations or actions that are not theme-based in this way, and which require us to quickly shift our attention and focus. We might sit at a dinner table and switch our attention from one conversation to another. SpeakYourMind lessons usher in a succession of ‘topics’ – language is not de-contextualised at all, it’s just that the ‘contextualisation’ is rapid – there is no long pre-amble or peripheral distraction. The material and the teaching style are designed to ensure that engagement and personal interest is there – the dialogue does not become a detached formal exercise.
The human brain is well equipped to react to topic-shifts (concentration, elaboration and learning may actually benefit). We also have to bear in mind that students on a language course are fully aware of the fact that they are in a ‘learning situation’ which does not need to replicate a ‘real-world situation’ such as the dinner-table discussion, in order for it to be effective and interesting. I think there is a lot to be said for keeping learners alert and active and prepared at any moment to switch attention from one thing to another, and I think that in many teaching situations the advantages of variety can outweigh the advantages of sameness.
Of course, when the idea of the lesson is to have a discussion, you need to establish the right conditions for that to happen successfully and naturally. If on the other hand, the idea of lessons is to introduce new words and new grammar relatively briefly, knowing that it will all be re-presented and practiced in the following lessons, the focus and the dynamics of the lesson become different. A classroom is another aspect of the ‘real world’ and students are involved in a 'real-learning' situation rather than in a replica of a 'real-discussion' situation.
In reality there is continuity in SYM lessons, and there is plenty of continuous exposure to accessible language which allows students to become aware of how the language they are learning is interconnected and how it is applicable to many different topics and situations.
The language grants them the power to express themselves. Communication happens – in class students do express opinions and experiences, but this is also a consequence of the learning activity, ‘real-life’ situations are not the exclusive source of learning.
This whole aspect of the course is probably the biggest single barrier that we face when explaining or introducing the course to new teachers -- students seem to have a far more intuitively positive response to the idea.
It is working on this shift of mindset that takes up a lot of our initial training programme: accepting it as a sound principle and then feeling comfortable with it in terms of application in the classroom. It soon becomes a simple and natural thing, but of course to fresh eyes the structure and design of the course may well seem rather incoherent and haphazard. In reality it is far from it, the design is far more detailed, subtle and thorough than you will find in any other text book as far as I know. Once the teacher is able to see things with a sense of perspective, the ‘logic’ of what happens in the classroom becomes evident. It's like holding a written page up close to your eyes -- you can't make sense of anything, they’re just blurred shapes: but as you move the page further from your eyes, letters appear, then words then sentences -- the overall form is apparent.”

No comments: