This time the format is slightly different: it is not an interview as such, but more like a conversation with my friend and colleague Ron Bradley. Ron is a trainer, trainer of trainers, educational consultant — and a ptec member of course! I first met with Ron on a pilot training program for elementary school teachers in Daegu, Korea, in 2009, and we have run several intensive courses together since then. We are often in touch and have occasional chats on Skype about our current (and potential) projects, exchange ideas and activities, challenges and solutions, ask for each other’s advice.
Ron also wrote a guest post for ptec some time ago on Scaffolding Our Instructions
I am excited to post the result of our conversations below. You will see Zhenya’s thoughts and questions below (marked ‘Zh’) and Ron’s responses and ideas (with ‘R’). Let us begin…
Zh: You have worked in a variety of contexts for the last several years (I remember Angola and Albania, but there must be a few more places) Is there a common ‘theme’ or ‘pattern’ that you notice between teachers in different parts of the globe? (if we can generalize like that, of course)
R: There is something I have observed in many teachers I have encountered, and that is the lack of real student learning engagement. So my theme the past couple of years has been to find ways to really engage our students in the learning process — making our classrooms both safe— what I call establishing a safe learner environment AND student learning-centered-ness.
Zh: Could you say more? What does the word ‘engagement’ mean for you?
R: This is one of the first questions I asked teachers in a workshop on this topic. One slide of my PPT says: ‘being student learning centered is engaging all Ss in the learning process’
Zh: After our last e-mail exchange I made a quick dictionary search and found out that the verb ‘engage (someone) into (something)’ means ‘make someone an active part of something’, which fits perfectly into our ‘teaching/training jargon’. How (Where) did you first notice that this topic attracts you? How did it become interesting for you?
R: I think my observations of Albanian teachers of grades 3 to 9 in 2014 as part of a US State Department Needs Assessment [project] got me thinking about the topic, though it is one of the essentials lacking in many teachers I have observed over the years.
The power point on Engaging Our Students shows examples from real classroom interactions.
Zh: It’s interesting that you mentioned your power point presentation while we are talking about engaging the audience. I personally try to avoid PPTs in my training — for the reason that I am less confident I know how to engage my students/course participants and center the attention on the screen. What are your ‘tricks’ of making a PPT presentation interactive?
R: As you can see by the above slide, the presentation gradually unfolds hopefully maintaining the curiosity of the students (and is then ending with the comical images showed above) [Zh’s note: you can see the complete presentation by following the link here]
To me, humor is important. If I have a list of principles of effective teaching or giving effective instructions, I like to show one at a time to keep the students focused. I also frequently ask questions and have the students pair or group share their thoughts before sharing my ideas. I try to maintain a dynamic process.
Zh: Another question is something I am constantly working on as a trainer: how do you address student (or more precisely, teacher) engagement in the trainings you run?
R: It is all about access points in their [participants’] previous learning and experience. Finding out what they know and using inductive approaches are both key to engagement. And again, using humor. For example: When having the participants in our [pre-service] courses encounter countable and non-countable nouns, I write on the board the two sentences:
I bought chair at Sears yesterday.
I bought furniture at Sears yesterday.
I ask them, “Are these two sentences correct?” They of course will respond that there needs to be an ‘a’ before chair. Then I generalize and say, “Okay, so we need an indefinite article before a noun.” Then I write ‘a’ before “furniture”. And they will say “No no – there is no article before “furniture”. And then I will ask Why?…
I play the dumb professor and they love it. And by the way this works with ESL students as well. It is all about pre-assessment, and it engages them in the learning process. Another point I would like to make is that, with this approach, what I call ‘negative concept checking’ or asking questions that require a negative answer, we are more able to assess if the students are really thinking and engaged in the learning process, or just going along with ‘yes’ answers.
Coming back to engaging students: I have observed over and over again the lack of engagement when the teacher interacts with one or two students at the exclusion of other students, just by virtue of how the students are sitting, and where the teacher stands. One example is below:
Another example: the teacher is blocking the lines of communication of some students. They are left out of the learning process.
Let’s look at the example from the slide below (The teacher elicits wild animals from her 3rd grade students for a mind map on the board)
A few students provide names and the teacher writes them on her mind map. Keep in mind there are 25+ students in the class. So how many were really engaged? The two boys in the back of the class had no idea what was going on. A possible solution: group the students in pairs or small group to first brainstorm wild animals and create a mind map. The teacher then elicits one or two from each group. Or makes it a competition as to which group can come up with the most. Now how many of the student are engaged in active learning (find out what they already know, or FOWTAK) and collaborative learning at its best?
Zh: I see an alternative to the competition by asking the students to draw as many animals as they can and then ‘challenging’ the other teams to name them in English. I guess there could be many more options to engage them all in this activity!
R: My only concern here would be the students’ ability to draw, but more importantly the relative value of the activity in relation to the time it takes to complete it. In other words, the teacher needs to judge whether it is worth the time it will take to draw animals if the objective of the activity is only to prepare the students for a reading on wild animals. I call this Time vs. Value to the overall objective of the lesson.
Zh: Speaking of the variety of options: how do you help teachers in your training courses become aware of and skillful in engaging their learners in the learning process?
R: Here is an example from Angola: I put the teachers in pairs and asked them to create mind maps on effective teaching practices. I then created a mind map on the board and elicited a few ideas and asked a teacher to continue the lesson [playing the role of the teacher for his peers]. When he got up to the board he began to lecture about what makes effective teaching. I stopped him and opened it up to the group for a response as to his approach. One of them (bless his heart) said aren’t you supposed to access what we have been doing (not quite in those words) and the teacher responded, “I thought I was supposed to be teaching.” I loved it!! What more need I say?
Zh: I love this example! Such a genuine way to share the belief which seems to be so common. One thought based on this: it seems to me that teachers often tend to teach the way they were taught, and these ways were clearly not very engaging/collaborative. Therefore, our courses often offer the first encounters with the ‘new’ methods (perhaps they should not be so new in the 21st century!) Another question: What tips do you have for beginning teachers on how to engage their students more into the learning process?
R: I think the design and approach used in the SIT TESOL Certificate Course is… genius. It uses what we call ‘loop input’. That is we approach our sessions in a way that demonstrates our methods. Our sessions become models for not only what but how to teach effectively. We not only preach student-centered learning, but demonstrate it. Sometimes, we elicit from the teachers, sometimes we have them collaborate and problem solve. What very important is we try to address a variety of learning modalities, both to reach individual student learning preferences and to provide variety to avoid boredom.
Zh: Sounds like a good recipe – teaching by doing, not ‘preaching’ and telling. Thank you for this conversation Ron – from now on I will also be consciously thinking about student/learner engagement in the process. I hope we have another chat like this in the future!
Meanwhile, a couple of resources on the topic to share:
Other relevant articles and posts: Top Five Ways to Engage Students in Your Classroom and Using PPT to create classroom posters
An article from Mind Shift asks a good question: How can we determine if student engagement is leading to learning?
Finally, these ptec earlier posts might be relevant: Is your classroom student-centered? and A Shy Teacher is more Student-centered: true or false?
Thank you for reading! 🙂
posted by Zhenya