This morning, I observed a superb lesson taught by a student teacher, K. The lesson was filled with meaningful communications between the teacher and the students, and between the students themselves during group work. The lesson design was rather content-based; all the language activities revolved around the topic of good eating habits. The topic was not there just to contextualize the language tasks. On the contrary, K’s lesson had a heavy focus on the subject matter itself, and the language used, whether it was by the teacher or by the students, and whether it was spoken or written, was not there for language practice per se, but for really talking about the substantive issue of good and bad eating habits. In other words, language was used for real-life, authentic, and communicative, purposes in the lesson. Furthermore, it was not a superficial, trivial, discussion of the topic that the teacher and the students had. Many of the questions K asked were higher-order, thought-provoking, questions. Yet:
(a) The school, situated in a public housing estate, takes in students mainly from working class families. Few of them would be having private English tutoring.
(b) It was a big class, with 39 students.
(c) Almost all of them responded to the lesson with immense interest and enthusiasm. They spoke and wrote a lot of English during the lesson, understandably with some errors. But they were fluent, and eager to speak and write.
K’s lesson was obviously not perfect, but in many ways her lesson was thought-provoking to many of us veteran educators.
The following are some of the most frequent complaints I hear from teachers of English:
l My students have poor English.
l My students don’t have much family support in learning English.
l They either don’t learn, or learn very slowly: look at the hundreds of mistakes they make in speaking and writing.
l Their English is poor, so I have to use a lot of Chinese to explain things to them.
l Their standards are low, so I have to use easier materials in order that they can follow.
l The class size is big. I can only resort to traditional chalk and talk.
l Their English is poor. I have to give them a lot of grammar and vocabulary practice. There’s no way I can get them to use English to talk or write about real issues.
The late American social critic, John Holt, once made a very strong comment: Schools are places where students learn to be stupid.
Yes, this is probably too strong a statement that most of us in education will find it unpalatable. Yet, we have all heard of the concept of ‘self-fulfilling prophecy’. If we perennially think that our students are incapable, then after some time, they will become incapable.
K’s lesson is a good reminder for me, and I hope, food for thought for veteran educators that:
- Dumbing down our teaching is not always the best solution to solving low achievement problems. In fact, we can unknowingly fall into a downward spiral.
- Students are cognitive beings: sometimes the best way to engage them is to present them with tasks that are appropriately challenging.
- Students are cognitive beings: they will be motivated by content that is interesting and meaningful.
- Distinguish between something interesting, and something fun. If students find the content interesting and meaningful, they will engage in the lesson on a deep level. On the other hand, things which are done purely for fun, for example games, will only have a short-term effect.
- In the process of learning English, students will make errors. While we need to deal with this, we should refrain from dumbing down our entire teaching, and falling back on massive doses of repetitive remedial drilling.
- Often, if we express higher expectations and show our confidence in students’ ability, they will respond accordingly. The opposite is also true.
- Have faith in our students’ potential.
I thank K for the thought-provoking lesson. I thank my 19 wonderful student teachers for reminding me how I can become a better teacher myself.