Nick Robinson recently posted that ‘content is no longer king’ – and he’s right! ELT coursebooks tend to result in content-driven courses and teaching. But by switching our focus away from content and towards the overall learning experience, we’ve been able to slash our syllabus by 40% and, in doing so, improve the relevance and quality of learning without adding to teachers’ workload.
Why it’s vital to focus on the user experience of learning
We have access to more free resources as teachers and learners on the Internet than we could ever hope to index. But how does this impact on the syllabuses we teach to and user experience (UX) in the classroom? Some students have no choice but to be in a classroom (schoolchildren). Others choose to be there, but may not be entirely enthusiastic about it (university students). Some may be highly motivated with intrinsic and extrinsic motivations to learn (refugees or immigrants). The spectrum is wide. You will know best where your own students lie on it. In corporate training there may be many conflicting commitments competing for attention. If classes are not perceived as useful and positive in terms of the experience, watch attendance figures drop through the floor.
However a student arrives in the classroom, the quality of learning will depend heavily on how they perceive the experience. Engaged students obviously learn better. If you empower students to take ownership of the process of learning itself you will see their perceptions becoming more positive.
The problem with coursebooks
Coursebooks as we have known them have a limited shelf-life. The publishers won’t like me saying this, but they’re on their way out. They tend to make courses content driven. I’d prefer courses to be driven by the desired outcome: actually learning English. To achieve that outcome we need to focus more on process and experience. Unless you are teaching to prepare students for a specific exam like Cambridge Advanced, TOEFL, or IELTS, for example, most coursebooks are not structured adequately for the way people want to study now. Relaxing on the sofa with the iPad is more appealing than sitting at a desk and opening a book and we need a flexible approach to class content and dynamics which is more in line with students’ experiences outside the classroom.
So how do we get flexible?
The first thing to do is check the syllabus. We checked ours last year and decided to axe 40% of it. Why? It was too crowded. There was not enough space to breathe. Teachers complained they were spending all their time just trying to ‘get through’ the syllabus and complying with formal evaluation. So we slashed it. Now 40% of class time and online study is dedicated to ‘informal learning’. When I say informal I do not mean unstructured. I do mean following the interests of the group. I do mean using media your students find motivating and enjoyable. I do mean stimulating creativity.
But…. if I have to create 40% of the programme that’s loads of extra work!
Yes and no! Yes, you will have to think about it, and so will your students. But this is the whole point. Instead of simply following a prescribed learning path which may or may not be appropriate for your group, the idea is to reflect and adapt to the interests and specific needs of your group. Whoever you teach, wherever you teach, the objective is hardly ever simply to pass an exam – it’s to acquire language skills, and hopefully a love for learning. And remember, it’s not you that has to create the 40% on your own. The point is to involve the group in the process. Engagement is the key here.
Start the conversation early
Group dynamics are established in the first few sessions. It’s never too late to change, but it’s so much easier if we set things up right from the start. So, from the beginning ask your students to reflect on what they want as ‘desired outcomes’ from their course. If they’re studying for an exam, one desired outcome will be to pass, of course. But surely life is richer than that? In the corporate sector our programmes are designed to develop communication skills for the working environment: emailing, presenting, phone calls, meetings, social English etc. Fine. But even actuaries are human beings who cook, dance and go to exhibitions. So we should tap into that. Maybe the syllabus requires you to work on language and structures for presenting. Once you’ve done the hard yards, go off-piste. For example, you could ask your students to research a subject (perhaps a hobby or something topical) themselves online and explore the oratory skills (or errors) of speakers on TED Talks. Later, they present the topic in class with peer and self-evaluation. If you hand over control to your students you often get some very pleasant surprises. They find the stuff, they bring it into the classroom. They share what they’ve discovered for themselves. Some may be happy to record their work as audio or video. Then they can share it! Hopefully it will provide moments of fun, relaxation and laughter, not to mention a spirit of collaboration and peer support. These are very positive contributions to a student’s experience and in the end give you better results, hopefully even in formal exams.
Sharing is easy
It’s never been easier to share your work. Encourage students to set up groups using tools they are familiar with. This could be What’s App, Facebook, or Google Apps. Whatever medium suits your group best. You may be working with an online LMS which incorporates group discussion and document sharing, but if not it’s easy to improvise. Edmodo is hardly new, but check it out if it is to you. It’s an example of a completely free way to get your students to cooperate and share their learning experiences. No coursebook required!
You can follow me on twitter @JamesHoyle1
Your students can find loads of free stuff on www.goenglishmagazine.es . If they want to follow us on Facebook they’ll get new activities popping up on their wall. Keep it free, share it.
James Hoyle is Director of Go English, a corporate language training company based in Barcelona, Spain. Go English has a team of around 150 freelance teachers. James founded Go English in 2001 and has lived through the changes technology has brought to the sector, implementing a Blended Learning methodology. Go English has offices in Barcelona & Madrid.