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How to reflect on how we teach

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Young woman using laptop on park benchJulietta Schoenmann, a language teacher and teacher trainer with over twenty years’ experience, considers ways in which teachers can reflect on how they teach.

As professionals who care about our students and the quality of the lessons we prepare and deliver, we do from time to time want to explore certain aspects of our practice in more depth. One way of doing this is by carrying out an action research project. ‘Project’ makes it sound rather grand and formal but it doesn’t have to be as inaccessible as it sounds. Classroom-based research is simply a method for finding out more about teaching and learning which then, in theory, makes you a better teacher and also helps your students become better learners. So how do you go about doing it?

On your own

There are loads of things you can do by yourself which reveal plenty about you as a teacher – your attitude to your work and your students, your role in the classroom, your management techniques, your lesson planning abilities, etc. The first thing you need to do is think about which aspect of your lessons you want to research. Looking through any pages of the New English File Teacher’s Book can get you thinking about areas that deserve attention:

  • How effectively do you present new grammar structures?
  • How helpful are your techniques for explaining new vocabulary?
  • Do you provide adequate feedback on students’ performance?
  • Do you set up and conclude activities in a logical and engaging way?

It’s helpful to write down some questions to get you started so that you have a focus to work with. Let me give you an example from my own teaching.

A little while ago I wanted to find out how effective my instructions were with pre-intermediate group and decided to record my lesson. The digital recording device I used was nice and discreet so it wasn’t distracting for students in class. I was able to stop and start it whenever I wanted (rather than waste time on footage that wasn’t that helpful to me, such as groups doing a writing task). I set aside time a few days later to listen to what I’d captured.

Well, what a wealth of material there was to work with! Not only did I gain insights into my sometimes tortuous instruction techniques (“What I’d like you to do is…”) but I also discovered a lot more about how well (or not!) I listened to students’ responses to questions, how good the flow was between stages of the lesson and how many fillers (some annoying, others possibly less so) that I peppered my discourse with. I realised that recording myself was the only way I could objectively analyse what I did in the classroom and more importantly, what my students heard and acted on in the lesson.

With your colleagues

We all have our favourite ways of presenting certain structures but how often do we really consider the impact that different approaches might have on students? Here’s one way of exploring this fascinating area further.

You need to work with a colleague who’s teaching the same level as you. Look through your course book and identify a structure that students often find a challenge, e.g. New English File Intermediate 4A (first conditional). Now you and your colleague have a choice. Either you can both present the structure in exactly the same way and compare observations on how students responded afterwards (bearing in mind the different profiles of your classes). Or one of you can present it as it is in the book and the other can do it an alternative way; then again compare the responses. The purpose is not to find the ‘best’ method but to analyse student responses to various approaches which might tell you both something about what works best with certain groups of students.

So, if you choose to do any of the following: observe a colleague, keep a teaching diary, ask your students to evaluate your lessons or carry out interviews with/distribute questionnaires to colleagues, you can pat yourself on the back and award yourself an Active Classroom Researcher medal!

But, seriously, it’s through these sorts of research activities that you can consider in more detail your own strengths and limitations as a practitioner. The more you know about what you do in the classroom the greater the choices you’ll have to develop as a professional.

Do you take time to reflect on your teaching practices? What techniques do you use?

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Author: Oxford University Press ELT

The official global blog for Oxford University Press English Language Teaching. Bringing teachers and other ELT professionals top quality resources, tools, hints and tips, news, ideas, insights and discussions to help further their ELT career. Follow Oxford ELT on Twitter. Find Oxford ELT on Google+.

10 thoughts on “How to reflect on how we teach

  1. I like very much the idea of videoing a lesson and then reviewing it later. In teaching it’s often really difficult to take a step back and understand what we are doing in the class in a very practical way. Looking over the lesson as a “third person” is going to reveal some stark truths I bet! I will definitely try this when I can! Thanks for the idea!

    • Glad you’ve found it helpful! Videoing would be great though possibly a little more intrusive but students will probably forget about it once they get absorbed in your lesson. I agree that ‘taking a step back’ can certainly be an eye-opener but I hope will lead to a productive conclusion.

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  5. Hi Julietta,

    Video recording is a great way to review & reflect one’s lesson. Most of us hate to watch ourselves, but if we do it often enough, we’ll just get used to it.
    Any chance of sharing your recordings with us?

    • It’s interesting that all of you seem to have assumed that I made a video recording! In fact it was only a digital sound recording (easier to organise than a camera at the time) and so there isn’t any actual footage that I can share. The advantage with sound is that I almost didn’t need to tell the class I was doing it as the gadget was hidden in my pocket – the only thing they might have seen and commented on was the tiny microphone clipped to my jumper. But in the interests of transparency I did tell them and they quickly seemed to forget what was happening which led to a more ‘authentic’ lesson I felt. And for those of you that don’t like to see yourselves emblazoned in glorious HD all over a 50 inch TV screen this could be the answer!

  6. Hi Julietta,

    I’m glad you mentioned videoing ourselves, as this is a technique that has worked best for me. I don’t think I would have been able to develop more quickly using other techniques for lots of reasons.
    First of all, I believe we can really develop only if we have questions about our own teaching. The more concrete these questions are the better. By asking ourselves questions, we not only formulate an area where we are looking for solution, but we also set an objective, which at that moment seems invisible.
    The second this is that, as you have also pointed out, it is crucial that we know what we are doing well. We need to know these so that we keep doing them or trying them out with other classes and sts too consciously. Plus, we need that pat on the back so much! And who can tell what works best for US than ourselves. Everybody has their own teaching style, the way we approach teaching situations and this is great! So it’s good for us to get feedback from ourselves, apart from observers 🙂 … well as long as we can be open enough.

    The other useful way of reflection I have found is a more indirect one: watching someone teach our own class and observing sts’ reaction. This technique, again, works only if you have a concrete question in mind you observe with. For example, “When I teach my group of teens, I find it difficult to get their attention. How do other teachers do it?” Such an observation gives you the opportunity to get to know your sts a little better too, what they need, how they react to input, as well as to find the answer to your question(s).

    And to react to Chiew’s request for Julietta. I have lots of videos of my own lessons that I’m using in teacher training sessions, where we look at what worked, what didn’t work and why. However, I would probably share them only when we have a chance to discuss them as well. Otherwise, there’s no point in watching a lesson, unless you know a lot of background info about the teacher, the sts, the particular teaching context, etc. This could be most probably done in a live seminar or a webinar. That would certainly be useful.

    Erika

    • Hi Erika

      Lovely to be in touch with you again and thanks for your detailed insights on ways in which we can develop by observing ourselves in our classrooms. I love your suggestion of watching someone else teaching your class, especially if you’re having problems with that class. This is something I’d definitely like to try myself and hope I can set something up when I have the chance!

      I also like the idea of analysing teacher behaviour and practice through a webinar – I think we’ll need to work on the technology for this however as I did a webinar yesterday and when I showed a short DVD clip a lot of the participants said it wasn’t playing and they couldn’t see it. All depends on band width, connection speeds etc. But let’s keep it in mind for a possible topic in the future….

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