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Let’s make our thinking visible!

A blog by authors Patrizia Caroti, Sarah Howell, and Lisa Kester Dodgson.

While much discourse relating to teaching in the 21st century revolves around content, programmes, methods and approaches etc. there appears to be a gap in how teachers can equip students with the skills they need to deepen their understanding of the world around them as lifelong learners.

Thinking dispositions

Learning is the outcome of thinking, and as such gaining insights into the ways students think is crucial for teachers, allowing them to alter students’ thinking dispositions. Thinking dispositions (Ritchart et al, 2011) are the habits of mind that develop:

  1. Observing closely and describing;
  2. Building explanations and interpretations;
  3. Reasoning with evidence;
  4. Making connections;
  5. Considering different viewpoints and perspectives;
  6. Capturing the heart and forming conclusions;
  7. Wondering and asking questions;
  8. Uncovering complexity and going below the surface of things.

But how do we know what kind of thinking is taking place and how can we be sure that all our students are developing these thinking skills? What insights do we have into how our students are thinking and learning?

These questions stimulated our curiosity to experiment with Visible Thinking Routines (VTRs) in our EFL classrooms and take up the 21st century challenge: “Build a culture of thinking” in our learning community.


“Every committed educator wants better learning and more thoughtful students. Visible Thinking is a way of helping to achieve that without a separate ‘thinking skills’ course or fixed lessons.”

Visible Thinking <http://www.visiblethinkingpz.org>


But what are Visible Thinking Routines (VTRs)?

Visible Thinking Routines were developed by Project Zero, an educational research group at Harvard Graduate School of Education. The routines consist of a few short steps which scaffold and guide students’ thinking. They awaken curiosity and encourage students to dig deeper, taking their thinking to a more sophisticated level (Ritchhart et al, 2011).

We can demonstrate the potential of VTRs by illustrating our mini-research project carried out with two classes of 13-year-old students, in a state secondary school in Italy. The average English competency level of the students was A2 (CEFR) with 3 hours a week of EFL instruction using a mainstream textbook. The routines were chosen according to the thinking dispositions we were aiming to develop, the content being presented in the textbook, and how suitable we felt the routines would be in the given teaching context.

We focused on three different thinking dispositions linked to three VTRs.

Thinking Dispositions Visible Thinking Routines
Capturing the heart Headlines
Making connections Connect-Extend-Challenge
Wondering and asking questions See-Think-Wonder

Headlines

A routine for capturing essence.Headlines routine

Materials:

An article about fundraising and charity concerts.

Process:

  • Topic-specific vocabulary had been pre-taught. The students had been working on making deductions, expressing agreement/disagreement, and probability.
  • They worked individually on the texts, highlighting key phrases to help them create their headlines, and then shared their ideas on the poster.
  • They shared their thinking in small groups, read the other headlines, and made comparisons.

Reflections:

The Headlines routine encouraged students to think more deeply about the content and develop their ability to synthesise. Through sharing their thoughts they developed meaningful conversations around the content of the poster.

See-Think-WonderSee-Think-Wonder (STW)

A routine for exploring visuals and related texts.

Materials:

A photograph of a polluted river.

Process:

  • Topic-specific vocabulary had been pre-taught. The See-Think-Wonder routine raises students’ curiosity about the topic with visual stimuli.
  • First (see) they described what they could see, then (think) they expressed their thoughts about the image, and finally (wonder) they were encouraged to express what else they would like to know about the topic.
  • The students were given question stems to help them articulate their thoughts. Although they spoke in a mix of L1 and English, they wrote their responses in English.

Reflections:

This routine helped the students analyse a visual, and use elements within it to generate their own ideas related to the topic. We found this routine particularly inclusive, as listening to each other’s ideas and opinions encouraged all group members to speak up and share.

Connect-Extend-ChallengeConnect-Extend-Challenge (CEC)

A routine for connecting new ideas to prior knowledge.

Materials:

A photo, audio, and some text about the environment and recycling.

Process:

  • Topic specific vocabulary and expressions had been pre-taught.
  • The students made observations about the photograph and the dialogue by applying the (now familiar) STW routine before using the new CEC routine.
  • Using the reading text, first they made connections (connect) to what they already knew about recycling, then they discussed what new information they had gained and how this had extended their knowledge (extend), and finally (challenge) what still puzzled them. The students worked in groups and then a plenary session was held to present their thinking
    and their “challenges”.

Reflections:

The EFL classroom is often a difficult place for students to express their ideas and their knowledge about a given topic. The CEC routine helped the students tap into their prior knowledge and relate it to new content and encouraged them to go beyond the surface level of the topic.

Classroom activity 1

Thoughts…

A significant consideration which arose while reflecting with students is the importance of feeling comfortable and confident without the threat of evaluation; their thinking is not assessed in this approach! This concept needs to be highlighted at the outset of any Visual Thinking Routine and made clear that it is not just another worksheet to fill in with the right answer, but rather that it’s their thinking process that matters.

Classroom activity 2

Visual Thinking Routines need to be used regularly and systematically across the board so that students develop good thinking dispositions and habits which in turn have a positive interdisciplinary impact over time.

 

 

How could VTRs make a difference to your teaching?

 


Authors:

Patrizia Caroti is a teacher and ELT author with 30 years’ experience of teaching English in Italian Secondary Schools.
Sarah M Howell is an OUP author and teacher trainer. She has extensive experience of teaching EFL at both primary and secondary levels.
Lisa Kester Dodgson is an OUP author with a rich background in primary and secondary education.


References (recommended reading list!)

Majida “Mohammed Yousef” Dajani. (2016). Using Thinking Routines as a Pedagogy for Teaching English as a Second Language in Palestine. Journal of Educational Research and Practice , Volume 6, Issue 1, Pages 1–18. Walden University, LLC, Minneapolis, MN.

Krechevsky, M., Mardell, B., Rivard, M., Wilson, D., (2013). Visible Learners: Promoting Reggio-Inspired Approaches in all Schools John Wiley and Sons, Inc, Jossey-Bass, San Francisco.

Ritchhart, R., Church, M., Morrison, K., & Perkins, D. (2011). Making Thinking Visible: How to Promote Engagement, Understanding, and Independence for All Learners. John Wiley and Sons, Inc, Jossey-Bass, San Francisco.

“Thinking Palette.” Artful Thinking. Project Zero. Harvard Graduate School of Education. Feb. 2017. <http://pzartfulthinking.org/?page_id=2>

Ritchhart, Ron., Perkins, David., & Tishman, Shari. “Visible Thinking.” Harvard Graduate School of Education. Feb, 2017.<http://www.pz.harvard.edu/projects/visible-thinking>

Salmon, K, Angela. “Making Thinking Visible Through Action Research.” Early Childhood Education. The official journal of the Early Childhood Education Council of the Alberta Teachers’ Association. Volume 39, Number 1. 2010. <https://www.academia.edu/4841813/Making_Thinking_Visible_Through_Action_Research>

Arcenas, Claire. “Bridging our Thinking.” Visible thinking across subject matters. 13 Feb 2015. <https://clairearcenas.wordpress.com/>

Ritchhart, Ron. “Cultures of Thinking.” Think! From the Middle. Rochester Community Schools. March 2017. <http://www.rcsthinkfromthemiddle.com/cultures-of-thinking.html>

Jacobson, Gareth. “Team Teaching – an all or nothing phenomenon.” I think therefore… 16th Nov. 2016. <https://makingthinkingvisible.wordpress.com/>

“Research.” Visible Thinking for the child to be and the adult to see. <http://visiblethinking.ltd.uk/research/>

 


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Should A Coordinator Be A Leader?

Business woman in a meetingKaren Capel, an Academic Coordinator and teacher trainer, returns with another guest post for Coordinators and Directors of Study, sharing her thoughts on leadership in schools.

Do you think a good coordinator should motivate and inspire? Then we would agree that an effective coordinator should also be a successful leader.

These two roles are deeply interwoven, complementing and enhancing one another to result in a complete professional who is able to carry out managerial duties outstandingly.

Whether you are a natural leader or you have learned to be one, it is your responsibility as a coordinator to innovate and develop, to focus on people (both staff and students), to inspire trust, and to focus on both short-term and the long-term goals. You must also challenge the status quo in view of achieving your institution’s objectives and providing a better service to students. Therefore, a leader not only does things right but also does the right things. According to the leadership guru Warren Bennis, all of these are characteristics of a leader.

So what type of leader should you be? Hopefully a transformational one, achieving objectives by inspiring your staff and fostering the sense of belonging that will result in the formation of a real team. It is proactivity and the drive for continuous improvement that characterise both transformational leaders and successful coordinators.

The leadership style one follows is, needless to say, highly dependent on personality, though an effort must be made to ensure our staff is given the opportunity to express their ideas and put forward their suggestions, for this is the only way a team can work to its maximum potential and enhance each individual’s unique skills and capabilities. Nevertheless, it is worth pointing out that even when listening to every member’s opinions and allowing discussion of the different issues on the table, it is the coordinator who should make the final decision in all matters and who will always maintain responsibility for the courses of action decided upon. Only then would you embody a democratic leader who enables teachers to feel trusted and heard while supported and guided toward common goals and objectives. It is our teachers who are in direct contact with students and may therefore be in possession of invaluable information upon which all-important decisions may be taken. It is key to trust our own judgement when taking on employees and pay attention to the professionals in our staff and what they have to contribute, as it is they who should follow the procedures enforced and may come up with alternative and improved ways of dealing with certain issues.

On becoming a coordinator, it is highly plausible that you will encounter members of staff who are supportive and always willing to lend a helping hand, work as a team and back your decisions with a goal of improving the services provided to students, as well as internal procedures and practices; but it is just as plausible that you will encounter teachers who are resistant to change and who will antagonise every decision. It is you as a leader who must find the way to put them on your side by tactfully showing them that you are part of the same team and that each and every decision made has been thoroughly examined, all alternatives considered and every opinion carefully listened to. Once again, democracy is the key. Give these members of the team even more chances to participate and express their opinions and make them feel valued and trusted as professionals. Truly listen to what they have to say, for their ideas and suggestions may be altogether valuable and useful for decision-making, and then make your own decision based on the big picture and all relevant elements, which they might not be aware of. Just make sure you carefully choose your battles and let them win sometimes, as this is the only way they will actually feel you are paying attention to what they have to say.

It is also worth noting that a leader is not someone who is always telling people what they have to do, but someone who subtly makes it clear to everyone what his/her role is and what is expected from him/her. Leaders provide guidelines on how to proceed and accomplish the goals set while fostering teamwork and making employees feel trusted, and are therefore a paramount element for the organisation to achieve efficiency and growth.


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Class observation: beyond the obvious

Observing a class in actionKaren Capel, an Academic Coordinator and teacher trainer, returns with another post for Coordinators and Directors of Study, sharing her tips for observing teachers in class.

Observing teachers on your staff on a regular basis is one of the essential tools to ensure the quality of the service you offer to students. As a result, it is of paramount importance to utilise class observation in a sensible yet effective way in order to achieve not only the expected results, but also the professional and personal growth of the members of your team. It helps them feel valued and creates athe sense of belonging necessary for each individual to work to the utmost of their abilities.

When one starts observing lessons, the focus tends to be on the technicalities that we believe are the key elements of a good lesson: having a clear objective; giving instructions and checking understanding; eliciting responses from students; classroom management strategies; use of materials; TTT and STT (Teacher Talking Time and Student Talking Time) to mention just a few. However, my experience proves that there are some other underlying elements which can mean the difference between a lesson being a success or a complete failure. For example, the rapport the teacher establishes with the students, which can result in better engagement with the planned activities, with students participating actively and therefore acquiring the target language easily.

Other aspects of equal importance include whether the contexts and activities chosen are appropriate for both the level and age of the students, and the balance of activities and interaction patterns used. These will enable the teacher to deliver a lesson which caters for all learning styles, gives all students the opportunity to express their ideas and clarify any issues which may arise, as well as practise and reflect on the target language.

What tends to be overlooked is being flexible enough to recognise opportunities to share knowledge with students. Often students come up with questions, raise doubts or even point out mistakes – which gives rise to opportunities to explain things more clearly, to share your knowledge – but often these opportunities are ignored by teachers due to a desire to focus on set objectives for the lesson. In these situations, taking the time to explain things further leads to further learning and students leave the classroom with the feeling of having had an enjoyable time while learning about the language in a memorable way.

The pace of the lesson is also crucial. Too fast and some students may not be able to follow. Too slow and the stronger students quickly get bored. Striking a balance between allowing enough time for students to understand and actually incorporate new language items and keeping a dynamic pace which prevents dullness is the key to a successful lesson. Furthermore, activities should be linked with one another so that students see them as meaningful – we as teachers set objectives according to what we want students to learn, but we need to create contexts and link tasks in such a way that students feel there is a purpose to them and they provide a natural progression of learning.

Time management is vital as well. I have seen lessons where teachers had clear objectives and were just about able to meet them through the use of appropriate teaching techniques – eliciting when necessary, giving precise instructions, etc. – but by the end of the lesson students had learnt very little. Why? Because the teacher did not make the most of the time available. And this is imperative, since most EFL students are in contact with the target language only during their lessons, this being their only chance to listen to and practise it.

The same happens with the balance of activities and skills dealt with, as every student needs to have the chance to practise their speaking skills in every single class, considering this may be the only time they do so during the week. How can one learn a language if not given possibilities to use it? That is why STT should also be maximised.

Needless to say, all of the aforementioned points are intertwined and, one way or another, related to the role of the teacher. The teacher must be the facilitator of the lesson, always showing interest in the students’ learning and therefore closely monitoring and following what each student is doing and the difficulties they may be facing . Nevertheless, it is worth pointing out that this should not be taken as spoon-feeding them, but as providing them with the necessary tools so as to gain autonomy and control over their own learning process.

It is achieving this seemless integration of facilitation and organisation which leads to a successful lesson, rather than merely applying solid teaching techniques.


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Got a minute? Learn how to manage your time effectively

Man checking his watchDo you find yourself running out of time during your working day? Karen Capel, an Academic Coordinator and teacher trainer, shares her tips for managing your time effectively.

I have never met a Coordinator or Director of Studies who had time to spare. Our duties seem to multiply every minute, but of course the time we have to tackle them does not. So how can we do so much in so little time? Here are some ideas you may find useful:

1. Prioritise

How many times have you found yourself immersed in tasks which are, of course, important but which could have waited for other more urgent matters to be resolved first? I have to admit that happens to me many times. Why? Sometimes because unconsciously I choose to deal with issues or tasks I enjoy before undertaking activities I find tedious or which require more time to be done. Some other times because of lack of proper planning or because urgent matters like solving an emergent problem or answering a phone call prevent me from getting the ‘actual work’ done. It’s therefore necessary for us to take a minute and consciously analyse our ‘to do lists’ to rank activities in order of importance and urgency so that we work on those which are both important and urgent first, then on those which are urgent and maybe not that important – just because of their unwanted consequences – and finally on those which are important but not that pressing – the ones actually linked to professional growth and personal objectives. If not dealt with in time, these can become urgent as well and can also lead us to become reactive instead of proactive, as we’ll only be focusing on what’s already imperative and not on creating new projects or coming up with new ideas.

More tips can also be found at: http://www.wikihow.com/Manage-Your-Time.

2. Delegate

I know how hard this is and sometimes we all get the feeling that nobody will do things the way we would, but let’s face it, we have an endless list of tasks waiting to be carried out and very scarce time, so it’s only logical to delegate those activities that someone else can do, be it administrative duties or paperwork, searching for information on a given topic, or correcting tests or mock exams. Keep only those tasks which require your knowledge and expertise for yourself – which are surely enough to keep you busy!

3. Plan as much as possible

Whenever possible, plan ahead in order to make the most of your time. Needless to say, there will be unexpected meetings, phone calls and so on and so forth, but the more organised your routine activities are the better you’ll be able to cope with these eventualities.

4. Don’t multitask

We tend to fall into this trap too often and reckon that if we do many things at once we’ll be more efficient and finish more in less time. Actually, it’s the total opposite. The amount of time required is exactly the same but we also run the risk of making far more mistakes due to not being properly focused on each task. Research has shown that multitasking can actually lead to our wasting 20-40% of our time, depending on what we’re trying to achieve. Multitasking prevents us from being ‘in flow’, i.e. fully focused on a particular thing. Being ‘in flow’ actually results in higher satisfaction levels and a higher chance of achieving goals faster.

5. Be organised

Disorganisation can only lead to wasting time. Think of how much time you spend looking for papers or files you cannot find or how you can forget about an important matter just because you forgot to write it down or you fail to find the piece of paper where you did! Organisation is key to management and can prevent disasters from happening.

6. Minimise distractions

It’s worth pointing out that by this I don’t mean breaks, as these are necessary from time to time in order to recharge our batteries and focus once again on what we are doing. Nobody can be focused for eight hours non-stop – and it’s not healthy either. What I mean by this is that, for example, if you leave your email programme open and visible all day, it’s highly plausible that you interrupt whatever you’re doing in order to answer emails – important or not – every time you receive one. It goes without saying that this can impact on the quality of the work being undertaken.

7. Set realistic goals for your day

If you have endless to-do lists that you’ll never tick off, you’ll always feel frustrated. It’s alright to have a long list of pending tasks, but it’s also a good idea to use daily lists which reflect what you can really tackle in a day. This will allow you to make the most of the time you have and tackle as much as possible since you can choose to work on different tasks depending on the periods of time available. Let me illustrate this with an example: say you start work at 8 and have a meeting at 9. Think of which tasks from your list you would be able to start and finish in an hour and deal with one of those. Do the same with every period you have and by the end of the day you will have taken care of many issues that otherwise would still be waiting on your list. Doing this will help you to set realistic goals for each day and therefore leave the office with the sense of achievement you deserve!

Do you have any tips to add?


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Classroom Management and Organisation: making it work.

Christina Giannikas owns a chain of private language schools in Southern Greece. Here she talks about managing your classroom at the start of the new school year.

Every start to the new school year creates stress to any teacher worth their salt. Each year entails preparation of teaching material, the new curriculum and consideration of the students’ needs. There is one thing that can make a teacher’s life a bit easier and that is Classroom Management and Organization (CMaO). For some, these words could prove to be quite intimidating, the sheer thought on trying to manage children fresh from summer vacation could be quite frightening, nonetheless it would help in the long run.

As challenging a task as it might be, CMaO can be interesting and fun for teachers and students. The key ingredients are effective teacher preparation and student involvement.

When a teacher sets up their classroom, it helps to view it as an environment where language learners are supported and can feel comfortable and content. As an educator looks around their classroom from this perspective, they should think about:

  • The written language (posters, word walls, charts)
  • A reading area-are there books that would help develop students’ reading skills?
  • The spaces for learning-are desks and other areas set up in a way that children could collaborate?

Establishing the appropriate layout for the language classroom can be a demanding task; however, it can determine the style of the lesson and subconsciously prepares the students for a logical and organised setting. Moving desks around in a circle, U-shape or group formation can open up communication and create a welcoming environment, as opposed to desks in rows. Imagine how your students would feel after enjoying a fun summer to walk into a classroom where the desks are in rows facing the teacher, without any encouragement of interaction. Desks formed in a way that insinuates teacher-student and student-student interaction can motivate language learners and even improve the teacher’s rapport with the students since children can immediately be aware that the teacher supports their need to cooperate with their peers and feel safe in the environment created for them.

After the teacher has decided on the layout of the room, the location of materials and displays the children need to be involved in the CMaO process, meaning that the teacher must introduce students to the resources and explain their use, draw their attention to the displays on the wall and the seating. This will help the language learners understand and appreciate the purpose of the specific setting and the importance of the CMaO plans. The threat of misbehaviour can be dealt with by instituting rules from the very start. Rules establish the behavioural context of the classroom by specifying what is expected, what behaviours will be reinforced and the consequences of inappropriate behaviour.

In my experience, what helped ensure positive behaviour and avoid misunderstandings was to draw up ‘Behaviour Contracts’. These contracts declared what the teacher expected of the students in the cooperative setting, the awards of positive behaviour and the consequences of negative behaviour. The award for positive behaviour would be left blank for the students to fill in which was fun and gave them a chance to be part of the CMaO planning. Once the contracts were completed, I would read what students would fill in out loud to the entire class which was anything from ‘the teacher would bring us cake’ to ‘the teacher would be very happy’. This helped lighten the mood, made children laugh and excitingly anticipate the lessons to come.

Young learners are highly aware of how their direct surroundings form their learning experience once its importance and benefits are brought to their attention. When a teacher adopts a consultative approach to the design of the classroom, it could lead to many desirable outcomes and increase. This could give the teacher the freedom to teach and the student’s the freedom to learn (Pollard, 2008). So don’t fret, manage and organise.

Pollard, A (2008) Reflective Teaching. Continuum International Publishing Group

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