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The Digital Learning Curve: 3 ways school leaders can help teachers stay ahead

Meghan Beler is a full-time teacher trainer for Oxford University Press in Istanbul, Turkey. Here she talks about three ways school leaders can help teachers stay ahead of technology trends.

Regardless of whether we are thrilled with or terrified of the digital revolution that is sweeping our classrooms, the reality is that the decision to use technology in the classroom is not always left up to the teacher. In order to stay up-to-date (and in some cases, competitive), schools are investing more in interactive white boards, computer labs and laptops for students. Teachers across the world may walk into classrooms this year that seem foreign, filled with technological tools and applications that they may not even know how to use, let alone know why they should be using them.

Technology has the potential to revolutionise the way teaching and learning occurs, however this will not be possible without confident, knowledgeable and prepared teachers. What can school leaders do to ensure that their teachers do not fall behind the digital learning curve?

Training

Both teachers and school leaders need training in order to ensure that digital tools are directing learning towards educational goals rather than away from them. Firstly, teachers need training in the basic functionality of digital tools. Not knowing how to turn the page of an on-screen course book or embed a video into a presentation can seriously limit the potential impact of digital tools. Perhaps even more importantly, a lack of basic technological knowledge can be disempowering for a teacher and can lead to further fear and avoidance of educational technology.

Teachers need to be confident and knowledgeable not only about how to use digital tools, but how to use them in ways that lead to a better educational experience. Having learners watch a YouTube video without giving them any sort of task to do along with it will do little more than keep learners briefly entertained. And just because we have thousands of tools, apps, and resources at our fingertips doesn’t mean we should walk into class without an idea of what we want learners to achieve. If we do not think carefully about how to actively involve learners through technology, our lessons are at risk of becoming technology-centred rather than learner-centred.

Time

Even confident, tech-savvy teachers need time to understand how digital tools will best suit the needs of their learners, and this can only happen by using technology in practice. Of course, it is not only the teachers who need time to adjust; the same is true for learners. Learners may not understand what is expected of them and may simply be excited by the arrival of new technology. At first, this may be frustrating for teachers as activities may seem chaotic and unfocused. Both teachers and learners need time to adjust to new routines and ways of learning.

School leaders also need time to consider how (and if) new digital policies and programmes are helping teachers and learners reach curricular goals more effectively. This requires a great deal of patience and faith on everyone’s part; we may discover that what was a great idea in theory doesn’t work well in practice. We may also find out that a programme which seemed destined to fail in the beginning turns out to be a phenomenal success!

Support

Teachers need to know that they have the support and understanding of their superiors.  One way to do this is through departmental forums where teachers can have open dialogues about their digital experiences with learners. This not only fosters a better understanding of what is actually happening both in and out of teachers’ classrooms, but provides the opportunity for teachers to share diverse solutions to complex problems. The reality is that every teacher experiences both successes and failures in implementing new digital tools and programmes, and being able to discuss it openly is an important part of the digital learning curve.

Indeed, technology will allow us to provide a better education for learners, and school leaders play an important role in helping their teachers stay ahead of the curve through the right balance of training, time and support.

What do you do to help your teachers (or yourself) stay ahead of the digital learning curve?

[Photo by Brad Flickinger via Flickr/Creative Commons]

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Once upon a time, in the language classroom…

Christina Giannikas owns a chain of private language schools in Southern Greece. Here she talks about teaching through stories.

There are many techniques that language teachers can use to keep young language learners interested and motivated. Storytelling has been described as an ‘ideal method of influencing a child to associate listening with pleasure of increasing a child’s attention span and retention capacity’ (Cooper, 1989:3). In a fun way, young learners see themselves in a motivating and challenging environment which develops and enhances a positive attitude towards the foreign language.

Outcomes of my own research showed that students of a young age are especially interested and drawn to stories where they are given the opportunity to become personally involved and take responsibility for their own language learning. This imaginative experience helps them identify with the characters of the story and build up their own creative powers. One example of this is a lesson with a beginners’ class who were new to story-telling in a foreign language context. Before the story was told, I pre-taught some of the vocabulary which was done by writing the unknown lexical items on the board and eliciting their meaning by miming or placing the words in context. The children were involved and felt great delight when they correctly estimated the meaning of the word.

After the unknown vocabulary was clarified, the children were asked to sit in a circle whereas I was seated in the centre of the network. The students were comfortable and excited since this was new for them. Because of the fact that they were eager to hear the story, I had their undivided attention. The story was taken from Vanessa Reilly and Sheila M. Ward’s ‘Very Young Learners’, a resource book for teachers. The story was called ‘Why do Rabbits Have Long Ears?’ and the aim of the story was to enhance students’ listening, enrich vocabulary by introducing names of animals and the phrases I am a… You are a…before telling the story, I told students that rabbits did not always have long ears and that they were going to discover how rabbits changed. Students were involved in the story-telling process where they were encouraged to mime and pretend to be different animals and elicit names of animals, which made the plot interesting and challenging since their participation was carried out in English.
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Interactive Language Learning with Young Children

Group of children crowding around a model globeChristina Giannikas owns a chain of private language schools in Southern Greece. Here she talks about the benefits of more interactive classroom experiences.

Many teaching approaches have been implemented in language classrooms over the years in order to provide positive outcomes and successful language learners.  Although various approaches have their advantages, an effective interactive methodology can help increase confidence and result to successful language learners in an environment where children learn to appreciate the foreign language and encounter it as a means of communication; and what better way to achieve this than by introducing an interactive approach with young learners?

One of the many pleasures of teaching children is their enthusiasm and motivation to explore the unknown. For young learners, being able to use a new language is exciting. However, this enthusiasm may quickly fade if children are exposed to teacher-centred environments where the opportunity to freely explore the language through communication is limited. In order to avoid this, teachers can intrigue their students with more communicative activities.

Contemporary language teaching supports the view that language is not simply symbolic, but largely inference-based. In such an environment, the emphasis is on comprehending and transmitting meaning through interaction within a classroom context.

Rivers (1987) believes that interaction is vital to language learning situations because through interaction, learners can enrich their knowledge of the foreign language as they are exposed to authentic linguistic material while listening or even having a discussion with their teachers or peers.

Nonetheless, in order for students to benefit from an interactive classroom environment, it is essential to provide the appropriate layout. Students can be encouraged to interact when seated in semi-circular groups, ad-hoc clusters of chairs or in pairs, where the teacher is not the centre of the communication network. A teacher can be surprised with how the introduction of an interactive approach can bring out the confident language speaker in even the shyest student.

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Should teachers be paid to attend Teacher Training sessions?

Man opening walletJean Theuma, a freelance teacher trainer based in Malta, explores the controversial question of whether teachers should be expected to attend school-run training sessions without financial incentive.

How far can we expect teachers to pay for their own professional development? If they are employed with a school, where does the responsibility to pay for CPD lie? With the school or the teacher themselves?

I have recently started running in-house training sessions for a quite large school and I’ve stumbled on a curious situation. I was wondering if anyone else has come across the same thing. The teachers feel that, as they are staying at school after hours to come to teacher training workshops, they should be paid for their time. The school, however, feels that as the teachers are benefiting by becoming better teachers, they should not be paid anything for attending. It is a sticky situation and, unfortunately, one that could have a bad impact on the attendance to the sessions.

Unfortunately, some teachers do not seem to realise how much work goes into organising training. Schools have to organise and pay for trainers to hold the sessions. They probably have to carry out observations in order to find out the best topics to help their teachers. At the end of the course of training, they might produce certificates of attendance, so that if a teacher moves on to another school, they can take evidence of having attended the sessions with them. The whole thing involves administration and record-keeping, along with the preparation of facilities and materials to be used during the workshops. .

It is all quite a lot of work to organise and it would be a shame for the training to trail off to nothing if the school does not get buy-in from the teachers. If the school does not pay for the teachers to attend, the teachers are not obliged to come; all schools can do is “recommend strongly” that they do.  So, what they decide not to go? Financially, schools cannot afford to run poorly attended training sessions. The training department would be hard pushed to justify that to the Director of Studies or whoever is in charge of the purse-strings.

Some teachers tend to think it is the schools which benefit with more satisfied customers and less complaints for the Academic Department to deal with. Also, in Malta, most teachers are paid at an hourly rate which they feel does not really cover their preparation time, let alone compensate them for staying a couple of extra hours per week for training.

Money issues aside, some teachers are not very keen to participate on the programme to begin with. They see the proposal of training as a criticism of their teaching methods. Some say that if they have been doing well so far, they do not see why they should change – The ‘if it ain’t broken, don’t fix it’ attitude. They are, therefore, not very motivated to come and not paying them for attendance seems to be the final straw to many of them.

I can see their point of view but I also know how much time and energy goes into organising courses of training!

What do you think? How does it work in your school? Does your school pay for training or do your teachers invest time and energy on CPD without any financial rewards?

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A Letter to My Younger Self

Young woman thinking as she writesMeghan Beler is a full-time teacher trainer for Oxford University Press in Istanbul, Turkey. In this piece she writes a letter to herself about things she wished she knew when she first started teaching.

Dear Younger Self,

As you have probably realised by now, teaching is hard work. On top of a full teaching load you have to deal with homework, exams, misbehaving students, staff meetings and (gasp!) students’ parents. You are experiencing a lot of uncertainty and ups and downs, sometimes even on an hourly basis. You may feel that you don’t have enough time to plan the spectacular lessons you dreamt of when you were training to become a teacher. I remember what it feels like to be a new teacher, so I would like to offer you some simple advice that can help you deal with some of the challenges you are currently facing.

Choice: First of all, don’t be afraid to give your students choices about their learning. As a teacher, it’s very easy to fall into a pattern of being the decision-maker, judge and jury in the classroom, but allowing choice is an important part of helping students become autonomous learners. By having your students make some decisions in the classroom, you can also increase their involvement and enjoyment of your lessons. Start with something simple, such as allowing students to choose which questions from an exercise that they would like to answer. You might also consider asking them how they would like to carry out an activity – individually, in pairs or in groups? Homework and projects are other areas where choice is a possibility. If you want them to get more practice with past simple at home, give them some options and take a whole class vote, for example:

  1. Write a short composition about your last holiday.
  2. Record yourself talking about what you did last weekend.
  3. Prepare a ‘past simple’ quiz for your classmates.

This allows you to cater to different learning styles while encouraging students to take responsibility for their own learning. For learners who are not accustomed to being given choice in the classroom, this new responsibility may come as a shock to them and they may struggle to come up with ideas or even try to ‘cheat’ the system. But with a bit of persistence and optimism on your part, you will be amazed at the wonderful ideas your students can come up with.

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