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Giving children more agency in class: A Q&A session with Annamaria Pinter

shutterstock_309235367Annamaria Pinter is Associate Professor at the Centre for Applied Linguistics, University of Warwick. She has published widely in the area of Young Learners ELT. She is the author of Teaching Young Language Learners (2017, second edition). Earlier this month, she delivered a webinar on ‘Giving children more agency in class’, and today we bring you the question and answer section of the session.

What do you think about the use of the mother tongue versus the use of the L2 in activities where children work in groups and actively explore something, analyse data or discuss ideas?

My general advice would be that the most important first step is that everyone should be engaged and enthusiastic about participation whatever language they are using. Then, in any one situation the teacher can judge what might be realistic for the children to say and manage in L2 and what has to be handled in the L1 or indeed bilingually or using various languages that learners speak in multilingual classrooms. It is often possible for the teacher to translate into English something that a child may have said in L1 and even more importantly, children may also be able to help each other with re-phrasing things in English. No matter what the situation is, however, it is good to insist that the final product (such as a poster, a newspaper magazine page, a recorded presentation, a questionnaire or any other product) should be in English. It is good to display these products by uploading them to a secure website or simply putting them up on the wall because making these available to external audiences this will help motivate children to work hard on their English.

How can I allow children to choose learning content within a restrictive curriculum?

This is difficult. With serious restrictions, teachers can only make very small changes.  It may be possible for some teachers to look at content and learning outcomes and see if the children can at least have some limited agency by choosing tasks (albeit very similar ones) or by being invited to design an extra task in each unit, or simply choosing the order in which they would like to tackle units in the book. If no freedom or agency is given to the teacher in a very restrictive curriculum, then it is hard to implement the ideas from the webinar. Still, some teachers in India were able to do extra work with the children outside classrooms and some allocated only a limited amount of time to research project work every week after covering the content of the book. Children were motivated to get the book out of the way to be able to progress to the ‘real projects’.

What do we do if we feel that the children’s ideas or input is not relevant or useful?

In my experience this is very rare and an important lesson for us teachers is that whenever children say or suggest something that seems unusual or at first sight irrelevant, it should never be just dismissed as such. It should always be explored further so that we can gain a better understanding of the original idea or point. It may well be relevant but in a different way compared to what we would have anticipated. In my experience children really appreciate this gesture of respecting ALL their responses.

What does this mean for the teacher’s role?

Teachers generally report that this is a more satisfying way of working, they feel alive and more enthusiastic about their jobs and the children’s motivation and intensive engagement seem infectious. In many ways when children take more control and teachers become ‘learners’, there is less pressure on the teacher to get everything right alone, but it is important to remember that teachers are also role models. If children are researchers and expected to work hard and enthusiastically, teachers must be doing the same!!

If you missed the webinar and want to catch up, feel free to visit our Webinar Library, for this session and previous recordings.


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Action research: how it can help your EFL classroom

cathryn-lavery-67852Martyn Clarke has worked in ELT classrooms as a teacher and trainer for over twenty years and in more than fifteen countries. He has taught English at all levels and in many contexts from one-to-one in financial institutions to rural schools with classes of eighty students.

A classic model of teacher development involves learning about the latest ideas on our practice, and applying them to our classrooms.

Action Research takes the opposite approach. In this process we find out what happens in our own classrooms so that we can understand them better and so make better-informed teaching decisions.  In other words, the teacher carries out the research, and if necessary as a result of what they find out, identifies possible strategies to engage with the reality.

It is different from scientific research. It doesn’t try to come to universally applicable conclusions or models of action. If you conduct an action research project, you know from the outset that you’re only looking at your own specific classroom. Any actions you take as a result are appropriate only to that classroom. Of course, it’s useful to share your experiences with your colleagues but this is more to give them ideas to explore their own classes rather than recommending particular courses of action.

Here is a five-stage model for a simple action research project.

  1. Finding the focus

First you need to identify the question you want to answer.

  • Try not to be too general. For example, the question ‘how can I improve my students motivation?’ could have many different answers. But don’t be too narrow in your focus.  If your question is ‘which students like reading activities?’ then the research will be quite short, and what you’ll be able to do with the information will be very limited.
  • Try to make your question as factual as possible. If you ask ‘why are my students so lazy in groupwork?’  Your research will be just be confirming what you already think.  If you change that to ‘what do my students do during groupwork activities?’  Then you will be not only finding out more about reality but also testing your own opinions.
  1. Identifying the tools
  • You need to do decide what information you’re looking for. This will then give you an idea of where to find it and how to find it. If you look at the question about students in groupwork activities (see above), the information we are looking for is factual, and will probably be best obtained through observing the students during the lesson. So you could use a video camera, you could ask a colleague to come in and observe, or you could do it yourself. All of these have advantages and disadvantages. If you use a camera or colleague, then you will probably need more than one lesson as students needs to become accustomed to the activity in order not to be affected by it too much.  If you do it yourself you’ll need to set it up to give yourself sufficient space and time to do so.
  • Ideally you will get information from more than one source to give you a full picture. So here in addition to the observation, you could also interview your students, or even set this up as a language learning activity during a lesson. In addition to observations, videos, and interviews, other tools include questionnaires (which are useful for larger groups), focus groups (for discovering opinions), or personal journals (which are useful for tracking changes over time).
  1. Carrying out the research
  • Try to carry out the research in away that minimizes any negative impact on the learning itself. For this reason involving colleagues to come and record data is so useful. Obviously it’s important that they do this in away that does not interfere in the lesson.
  • It’s a good idea to carry out the research in ways that will offer you as much information as possible. If you are focusing on one particular class, then consider obtaining data during different lessons rather than just one.  If you are focusing on a particular activity, then consider researching the activity with different groups.
  • It’s a good idea to record any factors that may influence the information you gain, such as the proximity of an exam or a holiday, for example, as this will help you in the next stage when you analyse the data.
  1. Analysing the information
  • In the analysis stage you try to make sense of the information you have obtained. There are a number of thinking processes you can use to help you do this.
  • What categories of data can you find?
  • What themes or patterns can you spot? What does this tell you about the relationships within the data? Are there any causes and responses?
  • Are there any pieces of information which are very different to the rest? How do you account for this?
  • Is there anything that is unexpected? Does this alter any opinions you may have had?
  • It’s extremely useful to involve a colleague in the analysis stage. Thinking critically like this is often easier when discussing ideas with someone else. Make sure, however, that you avoid just sharing your opinions. Try to focus on asking questions and using the data to find your answers.
  1. Taking action

Having gained a better understanding of what is going on in the class, it’s common to take some form of action in response. This section is usually one of three kinds:

  • Further research: Your research has led you to more questions and you decide that it is important to find the answers to these in order to identify a strategy to address the situation.
  • Change your attitude: It’s possible that your research suggests what you thought was an issue isn’t, in fact, such a problem. In this situation the change will come not so much in your classroom practice but in the way you see things as a teacher.
  • Implement a new strategy: Often, however, when we research classrooms, we decide to try something new as a result. Perhaps we decide our students need more support for group work activities. Perhaps we need to make them easier, or more difficult. We might decide to alter seating patterns so that different students work with each other.  Whatever strategy we try, it’s useful to then continue the research and obtain data on what happens as a result. In other words, action research can become a cycle of constant investigation into what’s going on in our classrooms.


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Making Reflection An Action – 5 Practical Activities You Need To Try

shutterstock_115208812Martyn Clarke has worked in ELT classrooms as a teacher and trainer for over twenty years and in more than fifteen countries. He has taught English at all levels and in many contexts from one-to-one in financial institutions to rural schools with classes of eighty students.

We learn how to be a teacher in many different ways. We have our initial qualification courses, we go on INSET training, and attend conferences. We might even read a few books on the subject. But perhaps one of the most influential sources of learning for us is in the daily experience of actually doing the job. The problem is when we are in the classroom there is no time for us to stop and think about what we’re learning.  Then between classes we are probably marking students work, gathering resources, or preparing for our next lesson. We probably all think that reflection is a useful process in our development. But many of us probably wonder when we will find the time to do it.

Making the process of reflection an explicit action can sometimes help here. These five activities are designed to help us stop and capture this elusive, but extremely important every day learning. They can be done by an individual teacher, or together with a colleague or with a group of peers. They are also very useful if you are building a portfolio of CPD activities and outcomes as evidence of your own professional development.

The procedure for each activity is the same, but of course you can change things to fit into your context.

Suggested Activity Procedure

  1. Set aside 30 minutes.
  2. Use the Recalling Prompts to guide your exploration
  3. Use the Reflective Questions to guide your analysis of the data and record your conclusions and future actions.
  4. If working with colleagues share your outcomes in weekly meeting and use the questions to explore what you have noticed.
  5. Consider recording the outcomes of your meetings on a poster in the staffroom for other colleagues, and to use as a springboard for discussion professional development sessions.
  1. What’s different?

Professional learning often involves ‘noticing’ when something changes, and reflecting on the causes and the impact this might have.

Recalling Prompts

Look back over the week and note down:

  • Something you know about your students that you didn’t before
  • Something that happened in your lessons that hasn’t happened before
  • A skill that you now have
  • A way of explaining grammar/vocabulary
  • An opinion that has changed over the last week
  • A way of working with colleagues that was different

Reflection Questions

  • What caused the change?
  • Why do you think this might be important?
  • How will this change impact on the way you teach/work?
  • What opportunities/dangers does it bring?
  • What can you do to engage with the change?
  1. Back on the Bike

The expression ‘to get back on the bike’ comes from the idea that when we are learning to ride a bicycle and we fall off, the best thing to do is to get back on the bike immediately and try again.  This way our mistakes become an impetus for renewed effort and learning.

Recalling Prompts

If you try something that doesn’t work well, note down as soon as you can what you wanted to do and what actually happened.

  • Where did this happen and who was involved?
  • What was your objective?
  • Why did you choose this action to achieve this objective?
  • Have you tried this before with different results?
  • What happened as a result of this action?

Reflection Questions

  • What made you notice that it didn’t work?
  • If you’ve tried this before with different results, how do you account for the change?
  • Why do you think the results of the action didn’t meet your expectations?
  • What do you know now that you didn’t at the time?
  • What is the next opportunity for you to try this again?
  • What changes will you make to the action to account for your new understandings?
  1. Why it Worked

Reflection often starts with problems all areas of difficulty, but this activity focuses on the learning we can gain from our successes, and possible apply to other areas of our practice.

Recalling Prompts

Identify something you are involved in that was successful this week.

  • Where did this happen and who was involved?
  • How do you know you were successful?
  • Have you tried activity before with different results?
  • What effect did the success have on the people involved?

Reflection Questions

  • How do you measure the success?
  • Does everybody involved share your evaluation? If not, why?
  • How replicable is this success – can you repeat the activity with the same results?
  • If you’ve tried this before with different results, how do you account for the change?
  • What aspects of the activity (in planning or in delivery) could you use with other activities?
  1. Needs and Wants

Our colleagues play a significant role in our daily school life and our development as a professional. In this activity you can analyse what relationships you have with your colleagues.

Recalling Prompts

Identify key colleagues from different areas of the school.

  • What does X need from you? What’s your role in X’s eyes?
  • What do you need from X?
  • What are the features of your professional relationship?

Reflection Questions

  • How much does your colleague know already about your opinions above?
  • If they answered these questions, what would you be unsure about?
  • What do you want to stop/change/continue about your professional relationship?
  • What steps could you take to make your professional relationship more productive?
  1. Ups and Downs

Teaching is an emotional activity, and even the most experienced teacher will have both good and bad moments during a week. This activity uses these responses as a way of accessing development.

Recalling Prompts

  • What moments of positive & negative emotions have you felt during the week?
  • What categories of emotions would you place the different emotions in?
  • What particular moments stand out either in a positive of negative way?

Reflection Questions

  • How did you respond to the emotion? What could you do to increase its learning impact?
  • Which emotions have been caused by external factors over which you had no control? How can you exploit these external factors in the future?
  • When were your actions responsible for your emotions? How can you avoid/repeat these?


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Giving children more agency in class

shutterstock_336098690Annamaria Pinter is an Associate Professor at the Centre for Applied Linguistics in the University of Warwick and she is the author of Teaching Young language Learners (2nd edition, 2017). To find out more about Annamaria Pinter’s work, you can download sample material from ‘Teaching Young Language Learners’.

Agency and Structure

In all situations of life, at work, at home, on holiday or on a shopping trip, we can exercise some choice or ‘agency’ about what we wish to do. At the same time, however, we are usually constrained by systems around us. For example, when driving home from work, the route we take is our decision, but our choices will be constrained by systems such as the traffic, the layout of the road system or by how much time we can devote to the journey.

In schools too, children as well as teachers, can exercise some agency but they are also controlled by the systems in place. Children are told when they can sit down and stand up, when they can leave the classroom, how long each break is and when it is their turn to answer a question. In fact, children traditionally have very little agency because teachers and adults control almost all the aspects of their lives.

This control is because schools are highly structured organisations and look like pyramids. In a pyramid or ‘coercive’ structure there is inequality of power and those at the top impose their order.   Less structured or ‘normative’ organisations look more like networks where there is less hierarchy and engagement is more voluntary.

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Children taking more control

In this webinar I will be exploring what teachers can do to move away from classrooms that look like pyramids to classrooms that function more like networks of learners. I will be suggesting that when teachers are ready to give over some agency and control, children are very much capable of making informed choices for themselves about their learning and taking responsibility for their actions. More agency in learning comes with higher levels of motivation, self-awareness and a sense of accomplishment.

I will be sharing some real classroom examples from a variety of contexts and countries where children have been encouraged to take more control. Some examples indicate how giving children just a little more agency than usual can make a big difference.

I will be taking examples that illustrate how some children may become interested in exploring their own classrooms and their learning and given the agency and the opportunity, they can become co-researcher or researchers. In doing so, we will look at the differences are between academic research in universities, teachers’ research undertaken in classrooms and children’s research.

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Small changes can lead to big outcomes

It is important to acknowledge that different teachers may want to offer more or less agency to their learners depending on their circumstances and there are no rules to follow. Encouraging children to become researchers is not a feasible goal for everyone and certainly not every child will be interested in this. Giving children more agency in some classrooms might just mean offering some opportunities of choice between different activities or regularly encouraging children to recommend materials and ideas to the teacher. Many teachers are constrained heavily regarding how much agency they can offer in their classrooms but even a small first step can eventually go a long way!

If you are interested in exploring these ideas in more detail and you would like to see the practical examples please join us on 20/21 April 2017.

webinar_register3

 

Further reading

Pinter A and S Zandian 2014 I don’t ever want to leave this room- researching with children ELT Journal  68/1: 64-74.

Kellett M 2010 Rethinking Children and Research London: Continuum


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5 things to consider when running a workshop

shutterstock_490695220Martyn Clarke has worked in ELT classrooms as a teacher and trainer for over twenty years and in more than fifteen countries. He has taught English at all levels and in many contexts from one-to-one in financial institutions to rural schools with classes of eighty students.

Running a workshop for teaching colleagues is a very useful form of professional development for the following reasons:

  • It can encourage us to focus on an area of teaching in more detail than we normally would.
  • It gives us the opportunity to consider why we do things as teachers and colleagues.
  • The semi-formal setting allows us to exchange ideas with a wider range of colleagues than usual.
  • The change of dynamic can be motivational in a long teaching year.

Successful workshops usually happen as a result of good planning. Whether you are new to running workshops or have run them on a number of occasions the following 5-point checklist might prove useful.

  1. Purpose

Workshops have different purposes, which will dictate their objectives and the processes. Of course, more than one of the purposes identified below may be involved.

  • An awareness-raising workshop will focus on discussion of classroom issues and sharing of experiences and opinions. Outcomes of these workshops are often guidelines, points to remember, or outlines for future professional learning activities.
  • A materials-analysis workshop will focus on the analysis of learning materials which might be published or teacher-generated. There is usually sharing of ideas on what makes good materials and then some form of evaluation. Adaptation activities are sometimes included.
  • A skills development workshop explores what we do as teachers. It may look at teaching techniques, resource management, or even how we work with each other as colleagues.
  1. Process

Effective workshops have a clear process of learning.  A basic and very adaptable model is Input, Task, Output.

Input:

  • What information will be the focus of the workshop? Will it come from the participants or the trainer?
  • What form will this information take? (video/materials/opinions/demonstration, etc.)
  • What status does this information have? Does it have to be complied with? Is it an example of best practice? Is it a prompt for discussion and can be adopted, changed, or rejected?

Task:

  • What will the participants do with the information? Will they practice it? Analyse it? Evaluate it? Or adapt it?
  • Will all the participants be doing the same thing? All will different groups work on different aspects of the topic? Will the task take place in the workshop, or afterwards in the classrooms?

Output:

  • How will you record the work done during the task? Will you create action plans? Materials? Procedures?  Or discussion points?
  • Will participants record these individually? On posters in groups? Will you record them yourself in plenary?
  • What will you do with the output after the workshop?
  1. Logistics

An effective workshop sits comfortably in its real setting. Making sure the event works on a practical level is a key aspect of preparation.

  • Is the timing appropriate? Will participants be able to focus on the workshop and not be distracted by lessons later that day, marking they may need to finish, or any other external concern?
  • Is the content of the workshop appropriate for its length? In general, things always take longer than we expect.  Teachers like to talk.
  • Is the space of the workshop sufficient for its activities? Have you ensured privacy or will there be other staff/students walking in and out?
  • Do you have all the materials you need?
  • Does everybody know who needs to know?
  1. Follow-up

Effective workshops have strong links to practical professional practice. Teachers are busy people and it’s easy to attend a workshop, find it interesting, but then return to work and carry on doing exactly the same thing that you have always done. Ensuring a workshop has a follow-up activity is a useful way of making it effective.

  • What impact do you want the workshop to have? What changes do you hope will happen as a result of the workshop?
  • What will be the evidence of this? Will teachers record their experiences for a follow-up session? Will they share new materials in staff folders? Will there be peer observations to understand how new skills/resources are being used?
  1. Evaluation

You can evaluate a workshop in different ways. The key is to identify what information you want and to make enough time to collect it effectively.

  • Do you want information about your performance? The activities? The content? The resources? The impact of the workshop?
  • How will you collect the information? Interview? Questionnaire? Observation? Etc.
  • What will you do with the information? Who will you share it with? Will you follow up with the evaluators?