“There is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside you.” ~ Maya Angelou
What is it that language teachers need to know and do to be effective classroom practitioners and language teaching professionals? I ask the reader to be the judge on a question that concerns us all: “Teaching or Learning, which one is more important?”
What is an Effective Teacher?
First of all, I know there are many answers to this question. To be fair, here is my answer: An effective teacher is someone who has learned that learning is more important than teaching. That’s my thesis, so let me elaborate on that. You need to know what I base my judgement on, so you can agree or disagree with me in the end, OK?
In my early years of English Language Teaching (ELT), I taught many great lessons. I taught well, there was no doubt about it. One look at the whiteboard would be enough to verify what I’m saying. Usually, it looked like this:
Topic: Present Perfect
Aim: By the end of the lesson, students will accurately produce the target structure in free conversation with a partner.
Meaning: Things done at an indefinite time in the past
Affirmative: have /has + past participle
Negative: have / has + not + past participle
Question: Have / Has + Subject + past participle
Use: to talk about experiences in the past
…but my students didn’t learn.
I had taught a great lesson, been well prepared, engaged the students at every point in the lesson, every twist and turn, from presentation to practice to production (classic PPP methodology).
…but my students didn’t learn.
So, naturally, I thought to myself: “My job is to teach. If I teach, but the students don’t learn, it is not my fault, is it? I did my job. I’m the teacher. I teach. The student is the learner, and is therefore responsible for learning.”
That way of thinking worked for a while.
The students’ failure to learn was not my fault. I had done what I was supposed to do, namely, teach. You can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make him drink. Right?
Wrong. A thirsty horse is always going to find water, even in the driest desert in the world, the Atacama, in northern Chile. When the horse gets to water, if you are the rider, you must ensure that the horse drinks water, or you both will die somewhere in the desert. Both horse and rider, neither can live without the other.
A teacher (like me), who is teaching great lessons, but the students are not learning, is no better off than the rider of a horse that does not drink water in the desert.
At least, that’s how I felt.
So I began to observe students. Closely, ridiculously close. I began to notice the students who had not done homework. To be honest, there were a lot of them. In fact, so many that I realised that students don’t do homework.
So, I stopped assigning homework. As a result, classes were not bogged down spending time doing last night’s unfinished homework. To compensate, I increased the amount of meaningful “information gap” type activities in class.
It’s easy. Use it to consolidate any grammatical structure, in a communicative fashion. Make the students pay attention to one another by having them report to another student (or the whole class) what they found out.
As a matter of fact, when you stop to think about all the useful things students know, that can be shared with one another in class, you have enough free, ready-to-use resources to use from now until the day you retire from teaching.
I’m serious. The students bring tons of resources with them into the classroom everyday. I began to exploit this, effectively allowing me to eliminate the homework that nobody was doing anyway.
Yet I wasn’t content. So I kept observing students. I had the feeling that happy students were the ones who seemed to be learning more than the rest. So, what made students happy in class?
The happiest moment seemed to be when I stopped talking, and the students could begin to talk with one another. Quite simply, students like to talk. To be honest, they like to talk so much that often they talk when I am talking.
So I began to talk less. The students didn’t notice, and they kept right on talking. So, I stopped talking altogether.
The students didn’t notice. They kept right on talking. So, I started walking around listening in on the conversations. I smiled a lot, nodded my head often, showed surprise or sadness, amazement or incredulity if it was appropriate.
Hmmm. How to harness this quality of my students? They want to talk, and I want them to talk. This is a match made in heaven. What had been keeping them from talking all this time?
Anyway, I made a deal with the students. Quite simply, they could talk as much as they wanted to, as long as they did the work I was supposed to make them do.
The students couldn’t believe it, at first. But a sweet deal like this one they were not going to let get away. This was too good to pass up. Unrestricted talking, as long as they did the work in the coursebook. If they had any problems, they could ask each other for help.
If nobody had a clue, as a final resort, they could ask me. After all, I was the teacher, wasn’t I? Of course I was…
Obviously, there are days when we have to write, days when we have to listen, and days when we have to read. But for the grammar stuff, well, that’s another matter entirely. For me, grammar means Student Talking Time (STT).
Has this STT been effective? Does it help students to learn English?
Yes. Let me repeat that: yes. It does. My students are learning, as evidenced by their ability to use grammar appropriately in speaking and writing.
So now I have this strange, reversed world (flipped classroom) where students learn, but I don’t teach. I used to teach, but students did not learn.
Now you must be the judge. Which is more important: teaching or learning?
What is your conclusion? Which is more important: learning or teaching?