I have been asked a lot of questions lately about things like this:
- How can you ensure students learn a certain set of words?
- How can you force them to stay in the target language?
- How do you deal with students who resist the target language entirely?
- How do you keep students from developing bad grammatical habits?
- How do you make sure that all students are participating in their collaborative groups?
These are not all of the questions that I have been asked by tired, worn out language teachers, but they are some really good examples. I believe that when teachers ask themselves or others these questions what they are really trying to figure out is how they can compel students to want to learn languages, or any content for that matter. I think that these questions are inspired by frustrations and failures when working hard to deliver lessons, and I would go further to say that some of those teachers have been told that they are having classroom management problems when really the problem is instructional. The teachers who have asked me these things KNOW that proficiency based teaching is the right way and believe in it, but are exasperated by the setbacks they have experienced and are now questioning themselves and their calling because HOW to DO proficiency based teaching is harder than it seems. I have such a soft heart for these teachers because I have been there and find myself back there more often than I would like to admit, but there is HOPE! Proficiency based teaching WORKS, the problem that needs addressing is this:
We have to redefine what CONTROL is in the language classroom.
Try this exercise:
- On a sheet of paper draw a T chart.
- In the first column write a list of "Things I am Compelled to Control in My Classroom".
- In the second column write a list of "Things I Actually Have Control Over."
When you are done with your two lists, do some shuffling and scratching out. Examine what you wrote and move things from one side to the other when you notice they are in the wrong spot. Then, be honest with yourself. You are going to have to admit that you don't have control over what words your students actually learn. You are going to have to reconcile that you can't control that everyone is on task all the time. You are even going to have to come to terms with the idea that your students, especially novices, can't and won't stay in the target language all the time. These things being said, the truth is that as long as you teach human beings you are really not in control of their choices, their motivation or their actions. This means anything on your list that has to do with those things you have to scratch off of the lists you drafted.
So, what do you actually have control over? When I think about this question I realize I don't actually control much.
I think a better question is, "How can you exert control over your students?"
For me, teaching students is like controlling water. Engineers control water not by forcing their will on it, but through designing dams to hold it back, paths where they want it to flow, and nozzles, valves and pumps to regulate or control its stream. Rather than bore you with making a deeper analogy with water control, let me share with you how I plan to exert control over my students in the way engineers would water. Here are some things I am choosing to use my instruction to manipulate:
- A Strong Sense of Trust - For the purposes of this post this is instructional, not necessarily personal. I need to establish to my students that I will never ever ask them to do something that lacks purpose or that has no effect on their progress to higher proficiency. If I betray that sense of trust, I lose credibility as the instructional expert, and they will not believe that the course I have charted for them will lead them to the destination I have pointed them towards. This means that all of my instructional choices have to add value and have to demonstrate results. I won't have time for a "culture day" where they are asked to bring culturally relevant foods that, let's face it, are really nacho ingredients. Really, I am asking my students to have a Nacho Day, and what really happens is we have one bag of chips, a jar of salsa, two bottles of warm soda and forks. What message does that send my students? Let me stop now and get off this soap box (insert apology here). My point is that I cannot undermine my own efforts with frivolous uses of my instructional time or meaningless tasks or my students will know not follow me.
- Making Tasks Doable - When students resist using target language or teachers using target language it is because they don't believe they can handle it. I have to design lessons that have the right amount of scaffolding support early in the unit so that my students believe they are able to use the language in new ways, but to keep the same support from becoming crutches, I have to know when to start pulling that structure away so that their performances become their independent use of the language I have helped them discover. A super important strategy that often gets forgotten in lesson design is processing. Processing is the part of the lesson that students need to think about what things mean or how to borrow language and tweak it so that they can personalize it for their own purpose. I know I have been guilty of asking students to speak without giving them time to think or plan to speak before requiring that they do. I will go further to say that forcing novices to stay in the target language is an inauthentic type of control to exact upon them. If a group of my students were traveling together, it is likely they would find themselves attempting to communicate with natives together. They might have to turn to each other and collaborate on how to craft a comprehensible message to that native speaker, and that would be done in L1. Why wouldn't that be true as they work on crafting new messages in the language classroom? Why do I feel the need to control every word they say in the L2 classroom? Could that control inhibit their learning and thus their performances? This is a perfect example of how I have to redefine control in my classroom. The more I can use processing time to support students' as they make meaning from input or processing tasks to support their output, the more they will believe they are able to do whatever I ask of them.
- Rewarding Them with Progress - We all know that students love their extracurricular activities because of the pleasure they get out of them, but what makes students willing to pay high prices for those activities is that they are rewarded by seeing their own progress in that area. If that is true, and I know it is, I have to give my students opportunities to see how far they have come as often as I can. I have to celebrate that progress with them and train them to relish that progress. This all means that self evaluation and peer evaluation are powerful tools in my classroom that I need to employ to "control the water." I am the engineer of their momentum, so I have to be strategic in when and how I display their progress. I can also deflate my students momentum through poorly chosen words or by letting their numerical grades have too much influence over how they define themselves and their performances in my class.
- Definitive Boundaries - I am creating boundaries so that I can focus the stream of my students' attention and work. I have to do this through focus questions that guide the students to a specific outcome and pairing them with small scale accountability performance tasks they have to perform at a specific time during that lesson. This way they know there is a direction we are moving through the course of a day, a lesson, and even a unit. Another way I will exert this control is through task lists either for themselves individually or for their collaborative groups.
- Strategic Timing - Sometimes this is in using time limits and sometimes this is about deliberate sequencing of the tasks students have to complete that lead to a specific result. Time limits and timing should not be haphazard during the course of a lesson. They should be considered as carefully as the content I have my students work with or the task I ask them to complete. Time limits should be honored and changed only if it is too short for students to glean its importance or are so long that students lose momentum in the learning experience. Sequencing, especially poor sequencing, can frustrate students and shut down a lesson faster than any other instructional mistake a teacher can make. This is one of the reasons why the planning for proficiency based lessons is so important. Even if you use canned materials (textbooks, ancillaries, curriculum developed by others), you cannot deliver a canned lesson without really thinking it through.
- Clear Instructions - This is where I file the debate on target language instructions, especially when teaching novices. I have to decide what is more important: that they can interpret the instructions for the task I want them to perform or that they can perform the task I am asking of them. I know there are those out there who will argue me down to the ground. Let me stop you now and say that you won't change my mind. Even if target language instructions are good practice to understanding instructions when spoken to them, if it takes a significant amount of time for students to unlock what the task is, I have wasted focused instructional time. I have to ask myself where to I want to my students' attention focused. My answer is always on the task, not the instructions. The tasks I design are what will build proficiency, NOT that they can read and understand my instructions. Plus, reading target language instructions can lead to students not performing the task correctly, thus having them miss the point of the lesson and further to make no gain. As Forest Gump would say, That's all I have to say about that.
- Clear Expectations AKA Great Tasks - This is probably where I have the most instructional control. I have to design tasks for my students to complete or perform on a daily basis that clearly connect to the summative goal of the unit, and they have to be able to see the connection. They have to be able to look at the tasks and see how they cannot reach the summative goal without doing the things I am asking of them. Since I cannot control how much they love learning languages or how much they want to speak them, I can only exert control over two things: how desirable the task appears and how undesirable it would be not to be able to perform it.
- Making the Important Vocabulary Inevitable - This is the area of my instruction that impacts the nuances of my students' performances the most, but I have to come to terms with the fact that ultimately I don't need every student to perform a task in the same way, but I do need them to perform the task. If that is true, can a student explain his family to me if he never mentions the word "mother"? Yes. How? He may not have or acknowledge a mother. All of this goes back to task or prompt design. It isn't really the vocabulary list I plan for my students to learn, but it has more to do with the types of contexts I ask my students to perform within. To focus their attention and their inquisitiveness on the right words and/or structures I have to tinker with who they are talking to, why they are talking about a topic, their role within the context of the topic, the emotion I want them to activate within that context, or the tone of their messages. My plan is to look hard at my summative assessments to identify not the explicit components, but the implicit components of those prompts. What things can I imagine now that would enrich a student's performance? What kinds of things would I want to read or hear that would wow me? Why not design learning experiences that highlight those things so that every student has the opportunity to impress me? How can I design tasks that very subtly force to students to ask for their vocabulary needs and more? Lastly, do I need to control every word that my students use to perform the tasks I ask of them?
I leave you with this video to ponder. Here's a beautiful example of how water can be controlled. How can we redefine what we control in our classrooms so that the control we exert turns our students' performances into something artful?
Enjoy the Show and...