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Keep It Simple

… ist der Titel eines Auf­sat­zes von Peter Lay­ton zum The­ma „How much effort should you put into preparation?“

Have you ever done a sub­sti­tu­ti­on les­son for a col­le­ague at litt­le or no noti­ce and thought after­wards, “That les­son went far bet­ter than my regu­lar les­son which I spent ages meti­cu­lous­ly pre­pa­ring“? This expe­ri­ence made me think about what we as tea­chers do befo­re and during a les­son, and I came to the con­clu­si­on that what the stu­dents get out of a les­son is not neces­s­a­ri­ly pro­por­tio­nal to what we, the tea­chers, put in. Unfort­u­na­te­ly tea­chers often make a lot of extra work for themselves.

Pre­pa­ra­ti­on addiction

I would say that if the pre­pa­ra­ti­on for an acti­vi­ty takes more than a third of the time that the stu­dents actual­ly spend doing it, then it sim­ply isn’t worth it. Songs are a clas­sic exam­p­le. The tea­cher thinks guil­ti­ly, „I haven’t done a song for a while“ igno­res the one in the cour­se­book, choo­ses a new one (at least five minu­tes), sits and lis­tens to it for 20 minu­tes to get all the words down, and then spends ano­ther 15 minu­tes pre­pa­ring the ine­vi­ta­ble work­s­heet. After all that, the stu­dents lis­ten once and fill in the work­s­heet – three or four minu­tes of les­son time for 40 minu­tes of preparation.

Any acti­vi­ty that invol­ves cut­ting up paper also takes a dis­pro­por­tio­na­te amount of time. l’ve seen tea­chers cut­ting up hundreds of pie­ces of paper just so each pair in the class can play a game of word dominoes.

But it’s not just befo­re the les­son. There’s also ins­truc­tion time. If it takes lon­ger to set up an acti­vi­ty (and that includes giving the ins­truc­tions, che­cking, repea­ting, model­ling, etc) than actual­ly to do it, then there’s some­thing serìous­ly wrong with the acti­vi­ty – or with your instructions.

Work­s­heet mania 

Good tea­chers wri­te their own work­s­heets, don’t they? Real­ly? When I take my car to the mecha­nics, I don’t I expect them to make the spa­re parts them­sel­ves from bits of metal. They go and buy them on my behalf. What’s so dif­fe­rent about tea­ching? Why spend every waking hour pro­du­cing I work­s­heets when the­re are thou­sands available com­mer­ci­al­ly, in cour­se-books and sup­ple­men­ta­ry materials?

Some­ti­mes a work­s­heet isn’t even neces­sa­ry. I once saw one with only four ques­ti­ons on it. Then again, the ques­ti­ons them­sel­ves may not be neces­sa­ry. I rea­li­se that they can help stu­dents to under­stand by giving clues, but I don’t see why every sin­gle thing that stu­dents lis­ten to, read or watch requi­res ques­ti­ons, as if it were a test. This is par­ti­cu­lar­ly true with video. I’ve seen les­sons whe­re the stu­dents are so busy fil­ling in the work­s­heets that they don’t have a chan­ce to watch the images.

Cour­se­book phobia

Many tea­chers regard the cour­se­book with almost snob­bish scorn: a “book les­son“ is what you do in an emer­gen­cy, when you’­re sub­sti­tu­ting for a col­le­ague. It’s true that no cour­se­book is per­fect, but some­ti­mes the con­dem­na­ti­ons seem unju­s­ti­fied. After all, most cour­se­books have been put tog­e­ther by experts and often after years of pilo­ting. Some tea­chers don’t even take time to find out what the cour­se­book offers. Not using the cour­se­book means lots of extra work. It means making your own work­s­heets. It means iden­ti­fy­ing sup­ple­men­ta­ry mate­ri­al to sub­sti­tu­te skills work and then per­haps having to pro­du­ce more work­s­heets for it.

Cour­se­books are also full of mate­ri­al. You might not always like what the book does with the mate­ri­al, but that is not a reason to reject it out of hand. Making crea­ti­ve and ima­gi­na­ti­ve use of cour­se­book mate­ri­al is an important tea­ching skill. It saves time, saves pho­to­co­py­ing and the stu­dents like it (It may come as a sur­pri­se, but they often like the cour­se­book more than the tea­cher does. They expect to work through it, and they may resent having to buy a book that the tea­cher hard­ly uses.)

Authen­ti­ci­ty fundamentalism

Some tea­chers are obses­sed with authen­ti­ci­ty, and the results are ine­vi­ta­b­ly time-con­sum­ing. A typi­cal exam­p­le is the cour­se­book song. They don’t like it („It’s a ter­ri­ble ses­si­on singer’s ver­si­on“), so they go off and look for the ori­gi­nal, or choo­se a dif­fe­rent one. Stu­dents would pro­ba­b­ly pre­fer the ori­gi­nal, but they don’t real­ly care. They know that it’s a cour­se of Eng­lish, not music appreciation.

Authen­ti­ci­ty does have advan­ta­ges in terms of stu­dent inte­rest and moti­va­ti­on. Clips from well-known films work well, and inter­views with famous peo­p­le will elec­tri­fy stu­dents if they haven’t heard that person’s real voice befo­re. But „inau­then­tic“ mate­ri­als have one big and often over­whel­ming advan­ta­ge: they have been careful­ly sel­ec­ted and gra­ded so that stu­dents can under­stand them. What stu­dents don’t like is mate­ri­al that they can­not under­stand at all, which can be dis­cou­ra­ging and alienating.

Props and pic­tures psychosis

There’s no doubt that a well-cho­sen pic­tu­re or an unu­su­al pie­ce of rea­lia can have real impact during a les­son. It’s also pos­si­ble to base a who­le series of acti­vi­ties on just one or two pic­tures. Howe­ver, there’s real poten­ti­al for time-was­ting if your pic­tu­re is used just to eli­cit one item of voca­bu­la­ry. I saw one tea­cher spend 20 minu­tes sif­ting through our (enorm­ous) pic­tu­re libra­ry loo­king for a pic­tu­re to illus­tra­te the word cook.

Tech­no­lo­gy fixation

Once tea­chers had black­board and chalk. Now the lucky ones among us have cas­set­te recor­ders, video play­ers, over­head pro­jec­tors, com­pu­ters, and per­haps video came­ras and slide pro­jec­tors. All of the­se can be extre­me­ly effec­ti­ve if well used. But they can also was­te time.

Take the over­head pro­jec­tor. Some tea­chers like to put their who­le les­son on trans­pa­ren­ci­es: pic­tures, work­s­heets, even ins­truc­tions. What’s wrong with the board? What’s wrong with the tea­cher spea­king to the students?

Given that, in my opi­ni­on, most com­pu­ter games are more sui­ta­ble for self-access use, I pre­fer to spend the who­le les­son trai­ning the stu­dents and demons­t­ra­ting the various pro­grams and then let them get on with it out­side les­son (and my) time.

As for the inter­net, I know some tea­chers who will go to gre­at lengths just so their stu­dents can read a web-site. That’s rea­ding. You can do it with a pho­to­co­py. Chat­rooms are very popu­lar with stu­dents, but don’t make the mista­ke of one tea­cher who spent a who­le hour of valuable free time regis­tering the who­le class one by one.

On a posi­ti­ve note

I’ve given a lot of nega­ti­ve advice about work­s­heets, pic­tures, equip­ment, etc. What’s left? What I haven’t men­tio­ned yet are the two most important resour­ces that a tea­cher has in the class­room. First, the­re is yours­elf, your expe­ri­en­ces and your per­so­na­li­ty. (This, rather than the qua­li­ty of your work­s­heets, is what stu­dents look to when jud­ging your les­sons.) Second, the­re are the stu­dents, and what they bring to the class. So much can be based on just the­se simp­le elements.

A word of cau­ti­on: if you’­ve just star­ted in tea­ching, or if you are stu­dy­ing for a tea­ching qua­li­fi­ca­ti­on, then you should igno­re ever­y­thing I have said, apart from the pre­vious para­graph. It’s very important for you to make your own work­s­heets, to con­s­truct les­sons wit­hout a cour­se­book, to expe­ri­ment with authen­tic mate­ri­als, pic­tures, dif­fe­rent types of equipment.

Per­haps I should say that ever­y­bo­dy, even the most expe­ri­en­ced vete­ran, should once a week or twice a month put asi­de the „book les­son“ and try some­thing dif­fe­rent, even if it uses more time, just to avo­id fos­si­li­sa­ti­on. But for the rest of the time, I urge you to think careful­ly about the effec­ti­ve­ness of what you are doing and the time being used up to achie­ve it.

(Peter Lay­ton is a tea­cher at the Bri­tish Coun­cil in Rome, Italy)


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  1. Christian

    Schö­ner Text. Erin­nert mich an das Pare­to-Prin­zip: 20% der auf­ge­wen­de­ten Arbeits­zeit brin­gen 80% der Ergeb­nis­se / des Nut­zungs­gra­des. Die letz­ten 20% bis zu einem Nut­zungs­grad von 100% benö­ti­gen dage­gen 80% Aufwand.

  2. Lotty

    Der Text trös­tet Refe­ren­da­re, die nie fer­tig wer­den und Sonn­tags abends heu­lend über­’m Schreib­tisch hängen.

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