One of the things that attracted me to teaching is that I love learning. If it was financially possible, I would probably be a student for the rest of my life. Of course, having said that, I find myself being pickier and pickier about how I learn. I am no longer satisfied to sit and listen to a lecture unless it is amazing, something I couldn’t get by reading a chapter of a book by myself. Learning must be interactive for me at this point, I must be actively engaged or I don’t enjoy it. I also no longer enjoy being told what or how to think. I want to do the thinking myself, thank you very much.
Now that I am a teacher, I still want to learn and again, not just from books. Don’t get me wrong. I love reading, I love reading so much I regularly have to get new bookshelves to hold all the books I have read, but I don’t want my learning to stop there. I want to know how other people understand things and why they understand them in the ways they do. That is why, my happiest moments as a teacher are when my students are teaching me. This can happen with every level of English language learner and in every class if I empower my students. I remember years ago teaching a multilevel English course to a class of students from Somalia, Mexico China and Bangladesh. We were doing some grammar practice with “used to”. Grammar lessons can be structured in such a way that students are filling in worksheets or they can be structured in such a way that students are truly communicating and learning about each other. That day, students were using used to to talk about their experiences moving from their birth countries to the United States.
I have never forgotten what one woman from Somalia shared: “I used to chase elephants out of the corn fields.” I thought about just how much this sentence communicated about her life in parts of rural Africa and how much her life changed when she came to live in Arizona. Not only where there no more elephants in her life, there were no more fields either. That year my students taught me about diverse cultures, different languages, what makes us different and what makes us the same, the transformative power of communication, how to teach and how not to teach. My life has been enriched by the lessons they taught me and I am thankful to them.
The challenge is to step back, give up control, stop being the one who is talking and start being the one who is listening. It all starts with a shift in what it means to be a teacher and what it means to be a learner. How those two roles are not separate and different, but rather one and the same. It wasn’t until I became a teacher that I really learned most of what I teach. That is to say, by teaching I internalized the learning that had, until then, been superficial. By giving students the freedom and support to step into the role of teacher, they will truly be learning.
So, how can a classroom transform from one in which the teacher teaches and the learners learn (maybe), into one in which the the learners teach and everyone learns?
1. Be Curious about your Students Lives and Experiences
Just as the most successful students are the ones who are always asking questions, always wanting to know more about why and how, the most successful teachers are also always asking questions and seeking new knowledge.
If you are curious about your students and their lives, you will ask them questions and really listen to the answers. This curiosity can pay off because you can find out that a student, who you thought was glaring at you from the back of the room and hated your class, actually has something at home that is making him or her profoundly unhappy or maybe that face is actually a face of focused concentration and not hostility. Being curious about why that face is being made rather than offended by it is the key.
Every single year my students teach me about what it means to be human. I gain a deeper and deeper understanding of how complex our lives are and how damaging assumptions can be. Most of what used to offend me, like students falling asleep, not doing a homework assignment, or not coming to class, has nothing to do with me or my class, most of it has to do with what is happening outside of class. Sometimes just being curious about why helps to solve the problem.
I remember one student, who was near the top of the class in spoken language ability, stopped showing up to class regularly. I thought she must be bored because the class wasn’t up to her level or maybe she just didn’t like what we were doing in class. The next time she did show up for class I called her to talk to me after class. I sincerely wanted to know why she wasn’t coming to class so I asked her. She explained how she has been battling depression and was having trouble getting out of bed in the morning. She shared some of her life experiences with me and introduced me to her boyfriend so it would be easier for me to check in on her and encourage her to come to class. The problems didn’t disappear overnight but they did get better and I found ways that I could help her instead of writing her off as lazy.
Aside from helping you to help your students better, finding out about their lives can help you understand the world better. As ESL or EFL teachers we are often teaching students from cultures very different from our own. This can give us valuable insights into what is happening in the world. Thanks to my students I have learned a little bit about what life is like in places I have not yet had the chance to visit like Nigeria, Mongolia and China among many others. I know much more about the Muslim world and am better able to understand what is happening in the Middle East. I understand how issues that are so contentious around the world, like immigration, affect real people whom I like and respect. Even if you are teaching students who share your cultural background, there is much you can learn about different generations as well as different economic and social groups.
2. Let your Students Teach you About What they Know
"Everyone you will ever meet knows something you don't." - Bill Nye (the Science Guy)
As English teachers we are lucky to get to meet lots of people and doubly lucky that English can be used to communicate anything. My students never fail to delight me with the range of things they can do aside from speak and write. I have had students who made tamales I still dream about, can make drawings and paintings worthy of a museum, can sing rap songs with the best of them and can solve math equations I don't even understand. Even more wonderful, they are willing, even eager to share their skills and knowledge with me, I just have to set up my curriculum so that they have the opportunity to do so.
For a unit on food once, I asked my students to make short cooking videos. Not only did I get to see how to make a wide variety of different dishes, they also showed me their kitchens and their senses of humor. I showed these videos little by little though out the unit and everyone loved them. I didn't show them all at once because there is such a thing as too much of a good thing. Just as eating nothing but sweets can give you a stomach ache, watching all of those videos at once would have caused everyone's eyes to glaze over. Another option I have used is asking students to make videos and put them on the learning platform for the course. By doing this, students could watch each other's videos at home and comment on them. For more information about the learning platform I use, Schoology, check out this earlier post about the 7 On-Line Tools for English Teachers that Made my Classes More Effective.
Aside form making videos, I have taught my students how to run hands-on workshops and then had them choose what they want to teach us. This can be really dynamic if you model how a good workshop blends demonstration, getting participants actively involved, and discussions/questions. I love teaching students how to create a workshop because it gets us all involved in what individual students are really interested in and students get to use language that is important to them. People tend to talk about what they are good at and what they know a lot about. This is different for different people so asking students to teach each other, and you, about something they love allows you to individualize instruction in ways that are impossible when everyone is doing the same thing.
Another way to encourage students to share their knowledge with the class is to give them a wide range of choices for the assignments they do for class. For example, if students are responding to a short story they have read, don't make them all do the same thing, let them choose if they want to write a response, make a video, create a piece of art, sing a song or many other options. I have found that doing this makes my classes much more lively and interesting. Learning menus can be an excellent way to give students choices and have everyone working on something different.
3. Let Your Students Teach you How to Teach More Effectively
Occasionally I have had a student come right up and tell me, "I hate this activity." or "I love this activity." but most of the time they don't. Students tend to keep their opinions to themselves or at least save them for after class discussions that take place well out of earshot of the teacher. If I keep my eyes and ears open I can usually figure out what materials and activities are engaging my students and what ones are not, but often I am left scratching my head as to exactly why.
Most courses ask for student feedback at the end of the semester when it is too late to do anything about it, at least it is too late for that particular group of students. Additionally a lot of the feedback I have been asked to give is in the form of a questionnaire handed out in the last five minutes of the class when I am dying to get out of there and do whatever I need to do for the rest of that day. Rarely do I ever give complete and insightful answers to those questionnaires and rarely have I received much useful feedback that way. I have found it is much more effective to ask students what they think when we are about a third the way through with the semester. I ask them to write out sentences about how effective/enjoyable they find specific class activities and materials. I ask them which ones are helping them reach their goals and which ones are not. Then I ask them to share their opinions in small groups. This enables them to gain confidence in voicing their opinions. Then, and only then, do I pull the whole class together and ask them to share their thoughts with the whole group.
I have found this whole group sharing to be beneficial in several ways. First, it allows students to agree and disagree with each other. I once did this with a class in which one of the students felt that small group discussions were a waste of time because so many students were struggling to communicate effectively. He was the highest level student in the class and was voicing this opinion because he felt that his classmates, because they were struggling were not getting much out of this activity. His classmates spoke up and said that although they found it very difficult, they really valued the opportunity to practice and develop their skills. After that, the student who voiced the concern had a whole new attitude and did his best to support his classmates in discussions.
Second, several of my students have told me that sharing their opinions with the group as a whole made them feel important and listened to. I teach in Japan right now, and large group discussions are not common. For many of my students, this is the first time they have ever done it. This means that it can be awkward and scary at times but I make sure to tell them before we start why we are doing it. I explain that as a student I was also shy and rarely volunteered to speak in large group discussions but now I regret that and wish I had had the confidence to speak out more. I explain that what they have to say is valuable, not only to me, but to everyone and it is a skill that will serve them well in the future when they may be present at meetings or planning sessions.
I usually limit large group discussions to one or two per semester because I feel like each individual student does not get a lot of time to speak, especially in a class of more than twenty. Again, too much of a good thing can become a bad thing.
If, at some point during the semester, you find yourself wishing you were a student again, make it happen! Your students will be more than happy to switch roles for a while and explain to you how it is done. You both will be the richer for it. What have you learned from your students? How have you encouraged them to share what they know? Let me know in the comments below!
Hi, I'm Kia.
I help ESL / EFL teachers create fun, effective courses that students love.