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TEACHING UNPLUGGED (IN A TECHNOLOGICAL ERA)

How many times have you panicked – even for one moment – when there were no lights, no books, no Internet connection, no interactive white board available? In this article I will outline principles and practical ideas on how to be ready to face any situation smoothly and positively, regardless of non-human resources available.

When asked about her future professional choice, a six-year-old girl simply replied: “I want to teach.” Her ordinary adult family naturally asked her what she wanted to teach, to which she genuinely replied: “Learners, of course!” This little girl’s anecdote illustrates the very essence of teaching: to facilitate learning, being there for the learners. Therefore, an English language teacher is only as successful as the effectiveness of their lessons in affecting their learners’ lives and progress. Electricity, course books and materials are resources that support teachers and learners in this process.

Fifteen years ago, when Thornbury (2000) published a thought-provoking article about Dogme in teaching, the English language teaching world was in an uproar over its implications – for published materials, for instance. Personally, I believe teachers need to put their roles and attitudes in perspective: most of us seem eager to work with materials, resources, technological ‘solutions’ for teaching but how many of us face with passion the challenges posed by learners? Why have we become teachers? Thornbury does not necessarily advocate against resources and technology, but rather very much in favour of placing learners in the central position of our lessons – regardless of resources available.

Language is an organic system. There are brilliant resource books that organise language structures in what seems to be more palatable for different levels. However, if our focus is the group of learners we teach (unpredictable human beings sometimes), what happens in the classroom actually depends on the people involved – their learning styles, motivations, needs. Apart from that, we may look at teaching from a linguistic perspective where Larsen-Freeman (1997) sees “many striking similarities between the new science of chaos/complexity and language and SLA” (p.141). Considering this ‘messiness’ in language learning, certain characteristics are crucial for successful teaching:

  1. Adaptability. Learners are all different, their behaviour may vary according to interaction with the group. Teachers should know their learners the best they can and how they connect with the group in order to adapt lessons and to propose activities to suit their needs and styles.
  2. Flexibility. Planning a lesson is a given. The ability to make changes to it in response to what happens during the lesson enriches teaching and learning (e.g. without internet connection – necessary for the initial plan – the lesson may be as successful as it would have been with it.).
  3. Resourcefulness. The teaching repertoire brought into class should make a difference. Not only does that help in making it easier to adapt lessons and being flexible as you are teaching, but it also means the teacher is able to provide learners with different experiences (catering for different learning styles) and it might even mean working with virtually no resources.
  4. Passion. No matter what is going on outside the classroom – how miserable our lives seem to be -, we go to a lesson because we want to be there, it is a matter of choice. Because of and for the learners. For the language as well – to increase the number of people who can speak it.
  5. Courage. The will that drives a teacher must come from the heart first to bring passion to the classroom. Also, a teacher should definitely have the guts to teach. The courage to say no, to compromise, to give, to be willing to withdraw from a pedestal teachers sometimes put themselves on. Although teachers sometimes shine, it is a selfless activity when it is about the learners. Their success is our success.

We all have the chance to choose what we want to become. Why teaching? I believe our reasons reflect the results of our work and how happy we are doing what we do. Considering the five principles above, here are three practical ideas you may want to consider experimenting with in your lessons:

1.Live listening (Harmer, 2007: 306): Most of the listening done in real life actually happens face to face. It seems natural that teachers would take advantage of doing live listening in class in order to prepare learners to use the language and communicate in meaningful contexts. The teacher plans what to say as input if necessary, but does not script it (e.g. talking about one’s favourite food and eating habits). Tasks proposed should take into consideration that learners will only listen to the text once – different from using recorded materials. This can also be done with a live dialogue where a teacher invites a colleague to do the input and add more voices to the source. Some of the advantages are:

  • it means comfort for learners who struggle with listening (they are used to the teachers’ voice and tone);
  • the teacher has a possibility to grade language used when speaking;
  • the content can be adjusted to suit learners’ needs and interests;
  • one of the tasks can be used to raise learners’ awareness to false starts, not frequently found in recorded materials;
  • it also exposes learners to hesitation in a natural way;
  • gestures and body language may contribute to the overall understanding of what is being said;
  • it adds variety to the lessons;
  • building rapport and trust – it may be interactive (allowing learners to react to the content) and the content personalised;
  • there is immediate feedback from listeners (whether they are following or not, questions may arise) – which can inform what is to come in your speech.

2. Flipping lessons (Bergmann and Sams, 2012): Traditionally speaking, teachers provide learners with input in the lessons. In order to spice up lessons, you may choose to ask learners to do meaningful work from home – reading specific texts, watching a film, planning presentations, carrying out research on a given topic – that will affect the collaborative work proposed in class. That can inform the teacher and learners what actions need to be taken for consolidation. In order for a flipped lesson to unfold effectively, learners need to be advised of the importance of their role in building the lesson. Advantages of flipping lessons involve:

  • it may allow learners to use resources they are used to outside the classroom to enrich the learning experience;
  • it develops learners’ autonomy;
  • it empowers learners to maximise learning opportunities outside the classroom using skills developed during the flipped lessons;
  • it connects life skills to classroom work more overtly and holistically;
  • it encourages teachers to develop skills to deal with learners emergent needs;
  • it encourages learners to work collaboratively outside the classroom;
  • it adds variety to the teaching approaches and may therefore help learners whose learning styles demand differentiation;
  • there is room for teachers to identify areas to focus on and adjust teaching to the needs of the group, a direct effect on teaching and the development of repertoire of techniques;
  • it approximates teachers’ and learners’ roles in terms of accountability as teaching clearly depends on learners’ participation.

3.Using story cubes, flashcards, random objects: The important thing here is not what you use, but how it’s done – the objects should be used as a way of opening learners’ minds to creativity and, consequently, to producing reactions, stories, questions in English, giving teachers material to work from. Take the materials of your choice to class or ask learners to bring different objects. Then, set a provocative question, a task or a challenge. For instance, spread some objects and ask learners to connect them in a story. Or start a story using one of the objects and encourage learners to take turns continuing it. Another idea is to start a dialogue in a given context – e.g. in a café with friends, in a business meeting and encourage learners to take part in the conversation mentioning one of the pictures in flashcards, story cubes. A variation of the activity for upper levels is the use of current newspaper/magazine headlines to promote group discussion. Teachers can get learners to start a conversation about one of the headlines and challenge them to link it to what they had been saying.

Some of the advantages are:

  • it gives teachers the opportunity of building the lesson on language produced by the students;
  • feedback that follows such an activity may guide learners towards better performance (Jackson, 2009);
  • the degree of unpredictability may give teachers the chance to develop new skills as professionals;
  • it helps learners develop a degree of accountability for learning and the progress of the lesson;
  • it makes learning more collaborative;
  • it maximises chances for students to learn from each other when the teacher is observing;
  • the variation and the challenge help learners develop 21st century skills such as critical thinking and initiative;
  • learners are more likely to contribute with topics, threads that are relevant to them making lessons relevant;
  • encouraging random topic-shifting may prepare learners for real-life informal non-linear conversations.

After meaningful experience with teaching (this may vary according to the context), teachers may feel prepared to let go of the need for control to better orchestrate learning. It may sound as if we have reached a conundrum: an orchestra should be led by the conductor, but the latter can only control what is actually going to be better for the ‘musicians’, who will, in turn, play the instruments on their own. With all the preparation that comes with years in the classroom, give yourself a chance to experiment with the unexpected and make informed choices as the lesson unfolds. Or even allow learners to bring in content and resources to the lesson. It does not mean you will come to your lessons without a plan, but simply be open to negotiation with learners and prepared to deal with emergent linguistic, affective or strategic needs.

As your career develops you will also build a repertoire of techniques that will help you evaluate how effective your lessons are, taking feedback from peers and students, and assess the need for more or less control of tasks and lessons for your groups. Teachers never stop learning and dealing with the classroom diversity will empower you to respond more promptly to the needs and reactions of your learners as you give them more responsibility and opportunities to contribute during the lessons.

When experimenting with teaching unplugged (Meddings and Thornbury, 2009), you will allow learning to be more natural and your lessons more student-centred. Furthermore, it may help learners see the relevance and applicability of what they are learning to cope with the variety of situations in the world beyond the classroom.

The ideas above will both encourage teachers to broaden their repertoire in search for better ways of addressing learners’ needs and allow teachers to adjust the lessons to reach learning goals according to those needs and the demands outside. Teaching unplugged demands distancing yourself from the comfort zone and predictability of sticking to the plan. However, the studying, the reflection, the learning process teachers go through will empower them to take responsibility, to develop autonomy in making decisions that may cater for differentiation – learners do have different goals, needs and respond differently, we should be able to adapt to teach the language more meaningfully and in contexts and approaches that will help learners use the language (e.g. the live listening to address the need to practice listening in its most frequent form). Technology may be a resource in this process, but it is definitely not the centre of all learners’ development.

References

Bergmann, J. & Sams, A. (2012) Flip your classroom. Alexandria: ASCD.
Harmer, J. (2007) The Practice of English Language Teaching. Harlow: Pearson.
Jackson, R. (2009) Never work harder than your students & other principles of great teaching. Alexandria: ASCD.
Larsen-Freeman, D. (1997) ‘Chaos/complexity science and second language acquisition’, Applied Linguistics, 18: 141-65.
Meddings, L. & Thornbury, S. (2009) Teaching Unplugged. Surrey: Delta Publishing.
Thornbury, S. (2000).“A Dogma for EFL”. Available online at: www.thornburyscott.com/tu/Dogma%20article.htm
21st Century Skills: www.p21.org/

The author

Marcela Cintra is a manager at Cultura Inglesa São Paulo. She has taught English for over 20 years, been involved in teacher training and development programmes and presented in ABCI, LABCI, BRAZ-TESOL and IATEFL conferences. A DELTA holder, CELTA and ICELT tutor, she is currently taking an MA course in TESOL.

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