I still to this day remember the first time I stood before 15 pairs of eyes, a board marker in hand and the overbearing sense of foreboding that weighed down on my shoulders as they waited for me to teach them something. That nervous anticipation thankfully now feels very foreign and I barely bat an eyelid when thrown into a class last minute. Though the nerves have been replaced with confidence gained through experience, I do often ask myself if my efficiency in the classroom is always such a good thing.
As a new teacher, not knowing a word of Italian in my new shiny monolingual classroom I sweated over how best to convey the meaning of abstract adjectives or nouns where my artistic talent fell short. This was, of course in the days when interactive whiteboards and classroom laptops didn’t exist so the technological help that’s available at the tap of a button was sadly not in our teaching toolkit. What this meant was that as a teacher I probably had to work a lot harder to convey meaning and concept check. But it wasn’t only me who was under pressure, my students also had to work harder at trying to piece together what this red-faced, flustered twenty-something was saying. All in all, there was a common theme of working hard to solve the puzzle, find meaning and work together to understand what this English language stuff actually meant.
With experience came hindsight and cultural knowledge, shared experience with other teachers taught me shortcuts, tips, and false friends. As my Italian language improved I started to understand exactly which structures would trip up my students, which questions to ask to really check comprehension and which lexical items sounded similar to the Italian to help speed learning. I thought I was doing everything I could to help my students but my efficiency in the classroom meant that while the lessons I delivered were much better, perhaps as I became more polished, the student experience became less impactful. We all know the great sense of achievement we feel when we have one of those lightbulb moments when suddenly the pieces slot into place and clarity shines through. It gives us a buzz as we get off on the dopamine of successfully cracking the code that is a foreign language. If we as teachers make that process too easy, do our students lose their stimulation to excel?
I’m not for a moment saying that experienced teachers are not as good as their less-experienced counterparts, there’s no denying that more informed teachers means more informed teaching. However, I do feel that the better you are, the less inclined some of your students may be to go that extra mile. I’ve written before about how I worry that technology is making learners more lazy, but perhaps it’s not technology that is the problem and instead is this culture that we are nurturing of spoon-feeding students. Is our overzealous habit of ‘providing’ taking away that fundamental need of our students to work for their knowledge. Does a polished lesson mean our classrooms are becoming theatres of good English language where students are instantly accessing what they need and enjoying the performance but then ultimately leaving without the take-out they so desperately need in order to fix language into their memories?
If this is the case then it is fundamental that we readdress our lesson planning process. Adopting more of a ‘Demand High’ approach as discussed by Adrian Underhill and Jim Scrivener, to ensure that our classrooms really are a place of work, engaging and enjoyable work yes, but ultimately where real learning happens and where students go away feeling inspired to continue studying and having a reason to remember what they have learned in the lesson. In other words, can we as teachers make sure that while our instruction is explicit, the learning process is a little more challenging? Can we give less and gain more?