Ask the right questions (and get better results)
It can be easy for teachers to get stuck in the routine of delivering a lesson and then expecting students to retain that information.
Not only does this make things a bit boring, but it often isn’t very effective. I’ve worked with many students who have gone through this structure of learning. Wheels spin, but they aren’t any farther ahead than when they started.
We all know that learning isn’t about focusing intently on memorising each detail. It happens more fluidly and when we least expect it. In his book How We Learn, author Benedict Cary talks about just this subject in a fascinating way.
There is so much we don’t yet understand about how our brains learn. The results of centuries of learning are clear, however, and yet we continue to use the same old techniques that have been used for decades to teach, then falling frustrated when we don’t get the desired results.
Language acquisition is no different. We suffer through endless vocabulary list memorisation, stuff infinite grammar rules into our brains and practice obscure spellings and word use over and over again.
I’m bored just writing that paragraph.
How we learn
Studies are finding that we do some of our best learning when we aren’t actually paying attention to it. It comes when we’re in situations where we find the information useful, or when our minds have a moment to rest and process the new information.
In fact, studying a language for an hour before going to sleep might get you better results than sitting in a desk for an hour before lunch working in sentence structures.
It’s clear that we have to do something differently.
We can start by changing the way we present our lessons.
Does this sound familiar? Class starts by presenting the topic, followed by some instruction that students are meant to learn, then some time to practice the new material with a short activity from within their workbook, or something that you’ve prepared for them. Then times up, see you tomorrow.
This is the structure for many classrooms and students are being robbed of real opportunities to learn and experience the lesson in a more profound and useful way.
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What about if we reversed things? What if we gave students the opportunity to talk? After all, this is a language class. In fact, we can engage our students more and achieve better results by just being quiet.
A new approach
Let me explain. Ask students the right questions. force them to come out of that memorisation mode and use the language they’re studying.
This works for all ages; you only have to adjust the questions you ask. But let’s assume we’re working with teenage students in an English class. By briefly giving the students the new information, then turning to them and asking, “what do you think?” breaks their routine and jolts their brain into alert mode. Something is different and may require action. This is a prime learning environment.
For example, you give a quick lesson on the present perfect tense. You explain how it looks in a sentence and when we use it. You can then give them the sentence: “I have been running every morning for 2 years.” Then, follow that up with: “What do you think I mean by that?” Students can then offer their interpretations of the sentence meaning.
We can expand the conversation as well by asking why. “Is that the only correct interpretation?” This forces the students to expand on their thinking, further solidifying the information.
We can then move on to ask: “How do you know?” Asking the student to provide proof helps make connections to the structure and how it might be used in the future.
These strategies can work well, but they do require some level of confidence. To make sure that all students are engaged in the lesson, tell them they can have a couple of minutes to discuss their answers with a partner before speaking to the class. This way they’re not only discussing it (strengthening the lesson) but gaining the confidence they need to speak about their opinions on it.
This kind of lesson encourages students to learn in an active way. They’re no longer just scribbling notes and daydreaming about better things, although, in his book, Benedict Cary suggests that’s not an entirely bad strategy for some students, some of the time. As a teacher, standing back and letting your students do more of the talking will relieve tension for you. It will also improve class performance overall. Give it a shot and see how your class is transformed.
You can start putting these strategies to use with this climate change lesson plan. It includes methods, assessment strategies and worksheet. This lesson plan is appropriate for intermediate level students but can be adapted to fit other ages and abilities. It’s free to download and use. Click the download link below