I have a few hours before my evening shift, to sit and reflect. I think we try to do too much. No. I think we try to get our students to do too much. I’m talking about a timetable that has 7.5 contact teaching hours a day and a further 6 hours of social time with native speakers in a full immersion environment. Note I wrote contact “teaching” hours. And that old thing which says, “Just because you teach doesn’t mean they learn” really smacked me up side the head today. My poor student. He starts his day at 8.15 with breakfast where, if he speaks at all, it has to be in English because no one speaks Turkish and because this is a full immersion programme and he is obliged to speak English only. He then has to gather his wits about him for a full-on dogmetic conversation/dialogic class when all the skills and all the systems come and go and fluctuate and emerge and recede as the conversation dictates. Then he has a 30-minute respite, but he still needs to speak English if he wants to talk or read English if he wants to read. No wonder he heads for the garden and solitude. Then he has to focus once more for his listening lesson – challenging piece of video with a role play lesson to follow, where he needs to put on his salesman hat and sell me some insurance products for my fleet of buses. Then lunch – he eats and runs up to his room to escape the relentless Englishness of it all. Individual lesson with horrid me again this afternoon. Conversation plugged into family, as pronouns were to be recycled from this morning. Halfway through the lesson he looked at me and said, “My head is chaos. I go.”
Now is that A Good Thing or A Bad Thing? More and more I think it is A Bad Thing. I have taught and taught and taught and all I have achieved is chaos. I’m not allowing this man to learn – I am entertaining him, occupying him, making sure “the time is filled”, because that is what the timetable says and because he has paid and because I’ m a teacher and because there’s so much to accomplish and and……. and it’s WRONG. A learner’s needs in this case consist of more than increasing vocabulary and how to manage meetings. They are also for time to learn, time to reflect, time to consolidate, time to revise and review and practise and relax. It’s just not possible for anyone to function effectively at that level of input for that length of time.
And the day hasn’t finished. According to the timetable, he now has to prepare for and participate in a 90-minute speaking and presentation workshop with his colleagues and then join a team to continue with their project which is to be completed by tomorrow. THEN he still has to participate in the scheduled evening activity which, if nothing else, involves a high level of social interaction with colleagues and a teacher. It’s inhuman. What on EARTH are we trying to achieve? The students have no time to learn anything. They are just fulfilling given tasks – quite poorly sometimes, and certainly not to the level to which they would like because there just isn’t enough time. No. WE aren’t GIVING them enough time.
What is manageable and achievable in the time available is very different for each student. Some need the entire week to get to grips with one tense, others need a lot of time alone to consolidate and absorb, and yet others skate along happily reactivating and practising their fluency at any and all given opportunities. Perhaps we need to step back for a minute and really think about the students’ needs – their learning needs, as opposed to their language needs. The timetable should be flexible enough to allow for reflection time, consolidation time and time alone. I have recently read some comments and been in discussions about the beloved/hated Language Lab. And it has been mooted that it is an exercise in cost-cutting, “Put 15 students in there with a set of headphones each and you only need one teacher.” Yes, that’s true, if you look at it from the CFO’s point of view; or a waste of time from the more sales-driven lot: “But time in there is WASTED. They have paid a lot of money to be here and they aren’t INTERACTING and LEARNING when they are in the Lab. We can’t sell a course that isn’t wall-to-wall teaching.”
Listen to your students – they NEED TIME for reflection and consolidation and thinking. They need time to LEARN at their own pace and in their own time. That time can ideally be spent in a language lab, as long as the time spent in there isn’t structured and SMART- goal-oriented, as long as they aren’t pestered and pressured to “do” stuff that is essentially time-filling; as long as they are allowed to have that time to take what we’ve taught them and convert it to something learnt, not just something taught.