Entries in debate (1)


Letting the students run the show

In my business school courses, I'm lucky enough to have the same students for three years. In between their second and third year, they do an internship abroad, and they come back pretty keen and capable as far as their English skills go.

Giving their third year class some extra zip and zing is always a challenge; not that my classes in years one and two aren't zippy and zingy --at least at times! But there is a risk of getting into a routine when one has the same students over a long period of time.

Last year, already inspired by my PLN and various ELT-related reading, I tried to open up the class to student-led or student-found projects, subjects and material.

"Tried to" is the operative here. The idea was a flop.

The course itself wasn't, as I had plenty of other tricks up my sleeve. But I was a bit disappointed that my venture had not worked out.

The group of students in question had seemed motivated about the idea of a partially "open format" class where their "work" (I gave little if any homework) would consist in coming to class with ideas for activities and other contributions. But in reality, when I "opened the floor" at the beginning of each class, there was never anything there.

My post-game analysis of the situation hinged on 3 points:

1.) Cultural differences: students in France are virtually never confronted with this sort of approach, and likely had no idea of what to do with it.

2.) I gave up too easily: when I saw the lack of feedback, I didn't insist or reiterate the idea. I felt we had communicated well about it at the beginning of the course and if it didn't work, maybe it just wasn't meant to be.

3. My set-up was too open-ended: I think I had communicated well about the philosophy of what we could do together, but had kept the expectations and possibilities so vague that the students didn't have anything to build on. This point may be connected to my first one, but looking back I still find my explanations hopelessly fuzzy.

The idea kept working at me, though, so this year I decided to give it another go in a clearer and more structured format.

So now, at the end of every 3rd year class, two students are "assigned" to prepare and lead about 15 minutes of classroom activity during the next class. Other than that, there are only two rules:

1. Volunteering is preferred, but if nobody volunteers, one student will be chosen at random and that student can choose his or her partner.

2. The prepared activity must involve a high proportion of discussion or other speaking time.

Two classes ago, I assigned our first student-led activity, and was pleased to see I quickly got volunteers. And last week, classes (I have two groups doing the same course) kicked off with it.

I was astounded by the results.

Both pairs had obviously taken their task seriously, but without over-preparing either, thus leaving enough room for letting discussion happen. Their approaches were clearly different -- how could they not be? -- but both captivated the class and led to engaging discussions.

The first pair presented, with no notes or other supports, a brief history of the cinema, then moved onto the subject of 3D movies and, especially, whether they could represent a solution to the problem of illegal downloading. The student leaders then got the class to give their opinion about 3D, downloading movies, and the connection between the two.

The ensuing discussion came to a relatively quick close as the subject was a bit narrow -- but admirably so, as the pair totally avoided the banal "what sort of movies do you go to" exchange, and probably actually taught something to some members of the class. (I for one was not that aware that 3D was being bantied about as a way to slow down illegal movie downloading.)

As the students discussed, I was able to note a few grammar points that I turned into an impromptu "work in pairs to find the error" activity that seemed to be a very natural extension to the presentation. I had done absolutely no correction or commenting during the discussion, and while I noted a number of grammar errors, during the 10+ minutes of student-led time, I was able to calmly sort out a few that were worth dealing with.

The pair in the other class had prepared a short Powerpoint about tattoos, briefly explaining their history and quickly leading into a debate about whether students would get or already had tattoos, if tattoos lead to discrimination in the workplace, and what they had noticed about tattoos during their foreign internship.

This was a dynamite topic, and the debate carried on far beyond the 15-minute "suggested time" period, but I just let it flow. I came to the conclusion that this was a topic that was much better off student-led; I would have felt a bit uncomfortable asking the class "So, who has a tattoo?" But the question, when asked by other students, went over without any discomfort.

This group did not "benefit" from any grammar feedback, but they went further in reaching points on the class syllabus (employment issues, cultural differences...) so I figured it all balanced out.

The two pairs involved definitely set high standards for future student-led activities, and I can't wait to see what comes up next. And the best thing is, I'm quite sure my students can't wait either.