The controversy over Sugata Mitra’s IATEFL talk about ‘teacher-less classrooms’ prompted many of us to blog about the possible lessons we can learn from Mitra’s message and a closer examination behind the pedagogy of what he seems to be suggesting.
Among the ‘What-he-is-saying-is-nothing-new’ blogposts and critiques was the repeated mention of TBL (Task-Based Learning) and Prabhu’s Bangalore Project. The use of tasks in Communicative Language Teaching is not uncommon in today’s classrooms. But, as with anything, the level of teacher interference and relinquishment of control can range from a ‘Prabhu-esque’ (or Mitra-esque) student-led extreme to a ‘Cutting-Edge-coursebook-esque’ teacher-led approach.
Arguing that an explicit focus on language forms inhibited language learning, Prabhu’s 1987 Bangalore project presented his learners with a series of problems (or tasks) to be solved through the medium of the English language. It is, after all, the uses to which grammar is put for communicative purposes that create meaning, and not the systematization of language inputs or maximization of planned practice (Prabhu, 1987, in Hall & Hewings, 2001).
But the right conditions needed to be provided in order for language to emerge, and Prabhu proposed that pre-selected linguistic items be abandoned in favour of a set of non-language-related tasks intellectually challenging to sustain learning and the interest of the learners. Learners would thus learn ‘through communication’, rather than ‘for communication’. (Ellis, 2003)
In an attempt to see how my students can benefit from learning on their own through peer teaching and the absence of a pre-selected linguistic syllabus, I embarked on my pure TBL week some time ago. And I figured this might be the best time to share with you what I did.
Context: Intermediate (CEF B1/B2) level students in their 20s in a school in London for a couple of weeks to study English. They have 3 hours of lessons with me every day for a week.
Primary Task: To create a 'how to' video á la the HowCast videos on YouTube and to post their finished product on YouTube by the end of the week.
Aim: To watch HowCast videos to get a feel of what HowCast videos are like and how they can be used by the viewer.
We first watched 'How to Perfect an Elevator Pitch’, and together we broke down the different steps to writing and delivering an elevator pitch. The learners then proceeded to carry out these suggested steps and wrote an elevator pitch of their own, which they then practised in pairs. I was available to help them with any language they might need when trying to understand the HowCast video or when writing their pitch.
Homework: To watch a few more HowCast videos of their own choice at home and to share their favourite videoclip with the class the next day.
Aim: To familiarise the learners further with HowCast videos. To get learners thinking about the videos they will be making.
We watched each other’s favourite HowCast videos and in groups, the learners discussed what they liked or disliked about them.
In the second part of the lesson, they got into their project groups (which they had picked themselves) and decided upon what type of videos they were going to make and how they were going to make them.
One of the groups decided they were going to make a video on how to dance the samba, while the other decided to teach the world how to make pasta the Italian way.
Aim: To film their 'how to' videos.
I brought in a flip camera that allowed students to film hi-definition videos, but the students seemed to prefer using their own smartphones. The different groups went about filming their videos in different parts of the school and I shuttled back and forth supervising, but generally keeping out of their way unless they needed me.
The learners did not finished filming the videos they required and volunteered to meet up later in the day to continue working on their project.
Aim: To edit their videoclips.
I had pre-empted a lack of editing software in the computers at school and so had asked one of the students to bring in his laptop. I had also brought in my MacBook, so the two groups had one laptop each to work on.
It turned out that only one of the students had any experience of using video-editing software, so they conducted an impromptu workshop to help the others learn about video-editing.
I had previously expected the emergent language to be about dancing samba and making pasta, but instead what emerged was a lot of instructional language (e.g. imperatives, polite requests) about using the editing software and putting the video together. These are the kinds of things that I heard:
"You need to press this…uh…how to say…Button? Key? And then, together…you must do at the same time…you take this from here and put it here."
"No, I don’t think we do it like that. Try this way."
"This part of the song is perfect for this part of the video. They match very well."
"That was not so clear. Let’s record it again. This time, you say it more slowly, ok?"
"Really? I don’t think that way is the best."
"It’s too bright so I can only see your…shadow…is the word ‘shadow’ correct?" (Looks to me who nods enthusiastically) "How about if we try closing the…curtain?" (I interject here and casually feed in the word ‘blinds’)
"Chia, how do you say, you know when you are speaking on top of the video? – voiceover"
Here are some other lexical items that emerged: to import/export a video, to over lap, to drag and drop, the upload speed, the number of page views/hits, to go viral, etc.
Aim: To share the videos with the rest of the class; to consolidate the lessons learnt.
The first hour of the class was spent frantically polishing up their final products and uploading the videos onto YouTube. We then watched each other’s videos and commented on them. The students were clearly very proud of what they had produced and the look on their faces when the room burst into applause at the end of each video was truly unforgettable.
So here are some of the lessons I have learnt as a teacher…
What I learnt
1. The fact that it was a real-life task with real consequences seemed to engage the learners a lot more. They knew that they were not just creating a product for their teacher to see, but that it could gain worldwide viewers on YouTube.
Lesson: Give students real life tasks whenever possible. When students are producing work, whether it is a video clip or a piece of text, try to provide an audience for their finished work so that they are not just doing it to please you.
2. As there were high levels of engagement, this meant learners were listening to each other more intently because what was being said had real consequences. This naturally enabled them to learn more from each other – both linguistically and otherwise.
Lesson: You are not the only person students should be listening to. Neither are you the only person students can learn from. Foster environments where students really care about what each other is saying.
3. The learners found the task so interesting and challenging that in trying to create a better video, they took it upon themselves to meet outside class time and film their videos in the evenings. I initially felt apologetic but when I watched their videos and realized how much fun they were having, I felt inspired instead.
Lesson: Try to provide tasks that are interesting and meaningful for your students (and not necessarily for you!) and challenging enough so that lots of discussion and teamwork is needed in order to complete it.
4. I was at first concerned that one of the Italian girls had picked to work with her best friend, who was also Italian. I was perhaps worried that they would revert back to using Italian when doing the tasks. However, they understood what was required of them and did not once attempt to use Italian, except when trying to elicit the right English lexical item.
Lesson: Explain to your students (albeit not in too much detail) your approach to language teaching right from the beginning and make sure they know why they are doing such tasks. Then, trust them and let go.
5. The linguistic items that I thought would emerge didn’t, and those that I hadn’t banked on making an appearance did. I had thought that a lot of the emergent language would be based on the topics they’d chosen for their 'how to' videos (i.e. samba dancing and pasta making), but what really did emerge was much more useful language connected to film-making, video-editing, giving and receiving instructions, and the general discourse of teamwork.
Lesson: You can’t always pre-select or anticipate the language that will emerge. Let yourself be surprised!
And, without further ado, here are the videos my students made!
I hope you like them, because watching them back again still makes me beam with pride!
Ellis, R. (2003) Task-based language learning and teaching. Oxford: OUP.
Hall, D.R. & Hewings, A. (2001) Innovation in English language teaching: A reader. London: Routledge.
Chia Suan Chong is a General English and Business English teacher and teacher trainer, with a degree in Communication Studies (Broadcast and Electronic Media) and an MA in Applied Linguistics and English Language Teaching from King’s College London.
Fascinated by the interplay between culture, language and thought, Chia is also an intercultural skills trainer and materials developer, and is now based in York.
She is also the voice of @ETprofessional on Twitter. You can find out more about her on her blogsite www.chiasuanchong.com