Posts tagged: Exams

Crazy or Enlightened?

Image

I have a number of posts in the works, but have something more pressing that I would really love all your feedback on.  I’m trying to convince my fellow manager to follow suit on a few issues and would also like to know if anyone thinks I’m on the right track or not as well.

I’ve been managing my current school, Oxford House College, for about 3 months now.  It is an absolutely fantastic school, one of the best in Turkey as far as I’m concerned and I’ve very proud to work there.  Everyone from the owner to the managers to the teachers are dedicated to teaching and we are constantly improving.

Before I ask for your input I should let you all know that we use an ongoing enrollment system.  While there are some drawbacks such as shifting classes and difficulty in planning or building on previous material, I love the system.

For anyone that doesn’t know, ongoing enrollment means that students do not buy courses, they buy hours.  They can enter a class at any time.  They don’t go through a course in the traditional sense that there is an official start and finish date.

They can also advance at any time.  The system is tailored to the students’ needs.  If they work hard, practice a lot, or are just good at learning languages, they can move up quickly.  If they are slower, very busy, or just taking more time, they move at a slower rate.  The teachers constantly keep the students’ progress in mind and when they feel a student is ready, they move them to the next level or tell them to stay longer, whatever the case may be.

We are trying to work with a set of can-do statements similar to the Common European Framework’s. However, these statements have been annotated or changed to apply specifically to Turkish learners.

If a student can talk about their present routines, their family, and fill out a form, but can’t write an email to a friend well, then the teacher specifically focuses on that can-do task until they are reasonably proficient and then the student(s) can move up.

Keeping this in mind, I’ve slowly been making and been trying to make a number of perhaps radical changes since I accepted the position.  I would love to know what your thoughts are on the issues.

#1 Exams

I have eliminated all exams.  Of course, if the teacher feels they really need to, they can give one, but exams are not required and the students know that the teacher’s opinion is all that matters.  I have done this because I trust my teachers.  I have an excellent team right now.  My teachers are with the students every class.  They know their students.  How can an exam tell them anything they don’t already know?

What’s more, students are becoming intrinsically motivated and focusing on progressing in their communicative ability.  They know there is no exam at the end, so they don’t skip class and show up at exam time and they don’t save all their studying for a week before the end of a course (technically we don’t have courses, but you get the idea).

My teachers don’t feel the need to teach to an exam, they can focus on what the learners actually want and need to learn.  It makes classes more flexible and allows students and teachers much more control over the direction of the course.

#2 Course books

We no longer have a primary course book.   Course books have a whole slew of problems associated with them.  They aren’t made for our learners, they are often boring, they take a step-by-step approach to language learning that often isn’t realistic, and they are too grammar focused.

We have a number of course book series available and lots of supplementary material in our small library as well as tons of high quality digital lessons on the computer all organized by level, skill, grammar point, and content.  Teachers identify the needs of the class and find or create appropriate material.

Too often students and teachers get bogged down in slogging from one page to the next and focusing on grammar mcnuggets (thanks Darren and Scott :) ) Why are we teaching past simple or letter writing if our students already do it well?  Skip it and move on to lessons they actually need.  A course should be dynamic and fluid, not linear.

#3 The Internal Syllabus

I’d like to do an entire post on this concept sometime, but for now, just a brief summary.  The syllabus comes from the students.  I’m terribly partial to Harmer’s EASA approach (which was brought up nicely on English Raven not too long ago) or Test-Teach-Test styles in general.

Come in with an engaging activity and then see what the students do well with and what they struggle with.  Make notes on the points they struggle on and then, in that lesson or another, teach, review, or revise the material.

This way you don’t cover stuff the students are already good at.  That’s boring and a waste of time for everyone.  You really focus on students’ needs.

It’s also much more skills and content focused.  You are constantly practicing skills rather than isolated grammar or lexical sets.

In true Dogme style, if students are searching for language to communicate, teach it to them.  Don’t worry about the course book or the lesson plan.  What could possibly be more important than what the students are trying to say?  This also ensures the perfect context.  The students know what they are trying to say, they just don’t know it in English.  Supply it and I guarantee it will stick better and make more sense to them.

An internal syllabus isn’t just about language points, it’s about content as well.  What are the students interested in?  What do they want to learn?  Get to know them.  Get the feedback from them.  Ask what they want.  Then bring in material based on that information.

An internal syllabus is created in the dialogue between teachers and students.

#4 Cut Down on the Worksheets

Gap-fill worksheets are banned and so are book activities that do the same.

I’m trying to get my teachers to cut down on worksheet use in class in general.

Yes, yes, I know.  I’m a Dogmeist now.  I need help :P .  Most of the material for a lesson can come from the students themselves.  You can get at least a two-hour lesson out of picture with tons of wonderful, student-produced language.

Let’s not bombard our students with worksheets and busy work.  Give one sheet to every 2 students so they are always working together and helping each other out.

Worksheets should be short and help to scaffold a primary activity.  I hate coming into classes and seeing students spend 20 minutes figuring out a crossword puzzle or filling in some blanks.  Then another 5-10 minutes is wasted going over the answers.

If you want your students to practice prepositions of place have them hide objects around the room, describe pictures of their bedroom for a partner to draw, show them a scene from Wallace & Grommit and the Wrong Trousers and have them describe what’s happening, play Simon Says, anything but an unproductive worksheet where very little language is produced or engaged with.

#5 Skills and Content Focused Learning

We have 3 and 4-hour lessons at our school.   I encourage my teachers to see this as an extended learning opportunity rather than discrete hours with separate lessons.

Pick a topic like Art.  The first lesson can be a listening on abstract art, the second a reading on surrealism, and the third can be a heated debate or discussion on the connection between politics and art.

Throughout the 3 hours, students are building and revising related vocabulary and structures, but they are also coming across lots of new information and getting a chance to focus on particular skills throughout.

Were your students sick and they come in talking about it?  Have a conversation about it.  Brainstorm illnesses and discuss remedies.  Do a doctor-patient role-play.  Write about your last visit to the doctor then exchange with a partner and do some peer correction.

Our students should be learning to communicate and learning different skill sets, not obsessing over grammar  and vocabulary.  Of course, grammar and vocabulary have their place, but skills and content are so much more interesting, contextualized, and, IMO, effective.

What Do You Think?

Well, that’s the end of the main pushes I’ve been trying to make that directly concern teaching in the classroom.  What do you all think.  Good ideas?  Bad ideas?  Should I modify them.  I’m really looking for your feedback on this one and I’d appreciate any and all comments.

Related Reading:

No Good Reason to Grade

WordPress Themes