Building an atmosphere for thinking
Let’s start with the general tone or mood of a class. A teacher’s routines can sometimes become rather mechanical and the energy level a bit low if people block each other’s ideas and initiatives. At other times both teacher and students feel lively, get interested, have a lot to say and enjoy each other’s ideas. It’s hard to put a finger on what exactly makes the difference. But being warm and encouraging, having high expectations of students, and giving students the freedom to express opinions, to explore and take risks are all mentioned in the research literature as really important if we want our students to be brave enough to participate well.
When searching for advice on how exactly to achieve this kind of warm and encouraging classroom climate, one that stimulates thinking, I came across two lists of recommended teacher behaviours which I’ve adapted and melded below. These are some of the things we can make sure we do:
- set/negotiate ground rules with our students well in advance and display these on the classroom wall
- provide well-planned, interesting activities and content
- find out our students’ goals and reasons for learning English and share our goals with them so that they find the work we do meaningful
- challenge students with tasks a little above their current level of competence
- reassure students that, with help, they can do these tasks
- show respect for each student and accept individual differences
- be flexible and positive
- show that we are thinking, learning, taking risks, getting stuck and making mistakes too and that this is okay
- allow students to be active participants
- acknowledge every response
- create success-oriented experiences that are doable at least in part by each student
- help students to connect new learning with old, with other subjects, and with real life
- vary our methods.
(Based on Thacker in Gough, 1991, and Lin and Mackay, 2004.)
Responding to student questions and contributions
In the list above, encouraging students to be active is mentioned. How can we, practically, do this? Well, one way for students to be active is by asking questions. We can encourage our students to ask questions in different ways. We can put a slot onto our timetable labelled Student Questions. We can allow time for pairs to talk and write down a question. We can then gather all these questions in and have a look at them. We can discuss them openly with students, thinking together about the types of questions they are and how best they could be answered.
If we reset our mental compass, moving it away from the point labelled ‘Giving my lesson’ and towards the lodestar of ‘Genuine curiosity’, we can learn how our student is attempting to make sense of the lesson. So, as we ourselves become curious and observe and listen to our students carefully to find out how they are thinking, and as we ourselves are open about our own ignorance and show the sources we have to use to check things out, we model behaviour that is valuable in a learning environment. We do not have to be the ones who answer all the questions that students ask. In fact, if students are asking good questions, the chances are strong that we can’t answer them all! And students can be encouraged to take responsibility for their own questions.
Finding out what we really do
Maybe, when I look at the list above of recommended behaviours for encouraging thinking, I can be tempted to think, ‘Oh! I already do all those.’ But if I am honest, I’m not absolutely sure that I hear all student contributions, let alone acknowledge them all properly. If I really want to find out what I do in class and to learn what my patterns are, it would be really helpful to invite a colleague in to check this out for me or to sound tape myself and then analyse the tape afterwards.
Thinking in the EFL Class progresses to the fundamentals of building a positive class atmosphere for communicating well and in English. Thinking in the EFL Class offers over 30 well-thought out, realistic tips for teachers and over 85 practical, easy-to-use activities for language classes. These tips and activities encourage flexibility, fun, creativity and rigour in teacher and student thinking. They involve minimal preparation and a wide range of interesting topics. Most of the activities are multi-level and adaptable from elementary to advanced students. Many integrate the skills of listening, speaking, reading and/or writing. Thinking in the EFL Class is extremely valuable in helping teachers stay interested in their work and in helping students cope with the demands of learning a language and living in a restless, changeable world.