Home > Education, My thoughts on ELT > Same level, same coursebook… same planning???

Same level, same coursebook… same planning???

Professor Snooze is well versed in BTM* (Boring Teaching Methodology) and keeps all his lesson plans written in old and dusty notebooks. He has always done the same things in his lessons for 25 years. // Photo by dvortygirl // * For more on BTM, look for Luke Prodromou's article.

I do believe DoS and coordinators have the best of intentions when they assign groups of the same level to teachers. After all, if you’re teaching the same level twice, and if both classes are using the same coursebook, this will definitely mean a lot less work for you as a teacher when it comes to lesson planning, right? I mean, if your students from both classes are expected to leave the course having learnt the same things, why bother to plan different lessons, right? The same is true when you have the same level semester after semester, year after year – if you do a great job the first time and keep track of everything you’ve done, you can just relax during your lesson planning and any kind of preparation that lessons might need during the upcoming semesters. Right???

I said it in the very beginning, and I repeat it here – I do believe that teachers are given the groups of the same level with the best of intentions. However, I’ve seen my share of teachers who would take that as a sign that only one planning was necessary. It’s actually quite easy to understand what might be going on in the minds of such teachers. “I’m supposed to teach this lesson, and this is a wonderful activity, so I’ll simply keep using it. It has worked before.” The problem does not lie in the teacher’s attitude to keep a notebook with everything he or she has done and repeat it over the years. The problem is that this kind of teacher still hasn’t learnt that teachers are supposed to teach students, not lessons.

It goes without saying that, if you have to use a coursebook, knowing the coursebook from start to end helps a lot when it comes to planning. That doesn’t mean, though, that no more planning is necessary. It doesn’t mean your little notebook with all your notes and all the post-its and notes you’ve written in the book will help you to successfully teach the group of eager (?) learners. If you’re teaching the lesson, you’re seriously risking having some students in the classroom who already know what you’re saying and will end up finding the whole thing way too boring, and having another share of students who are still not quite ready to learn what you’re teaching them.

If teachers have the benefit of teaching a level or book twice, they should look at it from the right angle. It’s not about repeating procedures. It’s about getting in touch with those students who are there with you during the learning moment. Learning is dialogic, and it’s much easier to learn when the person who’s trying to teach us is actually willing to listen to us. How often have you lost your temper when you need to call the help desk for any kind of problem and the person on the other side just keeps repeating the same answers over and over again, clearly reading from a manual that he or she has been given and not bothering to truly listening to you so that YOUR problem can be fixed, not the problem that is described in the manual? If teachers insist on simply repeating what they had planned for a class of the same level / coursebook but different students, that’s exactly what’s going to happen – you’re reading your answers from a manual and never actually caring about what your students in the classroom have got to say. You just don’t listen. As if this weren’t bad enough, sometimes these teachers really can’t understand why this particular group doesn’t seem to grasp what he or she is saying when the previous group had no problems whatsoever.

It may come across as a fictitious story, but I have already seen that many times in my teaching career. To be perfectly honest, I’ve been advised to do so when I was in the very early days of being a teacher. Fortunately, or at least I like to think so, the very first time that happened to me, even though I was teaching the same level with the same coursebook, the two groups had students from such different age range that it was just impossible to do the same things with both classes. I also like to think that it was this particular experience that helped me understand it first hand that two groups are never the same. Teachers have to respond to the needs of their groups, and that is why having a whole course pre-planned for teachers is highly unlikely to succeed.

Next time you get the same level again, try ignoring your notes and lesson plans. You will obviously know what will come next, it’ll be easier for you to anticipate difficulties, but don’t simply assume the current group will have the same difficulties that the previous group had. Make sure you take advantage of already having taught the same level before to help students, not to hinder their learning. Practice makes perfect, but only when done appropriately. I think we can define stupidity as repeating the same things over and over again and expecting a different result. In this situation, you’re likely to repeat the same thing over the years only to see that you’ll never be able to be as successful as that very first time you devised your lesson bearing those students who were in class in mind. And if you fail to realise you don’t teach the lesson, but you teach people, you’ll never understand why you’re not being as successful as before.

On a final note, if simply repeating the lesson were bound to be successful, then computer would surely be able to replace teachers. I’m awfully sorry, but I don’t think that’s going to be the case. If not ever, not in a long while. Teaching involves a lot more than simply passing on information.

_______________________

* I’d like to thank @wbarboza for suggesting this topic. I’m still looking forward to his guest post, and, yes, I’m making it public because I know he’s been up to his ears with his studies and perhaps a little push might give him the boost to write it! If you still haven’t started following him, I recommend you do so. Many thanks for your support with the comments and feedback on the posts, Wallace!

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  1. January 11, 2011 at 9:37 pm

    Henrick,
    While I agree 110% with what you said, perhaps teaching the same group twice and thinking that you can switch into automatic mode in the second one does free up the attentional resources that novice teachers might need to deal with the unexpected. So, maybe – and I say maybe – going through the motions (as it were) procedurally might paradoxically enable teachers to feel confident to work with “what is there”, in the words of Donald Freeman.

    • January 12, 2011 at 8:12 am

      Hi Luiz,

      I see your point and I second it. However, I can’t help but think that not all teachers have had any kind of preparation in order to understand and appreciate the differences from one group to another. It’s pretty much up to the teacher to be sensible enough so as to take advantage of a better knowledge of the coursebook. But there’s no way I can deny that knowing your way around the syllabus enables you to focus on other aspects of teaching. :)

      Cheers!

  2. January 11, 2011 at 9:49 pm

    Henrick,
    There could be no better time for me to read this, don’t you think? Hahaha
    I must say that while I taught my friends I came across this situation. More than once I had to give the same chemistry class to different friends and every time this happened I had to come up with new ways to solve their doubts… Also, I realised that if you keep giving the same classes every time, you are prone to get bored and the quality of your work won’t be the same…

    See ya,
    Shimabuko

    • January 12, 2011 at 8:16 am

      Hi Shima,

      That’s the thing! If you’re just repeating the same lesson over and over again, it’s likely to get boring both for the teacher and for the learner. What’s important is that teachers realise that teaching is an activity that requires interaction, and that each individual student will have their own way of looking at things. If this is understood, then lesons might even be about the same topic, but they’ll always be different from one another. Needless to say, other factors come into play when teaching and planning your lessons…

  3. January 11, 2011 at 9:59 pm

    henrich,

    An important topic that many might not see as so important on first glance. However, as you, I’m really a strict advocate of humanistic teaching — and I think this means several things that your post brought to mind.

    1. What of the power of students to choose the teacher they would like to study with? Even if they don’t pay the money, shouldn’t ultimately (and for very important humanistic reasons) this be their decision. Even if that means 60 in one class and 2 in another? We say we believe in supply and demand and the consumer knows best but this is seldom practiced in TESOL and in language schools.

    There is the problem of “fit”. I remember my worst experience as a grade 4 teacher was the year end meeting. It was like I was a Nazi saying, “left” and “right”. We had a staff meeting of all the grade 4/5 teachers. Each graduating student’s name came up and we’d discuss whose class they’d go to the next year. Ultimately, it was the teacher with the most power and experience that got all the golden eggs – no matter what the polemics. It disgusted me. We treated students like cattle and numbers…

    2. Each group is different, so different. It is our job to recognize this and as “artists” be skilled to find the resources, delivery, personality, organization to match. We don’t have to be perfect but we have to try. However, standardized curriculum just ruins this process and effort. It is too narrow a high way given the demands of teaching. The problem IS the textbook and standard curriculum IMHO.
    Just my thoughts and sympathize with the dilemas. We teach those in front of us – but it could be easier if all, teacher included, came of their own free will. [if there is free will , is another conversation!]

    • January 12, 2011 at 8:40 am

      Hi David,

      That’s an interesting thought. What sprang to mind was the movie “The Wave”, in which students could choose which courses they wanted to attend for a week, and teachers had some kind of freedom to choose what to teach. My only concern is what kind of judgment would students make when choosing teacher X. One of the things I’ve seen is that it’s very easy for teachers to be popular with students, especially teenagers. Please, don’t get me wrong. I do believe teenagers are able to make their choices, but sometimes they fail to see the big picture. I know I did so at times when I was a teen. I remember that when I thought about my best teachers 15 years ago, those were the ones who would be a lot more lenient and let me get away with not doing the homework or not even bother if I was paying attention in class. After a short while, though, this changed quite a lot. Nowadays it’s clear that the best teachers I had were those who actually cared enough to help me with my learning. They didn’t care whether I liked them or not then. They were there to help me learn, not to be popular.

      This problem, however, can be solved in my opinion. It depends a lot on the teachers and coordinators or DoS. If they hire the right people, than it doesn’t really matter who the students choose as there will be learning taking place. Perhaps I’m just relating to something that’s too personal, but I had to get it off my chest. :)

      And the though of separating students as you mentioned, yes, I also think it’s disgusting. This must have been horrible to put up with. :(

      I can clearly see your second point as well. That, however, leads us back to another problem, at least here. In order for that to happen, we really need good teachers. Unfortunately, I can say that even the best universities in Brazil fail big time when it comes to preparing teachers to face a classroom with students. I can’t see how to solve that kind of problem unless we tackle the crux of the matter – teachers have got to be better prepared and a lot more valued than they are.

      Wow… many, many thanks for the comment that’s triggered lots of thoughts as well. :)

  4. January 11, 2011 at 11:21 pm

    Hi Henrick,

    Perhaps the best prevention is not to assign teachers the same level twice in the same day for all the reasons you mentioned. Having been a DoS myself, I understood the desire for cutting down the prep time and realised that if I gave teachers the option, they’d take it often regardless of knowing the same exact lesson wouldn’t work perfectly with two different groups. There’s almost too much temptation to teach this way when given the opportunity since all teachers are overworked and mostly underpaid. As a result, administrators may simply need to work with the lowest common denominator by assignment various levels to each teacher during the session.

    Having said this, I do believe that teaching from a coursebook session after session is less likely to result in the same behaviour. Teachers definitely have ‘old favourites’ and ways of working the with coursebook they’ve learnt through repetition, but with simply the amount of time going by from the last time they taught a particular unit, it’s easier and more inherent that the way in which is was taught will change from the last session to the new one. Bottom line, it’s a safer bet that assigning the same level in succeeding sessions will breed familiarity and confidence in said teacher, but also encourage a varying up of how the material is used.

    On the complete flip side, variety is the spice of life, so they say…

    Cheers,
    Tyson

    • January 12, 2011 at 8:49 am

      Hi Tyson,

      I think you pretty much nailed it when you said there is “too much temptation to teach this way when given the opportunity since all teachers are overworked and mostly underpaid”. I can’t help but thinking about the situation in Brazil. Just the other day there were some reports on this regard – it seems they only worry about this every four years when a new president is elected and then forget about it again. Anyway, it’s a fact that teachers earn a lot less than other professionals that have the same level of education and training. To make matters worse even worse here, it’s not uncommon for you to see teachers being paid substantially less than people who have only finished high school. When you think about it, it’s easy to understand why so many good teachers end up choosing another path and leaving the classroom. If there’s no respect or no value from society, one ends up losing hopes of any kind of change. And there’s always that moment in life when you just need to make enough money to provide for a family… but I digress.

      You raise a very interesting point there, and one I agree entirely. It’s a lot easier to plan and cater for each different group once you know what to expect from the material. I can say I agree with you when it comes to a certain kind of teaching where teachers have certain freedom of choice. However, there are lots of language institutes where all lessons are already prepared and teachers are not allowed to change a thing. I guess this is where the problem lies – when teachers start mindlessly repeating what they’ve done before.

      Many thanks for the interesting thoughts and for raising other points of interest on the matter. :)

      • January 16, 2011 at 1:30 am

        The pay situation is so backwards! Here, at least in publicly funded education, ESL tends to be treated as the ugly stepsister of education, with the least security, lowest pay and worst working conditions (though nothing too extreme).

        RE the coursebook/LP situation, one thing I did was created binders for each level that my school ran and encouraged teachers to add in all their supplemental material after each session so eventually each unit of a coursebook would have a plethora of suggestions and supplements to individualise lessons. Unfortuntately, many binders didn’t get too full…

      • February 7, 2011 at 11:29 pm

        Hi Tyson,

        I’m sorry for not replying to your comments sooner, but I was traveling and in charge of a rather large group of students, and Internet access wasn’t exactly the easiest thing I could get when I had the time to do my own things.

        Paying seems to be backwards everywhere. It’ll snowball pretty soon as ill prepared professionals are sent out to do what they are supposed to do. I only hope someone in politics is able to see at least 10 years from now.

        I actually had the same problem with binders and, even worse, diigo groups – come on, it’s just a matter of a couple of clicks… go figure. :(

  5. January 12, 2011 at 3:30 am

    Very good points you raise here, Henrick.

    As a DoS, I was also concerned about this issue of “same page/same plan” and ended up creating a teacher planning/reflection manual that catered to the idea of a single generalised lesson plan, which could then be adapted and evaluated through reflection across more than one group of learners.

    I actually blogged about it last year, with an example of the manual itself, here:

    http://jasonrenshaw.typepad.com/jason_renshaws_web_log/2010/05/without-reflection-we-may-be-planning-to-stand-still.html

    In essence, I had nothing against one general plan or outline for multiple groups at the same level – to me the crucial issues were the ability of the teacher to customise that general level and then reflect for each of the different groups.

    As I say in the post, the planning is almost inconsequential compared to the post-lesson reflection…

    Anyway, I may be just repeating you here, Henrick (or, I’d like to think, supporting your main points!).

    Cheers,

    – Jason

  6. January 12, 2011 at 5:19 am

    Aah, yes. After teaching the same course nine different ways to nine groups of students, I finally got a crucial handout free of all errors. Then the syllabus changed! (Laughs.)

    • January 12, 2011 at 8:51 am

      I’m literally laughing out loud as I read this comment, Phil! How often has this happened to us all, huh?! :)

  7. Luke Meddings
    January 12, 2011 at 9:12 am

    Another great piece, Henrick, as you can imagine it resonated strongly with me.

    The first modern ELT coursebooks were strongly influenced by the notion of a manual that would take learners from A-Z (or the SLA equivalent). I need to dig out the reference from interviews I did with Louis Alexander (not online as from mid-90’s, I literally need to dig the copy out of my shed!) where he referenced Pitman training for typists as a model in terms of clarity and usability. And I was struck (well, somewhat amazed) to read in a recent interview with Raymond Murphy that ‘making things clear and simple’ interests him more than grammar itself: ‘I think I might have been good at writing instruction manuals for washing machines or something like that’, he reflects at http://www.eltnews.com/features/interviews/ He is being modest in the interview, but it is a telling remark given the ubiquity and influence on teacher/learner practice of the English Grammar in Use model.

    From a school management point of view, I think we reify levels in ways that do our learners few favours, and ultimately do our teachers few favours either. Assigning two classes and two coursebooks at two different levels leads us to imagine that a) two classes with the same level have the same needs and b) two classes with different levels have entirely different needs.

    I think the manual model is arguably valid when people have no or very limited access to communicative input from / interaction in the target L2 (and one can probably trace its heritage back to grammar translation in those ‘dead’ classical languages in which there can be no communicative input or interaction!) – but it is of limited value, in my opinion, when it comes to English as it is experienced and used in the world today.

    • January 13, 2011 at 10:09 am

      Hi Luke,

      If you can ever find that interview, and if it’s easily accessible, I’d certainly like to have a look at it. I’ve just finished reading Murphy’s interview – great piece and very humble indeed. I really liked it when he said that it all came from students’ needs and requests. It wasn’t anything that he thought that would be successful, it was just a matter of truly listening to students and trying to help them with what they wanted.

      The idea of teaching all levels the same way might also be a way to be sure that certain things will definitely be covered with all students regardless of the teacher. If I could allow myself the “I have a dream” speech, it would be to finally be able to trust that all teachers had the necessary kind of training and worry just as much about students’ learning so as to let them do their job in the classroom the way we believe it should be done. However, this is still far from my reality, which means that even in an environment where there’s widespread access to communicative input, I still see the need for a little bit of standardised procedures. Nevertheless, my opinion is the same as yours – ideally, it is of limited value in today’s world. We’ve been working towards that goal – hope we can make it happen. :)

      Many thanks for such insightful comments!

  8. January 14, 2011 at 11:37 am

    Henrick,
    Thanks for a great article. (And what great commenters you have! Food for thought for sure!) As have been said in previous comments, I agree 110% with what you’re saying here. Classrooms are not about your lesson – they are about your students. When we forget about that, I think our students start to get short changed, and we teachers begin to lose one of our vital signs: passion.

    Maybe not all topics a teacher teaches stirs them on a passionate level. (Diphthongs, for example, don’t really do it for me. ) But when we start to repeat lessons as is, time and time again, part of us dies. (I think.)

    Teachers are insanely busy people though, and having the same lesson content can be a big help and time saver. One thing that I often purposefully do is reuse and recycle lesson content for multiple classes at the same level. (Saves time.) But I still open my planner and make adjustments which personalize the content for each group.

    For example: I often get to work with upper intermediate/advanced level learners. (Business English setting.) A common interest for many of my students across groups is leadership. So I’ll go to TED talks, or Harvard Business and find a video which speaks to leadership. That becomes my core content for two or three groups. But the activities I plan for that content will change depending on my class. For some classes, I design intense detail oriented listening activities. For others, using the same content, I’ll design activities which help them focus on listening for the main ideas of the presentation – then I have them write it up as a report.

    I’m not sure where I read up about this strategy, but for me it works like magic. I save time, but I keep personalization and my own passion on the topic up as well. So try: Repeat content, but change your activities to meet your students’ needs.

    My two cents. Thanks for this great post!

    • February 7, 2011 at 11:09 pm

      Hi Aaron,

      Thanks for adding yet another great comment to this thread. Awfully sorry for not replying to it sooner, but I had to go on a (wonderful) trip with (amazing) students and time was a major issue, as well as Internet access.

      I really agree with you when you say that teachers are insanely busy people, and we do need to find certain strategies to save us time. Keeping track of activities is actually great, but it must be done as you said – teachers have to make sure the activities fit that particular group and make all necessary adaptations. What I don’t believe in is in magic pills, or magic lessons (in this case) that works for all levels and students without any kind of adaptation.

      Many thanks for your two cents! :)

  9. February 5, 2011 at 11:33 am

    Hi Henrick,

    Yes I totally agree. Also if the teacher is going through the same material over and over surely their enthusiasm for the material drops a little each time? Teachers set the tone for the class. If their tone is one of slight boredom and going through the motions students will also pick up on that vibe. I think it’s an issue teachers need to be aware of and the focus should be teaching for the class and adapting material accordingly.

    • February 7, 2011 at 11:30 pm

      Hi there,

      That’s absolutely right. Teachers do set the tone for the class, and all teachers should be aware of that.

      Thanks for the comment.

  1. January 11, 2011 at 9:51 pm
  2. August 5, 2011 at 11:37 am

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