From Teaching to Consulting and Back Again
16th January 2017
by Debra Marsh: Associate Consultant
From ELT Teacher to Learning Design Consultant …
A quick glance at the education section of my LinkedIn profile and you’ll see I’m a languages graduate (French and German) and a qualified EFL teacher. Look through the experience section of the profile and here you’ll see I have over 13 years classroom teaching experience, although this does date back to pre-1997. Post-1997, you’ll see my career path began to change when I had the opportunity to lead one of the very first projects to develop an online English language course.
Since these early days of online learning all those years ago in the previous century, I have worked on numerous projects and held a number of posts in education and publishing. I’ve worked with teachers all over the world to implement online and blended learning, and more recently explored the opportunities presented through the flipped classroom. I have also conducted research and presented at conferences and published in the field.
… and ‘back’ to teaching again.
Then, a couple of weeks ago I decided to go ‘back’ to teaching.
Why I hear you ask? In a recent study (Johnson and March 2015) I, along with my research partner Christopher Johnson, concluded that:
A flipped model will not overnight provide the ‘optimal’ learning environment […]. However, the literature and the research demonstrate that the ability to extend student access to course content outside of the classroom through the technology (and in so doing increase opportunities for meaningful student-to-teacher and student-to-student interaction in the classroom) does offer a potentially exciting model.
So, in answer to this question: Why? Quite simply, I wanted to understand first-hand what is was like to implement flipped learning. I have been working with teachers for over 15 years helping them to face the challenges of using technology in their teaching. I have regularly taught demonstration classes as part of a teacher training programme, or as part of the digital development process to test concept and pedagogical approach, but it has been a very long time since I had my own class to teach over an extended period of time.
I wanted to experience what I, and others (So and Bonk, 2010; Artino, 2008; Doughtyet al., 2009; Fang, 2010; Salcedo, 2010, Senior, 2010; Vlachopoulos and Cowan, 2010;Yuksel, 2009), have acknowledged as the significant change taking place in the classroom when we flip the learning, and how this impacts directly on the role of the teacher. I wanted to design and implement a flipped classroom approach not simply from a learning design perspective or a research based proof of concept; but for me to fully understand from the teacher’s perspective what is really like to fundamentally change a pedagogical approach with which the students are so accustomed.
I was given a class of year three degree students studying management and strategy at the University of Montpellier here in France. These students have three hours a week per semester of English, which amounts to in reality 54 contacts hours over the academic year. Due to the full nature of their timetable, English classes are often at the end of a very full day of lectures.
Classes in French universities often start at 8.00 a.m. and students are quite used to classes finishing 12 hours later at 8 p.m. They are also quite used to sitting for extended periods of time listening to lectures and taking endless notes, they are much less used to actively participating in a class, and tend to have little confidence in their ability to say more than three words at a time in English, despite the fact they have been learning English since the age of 10.
Class sizes for languages are usually between 15 and 20, the classrooms are large and well equipped with Wi-Fi and projectors. So far so good, and I have already learned so much.
At the time of writing this blog I have only taught a couple of classes but already the experience has taught me so much.
Flipping my classroom requires a different approach to lesson planning and takes time
There are no text books for this English course, so there is no expectation from the students that we follow a set method. This of course was exactly what I wanted when I took the class on. I could do what I wanted and therefore implement a flipped approach without worrying about the need to keep to a course book.
What I had not fully taken on board, was the amount of time it would take me to prepare my lessons. Not only did I have to find appropriate content, but I had to plan for the work before class, so my students were well prepared to take part in the activities in class, then I had to plan for three hours of ‘interaction’ during which the students are able to use the language and then I had to plan for some follow up after class to provide a learning summary of what had been learned. At the same time, I needed to be mindful that these students have a very full timetable and not much ‘spare’ time to do the pre and post class work.
The student profile has not changed that much since I was in the classroom.
‘Digital natives’, ‘millennials’, Generation Me, these students may well be. Yes, there is internet in the classroom; yes I can easily project content from my laptop on a screen and yes all my students have a smartphone, but this does not necessarily make it any easier to teach a language, let alone flip the classroom.
My students now, just as my students 30 years ago, were initially reluctant to speak to each other English. It has taken them some time to get used to working in pairs and groups, but at least now when I tell them to walk around the class and change groups they do not take their chairs with them, and they are beginning to enjoy the group work. So much so they asked for the next class not to do any activities on their computers and mobile phones in class, they just wanted to use pen and paper and talk.
My students now, just as my students 30 years ago, groan at the thought of doing any extra work outside the classroom. When they do it, then it is last minute, rushed and with little application or focus. I’m still working on strategies to encourage work outside the classroom, but it has meant a rethink of what I do in class as I cannot always rely on everyone having done the prep work.
I still have to ‘teach’, because that is my job
I had notions of being able to step back in the classroom and hand over the learning to my students. I had notions of my students embracing this independence and thank me for not talking too much at the front of the class. I am confident at the end of the semester I will be able to do this, but it was evident from the very first class that I could not take this approach straight away. My students have to be prepared and supported to take on what for them is a new and very different role. I cannot change overnight what they have been used to all their school and university lives. Lewis (2009) is quite right when he concludes
The role of the teacher remains central to this ‘flipped’ model of BL, for ‘technology is nothing without a teacher and a plan.
… and the most important lesson of all
The most important lesson of all is how important it is for teacher trainers, researchers and consultants to fully understand the reality of teaching, and to be frank the only way to do this is to go ‘back’ to the classroom. I know I have so much more to learn and I can’t wait.
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