In this article, Dr Ken Beatty talks about the importance of updating our teaching practices to reflect modern demands of our students.
Ken is the series consultant of Startup, a course that helps you personalize your class, focus on different themes and sub-skills, and teach flexibly. With Startup, you can meet individual and group needs by extending and differentiating classroom instructions. Students benefit from interactive activities and videos with grammar and pronunciation coaches, character-based conversations, and topical talks. They build 21st century skills and develop their creative and critical thinking abilities.
No more piano tops: The skills today’s students need
A few years ago, at the start of my career, I sat with two other professors and recalled my work at a teacher’s university in rural China. “I visited a wonderful English class held at a school that couldn’t afford desks; students simply sat on benches,” I said respectfully.
“That’s nothing,” said the second professor, boastfully. “I visited an English class with no walls or books.” He talked about an inspirational lesson held in a city in India where students sat outdoors on a carpet and wrote their letters and numbers in the surrounding dust.
“That’s nothing,” said the third professor, triumphantly. “I visited an English class with no teacher.”
Well, not exactly.
That class in the countryside in Zambia was held under a tree, and the local teacher was also a part-time taxi driver and was sometimes summoned at the last moment to drive customers. When he did so, the students would chat and wait to see if he might return soon and, if not, would disperse for the day.
Are classrooms really more modern today?
We may think that our classrooms are far more modern than these examples, but what exactly has changed?
The answer, sadly, is “not much.”
Aside from some minor differences in furniture, many classrooms look and operate much in the way they did 200 years ago. They are overwhelmingly teacher-centered and learning materials are often still limited to books and workbooks.
Teachers may write on whiteboards with erasable pens instead of on blackboards with chalk, but the methodology may not have changed beyond the classic approach of remembering through repetition.
Have attitudes towards teaching and learning shifted?
In some cases, teachers’ attitudes have not changed. My first class at university was an auditorium-based geography lecture led by the tiny but fierce Dr J. Ross Mackay (1915-2014), a world expert on permafrost. He strutted into the lecture hall and, instead of welcoming us, began with a warning, “Ah, 300 students. Next year probably half of you will drop out. In four years, I expect 20 of you will graduate in Geography. 20 years after that, only one of you will have made it as a professional geographer.”
We were all stunned, but it was a clear explanation of the university’s attitude of sink or swim. Either we competed as hard as possible to be the best, or we would fall by the wayside. Some teachers still feel this way, anticipating that each student in their classes will fall somewhere on an imaginary bell curve of marks.
Fortunately, for many teachers, that attitude has changed today. Reasons why include the fact that most universities and language schools have adopted a more humanistic approach to teaching. Student-centered approaches that encourage continuous feedback and help to ensure that every student succeeds are rising.
Also, with more students than ever before going on to study English as adults, the opportunities for them have expanded and language institutions need to compete. Students can pick and choose which institution to attend and vote with their feet if they feel a class or a college is not meeting their needs. Even in small towns with limited educational options, students have the choice of face-to-face instruction or attend classes online.
What new teaching skills are needed today?
Contemporary adult learners require new approaches and materials that address new needs in their social, professional, and academic English. New teacher approaches include being able to adjust lessons and tasks to work with more able and less able learners. New materials with a more engaging approach to contemporary topics and blended learning opportunities extend classroom instruction. The recent innovation of phone-based instruction complements what’s going on in the classroom. This seems to be far more effective than gamified apps that students soon discard.
Regardless of the delivery method, the major focus is still on reading, writing, listening, and speaking. Many sub skills are also necessary, such as active listening skills, pronunciation skills for speaking, critical thinking for reading, and organizational skills for writing.
These new sub-skills recognize the new language challenges facing students. Genres have moved far beyond paragraphs, essays, and reports. Today’s students are reading – and writing – emails, blog posts, and computer presentations. In terms of listening and speaking, they need new skills around understanding and explaining data, participating in seminars, and making persuasive presentations.
Among the greatest skills students need today are lifelong learning skills. There is seldom enough time in the classroom to teach a language and students need to be able to continue learning both English and new job skills. Today’s students should be able to self-assess their own abilities, research ways to improve, and think critically about new ideas they encounter.
Is change necessary?
Do we need to change our teaching and our classrooms? After all, the students I described without desks, walls, books, or even a full-time teacher probably all learned to speak English. But we should consider what Buckminster Fuller (1895-1983) says about old solutions:
‘If you are in a shipwreck and all the boats are gone, a piano top buoyant enough to keep you afloat that comes along makes a fortuitous life preserver. But this is not to say that the best way to design a life preserver is in the form of a piano top. I think that we are clinging to a great many piano tops in accepting yesterday’s fortuitous contrivings as constituting the only means for solving a given problem.’ (Fuller, 1969, n.p.)
Although we continue to use old methods and see some success, we have to remember that students sometimes learn despite the existing approaches we use to teach, not because of them. Let’s try to identify and re-think all those piano tops in our classrooms.
- Fuller, B. (1969). Operating manual for spaceship Earth. New York: Simon and Schuster.
Developing 21st century skills with StartUp
StartUp is an innovative eight-level, multi-skills general English course built around the Global Scale of English (GSE). It is a complete language program that motivates 21st century learners with relevant and media-rich content. It also provides teachers with robust support to make teaching personalizable and easy.