30 May 2011

Paying Attention in Class

In my previous post, I mentioned the recent ELF conference in Hong Kong. During the conference, I attended an interesting panel session with Jennifer Jenkins, Barbara Seidlhofer and Anna Mauranen as panellists, dealing with questions submitted by the participants.

After reading out the first question, the panellist said, "I think the best person to answer that question is David Deterding, who is sitting at the back." This was a bit unfortunate, as I had not actually been paying attention very closely, so I was not too sure what the question was. In actual fact, I'll admit that I had been reading my email on a laptop computer when the question was being read out.

Of course, this was rather embarrassing, and it serves me right for not paying attention. But then I thought about it some more, and in reality I don't believe that we should expect people to pay close attention all the time, either in class or when they are attending lectures. Multi-tasking is the norm nowadays, and we should expect and even encourage our students to do this.

In my previous post, I discussed how the concept of getting rid of native-speaker norms for language teaching is hard for teachers to deal with. Now I am proposing something even more radical: don't expect your students to sit there listening to you all the time in class. Let them read something else, or do whatever they want.

And I would like to emphasise that I myself do not expect my students to sit there like complete zombies listening to me all the time in class. I encourage them to bring a book and read it if they want, to look at their SMS messages or answer their email if they choose so long as they don't disturb others, or even go to sleep so long as they don't snore. If I teach at a pace that is suitable for the weaker students, then the brightest ones will find some of the material rather easy, and then they should be doing something else. We all need to use our time effectively, and this includes the time we spend in class.

It seems to me that classroom teaching tends to be stuck somewhere in the middle ages. We could be achieving so much, enabling effective learning to take place with varied, exciting materials, but instead we insist on our students sitting in rows, passively and obediently. When I was in school, I was bored stiff in class every single day, and I find it tragic that education has not improved very much since then. But maybe the real aim of school-based education is not actually to encourage learning but rather to ensure that young people are trained to be passive and obedient.

During the conference, I attended an interesting talk by Henry Widdowson, and he asked how much of our teaching is geared to the needs of the learner and how much is actually centred on the demands of the teacher. Or at least I think that's what he said. Actually, I admit I was quite tired at the time, so I may have dozed off once in a while. I just hope I didn't snore.