During a recent meeting with Guy Claxton, he mentioned that teachers sometimes find it tricky to thread learning power into teaching modern foreign languages. I get that. About 8 years ago, I upped sticks and moved in Argentina, seeking adventure and the opportunity to learn Spanish. To fund living in different places in Argentina, I set my sights on teaching English – I ended up teaching in some fascinating places – I taught English through stories in a high achieving and welcoming school at the end of the world in Ushuaia and taught small group lessons and private lessons to business men and women in Rosario. I met many challenges during my time in Argentina, not least of which was finding a way to incorporate learning power into lessons with young children who spoke little English and to fluent adults – I suddenly had a very diverse range of classes. How was I going to adapt the learning-to-learn strategies I had so embedded in my primary setting to a completely new context?
It took a while, but I eventually began to think of ideas that would develop my students’ learning power. If you are a language teacher who would like to weave learning power into your classes, some of these ideas might help. I began by threading learning power into the classes I felt most comfortable with – the ones who were the most keen to learn and I knew would be “up for it”! Once I gained in confidence and had experimented a little, I expanded and adapted my ideas to other classes and individuals. Here are some of the things I did:
1) Exploring the language of learning
I taught a lively, engaged group of 13-year-olds. Their English was intermediate level – they could express most of their ideas but needed to extend and challenge themselves and begin to notice and learn from their mistakes. They were also all great friends, which meant there was a bond and trust in the group, but also meant they sometimes got over-excited and distracted.
I wanted these students to reflect on and understand their learning habits. We printed words and phrases that described good and bad learning habits – persevere, easily distracted, collaborates/learns well with others and put them out on the tables. The students worked together to discuss the meanings of these words and how they related to learning. They discussed how they were useful (or not!) and why they would need them to progress in their English learning. It brought about a fruitful discussion, as they each shared their ideas. We displayed these learning habits on the wall and referred back to them during future lessons. It definitely worked well to keep students focused and on task, as when they began to get distracted, a friend or myself could point back to being absorbed in learning, the students would now understand that this was important for them and their peers. It was also good vocabulary development for their English and we explored how to change the verbs into adjectives, then used them in our writing.
Is there a group or class you could use this with? Perhaps a GCSE or A level group? Do you think it could also help them to stay on task and help their friends to learn?
2) Developing a relish of challenge
The same group of children needed a nudge to challenge themselves. Like I said, they could express themselves but they often went for the easy option rather than pushing themselves to using more complex grammar (such as using the past simple, instead of present perfect).
In order to play around with this, we taught them some fun English phrases, which they loved to use. If their learning was easy, they would say “Easy peasy, lemon squeezy.” If it was hard, they would refer to it as “rock hard”. They loved learning these niche ways of expressing themselves. They started to notice when they weren’t challenging themselves and highlighting when they were pushing themselves. We used this to reflect on writing and when they were speaking. Using fun phrases, somehow took the pressure away – if they said something was “rock hard”, they could laugh about it and not feel like a failure.
What fun phrases related to learning could you incorporate into your French or German lessons? I bet you have some phrases that the children would love to learn and would be useful for them to reflect on the difficulty of their learning.
3) Developing a relish of challenge and a love of learning with adults
I had a group of adult learners who had been given free English lessons by their company. This meant that some students were really keen, but there were many who were disengaged and really didn’t want to be there. One way I combated this was by making lessons really purposeful and engaging. The group had to work on instruction writing, so they worked in pairs to design their own smoothies. I brought a blender into the glass so they could explain and demonstrate how to make the smoothies. Their English was also intermediate level, so I introduced them to Innocent Smoothies (which were unheard of in Argentina at the time). They learned loads of phrasal verbs and interesting colloquialisms, like “pop out”. We wrote to Innocent Smoothies with our recipes and instructions and they emailed us back- even though they were all adults, they couldn’t help but be delighted by their reply, instructing us how to peel a watermelon. This example relates to Guy Claxton’s Design Principles in his new book, due to be published in December 2017, which include designing engaged things to learn. It seems simple to plan around a real-life context, but how often do we really get a chance to do this? To make an impact on the world or interact with it in a real and purposeful way? It definitely made a difference to the adults I taught – they gave me some excellent feedback on my classes.
On top of that, we designed a scale which allowed them to level how much effort they were making in the class that day. It was called “ponerse las pilas ” which literally means “put your batteries in” AKA “make an effort”. I made a fairly large picture of a battery and talked about those batteries that show out how much power you have left when you squeeze both ends. We talked about the effect of making an effort in their learning, their colleagues’ learning and how I felt as a teacher. This wasn’t presented as a way of telling them off; more as an invitation to use the hour we had together as productively as possible.
The combination of planning meaningful lessons and having an open discussion about effort made a huge impact on the attitude of the learners in that class.
4) Developing “could be” marking schemes
With all my classes, I developed a new marking scheme for their writing. It was a code that meant they really had to engage with the text and think about their mistakes. Instead of ticking, crossing and using codes like “sp”, I developed a simple colour code that told them what kind of mistakes they could have made. In this way, the students had to work out their mistakes for themselves. My favourite code was underlining in yellow, which mean that what they had written was okay, but could they think of another, perhaps more exciting, way of expressing the same thing? This really opened up language for them and enabled students to think carefully about interesting and exciting ways of expressing themselves instead of sticking to what came most easily – to enjoy experimenting and playing around with language.
I often got students to correct their writing together in pairs. The students would notice common mistakes and use them to learn from and improve for next time. We had really useful discussions about “silly mistakes” and “clever mistakes” – Silly mistakes being when you’ve made a mistake because you were distracted or not trying your best and good mistakes being ones you’ve made when you’ve challenged yourself. Students made lists of words and grammar they needed to practise . I was really impressed with one of my adult groups who created a shared Google Doc with a list of common mistakes, corrections and working examples – this idea came from them, not me, and was really useful for ironing out common errors in the group.
I’m sure I did lots of other things being 8 years ago, I can’t remember them all now. When I do, I’ll post them. I would love to hear from any MFL teachers who are trying to develop learning power in their classes too – challenges and successes!