The Secret DOS

The Little Emperor Strikes Back

What’s the f***ing point?

Fear not, mes lecteurs: despondency has not overtaken me in a repugnant Audi A8 that flaunts utter disdain for the rules of the road while expecting all the other suckers to follow them to the letter. This post will not be about soul-searching angst (hmmm…it might be….) or depressed reflections on the state of the world (hmmm…it might be…). What it will be, I hope, is a potentially (and uncharacteristically) helpful musing on the value of a syllabus, and a method -for those who feel it might be useful- for how to come up with lesson aims.

What’s prompted this sojourn into teaching methods and an abandonment of the trademark vituperative scorn that people come here to read? Well, for years I have had to shoulder the cross of teaching observations and time after time, Annelise, I have noticed that writing lesson aims is not as much of an industry-strength as I think it should be. People really seem to struggle with it, despite now being the glorious summer of the House of Outcomes.

Allons-y!

The first thing that we need to consider is whether or not planning and stuff is actually worth bothering with. Dogme says NO! Actually, Dogme may appear to say no. I don’t really think it does. Dogme, as I recently heard in an old Teflology podcast actually just looks at planning differently. Dogme is more about planning for whatever eventuality and requires a fairly good knowledge of the students, of language, of potential topics, of techniques…None of which is to turn Dogme into a heavily-nuanced craft only accessible to grizzled pros.  I have long believed that Original Dogme is obscured by Mainstream Dogme. Original Dogme is basically learning a language by using a language and having someone there to give you a bit of a steer. Original Dogme has worked a treat for millions of people who have found themselves forced into living in a new language community because of war, financial ruin, family relocation etc. But even Original Dogme has a plan and a syllabus of sorts…although very much one determined by the learner rather than the teacher. And anyway, for the sake of this blogpost, the answer to the question has to be YES. We need to plan.

Now, interestingly…sorry….”interestingly”, plan can have two meanings (more are available) which suit my needs down to the ground. Firstly, it can mean something like thinking about arrangements in advance.  But it can also mean something like a kind of map showing the layout of an area or a building (or a lesson, if you ask me). The first meaning has a sense of present thinking about the way the future should go; the second could refer to a representation of how a previous bit of activity looks (with hindsight). In short, you can plan before or after the event.

From interestingly we move on to opinionatedly: it is my opinion that most English language lessons are pretty woefully planned. Building on my cherry-picked definitions of the word plan, many planned English lessons are like: We’re going away next week./Oh, really? Where to?/Not here. Or, with the second sense of planning being post facto: And over here there’s like a thing./ A what?/Oh, just a whatchamacallit. And consequently, English language lessons tend to be pretty pointless experiences that are all predicated on the belief that if you just force people to engage in English, it might be (but we’ll never know because we never really bother to assess) that some language sticks.

People, people, PEOPLE! IT DOESN’T HAVE TO BE THAT WAY!

I don’t see that lesson planning (even if only for an observation by your Secret DoS) has to be particularly challenging. But it does require unthinking acceptance of some a priori nuggets. These are they.

  1. When we go into a language classroom, we should have some fairly specific goals in mind. All your talk of raising awareness and expanding the learners’ lexical range and practising the use of the future perfect are all horseshit. Why? Read on.
  2. The idea of having a goal is so that you can actually attempt measurement of whether or not the combined efforts of all participants was worth it. If you like football (and I am told that some people do), you will understand that the goal is to put the ball in the opponent’s net more times than they put it in yours. The goal is not to play like really well and to like practise kicking the ball really cool. The number of times you put the ball in the net is reasonably objective. How cool you were and how well you played are unhelpful measures and you are the least well-equipped person to even hold the measuring tape. How often do our awareness-raisers actually take any measurement of how aware the students are at the start of a lesson and how aware they are at the end? For your own dignity, people, scratch these shitty little words out of your professional lexicon.
  3. The lesson should be built around the goals that you have set. Not around the book that you have been given. Not around a language point. Not around a Really Fun Activity That (I Claim Based On My Own Preferences And Laziness When It Comes To Crafting A Lesson) The Learners Love. The only reason you should do anything in the class is to further your progress towards that goal. Unless you decide to abandon that goal and do something entirely different…in which case, you will go with Meaning 2 of plan and write up your aims after the event.
  4. The progress towards progress will be slow and messy. However, like you would do if you were traipsing across the landscape, you should occasionally look back and take stock of what you have just been. How? Simply put, by breaking down your goal into certain mini-goals and checking that they have been achieved. So, if my goal is to write an invective about lesson planning and expose my own ignorance by committing it to a permanent (kinda) record that other people can lambast me for, my mini-goals are a) to define what I mean by plan; b) set out the assumptions that underpin my belief that some sort of plan is necessary; c) possibly provide some real sort of example so that people don’t have to fill in the gaps left by my poor writing style etc. Crucially, each staging point needs to have some sort of measurement so you can see that everyone is keeping up with you and nobody was left behind at the service stations along the way.
  5. Having worked out what you want to do, the next step is to think about how you are going to know if you actually managed to do it. This is called assessment by the pros. So, let’s be doubly clear on this: first you have your aims; second you give thought to how you will assess whether or not your aims have been met. Only then should you start thinking about the activities that are going to make your learners slavishly fawn all over you. We can describe this more prosaically as follows: my aim is to buy some bread; I will know I have done this when I have my loaf of choice tucked unhygienically under my armpit. Anything else is failure. Which brings us to point number
  6. Failure is also ace. The whole point about assessing is to see if your aims have been met, not to confirm that they have been met. That’s just an added bonus. I currently work in a place where everyone seems to write, post observationis, that aims were achieved (despite not having been given any real thought). How did they know? Well, basically, while the teacher yet spake, behold, a bright cloud overshadowed them all: and behold a voice out of the cloud, which said, This is my beloved teacher, in whom I am well pleased; they have met all of their aims and everyone’s lives are changed for the better because of the time spent in this lesson. My use of hyperbole is pretty restrained here, I am sorry to say. This frustrates me because science tells us that we can learn a hell of a lot from failure and also because it shows me that I am working with a teacher who is far more concerned with how their lessons reflect upon them rather than how their teaching impacts upon their learners. We try to do something and we get back negative results. That’s OK…it tells us something anyway. Perhaps our input was confusing, our assumptions were erroneous, people don’t learn that way…all important things to learn. But perhaps the most important thing to learn from not achieving your aims is that you will need to revisit this area at some point in the future…do not blithely persist onwards, never to revisit because Well, we’ve done this already.
  7. Materials are used in service of the goals. Materials are not the goals. The next time that you Plan By Coursebook, know that the searing pains you later feel in your genitalia are caused by my full-on embrace of voodoo practice. I have a whole drawer full of pins and wax effigies.
  8. A syllabus is a useful document because it means that someone else has done the really tricky bit for you. Language learning is vast…language being one of the fundamental building blocks of the universe. Everything that there ever was and ever will be comes into being through language. Try and cover that in the space of ten weeks. This is where a syllabus comes in. It basically lies and says Yeah…the rest of the cosmos doesn’t really matter, you just need how to buy a bus ticket, write a letter of complaint, make suggestions and understand street directions. The teacher can now rest at ease without having nightmares about how to teach the language required for expressing hope that the little puppy will make it through the latest episode of vomiting and chronic diarrhoea while secretly acknowledging that if it is not going to pull through, at least you don’t have to spend the first hour of each morning mopping up bloody liquidy stools from the kitchen floor and being terrified by how much of the vet’s bill will be covered by insurance. Of course, the syllabus is an absurd idiocy that is rarely reflective of Realité, but who cares? Unless you wrote the bloody thing, no one can blame you.
  9. Only complete fakers have lesson aims that are built around an item of grammar. So don’t raise awareness of the use of the passive or the difference between the past simple and the past continuous because your boss, if your boss is me, will be wondering just why you are being paid as much as you are. Ditto aims that feature phrasal verbs. We use language to achieve goals. That’s right – this is a problem that has exercised the minds of linguists over the years and yet here I provide a definitive answer. Instead of raising awareness of the passive, have a goal like To enable the students to passively aggressively indicate blame while ensuring that they cannot be held responsible themselves for any adverse outcome.
  10. There is no ten. The household is stirring and my vitriol must be hidden.

So…all a bit abstract. Let me attempt a very quick guide to writing a lesson plan with some more concrete illustrations. In the following roleplay, I will be adopting the approach of a teacher who genuinely feels that they are overworked and who doesn’t have time to do too much more than what they already do (while acknowledging that what they already do is not enough and that therefore they should make a little more effort). If anyone knows any teachers like this, we’ll be hiring soon.

  1. Open coursebook. See the usual drivel about Marco Polo and modern day backpacking. Start despairing about how this will be of any relevance/interest to your students.
  2. Remember The Secret Dos’s Guide To Lesson Planning and cease your fretting.
  3. Go to the Pearson Global Scale of English (other curricula are available) and play around with the slidey scale.
  4. Start focusing a little bit more carefully on the task at hand. Select the levels on the slidey tool to find out what reading outcomes are considered To Be Right For This Level. Look through the 20 outcomes that are suggested.
  5. Panic that these are not really what the learners probably want.
  6. Remember that it doesn’t matter whether they want them or not. Pearson say that they are appropriate and that’s good enough for you.
  7. Pull out a couple of outcomes that sound meaningful and ask yourself how you would know if they have been achieved.
  8. Try to relate these outcomes to the dross that it is in the coursebook. Nearly always conclude that you can’t.
  9. Find some decent materials.
  10. Try to break the learning outcome into smaller chunks. So, working towards the objective that means that the student will be able to make inferences or predictions about the content of newspaper and magazine articles from headings, titles or headlines will require:
  • knowledge that headings, titles and headlines often reduce text to minimum number of words
  • appreciation of why this is done
  • opportunity to reflect on whether or not this is done in their own language
  • an awareness that we believe that the brain can quickly whip up a mental sketch of what an article will look like based on scant clues.
  • practise creating these mental sketches
  • the ability to be able to explain why their mental sketches look the way that they do
  • etc.

11. Think of little activities that can be used for each of these bullet-points. So…1. Identify the missing words; 2. Discuss reasons for doing this; 3. Find some examples of headlines from L1 newspapers; 4. Ask learners to identify possible content for the stories from step 3 and then to check to see if they were right; discussion of how they are able to predict; 5. trying to do the same in English; 6. being asked to justify their mental sketches; 7. 

12. Find other material that will help students with the outcome (such as this video where artists try to illustrate clickbait headlines).

13. Remember that you’re a language teacher and bring it back to language. Perhaps consider getting the students to read this article about how to write compelling headlines.

14. Build in a reflective component of the lesson. “What five things did you learn in today’s lesson?”

15. Collect these in and use them at a later point in the week to measure students’ abilities to recall and the depth of their understanding.

16. Feel proud that you have actually earned the money you are paid for preparing carefully crafted lessons.

So, to bring it all back to my opening question about what the f***ing point was: at any point in a lesson, if a teacher is asked why they did what they did (or got the learners to do what they did), they should be able to give a convincing answer without using the words to raise awareness. It does mean that lesson planning becomes less of a rushed activity that depends heavily on past experience and personal preferences. But, hey, in exchange you can expect your employer to help you pay for your rent/mortgage this month and possibly even put food (and maybe alcohol) on the table each day. Can’t say fairer than that…

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06 May 2018 - Posted by | Rants and ramblings

4 Comments »

  1. Hello Secret DoS,

    I was the Dogme teacher on that very podcast episode and I completely agree with you. I mean, yes, you can walk into a lesson with no prep and wing it all the way without anyone dying but why would you put yourself through so much stress (not to mention the guilt of taking money for a service rendered quite possibly very badly)? There is planning and overplanning, or rather there is actual planning and performative planning. Who needs a fully scripted lesson plan after teaching for a few months unless it’s something particularly finicky? In my opinion, it would be time better spent to check out more constructive ways to have students using the language and more engaging form focused activities so as to make the language a bit more memorable.

    Anyway, cheers. I’m a longtime lurker.

    Marc

    Comment by Marc | 07 May 2018 | Reply

    • Thanks, Marc. Am honoured (great episode). I like the distinction you make regarding Actual and Performative! Very handy. I’m a believer (not necessarily a practicer) of having a clear point to the lesson that requires you to stop at the end, put your hands on your hips, wipe the sweat from your brow and ask yourself, “So, how well did we do?” I am also a believer (and more frequently a practicer) of Dogme. What I think I need to do is to step aside, sit down, put my head in my hands, draw a deep breath and ask myself, “Can these two beliefs be reconciled?” [Spoiler alert: cognitive dissonance will inevitably result in my concluding, a la Barack the Builder, “Yes, they can!”]

      Comment by TheSecretDoS | 08 May 2018 | Reply

  2. Thank you for this. A good follow on from the last rant ( I love it when you are angry!. mind you, I used to carry a picture of Bill Bixby with me. A good obscure cultural reference. Probably a tad low brow for you). This was the more practical insights I was looking for, rather than just writing us off as dinosaurs.
    Some of us would like to be better teachers but don’t actually know what this “ looks like”
    This will help. Feel chuffed with yourself today as this made sense to me. I’m often looking through a glass darkly but could see a vague light here.

    Comment by evilshadrack | 09 May 2018 | Reply

    • No, no, no…thank YOU! I assure you that Bill Bixby is towards the higher brow end of my cultural references. Like his alter ego, I too am striving for a time when I can find a way to control the raging spirit that dwells within. Well, “striving” might be too active a word…
      To be non-flippant for a moment, I would say that it is those of us who “would like to be better teachers” who ARE the better teachers. It’s the constant search for improvement and the holy Grail that makes us better. The worse (not to say “worst”) teachers are those who just aren’t driven enough to want to seek out the flaws in their work or to administer the gamma radiation to their strengths.

      And some of my favourite cartoons involve dinosaurs.

      Comment by TheSecretDoS | 11 May 2018 | Reply


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