It was one of those lessons where something wasn’t quite clicking. We had come to the end of a series of lessons on language and communication and I had tasked my secondary students with producing a poster to summarise and reflect on the key points we had covered. They had a planning guide, all the resources and notes from previous lessons, and access to the internet for further research, and yet the ideas they were coming up with were quite shallow: lists of tips for learning languages like ‘read books, watch TV series’; vague statements such as ‘tone of voice has a major effect on communications; and the assertion that polyglots can inspire us to ‘learn more.’
I, of course, circulated and tried to feed in extra ideas, explanations, and examples, but the students seemed reluctant to put suggestion to paper. Now, I could have put this down to circumstances – it was an afternoon period and a particularly gloomy view outside. Perhaps the students just weren’t in the mood. However, in my experience, it is rarely about those things. I left that class already reflecting on what I could have done differently to facilitate a more vibrant project-focused lesson.
After sleeping on it, I came to the realisation that perhaps all the support I had put in place through the planner, suggested outline, and my ideas in the class had been counter-productive. Instead of supporting the learners in reflecting and consolidating on their recent lessons, they were imposing my view on them, basically guiding them to make the poster that was in my head!
Fortunately, in my current teaching job, I get the chance to act on my reflections quickly as I teach a different class of the same age group again later in the week. This time, I decided to open the project up a lot more to the students by inviting their input. At the start of the lesson, I asked them to tell me what they remembered from recent lessons and followed that up by having them come up with poster ideas.
A lot of the ideas were similar to mine: tips for learning languages, how we can be more effective communicators even in our first language, what we can learn from polyglots. There were also a couple of extra ones such as fun facts about language, and inspiring language quotes. The key element was that whether the ideas were the same or not, they had come from the students themselves, which immediately created more of a buzz in the classroom (in a lesson also held after lunch on another grim pre-winter day).
The next stage was to get them generating ideas. Rather than give each pair/group a planning sheet as I had done in the previous class, I handed each group a large blank sheet of paper. Using the ideas already generated, each group was assigned a topic to focus on and given 5 minutes to brainstorm. When the time was up, the groups rotated to another paper and added to the ideas already there. Again, a much higher level of engagement was evident as groups researched weird facts about languages (did you know that Papua New Guinea is the most linguistically diverse place on Earth with 832 active languages?), investigated how body language can subconsciously tell a different story to the words we are hearing, and looked up hyperpolyglot Tim Doner and how he used his YouTube channel to practice speaking in different languages.
This continued until each group came to the final sheet. This time, they did not add ideas but instead reviewed and summarised the key points to the rest of the class. Onto project planning time then as each group started to think about the form their project would take. The brainstorming sheets were displayed on the walls for reference and they were tasked with adding examples and explanations to back up their main points. Very quickly, each group had a plan of what they wanted to put on their poster and what they would need. My role then became to simply monitor and help groups clarify ideas and supply language they weren’t short about – a far cry from me trying to push the previous class in a certain direction.
The first lesson had not clicked because I had tried to maintain too much control. In the other class, I handed it over to the students. They took the lead, came up with the ideas, researched the details, and then planned their own poster. They had much more ownership of the project and were able to choose their own direction based on their reflections on previous lessons and the input of their peers.
And that is what project work should be about – let the students take the lead and demonstrate their learning. All the teacher needs do is let it happen.