Investigating the emotional side of the classroom: What can we learn from the Jones model of positive discipline?

Those of you who’ve visited the blog recently will know that I’ve been tackling a two-pronged series, looking at both the physical and emotional aspects of effective classroom management.

In my last ‘emotional’ post I looked at Skinner’s behaviorist theory of classroom management. My hope is that you all found that a little too extreme and desire something a little less authoritarian. If that’s the case, today’s post is for you! The Fredric H. Jones Positive Discipline Model is a classroom and school management system. Jones is the author of ‘Positive Classroom Discipline’, hence the name of his model. His system focuses on;

  1. teacher body language and the teacher as an example of appropriate behavior,
  2. the presence of firm, easily understandable rules, and
  3. having a backup plan for when things don’t go to plan.

Let’s consider each of these in detail.

The teacher models what is considered appropriate behavior

The main tenet of the Jones positive discipline system is that the teacher models the kind of behavior that is expected:

  • The teacher adopts a calm tone of voice that assumes that the learner will follow directions.
  • The teacher uses positive language that nurtures a learning environment in which learners are encouraged to speak with one another thoughtfully.
  • The teacher focuses on the learners and what they are doing in the learning environment, organizing the classroom so that they are able to quickly assist any learner.

What this all means for the learner is that their teacher provides a role model of acceptable adult behavior in an environment that supports their ability to learn.

Decorations

‘Decorations’ by @pysproblem81 from #ELTPics

Simple to apply rules, posted clearly

Another significant element of this model is that the rules are straightforward, direct and placed within the learning environment where they are visible at all times. Commonly, classroom rules might include; not talking when the teacher is talking or other learners are responding; coming to class with all the necessary class materials, such as coursebook and notepaper.

When applying the Jones model of positive discipline, the number of rules should be as few as possible and should deal with precise, concrete actions that are appropriate to making the learning environment a safe place to learn.

Responding to misbehavior

Even in the finest of classroom situations, learners sometimes behave inappropriately, or in a way that disturbs others. In the Jones Model, the first step in correction is a timeout in the classroom. If the learner is being sufficiently disruptive, they can be sent to another room to give them and the teacher time to calm down.

If the behavior is persistent, such as not bringing materials to class or distracting other learners while the teacher is talking, the teacher might work with a counselor or administrator to develop some kind of observation checklist.

Summing up in three sentences…

  1. As with behaviorism, this approach depends on there being a right and a wrong way of behaving in the classroom; again, this is dependent on a set of rules.
  2. Unlike Skinner’s theory, though, this approach positively assumes that the learner is able to recognize the right way to act and respond to an exemplary example of behavior, i.e. that of the teacher.
  3. Although a much diluted down version of Skinner’s behaviorism, you may still feel that this approach is too disciplinarian for you (the rules dictate behavior, even if they have been agreed upon by the learner); if so, please proceed to my next post when I’ll examine William Glasser’s theory of classroom management!

Posted in Opinion, The life of an english teacher, Theory | Tagged , | 2 Comments

Dealing with the physical aspects of the classroom: In search of teaching paradise?

After a brief, award winning-inspired interlude, I’m back on track with my duel series on classroom management. While a lot of the posts in this series will be looking at the emotional aspects of keeping control of your learning environment, today’s post looks at how we might choose to manipulate the physical contours of the rooms in which we teach. Let’s get right down to business, then…

My favourite classroom out of all those I’m using at the moment is the functionally named G045. Please take a look at the video clips below (there are four and one should play immediately after the previous one finishes) and you’ll get a good idea why.

So, on first impressions it seems to offer me everything I could need to conduct any number of activities. It’s big, the furniture is movable and yet comfortable. There is a nice area for me to conduct my business, while there is also space for the students to get up and move around when necessary. The room is also fully kitted out to meet my technological needs and those of the learners.

So, how does this room measure up to the perfect classroom?

When I was thinking about putting this series of posts together (read my prologue post here and my first room discussion here), I did a bit of research to see what had been written about this phenomenon. One really good report that I did find was one by the University of Oregon, which looked attempted to define the perfect classroom based on instructor and student use. Their findings are fairly comprehensive (and available as a PDF download here) and detail everything that you might consider were you trying to create the perfect learning and teaching environment. I’ve picked some of their descriptors here to give you an idea of what their report looks like. Look at these and think about the room I showed you in the videos. Also, try to reflect on the rooms you have to use: this might help you identify problems in your classes that you couldn’t put your finger on before.

Room Size & Shape:

  • Avoid rooms with long, narrow proportions
  • Avoid rooms with low ceilings
  • Avoid rooms with no windows
  • Avoid rooms with columns or other obstructions

Ceiling Height & Shape:

  • Provide minimum ceiling height of 10′-12′
  • Avoid over-illuminating the ceiling or creating a shadow under the light fixture

Daylight & Views:

  • Control daylight and views with opaque shades
  • Provide motorized shades with simple control from the teaching area

Finishes:

  • Provide carpets
  • Provide colored walls
  • Avoid white walls unless used with accent color
  • Avoid hard, sterile surfaces and “timeless” color palettes
  • Plan for room upgrades every ten years or less to keep the room “fresh”

Acoustical Control:

  • Design the room so students can easily hear the instructor, but consider how students will hear each other as well
  • Provide low-pressure air systems when forced air is used
  • Provide sound-insulated walls
  • Provide amplification so the room’s performance is not dependent upon enhanced audio
  • Avoid movable walls
  • Avoid hard ceilings

Furniture & Adjustability:

  • Provide chairs that move easily, but are steady when in use
  • Chairs with sled-style supports are recommended
  • Position tables allow small groups to form around them, but be close enough to allow a “critical density” of students to create engaged lectures and discussions
  • Assume that tables will not be regularly moved but that lecture format courses will have to transform into small groups easily and vice versa – arrange table to allow both uses easliy
  • Avoid round tables unless lecture style presentations are unlikely to ever occur in the space
  • Avoid tablet arm desks
  • Avoid room layouts that assume a high level of user-directed changeability

Connectivity:

  • Provide robust wireless connectivity
  • Avoid unnecessary costs of added hard wire data ports in classrooms

Lighting:

  • Provide an easily controlled variety of lighting, including general lighting, perimeter accent lighting, and instructor area highlighting
  • Provide dimmable or stepped lighting
  • Provide override control for room occupancy sensor
  • Avoid suspended lighting

Controls:

  • Provide simple, intuitive controls that require no special knowledge to operate
  • Use simple switches where possible
  • Provide labeled switches
  • Place light controls near the primary teaching area
  • Limit the number of switches to about 3-6 switches

Student Arrangement & Area Requirements:

  • Provide 40% internal circulation area
  • Program space allocations based on the number of students, recommended instructor area and internal circulation based on observations

Electrical Supply for Student Use:

  • Provide perimeter plugs evenly distributed around the classroom to allow use for those who need power
  • Avoid column drop outlets
  • Avoid hardwired data connections for student use

Instructor Arrangement & Area Requirements:

  • Provide a generous teaching area (on average about 180 Square F)
  • Position podium to provide good visibility of both students and the screen
  • Assume that instructor will generally teach from one location regardless of teaching format
  • Plan instructor area to have direct connection to the door of the room allowing the instructor to arrive late or leave early if necessary

Technology & Media:

  • Provide a ceiling mounted projector
  • Provide instructor podium with connection for instructor laptop
  • Provide amplified speakers connected to the projector system
  • Provide instructor podium with:
    - desktop mounted power supply
    - easy access to lighting and daylight controls
    - access to writing surface
    - under-desk storage for backpack
    - stool stored under knee space (to allow standing presentations for most of the time)
  • Provide a large whiteboard near the instructor podium
  • Provide additional whiteboard around the room for small group break out and teaming activities
  • Provide a robust, high speed wireless system
  • Assume that all technology is temporary and will be replaced in less than 10 years
  • Assume that instructor will use personal laptop for media presentation
  • Use surface mounted or easily accessed wiring systems where possible

See, I told you it was a comprehensive list, didn’t I!

By now you can probably see why G045 is one of my favourite classes. I’m not sure, though whether I’d like to walk into any room with these descriptors as a checklist: I’m sure I’d come away from most feeling fairly despondent! Nevertheless, it is useful to look at these and consider the ways in which your teaching environment is most constricted, be it in terms of furniture, acoustics, or any of the other factors mentioned above.

How does G045 measure up?

I have only two gripes with this room…

Too darn big

Firstly, it’s too big for the size of the class I teach. I have on any given day fifteen students in this room and they do so enjoy sitting way at the back. This can mean me moving to them to get their attention, although I also then have to return to the teacher zone as and when I need to utilize the technology. The white board is also very distant when they choose to sit at the back.

Solution

I pointed out that the furniture is moveable, so, guess what? Never be afraid of giving the furniture layout a good makeover before a class starts. If you’re in a room that is blatantly too big for the number of people occupying it, group them together and group them fairly near you, otherwise the open space can be intimidating and even a bit creepy.

Lack of control over lighting

Secondly, the lighting is really clumsy and difficult to control. There are two light switches, one of which turns on the lights at the front and one the lights at the back.

Solution

As with the first point, group the students so as to try not to allow any of them to lurk in the gloom. Having them all operating in the same lighting conditions may seem like a small consideration, but, believe me; it can really affect the dynamic of the class if you don’t get them all in a well lit part of the room.

All in all, for a classroom that was built about twelve years ago, it has really stood the test of time in terms of how it is fitted out technologically. It is a bit gloomy when it’s dark outside, and the limited control over electric light in a big room like this is an issue. Nevertheless, you can really go for it in terms of varying activities and it is an extremely flexible environment.

What’s your take on all this?

So, what do you think about this room? How would you go about making the most of this environment? How does this compare to the rooms in which you teach? I’d love to hear your comments on this.

Posted in Classic posts, Life inside the classroom, Theory | Tagged , | 3 Comments

Infographic: Comparative and superlative adjectives

My recent award for the British Council TeachingEnglishFeatured blog of the month’ has put me in the mood for making another infographic for you all! Today’s infographic shows us the various ways of comparing things in English. There are examples to help you clearly understand how we use comparative and superlative adjectives.

Also, we see examples of irregular comparative and superlative adjectives. As usual, I used Piktochart to design the infographic.

comparing thingsYou can download the original, full size image here (800×2277).

Additionally, there are a number of share and embed options available from Flickr here.

Finally, you can share the image using the QR code on the right.

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British Council Teaching English featured blog of the month for July, 2014

I’m delighted to say that a blog post of mine has won the award for the British Council TeachingEnglish ‘Featured blog of the month’ for July, 2014. This is the second time I’ve won this award (click here to see what won last time), but this time around is no less of a joy than the first.

Many thanks to all those who voted for me on the TeachingEnglish Facebook page! Recognition like this is exactly the kind of thing that keeps bloggers like me going.

My infographic on prepositions of place was voted for by almost 2,500 visitors to the Facebook page. I designed the infographic to help students understand how the prepositions in, on and at are used in English. I used a combination of Piktochart and Bitstrips to create an engaging and helpful resource for language learners.

Posted in Teaching ideas | Tagged | 3 Comments

Infographic: Present continuous tense

Today’s infographic shows you how we use the present continuous tense. There are examples to help you clearly understand how we form positive, negative and interrogative sentences. Also, we see how this tense is used in contrast to simple present.

I used Piktochart to design the infographic.

present continuousYou can download the original, full size image here (800×2325).

Additionally, there are a number of share and embed options available from Flickr here.

Finally, you can share the image using the QR code on the right.

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , | 1 Comment

Investigating the emotional side of the classroom: What can we learn from Skinner’s Behaviorism theory?

Those of you who’ve dropped by recently will know that I’ve been tackling a two-pronged series, looking at both the physical and emotional aspects of effective classroom management.

Continuing our look into the emotional side of classroom management, today we look at behaviorism, as popularized by the famed psychologist B.F. Skinner. Generally, behaviorism is the idea that people respond as expected to stimuli; those who control the stimuli control the person.

The basic suggestion behind behaviorism, therefore, is that if you want to deal with unwanted behaviors, you must make certain that the unwanted behavior is punished. In contrast, the desired, or rational, behavior should be rewarded. As time goes by, the unwanted behavior stops as it is realized that this only ever results in a world of pain. In our classrooms, behaviorism states that we assume the role of controller of learner behavior, deciding what is appropriate and how to deal with what we consider inappropriate.

What does this mean in terms of language development?

IELTS class being creative making essay posters!

‘IELTS class being creative making essay posters!’ by @mubeenfk from #ELTPics

Skinner’s ideas on language development don’t really differ from his general theory of behaviorism. The theory itself is simple, based, as with all of Skinner’s work, around a structure of reward and punishment. Each reward and punishment serves to reinforce certain types of good or bad behavior. In other words, people tend to repeat actions that lead to pleasure, while avoiding actions that lead to discomfort. We refer to this as conditioning, which is basically the same thing as creating a habit. Help learners develop the right habits, Skinner suggests, and classroom management will be easily facilitated.

What’s more, there seems to be a precedent for this in first language acquisition. At first children speak “nonsense” words, what we refer to as babble. Typically, we don’t regard these as being anything impressive, so none of these are provided with any reward. When the infant child starts mimicking the language of their parents, however, the parent starts to take notice and get excited. Consequently, when children speak a recognizable word, they are rewarded by their parents. As a result, these words – and then phrases – are remembered, while the nonsense words that receive no positive attention are forgotten. Skinner suggests, therefore, that behaviorism is a key component of first language acquisition.

How might we utilize Skinner’s ideas in class?

At first glance, a lot of ‘classroom rules’ agreed upon by the teacher and learner at the start of a course might seem to lend themselves to a behaviorist approach. For learners, for example, the positive behavior of not using phones during lessons is promoted and then expected through the promise of rewards. The negative behavior of spending the lesson constantly texting results in negative consequences.

When these policies – which ideally have been agreed on by teacher and learner – are applied regularly over time and without excessive modification, the classroom can operate smoothly. Because pretty much any group of people can be treated in this way, the only real requirement is that the incentives should be applied habitually and predictably.

Benefits of behaviorism

If you’re new to teaching, seriously consider how behaviorism can help you get to grips with life in the language classroom. The main benefit of Skinner’s theory is that it’s extremely simple and easy to apply. People do respond to rewards and to being punished, especially over time, and language learners are just the same as people in any other situation. If you’re going to go down the behaviorist road:

  • lay down your rules from the outset,
  • make sure learners clearly understand what you expect, and
  • be consistent.

Criticisms of behaviorism

Skinner’s approach is much criticized. The main objection to Skinner’s ideas is that they treat human beings as if they were animals. What’s more, applied on a worldwide scale, Skinner’s theory would lead to Orwellian totalitarianism in which every thought and act of the individual would be the subject of scientific control.

Forgetting totalitarian nightmares for second, critics have also rejected the use of Skinner’s approach in the language classroom, stating that learning itself cannot be facilitated within a framework of rewards and punishments. Quite simply, learning doesn’t occur when people are merely responding in order to receive or to not be punished; learning is a fundamental part of the human makeup that should be nurtured freely, not by coercion.

Summing up in three sentences…

    1. Don’t underestimate the fact that people respond to positive and negative reinforcement, but don’t let it rewards and punishments rule your learning environment.
    2. Try to help learners develop a sense of self-responsibility, so that they know themselves what is acceptable.
    3. If you feel that your classroom management style is too rooted in behaviorism, I recommend that you read the next post in this series, in which I look at Fredric H. Jones’ Positive Discipline Model

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Posted in Life inside the classroom, Opinion, The life of an english teacher, Theory | Tagged , , | 2 Comments

Dealing with the physical aspects of the classroom: The curious case of G062

How much does the physical environment of the classroom affect what we teach and how we teach? Let’s take a look, in my second post on the physical aspects of classroom management…

Probably, I’d say, the physical environment has a bigger effect than it is given credit for. This is a shame really, when you think about how much attention is given to describing pedagogy and teaching techniques: rarely do you find such discussions taking into consideration the size and the shape of the classroom. I hope this series of posts, along with the prologue I put on the blog at the end of last month, helps to readdress the balance. I also hope that this is a theme that will be picked up by other teachers. With this in mind, I’m delighted to say that my comrade from across the pond, Tyson Seburn, has already critiqued his classrooms in the blog post ‘What classroom is perfect?’ He has also prepared a checklist of things he looks for in a classroom, which I hope he doesn’t mind me quoting here. His checklist reads as follows:

Tyson’s ten requirements of the perfect classroom

1. long, solid desks in a semi-circle facing the front, enough room for everyone to spread out their work
2. capacity for about double the number of students in the class
3. ample chalkboards (or whiteboards), preferably that shift to reveal more
4. an electronic console controlling the audio system and ceiling-mounted projector
5. reliable internet connection
6. concrete architectural features
7. good lighting, preferably not too bright
8. a big window with a view of the outdoors
9. dark hardwood elements (e.g. floors or desk)
10. close proximity to my office

I think that’s a very healthy list to get started on. To be honest, there isn’t anything there that I would disagree with, although I would prioritize some points over others. Nevertheless, I think that we always have to work with what we have. This was something I focused on in the introductory post of this series. Allow me to reiterate:

1. Making the room work for the activity: Bearing in mind what you want to do in class, you need to think about what adaptations you need to make to the room to best facilitate the outcomes you’re looking for.

2. Making the activity work for the room: If the room can’t be adapted, you need to think about what activities you can do within the constraints that the physical environment has placed on you.

Viewing the room in this way allows us to think of how we are going to utilize the room effectively, rather than assuming that we can make our plan first and assume that it will go OK regardless of the physical constraints.

Introducing G062

Ok, so let’s take a short break from all this theoretical stuff, so I can introduce you to the first of my rooms for this semester. This is the delightfully named G062 in the Faculty of management building. Please watch these short video clips and, while you’re doing so, think about what might and might not work in such a room. There are five clips, one should play automatically after the other.

Your homework for today is to think of one constraint this room would place on you in terms of planning, as well as one way you could use this room to your advantage. If you can’t be bothered, then, well, please just keep reading!

Strengths

It’s big (1): I can move around easily and distribute materials quickly and efficiently. The students have plenty of desk space, too.
It’s big (2): There are enough seats for all of my students.
There’s a huge board: If at any point I get better at planning board work, there’s huge potential in this room.
We hooked up technologically: The speakers and projector are in full working order and the projector screen is visible to all. Furthermore, there’s a phone in the teacher’s desk so I can call someone when there’s a problem.
It’s isolated: We can make noise and do some interesting stuff without worrying about disrupting other classes.
Room to roam: There’s plenty of room for students to get up and move around, even if the seats don’t follow.
There is a focus: That big board and projector screen are a focal point of attention and lessons tend to revolve around them.

Weaknesses

The seating is fixed: Although the chairs swivel, they are mounted on a metal bar which keeps the person pretty much focused on the front of the room.
There are no windows: As I mentioned in the previous post, lack of natural lighting is never a good thing.
We’re away from the main School of Languages building (1): Students like to mingle with other students on the same course during breaks, so the fact we’re some distance from these other classes can be 1) dispiriting to those who don’t want to walk to meet their friends, and 2) a pain when it comes to trying to start the class on time and your students are still in another building.
We’re away from the main School of Languages building (2): On days when I teach here I have to try and remember everything I’ll need for the day, such as laptop, power cable, speakers, pens, paper, all handouts, books, etc.

How have these factors influenced my classes?

  1. I have tended to do things which utilize the ‘front of room’ focus, such as PowerPoint presented activities, showing videos and focused board work. Such activities are particularly effective with Generation Yers, so it’s great to be able to utilize the environment in this way
  2. I have also used this room for ‘information delivery’, such as explaining exam criteria and the like. Again, the seating makes it hard for students to be able to avoid me. Although the layout is drastically different from what we saw of the ‘dance floor‘ in the previous post, it nevertheless delivers many of the same benefits.
  3. We have, on a couple of occasions, co-constructed paragraphs in G062, by which I mean we look at the subject we’ve been studying and either 1) I write up the paragraph on the board based on student suggestions, or 2) the students co-create the texts themselves. This activity is a real winner, as it involves all of the students in spite of their ostensibly static position in the room.
  4. This room has quite a somber and serious air to it (we’ve started making posters for the walls so as to cheer the place up a bit), which lends itself to administering end-of-unit quizzes. Although I have no control over the scheduling of course exams, I can work my schedule to make sure the ‘unaccredited’ quizzes can take place in this room. While this is never the greatest of things to do in any class, the pseudo-’battleship‘ layout of this room – compared to my other classrooms, at least – does lend itself to such work.

Would it surprise you?

We have done a good amount of group work in this room. There is a lot of space between each row, so students can stand up and gather around an area of one of the desks quite easily and comfortably.

What would you do?

You’ve seen the videos; you’ve read what I do, so… what would you do differently? How can I get the most out of this room?

 

Posted in Classic posts, Life outside the classroom, The life of an english teacher | Tagged , | 5 Comments

Investigating the emotional side of the classroom: 4 Major Classroom Management Theories

Last time round I introduced the main themes of classroom management theory. Over the course of five posts we’ll be considering the major theories in turn, each of which has its merits and weaknesses. As teachers we can use the theories to define, support, reflect on and even develop our own philosophy of education and classroom management style.

As noted in my last post, effective classroom management brings about a smooth-running classroom where learning can occur. For this reason, we as teachers need some form of plan to manage our learning environment by anticipating and preventing problems, facilitating appropriate behavior and addressing problem behaviors as and when it’s necessary to do so.

1. Behaviorism: The Skinner Model

In the Skinner model teachers strongly guide learner behavior to reach desired outcomes. Within the context of classroom management, behaviorism is firmly established in practice.

Key points

  • Constant, consistent reinforcement of the rules is required in order to make it work properly.
  • Good behavior has to be rewarded, whereas bad behavior must either be ignored or – preferably – punished without delay.
  • The theory provides the theoretical support behind such practices as Behavioral Intervention Plans, learner contracts being a prime example.

Basically, any teachers who use classroom rules are engaging in the behaviorist practice of negative reinforcement.

2. Choice Theory: The Glasser Model

The Glasser Model views the role of teachers as helpers of those in their learning environment. The idea behind it is that all behavior is an issue of choice; teachers should merely serve to facilitate the making of good decisions.

Key points

  • Teachers create environments – and curricula – that cultivate appropriate behavior through meeting learners’ needs for belonging and the feeling of empowerment.
  • Classroom rules and their enforcement remain a key factor in making learners responsible for their behavior choices.
  • Discussion, reflection and even making amends are positively encouraged, rather than the administering of simple rewards and punishments.

Choice Theory was designed so as to assist learners in understanding the motivations behind their behavior, so that they might learn to make better choices.

Teaching Japanese students at Sussex Uni

‘Teaching Japanese students at Sussex Uni’ by @eltexperiences from #ELTPics

3. Learner-Directed Learning: The Jones Model

If all this discipline is just too much for you to handle, hope is at hand! The Jones Model necessitates that teachers work with learners in helping them to develop a sense of self-control.

Key points

  • Developing a sense of self-control empowers learners and prepares them for their future lives and careers.
  • By employing appropriate body language, making use of an incentive system and efficiently assisting learners, teachers help them learn to control themselves.
  • Learner-directed learning places classroom management in the hands of the classroom community rather than just that person at the front of the room.

Such democratic classrooms as those in which the Jones model prevails adhere to the social learning theories of Piaget and Vygotsky, empowering learners by giving them both control of and responsibility for their own learning. The teacher’s role is that of facilitator.

4. Assertive Discipline: The Canter Model

The Canter Model is an assertive classroom discipline model in which rules and behavior expectations are clearly stated and consistently enforced.

Key points

  • The basis of this theory is that teachers have the right to teach without interference and learners the right to learn without disruption.
  • Responsibility for bad learner behavior is on the teacher. Most learner behavior is deemed appropriate: the notion of assertive discipline reminds us to recognize positive behavior as a way of encouraging more of it.

Teachers must clearly communicate their expectations and expect compliance, acknowledging learners who comply, while redirecting those who don’t.

Considerations

Giving some serious thought to these classroom management theories will provide you with the background knowledge that enables you to aim for best practice in the classroom. Don’t forget, though, that creating a positive learning environment takes work, and sustaining it in the long-term even more.

Whether you adopt one or combine practices from each of the theories, learners will always reap the rewards of a classroom environment based on principles, free of distraction and conducive to learning. Over the course of another four posts, I’ll look at each of these in more detail, before summing up with a post looking at how you might analyse your own classroom management style.

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Posted in Classic posts, Life inside the classroom, Teaching ideas, The life of an english teacher | Tagged , | 6 Comments

What kinds of writing do EAP students really need to do?

One of my favourite writers in the history of English language teaching literature is Daniel Horowitz. Sadly, he passed away before leaving the huge mark on the profession that his ideas surely deserved. I’m particularly a fan of his thoughts on academic writing and what this actually means. Consider this quote:

‘Generally speaking, the academic writer’s task is not to create personal meaning, but to find, organize and present data according to fairly explicit instructions’ (Horowitz, 1986a)

Although this quote is approaching its 30th birthday, I feel it still rings true today. Indeed, this is the thesis upon which research was conducted at my university. I thought the findings might be of interest to those of you involved in EAP and university prep programs in particular.With this in mind, today’s post tells you about the following:

  1. What kinds of writing are learners expected to do at university?
  2. How should we go about teaching EAP learners how to write?

Ready? OK, let’s go…

The majority of assessed writing in Freshman and Sophomore courses takes place under examination conditions*. The answers to examination questions vary in length and time allowed for answering (for instance, exams that last 2 to 3 hours). Generally, learners answer five, four, three, two or one questions per page.

These different lengths of learner-produced assessed texts lead to varying demands in terms of style, conciseness, degree of exemplification, organization, evaluative statements, citations and so on. What’s more, many exams include two or three of these question types, although it should be mentioned that Science and Economics exams (as well as questions requiring formulae, mathematic symbols, and/or single-word answers) noticeably require less physical quantity of writing and generally only contain one type: short answer questions (described below).

Because virtually no courses include ‘open book’ exams**, learners are required to write their answers to these questions from memory: they are ‘display of knowledge‘ or ‘application of knowledge‘ texts; the purpose of most writing in University Courses is therefore for learners to show that they have studied and can remember key course content.

Unfortunately, writing skills learned for one type of writing task (e.g. in-class essay writing) do not readily transfer to writing of another type (e.g. answering short examination questions). This doesn’t necessarily mean that learners will use a custom essay writing service, however. What it does mean is that, in order to develop the requisite writing skills to write effective answers to specific short answer questions, learners need to practice answering similar questions.

Anecdotal evidence (oral feedback from University Course teachers) adds weight to the need for preparatory programs to cover such genres, since it points to the lack of ability amongst Freshman and Sophomore learners following such courses to answer questions concisely.

What are the main genres in university examination writing?

Research carried out into University Courses (and into the literature) yielded three main ‘genres’ which learners are required to write within when answering examination questions on University Courses. They are briefly described below.

  1. ID (identification) questions: this is the shortest genre and usually asks for definitions of key terms/concepts, information about important figures, places, and theories; learners are required to demonstrate knowledge of key terms, concepts, or events in the subject area.
  2. Short answer questions: these require some of the same skills as for ID questions, but generally involve management and organization of larger amounts of information, and a wider range of organization patterns (comparison, cause/effect, description of a process) in the answer.
  3. Essay questions often call for wider range of rhetorical patterns (e.g. argumentation, exposition as well as those mentioned above) and of course more details or evidence to support assertions. To answer these, learners need to learn rhetorical structures inherent in the questions (cause/effect, comparison/contrast…) through prompt analysis.
    Cushing Weigle & Nelson (2001)
Look, it's really quite simple...

Look, it’s really quite simple…

What are the main principles for teaching university writing?

Learners need to be able to understand what the prompt is asking for. It is important to train learners to understand all the clues that they are given by test writers as to the kind of answer, the amount of detail required etc. Many of these ‘clues’ may seem obvious to us, but they are less so to learners, especially those whose only experience of ‘Academic Writing’ is in the form of the 4- or 5-paragraph essay, and who believe that all academic writing is in the same format, requiring an introduction, some paragraphs, and a conclusion. This may increase or negate the use of a custom essay writing service, as learners fail to grasp the different writing styles required of them, thus leading them to seek ‘professional help‘.

Further principles are as follows:

  • Learners need practice with a variety of prompts and practice writing under timed conditions. Learners can then build exam answering expertise through familiarity with the processes of writing under time constraints, familiarity with the patterns of particular types of questions and responding to these with appropriately organised, concise and linguistically well-formed answers
  • Learners need to be given guidance on how to predict questions based on class study
  • Learners should be given plenty of input in various forms on a particular subject before they are asked to write about it
  • Learners need exposure to model/sample texts in quantity so that they can understand methods of organisation and idea development typical to particular text types.
  • Learners need to learn to write about what they have learned, not what they knew before they entered the class (many prompts explicitly state this making comments like ‘based on your lectures and reading on the subject,…’). This also means that learners should only state their own opinion when explicitly asked to.
  • Learners need to ‘pretend that their teacher doesn’t already know the answer’. This involves the difficult job of writing for ‘the Ideal Marker, who is intelligent and generally well informed, but at the same time fortuitously ignorant of the central topic of [the examination question]’ (Coulthard, 1994, p.4)

*This is true of my context: I acknowledge your situation may well be different.

**Again, this is how things are in my context; yours may be somewhat different.
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Dealing with the physical aspects of the classroom: introduction

In my previous post I asked the question, ‘What exactly do we mean by classroom management?’

I started that post by suggesting that we have to split this particular subject right down the middle: we have the physical side (arranging furniture, placement of the whiteboard, seating plans, etc.) and we have the emotional side. That post was the first in a series of seven I’ll be writing on the emotional elements of classroom management. In what seems like an extreme case of optimism, I’ll be interspersing those posts with a focus on the other side of this symbiotic partnership: dealing with the physical aspects of the classroom.

A short while ago I posted a very brief photo post about the classrooms I would be teaching in this semester. It struck me that this deserved some expansion, as the kind of challenges these rooms have posed to me are probably the same that many of you face when adapting the physical environment in which you teach to the aims you have when planning a language class.

Deciding how to plan activities is both incredibly easy and horribly difficult. We might have a good idea of how we want our classes to unfurl over the course of a series of lessons, but we perhaps don’t always give enough consideration to the physical size and shape of the classroom as we should. While we might recognize that the shape and size of our classrooms dictates how our classrooms are arranged, we also need to understand that these factors should influence our choice of activities.

Before we get down to the business of moving desks and chairs around, we need to have a clear vision of what the room will look like and whether this will facilitate the activities we want to use. This post will act as the prologue to a series that introduce the challenges and opportunities that different physical environments present us with. I hope you’ll follow me on this journey…

Look at those happy students... how else could we describe them? (Image courtesy of @DenizAtesok)

Look at those happy students… how else could we describe them? (Image courtesy of @DenizAtesok)

The feng shui of the language classroom

Every classroom has a particular energy and flow to it. This isn’t new age mumbo jumbo; it’s common sense. Even in a place such as my school, where a number of rooms all follow a certain design, I find that there are little quirks in the shape and layout which make each unique. The little differences can make or break an activity if you haven’t factored the room into your planning. Here are a few preliminary questions that you might like to ask yourself about any given classroom.

Do you have enough seats for everyone? That sounds too simple to even bother considering, doesn’t it? You’d be surprised.

How mobile is the furniture? If you want to rearrange the tables or get students to move their chairs, to what extent is this possible? Sometimes these are in a fixed position: when this happens it definitely affects what you can do.

Where is the board? I know there might be those of you who think they are some kind of teaching wizard if they can get through a lesson without writing anything on the board, but for us mere mortals the board, be it chalk, white or electronic in nature, is still of paramount importance. So, how often are you going to use it? If you have several points of focus in the room, students need to be able to see all of them without straining their necks constantly.

How mobile are you? I run around like a madman during some lessons and hate it when I don’t have room to do so. For some activities you need a central position for demonstrating what you want to do, or just for delivering instructions effectively. Where is that space in the classroom?

How would you distribute handouts? How can you get paper to all of the people in class at approximately the same time? Of course, it’s nice to give students the responsibility of helping in distribution, but sometimes you’ll want to get this over and done with quickly. Where are the channels of distribution that will enable you to do this?

Are there windows in the room? A lack of natural light can put your students into a very strange mood sometimes and has an amazing effect on whether certain activities work or not. A general rule of thumb is this: nothing works quite as well in a room with no windows. Conversely, a room with blinding sun is terrible should you have any need to use a projector.

To what extent will the students engage with one another? At this point I imagine that the Dogme ELT fraternity will be foaming at the mouth at the suggestion that there would ever be a class in which the students weren’t engaged in speaking. Nevertheless, there are indeed times when you want the students to either listen to you speaking or to give their attention to some other interlocutor. Naturally, if eye contact is needed, such as in a class debate or in practically every type of group activity, eye contact you should allow.

If you’ve answered these questions, you’re off to a good start (if, while reading this, other questions came to mind, please feel free to make suggestions in the comments section below). Depending on the answers, you can now approach how you are going to use your room to facilitate learning. You are now faced with a classic ‘either / or’ situation.

1. Making the room work for the activity: Bearing in mind what you want to do in class, you need to think about what adaptations you need to make to the room to best facilitate the outcomes you’re looking for.

2. Making the activity work for the room: If the room can’t be adapted, you need to think about what activities you can do within the constraints that the physical environment has placed on you.

How do you get the room to work for you?

I find myself in a variety of rooms at present. Each presents a different challenge in terms of the questions I laid out above, but each also presents opportunities to get the room to work in your favour. I’ve given considered thought about what I can and can’t do in each of these environments, and over the course of five posts I’ll be detailing how I go about the ‘art of teaching’ in each particular setting. During these posts, I’ll be using the following four classroom layout models as points of reference, so the remainder of this post will be a look at these different models and what activities they facilitate.

1) The dance floor

As the name suggests, the dance floor is a layout that places the focus on an area visible to all. This layout can promote lots of student interaction as all the seats point toward a central focus point. The large, open space in the middle of the room is traditionally in front of where a teacher’s desk might appear and is equally great for group activities and class discussions as it is for teacher talk.

The ‘dance floor’

On the downside, that big area might be regarded as a serious waste of space, particularly if you have a large class. Nevertheless, if you’re looking to get a group talking to each other this can be a winner, because students are able to hold eye contact without constantly having to swing around in their seats. However, this seating chart requires a room with a lot of space in it.

2) The catwalk

As I mentioned, I walk around a lot during my lessons, mainly in the hope that my movement will instill motivation in my students, but also so that I can maintain eye contact with each of them and not leave anyone out when it comes to asking questions. The catwalk is effective in preventing me from wandering aimlessly. While it narrows the area in which a teacher can easily move, it’s extremely effective in rooms that have boards on opposite ends of the room. Bear in mind, however, that because you are teaching down the center of the room, you may have the unnerving feeling of being surrounded.

The ‘catwalk’

If you’re planning on holding a class discussion or some kind of two-team game, such a layout is a practical way of arranging seating, as students will always face at least half the class. Success with this layout depends entirely on the number of rows you use: the fewer the better. To maximize class interaction, make the rows of students parallel to the center lane as long as possible.

3) The independent-nation-state

Who doesn’t love a bit of group work? If, like me, you see the benefit of cooperative learning, or even if you regularly split your class into teams for games, this layout is an essential. This seating plan instantly tells students that you want them to operate independently from the rest of the class. It’s important to bear in mind that students still need to be able to see the board easily without giving themselves an injury.

The ‘independent nation state’

Using this too often will probably result in a fragmented classroom and a lack of dynamic among the class as a whole. If your room is permanently set up like this, you might even find that each group forms their own classroom culture and is unable to work with students in the other groups. This is an effective layout, but should not be a permanent one.

4) The Battleship

Like the game and, I suppose, the – bloody awful – film, the battleship layout is all about the element of surprise. Consider the picture a metaphor for the battleship, the spirit of which is just to mix things up from the everyday norm.

The ‘battleship’

This layout can be effective when trying to foster creativity, or even the polar opposite; this works when you have to administer a classroom quiz. The battle ship will almost certainly be a single lesson one-off. If you change the seating too often you’ll drive your students nuts.

Putting this into practice

I teach in five very different classrooms this semester. What’s more, they are very spread out. Before classes started, I did a tour of my prospective rooms and it took me about fifteen minutes to visit each of them. I clocked up more than a kilometer in the process. One thing became instantly clear; I wasn’t going to be able to pop back to my office in between each lesson. Consequently, I was going to have to bring everything I needed with me. Things have been interesting over the past few weeks and I hope you’ll enjoy reading about how I’ve dealt with the physical constraints placed on my teaching. Please join me again over the next couple of weeks!

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