Over the past couple of years it has become clear to me that the individual lesson is too simple a vehicle to be relied upon as the main driver of learning. That is not to say that lessons are unimportant in themselves, but that learning itself is too tricky and elusive to be calculated from the cumulative sum of a series of hour-long, bite-sized chunks of teaching. To me, this vision of learning presents a child with a situation not unlike being asked to clamber up a set of stairs with a raging inferno hot on his tail. Even if he gets to the top without being sizzled to a cinder, his chances of ever making it down again are very slim. Each stair – each unit of learning – burns away just as his foot leaves it.
Instead, our students need repetition, consolidation and extension; if not, their seeming progress can be little more than a Pyrrhic victory.
This problem is especially true of English teaching. Language learning is not speedy or linear or logical; in fact, it is slow and erratic and associative. It is the result of mastering and practising some fundamental concepts, but it also benefits from a virtuous cycle of discovery: the deeper we submerge ourselves, the more we learn, and the more we learn, the more likely we are to dive deep again. Vocabulary research, for instance, suggests that young people absorb new words through multiple exposures in slightly different contexts. The lesson-by-lesson, unit-by-unit, year-by-year model can be too crude to manage this successfully.
We need a mature vision of English planning and teaching that appreciates the interplay between the short-term and the long-term, that recognises the conceptual and iterative nature of learning, and accepts the supporting roles that reading, writing, speaking, listening and thinking all play in this process.
I like to think of English teaching in terms of three principles: direction, immersion and habit. A holy trinity, if you like.
‘Direction’ covers all the concepts, information and chunks of knowledge that we want students to learn and will direct them to learn. This might range from how to spell ‘onomatopeoia’ to knowing the events in Chapter 1 of Animal Farm to understanding how and why writers use imagery to represent their main ideas. This learning will, at times, be specific to one context; at other times, students will apply what they have learnt to a range of new reading, writing and speaking situations. This material can and should be planned for lesson-by-lesson, but it is even better to plan to revisit it so that students are less likely to forget. It is the stuff of ‘learning objectives’, ‘lesson plans’ and ‘curriculum maps’.
If direction is about the depth and strength of learning, immersion is about breadth and diversity. We cannot expect students to remember everything they have been taught, and teachers cannot repeat everything students have been exposed to ad infinitum. English classrooms should immerse students in language and ideas so that they also have the best chance of learning indirectly and through osmosis. Text choice and task choice are important here: in my view, children need to be constantly challenged to read and think beyond the confines of their world. Engagement and enjoyment are important to immersion but perhaps we should be making things ‘interesting’ rather than fun.
Students consolidate and improve their reading and writing skills because they maintain good habits over time. Helping students to do this has to be one of the main priorities of the English teacher, and it is an area of planning that calls for a coherent long-term strategy because it is devilishly difficult to do (see this post). First, we must decide on the behavioural habits we need to inculcate in students: these might be to rigorously edit and improve their work independently, or to read every day for pleasure, or to give full and well-reasoned verbal explanations in response to teacher questioning, or to always consider alternative viewpoints when analysing a text. All of these are worthy aims. Whichever we choose, we have to work backwards from the habit, work out the best way to teach students how to get there and then maintain an unrelenting focus on it over an extended period of time. From my experience, the more habits I try to promote, the fewer my students take on board. Less is more in this case. Of course, once the habit is in place, new habits can be introduced slowly.
So there you go: teach some material clearly and directly, and expect it to be learnt; create an environment where indirect learning becomes more likely; insist on those habits that are most conducive to long-term skill development. These can only be brought about through intelligent planning and a more subtle definition of what constitutes a good lesson.
The ideas in this post have been a precursor for a new and exciting long-term writing project that I am about to embark upon. I am looking to refine these thoughts so please share your opinion and let me know if there is anything blazingly obvious I have left out!
Thank you for reading.