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Classroom Evolution

Back then...
Ten years ago this classroom situation was normal in my English as a foreign language lessons.
Student question: -How do you say "osteoporosis" in English?
My answer: -I don't know.
Student: -Sorry.

Sorry? Why?
Students found it hard to explain why they apologised for asking something I didn't know. I think it had to do with respect for the teacher being some kind of authority in their subject resulting from hard work . By spotting the language gap, they were exposing my not knowing (perhaps not being good enough?). They liked the idea of learning with a good teacher. They were demystifying the classroom hero they admired. They felt genuinely sorry for it.

I always made it part of my job to explain there was nothing to be sorry about. I would explain that medical terms tend to be similar in English, but I would look it up in my dictionaries and bring the answer next time. I thank them for their questions because they made me curious and helped me to learn more than I could on my own.

Silence in the classroom. They looked puzzled. The "Sorry" died hard.

In later years, I was happy to find surprised faces at asking something I could not answer immediately. I think they felt thrilled, perhaps powerful, at seeing they could make the teacher learn with their questions. They could even take it as a game: "Let's ask more difficult questions" or"Let's ask questions at the level of the teacher". I enjoyed this change. This is the classroom atmosphere I am most comfortable with, I thought. More vibrant.

Back to the present...
Yesterday something completely different happened in my class. I corrected a student who was using two words as synonyms when they are not.
-Are you sure? -he asked.
-(Why ever would I correct him if I wasn't? -I thought.) Positive. -I answered.
Next, he produces his Blackberry from his pocket and goes to an online dictionary to check.

At this point I saw the two roads diverging in the woods... and I determined to take it easy while I sensed my authority as a teacher being put to the Internet test.

Silence in the classroom.

I decided to join his efforts and look it up in my netbook as well. We ended up exchanging what we had found out.
He looked at me with a smile of satisfaction and admitted: -You're right.

That moment was a turning point in my lessons. I had read before I am no longer the most authoritative person in a connected classroom. Reading it is one thing. Going through it is quite another. The more travelled by road is soothing. New paths are challenging for the teacher not in academic terms, or new technology literacy, but in human terms. To flow in the current teaching context, you need to give your ego a sanity check.

Authority is not a given. It is earned. A student at a time. Everything you have studied for is not enough. The best tools used for the right purposes will not give you that either. Authority in today's classroom is a humble attitude towards the student and the subject being taught. It is about sharing how you get there as opposed to how you once got there. Authority is the result of transparent processes unhindered by the knowledge possession illusions of a distant educational past.

Do I like this new scenario? Frankly, I'm getting used to it. For starters, reading my two reactions to the previous situations makes me feel amused now. Clearly, I didn't get it back then. I barely hinted at it. You need your students to evolve enough for you to experience a comfort zone stretch. Then, we can talk about authentic, timely learning.

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You are totally right. Our classrooms are becoming flat classrooms. This is challenging, exciting and frightening at the same time. Our position as the "know-it-all" is being questioned. And i can't help saying: "What a relief!". We are not supposed to be walking dictionaries any more, we can learn with and from our students, we can share the path with them and be teachers and learners at the same time. However, this means that we have to be humble people, another great lesson to learn...

It's a relief not to carry heavy dictionaries all round!

I patiently collected many dictionaries in the last decade. Studying translation and other language made me add up some 40 volumes to my collection. Must say I always go online first to check.

Asking the teacher for the meaning of a word is probably obsolete. Or lazy when you have a dictionary at your fingertips. More time can be used to teach them to find and use the resources themselves.

Yes, people, times are a-changing and it is part of our job to re-invent our role in the classroom. On the one hand,I feel that we have always encouraged our students to ask questions, told them we were not walking dictionaries and that we would find out the answer for the following class. Now we do not need to wait for the other class. Our dictionaries do not weigh tons. The answers are just a click away.

On the other hand, there is the human aspect. I do agree that we need to give our ego a sanity check. I am doing a lot of courses about working with technology in the classroom. They all deal with the technological aspect but none of them with our changing role, helping us to deal with these changes from an interpersonal, intrapersonal point of view.

The classroom has already changed. It is a place for sharing, for working together, learning from one another. I think we need to catch up or ,at least, I need to catch up with it.

Yes, Virginia, there is a gap in the teaching of "technology integration". At least in ELT.

There seems to be an attitude that technology is a bus. Once on it, it'll take you there. This is part of an illusion, teachers and school managers buy in exchange for the time they cannot afford to invest without a solid proof it is worth it. I believe this is called ROI in business (Return on investment).

Nope. Tech is neither the bus, nor the highway that takes you to paradise learning land. (And turns you into super modern teacher as a bonus).
The technology metaphor I like the most is wi-fi. Only it is not a metaphor, it's a reality. That's why it is valid.

A wi-fi enabled school building is all it takes. You can't see it, no need to grab it or understand it, it is there. Ubiquitous and simple.

Learning together? Yes, agreed.
Learning from each other? Ah... wait a second. The way we frame things with language in our minds is tricky. A mind shaped in a 0.0 or 1.0 world needs updating.

Learning from each other sounds like "taking it in turns". There is a more knowledgeable person implied in that game. A tennis match of authority and power.
But that is not it. That is the situation I describe in the para. that begins with "In later years..." Still a misconception.


Because the net doesn't divide the players, but join them
That is what I've been reading about for four years, yet only experienced yesterday!

The most knowledgeable person in the room; therefore, the authority in the subject, is not the teacher or an expert voice you can skype in, or the student that happens to know more about a specific subject.

The most knowledgeable person in the room is the room.

The teaching job, the new role, is all about how to harness that much power.

This also implies a bit of time spent in reaching others through blogs and comments. Unless you believe learning is not social (?).

Thank you, Virginia. Back in our college days f2f, now online with you from Spain... you always make me think!

Huge hug ;-)

Loved the post, Claudia. It's true the situation has changed rapidly over the last few years. Learners are much less, if at all, dependant (or is it depend*e*nt?) on us when it comes to similar questions on new words and spelling. I see a big difference between how my young adult classes react in similar situations, and how my more mature or senior aged learners do. Some of the younger ones take out their smartphones immediately, double check almost every new word - something I regularly encourage them to do - while some of the more senior learners would never even dare to question me, even if they saw a terrible mistake in spelling on board. Even when I tried to respectfully encourage them to tell me, little changed. We really have to extend our range of approaches to the limits sometimes.


Thank you for your comment. It's hard to change the habits of a lifetime. I guess students love their teachers and fear hurting you or exposing you by mentioning a mistake. We can talk and explain we do not mind their noticing, but the truth is they have never seen a model of how that can be done.

Changing this is bound to take time. Anyway, it's worth trying.

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