In many ways, humility is the only thing you need to observe well. Once Ego is out of the picture, you have that space now and you will very naturally use that space and energy to listen more attentively to your students’ needs. Observation is the only skillset available to us at birth. So, from day 1 of our existence, our brain gathers data on body language and spoken language alike to form a system of communication that grows more complex over the years.
In teaching then, 90% of the battle is removing the inhibitors: things like fear, distraction, Ego, that impede your brain’s earliest and most natural function: observation. Once the inhibitors are gone, your observation skills will be very intuitive. Trust your instincts and listen closely to your students. That being said, here a few tips to help foster a pro-active learning environment.
- Introduce ‘Student-Driven Learning’
In many of my classes, I will introduce this concept on day 1, and continue to reinforce it over the first few lessons. We start with a question: in a class, what is the job of you the student? Many students give answers such as ‘be on time’, ‘no talking’, ‘do your homework’, etc. Eventually we will narrow to the main focus of learning. At this point it is crucial to distinguish studying from learning. One is focused on an action and the other is focused on an outcome. And this outcome is measured by physical changes in the brain matter (language acquisition). Thus, the student needs to engage (self-initiated) in activities that are more likely to produce that change.
From here, the bridge to the teacher side of the relationship is an easy transition. The teacher’s responsibility is also directly connected to that primary desired outcome. Which means that the teacher’s job is not to ‘teach’ per se, but rather to assist the students in focusing their activities and efforts on achieving their desired outcome.
Put simply: the job of the teacher is to help the student learn. And the job of the student is to learn.
Framed like this, the sequence of roles is flipped upside down from traditional teacher/student roles. We all know intuitively that learning works this way. But if students can see that their teacher knows this, believes this, and is committed to a class structure that supports this idea, they will be much more likely to engage actively in the learning process.
See this post for more detail.
- Create avenues for students to respond or question
First, space and time are crucial. If you ask a question in class – recognize that students are processing many things at once: the answer to the question, if other people know the answer and will respond, how you will respond, the nature of their relationships with their classmates, their mood at the given time…….and more. It’s always good to pause for an uncomfortable amount of time – just to be sure that no answer will come.
This goes for questions too: many questions need that extra 1 second or 5 seconds to be processed or to be put in order before they will be verbalized. Give them time.
You can also teach the importance of opportunity. Students often mistakenly believe that if they hold on to a question, they will always have time to ask it later or to look it up. Statistically, they are very unlikely to do either. Most often the question will slip away and never be asked. Seize the opportunity – it is high reward and low risk.
Another method to encourage more questions is to create a habit in class of note-taking. During pair work or small group activity, I encourage my students to always have a notepad out and to jot down questions, vocab, grammar, etc. that they can ask me later. This allows them to keep the flow of the activity while collecting a bank of problem points that can be corrected. (link)
“A prudent question is one half of wisdom.”
-Sir Francis Bacon
“Curiosity will conquer fear even more than bravery will.”
– James Stephens
Socrates, exemplified the importance of questions through his teaching/arguing style which came to be known as the Socratic Method. As an ESL teacher, it is vital to instill the habit of questioning in your students. This is a direct parallel to the idea of ‘student-driven learning.’ If students are taking the lead, they will inevitably produce questions as a natural out-flow of their learning.
Inversely, by encouraging questions from your students, you will naturally reinforce a student-driven learning approach. Two things to keep in mind as you try to encourage questions: always reward good questions (“that’s a great question!”) and never punish bad questions. Despite the popular axiom ‘there’s no such thing as a stupid question’, any teacher can tell you there are many disingenuous questions that come from disengaged students, students’ craving attention, or many other motives that simply derail the learning process for other students in the class. How you respond to these questions is crucial. I try to never punish these questions but also do not reward them. If it’s something I’ve already said two or three times and the whole class understands, I’ll ask the student to chat about it later (make sure you follow up).
- Follow rabbit trails
Lastly, don’t be afraid to follow a line of questioning that is not directly related to the topic at hand. This is authentic learning and very natural. Things to keep in mind with this: be sure the class is on board. If it’s only one student then you can quickly lose the attention and effort of an entire class. Not a good tradeoff. Second be sure that the trail is connected to real learning. Many students have questions about things that are completely irrelevant to real language goals. In some of these cases instead of answering the question I’ll redirect their attention to a different aspect of language. Third, be sure the rabbit trail has a reasonable limit. Self-directed learning with no limits can be counterproductive as nothing gets reinforced.