Jim Scrivener’s talk on Demand-High Teaching took place on 20th March 2012. Demand-High Teaching was not a term I’d heard used before, but one of Jim’s books, Learning Teaching, got me through my CELTA as well as my first year of teaching, so, ignorance be damned, there was no way I was going to miss this talk! It certainly did not disappoint, and, together with the follow-up session that took place two days later, it has provided plenty of food for thought and scope for experimentation in class since.
Jim started with the premise that ELT has become too entrenched, a problem that has gone mostly unnoticed. ELT lessons may be ok, enjoyable for the students, solid and good enough but there’s something missing. Jim suggests that this “something” is sufficient demand on the students. Teachers tend to be satisfied with less than the students are capable of. Teaching skills and methods may be solid and allow the possibility of a higher level of demand but they are not taken beyond “going through the motions”. The communicative approach is established, and we have agreed and established ways of doing things, many of them good, but this has led to a peaceful dead end.
But what of the learning in this dead end? Is there any learning? How could the students or teachers know? What is the point of all the activities undertaken? What was done to promote learning? The activities might be perfectly valid but if the teacher hasn’t thought about what he or she wanted to achieve by doing them, considered the purpose, then opportunities for learning can be lost. This is what seems to meant by “going through the motions”. The teacher races at the speed of the fastest student in the class, in order to satisfy the requirements of the syllabus in the allocated time and the purpose gets forgotten. That leads to demand-low, challenge-low teaching, in which students are regularly asked to do less than they are capable of, while teachers respond over-positively, lacking the skills to help the students develop and upgrade their language. The ability and techniques to intervene have been lost to fear. Teachers sidestep the excitement of working with the learning, wrestling with the language, ‘swimming’ in it.
Jim went on to suggest that we need to be more physically active and interventionist in the classroom. We need to demand in a supportive way. We need to think about how the learning happens and how we can make it happen. The gap-fill work and the pair work are just the vehicles of learning, teachers need to drive them in the desired direction. The current path we tend to send these vehicles along seems to end in a dead end. Helpfully, he also discussed how teachers can increase the level of demand in their classrooms.
The premise of all these things is that it really is ok to “teach”. For me, this was the key to the whole talk. This idea that there’s no need to be afraid to go that bit further, and stretch the students that little bit more. We don’t need to stand back or limit ourselves to classroom management. Jim introduced the idea of “intervention” in a classroom context: Anything a teacher does that affects what happens in the classroom; to do/say something or indeed NOT to do/say something. A teacher needs to find a way to be as useful as possible to the learning process, by structuring and manipulating it: a type of classroom management. Classroom management becomes anything that helps more learning to go on in the classroom; so it is taken to another level, beyond the simple ‘crowd control’ that it usually pertains to.
Here are a few techniques that Jim shared with us. (A whole chapter of these can be found in Jim’s new book, Classroom Management Techniques, which I’ve found to be most helpful, as it not only offers a wealth of ideas on how to do things differently in the classroom but also encourages you to think about why you are or aren’t doing them.)
1) Don’t rubber stamp
Rubberstamping is when the teacher says “excellent”, “very good” and other such empty words of praise at every turn. This ends the conversation by closing it down. Whereas, if the teacher withholds that ‘rubber-stamp’, the dynamic is changed and a big difference can be made. This is a way to break out of the chase for right answers. We need to learn to give feedback rather than unearned praise, as praise not only can be a dead end but also inflates: Good becomes excellent which in its turn becomes fantastic until all is AMAZING!
2) Open up questions rather than closing them down
Has terror of hurting students’ feelings has taken over? Either way, intervention and demand-high teaching can be done supportively while still upgrading the students’ level in a way that empty praise cannot. We need to push the students that step further, challenge them by moving away from doing activities ritualistically. Think about the learning process students go through as they encounter a word: Counting syllables, splitting up the syllables, trying it out, comparing with a neighbour etc. Open up this process.
3) Work one to one with a student, making it valid for the whole class.
Jim championed this idea that working one to one with a student can be time well-spent rather than an inefficient use of precious time, as it is often considered. I recently started working at the Berdale Centre in Sheffield, teaching a pre-intermediate ESOL class. One of the things I have experimented with, in the light of this talk, the follow-up discussion and the #eltchat discussion on this topic, is making one to one work with a student something the whole class can learn from. This has led to students contributing to the process and enquiring deeper into the language in question. I intend to keep a journal to record these moments and others generated by experimentation with this and other demand-high teaching techniques, so more on this later!
Getting to the end of the talk, Jim stressed that the Demand-High Teaching discussion is not a methodology-bashing, course book-bashing or anything else-bashing enterprise. The communicative approach is great, methodology is not a problem, neither are the course books. The issue is how we engage with them and what we get out of using them. There are a lot of positions to take, not just Dogme vs course books. We need to hold on to the many good elements of the communicative approach but find ways to get up close with the learning process. We need to explore it more. We need to demand more of our students.
It’s a small change of attitude that could make a big difference: “They CAN do better”. If you believe in it and ask for it, they will do it.
The talk then ended but the discussion is ongoing: no peaceful dead end here! Jim Scrivener and Adrian Underhill have set up the Demand-High ELT blog. The slides from Jim’s talk can be found here, as well as further input on the topic in the form of articles etc. It is also a space where teachers are welcome to share experiences, questions and opinions regarding Demand-High Teaching.
Being a nervous sort of person, I found this talk quite empowering: “It’s ok to really teach” – done supportively, it doesn’t turn you into the wicked witch of the west or make you some kind of student destroyer. To the contrary, it enables you to really make a difference to the students’ learning. Little wonder then, that I made every effort to attend the follow-up discussion on Thursday 22nd March. This took place in the Crowne Plaza Hotel bar and about a dozen of us spent an hour discussing Demand-High teaching, sharing our thoughts and experiences of it. I didn’t take notes on this because I was too busy participating and being thoroughly excited to do so!
Again due to being of a slightly nervous disposition, I came out of my CELTA with my B-pass and the mindset that to teach successfully, I had to do all the things I’d learned to do during the course. Questioning them didn’t occur to me. What right had I to question? So, along with the empowerment as mentioned above, the other main thing I took away from this talk and the follow-up discussions is awareness of the importance of questioning methods and techniques. Not with the aim of rubbishing them, at all (the course was great and I learnt masses of good things that have stood me in good stead!), but rather with the aim of achieving a greater understanding of what ends I hope to gain by using them. This may be obvious to more experienced teachers and more confident teachers, but for me, as a newish teacher of two years teaching experience, this was an important message: I can question and experiment my way off the path to a peaceful dead end.