Thursday, June 18, 2015

Only Connect: Seven Strategies for Ensuring Teacher-Student Communication in the Classroom - Plenary Talk by Ken Wilson

Interview with Ken Wilson by Aspa Georgopoulou

In his plenary talk, Ken Wilson talked about the radical change that the teacher-student communication has undergone in classrooms where technology is available and offered valuable and practical ideas on how the vital link between the teacher and the students can be maintained in a hi-tech classroom.

Starting off, Ken took us on a journey through the history of education, showing us some of the most essential changes that took place in the learning environment over the last century. From the one-room school to the round table classroom every major change always raised complaints and concerns, some of which, undeniably, cleared the way for evaluation, re-planning and improvement, thus blazing new trails in the field of education. The hi-tech classroom is today’s latest revolutionary change and Ken wanted to share with us his “small complaint” about technology in the classroom and how it is used. 

There are schools today, he said, where every classroom has a computer at every desk. According to a student, who learns in such an environment, the computers have changed the relationship the students had with their teacher. Reflecting on the importance of this relationship, Ken explained, that good teachers always engage with their students at the start of every class, for a long time before anything else happens. This engagement becomes a conversation, a real life event. However, in the hi-tech classroom, where both the student and the teacher look at the screen and not at each other, this engagement doesn’t work anymore. Additionally, given that every class is mixed ability, putting all our students with their different attitudes and talents in front of the screen, we may not be providing for all their different needs. 

Ken explained that we can’t stop technology but we can make sure that the old fashioned engagement continues and emphasized on the teacher’s role in finding ways to get students together and motivate them. He recommended seven strategies which will help teachers maintain the vital link between them and their students, in today’s hi-tech classroom.

1. “Develop voices, yours and your students’.” Teachers and students should learn to breathe and speak using their diaphragm. If our diaphragm is developed, we have a wider range of control over our breath and we can project our voice better, preventing voice strain in the long term. Finding the diaphragm voice, gives our voices a strong presence and helps us communicate in a much more effective way! Ken suggested an activity called “Sound of the day” to help our students build control and strength over their voices in a fun way. He asked the attendees to stand up, take a deep breath and make the sound /er/ while breathing out. Then, he asked them to let a different sentence each time be heard in their voices while making this sound. The room was filled with funny sounds and laughter that made everyone feel more relaxed!

2. “Talk about yourself.” Ken stressed how important it is for the teacher to actually be part of the class. Sharing a personal story can be a good way to start a lesson and connect with the students. The teacher can also use his/her own selfies to make interesting activities involving lots of guessing and speaking. Ken, himself, showed one of his selfies and asked the attendees to discuss with a partner where they think the photo was taken and what was happening. In a second activity he showed a selfie of him and a famous person at the back! The task was to ask questions to find out who the famous person was! Both activities managed to raise curiosity and instilled everyone with a strong desire to know and learn!

3. “Switch on your phones.” Nowadays most of our students have sophisticated personal technology. Why not include it in the lesson? Ken asked the attendees to take out their mobile phones and access their photo galleries. He called the first activity “10 second challenge”. He asked everyone to find a particular kind of photo and hold their phones up. Then, he went around allowing people to talk about their photos. In a second activity he asked them to show their partner a photo that meant something to them and talk about it. There was a lot of speaking and sharing, driven by the need to talk about things that are about us and therefore really interest us!

4. “Find out what your students know.” Ken made clear how important it is for the teacher to use the student’s own knowledge and areas of interest in the lesson. An interesting activity, he suggested, involved the use of the course book’s content pages. He showed the attendees some topics from such a content page. He asked them to choose a topic and write down a fact about it on a post-it. Then, he asked them to exchange their facts with others and finally, to share with the class someone else’s fact. An activity with a lot of sharing, but also real listening to each other! Ken went on by suggesting to keep the students’ fact post-its and use them when reaching the corresponding units. It became obvious that incorporating student’s own interests into the lesson, can catch their attention and engage them in the learning procedure.

5. “Teach unplugged.” Ken shared with us a personal experience of him being, recently, a student of German and experiencing from the learner’s point of view, the need for a more learner-focused lesson. Occasioned by that, he talked about the Dogme ELT methodology and its key principles, a movement that grew out of ideas and beliefs on the importance of a conversation-driven learner-focused language teaching. Ken pointed out that the implementation of such a philosophy of language learning can be very difficult, especially if a teacher has to follow a specific curriculum and/or a course book. Understanding the difficulty, but not being able to oversee the necessity, Ken’s message to all was to, occasionally, abandon our plan, follow the trails the students have to offer and see what happens! 

6. “Do something unexpected.” Due to lack of time, this strategy was (unexpectedly) omitted. 

7. “Be memorable.” Ken talked about the importance of leaving personal problems outside the classroom’s door and starting every lesson with a smile. This will definitely connect the teacher with his/her students and improve their relationship. And it is much more important than how well we teach! 

7+. “for NESTs” Ken explained that native English-speaking teachers (NESTs) in Greece can speak Greek fluently, because they learned it in Greece, the country the language is spoken. However, Greek students don’t learn English in England which makes learning more difficult for them. Therefore, he encouraged us to step into our student’s shoes and take up a new language ourselves. Learning a language the way our students do, will help us understand their difficulties and suit our teaching to fit their needs.

Ken finished his talk with a quote from Howards End, by E.M. Forster: “Only Connect! … Live in fragments no longer” urging us all to consider that by putting all students behind a screen there is a strong possibility of “fragmenting” their education! 

A thought provoking, highly informative talk with a lot of interaction, sharing and fun. Implementing his suggested strategies, Ken Wilson managed to engage the attendees from the first till the last minute, allowing this way everyone to experience how, connecting with our students can maximize learning opportunities for all. 

By Aspa Georgopoulou

Photos by Margarita Kosior

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