Small ways to give up control

One of the best features of my job is that I get to observe teachers in their second semester in the language institute where I work.  In their first semester, they go through a mentoring process and are then observed by two other academic specialists.

These observations usually go very well. The teachers are very professional in their attitude toward the whole process; they submit their lesson plans in advance and participate actively and reflectively in our pre and post-observation meetings. I find it a very rewarding experience in that I am able to gauge how effective our initial teacher development program has been and what still needs to be worked on. In this sense, I always look for patterns in these teachers’ performance so we can plan future continuous professional development initiatives.

This semester I observed excellent classes in which the teachers had a clear learning outcome and planned and carried out activities that effectively led to the attainment of these objectives. The students were engaged and interacted by way of a variety of pair and group work formats. However, I identified a common feature in three of these great classes: the teachers’ need to be in control all the time. I will give three practical examples to illustrate my point.

Class 1

The goal was for students to ask and answer questions about who their favorite singer or band was and what kind of music they played. For the consolidation activity, having gone through more controlled stages in the lesson, the teacher had flashcards with currently famous singers and bands. She taped them around the classroom for students to walk around and interact. They did so very actively and produced the target dialogue effectively. Technically speaking, it was a good activity.

However, who controlled the singers and bands students talked about? The teacher! It was a group of teenagers. All of them had smart phones and there is Wi-Fi at school. What a perfect opportunity to have them open their playlist or You Tube and show each other their favorite singers and bands! Would it be a bit messier than the pre-planned activity? Probably! Might they have shown each other songs with dirty words? Maybe…  But it would also have been much more authentic and would have more effectively simulated a real-life type of interaction among teens.  A little more noise and a little more mess does not mean less learning.

Class 2

Students had already learned some regular past-tense verbs and the goal of this class was for them to review these regular verbs and add some irregular verbs to their repertoire so they could talk about experiences at a definite time in the past. The teacher shared her lesson plan with me and discussed how she would carry it out. At one point in the lesson, she had planned to show students a slide with two columns – one with regular verbs and the other with irregular ones – and have the students name the two categories. I immediately asked her why she was already categorizing the verbs and suggested she give them the verbs randomly and have them decide what the two categories were and then name them.

At first, she was a little uncertain whether they would be able to do this more demanding and higher-order-thinking task, but then she decided to give it a try. We talked about different ways she could do this, my favorite one being giving pairs or groups the verbs on slips and having them manipulate them and put them in two columns, without saying how. She thought this might become too messy, so she decided to use the slide, but with the verbs presented randomly, and ask students to classify them into two columns.

Needless to say, the students were immediately able not only to separate the verbs into two categories but also to say what they were – regular and irregular verbs.  The teacher released some of the control to the students. Nevertheless, the slips activity would have added more movement to the class and they could have sat on the floor for this task and interacted among themselves more actively in deciding how to categorize the verbs. Again, messier? Yes! But the students would also have been in much more control.

Class 3

This is a teacher who is very organized with her materials. When I arrived in class, she had already arranged all the learning space and sorted out all the resources she would use in class, such as slips, an iPad with an app to time activities, the computer and projector, etc.  One could easily see she was very meticulous. Again, the class went very well; there was a great variety of activities and the students produced the target language effectively.

Nonetheless, there was one aspect that caught my attention. Every time a student asked a question about an unknown word or the like, the teacher had a classmate explain. Great! Peer explanation; relinquishing control. However, she always validated the student’s response, perhaps so that the other student would be sure that the peer’s explanation was correct. When I brought this up in our post-observation meeting, it was clear that the teacher was not aware that she was doing this.  After all, it is hard for us teachers to get out of the way and let students sort it out themselves. We tend to think they won’t trust their peer’s answer or correction. Well, if we don’t give up this control, they really won’t trust each other and the interactions in class will always be mediated by us, rather than flow smoothly among the students themselves.

These are three simple and quite common situations in which a slight change in the classroom techniques and procedures can contribute to releasing more control to students. The lessons described are quite typical of a language classroom, and the situations I presented here could potentially go unnoticed by another observer who is not as adamant as I am regarding the need for teachers to relinquish control in their classes. In fact, I believe more extreme change in how we deliver our lessons is in order so that students can have even more control and choice.  In a 21st-century model of learning, there is little room for teacher-fronted lessons and all students doing the same thing at the same time. So next time you plan your lesson, think about what you might be controlling too much and how you can relinquish control. Don’t be too concerned about students becoming too loud and the activities a bit messy. Productive messiness is good!

Isabela Villas Boas

Isabela Villas Boas holds a Master's Degree in Teaching English as a Second Language from Arizona State University and a Ph.D. in Education from Universidade de Brasília. She has been at Casa Thomas Jefferson for 31 years, where she is currently the Academic Superintendent. Her main academic interests are second language writing, teacher development, ELT methodology, and assessment. She also supervises MA dissertations for the University of Birmingham.

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