Changing Places

I was recently asked to give a workshop on interaction patterns  It seemed that the teachers at the school were not using a sufficient variety of them, and that this was affecting the effectiveness of the lessons.

This is not an uncommon criticism. I have lost count of the number of times in feedback that I have had to ask why the teacher did not take the opportunity to change the interaction patterns. A common reply to my query more often than not is, ‘I forgot’. It appears that in a large number of cases, changes in interaction are not planned for, and when they are changed, it is often off the cuff, with the teacher being unaware of the pedagogical reasons for the change. Having said that, many changes of interaction will have to be unplanned, and based upon events in the classroom. For example, if the pace and dynamics of a lesson have dropped, the teacher might change interaction patterns in order to liven up the classroom dynamics. However, whatever the circumstances, any change in interaction should be based on decision making which is based on sound pedagogical principles.

First of all, why would we want to plan for changes in interaction? After all, many students seem perfectly happy to sit in the same place for the duration of the lesson, maybe doing pair work with the person they are sitting next to (more often than not the same person they always sit next to), and providing answers to the teacher’s questions. There are probably good reasons for these attitudes. Depending on the time of the lesson, the students might be too tired to move around. The learners may be too old. The students may have an educational background where they were sat at prescribed immovable desks where they spent the duration of the lesson listening to the pontificating of the teacher. However, I believe that the advantages of changing interaction patterns in a principled way far outweigh the gripes a few students might have.

Teachers need to be able to recognize what effects these patterns of communication have on their students and how they participate in class. These patterns shape the way learners use language, and also their second language acquisition. Furthermore, teachers need to be aware of how interaction patterns can influence classroom management issues.

During the workshop, we came up with some very good reasons why interaction patterns should be changed:

-different interaction patterns can support the aims of different types of activities and tasks. For example, brainstorming arguments to be used prior to a debate might best be undertaken in a group. It may also be the case that an activity can be adapted or extended just through the careful planning of interaction patterns;

-different interaction patterns can have a profound affect on the type and quality of input they receive, and the opportunities for output they get, and these will, in turn, effect learning. This has been borne out in numerous studies on language acquisition. For example, it has been shown that more student centered classrooms are more effective in terms of acquiring a language than teacher centered ones;

-related to the above point is the fact that interaction patterns have a direct influence on teacher and student talking time. The more teacher centered a lesson is, the higher the teacher talking time and, conversely, the lower the time for students to talk. This may seem obvious, but it is amazing how often this is forgotten;

-changing patterns can help alter the pace and dynamics of the lesson, as when the students are switching off and slouching in their seats. As I said above, this might have to be a decision taken in reaction to real time classroom events;

-changing the patterns of interaction can give the teacher the opportunity to get strong students, or strong and weak students, or different types of learners working together, or different nationalities collaborating in a multilingual class. I would argue that although there may be some occasions when the teacher might group students randomly, these will be rare. In the vast majority of cases, grouping should be based on sound pedagogical reasons;

-changing interaction patterns can signal the transition to a new stage of the lesson. For example, you have just finished a teacher centered language focus stage, and you use a technique to pair off the students in order to signal the move into a controlled practice phase of the lesson;

-changing patterns can help the classroom participants to ‘gel’. Working with different classmates can obviously help students to get to know each other and form social bonds. This might also have the effect of lowering levels of anxiety, which is one of the biggest obstacles to language acquisition.

There are other issues related to interaction which we did not have time to cover, such as how many times students should be moved during a lesson, and what is the optimum number of students for group work. However, we did agree on the importance of interaction patterns in the classroom. Teachers need to be aware of them, and be willing to change them if there is a good pedagogical justification for doing so. Having said that, it is sometimes worrying that teachers don’t seem to be fully aware, and don’t even plan for changing interaction patterns.


Dominic Walters

I am CELTA and DELTA qualified and have an MA in Educational Psychology. I have been teaching English since 1991, working in Brazil, Republic of Ireland, Spain, Portugual, Egypt and the UK. I am a DELTA, ICELT, CELTA, FTBE assessor and tutor as well as a CELTA online course tutor. I am also an examiner for the Cambridge, IELTS, Trinity exams.

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