09 dez 2014 Checking up on checking
Checking exercises is so deeply ingrained in our teaching practice that we seldom give it a thought. Asking students to report back after a small-group activity is also common practice ever since the boom of the communicative approach. But are we making the best use of classroom time or could we just be doing it for the sake of habit?
Just last week, I was talking to a teacher I know about a great lesson she had delivered when we caught ourselves discussing just that. It dawned on us that we might be checking, re-checking and checking once again to the point that knowing whether the answers are ‘right’ takes longer than the activity itself.
I promised her I would look for some article and theory as a follow-up to our conversation, but I have to admit that the results of my quick research did not add much to our discussion. Naturally, I found reference to the affective and cognitive benefits of peer-checking and reporting back in works by brilliant authors such as Brown (2000:177-190), mostly under the heading group work. However, most of what I found when searching for the word checking were disappointingly vague commands: “then check answers”. But how?
Here are some ideas that might shed some light into our discussion:
Monitor more effectively
As learners are doing the activities, go around the room checking their progress rather than simply waiting for them to finish the task. By doing so, you will have a clearer view of each learner’s difficulties and successes; and you could also simply point out the items that are incorrect and give learners another chance to get it right.
Teachers often find themselves struggling to design extra activities or planning how to deal with those students that finish the task before their colleagues (and anyone who has taught a group of children or teenagers knows the sheer amount of disruption that can arise while they wait!). Why not quickly go through their work and make them responsible for helping everyone else correct the items they got right? They will certainly feel empowered and this could be helpful to promote group cohesiveness and peer collaboration.
Just give them the answers already!
In most lessons I observe, checking of exercises usually follows a particular formula:
Individual work + checking in pairs + teacher-led checking with the whole group
Honestly, this cycle has been done so often that learners often start checking in pairs before we instruct them to do so! And even worse, pairs sometimes give up trying to solve the difficult items because they know the teacher will provide the correct answer afterwards. Could we shake things up a bot? Rather than focusing on systematising the correct answer, simply provide them straightaway and ask pairs to find or share the justifications instead. Allowing learners to reflect upon why they got it right or not can be much more profitable to the learning process than simply focusing on what answer is correct. Don’t we all tell our learners that we learn from our mistakes? Well, let them do just that!
Don’t check answers at all!
When we aim at working on accuracy and practicing form, it is important that learners know what the correct answer is. However, so much goes on in communicative classrooms that does not fit this description! Why do we insist on nominating half of the students in the classroom to share with the whole group whether they found opinions in common? Couldn’t that be seen as simply doing the task again, this time in a teacher-fronted and teacher-controlled manner, drastically increasing undesired TTT? Moreover, to what extent do the other students who were not asked to contribute benefit from simply listening to one student having a chat with the teacher? It is hard for us, teacher, to let go of the control and power that comes from validating students’ contributions, but isn’t just that what we need to do in order to help learners become more autonomous?
I hope these ideas contribute not just to the amazing teacher who triggered my own reflection, and to whom I’m extremely grateful. Having the opportunity to revisit and rethink the basics of our profession in order to enrich my own learners’ experience is definitely one of the aspects that make me love my job!