Is what we do relevant to our students’ lives?

It’s great to be blogging here – hello!

What I’m going to talk about each month are some of the questions that interest me and that I’m reading and talking about with my fellow teachers and teacher trainees.  This month I want to consider what we do in the classroom and its connection and relevance to learners and their ‘real lives’.

In 2007 (which is about a million years ago in Internet years!), Dr Mike Wesch and his students at Kansas State University conducted a piece of research entitled ‘What’s it like to be a student today?’ and the ensuing video they made from the results (called ‘A Vision of Students Today’) went viral.

You can watch the video here – it’s only about five minutes long.

In this video it was suggested that students feel that only 26% of what they read in the classroom is relevant to their lives and this opened the discussion about whether the way we teach is actually the way students learn.  Students said that on average they’ll read about 8 books in one year and thousands of webpages and Facebook profiles, and in terms of writing, they’ll write 42 pages a semester for class, while they’ll write over 500 pages of email (note that the amount of email has probably gone down since 2007 as young people turn away from email (too slow!) and spend more time writing instant messages and texting and using social networks to communicate with each other).  This tells me that students are reading and writing a lot (more of this next month), but it also tells me that their lives are becoming increasingly digital and that if we want students to feel that what they do in class is relevant to their lives we really need to incorporate the use of digital media into what we do in the classroom.

It may be that the schools where we work don’t have much technology or digital media (or that they’re not allowed to use it – for example, are cell phones banned in your schools/classrooms?), but this doesn’t really matter, does it?  We can still create that connection with digital media by preparing students in the classroom with the language they need to carry out homework and tasks that involve the use of digital media and software and apps that they use in their everyday lives and that can help them to practice using English.  I’m not necessarily talking here about special online learning platforms for keeping track of everything our students do in English, I’m talking about “the tools we genuinely use to socialize, study and develop ourselves” (Peachey, 2012),  like Skype, WhatsApp, Facebook, Twitter, blogs etc.

So … what do you think?  Is what you do in the classroom relevant to your learners’ lives?

How do you, and can you, make teaching relevant?  Looking forward to hearing your ideas …


Peachey, N (2012)  ‘Technology can sometimes be wasted on English language teaching’ in The Guardian Weekly online:  May 15, 2012

Wesch, M (2007) ‘A vision of students today’

Carol Lethaby

Carol Lethaby is a teacher, teacher educator and materials writer based in San Francisco, California, who has been in the field of language teaching since 1986. She is part-time Assistant Professor on the New School, New York online MA TESOL as well as being an honoured instructor at UC Berkeley Extension where she teaches on the TESL/TEFL Certificate program. She has also worked on several textbook series for learners of English, including Awesome, Next Step, The Big Picture and English ID, all published by Richmond ELT. Carol is a frequent presenter at international conferences.

  • Patricia
    Posted at 14:57h, 06 fevereiro Responder

    Thank you for a thought-provoking post, Carol. It raises many interesting questions but I’ll just note one reaction here. It is that I am constantly surprised as I work on and assess intensive face-to-face initial teacher training courses that technology is not yet an integral part of the course nor dealt with in the input new teachers receive. One reason often given for this is the one you have mentioned in your blog – that the training center doesn’t have the hardware or a reliable internet connection to support any meaningful work or communication in this area. Another reason is of course that the trainers themselves have not been able to keep up-to-date with or have hands-on practice using technology with language learners so therefore feel inadequate in front of their often younger and more tech-savvy trainees. Yet another point is that technology is still seen as an add-on – one of those ‘extras’ like the use of video or songs that we need to know about to enliven our classes once in a while. Meanwhile the trainees themselves are using technology to chat about their course and their tutors, hopefully share ideas and to text one another in classroom observation time to say how bored they are!

    • Carol Lethaby
      Carol Lethaby
      Posted at 20:40h, 06 fevereiro Responder

      Thank you for your comment, Patricia (and I love the irony of the trainees using technology to talk about how dull the teaching is they’re watching 🙂 ).
      You bring up a very important point that what goes on in the language teaching classroom often starts with what goes on in the initial training room. Do we have to wait for a generation of tech-savvy trainers to do it or should we be incorporating the use of technology and digital media in the classroom in initial training programs now?
      In the Peachey (2012) article that I mention above he argues “for a different approach to teacher development that focuses on helping teachers with their own digital literacies.” I think a lot of teachers definitely feel overwhelmed by technology for teaching, even though they may be using it quite efficiently in their ‘real lives’.

  • David
    Posted at 22:15h, 06 fevereiro Responder

    This is such a relevant topic. I work for a group of English language schools and we have been discussing how our teaching can be more effective with technology. Your comment about how to deal with mobile phones in the classroom has been around for a while now. I am continually surprised at how schools and teachers ban them in the classroom, when we should be embracing them. If this is how our students communicate, then we must be utilising them.

    I wanted to expand the discussion outside of the classroom. Many students travel overseas to learn English and then arrive in schools where tests are done on paper and class lists are posted on boards. We need to understand how to communicate more effectively with our students. If they are on mobile devices, then shouldn’t we be communicating with them on these devices and even assessing them on their devices. Are we just asking students to fit into our ways of running schools and teaching classes, rather than looking at what is most effective for our students?

    The more effectively we communicate with our students and understand their needs and learning styles, the better we will learn how to enhance their motivation and increase their learning.

    • Carol Lethaby
      Carol Lethaby
      Posted at 21:24h, 10 fevereiro Responder

      Thanks for your comment, David – it’s interesting to think about this from a different perspective, not just about teaching, but thinking about how we communicate in general with students.

  • Renee
    Posted at 15:52h, 19 fevereiro Responder

    What a moving video and blog post, Carol! They’ve given me a wake-up call to tap more deeply into student interests and habits. Up to this point, my great tech discovery in the past 2 years has been Google Drive, but now I realize I’ve resorted to that ONE set of tools for too long and am behind the times already. That said, I’ll just say that using Google Drive in my 6th-grade English classroom has opened up a myriad of types of student communication, and the kids love it! From quick-write dialogues to each another in class (which somehow they often seem to prefer over face-to-face interaction) to large projects like collaborative scripts, PPT’s, and stories, to name a few, students have engaged enthusiastically with one another online. While the particular content doesn’t always have to be relevant to students’ lives, using this technology can turn almost any topic into a fun, community activity.

    • Carol Lethaby
      Carol Lethaby
      Posted at 16:05h, 19 fevereiro Responder

      Thank you for your comment, Renee. I think you make an interesting point here, that it’s often the use of technology itself that helps to make what you do in class relevant to the learner’s lives as technology becomes an ever more integral part of their lives. It’s also interesting that you’re using an app that’s not specifically designed for language learning or even education – precisely what Peachey is talking about in the article I quote from. Thanks for this.

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