This post is, I promise, about teachers listening to learners, learning spaces and learning experiences. But let me begin by digressing a bit and telling a story.
A couple of days before the Brighton International IATEFL Conference I spent a few days in London. One of the things I wanted to do was to watch Danny Boyle’s National Theatre production of Nick Dear’s adaptation of Frankenstein and after queuing for a couple of hours, we got the tickets.
The play was brilliant in many respects (in others I did have my reservations). But one thing got me thinking. This play is being broadcast live at least once a month throughout cinemas in Europe. Having seen the play I couldn’t help but think: what experience does the cinema audience have of this play which engages the “live” audience in so many senses (literally speaking). The first 30 minutes or so is a visceral experience. How can a camera pick all of this up? Surely you only get part of the experience?
Then I began thinking about the actors on stage. Anyone who’s ever been on stage before knows that you can sense the audience in front of you. And a lot of that is done by listening to them (with the floodlights you can hardly see the audience). So what happens in the broadcast versions of the Frankenstein play? Do the actors forget there’s a camera on? Do they only act for the audience in the theatre?
These questions were going over my mind and on returning to Brazil, whilst surfing the web, I came across a Q&A session held at the National Theatre with the play’s director and the two actors who swap roles on alternate nights so that they both play the roles of Victor Frankenstein and the Creature (Daniel Cumberbatch and Jonny Lee Miller). In the interview, which you can see below, Jonny makes clear their reluctance as regards the broadcasting of the performance.
He makes it clear that the experience of watching live theatre is unique because of the exchange that happens between the actor and the audience,
“…we’re performing so that you up there, the back of the, back of…your experience has to be for us as engaging as it is for you down there…so you can’t ever get that balance using a camera…[…]…but still, I’m telling you, it’s all about being in the room, that’s what theatre really means.”
So, the actors sort of confirmed my gut feeling about the broadcasts. But the more I thought of it, the more Jonny’s words struck a deeper chord with me as I couldn’t help associating what he said to the language teaching and learning experience. His words, “it’s all about being in the room…” couldn’t be truer for us teachers and for our learners. We’ve heard this before in the words of Earl Stevick: “[...] success depends less on materials, techniques and linguistic analyses, and more on what goes on inside and between the people in the classroom.” (Quotation can be found in Stevick, E. 1981. Teaching Languages: A Way and Ways. Rowley: Newbury House.)
The “communicative” classroom has always in a way tried to foster a constructive interaction between teachers and learners. We have, as new teaching resources and approaches have emerged, elaborated and introduced new elements into our classroom. Yet, if there is something that should have always been present, despite changes, is our ability to listen to our learners and we can only do that because we are sharing the same learning/teaching space.
As the lesson takes place, we have to be able to feel and sense what is going on in the classroom. We’re not robots after all. Yes, we may have a lesson plan, we may use a coursebook (or not), we may use IWBs (or not), we might be teaching over 50 learners, we may be dealing with mono or multilingual groups, it really doesn’t matter. If we don´t stop to look at the learners, to take the time to listen to them (and that means not succumbing heart and soul to timetable, syllabus and testing pressures), react and interact with them, in short, construct a dialogue, then we’ve become mere content regurgitators and we’re forcing them into the same mould.
I also think that in some countries (Brazil being the case) the speed and rate at which we are living our lives has pushed us into imitating the same pattern in the classroom. It seems to me that “acquiring” the English language is a bit like the Gold Rush of the late 19th and early 20th centuries: fast, furious and then it dwindles and you end up with ghost towns, with little memory of the heyday. This pattern doesn’t work as a true learning experience.
Strong words and imagery? Well, yes. Yet as a teacher trainer I do get the opportunity to observe thousands (okay, slightly exaggerated here) of lessons every year. The question I have asked more and more recently following lesson observations has been: “So and so seemed to want to share something with us. Did you notice that?” In general, teachers are so worried about covering the lesson plan (okay, so there is a huge amount of tension when it comes to being observed…so it´s understandable when this happens sometimes) that they forget that learning magic happens when interaction takes place, when we need to extemporize in reaction to the learners’ needs and when we truly share something. Learning becomes more meaningful and in fact, we actually create a true learning opportunity when we allow this interaction and exchange to take place.
We empower the learner. The learning space is transformed. The experience is a different one.
Going back to Jonny, he also mentions in the interview that the whole “process” of presenting the play is one which “affects” the audience in very many ways as there is the interaction of lighting, music, etc. It’s quite interesting to hear an actor describing a performance of a play as a process. The idea of collaboration with the audience is quite a strong one. And this is so true of our reality in the classroom. We all know learning is a process, but how often do we not treat our teaching as a product rather than a process (I think many of us can plead guilty to saying at some stage something to the tune of: “Today I taught the present perfect.”. I know I can, and I also made a point of writing it down in my monthly lesson planner!!!!! As if, “done with this” and now onto something else…..).
The moment we begin thinking the learning/teaching experience as a process (and not a testable by-product), we attribute new weight to the word ‘time’ in ‘timetable”. We allow learners to potentially subvert the learning process by adding their own voice. New exciting possibilities emerge in the classroom and I can be certain that memorable experiences are to be had.
So, paraphrasing Jonny, but changing his words a bit:
It´s about being in the room, that’s what teaching/learning really means.