“It´s all about being in the room…”

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.

12 thoughts on ““It´s all about being in the room…”

  1. Hi Valeria,
    I very much enjoyed reading your piece and all the comments. But hey, I can say that to you from France in the same way that I can now communicate with my students, both individually and collectively, after the lesson is over (once I’ve forced them into creating their own wiki for this purpose :-p )
    “It’s all about being in the room” – yes – but the walls have disapeared and, in the case of learning a foreign language, I feel it’s great for the students to be able to have that time and space alone to prepare their venturing out into actually using their new language (both in writing and orally – wow).

    And even for the straight broadcasting opposed to experiencing an event – of course we’d have loved to be in Barcelona at the unplugged conference AND in London at the production of Frankenstein, but since neither was possible is that really a reason for not putting it online in case, just by chance, someone finds the time and interest to undergo the “second class experience” an online version provides ?
    For me, watching the flat broadcast version is a glass half full, rather than the glass half empty you and Luc seem to have found 😉

    1. Hi Elizabeth,

      Thanks for your comment and sorry not to have answered before, but I’ve been taking a break from www to spend more time with my son for a while….but now it´s time to pick things up again.

      Yes, I have to say I agree with you when you say the walls of classrooms have come down, yes, they have indeed. I actually think this is a way forward and think it will contribute immensely. I like the idea of the glass hall full – yes, there are always two ways of looking at things and it´s good to be shown the other side of the coin as well. Thank you for that.

      Yet I think my main point was to highlight something I’ve been seeing a lot of recently, which is teachers failing to respond to and interact with learners in a more in-depth manner, even when they are in the same learning environment. I’ve run teacher development online courses for many years now and it is quite clear to me that we can indeed establish and maintain interaction between learners and tutors on an online environment (although of course I always think it requires so much more effort and can be quite tricky). For me, the moment we have a synchronous (or even asynchronous) exchange taking place we´ve created a learning space which requires the same degree of respect as that created in a face-to-face environment.

      So, I do see the value of online interaction. I do enjoy watching and catching up on talks or webinars which I missed and was able to see later. Yet, in a face-to-face environment we have the opportunity of picking up on so many little details which go beyond just using the language itself, there are so many visual clues I can make use of during the process of communication which can simply help create a magical extended learning experience. It comes to life as it were (provided the teacher does make use of that moment). And this is where a transmission might provide a less filled out picture.

      I think a good example to illustrate this is the following: during the IATEFL conference I wasn´t able to watch all the plenary speakers in the main plenary room. In one case I watched the speaker in one of the rooms where the talk was being streamed live. In another case I had to watch the speaker on my laptop, streamed by the BC site. In both cases, these were my least prefered talks. Was it the speaker? Maybe. But I felt there was a silence which was difficult to deal with…something was missing in my interaction as part of the audience with the speaker. But maybe that happened because I did know it was a live talk and not just an online transmission? Noy too sure.

      But I know for sure, that based on your points, I’ll be watching myself carefully now to see if I do notice some sort of pattern in me in terms of how I react to broadcast talks vs the face-to-face presentations.


  2. Hi Valéria.

    It seems a little weird to write to someone who is so close to me – literally – but you’re not on your desk right now, so I guess I’m excused.

    Your text reminded me of Daniel Goleman’s TED TALK on compassion, which I recently re-watched to prepare a talk on Humanism in Language Teaching. His message is clear: we are not more compassionate people because we ware always in a hurry. (As a “survival mechanism” we just choose not to see certain things.)

    The Brazilian Lacanian psychoanalyst Maria Rita Kehl in her beautiful book “O TEMPO E O CÃO” sets out to prove that depression in today’s society is partly a patient’s attempt NOT to fall prey of this mad rush to get things done – no matter what.

    So, yes, your posting comes in good time and will hopefully stir back the passion inside some of our teachers – those lucky few who may still have the time to stop and breathe.


    1. Guilherme,

      Hi, my name’s Rob and I teach ESL to young adults from Latin America and the Caribbean, who’ve earned scholarships based on their low-income status and outstanding leadership and academic performance, at a community college in Oregon (USA). I was interested to read what you wrote about depression as a reaction. Thomas Moore, an American psychoanalyst http://careofthesoul.net/ writes how, as individuals, we often carry the spirit of our times with us, which is mainly depression, because we have ‘lost our souls’. He writes about depression – not necessarily the long-term clinical sort – as a sort of gift that shows our soul trying to ground us, keep our feet on the ground in a world where we often fly too high. I hope that makes some sense to you. You can read his works to see if it chimes in with the thoughtful remarks you’ve made and the interesting work of Maria Rita Kehl.

      Hope you don’t mind my commenting on Ghuilherme’s comments, Valéria.


      1. Hi Rob,

        Don´t mind at all you commenting on Guilherme´s comment. This is the best thing about the comments bit in blogs, we get a chance to start a dialogue of some sort through the exchange of ideas. Thanks very much. I had a look at the link on Thomas Moore and will follow this up as well.

        I know the initial point was one of listening and noticing and how we miss this when we´re in a rush and we ended up talking about depression. But, just as a sideline, thought that both you and Guilherme might also find this book interesting, which I read in Portuguese about 8 years ago. Think it´s only just been translated into English now and it´s by the French philosopher Pascal Bruckner: Perpetual Euphoria (http://www.facebook.com/pages/Perpetual-Euphoria-by-Pascal-Bruckner/124857884218043). He contends that society has imposed on us a moral need to be continuously “happy”, anything else is tantamount to failure. Depression is an answer to this excessive need to seem to be happy (this is a very general overview of his line of thought). A very contentious book which can be annoying at times when you read it (wonder if it was the translation, might just read it in English now to check this), but it does make us see things from a new perspective.
        Thanks to you both for sharing your thoughts with me.


    2. Hi Guilherme,

      Always good to hear you express your thoughts and ideas. Thanks for your comment.

      Justed watched the Goleman TED Talk (http://www.ted.com/talks/daniel_goleman_on_compassion.html) and I think there are several things there worth considering, not least his mention of the newly coined word “pizzled”: “There is a newly coined word in the English language for the moment when the person we’re with whips out their BlackBerry or answers that cell phone, and all of a sudden we don’t exist. The word is “pizzled”: it’s a combination of puzzled and pissed off.” This is true and in fact, have to say I recognised myself a bit in this comment, so that was good eye opener. And the essence of it is about “noticing the other”, which is always a good message.

      Thanks for Maria Rita Kehl, also watched a couple of her talks on you tube, this is new to me and will read up on her. Yes, can see the connection between slowing down and depression.


  3. Loved this piece, Valeria. As we live faster, and are able to do more remotely, I think it’s vital that we remember how precious face-to-face interaction is. We had a bit of a debate about streaming or at least filming the live lesson at the TDSIG Unplugged Conference. In the end we didn’t, and I think it was a good thing, although I completely understand the arguments in favour. There was just too much happening in terms of the interaction between teachers, learners and observers – and some of the most important stuff that happens in a face-to-face context is too subtle to ‘capture’ on video. Even the word ‘capture’ sounds a bit suspect in the light of your lovely paragraph about ‘“acquiring” the English language [being] a bit like the Gold Rush of the late 19th and early 20th centuries.’ We shouldn’t underestimate the complexity of the learning environment – and the more we understand it, the better placed we are to do the kind of noticing you encourage. ‘Did you notice that?’ is a great question!

    1. Hi Luke,

      Thanks for your comment and sorry for having taken so long to reply back.

      Very interesting your comment about the decision not to film the Unplugged Conference session. I’ve been lucky enough to have been involved in quite a bit of filming and directing of teacher training videos for the teacher training department of my institution for our online courses. If there is something that I’ve learnt is that, if you want to film a lesson taking place you need:
      1) At least 3 microphones (and I’m talking about filming in a small space with about 10 learners);
      2) At least 2 cameras, one filming the teacher and the other the learners.
      So, the experience is hardly unobtrusive (not to mention the lighting involved which heats the room in an absurd manner, and we can´t switch on the air conditioning, etc.). The learning environment is not the same at all….it´s something else. It´s no longer your classroom, it´s become a “set”….

      But, unless you have this set up, you’re hardly able to get on video a small peek into some of the rich little moments which take place between teacher and learner(s). So, I think the decision not to film the Unplugged Conference was a good one.

      But I think I’ll just make a point, as the member of the audience made to Jonny, perhaps we could have more Unplugged conferences around the world?


  4. Hi Valeria,

    Thank you for sharing this. I’m revisiting the Stevick book you cite (A Way and Ways) and find that any approach that strives to create primacy and meaningful, deep learning will have to afford learners opportunities for authentic interaction that relates to their lives. I’m not sure coursebooks don’t usually get in the way of that. To learn that Brazil is living too fast bursts all my bubbles about laid-back life beneath the equator. 😦


    1. Hi Rob,

      Thanks for your comment.

      Hmm, yes, the coursebooks issue is a thorny one indeed. Whilst I can certainly see how they are sometimes really useful for less experienced teachers (and in the Institution where I teach giving up the coursebook totally is not a reality), I can also see how they can be “death-traps” as well. You see, unless a teacher has the sensitivity to look at the learner and see that a proposed task or theme is not of great interest to the learner, then we face a well-known teaching situation in which the teacher struggles to motivate a group of teenagers and very limited learning opportunities arise due to their limited interest in the said topic. We often hear teachers saying that the most important thing when teaching teenagers is motivation. Well, this might be a chicken and egg situation: can it be that the topic in the book is so distant from the learner that however hard you try you´ll only motivate them this far? Surely if we did allow the topic to emerge we might find that the motivating factor comes more easily?

      As for life being more laid back beneath the equator, well, I think that in Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo the pace of life during the working week is faster than in other cities in Brazil. In the South they still stop for a nice long lunch and sometimes tea in the afternoon. In the Northeast I find the pace of things slower as well. But, we do have our moments in Rio: we stop several times a week to watch football on TV (that counts as relaxation surely???); we can spend several hours on the beach or at a barbecue just chatting…and I have to admit, that a 60 minute walk on the beach & the view of the sunset does indeed clear all problems away…so, there are pluses too. 🙂


  5. Great article! I strongly agree with you! Interacting with learners is the key to sucess! We do not need to design successful plans as much as we need to interact successively with our leaners and that’s what makes our lessons successful . Thanks again for this well-written article!

    1. Hi Romdhani,

      Thanks ever so much for your comment and I have to say I like the way you put it: “We do not need to design successful plans as much as we need to interact successively with our leaners and that’s what makes our lessons successful .” This couldn´t be truer!


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