GUEST POST: An Interview With a Language Teacher

GUEST POST: An Interview With a Language Teacher

Jake Hunton, @jakehuntonMFL, is Head of Languages, author of Fun Learning Activities for FL, passionate about anything that supports teaching and learning, teachers and students... and North Staffordshire Oatcakes...

1) About Your Own Teaching

a) What is your favorite aspect of teaching?

Probably putting research into practice and seeing student progress over time. I also love being in a position where research-led practice can be discussed professionally and collaboratively with staff and students alike. I enjoy explaining to my students why an approach is being used, and having dialogues about whether they feel it is working.

b) In an ideal world, how would your students study and engage with the material you present in your class?

I would like for students to have the time to think about the language they are learning through coverage of fewer topics across spaced intervals. I would like for GCSE students (age 15-16) in particular to have reached a level of automaticity with the language. This automaticity should allow them to feel as though the exams that they take are easy - and this in turn should make it feel as though learning languages is, therefore, easy.  

c) For you as a teacher, what are the most useful resources about how students learn?

Anything to do with cognitive psychology! I’m no expert at all, but I love finding out more and more about this area. It’s amazing to think how little I actually did know before I discovered this field, and how much I still don’t know about it. There are so many fantastic blogs and books out there now, but some of my favourites are Nick Rose (@Nick_J_Rose) and David Didau’s (@LearningSpy) book (What Every Teacher Needs to Know About Psychology) and blog, Alex Quigley’s (@HuntingEnglish)  book The Confident Teacher, Shaun Allison (@shaun_allison) and Andy Tharby’s (@atharby) Making Every Lesson Count, Daniel Willingham’s (@DTWillingham) Why Don’t Students Like School? and of course blogs like this one and Pooja Agarwal’s (@PoojaAgarwal) Retrieval Practice Guide and website to mention just a few. A great language-specific one is The Language Teacher Toolkit by Steve Smith (@spsmith45) and Gianfranco Conti (@gianfrancocont9) (as well as their blogs). I’ve also been reading Learning as a Generative Activity by Richard E. Mayer and Logan Fiorella, as well as dipping in and out of Cognitive Psychology: Connecting Mind, Research, and Everyday Experience by Bruce Goldstein.

2) About Science Communication

a) What is the best way to translate research published in academic journals to a wider audience?

I read a great blog not so long ago by Gary Davies (@gazbd) on why teachers don’t engage with research. He talks about a number of issues – but ,he says that the problems are not with teachers, but with the research itself. One of the issues is that a lot of education research is not written by or for teachers. Alex Quigley comments on the blog post, pointing to distilled versions of research papers and how these sources might be more accessible for teachers looking to develop their practice from a more evidence-based perspective. He refers in particular to the work done by David Didau and Nick Rose. I think that having a hybrid form of user-friendly research summaries could have a huge impact in schools. The books and blogs mentioned earlier all do a brilliant job. in my view, of helping to synthesise education research and classroom practice. I think that a continuation of these efforts, alongside making research in schools a priority, is key.

Perhaps one way of ensuring that research is high on a school’s agenda is to follow innovative examples set by Tom Sherrington (@headguruteacher) at his school (and John Tomsett, @johntomsett, and Alex Quigley’s Huntington School). In this school, as described in this blog post, every fortnight school finishes an hour early so that staff can gather together for a 2 hour CPD session. Getting to a stage where CPD is not seen as something as an add-on at infrequent times, and moving towards embedding that culture in everyday school life, seems to be the right way to go.

The head teacher at my first school said to me once that he thought a change in departmental structure in terms of roles and responsibilities might help to promote a more evidence-based practice. For example, having someone responsible solely for administration and someone else responsible solely for research / all things teaching and learning (including adapting academic research into user-friendly material for teachers). Conferences like ResearchED at which I was fortunate enough to present, are also a fantastic way of bridging the gap between academic research and classroom practice.

b) How can we challenge common misconceptions in education?

Carefully, I think! If you have been teaching a certain way for a while and then evidence is presented for a different approach, there is always the risk of defensiveness. Perhaps adopting a low-stakes approach to trialling ideas from cognitive science (in the same way that a teacher might adopt a low-stakes approach to using retrieval practice in the classroom with the students_ is a way forward. I think it has to be about trying to foster an environment that is as low on bias as possible. While hardly a self-help book, I know, Didau’s What If Everything You Knew About Education Was Wrong? helped me enormously with bias and being aware that I could be wrong, and opening up to being wrong. I think a combination of lowering fear through low-stakes evidence-based approaches combined with an acknowledgement that we can all be wrong is crucial.  

c) What are some good ways to involve teachers in a dialogue about research?

I think that using curriculum development time in order to discuss research is important. One idea could be beginning every meeting with 20-30 minutes discussing a specific topic of research that fits in with the department action plan. I also like the idea of a Research Bulletin sent out to staff (this takes place at Durrington High School, where the authors of Making Every Lesson Count work). In-school blogs by teachers about their own research, I find seem to have a positive effect as well.

3) About Your Book

You recently wrote a book about education. What made you write this book, and what would you like readers to get out of it?

When I started teaching, I fixated on curriculum coverage. In other words, I wanted to complete the course quickly so that I could have time left over to review the information with the students. The scheme of work was effectively the textbook divided up into nice little topics, so after learning one topic (e.g.: holidays), the students encountered this lovely sense of fuzzy cognitive ease and the illusion of fluency. But, even though the students could retrieve the right vocabulary on this topic at the end of the short learning period, this didn’t mean that they could recall the information later on in the course - especially not on the exam.

I had no awareness of how important memory was then, and even less knowledge of performance vs learning. I used to shout out at the end of a lesson as the students were leaving the class, ‘great performance in today’s lesson guys!’ while not understanding the true meaning of the word and applying my own teacher-cum-pseudo-football-manager-encouragement-speak.

So, I started to question what I had been doing and changed my practice after analyzing the most important vocabulary and phrases: the language that had appeared on past papers more than once as a key to an answer or towards building an understanding. I then ensured that I taught and tested this language, no matter what the topic was. I came up with some ways of teaching the language that might previously have been considered ‘games’. I thought the term ‘games’ was unhelpful as to what I wanted to achieve with the students. ‘Games’ implies, for me, some level of superficiality; a way of treating students like a parent might say to their child that if they eat their greens they can have a dessert! Essentially, the idea was that I needed to repackage them as activities that were designed to practice language knowledge, followed by some time for forgetting to kick in, and then testing the retrieval of them. In my book I try to impart the idea that we are not beholden to textbooks, and that an imposed approach where we have to teach in chapter blocks is not compulsory.

Also, historically languages struggles to recruit students choosing it as an option to study further once it becomes optional at GCSE (age 15-16) and A-Level (age 17-18). I remember a deputy head at my first school saying to me that ‘there’s an awful lot of learning in languages’. I didn’t quite know what she meant by that at the time – surely, there’s an awful lot of learning in every subject! When I asked, she clarified that she thought students had to deal with learning a lot of content (particularly at KS3 in schools) before they could do things with a language. I kind of understood what she was trying to say insofar as at an early stage students are effectively imitating by practicing speaking chunks of language. The activities in my book aim to get students thinking about and using language almost without realizing that what they are doing is carefully designed to help them acquire a lot content.