Yes to engaging lessons – but let’s not forget that learning requires discipline

Recently, I have started to wonder whether, as a profession, we have spent so much time and energy trying to make lessons and materials “engaging” and “motivational”, that we’ve forgotten a basic truth: learning requires dedication and discipline.

Perusing Twitter, browsing teachers’ blogs, and checking out the latest ELTon award recipients, the level of innovation in ELT never ceases to amaze. It’s great to be involved in imaginative projects to help inspire and motivate learners (I’ve been privileged to be involved in a few myself). But sometimes, I get the impression that we go much further than meeting our learners “half way” – and that this can have a detrimental effect on learning.

During the past academic year, I have encountered a surprising number of students with a shockingly poor attitude toward learning in general, and learning a language in particular. Here are some of the behaviors I have regularly observed:

  • falling asleep during class (in the worst case, during a pair conversation!)
  • regularly forgetting to bring essential items, such as text books and stationary
  • frequently missing classes or arriving late
  • constant use of L1 in speaking exercises
  • lack of a basic level of respect for other students or the teacher
  • lack of willingness to do more than the absolute minimum to pass the class
  • failure to ask for help or support when required
  • failure to follow clear and simple instructions

Now, we could easily come up with several innovative solutions to any of these problems. Regarding students sleeping in class, we might envisage the following kind of reply leaping readily from an experienced ELT educator:

If students are falling asleep, could it be because the lesson is not motivating enough? Could students be encouraged to stand up, move around, take part in some Total Physical Response (TPR) activities?

Or regarding students forgetting materials, perhaps something like this:

If students are failing to bring their text books, is it because they find them uninteresting? Could the teacher utilize more relevant (perhaps authentic) materials in the classroom? Do students even need to use stationary when smart phones can be employed for so many productive language activities?

Likewise, several perfectly credible explanations could be forthcoming. Perhaps regarding lateness and absence, it might be noted that:

Students can be very busy with other commitments: part-time jobs, family issues, club activities, it all adds up. When we couple this with the fact that some students may have little or no interest in attending compulsory English classes, is it any wonder that they miss so many lessons?

Now, I’m not saying that such explanations and solutions aren’t useful or valid – clearly they are. But part of me feels like they are somewhat missing the point. They tend to either put the onus back on the teacher, or find a reason to excuse the learner, or both.

Again, I’m not saying that we shouldn’t attempt to understand and accommodate the issues students face in their daily lives. Clearly we should, and we do. I’m not saying we shouldn’t do our utmost to deliver engaging, motivational, relevant, principled, and effective lessons. Clearly we should, and we do.

But learning in general, and learning a language in particular, isn’t a passive endeavor. It’s not a treatment that can be administered to recipients regardless of their willingness to receive it. Sure, a student might be able to pass the class by doing the absolute minimum required of them. By attending the absolute minimum required number of lessons. By writing the absolute minimum number of words. By uttering the absolute minimum amount of L2. But doing so is not the way to learn a language, and will at best produce a superficial ability useful only in the most contrived circumstances.

Now, if we revisit the undesirable behaviors listed earlier, and see what effect flipping them around might have:

  • not only staying awake in class, but being a proactive and enthusiastic learner for the duration of the class
  • not only bringing essential items, but also bringing additional useful items such as electronic dictionaries, phrase books, graded readers, etc
  • not only attending every class on time, but also participating in extra-curricular language learning opportunities such as conversation circles or writing clinics
  • making extensive and exclusive use of L2 in speaking exercises
  • exhibiting a level of respect for other students and the teacher that fosters a truly cooperative learning environment
  • having a determination and desire not only to pass the class with flying colors, but to go beyond the curriculum, to pursue one’s own learning needs and interests
  • asking for help or support when required, and ensuring one’s own understanding is accurate and complete
  • not only following instructions, but also helping others who do not understand

If we add to this list some additional habits often followed by successful language learners, we could draw an even more compelling picture:

  • developing a habit of regular study
  • reviewing previously studied material before moving onto new material
  • being exposed to extensive input and producing extensive output
  • pushing oneself to take risks in L2
  • treating mistakes as learning opportunities
  • spending time in immersive L2 environments

Now, I’m not saying that it’s easy or convenient to do all (or any) of these things. But it would be hard to believe that any student who did all (or even some) of these things could fail to improve their language ability.

The important point here is that these are actions to be taken by the learner. Not the teacher, or the materials writer. These are habits to be fostered by the learner. Not the tutor, or the author.

These habits require dedication and discipline on the part of the learner.

And that is something we may like to remind ourselves of when devising our next compelling, interactive, tech-powered, multi-modal, motivational learning experience.

One thought on “Yes to engaging lessons – but let’s not forget that learning requires discipline

  1. Hi Paul,

    Excellent post regarding university students. I do think most instructors ask if anything is required to help our students who consistently fall asleep. I think some students have signed up for 4 years away from parental supervision rather than a university course. In those cases, probably it is more respectful to our students who make the effort to fail the ones who don’t.

    Liked by 1 person

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