Dr. Rita Silver shares some advice on how to be a good facilitator and create a student-centred environment in the classroom.
[Editor’s note: The following article arose from a question posed by Ho Chok Sin from Admiralty Secondary School. To see the rest of Dr. Silver’s response, refer to SingTeach‘s ASK A QUESTION section.]
In the article Closing the Gap Between Learning and Instruction by David Nunan (1995), he suggests that there is a continuum of learner-centredness, where a class cannot be defined as “learner-centred” or “not learner-centred” but more or less learner-centred. He also proposes that, along with the academic content, we need to teach learners how to learn so that they can make better choices in their learning.
While Nunan is speaking specifically about English as a Second Language teaching, I believe that he has some useful pointers for all of us. His main point is that students sometimes don’t learn what we are trying to teach them because they have their own ideas and their own agendas. This means they are sometimes busy learning something other than what we have in mind. So, our class might be more or less learner-centred but we still have to deal with this potential gap between what we and our learners expect.
So what does a good facilitator need to do to be more learner-centred without creating chaos in the classroom? Here are a few tips from Nunan:
A few comments on each of these points, with the Singapore context in mind:
1. Make learners aware
This can simply mean that you tell them your objectives for the lesson. This can be both useful and motivating to students.
However, sometimes the language of objectives doesn’t resonate with students so try rephrasing them in a more conversational manner. You can put these statements on the board or somewhere visible throughout the lesson/unit so that students are reminded of them.
2. Find out about your students’ goals
You can find out about your students goals and interests informally by talking with them and observing them, or more formally by using questionnaires. You can even build this into classroom activities by having them interview each other, having them survey their textbook to see if the topics match with what they expect, etc. You can refer to their goals and expectations when you talk about your own goals and expectations for the class.
Yes, this includes noting when their expectations don’t match yours and can’t be met. The students might be disappointed but at least it helps them reconcile their expectations with the realities of the syllabus or the course requirements.
3. Involve your students
In Singapore, syllabus requirements are a given and many of our teaching materials are pre-set. Nevertheless, you can also involve students in making decisions sometimes.
For example, you can sometimes ask if they prefer to do an activity in class or at home, together or individually, in writing or through conversation with a partner. These are small adjustments to your teaching but they involve the students on a regular basis.
4. Go beyond classroom
Most importantly, there is certainly a mentality among our students that they are only doing things because “it is necessary for the exam” or “because my teacher told me to”. That is sometimes the case and we can’t get around it, but how sad if all of our teaching is reduced to that!
Linking our classroom learning to the real world can help students see the relevance of what they are learning. Likewise, bringing the world into our classrooms can be very motivating. This can, of course, include field trips and research projects that involve students in observation, interviews and sourcing for their own information, but these are very time-consuming and not feasible for our everyday teaching.
On an everyday basis, you can refer to where you got information that you are using in class (hopefully all of our information doesn’t refer to the textbook!), comment on how it relates to something outside the classroom, and provide brief anecdotes about this applies to your own life. These connections to the world outside the class may be brief but they can capture the imaginations of learners.
What I’ve written so far are fairly general guidelines. I suspect you’d like more specific answers as well. So let me present the primary attributes for a good facilitator:
Be a good observer
Watch carefully to see how your students are responding, which students are responding, who is speaking and how they are doing things. Pay attention not only to the product but also to the process. Not only what they get done but how they are getting it done.
Be a good listener
This means you must listen not only to hear if students give you the answer you want but also to hear how they give their answers and in what ways they do or do not understand. Sometimes, this means pretending to not pay attention when in fact you are.
Try standing next to a group of students so that you are at an angle rather than “face on”. Turn your eyes away but turn your ears toward your students. You can discover quite a bit about what your students are or are not learning by paying close attention to what happens while they are working.
Two simple but effective techniques to help you be a good observer and a good listener are:
Move away from the front of the class, away from the computer, and away from all of the other teacher paraphernalia. Get closer to where your students are working and find out what is going on. Put yourself at their eye level: kneel down or sit with them rather than always making them look up at you.
I know one teacher who used to carry a big bucket to class. It was a container for his teaching supplies going to and from class, but during class he emptied it out, turned it upside down, and used it as a seat so he could sit with individuals or groups while they were working!
Sometimes, you can get a better idea of how students are working when you watch them from the back. Likewise, there is sometimes a tendency, especially during group work, for the teacher to hop from group to group, without pause, depending on who is loudest. In that case, you never get an overview of the class. It might be better to stop a moment, stand back, and look at what is going on throughout the class.
Provide timely intervention
This requires that you allow things to happen in class. Sometimes, this means letting students be temporarily confused rather than trying to ensure that everything goes exactly to (your) plan. As the facilitator, you intervene as and when needed. Intervention can include giving direct feedback to let students know they are on the wrong track, but it especially means asking and answering questions.
Asking questions can be particularly useful if they are open-ended questions which encourage thinking rather than questions that have only one right/wrong answer. Another very useful type of question is the one that “turns it back” to the students. Rather than answering immediately, you can ask if someone else in the group or in the class has an idea.
Timely intervention can also mean giving compliments which not only makes the students “feel good” but also lets them know they are meeting the lesson goals. In this case, positive reinforcement is not only motivating but it also has a classroom management function.
Plan and prepare well
Lastly, planning and preparing as a facilitator is essential. This means you must think about the learning activities and materials in new ways – not in terms of how you can “delivery” them – but in terms of how the students can appropriate them and what you need to do to help make that happen.
Nunan, D. (1995). Closing the gap between learning and instruction. TESOL Quarterly, 29(1), 133-157.
Johnson, D. & Johnson, R. (2002). Circles of learning: Cooperation in the classroom. Edina, MI: Interaction Book Company.
Wright, T. (1987). Roles of teachers & learners. Oxford: Oxford University Press.