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Jun 16, 2020
Hugh Dellar

Back to School Part Four: homework … or the lack of it.

In recent years, we’ve seen much made of the idea of the ‘flipped’ classroom. In ELT terms, this often involves urging students to study words and grammar outside of the classroom – presumably by using a dictionary and doing exercises – in order to prepare for classes where the focus would be almost entirely on speaking and communication. The principle behind this would be that communication is both the most interesting thing and the thing which students most likely have least access to outside the class if they are not in a L2-speaking environment (which in my case at the moment means a Russian-speaking community).

There’s also the argument put forward by hardline proponents of communication-driven methodologies such as Task-Based Learning or Dogme that the most effective learning comes through attempts to communicate, and especially at moments where that communication breaks down and either the teacher or another student highlights the problem and provides the correct language needed. For these types of classes, the preparation may be listening to a similar conversation or reading some texts without any specific focus on language, while post-lesson work might encourage some kind of re-use or practice of that language. This could involve write-ups of a conversation or maybe the creation of Quizlet cards for remembering vocabulary that emerged during the conversation (I may be wrong about this latter suggestion as hardline Task-Based Learning teachers seem a little unclear on the type of post- communication focus on form that’s effective, but that’s a whole other argument). So here again we are relying on plenty of home study.

Of course, I don’t exactly disagree with any of this in principle. We certainly do want to devote more time to communication in the classroom, and if you’ve been forced to pivot away from face-to-face over recent months, you may well find that teaching online makes this even more obvious. There’s no doubt that I find working online more intense and as a low-level student, I would struggle to stay focused for three hours online maybe even more that I would in a face to face class. I also made clear in my last post the fact that we really need to do a lot of work if we are to avoid forgetting stuff. It seems reasonable then to do ‘the boring stuff’ and the discovery of basic meanings outside class, and the ‘fun stuff’ and the exploration of problems inside the class. But, of course, there’s the theory ….. and there’s the practice!

For example, I know what’s probably good for me to do as a language learner. I often tell my own students that they should do little things regularly. As a student, I both wanted and intended to get into the habit of doing something every day. However, the reality is I still haven’t. Why is that?

Well, there are clearly some people who are more ‘talented’ at learning languages than others, perhaps because they have some physical advantages in hearing and producing varied sounds, but it also seems clear to me that for most of these people, language learning itself is an interest / hobby / obsession that overrides all else. For at least some of those people, it may be their full-time job or a full-time subject they’re studying. Another way of putting that is if you have other things you like doing or other things you have to do, then language learning is going to take a lesser role in your life … and you will do less homework and generally learn less!

So, for example, I like the following probably more than – or at least as much as – I like learning languages: talking to my friends and family; reading; politics; watching films and series; cooking, eating and drinking; walking or going running; playing football; maintaining an allotment and growing vegeables. I could go on . . .

Apart from ’paid’ work – admin, finances, emailing, various writing projects (including blog posts!) and preparing for classes or training sessions – I also obviously have domestic chores that need to be done – shopping, washing up, washing clothes, cleaning the house – some of which may require planning as well as doing.

And then there’s just work, stress, anxiety, illness, requests, holidays, etc. that can appear out of nowhere and take up time.

Trying to get into the habit of studying something every day in this context becomes quite difficult. When should one do it? First thing in the morning? Well, there’s breakfast to be made and eaten and I like to keep up with the news, so that make it difficult. After breakfast and the news? I suppose I could, but I might have something planned for later such as doing some shopping or going for a walk with a friend, so I won’t have time to do the work I need to do if I don’t start now. And even if I don’t have anything planned for later, there is the guilt that I should start working and that doing anything else would just be a way of putting things off. At the end of the work day? Well, I usually feel tired and language learning requires focus and attention, but by this time, I’ve already been sitting down all day. I need to get up and do some exercise. A run maybe ….. and after that, I’ll need a shower and a lie down! Then there’s food to make and eat. In pre-lockdown times, if I went and played football, I might go for a drink with friends afterwards. Am I really going to study Russian after that? It seems unlikely.

Maybe there’ll be time at the weekend? There’s that book I’ve started, though, and if I’m going to get that read then I really ought to get stuck into it … After reading for a couple of hours, do I want to study Russian? I need a bit of fresh air – and if I don’t get down to the allotment, the weeds will start taking over. What about later at night? Before bed? Well, sometimes I do have a bit of time then, but I’ve sometimes found it hard to get to sleep with all the new words going round in my head, so I kind of stopped doing that as well.

Sometimes the day of my class comes around and I’m ashamed to say I haven’t done anything much to develop my Russian over the last seven days. I then panic and spend some time before class catching up – as no doubt you’ve seen countless other students do. I once again tell myself ‘I really should organise myself to study more regularly’ … but when?

Writing this, it may seem that I don’t do any studying at all outside of class. Obviously, that’s not exactly true, but it does show you why many students (like me) struggle to create any regular routine for learning apart from the class itself … and why flipped classrooms are going to be a severely limited option for many students. Furthermore, if we leave all the boring stuff – the looking up and testing of words, say – to outside the class, then that in itself is potentially further discouragement to studying!

I should say that I wouldn’t describe either of the classes I have done as being ‘flipped’, but I will talk a bit more about my approach to self-study and homework – and how it can / can’t relate to class – in my next post.

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