Image courtesy of EvelynGiggles
Three years ago, I decided, scratch that, my wife convinced me that I wasn’t getting any younger and I needed to start exercising regularly. Of course, she was correct and I decided on taking up lane swimming. To me, this seemed like a nice way of exercising that didn’t focus on one area of the body and also was more interesting to me than running.
I went down to the local pool and got a multi-visit pass to motivate me to continue going since it was already paid for. My first visit started really well, but it didn’t take long before I ‘ran out of gas’ and I started feeling lightheaded and dizzy. I didn’t want to look like a fool in front of all of the other swimmers who were lapping me multiple times, so I got out and went to the sauna for a bit. That made me feel even more lightheaded and I realized I was needing to get out and get something to drink.
Due to my dehydration. I was incredibly sore and tired once I got home. I learned my lesson and I made sure I was properly hydrated before and while I was swimming. Even with that, I continued to struggle as I soon noticed how poorly I swam. My technique was awful and I eventually lost interest in swimming and quit once my pass was used up.
Fast-forward a few years to present day and I am just now finishing up my first five weeks of swimming lessons. I have really, really enjoyed myself and I have learned so much. I had taken lessons as a child, but that was so long ago, I have forgotten almost everything about proper techniques and strokes. I am not afraid of the water and I certainly can keep myself from drowning, but I would never progress if I didn’t take the time to restart my learning by backing things up to almost the very beginning. This process really helped me think about my language teaching and what my students are going through. These are some of my reflections.
“Use it, or lose it.”
As I mentioned above, it is so easy to forget what you have already learned if you aren’t regularly using it. I remember swimming long distances as a kid, but my body doesn’t. I’m like one of those ‘false beginners’ we talk about in language teaching; I’ve studied and done this before, but the years have taken it away. Thankfully, at least in this situation, some of it is coming back once I have gone through the process of re-learning and practicing it. I know it must be working because the rest of the class who is learning this for the first time is taken much longer and is having more problems than I am. This isn’t me bragging, this is simply my brain re-engaging with what it already knows.
It makes me realize how important it is to determine which of my students are truly learning something for the first time, and those who are attempting to bring back that which was lost. If not, it could become frustrating for true beginners to see the rapid progress of the false beginner. Also, it could become equally as difficult for false beginners to see their progress rapidly slow down once getting through the initial stages of re-learning. For the teacher, if you aren’t careful, you might also mistakenly think a student is a ‘quick study’ and push them too hard, too fast and make incorrect assumptions regarding their ‘lack of progress’ following the review period.
There is no ‘silver bullet’ to solve this problem, but with proper initial assessment and placement, students and teachers can take advantage of this situation to meet the student where they need it most. If possible, it might be good to place false beginners together so true beginners can work at their own pace.
“Practice makes perfect.”
In my swimming class, there are four students; two students are still getting used to being in the water, one older gentleman who has confidence and determination to spare, and then there is me. Due to the situation, the teacher needs to spend more time with the two students who are struggling while trying to reign in Mr. Confident before he attempts things he isn’t ready for. As for myself, I spend a lot of time on my own going over the basic skills we have covered until I feel I am truly comfortable with it and I don’t have to think through everything. I know my teacher feels like she is taking time away from me, but I am content with her stepping in from time to time to tell me how I am progressing and to take any questions I have that has come up while I’ve been practicing. That practice time has been invaluable. Due to the situation, there is nothing else to distract me, so I am forced to go over what I have learned until we move on to the next step. As a result, I feel certain that I have the skills needed to move on, helping with my confidence.
In the language classroom, it is essential that we give our students lots of opportunity to practice what we are learning together. Students always want to move on more quickly then they are ready, and we must not be tempted to do something just to appease them. Yes, they need to take control of their own learning, but we can’t let them move on too quickly or they will become frustrated and eventually give up, likely putting the blame on the instructor. Also, when we put students up too quickly, someone else is usually left to pick up the pieces, making their job even tougher. In my swimming class, Mr. Confident is continually asking for new strokes to learn before he has mastered the basics. It is good he is so eager, but, as I am learning, it is even more helpful to get the basics down pat as those will really help move things along much more quickly later on.
I know there is a split amongst teachers regarding using repetition to learn language components as it is often tied to Behaviourism, but for core pieces, I believe there is a place for things such as drills as long as they are used for knowledge-based material and are used sparingly. The problem with drills and other repetition activities is they are often used in application-based learning situations where making connections between knowledge-based items is the goal. This is where methods such as Audio-Lingualism fell apart. Basic items could be learned very quickly and students knew them very well, but their ability to make changes and connections couldn’t happen in that environment.
“I can’t juggle.”
I have to say that I think my swimming instructor is doing a great job considering the various levels and needs she has in the class. Before we get in the pool, I have the chance to see how she does with the previous class of children and that class is much more uniform in ability. With our class, we are all coming in with such varied experience, fears, needs, hopes, and so on that she is left with a far more difficult job than with the kids. I suspect somewhere in her training, someone has taken the time to help her deal with these situations. None of us feel left out and we are all getting the attention and guidance we each need.
I can’t say that I am always able to do that in my language classroom. Sure, I try, but I’m not always successful. I have more students than my swimming teacher and there are likely a lot more variables, but I don’t want to make excuses. It is my job to help my students however and wherever I can. This can be accomplished by grouping students according to their needs depending on the task or skill. It may mean individual meetings spread out througout the term. It may mean making use of technology to help students asynchronously or even synchronously. Whatever it is, I need to continuously be conscious of the various differences each student brings into the classroom and to find ways to bridge those gaps.
“I can’t do it on my own.”
Looking back to when I first tried to start swimming on my own and the struggles I encountered. Those difficulties eventually led me to give up and to put it aside for a while. Joining into a class, I have been inspired and I am now looking at how I can continue this on my own while I continue to take classes. That support made all the difference for me and I can see how I am making progress where I failed on my own.
That is how I need to be approaching my language teaching. Students certainly can and will learn on their own and I completely support that. My goal has always been to get students to take control of their learning, but that doesn’t mean they don’t need help. The support I received in my swimming classes in the form of little words of encouragement, assistance, and guidance kept me moving in the right direction. It accelerated my learning and helped me see that. It isn’t to say that I won’t hit a roadblock along the way and get discouraged, but I am also accountable to my teacher and classmates so as to not hinder the learning within the group. Keeping students accountable while giving them support is a delicate balancing act and is tricky to maintain. I know for myself, I go off track from time to time in my teaching, but with a good plan and clear goals set out from the beginning, it is much easier to get things back on track than if I the student was on their own.
“I want to do this, I need to do this.”
Everyone in my swimming class is there for one purpose, to learn how to swim. We don’t need to learn it for an additional purpose and we haven’t been pushed into it by someone else. We are doing it strickly for ourselves.
This is so different than what I often get in the classroom. English is often seen as a means to an end, instead of the goal itself. The motivation is extrinsic instead on instrinsic. English takes a back seat to the greater goal of getting a grade or a job. What I am seeing while I am in my swimming class is that those who are motivated to learn for themselves are far more engaged in the process than in completing the task. The two lower students have already said that they don’t care if they pass this class or have to repeat it, they will move on when they feel they are ready to move on and not before that. The level, the certificate, those are secondary to learning how to swim.
I wish this could happen in all of my classes, but I am not naive to believe this will truly ever happen. What I need to do is find ways to have students forget about it for periods of time and to get them engaged in the process instead of the end result. I can do that by trying to not add any unnecessary extrinsic motivational tools such as rewards or awards, but to tap into their internal reward system, whatever that is for that student. This is far easier said than done, but it is critical if I want them to be more engaged in the learning process.
“I don’t understand why we are doing this.”
This has been said a few times in the class. At the start of every class, our teacher has us bob up and down in the water ten times. For each bob, we are required to let out our air underwater and then take in a breath when we surface.
For the first few classes, the students, including myself, just did what the teacher asked us to do, no questions asked. Around the fourth class, one of the students asked why we were doing this. The teacher explained that this helped her see if we were breathing correctly and it was also for us to get us back into swimming and breathing in the pool.
This process was not transparent and once students became more comfortable, they felt they could inquire as to why. This is both good and not so good. Firstly, it would have probably been a good idea to explain to us the reasons why in the first class. This would have helped us to ‘get on board’ earlier on in the process and to help us focus on what we could also work on while doing it. The good part is that the teacher obviously made us as students comfortable enough to feel like we could make this type of inquiry which for some students wouldn’t have been normal. She did a great job at putting us in the driver’s seat in the learning process. This is our class, not just hers.
To be honest, this wasn’t a big deal, but it does illustrate how important it is for us as teachers to help students see why they are doing something, not just how to do it. As we have gone through the course, the teacher has become more transparent and is helping us see the bigger picture. This has helped me to focus on certain things when I am practicing a particular stroke or glide.
Last class, the teacher told me that it is so different teaching children compared to adults. She says she has to explain things in more detail to adults when she can just give children the task and they do it. This is no different in langauge learning. Kids will just jump on something, often without giving it a thought, while adults need more convincing. I think they both have merit and I cetainly don’t want my adult students to just do what I say. I want them asking the ‘whys’ and the ‘for what reasons’. If anything, it gets them involved in the process.
Last semester, I had a little bit of a situation with one older students in class who blew up at me at the end of the semester in front of the whole class. She didn’t like the way I taught and thought we should have had a more ‘traditional’ class with the teacher telling them all what to do. She felt I was too “soft” as she put it. The result of that conversation led to a lot of positives as we worked through what it is that we accomplished and why it is that I do what I do in the classroom. I don’t want to get into all the bits and pieces of the situation, but a negative became a big positive and everyone left friends.
Had I been more transparent at the start of that course, I don’t think things would have ended the way that it did. I learned from that and I am finding ways to make sure students are more informed about what and how I am doign things. It’s a work in progress.
“We’ve only just begun.”
This is only the start of my swimming education. I have more levels to go and, of course, a lifetime left to build off of that. That is the same for my teaching. It is always in progress, constantly changing and adapting to fit what I am learning. As long as I continue to look for help, assistance, and accountability from my colleagues around the world, I won’t drown and I will be encouraged to swim on. Thanks for all of your help.