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What actually happens in a class?

Updated: Oct 30, 2023

Contributing article from Ross Thorburn

In the Truman Show a man wakes one day to realize that he is an innocent participant in someone else's world.

How did that happen? Let’s start with an uncomfortable truth: we think we are the center of the class, but a lot of what occurs in our classes is a mystery to us.

Several years ago, I did an action research project on group work. Beforehand, I thought I was a great teacher. I was sure my students spoke English all the time in class, even when my back was turned. As part of the project, I recorded two of my students during a running dictation. These two young learners were meant to be using the language they’d learnt in class to describe a picture of a monster posted outside the classroom. After class I listened to the audio. I expected to hear “It has three eyes.” “It has blue teeth.” “It has green hair.”

What did I actually hear? Nothing I expected!

My students didn’t speak any English at all during the activity. My perceptions of what was happening in my classroom were the opposite of reality. This is apparently true of most teachers. Jack Richards and Charles Lockhart say “Much of what happens in teaching is unknown to the teacher”. So how can we know what actually happens in a class? Here are five ways of escaping the Truman Show. 😊

1. At the end of every class, give your students a piece of paper. Ask them to write what they learned today, what was easy for them and what was difficult. After class, read the answers. Did everyone learn the same thing? Did the students learn what you taught?

Don’t worry when you discover variation – that is normal – but too great a disparity means you have not entered the world they really live in: you are living in your own. 😊

2. Record a class and watch it. If you haven’t done this before, I guarantee that the first time will feel as cringeworthy as watching a motivational speech by David Brent.

3. Record another class and watch it. Once you get over the initial shock of observing yourself teach, dig under the surface. Try collecting some simple information. How long do you wait after asking a question? Which students did you call on in class? How many errors did you correct?

4. 1. Now you have a recording of your class, transcribe some of it. Transcription takes ages, so be selective. You might want to write down all the errors that you corrected in one column and all the errors that you didn’t correct in another. Can you see a pattern? Or try writing down your instructions. How simple do they look now they’re in black and white in front of you?

5. Record your students. A huge chunk of class time gets taken up by group work and pair work. How much of this can we hear? Not a lot. With the students’ permission, record some group conversations and listen after class.

Collecting data is just the first step in moving out of The Truman Show, but it’s an important first step. In my action research project, I eventually managed to get to where I wanted to go: students speaking 100% English during group work. But if I hadn’t made that first recording, I would never have made the journey. Collect some data from your next class and start your own journey to the Truteacher Show😊

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