Why don’t my students know what they want to do in class, and what can I do about it?

I remember it well, as it was the opening of my first lesson as a CELTA-qualified teacher. The student was a manager in a public utility company. I walked in, introduced myself, started on the lesson the Director of Studies had suggested. The student’s words exploded on the desk between us: ‘I hate this topic’. A great start!

The rest of the lesson hasn’t stuck in my memory, but we did manage to retrieve the situation to some extent, no doubt partly because of guilty feelings on her part. And yet this student continued to elude my best attempts to give her a good lesson. Some days I’d come in with something great prepared, something to really wow her, and I’d get a ‘can’t we just talk?’ and the great thing would have to be abandoned. The following week I’d come in ready to ‘just talk’, empty handed but with a few topics in mind, and she would ask in her sweetest voice ‘So what are we going to learn today?’. And thus we alternated for almost the whole term.

Eventually I had had enough, and in an equally sweet tone of voice, asked what I could do differently, as it seemed she wasn’t satisfied with my lessons. ‘No, no, everything is fine’.

Moving on a year or two, I was teaching a class of 16-17 year olds on an intensive 5-day course, and they had made it very clear to me that they wanted to play lots of games and not do anything too serious. Days 1 – 3, we compromised pretty well; they worked hard enough to keep me satisfied and I threw in enough games to keep them motivated. On day 4, their productivity and ability to listen had dropped somewhat, but never mind – I had my magic ingredient: Taboo.

The ensuing revolt came as a shock. The three girls at the front started it, with a refusal to take part and a ‘no, we don’t play’ when I challenged them. The revolution spread to the opinionated boy of the group, the alpha male, who exclaimed with a flounce ‘This is stupid!’.

I’d have to admit that my reaction was more stroppy than stern. I huffed, puffed, told them to sort out among themselves what they actually wanted and to let me know once they had an answer, then sat down with a disgusted expression. This worked surprisingly well, for after a short argument in L1 the main perpetrators apologised honestly and graciously and asked to continue the game.

The atmosphere for the rest of the week was one of sweetness and light. And yet it didn’t feel like much of a victory: I couldn’t be sure whether the revolt was just a brief ‘blip’ by tired students, or if this was their real feeling and they were just humouring me the rest of the time! Or perhaps they just weren’t fans of Taboo – but then this was similar to all the other communicative games we’d played throughout the week. Did they secretly hate them all?

These two incidents stuck in my mind for various reasons, but they’re not the only times that something like this has happened with a class. I’ve had one-on-one students request ‘correct every mistake I make, please’ and then not listen to any corrections, ever. I’ve met classes that don’t want to do anything except talk and express themselves, yet sit in implacable silence when called to participate in any speaking tasks whatsoever.

So why do students mislead us like this?

I think part of the issue is how and when we ask them for feedback on what they want to do in class. Very often this is at the beginning of the course, before they really know what’s on offer.

They’re meeting us for the first time – this person who’s going to be in charge of their English learning life for the foreseeable future. They might be meeting their classmates for the first time. This is the point of social flux, the time in which students are jockeying for roles in the class, trying to impress or dominate or become invisible, trying to define their relation to the teacher and the lessons. This is the point where enthusiastic students want to show how good they are, ‘alpha’ students want to assert their authority, difficult students want to raise their first objection of the term, defiant students just want to raise hell…

And this is the point at which we put them on the spot. The point at which we ask them to give an honest assessment of what they ‘want’. Is it possible that what comes out is coloured by the roles the students want to assume? I suspect it is.

There’s something else at play, too. The students are bound to answer based on their conceptions of what is possible in an English lesson. If they’re not aware that something exists, then they won’t ask for it. And their conceptions are likely to be based – though not exclusively – on previous learning experiences they’ve had. That’s true as much of students who tell us what they don’t want as those who tell us what they want. A student who says ‘I don’t want to use a workbook’ could be reacting to past experiences with a teacher who went through the book page by page, or by an experience with an uninspiring workbook; it may not be that they will hate all workbook-derived lessons. A student who says ‘I want to listen to English songs’ may be thinking back to a teacher who unexpectedly let the class listen to music one day as a treat; this student may not in fact appreciate listening to songs every week.

Working with students who have been learning English for some time, there could also be some element of indoctrination. How much students pick up on theories and trends within the teaching industry is an interesting question. I haven’t noticed teenagers having much awareness of this, but adult students have come out with things like ‘the best way to learn is just to talk and practice communication’ and I’ve wondered if this is personal preference talking or if there’s some element of being ‘sold’ this as an opinion. Of course it may be both – the communicative approach is naturally more attractive than a heavy-duty grammar translation method, for example, and appears like a lot less hard work!

I’m not sure it’s always categorically wrong to indoctrinate our students about the best way of learning, anyway – but then this doesn’t really go together well with eliciting opinions on what they want to do in class! If it’s a case of ‘teacher knows best’, why ask?

This brings us to the teacher’s role in all of this. We ask students what they want, so then we’re duty bound to try and fit in with it! But are we truly listening to their needs? What types of games did my class want to play? I don’t remember asking them for details; I just assumed Taboo would work. Did the manager give me some clues about topics she liked, and did I just not pick up on them? How do we get beyond the scraps of information our students give us to find out more about what they need, what motivates them and what’ll be most effective at getting them to learn?

Here are some thoughts:

– One way might be give students a list of things they might want to do in class and get them to tick the ones they want. This avoids putting them too much on the spot.

– Refining that, what about getting students to rank different activities, e.g. games versus writing assignments versus free conversation. This shows them that they might be asked to do all of these things, but lets them influence the frequency of each. For example, if nobody in the class wants to play games, we can mostly leave them out – but where there’s a game that really fits what they’re learning, we can be shameless about including it! A ranking system would also work for the skills the students want to acquire and things they feel they’re better/ worse at doing.

– A further refinement would be to make this dynamic: the teacher keeps a copy and distributes these to the students at various points in the term, so that they can change their minds and revise bits as necessary.

– If a class are particularly difficult to satisfy, how about making a pot or ‘cauldron’ (even if it’s just an envelope) and asking the students to add ingredients on slips of paper. We control when and how we do them, but take out the slips as we do an activity. The cauldron stays in the classroom, so if the students later want to do more speaking activities they just add these in. If they’re getting bored of games and don’t want any more, they stop adding them.

– With more mature learners, we could ‘demand high’ – ask them to think for a week, then write a paragraph about what they like and dislike in lessons, what they need and what they have no use for. If they’re flaky about homework, this can be done in class time.

– Going the opposite way, we could do a bare-bones needs analysis, asking the question ‘why are you in my class?’, then deciding on the ‘how’ and the ‘what’ ourselves and simply telling the students. I baulk slightly at this notion of the teacher as somewhere between resident expert and dictator, but some students may appreciate having the onus taken off them completely!

What do you think? Any other suggestions?

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