I took part in a very interesting discussion on #eltchinwag, the first time I'd ever taken part in one of these hashtag chat thingys. I don't think I really get it - it might be a digital immigrant thing - there is something non-linear about hashtags and twitter (and the internet in general) that confuses me. Still, apart from worrying that I was missing something or posting comments in the wrong place, there was a lot of very interesting thoughts* around the topic of developing students' metacognitive skills. For the sake of simplicity, I am going to boil this complex topic down to one soundbite - helping our students to reflect on their learning.
(*ELT teachers spending their evenings talking about ways to help students - ELT employers, if you happen to be reading this, any chance of a few more quid?)
In my first years as a teacher, I heard very little about reflection. Since moving toward the EAP side of our world, I can't escape it. A few random google searches throw up tons of articles promoting reflection, both for students and teachers. Many of us teach on programmes where reflection is in some way part of the syllabus - more often than not in the form of a learner journal.
I have mixed feelings about reflection, or at least our approach to it. I will try to explain.
First off, I absolutely believe that the best way to learn is to reflect on how you learn, what works for you, what doesn't. I do not dispute the efficacy of reflection. My concern is that our enthusiasm for reflection can be a little off-putting for students.
I'll try to illustrate by example. I used to be really big into running. After a couple of years, I came across a book called Born to Run which is about this tribe of native Indians who run incredibly long distances. The book eulogises running barefoot. Bursting with enthusiasm, I told as many people as I could and took off my shoes to try it out (in fairness to the book, it strongly advises against this gung ho approach for newbies). Within a few months, I'd done both Achilles. I don't run as much anymore.
If I stretch the comparison a little - is there a danger that with our similar enthusiasm for the benefits of reflection (talking zealously about it; working it into curricula; asking students to do learner journals; assessing how good they are at reflection), might we end up killing it a bit for the students?
My own take on it would be this. Everyone reflects in some aspect of their life, to varying degrees. If you think about what you are going to say to someone before (or after) you meet them, then you're reflecting. If you think about what someone would like when buying them a present, you are reflecting. On a most basic level, if you avoid certain foods because you don't like the taste, then you are reflecting (or at the very least, capable of it). So basically, reflecting is part of us, we do it constantly. Some people will naturally turn this skill toward their learning, others won't. Those who do will learn faster, those who don't probably won't learn as fast.
So as teachers, we want to help those who don't reflect on their learning, knowing that it will ultimately help them. If they go for it, perfect. If they resist, frustration for everyone involved. I agree 100% with the intention. It is the approach that I want to consider.
First of all, we tend to stream according to language ability. But the ability to reflect is in no way linked to language level. So in a B1 class, you could have massive disparity in terms of students' ability to reflect. Then there is the cultural side of things. Certain cultures are resistant to the idea of reflection. They may believe that it is the teacher's job to do all that stuff for them. And if reflection forms part of their assessment, there can be a sense of injustice, that they are being penalised for something that doesn't come naturally to them.
So what to do?
I would say, don't make a big deal out of it. Yes, certain students would improve if they were able to reflect better. But don't make it a yes or no thing. Shy people would learn better if they were more outgoing, but we don't make them keep confidence journals. We deal with what is in front of us. If they are willing to reflect, go for it. If not, don't force it. Try to get around the problem. For instance, many people might not like analysing themselves but are more than happy to ask other people questions. Perhaps activities where students ask each other about what they do, how they study, might be a good first step toward self-reflection.
Second, don't assess it. It is good, but it is a tool to learning. I don't think we should assess the tool that someone uses to complete a task.
That's it really.
Seeing as I gave rather a bad impression of the book Born to Run (it's actually a brilliant read), I knocked this lesson together on the topic. It is quite IELTSy but there is a nice few questions around the front cover of the book that students found interesting. And some nice vocab too. I used this review of the book for the reading text. Unfortunately, I didn't include answers for the True/False/Not Given questions. I tend to write ambiguous questions and then let the students argue with me and try to convince me my original answer was wrong. What I'm trying to say is that some of the answers might be ambiguous and I'm kind of okay with that.
Click here for the lesson PDF