Eliminating ‘Is’ and Embracing Grey Space: My first two steps

When I started working with adults, I followed the book to a ‘T’: presentation, production and practice. It worked, kind of. I mean, they were learning but my gut said we could be making more of an impact. Sure, they progressed, albeit in a linear fashion of verb tenses and adjectives, but frustration rates were high. When they failed to produce the “correct” answers in the presented way, a meltdown ensued and the practice, well, it hardly felt organic. I couldn’t help but thinking, there had to be a better way.

After devouring Guy Claxton’s book What’s the Point of School, I began experimenting. The first change I made was my use of “is” language. Rather than saying, “What is the correct answer?” I modified my questions to be more open ended. “What could the answer be? Where might I find it?” By using more conditional language I found they not only engaged with the activity in a more proactive way, their speaking time had grown and they were making connections in the language that they hadn’t made before. Of course. This didn’t come without a small resistance. Students are used to teachers having all the answers so when they said, “Teacher, what does X mean?” and I respond with “Hmm, I am not sure, what do you think it could mean?” I was confronted with comments like, “I don’t know, you are the teacher,” or “I am paying you to teach me, if I wanted to answer my own questions I would google it.”

But simply changing the way I asked and responded to questions wasn’t enough to propel my learners into a learning powered environment. While “could be” language surely opened the door for a plethora of possible answers, it didn’t change the fact that, as adult learners, they had already accumulated 30 plus years seeking superhero status. One-answer options had conditioned them to strive for perfection without recognizing that even Superman was crippled by Kryptonite. As a result, I began weaving a love for grey space into every lesson plan, guiding them to embrace uncertainty as the key to unlocking the door to our language learning adventure. This showed them that, taking risks and making “mistakes” is actually where we find the richness in learning. Their frustration transformed from a negative blockade to an opportunity for learning and because it was real and being experienced first hand, the practice connected with the process was authentic.

But I am suspecting that you didn’t come here to simply learn about someone else’s journey that greatly mirrors your own. I’ll bet my upper hand that you came here hoping to read about concrete applications of learning powered approaches that will inspire you for tomorrow’s lesson plan. Am I right?

Here are 3 things I am knitting into my daily lessons.

  • When I am confronted with resistance to conditional language, I respond the same way every time. When the learner says, “What does X mean?” I say, “What do you think it could mean?” When they resist, and they will, I respond, “I am not asking you to know, I am asking you to think.” This does two things, it focuses particular attention on the difference between knowing and thinking, the difference being mindful rather than mindless, and it creates a tolerance to differences of opinions by creating a space to examine and ponder all of the possibilities without seeking a “right” or “wrong” answer. The invariability of my the response always puts a smile on their face and I sense that it helps them to become more aware of their old learning patterns, what triggers them, and how move past them.
  • I open almost every lesson with a word they are not likely to know, for example: Soulmate. I start by eliciting a group discussion about what they think it could mean. This generates new vocabulary around the day’s lesson, but it also forces them to look at the word like a scientist. Do they recognize any words or roots within the word? How could we define the words separately, how might that definition change or be similar if we put them together? In what context might I use this word? This acts as a daily reminder that there are no right or wrong answers only different opinions and interpretations. It also alleviates the need to know while acting as a great introduction to the topic we are going to work on that day. It is preteaching and presentation all rolled into an oral ice breaker.
  • I frequently close class with a round of feedback. What were the weakest points in the lesson plan? What could I do to improve them for future classes? We usually discuss whether or not we felt challenged or frustrated and if so, how we managed those sensations. Based on their feedback I usually adjust coming lesson plans to work on their areas of weakness.

Are you working with adults? Do you have easy to integrate ideas, tactics or activities that focus on learning powered approaches? I want to geek out with you about them!

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