The Importance of Project Work in Language Learning

This guest post is from Shannon Amaadar (Kings English). I first came across Shannon via some excellent videos she had created to help teachers foster more engagement and motivation with learners in the classroom. I am thrilled she has agreed to contribute this post on how to use project based learning to build enthusiasm and autonomy for learning.

My classes used to start with students sitting in desks with their books out waiting for instruction. They weren’t excited, I wasn’t excited. That is, until I realised that there’s a better way to learn.

Language is something that’s experienced and used. It’s a tool to express your ideas and a means to tell stories and pass knowledge. Why are we relegating it vocabulary lists and grammar rules?

Using the language is so important for acquisition. Giving it practicality and usefulness makes learning easier and more enjoyable. We can do this by making a project the main focus of classroom activity.

Problem solving and discovery are two of the best ways we learn anything. This type of learning encourages our brains to be at alert. It thinks the information is important and hangs on to it, rather than putting it in short term memory then dumping it later on. Project based learning (PBL) is a great way to get students thinking about language in a different way.

Getting started

Setting up a class project can not only help students acquire language, it strengthens other skills such as teamwork and critical thinking. All while accomplishing a task. It makes classes interesting again and students open up to learning.

According to John McCarthy at TeachThought.com students who have a direct interest in the subject they’re studying, engage more and achieve better results. By making the lesson relevant to the students, they’ll work harder towards their goal. PBL is a great way to practice this.

The best way to begin with project work is to come up with a subject that everyone can get behind. Maybe you introduce students to the effects of pollution or solving a community problem such as turning a vacant plot of land into a garden or helping feed the homeless. Whatever your topic, make sure it’s something students can get passionate about.

Once you’ve established a goal, work as a class to come up with solutions. If we take the example of plastic pollution, perhaps students could design a tote bag to replace plastic shopping bags. Materials and designs could all be discussed in English, and the final product could use English designs elements like phrases. Finally the finished tote bags can be used to fundraise to donate to a local cause.

By making the language something that is useful, something that has meaning, students are more likely to retain the vocabulary and grammar rules, than if they simply wrote them down and tried to memorise.

Learning English has now become a fun activity and something that students can look forward to doing each class. This is so important, because students, who are bored, don’t learn.

Assessment

One of the great things about project work is how easy it is to assess understanding. You can see how well each student is doing by looking at factors such as participation, and how well they follow direction.

It’s a great idea to take some time at the end of the class to have a quick discussion. It’s ok to ask students how well they understand what was talked about in the lesson. Encourage students to give you honest answers and provide extra help in understanding where necessary.

When students aren’t afraid to make mistakes and speak up, language acquisition happens quickly. It’s important for students to understand that making mistakes is a part of discovery. When something doesn’t work or is wrong we learn from it better than if it worked or was right. Project work is all about discovery and making mistakes.

Having “check points” throughout the project work can help you gauge student understanding as well. At various stages of the work students can answer a short questionnaire, discuss where they are in the project development, or self assess with a rubric distributed by the teacher.

Making sure that all students are up to speed is essential for the success of the whole class. If students are falling behind, catching it quickly and offering extra help or guidance to those who need it will help everyone be successful.

Structure

Centering lessons on group project work might sound to some like teachers have given up. Allow the students to do as they will, and hope for the best. This is the farthest from the truth.

When using project based Learning, the teacher’s role is to set the parameters and guide students along the way, without interfering and allowing for mistakes.

It’s common for students to be unsure, always asking for guidance and assistance. It’s important that, as the teacher, you stay back a little and encourage discovery. Asking questions like: “what would happen if…?” and “why don’t we try this and see what happens?” Encouraging students to explore will make them feel more comfortable to do just that.

According to Dr. Ping Li in an interview with Francois Grosjean Ph.D. for Psychology today, there are 5 parts of a language that our brains must process. Lexicon, phonology, orthography, syntax, and pragmatics, therefore it would make sense to engage our brains in activities that encourage use in all of these areas.

PBL may be the best way for learners to experience, make use of, and retain language. It doesn’t hurt that it’s fun and fosters friendships and cooperation at the same time.

Try using this method in your classroom and see what results you get out of it. You might find your students are achieving well beyond your expectations.

The art of seduction: Why connection should come before everything else

Some more wise words from André Hedlund (Edcrocks) this week. I am becoming more and more fascinated by the science of learning and how this should influence our approach to teaching (and life in general). If you too are interested in learning more – from the horse’s mouth, no less, André will be offering a webinar next month entitled – The Brain & How to Help our Learners Learn (Metacognitive Strategies according to the Science of Learning) (Link here for more info and to sign up)

What really drives people to do anything? On a molecular level, we could say it’s a very important neuromodulator, which has become quite popular not only in the scientific literature but also on TV, blogs and in magazine pieces: our beloved dopamine. The effects it has on the brain are nothing short of extraordinary. Dopamine is released when we have a sense of anticipation of something rewarding, not so much when we experience the reward itself. How does this knowledge change what I must prioritize as a teacher in the classroom? That’s exactly what I intend to discuss in my second blog post for ELT.Training.

Imagine you see an attractive person at a pub in London. You’re single and the person has made eye contact. You look back at the person and realize you’re incredibly attracted to them. What is happening in your brain is quite amazing. An incredible cocktail of neurotransmitters such as serotonin, oxytocin, and dopamine is being released from your neurons into the synapses and being captured by other neurons. The entire process just makes you feel wonderfully well. Those who have engaged in the art of seduction know exactly what I’m talking about. But what does that have to do with your students in the classroom?

Well, let’s start with what makes people engage in the first place. When you sense a dangerous or unwanted situation, something that might make you uncomfortable, your body releases something that causes the bad type of stress. It’s called cortisol. Cortisol plays a role in memory formation, especially remembering things to avoid, but long-term cortisol release has a bunch of effects that actually impact learning negatively. You feel tense and you can’t use your prefrontal cortex, the hub in your brain where sophisticated thinking and reasoning take place. What does that all mean? It basically means that we want more dopamine and just the right amount of cortisol to get people engaged.

The oversimplification above is just to give you some grounds for what I propose next. Very much like the seduction that went on at the pub I mentioned before, we need to seduce our students. Now, please don’t get me wrong here. What I mean is that we need to seduce their brains and make them want to engage with us in class. This is so important that I believe it should be the top priority of every lesson. If you think about it, not seducing your students’ brains will likely generate disinterested students who’ll have a hard time paying attention. Reduced attention leads to reduced memory consolidation. Or even worse. Students who feel intimidated, uncomfortable or something else because they have no emotional connection with the teacher will have a hard time accessing their sophisticated thinking, reasoning and, consequently, learning skills.

What’s something that you can do then? I’d like to list a couple of very simple, yet quite effective, suggestions that you can work on to seduce your students’ brains:

1-    Show them who you are

I always take time, particularly in the very first lesson, to connect with my students. They are curious about what makes their teacher cool and interesting. A very easy way to do that is to start the lesson with a True or False about yourself. Make sure you mention the silly and amazing things you’ve done in your life

2-    Find out who your students are

This takes time but you need to establish this connection with them. I have specific activities for them to tell the class a little bit about themselves and I always take the opportunity to talk to them individually and ask questions about things they like or do. I also encourage them to share their passions and have them prepare presentations on their hobbies.

3-    Show enthusiasm

How many times have I been to a conference or classroom observation where the teacher was extremely knowledgeable and the topic was interesting but they looked like they didn’t want to be there or spoke in such a monotonous way? I lost the count. One of the things that gets us engaged straight away is passion. And passion creates enthusiasm. If you look excited to be there, you’ll be activating their mirror neuron system and that helps students get and keep engaged. Read a little more about it here.

4-    Have a classroom mascot, like my Mr. Trunk

I decided to buy a stuffed elephant to connect with my students and instill a sense of responsibility in them. It may sound silly, but it has worked wonders! Mr. Trunk, the name we gave him, has traveled with my students in Brazil and the world. The best part is that my students took him on vacation or for the weekend and integrated him into their routine. They had to bring back photos and tell us what they had done with Mr. Trunk. I found out so many interesting things I wouldn’t have because of this silly activity. You can read about his story here

5-    Be kind and understanding

Someone once told me that what we can see from someone’s life is just the tip of the iceberg. We don’t know what is going on in their homes, their other classes, with their parents, siblings, friends etc. Assuming that students might be behaving badly because that’s who they are may be incorrect. Being kind conveys an important message: “I’m here if you need to share something and I might be able to help”. With their defense system down, it’s easier to connect.

6-    Be firm and keep your promises

One of the things adults keep doing to kids is break their promises. This creates unstable relationships and mistrust. Students need to learn how to regulate their behavior and that required support. They want a role model, someone they look up to and you can be that person. If you promise a reward, do it. If you promise a punishment, do it too.

7-    Take their needs and interests into consideration

Students are humans and they get tired. Give them a break, show you care about them. They love technology and would love to use their mobiles to show you something. Set moments to do it in class. Some of them might have a particular taste in music, let them show it to the rest of the class.

8-    Keep them curious

Our brain is programmed to be drawn to novelty. It’s so strong that it’s basically inevitable. I realize that we’re busy planning lessons and that we can run out of ideas many times, but the key to long-term engagement is to constantly bring something interesting, new, different to class. Have a puzzle or a mystery that will be revealed at the end of the lesson. Answer questions that are unrelated to the content of the lesson just to kill their curiosity.I could go on and on with more tips, but I think you get the point. But if the point isn’t clear enough, here’s what you need to do from now on: In the wise words of Immordino-Yang and António Damásio, “we feel, therefore we learn”. Live by that motto and remember that your students need that dopamine rush to want to do things, to be engaged. If you become irresistible in the classroom, chances are you’ll seduce their brains and make your lessons much more memorable. That comes before any memorization technique, study strategy or student-centered activity you can think of, trust me. Give it a try and let me know. You can also read something on my blog about that might help here.

Making Ourselves a Priority: Gaining Time and Motivation

And here it is – fanfare please – our first guest post!

Thank you to Olivia Price-Bates, ADOS at a school in Italy and recent participant on the 5 Day Summer Challenge (click here for details of the next one)

Time.  The greatest nemesis to all teachers and school owners. Whether it’s managing to cover all stages in your lesson plan or just lamenting there are not enough hours in the day, lack of time is often cited as being one of the most difficult aspects of our profession. Striking that perfect work-life balance to deliver great lessons and still have time to explore the wonders of the country that you’ve adopted is challenging, and seeking time-saving solutions seem to be on most teachers’ wish lists.

As an ADOS and mum of two, juggling work and family life takes its toll, especially living in Southern Italy where the concept of time is flexible and even the seemingly most simple of tasks like posting a letter can shave hours off your day.   While I’m enjoying a well earned summer break, I’m aware of the new school year creeping into view and am starting to think of how I can best be prepared for the year ahead.  I feel privileged that we teachers get to make resolutions twice a year, both in January as the new year rolls in and again in September as we set ourselves the goals and objectives we aim to achieve in the forthcoming school year.

Having raided the stationery department, I’m now sitting down to think of my personal and team goals for the school year and like all resolutions while they’re made with good intentions and an injection of energy after a well-deserved rest, it’s easy to let the day to day of school life, deadlines and family commitments become obstacles in the way of achieving our goals. So how can we and our teachers stay motivated?

Growth comes through reflection and giving ourselves the time to reflect on our experiences can pave the way for more of those magical light bulb moments occurring more and more often but we need to find ways to make time to allow these to happen so that we don’t fall back on behaviours that while gaining us time can cause our teaching to stagnate and stunt our professional growth.

   * START NOW: The initial and undoubtedly most important factor in motivation is setting out clear goals of what you want and can realistically manage to achieve. The hardest part of realising our goals is taking that first step but making that initial commitment, signing up to that course, buying that book or writing that checklist is a sure-fire way to release the dopamine which will keep us motivated to stick to our objectives.  Procrastination is always lurking so why not start NOW.  Think about 6 things you want to achieve over the next school year, either from a teaching or management perspective depending on your context.  Make sure they are specific and measurable in some way, for example instead of saying ‘I want better classroom management skills’, say ‘I want to reduce the level of L1 in my classroom by introducing multi-level activities which appeal to different learner styles’.  By breaking down objectives into small, achievable chunks which you can clearly see the extent of their success you will increase motivation whether it be intrinsic or extrinsic.

   * STICK TO A SCHEDULE – From the outset, decide how and when you are going to dedicate time to achieving your goals. We are, after all, creatures of habits and so to become successful we need to make our tasks part of our behavioural routine.  Ask yourself how you can make time work for you? My goal is to dedicate more time to reflecting on my teaching. So a small change I’m making, which will hopefully have big results, is changing my lesson plan template to include a reflection section where after the lesson I can quickly write which aspects were successful and which didn’t work.  This will help me build up a better picture overall of classes and methods which will inform all of my teaching, fingers crossed.  

Knowing exactly when you can find time in your daily schedule will make you more likely to stick to goals: perhaps your daily commute is the perfect time to dedicate to watching webinars or listening to podcasts, maybe instead of checking Instagram you can spend an hour every morning reading a book or following some key writers on Twitter.  By making it part of your daily routine, and an enjoyable part, you’re more likely to stick to it.

   *  A PROBLEM SHARED… Hands up if you’re guilty of taking on the world and not delegating or asking for help as often as you probably should.  I imagine most of us are guilty of piling our plates too high with work commitments and therefore giving ourselves more stress than we actually need.  I wax lyrical about how teaching means we ourselves are always learning, so let’s make sure that we are dedicating enough time to listen to others.

New perspectives, advice and input will all prove invaluable when it comes to achieving our own CPD objectives so make sure you take the time to go for that coffee (or glass of wine) and have a good old chat.  Developing relationships makes for a happy workplace and we all know that positivity breeds productivity; you may find that suddenly your workload reduces because of new collaborations or new ways to work on things you deemed to be time consuming.

* GOOD JOB! Recognising and celebrating effort, whether it’s yours or another member of your team’s is a great motivator.  Student, teacher or manager, we all want to be appreciated and if we work hard that effort needs to be recognised.  Recording goals and celebrating our achievements will help us to keep going when the going gets tough, which incidentally always seems to coincide with exam periods!

   * TAKE TIME OUT – Teacher burnout happens far too frequently. Nobody can work effectively when they are exhausted, so know your limitations and learn the warning signs to know when a break is needed.  Remember the process is just as important (if not more) than the end goal and every step you make shows change and growth. Recognise that everything you do towards your own development is positive and even if you don’t end up writing that book, speaking at that conference or finding that perfect way of presenting the subjunctive, you have gained purpose, confidence and furthered your passion and knowledge in your career. Be proud. And celebrate with chocolate cake.