I first became interested in social group theory quite a few years ago, mainly due to a great colleague and friend, Angi Malderez who I met during the 2nd International Conference ever offered in Istabul in 1992 (or 3?). At that time, that most excellent book, “Classroom Dynamics” (OUP ) and bearing a dedication to Angi, clearly showing her influence on the author, had not yet come out. Many of the ideas in this post originate from Angi’s talk and subesquent reading based on her inspired and inspiring presentation.
Social aspects of teaching and learning
If our objective is to make of our learners effective communicators and to acquire the much sought after communicative competence, then we have to create a social environment in which the members will have the DESIRE to communicate with each other about matters that are of personal interest to them, which will provide them with a PURPOSE and will generate INTERACTIVE situations.
This may be a far more important factor for successful learning than methodologies and materials.
Groups, in the sociological sense, can be:
- An instrument of behavioural or attitudinal change
- An instrument of support and maintenance
- A pool of resources
- An instrument to facilitate learning
To do this groups must:
- …share some common identity and have some commitment to the values of the group
- …be able to generate the skills and resources necessary to reach the group goal
- …have rules that allow them to coordinate the activity and enough feeling of solidarity to stay together to complete the task
- …exercise enough control over their membership to be effective in reaching their goal
It looks like social theorists are describing teaching-learning situations, but, in fact, they are describing any social group, beginning from family and ending in a ning!
So, it looks like by exploiting the social aspects of our classroom life, we are setting a machine of learning into motion.
Inability to get it started may be a case of bad class dynamics, in which none of the learners nor the teacher may be feeling as parts of the same group, with common goals and aspirations. This may be the reason why teachers find some groups never “gel”, a common expression in TEFL.
The Hadfield book bombshelled people into some more awareness of positive energies flowing into our classrooms through careful training of our students. Today no self-respecting TEFLer will start a session without an ‘ice-breaker’ or ‘warmer’ – some admittedly taking things to rather odd extremes, but generally the intent is the same.
Building a sense of Community may facilitate learning
For teachers who want to build that type of feeling in their classes, there are numerous activities which can be borrowed from different approaches to teaching of different disciplines, for example, from the humanistic approaches to language teaching:
1/ From humanistic approaches (the caring and sharing type where you talk about all things good and positive) e.g.
- Mime to each other five things that you like doing in your free time
- Mime five things that you can do very well
- Find as many things as you can that everyone in your group likes to do
- Find out some things that you are all good at
2/ From drama, e.g.
- Trust building activities ( the trust circle )
- Blindfolding one student and asking the other to give instructions to reach a goal ( again building on mutual trust, but somewhat dangerous if that has not been built yet! )
3/ From team building workshops in the business world
Creating a group identity seems to be crucial (look at the corporate world and their emblems, logos, jingles, etc.) and the simplest ways to achieve this is to suggest they create a name for themselves that expresses the identity of the group. This can be a serious name or a silly name, but this will be the name they will be known as and will identify with.
For example, one of our group of teachers attending a course ( 12 of them ) decided on their name and from now on they wish to be known as the Dirty Dozen. This is an activity that can be quite easily used in every type of language class and even if students do not have the necessary vocabulary, they can always ask for the teacher’s help. This may involve creating a logo, a special badge, a pledge to help all other Dirty Dozens in any situation, a group song, a rap, a web page, a ning, a wiki.… a group paper and so on and so forth, all extremely valid language activities which fall more or less under the heading of project work.
The options I am enumerating should not happen only at the start of the course when many teachers see the opportunity to use ice-breaking activities, but then these activities slowly peter out and are never used again because of the pressure to “ get on with the unit ”, but are continued throughout the course so that the bonds created are maintained and grow with time.
The next step is to encourage the group to define their goals, what skills they want to acquire, what they would like to know, what things they would like to be able to do. This would give the teacher the opportunity to discover the so called “hidden syllabus” and to identify areas that s/he can exploit for language learning purposes. Some excellent suggestions for goal defining, analyzing and prioritizing one’s needs can be found in the book Learning to Learn English.
Once these goals have been identified, the group should be encouraged to find ways of organizing themselves effectively so that they can achieve those goals, that is, create the life support systems that will sustain group life. Areas of constant concern, such as the use of L1 in group tasks, out of class reading and other in-class and extra curricular activities, might benefit greatly if the learners are the ones who will be making the rules as opposed to teacher imposed directives or disciplinary measures. The group can set up their own rules of existence and behaviour and be responsible for such matters as conduct in class, and other issues related to the management of the class and group discipline.
At the same time, since the teacher will be part of that group life, s/he could take the opportunity to familiarize the learners with the general objectives of the course and the ways in which s/he intends to work with them. This could be done as part of her learner training, i.e., easing learners into systems of work and familiarizing them with some of the activities that will be used as a regular part of the lesson. An added dimension to this could be to ask the group to vote on the kinds of tasks that they enjoy doing most as part of the learning process.
Examples of tasks and projects that can bring a class together, as opposed to falling apart can be
- writing a play, or a number of sketches for a group play
- completing a class project, such as a Glogster, a small Wiki, a class poster or display
- conducting group surveys/opinion polls on various topics
- collecting bios to create a group yearbook
- writing a serial novel in which everyone contributes an episode
Looking Back Activities
These may be just opportunities to reminisce but they may also offer the teacher a chance to take an inside look at the inner workings and relationships of the group, so often hidden from our eyes. An activity where students write down a memory beginning with the words “Remember when….. ” can generate a lot we never knew was important.
I have not mentioned specific tools like Wall Wishers, blogs, and more, which would also be great ways of fulfilling the same objectives. Each teacher can use the tools they prefer and which work well in their classes and their particular context.
I want to end with a rather extreme listing in the form of a chart of the potential for disaster or succes. Not all of it has to happen at the same time. But if we don’t take care of our class in the sense of making them a better group, we have every chance of not doing well by them.
A Group “coming together”
A Group “falling apart”
This is not a bad model for teaching, nor for running a school, a teachers’ association, or even your family or your business it seems to me.