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The idea of students as teachers is the result of a semester project that was conducted in English classes for social workers at the FH JOANNEUM University of Applied Sciences (Graz/Austria). The objective of the project was to foster students' motivation, enhance their autonomous learning skills and ability to self-assess their performance with a content-based approach. In order to achieve this aim the roles of students and teacher were swapped. Students had to confront themselves with questions such as: Which topics make learning interesting? Which teaching style is effective? How can your own performance as a teacher be evaluated? Students were provided with the possibility of working on a complex and challenging problem, namely that of acting as teachers, and thus performing in a role yet unknown to them while at the same time language skills were fostered and practised. Further, they were offered opportunities for interaction, communication and cooperation as well as given the freedom to set their own goals. The evaluation shows that students achieved the set goal of increased learner independence, enjoyed the freedom they were given and unanimously agreed to have greatly benefited from the task
„Als Kind ist jeder ein Künstler. Die Schwierigkeit liegt darin, als Erwachsener einer zu bleiben.“ (Pablo Picasso)
Ein Fallbeispiel aus dem CLIL Unterricht (content and language integrated learning) zeigt, wie Studierende zu Künstlern werden.
Ob Sie es wissen oder nicht: Lehrende haben mehr als nur eine Rolle inne. Sie lehren, sie motivieren, sie unterstützen, sie treiben voran, sie beurteilen, und… im optimalen Fall sind sich auch Künstler auf einer Bühne. Nämlich dann, wenn sie begeistern, wenn sie das Interesse für eine Sache in ihrem Publikum, den Studierenden, wecken und deren Neugierde fördern. Um diese Rollen auch den Studierenden zu verdeutlichen, und auch, um ihnen eine Bühne zu bieten, auf der sie die Künstler sein können und ihre verborgenen Schätze und Talente zu Tage fördern können, tausche ich in diesem Fallbeispiel die Rolle mit meinen Studierenden. Ich wende nicht nur die bekannte Methode des „flipped classroom“ an, wo Studierende im Selbststudium einen Auftrag erfüllen, um diesen im Unterrichtsraum weiterzuführen, sondern ich lasse die Studierenden unter dem Titel „team teaching“ als Lehrende auftreten, und zwar zu einem fachspezifischen Thema ihrer Wahl. Dieses praktische Fallbeispiel wir dem EU Action Plan (2006-2009) „Promoting Language Learning and Linguistic Diversity“ gerecht.
The idea of students as teachers is the result of a semester project that was conducted in English classes for social workers at the FH JOANNEUM University of Applied Sciences (Graz/Austria). The objective of the project was to foster students' motivation, enhance their autonomous learning skills and ability to self-assess their performance with a content-based approach. In order to achieve this aim the roles of students and teacher were swapped. Students had to confront themselves with questions such as: Which topics make learning interesting? Which teaching style is effective? How can your own performance as a teacher be evaluated? Students were provided with the possibility of working on a complex and challenging problem, namely that of acting as teachers, and thus performing in a role yet unknown to them while at the same time language skills were fostered and practised. Further, they were offered opportunities for interaction, communication and cooperation as well as given the freedom to set their own goals. The evaluation shows that students achieved the set goal of increased learner independence, enjoyed the freedom they were given and unanimously agreed to have greatly benefited from the task.
Language learning and language teaching will always remain a challenge in our ever-changing world of complex societies and modern technologies. Long gone are the days when simple rote learning, translations of words and grammar fill-in exercises dominated the classroom and were accepted as proper means to acquire language skills. The world wide web and modern technologies, which make language so easily accessible nowadays, have changed the way a language is or can be taught. But not only the methods have changed but the learners themselves have changed as well. Students will not accept everything that is served to them anymore. They have – in a sense – grown up to be their own masters and, if offered, willingly make use of their right to co-determine what and how they would like to learn. Language classes offer an ideal opportunity for both students and teachers to experience and experiment with language learning and the learning process as such. Many concepts and expressions such as collaborative learning, independent learning, self-directed learning, autonomous learning, humanistic education, powerful learning environments (PLE) and many more have emerged over the past decades, which all have a common denominator: to treat the learner as an individual who is the expert in his/her own learning process. Thus, the role of the teacher has changed, too. I see a teacher as a facilitator, as someone who provides the space for students to gain a deeper understanding of how their mind works in the learning process, who offers the opportunity for students to express themselves, someone who has the courage to give up control and hand it over to the learner.
This paper is the result of a small project, or experiment, that I conducted in my English classes at the FH JOANNEUM University of Applied Sciences, Graz, Austria, department of social work. The project born out of desperation. I had been teaching in the department of social work for seven years trying different methods that would foster students’ motivation and make them realize how great the English language is and how much fun it can be to learn it. However, I had been facing difficulties: English is part of the curriculum in every study program at the University of Applied Sciences. Therefore, students have no choice whether to attend an English course or not. When the right of free choice is taken from people, motivation will suffer as a consequence. Today I fully understand that some of my students would be more motivated to maybe learn Romanian seeing that I teach future social workers in Austria and English might not be the language they will first and foremost need in their professional lives when working with migrants for instance. Being an English teacher, however, and knowing about the status English enjoys in today’s world, it was not easy for me to admit that.
Another difficulty about teaching English to social work students is that they come to me with vastly different levels of proficiency. Generally speaking, they should all more or less have the same level of English, which would be – after the Austrian school leaving certificate (Matura) – B2 according to the Common European Frame of Reference for Languages (CEFR). However, there is no standardized test for the Matura in Austria and depending on the schools students attended, their language skills will vary. Furthermore, many of my students have worked between leaving school and taking up studying again (the average age of students at the social work department is higher than in other departments), so some students’ command of English is a little rusty when they enter university. The task of bridging the gap between the various levels found in a class can be a challenge, especially if you are trying to keep interest high and boredom low.
In their six-semester Bachelor program students have five English courses with an overall number of 135 study hours: The 55 students that are admitted each year are divided up into 4 groups. Thus, the group size is kept small, which is ideal for language learning. In the first two semesters in which English 1 and 2 (both courses account for 2 ECTS points each) are taught, we try to get the students up to a more or less similar level. The content is a mix of general English and ESP. The courses English 3 and 4 (2 ECTS points each) are ESP courses focusing on topics that will be relevant for the social work profession, for instance counselling skills. Partly, lessons are used to support the curriculum. Content that has been taught in other classes will be taken up and discussed in English. Thus, English is closely intertwined with other courses.
At this point it should be mentioned how schedules are structured at the University of Applied Sciences as this, in my opinion, greatly influences student motivation. Each semester, a fixed schedule is set up by administration. There are no electives; students have to attend the classes offered. Their attendance of the courses on schedule is compulsory, and they often face long days at university. If you are lucky, you can teach your students in the mornings when they still feel fresh and full of energy. If not, you might teach them at 5 pm when they have already been at the department all day and cannot absorb information anymore. It is only understandable that motivation suffers and a certain consumer attitude is fostered, which is to say students would rather be talked to than talk themselves.
Having outlined the challenges I have been facing over the years, I would now like to briefly list what I – and with me probably most language teachers – have been wishing for in my students and in my English classes: an understanding of independent learning, an increase in motivation and self-responsibility as well as the ability to reflect on their own performance. Not to forget, I also wanted to keep an element of fun in my classes. Having tried various approaches, always noticing that I desperately wanted my students to learn and spark their interest, and that I was doing everything I could, I decided to give up control in my classes. That may sound very radical but can be simply explained. We have probably all been at a point in our teaching careers when we noticed that when we lecture we are the ones who are learning the most. We are the ones whose thinking skills are enhanced and whose creativity is stimulated. We are playing the active learner role; the students’ role is often passive. When I reached that point I decided it was time to reverse the roles. This is when I came up with my concept of student team teaching (STT). As James Flannery puts it in his article Teacher as Co-conspirator: Knowledge and Authority in Collaborative Learning, “Many teachers have discovered that the very process of conceptualizing a course, designing a learning process, and enacting that design is itself an extremely powerful learning experience.”. (Flannery, 1994, p. 34)
However, giving up control does not always come easily, especially if you are a conscientious planner and you like to stick to a schedule. Further, I believe that ESP courses can pose a challenge for teachers as they enter a subject area that might not be familiar to them. To teach an ESP course means to know about the content matter as well as the specific language used in a specific context. If we take the aforementioned example of Language of Counselling, it will not suffice to teach the language used in such situations but will also require knowledge about a counselling setting in general. These presuppositions can produce a feeling of uneasiness in language teachers, more so in teachers who like to stay in control. Upon reading an article on the collaborative perspective for autonomy in teaching and learning, I could identify with Kuen from the Malayan University in Kuala Lumpur who talks about, “[…] the reservations or ‘uneasiness’ of language teachers, who are thrust into a wide range of ESP teaching situations requiring both autonomous actions and collaborative efforts”. (Kuen, 2005, GEMA online journal) Yet, I decided to go ahead with my idea to find out what benefits a carefully planned project but largely uncontrolled classroom might produce.
Student Team Teaching (STT) in Practice
The main reason for introducing the model of STT in my classroom was that I wished to emphasize independent learning. Another point to mention, however, is that I had been looking for ESP material that is designed for social work - to no avail, as it turned out. I had contacted the most well-known publishers for ESP material like Pearson Longman, Cambridge or OUP but was repeatedly told that no such material was on the market. At the IATEFL conference in 2008 I met an Italian colleague who reported on the same dilemma. She let me know that she and her colleague designed their course material from scratch, just like I had done since my beginnings at the social work department. So, my thinking was to let the experts, which means the students themselves, teach about what they know better than I do; namely, social work. That was when I began looking for suitable texts to be used as a basis for STT. On a well know website among social workers, which is www.socialworker.com, I found what I was looking for: a book titled Days in the Lives of Social Workers: 54 Professionals Tell ‘Real-Life’ Stories From Social Work Practice. All articles published in this book are relatively short, many of them easily comprehensible and they cover a wide range of interest. I pre-selected the texts according to readability and length to make sure that they were suitable for my students.
I divided the project of STT into 4 stages:
1. Introduction of the idea of autonomous learning and STT in class
2. Planning and consultation
3. Teaching a class
4. Assessment, peer evaluation and self-reflection