Ask your learners what they think

Another of the quotations I used in my IH Barcelona ELT Conference talk last week…

The "quotations" I collect have come from a huge variety of sources, and are by no means all from famous people.

This particular one came from a workshop I did many years ago in which we were talking about working with teenagers. One of the tasks I asked those attending to do was to brainstorm a list of things teens like, making the items as specific as possible (so, for example not just "music", but names of particular bands).

After a few minutes, I asked for ideas, and a young teacher read off the most amazing list of bands, video game titles, brands of clothing, shop names, places to hang out, and so on.

"How do you know all that?" an older member of staff asked, astonished.

"I just asked them," the first teacher said, almost equally astonished that a teacher wouldn't be interested in what their learners had to say.

I'm not sure quite why the incident stuck in my mind as vividly as it did, but it was perhaps one of the things that fixed one of my beliefs about teaching young learners in my head: if you are going to work with kids, it's vital that you take a genuine interest in them as people. If you don't have that, for your sake and theirs, teach adults instead!

About the same time, in the same school, I started an ambitious project to survey all our learners on the courses they finished, tallying the results with a pencil and typing up the many excellent suggestions they made for improving the courses on an old Amstrad word processor, for subsequent consideration and implementation.

Since, technology has changed the world but in all the courses I do now, I've carried on asking students what they think at the end of them, something which I can highly, highly recommend.

Use Google Docs forms to find out what your students think of your courses

Creating a new form… That's a Google docs form (arrow), which can be filled in and sent, not just a "Google Doc" (the equivalent of Word)

Google Docs forms [find out more] have replaced my pencil and tally sheet and they're a fabulous tool for the job, being easy to set up and share, and automatically collating the information collected and presenting it neatly in graphs and pie charts.

Adding an item (a new question) to the form: there is a variety of different question types in the dropdown menu

Results of the forms submitted, automatically tallied and neatly presented

Of all the questions I've ever asked "What one thing would you suggest we do in order to improve this course?" has been the one that has been most productive. I've asked literally 1000s of learners the question on literally 100s of occasions and the question has always lead at least one significant improvement to the courses I teach.

Further ideas
You can also have your students write their own surveys and get them to answer each others, which works particularly well if you are working with another school, perhaps in another country.

A written report or an oral presentation of the results allows for further exploitation.

Introduction | One | Two | Three | Four | Five | Six | Seven | Eight | Nine | Ten

An idea is worth a thousand photocopies

Another of the ideas from my talk last Saturday, with a quote from my former DELTA course tutor…

At the previous talk I gave at the IH Barcelona ELT Conference, a year ago, I explained how I'd taken a vow of abstinence, had had my own photocopy code disabled, and not made a photocopy since, using instead some of the wonderful digital alternatives (blogs, Edmodo, shared Google Docs, wikis…).

Because we now have free online access to a vast number of articles on subjects of all kinds that will interest students of all ages, the following has become one of my favourite classroom activities, as it produces lots of student-generated language and discussion and doesn't involve queuing up to use the photocopier.

Have your learners negotiate and create their own digital list of "The top 5-10 [whatever] of all time"

Rough outline of stages

  1. Find an idea that will engage your learners (sources: blogs, RSS feeds, The Guardian, Twitter, …)
  2. Have your learners (face-to-face) brainstorm their own list
  3. Share the list online (blog, Edmodo, Facebook…)
  4. Extend list over course of 3-7 days, perhaps before the class meets again
  5. Negotiate reduction to 5-7 (10) points, possibly F2F in next class
  6. Provide link and compare "our" list with the original article
  7. Exploit article for language work and/or developing reading skills, using an interactive whiteboard if available
  8. Exploit the readers' comments accompanying the article
  9. Further discussion

We can spread this out over several days, do some of the discussion face-to-face, some of it online. Note how much we can get out of the article before we ever even actually look at it (stage 6, above).

As with all the uses of technology I suggest, we're in fact making fairly minimal use of technology here.

Examples of online articles
All of the following articles have popped up in my Google Reader feeds for sites like Lifehacker, Mashable, and Wired, which are great sources of such material.

I love all brainstorming activities! By definition they are creative (on which Carol Read gave a brilliant plenary at the conference); they are student-centred; give rise to conversation, social interaction and sharing; which leads to a focus on learner-generated emergent language; and they involve creating something, not merely consuming more photocopies.

Introduction | One | Two | Three | Four | Five | Six | Seven | Eight | Nine | Ten

Infographics on the IWB

I loved this idea on OUP's ELT Global Blog: using infographics in class, with being suggested as an excellent source.

Because they're so quick and easy to import using the "camera" tool, infographics work great on an interactive whiteboard (IWB).

What I'd then want my learners to do would be to produce their own infographics. Creating forms for questionnaires using Google Docs is one easy way they can collect their information. The results automatically come in charts… which can then be imported to displayed on the IWB as part an oral presentation.

• Just in case | Er, sorry: What are infographics?