So, the mad rush to get online has subsided. The barrage of webinars on how to set up breakout rooms on Zoom have ended and the conversation is turning once again. It’s crazy to think all of this only started a few short months ago. It feels like days ago that our teaching context was turned upside down and we scrambled to bring our courses online and now, with restrictions being lifted in various countries around the world, it looks like it’s all about to be turned on its head again.
The question on my mind is:
what does the post-covid classroom look like?
Now, I’m not talking about 2022 when all this is done and dusted (fingers-crossed, touch wood and all that lark) and we can go back to the way things were before. I mean the classroom between now and then.
Many schools will take a blended approach, carrying out some lessons in a physical classroom and some online. Undoubtedly, we will have smaller class sizes. Schools will consider staggering start times and closing public areas. Hand sanitiser will, of course, feature heavily in any reopening. Depending on government advice, masks might be a pre-requisite or they might be discouraged. Depending on your country, your borders might be open to new students and there may / may not be a quarantine period.
But let’s assume that all the above has been taken care of by school management and the government. Where does that leave you, the teacher, when it comes to your face to face lessons in a physical classroom? Is it business as usual but with fewer students?
I don’t think so.
Let’s take a close look at our teaching toolbox, our tried and tested techniques, the bread & butter of teaching in a communicative classroom. What happens to them in a socially distant classroom?
- Pairwork: sadly, this is probably done and dusted for a while. We won’t be casually leaning over and checking answers.
- Group discussions: Unless it’s a whole-class discussion, which has its limitations, we won’t really be able to conduct group chats with a metre between each person.
- Hand-outs: You won’t be moving around the classroom giving your students a beautiful photocopy. Depending on school guidelines, you might not be able to give any material that the student didn’t bring with them.
- Monitoring: while it won’t be impossible to monitor, sneakily looming over a student’s shoulder and offering advice & encouragement is going to be frowned upon.
Unfortunately, a socially distant classroom is going to leave us without our go-to teaching techniques but all is not lost. If we’ve learnt anything over the past few months, it is how quick our industry is to adapt to the situation and adopt new techniques that better suit the circumstances we find ourselves in.
Adapt and adopt, we shall.
When deciding how to adapt, we must consider what we are losing and how we can try to replace it.
One of the main reasons, I use pairwork in class is to give students thinking time, to allow them to learn from each other and help each other to formalise their opinions before they bring them to the class as a whole. Often, having a moment to share an answer with a partner will give a student the social reassurance they need to then share it with the whole class. This is the beauty of pairwork and something we really don’t want to lose.
One way to give students the thinking time, to give them confidence in their answers without having to share them with the whole class is by using poll / survey websites like Mentimeter. It allows students time to think and to answer anonymously; they can very easily see how the rest of the class feels or is answering and then stand by or alter their answer before bringing it to the whole class. It encourages the quieter student to get involved and gives them an easy communication avenue.
Much of how I communicate is via text messages or social media. There are people I speak to regularly that I haven’t talked to in person for years. This is the same for many of our students yet in a communicative classroom we tend to focus on speaking. Most schools will by this time have chosen an online platform to deliver their lessons be it Teams, Zoom or something else. For Zoom, students could simple start a meeting, turn the cameras & audio off and use the chat box.
By using these same tools or even WhatsApp, students can still carry out discussions in a meaningful way before sharing the outcome of their discussions with the rest of the class in whole-class feedback.
The nice little by-product of these types of discussions is a written record. The chat box can easily be screenshot and shared. Students can reflect on what they actually said/wrote and analyse how well they used the target language. And you have a concrete source to reference for feedback.
If handouts are behind us, that’s no bad thing. They’re great, don’t get me wrong, but the environment won’t thank us for all of the dead handouts that ended up in bins around the EFL world. In the socially distant classroom, we will be forced to abandon them and use the tools we have. So what do we have?
- IWB: many of us will have an IWB. Apps like Microsoft Lens allow us to scan in resources; the snipping tool allows us to chop them up and deliver them to our students one piece at a time…as the writer no doubt intended.
- Phones: our students don’t need to have a piece of paper they never look at again, they have cameras. Cameras that save photos in clouds according to their dates. Photos that they can access forevermore without having to sift through crumpled, wrinkled, ragged remnants of lessons long-forgotten.
If we don’t have IWBs, we have phones, which means we can send photos / documents via online platforms, WhatsApp, email, etc. Our learners can zoom in, they can edit, they can engage with it however we see fit.
Support over Presence:
Something that I’ve really found in online teaching is that support is more important than presence. In the past we have relied upon the fact that we can monitor closely and be on hand to answer every little question. In breakout rooms, this became impossible and in a socially distant classroom it becomes trickier.
All this means is that we need to spend more time setting up an activity. Learners need to know what exactly they should be doing, why they are doing it and what success looks like. Instructions are more important than ever and checking instructions is crucial. With students potentially working more individually or on their phones and you unable to loom over their shoulder, checking they are on task becomes more challenging. The answer may be to spend more time on giving and checking your instructions and getting buy-in for the activity from the students.
Above are just a few of the issues we may face in the socially distant classroom. No doubt there will be others that we haven’t even considered yet. Some of the above ideas for coping with these issues may turn out to be unworkable depending on your teaching context but we have proven our ability to adapt and adapt we will. I am excited to see how we tackle these issues and to hear your ideas.
Send them along!