While I was in the beautiful Croatian town of Dubrovnik for the IATEFL Business English Special Interest Group Conference last November, I made some notes on a very interesting workshop I attended:
The class is your resource
Learners give too much responsibility to the teacher
Fall back on what they´ve experienced before while learning
Think about how they learn to do other things, e.g. building flat-pack furniture
I would happily give credit to the person from whom I gleaned these insights, but I honestly can´t remember who it was! The weekend passed in a blur of sea, sunsets and syntax. Whoever it was though, I am grateful to them for reminding me that although the fifty-year old factory superviser in my English course may feel like a fish out of water because he has been obliged to start learning English again after more than three decades, this is not the first time that he has learned something and learned something successfully. English learning is not so special or different that it exists in vacuum separate from the learning of anything else. There´s no reason why strategies you use to successfully build flat-pack furniture–perhaps follow the instructions carefully, trust your instincts, make use of the insights you´ve gained on the previous occasions you have built furniture–shouldn´t serve you well as you embark upon learning English at work.
Starting afresh with a new group this week, I decided to create a worksheet to get them to reflect on how they learn and ultimately get them to consider how they can learn better. Their first task was to write a list of ten things they have learned during their lifetimes. I made it clear to them that this could include absolutely anything from learning to walk to learning to operate the pieces of machinery they work with. Once everyone had their lists, I asked them to reflect on what their experiences of learning these things had been and to compare with each other by answering some questions I´d included in the second section of the worksheet. The participants then discussed these responses with a partner before sharing what they´d found out with the rest of the group.
This discussion gave me some clear indications of what elements I would need to incorporate into the course in order for them to learn English successfully:
– They like learning-by-doing, so why don´t we go down into the laboratories and R&D facilities where they work and they can show me how they create prototypes and do their plastic injection moulding? We agreed to do this in the coming weeks.
– Having fun while they learn is important to them: let´s include some games and more light-hearted activities so that they enjoy themselves.
– They said they thought “doing it again and again” was a good learning strategy, which means I can give them lots of opportunities to practise what they have learnt and do review activities without worrying that they´ll get bored!
– Getting tips from experts: so they won´t be afraid to take advice from me, but this got me thinking about what other “experts” they could go to. They could spend more time on communication with their native English speaker colleagues, of course, but they can also get tips from each other. I plan to encourage them to listen to and learn from their colleagues in the course.
– Use a range of media: as the majority of the group are male and in their twenties, it´s not surprising that video and internet resources are an integral part of learning as far as they´re concerned. I will, therefore, aim to include these resources in our lessons.
Asking Business English course participants: “how do you learn?” is just as valuable, if not even more valuable, than asking them what they want to learn (emailing, meetings, telephoning, etc.), which is what I seem to have spent all of my time on up to now.