Thursday, 13 September 2012

Lessons on the Fly - Back down to Earth

Last spring, I wrote a series of posts entitled Lessons on the Fly about how I was preparing my students to take the Cambridge Flyers test using mainly student-generated pictures, stories and dialogues as the basis for our prep lessons instead of the swathes of past papers and practice tests used in the past. Well, we have just received the results so I thought it would be a a good time to reflect on the lessons and how well they prepared the students for the tests with the ‘proof in the pudding’ of their results.

What goes up…. Image by @cgoodey via eltpics

Those lessons marked the first time I felt I had really done something ‘unplugged’ over a sustained period of time and with a specific target in mind, rather than the odd dogme lesson here and there for a bit of variety. I enjoyed the lessons and it seemed my learners did too. Everything was very much student-centred and student-generated. Any material we used (pictures, texts, recordings) were created by the kids in the class and the language points and vocab we covered emerged from that, all of which was recycled and reinforced. Making their own exam-style activities appeared to give the students a much better understanding of what the different sections of the exam demanded of them and they approached the test with confidence.

I was eager to get hold of the results to see what effect those lessons had had. I looked through the scores given to my students in each of the sections (reading/writing, listening and speaking) and compared them with the other classes, whose teachers focused on past papers and sample questions during their exam preparation time.

Now, I can’t share the actual results and/or statistics we received publicly on the blog (school policy) but I can make comparisons between classes and draw conclusions so that’s what I will do….

And so, the moment of truth - when I compared the results my ‘unplugged’ students got with the results of the students who were fed a strict diet of past papers, the difference was…. very small indeed…


…must come down - Image by @sandymillin via eltpics

The average scores of my students were only slightly (as in a 0.05 kind of slightly) higher than those of the other classes. After all those stories we made, wrote and answered questions for, corrected, re-told and summarised, reading and writing scores were about the same. All the live listenings we did and all the authentic recordings we made resulted in my students matching the average of the rest of the year group. Only the speaking scores stood out as being higher than the average but that’s the easiest part of the test!

So those are the stats (in summary) but, as ever, what they mean depends on your point of view. You could say it’s proof that dogme-style teaching is not much more than a ‘conversation’ lesson, explaining the better speaking scores, or that an unplugged approach is not really suited to exam prep or young learners…. Or, you could say (and I do Smile) that these students were still able to do just as well as their peers despite not using multiple past papers or test prep materials. Just using the children in the room and their input was enough for them to get good scores, making all that photocopying redundant.

We should also look back a little. When I compare these Flyers results to the scores the same students got one year before on the Movers test, their averages went up in all three sections showing progress over time.
And, yet again, we should not let the exam dominate our view. Exams are not the be-all and end-all of learning and neither are exam results. I got a good reminder of that when I stopped at the supermarket on the way home today and, while mulling over this post, bumped into one of last year’s students. She told me she was excited about starting middle school next week but also sad to be leaving primary school behind, saying she would especially miss ‘lessons like that one when we drew a snow picture and wrote questions about it’.

I’ll take a lesson making a lasting impression on a learner over top marks in a test any time.

6 comments:

  1. Great story!
    Maybe this tells more about the exam than about the pupils' actual skills. And as far as motivation is concerned, the unplugged certainly seems to win in the long rung.

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    1. long "run" naturally... What a typo!

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    2. Thanks for the comment Bruno. One thing missing from my analysis is that I haven't seen the exam paper itself - maybe some of those questions were slightly above their level.. or maybe not.

      And don't worry about the typo - read through this blog carefully and I'm sure you'll find plenty of them!

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  2. If they can do as well as the other students in the school and get other things out of it (English related or not) that will help them in the longer term, that is quite something on its own. My only caveat would be that if the interest and novelty of the approach for you and/ or the students was one of the things that made them do well, teacher and/ or learners for whom dogme had become routine might do more badly (and similar for classes where teachers and/ or students are not convinced by the approach).

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    1. Thanks for the comment Alex.

      This way of doing things was not something unusual for either me or them as we had done isolated lessons like this before. What I describe in this post and the previous ones was the first time we had 'done Dogme' of an extended period of lessons with a specific aim in mind. However, there was a novelty element as I am the only teacher these kids have come across who does things this way and I do feel that they appreciated the chance to do something different.

      As for the long-term effects, they are moving on to middle school this year with new teachers who (I'm guessing) will probably go for a materials-centred approach. I will get new classes who will hopefully enjoy the chance to do these kind of lessons as much as last year's groups.

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  3. Thanks for sharing some stats, Dave. Exams, like we know, don't always reflect the real level of the students, but it's interesting that their speaking scores were higher than average, isn't it? What may be interesting also is the view of their new teacher - what do they think of them? Even more interesting would be to see them several years down the line and to ask them what they remember of their English classes when they were younger...

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