We’re at about midterm exam time of our second semester and a teaching technique has recently become possible in my most able classes. I don’t know if I’ll be able to explain this, but I’m going to try.
One fairly common technique in American classrooms that wasn’t even an option in the first months here is called pair share. Some folks call it think, pair, share. It’s used to increase student engagement and critical thinking and it gets better mileage out of questions than when a teacher asks a class a great question and then one student answers it. Students are asked to first consider the question solo, and then discuss it quietly with a neighbor, and then the teacher collects answers from students.
It requires some cooperation from the students. These students didn’t cooperate and it wasn’t exactly their fault. They didn’t cooperate because what I was asking for was so far outside of their experience that it wasn’t sensible to them. They may have thought they hadn’t heard me right. They probably thought I didn’t really mean for them to speak to the learner next to them. They were ready to wait for someone to tell the answer like they always do. They don’t see themselves as a resource for learning: the idea that they could figure something out for themselves was too strange. Also, for the technique to work we need about 80% of the students listening to the instructions. If a few were “zoned out” the neighbors can fill them in on what’s going on. But you have to have most students with you for this to work. In a rural Thai classroom you basically never get 80% attention all at once.
Side trip on the big picture of engagement and behavior problems in rural Thai classrooms: if a child comes to school day after day and the instruction is pitched to more able students and every day the child doesn’t learn (overstated for clarity) then the child isn’t going to be attending to the lesson. The child already tried that and it didn’t work. The ingrained habit of inattention is strengthened by years of verification that what is expected is to sit and wait for the star students to call out something and then to join in and make it louder. Even the star students have been coping for years with content that doesn’t make sense to them. The textbooks are not written at their level and the teachers do not feel empowered to set them aside and teach accessible content. The money has been spent on these books; we’re going to use them. The system is top down. Whether you are the teacher or the student you are told what to do and, by golly, you do it. Then when the exams come around and the students perform poorly it doesn’t matter anyway. They just fail. Failing is a tradition, too, so it isn’t particularly remarkable when half the class or even 90% of the class fails. We just move on, to more content that doesn’t make sense to the children.
Here are a couple more examples, so you can skip this paragraph if you already get the picture. In English class we copy things from the board a lot, but no one ever asks us to read them back. This would show the teachers that the students are having an art experience of developing eye hand coordination to form those shapes faster and more accurately over the years. The vast bulk of the students aren’t writing WORDS because they’re not having an experience of the words, they’re having an experience of individual letters. Similarly they sing songs in English but cannot segment a phrase of the song into individual words and cannot tell the meaning of the words or the phrases because they have only been taught to sing the sounds of English (or pseudo-English). Similarly the students recite a greeting, “Good morning teacher, how are you today?” and the teacher answers “I am fine, how are you?” every class for years on end but when an English speaker sees children on the school grounds and says “good morning, how are you?” the students look around desperately for help from friends who are also speechless or run away screaming. There is no one there to call out the right answer so they can echo it.
So initially the pair share strategy wasn’t an option because their classroom traditions short-circuited or undermined it. Students don’t trust themselves to answer questions. Student expectations and norms are not supportive of the method.
What has changed? We’ve been doing work that makes sense most of the time for months now. That’s most of the time because we still make mistakes judging their ability, but when it isn’t working we stop and do something else and later sit and plan for a different approach. Students have learned things. I’m not saying there weren’t some students learning under the traditional instruction, but every student is learning now. They’re not all learning everything we teach, but they’re learning. It feels good to succeed. It feels good when you don’t know something for the teacher to accept that and come back to it cheerfully later, encouraging and supporting you. This is to say that the curriculum has changed and is now more accessible to students.
What else has changed? Interactions with the students are, I believe, more positive and more respectful. Assuming that my own first person impression could be unreliable, I’ll add that the Thai area office supervisors who visited and watched us teach commented enthusiastically that they were impressed with how positive the tone is in our instruction. They commented on the students’ learning as well. Our hope is that experiencing support and success will enable students to take a risk occasionally. This is to say that the classroom atmosphere has changed and is now more supportive of learning.
What else has changed? What the students are actually doing in class has changed. Lesson segments are shorter in keeping with the attention span of the children. Every day in class every child engages with the content either individually or as part of a small group activity and this participation is recurring across the hour. Here are several examples of the participation tasks from one class session this last week. First, listen a word, repeat the word, consider the initial sound, and name the letter that makes that sound. This task was accompanied by pictures so the meanings of the words were accessible but for this segment it didn’t matter whether the learner was familiar with the word as the focus was on the relationship between the sounds and the symbols we use in writing them. For the early words the students chose from three letters so that they would practice hearing c, h, and ch sounds. Later they heard words with all the letter sounds to review all the letters. Second, look at picture cues, say the word, and identify it as noun or verb. The focus of this segment was on vocabulary development and grammar. This is part of the build up to learning when to use “I” and when to use “me” or “my.” “My” will always be associated with a noun, and so forth. Third, working with the verbs and using think-pair-share, form sentences (which we wrote on the chalkboard). Fourth, working from those declarative sentences, tell what the question was that would bring that answer. This segment reviews our work for the last two months on the question words: who, what, when, where, and why. Finally, individuall, transform the answer sentences we had collected by changing one word in each sentence. These would be different answers to the questions we wrote. Students also recorded the questions and their new answers in their notebooks. Each student answered one of the questions orally as an “exit question” to leave the classroom at the end of the period. The point of that is that student engagement has changed, and now students receive, transform, analyze, and rephrase information, and make original contributions that are not an echo of what they have heard.
Okay so that was a particularly good class session, with my strongest students, and they still hesitate some on that pair share thing. We’re going to have to have more support, more successes, more accessible curriculum, and more encouragement. But I am immensely encouraged that our students had a chance to notice that they can think.