Mike Astbury, second-time winner of the British Council's TeachingEnglish blog award for his post on discussion activities for quiet students, shares some advice for trying out new activities in the classroom.
We understand that our students' 'failures' are part of the learning process, but it can be difficult for us to apply the same principle to our teaching methods. It's why negative feedback following a lesson observation can be hard to listen to, despite its obvious value when done right, and the improvements that we make as a result.
It's possible to fall into comfortable routines in teaching because we get a feel for what works. This is part of becoming a confident teacher, but it can make us reluctant to try new things. I think this is a limiting factor in a teacher's professional development and should be confronted by deliberately experimenting with new ideas in the classroom.
Plan the new activity
When setting out with an idea for an activity, it's important to have clear aims and expectations. It may help to stage the activity like a mini-lesson, and your activity plan (if you write one down) should include timing and clear instructions. You should also identify the main aim of the activity, whether it's grammar practice or production, or something skills-based. This will boost your confidence and increase your chances of success, especially if you've also anticipated potential problems and obstacles.
When you're taking a new and untested activity into the classroom, it will help to have back-up material that you've used many times before. You probably won't need it, but it reduces the pressure you're likely to feel when trying out something entirely new. You can always return to the experimental activity another time if you feel it's not working out.
After trying a new activity, it's important to measure its success and reflect on ways you could improve it.
Get feedback from students
After testing an activity in the classroom, I ask students to review it. The complexity of the review depends on the age and level of the students, but, in general, I ask students to discuss the activity in groups and give it a mark out of five for 'interesting', 'fun' and 'useful'. They’re also invited to make comments and say what they liked and didn't like about the activity.
Student input has often contributed to significant changes in an activity, either because they've made a useful observation or possibly because, through their comments, I've realised that they didn't engage with the activity in the way I intended. Don't underestimate your students' ability to know why an activity does or doesn't work.
Get feedback from your peers
When you're developing new materials, it's important to get input from fellow teachers. Make a few copies and offer them to teachers in the staffroom. Give them a simple explanation of the activity and an outline of the classroom instructions. Teachers are very receptive to using materials that have been prepared for them, but allow for their own experimentation as part of the process. Ask for feedback and be specific about what you're looking for; some teachers will be reluctant to be critical or talk about how they changed the activity unless they know that it's what you're looking for.
You can also volunteer to share new ideas and materials with others in a teacher-development session. This could be something that you organise and present yourself, or as part of a materials-sharing session. There may be simple and effective improvements or adaptations of your activity that you hadn't considered, that other teachers are able to point out immediately.
Keep notes and reflect on your classroom experiments
I keep notes on all the materials I make, starting with the design and continuing for as long as I use the activity. During the lesson, I make brief notes to record my own observations. You may realise in the moment that there are adjustments to make, or when reflecting on the lesson at a later point. Think about what worked and what didn't, and compare your aims with how the activity played out.
If an idea doesn't seem to work initially, you can leave it for a while and then come back to it later, picking up where you left off, having had some time to think about how it could be adjusted.
Be inventive and keep experimenting
There is a great deal of satisfaction when an activity you've created or adapted yourself leads to an amazing lesson for your students. It does take more effort than just following the course book, but I find that the injection of energy that I get as a result often far outweighs the convenience of repeating tried-and-tested exercises.
Visit Mike's blog, Teaching Games, to find games and activities that have gone through the process described above.