Master Teaching

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Lost in Learning

MazeTeaching Speaking talks about learners  getting lost in communication, how they can become so immersed in activities that they are “unaware of the classroom.”[1] These activities—including discussions around thought-provoking questions, creative projects, or practices so real that learners engage emotionally—create opportunities for authentic communication in the classroom.[2] They are also motivating as students get lost in not only communication but also learning.

In an oral interpretation course, Alan, a colleague at my university in China, challenged himself to try out an activities-based approach (versus his usual transmission style). Instead of giving examples and directly telling his student notetaking symbols, he set them up in groups to devise their own. Later, he reflected on this experiment.

I identified the role of my own teaching as closer to the transmitter end. I think students would like the constructivist model more because it is more fun. Trying to understand all of this, I asked a question: of constructivist and transmission, which is better for them? Should I value students’ interest and curiosity more, or volume of knowledge/skills more? As I explored through teaching practice, I arrived at the conclusion that I should value the former one more, because it is more interactive, cooperative and fun. After all, I love learning myself. Why shouldn’t I inspire my students to love learning? I cannot ruin something for others when it is fun to me!

Just after his experiment, Alan communicated with me about the struggle to ask questions and encourage students instead of jumping in with suggestions. His holding back was rewarded, though, when the students became immersed in notetaking symbols, and “the classroom was full of smiles, laughter, applause, discussions and light comments.” Not just the students but also the teacher, it seems, got lost in learning.

What was it about Alan’s activity that motivated both students and teacher? How do set-ups like his work? Alan’s reflections lead to a few of my own:

1. Activities-based teaching may be fun and have students out of their seats and moving around the room, but what is most important is cognitive activity. The set-up involves everyone in the classroom with an appropriate and interesting challenge such that they don’t have a chance to get bored. In other words, the students are so productively occupied by the activity that they get lost in learning.

2. Holding back may be hard for teachers, but it is engaging for students. When we set up an activity rather than directly teaching, students become absorbed in trying to figure things out and may forget they’re in a classroom. This immersion can make a deep impression—I imagine many of Alan’s students have a repertoire of useful symbols that they will never forget.

3. Asking rather than answering questions may seem laborious to teachers, but it can be empowering for students. It is efficient to tell rather than ask, but how do students feel when they come to conclusions independent of the teacher? Alan did at times answer his own questions and redirect his students, especially during the whole class follow up, but his focus was on patiently waiting for their answers and encouraging their ideas. Perhaps the smiles Alan saw on his students’ faces were, in part, a result of their feeling valued and in control.

4. This style of teaching takes careful planning. As an example, Alan’s lesson plan is linked here. He recognizes that less transmission would be good for his students, but what a lot of work! “慢慢来,” “One step at a time,” is my advice.

Usually getting lost isn’t a good idea. It can lead to frustration and sometimes even danger. However, when students get lost in learning, they might just find in themselves a motivation that spills over from classroom into life.?


[1] Tasha Bleistein, Melissa K. Smith, and Marilyn Lewis, Teaching Speaking, (Alexandria, VA: TESOL International Association, 2013), 29.
[2] Ibid., 27-29.

Further exploration

What’s your perspective?

We welcome your comments on any of the ideas in this post or in answer to the questions below.

  • Think of a time you or your students got lost in learning. What happened?
  • What do you feel when you read Alan’s words: After all, I love learning myself. Why shouldn’t I inspire my students to love learning? I cannot ruin something for others when it is fun to me!
  • In “What drives language learners,” Bradley Baurain talked about how, in addition to autonomy and mastery, people are also motivated by purpose. Would giving your students a change-the-world sort of purpose get them lost in learning? How would that work?

Post Author

Melissa K. Smith


Image by LoggaWiggler from Pixabay

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This entry was posted on November 13, 2019 by in learning activities, Melissa K. Smith, motivation.

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