Encouraging autonomy in teen classes

You might not need to encourage your students to take control of their learning. I do. My teens aren’t used to working independently or undertaking tasks without the teacher directing proceedings.

Our current topic is health and fitness. I found this great information booklet online entitled ‘Take charge of your health’, which was aimed specifically at teens. It looks like this, and you can access it here.

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Booklet produced NIDDK

My teens had studied this type of stuff in their mainstream schools. I knew there would be a lot of transferable language, so I felt they were ready to try a different approach to the lesson…

I explained the concept of this booklet and we did a running dictation based on its contents page. Once this was completed, students undertook a series of activities based on the booklet, focusing on a whole range of systems and skills. These included:

  • Predicting the content of the booklet based on the title of each section (first task)
  • Vocabulary development
  • Developing reading sub-skills like skimming/scanning/reading for detail, etc
  • Guided discovery
  • Developing speaking skills
  • Identifying features of pronunciation

Actually, there was more to it than that. I wanted to help students develop a range of other skills which included…

  • Developing collaboration/teamwork skills
  • Following written instructions
  • Planning and recording their learning
  • Developing digital literacy
  • Using their initiative
  • Etc

Set up

The pages of the booklet were displayed around the room, alongside envelopes with tasks inside. Each team took a copy of each task from the envelope…

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The rubric for each task was important, as students needed to follow this independently. I used visuals to help explain the interaction patterns needed within the group. Examples:

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copyright dreamstime.com, slideshare.net, thedissnba.com

Here are some examples of activities:

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Tasks like this allowed students to use their schemata. Some students could answer part of the questions without reading the text – this gave them confidence. If this was the case, I encouraged them to scan the text and see if their ideas were correct/mentioned.

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For stronger students, whose prior knowledge made tasks like this straightforward, I added pronunciation tasks like identifying certain phonemes or marking word stress.

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This involved searching a page in the booklet for similarities/differences between texts.

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This task came with a box of ‘useful language’ – process language to help them check their answers as a speaking task:

Do you like…?

Not really/I’ve never tried it/Yeah, I love it/etc…

These tasks might be a bit confusing or weird out of context, but basically there was a different challenge for each page.

To complete each task students had to read at least part of each page in the booklet. They took a picture the page on their phones and read it from there. They had a lesson to complete all the tasks, but they were in charge of their own time management.

How things went…

  • It was tough to begin with. I was there to facilitate, but students required far more support than I expected so I was a bit stretched
  • After completing two or three activities, students started to take more control and there were less questions about the task procedure/instructions
  • Students required constant reminders about recording their learning in notebooks
  • Despite providing process language for speaking tasks students still didn’t extend their speaking and often breezed over these activities (unless encouraged to complete them fully)

Positives

  • Some learners already have well-developed skills when it comes to independent learning. It was good to see them take control and become leaders.
  • This task allowed me to micro-teach. This meant I learned a lot about my learners. I realised certain strengths and weaknesses that I’d previously missed.
  • It was nice to see (some) students record their learning for once!
  • Engagement levels were generally high, probably due to a) the amount of varied tasks, b) their short duration

Student feedback

I did some post-it note feedback after the lesson, including questions about what students’ learned and what they enjoyed about the activity. A summary of responses:

  • About half the students felt they benefitted from the approach and found the lesson enjoyable
  • Negative comments suggested that this approach should be shorter (around 30 minutes) Some students said they struggled to stay motivated
  • A majority of students made positive points about what they’d learned, and almost all recorded some new vocabulary during the lesson.

Negatives

  • Planning time was so high, although what I learned about my students was really useful
  • This was just one step on the path to greater learner autonomy. It shouldn’t be judged too negatively but at the same time it became loose at times when students didn’t make more of the activities.

What would I change?

  • Make it shorter next time. Part of a lesson rather than the whole lesson
  • Make QR codes for the instructions to develop more digital literacy skills
  • Give students greater purpose. After students completed all the activities they had to make a list of 5 tips for healthier eating/living based on the info they read. A more purposeful and substantial task might give them more reason to record their learning. Still, you live and learn.
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