Making learning happen: interactivity and interaction

After a frustrating couple of days battling with organisational and practical/technical issues only tangentially related to the teaching and research activities I enjoy, yesterday brought an unexpected respite.  I taught a class on a teacher education topic I love, with a group of motivated, capable trainees, and we had a rare moment of technical serendipity – the server let us boot and surf on the lab computers, our SMART board was glitch-free, and everyone had their e-mail addresses to hand.

We worked on interaction and communication in teaching languages to young beginners, using the interactive whiteboard (IWB) as an example.  We were able to view all the resources I had earmarked and tackle all the activities I had planned in plenary, small group, and larger group configurations.  On reflection afterwards, though, I wonder if I joined the dots across the various parts of the afternoon to make my main argument clear.  Leaving room for participants to draw their own conclusions is one thing, following your own inner logic without explanation is another.

My session outline was this:

  1. introduction
    What is interactive learning? What do we mean by interaction in the second (foreign) language classroom? Why is interaction important?
  2. the interactive whiteboard
    – the basics
    – the iTILT project: manual, resources
    – IWB practice examples
  3. interactivity framework: from drilling and display activities to simulation and communication
    – analysing interactivity and interaction
    – live communication with young learners

We began with examples from the twenty-odd participants enrolled in this inservice EFL course – all generalist primary teachers who teach all subjects to pupils aged 4 to 10.  I wanted examples of “great things” that had happened in their classrooms – as learners or as teachers.  They mentioned

  • the satisfaction when 6 year-old new readers point out words in the street during field trips
  • the motivation and pleasure in learning from a charismatic, humorous university lecturer
  • the pride in an overweight pupil’s achievement in dieting and being able to run for 10 minutes
  • the sense of comradeship and collaboration during interschool events and performances

The common themes seem to be the sense of achievement and pleasure in learning, both of which can feed into any discussion of communicative language teaching and classroom interaction.

I shared some videos of good moments in my own language teaching experience with young learners

  • very young learners reciting “One, two, buckle my shoe” in pairs to the camera, with evident enjoyment and fair success
  • a class reconstruction of the story “Two Monsters” where one pupil amazed my by putting together this long string: “red monster and blue monster throw big stone”
  • a pupil’s retelling of his version of this story to the class using his own drawings for support

All the examples showed me as the teacher that learning was taking place; with the hindsight of the teacher trainer, the second two seemed more communicative and interactive, and probably more conducive to actual language learning.  And this should have led to a short discussion of my introductory questions

  • What is interactive learning?
    Learning by doing, participating in an activity that makes sense to participants: reciting a rhyme being less interactive than trying to retell a story
  • What do we mean by interaction in the second (foreign) language classroom?
    Using the target language to express meaning and convey it to others, as opposed to naming objects, for example
  • Why is interaction important?
    Many (most?) theories of language acquisition are based on interaction with language samples, or attempting to understand and convey meaningful messages (again, rather than memorising and reproducing individual sounds, words or sentences).

In the second part of the 3-hour session, participants worked in small groups to apply an interactivity framework (which I am developing in research with Euline Cutrim Schmid) to examples of language teaching at the IWB collected in the iTILT project.  This framework encourages teachers to consider different types of interaction among teachers and learners and the functions each might have in language learning and teaching.

In parallel, groups of 7 participants took turns at hands-on activities at the IWB.  Most were new users, so we started with a bottom-up approach where the board is used for free writing, and words then moved, grouped, resized, using colour, shape and handwriting recognition tools.  Then we took the opposing, top-down perspective, using iTILT teaching resources to show how full teaching sequences can be prepared for classroom implementation.

Again, while these activities seemed to run smoothly and participants were all able to e-mail their analyses of an IWB video and appreciate some of the basic affordances of the tool, perhaps the bigger picture of language interaction was lost.  My recent research findings as well as experiences in training teachers to use this tool have convinced me that pedagogical practice is much more important than technical know-how.  On the other hand – and quite unsurprisingly – teachers tend not to be open to pedagogical change until the technical aspects are under control.  Thus we all focus on the tool, and its purpose – to support target language interaction with young learners, in this case – takes second place.

If only initial tech enthusiasm could immediately provoke methodological epiphany …

I did my best to plant the seed, though, with a closing example of video communication in a primary tandem project which shows how technology can provide both opportunities and support for genuine communicative interaction.

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