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Listening to learners

A post by Heléna Stakounis (Twitter @Languagecafe)

One of the silver linings of the pandemic for me has without a doubt been the movement of webinars and academic conferences to an online setting. Previously, I rarely had the time nor the money to indulge myself in CPD and further learning, not to mention having to leave my children with someone in order to do so. But since March 2020, I have been able to attend many and it's been amazing, and it's awoken my love for learning once again. It's also reminded me of many things I'd forgotten. This past weekend, an online webinar took me right back to my motivation for my Master's degree, my motivation for my own language school, Language Café, and the reason I embarked on a PhD - and that reason, quite simply, was the learners.

Heart & Parcel - a cooking community for learning English.

All heart, and parcels too

Whilst working for NCUK in Manchester several years ago I met an incredible woman doing wonderful things in the Manchester community. Her name is Clare Courtney and her passion for what she does is inspiring. She runs an organisation named Heart and Parcel and I think it's clear to everyone involved that that name couldn't be more appropriate. She puts her heart and soul into what she does, creates a community based on love and compassion, and most of all, she gets people cooking together and in so doing, learning English. While the parcel, I believe, refers to dumplings which are made in many, many cultures, I am sure nobody leaves her spaces without some kind of parcel, whether it be a food parcel, a wrapped-up feeling of warmth or a gift of new language to help in the ever-real challenge of integration into a new country and culture. The best thing about all this is that it's not just Clare providing the parcels but rather all the learners providing each other with snippets of their home culture, traditions, foods and flavours. The first time I heard of Clare's work, I could have hugged her. I was so happy to hear that such an organisation existed because it aligned so much with what I believed myself and what I'd understood from my learners about learning a language. What I'd come to understand was that real language and successful communication, and most importantly, the confidence required to use real language and communicate, is learnt not through formal classroom instruction, but through those little informal encounters outside, through the student-teacher or student-student chats before class starts, with the stranger on the bus or the foreign flatmate in the kitchen. It is learnt not through grammar exercises and vocabulary drills but through making embarrassing mistakes with a 'native', through rephrasing three or four times to get across what you want, in plucking up the courage for days to make that phone call and rehearsing what you will say, it's in being invited to the home of a local person for the first time and frantically Googling what would be culturally appropriate to take as a gift. It's in these informal spaces and unmapped moments that language learning becomes real and I believe, it is the most important part.

Excitement because finally we were hearing from the students themselves


I was reminded of this ethos in a webinar hosted by Clare Courtney on behalf of NATESOL at the weekend. NATESOL is an organisation I have been a member of on and off since my Master's days at Salford University. Imagine my delight when I signed in to see my former MA TESOL teacher, Sian Etherington chairing the session as well as another former teacher of mine, Michael Beaumont, in the audience. There was also a former Language Café connection and best of all, one of our students from the MA TESOL at Durham University. So many different people from various walks of my life in one meeting together. I felt instantly happy. This was a headphones event because my daughter was simultaneously doing her Zoom ballet class with Starlight Academy, a dance school run by another incredible woman I'm sure one day I'll tell you about. As my daughter danced her dance, I chatted in breakout rooms with a teacher in India, my Chinese student in Durham and another British teacher in Britain. However, as great as all this was, it wasn't the greatest thing about this particular online event. The greatest thing, as one person acknowledged in the chat box, was that this event was revolutionary. The session was entitled "Learners as Partners: Voices from Different Contexts. A learner-led discussion hosted by Alex Holloway & Clare Courtney." Instead of researchers presenting the soundbites of students or teachers talking about their feelings about students' experiences, this event heard from six learners themselves, without any middle man. Three students from Clare's ESOL community and three students from Alex's EAP community led the conversation about their experiences of learning English in the UK and we, the teachers, the researchers, the material writers, we listened. Perhaps this was not the first time this has been done (perhaps someone reading can alert us to others), but certainly the feeling amongst the audience was that this was a first, which led me to a simultaneous feeling of both excitement and horror. Excitement because finally we were hearing from the students themselves, the people who are supposed to be at the centre of our practice, the people we are supposed to be working for, the people the whole educational endeavour is supposed to be about... and horror because, could this really be the first time we were hearing in one of these academic events from these same people, the ones supposedly at the centre, for whom we are working, and who we claim this is all about? I don't know but it was for me the first time I had attended an academic session such as this with the learners themselves as the speakers. For me, it felt revolutionary and right and I hope hearing from the learners becomes a staple part of our academic sessions from here on in.

Practise what we preach

Listening to the learners reignited a fire inside of me that had been tempered by the frantic pace of everyday life and the continuous work deadlines that may make any teacher lose sight of the reason why we go into teaching in the first place - to help our learners learn. And as the hosts, Clare and Alex, sat back and let the learners take the floor on Saturday, they reminded me of my most recent post about letting go, about handing control over to the learners in the classroom, to take command of their own learning and indeed give them space to practise and work things out. This is the theory of learning we have learnt from Vygotsky, the idea that we learn through doing, through interaction with others, through communication and collaboration. It is the theory that underscores much of what we teach our learners who are learning to be teachers of English, and yet, ironically, it is something we do not do ourselves. Through my PhD research where I spent an academic year sitting in classes of many different subjects across a UK university and listening to learners' experiences of the international university, I saw that in many ways we still have not moved on from the very early educational mode of Ancient Greece with learners sat cross-legged at the foot of their teacher-masters, listening and supposedly, learning. Many of us may not even have reached Socrates status by asking our learners questions. As a result, as learners, we may recall sitting in lectures, texting our mates or falling asleep at the back of the lecture theatre, promising ourselves, we'll read the PowerPoint later. I don't know about you but I don't remember any of my 'lectures' from my Bachelor's degree at Leeds. Well, I admit, many I didn't go to because they were just that - lectures. I couldn't pay attention for that long. It didn't inspire me. Nobody knew if I was there or not, and did they even care? On the contrary, I can recall many of my sessions from my Master's degree at Salford, because my teachers there didn't just talk at us - they involved us, they had us do things, they put us in groups and asked us to talk to each other, to learn from each other - just as the theory they taught us told us they should. It's true, sometimes we long for a lazy lecture where we can lay our heads on the desks and zone in and out and we slightly dread that session where we know we will have to interact with people we might not know and do activities etc., but I think we can all agree, that it is from those sessions that we learn most. And when it comes to language learning, how can we possibly expect our learners to learn the language if they never actually 'do' the language bit? I'm eternally grateful to have had university lecturers who didn't lecture - instead, they let us learn.

The coursebook, for me, from the start, felt wholly insufficient

We're all learner-partners

And that is what Clare and Alex's session through NATESOL was all about. It was letting us, the teachers, the managers, the material-makers, learn from the learners. They asked us to talk, then they let us listen and then, they asked us to talk again about what we'd heard. It is often my feeling that as teachers we do not listen to our learners enough. In my first English language teaching job at Berlitz in Manchester, in my appraisal I was chastised because it was felt that I didn't spend enough time in the staff room talking with the other teachers. I did go in there but often in my break times I enjoyed sitting with the learners, hearing their stories from back home, learning about their cultures, their future plans and motivations for learning. I wanted to learn about them, who they were, what they wanted from their lessons, what they wanted from life. For me, I didn't really understand how, without that information, I would teach them successfully. The course book, for me, from the start, felt wholly insufficient as a guide for this. And again, this is what we forever teach our TESOL students - teach to your context, teach what is appropriate for the learners in front of you, and not only what a book has told you. But how can we really do that without first and then forever after listening to our learners? It is what led us at Language Café to dump the course books. They were made for an extremely general audience and they were not what our specific students needed, nor what they wanted a lot of the time. So, we went full-on negotiated syllabus and listened to the learners on a weekly basis about what they wanted to learn, what they felt they needed, in conjunction with what teachers had noticed they needed more input on. Each week we wrote our materials, drew from authentic sources, and crafted an evolving course that responded to our learners' evolving needs. We didn't always get it right and for sure, it was a lot of work. But our learners were engaged, they knew we were listening. And we did this not just in the classroom or through the usual quantitative tick-box survey that is typically given out at university, but rather in the student lounge, over a cup of tea, eating lunch together, as equals, as Clare and Alex coined the term, as 'learner-partners'. I believe this is a term that applies not just to the language learners but to us as teachers too, learning from our learners about what and how we should teach, learning how to help them learn successfully, together, as partners in the process.

This goes back to all the theory. It's Maslow's hierarchy.

Safety first

As I mentioned before, listening to the learners in the session reminded me why I had wanted to open my language school as a non-formal space to learn language, a safe place to express different opinions and cross the perceived cultural boundaries. It's why the school was called Language Café and why we had social events two or three times a week. It's why we didn't have a separate 'teachers' room' and why we worked as a team in the Salford community, with other local businesses and local people. It's why our students formed friendships across religions, nationalities, cultures, class, and generations - and why many of those friendships exist until now. The students had a safe space to form those friendships, to learn language with each other to communicate with each other and to give them the language and confidence to go wherever they needed or wanted to go next. At university and even in the language school, I've often heard the same excuse for missing this vital step: we do not have time to spend on getting to know each other and all of that because we have to move on with the curriculum, get through the course book content, or teach for the test. It's funny that one key argument that has been accepted as gospel in education this year is that if we do not create an online community from the start, student engagement will suffer. Well, I have always felt this to be the same for a classroom context. If we do not give students the time at the start to get to know each other, to share expectations and concerns for the course, to understand where each person is coming from and who they are sharing the space with (be it physically or virtually), then all those nice collaborative and interactive activities we had planned will not be the success we want them to be and in many ways, learning opportunities might be missed. Again, this goes back to all the theory. It's Maslow's hierarchy. Feeling safe in a space, feeling able to share our thoughts and feelings, to reflect and listen to each other are fundamental if a learning environment is to become conducive to learning, and if indeed we are to engage in learning which, according to Vygostky, is essentially a social act.

Just one of our many dinners together at Language Café

To learn about our learners, we must listen

As I sit at the laptop, about to begin another week dipping in and out of the virtual classroom, I hope I can retain again this vital step at the forefront of my teaching process - to engage in and create the space for that informal chitchat, those little insights into a learner's life and character, the challenges they face and how we can help, the glimpse into who they are as a human and not just as a name on a register. I want to remember how grateful I am to Clare and Alex for empowering their students and for being revolutionary, for creating that space that so many of us were allowed to enter, to listen to the learners and to learn from them. I want to remember what the learners said and why I must finish my PhD because so many of the students I listened to shared the same challenges and concerns I heard all those years ago, and why I wanted to forefront the student voice in my research. I want to remember how much I learned from my heroes at Salford, Sian Etherington and Huw Jarvis, and which I continue to see from Lesley Kendall at Durham - how to really and truly not only share that learning space with learners but also to hand it over to them, to give them the floor, to let them learn, together, from each other, and to listen to them as they do that so that we, as teachers, may learn better about how they learn, why they learn, and how we can help them to do so. I've always maintained that the best thing about being a teacher of English is the people it's allowed me to connect with and all the lessons I've learned from my learners. I hope this weekend's NATESOL event inspired all of those who attended to remember that we, the teachers, must also be learners, we must listen to and learn from our learners so that we may truly claim that our practice is learner-centred but more importantly, so that our learners can truly learn. So, learners, it's over to you. We, your teachers, we're listening.

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