Learning opportunities are present and bountiful during lessons, whether we as teachers are the ones responsible for their emergence or not. Perhaps an unexpected topic comes up, but learners are interested in it, and it causes a situation where learners try to express themselves more actively. This would be an opportunity for the teacher to help learners express themselves more accurately, fill in any gaps, or perhaps add some variety to their vocabulary by exploring the ideas related to the topic, even though it might not match the intention of the original lesson perfectly.
Allowing ourselves to be flexible and being able to identify these learning opportunities can make the class flow in a natural fashion. Moreover, it takes into account our learners’ immediate needs. A teacher sensitive to learning opportunities that emerge is more sensitive to their learners in general. Let us explore today some ways we can find and capitalize on these learning opportunities.
What can be considered learning opportunities?
Learning opportunities in this article will not describe the ones that you create and expect through deliberate lesson planning, but the ones that are unexpected. At first, in order to recognize these opportunities, I think we as teachers have to be more flexible about what is considered a waste of time in class and what is not. A lot of learning opportunities fall by the wayside because sometimes teachers are not flexible enough to pursue them, even if they intuitively recognize that they may be chances for learners to gain some new insight into the language. Many times, we are so aimed at making sure we meet our objectives, ‘getting through the required work’, or following our lesson plans. However, seizing these learning opportunities can add flexibility, and capitalize on learners needs and engagement.
What follows are different types of emerging learning opportunities:
Expanding on a gap’s content area
Gaps (when a learner cannot express an idea) are by their very nature learning opportunities. It is easy to fill in a gap for a learner, and then move on. However, you might take the time to explore other ideas related to the original gap idea. For example, if you are talking about movies and the learner wants to express the idea for ‘main character’, you can offer that expression plus others: protagonist, antagonist, plot, etc. By doing so, you can continue to talk about movies more specifically. After offering each expression, check their comprehension by asking the entire class questions– Who were the protagonists in a certain movie? Who were the antagonist? You can go as deeply as you want. For example, you can then have them talk in pairs about their favorite movies using these new expressions. All these choices are spontaneous. React to the way learners react to your choices. This is a way to build linguistic knowledge that they can relate to each other. Moreover, they have clear examples and schema to which they can tie the new expressions.
Expanding on a learner-generated topic
This approach is very similar to the previous one. The only difference is that maybe the learner goes a bit off topic, but it still relates to the main objectives. Instead of trying to get back ‘on topic’, you can use the techniques above to expand on the topic area and get the whole class involved. Be careful here, because a topic that is too off-topic might bring your class in a totally different direction (which might not always be a bad idea, especially if you are having a bad class). Again, pay attention to how the learners react.
How do we choose what learning opportunities are appropriate?
Here, I consider a few things. First, I consider what my overall objectives are for the class. The objectives might be the lesson objectives or the weekly objectives. As long as they help learners perform skills related to these objectives, I am fine with going off-track a bit. The other thing I consider is learner interest. Would the learners be interested in the change in direction or not? I see how they respond, how they engage, and watch their faces and actions carefully. In fact, if I sense that they become more engaged from a topic, I now know I have a golden learning opportunity because I assume engaged learners learn more from the topics they are engaged in. I am not concerned about completing my lesson objectives, but I am concerned that they are learning in an efficient way for perhaps larger objectives, or course goals.
To be in a better position to take advantage of learning opportunities, I think there are a few things we as teachers can do. These do require a little bit of forethought, but consider them tools on the tool belt of a flexible teacher.
A repertoire of activities, tasks, or procedures that can be applied to a number of opportunities
Having a repertoire of activities or tasks, and knowing their processes well can help you take advantage of learning opportunities when they arise. Think about the different types of learning opportunities and how you might turn these into tasks or activities for learners to take advantage of. Then, when the opportunities do arise, you can integrate them into the lesson effectively.
For instance, when an opportunity does emerge, think about what type of questions you can ask to gain further mileage? What sort of writing tasks can be applied? What sort of group or pair work can be used? The framework you use can be, and should be light, as it is meant to be flexible and applied to a range of learning opportunities. As an example, for learning opportunities that involve topics that relate to more personal aspects (their feelings, what they did during a certain time period, etc.), I automatically have everyone relay certain information relating to the gap or topic area to a partner first. This gives them all a chance to speak up about it and find any difficulties in expressing themselves.
When considering the tools on this tool belt, consider what sort of lessons the learning opportunities may come up in. For example, is it a writing course? Is it a combined skills course? If it is a writing course, I would consider having more activities related to writing: brainstorming, listing, freewriting, etc. All these considerations help you choose what tools you decide to take into a particular lesson.
Focus on how the opportunities might bring certain objectives or outcomes into fruition
Not all opportunities are created equally, and learning to recognize which opportunities contribute more to certain objectives, or better learning, might be helpful. At the very least, opportunities should help build on related ideas and tasks that have occurred in the class. Ideally, they are actually sub-activities that help you accomplish a larger objective, but perhaps one you did not think of before. Even if you have not thought about it though, go through with it anyway.
Have more flexible timing in your lesson planning
If the timing in your lesson plan is very strict, you will feel rushed and not be able to take advantage of learning opportunities. Indeed, this might be appalling to some of you, and some of my professors in grad school might be reading in horror, but I do not actually put times in my lesson plan. That is, I do not put how much time I expect an activity to fill up. This is because I have certain objectives that I would like to accomplish in a certain class period, and I have a sense of how long it will take to complete these objectives due to my experience, understanding of the learners, etc. In class, I actively seek out learning opportunities to help my learners not only reach the objectives, but also help them expand other skills related to the objectives, or ones that help them facilitate doing the activities that I want them to perform in the objectives.
When an opportunity arises, I adjust my timing. When I give time instructions to my learners, the time instructions are for how long I think they need to complete a certain task, not how long they can have so I can ‘continue’ on with my lesson. The learning opportunity is part of the lesson.
Incorporate what happens in class for homework
This is related to your repertoire, of course. Any learning opportunities that come up can be explored for homework. A simple way to do this is to transfer the responsibility of taking advantage of learning opportunities to the learners themselves. Have them note down, for example, what topics in class come up that they would like to further explore. Then, they can explore these topics and come into the next lesson with their findings. Again, deciding this homework is spontaneous so come up with a repertoire of assignments that can be spontanteously given out. In giving the homework out, consider the learners’ contexts and situations, and what other homework they have to do, of course.
Taking advantage of learning opportunities is like improv jazz on the piano, I suppose. In the moment, you adjust with the sounds, perhaps the feel of the audience, perhaps your mood (but in teaching, you are adjusting to the learners’ moods perhaps). However, you know the overall time and structure. For those who are less experienced at being more ambiguous with timing, the approaches mentioned in this article may seem daunting. But perhaps set aside a little bit of time of class at first, and then have those little bits of time become bigger bits as you become more comfortable.
What sort of experiences have you had with seizing emerging learning opportunities? What are some of your challenges? Leave a comment below!