As we all know, one of the major problems teachers are confronted with nowadays stems from students’ lack of intrinsic motivation to learn what is being taught in school. And although we might look the other way and blame it on social media, influencers, increased screen time and so on, I believe it is time we admitted we, as an education system, are much more to blame.
Decades of approaching education through the lens of individual school subjects, not showing students how what they learn in school correlates to real-life situations, to something useful and most importantly to other school subjects. If we are to be honest and think back to our University classes and exams, how much did we still remember after the exam? Why was that? The answer is staring us in the face, quite literally. We were not engaged in the learning and teaching process, it was not an experience that our brains thought would be worth transferring into long-term memory. It was deemed unnecessary and uninteresting. After all, we do not keep irrelevant files on our computers, do we? The same goes for our brains. If we the information we come across is not relevant and engaging, then true learning never occurs.
Now that we have got that out of the way, let us look back at the way teaching is supposed to be in a ‘real classroom’. Teaching a foreign language for me has been a blessing because it has allowed me to include my STEM knowledge and passion for science into my English classes. Why exactly would one do that, especially since planning and integrating this into the curriculum seems like too much to take on for no reason, no apparent reason. Well, there is a very clear reason, at least in my mind, and it is something I always tell students, other teachers: LIFE does not come at you one school subject at a time. No problem or situation in life can be solved using just bits you learnt in the Maths or Geography class. It takes multiple perspectives, all intertwined. So why isn’t teaching done this way? Interdisciplinarily, in collaboration (if possible) or by a single teacher (if she/he has the necessary skill sets)? Because it is not comfortable for us as teachers, because it means extra work (it really does, at least in the beginning), but I think mostly because it means we need a change in mentality.
As an eTwinner, I have learnt that failure is a stepping stone, that I always need to be a Plan B, Plan C, Plan D, but the most eye-opening experience was realising I needed a different mindset: knowing things will go wrong at times, knowing I will fail, so acknowledging that, intrinsically, not just being okay with it, but understanding the transformative power it has on a teacher, the peace of mind it brings.
I now know I will make mistakes and I will fail and I do not feel ashamed to admit it or embarrassed it happened. It is a natural process of learning and growing as individuals and persons.
Another lesson I have learnt is to learn from my students and with them, something many teachers still struggle with. Fortunately, there are quite a lot of inspirational teachers out there, in all parts of the world, who are showing the world the benefits of learning with your students and from them.
Going back to language learning, one aspect I had noticed my students were always failing in was specific vocabulary, situational-awareness (and I mean that in the sense of being able to handle oneself, language-wise, in different scenarios, involving different specific terminology). So I started with something very simple called „ask and you shall receive” – meaning I just ask my students what their fields of interest were and the answers varied from math to mechanics, quantum physics, coding, fashion, sports etc. Then we decided it was time we combined STEM with English so they could benefit from learning specific terminology, key phrases they would need in the future. It was something they found motivating, invigorating and most of all useful.
Each week we picked a different field and we went from nanotechnology to modern-day medical advancements, cars of the future to Sci-fi films and the physics in them (rather how science was bent to accommodate the film narrative of let’s say „The Martian”). We went out and found real-life situation where math concepts would apply and learnt that specific terminology, wrote funny poems and stories about chemical elements, learnt about longitude and latitudine, country borders, using Google earth while they were still in primary or did unplug coding activities in English.
There are so many ideas one can use to help students acquire meaningful STEM vocabulary in a foreign language, but I will leave you with just two creative writing exercises that I have used a lot for an Erasmus+ and eTwinning project called Learning Differently. For the first one, each student picks a few personalities (scientists, musicians) from any country and any era and creates a trading card of that person. What that will accomplish is that students will have to summarise the information they find online, digest it, understand it (you definitely need to help them here- imagine a 5th grader trying to wrap their mind around the theory of relativity – so be prepared to find resources that could help, videos for children, a colleague, an expert). After digesting the information, they have to select the most important bits and make sure they can explain that if need be. They will then do the same with a location (anywhere in the world), a historical event, a gadget/ discovery/ invention and for fun, a traditional recipe. Once all the cards have been collected (to simplify things, they can use bighugelabs to create them online and just download), they are printed (preferably on used cardboard) or assigned a number (if printing is not an option). Each student or team then gets a random set of cards: one personality, one place, one invention, one event, one recipe and they need to work together to create a story that is coherent.
I have been doing this for a few years and students love the freedom it offers them, but also the fact that they learn a lot of new, useful information, revise notions they had studied too and improve their vocabulary with useful STEM-related terminology. Obviously the most fun they have is reading the other stories and trying to „fact check” and find the flaws.
The other idea I want to share can be used in two different ways: Interview the scientist or Meeting of the stars (it is much less dramatic than it sounds). For the former, students pick a scientist of their choice, or a musician, a sportsman and prepare for the interview the classmates will conduct. Since this is quite complex for the teacher (I am referring to fact checking), you should always know or at least have all the information on that personality handy so you can make sure the student impersonating that scientist answers correctly. The latter choice is have two different personalities meet, preferably from opposite specialties, for example Marie Curie and Mozart or Copernicus and Stephen Hawking. What could they talk about? How would they express themselves? How would you explain modern-day concepts to someone from the 14th century?
What this does, apart from developing specific vocabulary is it increases critical thinking. Students have to put themselves in a teacher’s shows and explain, for everyone to understand, something that might be quite complex. Once again, if STEM is not your strength, I encourage you to ask a fellow teacher to sit in and help or bring a specialist to class (these days getting a virtual visit is very easy).
I conclude with a piece of advice, something I had failed at for a while: getting feedback and reflecting. Students will feel like they are having fun and not like they are learning, so it is crucial they become aware of the learning process and its results. Ask them to fill in a reflection journal (you can use Collaborative board on Nearpod for this or just stickies, writing in their notebooks, whatever you have handy). They should write things they learnt about the area they are interested in, using the new vocabulary, things they learnt about other areas (from their colleagues) and things they have learnt about themselves during this activity.
I do hope you will try these ideas out and they will prove fruitful for you and your students. And remember, learning is about sharing knowledge and growing as a person is about being comfortable asking for help and learning from everyone.