The very first really innovative technology introduced into any classroom at a foreign language lesson since times immemorial is simple: we teachers speak a foreign language instead of the pupils’ native one. If we believe in progress at all, we also accept that teaching technologies constantly evolve. Innovation is inevitable, nobody can move forward by walking in place. Whatever we use in the process, be it new methodologies and approaches, or computers and the internet, is regulated by the familiar questions: what, how, when, where, why. I would add “How much”, “How long” and “How often” to the list.
Grammar-translation, reading-translation, writing on a topic seemed to be universally accepted until communicative approach became key in the 1970’s. It was suddenly recognized that people needed to learn how to connect via conversation. A school subject became much more than just one in a series of exciting or boring things to study. Listening and speaking came to the fore; traditional textbooks were now to be accompanied by audio-materials.
At the end of the 20th century, the internet exploded into an unprecedented means of communication, and the fastest tool for information search and exchange. In 1994, the term CLIL was coined. Looking at the brief recent history of EL teaching methodologies and technologies, I always marvel: can something which has been in existence for at least two decades be called “new”? Or are all these innovations an integral part, a short segment of the continuous flow, of the normal progress and development?
A lot depends on our own experience, on our surroundings, and on the people we teach. The national curriculum in some form is our safeguard when dealing with children from our native land. By definition, we all know that we must do it: we adult teachers must deliver a certain volume, a number of topics, while students must imbibe all that and regurgitate the data via all manner of tests and examinations.
For several summers, I have been teaching Russian to American university students at the immersion courses. Let me cite an unusual yet rather symbolic example of the differences we may encounter when dealing with international groups. In the beginning of the course, my group asked me if they could come and visit “a real Russian home”. First of all, they were astonished at our living conditions: one bedroom for our three kids, one “everything” room, a kitchen, bathroom, period. Secondly, they were completely stumped while we cooked together. My trusted manual grater was an appliance they had never seen before; it had never occurred to me that I needed an electrical one either. This was a useful insight for all parties concerned. My students appreciated all my efforts more, and I remembered how different we were in terms of technology.
When I conducted several lessons with a mixed group of Russian and German teenagers, I tried to make my lessons attractive, naturally by using ICT. All the adolescents loved my presentations, copied down useful URLs, asked me how I did this or that and which programs I used. At the end of every lesson, they all laughed hysterically at some videos I found on Youtube by simply entering “English Problems – Lessons” into Search. I could see that they really enjoyed what we did. Yet while afterwards, my own group asked me when we could have another lesson like this one; the visitors asked me why exactly I used ICT if it was not a curriculum requirement. In fact, they knew that those visitors who stayed with other classes had had only “boring books” to use.
There are many more examples I could share, but I believe the general trend of my writing is clear. Any new technology should be used with caution. If you have a class which is not used to ICT, it should be introduced gradually, with concise explanations and demonstrations of WHY exactly it may be beneficial. “How often, how much, how long” all depend on how flexible your curriculum is. If you are dealing with sophisticated children who seem to be permanently attached to some modern device, make sure you know what it is they use. It pays to check their schedule and see if your lesson comes right after two hours of IT. They would enjoy working with “boring books”, not computers again.
I use any and all the tools I can when working with adults and children. How can we ensure that pedagogy is at the centre of what we do to increase learning? Well, I have had several experiences which showed me and my audience that there are really only two elements which are necessary to conduct a successful lesson. They all happened when the electricity went down. Here I was, standing by the board in a class full of children; and there I was, standing in the middle of the lecture hall full of my colleagues, with the dead smartboard. But I, EL teacher conducting a lesson, or delivering a lecture at a teacher training course, was fine. And my audiences were fine. I did not need any electricity or any device to cope, and to relay my knowledge. It took some quick thinking; instead of clicking buttons, I more or less had to sing and dance.
As a teacher, a pedagogue, I know how to involve my class, and how to make any activity interesting and exciting. Until there are robots conducting lessons instead of real live people, we teachers remain one of the two key elements for successful innovative teaching. Our pupils, no matter what age and level they may be, are another key element. I would not presume to determine which is number one; I believe we are two indivisible parts of the same process.