It’s three minutes to nine. Students walk into the classroom, find their seats, play with their mobile phones. Nine o’clock. The teacher checks the attendance, then clears the whiteboard. He’s not sure whether to start the class yet, as a couple of students are still missing. Three minutes past nine. “Today we are going to focus on …”
It’s three minutes to nine. Students walk into the classroom, where on the whiteboard there is a phrase written. As they find their seats, the teacher starts chatting to them. He then draws their attention to the phrase written on the whiteboard. Would you like to read it aloud? How do you pronounce this word? Where is the stress? Where are the strong and weak forms? In what situation would this phrase be said? Do you think you could repeat it without looking at the whiteboard? As more and more students walk into the room, they are invited to memorise the phrase and repeat it with a given rhythm. Five past nine. “Today we are going to focus on …”
The beginning is naturally the strong part. Not only the beginning of a lesson, but also the opening scene of a film, the opening sentence in a book, the front page of a newspaper, the first news item in a bulletin, the first shelf when we enter a supermarket… The first impression can be crucial. We tend to remember our first impressions after many years. What was my first impression when I met that person? What was my first impression when I came to this city – got off the train and looked around? Apparently, it only takes a couple of seconds for our brain to receive and process an enormous amount of information. We notice a person’s clothing, accessories, voice timbre, body language, hand shake. Because there is so much data to process, we may not be aware of some of it. Smell? We may not quite realise how extremely active our brain is in the first seconds, learning new information. Perhaps this is why our attention is usually more focussed at the beginning. But how long, do you think, is your attention span? Are your energy levels higher at the beginning or at the end? You might agree that it’s in the first couple of minutes that we are most alert.
The first moments of a lesson is a brilliant opportunity not only for the teacher to grab the students’ attention, but primarily for the students to learn! I’d rather have my students walk out of the class with one bit of language stuck in their memory, which they will then be able to use correctly, than with fifty new words jotted down in their notebooks.
Here is a video of my talk at IATEFL 2013.
In the talk I referred to teaching unplugged (or dogme), and I likened it to Aikido, which is an art of harnessing the opponent’s strength. It looks effortless, impressive, and yet we realise that we won’t learn much just by looking. Similarly, teaching unplugged is about harnessing the student’s naturally-occurring need of communication.