Suddenly, the pretence veil of economic prosperity, sense of direction, social stability and civilisational advancement has been pulverised to smithereens. Such disarray has reflected itself in our language, as 5 of the most pessimistic expressions that we would have not used in the previous year, have become the norm punctuating our daily conversations. Words and expressions, such as, “Lockdown” with 250,000 usages registered by lexicologists; “Quarantine”; “Social Distancing”; “Working from Home” and “Pandemic”, named Word of the Year as per Merriam-Webster and Dictionary.com based on the 57,000 per cent surge in its use during 2020 (as reported by Oxford Dictionaries) now signpost our daily communications, signalling the loss of our cherished freedoms. Our freedom to act, freedom to move, and freedom to connect, both socially and professionally that lost the meaning, we have known and cherished all our lives.
Searching for a way out of Covid Restrictions
One thing we have not lost, thankfully, is our resilience. Since Coronavirus has become 2020’s defining companion, we have been frantically and inventively looking for ways to redefine the social, educational and professional fabrics of our existence. In schools and universities, for instance, many questions have informed our endeavours to regain our ability to connect despite social distancing, to continue to motivate ourselves to work and learn collectively, even when forced to work from home.
As a university professional, I have been asking myself since last March the following questions: how do I reshape my university students’ life experience? In this new online learning experience, we have been brutally thrown into, how can I make my students feel empowered to seek knowledge? How can I help them to remain confident that they will succeed? Most of all, as they can only access my guidance and their peers’ support through the screens of their individual digital devices, how can I ensure they remain driven and self-motivated to actively learn in these challenging Covid times?
To obtain some answers to such questions, like many of my colleagues, I have spent the whole summer and the first term of this academic year, attending webinars on how to familiarise myself with the educational applications of various digital tools and platforms, such as, Skype; Zoom; Edmodo; Collaborate and MS Teams, which have become, since the first lockdown in March, mainstream environments that have reshaped face-to-face instruction.
Strategy-Based Instruction (SBI)
Also, by delving into my long Modern Foreign Languages (MFL) teaching experience, I have seen how adopting a strategy-based instruction (Oxford, 1990) approach, based on modelling the behaviours I expect to see displayed by my students, has been key in empowering them to take responsibility for their learning, and build their autonomous active learning. Seeing how calm I have remained, every time technology fails us has appeased their anxiety and strengthened their engagement, whenever they suddenly find themselves disconnected, or unable to login on time of lessons. Modelling for them my learning techniques by sharing my successes and failures, in real time, at discovering the different uses of the new technologies, has progressively boosted their confidence to do the same, without feeling self-conscious. Such approach has also helped me redefine Blended Learning, by combining self-paced, independent learning and social group online learning to equip them with useful communication strategies that have kept them actively engaged in their new digital face-to-face learning. All of this has been achieved by taking the following 5-step teaching strategy process:
1. conducting a needs analysis on week 1 of the autumn term to determine the students’ needs and elicit their strategic behaviours. The result of such analysis has and will continue to inform my teaching and selection of the learning strategies that are useful to integrate in the learning input and assessment of learning outcomes throughout the academic year;
2. selecting learning strategies (both direct and indirect, as displayed in the table below) which are appropriate to the learning tasks, themselves designed in line with the descriptors of the CEFR - Companion Volume (2020);
3. planning and designing the teaching materials and tasks, with the right degree of challenge, that reflects and adapts to the learners’ different levels of proficiency;
4. conducting the instruction, in a manner that encourages participation, and
5. engaging in collective and self-reflecting with the students to evaluate both the learning and teaching processes
Project-Based Learning (PBL)
The best way of implementing such strategies has been through Project-Based Learning, as their integration in carefully designed project-based lessons has helped harness the potential of independent learning and flipped learning, in the context of a digital Flipped Classroom Model.
The project-based tasks have ranged from (to name just a few):
a. watching a video in the target language (TL) and preparing a summary of different aspects of its content to present orally to the group highlighting the language-related cultural aspects revealed by the video, the purpose of which is to raise inter-cultural awareness and oral expression and exchange in the TL;
b. Preparing a lesson on any aspect of the TL (linguistic, cultural, historical, or social) and presenting it to the group, an opportunity that has proven very effective in boosting both self and peer-feedback skills; or
c. Researching some cultural or historical figures referred to in a song and linking this to the linguistic aspect of the song, another way of developing the students’ reflective research skills in the TL
This has activated the students’ creativity which they have shared both in text and audio form within the digital social space provided by MS Teams. Looking back at what the students have achieved within the first term of this academic year, I can say that my strategy and project-based approach to language instruction has not only changed the landscape of language learning, collaboration and peer feedback in my instructional environment, but it has reduced the emotional impact of social distancing felt by the students after losing their physical pre-Covid classroom space.
The future is still uncertain, but as we may be moving out of this life-changing coronavirus experience, there is hope that we may be in the process of developing a different sense of community, which may be equally meaningful and just as strong as the one we have lost these last few months.
Oxford, R. L. 1990. Language Learner Strategies: What Every Teacher Should Know. Rowley : Newbury House.