Technology in your classes – Tamas Lorincz

The Technology of Self-discovery and Self-expression

Many teachers believe that technology is the thing you have to bring into your classroom to make your lessons more interesting. I don’t share this belief. I believe that the only thing that makes a class interesting is relevance. Context and purpose are the determining factors: not interesting websites, cool apps or funny videos.

I don’t use technology in my classes.  I use it to prepare for and to follow-up on what happens in my classes. Technology is in the classroom for the students to use. My job is to create meaningful lessons for my students so that they can use it when they think it’s relevant.

Children today from the age of 2 onwards have their own taste in the kind of technology that helps them express themselves. Sophie, my two-and-a-half-year-old daughter, has definite tastes in the kind of content she enjoys. She has about 50 different apps and books on her iPad but she consistently chooses the five or six that she finds attractive.  She enjoys using those and they open up directions for her own inquiry. She doesn’t need clever Daddy to tell her which apps to use. She makes her own decisions and those decisions will lead on to new ones, different ones, and perhaps even better ones.

I love technology and consider myself really lucky to live, teach and have children in an age when we have almost complete freedom of learning and information. Being able to share all this learning and information is exhilarating: not because of the technology itself, but because of the freedom it provides, which includes the freedom of choosing not to live with it.

Why would I, as a teacher, try to impose specific types of technology – however ingenious – on my students!?  I believe that my job as a teacher is to let my students explore and experiment with whatever technology helps them learn and express themselves. When I use the word technology, I mean it in the widest possible sense.

It can be a pen and paper.  It can be a word processing programme. It can be a computer game or a social media platform.  I will always be as happy to give feedback on a piece of writing written on a piece of paper torn out of a Maths exercise book as I am when given a blog post or a video to comment on.

The only reason I have technology in my classrooms is to provide students with new opportunities of self-discovery and self-expression. Technology is an amazing tool that helps people learn about things they have never before encountered and become interested in things they didn’t previously consider interesting. One of the most uplifting things that can happen in a classroom is when a student you don’t feel you are reaching tells you about or shows you something they’ve done that blows your socks off.

I once gave my grade 11 students a topic, and asked them to write a blog post or a composition about it.  Two boys in the class decided to make a video instead. They spent weeks preparing it, and put more work into making that two-minute video than everything else they had done for the whole year. Was it a good video? Honestly, no, not really. Does it matter that it wasn’t? No it doesn’t matter at all. Did they learn anything in the process of creating the video? OH, YES.

Was it English? Well, there was that of course, but there was also so much else they learnt that I couldn’t help but feel very, very proud of them and of myself. The pride in their eyes when they presented their video was enough to blow my socks off and shut up the other cynical 17-18-year-olds in the classroom. For me, that’s what technology is all about.


Strategies for large classes – Tamas Lorincz

The more the better

I believe the problems relating to large classes and mixed ability groups belong in the same category where ELT discourse is concerned. In the early days of the communicative approach, these were presented as major teaching challenges. This, in my view, is because these problems have been dealt with from a teacher-centred classroom approach, where the teacher has a hard time dealing with too many kids, or those who are very different.

I very strongly believe that every class of more than one student is mixed ability and large. It’s not the number or the difference between children that determines the challenge, but what the teacher wants to achieve. If you just deliver (favourite word: impart) material, it does not really matter if you do it for 5 people or 500. If, on the other hand, you aim at giving every single student in your class at least one meaningful moment they take away with them, even two students per class might be a tall order.

I believe that the “problem” with mixed ability and large classes ceases to exist the minute you stop looking for what you can teach to every single student, and instead start looking at ways of turning your classroom into a workshop where every student of any ability has a role.

I know this sounds far too simple and unrealistic to many teachers struggling day-to-day with thirty, forty or more students, but I strongly believe that the minute we relinquish our determination to teach our students and decide to create an environment where students learn from processes taking place in the classroom, acquire the skills of integrating into a group and defining and representing their niche (what they’ve got to offer to that particular group), the size of the class becomes an advantage.

This also allows teachers to become part of the learning process — which in turn makes their work much more fun and meaningful as well.

If the material is not a grammar structure but instead is a challenge, a project, or a task students have to complete by negotiation, discussion,  and collaboration, then even super large classes can become learning communities.

If the teacher does not deliver material but coordinates and facilitates the work done in and by groups, learning won’t depend on how many of the students the teacher can reach the ears of.

If technology is used appropriately to complete tasks, information will not exclusively derive from the teacher, and students learn independence and self-reliance.

If different forms of classroom arrangement and working solutions are applied, students will learn the immensely important skills of self-representation, negotiation and being part of a team.

All of these are essential skills to be successful not only in learning a foreign language but also in integrating into the world of work.

Using English outside of class – Tamas Lorincz

Practicing any language outside the classroom has never been easier. I have used this comic graph before but it is worth repeating it here.  Most students need little encouragement to use English outside the classroom. They just need to be reminded of the opportunities that are out there, and to echo the message of my previous post on this blog, to get meaningful homework tasks.

My methods for learning English

As the graph quite humorously and succinctly suggests, we need to harness the amazing power of learning outside the classroom. Song lyrics, rather than being vulgar and meaningless representations of a world we as teachers do not inhabit, provide a wealth of practical language.  Similarly, not all computer games are virtual terrorist training camps, and we should definitely not eschew these for a round of pointless time wasted playing Hangman.

Blocking the use of social networks at schools under the guise of student protection is counterproductive.  Instead, we should help them to learn the rules of safe engagement, and exploit social media for all the learning opportunities it provides.  Showing films that students enjoy and trying to find value in what they watch  will also help them to learn. It’s time to be less judgemental and a bit more accepting, so that we can have better communication with the new generations than our parents and teachers used to have with us.

What English is there in an average central European teenager’s life these days, and how can teachers take advantage of this?

The typical teenager will:

–  Wake up to music, 90 percent of which is in English. Task: Describe the kind of music you like waking up to.

– Check Facebook. Half of the posts from their friends are cartoons, videos or music, with the occasional article, all in English. Task: Choose the best video or comic your friends have posted this week and choose the group top list.

– Go to school by public transport, and listen to music during the journey. Task: Talk about the soundtrack to your daily journey, and why you choose this music.

– Have English classes, in a group of 15-36 others. They get input that’s irrelevant, uninteresting, not engaging, and alien to their everyday life.

– Finish school for the day and listen to more music,  and share videos and jokes with friends – again, mostly in English.

In my opinion, the time they spend in class is the least significant contributor to most students’ language learning. Of course, there are great schools and great teachers who use classrooms as a workshop and language learning as a 24/7 activity rather than something they have to take sole responsibility for. Letting English out of the cage and the world into the classroom is the way.

There is English all around our students these days.  We should acknowledge and actually embrace the value this has for both the students and us as teachers.

I remember my teacher’s face when I told her I had spent the weekend translating Iron Maiden lyrics, only to realise that it was the adaptation of Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s Rime of the Ancient Mariner ( I was translating. There is value in whatever our kids do in English and we should encourage them to do more and more until they find something to fall in love with. Once we manage to achieve this, there will be no stopping them from exploring and experimenting with their English and the English lesson will become a source of inspiration for further investigation and a synthesis of learning.

How important is homework? – Tamas Lorincz

I believe that homework is the most important part of a language lesson.  Yet, it is one of the most poorly utilised elements of a language class. We should give it a lot more importance and make sure it is relevant. In fact, I the question should not be whether homework is important but what homework is. If we approach the question from the traditional input-led classroom perspective, that is we perceive homework as simply an assignment given by the teacher to the student to complete between one lesson and the next, I come down very hard on the “not at all important, abolish it as soon as radically possible” side. If, on the other hand, we look at homework as an opportunity for students to investigate ways in which the information, knowledge or content derived from the classroom can be internalised, expanded and personalised by the student, I am very much in favour of it. Homework of this kind provides opportunities for students in the form of tasks, ideas and challenges they can freely engage with in their own time, at the best of their abilities, and to the depth they deem necessary or relevant.

Giving an assignment like “Write 12 sentences on dinosaurs” (because contemporary coursebooks seem to have a love relationship with dinos, and that’s the unit we have just completed), is a complete waste of time. If some kids like the topic, they should be encouraged and supported in their research, but for those who are not in the least interested in animals long dead, I see no reason why they should be forced to Wikipedia 12 sentences and submit them just so that they can tick the box and move on to another subject. That’s meaningless.

Homework is not about kids going home and doing something on their own. It could also be about learning how to collaborate and share ideas. Therefore, homework does not always have to be in English, for English or about English, really. If an exercise is designed to have a meaningful learning outcome such has learning how to work better together or use a new tool collaboratively, the language can come later. Everything can feed into language practice, even if it is not done in English from the beginning.  For instance, if as part of their homework I have kids get together after school to take photographs of interesting places and people they pass by, I would not ask them to speak English during this stage. The value of the exercise lies elsewhere. They can turn the experience they had with the camera on the streets into a language-learning outcome by later using what they produced in a meaningful, relevant and interesting setting into descriptions or a presentation or something. That would be good and in fact it’s all good — not just the practicing language part.