Classrooms, Correction, and Critical Thinking

In this issue we present classic posts on classrooms, correction, and critical thinking by Adam Simpson, Scott Thornbury, and Josette LeBlanc. Please, read, enjoy, and share.

Adam Simpson
Adam Simpson
Scott Thornbury
Scott Thornbury
Josette LeBlanc
Josette LeBlanc


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Thinking about classrooms – Adam

Making The Most of your Classroom   – Adam Simpson

Adam Simpson

The physical challenges of the classroom
Deciding how to plan activities is both incredibly easy and horribly difficult. While we might have a good idea of how we want our lessons to unfurl, perhaps we don’t always give enough consideration to the role of the size and shape of the classroom as we should. While we might recognize that the shape and size of our classrooms dictates how our classrooms are arranged, we also need to understand that these factors should influence our choice of activities.

Before we get down to the business of moving desks and chairs around, we need a clear vision of what the room will look like and how this facilitates the activities we want to use.

The feng shui of the language classroom

Every classroom has a particular energy and flow to it. This isn’t new age mumbo jumbo; it’s common sense. Even in a place such as my school, where a number of rooms all follow a certain design, I find that there are little quirks in the shape and layout which make each unique. The little differences can make or break an activity if you haven’t factored the room into your planning. Here are a few preliminary questions that you might like to ask yourself about any given classroom.

  • Do you have enough seats for everyone?
  • How mobile is the furniture?
  • Where is the board?
  • How mobile are you?
  • How would you distribute handouts and other materials?
  • Are there windows in the room?
  • To what extent will the students engage with one another?

If you’ve answered these questions, you’re off to a good start (if, while reading this, other questions came to mind, please feel free to comment). Depending on the answers, you can now approach how you are going to use your room to facilitate learning. You are now faced with a classic ‘either / or’ situation.

1. Making the room work for the activity: Bearing in mind what you want to do in class, you need to think about what adaptations you need to make to the room to best facilitate the outcomes you’re looking for.

2. Making the activity work for the room: If the room can’t be adapted, you need to think about what activities you can do within the constraints that the physical environment has placed on you.

How do you get the room to work for you?

I currently teach in a variety of rooms. Each presents a different challenge in terms of the above questions, but each also presents opportunities to get the room to work in my favour. I’ve given considered thought about what I can and can’t do in each of these environments, and see that they adhere to standard models in the literature. The remainder of this post therefore will be a look at these different models and what activities they facilitate.

1) The dance floor

As the name suggests, the dance floor is a layout that places the focus on an area visible to all. This layout can promote lots of student interaction as all the seats point toward a central focus point. The large, open space in the middle of the room is traditionally in front of where a teacher’s desk might appear and is equally great for group activities and class discussions as it is for teacher talk.

On the downside, that big area might be regarded as a serious waste of space, particularly if you have a large class. Nevertheless, if you’re looking to get a group talking to each other this can be a winner, because students are able to hold eye contact without constantly having to swing around in their seats. However, this seating chart requires a room with a lot of space in it.

2) The catwalk

As I mentioned, I walk around a lot during my lessons, mainly in the hope that my movement will instill motivation in my students, but also so that I can maintain eye contact with each of them and not leave anyone out when it comes to asking questions. The catwalk is effective in preventing me from wandering aimlessly. While it narrows the area in which a teacher can easily move, it’s extremely effective in rooms that have boards on opposite ends of the room. Bear in mind, however, that because you are teaching down the center of the room, you may have the unnerving feeling of being surrounded.

If you’re planning a class discussion or some kind of two-team game, this layout is a practical way of arranging seating, as students will always face the other half of the class. Success with this layout depends on the number of rows you use: the fewer the better. To maximize class interaction, make the rows of students parallel to the center lane as possible.

3) The independent-nation-state

If, like me, you see the benefit of cooperative learning, or even if you regularly split your class into groups for games, this layout is a classic. This seating plan instantly tells students that you want them to operate independently from the rest of the class. It’s important that students still need to be able to see the board easily without giving themselves an injury, though.

Using this too frequently can result in a fragmented classroom and a lack of dynamic among the whole class. If your room is permanently set up like this, you eventually find that each group forms their own classroom culture and can’t work with students in the other groups. This is an effective layout, but should not be a permanent one.


4) The Battleship

Like the game, the battleship layout is all about the element of surprise. Consider the picture a metaphor for the battleship, the spirit of which is just to mix things up from the everyday norm.

This layout can be effective when trying to foster creativity, or even the polar opposite; this works when you have to administer a classroom quiz. The battle ship should almost certainly be a single lesson one-off, though.



Error correction – Scott Thornbury

Scott Thornbury

What are errors & how should we  deal with them in our classes?

– Scott Thornbury

When I first started teaching the answer to these two questions was clear and unproblematic. What are errors? They are any departure from standard English. How should we deal with them? We should correct them lest they become ‘bad habits’.

Subsequently, these two questions have become the most difficult, problematic and mysterious of all questions related to language teaching.

What are errors? We simply don’t know any more. Why? Because there is no agreed upon standard by which to measure learners’ output. For a start, there are so many varieties of native speaker English (both spoken and written) that it’s impossible to decide if a sentence like ‘I can’t get no satisfaction’ is ‘wrong’ or not. On top of that, many learners are not interested in speaking ‘native speaker’ English anyway.

What should we do about errors? Research suggests that correcting errors has only an accidental effect on accuracy, and that many so-called errors (like failure to add –s to present simple third person singular verbs, as in she work) are an inevitable stage of language learning, and are extremely resistant to correction. On the other hand, if we don’t correct errors we may send out a message that accuracy doesn’t matter, which may threaten the long-term language development of our learners. Also, we need to be aware that excessive correction can be very de-motivating for many learners, while not to correct errors will make us look incompetent in the eyes of other learners.

In short, errors, and the way we handle them, are an enormous puzzle, and I would be fascinated to know how you deal with this puzzle yourself.

Critical Thinking – Josette

Critical thinking in Korean education  by Josette LeBlancJosette LeBlanc

“How do you feel about learning how to write during this program?”

This is the question I ask each new English teacher who enters our in-service teacher training program. For the next five months not only will I be their trainer, I will also be their writing teacher. Without fail, the most common answer I get from these teachers ranging from age 27 to 52 is:

“I’m nervous because I haven’t learned how to write. Not even in Korean. I don’t know how to organize my ideas.”

You can imagine how compounded this anxiety gets when they start thinking about how they will have to start teaching writing in the next few years. These worries are completely understandable. Not only do most of these teachers teach to a test that promotes memorization, they were also raised in this system. In Korea, the College Scholastic Aptitude Test (CSAT), or suneung (수능), is king. It is the culmination of countless hours of rote learning, and your score determines if you will enter a university worthy of embarrassment or praise. In a country that honors such a pedagogical system, most educators have a hard time finding room for engaging their students in critical thinking: the process of observing, analyzing or questioning, and finally of coming to your own conclusions. And from what the teachers’ answer to my question about writing tells me, they might not even know where to begin.

LeBlanc image 1

I think there is great value in expressing what one thinks, in writing or otherwise. When we are given the chance to question and explore, we get a little closer to understanding ourselves and the world. Through this understanding we are better equipped to make decisions that will contribute to our happiness and to the well being of others. When I hear about the school violence or teen suicides in Korea, I wonder how a system that suppresses creative thought and glorifies competition contributes to these horror stories. (See Curtis Porter’s post, School Violence in Korea, for more on this topic.) I also wonder what a little more space for critical and creative thinking might do for these students.

This is the space our program tries to guide the teachers through. In writing class they analyze genres and different organizational patterns such as short stories, narratives or argumentative essays. Collaboratively, they discuss and debate topics that hit close to home: Should corporal punishment be banned from schools? Should English be removed from the CSAT? What would your dream school look like? The teachers explore grammatical or lexical structures that will help them express what they want to say. They go through the writing process. In the end, the majority of them are successful in organizing their ideas into a text I believe is quite powerful.

At the end of the five months, what they have to say about writing is along these lines:

“Not only have I learned how to write, I have learned how to think. It was a wonderful experience to think about myself as a teacher and as a person. I feel more confident about myself as a teacher and writer.”

LeBlanc image 2

There is no greater gift than knowing the pleasure and empowerment they got from exploring their thoughts. It gives me hope for their future and for the future of their students.

For many of these teachers, this writing experience becomes a faint memory, drowned in the test-focused system. However, some have managed to convince their principals to allow them to teach after hours writing classes. A rare few have even implemented writing skills in their curriculum. Perhaps writing itself does not always equal critical thinking, but it is a first step. I know these teachers are trying to give their students a voice. They recall the feelings they had about writing and they want their students to feel the same. I am excited to see where these seeds of thought will spread.

For more on the topic of critical thinking in Korean education, I recommend these links and articles: