Just like all the important events in my lifetime, I clearly remember when and where I was when I first heard of Neurolanguage Coaching. I was sitting in the garden of a windmill I was staying in just outside of Lisbon when something popped up on Facebook. Curious, I watched a recording of a webinar by Rachel, which further ignited my interest.
Neurolanguage Coaching seemed to have a lot in common with my approach to teaching EFL in the classroom. I was instantly intrigued, as my idea of what coaching was, had nothing to do with teaching in a classroom. When I thought of coaching, I thought of one to one sessions in a corporate environment. I certainly didn’t think of me and my students.
My curiosity aroused, I contacted Efficient Language Coaching to find out more. I expressed my interest in the course but also my reservations. Was this really a course for me? A secondary school EFL teacher in Spain with classes of up to 29 students… Although I identified with much of what I had learned from the webinar, I couldn’t shake off the idea that coaching was for one to one sessions with corporates. Rachel (fortunately) convinced me that the course would be of interest and relevance in my context and the rest, as they say, is history…
On the course, as well as learning lots of new things about coaching, neuroscience and the language learning process, my suspicion that I was already implementing some principles of coaching in the classroom was confirmed. I was “teaching in a coaching style” (I heard and loved this way of describing what I was doing, in Rachel’s Language Coaching podcast series.)
So, how does coaching manifest itself in my classroom?
A positive learning environment
For learning to take place, students need to feel happy and safe. At the beginning of a school year, it is essential to have a conversation to establish ground rules and set expectations. Students should be involved in setting rules and expectations so they really own them (and are more likely to adhere to them!) Rules and expectations should be for students and teachers alike; we are building a reciprocal relationship of trust and understanding.
We also need to dedicate time to doing team building activities so students feel safe and comfortable with the teacher and with each other. Showing empathy, listening, being non-judgemental, being honest… all of these things help to build rapport. For dopamine to flow and effective learning to happen, a positive classroom atmosphere is fundamental.
I am a stickler for learner autonomy. Flabbergasted many years ago, by the lack of initiative and the extent to which students expected me to spoonfeed them information, I was soon on a mission…
Students are with us for such a short time: we can hold their hands while they are with us but what happens after that? It is the teacher’s responsibility to help learners develop strategies and access tools and resources they need to be successful lifelong learners.
If we want our learners to be more autonomous then we have to be willing to step back and become that “guide on the side” rather than the “sage on the stage”. Using the Flipped Learning model has allowed me to do this; to break down the classroom walls and extend learning outside of the classroom (the group space) into the individual space. Students receive instruction of content outside of the classroom which frees up class time to attend to different needs in the group space and for active learning to take place.
In the individual space (usually at home), students receive the content for class (vocabulary, grammar, strategies…) and complete an activity to check understanding (e.g a digital quiz, worksheet, Edpuzzle interactive video…) The teacher can identify problem areas of all (up to 29 in my case) students and plan class content, groupings etc. according to individual needs. The flipped learning model gives the teacher more one on one time with students to resolve the doubts students bring to class from the individual space.
Using a more student-centred, inductive approach to presenting content also encourages learners to be more autonomous and use their own resources and prior knowledge to make connections and find the answers for themselves. Asking students to brainstorm everything they remember about a topic, grammar point etc, asking questions to activate prior knowledge before they receive new information and asking students to “notice” helps the teacher identify gaps in knowledge and helps students make connections. Guiding rather than teaching encourages autonomous learning.
Using a learning management system (LMS) such as Google Classroom where you can store, organise and assign material and resources, correct assignments and provide feedback promotes learner autonomy.Learners have a space outside of the classroom where the learning process can continue. The conversation and learning doesn’t stop when class finishes.
Providing students with choice also promotes autonomous learning. Allowing students to choose their own exercises, study materials/resources, reading titles etc encourages them to reflect on their individual needs and interests and select material based on these. I use choice boards and an activity bank (a bank of different exercises, activities and resources) to empower students, giving them the freedom to choose how to demonstrate understanding and how to consolidate learning.
Linked to autonomy is learner responsibility. If students are to be the protagonists of their own learning then with that comes responsibility. Learners need to be aware of where they are, where they are going and how they are going to get there.
Based on the content in the syllabus, for each unit, we have a set of bite-sized goals E.g I can talk about what I did last weekend, I can give my opinion about different kinds of TV programmes. Students also set their own personal objectives (with a nudge in the right direction if necessary, it is essential that goals are realistic and achievable!) These objectives tend to be more general and skills/attitudinal based e.g watch a series in English to practise listening and improve pronunciation, study grammar rules, copy new vocabulary into my notebook, listen to my classmates…
The most important thing is that they are identifying weaknesses and converting them into objectives. We regularly check in to revise our objectives; adding, modifying and congratulating ourselves and each other where appropriate.
Students also identify their strengths. As “experts” in these areas, peers can turn to them in times of need. E.g If I am good at learning vocabulary, I can share my strategies with my classmates who are struggling. If the past simple is my thing I can help my classmates to master this. Identifying strengths and weaknesses and promoting a group responsibility for learning for which everyone is accountable, is not only empowering for students, it also helps promote a positive classroom atmosphere.
Encouraging students to keep a record of their learning; recording marks and feedback for formative and summative assessments, help students know where they are and guide them towards where they are going.
Feedback and evaluation
To be responsible and autonomous, students need guidance and confirmation that they are on the right road. Good feedback will not only tell students if they have a good or an excellent, it will highlight where they went wrong, how they can correct or improve this or what they are doing well and how they can build on this. Good feedback is essential signposting for students.
Peer and self evaluation of individual activities and at the end of a term/year gives students an opportunity to sit back and reflect on their learning. I was amazed when I started doing this just how honest students can be!
Evaluation activities can help students become more responsible as they become more aware. Often teachers complain (myself included) of the lack of time to fit everything in. Using an LMS as I mentioned before doesn’t limit these ongoing conversations to class time. Feedback and evaluations can be done outside of class digitally in the LMS and then picked up on in class.
Exit tickets are a great way to get feedback from students about how much they have learned, what they don’t feel sure about and how they feel in general after a class.
Feedback and evaluations are motivating and empowering for students as they feel more in control of their learning but at the same time in safe hands. These ongoing conversations with students show that we are listening and that we care.
Lots of us who work in schools have classes up to 30 (my hat goes off to those of you who have even more!) That doesn’t mean that we can’t personalise the learning experience. There are many small things we can do to attend individual needs and interests.
I have already mentioned some of the ways that we can include content in our classes to cover different interests: provide opportunities for choice, including exercises, materials, resources, activities, ways to demonstrate learning… Use an LMS where you can upload different materials and resources, start an activity bank which students can choose from etc.
Get to know what students’ interests are. Do an activity/questionnaire at the start of the year to find out their passions, interests, hobbies and keep a record of them. Whenever you can, adapt exercises, activities or tasks to include some of them. Even a small reference in class to someone’s interests helps personalise learning and build rapport e.g So, today we’re talking about sports. I remember that a few of you play in the local football team, are you still the goalkeeper Juan?
Student generated materials are also a great way to integrate students’ interests and preferences for learning into class (while consolidating learning and promoting collaboration and creativity.) E.g Create an activity to practise the imperative – one student/group create a digital quiz about the rules in different sports – another student/group find a song which includes examples of imperatives and make a gap fill listening activity – another student/ group make a (digital) worksheet for a recipe to make a typical dessert from their country.
To address students’ individual needs in large classes flipped learning is a fantastic model. Preparation materials/tasks can be differentiated for the individual space (students can even choose themselves the level they tackle) and the group space or the “learning space” is a place to resolve doubts and engage in active learning. Activities in class can be differentiated based on information the teacher receives from the individual space and more time is available in class for one on one conversations.
So, going back to my windmill in Portugal when I had my first encounter with Neurolanguage Coaching… What I didn’t know then but I do know now, is that coaching can manifest itself in many ways, in many contexts. Far from being limited to one to one corporate settings, coaching is alive and well in many places, including my classroom (albeit in a “teaching in a coaching style” kind of way!)
Finally, I’ll leave you with this quote I found in Neurolanguage Coaching Brain-friendly Language Learning, by Rachel Paling, which, in my opinion, defines in a nutshell exactly what coaching is, wherever and however it manifests itself…
“Unlocking a person’s potential to maximise their own performance. It is helping them to learn rather than teaching them” Whitmore, J (2002) Coaching for performance: Growing People, Performance and Purpose.