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Apr 2019 - Year 21 - Issue 2

ISSN 1755-9715

Creating a Thinking Environment for English Language Learners

Michelle Hunter is a Business English teacher with 20 years’ experience, based in Germany. She has seen first-hand how both students and teachers struggle to maintain quality learning / teaching when working in a foreign language. Currently an Applied Linguistics PhD student at University of York, her research aims to find out what learning / teaching strategies could help deal with emotional and self-confidence issues in university classrooms. Email: keeptraining.michelle@gmail.com

 

 

 

 

 

Maximising students’ oral fluency practise can be helped by reducing teacher talking time, and creating an easeful environment. Calm and confident participants engage better in classroom activities. The study presented here takes a coach-approach to teaching which adds to discussions within the area of language learning psychology. Starting from Mary Budd Rowe’s wait time research and incorporating Nancy Kline’s Thinking Environment 10 Components ®, the practitioner research project was designed to test out a Time to Think coaching-approach teaching model in a small German university business English class. An analysis of student feedback highlighted the importance of small groups and a calm teacher when it came to engaging learners in speaking tasks. By constantly striving to adhere to coaching principles, the teacher modelled desirable behaviours which appear to have been incorporated by the students.

Review of situation prior to the study

In many EFL classes, teacher talk tends to dominate. Combine lengthy TTT with minimal Wait Time (WT), and students have limited opportunity to practise their oral fluency, or even think clearly. Evidence shows the positive impact on the brain of giving more time and space to think (Brown & Brown 2012). In this paper, I shall summarise what I learned from my Master’s studies about how adopting a coaching mindset influenced by Nancy Kline’s Time to Think Coach approach, can focus a teacher’s attention on her learners and reduces the desire to interrupt and ‘help’ too much.

The research project I conducted looked into how students responded to a Time to Think Coach coaching-based teaching model. One key outcome was that operating with a coaching mindset in the EFL classroom benefits the teacher as much as the students. Having a heightened awareness of one’s own conceptions and behaviours, and understanding how to tune into students’ needs, enables the teacher to better create a generative learning environment, an awareness reiterated in a study by Mercer and Gkonou, (2017).

 

Wait Time

Mary Budd Rowe (Rowe 1986) measured how long teachers typically give students to respond to a question. She also measured the average wait time before the same teacher reacted to their students’ answer. Subsequent studies support Rowe’s findings (see Ingram & Elliot 2015):

            Average Wait Time

Duration in seconds

for student response to a teacher’s question (wait time I)

1

before teacher comments on response (wait time II)

0.9

threshold above which marked consequences for both teacher and students are seen

2.7

for pronounced improvements in student use of language & logic, and in student & teacher attitudes & expectations

3

Table 1: Average Wait Times in four different cases       Source: Rowe (1986)

 

Teacher Talking Time

Closely linked to Wait Time, or the lack thereof, is the amount of talking done by teachers. The fact that teachers tend to speak more than their students in ELT classrooms is widely recognised (Flanders 1961; Long & Porter 1985). For example, Flanders (1961) identified a “rule of two thirds” breakdown of talking time in an average classroom setting:  

Talker / Type of Talking

Ratio of talking time

Someone is talking in class

2/3s of total class time

The person talking is the teacher

2 out of 3 cases

Teacher is lecturing, directing or criticising

2/3s of teacher talk time

Table 2: Break down of who is talking in class and how often                 Source: Flanders (1961)

In second language learning classrooms, Long and Porter (1985) estimated the following average speaking practice times:

Type of class

Average individual speaking practice time

Class of 30 secondary school learners

30 seconds per student per lesson

15 adult ESL students on an intensive course

1.5 hours per 6 weeks

Table 3: Average length of speaking practice in two different situations  Source: Long & Porter (1985)

Affording students maximum speaking opportunities does not mean teachers should withdraw completely from the communicative process.  Quality teacher talk is of great value, and learners benefit from listening to good English from their teachers (Nunan 1987).  The point is that what the teacher says must be both considered and considerate. Operating with a coaching mindset could be a way of achieving such a thoughtful balance.

 

Time to Think

Evidence from the field of neuroscience (Brown & Brown op.cit.) supports coach Nancy Kline’s assertion that giving a person time to think enables them to come up with higher quality responses (Kline 1999). Allowing a person to identify their problem, have their own insights, find illumination and supporting them in taking action to realise their ideas, can only occur successfully when the coach remains attentive and does not interrupt the reflective thinking process.  If we break the alpha-waves (1) created just as an insight is being reached, how can that insight ever be fully shaped?  (Rock 2006)

Equally, if the coach jumps in right at the moment when the thinker’s brain is making new sets of connections, the links creating a super-map in many parts of the brain and enabling illumination, might never form properly and the moment of illumination becomes dulled.

Rock (2006) acknowledges how difficult it is to control our thoughts. However, based on a study by Libet and Associates (in Rock ibid.), he insists that we are able to decide which thoughts we ultimately act upon. 

“... the brain sends us a desire or urge to act, about five tenths of a second before acting, a long time in neuroscience terms. ... the control we had over ‘voluntary’ behaviour was only in the last two tenths of a second before we moved.” (Rock ibid:7)

Rock further argues that the power we have to ‘veto’ actioning a thought, to exercise our self-control, can be developed through systematically concentrating our attention and building a mindful awareness of this momentary choice.  We can learn to curb our impulse to jump in with ‘helpful’ advice and suggestions before we interrupt someone’s thinking time, empowering them ‘to respond rationally to emotionally stressful stimuli.’ (Rock ibid: 6)

With this in mind, it will be argued here that teachers who want to reduce their talking time and build confidence to offer longer Wait Time can achieve their goals by learning to work with the ten components of a Thinking Environment. This will help nurture the necessary mindful awareness of their own thinking, behaviours and intentions, as well as of students’ needs as whole people, not only as learners in the classroom. As Nancy Kline writes: ‘The quality of your attention determines the quality of other people’s thinking.’ (Kline ibid:36)

 

The Ten Components of a Thinking Environment®

The ten components of a Thinking Environment® are: Attention, Ease, Appreciation, Equality, Diversity, Encouragement, Information, Place, Feelings and Incisive Questions

The initial impetus for the study was Nancy Kline’s Thinking Environment (Kline op.cit.) on which Time to Think coaching is founded. The more I learned about this particular coaching philosophy, the more I recognised its applicability to EFL classrooms. Indeed, Kline began her research into what contributes to effective learning while running a Quaker school:

‘...my colleagues and I wanted to help teenagers to think for themselves. ... for several years we observed what was going on when our students thought clearly for themselves, and what was going on when they did not.’ (Kline ibid:16)

The components are built upon the belief in ‘The Positive Philosophical Choice’. This fundamental, underlying belief shapes how a Time to Think Coach operates and can equally be used by any teacher:

The work of the Thinking Environment is based on the chosen philosophical view that human beings by nature have choice, are intelligent, loving, powerful, multi-talented, emotional, assertive, imaginative, logical and are able to think through anything.” (Kline 2016)

While many EFL teachers are naturally caring and have their students’ best interests at heart (Mercer & Gkonou op.cit.), their actions do not always match their intentions (Nunan op.cit.). Anecdotal evidence from colleagues adds weight to the impression that teachers know they need to speak less; they want to offer their students maximum speaking practice time, and yet many consistently fail to do so.

 

The Study

Aim    

The aim of this study was to conduct classroom research and collect data on how my students responded to a Time to Think coaching-based teaching model. How far would the evidence point to a successful reduction of TTT and increased WT, which subsequently lead to more student speaking practice?

 

Setting and students

The data were collected from a convenience sampling of 18 undergraduate international business degree students, over a period of three weeks. Total teaching time was 27 hours. The setting was a German state co-operative university of Applied Science. All participants had received their secondary education in the German school system, although two students originated from China and one from Romania. Their ages ranged from 19 to 24; of the 18, three were male. All had a strong level of English, at least B2. Two focus groups were held as well as two individual semi-structured interviews. Observations were noted during and after class in the teacher’s journal. The data were analysed via NVivo 11 and evaluated in light of the literature reviewed.

In order to offset any potential risk of confirmation bias arising from the pre-existing relationship between students and teacher-researcher, the researcher aimed for mindful awareness. Similarly, to safeguard against possible power differential disturbance, a coach mindset was adopted. Being consistent with Thinking Environment principles helped reinforce these aims. Notably, the component ‘Equality’ served as a reminder of the research premise that all parties in the study are on an equal footing.

 

Time to Think Coaching-approach teaching model

Fig.1: Part 1. How Bain’s questions fit within the Thinking Environment, underpinned by Kline’s ‘Positive Philosophical Choice’

The graphic shows that underpinning the whole teaching process is the Positive Philosophical Choice. Belief in, and adherence to this, sets the teacher up for everything else that she does with her students. Before a lesson begins, the teacher will have considered two of the four questions taken from Ken Bain’s research into what the best college teachers do (Bain, 2012). Thinking about how to prepare to teach and what is expected of the students creates a clear picture in the teacher’s mind of the ensuing lesson. Once in class, the teacher works on maintaining an environment conducive to thinking and generative learning. To help her do this, she reflects on what she is doing and how she is with her students during the lesson – similar to Schon’s ‘reflection-in-action’.

 

Fig.2: Part 2. How the 10 components of a thinking environment form the foundation for what occurs before, during and after class, and where Bain’s questions apply

At a more detailed level, this graphic shows the ten components of the Thinking Environment, which inform a teacher’s mindset before, during and after class. Adhering to the ten principles as much as possible, and being acutely self-aware (reflecting-in-action) enables the teacher to behave more in accordance with the coaching mindset. Referring to Bain’s questions at the different phases of the teaching process helps with the meta-level awareness checking and reflection, before and after class being as valuable as during (reflection-on-action).

 

Limitations

As with small-scale studies of this nature, the low number of participants limits the veracity of any findings. Similarly, the homogeneity of the group restricts the variety of perspectives. The limited time created a degree of pressure to rush; students would not have been available after the course for the focus groups so they had to be conducted in lesson time. Verifying the results would be difficult as the context of this study is very specific. It may not be feasible to conduct similar research as teachers would need to be trained in the Thinking Environment components or at least basic coaching principles. This is costly and time-consuming.

Results and discussion

 

How did the students react to being taught in a thinking environment?

Two main themes stand out from the data: small group size and a calm atmosphere. Four transcripts were analysed in Nvivo 11. The following word frequency queries were run with the resultant outcomes showing how often participants referred to these two themes:

 

Query search “small group”, “small groups”

1-to-1 (student K)

1

1-to-1 (student C)

2

Group A1

3

Group A2

5

All interviews

11

Table 4: Word search query 1

 

 

Query search “calm”, “no pressure”, “relaxed”, “relaxing”, “calming”

1-to-1 (student K)

-

1-to-1 (student C)

-

Group A1

3

Group A2

16

All interviews

19

Table 5: Word search query 2

 

The class size debate notwithstanding, what seems most relevant is how teachers and students interact with each other in differing class sizes, and how “teachers modify instructional practices to take advantage of smaller classes” (Ehrenberg, Brewer, Gamoran & Willms, 2001). The eighteen students in this study described their experience of small groups overwhelmingly positively. They were happy that each person was able to speak more, receive personal feedback, and that even shy students could not escape the limelight. (Note: quotes are directly from students and uncorrected).

‘...having lessons in such small groups were really helpful.’

‘...everyone has a chance to really speak.’

‘It’s a little bit easier here in the small groups, but it’s depending how we can motivate ourselves.’

This last point was taken up by another student who observed that the group worked well together because: ‘...we are all grown-ups and we’re all well-mannered.’

The second main theme identified was calm atmosphere. It could well be that the small number of people in the class automatically lead to a calmer atmosphere: fewer differing personalities to clash; fewer differing opinions to lead to conflict; fewer voices to be raised and increase the overall classroom noise, and therefore stress levels.  Or simply, it was the case that everyone was well-mannered, as mentioned above.

Further comments point to another contributing factor to calmness in class: teacher behaviour.

‘You’re a really calm person and that’s why in English course every week, I really relax.’

‘You as a teacher, you were calm. I don’t know how to explain, but we were reflecting this.’

When discussing the ten components during the focus group interviews, ease was mentioned, which equates well with calm, for example:

‘Ease is an important component of our lessons because – there was ease  – not the whole time but it was kinda relaxing and – we were calmed down.’

This was particularly rewarding to hear, as creating an easeful atmosphere is key to a thinking environment. The students seemed to respond well to the slower pace:

‘We can do our own steps in our own tempo.’

‘It’s not fast, now this and this and this, now let’s go to the next topic. So it’s very calm.’

The fact that there was no English exam at the end of this semester may have reduced the pressure the students felt under. They acknowledged this fact as being part of the reason the English classes were calmer and more relaxing. However, it was a very insightful comment from one person which added another twist to this debate:

‘We don’t have the pressure that there’s an exam soon, so we can focus on that what we are doing right now.’ (Author emphasis in bold)

Whether the students’ positive reaction to being taught in a thinking environment was down to a homogenous group of well-behaved, polite people or the teaching method cannot be categorically proven. Group size was perhaps most significant in enabling maximum speaking time. Whether they consciously noticed the teacher’s deliberate attempt to not interrupt remains unknown. Ultimately, the aim of more student than teacher talking time was achieved: ‘I appreciate a lot that we were interacting and that we were speaking ourselves.’

This, above all else, is the most encouraging sign of success for the thinking environment approach to teaching.

 

What was their take on the ten components?

Students eventually recalled all ten components with some encouragement. This precipitated a discussion which demonstrated recognition of how the classes reflected the components and the groups’ understanding of them:

‘I think equality is quite important in our situation because I have the feeling that when we discuss about something, you don’t treat us like kids. Like we are equal and you totally respect what we’ve said.’

Not being treated “like kids”, or infantilising someone is a core aspect of the thinking environment. At university level particularly, it is essential that students have the feeling that their thoughts and ideas are welcomed if they are to then go on and think critically and innovatively. Teachers who keep in mind that “seeing people as thinking equals ... makes them functionally more clever” (Kline op.cit.:60) will reduce any infantilising behaviour.

 ‘You infantilize when you want the well-being of another person intensely but you also intensely want to be seen as the expert, indispensable and brilliant.’ (Kline ibid:47)

Being “allowed to have your own opinion” (Student in Focus Group A1) and feeling respected was repeatedly mentioned. This further affirms that teacher behaviour was consistent with a thinking environment approach and offered appreciative attention. Modelling such behaviours provided students with a consistent example of how to be with each other:

‘...the attention thing, we listen to each other, respect the feelings of each other, the way we worked and said something was encouraging the others to be motivated.’

 

How well did the teacher exemplify her stated belief in the positive philosophical choice, the nature of generative listening, and learner autonomy?

Reflecting on personal journal entries, a mixed picture emerges. It also highlights the biggest obstacle to successfully following the coaching-approach teaching model. A teacher adhering to the positive philosophical choice as redefined by Nancy Kline in 2016, believes that we have “the choice to focus on the human being’s dominant inherent capacity and need for good’ (i.e.: fine thinking, connection, choice, creativity and joy)” (Kline op.cit.). While there was a genuine desire to live this belief by maximising responsibility given to students to manage their tasks and drive conversations, there were a number of cases where best intentions failed.

It seems that bowing to time pressure is most often the major cause of breaks away from mindful behaviour. The momentary window of ‘veto power’ opportunity was overridden by the urge to action a time-pressure thought.  Instead of staying consciously aware that the students were in full flow and did not need to be interrupted. Similarly, there were occasions when research needs compromised learner aims: gathering data was given precedence over allowing enough time for the lesson itself; recording equipment detracted from student focus and created a barrier – admittedly only for the teacher, the students showed little interest in the camera.

 ‘Realisation: in-class research with tech and trying to record action = reduces ease, certainly in my demeanour!’ (Note from teacher’s journal)

Reviewing lesson plans and notes from the journal, and listening to the recorded feedback from students, there is a clear sense of generative listening occurring frequently. The Thinking Environment components help a teacher to remember how capable her students are, and that there is no need to infantilise them by tightly controlling the lesson. The focus is on the learner and facilitating their autonomous learning. Learner autonomy involves scaffolding instruction “to provide guidance without assuming control of learners’ decision-making” (Cotterall 2000); coaching is about enabling “the learner to take responsibility for his/her learning, develop an awareness of his/her situation and increase his/her skills” (Tolhurst 2006 in Beere & Brought 2013:10). Inviting students to work autonomously lends itself to coaching principles and thinking environment components.

According to much of the literature pertaining to what facilitates successful learning outcomes (e.g.: Dörnyei 2001; Gkonou & Mercer op.cit.), a student-focused teacher is key. Evidence from this study suggests that the teacher was student-focused; she strived towards the positive philosophical choice and guiding principles of the ten components. It is perhaps this modelling of the principles, combined with a strong belief in the veracity of a thinking environment-based coach approach - of being a learner coach - which is of most importance.

 

Conclusion

This study was initiated in order to determine what effect a Time to Think Coach-approach style of teaching would have on a group of Business English students. The two issues identified as needing attention were too much Teacher Talking Time (TTT) and too little Wait Time (WT). The inductive, qualitative, interpretivist research approach involved the teacher exploring these issues with her students with a view to developing a model to help with future coaching-focused teacher training.

Four specific points can be drawn out of the study. Firstly, a Time to Think Coach-approach helps to create a growth mindset within the teacher. Modelling this increases the likelihood of students similarly thinking with a growth mindset, albeit subconsciously. Secondly, the Model offers an “wholistic” framework which acts as a reminder to consider the entire teaching process, from course design and lesson preparation, to in-class activities, to after lesson follow-ups. It highlights the importance of the ten components in order to nurture a Thinking Environment and build a strong foundation upon which to carry out the aforementioned teaching activities, as well as enabling the teacher to be considerate of the students and their needs.

Feedback from the students provided the third point of relevance arising from the study: a teacher with a growth mindset, practising a coach-approach method of teaching can better create a calm, relaxed environment. This encourages collaborative work, more student speaking practice, less TTT and strong group dynamics. Lastly, it was recognised from what was not gathered during the research, that a more in-depth study would be needed to measure the tangible impact of coach-approach teaching on language level improvement. Such a study would add to the growing area of academic research into Language Learning Psychology.

 

Notes

(1) Alpha waves (8 to 12 Hz) are present when your brain is in an idling default-state typically created when you're daydreaming or consciously practicing mindfulness or meditation.

 

References

Bain, K. (2012). What the best college students do (1st ed.). Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press

Brown, P., & Brown, V. (2012). Neuropsychology for coaches. [S.l.]: Open University Press

Cotterall, S. (2000). Promoting learner autonomy through the curriculum: Principles for designing language courses. ELT journal, 54(2), 109-117

Dörnyei, Z. (2001). Motivational strategies in the language classroom. Cambridge [u.a.]: Cambridge Univ. Press

Ehrenberg, R. G., Brewer, D. J., Gamoran, A., & Willms, J. D. (2001). Class size and student achievement. Psychological Science in the Public Interest, 2(1), 1-30

Flanders, N. (1966). Analyzing Teacher Behavior As Part Of The Teaching-Learning Process By Ned A. Flanders. The student teacher's reader: a collection of readings, 19(3), 270

Ingram, J., & Elliott, V. (2015). A critical analysis of the role of wait time in classroom interactions and the effects on student and teacher interactional behaviours. Cambridge Journal Of Education, 46(1), 37-53. http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/0305764x.2015.1009365

Kline, N. (1999). Time to think. London: Ward Lock.

Long, M. H., & Porter, P. A. (1985). Group work, interlanguage talk, and second language acquisition. TESOL quarterly, 19(2), 207-228

Mercer, S., & Gkonou, C. (2017). Understanding emotional and social intelligence among English language teachers. London: British Council

Nunan, D. (1987). Communicative language teaching: Making it work. ELT Journal, 41(2), 136-145. http://dx.doi.org/10.1093/elt/41.2.136

Rock, D. (2006). A Brain-Based Approach to Coaching. International Journal of Coaching in Organizations, 4(2), pp.32-43

Rowe, M. B. (1986). Wait time: slowing down may be a way of speeding up!. Journal of teacher education, 37(1), 43-50.

Tolhurst, 2006 in Broughton, T., & Beere, J. (2013). The perfect teacher coach. Bancyfelin: Independent Thinking

 

Please check the 21st Century Thinking Skills course at Pilgrims website.

Please check the Methodology and Language for Secondary course at Pilgrims website.

Please check the Teaching Advanced Students course at Pilgrims website.

Please check the English Course for Teachers and School Staff at Pilgrims website.

Please check the English Update for Teachers course at Pilgrims website

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