D is for Dreams

13 02 2011

“I have a recurring ‘teaching dream’, usually on the night before a new teaching semester. I am required to teach a class, but arrive there to find that it is not a square classroom but an L-shaped one, so that I can’t see all the students. Those around the corner are of course doing something else and I am helpless to stop them”.

An article in the New York Times, about dreaming in different languages, reminded me of some data I collected a few years back on the nature of teachers’ dreams – particularly teachers in training. The example above (‘The L-shaped classroom’) is typical.  The (somewhat informal and never published) research was prompted by the following comment in a trainee teacher’s journal:

“Throughout the whole night I dreamt I was making lesson plans, teaching, practising etc. I don’t know if it’s normal, or if I’m going a bit nuts”.

Having had plenty of teaching dreams myself (these days I have conference dreams!), I decided to investigate, and collected a number of dreams, both from trainees on pre-service courses at IH Barcelona, and from the wider world, via online teachers discussion lists.

The study – if you can call it that – subscribed to an ethnographic research tradition that legitimates personal narratives as a means of accessing how student and novice teachers experience and cope with change. As Donald Freeman puts it, “The notion of teachers’ stories is useful and powerful in considerding what teachers know and how their knowledge develops over time” (Freeman 1996, p. 101).  It was also predicated on the belief that, in Kagan’s (1992) words, “the practice of classroom teaching remains forever rooted in personality and experience and that learning to teach requires a journey into the deepest recesses of one’s self-awareness, where failures, fears, and hopes are hidden” (p. 163). Teachers’ dreams seemed but one way of accessing these ‘deeper recesses’.

What I was particularly interested in was the extent to which teachers’ dreams reflected the concerns of both novice and experienced teachers as documented in the literature on teacher development.  Fuller and Bown (1975), for example, found that the concerns of preservice teachers are typically

early concerns about survival. … They are concerned about class control, their mastery of content to be taught, and evaluations by their supervisors. They wonder whether they will ever learn to teach at all. This is a period of great stress (p. 38).

Unsurprisingly, perhaps, my ‘dream corpus’ displayed similar anxieties. These I categorised as

1. Problem-setting dreams, as when the dreamer dreams incessantly about lesson planning;

2. Rule-breaking dreams, when the dreamer realises he/she is behaving delinquently;

3. Loss of control dreams, where the teacher is incapable of maintaining order; and

4. Role mis-match dreams, where the dreamer’s identity as a teacher is ambiguous or confused, as in this example:

“I dreamed that I was talking to this girl who I was in highschool with, I told her I was going to be a teacher and she just started laughing (What? You! A teacher?) and tried to talk me out of it”.

More experienced teachers also have loss-of-control dreams, but, more typically, dreams about not being prepared, as in this example:

“I suddenly remember that I will begin to teach a class in a few hours that I have totally forgotten about. I have done no preparation at all. I enter the classroom and see a roomful of hostile looking students. They glare at me and begin to chant ‘Teach me teach me’ over and over. I try to come up with an appropriate idea to explain. I explain it and then stare at them. I begin to sweat, and stutter. I can see that they are unimpressed by my ideas.  I usually awaken at this point”.

Other common dream types include dreams about institutional constraints, including getting to class on time:

“I discover that I’m one hour late for class and then I can’t remember which building it’s in, or I’m in the wrong building across campus, or I suddenly realize that classes started the day before and I missed a whole day”.

And, very occasionally, teachers’ dreams are not about their fears at all. Just as the principle underlying the invention of the sewing machine was reputed to have been conceived in a  dream, some dreams are actually creative, as in this example:

“One feedback session, [the teaching practice tutor] made a general suggestion that I incorporate mime into a warmer for a lesson I was preparing. The idea struck me as being interesting, and it burbled around in the back of my mind all that evening. I planned my lesson, and inserted a mime item in the warmer.  As I drifted off to sleep, mimers and mime ideas drifted along with me [and] I woke with the clearest vision of what to do with mime in the warmer. I followed these new ideas in my lesson, and that part of the lesson went like a dream”.


Freeman, D. 1996. ‘Redefining the relationship between research and what teachers know’. In Bailey, K., & Nunan, D. (eds.) Voices from the Language Classroom. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Fuller, F.F., and Bown, O.H. 1975. ‘Becoming a teacher’. In Ryan (ed.) Teacher Education: The 75th Yearbook of the National Society for the Study of Education Part II. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Kagan, D. 1992.  ‘Professional growth among preservice and beginning teachers’. Review of Educational Research 62:2, 129-69.

Illustrations from Alexander, L. 1968. Look, Listen, Learn! London: Longman.

F is for Flow

30 05 2010

Ozbek, the publisher’s rep, got on to the subject of ‘flow’. He was driving me from the airport into the centre of Istanbul, and it turned out that he was currently researching a Masters dissertation on motivation. He was attracted by the idea that intrinsic motivation is located in the present moment, and reaches a peak when you are so absorbed in a task that time seems to slow down or even to stop altogther (akin to what the art critic Michael Fried calls ‘presentness’, as in “Presentness is grace”).  This is also what the psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi calls “flow”.  It is the kind of ‘peak experience’ often reported by artists or sportspeople, when there is a perfect match between performance challenge and available skill. Here’s how a world-class figure skater describes a typical flow experience (from Csikszentmihalyi 1993):

I knew every single moment; in fact I even remember going down into a jump and this is awful, but thinking, “Oh gosh, this is so real!  I’m so clear in my thoughts.”  There was just a real clarity to it all… I felt such control of everything, every little movement, I was very aware, you know, like what was on my hand, I could feel my rings, I could feel everything, and I felt I had control of anything (p. 182).

According to Csikszentmihalyi, flow experiences have the following characteristics:

1. they have concrete goals and manageable rules.

2. they make it possible to adjust opportunities for action to our capacities

3. they provide clear information about how well we are doing

3. they screen out distractions and make concentration possible

(Csikszentmihalyi 1993: xiv)

I had read about flow in the 1990s, and had been attracted by the notion that a task can be intrinsically motivating when one’s available skills are perfectly calibrated with the task’s degree of challenge.  The alternatives, such as too much challenge, or too little, are likely to result in either anxiety or boredom.

'Flow' as opportunity matched with capability (from van Lier 1996)

Appearing as it did around the same time as the popularization of task-based learning, the theory seemed to offer an elegant rubric for the design and management of second-language learning tasks.  The theory suggested that good tasks should stretch learners, pushing them beyond their immediate ‘comfort zone’, while at the same time providing them with sufficient support so as not to induce anxiety.  But since then Csikszentmihalyi’s theory seems to have lost traction, so I was intrigued to hear my Turkish friend (in gridlocked traffic that was the antithesis of flow!) update me on a couple of recent studies (copies of which he subsequently sent me) that have rehabilitated the notion of flow.

One of these – (Egbert 2003) – reports a study in which students rated their experience of various classroom tasks (such as reading aloud, group discussion, etc). The one task that seemed to have induced the greatest degree of flow, based on self-report data, was one in which the students (all US high-school students of Spanish) interacted freely in a chatroom discussion with Spanish-speaking contemporaries. The researchers concluded that tasks which are most conducive to flow are those in which the participants’ perceptions of challenge, control, and interest are optimal.

This leads me to wonder if the concept of flow applies, not only to learning, but also to teaching. That is to say, do teachers experience flow?  Of course, “flow” – in a slightly different sense – is a concept that has often been invoked by educators to capture a desirable quality of classroom management. For example, in a study of the metaphors that one teacher employed when describing her teaching, Munby (1986) noted the constant use of the metaphor of the “lesson as moving object”. E.g. “I keep it rolling all the time”, “I seem to move along real well with that class” etc. Flow, in this sense, is a function of having well rehearsed classroom routines, and it typically distinguishes the teaching of experienced teachers from the rather stop-start nature of novice teaching.

But, flow – in the optimal experience sense – is surely something more than just being a good manager. If so, what characterizes it, what kinds of teachers experience it, and what are its preconditions? And what might all this suggest for teacher education and development?


Csikszentmihalyi, M. 1990. Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience. NY: Harper Row.

– 1993. The Evolving Self: A Psychology for the Third Millennium. NY: Harper Row.

Egbert, J. 2003. ‘A study of Flow Theory in the foreign language classroom’. The Modern Language Journal, 87/4.

Munby, H. 1986. ‘Metaphor in the thinking of teachers: An exploratory study’. Journal of Curriculum Studies, 18/2.

van Lier, L. 1996. Interaction in the Language Curriculum: Awareness, Autonomy & Authenticity. Harlow: Longman.

T is for Time

2 05 2010

Rossini is supposed to have said of Wagner’s music: “He has some wonderful moments, but some terrible quarters of an hour”. I’ve observed (and taught!) lessons like that: some great moments but a lot of unnecessary time-wasting: over-prolonged warmers, games with little or no language output, instructions that take more time than the activity they’re designed to support, and so on. Time, I’ve come to the conclusion, is the single most wasted resource that teachers have available to them. And time is of the essence. The task of learning a second language is enormous. For many learners it is also expensive. To fritter the time away seems irresponsible.

Hence I’ve always liked the term “time-on-task”, since it captures for me an essential characteristic of good teaching: the capacity of the teacher to ensure that classroom time is optimized and that the learners are engaged in productive language activity to the fullest possible extent. This means, of course, that the learners know what is required of them – and there is a tension between, on the one hand, giving detailed instructions and, on the other, getting down to the task as quickly as possible. I knew one teacher who was dismissive about the need for clear task-setting. Her attitude was “Give them the material and let them get on with it – you can sort it out ‘in flight’”. I’m not sure I agree entirely, but I can see her point.

Likewise, I am suspicious of technology that isn’t already installed in the classroom and operational at the flick of a switch – or click of a mouse. Lesson time that is wasted in faffing about with cables and recalcitrant software is lost learning time. The same goes for games that require more explanation than their likely language affordances can possibly justify.

Time 'consumption' in different countries

Faffing about, as it happens, accounts for big chunks of lesson time in mainstream classes, according to figures that were published recently in a Spanish newspaper. The chart on the right shows how much time is lost in routine administrative activities (‘tareas administrativas’) and in controlling the class (‘mantenimiento de orden’) as compared to actual teaching (‘impartir clase’) in classrooms in a number of countries worldwide. Fortunate are the students in Bulgaria, where only round 10% of time is lost, compared to, say, Brazil, where up to a third of the lesson is frittered away.

Some recommendations, then, for exploiting time effectively:

1. Develop a set of reliable classroom routines that students will immediately recognise and which therefore require minimal explanation;

2. Resist the temptation to front-end the lesson with lots of warmers and ice-breakers. Get to the point as quickly as possible!

3. Evaluate any activity in terms of the likely language production it will generate against the time it will take to set up. If the pay-off is small, ditch the activity, or think of a quicker way of setting it up.

4. Use only those tehnological aids that you are already comfortable with and which are already installed and easily accessible in the classroom, and – even then – measure their worth against the language learning affordances that they are likely to provide;

5. Set for homework those activities (such as reading, listening, and doing grammar practice exercises) that might otherwise cut into classroom time that could more usefully be spent speaking.

6. Use the students’ L1 to cut corners, e.g. in explaining an activity, in providing glosses for unfamiliar vocabulary, in checking understanding of  a text, and even in presenting grammar.

7. Be punctual yourself – set a good example and impress on students the importance of starting (and finishing) on time. Likewise, don’t wait until the last student has arrived before you start the lesson.

8. With younger learners, reduce the time that needs to be spent maintaining order by keeping the pace of the lesson fairly upbeat, thereby avoiding the kinds of longeurs during which anti-social activity is likely to occur.

Any other suggestions out there?