L is for Lockstep

12 04 2010

I’m preparing a talk for a conference next week, to be held in Palestine, and the subject I’ve chosen is “lockstep activities” – specifically “Six Lockstep Activities and How to Improve them.” (Shades of Lindsay Clandfield’s “6 Things” rubric, I know, but then, I’ve never been very original!) I figured that the topic would be an appropriate one in contexts where classroom management is a challenge, where classes are large, furniture fixed, and resources minimal. From experience having observed classes there (see the attached photo taken on my last trip), that description fits the Palestine context fairly accurately.

Classroom in Palestine (photo by Gavin McLean of Macmillan ELT)

In my abstract I’ve defined “lockstep activities” as “whole-class activities, in which the class ‘marches in time’, as opposed to group, pair or individual work”. In their Dictionary of Language Teaching & Applied Linguistics (3rd edition, Longman, 2002) Richards and Schmidt hyphenate the term, and define it as “a situation in which all students in a class are engaged in the same activity at the same time, all progressing through tasks at the same rate” (p. 315). (Regrettably, there is no mention of lockstep in An A-Z of ELT – an oversight I hope to redress in a future edition).  Lockstep is the default setting for much traditional teaching and in all subject areas: the teacher at the front of the room, the students seated in rows and dutifully attentive.

Now I’m wondering where the term “lockstep” originated. According to the Free Online Dictionary, it is “A way of marching in which the marchers follow each other as closely as possible”. It also has a figurative meaning, and one with negative connotations, as in “A standardized procedure that is closely, often mindlessly followed.” It is this negative aspect that permeates the literature on lockstep activities in methodology books. Jeremy Harmer, for example, in the 1991 edition of The Practice of English Language Teaching (Longman) wrote: “Students working in lockstep get little chance to practise or to talk at all”.  And added: “Lockstep always goes at the wrong speed!” (p. 243).  However, Jeremy concedes that “we should not abandon the whole-class grouping completely”. It is, for example, the best grouping for giving instructions and for checking the answers to a reading or listening task.

Given the ubiquity of this grouping, especially in contexts such as in Palestine, I’m looking for more ways of ‘accentuating the positive’, and specifically for ideas for making the most of such standard lockstep activities as drilling, reading aloud, dictation, and checking understanding of reading and listening tasks. The dynamic of reading aloud activities, for example, can be improved if – rather than the teacher nominating turns – the readers themselves nominate who the next reader will be (and so long as it isn’t anyone who has read before).

So, if you have any ideas of ways of jazzing up lockstep activities, please let me know! All suggestions will be gratefully attributed.