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?