Reflective practice: not just for teachers

Here in Japan it is nearly the end of the academic year. A whole academic year of the fallout from COVID-19. Anyway, clearly anything to do with that is horrid, so I want to write about something good. Maybe even useful.

I have been teaching Authentic Listening at one of the universities I work at for 3 years now, although this is the first year that I have taught it at the advanced level. We had a lot of students that couldn’t go on their study abroad programmes this year and they needed courses at the appropriate level. I planned the syllabus out kind of last minute because I wasn’t 100% sure I would end up teaching it. Anyway, it has been largely successful, with one or two caveats which are the same caveats that come up in all remote teaching this year (i.e. students aren’t used to learning online, synchronously, and universities are not willing to reduce the course load on teachers sufficiently to make asynchronous teaching practical). The best thing, in my opinion, has been my shift to focus students more upon reflective practice (which I also did in my Rapid Reading classes this year).

What did the students reflect on?

I got my students to reflect upon their difficulties and successes in listening. Reflecting on the difficulties also entailed thinking about possible solutions to lessen the difficulties, but in an autonomous way. This is because I can’t always be there to help. A lot of the difficulty is possibly because students have not really considered how they might be able to help themselves, nor have they even been given sufficient time to reflect on their difficulties.

Some students found this so difficult to do in a meaningful way at first (mainly due to the reluctance to interact with students they don’t know, I think), but later there were some very good ideas indeed. In final presentations (worth 10% of grades) there were excellent ideas about future autonomous listening study, and the students who were quiet and not interacting with others very much showed me that actually they were invested in the class and not just faffing while their cameras and mics were off. I am quite an insecure person and I know that most people don’t care nearly as much about listening skills development as I do, but this class showed me that actually, interaction is not a proxy for skills development or a proxy for attention to information/applying the information.


Basically, a lot of students realised that their phonological knowledge improved if they paid attention to it and used the IPA to take notes of things, though this is difficult. They also became more amenable to not attempting to write down every single thing that was spoken in the things they listened to. Some students even went further and tried to find out about aspects of connected speech, segmentation and juncture, and intonation related to problems they had with their listening. The best part was not that these are solved problems, but that my students realize that they are only partially solved but they have the tools to work on the solutions outside of the (virtual) classroom.


Reflection can be a good thing but it needs to be structured if it is going to be useful at all, otherwise you get fake reflection, or reflection without further action. Here, part of a difficult skill is made the responsibility of the learners rather than the teacher(s) so classroom time can be devoted to things that actually need more intensive teacher involvement, or teacher advice.

Maybe not abject failures, but…


Well, I have about a million things to do so that explains why I am blogging.

I had my first experience of teaching more than one person at a time online last week. Here are some of my reflections.

  • Students don’t know what to do in the first week of class and that is compounded by a modality of lesson delivery that they are just not used to. This is one the things that causes so much time to be taken up with stuff.
  • Peer review on bits of paper is far easier than using the Moodle module to do it. Could I have done it with Google Docs? Potentially, but that is going to be relatively new to students as well, and they don’t all know one another’s email addresses. Having a Moodle dropbox where it’s just dropping it in and the selection of reviewers and reviewees would be so much easier. Unfortunately, it isn’t quite as user friendly as I had imagined. It’s not useless, but I will have to get more familiar with it.
  • There are still checkboxes and settings in various software to check and it’s something that I need to sort out and be less adrenaline filled and more attentive to.

Here be (Dungeons and) Dragons 9

Fin de siecle

At the University of Outside Tokyo my English repeaters have just finished their first RPG. It has, at times, been immensely frustrating due to my own idealism. Surely everyone would love to attend an English course for university if it were structured as a Role-Playing Game! It does not quite work like that, and despite a large improvement in attendance, it appears that I am likely to have students who fail due to lack of work through non-attendance.

I am assessing the course based on participation and quality interaction in the lessons, as well as through a reflective portfolio where students analyse the problems in their roleplays and identify root causes and potential solutions.

However, those that came showed great positivity despite not feeling fond of communicating using English. This is my reward, after dreaming up scenarios, some richer than others, for my students to roleplay through and cast D20s upon.

I am assessing the course based on participation and quality interaction in the lessons, as well as through a reflective portfolio where students analyse the problems in their roleplays and identify root causes and potential solutions. This is done by using recordings to assist in recall. It is essentially cribbed and adapted from James York’s Kotoba Rollers framework. Mostly the portfolios are OK with flashes of brilliant insight. The last class today as used as a portfolio workshop for my students to complete their portfolios. As they worked, the appearance and reappearance of eureka expressions on their faces were my reward. And it is these eureka moments that I hope the students remember, rather than brightly-colored, odd-shaped dice.

Read Here be (Dungeons and) Dragons previous ‘chapters’: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8

Cottage Industry as CPD

Working as a teacher gives you opportunities to have interesting conversations with people and have fun with language. Sometimes, though, you just feel stuck in a rut and want to change things. This could be the start of something beautiful.
You can look at what you might make better instead of having a moan. Are your materials crap? Make some. Turn yourself into a cottage industry within a larger industry. You might learn a bit about what makes good materials. If you do decide to make your own materials, I recommend Powerpoint as opposed to Word, because you can get your layout aligned more easily. Test your materials and refine them (Eric Ries lays out this process in The Lean Startup as Minimum Viable Product [and you don’t have to sell your products for money. Kudos is currency sometimes]).
You might also do a bit of action research. There is a lot of high-faluting imagery about this but what it comes down to is this:

  1. Have a think about something you want to change or want to understand the effect of.
  2. Think of one thing to change in your practice so you can observe it.
  3. Record it.
  4. Keep doing it for a bit so you know if you are fluking it or whatnot.
  5. Reflect.
  6. Maybe have another go.

This might lead you to new ways of working that are better for you. I would think so. Otherwise you might have other like-minded souls join you. However, some see things like this as too much work, rocking the boat or otherwise undesirable. Do it for yourself, not for gratification from others, else you will never see it through.
If you have a blog, why not show your work?
Stuff I’m working on at the moment is a beefed-up version of my TBLT board, and simple materials that can be used easily and widely for useful tasks. This will be coming up soon. But not very soon, so don’t hold your breath. I’m talking at least Summer.

Why Share Lessons on Your Blog?

I don’t know whether many teachers are really concerned about what goes on in other teachers’ classrooms. I am, but then I’m nosy. I want to know what their cool ideas are. I want to steal!
That said, I’m not indiscriminate. I want to steal good stuff that I think will work with my learners. In that case, why do I have people in my personal learning network (PLN) based in across the world, when I’ve said before that learning can’t be generalised?
Because I want to get ideas about flow. Because an idea that won’t work for me makes me think about why it won’t work and what I need to do in order to make it work. It’s part of the reason I set up the Tokyo Lesson Jam, which is way overdue another meeting (December, when I finish my DipTESOL?), so that I could steal other people’s cool stuff.
For those of us who never get to do peer observations, reading lesson plans on blogs is like a glimpse into another teacher’s classroom. You get to say ‘I wouldn’t do that, I’d do this‘ (in a nice way, not a smart-arsed way). You might even say it in the comments of the blog. You might also see how somebody else solved a problem that you’re working on, or tried unsuccessfully to solve it. The internet is the easiest way to join a community of practice and people are welcoming. People will still say that your stupid ideas are stupid, but they will often say so nicely. They will then give you a better idea. If an idea or method should be rejected, you’ll be told why, and if anything usable can be salvaged from the wreck.
So, yes, even if my stupid lessons wouldn’t work for your learners, it can still be useful provided you give the reasons why it wouldn’t.

TBL ELT Task Idea #2

I took my second idea from the LinoIt TBL ELT Board, a lesson planned especially for this class and using a listening task as the presentation of language (Task 1).
I was banking on three students attending but in the end only one student came and he was 20 minutes late.
We used the entire task sequence but I looked at listening to reduced forms in connected speech by using a prepared gapped transcript (my just-in-case activity).
Was it the best lesson ever? No. It was with a student who is often late and has erratic attendance so I just don’t know his needs as well as those of the rest of the class. Did it go OK? Yes. I think I need to look at conditionals briefly for a bit of consolidation but really do more with reporting speech naturally.


You can’t teach without reflecting. Apparently.
You sit in a staff room an listening to people moaning about “them” being idiots/dummies/dehumanized amorphous masses; about “them” not being capable of independent thought; about “them” not giving a monkey’s.
You chirp, “It’s because the students are not used to dealing with communicative classrooms and they don’t want to make mistakes. Why not try group work and reporting group opinions if they’re shy or unresponsive.”
You mean ‘I wouldn’t talk to you either if you carried that attitude about me. I’m putting in my two-pence worth because it’s frustrating listening to you.’
“Well, I’ll give it a try but…”
At the same institution you have had students enjoy TOEIC lessons by drawing the focus away from the book and on the thought processes behind the questions set. Students work together to produce their own TOEIC-style materials. You’ve had students give group carousel poster sessions about language study and motivation. You’ve had students survey their classmates and then reflect on whether their survey design was flawed or not. Only one of these was your own idea. Mostly everyone has been on task. Either you have remarkable classes or your students are just in a better mood for studying.
You are exploring your practice. You share ideas. You can advise what works for you and something that might be good to try. In a class full of “them”.
You can’t expect everyone to be enthusiastic all the time. You can lead a horse to water but you can’t make it drink.