Where the Grass is Greener: How to Learn Anywhere (A year of inspired insights #9)

Don’t you just hate being cooped up in a classroom during the summer?

When I teach language during the summer months, I often take my university class outside to sit on the grass. We take our textbooks with us and do our lesson sitting in a circle somewhere quiet outside. For the most part, I try to stick with the lesson that we have planned for that day. It makes me sad that much of my teaching career has been governed too heavily by a curriculum that dictates what we must learn on any given day.

Every now and then, I rebel. The results are as inspiring as they are effective.

Once I told my students to forget about the textbook. I said, “Much of the real world vocabulary that we need to know is not in the textbooks. And a lot of what is in the textbook is not really useful in the real world. Look around. What are some every day items that you do not know the names for? Point or use the phrase we have learned in class for “How do you say…?”

We spent the entire hour learning vocabulary of every day items that were all around us.  We spoke only in the target language. Students learned to be resourceful with their body language to point, shrug and use facial expressions to express what they wanted to learn.

The students were engaged and energized. They were learning words that made sense to them in a real-wold context. They also realized how much they did not know… and how much they wanted to learn.

We not only said the words aloud, we made lists of the words. I spelled the words out using the alphabet. This encouraged them to listen closely and practice using the alphabet to spell out words.

Once we had a list of forty words or so, we began to categorize them. We came up with categories together that included: “nature” (grass, trees, etc.), “buildings” (library, student centre, etc.), “structures” (bench, stairs), “art” (poster, statue) and “other things you find outdoors” (bus stop, garbage can, etc.)

We not only learned vocabulary, we practiced spelling, listening, non-verbal communication and critical thinking skills to group the vocabulary words in a logical manner.

Often, finding inspiration in a textbook is difficult. But learning, that can happen anywhere.

5 Strategies to Learn Anywhere

1. Ditch the textbook. It may not be possible to avoid using a textbook most of the time, but every now and again, a teacher’s creativity, experience and wisdom are enough to shape an effective learning experience.

2. Involve the students in the learning design. Ask them what they want to learn. If you are using a “learn anywhere” approach for a second language, challenge your students to communicate using the target language. Also, have them tap into their inner resilience and problem-solving skills to use body language and gestures to communicate.

3. Incorporate scaffolding. In the activity I shared with you above, we looped back to the alphabet they had learned some weeks earlier. They had to work hard to remember it and use it again in an authentic context. As you incorporate previous knowledge and skills they have learned, you encourage them to internalize them even more.

4. Create order from chaos. After we did some brainstorming and generated numerous vocabulary words, we began to categorize them. This helped the students organize the material they had just learned in a meaningful way. The idea is not to impose order, so much as create it. The students had a say in the categories we developed. There is nothing wrong with random learning, but organizing the new material can help some students make sense of it.

5. Relate your learning to the real world. There is no point of learning in the real world if it is just an academic exercise. Get students to think about how and when they would use what they have learned. Link something as simple as learning new vocabulary to real world skills such as learning how to ask the names of things. This builds their resourcefulness and problem-solving skills.

Learning is a lifelong process. The opportunity to learn new knowledge and skills are around us every day. I love books, and I also believe that there is as much (if not more) to be learned outside books, as can be learned from inside them.

Go outside and learn this summer.

Related posts:

A year of inspired insights #8: A language teacher’s legacy

A year of inspired insights #7: What to do when a student hates technology

A year of inspired insights #6: You can raise me up: The lasting impact of a teacher’s words

A year of inspired insights #5: When reason falls on deaf ears

A year of inspired insights #4: How teaching Spanish to a deaf multilingual student opened my eyes

A year of inspired insights #3: Servant leadership in the scullery

A year of inspired insights #2: Conversations change everything

A year of inspired insights #1: There’s a silver lining in every ambulance

My 2012 resolution project: A year of inspired insights


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If you are interested in booking me (Sarah Eaton) for a presentation, keynote or workshop (either live or via webinar) contact me at sarahelaineeaton (at) gmail.com. Please visit my speaking page, too.

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