Getting Time on Your Side (with Allan Crocker)

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Timing causes so many problems for teachers – activities which run on too long, running out of time at the end of a lesson, not finding time to plan or reflect – but we rarely discuss time and how to deal with it. In this episode Ross and Trinity CertTESOL course director Allan Crocker discuss the issues related to time; how time influences how we teach, the problems it causes and how we can spend it better.

Photo by Jenny Ma

Getting Time on Your Side (with Allan Crocker) - Transcription

Ross Thorburn:  Hi, Allan.

Allan Crocker:  Hi, Ross.

Ross:  Do you want to tell us a bit about who you are, Allan Crocker?

Allan:  Yes, I am Allan Crocker. Someone has to be. I'm a teacher trainer here in China. I'm course director for CertTESOL. I also do basic training and management training in our company. Before that, I've been a director of studies, a manager in a training school, and been a teacher for about six years teaching English. Before that, about a year‑and‑a‑half trying to teach music.

Ross:  We're going to talk about timing today. Then we can talk a bit about timing in the classroom with students. Then maybe, later on, we can talk about how teachers spend their time.

Allan:  This is interesting how it always seems to come up in self‑evaluation. This is like, "My timing was not good." [laughs]

Ross:  You're right. It's so interesting because I'd never thought about this before, either. It's such a common thing for people to talk about after an observed lesson, but I've almost never seen a training session on it. This is definitely the first podcast that we've done on it. Yet, that's what people always talk about.

Allan:  People talk about that. There's a few areas here. Firstly, my real sort of annoyance, we start with that, is the use of alarms and timers and, "OK, I'm going to give you two‑and‑a‑half minutes."

At the end of the two‑and‑a‑half minutes, the alarm goes off, and they go, "Have you finished?" Luckily, I don't see many people then saying, "OK, let's go for the answers." Usually, teachers are aware that no one's finished. You put pressure on people. You slightly make them feel bad about themselves if they're not finished within the time.

Where that comes from is seeing the lesson as yours. It's like, "Here's my plan, you're going to be subjected to it," rather than, "I'm going to help you learn by giving you these exercises." Then it's not, "How long is this going to take?" because that's obvious.

Ross:  In my plan, it says 2.5 minutes.

Allan:  Yeah, but the answer is until the students are finished or bored or there's something better to do. You can judge that other ways.

Ross:  Although to play devil's advocate to this, there is obviously a value to having deadlines. We obviously see this on teacher training courses when there's assignments. For example, one course I did before where you had to hand in 2,500 words every three weeks. Everyone did it on time.

Then on other courses that we've seen, you maybe have to hand in 10,000 words after three years. Guess what happens? Everyone leaves all that work until two years, 10 months. Then they panic, and they start working on it. There's obviously some value to those deadlines.

Allan:  Yeah, I agree, but, in that case, it should be a focused deadline. It's like, "OK, they may be right. You have 10 minutes to prepare your side of the debate, and then we're going to do it." That will be 10 minutes.

Ross:  I almost see it as you want to set the time limit, but not actually use the timer to decide when it's going to finish. Like you'll say, "All right, guys, you've got five minutes to do this." There's some urgency, but then you walk around and you monitor.

I don't think I ever set a timer, but I can see when people are close you need to get their skates on and go, "All right, you've got one minute left." You're using the times to motivate people to get their skates on, but you're not actually necessarily using a timer to do it.

Allan:  That's one point. When it gets to the evaluation of a lesson, like a real obsession with time and time management, teachers will often list as a key positive or a key negative, "I managed the time well. Therefore, I completed everything," versus "I didn't have enough time for some stuff, therefore, that..."

Ross:  Does that mean then that almost the aim of the lesson is to complete the lesson plan?

Allan:  To complete the lesson plan, yeah, absolutely. I used to do this as well.

Ross:  Do you think it's a nervousness thing? I often think, as observers, we see...Obviously, there's this observer's paradox thing where people are more nervous. Maybe they think the observer...

Allan:  It's going to be class, right?

Ross:  Yeah, it's a little class, also the observer is expecting them to carry out a plan or something.

Allan:  It could well be that they expect that. I remember talking about this fairly recently with a trainee who then said, "Well, when I'm observed in my regular job, I get told off if I don't follow the timings." There are definitely situations where you're under pressure there, or you have an observer who doesn't really know what they are talking about if I can say that.


Allan:  They see the lesson plan as part of the exam. It also comes from a lack of tolerance of ambiguity or intolerance of ambiguity.

Ross:  Talk about that for a minute or two.

Allan:  Mrs. Dietrich told me all about this, and I love it. This is the idea that some people are tolerant of ambiguity and some people are not. This is a skill that can be trained.

What it means is, if you have intolerance of ambiguity, it means that you feel threatened when you don't understand or they'd have confusion. Something you might do is keep asking questions used to search for a black and white answer.

Ross:  I've come across this before in language learning. The kids are generally more tolerant of ambiguity because, as a child, you're used to not understanding a lot of what's on TV or what your parents are saying. As an adult, especially with language reading, people get freaked out when it's like, "I don't understand one thing."

Allan:  A very good example of that was a recent lesson. The learner asked me a question about grammar and phrasal verbs and why we use of certain preposition. It took quite a while for me to just be essentially, "No way. You just have to use this preposition with this verb, sorry." She just wanted to know a reason.

That's a very lack of tolerance for ambiguity. What it means here is, it's like, "OK, my lesson is on the plan. I can measure my success if I complete it." It requires a higher level of tolerance of ambiguity to say, "The lesson is in the learners' heads. I can't measure that. I've not really got any idea what's going on. Let's just let them work this out, and we'll try and explore together."

It's really hard to measure what's impossible to measure. You have to take a leap of faith that like, "They're talking to each other about the task. Good."

Ross:  Something useful is coming out of this.

Allan:  Yeah, if we trust in our methodology, something useful is coming out of that. Let's work with it. That's a lot more tolerant of ambiguity than I completed the plan. I know I did something. [laughs]

They'll learn the same thing where, in a similar way, the teacher might say, as a plus point, "Learners completed all the exercises correctly." Then me being an asshole, say, "Why is that a good thing?"

Maybe a tip here for this as a trainer or observer is, if someone says, "I got through the lesson plan, I did everything on time," you can say, "OK, were there any points where you feel the learners could have benefited from more time there."

Conversely, "I didn't manage to do everything." It's like, "Was that the plan or did you lose time at some point that you should have done, or did you plan too much? What was the reason there?" It might often be that "Oh, I just planned too much." Then it's, "OK, that's a learning there is you had a too complicated plan."

There's the areas where time gets lost. These are, firstly, presentation where you think it's lasted a minute, but it's actually lasted about 10 and everyone's asleep. Where you'd like to elicit a few things and you just want to ask some questions, and then you get stuck there.

Answer checking, I see a lot were it's, like, "Let's go through every damn answer." You already know they're all right. Let's go deeper or move on and just say, well done. A tip would be to record yourself doing that and then listen. It's like, your presentation, maybe that takes seven minutes of you presenting that. That's a bad use of time, I think.


Ross:  It almost seems like a prioritization or like a value for time. If you could look through your lesson and think about which minutes was the most learning happening? Which segments have the highest value for time?

Allan:  Or which minutes where I'm not really aware of what was going on? That's where the time really matters.

Ross:  It could be your example there of going through the answers. That seems to be a perfect example of no one learned anything in these five minutes. Could you have cut out these five minutes? Probably.

Allan:  You can monitor, obviously, and then you say, "OK, everyone got everything right? Let's look at number two. What do you think about the answer to number three? Give your opinion." You can still then turn that into a learning opportunity, rather than just repeating what they already know.

You mentioned before, time becomes a problem when they didn't do, say, the free practice or the core part of the lesson, which then yeah, that's a real issue. A way to get around that is to set a time, which is the latest that the core task can start.

Ross:  I like that. Not that I've done this much, but one of my best friends is into mountain climbing. The couple of times I've done a mountain with him, never actually gotten to the top, there's always a turnaround time of if we're not at the top, regardless of where we are, even if we're 15 meters from the top, at 4:30, we're turning around.

Otherwise, we're going to be walking home in the dark, and someone might break their leg. That's a great metaphor for the free plan. It's always going to start at least 10 minutes from the end of the class, come hell or high water.

Allan:  Yeah, 20 minutes, 15 minutes, whatever it is. Then if you want practice making sure that happens, then set a personal alarm or something that just goes off in your pocket and you go, "OK, everyone, we're going to move on to this."

Ross:  That's so nice. It's almost like the point of the timer is not for the students, it's for you.

Allan:  It's for you, right?

Ross:  It's for you. An interesting question's to look at...Because of the thing that we always say as teacher trainers is, "That final activity, you've got to get it done," or whatever, but why? Where is it we're spending time in a lesson on say, for example, accuracy versus fluency or input versus output? What's our rationale, maybe, as teacher trainers in those decisions?

Allan:  It's funny, they're right. The free practice must be done because, otherwise, they haven't applied it in the "real life" situation. Therefore, they've learned nothing. It's like, "Well, yeah, but..." The flippant answer is where learning takes place. That's where you should [laughs] spend more time, but where is that?

Monitoring your learners and seeing what they're talking about, what they're saying, what mistakes they're making, finding places where you can improve, that's worth your time. It's maybe not accepting a mediocre answer.

Maybe it's control practice, and someone said it with a bad pronunciation. It's like, OK, let's spend 20 seconds getting that better. That's worth your time. What else is there to talk about time other than...?

Ross:  Something interesting with timing is the idea of different timings with different age groups. I often find that's one of the big challenges going from teaching adults to kids, or kids to adults, or kids of different ages, is realizing that with three‑year‑olds, for example, if you have anything that lasts over five minutes, that's going to be a big problem. You need to plan.

If it's a 60‑minute lesson, you probably need to plan like at least 12 different steps in there. If you do the same thing with adults, which I did before moving from teaching young kids to teaching adults, that's way too many stages. That's just not going work. Taking into account the attention span of the students of different ages.

Allan:  One advantage of teaching young learners in that regards is the kids will tell you. They'll tell you very loudly that they don't want to do this anymore.



Allan:  In a way, the monitoring becomes quite easy in that respect. Stuff is being thrown, time to move on. Where adults, you have to listen a bit more carefully.

Ross:  Another key thing there is almost setting too much or setting these flexible aims of like saying, "You've got to write at least three sentences," or, "You have to answer at least seven questions," but maybe there's 12. Then, if people get to seven questions, and, "OK, you need to move on," people still have the sense of, I completed it.

They don't have this frustration that I didn't finish, but then you don't get the early finishers just sitting around and doing nothing.

Allan:  Then maybe people choose different ones and then sharing at the end. Yeah, absolutely.


Ross:  Another thing about timing I wanted to mention was just what teachers spend their time on in general. When I was teaching 20 hours a week, I don't feel that I developed very much. I feel that the year I developed the most was when I was a director of studies and I was only teaching for about five hours a week. I could really plan those five hours. Really apply things...

Allan:  Are those lessons special in some way that they...?

Ross:  When I was teaching 20 hours a week, you were just surviving, it was keeping your head above water. Whereas I found, when I was teaching much less, all of a sudden I had this opportunity to go, "I'm going to use corpus in this lesson. I'm going to try and spend a bit more time making my materials on this."

Allan:  I used to work with teachers who also had customer service jobs as well and they would phone the parents. A lot of teachers worked with that dual role, and they had no time to plan lessons at all. They wouldn't develop really.

Ross:  Because you'd just be going in and winging it every time.

Allan:  Yeah, and, "Well, I'm not going to think up a new activity or new way of doing this because I don't have time."

Ross:  There's always some sort of teaching hierarchy of needs there like I'm going to get...

Allan:  Survival is first.

Ross:  Yeah, it's like, "If I don't mark the homework or phone the parents, I'm going to get fired. I'm going to do those things first. Then what's next? Write down the vocabulary and four activities on the back of a Post‑it note." Then gradually, if you have the time and maybe you do have the opportunity to think in more detail and reflect.

Allan:  Then there's some idiot does try to get you to do that jigsaw activities which involve cutting up pieces of paper.

Ross:  [laughs]

Allan:  Even in a top tip matching activity, you only need to cut one half of it. The other one you can keep there. Top tip, I've saved you hours and hours of your life.


Ross:  That's amazing. I never thought of that before.

Allan:  Really?

Ross:  Yeah, really.

Allan:  Used to drive me mad to see people cutting both sides of it. Like, "No, you fold. You just need..."


Ross:  Obviously, thanks for coming on.

Allan:  My pleasure.

Ross:  For people that want to find out more about you, no Twitter, no Facebook.

Allan:  No, I have nothing. No social media present at all.

Ross:  Wow, cool. Well, congratulations on having no social media.

Allan:  You'll see me on the streets.