Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Gagne and the Nine Events of Instruction in an English Lesson

Skitch note created in Brasilia at 19:37

After years and years of teaching and planning, it is common to think that we know everything. During this teaching journey we also discover that our craft is everywhere we look around. I recognize this might sound like I am a bit obssessed about teaching. But, think with me, don't sports stars and actors also seem a bit obssessed about what they do? So, why shouldn't we? Anyway, obsessed or not, we see a lesson and an opportunity for teaching in a film we watch, on a flyer handed out in traffic light, in a science podcast. Being that enthusiastic about what I do, I have always thought that this is a wonderful job. It extends throughout your life and the older you get the better you become. It might not be so, but thinking like this makes me more comfortable about getting older and having chosen such a career. This pervasiveness is true especially for those who teach language once our subject matter is everywhere. We have a drive to communicate and spoken, written, and even sign language is everywhere. This way, we language teachers, are never at a loss for teaching materials and and the instruction ideas that spring out from them. In this matter, I would like to share with you what I have learned in the course I took at UMBC about Gagné and the Nine Events of instruction. In this post, I will try to connect each of the nine events to the way most teachers teach language.
Gain attention in the first event of instruction according to Gagné. It is true that if we want to engage our students in the learning process, the first thing we should do is to find a way of having, if not all, at least ninety percent of them, focused on what we have planned for a given class. So, this is the moment in which we announce that there will be discoveries. It is that " hey you " moment in which you stop any parallel conversations without asking your students to shut up. To gain attention, you share something that is in way connected to the lesson you are about to start.
Inform learner is the second event of instruction proposed. This is an opportunity to tell your class what your objectives are. I know many teachers are against doing it explicitly (especially if it is a grammar lesson), however we can always come up with implicit/inductive ways of doing it. Informing learners make them realize that we care about their intake of the content ahead and also helps building autonomy. Besides that, it is helpful in the wrap up process at the end of every lesson. Once informed about what lies ahead, learners can access what they have really achieved once the lesson comes to an end.
Stimulate recall of prior learning is the third event in a language class. It is during this event that we show students that we want to learn a bit from them, that what they already know is extremely important for us and for that specific learning community. When we do this, we allow them to share their knowledge and give the first steps in the direction of building a tapestry in which their contributions start being woven into the fabric of collaboration that emerges in class. This event sets the foundations to build the rest of our teaching event. It tells students that they are active participants in the learning process and not mere passive, blank slates.
Present stimulus material is the fourth event on Gagné's list. This one refers to the moment we show learners the content that needs to be retained. For retention to occur, Gange points out, we need to organize the material in meaningful chunks. That is exactly what language teachers do: we divide the content in bite sized morsels so that our students can slowly swallow, digest, and later use it. I like this analogy with food because it helps language learners and teachers realize that it is not possible to speed up the process.
Provide learner guidance is the fith event of instruction. This step has to do with how the instructor communicates with the learner and is intertwined with the previous one. This communication, in case of language teaching is very specific. The teacher tailors the language and instruction to guide the learner and help him or her stay on track. This guidance comes not only in verbal discourse, but also through images and any other media that assists the learner in retaining and encoding information. Such precise and guided communication allows learners to understand content and process it in a way that they gradually feel capable of using it later.
Elicit performance is the sixth event. This one is in a way much anticipated by educators. After crafting a good attention getter, informing the learner, and grading the language used to present content, we do look forward to the moment of having our students perform a task that demonstrates we are doing a good job. Performace at this stage, is still a controlled practice and limited to the repetitions of examples we have given. It is a moment for repetition of a model provided by the instructor. Nevertheless, it is much awaited because it gives us feedback on how much progress is being made by students in retaining the target content.
Provide feedback is the seventh event. This is the one in which we prune or praise the controlled practice. Here lies an opportunity we have correct the course of the learning journey. This correction can be done in many ways. The istructor can give explicit and direct feedback or use strategies that allow students to notice what needs to be corrected and do it by themselves. Here teachers give opportunity for students to review and improve performance.
Assess performance is the eight event. It is at this moment that the teacher checks whether learners have fully understood the lesson. Different from the previous one which involved controlled practice, this one involves a larger degree of freedom because the goal is to assess, not to correct or give feedback. This event is the coronation of a lesson and might indicate the need for change of methodology in the future. An attentive instructor might discover during this event that one of the previous events need to be re-evaluated.
Enhance retention and transfer is the last event. Once assessment has been carried out, learners must feel they have learned the content and are ready to apply it to other situations. So, teachers should plan activities that expand students' knowledge and make them confident in using what they have learned. This is the moment in which students produce language that goes beyond what has been drilled or modeled by the instructor. It is a moment for exercising creativity and transferring what has been learned to a variety of situations. This event is an occasion for free production of language.
As you could see, the nine events proposed by Gagné are a good way of revisiting what we know about teaching. Besides that, they also offer some insights into steps we should consider taking when planning our lessons. For me, the breaking down of the standard lesson plan into more discrete units seems to be helpful for instructors trying to better understand the dynamics of teaching and learning. Finally, it is good exercise to read the steps and compare them to our prior knowledge, and also, a way of enhancing retention and transferring our skills.

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