When I was a teenager, if you didn’t have an encyclopaedia and you wanted to look something up, you had to go to the library. There was a lack of easy-access information in most homes. And as for gadgets and technology, well, we probably all had a radio, and access to record and cassette players in the house, we’d had a colour TV for a few years, and maybe a Kodak Instamatic camera. At 13 or 14, I got my first calculator – it’d been slide-rules all the way until then. There were no computers, videos or digital anythings in the home, and Bladerunner hadn’t even come out!
On the whole, my generation did, however, get conversation at meal tables, on car journeys etc. Our family was fairly accessible in most cases and
there was more face to face communication than now. When we spoke on the phone, conversations were perhaps longer and almost certainly
more meaningful than now, and the telephone was in a strategic place in the house, in the hall and/or kitchen; when someone phoned the teen you, you stretched the twirly cable as far as it could go, so you could sit in the loo, the hall cupboard or anywhere you might have some privacy. In fact, conversation was something personal and, enjoyable or not, it was meaningful. How much did you learn about life from conversation with friends and family when you were a teenager? Misinformation a lot of it, but we came out unscathed. Because we had conversation, we listened to stories, we told stories, we were enthused by stories, we dreamt. Many of us even read. What’s more, adults were adults, and teens were teens. We knew the difference: we had spots, bad dress sense and great music; they had jobs, mortgages, Radio 2* and respect. It wasn’t a Golden Age or
better than now, but it was different.
Teenagers nowadays live in a radically different world. Thanks to trendy TV series and teen idols (they have the Disney Brats, we had the Boomtown Rats..) and product placement, they don’t even make fashion faux pas or have dermatological issues as often as we did. They have information on tap, and oodles of Stuff, much of it often distilled into the casing of a mobile phone, but also home cinemas, netbooks, and various makes of game console, both ‘chunky’ and handheld. The number of chargers, USB jacks, memory cards and mains cables is almost ludicrous. Unlike Postman (click if you want to read my opinion of Prof. P), I don’t think all these gadgets are necessarily evil, but I do think the amount of information and gadgetry available to teens at home, in the street and through osmosis is one of the two main reasons I’m pro unplugged teaching.
The other reason is this. What teens have less of out of school now is supportive relationships. Family plays a different role; where there are two
parents, on the whole both work, where there is one, he or she is rushed off their feet. Time is short, meals are often accompanied by TV and haste, ‘family life’ is slotted in between after-school classes, activities, team sports and homework. Phones are everywhere, phonecalls are short, possibly replaced by a text message, and a crowded bus is as good a place as any for a chat. The value of conversation is dwindling – it is more functional, about problem-solving, negotiating, superficial, particularly in a world where teens have 200 social network friends, rather than a gang of between 3 and 7 or 8 pals. SMSes rather than letters, sharing and swapping individual downloads rather than albums or cassettes. Snippets and statistics rather than stories. Information rather than ideas.
So, it’s something like this:
As any fule kno, teens are a needy bunch, they are proto-adults, grown-ups with L-plates. They have great gulfs that a teacher can help to fill, but my attitude is why give them more of what they can get anywhere? Why not give them what they lack?
Unplugged, or dogme, teaching is about dialogue. It’s about supporting students so that they can express themselves. It’s also about listening. With adult language learners, you listen to their language and their stories, show an interest, identify needs, build a lesson, help them construct
knowledge. But with teenagers, although the process is essentially the same, it goes beyond just feeding in language to a hungry human. Through unplugged teaching, you can reach the person; you can provide the teen with an adult figure who listens, tells stories, supports them in their studies and ‘needs’, you can help them access their imagination, build their self-esteem, scaffold their need to hear ‘I can’ ringing out from their inner voice. You can use technology or gadgets or information if that’s what they bring to the classroom, but your role is to provide what YOU can bring and they can’t (which means, of course, it’s also dependent on your character/personality, not just theirs, but that’s another blog post).
That’s why I believe in Teaching Teens Unplugged. And that’s what this blog is all about. Any complaints?
** photo by Phil Bird at #eltpics
* BBC Radio 2 is the more middle-of-the-road / easy listening BBC radio station