When observing other teachers piloting my materials (the best test for new material incidentally) I often talk to the teacher afterwards about the lesson and their feelings about the materials. In one conversation, I was talking to a teacher about how she uses course books at the beginning of a lesson. Here’s what she said:
“Even if the book has a couple of warmer questions [at the beginning of the lesson] I’ll probably put those on the board instead of having the students open the book because I feel it’s a bit more heads up. They’re [the students] engaged with me and the whole class rather than heads down in the book.”
Two phrases in what she said resonate for me: ‘Heads up’ and ‘Heads down’. We often assume that books encourage a user’s head to be down; and certainly we want to write ELT materials that engage students so their heads are down. However, unlike a normal book, we also need to write exercises that encourage students’ heads to be up and engaged with the rest of the class. Typically these are denoted where the rubric begins with the words ‘Work in pairs’. Of course, it’s no guarantee that a lesson will have ‘heads up’ interaction. It does of course also depend on the teacher, students and classroom culture. The course book doesn’t do it alone.
While observing teachers I came across various strategies to make sure a lesson was ‘heads up’. Here are five I saw recently: 1 Students use one book between two so they automatically have to work with another person. 2 Keep the book closed at the beginning of the class and lead in to the lesson with a photo from the book on the IWB so that students predict the topic of the class on in some.
3 Write the lead-in questions from the book on the board rather than open the books immediately. 4 Play a short piece of video and respond to it before opening the book. With ‘Life’ there are videos in the book so this was easy to do. 5 Students read the instructions for a pair work activity, for example, a role play and then they close their books so there’s no reason for the head to go down.
Having said all that, students need ‘heads-down’ time as much as ‘heads-up’ time. I think a good test of this balance is to consider your lesson afterwards and draw a scale on a timeline to indicate the balance between heads-up and heads-down. It would also make a good peer observation task. Another application is for the materials writer to apply the heads-up/heads-down scale to a series of activities on a worksheet or on a series of exercises in a course book. Scale A below shows one set of exercises which encourage a good up/down flow. Scale B indicates an exercises at the beginning with heads-up and then the heads go down. Such a pattern would often ring alarm bells for me and tell me to add at least one exercise in the middle so that students’ heads go up.
Try this test on your own materials or apply it to a series of exercises in the course book. Do they pass the heads-up/heads-down test?