Surely there’s no way the students could drive the learning when it comes to learning a language – I studied it for seven years!
Well, that’s where I was wrong. And here are my tips for enabling students to take ownership of their learning via the Need to Know process.
1. Give them context
Students should already have a bit of background knowledge about the topics involved in your project. Even if it’s just a quick learning activity. If you send them in cold, you’ll get blank looks when you ask them what they need to know. For example: the first project I did with my beginners involved some cultural significance, so we started with a fun picture matching activity involving images from different aspects of French culture. Outcome: 180 students in the zone before we hit them with the entry event.
2. Give them the lingo
As language teachers we want to teach the students about irregular verbs, conjugations, opinion phrases and justifications, right? So if we want them to drive the learning, they need to see these grammatical concepts in official documents such as the rubric or assessment task notification. The students must understand that without accuracy in these essential elements, they cannot possibly be successful in this project. They should be asking, if not begging you to teach them grammar that in any other context would get some of them daydreaming and gazing out the window.
3. Divide up your Need to Know into content and logistical
In the old days my Need to Know lists used to be full of questions like ‘When is it due?’ ‘What program should we use?’ ‘How do we make an engaging end product?’ These logistical questions are of course not to be sniffed at, and can mean so much to the students. However, often I would be so disappointed with the quality and dullness of the Need to Knows that I could barely look at them myself, let alone revisit them every lesson with the class. This has improved with my ability to elicit more content-based questions from the students, but classifying the Need to Know list into content and logistical in my most recent project has taken the process to another level entirely. We don’t revisit it every lesson, but we certainly do so on a much more regular basis and I intend to keep working on that.
4. Get student experts to answer logistical or techie Need to Knows with student-led workshops
So the whole class needs to know the new grammar concepts to be covered in this project, so lectures and learning activities may be more appropriate than small workshops. At times, you may feel extra support is needed for those students struggling with concepts the majority of the rest of the class is fine with. However, your focus is on the language. Get student experts in the class to run workshops in whichever app is needed to complete the project. This frees up your time to focus your efforts where they are best placed.
5. Use formative assessment to check whether a Need to Know has been answered
A quick multiple choice question can be used to check whether the class is ready to move the Need to Know to the Know column. Similarly, a show of thumbs is a quick way to test the climate of understanding. A thumb up means they are happy, thumb sideways means they may still have questions but are happy enough to move on, a thumb down means “Stop” I need help with this! If there are any thumbs down, that Need to Know cannot be moved across.
I’d love to hear your experiences with Need to Knows in the language classroom, please feel free to post a comment below!