I bribe and smuggle. Yes. I confess, it's maybe not the most honorable thing to do, but my intentions are good. Really. And in case you were wondering, here's how I do it...
I bribe my students ("If we finish this activity, we'll then do what you want to do") and I smuggle new material into their chosen activities.
And the best thing is: At the end of a lesson like that everyone is happy.
Sure, I have my lessons diligently planed out, but lets face it, students are human beings too (albeit mine are extremely young), and even they can have a bad day.
So when they come to my classes, I am ready for them: armed with a great lesson with strong objectives and a ton of flexibility, to respond to my students' needs and passions. Don't be fooled though, a certain amount of discipline still needs to be there, so that things don't get out of hand.
Just today, one of my most diligent students refused to participate in any of the activities I had prepared (we were developing numeracy skills this time). In fact, she was in such a bad mood that even she didn't know what she wanted to do with herself.
Knowing that she loves a room in my school, which is dedicated to free-play (where you can pretend to go to a supermarket and buy vegetables, cook a pizza in an oven, prepare tea and dessert or pretend to be a TV presenter), I told her that if we completed the numbers related activity (I managed to get three done, not just the one we had agreed on!) we would go to play there. My understanding of "play" includes a large dose of learning and revising introduced structures and vocabulary, of course. To her, play is simply that; Play: spontaneous, free-spirited, pretend, safe and fun.
Before I tell you more about student-directed learning, let me ask you if you are familiar with the term "flow"? You know, that state of "flow" you find yourself in, when you are so fully immersed in an activity you don't realize time and your surroundings (as explained by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi). It's when you are doing something you love so immensely that your brain, even body, is fully engaged; And the moment you have completed the particular activity you have a strong feeling of accomplishment and satisfaction.
That's what happens with children when they are doing something they love.
They experience their "flow", which engages them fully, provides them with gratification, even calms them (because they are no longer fighting the teacher, but focusing on their preferred activity).
We finally completed my planned activities and promptly went to the free-play room to start our adventure with shopping in the mini supermarket. My student couldn't have been happier: she felt empowered and important. An activity that she sees everyday done by her parents, this time she could do herself!
This is when I started smuggling in the lesson's learning objectives: "Can I please have TWO apples, SEVEN bananas....etc".
She was not aware of it of course, but because she was completely in her "flow" and because the setting was entirely in English (that's the only way my students can communicate with me), she was learning extremely effectively: picking up new syntax structures, vocabulary.
In their learning capacity, kids are exceptional. Even if they don't know something, they are not afraid to ask or invent - they have no inhibitions. My student was so keen to speak English with me that she started throwing in German words with an "English accent".
Today, I stand before you, happy to announce that I had yet another "Proud Teacher Moment": After 3 months of classes, my four-year old student was already communicating in entire sentences!
Here's a lesson I've learned from working with kids: You can't fight it. No amount of pleading and begging will help. If in doubt, resolve to bribing and smuggling and give in (every now and again) to doing what your students love most, what they identify with and where they are fully immersed and safe. It's a win-win situation for both sides! Don't tell me you've never tried it...