How a little democracy brightened the atmosphere in a challenging class [Guest post]

Mike says:
After my recent post on asking students to make decisions about the class Stewart Gray (whose biography is at the end of this post) got in touch with me on Twitter and said he tried the idea and it worked out for him. I asked if he might be interested  in writing something up to be posted here. He kindly accepted my offer and the below is from Stewart, for which I offer my sincere thanks. I hope readers will enjoy it as much as I did.

I have this one undergraduate class these days; 9 am Monday morning, three hours straight, twenty guys studying to be hoteliers and chefs, some mightn’t even be doing English at all if they really had a choice. Even in the first class, I could feel things were not going to be proceeding as I might wish. The first thing that really struck me about them was that, more so than any class I’ve had in a long while, they didn’t respond well to instructions. I’d start giving instructions, and many of them wouldn’t seem to feel any pressure to pay attention or take action. I’d ask them to make teams of three say, and after a couple of minutes, teams still unformed, I’d find myself stepping in to try and make it happen by sheer authoritarian force. Also, they didn’t find much to like in the sorts of speaking-focused activities I was offering up; perhaps it was the early morning, the long distance a lot of them had to travel, a lack of interest or confidence, or maybe what I was offering just wasn’t up to scratch, but these guys ventured a disconcerting number of audible sighs whenever I asked them to do something. By week four of the course, my nerves were really starting to fray; I was starting to behave quite disagreeably and sternly towards inattentive and late students, to my regret afterwards. I came out of class feeling like I’d been in a bad argument, and the following weekend I realized that I was absolutely dreading going into work on Monday.

Teacher authority (3)

That weekend, as it happens, I read a blog post here by Michael Griffin, in which he recommended giving students choices about their course, and that this would provide them with a great opportunity to talk. I immediately thought “I don’t need them to talk, so much as to study at all without me being all overbearing,” but nevertheless it sounded like a good idea to be more democratic. When Monday morning came around, I arrived at class with a plan, and no PowerPoint. From the very start of class, I wrote a list of class contents from previous weeks on the board, and I told the students “We’ll soon be voting on what we’re going to focus on first. Think about what you might need to review.” After about thirty seconds or so, I asked for a hands-up vote, and the students selected the topic from the previous week. I then immediately wrote two more options on the board: Writing or Speaking? Again students voted, and selected speaking, so I outlined a simple speaking practice activity and they went to it. And so it went for three hours, following a rough plan but with a student vote at every step. For instance, where I would normally have played them a listening file, I asked them if they wouldn’t prefer to do it as a partner-reading, as all the listening scripts are in the back of the book. They voted for the second option, and began to read aloud contentedly in pairs. It was at about this moment I realized I was hearing the sound of students studying away without my intervention for the first time since I had begun teaching that class. When it was all over, I gave the students my exit quiz, and a number of comments praised the voting approach. There was even one comment that included those all-important, beautiful words: “It was more fun than last time.”

Needless to say, I’m going to be planning my classes as democratically as I can from here on out. In theory I’ve never really believed in authoritarian teaching anyway, but I suppose it’s sometimes necessary to be reminded to dial back one’s forcefulness and listen to the students. My thanks to Michael for the inspiration, and helping to restore my peace of mind with regards to this class.

About the author: 
Stewart Gray is an English teacher living in South Korea. He currently teaches undergraduate classes, while doing research on ways to include critical thinking in English classes for young learners. He is also the current organizer of the Seoul KOTESOL Reflective Practice SIG




  1. geoffjordan

    Very interesting. Do you think it would be unrealistic for you to extend this to a more macro level – to a “process syllabus” approach, Stewart?

  2. Brad

    I have a class of non-English majors that I am teaching right now. Things were going poorly for the first few weeks and I realized that I was getting increasingly stern with them. I could see the direction that things were going and it wasn’t good. The next week I came in and announced to the class, “Look, if there is something I ask you to do and you really don’t want to do it, then just don’t do it.” Things got much better in the class afterwards and students were more enthusiastic because they realized they were participating in the class by choice rather than just being told to do something.

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