The value of discussion

Yesterday I started a discussion on Facebook. I don't do this very often; I'm too shy, you know. I asked a question about a grammar issue I wasn't sure about, namely indirect speech (reported speech or back-shifting). I'm surprised to see that this grammar point has so many alternative names; more than it deserves, I believe. My PLN was really helpful but apparently, reported speech is not a big issue for most ELT professionals. Too much ado for nothing, so to speak. And honestly, I too believe that there is more important stuff to deal with in language teaching. Anyway, most of those who responded are native speakers (at least I think so because I stopped paying attention to this distinction some time ago), and they revealed that their answers were largely intuitive. Some teachers tried to come up with reasonable explanations and rules, which was also very helpful. It's always good to combine those two approaches. Ironically, with more comments coming, I started to feel ashamed of having spent so much time on this with my intermediate class. I suddenly wanted to get rid of the incessant pressure to cover things which don't deserve the time and effort. For some inexplicable reason, I feel I need to cover the matter because it's in the book, in the exams, in the curriculum, and so on and so forth. Back to the FB discussion ...  my discontentment with the way I teach grew, especially when I read Ken Wilson's comment: 

This discussion shows why exams that test grammar are SO misguided. Students answering this question are not in a position to have this discussion with the person marking the exam. 

So true, I thought. Unfortunately. But then I saw a light at the end of the tunnel. Yes, we can't immediately change the way grammar is generally tested, but we can change the way our students look at grammar. I must admit that I, myself, was brought up in the grammar-is-king environment, and I'm still learning to view things in a more balanced way. But I’m convinced that we must keep reminding our students that there’s no point in learning grammar out of context; in this case the situational context. This is what coursebooks sometimes omit or neglect.

It may seem like jumping around but now I should explain why I started the Facebook discussion in the first place. The day before yesterday, I had a lesson, and at a certain point I got stuck; I realized I didn't have the correct answer. What is worse, I gave my students an imprecise answer and I knew it. After the lesson I felt a mixture of confusion and anger - I was angry with myself, of course. Why hadn't I prepared for this more carefully? And why didn't I confess on the spot that I didn't know? In the afternoon I decided to ask people on Facebook hoping that my answer was right after all! But I discovered the opposite. At this point I realized I needed to go and tell my students in the next lesson.

And I did. Earlier today I told them about the Facebook discussion. By doing so I revealed that I hadn't known the answer myself. But to my surprise, these sorry-I-don't-know-all-the-answers shoes suddenly felt pretty comfortable. What's more, my students seemed genuinely interested in what I was telling them because it was all genuine after all. Throughout the lesson, I came up with more disputable examples of reported speech and I asked them what they thought. They threw suggestions at me, but there was no conclusive answer. To my amazement, they didn't seem to mind. I think it’s because they got the opportunity to show what they knew. Finally, I told the class: "I don't know but I'd say it's this way because..... Whoever sees this in some kind of context, please let us know". 

Needless to say, I felt different after this lesson. The transformation was not automatic though; it was born out of the feeling of guilt uneasiness. This feeling finally made me step out of my confined space; it made me go and ask publicly and admit that I’m still learning myself. I know this is not the final stage; I’m not miraculously enlightened. More moments and situations like this will come in the future. They’ll come in disguise so that I don’t recognize them immediately. They always do.