A London summer school with no classroom

The always stimulating English Out There newsletter had an interesting tidbit this month – a summer school in London taught entirely in public places. I wrote to the founder of EOT for more details:

Can you describe the group of students?

Yes, they were thirty-two 17/18-year-old Italian students who came to learn English in London with their English teacher. We split them into three small classes of 10, 11 and 11.

Where did the lessons take place?

• Sunday 3.30-6.30pm meet at Mme.Tussauds

• Monday 10.30am-1.30pm meet at Piccadilly Circus

• Tuesday 10.30am-1.30pm meet at the South Bank

• Thursday 12 midday-3pm meet at the South Bank

The teacher just met the group at the designated place each day, found a quiet place to sit such as a café, library or museum and then went through the language input. The next stage of the lesson was then to go to a place that enabled them to approach and speak to members of the public using the language from the input session. This is more about psychology than anything else and our teachers know exactly how to prepare the students for successful interactions.

What were the advantages for the teacher?

The teachers didn’t need to plan lessons, they just used print outs of the English Out There materials. They gave the students the printed worksheets to write on and guided them through the exercises.

Because we didn’t have to pay for classroom space we could teach in smaller groups and pay the teachers more per hour than we normally would be able to.

Can I ask how much the teacher got? How does that compare with other summer jobs in London?

This is the reply from Steve, who is my contractor and runs the teaching operation;

“I’m paying the teachers £14ph. This is a good rate and is based on what the better quality schools pay (specifically SGI, where I trained). Other schools pay less than this for temp summer teachers”.

We almost closed down EOT when the new visa regulations came in a few years ago because we weren’t accredited (they failed us because of the way we teach!) and agents didn’t want to work with us despite the fact we got amazing feedback and results, they were all so worried about the accreditation thing. We had been a year round school but went back to a small summer school operation. We have taught groups almost exclusively since then and they get a very good rate indeed. We also, because of visas, can only accept EU bookings. We are aiming to get some individuals this summer and will have to charge more but will still come in a lot cheaper than most of the English schools in London whilst being able to pay agent commissions (because we won’t need to pay for classrooms). It seems language travel agents are starting to shed their conservatism towards learning English outside of the classroom.

We want to pay the teachers more per hour and Steve thinks he will be able to do that if we get more individual bookings via the website and new agents. Our philosophy is to keep costs as low as possible, use free space to teach and make it as easy and rewarding to teach as possible. Who knows, if it takes off and we have full classes we could have an incredible balance of higher wages, small classes, low course fees and very happy and successful students. That’s the intention, but we are just coming back from some very tough years.

What are the advantages for the students?

Firstly they didn’t have to go into a classroom whilst away from their normal school routine. It can be quite de-motivating to be put back into a classroom when all you want to do is explore out and about.

Secondly, our teachers and the group’s leader (their English teacher in Italy) all reported an increased level of interest in the lesson from the start. Sometimes groups see the classroom input sessions as a bit of a chore (for the reason outlined above). By starting the class in an interesting space that wasn’t a classroom we’d hoped to see more energy and attentiveness in the input stage, which is what happened.

The input from the lesson would have been linked to the location and the people much more than if it had been taught in a typical classroom. We didn’t test it but are sure from previous experience and from the research on social and connectivist learning that the lesson experience and at its core, the target language, would be much more vivid and memorable for the students.

Was no equipment needed, e.g. clipboards and something for the teacher to write on?

Yes, we provide the students with clipboards. The teachers use them, too. The teachers use magazines, newspapers and other published material (maps, guides, informational leaflets, etc.) with the students. We also give the students extensive EOT handouts.

How would you do it on a rainy day?

Always have a back-up lesson that uses somewhere that is covered or inside. It’s worked for us for over 10 years!

Would the various owners of premises and relevant authorities be happy if they knew paid lessons were going on in those places?

Some have no idea because it just looks like a bunch of students with clipboards doing a project and they don’t bat an eyelid. Some know and think it is cool. Only once or twice have we been asked not to and that has been in private spaces that look and are used by the public, and even then it was just a security guard ‘doing a jobsworth’. It really is quite unobtrusive.

Don’t you have to be careful not to annoy the passers-by?

They’re not passers-by! There’s nothing more likely to make a member of the public panic and run off than the sight of someone holding a clipboard with his or her mouth poised to speak. We have well-honed techniques for finding, approaching and talking to members of the public. They are a trade secret but I can say that around 95% of approaches to people are successful. If they weren’t that easy students would suffer even bigger crises of confidence than the ones they had when they signed up. It’s all about human psychology. We give them what we call the ‘magic words’ (which are in the published teacher’s book). Ever since we started doing this people have always been incredulous that strangers, especially the infamously uber-busy Londoners, are actually happy to talk for a few minutes. The fact is they are and it is an incredibly powerful, life-affirming and memorable experience for the students. This was written on a feedback from by one of our first customers,

“It’s not just good for your English…it’s good for your entire life.” Arda, 19, Turkey

Who came up with the idea of lessons with no classroom and how?

I had the idea for English Out There in 2001. With my experienced teacher colleagues we taught and tested the materials for years before we published them. At the start we always taught the input in a classroom before the teacher took the class out to do the speaking practice with members of the public.

In the last few years we have taught the odd small group without the use of a classroom, for example we have used the café in John Lewis department store on Oxford Street to prepare for a lesson on shopping where students actually ask shop assistants questions they have prepared.

It just seemed the obvious next step to try and do it with a group of teenagers, especially since they can be a bit hard to get going first thing in class sometimes.

Are the same people planning on doing the same thing again?

I’m sure they will, as the feedback we had was excellent. We have been using free public spaces and members of the public for focused speaking practice for a long time and get fantastic results in terms of quick speaking and listening improvement and boosted confidence. However, this was the first time we did it all from start to finish – Agent enquiry – Booking – Course planning – Course teaching without an office building or any classrooms whatsoever.

What other places could be used in the same way?

All towns and cities have similar public spaces that can be used in this way. If you think about it, towns and cities are planned for people to use them, even very hot or very cold places, because the town planners and architects take the local climate into consideration when they plan public spaces for people to meet socially.

Anything you or they would change doing it a second time?

One thing, I’d set up the Facebook group earlier and include it in the planning for the teachers and students, there is so much more we could have used it for. Apart from that nothing, it went as we’d planned it. The teachers had an hour with the DOS (in a public space over a coffee) the day before the group arrived, they re-read the English Out There teacher’s instructions that come with our course materials, made sure they had enough worksheet copies for the students and that was that.

The materials we used are available for purchase online from our website and there are teacher and student intermediate print versions available from Bournemouth English Book Centre. So if any teachers reading this want to do some English Out There this summer they can use the same content we did.

More details

TEFL.net review of LanguagesOutThere

The London-based course

Facebook group with photos

Print versions

And with full instructions on how to organise the course and use public spaces to teach

Digital versions

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2 Responses to A London summer school with no classroom

  1. Andy Mallory says:

    Interesting. I’m guessing while it is low intensity it could work well – but if it caught on and 20 groups all converged on Mme Toussaud’s at 2pm then it’d be a disaster!

    Also – you can do this for 2-3 hours a day but not full time. It’d become as dull as a classroom as soon as it became the ‘norm’.

    You must be quite limited in the kind of language you can use and practice/teach.

    Monitoring has got to be difficult too – if 6 pairs all scatter across a public place the risk of 2-3 pairs not doing the task assigned or even absconding/being abducted is significant.

    If you’re dealing with older students who can be expected to be self motivated and responsible/street smart then OK no problem. But those students usually do well in a classroom setting with occasional ‘outings’ anyway.

    £14 an hour is hardly a great wage for someone in London. Do they get paid for travel to and from the location? Doubtful. And given that a full day is unlikely to be available it is only really part time/fill in work for students etc.

    Still, it is more per hour than many summer schools offer even in London.

    I still have to say – if properly regulated – standard EFL classes with some out of classroom activities is probably better. It is the constant driving down of wages and cutting of standards which has led to cut price rates for students that in the end are a false economy. I always advise students looking to study in the UK to pick a fairly expensive place with a good reputation that is open all year and study for fewer weeks. Say if you have a budget of £2000 for tuition better to pay £500 a week for one month than 250 a week for 2 months…

    Not to be entirely negative, I applaud the attempt and can see the benefits for students of having this as an option. And in the real world of cutthroat summer school competition, it seems a reasonable attempt to provide a service, employ people and make a profit.

  2. Sandy Mac says:

    Damn!! Just when I thought I’d hit on a marvellous novel way of teaching (and making a fortune), it seems I’ve been beaten to it.
    Oh well, back to the whiteboard…

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