Preparation-activity-feedback… And why characterising these three common stages as a cycle can help some teachers make their classrooms more learner-centred.
This blog expands on an idea I introduce in the Trinity CertTESOL Companion (Anderson, 2017). I thank colleagues who have found it useful for suggesting I write a blog post about it. Here I describe what the activity cycle is, why it is useful in teacher education and offer a resource for teachers and teacher educators from my website (below). Read on to find out more, and do let me know if you also find the Activity Cycle useful in your context.
The activity cycle: A key concept in classroom management
‘The activity cycle’ is simply a useful label for the 3-stage process that characterises how activities are typically done in learner-centred classrooms. In contrast to a more teacher-led approach, where the teacher may lead learners through activities step-by-step, the activity cycle is based around a learner-centred middle phase during which the teacher is free to monitor individual work, pairwork or groupwork, while learners focus on the activity or task in hand. The key assumption behind the use of activity cycles is that learners can and should be given time to do activities independently of the teacher’s direct control, making them a fundamental part of more participatory classrooms.
What is the activity cycle?
The activity cycle involves 3 stages. It a cycle because, after completing stage 3, we often start a new cycle with stage 1:
There is, of course, nothing new to 3 stages involved. However, by linking them together as an identifiable phenomenon (or ‘artefact’ from a Vygotskian perspective) the activity cycle enables us to situate the many micro-steps involved to the activity itself and its purpose in the lesson.
Why is the activity cycle useful in teacher education?
I find it especially useful to introduce the activity cycle on short pre-service courses for language teachers such as the Trinity CertTESOL and Cambridge CELTA, when trainees who may have no prior teaching experience are expected to proceduralise a lot of practices in a very short period of time, while also under the additional pressure of being assessed:
“With experience, the three steps will become second nature, but when you start teaching it’s surprisingly easy to forget a step or muddle them up due to nerves, ‘brain overload’ or time pressure.” (Anderson, 2017, p.36)
I have also found the activity cycle useful when working with more experienced teachers who are used to more teacher-led approaches. For these teachers, a clear understanding of the activity cycle can help them to see that not only written practice exercises, but also reading comprehension questions, labelling activities, discussion questions and more can be done with learners collaborating together, rather than with the teacher nominating learners to respond.
The activity cycle can also help teachers to ‘read’ a communicative ELT (English language teaching) coursebook, where each titled or numbered activity on the page (e.g. a listening exercise, a noticing activity, a pairwork information gap, etc.) typically involves a full activity cycle of ‘preparation, activity, feedback’. This may sound like a surprisingly obvious point, but such books are a product of ‘western’ practices in language classrooms. As such, they include implicit assumptions about teaching and learning that are not always shared with other cultures, not always appropriate in some contexts, and not always possible in some classrooms (e.g. the challenge of controlling pairwork speaking practice in classes of over 50 learners). The higher our level of ‘coursebook literacy’, the more easily we can identify activity cycles that are likely to be successful in our specific contexts, and put aside ones that may not work.
A resource for introducing the activity cycle
Here is a link to a handout and activity that I often use when introducing the activity cycle that also shows the micro-stages involved:
At the top of the document, you’ll find a complete handout. Scroll down to the next page for a blank version and cards that can be cut up and given out during workshops. Participants can categorise the micro-stages into one of the 3 stages of the activity cycle, and then order them within each stage. You may find it useful to blow these resources up to A3 size and laminate them for future use.
Let me know if you find the activity cycle useful in your context!
Anderson, Jason (2017) The Trinity CertTESOL Companion. Peaslake: Delta Publishing.