The ABC of ELT

Minimalism in the classroom

We do bring a whole load of crap into our classrooms don’t we.

I am usually very guilty of this in my first class with students. I come in with various handouts on a range of grammar or vocabulary topics in case they are needed. Usually, I use about half and have wasted a tree or so of paper all on this pointless printing out.

But it doesn’t just end there, sometimes we bring in

  • Computers,
  • Tablets,
  • Smartphones
  • Paper,
  • Pens,
  • Coloured pens,
  • Poster paper,
  • Paper clips.
  • Blue tack,
  • A stack of pictures,
  • A students book,
  • A workbook,
  • A teachers book,
  • CDS
  • DVDs

and on and on and on. Increasingly publishing companies are making more and more materials as a way to justify higher prices and raise profits, to stop people from choosing their competitors …oh and because they are good.

Basically, we bring in a load of stuff and use a load of stuff whether we need it or not.

All this causes problems.

  1. We can race through activities trying to make sure we have enough time for the bonus DVD activity.
  2. We can decided to use the free computer game in class because it’s “cool” and so they must be motivating.
  3. We can focus so much on delivering the lesson that we aren’t really aware of what is going on with our students.

But where does this all come from?

Some might say that it is because the teacher isn’t critical of the material enough or aware of the students but it’s something a bit deeper than that. I think we can be afraid.

Afraid of what you ask? Well of being alone with the students. Of having nothing except us, the students and what follows (If you’re thinking Dogme then I’m not advocating that, at least not a “strict Dogme approach but certainly with elements) but there is also a fear of not being up to date with the latest trends, using the latest material

“how can a lesson with out X or Y tech be cool? I’m such a technophobe!”

Fear is a powerful thing and to some degree it can only be countered by experience, training and perhaps most importantly failing.

If you try you may fail, but if you don’t try you are guaranteed to.

I’ve certainly conquered a lot of my teaching fear (but there’s always some fear and I hope it stays, the moment it goes is probably when I should change job!) and so now I’m happy to do things like paperless days or go into my first lessons with a group with nothing more than a student profile form and some get to know you activities.

Minimal teaching

I’m trying to minimalise what I do and I have some Simple (thank you) criteria for it.

  • Does this have a purpose in the classroom
  • Is there a simpler way to do the same thing
  • Will it add to learning.
  • Could I get the same or better results without it?

If It can pass these test then I am happy to use it and if not then it’s no real lose.

The result has been that my classrooms are much simpler but I focus much more on the graft of teaching rather than the paraphernalia. As someone who loves gadgets this hasn’t meant that I stop using them. Just today I was using my computer to both play a listening and record a student speaking. However, I’ve found that I don’t use gadgets or technology for firework effects now (okay occasionally on Young learners still but that’s a weakness)

It’s perhaps no surprise that my appreciation of minimalism in the classroom has coincided with my appreciation of minimalism in design (I hope you noticed the new look) and lifestyle but I still think it has some benefits for us teachers and so in all honesty I’m probably over applying a general idea but sometimes we need to take a set back and return to the basics.

They may not be as sexy as others but that’s okay


About Chris Wilson

I'm an English Language teacher based in Krakow, Poland. I enjoy writing, using technology and playing the Ukulele.

10 Replies

  1. i like your “Simple” checkpoints. one way i found of reducing photocopies is dictating the stuff, tends to be very helpful with some big classes i have (~30 odd students).

    1. Ouch 30+ I know it’s pretty standard but I’m a spoilt private school teacher. Are you a dictogloss fan? I saw Sandy Millin had written a post about them and remembered how much I liked them.

      1. was not referring to dictogloss (though they are good), i simply read out things i want them to work on instead of giving them photocopies. in my large classes for example i may read out sentences with missing words they need to fill in. (these classes are focused on multimedia and web lexis).

        1. Makes a lot of sense. I guess my worry would be that if their listening skills are weaker, how do I check they have written the correct things down. Do you have a system for checking? Using a projector etc

          1. yes or i typically use board so sts can check

  2. Gemma

    Hi Chris,

    I think we’ve all been guilty of thinking more materials = a better lesson! I definitely feel the need to have plenty of materials when teaching teens to stop them getting bored. However, I’m now trying to choose fewer materials and exploit these and as well as trying some “unplugged” lessons. I think your “simple criteria” questions are a great way to “minimalise”.

    Teaching nearly 600 students a week I try to keep my photocopying down to a minimum before there’s no Amazon left! I’ve found mini white boards have really helped with this, students can write answers to games / activities on the boards instead of on handouts.


    1. Great suggestion about mini whiteboards. I really need to make a couple of sets of those. That’s for bringing up the environmental aspect. At the summer school I worked at in the summer we would go through 60,000 copies or print outs on the course of about 6 weeks! In total it was something like 1.5 photocopies per student per lesson but it all adds up.

  3. Interesting post. Like many teachers, although I’m more of a teacher trainer now, I’m very attracted to the Dogme idea about unplugged teaching. The Digital Revolution has completely changed teaching and learning and forced us to question what should occur in a physical as opposed to an online classroom.

    Completely agree with the posts about dictation and mini-whiteboards, or the budget alternative – pieces of paper. What the students can practice in a physical classroom is face to face social interaction and anything we can do in the classroom to encourage conversation and dialogue and relationship-building has to be our main objective.


    1. Thanks for the comment Dylan. Where in Spain are you located? It’s a good point about what should occur in the physical and online elements due to technology. I guess the biggest problem I have about “flipping the classroom” is with students who don’t do the study outside of class. However that happens anyway at the moment and perhaps with a stronger need to study outside class it will motivate students more?
      I have to admit although I try to appear neutral I am a fan of Dogme.
      Thanks once again for the comment. I hope to see more from you 🙂

  4. erin

    I am a k-1 teacher and soon to be special education teacher, and the stuff that is in my classroom is driving me crazy! Our school purchased a math program this year, and the amount of manipulatives, consumables, etc. is overwhelming, I can’t keep up with it all. My cupboards are crammed with all kinds of science, math, reading, and language manipulatives. I also am concerned with the content that students are supposed to get through in a year. I don’t feel that we are giving our children a solid foundation to start on in order for them to excel. I would like to not only make my physical classroom a minimalist environment, but also my pedagogy minimalist as well. What are your thoughts?

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