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Perpetual Motion: Keeping the Language Classroom Moving

Big class? Small room? Needing to regularly shift modes of interaction (groups, pairs, big circle)? Do you have trouble motivating students to actually move? Noisy scraping chairs? Are students getting stuck in cliques and clamming up? Or is your 'group-work' only in English when you are within earshot?

In any of these circumstances the panauricon could be the classroom management tool for you.


What Is the Panauricon

The panauricon is a teaching method which arranges students in the oral class in a rotating circle allowing them the opportunity to practice drills or conversations with as many different partners as possible.

The panauricon idea is an adaptation of Jeremy Bentham's in/famous eighteenth century prison design, much celebrated in our era by Michel Foucault. Bentham's model prison was based on the idea that prisoners could be controlled, pacified and reformed by means of constant and uniform surveillance from a central position: usually some kind of tower. The principle of Bentham's 'panopticon' was that the prisoner could always be seen and knew that he (sic.) could always be seen.

The emphasis of the panauricon is on establishing the teacher of an oral class in a central position where s/he can hear what any student is saying. To put this another way: the panauricon puts the teacher where s/he can, without moving, tune in at will to any conversation in the classroom. In contrast with the traditional teacher centred chalk and talk classroom where the teacher stands in the front, in the panauricon the teacher is literally at the centre of the classroom. But despite the teacher's physical position the panauricon should be considered a student-centred classroom because, after the giving of instructions or initial repeat-after-me drill, it is the students who do the talking. In the panauricon the teacher becomes a mainly invisible presence. The teacher's role is to listen and intervene in individual conversations. The teacher's role is to time and orchestrate the movement of the class, to 'organise' the maximum amount of oral practice from students.

In any classroom where oral practice depends on groupwork or pairwork the presence of the teacher - as model of and arbiter of correctness - may daunt some students. As the teacher circulates to monitor the progress of students s/he finds some groups clamming up, shy; others which had been silent suddenly performing, yet others switching into the target language just for the benefit of the teacher's appearance. In the case of the panauricon however the teacher's ubiquitous position renders these evasions futile. The teacher can tune in at any time merely by turning his or her head. The teacher has no need to move around the classroom. It is the students who do the moving. The students have the feeling that the teacher is always 'there'.

As in Bentham's panopticon not all of the students can see the teacher all of the time. Specifically the students in the middle (on the inside of the circle) cannot see the teacher but they do know that the teacher is behind them.

Nowadays one tends to associate Bentham's kind of contraption with the frightening forms of social control it sporned: eg the modern prison. A word is called for then in defending the panauricon. The panauricon is not about silencing people. The purpose of the panauricon is to generate as much talk as possible, to monitor talk so as to help students to improve on their oral production. The panauricon is not about pacifying prisoners. Its purpose is to create an active classroom in which physical movement is associated with practice and in which practice and movement (and fun) are associated with learning. Whereas Bentham's model was all about keeping prisoners in a permanent state of fearful immobility (about restricting movement and volition through surveillance) the goal of the panauricon is to encourage the movement of students, to ensure that all members of the class speak with all other members, to control and order that circulation of students in such a way that students are reassured (by what may at times be an illusion) that the teacher is with them and able at any time to cater to their individual needs.

Most importantly though the panauricon is a co-operative activity: a dialogic activity. In the panauricon students, who are perhaps more used to sitting in isolation at desks in neat rows, work to learn together.