Saturday, 17 May 2014

On teaching languages creatively: what might this look like in practice?

Educators (and others who care) the world over have, it seems been worrying for some time about what's going on in classrooms. To paraphrase Sir Ken Robinson, little children commence their life's journey full of imagination and creative ideas - but all too often school takes away the joy of learning by experimentation, seemingly stigmatizing "wrong" answers and those who don't fit the conventional academic mould. Since innovation requires divergent thinking, this ought to have us concerned.

Robinson's critique is an interesting one that will strike at least something of a chord with many educators and others interested in education. However, as language teachers obliged to work with the world as it is, some might ask what exactly we are meant to do about all of this. To be sure, we can avoid coming down hard on "wrong" answers (one summer-school ADOS I worked for even went as far as telling students "A mistake is a gift to the class", which I think was an excellent idea), but in practical terms, what kind of language teaching would count as "creative" or help foster creativity?

It's a good question, and it has taken me a while to find any literature that addresses this question directly. However, Lesley Mycroft and Paul Gurton (in McGregor & Cartwright, 2011) have made an interesting attempt, so I'll attempt to summarize their main points here.

Definitions of creativity
Several have been proposed, for example:
  • Thinking that sets out to explore and to develop new perceptions (Edward de Bono);
  • Imaginative activity fashioned so as to produce outcomes that are both original and of value (NACCE, 1999);
  • A break with habitual patterns of thought (Robinson 2001);
  • The ability to produce work that is novel (i.e. unexpected), high in quality and appropriate (Sternberg 2003);
  • Thinking imaginatively, making new relationships between ideas and following these through into an outcome in thought or action (an experienced teacher, cited by Mycroft & Gurton).
A fairly obvious distinction to be drawn at the outset would be that between ideas that are new in terms of human history and those which are new to a person's previous way of thinking (Boden 2001: cited by Mycroft & Gurton 2011:109). You don't need to be Einstein to come up with ideas that still construct meanings, explanations, hypotheses, arguments and ways of thinking that are new for you (Newton & Newton 2010, likewise cited by Mycroft & Gurton 2011:110).

Creative activities: the key signs
This suggests teachers can promote creative thinking amongst language learners by challenging them to solve problems, or see things from new perspectives. A creative activity, Mycroft & Gorton suggest, may involve any of the following:
  • Existing information is used in a new context; learners get to address an "information gap" that they now realize exists, and solve the problem through discussion.
  • Learners devise ways of finding things out.
  • Learners think through and articulate "reasons for, and reasons why".
  • Learners work out rules from a given example; then devise strategies for applying them in new contexts.
Source: after Newton & Newton, 2010.

The teacher matters as much as the task!
Teachers can therefore create a classroom environment conducive to creativity through appropriate activity design. However, as Grainger & Barnes (2006: cited by Mycroft & Gurton 2011:112) have pointed out, teacher attributes and the ethos of the classroom they create also matter hugely. If teachers "model" creativity and create a supportive atmosphere, students will be more willing to take risks and express ideas they've not expressed before.

If you're interested in case studies of trainee teachers "thinking outside of the box" with a mentor's assistance, I can certainly recommend this chapter of McGregor & Cartwright's book to you.

Six Thinking Hats: a great idea for conversation classes?
Another good idea for creative idea generation which other conference presenters and ELT bloggers have already talked about is Edward de Bono's "Six Thinking Hats", as described in the following British Council presentation. Done the right way, it can lead to "creative decisions tempered by rationality" - and the separation of different styles of thinking into different coloured-hat personas can "funnel" more effective decision-making (Mycroft & Gurton 2011:121-124). Interestingly, Mycroft and Gurton also suggest it may serve as a model for teacher reflection, with the "Blue Hat" in charge - perhaps we should give this a try!

Conclusion: let creativity flourish!
All in all, I think language teachers can do quite a bit to promote creativity within communicative language teaching, and it needn't be restricted to speaking activities. I once asked my pre-experience students of business studies to write up an imaginary "balloon debate" between history's four most illustrious economists in which only one could be saved! You should have seen some of the answers I got…but that's another story. 

So how about you? What works best in your classroom? I'd be pleased to hear from you.

Mycroft, L. & Gurton, P. (2011). How can you use reflection to develop creativity in your classroom? In: McGregor, D. & Cartwright, L. (eds.) (2011). Developing Reflective Practice: A Guide For Beginning Teachers. McGraw-Hill: Open University Press. Chapter 7: pp. 107-125.

Friday, 9 May 2014

The Naked Presenter comes to class - are you ready?

Those who know me may well be familiar with my other blog, where I write about technology-supported language teaching. However, as even most technophile teachers I know will readily admit, pedagogy and learner needs still have to be our starting point: technology is a tool, a means to an end.

This new blog will therefore explore second-language communication in its various aspects, and will focus on the development of communicative competence in particular. My perspective (for the time being at least) remains predominantly that of a teacher of adult learners of Business English and other forms of ESP, but I hope that the topics addressed will still be of interest to a rather wider readership.

Today I'd like to look at the subject of presentation skills coaching, with reference to a book I've just recently read: Garr Reynolds' excellent The Naked Presenter (New Riders, 2011). His earlier Presentation Zen and Presentation Zen Design place significant emphasis on graphic design - but here the focus is on naturalness of communication during delivery: the goal is presentation shorn of all but what's essential to communication, and devoid of any artificiality or power distance.

As authenticity and audience engagement are hugely important to those we wish to coach, I'd therefore like to summarize what I took to be Reynolds' key points!

Delivery, not slides, is key to a talk, Reynolds argues (and I imagine few would disagree!). The aim of a talk should be to establish "natural" or "personal" connections with the audience: speakers are more effective and more remembered that way. If tools or techniques are used along the way, it should only ever be in order to clarify, simply and support that rapport.

As such, a "large conversation" is much more conducive to rapport than a lecture. Presenters whose aim is to influence the audience should start from where the audience is, show them a new direction and help them to explore it, all the while remaining authentic and true to themselves.

Speakers should therefore:
  • Have a clear purpose, and idea of how they intend to influence the audience.
  • Take great care to avoid inflicting cognitive overload on the audience! Else they'll forget what was said - presenters shouldn't overfill slides with content.
  • Resist the temptation to cover too much in their talk. It's far better to be restrained - again, presenters shouldn't overload the audience.
  • If possible, tell stories in which negatives are overcome. It's engaging and memorable! And exploit rhetorical contrasts, too (incidentally, Nancy Duarte's favourite is that between "what is", and "what could be"). 
  • Keep things simple! A simple story structure is Problem / What caused it / How and why we solved it.
Reynolds also has lots of commonsense advice here:
  • The best talk introductions are at least one of the following: Personal, Unexpected, Novel, Challenging, or Humorous. (The acronym PUNCH is quite easy to remember!)
  • Engage your audience with passion! Let people know how and why you are deeply interested in the topic, and why they should be, too. Don't be afraid to smile, get close to your audience, or be humorous.
  • Vary the pace every 10 minutes, if not sooner: give the audience what Dr John Medina calls an "emotionally competent stimulus" (ECS) - e.g. a relevant story, video clip, case study, image projected onto a screen, or even amusing anecdote - to allow the audience to relax as you make transitions between talk elements.
  • Speak steadily (not fast), simply and not too much. Vary the volume and pitch of your voice naturally, and don't be afraid to make use of silence or pauses.
  • Be flexible and prepared to change course if the situation demands it - this shows empathy for your audience. And don't overrun - this shows respect.
  • Give the audience something to do: ask them a question, show them a video clip, do a role-play, or have a discussion activity!
  • End powerfully! You could take the talk back to the beginning, summarize your main points, tell a story (just as you did at the beginning?), make them laugh, or display a quote.
As for taking questions at the end, Reynolds' advice seems pretty standard: respect your audience, keep answers brief, stay in control, and know when to stop. His top tip for presenters who want to master the art: practice! Persistence is key.

So what can we and our learners take from this?
I'd say quite a lot! Reynolds' advice can help just about everybody if taken seriously: many, many presenters (myself included, when I first began) make the mistake of making things way too complicated and focusing on content first and the audience only afterwards.

Given the chance, I reckon it would be an excellent idea to plan lessons which explore these concepts with learners. Mark Powell (author of Dynamic Presentations) certainly already knows his Presentation Zen, but some of the language he introduces is quite sophisticated, meaning you'll probably see the greatest uptake of his ideas at higher language ability levels. What we have here with the Naked Presenter is a non-prescriptive framework within which teachers can happily tailor tuition to students' needs.

Anyhow, if you're interested in making use of these ideas, why not get in touch? I'd be pleased to hear from you.

Reynolds, G. (2011). The Naked Presenter. New Riders, California.