Making EFL Matter Pt. 3: The Challenges and Benefits of Discussion

image of balls in a tray


Well, what do you think? This question and answer form a basic opinion exchange that is sometimes called a discussion. And it is, sort of. But just as a single decontextualized sentence is of limited use in understanding grammar, so too a brief opinion exchange does not have enough context–with all its intentions, personalities, and sociolinguistic depth–to really be called a discussion. A discussion is more complex, and ultimately more powerful, because it has a goal and requires input and interaction from multiple members, which should allow them to collectively generate better ideas (solutions, plans, etc.) than any one of the participants could have done alone.

This sounds good in theory, but it is difficult to achieve in classrooms–especially EFL classrooms where learners have a layer of linguistic difficulty on top of the conceptual and procedural challenges inherent in establishing a system of rich academic discussions. The first thing we must acknowledge is that academic discussion skills, like Rome, are not built in a day. As I mentioned earlier, they need to be incrementally developed, starting with basic conversation and interaction skills.  Without basic conversation skills, discussion is not attainable. Students who are used to pairwork and are able to use the basic greetings, openings, and closings of common conversation “scripts” (Hi. How’re you doing? So, what did you do on the weekend? Well, nice talking to you!), and can react to each other’s utterances (Uh-huh, Really?! Oh, I love that!, Really? How was it? etc.) will find discussions accessible. Absolute speaking beginners will struggle and likely fail. Speaking must be taught, skills must be developed, and regular opportunities for fluency development given, or else activities like academic discussions, and the opportunities to flex critical thinking muscles that go with them, won’t be achieved. A little bit of speaking tagged on to the end of a lesson won’t get you there (as programs in high schools in Japan are slowly waking up to).

So now we know it’s difficult and requires a program of incremental skill development starting with a foundation in basic interactive conversation skills. One question we might ask is: is it worth the trouble. Given a limited amount of time, why should so much be devoted to conversation and discussion skills development? Well, the answer comes from sociocultural learning theory. As Daniel Siegel puts it in his forward to the wonderful Social Neuroscience of Education: “We evolved in tribes, we grow in families, and we learn in groups.” Walqui and van Lier (2010), in listing up the tenets of sociocultural learning theory for their QTEL approach, focus on some of the key points: “Participation in activity is central to the development of knowledge; participation in activity progresses from apprenticeship to appropriation, or from the social to the individual plane; and learning can be observed as changes in participation over time” (pg. 6). That is to say, we learn through active participation (engagement and collaboration) with others. “Language is primarily social”…and “…learning…is essentially social in nature” (pg. 4-5). This learning does not happen by chance, however. The really really hard thing to do is to get students into that sweet spot where they are developmentally ready and linguistically scaffolded  up to the point where they can function and learn. Development becomes possible when “…teachers plan lessons beyond the students’ ability to carry them out independently” (pg. 7), but create the proper community and provide the proper scaffolding to allow for success with such lessons. To answer the question that started this paragraph, the potential benefits of learning in groups are great enough to warrant using this approach. Students can learn content and language, and collaboration skills, essential skills for the 21st century according to Laura Greenstein (who also helpfully provides a rubric and suggestions for assessing collaboration, as well as other skills).

One more potential objection to focusing on academic discussion comes from Doug Lemov. Actually, it’s not so much of an objection as request to rethink and balance your choices. In Teach Like a Champion 2.0, he suggests that both writing and discussion can be strong tools for “causing all students to do lots of the most rigorous work,..but if I had to choose just one, which admittedly I do not, I would choose writing. Hammering an ideas into precise words and syntax and then linking it to evidence and situating it within a broader argument are, for me the most rigorous work in schooling” (pg. 314).  Writing is great, and cognitively more “precise” perhaps, and definitely needs to be part of the syllabus. Discussion is by nature more social. You can do both and you should do both; finding the time to do so is challenging, however.

So what do we teach? And what are discussion skills that students need to learn and develop? The best list can be found in Academic Conversations by Jeff Zwiers and Marie Crawford. It needs to be said, however, that this book is made for L1 learners and you will need to adapt as you adopt. But the basic list and framework make it easy and intuitive to do so. Here is the list of skills:

  1. Elaborate and Clarify: Make your thinking as detailed and clear as you can, carefully explaining the rationale behind your thinking.
  2. Support Ideas with Examples: Use examples to illustrate thinking. It is a particular and powerful way of elaborating and clarifying ideas.
  3. Build On or Challenge Partners’ Ideas: Actively respond to and develop the ideas that arise, either by expanding on them or tweaking them, or pruning out the bad ones through well-considered disagreement.
  4. Paraphrase Ideas: As ideas arise, paraphrase them to both show your understanding and create a springboard for idea development and improvement.
  5. Synthesize the Discussion Points: Bring all the ideas you’ve been discussing to a conclusion. Produce a group decision or plan.

These skills need to be introduced incrementally. Some of them are more difficult to teach and practice than others, particularly with students who lack proficiency or fluency, but also for cultural reasons. Some students in Japan find it challenging to disagree, and may have trouble ranking or pruning some ideas from their synthesis. These can be trained and taught. In my experience, students are not used to making their thinking so explicit and considering  ideas so carefully. Once they get the hang of it, however, they clearly become better listeners, better collaborators, and better thinkers. And after gaining some fluency with the formulaic expressions required to do academic discussions, they sound considerably more proficient.

Assessment is not as difficult as you may imagine. Ms. Greenstein’s rubric provides a nice overview of expected performance and can be used together with teacher observations, and peer or individual reflection and feedback. Performance tests are easy to organize because we can check several students at once in their group. Focusing on the success of the group in terms of process and outcome is actually not that hard to measure.

This post is part of a series considering ways to add more focus and learning to EFL classrooms by drawing on ideas and best practices from L1 classrooms.

Part 1 looked at the importance of goals.

Part 2 looked at using data and feedback.



Language on Stage: Debate and Musicals

In his 2011 book Creative Thinkering, Michael Michalko explains the idea of conceptual blending. What you do is take dissimilar objects or subjects and then blend them–that is, force a conceptual connection between them by comparing and contrasting features. It’s an enlightening little mental activity that can help you to come up with creative ideas or insights as you think about how the features of one thing could possibly be manifested in another. In the past few days, I’ve tried blending two activities that I’ve seen push EFL improvement more than any other: performance in club-produced musicals, and competitive policy debating. I’ve compared them with each other and with regular classroom settings,

musical image and debating image

I chose these two because over the last few years I have seen drama and debate produce language improvements that go off the charts. This improvement can be explained partly in terms of the hours on task that both of these activities require and the fact that students elect to take part voluntarily, but I don’t think that explains everything. There are certainly other possible factors: both require playing roles; both are team activities; both have performance pressure; both reward accomplishment; both require multi-modal language use and genre transformation; both require attention to meaning and form; both are complex skills that require repeated, intensive practice to achieve, and that practice is strictly monitored by everyone involved, who then give repeated formative feedback. Not complete, but not a bad list, I thought.

But then while reading Leaders of Their Own Learning, a wonderful sort of new book by Ron Berger, Leah Rugen, and Libby Woodfin, I came across this quote by a principal of a middle school in the US:

“Anytime you make the work public, set the bar high, and are transparent about the steps to make a high-quality product, kids will deliver.”

I think the speaker hit the nail on the head as to why activities like debate and drama work: public, high expectations, and clear steps. Aha: public! The dominant feature of debate and drama is that there is a public performance element to them. Students prepare, keenly aware that they will be onstage at some point; they will be in the spotlight and they will be evaluated. Of course students need support and scaffolding and lots of practice before they can get on stage, but unless there is a stage, everything else won’t matter as much. It is the driver of drivers. Is that pressure this message  suggests? Yup, but also purpose. I have seen kids transformed by the experiences of competitive debating or performing in a musical. I refuse to believe that the mediocrity I see in so many language course and programs is the way it has to be.

So, to get back to the whole reason for this little thought experiment: how can we take these best features of debate and drama and apply them to language programs? The key, I hope you will agree, is introducing a public performance element. There needs to be some kind of public element that encompasses a broad range of knowledge, skills, and micro-skills, and then there needs to be sufficient teaching, scaffolding, and practice to ensure public success. But how…?

Over the next few blog posts, I’ll be exploring these issues, drawing from ideas that are being developed in K-12 education in the US, particularly in approaches that have been working in high-challenge schools with English language learners and other at-risk learners (for example, by Expeditionary Learning, WestEd, and Uncommon Schools). In particular, I’ll be looking at ideas in Leaders of Their Own Learning (mentioned and linked above), Scaffolding the Academic Success of English Language Learners, by Walqui and Van Lier, and the soon-to-be-released second edition of Teach Like a Champion 2.0 by Doug Lemov. I’ll be looking at all of these through the lens of an EFL teacher in Japan. Many things in these books won’t be applicable in my context, but I suspect many may help inform ways of improvement here.