Creative Discussion using Plain Pair Groups

Creative Discussion – a key to insight and change


William Plain
Emeritus Professor, Nagoya University of Foreign Studies

Plain Pair Group Teaching (Plain PGT)
- for universities and schools
Plain Pair Group Discussion (Plain PGD)
- for decision making and staff development
- for informal or community creative discussion

A flash of insight is the spark of cosmic intelligence.
Small group sharing of insight can change the pattern of human intelligence.

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The Awakeness Paradigm

Preamble

Over the last 200 years, since the beginning of European industrialisation, humanity has begun a race to destroy our home: the land that gives food, the air we breathe and the water that gives us life. In the last few decades we have started to realise we are destroying something even more fundamental, the planetary system of thermal homeostasis that has maintained the necessary temperature that for 600 million years has supported large forms of life, since the Cambrian explosion. There have been a few exceptions, the great extinctions, the greatest of which occurred in the late Permean 250 million years ago when the average global temperature rose by 6ºC producing a 90% extinction. What we don’t realise is that we are already in the middle of one of the great extinctions, given the reduction of life forms and extinction of species in the last few decades, and we may be about to compete for the title of the greatest. So far we have had an increase of 0.6ºC, but if there is no major change in the way our species occupies the planet, the expected CO2 increase in the next ten years will lock in a 2ºC increase. Conservative scientists are now talking of an increase of 3-5º as a present for our grandchildren, and recent research is saying temperatures could increase by 7-10º C by the end of the century. If 6º produced the Permean extinction, what will 5º or even 10º do? When we were threatened with extinction by the two cold war powers, we could at least hope that no one would be crazy enough to push the button. Today we see that we are collectively crazy enough. We have already pushed the button.

July 2005

Contents - (for text see below)

Preamble

Abstract

Something wrong

A self-destructive species
Which cannot see what it is doing
Why, how can we see, and what can we do?
Other species are in no way responsible, it’s our problem
Problem is inadequate use of a new mental capacity
And occupying the whole planet
We are now influencing the functioning of the planet itself

What precisely is wrong

We long ago developed physical proprioception – a capacity to correct mistakes in physical movement
We have not developed ‘mental proprioception’ – a recognition of error in thought, emotions and paradigms
We need to actively search for dysfunctional beliefs and reactions

How to solve it

From being fully awake and ‘connected’, the adult human becomes stuck in a world of their own creation
The personal world becomes the shared world
The problem is when our interpretations are wrong
We feel threatened by the need to correct ourselves
We need to practise using our ‘mental eyes’

Mental proprioception

How can we activate this essential capacity?
Only direct non-judgemental perception leads us beyond the space of the mind
The adult is capable of this
Insight originates from outside the conditioned mind
Mental proprioception
can be awakened through attention, awareness, creativity and especially insight.
De-conditioning the body/brain complex

The individual in the group

Interaction with the group creates our world
The group can lead to creativity or conditioning
We tend to subordinate our value judgements to the group
Creativity and insight are individual
Recognition of error depends on the individual

The dynamics of the group

“Orator and audience”
“Teacher and class”
“Hierarchical organisation”
The leader follows the group
“The meeting”
Groups are often structured to limit the individual
Not seeing personal error means not seeing group error
Trying to bring the individual back into the group

Creative discussion

The small group as locus of mental proprioception
Neither hierarchy nor confrontation
But a search for the more evolved
Insight is a normal personal experience
That is rare in organised groups
Creating a small group process which encourages insight

The origins of the pair group

Awareness Training in Learning in Teaching
“Pair Group Learning”
Silence in the Classroom
Plain PGT and
Plain PGD

Plain Pair Group method

Freedom to present ideas and to listen to others
In an environment of respect and equality
Permanent group promoting the individual
The group provides space for new ideas
Between each session there is time for reflection
The “pair group” guarantees the success of group discussion

The dynamics of Plain Pair Group

The alternation of “insight group” and “pair group” ensures a simple but effective dynamic
The attentive perception of total involvement produces a ‘silence’ in which insight arises
Perception and insight awaken mental proprioception

The role of authority

Replacing authority with participation
The freedom to define the limits of knowledge
In organisations, discussion across levels of hierarchy
Respect, acceptance of difference, search for insight

Choice of content for creativity

An easily accessible method for the traditional teacher
From lecturer presentation to deeper understanding
Choice of appropriate content
To challenge established paradigms
Training for creativity
Functioning IN the language is the best way to learn the language

Plain PGT in the university classroom

What is difficult with the teacher around is easy with one’s fellows
Students of all levels become fully involved in the learning process
The invisible teacher
Development of responsibility
The chance for insight
Students will do what you expect they can do

Plain PGD in faculty development

Creative discussion process instead of committees and meetings
Discussion process
Proposal / discussion / pair group / specialising / results to group / research-reflection / share ideas
Personal development not group decision and imposition

Plain PGD in a work environment

Discussion process across hierarchies
Consciousness inheres in the individual
Corporate proprioception needs the involvement of all individuals

The need for change

Plain Pair Group creative discussion for mental proprioception
Only “I” can change

Abstract

A system of creative discussion has been developed for use in university teaching which is transferable to a wide range of situations from education to faculty development, and from corporate consciousness raising to informal discussion groups. The ‘Plain Pair Group Teaching’ method emerged through personal research projects into educational reform in Japanese universities funded by the Japanese Ministry of Education over a period of seven years, carried out at the University of Tsukuba and Nagoya University of Foreign Studies. This research has led to a fundamental review of the dynamics of the classroom and the learning situation and resulted in promoting non-hierarchical participant centred interaction within a structured ‘space’ designed to maximise individual insightful awareness. The role of attention, awareness, creativity and especially insight and how these can be facilitated through small group interaction are seen as key elements in the learning situation. In addition, these factors can stimulate an essential function which is largely lacking in the human repertoire, namely a capacity for ‘mental proprioception’ (recognition of error in perception and paradigms). This inability to register or react to fundamental errors in personal and organisational paradigms inevitably leads our societies to act in ways that are so often detrimental to the individuals who make up that society, as well to other species and to the environment, and is leading a globally interconnected world towards a major watershed in history.

Back to Awakeness Paradigm Outline

Something wrong

A self-destructive species
Which cannot see what it is doing
Why, how can we see, and what can we do?

Our world today is confronting a major challenge to its very existence. Most areas of human endeavour are to some extent involved in the destruction of our planet – science, religion, politics, and above all economics are all responsible. We are merrily destroying our planetary habitat, and we are generally unaware of what we are doing. The question which will occupy us here is why we don’t know; how we can see what we are doing, as individuals; then how this insight into our evolutionary limitations can be applied to our institutions that are as much a part of the problem as the intrinsic blindness that besets our species.

Other species are in no way responsible, it’s our problem
Problem is inadequate use of a new mental capacity
And occupying the whole planet

Animals left to themselves do not destroy their habitat. This is a prerogative of ‘homo sapiens sapiens’, the so-called ‘wise wise man’. Animals have evolved to be able to live without destroying other species or their environment. The human species evolved something extra, i.e. the process of mentation, which it has not yet learned to control. This is not just the ability to use tools, although today’s tools, our industrial technology, are what we are using to destroy our world. However, it is not the tools in themselves which is the problem, it is the way we use them, and that depends on our inadequate use of the mind. When misuse of technology was limited to small tribal or national groups, damage was contained. But with the further evolutionary step towards industrial organisation on a planetary scale, we have become a danger not only for ourselves, but for all species. The planet, and life itself, will most likely survive, but unless radical change occurs, technologies and civilisations are likely to disappear, along with many other species.

We are now influencing the functioning of the planet itself

Does this sound unduly alarmist? For decades now many people have been warning of the threat our activities present to the thermic homeostasis of our planet, but only ten years ago public debate still refused to acknowledge the growing evidence. In the last 2 or 3 years however, the major scientific bodies seem to have reached a conclusion. [This paper was written as a conference presentaton in 2005]. The only doubt is whether mankind is capable of reacting.

 

Back to Awakeness Paradigm Outline

What precisely is wrong

We long ago developed physical proprioception – a capacity to correct mistakes in physical movement

Animals, and humans, in fact all forms of life, manage to function in a coordinated, adaptive and self-correcting manner on a physical level. We don’t blunder and bumble our way around a physical space. We know what we are doing and, when we make a mistake, we recognise and quite naturally correct it. We long ago developed this capacity to correct mistakes, which is called physical proprioception, or perception of self. I can join my index fingers at a distance, and if I make a mistake, I can correct it. This capacity was acquired way back in evolutionary history and now needs virtually no conscious attention; physical coordination is largely automatic.

We have not developed ‘mental proprioception’ – a recognition of error in thought, emotions and paradigms

With the evolutionary experiment of a rational mind and a sense of self or ego (i.e. the general development of mentation) man has not acquired the necessary capacity to recognise and correct his mental mistakes, so he will develop scientific inventions which destroy cities, political systems which impoverish nations, and economic principles which destroy the very planet.

We need to actively search for dysfunctional beliefs and reactions

If we are wrong, or just out of balance, we need to know we are wrong. In physical proprioception, this awareness is obtained through kinaesthetic and vestibular information, and correction can be virtually unconscious. In judgements concerning complex psychological or social situations, there are no established pathways to tell us we are wrong. The lack of a fully developed mental proprioception means we have to actively search for dysfunctional beliefs and reactions. The brain cannot ‘feel’ what it’s doing, as the body can. And the body doesn’t normally do things without our approval. The brain regularly hides what it is doing.

 

How to solve it

From being fully awake and ‘connected’, the adult human becomes stuck in a world of their own creation
The personal world becomes the shared world

The animal does not dwell in memory and thought. It lives in the present, its actions are immediate, and generally appropriate to its situation. A baby is much the same, it is attentive and fully awake, and completely open to learning. In the process of forming the human adult, it seems something goes wrong. We are continually involved with memory, and from our memories, we create the world, our world. We rarely see directly, rather we continually interpret what we see, based on the memory of past events, and our interpretation of them. So the mind quickly builds up a complex of memory, interpretation and thought, and as we think and react judgementally or emotionally to all this, we slowly create an entire structure which is quite separate from the world we think we are seeing. While such a mental structure is personal, it is also largely shared, as our social and verbal interactions lead us to create a combined group interpretation of our shared world.

The problem is when our interpretations are wrong
We feel threatened by the need to correct ourselves

The problem with all this is not so much the fact of having personal and shared interpretations, but rather not being able to recognise when these are wrong. In other words, we ignore what our perception tells us, and see only how our brain interprets those perceptions, based on memory, on the past. The inability to see beyond our nose – literally – is exacerbated by the fact that our whole mental structure then forms a sense of self, an identity separate from what we perceive. As the self becomes identified with our inner mental working, with mentation itself, any questioning of the validity of the way our brain works is seen as a threat to our very identity, to the self. The body accepts correction without feeling threatened, but the brain seems to be much more uncertain of its evolutionary status.

We need to practise using our ‘mental eyes’

For the body to correct an error in movement, the sense of motion, balance, touch etc will automatically correct the movement, if not the eyes will quickly signal the problem. For mentation, it seems we lack the automatic processes which will correct erroneous understanding, and we are not yet very apt at using our mental eyes to keep a watch on cerebral movement.

 

Mental proprioception

How can we activate this essential capacity

How then can we go outside of this self-creating space produced by the brain and the sense of personal identity, which so vigorously defends itself to the point of all too often refusing to recognise error. Most of the functions of the brain on which we rely are part of and dependent on this inner space: thought, reason, judgement, not to mention the influence of feelings, emotions and sense of like and dislike. At the origin of this whole realm of mentation is memory, i.e. the accumulation of experiential data on which the process of mentation is based. Memory however is domiciled within the brain.

Only direct non-judgemental perception leads us beyond the space of the mind
The adult is capable of this
Perhaps the only element that our brain can access which is fundamentally outside of mentation is perception. Perception is the direct link to a world outside our self-created inner world, but to be fully independent of the brain, perception has to be devoid of all judgement, it has to be immediate, totally attentive, with a silent mind. The animal and the young child seem to excel in attentive observation. The adult also is capable of this, when in a state of heightened awareness, in an emergency, through appropriate training, or in a state of relaxed wellbeing. Such perception can be turned to the outside world, it can also be turned to the inner mental and emotional world.
Insight originates from outside the conditioned mind
Mental proprioception can be awakened through attention, awareness, creativity and especially insight.
While attentive observation can lead us outside of the conditioned brain, there is another factor which is totally outside of it, which comes to us as it were from outside, and that is the flash of insight, the ‘ah-ha’ experience of something totally new. Insight is different to discovery. Discovery can be finding something you didn’t know was there, a continent or an anthill, it can be developing a process or a mechanism, and although moments of insight may be necessary, the overall process is rather more methodical. Insight is the sudden irruption into the mind of a fully formed understanding, it is a lighting up of the mind, the creation of new pathways in the brain, even the formation of new brain cells. With insight comes action. With insight a situation is seen in a new way, it is fundamentally different, and appropriate action follows of its own accord. Insight creates a new situation.

De-conditioning the body/brain complex

Learning based on memory leads to conditioning, locking us into the established, the known, the past. Discovery is the beginning of awakening. Insight is the moment in which we are fully awake. Insight is the discovery of the new, a stepping outside of the confines of the brain/body processes. A personal insight is fresh and creative, it de-conditions the body/brain complex.
 

The individual in the group

Interaction with the group creates our world

We are largely created by our interaction with others – family, friends, society, religion, work place, and above all education. A large part of learning takes place in our interactions with the group and is essentially social. Interaction with the group can be enrichening, a means of achieving a common goal, a structured way of extending our contact with the world. But where the group action is in conflict with the wider requirements of the world around, it is difficult for a member of the group to have a detached view of their combined action.

The group can lead to creativity or conditioning

While in one sense the group can be important in facilitating spontaneous individual creativity, on the other hand, the group can exert a limiting effect on us, resulting in conditioning and an incapacity to recognise when we are destroying our planet and ourselves. In our industrialised societies, the qualities of group interaction are all too often based on: hierarchy, conformity, identification. The group decides, I follow (even if I’m the leader). Independence and autonomy of judgement are difficult to maintain.

We tend to subordinate our value judgements to the group

The effect of group action can be highly deleterious, yet we all subordinate our value judgements to the requirements of the group, and participate in actions that we would never accept as an individual. An extreme but all too common example is that nations often consider murder to be heroic, when it is defined as war, but in an individual context, murder remains highly unacceptable.
Creativity and insight are individual
Recognition of error depends on the individual
Unlike learning and the general process of mentation which are defined to a large extent by our social interaction, creativity and insight, which somehow involve a dissolving of the limitations of mentation, are ultimately individual, can sometimes be facilitated by interaction within the group, but they do not generally inhere in the group as such. The evolutionary step towards a capacity for mental proprioception as represented by insight and unconditioned perception pertains primarily to the individual and demands freedom of the individual from conditioning by hierarchy or group. Organisational proprioception depends on multiple individual proprioception. So the problem is, how to create a group where there is space for the individual, while participating in the group.
 

The dynamics of the group

“Orator and audience”
“Teacher and class”
In order to better see the type of group interaction which would provide the opportunity for challenging our conditioning and facilitating creativity, let us glance for a moment at the most prevalent forms of organised interaction in modern societies. “Orator and audience”, with its pervasive attempt to convince, make up a large part of public discourse, not only political, but also in much of the media, whether spoken or written. A similar dynamic governs “teacher and class”, where one person is seen as possessing required knowledge, and the others are recipients in varying levels of passivity. The written text when read as a source of expert knowledge often creates a similar relationship.

“Hierarchical organisation”

Hierarchical organisation” across a wide range of institutional, government, corporate and even small enterprise organisations tends to work in a similar manner, subordinating the values and judgement of the individual to the overriding concerns of the organisation. A military structure is an extreme example of such restrictions on the expression of individual values.

The leader follows the group

In each of these forms of organised interaction, the leader, director, orator, teacher are as much a part of the group dynamic as those who listen, follow or obey, with the scope for personal reflection even more limited by the overarching demands of the organisation than it is for the person in a subordinate role.

“The meeting”

There are other forms of coming together, for example in decision-making or development through “the meeting”, be it of a department, a section or a party. Here again, the constraints of agenda, time and established policy lock the participants into a format where only a few can influence, and discussion is limited by needs of the group and the needs of individuals for maintaining self esteem.

Groups are often structured to limit the individual

The dynamics of human learning, decision-making and organisation therefore tend to be governed by the demands of the group. Groups tend to be structured in such a way as to limit the capacity of each and every individual in the process to participate as an individual, hindering their opportunity to search for and express a deeper and broader awareness of the implications of the functioning and actions of the group concerned.
Not seeing personal error means not seeing group error
Trying to bring the individual back into the group
What does this mean? It means that the human brain, which has not yet developed an established means of looking for and detecting errors in mental processing, creates forms of interaction which similarly limit the capacity for looking for and detecting errors in group processing. What form or forms of group interaction then will actively create the opportunity for individual and organisational proprioception? While there have been a wide range of attempts at bringing the individual back into the group, my purpose here is not to review existing approaches, but to present a particular method of group interaction developed to meet these requirements as precisely as possible.
 

Creative discussion

Creative discussion

The small group as locus of mental proprioception
Neither hierarchy nor confrontation
But a search for the more evolved

The lack of a fully developed (i.e. virtually instinctive) personal or organisational proprioception means we have to actively search for dysfunctional beliefs and reactions. As the individual is often blind to one’s own functioning, and the organisation is equally blind, the best medium is a small group of (preferably heterogeneous) individuals who test the validity of their personal paradigms against views held by others. The functioning of such a group should not be hierarchical, nor should the presentation of views be confrontational. Rather each person should actively search to understand their own ‘world-view’, and seek in the variant world-views of others those elements which can produce an ‘ah-ha’ response or insight, the discovery or spontaneous emerging of an understanding which is seen as more ‘evolved’. This cannot be a ‘learnt’ response, nor something ‘received’ from another. It has to emerge from one’s own personal depths.

Insight is a normal personal experience
That is rare in organised groups
Every person has an insight from time to time, a sudden clear understanding, a new way of seeing things, though this is not often recognised as such, and the person rarely attaches any importance to the experience. Similarly, a state of heightened alertness and attention where the boundaries of the ego are in part dissolved is not uncommon. These faculties are natural to the human being, but only too rare in institutional settings – the school or university classroom, the workplace, the church or pub, even in the family or among a group friends. Our society eliminates the individual as the locus of new understandings, and conditions or structures the mind to the service of organisation (society, nation, religion, company, etc) while informal groups tend to avoid serious confrontation with ideas.

Creating a small group process which encourages insight

My attempt is to create a totally simple but structured form of small group interaction where an ongoing meeting of minds in a search for new understandings can take place, a discussion process which encourages insight, preferably usable in a wide variety of situations.
 

The origins of the "pair group"

Awareness Training in Learning in Teaching
“Pair Group Learning”
Silence in the Classroom

 

My attempts at a better understanding of the human mind and our organisations, firstly in Australia and then in Europe, resulted in the publication of a book called Awareness Training in Learning in Teaching in 1990, looking at the extent to which educators actually recognise the importance of increasing awareness in the student. In Japan, an attempt to apply this to the specific needs of the university classroom resulted in the initial publication in 1993 at the University of Niigata of a paper entitled “Pair Group Learning”, which aimed at maximising the ‘space’ available in the classroom for the exercise of awareness by both teacher and student, as well as facilitating more communicative teaching and the development of creativity in the student. The method and underlying theory were further developed through two nationally funded research projects over seven years at the University of Tsukuba and then at Nagoya University of Foreign Studies with the publication in 2003 of the book length report Silence in the Classroom. Since concluding these studies, further work has shown that the basic principles of creative discussion can be taken beyond the classroom and applied to faculty development and decision-making, to campus creative discussion and informal group discussion, and potentially to corporate development.

Plain PGT and Plain PGD
Two strands have now emerged, which I call Plain Pair Group Teaching or Plain PGT, concerned with the classroom, and Plain Pair Group Discussion or Plain PGD for all other situations, whether facilitator led or depending totally on the internal dynamic of the discussion groups. The structure of group discussion is essentially the same in both cases.
 

Plain Pair Group method

Freedom to present ideas and to listen to others
In an environment of respect and equality

A creative discussion format needs to provide space for attentive involvement, alternating between active presentation of one’s own views and an equally active listening to the views of others, in an environment free from the imposition of authority or need for conformity. The group needs to be small enough for each individual to feel they occupy a central role sufficiently, with time to develop ideas which may be difficult to express or rather complex, and yet enough other people in the group to provide access to a stimulating range of ideas. There needs to be a certain structure in that each person in turn would have sufficient and equal time to present their ideas while being given respectful attention, together with periods of free interaction for exploration of the issues concerned.

Permanent group promoting the individual

In the formation of the group, experience over the period of this research has shown that, where possible, there should be maximum diversity among the members and the group membership should remain reasonably constant over a period of time. The most appropriate number of participants would range from 3 to 6, with 4 or 5 perhaps being ideal. Beyond 6, the group starts to take precedence over the individual, and the dynamics of domination by certain individuals becomes more common.

The group provides space for new ideas
Between each session there is time for reflection
The choice of topic, or way of approaching a prescribed topic, is also important in setting up an environment where a search for a deeper understanding of important issues is possible. Ideally, the discussion will be testing the boundaries of accepted paradigms, and searching for new understandings. Each discussion period will be followed by a certain lapse of time allowing for personal research and reflection on the issues discussed, and time on return to the group for each to present the results of these reflections.

The “pair group” safeguards the role of the individual in group discussion

Furthermore, and essentially, the inbuilt tendency for groups to develop a dynamic which leads to conformity and hierarchical relations should be further minimised through regular interaction by each member of the “insight group” with members of another group, or “pair group”. The structure of this pair group will depend on the needs and organisation of the several groups who come together in this way, but in each case there will be the chance to compare and contrast information from one group with that of the other, providing further opportunity for exploring the views of a wider group of people.
 

The dynamics of Plain Pair Group

The alternation of “insight group” and “pair group” ensures a simple but effective dynamic

This process of “insight group” discussion alternating with “pair group” discussion, in small groups dedicated to this purpose, provides an environment which is stimulating and thus heightens one’s attention, it is organised to avoid authority and confrontation, thus freeing the individual for a search for a truly personal understanding. It leads each person to challenge their own views by comparing and contrasting them with the views of a wider range of people, at the same time managing the alternation of active involvement of members such that each feels they have had the time to present their own ideas and explore the area in reasonable depth.

The attentive perception of total involvement produces a ‘silence’ in which insight arises

In the controlled interaction of the Plain Pair Group Teaching class, the attentive perception of all that is happening, the search within oneself and in the views of others for a deeper understanding, and the continual process of challenging one’s own established world-views, results in moments of mental silence in which insight will arise. The key in listening in this context is not to listen in order to agree or disagree, but to search in what the other says for elements which will spark a response of insight in oneself.

Perception and insight awaken mental proprioception

Attentive perception without judgement, with a silent mind, giving value to the emergence of insight in listening to others, and challenging one’s own conditioned patterns of thought are precisely what is required to awaken the capacity for mental proprioception and to start to correct fundamental mistakes in the way we see the world and ourselves.
 

The role of authority

Replacing authority with participation
The freedom to define the limits of knowledge

Where there is a person who leads the participants and decides on choice of material, the demands on the facilitator or teacher are precise. The role of the facilitator is to generate thought and discussion, not to indoctrinate and condition under the guise of imparting expertise or knowledge. Where a set amount of knowledge is to be imparted, the Plain Pair Group system offers a number of ways of combining presentation of knowledge with the opportunity to relate to that knowledge accurately and yet personally. Above all, the role of authority figure should be avoided, with substantial downgrading of the importance generally given to accuracy and testing, the idea that someone else can define the limits of one’s knowledge, which severely restricts the freedom necessary to develop creativity.

In organisations, discussion across levels of hierarchy

Where the pair group interaction takes place within an organisation of some kind, the formation of Plain Pair Groups needs to be across levels of hierarchy, and space should be provided for all people at all levels to be able to discuss issues relating to the wider framework of the organisation. As an organisation in itself is incapable of fundamental proprioception of error, it is primarily the perception of multiple individuals within the organisation, interacting within and across levels which can bring about a favourable reorientation of the organisation.

Respect, acceptance of difference, search for insight

Whether in a structurally hierarchical situation or in a group of peers, the essence of the Plain Pair Group system is respect for the knowledge and natural intelligence of each participant, an acceptance of difference, both of opinion and of person, and a search for insightful understanding through seeking out the limits of our knowledge.
 

Choice of content for creativity

An easily accessible method for the traditional teacher
From lecturer presentation to deeper understanding

 

I would like to provide a little more detail about the application of the Plain Pair Group approach to the school or university classroom or lecture theatre.

The Plain Pair Group Teaching method offers an approach to teaching content or subject material while providing an effective means of making the class more communicative and exploratory. It provides a very simple way of combining presentation with student-centred exploration of the material in a way that is easy to use and non-threatening for the teacher (or lecturer) unfamiliar with communicative methodology. Plain PGT provides a means by which the teacher can ‘manage’ their class in such a way that there is an easy and automatic shift from teacher presentation to student discussion in small groups, thus assuring a deeper understanding of the ideas and a greater familiarity with the language contained in the presentation, as well as calling on and developing the knowledge of the students concerning the area covered. In the university context, this approach can combine lecture and tutorial in a way that effectively meets the requirements of student participation in the learning process, so often missing in a dominantly lecture based system.

Choice of appropriate content
To challenge established paradigms
Training for creativity

 

In a class which combines presentation and creative discussion, instead of traditional presentation only, the careful choice of appropriate content can facilitate the development of mental proprioception through enhancing attention and insight. Whether in a content specific class or a class where choice of topics is largely at the discretion of the teacher, choice of material should continually attempt to challenge established paradigms (or at least ways of looking at the subject). The particular ideas presented should lead the students to examine the limits of our collective assumptions, and to search for new ways of seeing the world that can provide answers, and more importantly questions, that can help the individual in the future to find creative responses to whatever situations they face in their personal or professional life.
Functioning IN the language is the best way to learn the language
As for the foreign language classroom, it is becoming increasingly accepted that a content-based approach is one of the most efficient means of language development. This is especially so in the teaching of English in universities in countries such as Japan, where students arrive with a significant knowledge of the elements of the language, but limited occasion to function and think in the language.
 

Plain PGT in the university classroom

What is difficult with the teacher around is easy with one’s fellows

Does the Plain Pair Group system work? The Plain Pair Group Teaching method has been extensively trialled over a good number of years in a wide range of classes in Japanese universities. Through this process it has become increasingly evident that, given an appropriate learning space, a class, any class, is made up of mature young adults who are but awaiting the opportunity to discover, create and experiment with ideas. This is always difficult in the presence of authority or where one student has to stand up and take precedence over one’s fellows, but in the reflective intimacy of the small group, the freedom to express one’s opinions, to grapple with one’s limitations and to search for understanding can become a natural part of the learning process.

Students of all levels become fully involved in the learning process

Where the teacher withdraws completely from the centre of the learning space, for a good part of the class the student in the Plain PGT class loses the sense of being in a classroom and will experience their hour or 90 minutes as a period for intense interaction with a small group of colleagues, involved in confronting challenging new ideas and areas of knowledge (presented by the teacher), testing their own ideas and searching for new understanding from others in the group or pair group. In foreign language learning, while there is natural variation from class to class and group to group, there is an attestable increase in language skills and capacity to be involved in academic discourse, discovering in the foreign language a means for communication, sharing ideas, and even thinking and discovering. I often notice that even the weaker and less motivated students meet the challenge of presenting and defending carefully prepared ideas in the foreign language. The same enhancement of learning occurs where the presentation and discussion take place in the first language.
The invisible teacher
Development of responsibility
The chance for insight
All this is aided by the fact that the students come to realise that the space for natural communication will be respected by the teacher and that the pair group structure will give the opportunity to test the boundaries of their knowledge, develop a sense of personal responsibility for one’s own learning and engage in an ongoing process of research and cooperative development. Especially in classes where content is carefully chosen to stimulate insight, the repeated exclamations indicating a sudden realisation of something new and unexpected can also become a part of the interaction of the pair group process.

Students will do what you expect they can do

In the Japanese university, I have found that, by using the Plain Pair Group Teaching approach to classroom management, and a content oriented approach to language development, the expectation that students can and will function in much the same way as would a class of English native speaker university students proves to be self-fulfilling. The capacity to handle complex ideas is naturally the same, expressing these ideas in English just takes a little longer and needs to be done in the security of a small group. Overall, the range and depth of learning, whether in the first languge or a second language, is significantly increased.
 

Plain PGD in faculty development

Creative discussion process instead of committees and meetings

In the area of faculty development, an occasion for intense discussion can also be provided by a series of curriculum development sessions among a group of university colleagues, following the same principles as those used in a classroom. In what is often the normal faculty development situation, the procedure would involve a meeting where discussion is inevitably limited and there is insufficient time for each person to expound their own ideas. This would then lead to a decision to accept or reject the proposed change, imposing whatever it is on all concerned, or ignoring those elements which could have been useful. Part of the process may be delegated to committees, but this of course excludes most of the members concerned with the final result.

Discussion process
Proposal / discussion / pair group / specialising / results to group / research-reflection / share ideas

However, in using the Plain Pair Group Discussion approach, the following would occur. After presentation of the development proposal by the facilitator, initial discussion of the overall proposal takes place in small insight groups, carefully chosen for maximum heterogeneity. This is followed by discussion in pair groups, composed of one person from each of the main groups, where each person presents a summary of the views of participants in their own group. Each pair group then analyses and discusses one section of the proposal. The results of the pair group discussion are then taken back to the original group, followed by a more detailed discussion. In the period between sessions, there is time to reflect on and research the issues concerned. The following session starts with each person presenting one’s understandings to the members of one’s group.

Personal development not group decision and imposition

All of this permits a deep awareness of the question being studied, and a personal commitment to adapting appropriate elements into one’s own teaching. There may be no ‘decision’, but the personal involvement of each faculty member leads to the adoption of elements of the proposal that the individual sees appropriate to their situation. No hierarchical imposition of authority is required, and each person becomes committed to a process of reflection, a questioning of established practice, not only in the institution but also in oneself, and a search for new understandings and insights.
 

Plain PGD in a work environment

Discussion process across hierarchies

Plain Pair Group Discussion could also be used within a company or corporation as a means of helping an organisation with profit as its principle obligation to also become conscious of its wider obligations to people and nature. Involving people at all levels in a creative discussion process cutting across specialist and hierarchical divisions would allow individual mental proprioception to inform the policies and actions of the corporation in a deeply transforming manner.

Consciousness inheres in the individual

The objection to this possibility might often be that you can’t expect a company to do something that reduces its profit. As an answer: what would YOU do if you were in a company, and making a decision that could result in the death or impoverishment of certain people, or destruction of the environment. If you were conscious of this and if it were normal to talk with others about what you do and why you do it, would you TRY to find a better solution which still protects the company? Yes, of course you would.

Corporate proprioception needs the involvement of all individuals

Every person, if aware of the impact of what they are doing, and able to discuss, think about, and look for creative solutions, would do so. And even if there is a section in a corporation dedicated to answering just such questions, would it not be better if each and every individual in the entire corporation felt they had a personal involvement not only in the success of the company that gives them a livelihood, but also in the world being created for their grandchildren.
 

The need for change

Plain Pair Group creative discussion for mental proprioception

This brings us back to the beginning of this discussion. If indeed the world is facing a period of extreme difficulty, and if human evolution has indeed left the species without the automatic capacity for recognising error in the image we create of the world and of ourselves, then a simple creative discussion process which can facilitate mental proprioception and encourage creative responses wherever possible would be very useful. The Plain Pair Group system is proposed as such a means. There will be many other approaches which are just as effective, and a person who chooses to use the Plain Pair Group approach will need to adapt it to the multiple needs of specific situations.

Only “I” can change

However, for change to occur in the world around us, it is important to remember Gandhi’s words, “We must be the change we wish to see in the world” – and not even ‘we’, but ‘I’, ‘here’, ‘now’, in this precise circumstance. This is the only point where change can be effective. In the classroom or organisation, or in the discussion group, the teacher or facilitator or manager’s right to be a focus of change must leave space for the same right for each other individual.
 

 

Recognition and remuneration

 

© William Plain  1990-2018 (print) 2005 - 2018 (website)