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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Visiting a ‘Plain Pair Group Teaching’ classroom
「Plain Pair Group Teaching」教室への誘い

The central idea of this book is that learning is not something that just happens, nor is it the direct result of teaching. Learning is the result of a very active inner process, which can often be facilitated by interaction with a small group of peers. While I talk quite a lot about the ideas underlying such an understanding of learning, I also present a simple but quite specific way in which the class room, staff room or meeting room can produce ‘understandings’ which are the direct result of the active participation of each person rather than being a reflection, often partial, of what has been ‘taught’. In order to allow the reader to visualise the type of interaction discussed here I will ‘invite you the reader to sit through a typical session’. This is what you will see.

In this case we will look at a medium-sized lecture based class (in English as a foreign language), though you could also watch a lecture given in the first language, a school or university teacher development session, a development or decision making session in a company, or even an informal discussion group.

You walk in and sit unobtrusively at the back of the classroom as the students are entering. They move the desks to form groups with 4-6 in each group where the students are facing each other. There is an even number of groups, each group ‘paired’ with a nearby ‘pair group’. Each student returns to the position established at the beginning of the semester, and as they sit down and take out their material, you hear them shifting from Japanese into English. The teacher hasn’t yet arrived, but each student in turn around the group starts reading a short learning report to their colleagues, while the others ask questions or make comments on the problems or the solutions they have found concerning some aspect of their learning.

Meanwhile the teacher walks in, apparently unnoticed. He writes a brief note on the board in case one group hasn’t yet started. He takes out a portable computer (it could simply be a print-off) and enters a score for each student who is present in the class list, ordered according to their seating position in the groups. As the groups start finishing, he walks around and hands each student their folder where they keep a copy of each report for the semester. Students silently fill in a self-evaluation form indicating attendance and reports done.

The teacher then tells the students, accompanied by a short note on the board, to present their class report in turn around the group, reminding them not to read from the report but present ideas from the outline they prepared to help write the report. In several minutes each, presentations are made around the group, with a free interaction of comments and ideas during the presentations, intensifying during the subsequent discussion.

The teacher in the meantime is watching the students, without interfering, observing indications of individual student involvement in the topic being discussed. At an appropriate moment, he walks around and hands out outline notes of the topic for the day’s class. The main points are numbered, and he asks students in each group to choose one section each. On the teacher’s instructions, each student raises his hand to indicate the number of the section he is doing and sees which person in the ‘pair group’ is doing the same section.

The teacher then lectures to the outline notes, using language and presenting ideas which challenge the students, such that with the notes and further discussion they can attain a reasonable degree of understanding. Quite a number of related ideas and sources for further research, especially Internet sites, are presented on the board. You realise the teacher is in no way ‘talking down’ to the students, but presenting ideas which provide the basis for serious discussion. As he talks, you notice students taking extra notes.

When he finishes the lecture, he tells everyone to stand and sit with the member of the ‘pair group’ doing the same section. At the same time he writes instructions on the board, “Prepare to present the ideas of your section back to your group”. As pairs form around the room, you see intense discussions taking place where each student discusses the ideas given by the teacher, checking meanings, as well as adding their own experience and knowledge. They take notes to help their own presentation. You notice the teacher moving quietly around the room, while several pairs call him to ask for further explanation on specific points. You hear some of the weaker students using Japanese at times to discuss certain ideas, while the stronger student provides the English words necessary. The students are unconcerned at making mistakes and have realised the teacher will not correct or interfere even though it is evident that he notices much of what is happening around the room.

The teacher waits for a momentary lull in the conversation and then tells the students to return to their groups. He has just replaced the earlier instruction on the board with, “In turn present the result of your discussion to your group, comment and discuss”. They all move back to their places and you hear each person explaining and giving their ideas. At this point, even the weaker students manage to make the presentation in English. An intense discussion slowly develops as the group moves from individual presentations to a discussion of the main ideas of the overall topic.

As the end of class approaches, the teacher writes the topic for the class report on the board, indicating that they should be creative, add their own ideas and relate the topic to their own experience. You realise that the same thing has also been happening during their discussions. He hands out the outline notes for the following class and asks students in each group to choose one section to think about before next class. Students then put their reports in their folder, finish filling the evaluation form and one member of the group hands the folders to the teacher as others put the desks back into place. Most students, in addition to intense listening to a lecture, have been involved in small group or pair discussion almost completely in English for more than half the class. The ideas presented during the teacher’s lecture have been not only digested but amplified in creative ways in each group.

The teacher has remained silent for more than half the class, and yet has remained totally present in the classroom, attentive to everything, and in no way interfering with the interaction within each group. The teacher has been ‘awake’, and so has each student, yet each has had his ‘turn’. ‘Silence in the classroom’ reflects both the teacher’s silence as the students ‘take over’, and an inner silence shared by all participants which comes from being totally present and completely attentive to and immersed in the dynamics of the learning process.

I have found with this method that the involvement of all participants in the learning/discussion process brings about a notable overall increase both in learning and development of responsibility, precisely because the teacher input is somewhat reduced. The sense of ‘ownership’ that arises from playing an active role in the formation of ideas stimulates motivation through a need to communicate meaningfully and makes possible the use of materials which will challenge the student intellectually. Placing the student or participant at the centre of the learning ‘space’ transforms a structured teaching/learning process into a cooperative process of shared responsibility which limits the traditional authoritarian structure of the classroom. Most importantly, the space for ‘awakeness’ and the freedom to experiment with personal contributions encourages the development of creative insights into the subject being discussed and a capacity for innovative adaptation which can be invaluable for the future.

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Recognition and remuneration


© William Plain  1990-2016 (print) 2005 - 2016 (website)