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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Group dynamics

At the beginning of the academic year, all students are allocated to groups, with an attempt made to create as heterogeneous a group as possible. There will be the same ratio of male to female students as there is in the class as a whole; the groups will be of mixed abilities; if possible, they will also represent a mixture of general interests and stated liking for English. An ideal number would be 5 to 6 students in each group (3 or 4 would suffice if absences are minimal), but there must be an even number of groups in the class. Each group will be assigned to a fixed position in the classroom. Although students are left free to choose their seating position within the group, they must sit with and carry out class activities within that group unless otherwise instructed. Where the university itself organises a placement test to create classes with a limited range of abilities, it would be possible to use a system of random placement, based on birth dates, height, summed telephone number or whatever other method is preferred, assuming that groups will thus tend to be reasonably heterogeneous. Male?]female mix however should be the same for each group.

Once the groups are established — in the first class if random allocation is used, or from the second class if based on an in-class placement test — an initial period of time is dedicated to traditional EFL activities designed to help the students in each group get to know each other, and to establishing group cohesion and identification within the group. To this end, a variety of competitive inter?]group activities have proved to be useful. Activities of this kind can be gleaned according to individual preference from any number of EFL teachers’ resource books. I have found however that for the teacher unfamiliar with such activities, the students’ innate sense of classroom savoir-faire allows the permanent group system to be adopted without any special preparation.

This system is very simple. There are only 3 or 4 segments to the lesson plan, and there is considerable repetition over the year in that the basic structure of every lesson is the same. This means that students establish a rhythm which allows them both to develop a certain responsibility in organising their own activity and to concentrate on slowly building confidence in their ability to function actively. This is an important element for the students to feel that they are actually achieving something in English.

Activity-type teaching in conventional EFL often counts on rapid change during the class and variety over a period of time to develop and sustain interest and participation. Such methods tend however to be teacher-centred or at least teacher-orchestrated. Lecture-based teaching itself is of course also highly teacher-centred. In contrast, the system of teaching/learning I am proposing allows the students to take a greater control over their own learning, and to feel that they themselves are responsible for what they have achieved.

The group then is the basis of this approach to classroom management and teaching. A group must be permanent in order for it to take on the characteristics of the traditional social, school or work group to which the student is accustomed. Considerable attention needs to be given at the beginning of the year to ensuring that the groups actually form in this way, and ‘reinforcement’ activities may need to be used during the year in order to maintain the group as a dynamic centre for co-operative learning.

It takes a while for a group to form, but often the process is actually visible. When first put in groups, students may sit a little apart. After a very short while though, those sitting a bit apart will pick up their bags and form a more closely knit group. As for the composition of the group, I find that the greater the variety of people in the group the more the group will develop a sense of cohesion, given the greater possibility of stimulating interaction. Mixed abilities within each group are an important element for dynamic interaction. The stronger students can lead and the weaker students learn at the same time. Considerable peer teaching can take place within the group where there is a ‘resident expert’ to refer to whenever in need.

The male/female mix, ideally a 50/50 mix if the pattern of class enrolment allows, will provide a stimulus to group interaction which can be channelled into productive language learning. The juxtaposition of male and female students also seems to allow an exchange of mockery which stimulates the group as a whole. Sometimes one will judge or make comments on the English production of another in a way that will be helpful. A girl will often speak in English while chiding a boy, and he will accept it because it is a girl who is saying it. Often such mixing leads to a lot of good fun — and lots of English, perhaps also because all of this happens in another language, where there is considerably less inhibition in experimenting with novel forms of communication.

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