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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While the Plain PGT method started in the EFL classroom, it can be used in a much wider range of classes. It has been used in classes which cover most of the faculties represented in major universities, either in content or subject classes whose principle aim is to develop second language competence or faculty specific classes given in the foreign language. It can also be used in first language content classes, e.g. classes in Japanese to Japanese students, or in English to English speaking students. I have also found that this method provides a successful means of promoting creative discussion in a university teacher development setting, where the participants are department teaching colleagues, and could be used across a range of professional development activities or peer discussion processes.

An English teacher is often required to teach content material which is outside his area of primary competence. In trying to use faculty?]specific material therefore, I often find myself confronted with material that is appropriate for the students, but quite frankly outside my area of competence in terms of subject matter. I may be dealing with a text on the dynamics of ecological systems, the laws of stress related to bridge building, or approaches to medical practice (1). I may be asked to give classes on International Studies or multi-disciplinary studies (2). I may be able to say quite a lot, but often the students are able to say even more than I can and I may wish to hand over a large part of the class to them. And where the teacher decides to venture out into the realm of ESP (English for Specific Purposes), using this method may be one means by which such specialist texts become accessible (3). It is not so important that the teacher be a specialist in all the areas he is teaching, but rather that he have at his disposition a range of teaching techniques that allow him to offer a class where his students can be helped to transfer their existing knowledge into English.

Many teachers may also use this method for teaching areas which are precisely within their area of specialisation, e.g. literary or culture-based texts. A text in itself is in no way necessary, the teacher may prefer to lecture and give his students outline notes or a copy of the PowerPoint cards he uses in his presentation. While I have not as yet experimented in this direction, I believe that some EFL course books or language learning material could also be adapted for use with this method.

If a teacher using this method chooses to read, explain or comment on a particular text he has chosen for a class, he will in any case have his own preferred methods of presentation, and these can easily be adapted. Such a text may be within the reach of the students, relatively unaided by the teacher. Many simplified ‘original’ texts by Japanese publishers will be appropriate. Texts for pre-adult native speakers, especially suitably illustrated books, may also stimulate the students to self-directed reading and discussion. Depending on the preferences of the lecturer, there are many faculty-specific texts, e.g. with one section per class and graphics as an aid to conversation, which can make an adaptable set text. I have experimented with a range of such text (4), generally based on a content approach to teaching, and often aimed at developing an awareness of global issues affecting our common future. It is up to each teacher though to provide what he considers to be the most useful for the development of his students.

The material to be covered during a particular class is first divided up among the members of each group. To do this, I indicate line numbers or draw an outline of the page(s) on the board, numbering the sections 5 or 6 depending on the maximum number in the groups. (If there are less than the regular number of students present in a group on that day, I may also have to combine certain sections). Such division of material for a particular class should normally be done at the end of the previous class to allow for preparation at home. I generally indicate the division of sections again at the beginning of the following class and give the groups where someone is absent a moment to reallocate sections. However, if the traditional cries of “jang-ken-pon”, which normally accompany the process of choosing one’s section are heard from most groups, it is a sign that not many have done their preparation at home.

Where I am lecturing to outline notes, the major points can be divided up, each student taking one section. In peer development seminars, each person can take one aspect of the area to be discussed.

Sometimes it is better, particularly in dealing with ideas, not to allocate separate segments to each person, but rather let each person cover the entire area. This generally presents no problem, as the creativity that this method generates will lead each person to deal with his area in a personal manner.


1. While at the Foreign Language Center at the University of Tsukuba, I found myself giving English language classes in a range of faculties across the university.

2. In a foreign language university (Nagoya University of Foreign Studies in this case), students receive not only language classes, but also a wide range of content classes in the foreign language.

3. I have found myself teaching specialist courses to specialists in that field, in areas as diverse as international finance, banking, aircraft maintenance, and office management (in Geneva and Turin). While I did not then have this particular method at my disposition, the requirement to teach ‘students’ who know much more than the teacher was a valuable lesson in the need to fully respect the intellectual capacity of one’s ‘students’ — of any age.

4. Many of the books published by Usborne (UK) for young (native speaker) readers (up to mid-teens) and in a wide variety of interest areas can make for very stimulating contact with the language. A number of books also have Internet links. (See

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