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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Introduction and presentation of material

Instead of taking valuable class time for marking attendance, I have found that some form of introductory ‘warm-up activity’ can be very useful while I mark attendances. By placing students in fixed groups, it is very easy to check which group does not have all members attending, and check who is missing.

I use a range of activities as an introduction to the class. You may simply ask students to say hello in English and talk about what they have done since the last class. It is also possible to ask students to do a short ‘learning report’ between classes, asking them to reflect on learning difficulties or ideas which help them to learn better. Each student can read their report to others in the group, and then discuss their ideas.

Another activity is one I call the Paper Ball Game (1). A ball is provided by crumpling up a sheet of paper or bringing (light) juggler’s balls to class. The teacher asks everyone to stand in a circle in their groups, and he then throws a ball to someone in each group as a signal to begin the activity. At the beginning of the course, the teacher carefully and graphically explains that the ball has the magic quality which allows the person holding it to speak only in English, and that in order to free himself of it, he must say something in English. Only when he has done this is he free to throw the ball to anyone in the group he chooses.

Depending on the variations introduced each lesson, the utterance required may be a word or a sentence, a question/answer or the continuation of something said by previous students. The student may have as much time as he likes to make a response, or the game may be speeded up so that each student must say something in a very short period of time. There is almost infinite variety in the type of language that can be elicited through this activity.

In classes based more on discussion of ideas, where students further their research on a certain area between classes, each student in turn can present the results of their research or summarise the main ideas of a written report by talking to a prepared outline, followed by further discussion. With a little organisation, students can already be working by the time the teacher arrives in the classroom.

The teacher then turns to the material being used in the particular class. It depends on the teacher, and on the materials, as to what way he chooses to make a presentation to the whole class. If there is a written text, a simple reading of the text may be a sufficient introduction, or I may comment, explain, or analyse the text and even provide a certain quantity of background information to assist appropriate understanding and appreciation by the students. With certain materials, I will lecture for up to one third, sometimes even a half, of the class period. Where the purpose of the class is ‘reading/translation’, the teacher can similarly present the language and background material before asking the students to work on the text as described below.

The approach chosen will depend largely on the complexity of the materials for a given class, and the desire of the teacher to add his own knowledge. In peer development seminars, the subject for discussion may be known to all, or some presentation may have to be made at the beginning of the meeting.


1. The first time I saw a paper ball being thrown around a classroom was in a course for teacher trainers given by Pilgrims Teacher Training Courses at the University of Canterbury with John Morgan.

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