In May 2018 I attended Jedrek Stepien’s presentation at InnovateELT in Barcelona. The title of the session was ‘Conversation Experience’, and you can read its description here.
The first part was a demonstration lesson with four teenage students, whose proficiency level of English was approximately B2-C1 according to CEFR. [Important Note: Since Jedrek is/was based in France, he had met those students literally minutes before the lesson began]
During the lesson we observed, the teacher/presenter and students were seating near the whiteboard, with the teacher facing the audience and the students’ row slightly turned to the right (towards the board) For the first 30 minutes or so the teacher was asking questions and students were answering them (sometimes in turns, sometimes only 1-2 students volunteered to respond). The teacher took notes in his notebook, listened, and asked another question. He sometimes made a note on the board.
During the session I took lots of hand-written notes feeling curious where the conversation is heading, and what kind of lesson planning framework the teacher was using.
Some questions I took notes of:
- Which distance is shorter: from bad to good or from good to excellent?
- Are there many genius people in the world?
- Is talent an obstacle? Can it be an obstacle?
- What’s the difference between medicine and cosmetics?
- What’s the relationship between beauty and health?
- What’s the difference between a shy person and a coward?
- Could a coward be successful in life? (e.g. become a CEO, boss, president?)
- Is stupid the same as useless? Pointless?
- Is something difficult always stressful?
Some questions asked in response to students:
- What’s the difference between ugly and scary?
- Can a monster be small?
- What’s the essence of being a monster?
- Can a monster be beautiful?
After the ‘demo lesson’ part was over, the ‘Teacher’ put on his ‘Presenter Hat’ and answered some questions from the audience. He pointed out that (as the session title suggests) the main idea of building his lessons is facilitating, or even provoking, a real conversation.
While listening to Jedrek in this part I started making a list of what it means to teach using a Conversation Method.
1) asking interesting questions helps students feel curious and surprised
2) curiosity is a part of fun [Note: the theme of the Conference was ‘Fun?! Delight and Struggle in ELT’]
3) being surprised in class prepares students to be surprised in the real-life communication with people (and be more open to them, I think)
4) talking about one’s life, e.g. family, weekends, vacations, etc., could be very boring (especially if students have been in the same group for years)
5) talking about impersonal can become deeply personal while people exchange their opinions and beliefs; instead of discussing past summer, they talk about something really important (for teacher, for students, for the society, etc.)
6) this approach is very close to communication and conversations in the real life: we think and answer a question at the same time; the ‘correct’ answer does not exist; there is no shame that some questions are not answered (offer a choice, don not to step in to ‘help’)
7) there is no focus on accuracy for the sake of accuracy (an extreme example I heard from someone is when a student says: ‘My father die last weekend’, and his teacher replies: ‘No, say ‘died‘, not ‘die’. Please repeat.’)
8) finally and particularly important when teaching teenage students: they need to be treated as adults, teachers need to have genuine faith in them, and find ways to show this faith to students.
Some other notes I took:
‘4 students are 4 individual minds‘ > > It was amazing to listen to their replies, ideas, questions and opinions. Someone from the audience commented that he had not expected that mostly all the questions would be answered by each student (remember, there were also 30+ adult observers in the ‘classroom’!)
‘Teaching is violence‘ > > I can’t remember why I took a note of this. Was it about privacy being violated by the personal questions we ask in class?
Jedrek’s note: If I remember correctly, it was not so much about violating the private sphere (though it’s a good point) as about the fact that school teaching is an artificial situation where the teacher forces something upon the student.
Posts by Jedrek you may like to read
Professional and Nonprofessional Conversation Classes https://medium.com/@mentals/professional-and-nonprofessional-conversation-classes-da27da0a271d
The Case Against Personal Questions: https://medium.com/@mentals/the-case-against-personal-questions-8ee6571b4806
The Art of Conversation: https://medium.com/@mentals/the-art-of-conversation-1ac8e10f1fd8
The New Responsibility of Second Language Teachers: How L2 teachers can innovate education beyond technology: https://medium.com/@mentals/the-new-responsibility-of-the-second-language-teachers-e8675df92d81
(Semi-) Final Thoughts:
I have a list of questions to Jedrek about the approach, lesson planning, other tips and tricks, and (don’t tell anyone yet!) we are working on an interview post where he will be answering some of those questions.
Is there anything you would like to ask him about teaching and learning beliefs and practices? Please add your questions to the comment section below, or contact Jedrek directly via Twitter, and… check Part 2 where Jedrek is answering your (and others’) questions.
Thank you for reading! 🙂
I was at Jedrek’s talk at TESOL France in 2015 although I think he hadn’t yet moved to France at that point. He talked about how to formulate interesting questions, much like the ones you mention in the post – what’s the difference between X & Y? I remember him making the point that talking about the weekend and a lot of the things we talk about in class could get boring for students. It wasn’t a typical talk and it stuck in my mind. Looking forward to part 2.
Were the observers also expected to join in the demo part of the session? Just wondering, because you said someone was surprised the students had answered all of the questions.
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Thank you for the conversation (about conversations!). I think the idea has a lot of potential: that real-life dialogue is a skill, and that looking for topics to talk about and creating stimulating thought-provoking questions is a sub-skill to master.
Kamila’s post ‘My Dogmestasy’ had this line: ‘The worse [scenario] was if my students were learning as part of their work benefits and didn’t care much for English at all. Their lives were pretty much unchanging. What was there to talk about?’ ‘https://kamilaofprague.wordpress.com/2018/01/22/my-dogmecstasy/
In the session we observers did not interfere at all (just like observing a ‘usual’ lesson). I was thinking about my possible answers to the questions asked in the process, and it was a fascinating mental exercise, I’d say. Wish I had made more notes about those, too 🙂
I think there is a lot to think about in this idea… More soon!
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Thank you for writing up about the session. What I’d like to know is (1) how/if progress is measured and (2) if lessons develop from one another, and also who chooses the topics and the questions. I presume for this type of conversation classes you wouldn’t talk about formal assessment but perhaps some sort of self-assessment? And what kind of feedback does the teacher give?
Thanks very much!
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Thank you for the comment and for the great questions to add to our Part 2/Interview post! I guess the main point here is how to ‘integrate’ the idea into the regular, day-by-day learning process with a group of students (am I right?)
I was just quoting you in my comment to Vedrana above: one of the longer-term goals for using this idea (as I see it) is helping students be inspired and engaged in the learning process. Personalized conversation, no matter how wonderful they can be, are not panacea.
I hope this conversation continues! 🙂
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