Interview with Jedrek Stepien: the Conversation Method

Last month I wrote a post about a great session I attended at Innovate ELT in 2018 and encouraged readers to share questions to the presenter for a follow-up and further conversation. Well, now is the time! The title today says ‘interview’ but you can see it as a Q&A time with the speaker. Please feel free to add more questions in the comments below. And we begin with…

… Zhenya’s Questions

I see that ‘Mentals‘ is a conversation-focused language atelier. How did you come up with the title? Is Mentals a language school?

In my mind, learning foreign languages has always been a mix of the intellectual and the spiritual. ‘Intellectual’ meaning that language is a tool for making sense, therefore speaking ultimately means exerting yourself intellectually. You do not feel it as such when you speak your first language, but it becomes clear once you start learning your second one as an adult. And it takes spiritual qualities like persistence, stubbornness, and courage to learn a second language. And so the word ‘mental’ which means both ‘intellectual’ and ‘spiritual’ seemed like a perfect choice. There is nothing I dislike about this name, even the fact that ‘mental’ also means ‘crazy’, because, after all, one needs to be a little bit crazy to learn foreign languages.

I hesitate before calling Mentals a school, because first of all it is only me, and second, I do not offer comprehensive education, that is, I do not organize courses, I do not design syllabuses. Mentals is more like a gym where learners come to practice. What I offer my students is an opportunity for a rich and satisfying output each and every time, and, surprisingly, there are not many places like this.

Your tagline says: ‘My job is to teach English, and my passion to design great conversation experience, so I do what I love.’ How important is liking or loving what you are doing?

It is essential for two reasons: first it allows me to continue doing something so precarious and financially rather disappointing, and second, loving what you do is essential for providing high quality education. Given that we speak about teaching and not mere instruction, methods and materials are always secondary to the passion of the teacher. Years of practice have left me rather skeptical about the possibility of teaching anybody anything specific. What is truly taking place in a classroom is the transmission of attitudes and other seemingly unimportant things which ultimately decide about whether somebody becomes refined by the school or leaves it as crude as they came, only with bigger number of facts in their head. A teacher with great materials but no passion is merely shining, but one with passion is radiating. Much as the shining may be enlightening, it does not transform. Only radiation does.

How do you create your questions? Perhaps share some practical tips for creating good questions? One example from your blog post: get rid of the pronouns ‘you’ and ‘your’.

In theory all it takes to design a good conversation question is a dictionary (better still: a thesaurus), but in practice it is more complicated. I realized this after Kamila (Linkova) DM-ed me on Twitter saying that she is either too tired or too slow because she cannot design similar questions. Now, she may have been working a lot, but I know her and she is definitely not slow, so I started to reflect on how I am doing it.

As far as dropping personal pronouns is concerned, it is a principle similar to not discussing politics or religion in class. Still, I am not dogmatic about it, because I do ask my students if they had seen a football game the night before, etc., but I leave it for the small talk at the beginning of each class. Personal questions generate quite a lot of language (and I take notes!) but asking them throughout the class would exploit too much memory and too little intellect, which I do not find educative. That is why as soon as the small talk is over, we change the perspective from introspection to looking outward.

Coming back to designing questions, cases when I just open a dictionary and come up with a good question are rare. And even if it happens, there is usually something on my mind already, and the dictionary provides only an impulse for bringing it to the daylight. The thing is that I am genuinely curious about this world and language provides me with a very convenient platform for the exploration of the universe without having to move from my armchair. I speak a lot with people and I read quite a lot, typically 3 or 4 books at a time plus newspapers and magazines, so my head is always ready to juxtapose or connect one concept with the other, and make a great conversation question for my students. So, what I do basically is a kind of distillation of books and longer texts into easy-to-swallow questions, so that my students can arrive at interesting conclusions without having to read all the stuff that I read.

Do your students contribute to creating questions?

Yes, and more than you may think, but often they are not even aware of this. My best questions were born during conversations with my students, because either subconsciously or by mistake, they used one word instead of a different one, creating an interesting tension between concepts.

I also like the fact that my students take the questions home, discuss them with their spouses and friends, and come back with new ones. It is extremely satisfying to hear from my students “regarding your last question, my husband/wife said that…” – it means that the questions generate interesting conversations no matter in which language, and most important of all – it means that people are talking with each other. I do not want to sound pompous, but our civilization depends on it.

Do you have ‘question bank’ or storage of some sort?

Yes. I keep them all in my Evernote. I have been putting them there since 2014. At the time of writing this, there are 1483 individual questions and the number keeps counting.

[Zhenya is thinking aloud: I would love to have an e-book/book like that! Are you thinking to write it up and share?]

How do you plan or structure your lessons (if at all)?

The structure emerged on its own. Today, each lesson starts with a small talk and a little vocabulary review. There is no continuity of any material (grammar or other) and every class can stand on its own, but we tend to review the lexical chunks which appeared during our last class. I try to fish out 18 chunks, from which the student picks 6 which come to her mind first, and we proceed to a talk show divided into “rounds”. Round 1: what is the difference between a shy person and a coward; Round 2: Can a dog be a teacher? And so on. In between the rounds we come back to the vocabulary review. I call this part of the class a “commercial break” because every talk show has them. The division into rounds with breaks allows me to jump from one subject to another, and change the mood of the lesson (form more emotional to business and philosophical). As long as communication is not broken I do not intervene, and just take notes. I finish my classes with feedback.

How do you incorporate other language skills (reading, listening, writing) in your lessons?

Apart from encouraging people to design their own “English language life” – a term I first heard from Duncan Foord from OxfordTEFL Barcelona – and occasionally recommending books or podcasts, I don’t really do much towards developing other skills. Call it laziness, but the way I view my job is to provide people with an opportunity for a vast, deep and satisfying output.

You mentioned (in response to one of the questions in-session) that with beginner level groups, you use L1. How does that work in practice? How do you help students move ‘up the ladder’ of proficiency levels?

First of all, I try to see my lessons not as language lessons but communication lessons. And once you shift the emphasis from language to communication everything looks different. Using L1 is no longer a blasphemy, just like using Latin maxims is not. My perspective on it has changed since I started having classes with people whose L1 is not my L1. Switching to L1 often means that I need to use my (still) underdeveloped French or Spanish. But above all, the questions I ask are demanding even in L1, therefore switching the language does not always solve the problem. We may dive into L1 for a moment, and then come back to the target language to keep exploring the issue. Language is after all only a tool, not a goal in itself. I keep telling my students that we agreed to use English, as one of many languages for communication, but we could just as well be speaking any other language, and it should not affect the quality of our thoughts. And it takes a lot of pressure off their shoulders. Next, all I do is I tap into the natural curiosity and the will to communicate. Teachers generally underestimate this power. If the is will there is way, in foreign languages more than anywhere else.

Now as for progress – I have no means of measuring it objectively, but it manifests itself in countless things. The ones I am most proud of are not increased range of vocabulary and better accuracy, but things which rarely come up on tests such as: how students handle surprises (my questions are always surprising), better strategic approach to questions, increased clarity and logic, ability to deal with linguistic obstacles etc. At the beginning of our cooperation, I warn my students that they may never speak with the quality and ease of native speakers, but that they may match or surpass many of them I terms of clarity and depth of perception. I am extremely satisfied with the results of my work, and I would love to learn other languages this way.

[Zhenya’s note: read more about teaching lower levels using conversations below]

Questions from the blog readers

If the 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?

Being the host of the talk-show, it is me who chooses the questions. But I do not do it automatically. Knowing who is going to sit in front of me, I try to adapt the questions, or – more recently – choose appropriate ones from my database taking into account factors such as language level, personality, profession, inclinations, hobbies etc. I (almost) never ask about these facts directly, but they surface naturally in the course of time.

As for the assessment, it is indeed felt rather than certified. I do not underestimate the value of formal assessment, but at the end of the day, its impact is to a large extent psychological. Good teachers can achieve similar results without resorting to certificates.

What kind of feedback does the teacher give to students?

As a language teacher, my job is to focus on three areas: lexicon, syntax and phonetics. As a human being I venture sometimes into semantics as well, where there are mostly very positive things to say. Although (or maybe because?) my questions are designed in such a way that there is no correct or incorrect answer, I am very often stunned by the brilliance of the answers. People are, on the whole, incredibly smart, despite what we may conclude based on the state of mass culture for the mass society. Listening to such clever answers, it sometimes feels hard pointing out some minor grammar issues, or mispronunciation. It is only a heartless exam committee or job interviewers who could nitpick on such irrelevant stuff as the lack of third person –s or the incorrect use of present perfect while the rest of the answer shows an incredible depth. As for the form of the feedback, it is the everlasting sandwich: good-bad-good.

Questions from my colleagues on Facebook

Do you believe Conversation Method can work with A2-B1 levels?

Yes! By the way, I have just realized that Zhenya upgraded my way of teaching to the rank of ‘a method’**, but to me they are basically inter-human exchanges. From the perspective of pure language skills it may seem difficult to have compelling conversations at A2, but what could be impossible between two human beings? We need to remember – and I repeat after Thornbury and Slade – that as teachers, we need to avoid in the first place squelching learner’s self-confidence, willingness to communicate and persistence in communication. I feel that traditional PPP type of classes do just that, whereas good conversation questions nurture all these three features. The problem of insufficient ‘level’ of English can be neutralized by asking simpler questions. And by simpler I usually mean more concrete (in contrast to abstract), for example I consider the question about the difference between ‘a toy’ and ‘a tool’ as simpler than the question about the difference between ‘new’ and ‘fresh’. It may ultimately be a psychological trick, but people feel more confident if they can immediately visualize the problem, and concrete nouns serve this purpose beautifully.

**Zhenya’s note: here I see and use ‘method’ as a particular procedure for accomplishing or approaching something [lessons], especially a systematic or established one.

Can you offer any tips on naturally provoking conversations with individual students? Especially the lower level ones?

It is one of the biggest challenges in teaching – to make L2 conversation classes – an artificial situation by nature – to be as natural as possible. Unless somebody is skillful at designing compelling role-plays, there must be a vital interest on the part of the teacher. The obvious place where to find it are details of personal life, but it is a trap. First, not everybody feels ok with sharing them (and there is a growing awareness of protecting privacy), and second, it is a rather short-lived strategy because conversations quickly become repetitive and limited in scope.

The alternative is to tap into natural curiosity and ask questions to which you yourself do not know the answer, but are curious about. This way you will shift the emphasis from language to communication – a move which levels the playing field between you and your students: you may have language skills, but your students may have better understanding of the problem. With this strategy classes stay fresh and students do not grow tired of them. The “downside” of this approach is that teachers must be well-educated, well read and curious themselves.

The strategy of tapping into curiosity is universal across all levels. The only difference lies in the quality of questions – I mentioned earlier that lower level students respond better to “easy” questions, where ‘easy’ refers to discussing concrete objects rather than abstract concepts; but ‘easy’ should never mean ‘shallow’.

Does your approach have anything in common with Lexical approach? Do you work with Ss vocabulary after the conversation?

Yes! I fully subscribe to the vision of language as ‘grammaticalized lexis’, and the idea of “cheating” your level by means of chunks appeals to me in particular. It is 100% in line with my type of classes, where there are adults who are intellectually capable of answering the questions, and all they need are language skills. During the class I take notes, suggest certain phrases when necessary, and at the end of the class we usually have a beautiful heap of useful chunks. These chunks end up on each student’s Quizlet class and are further recycled during the “commercial breaks” between questions when we meet next time.

Is there usually a follow up task/ home assignment?

No. I wanted to say ‘unfortunately’ but on second thought I do not have any remorse. I love when the follow up appears as a natural extension of curiosity – when students take my questions home to discuss with their families and friends. They may be speaking their L1 there, but the questions secretly increase their willingness to communicate, so I may say that it is not my students but my questions which do their homework 🙂

Is this questioning a focused one (in terms of a form focused task) or can it be simply a humanly exchange for the sake of a natural discourse to happen in class?

I can work both ways to some extent, but directing them towards more specific forms, such the use of a particular future tense for example, may be difficult, because it is the student who controls the answer, and changing this open-ended-ness of questions would take away a lot of fun from answering.

As for humanly exchanges, I tried my questions in almost any context – in the classroom, but also with my friends, family, Airbnb hosts, at parties and conferences, with random people while learning French, every time they proved a great success.

What question would you ask yourself about the Conversation Method (and how would you answer it?)

One thing which comes to my mind is: ‘Do you find your way of working with the students methodologically sound?’ And honestly I wish somebody more experienced than me assessed this. I tend to see the way I teach as ‘dogme on steroids’, because classical Dogme focused on affordances found in the classroom or around it (bad weather etc.), my style of teaching surpasses any boundaries of time and space. We are able to move from discussing plastic hammer toys, to shyness, then go to the jungle, and ultimately to stars and planets. All this without moving from the classroom, without using any tech, VR sets, etc., just using words.

Thank you for this conversation about conversation, Jedrek! I feel I am falling in love in this idea, and am eager to try it in practice as soon as I can. It’s an inspiration!

Jedrek Stepien is a freelance English teacher, who pursues the best possible conditions for linguistic output. He is @mentalspl on Twitter, and you can reach his website at https://mentals.pl/index_en.html

About Zhenya

ELT: teacher educator, trainer coach, reflective practice addict https://wednesdayseminars.wordpress.com/
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1 Response to Interview with Jedrek Stepien: the Conversation Method

  1. Pingback: Jedrek Stepien at Innovate ELT 2018: the Conversation Method | Wednesday Seminars

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