Our industry functions in a happy dynamic of natural artificiality when it comes to oral interaction in the classroom. My keywords here are function and happy. It works. It thrives. Language is taught through it. Language is learnt from it. There is however the occasional breakdown in oral exchange and this is where my (un)subtle message of artificiality comes in; the natural artificiality of conversation classes. Conversation classes are natural because both parties are generally motivated by the idea of conversing in English and thus engage in the act willingly. It is however artificial because it is always a rehearsal of what potentially occurs in real life.
I am not undermining the teacher-student relationship, I am friends with my students and am genuinely interested in what they have to say, but I’m just pointing out that the wider goal of the language training is to be able to communicate with non-language-teacher counterparts in the target language. As we orchestrate and troubleshoot this run through of real life, we engage in the constant fine-tuning of materials to ensure needs are honed in on. We scaffold lessons grounded on the principles of suitability, adaptability and interest. I believe the more relevant materials are, the more they motivate. Breakdown moments in conversation do nonetheless occur when the language lesson is a disconnect from as opposed to an enhancement of the learners’ professional day-to-day tasks, the pressure of which results in the words simply not flowing on a given day.
Under the avalanche of several successive 25-contact-hour weeks a few years ago, I experimented with a method that is artificially natural to avoid conversation breakdown because I didn’t have time to pitch my materials as appropriately as possible to each student. The method was Edward DeBono’s Six Thinking Hats, adapted to my ESL students. It is artificial in that it is unashamedly disconnected from everyday life, a wholly imposed framework within which speech is created. But the conversation it produces is entirely natural because it is goal-driven.
Within this technique we open a dialogue with one or multiple students exploring any issue from six possible points of view: the white hat reflects neutral, factual information; the yellow hat takes a sunny optimistic perspective; its counterpart, the black hat sees problems or pitfalls; the red hat allows a thinker to express him or herself from an intuitive, emotional point of view without any need for justification; the green hat encourages “out-of-the-box” thinking or lateral thinking and finally blue hat-thinking is the summarizing, moderating perspective, pushing the conversation in a certain direction and concluding the observations with an overall resolution. When focused and collaborating in these specific directions, my student have experienced a new freedom from generating the conversation structure and enjoy the common goal of solving an issue, beyond debating it from a right or wrong perspective. The goal of the ‘debate’ is not a consensus but a resolution. After the initial teaching and structuring of the technique, I have been able to withdraw from the conversation, enjoy the magic and spend my time on the emergent language. I recommend reading the book to be able to teach the technique with confidence and feel free to get in touch with me with feedback on how it works in your classroom.