Wednesday 13 November 2013

Conversation Contest 2

Part Two - Planning Considerations
So finally we come to the meat of it. Once more, this is tailored to my specific situation; your mileage will definitely vary, and that is as it should be.

1.    What’s the point?
Unlike debate, conversation doesn’t lend itself naturally to competition. It’s not obviously adversarial or antagonistic. I mean, it clearly is a little bit; both participants will be coming to it with different agendas and looking to steer it in the direction they’d most like for themselves, but the concept of a ‘conversation winner’ does sound like a bit of an oxymoron.

But we still need a structure and a goal. ‘Less is more’ is all very well, but you’re still getting paid to give guidance and direction. No point sticking two of them together and saying ‘just talk’ because they could be doing that for themselves. So what do we want to achieve?

Interaction, clearly. Also some level of contribution and ability to direct things in a manner of their choosing. So what we need is to define a start point, and perhaps a couple of end points. We need a way to measure how well they get from A to B or C. We need a way to emphasise and reward the interactional aspects whilst minimizing the more solitary aspects. We do not want this to just be two overlapping monologues.

There’s that old parlour game where you have to answer every question with a question. Hmmm. Possible warm up. Stick it to the board to come back to later.

2. Participation vs Control
This old chestnut. You obviously want as many students as possible to talk for as much as possible. But you also want to monitor and control what they are saying; no point having them all talk for half an hour if they’re just producing gibberish. The standard way to increase participation is pair or group work and this requires more active monitoring by the teacher as well as a certain amount of trust in the students. The standard way to ensure control is to have single (or pairs of) students present in front of the whole class, but obviously in this scenario for every one or two students you have speaking there are 38-39 who aren’t, and that’s quite apart from the performance anxiety experienced by the students selected to speak.

3. Explanation Demonstration
This is make or break for any activity. It doesn’t matter how brilliant your activity is or how beautiful your worksheets are, if you can’t get the students to understand what you want clearly and concisely then you may as well not bother. Three general rules:

1.    Show, don’t tell
2.    No infodumps
3.    No narration

The observant among you will have noticed that these are just three ways of saying the same thing. Demonstrate what you want, don’t explain it. You’re telling a story. YOU’RE TELLING A FUCKING STORY. I can’t emphasize this enough. It’s a performance and all the tricks you’d use to attract and maintain your audience’s attention in a work of fiction apply here as well. In more detail those three rules manifest as follows –

1.    Don’t explain what you want the students to do; actually do it. If you want Junpei to ask a question, say ‘I am Junpei’, sit in Junpei’s chair, then ask the question. Repeat the process for the answer and until they get it.
2.    Only give them enough information as they need to achieve the most immediate part of the process. If they’re going to swap partners after the first round of questions, say, don’t tell them that until they’ve actually finished the first round. Don’t add complexity until its necessary, in other words.
3.    “Next we’re going to play a game!” Just play the fucking game, sunshine.

Considerations of how to demonstrate an activity are integral to its design. I can’t stress this enough. If you can’t work out how to get the kids to do something then it doesn’t matter how brilliant it might have been, because they won’t be doing it. Find an empty classroom. Pace around like you would in a lesson. Act it out. Do the voices. You should know, almost word-for-word, the vast majority of the things you will say in class ahead of time.

“But I’m just a naturally charismatic teacher! I like to go on the spur of the moment! It gives the class energy and momentum and makes it fun!”

No, who cares, and no. It makes it a disjointed, incomprehensible mess, is what it makes it. I’m not saying be a robot up there, but if you think your students and colleagues can’t tell when you’re making up shit on the fly then you’re only deluding yourself.

How do you demonstrate a conversation? That’s simple enough. How do you demonstrate a competitive conversation? That’s the thing. You can be the judge, but you need to make sure those you’re judging can produce the items you want them to, so you can demonstrate the allocation of points. The extension of this is that if you want to award points for things that are unlikely to occur, then maybe you need to revisit your mark scheme.

Maybe, because we also want to use those points to encourage good conversational practice which, by definition, will be lacking. They’d be no point teaching it if they could already do it, eh?

Either way, thinking about how you’d explain it helps you think about how the students perceive you when you stand at the front, and that helps you think about what is really necessary and what is just you indulging your ego.

Part Three, and maybe even a worksheet if you're very good, on Friday.


  1. Have you had a look at the FCE speaking exam before? It aint perfect but is a good standard for speaking evaluation I think. Students do it in pairs. It isn't competitive and they get downgraded for interupting and score points for agreement, polite disagreement, involving the other speaker and so on.

    1. Hadn't heard of that, I'll have a look. Thanks for the tip Constructive Anonymous Commenter, wish there were more like you ;)