Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Group Stages and Reaching Training Objectives

In this post I want to examine how group dynamics affect performance objectives and the implications on syllabus development.  For the past few weeks, I have been searching my university database for applicable research on the subject in TESOL and general adult education.  While the results are clear that collaborative learning benefits training, I have been unable to find references to show how group development impacts results (except in e-learning).  If you are aware of research please let me know.  I’m sure some of the books I see on the MA TESOL reading list must include this subject.

The stages of group development have remained relatively intact since Tuckman’s forming, storming, norming, performing, adjourning framework in 1965.  To this, we’ll add Lencioni’s Five Dysfunctions of a Team, a bestseller now prevalent in management training.  While nearly 50 years apart, these two structures are aligned.  In fact, Lencioni’s dysfunctions seem to reinforce Tuckman’s legendary model.  The dysfunctions result when the stages are not properly resolved.

Tuckman’s Five Stages of Team Development
Lencioni’s Five Dysfunctions of a Team
Absence of Trust (Invulnerability)
Fear of Conflict (False Harmony)
Lack of Commitment (Ambiguity)
Avoidance of Accountability (Low Standards)
Inattention to Results

Taking it a step further, we can apply the dysfunctions of a team to common class problems, both student-to-student and student-to-trainer.

Classroom Effects
Absence of Trust
Group and pair work is constrained.
Learner opinions are formed only by role-play cues.
Poor learner interaction without trainer involvement.
Open discussion activities fail.
Learners doubt course material and trainer.
Fear of Conflict
Learners withhold opinions until trainer establishes popular views.
Discussions are lifeless and students remain passive.
Trainer is unable to obtain feedback on training and learning styles.
Trainer is unable to assess whether materials fit learners’ needs.
Lack of Commitment
Dropping attendance.
Low homework / self-study completion.
Learners do not consider or provide material to improve course.
Learners do not listen to their classmates.
Learners do not use trainer as a resource outside of lesson.
Avoidance of Accountability
Unclear progress, no pressure to improve.
Learners merely repeatedly practice the language they already know.
Trainer does not introduce or enforce risk taking or improved performance.
Inattention to Results
Learners do not notice what they have learned / do not apply lessons to real life.
Training objectives are not defined / reached.

I have provided a long list, but it is certainly not complete.  But we can see that certain course shortcomings can be attributed to group dysfunction, either between the students themselves or within the trainer-student relationship.

If this is the case, it makes sense to ensure we as trainers encourage and allow the stages of group development to occur.  This should be incorporated into syllabus design.  However, most syllabi I encounter (and have made in the past) are linear (meaning we achieve the training objectives at a steady pace), essentially asking the trainer to jump straight to the performing stage.  Naturally, the trainer will front load some team-building activities (forming) and needs analysis, but targeted lessons soon follow.

I advocate an ‘accelerating’ syllabus, in which the course slowly builds toward the can-do statements.  Toward the beginning of the course, the aims of the lessons are aimed at completing the group development stages.  As the course progresses, the learners are able to accomplish more during the performing stage, reaching the same training objectives in the same timeframe.

Here are some considerations for the various group stages:

Forming – Building trust, overcoming inhibitions to speak, listening

·         Allowing extended group small talk at the start of lessons in L1

·         More whole group discussions about jobs, hobbies, personal issues, job issues

·         Cross talk activities about current events within their organizations

·         Interview activities about personal histories

·         Encouraging contact outside the classroom (both T-S and S-S)

Storming – Expressing opinions, setting expectations, identifying learning styles, establishing self-study

·         Negotiated needs analysis

·         Utilize learning styles

·         Test activities to determine what works and what doesn’t (with delayed feedback)

·         Test homework completion level / commitment level

·         Focus on metalanguage and language learning terms

·         Focus on self-study skills / using online resources

·         High lesson feedback from students

·         Start learner journals, lesson feedback forms, learner expectations for the course / trainer / peers

·         Trainer facilitated conversations on controversial topics, encouraging different opinions

Norming – Adopting rules, setting expected commitment level, formalizing goals, establishing activity type balance, formalizing the course plan

·         Establish ‘rules’ of the course (how much time Ss will spend on self-study, goals, behavior, absence notification, trainer follow up, blended learning balance, etc.)

·         Establish preferred activity types based on learning styles, interests, etc.

·         Choosing appropriate resources

Performing – Reaching training objectives, challenging trainer and learners to achieve more

·         Full steam ahead based on materials, self-study commitment, learning styles, and learner interests

Adjourning – Assessing, reflecting

·         Prove what we’ve learned and how we have used it in the real world

·         Reflect on how we can take the training to the next level, both inside and outside the classroom

·         Consider how we are different than when we started

For many trainers this will come naturally, yet all too often I see elements in the wrong stage of group development.  Furthermore, a standard linear syllabus superimposes itself on the stages of group development and pushes the performing stage further to the right.

Actions which fall in the wrong position:

·         Trainer dictates commitment levels expected in course introduction

·         Coursebooks or other materials are determined before the course begins

·         Learning styles are determined by trial and error as the course progresses

·         Homework and self-study expectations fluctuate

The list goes on and on.  The point is, if we slow down at the beginning, we can go faster later.  From a business point of view, a course in the performing stage is more likely to extend the contact or pressure management to continue the program.

Naturally, different groups progress through these stages at different speeds and the group will shift between stages periodically.  For example, when teaching a whole department, the trust level among the students may already be established, only forming the group with the trainer requires effort.  But it is important for the trainer to recognize the stages of development and the dysfunctions of a team.  By doing so we can improve our training and ensure the learners are truly reaching the objectives.

Monday, February 13, 2012

Using the course book to plan part 2... the text

Okay, so first I looked at using the bookend activities to design a lesson.

  • What is the warmer?  How can make it more personal/elicit conversation from the students' perspective?
  • What is the finishing production activity?
  • What are some ways the lesson can go from point A to point B?
So, now let's look at the written texts in course books.

Often, the texts either float above the book syllabus and exist only for reading practice or we use them to identify a few lexical items. The class then discusses the text. But honestly, it takes a particulary outgoing or opinionated group to make this work because the article is probably not something they would have read if they had the choice. After a few units, the whole process gets a little repetitive.

In most cases the text will be an article.  This means nearly all texts are written with the purpose of informing the reader. 

Let's look at some purposes we often find in business communication which are rarely included in the course book reading texts...
  • to explain
  • to recommend
  • to evaluate
  • to persuade
  • to analyze
  • to synthesize
  • to propose
  • to call readers to action
  • to change attitudes
But wait, now let's turn the page and we find a function or skill lesson which attempts to train these exact areas.  The trick then is to somehow combine these two... e.g. inform + propose, inform + call for action.

Placing this in a business context.  Why do students read trade and business magazines?  This is an interesting question to pose to students.  More than likely, they are benchmarking and checking the competition.

Here are a few activities that can help make these texts a bit more useful.

1.  Inform + recommend
Teacher hands out a glossary for a few key words for the text.  Students read the text for gist and answer some comprehension check questions.  Next the students are told that they are going to compare the company to their own in small groups.  They will use the article to present 'lessons learned' and recommend action.  They then read the article in detail to find way to compare to their company.  The students meet in groups to draw on various experience.  Finally, the groups prepare a short presentation to recommend steps for their company to take or to avoid based on the article.  Note:  Depending on the context and experience of the students, it may be necessary to set a few starting points, such as "Your company is thinking about..."

2.  Inform + synthesize
This is similar to a classic jigsaw reading, but instead of comparing and sharing, the goal is to synthesize the various articles.  One group reads the text in the book (again glossaries are good).  Other groups read similar articles on the same subject.  The groups then answer comprehension questions and discuss their opinions on the article to ensure understanding.  Then the students are told that they will work in different groups and must create a "recent trends in the industry" text/slide.  They then meet together and determine what the articles have in common.  What are the most important events?  What conclusions can they draw?  Why would the newspaper/magazine write about them?  The groups then share their synthesis and we discuss the differences between the groups.

3.  Inform + analyze
This time we use the text as a starting point of a chain of events.  The key is to get the students to analyze what happened and think about what the effects will be.  First, we will introduce the company mentioned.  Then together we will brainstorm the major competitors, customers, or suppliers.  We talk about the reputation of the competitors and compile any simple market information we have on the industry.  Next, each pair or small group is assigned a stakeholder and they must read the text through the eyes of the stakeholder.  So, if the text is about VW's factory in Dresden, they would read as an employee of BMW or Fiat.  The groups then meet to discuss how the events in the article will affect their business.  How will the market react?  Do we need to take action against the competitor, etc.?  The task depends on the text.  But they should be analyzing the text to find consequences.  At the end, the class can come together and talk about how these possible consequences will affect us as consumers.

4.  Inform + persuade
Just as we used the text to read through someone else POV before, this time we use the text as the basis for a case study.  The normal reading procedures run as usual.  But when they read for detailed understanding they should be considering what events at the company led to the article.  In short, someone must have proposed what happened in the article (e.g. entering the Chinese market, signing Christiano Ronalo, whatever is in the article).  So, after we have a good understanding of the article we take the whole class back in time and have the meeting to discuss the proposal and others.  Students can be assigned roles based on who they think was in the meeting.  They can prepare other proposals that might have been discussed at the meeting.  One student can be the deciding authority or they can reach a decision by consensus.  We can use our imagination and that of our students to make the scenario.  Then we simulate the meeting and see if we came to the same decision as the company in the article.

5.  Inform + explain
Very simply, the students must 'translate' the text for someone outside the subject area.  This works well with high level students or specialists.  The reading procedure is the same and lexical analysis continues.  But this time when they discuss the text, they must change audiences.  For example, they need to explain the text to an angel investor who is not familiar with the details of the industry.  They must explain the article to a group of apprentices.  They must explain the article to an overseas colleague who speaks a low level of English.  Any audience will do.  But it will give the learners practice in changing their language to fit the audience.

These are just a few ideas for how to integrate the course book text into the syllabus.  Too often I feel the text in the book is only there merely for reading practice.  And when following the teacher's notes, I always got the feeling that we read the text, identified a few lexical terms, had a half-cooked conversation and turned the page.

These ideas might help bring the text more life.  I haven't mentioned mining the text for grammar and deeper lexical items.  These activities are not to be forgotten, but hopefully these lessons can increase interaction and link the informative purpose with other communication goals.

Using a course book to plan an open lesson... Part 1

While doing all this reading about teaching without course books, I thought it might be valuble to talk about a way to use the course book as a valuble resource when planning a lesson.

To start, I am not often a course book trainer.  When I teach classes for which books are provided I do not use them page by page, but I also make sure I don't waste the money spent (by the school, company, or student).

In short, I don't want to throw the baby out with the bath water simply because I don't like course books.  Sometimes whole units are useful, sometimes single lessons, but mostly it helps to pick and choose.

The pros and cons of course books have been extensively debated, so we'll leave it there.

For my lesson examples I am using a unit from Market Leader, Intermediate from Pearson.  Namely the free unit provided on their website about advertising.

Technique One - Bookends

Look at the first and last activity of a unit.  Then think, "If I were forced to do these types of activities, what would I put in the middle?"  Thinking critically, the first and last activities are the warmer and the production stage and are designed to get the learners speaking.  Since this is usually our overall aim, it makes sense to use them as a backbone.

In the warmer, students discuss the ads shown in pairs.  Looking at the first vocabulary lesson, we see that students are first asked to brainstorm ad media.  The final activity is to agree or disagree with controversial statements about advertising.  With these two (three) pieces in mind, any number of lessons could develop.

In my case, I would first ask the students to remember as many ads as they can from the last 24 hours.  Where did they see them?  What was the product?  Why do you remember it?

When this is complete the students then compare in pairs or small groups.  Because the information gap is already created, the student begin naturally to describe the ads they saw.  Inevitably a television commercial comes up and suddenly students are telling stories.  At this point, I am moving around and helping to fill any unique lexis gaps.

Once they have compared, we can start grouping their ads as a class by medium.  Which are outdoor?  Which are from the radio?  Which are on the Internet and so on?  These groups develop and meanings are elicited from the students themselves.  By the end, we should have a fairly good list of key advertising terms.

Now we are starting to see that advertising is everywhere.  If it is everwhere, why do we remember some ads and not others?  The students are already prepared for this question because of their conversation at the beginning.  In the case of the book, I might board the adjectives from the lesson and have the learners assign them to their ads.  Then, I could write, "This ad is _______ because...".  A student can call out an adjective and those who chose it must stand up and complete the sentence.

Finally, with our list of media intact, we talk about how we are constantly exposed to promotions.  To discuss the point we can write the controversial sentences on individual paper (plus a few more) and have mind map conversations (this can also be done on the whiteboard).  I got this activity from Karl Dean.  The sentence is in the middle and the student must draw a line and write a response.  Then the paper moves.  The next student should respond to the original statement or any of the new statements.  Over time, the conversations develop in several ways simultanously and provide great ideas for a passionate discussion as a group or in teams.

So, we used the book as a guide by using the first and last activities to form the lesson.  In fact, I will typically leave the middle fuzzy and develop the middle as the lesson progresses.  In this example, I have kept the lexical focus.  However, nothing prevents this from become a lesson targeted at grammar constructions, functions or even skills.

Next time, I will look at another technique.  Text to Skill

Friday, February 10, 2012

Mozart, Thornbury, and Me


When I was a child we had very few movies on VHS.  My mother bought most of them and they reflected her taste.  For example, I spend hours watching Amadeus, which is a semi-fictional biography of Mozart.  Years later, when I had my own family and we were building a small movie collection for our living room I found a Blu-ray copy of this movie in the shopping cart.

In the movie there is a sense in which Salieri helps Mozart compose his requiem while the greatest musical mind of all time lies deathly ill in bed.

I could apply this situation to ESL in several ways.  First, we can examine the student-teacher relationship.  If I am Mozart, are my students simply copying my requiem?  If so, how do I change this?  Second, not knowing the terminology of music, I have a hard time fully understanding what Mozart is saying and Salieri is writing.  Are my students lost in the terms of ESL like ‘collocations’, ‘lexical chunks’, and ‘the present perfect continuous’?  These are all valid questions but we will leave those for another day.

What I found most important was the way in which the beautiful requiem is built on the simple blocks of notes and stanza; the tenor, the violins, the trombones.  Alone they are uninspiring, but together they take the listener to another world.

Thornbury’s Tenses

So what does this all have to do with Scott Thornbury?  Well, in 2009 he wrote an article about the verb tenses and the true meaning or feeling they produce.  He argued that this is really not all that hard to understand.  I started listening to my students in a different way.  I went to the A2 classes and they were all using the present simple and past simple, with the occasional continuous mixed in.  Not bad, but their stories were not engaging.  It was like listening to a symphony with only three instruments.

Then I had a one-to-one lesson with a B2 student and surprisingly, there were not many more layers to the conversation.  I thought, “He knows many more tenses, he understands the MFP, why isn’t he using them?”   Mr. Thornbury’s article helped me realize he didn’t “feel” the tenses, so he wasn’t helping me “feel” his story.  Time to develop a lesson.


First, I thought about how to structure all this.  I decided to keep the lesson simple, focus only on the present tenses and let the student find the difference in feeling.  So, I drew three boxes on the board.  Facts, context, and engagement.

We then watched a video on you tube of a doctor responding to questions about trends in the medical profession at a trade fair.  The video came from the company and was shot at the booth my student designed. 

Reference:  His job is to plan and coordinate trade fairs for a medical technology company, including the marketing strategy.  He then must ‘sell’ the strategy to the international sales people who work the booth.

For him, the video was relatively easy to understand and we were able to fill the boxes with information from the video.  (e.g. Imagery is a high priority.  Great progress.  Offer a wide range of options, etc.)  At this point we still did not have the tenses, only notes.

Then we watched again and listened for the sentences.  This time we changed the board to include the entire sentences.  But wait… sometimes continuous tenses appeared in the fact box!  “Why?” I asked.  I pointed to the engagement word.  “Because it is more engaging if he uses the –ing form?” Bingo.

We then started work with his presentation to mix the tenses (we didn’t have much time) and put context where needed and engage the audience.  Of course, the fourth box fits perfectly to make a diamond and suddenly you have “context + engagement” and we are finding the present perfect continuous.

Take all four boxes and shift them to the left and right and you have the past and will forms.  With a little focused practice we suddenly have a symphony.

A week after the class, he wrote me an email and thanked me.  He said it was a little strange at first, but after a few days listening to English and noticing the tenses he could ‘feel’ it.

Thanks to Mozart, Mr. Thornbury, and you for critiquing my lesson.  It is only a first, risky attempt.