‘Freedom through Restriction’

Eltstew has posted his latest blog on ‘Freedom through Restriction’

Well, I’ve had a bit of a hiatus from writing anything, and I’m not really sure why.  Hopefully this one will get me back into the habit, at least until the MSc work kicks in.  Thank you to the people who took the time poke me and encourage me to get going again.

So what’s the funniest thing you’ve ever seen?

Well?

For most people, this question is very difficult or even impossible to answer.  Sure, we’ve seen a lot of hilarious things in our lives, but the funniest?  There’s just so much to choose from that nothing comes to mind.

Occasionally, while watching trainees teach, I suspect that something similar is happening to the learners.  In particular, it tends to be when the teachers are giving the learners ‘freer practice’ of a language point or ‘working on fluency’[1].  It’s pretty easy to see why too – the trainees, admirably, want to give the learners a chance to say whatever they want, without interference.  Intuitively, this seems like a great way to promote meaningful conversation, without any unnatural restrictions.

In reality, however, the speaking often dries up and the panic on the teacher’s face sets in as they realize that their 15 minute activity has lasted for only 3.  It’s at this point that I usually start feverishly praying (despite my agnosticism) that they don’t try to play hangman/cry/let all the students leave early/do painstakingly long feedback/ramble aimlessly until time is up.

So why does this happen?  Partly, the terminology, or at least the understandingof the terminology, may be to blame.  The word ‘free’ or ‘freer’ is often interpreted as meaning that the task itself is free, without parameters or a concrete outcome.  To my way of understanding, this is not the case.  Rather, ‘freer practice’ simply implies that there is no right or wrong answer and that the task can be completed successfully using a wide range of language.  The parameters of the task though may in fact be quite rigid and yet still allow for unlimited creativity.  To draw on examples from outside of the classroom, many genres of writing insist on strict adherence to certain forms, including haikus, sonnets, minisagas, and even tweets.  I somehow doubt that Shakespeare was not ‘free’ to write what he wished.

Looking at many classic ELT activities, this same type of built-in structure is apparent.  Take for example a desert island task where groups decide on the three most essential items from a list, or Alibi, wherein learners play specific characters, who have committed a specific crime, and must write and answer specific questions: I would argue that in such cases, not only do the guidelines not hinder the learners’ output, it actually encourages more creativity as they must wrestle with the requirements of the task using all the language at their disposal.

None of these thoughts are new of course, and truly meaningful tasks are promoted by most methodologies, but still it’s useful for trainees to be reminded now and again.  So the next time you see a plan including ‘a 20 minute discussion about pets’, maybe suggest a few tweaks.  After all, a bit more restriction might just lead to a whole lot more creative output.

Download Freedom through Restriction

Eltstew’s Blog

— Om Joshi

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