When less is more: freeing students from the burden of choice

There’s a reason why Starbucks will never catch on it Italy. Go to any branch of the global chain and try ordering a cappuccino and you’ll be met with a barrage of questions: What size do you want? Do you want any extra flavours added? An extra shot perhaps? Hot or iced? Made with any special kind of milk? To drink in or to take away? It’s endless! Now, try ordering a cappuccino pretty much anywhere in Italy and you get . . . well, um . . . you get a classic cappuccino. No questions asked.

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You may be wondering why this is on my mind this morning. Well, it’s early, for a start, and I’m the kind of person that only functions after a couple of decent coffees, but the issue of choice – and the way we’re led to believe it is, by definition, a good thing, even though secretly many of us often crave to simply be given what we maybe didn’t realise we actually wanted or needed – has been occupying my thoughts these last few days, and in particular the relationship of choice to language teaching.

In part, this was started by an email from Chris Jones at the University of Central Lancaster, where I did a talk last month. In response to a question I was asked at the end of my session, I subsequently wrote a blog post about problems connected to the teaching of conversational gambits. Chris then wrote to point out that the thrust of the original question had actually been about whether or not we should bother teaching things like ‘In my opinion,’ etc. when they are far less frequent than ‘I think’ amongst both successful students and native speakers.

The second spark for these recent thoughts was a session I saw at Spain TESOL by Gerard McLoughlin, who was presenting some very sensible ideas about exploiting classroom materials (along with, as we shall see, some less sensible ones as well!) under the banner of Demand High. Partly this struck me because I’ve been going to see Gerard present for many years now, and he’s always worth watching and has solid practical ideas. Jim Scrivener and Adrian Underhill, on the other hand, have only been talking about their idea of Demand High for the last three or four years, at most. Why, I wondered, would such an experienced old hand bother placing his own excellent ideas into the empty bucket that is Demand High? Or, in the more contemporary jargon that I’m sure its creators would prefer me to use, why add to the iterative meme that they have created?

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Well, the answer to this puzzling question came to me via a book I’ve been reading recently, From the Ivory Tower to the Schoolhouse: How Scholarship Becomes Common Knowledge in Education by Jack Schneider. The book traces the ways in which Big Ideas pass – or, more often, fail to pass – into mainstream educational discourse and one conclusion drawn is that some ideas succeed because of their innate flexibility and adaptability. Different factions within a field read into them what they will and the original construct is used to support a wide range of different positions. Now, Demand High has obviously not been without its critics (see, for instance, Geoff Jordan’s recent monstering over on his blog), but perhaps its genius, such as it is, lies in the fact that it’s hard to argue against its basic conceit – we should all aim high – and in our attempts to fill its essential emptiness, we add to its importance and bring it ever further into the mainstream. And in the process, of course, we attach to our own practice some kind of external validation as well. Just as I am doing here.

One of the things that struck me about Demand High when I first saw it presented was how little it had to say about language itself, and how much it was essentially a bag of Communicative Language Teaching methodological tricks. One that particularly bothered me, and that I’d almost managed to forget about altogether until Gerard resurrected it for me in Salamanca was the “Can you think of another way of saying that?” line of questioning.

For those of you who are not familiar with how this works, students say something – for example, “What’s your opinion?” – and the teacher responds by asking the group as a whole “Can anyone think of another way of saying that?” and by then noting on the board other ideas that come up. Before too long, you may have something like “What do you reckon?”, “What do you think?”, “How do you see it?”, “What’s your viewpoint on this?”, “What’re your thoughts on this matter?” and so on up on the board. By doing this, the argument goes, we’re demanding higher, asking more of our students. Yet to my mind, we’re simply replacing decent cappuccino with Starbucks’ surfeit of choice.

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Among the first to point out that just because we can say something, it doesn’t mean we actually do were Pawley and Syder. In their seminal 1983 article Two puzzles for linguistic theory: nativelike selection and nativelike fluency, they looked at the utterance I’m so glad you could bring Harry and compared its naturalness with the myriad grammatically correct, but nevertheless peculiar, ways in which it could also be said:

That Harry could be brought by you makes me so glad.

That you could bring Harry gladdens me so.

I am so glad Harry’s being brought by you was possible.

The fact that Harry could be brought by you causes me to be so glad.

I am in a glad state because you could bring Harry.

Obviously, this one could run and run! And really, that’s the basic point to all of my ramblings today. Just because we can, it doesn’t mean we should!

One of the basic adages that has long informed my teaching is the idea that we should teach the probable, not just the possible. Reactions to the notion of teaching more phrases and chunks often divide into two camps: either teachers feel overwhelmed by the sheer number of possible exponents available to teach and thus end up teaching none, or else they adopt an anything goes attitude which accepts all possible variants as equal.

Ultimately, we should be aiming for a happy median. We need to choose the items we believe are the most useful and we need to teach them. It may well be that we later change our mind about particular examples we’ve taught, that discussions with others or examination of data suggest we may have over-emphasized one particular way of expressing an idea at the expense of another perhaps more useful variant. That’s fine. We’re all entitled to change our minds. The important thing is to recognise that while there are many ways of saying things, some are far better than others – and one of the things students expect of their teachers is a principled selection. The road is long and is paved with many items, and choosing key exponents to achieve particular goals saves us time and energy, leaving more of each free for the pursuit of other items expressing other ideas.

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