Technologically and linguistically adventurous EFL teacher, trainer, writer and manager

Part of a series of summaries of the talks I’m attending at IATEFL Liverpool 2013. Please feel free to add things or correct me if I’ve misinterpreted anything!
These are the main points from Sue O’Connell’s talk.

Sue studied university students (I think – I was a couple of minutes late and missed this!) The main reason IELTS students failed was not speaking or writing skills, but thinking skills.
Sue will look at how to inteoduce critical thinking to students, particularly in terms of generating lots of ideas.
Why should we, as language teachers, concern ourselves with thinking skills? If we’re in eduaction, we have no choice. We’re in the business of brain development (John Medina)
Finding ideas is a huge problem. When you Goolge “i need an idea” you get 2 billion hits. Here a some problems collected from IELTS students online.

People have the wrong idea about IELTS. they think it requires a high level of reasoning and ideas, but Sue feels most students have these ideas, but the problem is that they can’t access and apply these ideas. They tend not to engage deeply enough in the topic, or they engage in the wrong type of thinking. There is a lot of research into thinking at the moment. One of the main areas is divergent thinking, Sir Ken Robinson describes it as the ability to see many different ways of interpreting questions, Students often think there is only right way to answer a question. Divergent thinking is also the ability to think of lots of possible answers, try new approaches to old problems, and think laterally. Sue thinks these ideas are all highly relevant to our students.
An experiment was done testing learners for genius level based on divergent thinking. For 5-6 year olds, the percentage was 98%. For 10 year olds, 32% and for 15 year olds, 10%. The good news is we’re all born with the capacity for divergent thinking, but somewhere along the lines we lose it and become convergent thinkers.
We need to help our atudents think more fluently and more flexibly. It’s unrealistic to throw students in at the deep end, so it’s better to nudge them out of old habits, moving them gradually towards what they might need at university,
Safe ground to start with is making lists, for example, what are the advantages and disadvantages of X? Adding selecting and categorising makes it an even better thinking task. For example, make a list of sports and hobbies, each one beginning with a different letter of the alphabet. Then look at your list and divide them into any five A/B categories you want to, for example something you do alone/with other people. If you let students work for five minutes or so on this, for the first third of the time, the ideas are fairly routine, the next third are more unusual, and the final third are more original and complex. Therefore, you must encourage students to defer editing (ideas first, then monitor) and don’t stop the idea generation process. There are two stages: possibility (all possible) and practical (what is actually relevant). It’s useful to have a quota and a time limit.
You need to see something from at least three different perspectives to have any kind of depth. Groupwork can give you that. “Good ideas come from crowds, they come from networks” Steven Johnson, the author of ‘Where good ideas come from’
“We don’t pay attention to boring things”: Brain Rule #4 by John Medina. This matters a lot in learning. He always asks a new class how quickly they switch off in a lecture. They normally say 10-15 minutes, so we need to reset the clock with a novel stimulus. The more attention you pay to a stimulus, the more likely it is to remember things.
For this activity, you need a scrap of paper and divide it in half vertically, and you’ll write down seven words. At the top of the left column, you write ‘nice’ and ‘not nice’ at the top of the other. These are the ones Sue dictated (and my choices): lecture (nice), shy (nice), competition (nice), shopping (not nice), grammar (nice), drama (not nice). You have to dictate them quite quickly so people don’t have time to think a lot! Then compare them to a partner and say why. You can also try easy/not easy, relevant/not relevant.
Brain rule #10: we learn and remember better through pictures, not words or “Vision trumps all other senses”. Visual processing takes up about 50% of our brains. We pay more attention to shapes and colours. Venn diagrams are great for categorising. For example, this one for noun formation:

20130411-151936.jpg diviing nouns by -ity or -tion. It can be done physically too:

20130411-152048.jpg You can also use this for formal/informal/neutral.
You can make a three-circle Venn with creatures e.g. horses/humans/frogs – what characteristics are common to each/unique?
Brain rule #1: Exercise boosts brain power. John Medina: “To improve your thinking skills, move.” Your brain is likely to be more active walking to work than it is when you get there! People who exercise outperform the couch potatoes (oh no!)
It’s really helpful to encourage students to make thinking visible. For example, mind maps activate the whole brain. They are a proven way to transform information from short-term to long-term memory. There are lots of other ways from Enchanted Learning.
Remind students it’s OK to mistakes: encourage students to choose their favourite mistakes. “If you’re not prepared to be wrong, you’ll never come up with anything original.” Sir Ken Robinson. “When you do something, you might fail, but that’s not because you’re a failure, it’s because you haven’t learnt enough to succeed yet.” Jordan Belfort
In summary, we need to:
– encourage divergent thinking
– help learners to see issues from different perspectives
– use colours and graphics
– exploit the element of surprise
– give permission to make mistakes
“Anyone who has never made a mistake has never tried anything new” Albert Einstein for John Medina

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