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Develop Creative Thinking in Your English Language Class.

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techniques to stimulate ideas in the English language classroom eltcampus

Get Your Learners Thinking Creatively in the English Language Classroom: 5 Activities to Use in the Classroom

OYL-TEEN Especially Useful for Adolescents (Teens) and Adult Learners

Your students are throwing their hands up in exasperation as they complain that they couldn’t even do the speaking/writing exercise in their own language, let alone in English. Why? Because they can’t come up with ideas. Creative thinking is zero.

This is a particular problem when you are required to have ideas falling out of your head for a speaking or writing task in a proficiency exam. Creatives have a well exercised brain for making connections and associations with images and concepts but it doesn’t just appear from nowhere, it has to be practised.

If creative thinking isn’t being exercised outside of your language classroom, and it very possibly isn’t, you need to consider embedding creative thinking exercises into your course. The end-goal of creative thinking exercises isn’t language, although language is a massively rich bi-product. Your objective needs to read something like this: My students will see connections in concepts or images and generate ideas faster and more confidently, so they have material to work with.

1. Forget the Brainstorm. Try the Brainwrite.

Sharing ideas in groups isn’t the problem. When people share ideas out loud in a group a couple of things typically happen that lead to groupthink. Groupthink is the opposite of unique ideas. In brainstorming a lot of the talking is often done by one or two people. And if one person is talking, you’re not thinking of your own ideas you’re putting your brainpower into comprehending and assimilating their ideas. Where is the space for your own thoughts?

Early ideas tend to influence the rest of the conversation. This process is called “anchoring”. Brainwriting is an alternative- write first, talk second.

How to Brainwrite:

  1. Get your students to write down a few rough ideas for solving a particular problem.
  2. Each piece of paper is then passed on to someone else, who reads it silently and adds their own ideas to the page then they pass the page on.
  3. Repeat until everyone or a least a few has had a chance to add. The notes can then be gathered, ready for discussion.

Think-Pair-Scaffold the Share

  1. So, thanks to the previous exercise, you’ve got first draft ideas. Post these ideas on a wall (If you are in a crowded large classroom, how could you do this? Post your comments!). Pair up students to walk around and look at the ideas. Scaffold how they do this if they aren’t used to analysing things: Set a task – either to rate the ideas or categorise them in some way.
  2. From an English point of view, this also gives the opportunity to repeat key language. Then everyone comes together to share either in small groups or as a whole class.

2. Groupsketch

An idea close to my heart. Drawing (see more ideas). You don’t have to be an artist or a designer to make positive use of drawing as an idea generating process. Visual thinking can help to trigger ideas that verbal approaches don’t. This technique is also great for lower levels where ideas may abound, but language does not. Remember, if the task objective is to get ideas, then focus on how to draw the ideas out, not the language. That can come next.

How to groupsketch:

  1. Similar to brainwrite, but with images and sketches instead
  2. Get your students to sketch a few rough ideas for solving a particular problem.
  3. Each piece of paper is then passed on to someone else, who considers it silently and adds their own sketched ideas to the page, or adjusts someone else’s, or extends someone else’s idea, then they pass the page on.
  4. Repeat until everyone or a least a few has had a chance to add. The sketches can then be gathered, ready for discussion

3. Find a Connection

As humans we are hard-wired to find connections. Much thought has gone into what it is we do with connections as far back as Aristotle. The best at forming connections and associations between things are highly effective creatives.

This exercise involves bringing together things that serve very different needs or interests to form a new concept. It’s a kind of Steve Jobs approach to building creative smarts and is actually similar to a technique comedians use to “find the funny”.

How to connect:

  1. Bring a bag of random items to your class or draw up two lists of unrelated items on the board – get your students to throw you some ideas.
  2. In pairs or small groups students select two or more items and explore different ways they can be connected. The results can be absurd, but the process is invaluable. From a language point of view feed in the structures we use for classic associations of for example, similarity and contrast.

4. Zero Draft

The Zero Draft is a technique often used by writers. It’s a form of focused free-writing. For us in the classroom, it can help focus the first stages of dealing with a new topic by establishing what individuals and the class, as a whole, currently know and getting their initial ideas onto paper.

How to zero draft:

  1. Put the topic where everyone can see it. Each student draws up a table with two columns.
  2. First column: they write down everything they currently know about the subject.
  3. Second column: they write down what they need or want to know about the subject, but don’t currently know.
  4. Next stage: pair up and see if you can answer the areas your partner doesn’t know.
  5. Move on into small groups and then whole class feedback. This is a way to harness the prior knowledge students bring to your classroom.

5. Pink Fluffy Unicorns Dancing on Rainbows

Sometimes thinking crazy brings out ideas that are, with a tweak or two, actually plausible. Possibly not the unicorns…but interesting nonetheless.

How to pink fluffy unicorn:

  1. Post/state the problem
  2. Get your students to dream up the most extreme and impractical solutions they can think of to the problem, or an ideal world solution.
  3. Focusing on a selection of crazy ideas, consider and discuss the ideas in detail (pairs and small groups). The objective is to generate more realistic ideas.
  4. Scaffold: Ask the questions: What makes it so impossible? Which features of that crazy idea might work?

Teaching English to Teens Course

Now that we have an understanding of what is happening in the adolescent brain and what we need to do in order to help it develop healthily, how do we apply this in our teen classrooms with the pressures on them and us?

The author of the this article, Emma Pratt, is busy working on extending our TEYL course with extra teen modules to explore these issues, offer advice, practical approaches and activities to transform your teen classroom.

Head over to the new course site being built and take the opportunity to look at the content and pre-enrol. We'll let you know when it's ready. Tell Emma what you'd love to know how to do better as a teacher of teens and she'll take your thoughts into consideration as she is writing the course!

OR Contact Emma if you'd like to know more.