Creative Discussion using Plain Pair Groups

Creative Discussion – a key to insight and change

William Plain
Emeritus Professor, Nagoya University of Foreign Studies

Plain Pair Group Teaching (Plain PGT)
- for universities and schools
Plain Pair Group Discussion (Plain PGD)
- for decision making and staff development
- for informal or community creative discussion

A flash of insight is the spark of cosmic intelligence.
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Management of silence


Learning space

In most teaching methods, the teacher normally fills the ‘space’ of the classroom with his presence. Here, the teacher needs to alternate ‘teacher-presence’ with total ‘teacher-silence’, and allow the students to occupy the dynamic ‘learning space’.

All teaching is based on principles

By choice of method, the teacher inevitably presents certain social principles. Education should help the student to grow by making independent decisions about his own learning.

‘Jug and glass’ teaching

Most teaching sees the teacher as a jug who ‘pours’ knowledge into the student, as a glass. This is an inefficient form of learning compared to ‘natural learning’.

Not change, but ‘awakeness’

Asking teachers to change is an exercise of power. Only an increase in awareness, on the part of both teacher and of student, will lead to real change.

Education for awareness

The needs of each student are continually varying. No method or curriculum can be always appropriate. Only the continuing exercise of awareness can help the teacher to respond to student needs and make the necessary changes to facilitate learning.


Learning space

Perhaps the most notable factor in the Plain Pair Group Teaching method is the change that it brings about in the organisation of the classroom as regards what could be called the ‘management of silence’ or ‘dynamic space’.

It can be said that the process of decision-making and active involvement which takes place in the classroom forms a kind of ‘dynamic space’ which tends to be filled by the teacher. Generally it is the teacher who is ‘doing’, who dominates the whole class as the talker, the instigator, the leader, the ‘decider’. The teacher is often aware of a sense of ‘filling the room’, not only with his voice which is carefully modulated to penetrate the far corners of the room, but also in a very real sense with his ‘presence’, with the extension of his influence over the whole class. Teaching is the dominant factor, and the teacher projects his knowledge into the students, or organises the students into acting out carefully controlled and orchestrated activities under the direction of the omni-present teacher.

In most classrooms, whether traditional or communicative, the role of the student is to remain silent unless asked to perform in a specific way. The teacher rarely remains silent, and when he does ask the students to perform in some way, they continue to ‘hear’ his unspoken demands, to follow his directives while carrying out the activity. The teacher is rarely totally silent, both in voice and in ‘presence’.

However when a classroom management approach such as the Plain PGT method is used, there is an alternation of teacher-presence and teacher-silence which allows the students to participate in the dynamics of the classroom, to take their turn in ‘filling the space’ of the classroom.

With this method, the initial lecture or presentation is a period where the teacher can use all of his arts of informing and enlightening, often in a more creative and stimulating form, given the shorter, more intense period of presentation. However when the pair-group and in-group presentation phases arrive, the students are the ones encouraged to fill the entire classroom space with their presence. This involves the students in making decisions about certain aspects of group management, discovering how to learn, and becoming responsible for their own involvement in the learning process. The teacher in the meantime withdraws his presence and attempts to occupy as close to zero dynamic space as possible. He remains silent both in word and in terms of decision-making and direction of learning. The students are given as much learning space as possible.

What then happens, however, is not that the teacher finds himself with no role to play, or feels that he has become completely redundant. Rather, he gives himself space in which he can look around the classroom, observe the processes of learning — and failure to learn! — which are taking place around him. He becomes attentive to the almost imperceptible signs that tell him what is happening within each group, and within the mind of many of the students. That is he becomes aware of everything taking place in the classroom, aware of the factors that help or impede learning. It is through this process that the teacher is then able to modify his method, make changes in the material or presentation, or find many small ways to help individual students or groups to overcome the problems they are facing.

While the teacher exercises his awareness of the class around him, the students also tend to become more conscious of the subject matter, of the role they have been given in the teaching/learning process, of their own strengths and weaknesses in learning and taking responsibility for their own learning. Awareness becomes part of learning and learning shifts slowly from ‘taught learning’ to ‘natural learning’, where the level of enthusiasm and involvement of the students becomes noticeably superior.

It is at this stage that the quality of ‘natural learning’ developed in Part 2 of this book begins to take on form and meaning in the context of an otherwise structured classroom learning situation. Each student at some time has had the experience of finding learning an exciting and totally involving process, at least as a young child when first confronted with a new world of meaning and with the possibility of taking an active role in the communication going on around him. Through his life he has often found that certain learning experiences in his personal life, if not his school life, have been invested with a sense of ‘light learning’.

My experience in using the Plain PGT method is that a good number of students on many occasions during the academic year have found that their learning experiences take on a feeling of immediacy and relevance and are felt as being important and meaningful in ways that are not normally experienced in a more traditional lecture format or language activity method of teaching. Some students of course remain immune to every effort to involve them in the learning process. Nothing can be more important than the fact that the teacher will sometimes be ‘the wrong person at the wrong time for certain people almost by definition’[1]. However feedback through student reports indicate that a significant majority of students are able to translate aspects of their own learning and discoveries during the course into positive experiences that will be carried into the future.

All teaching is based on principles.

Many teachers may claim that, “We are only concerned with teaching a certain subject, and that the choice of how we teach has no direct influence on the student. As long as we teach well, and the student learns well, one method is as good as another.” However, what many teachers are unconscious of is the fact that all teaching has an influence on the student, as a method, and not only as subject matter. The choice of method is necessarily a declaration to the student of certain principles concerning teaching and learning, relationships between teacher and student, authority and responsibility, dependence and independence. All of these factors and many more are hidden messages suggested by the presence of the teacher in front of his students and the way he chooses to interact with his class.

The fact, for example, that the teacher stands up (or sits at the dais) and gives a lecture proclaims that the lecturer possesses knowledge which the students can only obtain by listening to the lecturer. The student must accept that knowledge as it is presented, he cannot change it or modify it, he must take all or close his mind to what the lecturer is saying. In a language activity, the student is often even more limited in terms of the choices he is given. He is cajoled into acting and communicating in a certain way, very often using language based on topics which have little or no meaning in themselves, and when they do, often have limited relevance to his life and concerns.

It should be remembered that all learning has an influence on the student, not only from the point of view of content, but also the way in which he learns it. The teacher should be conscious of this and realise that both content and method contain a hidden message, and that both will to some extent form the student and have an effect on his future. This also means that, to some extent anyway, all teaching has an influence on the future of society as a whole. The teacher must therefore think very carefully about both what and how he teaches, and base his choice on conscious principles which he has elaborated as carefully and as conscientiously as possible.

One of the principles that I consider to be of general importance is that all teaching should in some way help the student to grow, should have an ‘evolutionary’ influence on him. The word ‘growth’, as with so many others that make up the principles behind choice of method, are of course very vague in content, and can be interpreted by each person in a thousand different ways. What is important is that it probably means different things also for each student, and the teacher should be conscious of this and modify his teaching in many small ways to try to take these ever changing needs into account.

The teacher should also remember that growth is not something that can be programmed. He cannot decide that each student will profit from his class in a specified way during a particular semester. He of course develops an overall approach based as much on what he himself can offer as a person as on his perception of his students’ needs, but this approach will have to change continually as he observes the reactions of individual students or classes.

Above all, the teacher will have to provide as much as possible an environment of freedom which will allow each student to grow and develop in the direction which he sees as most suitable for himself. In order to do this, the teacher should lead his students to exercise independent decision-making concerning certain aspects of the course or approach to learning. The intimate feeling of having participated in some way as a free and independent individual is very important in the growth of the person and for increasing his sense of meaningful relationship with the subject being studied.

Learning should not only be concerned with learning the information or skills that are being studied at that particular moment. Rather, the course as a whole should develop the student’s capacity for learning itself, and should give him an increased confidence in his own power for learning. In order to do this, he needs to be given the opportunity to experience doing something with the knowledge he acquires during the class, should be able to experiment with it and confront his understanding with that of his colleagues. Purely passive intake will tend to hamper this process of growth, whereas active participation in the development of his own knowledge will allow him to carry his development on into the future. Learning should therefore be as active as possible, and should allow the student to create his own relationships with his subject.

All of this means that the teaching that takes into account the deeper needs of the student should be, in part at least, based on student-centred teaching methods. In order for this to be the case, the learning needs to come from the student. He has to generate his own knowledge, and find his own ways to develop his understanding of the subject matter. He will receive partially from the teacher, but then the teacher should step back and ‘let good learning happen’ in the classroom. Instead of acting as a provider of knowledge intended to be absorbed passively, the teacher needs to act as a manager of the learning that is taking place among the students.

‘Jug and glass’ teaching

One of the most universal principles of modern education is the primacy of the teacher in the knowledge hierarchy. The teacher is not simply an available source of knowledge from which the student can obtain that knowledge he chooses, rather the teacher is the holder of knowledge, he decides which knowledge should be transferred, and then tests whether the student has obtained a sufficient understanding of this knowledge.

As a result, the teacher is all too often over-conscious of his own role in the classroom and only minimally or partially aware of the student and the learning that is taking place within the student’s own cerebral space. This approach to teaching can appropriately be described as ‘jug and glass’ teaching. The teacher is seen as a jug containing all the knowledge which has to be transferred to the student. Through his teaching, the teacher ‘pours’ this knowledge into the student’s mind, as though he is pouring it into a glass which is waiting there to receive all the knowledge given, with the only limitation that when it is full, it will flow over the side. However, as long as the teacher pours, the student will receive and retain.

It will very often be the case that the lecturer organises his subject matter in a very coherent and accessible form so as to facilitate reception by the student and render the subject matter as interesting as possible. The language activity may also be devised in such a way as to facilitate the development of language skills in the area being practised. Great skill and expertise may well go into the preparation of teaching material and the way in which it is presented.

It still remains the case however that often the teacher sees himself as being at the centre of the classroom, as the active ‘giving’ factor in the teaching/learning equation. The student’s role is not directly and continuously taken into active consideration. To a greater or a lesser extent, the teacher sees himself as a jug containing knowledge and experience, and the student as the glass which will receive because the teacher is pouring. If he doesn’t there is something wrong with the student: he has not paid attention, his background knowledge is insufficient, his intellectual capacity is not at the same level as the others, etc.

What indeed is strange is that a very large part of the teaching that takes place in almost any subject, including language teaching, is of this nature — the student is a receiver of the knowledge the teacher is giving him. In general, however, the results show this approach to be inefficient, especially when compared, in language learning for example, with what I refer to as ‘natural language learning’ which requires the total participation of the student, both in the internal learning process and also appropriate control over the external modalities of learning.

Not change, but ‘awakeness’

If it is possible to say that the Plain Pair Group Teaching method offers definite advantages over conventional lecturing methods, can we reasonably ask teachers to adopt this, or other methods, which are aimed at increasing the level of awareness of the teacher and of the students and facilitating communicative learning?

We may think that teachers are not sufficiently ‘aware of the need for awareness’. We may believe that too many teachers think that somehow the ‘jug and glass’ method of teaching should work — this method is often what many of us experienced when we were students anyway, and therefore when we start teaching, we automatically tend to use as a teacher the methods we experienced over so many years as a student. How then can you get teachers to change, to become more conscious of the learning needs of the students?

I tend to think however that, rather than trying to change teaching methods, it is more useful to change one’s attitude or approach to teaching. I therefore prefer to suggest the value of a continuing awareness of the need for creative adaptation, both on the part of the teacher and of the students. Each person in the teaching/learning process (administrator, trainer, teacher and student) should be continually searching for ways to maximise the learning taking place. This doesn’t necessarily require a radical change in methods used. Rather it is a consciousness that a state of continuous awareness can lead to the spontaneous on-the-spot discovery of better ways of encouraging learning.

The difference between providing a new method for teaching as against helping the teacher to be conscious of ways he can change his own teaching is somewhat akin to the distinction made by Gandhi who said, “If you give a man a fish, you feed him for a day, if you teach a man to fish, you feed him for a lifetime.”

All too often, providing a new method is something like giving a man a fish, but making sure he comes back to you for another fish the next time he is hungry, i.e. denying the teacher the creativity to generate his own solutions to teaching problems. However, if it is possible to provide a method which is so designed as to allow the teacher to become conscious of the underlying dynamics of the learning taking place in the classroom, then he can take over from the teacher’s book or the method and provide his own answers. The principle element in such a state of independence is awareness, the capacity to see what is actually happening in the classroom — what the students are doing, and especially what the teacher himself is really doing, both as a help and as a hindrance to learning.

The necessity for awareness is in fact something that teachers do not ignore — and this is shown through interviews with leading teachers in education[2]. It is possible that teaching methods may often be inadequate. However, I believe that most teachers are in fact conscious of the need to develop awareness, and much of the good learning that takes place is the result of students exercising their own capacity for awareness.

Change, in virtually any area, tends to involve replacing one method with another, one system with another. The old system may have been no good, but there is no guarantee that the new system will be any better or will not in turn become the old. The end result at least is that the new will simply replace the old, and while it will have a different name, it will often function in much the same way. In teaching, this is also the case. I am not interested in changing the methods or even the dominant principles that a teacher may hold dear. I may not agree with what he is doing, but I cannot be the judge for other people. What I think is wrong may often give results which are excellent.

What I am interested in is the awareness factor, that each person be as conscious as possible of what he is doing, and why he is doing that. He may not change. Then again he may change radically. Ultimately, that concerns the teacher himself, not the trainer or methodology writer. The important thing is that the teacher does not cover his eyes and act unconsciously, without reflection.

The desire to bring about change is more often than not the expression of pride, of a desire to exercise power over other people. If the trainer tells the teacher that he is wrong and that the trainer is right, that is not awareness, it is authority, and authority does not lead to awareness and the development of a sense of personal responsibility. Insisting on being the sole source of authority is also like keeping the supply of fish under sole control, and feeding them out one by one. What is needed is giving control over the supply of fish — teaching how to fish, eliminating authority, giving freedom. The trainer or the person who develops a method such as the one described in this book (so simple as to be virtually a ‘non-method’) should make every effort to hand over to the reader the means to be totally independent of the authority of the method, to be able to make his own observations and experience his own insights into teaching and learning. Only in this way does such a ‘non-method’ produce freedom, and not further constraint.

Exactly the same considerations should apply to the teacher/student relationship. If the Plain PGT method has an advantage it is not because it is a method to study, to learn and apply strictly, but because it leaves so much freedom that the teacher can adapt and modify at need, and above all have a sense of ‘space’ and even leisure in the class to allow him to be conscious of the underlying needs of the students. In this way he can be continually working to modify the dynamics of the learning process so as to open doors to the students, create new possibilities for understanding self and society, not only while in the class, but in a way that they can carry their own capacity for freedom and insight into the future.

If the teacher undergoes the imposition of authority in determining what he does in the classroom, the teacher will in turn tend to exercise authority over the students, which leads to a state akin to that of ‘heavy learning’, the type of learning often met in a structured learning situation which gives a sense of the brain filling up or becoming ‘heavy’. Instead of creating an environment where successful learning can take place, authority tends to stifle the light, spontaneous understanding and the yen for knowledge which characterise the young child and ‘natural’ adult ‘light learning’ situations.

The good teacher, as also the good student, is one who is fully awake, conscious of what makes for good learning, and conscious of the primacy of learning over teaching.

Education for awareness

Education should be concerned only partially with what one knows, and only partially with developing ‘correct’ attitudes and behaviour. We will never know what is best in all circumstances, and learning a certain form of behaviour, in society or in the classroom, may often leave us completely unprepared for many of the unforeseeable situations in which we will almost certainly find ourselves.

What we need most of all is the flexibility of spirit and capacity for innovative reaction that comes from being free of all pre-established schema, and of being both unconditioned by the authority and untouched by the power that others wish to exert over us during our education process. The exercise of a continuing state of awareness is necessary to enable all learning to be as efficient as it is in those moments when we are fully awake, vitally interested and totally involved.

Education is concerned with the development of awareness, not only in the student but first of all in the teacher. It is the teacher’s own awareness and the exercise of that awareness while standing in front of the class that allows the individual students to become conscious that awareness exists as a real and viable means of facing their world, both internal and external.

Looking at oneself as a teacher is therefore more to do with the looking itself than with any judgement that can be made concerning the ‘what’, the ‘how’, or the ‘why’. In other words, the practice of awareness is more important than the content, the methods or the principles of teaching. The fact that the teacher is continually in the process of ‘looking’ will bring about its own changes — and this process will be even more effective when such changes are virtually imperceptible.

Change in itself and for itself has no ultimate value. Change implies replacing the old with the new. In time, the new will become old and will again need to be replaced. The moment the new is established as a method, an accepted system, it is no longer capable of instant and wholly flexible modification according to the requirements of the moment in which you are acting. It is the state of awareness which enables you to modify your interventions, to react to the continually changing situation of each moment such that the needs of each student can be given maximum consideration.

In other words, no one system will ever be right for all the requirements of a given moment. The world is always too complex, too multi-faceted, to allow for an all-encompassing system of rules and regulations. Within any classroom for example, the method of teaching that you are using, enlightened though it be, can never be totally appropriate for each and every student sitting in front of you! Not only do people vary so much among themselves, but the internal states and needs of any individual are in a process of continual mutation. It is impossible, a priori, to predict the needs of all the members of a class at each and every moment of the class period or academic year. It is impossible for a curriculum planner to take into account all aspects of any situation in which human beings are involved. The inner world of the human being is too vast and too profound. His deep, deep needs are largely unknown to himself. An outsider cannot pretend to know what these will be.

The exercise of continuing awareness can be of inestimable value to the teacher in ensuring not simply that teaching takes place, but also that learning takes place. We must always be conscious that teaching and learning do not necessarily go hand in hand. At times the teacher is so concerned with his teaching that he forgets whether or not the students are learning. It cannot be overemphasised that teaching does not automatically lead to learning, and the teacher must at every moment be conscious of this.

In a word, it is through the activation of some form of inner gaze, an active observation of the classroom, an attempt as it were to ‘feel’, to probe with the antennae of one’s consciousness the continual flux of inner states of the students in front of you, that the teacher can guarantee a maximum level of learning. It is through a heightened state of awareness that it is possible to continually modify the presentation of your class material in a way that will best suit your students — and yourself.

[1] Mario Rinvolucri of Pilgrims Teacher Training Courses, in an interview with the author published in “Awareness Training in Learning and Teaching” (Plain 1991 p. 98). (Back to text)

[2] Included in a book I published entitled “Awareness Training in Learning and Teaching”. (Back to text)

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