Topics by Association

If you’ve ever taught a bona fide conversation course you’ve probably done this. You roll into class armed with a killer topic, fling it out there without a whole lot of prep because you know it’s foolproof. Then it shudders to a stop — dead! — right there in front of everybody. A few throats clear, some students squirm, mumble even, but the topic is roadkill. So what happened? An ill-wind driving bad feng shui? Sunspots? Monosodium glutamate?

At other times quite the opposite happens. Somehow a topic materializes out of nowhere. As a topic, it’s nothing special but the students grab it, hang on and roll with it. Discussion is animated, punctuated with laughter and carries on even outside after the class. You scratch your head, mystified, but grateful nonetheless.

A popular buzzword in teaching circles these days is “student-centered learning”. Surprisingly the term was coined in 1905 [O’Neill and McMahon; 2005] but that’s neither here nor there. The important point is that the concept is often at the heart of both sessions that soar and those that fall flat. When as a teacher you happen upon a topic that causes your heart to pitter-patter, there’s no guarantee that students will have the same reaction. I’ve had many students ask me why teachers all seem to want to talk about abortion or capital punishment or euthanasia or some other hot button topic. I usually do my best to explain that the answer lies in many of the materials published in both print and online that put forth such topics.

What really is going on in these two scenarios is a failure to communicate. In both scenarios empathy is lacking, impaired by a cultural gap, a generation gap, a power gap or a combination of all three. The top-down or teacher-centered process by which topics are doled out is seriously flawed, frequently incapable of bridging these gaps between the roles of student and teacher.

Empathy fails less often in Truth or Dare for English-language Learners [TOD] by design. TOD has a built-in mechanism for generating topics of high interest to participants. I call it Catalyst and a workbook by that name is in the works. Instead of handing students preconfigured questions, topics are student-generated through the mechanism of word associations. Like many revolutionary ideas, the beauty of this mechanism is in its simplicity. When a participant draws a Truth Card they’ll find a one- or two-word prompt. This is typically a broad-based lexical item that will resonate one way or another with just about every player from false beginners and up. Let’s look at an example.

Suppose a student from Japan, a snowboarding enthusiast, draws a prompt card from the Truth deck that says simply “Snow”. For her it will spawn many memories but might provoke a particularly strong recollection of a close call in a blizzard with an avalanche.

A student from Dubai, drawing the same card, might be momentarily baffled. Having already learned through exercises detailed in the TOD Instruction Guide that a negative experience is still an experience he’ll recover his momentary imbalance by mentioning that he’s never seen snow before but would like to. He adds that he has seen snow on TV of course and imagines it’s like the sandstorms back home. With that he’s on familiar territory, able to proceed in nearly any direction.

A student from Québec might have an entirely different take on snow, something involving a snow shovel no doubt.

Ideally, in the ebb and flow of gameplay, all three will share their unique, highly personal “truths” about the topic at hand.

The important point here is that the top-down gaps never enter the picture yet topics arise and conversation occurs precisely because the real topic of discussion is ME, everybody’s favourite topic.

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