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Professional Development

Originated by Birmingham MA TEFL/TESL students

July 18, 2009

A witty man, a wise man, a northern man


A recent success in the classroom

I have thoroughly enjoyed teaching a high intermediate level community center English circle for several years now. The class has approximately 12 members, most of whom are retirees and housewives. The weekly class is approximately 2 hours long, and generally involves one hour of free conversation (ranging from major world news to personal experiences) followed by the second hour, where a different student each week is responsible for a presentation (on almost any topic, ranging from inspirational leaders, to a personal hobby).

As the class prepared for yet another 12-week cycle of student presentations (which had become a little stale in recent months), I suggested that it may be beneficial to ‘freshen-up’ the class by doing something different in the second hour. I proposed a series of informal class debates (which half of the students expressed a keen interest in, and the other half recoiled in horror at). A compromise was reached, with debates being held every second class (the other classes continuing to follow the individual presentation format).

The process is entirely student-driven, with a different student proposing the resolution for each ‘debate’. The resolution is announced the week before, to allow time to prepare for those who wish to. On the day of the debate, one student takes the role of moderator, and the others are divided into two teams of equal numbers.

Debate topics have been extremely wide and varied, and to my delight, all students (including those who were initially lukewarm to the idea) have greatly enjoyed participating. The depth of thinking and the level of creativity which I have had the pleasure of witnessing has been phenomenal. My role is to merely observe, take notes and after the moderator has given their verdict, comment on the performance. Students have been quite stunned to find out that their debates have lasted for over 40 minutes each time, with no intervention from the teacher, and no recourse to their native Japanese language.

Sometimes, the hardest thing for teachers is to let go of the reins, and allow a genuinely student-driven learning environment.

A thought or idea in progress

How do non-native English speakers differ from native speakers in expressing agreement and discord? How great an influence does cultural background have on debating skills, and how much can students be ‘taught’ to transcend their own cultural norms when arguing in a foreign language?

From teacher to teachers

Teachers should never stop being learners. The day we lose the thirst to further our own learning is the day we should stop teaching.

Andy loves hearing the thoughts of others on any teaching-related topic. He particularly likes hearing anything which questions the wisdom enshrined in all those expensive books we have on our shelves. Contact him at: andyATletsnaritaDOTcom

Editor's note:
I originally met Andy at the University of Birmingham summer seminar in Hiroshima in 2007. I was immediately impressed with his commitment to living life to the fullest. Whether in the classroom or on the town late at night, he always gave his best to the moment and to the people around him. Nearing the completion of his MA TEFL Dissertation, I look forward to him having more time to play EFL with all of us.


Terry, Andy Lawson, Robert and Chris at the end of a long day of studying,

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Hey Andy,

I think your investigation into the influence of culture and mother tongue on learners' debating skills sounds fascinating! Of course, as we discussed before, the influence of gender is also quite interesting, especially in Japan. What have you noticed in your English circle? How do the men and women interact during a debate?

By the way, I usually don't "double-fist" the beers - likely your influence. See you at JALT in November.

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