Freedom through Restriction

1 Oct

Well, I’ve had a bit of a hiatus from writing anything, and I’m not really sure why.  Hopefully this one will get me back into the habit, at least until the MSc work kicks in.  Thank you to the people who took the time to poke me and encourage me to get going again.

So what’s the funniest thing you’ve ever seen?


For most people, this question is very difficult or even impossible to answer.  Sure, we’ve seen a lot of hilarious things in our lives, but the funniest?  There’s just so much to choose from that nothing comes to mind.

Occasionally, while watching trainees teach, I suspect that something similar is happening to the learners.  In particular, it tends to be when the teachers are giving the learners ‘freer practice’ of a language point or ‘working on fluency’[1].  It’s pretty easy to see why too – the trainees, admirably, want to give the learners a chance to say whatever they want, without interference.  Intuitively, this seems like a great way to promote meaningful conversation, without any unnatural restrictions.

In reality, however, the speaking often dries up and the panic on the teacher’s face sets in as they realize that their 15 minute activity has lasted for only 3.  It’s at this point that I usually start feverishly praying (despite my agnosticism) that they don’t try to play hangman/cry/let all the students leave early/do painstakingly long feedback/ramble aimlessly until time is up.

So why does this happen?  Partly, the terminology, or at least the understanding of the terminology, may be to blame.  The word ‘free’ or ‘freer’ is often interpreted as meaning that the task itself is free, without parameters or a concrete outcome.  To my way of understanding, this is not the case.  Rather, ‘freer practice’ simply implies that there is no right or wrong answer and that the task can be completed successfully using a wide range of language.  The parameters of the task though may in fact be quite rigid and yet still allow for unlimited creativity.  To draw on examples from outside of the classroom, many genres of writing insist on strict adherence to certain forms, including haikus, sonnets, minisagas, and even tweets.  I somehow doubt that Shakespeare was not ‘free’ to write what he wished.

Looking at many classic ELT activities, this same type of built-in structure is apparent.  Take for example a desert island task where groups decide on the three most essential items from a list, or Alibi, wherein learners play specific characters, who have committed a specific crime, and must write and answer specific questions: I would argue that in such cases, not only do the guidelines not hinder the learners’ output, it actually encourages more creativity as they must wrestle with the requirements of the task using all the language at their disposal.

None of these thoughts are new of course, and truly meaningful tasks are promoted by most methodologies, but still it’s useful for trainees to be reminded now and again.  So the next time you see a plan including ‘a 20 minute discussion about pets’, maybe suggest a few tweaks.  After all, a bit more restriction might just lead to a whole lot more creative output.

[1] The inverted commas are to show my reservations about these terms!


11 Responses to “Freedom through Restriction”

  1. breathyvowel October 1, 2012 at 9:18 pm #

    Hi Ben,

    As a teacher of not particularly motivated, and rather shy learners, I identify with this post a lot. I also sympathize with learners who are confronted with the instruction “talk to your partner about X”. I see it as paralleling real life situations where girlfriends say”let’s just talk”, at which point any thoughts about anything flee my brain.

    Sometimes it’s as simple as a prompt question or two, sometimes it requires an activity with something to find out, or sometimes just the first line of a discussion, but everyone needs something to work off.

    Thanks for a thought provoking post.


    • Ben Naismith October 1, 2012 at 10:11 pm #

      Hi Alex,

      I think your analogy about the girlfriend is hilarious and apt, and I actually wish I had thought of it when writing the post!

      Totally agree as well with having the first line of a discussion, or even just a sentence stem.

  2. Willy Cardoso October 2, 2012 at 4:29 am #

    In a recent conference, Luke Meddings mentioned a balance between ‘structure and space’. At the same conference, I mentioned ‘sufficient coherence and sufficient randomness’ as a possible methodological principle.
    In complexity theory, and complex systems studies, there’s something called ‘enabling constraints’; imagine a football match for example, simple rules give rise to innovation and creativity, as well as violence!

    So, I guess I would agree with you. Except for the fact that, at least for me, the structure of activities would ideally serve like the scaffold principle; i.e. with one of its purpose being to be dismantled eventually; hence, making students able to sustain a conversation (or free practice) by and for themselves.

    • Ben Naismith October 2, 2012 at 5:19 am #

      Hi Willy, thanks for commenting. I’m all for ‘sufficient randomness’ in all aspects of my life! For the classroom, I imagine this ties in with ambiguity tolerance as well. ‘Enabling constraints’ is another excellent term that I’m glad I’m now aware of.

      While I definitely am in favour of scaffolding followed by greater freedom, I’ve understood this to have to do with supporting the learners’ ability to use or comprehend language (but I could be wrong). I’m not sure that I agree that all enabling constraints (to use my new term) need to be removed. After all, it’s a bit unnatural to just come to a room with a bunch of people to speak for a couple of hours, just for the sake of using language. For me, having a motivating task (which may include parameters) is the only way to make language learning more like real life. Not sure if I’ve totally wandered off topic or missed your point, but I’ll leave it at that anyways.


  3. Chris Ożóg October 8, 2012 at 3:45 am #

    Hi Ben,

    I wholeheartedly agree with what you’ve written here and saw a perfect example of it last night during CELTA TP2. It was a skills lesson, rather than a freer practice, but the point remains. The trainee had pictures of Julio and Enrique Iglesias on the board which, despite your feeling about those particular ‘artists’, could have led to an interesting prediction activity setting up a reading for gist. However, all she did was say “talk about them for 1 minute”. A brief, light, barely-audible 20-second mumble later, and she intervened to break the silence.

    In feedback, we talked about the importance of written prompts, particularly at elementary level, and of building structure into a discussion so as not to have it simply be flat or silent. I used an analogy of waiting for a bus and trying to talk to other people. It’s very hard to do that and strike up any lasting conversation. However, if you were to see an accident, you could probably talk for ages about it and become good friends. It’s the initial stimulus through restriction about what you can talk about that allows you to do so.

    And to paraphrase Wordsworth, nuns are really that restricted by living in their cells…

    Nuns fret not at their convent’s narrow room;
    And hermits are contented with their cells;
    And students with their pensive citadels;
    Maids at the wheel, the weaver at his loom,
    Sit blithe and happy; bees that soar for bloom,
    High as the highest Peak of Furness-fells,
    Will murmur by the hour in foxglove bells:
    In truth the prison, unto which we doom
    Ourselves, no prison is: and hence for me,
    In sundry moods, ’twas pastime to be bound
    Within the Sonnet’s scanty plot of ground;
    Pleased if some Souls (for such there needs must be)
    Who have felt the weight of too much liberty,
    Should find brief solace there, as I have found.



    • Ben Naismith October 8, 2012 at 4:05 am #

      Perfect! The ‘weight of too much liberty’ is a great line. Now I know what I’ll be using if this ramble ever turns into a workshop.

      Though to be honest, no matter what the task was, it would have been a bit of a struggle if it had to involve Julio and Enrique Iglesias. To paraphrase Aristotle, ‘two Iglesisas do not an interesting topic make’.

  4. Rodolfo Rodríguez October 8, 2012 at 6:16 am #

    Hi Ben,

    Not that I’m a fan of anecdotal evidence, but I’ve often seen learners enjoy more discussing a topic they’re not already keen on if they’ve gone through some kind of warmer. I say this because course books will usually use an image and three discussion questions to activate schema and it’s often a sluggish way of starting a class.

    Even when discussion is aimed at specific aspects of the topic, activating schemata previously is essential. I guess that explains some of the awkward lukewarm starts of some CELTA TPs.

    • Ben Naismith October 9, 2012 at 6:08 am #

      Thanks Rodolfo – and you’re not even using your usual pseudonym!

      Yep, while the usual coursebook ‘Match the photos to the people’ can serve in a pinch, it’s not madly inspiring. Then again, I was just reading Hugh Dellar’s post in which he rails against creative planning:

      Somehow I don’t think you’ll be agreeing with him…

  5. Andrew Walkley October 19, 2012 at 12:08 pm #

    Wow, you have some very erudite followers! I’m afraid I can’t match them, but I would put in a word for teaching language to scaffold students speaking! I think part of the problem of the ‘free practice’ of What’s the funniest thing that ever happened to you, is that it is set up as a practice of the present perfect, when in fact what the students have to say is everything except the present perfect! Perhaps if we think of some ‘funniest’ things and actually wrote them we could probably see some common vocabulary and patterns which would help students. Similarly if we think what’d we want to say about the Iglesias’s we might come up with some useful language – Isn’t he dead? He must be 80. He doesn’t look it. I can’t stand him. I’ve never seen him in my life. etc. etc. I’m sure you could think of something else! The kind of things you would want to say will be similar to a lot of people and I’m sure you could imagine what people who don’t share your opinion might say about him. We might ask students to have similar discussions about other celebs, which will allow them to use similar language, but crucially can give them a step up to say other new things if they want. This is Hugh’s point about the limits of ‘creativity’ in ELT classes. If you’re interested our new is concerned with getting people to think about language in this way.


    • Ben Naismith October 20, 2012 at 10:57 pm #

      Hi Andrew,

      Thanks very commenting and I apologize for the late reply. Don’t worry – I can’t match my followers either, but it doesn’t stop me from giving my two cents.

      I’m all for taking a lexical approach in class, and your point about getting students to write down their ideas before starting the speaking task is definitely a good way of providing them with some support for the task, especially if they’re at lower levels.

      I’ve read Hugh’s post that you’re talking about after @tefelrinha recommended ( While I disagree with some of the conclusions, I definitely am on board with trying to provide situations for learners to use useful language which they’ll encounter in real-life, and trying to recycle useful lexis as often as possible.

      I’ll definitely be following the new blog now!


      • Andrew Walkley October 21, 2012 at 11:27 am #

        I think it was my late posting rather than your late replying! Glad you found the blog useful.

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