Good news! Conversation classes keep resisting the progressing automation and digitalization of teaching. They owe it to the fact that, as of yet, there is no AI powerful enough to lead a spontaneous conversation with another human being, and with it, the possibility of doing away with the human factor remains limited. Certain other trends in foreign language teaching, such as questioning coursebooks and going material light, add up to the unwavering popularity of conversation classes.
This, however, does not mean that there have been no attempts at disrupting what seems to be a very promising part of the market. The major change so far has been an unprecedented availability of conversations with the arrival of online platforms which link language owners with language seekers. And while there have always been nonprofessionals in this field, the unprecedented scale of current developments begs one very important question: what is the difference between professional and nonprofessional conversation classes?
The concept of professional conversation classes is something relatively new. So far, the distinction between professional and nonprofessional conversations has been implicitly based on location, education or nationality of the teacher rather than the actual experience: conversations with a teacher (preferably a native speaker) in a language school were automatically assumed to be professional, and everything else was not. However, in actual fact, it is not uncommon even for professional teachers to lead unprofessional conversation classes. Conversation classes have often been treated as a poor cousin of classes devoted to teaching grammar structures or vocabulary items. With little or no preparation necessary beforehand, many professional teachers have treated them as a moment of relief, and this seemingly low entry barrier is what keeps attracting many nonprofessionals to teaching till this day.
The truth of the matter is, however, that there is more to conversation classes than just getting people to talk. Each conversation class leaves certain aftertaste which — over time — turns into expectations before the next encounter. And the three elements combined make up the overall conversation experience. It is a concept which allows me to see conversation classes in a broader context of teaching communication skills. As noticed by Scott Thornbury and Diana Slade in Conversation: From Description to Pedagogy (Cambridge University Press, 2010), successful oral communication ultimately depends on fostering three skills: confidence, willingness to communicate and persistence in communication, rather than accuracy and fluency, which seem to be the most evident and very often exclusive goal of nonprofessional conversation classes.
Thinking about conversations not as “getting them to talk”, but in terms of the whole experience suddenly highlights the importance of the questions that are being asked during classes. While conversation classes may take different forms such as role plays, follow-up questions to some input, picture description etc. discussion questions are at their heart, and it is their quality which governs the conversation experience for adults in the first place.
My initial research into conversation questions revealed a surprising homogeneity of question types and their mood, despite the total number of individual questions examined approaching a five-digit number!
James M. Taylor in his recently self-published book How Was Your Weekend? 1001 Discussion Questions points out to the fact that the question about last weekend may be a bit worn out, yet what he offers instead differs very little from the mood of the infamous question.
The official website of the Internet TESL Journal, one of the biggest resources of conversation questions with hundreds of categories and literally thousands of questions, offers even less variety:
The Amazon’s number one hit after typing “conversations”, Compelling Conversations, and Compelling American Conversations by Eric Roth and Toni Aberson (a resource not only for educational purposes) offers the same, all-too-familiar experience:
The list of various publications (meant not only for English language teaching) containing discussion questions could continue, but with little qualitative difference regarding individual questions. From the School of Life’s 100 questions series, through projects such as Big Talk, to professional language coursebooks like the highly acclaimed Outcomes series published in partnership with National Geographic, 8 out of 10 questions are personal or deeply personal, often employing controversy, gossip or absurd to provoke the answer.
I stated my case against personal questions in a separate article, here I wish only to recapitulate that personal questions deepen the divide between the teacher and the student, turning the former into an interrogator rather than a participant of the exchange; personal questions engage memory instead of intellect, being re-creative rather than creative; and finally, personal questions contribute to the building up of anxiety by being intrusive. That is why, it is very difficult to design a good conversation experience using personal questions alone. They do get students to talk, but with the desire to quickly finish the conversation, they force exhibitionism which may undermine confidence, and their repetitiveness and predictability stem the appetite for more.
What is needed in order to improve the quality of the conversation experience (and the quality of education at the same time) are new type of questions which would be objective, referential and, above all, educational.
For the reasons partially mentioned above, it is important to shift the target of questions from “you” to a neutral “out there”. A move like this is likely to emancipate the students and remove a great deal of anxiety from them. The resulting questions are objective, but the answers they generate remain deeply individual.
It is equally important that the new type of questions were referential, meaning that they should allow more than one correct answer, or ideally, no incorrect answers at all. This is to level the playing field between the sides of the conversation and further strengthen students’ confidence.
Last but not least, the new questions should be educative in the sense that they should employ curiosity as their engine to elicit responses. The advantage of curiosity over controversy, taboo or gossip commonly employed in conversation questions today is its impossibility to get satisfied. Questions based on curiosity are educational in the Deweyan sense, that is they open the doors to ever new experiences, instead of closing them.
Over the course of my career as an English teacher, and a host of many “talk shows” in my conversation atelier Mentals, I came up with four types of professional conversation questions:
The first type is a question about the difference between two concepts, for example: what is the difference between a shy person and a coward?
The second type is a choice between two concepts, for example: is cooking art of craft?
The third type is a question about relation between two concepts, for example what is the relation between the level of difficulty and the level of stress?
And finally, there are open questions, such as: can a dog be a teacher?
All of them meet the criteria of being objective, referential and educative. With the little resources they require, the new types of questions generate truly compelling and unique conversation experience with the vast majority of students craving more and more. They allow for an unlimited variety of subjects and purposes (general, business, legal, etc.), while the depth and the amout of reflection they enable makes them often the sole input necessary in the classroom. And if this already sounds too good to be true, let me add that they can be designed using a simple dictionary.
As a conclusion, I wish to reflect on the reason why we should bother about improving conversation questions at all. Is it for the purpose of gaining competitive advantage over nonprofessional teachers and attracting more students? I am afraid it is not. I am afraid a good looking profile picture on a p2p portal still weighs more. But we should try to improve the quality of our conversations because being foreign language teachers, we are a part of a bigger picture of education. And before teaching any language at all, our task is to nurture other people’s curiosity: to our own satisfaction, and for the benefit of mankind. There is no better opportunity for this than conversation classes.
This article was based on the presentation “Rethinking and Revamping Conversation Classes for Adults” I gave during the 35th annual ETAS conference in Zofingen, Switzerland on January 19, 2019.