Wednesday, 20 November 2013

Switching on the lightbulb - getting students to come up with ideas

This was the title of a recent webinar hosted by Macmillan Education and presented by Lindsay Warwick.  Having just completed two years in Vietnam, where generally students had few thinking skills, this was a topic of great interest to me.  What follows is a summary of what Lindsay had to say.

Sometimes the problem isn't how to say something in English, but, rather, what to say.  For this reason, it's extremely important to scaffold activities properly.

Assessing knowledge

Sometimes students don't have ideas because:
  • they don't have a background in thinking at all (if they have been in an education system where all the learning was by rote, for example)
  • the topic isn't relevant to them and they have no knowledge of it
To assess knowledge of a new topic, put pictures pertinent to the topic around the room and pin a blank piece of paper under each one.  Ask students to walk around the room and write questions about the pictures on the sheets of paper.  They're not allowed to repeat any questions so they are pushed to come up with less obvious ones.  Then put the students into groups and give each group one of the pictures and the accompanying list of questions.  Ask them to discuss the questions and speculate on what the answers might be.  Give them some useful language to help them with this:
  • Perhaps/probably/possibly
  • It might/could be ...
  • I guess ...
  • It's likely/unlikely
  • I doubt it's ... because ...
  • I think ...
  • I'm pretty sure ...
  • I'm not sure but ...
As the students are doing this, monitor them to assess their knowledge of the topic.  Things they don't know could make a good homework task - students have to go away and do the research.  Students are much more likely to be able to discuss things if they have the appropriate background knowledge.

We can use this version of Bloom's Taxonomy to ask the right questions and help our students to be better thinkers:

This helps us to plan better lessons.
A practical example
Consider the question:
What are the pros and cons of a formal national identification system?
First, give students a quiz to test their knowledge of the subject.

This encourages students to speculate and opens their minds to the issues involved in the topic.  (Answers - 1. F - not the USA, 2. T, 3, T, 4. F - 11 million, 5. T)

Next, give students a list of points and ask them whether or not they are relevant to the question under discussion:

In this case, B, D and J are irrelevant to the discussion - they are not pros or cons.  This is a challenging activity to be used with higher level students.

Next, get the students to sort the points into pros and cons.  Give half the class the pros and the other half the cons and ask them to rank them in order of importance.  Get them to do this individually first, then with a partner, then with a small group, and so on up to half the class.  After doing this, students will be better able to discuss the question and better able to come up with their own ideas when the next discussion question comes along.


This is a great website for finding out about debates and discussions.  It lists points for and points against for discussion topics and is a really useful resource  for teachers to help us prepare for in-class debates.


It's extremely important to give our students guidelines.  For example:

How has our relationship with the environment changed?
Give at least five examples.

We need to push our students and encourage collaboration.  For example:

What do you consider the main causes of disease?
Work in pairs and consider economics, lifestyle, emotional well-being, as well as medical reasons.  Think of at least two examples of each.

Good scaffolding is the means by which we support our students and guide them in the right direction.

What's the question?

Give students five answers to the same discussion question and ask them to come up with the question.  For example, these answers:

should lead to the question:

What would the world be like without energy?

Five caps

This activity encourages different ways of thinking by asking students to consider things from different perspectives.  We do this with role-plays in the classroom and we can do the same thing with discussions.  Give the students a question.  For example:

How has social networking changed the lives of young people today?

Then give each student a 'cap' - teenager, parent, teacher, employer, government think tank member - and ask them to debate the question from their character's point of view.  Invariably, the conversation will last much longer than it would otherwise have done.

Five minute Guardian debates

These are five-minute videos, created by The Guardian newspaper in the UK and made available on You Tube, which can be used as the basis for in-class discussions for B2 level students and above.

Problem solving: reverse brainstorming

Here, we take a problem and reverse it.  By looking at an issue from the other direction, we can often see it more clearly and so generate more ideas.  For example, if the original question is:

How do you think the problem of over-consumption can be addressed?

Consider instead:

What do you think the causes of over-consumption are?

Decision tree

This is a good way to push students to think harder about the solutions they propose - what would the impact/results be?

In the example above, for instance, the consequences of an education campaign might be a) that it's expensive and b) that it only reaches young people. is a good website for creating all kinds of mind maps.

Prove it!

We're constantly making assumptions and sometimes these are wrong.  Give students a list of generally held truths and ask them to prove them to be true or false.  They have to go away and research, leading to a whole new discussion on where to find good sources (digital literacy).

In the examples above, only 3 and 5 can be proved to be true, and then only in a limited way.  These are great discussion topics!


Give students some pictures and ask them what the link is between them.  For example, here there could be a connection in each column:

1. Dutch, 2. the future, 3. water, 4. man-made inventions.
Then you could mix the photos, or ask students to make connections across the rows or diagonally.  The idea is to get students to think creatively and come up with whatever connections they can think of, however tenuous, as long as they can explain their reasoning.
I wonder
Students have to think of a question based on a theme represented by a picture.  Here, for example, the theme is 'old and new':
Questions could be things like:
I wonder what the builders of the old tower would think if they saw the modern office block?
I wonder how much taller the new building is than the old one?
I wonder if these two buildings are in the same town?
Thinking time
Use a site like to get students thinking outside of class.  Post a question on the site.  Students answer it and then comment on each others' ideas.  This is great because it gives students time to formulate their ideas, something which is not always possible in class.



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