Workshop review: Easy, no-material activities for Business English by Paul Walsh

November 30, 2016

By Hazel Marogna

Creativity, that mysterious thing, can it be learned? Whatever the answer may be, it can certainly be given a helping hand, as Paul set out on Saturday morning to show us. He took us busy English teachers, always grateful for new ideas, on a creative journey, providing us with a loose framework to stimulate and support our own individual creative process and throwing in some practical activities of his own along the way as an extra bonus.

In fact the idea for the workshop came from an ebook that Paul wrote with a collection of his own activities. In his short, clear introduction, Paul suggested that a good activity should be:

  • hackable (adaptable)
  • independent of context
  • independent of level
  • improvable
  • simple

Necessity being the mother of invention, Paul suggested that in most cases the creative process originates from a problem or need that the students may have, whether language or content-related. To give an example he told us that some of his students, typically for Germans, don’t understand the need for small talk, but would prefer to just get down to business.

That led us straight into the first activity: „Small Talk at the Water Cooler“. We split into 4 groups and gathered around 4 „water coolers“ around the room. Each group was given cards with questions, which served as prompts for small talk; after a few minutes two people in the group moved on to the next group, and so on. As simple as this activity was, it proved to be highly enjoyable and effective – if teachers are anything to go by – as we immediately got into lively and interesting conversation with the other (previously unknown) members of the group.

The second activity was to read, evaluate and try out a selection of activities from Paul’s book in our groups. We noted that not only did they fulfil the five above-mentioned criteria, but that the main input for these activities had to come from the students.

In the second half of the workshop Paul took us through three main stages along the creative journey, encouraging us to visualize (with the help of pictures) the process as our own personal creative path:

Preparation

A free association activity to loosen up and start the thinking process.

Priming (preparation for action)

To spark ideas. We identify a problem, a need, a puzzle or funny incident from class to use as a starting-point for the activity. Paul emphasized that we need to distinguish at this point between an exercise, an activity and a task:

exerciseclosed, technical, a controlled procedure
activitymore open, a purposeful procedure
taskhas a definite outcome, not only linked to language learning but related to needs and with a focus on meaning.

We can also at this stage think about and define which processes we want to use, e.g. comparing, matching, listening etc.

Prototyping

See the Marshmallow Challenge: the children succeed at the task because unlike the adults, they make prototypes. Using the prompts and ideas from the previous stages, we were encouraged to make as many different skeleton prototypes of our activity as we could. We then chose the best – in terms of originality, NOT feasibility – and tried this activity out in our groups to get feedback. In this way the problems/weak spots of the activity were immediately evident, and could be modified accordingly. Given the time we would then have tried out the modified activity a second time.

All in all it was an extremely practical and inspiring workshop. Thank you Paul for encouraging us to get creative!

Paul’s ebook with all the activities is available for only €0.99 at Smashwords. You can also find some activities on Mandy’s thread „Creative lesson activities“ in Lesson & Materials Shares on the Ning.