The curse of creativity

In this post I intend to attempt a TEFL exorcism and to remove the curse of creativity that’s affecting our profession! Some of you of a less superstitious nature may doubt – or even refuse to believe – that such a curse exists, so I’d like to begin with three examples of the evils that ensue when people are gripped by the curse.

On a CELTA course I was running some years ago, one of our trainees was down to do a twenty-minute assessed teaching practice. She was following on from a presentation of USED TO and was scheduled to do the speaking practice slot. The coursebook had a perfectly sensible activity, involving students writing down and then talking about things they used to do when they were kids, but this wasn’t deemed sufficiently interesting  by the trainee so instead we were treated to a (possibly Taliban-inspired) twist wherein students were asked to imagine they were in the year 2020 and women’s sports had been banned and then asked to talk about the things they used to do. They struggled through, telling each other they used to play tennis and women’s volleyball before the thing ground to a halt. Lost in all the time travel, obviously! Afterwards, when grilled, the trainee (who, incidentally, does know she’s in this paper and has OK-ed her presence!) said she thought the students would’ve already talked about the things suggested by the book and wanted to give things a new, creative twist. In her defence, she quoted pre-course reading she’d done which advocated an adapt, reject, select (or ARSE as I like to call it!) approach to coursebooks.

The second sinister occurrence happened in a class I observed last year. It was a Friday and the teacher warmed students up by getting them to talk about what they were doing that weekend. One Brazilian guy said ‘I – whistle – Milan’. The teacher said “Oh yes, I like that. I – whistle – Milan’ and much laughter ensued. At the end, I asked why the teacher hadn’t corrected or reformulated this. “Well”, they told me, “I didn’t want to stop his creativity. It’s good to encourage that kind of confidence and fluency”.

The third occurrence happened many years ago at a talk I gave in Cambridge. I was discussing the centrality of collocation and fixed / semi-fixed expressions to fluency and thus to language learning content. At the end, I asked if there were any questions and was harangued by this gem: “How can you justify straight-jacketing your students like this? You’re suffocating their creativity!”

The notion of creativity and being creative is a powerful and seductive one and EFL as a profession is still very much in thrall to a romanticized 1960s notion of creativity. Communicative Language Teaching (CLT) was founded by those who’d grown up in an era obsessed with the untutored genus of Jimi Hendrix – he couldn’t read music, you know, and so was ‘free’ to take the guitar out into the stratosphere!

Coupled with this was the lingering influence of the Romantic poets like Keats, Coleridge, Byron and Shelley – the 19th century writers who used the gilded wings of poesy to fly off on liberating flights of fancy! That our concepts of what it means to be creative have such romantic roots shouldn’t surprise us. After all, we live in an age when the self-proclaimed ‘lateral thinker’ Edward De Bono has earned vast sums working as a consultant to Number 10 Downing Street, where he thought ‘outside of the box’ – that truly clichéd tag for a supposedly creative act! This is the same Edward De Bono who once stated that there is no doubt that creativity is the most important human resource of all. Without creativity, there would be no progress and we would be forever repeating the same patterns.

Now, this all sounds grand and progressive, but my fear is that language teaching and, as a result, the way we think about language learning has been so suckered by such statements that we’ve skipped the starters and main course altogether and rushed straight for the desserts, forcing untutoredness upon our learners way before they’ve ever even had the chance to engage in a little bit of repetition of the same patterns! And lest we forget, repeating the same patterns – and words and collocations and expressions and idioms – is actually the KEY to progress for language learners, not an obstacle to it. For students to begin to remember lexical items, they need repeated exposure to them over time; for students to get good at having the kinds of conversations they’re going to want to be able to have outside of the classroom, they need to have them time and time again and to get better at the ways of combining lexis and grammar within them.

In the same way, the key to good teaching lies in teachers learning how to do the same things over and over again, but getting better at doing them with time.

As such, I feel we need to seriously reconsider just what we mean by ‘creative’. When we talk about a person being creative, we often mean they paint and draw – and so have learned techniques, perspective, etc. Perhaps they play a musical instrument – and so have learned scales and chords. Maybe they act – and so learn lines. Often none of this means they’re doing anything particularly ‘creative’ in the sense of ‘original’ or different to what’s been done before. Most ‘creative’ people are actually incredibly generic and derivative. And in fact, in Japan – a country that many of the most innovative and creative ideas of the last fifty years have emerged from – this is clearly recognized. The Japanese have a concept called shu-ha-ri, which is the process apprentices go through on the road to mastery. SHU means the precise imitation of a master; HA is the coming to an understanding of why the master acts the way he does by means of testing the limits and by experimenting with the ‘rules’, whilst ‘RI’ is finally breaking away and doing your own thing, but in such a way that every expression embodies the very essence of what you have learned. In Japan, ordinary people who toil for years to master the correct way of doing a tea ceremony or writing beautifully are admired, not ridiculed.

And for the vast majority of students – and, perhaps, teachers – getting to the HA stage of the process is an achievement in itself! Interestingly, too, many of those with real claims to being truly creative recognize the debt that they owe to mimicry and the fixed. Bruce Lee, for example, claimed that the essence of his own creativity lay in the ability to “observe what IS what undivided attention”, whilst the jazz great Charlie Mingus believed that making the simple complicated is commonplace; making the complicated simple, awesomely simple, that’s creative.

What I want to do next is to explore the alarming degree to which we’ve developed a tendency to make the simple complicated – and to suggest some ways in which we can reverse this and start to make things simple again!

So, let’s return to my CELTA trainee and her attempts to get all creative! Let’s face it, it’s a place many of us have been to. How many of you could honestly say you’ve never done something similar? For me, my first brush with the notion of creativity came on my CTEFLA course back in 1992. One of the older trainees, an ex-designer, made an elaborate twenty-six-page cartoon-based presentation of the past simple and past continuous which involved endless flipchart drawings of UFOs and the like. The lesson was praised to the skies by the trainer and we were all told how important it was to keep our creative spark in front off the class. Having been in a band and done an English Literature degree before all this, this was like music to my ears, so my first two or three years of teaching consisted of basically doing stupid things with varying degrees of competence: I’d chop up texts and get students to reassemble them; I’d do TPR-oriented practices of prepositions where I’d lead my bemused classes of Indonesian businessmen UNDER the tables and THROUGH the doors, ALONG the corridor and ONTO some desks! I’d invent deranged fictions to do PPP lessons on various structures and would bring bags full of oranges, onions and dead hedgehogs for students to feel and tell me WELL, IT FEELS LIKE . . . In subsequent classes, they’d get to tell me that soy sauce TASTED LIKE soy sauce and that pepper made them sneeze! And I won’t even mention what the teenage boys’ class thought various ink splodges and blots LOOKED LIKE.

From my perspective now, it seems to me we waste a lot of time and – as trainers – potential by bothering with these kinds of activities. I now believe that teacher training and development courses should focus NOT on getting teachers to do bad things well, but rather on doing good things BADLY – to begin with! Rather than go down the path I’ve been through myself, where I moved from doing daft things badly to doing daft things well and then – and only then – onto doing sensible things not very well, before coming good on these, I’d much rather see more inexperienced teachers simply bypass the first two steps and go straight into the core components of teaching.

Being able to explain new language well, to give examples of how this new language is generally used and to use the class to add to these examples or to personalise them are fundamental skills and ones we need to spend more time looking at. Developing linguistic awareness takes time and needs support and peers also willing to talk about how they think words and structures are used. I fear that perhaps we spend so much time talking about recipes and survival techniques that on far to many occasions we forget our actual job description – LANGUAGE teachers!

Being able to set tasks clearly and simply is equally central, as is the ability to listen when students are talking – either in pairs or simply in front of the class – and to reformulate their utterances into better – but still intelligible – English.

So much for creative teaching, then! John Updike, the novelist, once said that: “Creativity is merely a plus name for regular activity . . . any activity becomes creative when the doer cares about doing it right, or better”. I think we need to work far more towards this kind of definition of creativity and concentrate less on reinventing the wheel and more on caring about doing regular activities as well as we possibly can!

A further area in which the curse of creativity is much in evidence is in coursebooks. Of course, coursebook writers generally tend to be good, competent teachers who’ve had a lucky break or two, but often who’ve also bought into the whole construct of creativity as it currently stands. As a result, blurbs on the back of new books boast of the new and creative contexts in which they will present and ask students to practise grammar. Part of the problem is the fact that the vast majority of coursebooks have a very similar atomistic grammar syllabus at their core – the one we all know like the back of our hands – Present Simple in Unit 1, Present Simple AND Continuous in Unit 2, the Present Perfect Simple in Unit 5 or 6 and then in Unit 14 perhaps the Passive or a Conditional. If you follow this syllabus, then what can you do to make your product distinctive? Well, there are texts – which I’ll come to later – and there’s grammar. One well-known global coursebook recently had an initial presentation and practice of Can you . . . ? questions in its Elementary book which involved students having to ask each other things like Can you . . . do the splits? Touch your nose with your tongue? Walk backwards in a straight line? And so on. Creative? Most certainly! Fun to do in the class? I’d imagine so. Useful? Likely to ever be said or heard by the students again? Recycled within the series of coursebooks? Most probably not. And of course, whilst students are busy learning these examples, where do they get hold of the things they might actually want to say – or might hear? Things like Can you play the tape again? Can you close the door? Can you say it again? Well, to be honest, they DON’T! And this is the real problem with creative grammar contexts – not only do they misrepresent the way the grammar is actually used, but they also mean students are far less likely to see TYPICAL examples. Of course, the same is true every time we do a fancy self-made PPP lesson too!

A further area in which coursebooks writers have traditionally tried to make their products distinctive is in the texts they sometimes choose. Units that aren’t structured around a particular piece of grammar are invariably structured around a text. The text controls the language that is to be looked at within the unit and often this means a shocking disregard for any concept of grading. I had the misfortune last year of watching a CELTA trainee teach a text from a well-known Intermediate book and have to explain what ‘stripy curtains more or less in shreds’, ‘the green darkness’, ‘a deliciously cool but dusty house’, ‘depressing inspections of grim flats’, ‘antiquated equipment’, ‘peeling shutters’ and ‘an open fireplace that hinted at open fires’ meant!

Now obviously, this particular text was an extract from a novel – an example of a creative piece of writing, but it’s not only novels that get space in our coursebooks. Poems sneak in too and again, Intermediate learners have to deal with such lexical gems as ‘start bare-footed earlier in the spring’, ‘play hooky’, ‘pick daisies’ and ‘live prophylactically’. In case you were wondering, this last item is glossed . . . as ‘live carefully’!

One final way in which the notion of creativity being important casts a long and malevolent shadow over EFL materials is in the continuing use of songs in coursebooks – and I say this not just out a deep personal dislike of Eric Clapton’s Wonderful Tonight and Chris DeBurgh’s Lady in Red! To contextualise my dislike of songs for language teaching purposes, let me introduce Thorsten, a German guitarist I met way back when I used to be in a band. Thorsten learned a lot of his English from rote-learning Beatles songs and was genuinely incredulous when we laughed as he told us he’d had a hard day’s night or that he had been working eight days a week. “But John Lennon sang this”, he countered.  Lest we forget, he also sang “I am the eggman, I am the walrus. Goo Goo Ga-Joob!” and “Yellow matter custard crawling up the Eiffel Tower!”

Songs are generally BAD examples of language quite simply because they are where we go to get away from the rules – and they work on this level because WE – unlike our students – know the rules they bend and break! How many of us have inflicted Suzanne Vega’s twisting of the present continuous on our learners? “I am sitting in the morning in a café by the station. I am drinking up my coffee and waiting for my train”. English for the self-narrating and mad! And how many of us have puzzled long and hard over the immortal Carly Simon lines ‘Your hat strategically dipped below one eye / Your scarf it was apricot / You had one eye in the mirror as you watched yourself gavotte’ – a dance so obscure it was only chosen because it rhymes with apricot, which isn’t a word I often use to describe colours personally, anyway?  Too many, I fear!

The backwash effect of many such texts are varied, but include:

– students generally becoming obsessed with accumulating ever more obscure decontextualised single words. One of the more depressing notebooks I’ve encountered recently was a Pre-Intermediate student who had the following noted down and translated: tact, taciturn, tactical and tacky.

– an over-intellectualisation of content, especially when it comes to speaking activities around texts. We seem unable to grasp the fact that a high level of spoken English does not always mean a high IQ and that many Advanced students have no interest in discussing semantics, stylistics, the moral agenda of Oscar Wilde or the reasons for the collapse of communism in Eastern Europe! Why oh why are we forced by coursebooks to ask our students such ‘deep and meaningful’ questions as ‘What are brands for?’, ‘What makes a good story-teller?’, ‘Has TV numbed our curiosity about the world?’ and my all-time favourite – ‘In what ways is life like a jigsaw?’.

Tasks that require too much creativity on the parts of our learners are bad tests of learning. Creative tasks depend on learners being ‘creative’ people! Many of the tasks we are asked to tell students to do we couldn’t do ourselves in our own L1, let alone in a foreign language. When we play guessing games with language – make assumptions about your partner using five different future forms, for example – or when we ask students to write ghost stories or to discuss what aspects of a writer’s style contribute to a sense of tension in a text, we are falling into the trap of punishing quite possibly fairly competent language users for not being able to in English what they’d never dream of doing in their own first language!

I know the main argument in favour of songs and poems and bits of novels has always been that students find them motivating. Well, all I have to say about that old saw is that if this is the best way we can think of to motivate, we’re in big trouble! Motivation and fun should come from our everyday interaction in the classroom and from stories and anecdotes and jokes and banter that emerges and is exploited as we try to pin the language we’re teaching onto the worlds of our students. It should come as standard, not be an add-on extra bonus only reserved for slow Friday afternoons! It’s a sad world where we’re told when to laugh and kick back and where the rest of the time is by definition, deadly dull!

Some of you may know Guy Cook’s book of a few years ago – Language Learning, Language Play – where he argued very entertaingly in support of MORE language play in the language learning process on the grounds that it’s a natural part of language use. Well, natural it may be, but pretty infrequent too, I’d venture. For most of us, language play forms only a tiny percentage of our language using time and as I’ve already suggested, we often only recognize it as play because it contrasts so strongly with the codes and rules we otherwise operate under. As such, if we really want our students to ever have much chance of truly playing, we’d better make damn sure we expose them to as much of what’s normal and fixed as we can!

The more astute amongst you by now have started thinking there’s a glaring contradiction in my argument – surely, I hear you mutter, if you don’t like coursebooks, you have to believe we need to use them creatively! Well, to twist a fixed expression (something I’ll come to in more detail later, by the way) – If it’s broke, don’t waste time trying to fix it. Get a new, improved version!

Of course, the swathe of creatively focused language and exercises and texts in coursebooks wreak havoc on what often happens in the classroom. One area in which it has a particularly damaging influence is in the way we think about correction. Now, part of this is due to the fact that so often students get asked to do ‘creative writing’. How, for instance, does one go about ‘correcting’ a poem? It almost seems a contradiction in terms. It’s actually much harder than correcting a conversation between two old friends who’ve bumped into each other in the street. So task is one issue, but a think a further problem lies simply in the fact that some teachers actually revel in the kind of interlanguage students come up with in much the same way as some parents endlessly retell the (supposedly) hilarious things their kids come up with! In two different classes I’ve seen recently, teachers let things go that to me were screaming out to be reworked, reformulated into better English and my gut-feeling is that much this reluctance when it comes to correcting off-the-cuff spoken utterances comes from a well-meaning but misguided desire not to impinge on the learners’ attempts to be creative.

In one class, a Spanish student said she liked animals TOO MUCH – an idea which sounded distinctly dubious to me! – whilst in another a Colombian student, talking about his boss, waved his hand up and down and said ‘Oh! My boss is HEAVY, REALLY heavy!’ Neither of these utterances – made to the teacher in front of the whole class – were corrected at all. Now, of course, you could argue that these students made their meanings clear, they were very ‘communicative’! Fair enough, but where in the midst of all this garbled ‘communication’ is the language teacher teaching language?

I wrote an email to an Indonesian friend of mine recently in my OK but not particularly fluent Indonesian and got a reply informing me that I sounded ‘cute’ in Indonesian! This annoyed me no end as cuteness had not been a goal of my writing! I think most students most often feel a similar frustration. Whether we like it or not, they are generally NOT trying to be creative. They are trying to sound normal. They want to say things like ‘I really like animals’ or ‘I find my boss a bit dull, to be honest.’ Most students just want the most normal, typical way we can think of of saying what they want to say and their ‘creativity’ and ‘fluency’ is a by-product of their not having learned these things yet!

As I’ve already mentioned, I think we’ve also been conned into believing that repetition and rote-learning are somehow anti-fluency and anti-creative. This is particularly bizarre as in the outside world, repetition is part-and-parcel of our everyday lives. We all repeat conversations and anecdotes and comments and questions endlessly and I’d like to think that we get better and better at telling things the more we do it. Repetition leads to fluency, we embellish and layer as we do things again and students need the chance not only to have repeated exposure to lexis over different levels and in different ways, but also to practise having similar conversations again and to get better at them.

My CELTA trainee who baulked at the idea of getting students to talk yet again about what they used to do when they were young missed the point. It’s who we’re talking to and what they tell us that keeps things interesting. We get the chance to tell our stories better second time around. The teacher gets the chance to feed in useful language to help us do so after the first time we practise and the fact of talking to different people and hearing different stories keeps us motivated and keen. As such, surely it makes more sense for Advanced level books to contain more repetition of topics and layering of conversations already encountered than to skip endlessly from the new to the newer, the intellectual to the philosophical.

In the same way, rote-learning is a major part of fluency outside of English language learning. Musicians rote-learn chords and scales and whole songs; actors can only really start to bring their own personalities to their roles once they’ve rote-learned a whole play! And in the same way, students who rote-learn large numbers of chunks and fixed expressions have at their disposal a far broader linguistic palate than those who are forced to put everything together from scratch every time they speak!

The idea that creativity can only ever come from the bottom-up is perhaps at the root of all of the problems I’ve been ranting about thus far! And this notion is rooted very much in the old Chomskyan concept of grammar + words allowing unbridled creativity and talk. The notion of giving students these supposed basic building blocks and then leaving them free to say absolutely anything they may wish to still runs deep and yet the idea that creativity can only ever come from bottom-up processing is mad! Have you ever seen any of those twists on the Mona Lisa? The one where she has a moustache or is smiling more broadly or is a bloke in drag? There are dozens of them and all examples of top-down creativity. Artists take a whole and play around with it, reference it, ironically rewrite it, quote it.

Language learners too are always taking chunks and breaking them down, then putting them together in other ways, testing the limits of where they can take things. In an Intermediate class I taught a while ago, we did a bit of work on asking and responding to Do you fancy doing something later-type questions. Students got the meaning – Do you want to? – and noticed the grammatical differences. They then wrote invitation questions of their own and walked around asking each other them. One student asked ‘Do you fancy going to see LORD OF THE RINGS?’, to which another replied ‘Oh yes. It’s a long time I want to see that’. During the round-up, I reformulated this onto the board as ‘Oh yes. I’ve been wanting to see that for ages’. Almost immediately, a student asked ‘So can I say ‘I’ve been fancying seeing that for ages?’ as well?’

Great question! And surely only one that’s possible because the student has taken one chunk – Do you fancy going to see a movie tonight?– broken it down and tried to reconstruct it. Of course, in this particular instance, the student hit a dead-end for the answer is NO! A similar testing of boundaries often occurs with kids who FIRST learn the fixed chunk – We went there the other day – then start noticing a lot of other verbs about the other day have an -ed ending and so opt for We wented there. When this fails to win parental approval, they often take a detour via We goed there before ending up back at the fixed, non-generated-by-grammar chunk that they started with!

In fact, much of what is most creative in day-to-day language use comes directly from this knowledge of fixed-ness and the formulaic and the subsequent ability to play around within these limits. How can anyone understand what the following mean if not for a comprehensive knowledge of the fixed?

– You wouldn’t want to be around when the sticky brown stuff hits the ventilation system.

– He possesses an unenviable gift of cutting short stories very long indeed.

– I had my Indian summer in Pakistan.

– Super Cally Go Ballistic ‘cos Celtic are atrocious!

– Go ahead. Mac my day!

– You’re treading dangerous water there.

– I’ve got 3 words for you: pot, kettle, black!

To appreciate and ‘get’ any of these we need to know the norms against which they’re kicking. What corpora linguistics has done over the last twenty years is to insist on the fixed, the predictable, the routine and to thus increase teachers’ awareness of the importance of fixed blocks of language, be they collocations, sentence frames, idioms or whatever. And it is just such language that students need repeated exposure to if we ever want them to stand a chance of being creative. I should also add that actually a lot of this kind of ‘creativity’ is generally the preserve of tabloid headline writers and ad men, rather than English language students (or even teachers)!

The reality is that the stickle-brick concept of how languages are learned, work, stored and developed is looking ever more unlikely. Michael Hoey – in one of the few EFL books you’ll hear me rave about from the last few years – has put forward a rater seductive alternative that he calls Lexical Priming. In short, this means that we acquire lexical items AND our internal construct of grammar through our repeated encounters with words and the other words they keep company with and that each encounter with an item adds to – or occasionally detracts from – the degree to which we come to expect certain collocations, grammatical patterns, semantic associations and so on to attach themselves to said item. Hoey claims that whole clauses are frequently made up of interlocking collocations to such a degree that the sentences themselves can be said to be reproductions – with variations on occasion – of earlier sentences. This is the degree to which we remember and re-use wholes!

Hoey also makes the rather damning point that if as a kid, you have a word primed to function in a particular way and are then told that it’s incorrectly primed outside of home, the result can well bee long-term linguistic uncertainty! Given this, I think we really need to spend much more thinking about just what kind of primings we are creating in our students and to what degree these primings match the kind of primings educated fluent speakers come to conversations and letters with! Failure to take this issue seriously leads to our learners living in a kind of semi-permanent linguistic limbo!

Hoey suggests that fluency comes from conformity to the socially-normal primings, whilst creativity comes from switching them off (a metaphor which assumes we know where they are in the first place!). A twist on this same theme is made in a novel by the great American writer Anne Tyler. Describing the linguistic life of an elderly character, we learn that: sometimes he catches himself saying ‘This tastes ridiculous’ or ‘Why don’t you sit and rest while I put the dishes in the computer’. He wonders, she writes, “if his mind was going – every old person’s nightmare. Or maybe it was just that he had said those identical sentences so many hundreds and thousands of times, his tongue had begun rebelling against the sheer monotony’. A woman who makes her living as a creative writer is basically telling us that acute deviation from normal primings isn’t big or clever – it’s the onset of senility!

To try to counter all of this, as a writer and as a teacher I’ve very consciously tried to reclaim some of the less creative areas of our profession and put them to good use. In material such as OUTCOMES that I’ve co-authored, for instance, we sometimes get students to read aloud – it helps them develop their ability to chunk blocks of lexis, which in turn helps their listening; we encourage rote-learning and provide students with a Vocabulary Builder in each book where they can translate and then memorise key expressions from each and every unit of the book; we encourage whole chunk translation and the judicious use of L1; we place great stress on teaching typical replies to common questions and giving students standard primings for common words; we encourage the repetition of tasks within books and the recycling of conversations and topics across levels.

And yet ironically, it is out of all of this emphasis on teaching what is typically said that much of the most creative and funniest moments in class emerge. When asking questions to explore the limits of collocations, students frequently respond humorously. In an Elementary class recently, I’d taught I broke my arm and was asking what else you could break. My leg, students shouted out. A bone in my hand. A cup. A window. So far, so good. Finally, my Turkmenistani student, a guy in his mid-50s and usually wearing a perpetually exhausted look on his face, shouted out ‘My brain’!”

In an Intermediate class a couple of years ago, a very glam, very rich Taiwanese student was boasting one day that she loved shopping in Harrods. One student said ‘I don’t surprise that’ and I reformulated this on the board as ‘You DO surprise me’! and drilled it. From that moment on, this became a class catchphrase. In the same way, last week one of my students – a Japanese doctor – revealed after a question about what comedy meant that she found Mr. Bean attractive! Much disbelief followed and we ended up with this on the board:

Mr. Bean’s really good-looking, don’t you think?

> NO! You must be blind! You’re sick in the head!

At which point another student shouted out ‘That’s why become a doctor! Need help herself!’. This is where the real motivation, fun and creativity of language teaching surely lies! In the ad-libbing around the mundane.

The attempts to mess with the mundane sadly remind me all too often of American attempts to make ‘soccer’ more exciting by awarding three goals for a goal scored outside the area! Sheer madness that’ll never catch on! Many of the most powerful, wonderful things in life – football, cooking, eating, chatting and so on – never ever get that boring and attempts to make them more creative usually reek of desperation and end in tears! Let’s add teaching and learning to this list and – to give the final word to an old TEFL guru who has come to renounce many of his earlier ideas on creativity – take to heart Noam Chomsky’s observation that ‘creativity is the ability to be puzzled by the simplest of things’.

To return to a favourite phrase – If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it!


40 responses

  1. great rant hugh, both novel and useful, those two things being a common way to define creativity. simply being new is as you write not sufficient when devising lessons, it has to be of value to the learner. i would have titled the post the curse of misunderstanding creativity 🙂


    1. Thanks for the comments Mura – and for reading.

      Yes, I know that it was slightly misleading to choose the title I did, but it sounds better like that! And hopefully attracts a few more readers too.

      I do think though that a certain construct of creativity has been a real blight on the field and that there’s a misunderstanding of how creativity actually works out there. I’d also always much rather see good, competent teachers doing everyday things well rather than people trying to reinvent wheels and ending up desperately pushing rectangular-wheeled vehicles uphill!

  2. Hey Hugh,

    Great talk in Malta this weekend, and enjoyed reading this blog version. It’s an important message and I hope it gets read by zillions!

    I know your gripe with songs is only a part of the argument, and I do hear what you’re saying about them -clearly loads of them shouldn’t be in the classroom from the point of view of priming, let alone from the point of view of making me want to shoot myself in the head- but many (most?) lyrics aren’t as unfaithful to everyday language as ‘I am the walrus’, at least at the micro level of word stress and small lexical chunks, anyway. Just to prove it, I’m going to subject your blog to what is probably your least favourite TEFL Top 40 hit, Tracey Chapman’s ever wrist-slitting ditty, Fast Car:

    You got a fast car
    And I want a ticket to go anywhere
    Maybe we make a deal
    Maybe together we can get somewhere
    Anyplace is better
    Starting from zero got nothing to lose
    Maybe we’ll make something
    But me myself I got nothing to prove

    I’ll stop there before you unfriend me. There are loads of teachable bits there worthy of notice, and the great thing is, the vast majority of students who listen to songs as a way of improving their English don’t end up talking like your naff Dutch mate, but they do get better at natural word and sentence stress, learn handy chunks like ‘make a deal’, ‘get somewhere’ and ‘nothing to lose’, and they do so without grafting at dull and (yes) unmotivating gap fills.

    Plus they listen to them over and over again, which is a good example of the repeated practice you’re advocating above.

    I understand that there is a huge amount of unconscious ‘noticing’ that goes on when people listen to music and learn through that interplay of melody, rhythm and language. The ease with which we retain lyrics is borne out in research as well as common sense.

    So before you chuck out the baby with the bath water, and become Mr Grumpy-Teacher-Who-Never-Lets-Us-Listen-To-Songs Dellar ;o) you could look at what songs ARE good for ELT and what teachers could do with them to maximise their potential.

    1. Hi again Daniel –
      Thank you so much for taking the time to post.
      Was great, by the way, to see you in Malta and to get the chance to really talk.
      A most enjoyable few days.

      I suspect zillions may be slightly over-optimistic, but I hit 150 yesterday, which is better than a kick in the teeth.

      It’s funny you chose the songs part of this to pick me up on.

      I always have a feeling when I’m doing this post as a talk that this is the part which most rankles with most people as the use of songs is so widespread in ELT and so many teachers place such faith in it. I get asked as a coursebok writer time and time again why there are no songs ion the material – though, significantly, NEVER by students, who just seem happy to be getting on and learning useful stuff!

      Of course, I’m 100% certain that the teachers who do want to continue inflicting songs on their students will find ways of doing so whatever classroom material they’re using – and I’m not saying no student ever actually learns anything relevant from song lyrics or titles. To return to my German (not Dutch!) mate, Thorsten, he still speaks – as he always has – really excellent colloquial English, and a small part of this must be down to years of listening to and poring over the lyrics of English songs. I suspect, though, that what’s really made the difference for him, and many others like him, is a wider Anglophile kind of mentality, where he first got into The Beatles and The Who and The Jam and then started watching old British films and reading loads of books and buying the UK music press and so on, so the music is simply an embedded part of a far wider interest. I’m also thinking of a Dutch teacher I know called Juul who listens to loads of UK and US music and enjoys the lyrics, but also watches loads of TV – stuff like The In-Betweeners – and reads and so on. It’s part of a far bigger picture.

      The flip of those folk, though, are the countless Pre-Int students who struggle to get interested in learning English formally in class because the books and teachers they use are a world away from their own sense of self and their own English interests, which often revolve around painstaking translations of gangsta rap or wondering when they might reasonably get to use the word ho! All too often these are also the kids whose English doesn’t actually get that much better – and the teachers of whom become exasperated by having to try and decode lyrics themselves!

      What else? Well, as someone who started out doing loads and loads of songs in class 9and who, in many ways, has learned far more about life from the lyrics of songs I’ve loved over the years than I ever learned at school!), I also came to realise just how personal music is. What is one student’s idea of a great tune is someone else’s idea of the torments of hell. This in itself is reason enough to avoid them.

      Even with the Tracy Chapman song you quote above (which I hate, by the way, it won’t surprise you to hear!) there are all kinds of issues that would put me off ever using it. Linguistically, you’re looking at around Intermediate, I’d say. Well, for starters, why does she say YOU GOT? Why not YOU’VE GOT? Or You HAVE? And what’s the difference? Why MAYBE WE MAKE A DEAL and not MAYBE WE CAN MAKE A DEAL? Why ME MYSELF and not I? Why I GOT nothing to prove? And so on!

      Not saying it’s never useful to worry about these things, but is this really what you want to spend, say, half an hour or precious classroom time looking at (which isn’t, incidentally, to deny the fact that chunks like NOTHING TO LOSE and MAKE A DEAL aren’t useful! Just to question whether this is actually the most user-friendly way of presenting them)?

      That said, I do hear you on students learning from listening to the same songs over and over again, and if they want to do that outside of class AS PART OF A FAR BROADER RANGE OF STUDYING then that’s fine by me. However, I still think it’d be irresponsible to suggest they ONLY do this.

      That is all.

      Oh, no . . . one final thing.
      It did occur to me that as I was writing this and taking on the mantle of Mr Grumpy-Teacher-Who-Never-Lets-Us-Listen-To-Songs Dellar that if there was ONE song that should soundtrack this particular rant, then it’d have to be this one. 🙂

      1. Your experience is very different to mine, then, because my younger students are clamouring for more songs (and a few adults are, too). Like Thorsten, maybe they find them helpful in their learning because they recognise the way that songs (like other media and the English-speaking world around them) help them foster a ‘wider Anglophile kind of mentality’, something to promote in the classroom, surely.
        Not all the ‘countless Pre-Int students who struggle to get interested in learning English formally in class’ are painstakingly translating gangster rap. I know loads who get fired up translating ANY lyrics that the teacher puts in front of them, from The Beatles to f&%$ing Jason Mraz to The Deadbeats, precisely because ‘the books they use are a world away from their own sense of self and their own English interests’. No matter how well written a coursebook, it’s still just a coursebook, with all the connotations of classroom drudge that that conveys, and songs are one way of escaping this negativity about English as merely a school subject.
        Which brings me to our role as teachers. Instead of ditching songs because they get used badly, let’s encourage teachers to teach using well selected songs well, and train teachers to deal correctly with non-standard forms that occur in doing so. I’m sure you could answer your student’s question: ‘Why does she say YOU GOT? Why not YOU’VE GOT? Or You HAVE? And what’s the difference?’ better than most. Notice how much language is clarified and compared, how much useful grammar gets studied with this question. ‘You got’ is perfectly standard ‘non-standard’ English which students will meet countless times outside Chapman’s lyrics and so I’d argue that it should be represented in the classroom for what it is.
        Can’t believe I’m defending Fast Car :o)

      2. Maybe it’s that they want songs before they get the lessons?
        Or that the material being used and / or teaching or mode of delivery is dull for them and this leads to a clamour for songs?
        (he suggested mischievously!!)

        That aside, I can see that you’ve got strong views on this one, Daniel, and that I’m not going to change them.
        I think we may well have to agree to disagree.
        To quote Bob Dylan, you go your way and I’ll go mine.

        So long as you’re happy with the fact that your way will sooner or later lead you into the evil clutches of Jason Mraz and this delight below:

        When I wake up and the day begins
        Do I hold my breath and count to ten?
        Or will it be three?
        We’ll see, we’ll see
        It depends on which day of the week
        And so, I sing out, I sing out loud
        I’m just one tiny motherfucker singing proud
        Singing glory, glory Hallelujah
        Yeah, that’ll do, yeah, that’ll do

        Fill your boots.
        There’s plenty more where that came from.

  3. Another great post, Hugh!

    1. I thank you!
      Hope it provided a bit of food for thought!

  4. Oh, and by the way, I’ve set up a Facebook group called “English Teachers in German-speaking Countries” and shared this article on that page, too.

    1. That’s most kind of you Amanda.
      I’m flattered.

  5. Hi again,
    I was wondering if our particular teaching situations colour how we perceive the need for ‘creative’ lessons.
    In my adult ELT, such as when I run teaching practice lessons for trainees, my skin crawls when I watch an inexperienced teacher pull out all the stops and fail to teach a single thing in a whole hour, just like you. Thy don’t realise that adults usually don’t need much engagement and are motivated to talk about their own lives and other prosaic topics because they perceive its usefulness and relevance.
    However, the reality here in the south of Spain, and for the majority of EL teachers worldwide, is that it’s young learners we teach, and they are generally not motivated by simple, well crafted language exposition slots and controlled practice sessions. The drive to motivate won’t always work, but the best teachers are able to engage their learners with lessons with bells on and get the language in there at the same time.
    Best practice YL teaching involves a great amount of controlled practice and repetition but in a way that the students are distracted from seeing it as such. This sometimes calls for a creative approach to lesson planning, involving games, songs and the like. Some fantastic song writers work in YL materials development, and they design songs that very much mimic real-world speech.
    CELTA courses specifically train for adult ELT (Trinity courses don’t, significantly) and in this context, creativity can be seen as the curse you describe. How many of those newly-qualified teachers are going to go on and teach kids, though? Probably the majority, and they will need to be equipped with tools for livening up coursebooks and engaging their learners anew each day.

  6. Thank you Hugh! Some great points. I particularly liked your descriptions of the lengths you went to in your early days of teaching. You seemed to be more of an entertainer than a teacher.

    I’m really pleased to find someone promoting repetition and drilling, among lots of other interesting ideas.

    I look forward to reading more posts.

    1. Thanks for the kind comments.

      Yes, I guess I was far more entertainer than teacher early on, without a doubt.
      This is something many, many British ELT folk who came in through CELTA courses have in common, I fear.

      I think that what the bulk of CELTA courses do is look at the time restrictions they’re operating under, figure that they don’t have time to teach teachers much about the one thing they’re going to be employed to actually teach – language – and so instead ensure a degree of competence at classroom mechanics and procedures and add in a dash of jollity / creativity / game-playing / fun and send you off into the big wide world just about able to fake it! This is why we see so many classes where, as Jim Scrivener has recently observed, loads of activities get DONE, but very little ever actually gets TAUGHT.

      Glad you enjoyed the mention of repetition and drilling. I’ll do a follow-up to this post next week sometime where I post some key ideas on NON-creative classroom practice that i think is central to good teaching.

  7. Re your example, I think a valuable role teachers and course books can play is that of straight man – setting students up to crack the jokes.

    1. In essence I agree, Vicki, though I’m sure I’m frequently guilty of egging students on or pushing them in the direction of the punchline!

  8. […] were timely after reading this blog post by @teflerinha and this possibly unrelated post by @hughdellar (but it felt related, even if I can’t figure out why anymore). Because in the midst of a […]

  9. Reblogged this on Confessions of a CELTA aspirant and commented:
    Almost as long as a thesis perhaps 😉 but well worth a read!

  10. Lengthy it might be, but well worth a read. I wonder how many current CELTA trainers have read this…
    Reblogged this, by the way. Hope you don’t mind!

  11. I couldn’t agree more!! Hugh it’s so nice to finally find that there are others out there who have some not really ‘mainstream’ ideas about teaching a foreign language. The whole mumbo jumbo (sorry in advance if I hurt somebody’s professional feelings here) about religiously responding to learners’ preferred styles of learning (a good piece about it can be found in the latest MET magazine , by Russell Mayne), developing creativity, disregarding accuracy, learning vocabulary just be exposing learners to graded readers, foreign films, music, etc, has resulted in ‘advanced’ learners who in terms of everyday life skills turn out to be at best intermediate:(

  12. Dear Hugh,

    I think you have been a bit hard on the use of music there, by focusing in on daft lyrics.

    There is plenty of evidence that suggests that people are much more likely to collaborate after doing a musical task than a non musical task (see Annirudh Patel), which is surely useful in a classroom. It is also undoubtedly true that music can have a unifying effect. This week I have seen several classes where there wasn’t any rapport between students (they are all from different courses) and it was a real problem for the teachers.

    Have you ever read about the ‘Sometimes behaves so strangely’ ‘Speech to Song’ research carried out by Diana Deutsch? Or perhaps the findings of Nina Kraus? There seems to be something about music (in that case musical training, so not just passive listening) which allows us to improve how we listen. I’m not saying there is anything conclusive that we should use willy-nilly but it would seem to be a mistake to throw the baby out with the bath water. One cannot avoid the ‘ear-worm’ evidence either, where we get bits of lyrics stuck in our head.

    Despite Pinker calling music ‘auditory cheesecake’ and basically relegating it in importance many other (seemingly better informed people with research to back up their claims) put forward the idea that it may have even come before speech. Daniel Levitin quotes Mithen’s Singing Neanderthals, which also raises lots more questions about the links between music and speech.

    I don’t know what the implications are for language teaching but it might be one of those cases where, as above, teachers saying that they think the use of music in the classroom is productive, and the research will eventually prove our instincts to be true.

    I enjoyed the post. I also look back on some of the pointless things I used to get students to do. But, perhaps it is those teachers who are looking to be creative (I am trying to remember what was said about teacher ‘burnout’ by Barduhn), who experiment and ‘tinker’ that become professionals and retain an interest, or improve.


    PS. Carzola! Crikey.

    1. Hi Kevin –
      Thanks for taking the time to reply.

      I may perhaps have been hard on songs, but at least in the case of Suzanne Vega and Carly Simon, these were songs in books!!

      I speak as someone who still sometimes feels they’ve learned more about life from the lyrics of songs that from school, so I don’t knock songs lightly. I just think (a) most songs have lyrics which really aren’t that USEFUL to students and that songs generally are NOT good places for students to learn language from and (b) music is so personal. It’s nigh-on impossible to find songs that everyone likes, and if you do, chances are the lyrics will be duff.

      To give but one example of the havoc songs wreak, I once had a student ask me what “Lick my pussy, lick my crack” was – after the Khia song that was apparently big on the Kiev disco circuit at the time!!!

      As for people being more keen to collaborate after doing musical tasks, that just sounds an unprovable claim to me. Which people? Which musical task? And collaborate on what? And as I said, for every supposedly unifying effect that music can have, the reverse is also obviously true.

      I agree that rapport is a real issue in some classes, of course, but I’d rather that was solved by looking at the bigger picture and taking the longer view than simply by sticking a Rihanna song on and doing a gap fill!

      Not that any of my misgivings will stop teachers continuing to inflict their own odd tastes on students, of course, or students continuing to believe The Beatles or hip-hop will help them unlock the secrets of the language.

      Finally, the idea that being creative is the key to avoiding burnout is, I think, a pernicious one. As I’ve said elsewhere, the real secret is honing one’s interest in both people and their stories AND in language itself.

      Well, that’s my take on it, anyway.
      For what it’s worth.

      PS: yes indeed. Cazorla looking better and better by the game. Once Wilshere is back, we’ll have a midfield to be reckoned with. If Giroud can start finding the net consistently, we may even be in with a shout.

      1. Hugh,

        I know that by harping on about use of music in the classroom I am kind of missing the point of what you set out to say, but I can’t let it lie!

        Why is the focus always on the use of lyrics? There are a ton of things you can do with music that don’t include unscrambling, gap-fill and so on. It can be used as a jumping off point to lots of other activities.

        In answer to your point about the difficulty of finding songs that everyone will like, why do they have to? Is it not possible to use a piece of music that people don’t like as part of a lesson? I’m not suggesting that you go in and play one side of a Zappa album but surely there is a justified use?

        The collaboration claim was published in a publication called Psychological Science by Stanford University. It analysed how people worked better together on non-musical tasks after having been asked to do a musical task first.

        The idea of teachers being creative in order to avoid burnout is pernicious? I double checked the meaning and the dictionary says ‘harmful’. That’s a bold call.

        I am currently mid way through an MSc. Every Saturday I read a lot. I constantly read things that challenge my assumptions. I read of research that proves a belief I hold is probably wrong. I discuss these things with peers and finally, sometimes, I make changes to what I do in the classroom. In order to do this I need to be creative. I have to find a way of incorporating my new found knowledge into my teaching style, appropriately. I believe this is a combination of knowledge, experimentation and creativity. I hope I am on the right track.

        It is also possible that I am trying to run before I can walk, Gervinho like, swerving before I can walk in a straight line. If this is the case, you will have been proven to be right!


      2. Not sure it means you’re MISSING the point.
        I’d rather see it as obsessing about one small part of the point myself!
        Not that obsession per se is a bad thing, of course.

        Obviously, as with any text, a song can be used in a myriad of different ways,. and obviously the focus doesn’t HAVE TO be on the lyrics, though of course in published material that’s out there 9and let’s face it, that’s where the vast majority of teachers world-wide get the bulk of the classroom input from) it does tend to be, doesn’t it?

        I’ve been thinking more about this, whilst, weirdly, bathing my kids tonight, and it struck me that actually one of the real issues with songs – even if exploited ion the way you suggest – is the simple basic POINT. What’s the outcome achieved by bothering to ‘do’ a song – or to use a song as a stepping stone – and why do you feel that this outcome is desirable in and of itself? If you can put your hand on your heart and give good answers to those questions, then song yourself to death for all I care! Mostly what I see when I observe teachers ‘doing’ songs though is (a) as I said, a focus on lyrics and (b) a random mishmash of bits and pieces of vocabulary taught. Now, any text (or randomly selected vocab exercise) can provide you with a bunch of random input, but unless it’s taught with one eye on what a desirable communicative outcome may be, I fail to see the point (beyond the dubious claims of ‘motivation’ and, erm, ‘fun’!).

        The basic questions remain the same as it ever has been, to my mind.
        What will your students be better able to do after this class that they can’t do well already?
        Why do believe these are desirable things to be able to do?
        How does what you’re going to give them help lead them to these goals?

        Now obviously, it’s not impossible that a lesson involving a song may hit the spot on all three counts above, but in my experience, it rarely, rarely happens.
        And there are easier and simpler ways of getting to more desirable end points.

        What I meant by claiming that the idea that teachers need to be creative to feel fulfilled is pernicious (pleased to have boosted your lexicon there, by the way :-)) is that it leads to folk looking in the wrong place and ends up back at that mentality that curses everyone who spends time out on the road talking to teachers – a place where teachers crave ‘something new they can use in class on Monday morning’. Recipe hell, in other words. I’m just suggesting we can do better than this, and that principles and practice in and of themselves can lead to intense satisfaction and fulfillment.

        Finally, if you are taking a Gervinho-esque approach to things, you may well be in for a good few months.
        Five goals already and looking dangerous!

  13. […] of 140 characters or less, I was still quite flattered that #eltchat on Twitter decided to include my recent blog post, The Curse of Creativity, as a kind of featured text ahead of their debate yesterday. I’ve managed to slog my way […]

  14. […] by Hugh Dellar (warning it is long!) warning about “creativity” in the classroom “the curse of creativity”. The other was from the Guardian teachers Website called “let creativity into the language […]

  15. […] Through Repetition Repetition – Act of Saying Over Again The Curse of Creativity Stumble it! « 2012 September Leadership Development […]

  16. […] One by Hugh Dellar (warning it is long!) warning about “creativity” in the classroom “the curse of creativity”. The other was from the Guardian teachers Website called “let creativity into the language […]

  17. […] post by Hugh Dellar on the Curse of Creativity, caused a lot of controversy (no doubt entirely intentional), but I really liked the way Hugh […]

  18. Hugh,
    I really enjoyed this article and was amazed that you were able to write something so long (for blog standards) and yet so coherent and cohesive. I think we’re witnessing a healthy and refreshing back-to-basics movement in ELT heralded by people like yourself, Jim Scrivener and Adrian Underhill. Even Unplugged Teaching, to a certain extent, addresses some of the same issues.
    May I just put in my two cents and expand on your criticism of language games and so on. I think there are basically two main threads running throughout your article: products (syllabus / choice of language samples to be taught) and classroom processes and I think we ought to differentiate between the former and the latter. Let me explain.
    You (rightly) argue that we must focus on things that people actually do say (I might’ve left it at home) as opposed to what they could say (Dinosaurs might have been hit by… – typical coursebook sentence). In that sense, there’s no arguing that lexical chunks offer far, far more immediate surrender value than generative grammar, which enables students to create novel utterances from scratch. So, in this sense, too much emphasis on creativity is, indeed, a curse, like you said. We’ve got to enable students to say – and say well – stuff that people say over and over and over. So, again, “I’m sorry, I shouldn’t have said that” should take, in my opinion, precedence over “She shouldn’t have painted the house purple.” We’re in complete agreement so far, I think.
    I also agree that a lot of what we do in class should be chucking-oriented and, therefore, enable students to memorize and retrieve ready-made language. So, yes, there’s far more to rote learning than meets the eye. I do think, however, that teaching high-frequency, useful language (product) in a brain-friendly way CAN happen through “fun activities” (process).
    So, as I read your article, I kept trying to draw invisible lines between:
    A: Creative activities which are simple to carry out, not too far-fetched, but not that useful linguistically (I’m thinking in terms of “what people might say” X “what people do say” here)
    B: Creative activities which are either difficult to carry out or too far-fetched (e.g.: the CELTA lesson you described right at the beginning)
    C: Creative activities which are simple to carry out, down-to-earth and which put useful, high-frequency language in circulation.
    Perhaps by lumping A, B and C together, you’ll end up generating unnecessary resistance (like you described) to your very sound, very thought-provoking ideas.
    Thank you so much for this article.

    1. Hi there –
      One great thing about a blog seems to be the fact that things you’d almost forgotten you’d written suddenly come into someone’s radar somewhere and you get to revisit them from a slightly different perspective.

      In other words, thank you so much for finding this article, digesting it and commenting so effusively on it!

      First, a confession: this post wasn’t originally written as a blog post, but is rather an adaptation of a conference talk I once did, which may explain its coherence and cohesion over an extended length! In short, I cheated!

      I think you may be right that there is something in the air aiming for a kind of back-to-basics approach and guess there is some common ground between where I’m at and where Adrian and Jim / Dogme is at, though I’d suggest there are also plenty of differences in terms of approaches and core beliefs. Anyway, anything that helps to swing things back a bit from where the wilder excesses of (post) CLT have taken us is only to be welcomed in my book!

      Anyway, to respond more directly to your main points: Yes, I think one of my main obsessions has long been to ensure we focus on prototypicality and to encourage teachers to think about the degree to which what they’re teaching actually reflects normal / common usage. I’ve been teaching like this for so long now that I’ve stopped really thinking about what one might best call the kind of language I mean, but the examples you gave are spot-on. I guess it’s just to do with ensuring we cover as much used and re-useable language as we can, and thinking about the way in which grammar and vocab combine to allow us to do this.

      Not saying that teaching – or especially revision – anything like this cannot involve games, by the way.
      I would never have said I’m anti games per se (though I do wince and recoil slightly when I see phrases like BRAIN-FRIENDLY!!!!!!).
      It all obviously depends very much on the game, the purpose of the game and what the teacher sees the outcome of the game as being.
      If the main aim is to revise and consolidate useful language, then I’m down with that.

      Your A, B and C taxonomy makes sense to me, though is essentially impossible to implement as much of what constitutes each category is in the eye of the beholder. It’s obviously hard (and pointless!) to argue that teachers should never do the kind of thing you describe in C – “Creative activities which are simple to carry out, down-to-earth and which put useful, high-frequency language in circulation” – and I guess the only caveat I’d add is that I still think we’re way too reliant on games and recipes in ELT and that it’s possible to do all the things you describe well (and in a ‘brain-friendly’ fun and engaging way!!) without using games at all.


  19. […] unusual searches that led here included: Speak English or Die (9), Marge Simpson Mona Lisa (8), You Always Talk Such Rubbish (7), Traditional German Breakfast (4), Walrus John Lennon (3), […]

  20. […] In this post I intend to attempt a TEFL exorcism and to remove the curse of creativity that’s affecting our profession! Some of you of a less superstitious nature may doubt – or even re…  […]

  21. Hello Hugh,

    I think you are suffering from blurred vision.

    My thoughts on creativity for teachers

    1. Hi Robert –
      Thanks for finding this old post and adding to it.

      I read through your post about what teachers can learn from artists and I now know a bit more about your taste in painters.

      I have to say, though, I don’t really have much more of a sense of how you envisage creativity, which is really what this post here was trying to be about, or about how you think it should impact upon teachers in terms of their day-to-day classroom practices.

  22. Mr. Dellar, I found your post very enlightening, thanks. 🙂

    1. Glad you found it interesting.

  23. […] In this post I intend to attempt a TEFL exorcism and to remove the curse of creativity that's affecting our profession! Some of you of a less superstitious nature may doubt – or even refuse to believe – that such a curse exists, so I'd like to begin with three examples of the evils that…  […]

  24. In my 61 years in this planet, I’ve seldom heard someone respond to an invite to the cinema with “Yes, I’ve been wanting to see that for ages.” So where do we go from here, Hugh? Can teachers guarantee that the things they teach for rote-learning are in fact useful, in use, and sound normal?

    And how far does learning fairly idiomatic or colloquial language such as “Do you fancy doing?” get speakers in a world of English as a Lingua Franca (EFL)?

    Also, if language learning is to be as simplified as possible and avoid uncommon lexis, etc., if students do indeed need to walk before they can run, what benefit can CLIL have? Are my daughters’ classmate here in Spain, who are learning science through English, but often can’t tell you what they had for school lunch, being led down the wrong learning path?

    1. Thanks for this thoughtful comment. I’d suggest that “Oh, I’ve been wanting to see that for ages” is a pretty common phrase. I think I decided to focus on in that context partly because it was something the student was actually TRYING to say already, and partly because it’s flexible and I could show variations. I think we had things like this after that:
      A: I went on the London Eye last weekend.
      B: Oh, I’ve been meaning to go there for ages now. How was it?
      So that use of the present perfect continuous works well in such contexts. Hence the focus.

      As for whether teachers can GUARANTEE the things we ask students to learn are useful, well no of course we can’t. BUT we CAN make informed guesses about utility: in this case, I felt it was useful BECAUSE THE STUDENT WANTED IT. So if it’s things we commonly say in L1, if it’s things that are commonly heard in certain conversational contexts, if it’s things the students try to say themselves . . . these are all god signs that things may well be useful. And in the end, if things are widely used then they’re useful.

      In terms of usage across natives and non-natives . . . well, it obviously all depends on level. Good non-natives who are comfortable in spoken English will use and understand DO YOU FANCY -ING. Speakers who are of a lower level won’t, which is why you try to teach such things! As a verb, FANCY is among the 5000 most frequent words in the language, and this is its most common use, so if you’re not going to teach it, why not? And what do you feel is more useful instead?

      In a sense, this comes to a piece I wrote more about here:

      Re. the CLIL thing, I recommend the work of Anthony Bruton from Seville. His answer to your question would be a very strong yes! He says all the research suggests CLIL in Spain is leading to worse uptake of language AND worse uptake of content. I’m inclined to agree, and if that was my daughter, I’d much rather she started off learning basic conversational English.

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