Speaking, Understanding, Developing

Page No.: 
Julian Edge, Aston University

Of all the activities, tasks and exercises I have experienced in teacher
development, either as participant or facilitator, in thirty years of TESOL
across a range of national and educational cultures, the one which has regularly
been the most powerful is the one I would like to share with you here.

I realise that that sounds a rather overbearing kind of a claim, but
from where I stand, it’s just an honest statement of the way I see things.

The task sounds very simple, and it certainly can be done superficially,
but it usually engages people more than you might expect, and it usually
opens people up to insights into their own interactions and potential that
can be a springboard for further developmental work. The task comes in three
parts. This is it:

A: Individual: Read the following story.

In another country, at another time, there was a girl called Lima. Lima's
mother died soon after Lima was born. Her father, a very poor man and himself
uneducated, made it his main aim in life to make sure that Lima got a good
education and so could live a better life than he and her mother had had.
To this end, he made every sacrifice and, when Lima graduated from school
and won a place at a teachers' college, he was a very proud and happy man.

Lima had lots of fun at college, but did very little work. When the
time came for the final examinations, it was clearly going to be impossible
for her to pass. Without her teaching certificate, she would not be able
to get any kind of job.

The college had a system of personal tutors, to whom students should
go if they had a problem. Lima asked her tutor what she should do. This
woman said,

" Lima, I have been telling you for three years that you need
to work harder. It's too late now, there's nothing to be done."

Lima then went to see one of her lecturers and told him the problem.
He said that he would show her the examination papers before the exam if
she would go to bed with him. She did so, and passed the examinations.

However, Lima also became pregnant. When her father found out, he threw
her out of the house and refused to have anything more to do with her.
He said that as far as he was concerned, he did not have a daughter anymore.

Now homeless, penniless and expecting a baby, Lima met a much older
man who was a widower with three children. He said that he would be prepared
to marry her as long as she stayed at home and looked after his house and
the children.

I never heard what happened next.

Now, without talking to anyone else, number the characters from 1 to
5 according to how easy you find it to sympathise with their actions. Number
1 is the character with whom you can most easily sympathise. Do not let
anyone else see your sequence.






B: Small Group/Pair

Sit in a group of three. Read through the instructions and decide who
will be Speaker, Understander and Observer. Then carry out the task. If
there are just two of you, or if pair-work is more convenient, then work
without the Observer.

The Speaker

Tell the Understander what sequence you put the characters in and explain
why. Do not speak for more than five minutes. When the Understander repeats
your sequence and your reasons back to you, listen carefully to see if you
have been properly and fully understood. Make additions or corrections where

The Understander

Put out of your mind your own sequencing of the characters in the story.
Listen carefully to the Speaker. Don't make notes. Concentrate on making
the Speaker feel well listened to. Do not show any signs of agreement or
disagreement with the Speaker. Your job is to understand what the Speaker
has to say as well as you possibly can, leaving your own opinions out of
it. To show that you have understood what the Speaker has told you, repeat
back to the Speaker his or her sequencing of the characters and the reasoning
behind it. This repetition is called reflecting. You don't have to try to
use exactly the same words as the Speaker, but you must do your best to
capture the exact meanings that you have understood. You can either wait
until the Speaker has finished before reflecting, or, if you can't remember
that much, come in while the Speaker is talking. The purposes of reflecting

  • to check comprehension and communication of ideas and feelings;
  • to demonstrate respect and increase empathy;
  • to provide a basis for development of the Speaker's ideas.

The Observer

Pay particular attention to the Understander, noting any non-linguistic
communication. Also pay special attention to the Understander's attempts
to reflect, noting anything that seems particularly successful or unsuccessful.
Remember, it should not be possible for you to tell what the Understander
thinks about the Speaker's sequencing and reasons for that sequencing.

After not more than ten minutes, lead a feedback session, contributing
the above information and asking for the reactions and contributions of
Speaker and Understander. The following questions are central:

Did the Speaker feel well understood? What was this feeling like?

Did the Speaker understand his or her own ideas better after having
expressed them?

Did the Speaker's ideas develop at all as they were being expressed?

How did the Understander feel while trying to reflect without revealing
his or her own opinions?

How does the Speaker feel about not having heard the opinions of the
Understander and Observer?

C: Whole Group

If you are working as part of a larger group of people, get back together
now and talk about what happened in the pair/small group activity. Talk
especially about what it was like to be in the role of Speaker and Understander.

What's the point of the activity? Well, in one sense, it goes
back to the following statement by Carl Rogers (1951/1992: 28):

I would like to propose, as a hypothesis for consideration, that the
major barrier to mutual interpersonal communication is our very natural
tendency to judge, to evaluate, to approve or disapprove, the statement
of the other person, or the other group.

One purpose of the activity, then, is to give the Understander the experience
of trying to put aside this "natural tendency to judge'."
A common initial outcome for the Understander is a sense of frustration,
a frustration which arises from not being allowed to take up one's "natural"
amount of interactional space. On the other hand, what is on offer is the
chance to:

  • learn a way of consciously disciplining your interactional style;
  • learn really to listen to, and appreciate, someone else in a way which
    exceeds what you normally achieve;
  • hear and understand opinions, positions and perspectives which would
    not normally be available to you;
  • become actively involved in helping a colleague develop their own ideas
    and plans out of their own understandings of their own experience.

To take a current example, if you were put off by the pomposity of my
opening claim about the activity represented above, that evaluation will
have got in your way of understanding what I am trying to share with you.
If you are able to put aside such feelings, you will be more open to hearing
and understanding me.

The point about helping a colleague develop demands a little more comment.
Again, the background to it can be captured in a quotation from Rogers (Rogers
and Freiberg 1994:288):

One way of assisting individuals to move towards openness to experience
is through a relationship in which we are prized as a separate person,
in which the experiencing going on within is empathically understood and

Let's continue from that point by shifting our attention to the Speaker.
One purpose of the activity is to give the Speaker the experience of expressing
their ideas in a situation where they will not have to defend them, but
they will have to make them very clear. A common outcome for the Speaker
is a sense of frustration, a frustration which arises from not receiving
the usual amount of interactive feedback. On the other hand, what is on
offer is the chance to learn how to:

  • take responsibility for expressing your ideas and plans clearly;
  • use the opportunity provided by the Understander's reflecting your
    ideas back to you to clarify and improve those ideas;
  • accept help in the development of your ideas without that help having
    to take the form of suggestions, advice, or any other form of evaluation.

So, the translation of this activity into our professional lives goes
like this: if instead of thinking about Lima, a teacher is working on how
to improve the way they teach pronunciation, or trying to come up with an
ethical way of reducing the amount of marking they have to do, some find
it useful to have a relationship with a colleague in which that colleague
takes on for a while the difficult but highly supportive role of the Understander,
while they as Speaker work on their own ideas, based on their own experience,
understandings and intentions. I am not putting this forward as speculation,
I am reporting from practice.

I have to make it clear that I am not suggesting that we should abandon
our exchanges based on evaluation: our discussions, suggestions, arguments,
debates and disagreements. I am saying, however, that we can do better than
limit ourselves to only that style of exchange, especially when a complementary
possibility is available. It may just be that this is an idea whose time
is coming around, inasmuch as Deborah Tannen's new book ends with the following
plea in the face of the increasingly negatively adversarial culture which
she identifies in many aspects of our lives (Tannen 1998:298):

We need to use our imaginations and ingenuity to find different ways
to seek truth and gain knowledge, and add them to our arsenal - or, should
I say, the ingredients for our stew. It will take creativity to find ways
to blunt the most dangerous blades of the argument culture. It's a challenge
we must undertake, because our public and private lives are at stake.

I do realise that I am sailing deep waters here in the skiff of a single
artificial activity, and that I am carrying very little intellectual ballast.
But I guess that, in essence, all "My Share" activities are like
that. Writers don't just want to share an activity with you, they want you
to share the excitement and the sense of achieving something that they get
from the activity. And each activity can only make sense in some kind of
framework of shared purpose and values.

The purpose of this work is to enhance the possibilities for individual
self-development based on the values of mutual respect, trust and empathy.
As well as encouraging individual growth, the work can influence, both directly
and indirectly, the spirit of collegiality which exists between two people,
or among a group of colleagues, or throughout an institution. The activity
I am sharing with you here is an introduction to a form of one-to-one collaboration,
but in our work at Aston University we have also developed a form of what
we call Group Development which brings together the six full-time members
of the Language Studies Unit in regular meetings run on the same principles.

I can't go into all that here. If you wanted to read more about the ideas
that inform this activity, you could follow up the references I have given.
I lay out the original scheme of teacher development into which this activity
fits in Edge 1992a, 1992b. If you try out the activity and think that there
might be something in there for you, then talk to other people about it.
Get in touch with me, or with the editors of this issue of TLT, or
get involved in JALT's teacher development SIG and you will find like-minded
people with whom you can develop your own way forward.


Edge, J. 1992a. Cooperative Development: Professional
Self-Development Through Cooperation With Colleagues.
Harlow: Longman.

Edge, J. 1992b. Cooperative development. ELT Journal
46/1: 62-70.

Rogers, C. 1951. Communication: Its blocking and its facilitation.
In Teich, N. (Ed.) 1992. Rogerian Perspectives: Collaborative Rhetoric
for Oral and Written Communication
. Norwood, NJ: Ablex Publishing Corporation.
Pp. 27-34.

Rogers, C. and Freiberg, H. 1994. Freedom to Learn.
3rd. ed. New York: Merrill/Macmillan.

Tannen, D. 1998. The Argument Culture. London: Virago.