EFL business texts are often product focused. They are organized as isolated units with individual unit goals and little review. Courses culminate in a test which attempts to discover how well students have learned these discrete language points. Because the process of working through misunderstandings, the tension, and the backtracking found in real life business situations are often engineered out of classroom activities, students rarely have the opportunity to produce language in conditions under which it is really used. This kind of instruction fails to prepare students for real-life business communication. One solution is through simulations in which students use language for a specific, realistic purpose, and produce concrete results.
My 10-week intermediate intensive business class, consisting of five men and six women from different companies, met four times a week for two hours each time. Thirty minutes of every second lesson were set aside for students to hold simulation product development meetings. These meetings had a rotating secretary who took minutes and read minutes from the previous meeting, and a rotating chair who directed the meeting based on the agenda drawn up at the previous meeting.
We began by discussing the aims of the simulation and deciding on the product that would be the focus for the simulation. The simulation frame was as follows: Students were company employees whose task was to develop a new product that would be launched for the Christmas campaign. They would work groups to design a product that appealed to a specific market and present their proposals to a board meeting (the class) at the end of the term. During the presentations, participants would give each other feedback and vote to select which product the company should adopt. Each group would submit a final written report to the president (the teacher).
Next, students divided into product development groups of three or four, and a chair and a secretary were assigned for the first meeting. The guidelines for the meetings were as follows: Each meeting began by reading and confirming the minutes of the previous meeting. An agenda, drawn up by the chair, was distributed to the group. The chair called the meeting to order and followed the agenda for the meeting. The secretary took minutes. At the end of each meeting, a draft agenda was drawn up for the next meeting.
The following list of questions was given to each group at the first meeting:
- What will the product do?
- How is it different from other products on the market?
What market is the product for?
- age groups?
- family role?
What will the product look like?
Optional areas which could be used in the project or as a follow-up class activity include cost factors and marketing information:
- What are the raw materials? How much will they cost?
- What is the likely cost of manufacturing?
- What is the projected marketing budget?
- What are expected profit margins?
- When will the product be marketed? Where? How?
- What are the projected future sales?
The purpose of this simulation was to let students make decisions like those they would make in the real world. Therefore, they were encouraged to use their own approach to the development process. Some set very concrete goals for each meeting, defined the purpose very clearly, and set stringent deadlines. Others had a more flexible approach so they could deal with difficulties as they came up.
During each meeting, students became very involved in their discussions. There was a great deal of language production and a great deal of negotiation of meaning. Very little Japanese was spoken and the chairs took the role of language monitor as well as discussion director. Note-taking and working from an agenda helped keep students on track and goal-oriented.
The teacher's role
I let them run by themselves, giving help when it was asked for or appeared necessary. I also monitored groups to ensure that all students were using English as much as possible.
This was a good opportunity to see what students could really do in a communicative situation and spot problems that might not be noticed in more controlled activities: students who dominate groups, who do not volunteer information, who use inappropriate language, or who lack the necessary language to complete a communicative function. As a result of observing my own class, I decided to teach additional lessons on volunteering ideas, clarification, and voicing agreement and disagreement (total and partial), and had private consultations with a student who had little confidence in the value of her ideas and felt she could not speak out in her group.
For the final board meeting, I took the roles of chair and secretary. Students were told in advance that each person in the group must speak and that the presentations should include all the information in their outlines as well as anything else they thought was important.
Preparation for the final presentation took two class periods. Some groups finished their work during class, while others used time outside class. Not surprisingly, the group which had the most flexible approach to goal setting and deadlines commented that their presentation was "an improvisation," as they had spent too much time on product development. By contrast, the group which followed a strict plan and set the most concrete goals, kept the most rigorous minutes, and set the most detailed agendas were the best prepared and eventually won the vote!
This class chose toys as their products and generated a widely varying selection, from an English role-playing computer game that taught about life and English at the same time, to a modern version of a traditional wooden toy with a twist. The inventiveness and clarity of thought behind the products were quite impressive. Everything was justified and clearly presented and each group presentation was accompanied by visual aids, some of which were very detailed. Finally, under instructions not to vote for their own product, the majority chose the luxury baby bricks. These were in the shape of interlocking adult and baby animals which came with their own wooden carrying case/trailer and would retail for \10,000-\18,000. The group explained that these would be a natural product which would help babies' emotional growth, have educational aspects, be harmless, have good quality, and last a long time. Further, because of the declining birthrate, parents would be more likely to treat children to such luxury products.
Discussion and Recommendations
At the end of the simulation, students completed an open evaluation questionnaire in English. The main problems identified were difficulties in communication and organization. Most students mentioned understanding each other's ideas as being difficult. This was seen by some as wasting time, and usually resulted from a mismatch of vocabulary, unusual phrasing, or when students spoke too quickly to be understood.
Some seemed to value the process of negotiating meaning less than I did as a teacher. These students seemed to see the result of the meeting or the final presentation as more important than the process taken to get to it. Although many realized that overcoming communication difficulties was one of the main purposes of the simulation, clarifying the importance of process at the outset would have helped everyone see value that the communication challenges posed.
Difficulties in communication were often taken personally: One student noted that the project "caused a lot of frustration on our human relationship," when group members misunderstood each other and interpreted meeting decisions differently. However these situations also afforded an opportunity for communicative repair. Often the third person in the group would help out by acting like a counselor. One student noted that it was easier to discuss in a three-person group than in a two-person group, an important task design consideration.
Time management was also a major student concern. Many complained that they were wasting time. Some suggested that the meeting time was too short while others acknowledged that time management was the students' problem. One student noted that her group's lack of attention to detail made the project difficult to complete and present to others. In other words, they had not used the given time effectively enough. Perhaps emphasizing at an early stage the importance of time management would help to alleviate some of these difficulties. Taking time during regular class to discuss how time was spent in the meeting and how it could be better spent in the future might also benefit students.
One student suggested that the teacher relieve some of the burden on students by helping them to research existing market conditions because she felt she had no experience in the field of toys. Another student, for similar reasons, stated that the teacher should decide the theme. With enough access to information about the local market, the teacher could easily provide the information, however, it would remove a vital part of the development process from the students: research. Independent research is a skill that all students at all levels need to develop, and with readily available sources of knowledge in libraries and the internet, there is no reason why students shouldn't do their own research. Teachers might help by suggesting resources or giving tips on how to go about discovering useful, reliable information. Alternatively, the task of discovering resources with relevant information could be the focus of a class information gap activity.
I recommend letting students choose the project themes, as I did above. In addition to making an imaginative selection, the students consciously chose a product area with which all of them were unfamiliar, so that they all started on the same level--a wonderful idea that I had not anticipated.
Students found many things of value in the project, and most felt a sense of accomplishment and satisfaction upon completion. Many students made comments about thinking. One noted that this form of continuous project on a theme with definite stages and involving groups of learners helped her learn about logical thinking. Another student commented that the project helped her to build the habit of thinking constantly in English. Comments were also made about dealing with different people�s ways of thinking: "Building up one idea with the other people who extremely had different ways of thinking" was noted as a very valuable experience, as was the sharing of knowledge among people from different backgrounds. For one student, the most important lesson was that, because of their different backgrounds, people think about different things in different ways. Difference was a major concern for a student intent on starting her own business who realized the need for distinctive ideas.
When students were asked what they would change, they mentioned personal and group-based factors such as group time-management, having a clearer product concept, preparing more for the presentation, thinking more about marketing, and being more organized. If I were to repeat this simulation, to help students, I would:
- Prepare a student handout detailing the product development outline.
- Prepare a handout which stated the aims of the project and emphasized the importance of process.
- Pre-teach the language of clarification, volunteering, and agreeing/disagreeing.
- Conduct class discussions about the skills of time-management and research.
Simulating a business environment in the classroom provided a realistic setting for negotiating meaning in a productive, fun, and imaginative way. Although students found the task difficult and straining on their personal relationships, they also found it very rewarding. As one student put it, "everything related to the project was important." Most of the problems students noted in their course feedback forms were exactly what I wanted them to experience and all but one student seemed to realize this. The students had to solve problems, be diplomatic, resolve conflicts, and think critically about their own and others� ideas. Though it was difficult at times, students realized that dealing with challenging communicative situations in a second language constituted a valuable learning opportunity.
Thanks to Kara Pierson for her invaluable help during this project and to Carol Fritsch and Nanci Graves for feedback on earlier drafts.