Where Do New Ideas Come From?

Alan Maley – Writer of over 30 books, Editor for the Oxford Resource Books for Teachers, and visiting Professor at Kebangsaan University in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.

In my 40 years’ experience of ELT, I cannot recall a time when ‘new ideas’ was not on the agenda. It therefore seemed worth exploring some of the potential sources of such ideas. How are new ideas generated? Here are the ones I discussed:

1. Teacher Interaction.

Teachers get new ideas from each other, and this is one of the most important sources of innovation. Here are the most important contexts in which this exchange of ideas can take place are: in formal training courses, in teacher development groups, through attending conferences, and through informal conversations in staff rooms etc. It is also important to remember that interactions of this kind not only lead to the direct adoption of ideas (where one teacher simply borrows another teacher’s good idea) but also to generating new ideas (when one teacher takes another teacher’s idea and does something slightly different with it.).

2. Heuristics.

A heuristic is a ‘rule of thumb’ (If I do this, what will happen?). One of the most well-known and successful heuristics is John Fanselow’s : ‘Do the opposite.’ He suggests that, if we carefully examine what we habitually do in our classes and then try to do the opposite, we may stumble upon some interesting new ways of proceeding. There are many other heuristics worth trying. For example: ‘Withhold Information’, ‘Reverse the order.’ , ‘Combine randomly’ , etc. Fanselow’s point, which is worth thinking about, is that if we never try an alternative way of doing things, we never know what might have happened! Heuristics are a handy way of trying new ways of doing things.

3. Re-explorations of Traditional Techniques.

Traditional techniques, such as dictation, choral recitation, translation, homework, etc. are often criticised for being tedious and unproductive. However, if we take the trouble to re-examine them and to explore ways of doing them slightly differently, we shall often find that they can emerge fresh and useful. This is what a number of people have done. For example, Davis and Rinvolucri in their book on Dictation (74 different ways of doing dictation!), or Painter in her book on Homework (101 ideas for setting homework differently). Other areas ripe for re-exploration are story-telling, drills, dialogues and questioning techniques.

These traditional techniques offer a supportive framework ( they are very familiar to most teachers ) within which to make small but significant changes. Any teacher can reflect on a traditional way of doing something, and come up with an alternative, provided they are willing to consider the possibility.

4. Borrowing from Feeder-Fields.

A feeder-field is an area of inquiry or a discipline from outside ELT but which has potential for ‘feeding in’ to it. One example would be the way drama training for actors has many possibilities for language teachers: we can use many of these actor-training techniques for pronunciation and movement work with our language students. Others would include Applied Psychology (NLP- Neuro-Linguistic Programming; Multiple Intelligences Theory, Creativity Theory, etc.), Music and Art. It is unfortunate that ELT has in many ways put up walls around itself, so that many useful ideas from outside the walls never get in!

5. New, Developing Areas.

These are fields of activity or inquiry (both from inside and outside ELT) which offer new insights and forms of activity to the ways in which we teach. The most obvious is clearly Information Technology. The possibilities offered by on-line searches of the www, by e-mail exchanges with students , classes or schools in another country, by discussion / chat groups, or by direct on-line instruction are enormous, though it is necessary to caution teachers about an over-enthusiasm for the technology itself (the ‘new toy’ effect) at the expense of learning pay-off. Other areas ripe for exploitation include; Global Issues, CLIL (Content and Language Integrated Learning), the ‘new literatures’ in English, ‘Flow’ , and the Teaching of Advanced Learners.


I would make two points in conclusion:

1. Innovation is not beneficial in itself. Mere novelty is usually short-lived. In order to be worth doing, an innovation has to have a clear pay-off in terms of student motivation, enhanced learning, economy of effort, etc.

2. Reflection and exploration by teachers into new or better ways of doing things can be a powerful dynamo for professional development. We may not always come up with brilliant new techniques but in the process of searching for them, we learn a lot both as teachers and as human beings.