Verbal questions, Visual answers | An apptivity


At TEDx Gateway 2014, there was a surprise speaker named K.K. Raghavan under the business maverick category. He spoke about all sorts of things but the crux of his talk was on how new technology has zombiefied us to a certain extent and leeched us of our humanity. Among his solutions is an app called Flipsicle – a combination of Twitter and Screenshot_2014-11-30-08-26-13Instagram-like features, whose goal is to evoke empathy. I’m not so sure about the empathy bit but I quite like the app’s main function. Any user can post a question just as people often do on Twitter such as “What motivates you?”. Other users respond by posting an image either from the image libraries on their phones or by taking a fresh photo. The creators of the app have already raised $2 million in seed capital. The app was designed “as a reaction to the two knowledge systems most prevalent in the world today — expert knowledge, which Raghava says is too biased to one person’s understanding, and crowd-sourced knowledge, where the truth that prevails is the one that “survives the edit war”, essentially, “the lowest common accepted bias survives.” This got me thinking and I managed to suss out a language activity.

In lessons on functions, we focus a lot on language for sharing one’s own opinions. However, in the modern, collaborative workplace, you are frequently required to talk about your colleagues’ opinions.  For example, “Jenny feels that we should go ahead with our initial plan however Rob’s take on this is that we ought to wait for leadership approval.”  Although I like Flipsicle, I chose not to use it because it’s got a couple of bugs. The main screen scrolls really slowly and asking questions of a private group is a feature that’s available but not activated. Additionally, some of the questions that have been posted make no sense.


Come up with a list of questions that your Ss will find interesting and write them up on a slide or a flipchart. Bear in mind that you will need to set the task as homework.


Your Ss will need phones with cameras.



  • Display the slide/flipchart with the questions and ask Ss to take a picture of it/or write down the questions.
  • Tell Ss that you would like them to answer these questions for homework. As the inevitable groans start coming in, inform them that the answers must be visual. They will need to take pictures with their phone as responses to each of the questions either at work (if that’s allowed), or on their commute home or back to work the next morning.
  • Encourage them to take lots of pictures but select only one as a response for each question. Ask them to keep these identified images together in a single folder, deleting the others or shifting them into another folder. (This is to ensure that they don’t get distracted showing each other extraneous images).
  • Sample questions:
    • What motivates people to come to work?
    • What is power dressing?
    • What is the colour of success?
    • Why is it important to have friends at work?
    • What sort of a person should a mentor be?
    • What leads to a demotivated workplace?
  • NB: Ss seem to respond much more energetically to negative questions like their nightmare boss than positive ones but it’s really up to the T based on what kind of discussion she wants to facilitate.


  • Ss merrily click pictures on their phones, hopefully not causing offence to anyone.


  • You may want to start your lesson with this activity.
  • Ask Ss to navigate to the folder where they have their visual answers. Bring up the questions on the slide or flipchart. Ask Ss to spend a minute thinking about why or how each of their images answers a question i.e., what does it represent? You may need to demonstrate with one.
  • Get Ss to stand up. Announce the first question. Have Ss mingle, showing each other their visual responses and explaining what it means. After a couple of minutes, move on to the next question. Ss keep mingling, trying to talk to someone new for each of the questions. They should attempt to pair up with at least two people for each question so they hear two different perspectives in addition to their own.

Language focus

  • Divide Ss into groups of four and ask them to share what they heard from their peers for each question.
  • Monitor for language used to share opinions expressed by others. It might also be worthwhile to observe how Ss use discourse markers to contrast differences in opinions.
  • Board some examples of phrases such as “Jaya is of the opinion that”, “Dev feels that”, “Samir’s perspective is that” and ask Ss to think back to the expressions they used to and work as a group to add to the list. Ask groups to compare their lists, adding from each other until each group has a long list of phrases.
  • Identify patterns and move the phrases into frames and slots and ask Ss to write these down individually.

Discussion functions | A turn-taking activity

Discussion functions

A couple of days ago, I wrote about a course I taught last week where I needed to encourage my Ss to speak up. The other activity I used to spur my Ss to participate more actively in discussions was one I borrowed from Leadership Games by Stephen S. Kaagan. I must confess that I didn’t really focus on turn-taking as a skill as much as I did on giving Ss doable ideas for making their voices heard but it could be used quite effectively to practice language for turn-taking. I thought this was a very successful activity.


Discussion function cards for each person, you’ll need 1 NT, 1 S, 1 I, 2 Qs and 4 Bs as in the image.


  • Divide your class into groups of 5 or 6 but no more than that or it will get unwieldy.
  • Write up a key for the cards on the WB or on a slide:
    • B: Build on an idea shared by the previous speaker.
    • NT: Introduce a different topic into the discussion.
    • Q: Ask a question of a speaker or the group.
    • I: Interrupt the discussion.
    • S: Synthesize or summarize the points made by other speakers.
  • Announce the topic for discussion. I used this one: “How do we as a service line or an organization stay innovative in an extremely competitive market?” Set the timer as appropriate and allow the Ss to discuss the topic.
  • Each time Ss speak, they must use one of the cards, slapping it on the table as they take their turn.
  • Ss must try to use up all their cards by the end of the discussion. They should be careful to space out their contributions so they don’t end up exhausting their cards too early. This should encourage them to listen to their colleagues and then comment appropriately instead of just hogging the limelight.
  • Debrief the activity by asking Ss to reflect on how they participated in the discussion and what they would do differently if they were to run the activity again. Ask them which cards they found easy to use and which cards more challenging. Did any of the cards compel them to participate in a way they wouldn’t normally do in a meeting?

Adapted from Discussion Functions. Kaagan, S.S., Leadership Games: Experiential Learning for Organizational Development. Sage Publications, 1999, pp.77-79

55% 38% 7% – Busting the Mehrabian myth

Patricia De Griese

Yesterday was the first day of the IATEFL BEsig Annual Conference simulcast in Bonn and BEsig opened the event with a session titled “Feedback dos and don’ts – learn to give feedback effectively and receive it gracefully” – always an important skill in business, right?  The speaker, though, had some interesting credentials. The BEsig site informs us that Patricia de Griese is a “Certified Trainer, Certified Systemic Coach, Workshop Designer and Facilitator, NLP Master”. It goes on to say that her work includes brain-friendly workshops and accelerated learning techniques.  I watched about half of the webinar before deciding to log off. I’m afraid I was reminded of ‘communication trainers’ who peddle dodgy tips gleaned from the Internet or self-help books or worse, even dodgier motivational gurus.

I’m not going to launch into an attack on NLP. I reckon Russell Mayne does a superb job in this succinct post .  Instead, I want to focus on a popular myth that de Griese attempted to perpetuate. At one point, she mentioned to her audience that we ought to avoid prefacing feedback with phrases such as “Don’t take this personally” in what might have been a sort of cursory attempt to cover the pragmatic aspect of feedback. Then, in what I think was a transition to talking about the importance of non-verbal elements in feedback, she introduced the dreaded stats:

55% body language 38% tone  7% words

She mentioned the University of Southern California, a study by Albert Mehrabian and a book whose name she didn’t remember. In 1967, Mehrabian did a study which attempted to prove that when people are faced with verbal and non-verbal communication that is inconsistent (a sort of mixed message), they tend to first rely on body language, then on tone and finally on words but only when discussing likes or attitudes. This little video describes how the study has been misquoted by communication professionals:

But, if only this was a case of misunderstanding and misquoting the research. This article is a good exposé of the extent to which Mehrabian’s study has been criticized and discredited. I’m going to highlight some key points and if you are prone to quoting 55%-38%-7% – you should ask yourself what you really know about this study and how it was conducted.

  • There were two experiments and the first was done with three groups of 10 participants, all of whom were Mehrabian’s students.
  • In the first study, participants listened to nine words being spoken in isolation and then rated the speaker’s feelings. The words were often purposefully said in a way that was inconsistent with its meaning.
  • In the second study, participants listened to recordings of a single word while looking at photos of people with different facial expressions.
  • The recordings themselves came from just two or three speakers.

If this wasn’t unscientific enough as is, the participants in the study were aware of its purpose and the words themselves were completely decontextualised and presented in an artificial setting. It’s also interesting to note that Mehrabian made no attempt to study tone and body language together in the same experiment so we don’t really know how he brought them together in his famous, flawed formula. You can read more about what academic researchers have say about Mehrabian’s study here.

If we are to be taken seriously as a profession, we can’t be dishing out popular myths, self-help mumbo jumbo and figures out of discredited studies. If you hear any of your colleagues, peers or fellow ELT professionals bringing up Mehrabian’s myth in webinars, conferences, blog posts or elsewhere – challenge them. Ask them to describe the study and how it came to this conclusion … chances are they won’t be able to. This is a good example of the logical fallacy of appeal to research and alleged experts. Then, direct them to Olivia Mitchell’s article.

If you haven’t watched it yet, I highly recommend taking a dekko at Russell Mayne’s A Guide to Pseudo-science in ELT at IATEFL Harrowgate.

Speak up | A technique for immediate feedback

I’ve been away in Bangalore teaching a short course for a team of software professionals. One of the areas I needed to focus on was encouraging these Ss to speak up in meetings. Their reluctance to say anything at all during conference calls was leading to serious issues with their clients. This was partly due to inadequate language for expressing different meeting functions for some Ss but for most it was down to cultural reasons. Indian professionals tend not to express their opinions as openly as perhaps their American counterparts. They are particularly hesitant or inhibited when people at a higher career level, key stakeholders or clients are involved; even more so when the topic of discussion involves something negative or unpleasant such as the inability to meet a deadline or a mistake that has cascading consequences.

This particular group represented an extreme because they would simply refuse to speak on conference calls that involved their American clients to the extent that on one such occasion, the client complained to the team’s manager that no one from the team bothered to attend a critical meeting despite the fact that there were five people from the Bangalore office logged in – they were there but as quiet as a mouse.

I used two techniques to encourage Ss to participate more actively and make their voices heard. The first I adapted from a book on Leadership Games which I’ll share soon.  The second was my attempt to put into use some maths puzzle blocks which I received at a recent TEDx Gateway event as a part of a promo by a new international school. It was something I did on the spur but worked out quite well.

The objective of using these blocks to give feedback is to make sure Ss are not just sitting back and listening to others and essentially wasting opportunities for practice during a meeting simulation – but compel them into participating as well as refine their manner of contributing to the discussion. I had two classes and I tried this technique with both. It worked really well with the smaller group of seven but was less effective with my larger batch of 13.

Immediate feedback


  • Blocks in different shapes and colours.


  • Write up a key on the whiteboard preferably using the same WB marker colours as the blocks themselves.
  • Explain the key to the SS and what they should do if they receive a particular block during the meeting simulation.
  • Start the meeting simulation.
  • Observe participation and dole out blocks according to the key. Make notes on how Ss are able to increase their level of participation or enhance their clarity of speech.
  • Take back blocks when Ss increase or decrease their level of participation.
  • At the end of the meeting simulation, after you’ve facilitated content feedback, ask Ss to recall the blocks they received and self-evaluate their speaking skills during the simulation – noting down feedback against little drawings of the blocks in their notebooks. Ask them to share this feedback in pairs or small groups.
  • The feedback against the yellow and red blocks can become things to work on for the next lesson.

Lucian Freud | An art inquiry exercise


Source: Wikiart 

I was lurking in yesterday’s webinar on Evidence-based Observation by Silvana Richardson because I had some work to complete away but talk of a painting quickly hooked me.  Silvana used an activity built around Lucien Freud’s painting ‘Head of a Naked Girl’ to lead in to the session and get attendees to think about objectivity and subjectivity in observations. I thought it was a fairly effective exercise. However, when I looked online I didn’t find any references related to the incident or the quote she used. Maybe it’s an apocryphal story but it’s intriguing nonetheless.


Lucien Freud’s Head of a Naked Girl perhaps on a slide or as a printout; the quote from the model who’s the subject of the paining.


  • Display the picture and ask Ss to describe what they see.
  • Ask Ss to categorize responses into objective and subjective statements.
  • Now ask them to consider what the artist’s mood might have been when he was painting this portrait and what he might have wanted to express through the painting.
  • Finally have them consider their personal opinion – what do they think about the painting? Would they want to have it in their homes?


  • This could potentially be a very powerful ‘jolt’. Unfortunately, I couldn’t track down the picture Silvana used of the model who is the subject of this portrait. She’s young and pretty and this is what she had to say about Lucian Freud:

The truth is that he is in all his paintings. One day he blacked my eye – the painting’s eye. That day he’d shut his ear in a door and it went nasty black. The finished face has been interpreted by one critic as me being “in a strop”. But it wasn’t my temper. It was about Lucian’s ear.

  • Lucian Freud’s paintings were ostensibly of other people but they were often reflections of himself. Ask Ss to reflect on the observations they made earlier in light of this new information. Ask them to relate Freud’s subjective observation to observations made by teacher trainers for the purposes of giving developmental feedback.
  • The exercise could be used in the business classroom to discuss performance appraisals and feedback. Here’s an article from Telegraph on 10 little known facts about Freud’s paintings.