Using project management principles in the classroom | IATEFL webinar summary + reflections

The reason I’m singling out this webinar out of the eight or nine events that comprised the IATEFL online conference which took place last weekend is its title. Using project management principles in the classroom (with the subtext – bring out the team player in your learners) was certainly full of promise for someone like me who frequently works with organisations where everything happens through the all-encompassing framework of the project.

project management

The speaker, Nathan Arthur, described the gaps between university and work which EAP does not bridge. He suggested that project management principles could help resolve this through a “subtle paradigm shift”:

  • In the physical layout of the classroom to make it look more like a conference room
  • By using real plays (where Ss presumably play themselves or present their own views) instead of role plays
  • EPM (English for Project Management) in lieu of ESP & EAP.

He also discussed how current EAP objectives could be extended to make them address EPM needs:

Develop academic skills >>> Develop professional skills

Develop critical thinking >>> Develop team thinking skills

Guide Ss through realistic situations for university >>> Ss manage themselves through realistic situations for the workplace

Focus on the core skills for academic study >>> Focus on the core skills needed for workplace teamwork

Nathan went on to describe how Ts can run projects using the framework of a project cycle (Initiation, planning & design, executing, monitoring & controlling, closing) and offered an example of a task he’d conducted which involved revamping the university newspaper.  He imposed some constraints on the Ss in terms of cost, scope and schedule and expected them to work with a team of 10 to produce the first run of the newspaper in 3 weeks. He also assigned a project manager. There are some tasks associated with each of the project cycle stages (e.g., brainstorming during planning). Nathan explained that he didn’t correct them or provide language input during the activity (by which I assume he means over the course of the 3 weeks) but waited till the end to provide guidance on words such as milestones, green light or sign off. He also added that he observed some cultural issues (Chinese deference to hierarchy & French uncertainty avoidance) but it wasn’t entirely clear how he dealt with these.

He then mentioned four roles based on his observation of student participation in projects: dominator, shrinker, shirker and joker. He suggested that these transformed into four leadership types, dominator, supporter, delegator and coach (drawn from The Mindful International Manager, Comfort & Franklin, 2011). This mapping seemed quite arbitrary to me – for instance, why would it be natural for the humorous student to take on the role of the coach?

Nathan also coaches students on debating; he had an interesting idea around getting Ss to debate for and against two types of chocolate bars (Mars vs. Bounty). He also spoke about bringing team building activities into the classroom to bring out language and teamwork (spaghetti & lolly pop towers etc.) and made a brief mention of Kapla blocks for similar tower building activities.

Finally, he presented a list of ideas he hadn’t tried out yet but could be used for classroom projects:

  • Create your own start-up
  • Build an app
  • Publish a book of poems/short stories
  • Write an exam/syllabus and have Ss teach the first class
  • Go on field trips to film festivals and write film reviews

During the course of the webinar, there was an ongoing discussion in the chat box about whether the approach being discussed was really just a form or combination of TBL and PBL. One attendee in a way concluded this discussion when she stated “It is TBL, but I think the point is that EAP is sometimes too far removed from the actual target after conclusion of the uni course.” I agree that EAP is divorced from the real language needs that Ss face when they join the workforce but I also feel that Nathan’s suggestions, while undoubtedly interesting and potentially useful, don’t go far enough to bridge that chasm.

Several years ago at a BESIG event, Evan Frendo spoke about mirroring contemporary project practices in the tasks we design such as adopting the framework of agile methodology (popular in IT) and setting up scrum calls because these would better prepare Ss (whether they are already working or about to start work) for the actual challenges they face on the job. A key difference between agile and waterfall (its traditional project management predecessor) is the degree to which it is iterative and relatively egalitarian. Agile promotes a sense of ownership and a spirit of speaking up and sharing. These are invaluable skills for the modern workplace and if we can help shape the language that Ss use while enacting these business skills, they can potentially be more confident, fluent and accurate when it comes to the real thing.

To equip Ss to be successful team players in projects at work, we need to provide language input and feedback within the context of projects that attempt to replicate work patterns in the industries they are headed towards (not just generic college projects) where the T takes on the dual role of project delivery head and language coach.

Image attribution: Project Success by ken fager | CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

Creative grouping techniques | Teacher training

In September, I taught a six day intensive teacher training program to a group of incredibly engaged and astute Master Trainers from across Maharashtra, which happens to be my home state. Over the next several months, these Master Trainers will go on to cascade this program to tens of thousands of teachers. One of my personal goals has been to model good practices which the Master Trainers will hopefully have observed and absorbed. I had close to 40 participants so one aspect that I inadvertently neglected was grouping. I tended to regroup participants only once a day (it’s extremely chaotic to do it more often when you have so many participants), and for the most part, I used run-of-the-mill grouping strategies. So, my sharp as a whip group helpfully pointed this out to me so I promised to rack my brain and write up a post.


Here are some creative grouping techniques I know and use.

  1. Adjectives: Go around the room labelling Ss using positive adjectives. I love to use ‘intelligent’, ‘creative’, ‘innovative’, ‘brilliant’ etc. Then ask all the intelligent people to get together and so on. When everyone’s settled, ask “So where are the intelligent people?” Ss love answering this question. If you have a sporting group, you can be cheeky and use adjectives like ‘beautiful’ and ‘sexy’.
  2. Content-derived words: Ask Ss to think back to preceding sessions or the previous day’s content and suggest a number of words (preferably nouns) they think are important. Use these to label groups instead of adjectives.
  3. Task or content sections: If you have a longer task and plan to turn it into a jigsaw activity or if it’s designed to be split between groups, use content headings as group names. For example, you have 6 teacher profiles that you would like the Ss to analyze. Go around the room labelling Ss using these names, Joann, Ayesha, Paul, Ayokode, Nazir and Ruth. Then get all the Ruths together etc. Instruct that group to then only focus on Ruth’s profile. This could be a little bit boring if your task sections are labelled 1, 2, 3 or A, B, C but it lends itself well to tasks which involve analysing different categories such as types of games.
  4. Stress patterns: Involves a bit of work. If you have 30 Ss, you’ll need 30 different words with each set of 5 conforming to a stress pattern if you’d like to form 6 groups. For example, one set might have words such as ‘account’, ‘hotel’, ‘discuss’, ‘collapse’, ‘police’ and ‘behaved’ all of which have two syllables with the stress falling on the second syllable. Each set must have a different stress pattern. Distribute cutouts with these words and then ask Ss to find their group members who have words with the same stress pattern.
  5. Animal sounds: I don’t particularly like this one but a lot of people enjoy it. Write out the names of animals on chits of paper. If you want 6 groups, you’ll need six different animals. Popular ones include cats, dogs, sheep etc. But, it’s always fun to throw in a googly as we say in India – cockroach or ostrich and see what happens. Distribute the chits to the Ss and tell them that they must find their group members within 20 seconds but they’re only allowed to make the sound of the animal they’ve been given.
  6. Line-up game: Do you know this warmer? Get Ss into two lines and then give them a series of challenges to complete. Order yourself according to birthday, height, shoe size, etc. When you’ve completed the warmer, divide Ss based on where they’re standing. Voila, you’ll have new groups.
  7. On-screen group creator: I love the instant group creator from Tripitco, but ever since it became a paid app, I’ve really been missing its cheerful efficiency. The free instant classroom from superteachertools comes close though. You sign up for an instant classroom (just takes a few seconds). Create your class (enter your Ss’ names). Then all you need to do is to decide how many groups you want and the tool will randomly generate groups and display names on screen. You can also use the same tool to generate a classroom seating arrangement. But, it’s old school face the teacher in rows type seating. The only drawback with instant classroom is that it requires an Internet connection to use. Here’s another free site that supports similar features.
  8. Celebrity names: Go around the room labelling people using the names of great educators, scientists, contemporary thinkers & domain experts, or just for fun, figures from popular culture.
  9. Adjective + Noun: Ask an S what her favourite colour (pink) is. Write this on the board. Ask another S what her favourite vegetable is (pumpkin). You have a group name – Pink Pumpkin. Repeat until you have as many group names as you need. You can do this with all sorts of combinations such as adjectives that describe emotions (bubbly) plus animals (elephants) etc. I usually use this as a fun naming technique rather than a grouping technique so I don’t necessarily have people move into new groups after coming up with all the new group names. I learnt this technique from Usha Venkatachalam.
  10. Favourites: On sheets of paper, in large print, write out things that people might choose as a favourite (colours, day of the week, city, food etc.) You’ll need as many as the number of groups you want to form. Stick these on the walls of the classroom. When you’re ready to group Ss, signpost the stick-ups and ask Ss to select their favourite thing by running up to the sheet of paper and placing their hand on it. Only six people (or whatever number you want in each group) are allowed to be touching a label at the same time. You may want to ICQ this rule. Tell Ss that if anyone takes their hand off the sheet of paper, a new person is allowed to sneak in and claim a place in that group. I have seen some peers also place the sheets of paper on the floor and ask Ss to stand on it. However, I avoid activities where Ss have to stand on pieces of paper particularly if they have writing on it because in Indian culture, writing is considered a divine gift and placing your feet on any kind of writing dishonours the goddess of learning. But, if it works for you culturally, I can see how the jostling to stand on small sheet of paper could potentially be fun.
  11. Cards: You’ll need one deck of playing cards if you want to form four groups. You’ll need two decks if you want to form more than four. If you want to form four groups, you need to have to have as many cards as you have Ss with the cards drawn evenly from each suit. For example, if you have 12 Ss, you’ll need 3 hearts, 3 spades, 3 clubs and 3 diamonds. Shuffle the cards and distribute them to Ps. Ask them to find their group members – people who have the same suit as them, so all the hearts get together etc.  If you want to form more than four groups, combine 2 decks, and select cards that have the same value (all Kings, 2s, 7s etc). You’ll need as many cards of each value as you’d like participants in each group. For example, if you’re going to have 6 Ss in each group, you’ll need 6 Kings. Shuffle and distribute the cards. Ask Ss to find their group members.
  12. Synonyms: In the same vein as stress patterns, select and distribute sets of words which are synonyms and have Ss find their group members.

+ some crowd-sourced suggestions: 

From Sandy Milin:

  1. Minimal pairs: Use minimal pairs of phonemes which Ss have trouble differentiating. For example, for Arabic speakers you might use bin/pin or just b/p.
  2. Jigsaw cards: Cut up cards with words on to make a kind of jigsaw, so Ss only have e.g. quarter of a word. They have to find all the other bits.

From Kate Lloyd: 

  1. Commonalities: Find someone who is wearing the same colour trousers, shoes or top as you. (I sometimes use a variant of this – find someone who has the same height as you or has a different height than you).

From Ravi Manohar: 

  1. Proverbs: You’ll need half the number of proverbs as there are Ss. Have each proverb printed on two slips of paper – with each slip having just one half of the proverb, (E.g. – “A stitch in time…” on one slip and “… saves nine.” on another slip.) Get each student to draw a slip from a box. When everyone has a slip, ask them to find their partners. If there is a need for three in a group, throw in another set of slips, these would have complete sentences that explain each proverb. (For our sample proverb, the third slip would have this sentence printed: “If you sort out a problem immediately, it may save extra work later.”) The student with a complete meaning sentence looks for two others whose slips together would form a proverb. These three would form a group.

A useful tip while grouping is to draw the classroom arrangement on the side of your board with the configuration of groups. This eliminates the need for vague pointing (group 1 over there).

Do you use any creative grouping techniques that I can add to this list?