Using Lateral Thinking Tasks to Enhance the Thinking Capacity of the ESL learners – A study

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* Article first published in Fortell, May 2011

There are many factors/reasons: psychological, sociological, pedagogical and linguistic, that could affect the oral communication of ESL learners. This paper primarily focuses on the psychological aspect, especially pertaining to self-esteem and the confidence level of the ESL learners. The paper is based on a classroom research (in ELT) experimented in one of the Engineering colleges in South India: National Institute of Technology, in Tiruchirappalli, South India.

A total number of 10 ESL students studying I year Engineering (could be rated at the intermediate high level as per the ACTFL speaking scale, 1999) were chosen for the study.  Initially they were given an oral communication task namely JAM (just a minute pep talk based on a topic). The topics were chosen in tune with the interest of the ESL students.  But they were not able to perform the task successfully.  To know the reason for their poor performance, they were personally interviewed by the researcher.  After the interview, it was understood that they lacked confidence in terms of getting ideas on the topic they spoke on.  This was also obvious from the key responses noted down by the researcher. 

Some of the responses by the participants are given below.

“I don’t have a point to proceed.”

“I just couldn’t get any idea on that topic”

“I have a feeling that I lack ideas”

“I just can’t proceed any further since I don’t get anything to speak on.”

Having analyzed the responses of the participants, it was understood that they seem to be lacking in confidence, in terms of generating ideas related to the topic. To enable them to overcome this, they were introduced to lateral thinking, a term originally coined and introduced by Edward De Bono. Initially they were asked to work on a few tasks based on lateral thinking.  The idea was not to get exact solutions to a problem but to motivate students to think of the various possibilities related to finding solutions to a problem.  For instance one of the tasks experimented with them, is given below.

Problem:

A man fires at something and in two minutes time he gets killed.

Possible solutions:

Possibly he is in a snow covered mountain and fires at a snow fox.  The shot fired accidentally causes an avalanche.  So in two minutes time he is killed.

Or as a hunter, he fires at an elephant with a low caliber gun.  The elephant not wounded properly kills him.

After introducing lateral thinking tasks to them, brain storming on a topic was done.  The participants were deliberately given a tough topic namely “Smoke” and they were simply asked to relate/associate any points related to “smoke” Initially the researcher had a guided conversation with them to get points like “If any one is lost in a forest then smoke could be used as a communication tool to get the attention of the rescue team” “Smoke creates burning sensation to the eyes” and so on.

This resulted in a momentum in generating ideas related to the topic ‘smoke.’ Interestingly, each one of the participants came up with at least one or two points related to the topic, which was a typical result of lateral thinking tasks.

Some of the points given by the participants were as follows:

  1. Smoke could be used to make bananas ripe.
  2. It is ironic that smoke produced by the smokers, affects the non-smokers (Victimized to passive smoking).
  3. Smoke and fog put together called smog.
  4. Smoking is injurious to health.
  5. Smoking is an indication that something is burning and that will soon catch big fire.
  6. Some people consider smoking as a fashionable thing.
  7. Smoke means fire, which could be a figurative meaning for ‘life’

At the next stage, they were deliberately given simple topics to work on with the premise  that they will find it easier to work backwards. Therefore, at this stage they were shown their ideas produced at the previous task (a tough one) and they were told that “if you are able to produce points for a tough one then why not for an easy one?” In this way they were extrinsically motivated (as pointed out by Rani Rubi) so as to get points related to the topic given.  After the end of the task routine, it was found that they performed the tasks easily. There were more responses.  Invariably everybody produced more number of points than their previous attempts.  This was followed by an additional session (conducted after the break) given to the participants.  Interestingly every time there was a great improvement in terms of getting points related to the topic.  At the final stage, every one of the participants was interviewed by the researcher.  It was found that almost every body seemed to have understood the concept indicating that their thinking capacity had improved.  This type of training/practice   was conducted for a week.  The sequence, procedures and conditions remained the same for all the seven days.

Performance of the students-

Stage-I

Task 1 (with a tough topic)

Name of the

Students

Topic given

Time given for preparation

No. of ideas produced

Akila

Smoke

5 minutes

1

Ramnik singh

Smoke

5 minutes

1

Saran

Smoke

5 minutes

0

Gopinath

Smoke

5 minutes

1

Soumya shree

Smoke

5 minutes

1

Vikas

Smoke

5 minutes

2

Praveen

Smoke

5 minutes

1

Pallav

Smoke

5 minutes

0

Ashish

Smoke

5 minutes

1

Manas

Smoke

5 minutes

2

Task 2 (with simple topics)

Name of the Students

Topic given

Time given for preparation

No. of ideas produced

Akila

Dowry system

5 minutes

2

Ramnik singh

School life

5 minutes

2

Saran

God

5 minutes

3

Gopinath

Your village

5 minutes

2

Soumya shree

City life

5 minutes

2

Vikas

Cricket

5 minutes

3

Praveen

Film stars

5 minutes

3

Pallav

Politics

5 minutes

4

Ashish

Education

5 minutes

3

Manas

Sports

5 minutes

4

Assessment

Additional Session-I (with simple topics)

Name of the Students

Topic given

Time given for preparation

No. of ideas produced

Akila

exercises

5 minutes

3

Ramnik singh

Friends

5 minutes

3

Saran

Hobbies

5 minutes

4

Gopinath

Library

5 minutes

5

Soumya shree

Animal world

5 minutes

4

Vikas

Music

5 minutes

5

Praveen

Books

5 minutes

4

Pallav

Yoga

5 minutes

3

Ashish

Fashion

5 minutes

3

Manas

Pet animals

5 minutes

5

Some of the interesting points / ideas generated by the participants on simple topics are as follows:

On dowry system: As per the Hindu culture, the brides’ family gives dowry to bridegrooms where as, among native Africans, the bridegrooms give bride prize to the brides/ brides’ family.

On Exercises: The two types of exercises – grounds exercises for turning the body and – muscle building exercises using tools and so on.

On Yoga: his/her opinion on yoga, types of yoga techniques – Asanas, pranayamas and so on.

On Cricket: Influence of cricket in India; the behavior of the crowd during matches and so on.

Film stars: Film stars turned politicians; the impact of film stars on theirs fans etc…

Food: Fast food, nutritious food, junk food, etc… food carried by dabba walas (a person employed to carry food in carriers…)

Festivals: Deepavali – when and how it is celebrated unlike Holi – when and how it is celebrated etc…

Limitations:

  • The experiment has been administered only for the intermediate high level students.
  • For other levels, it is yet to be tested.
  • A small sample size has been tested.

Conclusion:

This short training has helped the participants to enhance the thinking capacity by making them aware of the role of the mind with reference to lateral thinking. Meenakshi Sundaram in the article on “Teaching Spoken English-A psycholinguistic approach” has also emphasized that “In speech production, the role of the mind in formulating the message and translating it into an audible and meaningful form becomes crucial.” (2009)

The participants sustained effort and engagement on lateral thinking with reference to topics helped them generate points / ideas to the topic.   They were given exposure to various psychological hindrances that come in the way of creative thinking. One of the major objectives of lateral thinking is to chip away mental locks that close the mind (Kirshnamoorthi & T.Sriraman P.94) as well as to encourage thinking afresh to get the chain of ideas / points to a topic given.  This was effectively done using a contrast technique, contrasting a tough topic with the easy ones (from the perspective of the participants) Besides, until the completion of the session, they were properly motivated so as to be in the suitable frame of mind to think freely as is also pointed out by Robert Thomson, “ motivation is an essential factor in thinking” (157)

On the whole, Lateral thinking can be considered as one of the innovative techniques that can be employed by the teaching community to enhance the thinking capacity as well as the confidence level of the ESL students of the intermediate level.

Works Cited

  1. American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages (ACTFL). Proficiency Guidelines. NewYork: Hasting- on- Hasting, 1999.
  2. De Bona Edward. Lateral Thinking. Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1981
  3. Krishnaswamy N & Sriraman T. Creative English for Communication. New Delhi: Macmillan India Limited, 1991 
  4. Sundaram Meenakshi “Teaching Spoken English-A psycholinguistic Approach” in Arunkumar Jha et al (eds.). Reflections on English Studies. Pindaruch: Panchajanya Trust, 2009 PP 76-79
  5. Rani Rubi. “What Insights can Motivational Theories offer Second Language Teachers Education” in S.Choudhary (ed.) Teaching English in Non Native Contexts. Chennai: Professor V.Saraswathi Felicitation Committee, 2002  PP.23-41
  6. Thomson Robert. The Psychology of Thinking. G.B: Penguin Books, 1959

* S.Shanmuga Sundaram is Assistant Professor of English and pursuing Research at NIT, Trichy

* C.Meenakshi Sundaram is Professor of English at NIT, Trichy, Tamil Nadu

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