Problem situation 3: Getting Prepared for Building Solutions in Grammar

Continuation of the post "Mistakes of a Novice TA Teacher"


Step 2 of the Thinking Task Framework is asking teachers to help students develop a model solution for the problem students have faced. For instance, working with grammar we expect students to make hypothesis about the difference between various forms used to refer to the past (i.e. students are asked to build algorithms using ENV model. See an example of using ENV here), collect and analyse a bank of sentences which would confirm the model to be right or would force the learner to change the model. In addition, the teacher is not supposed to be the ‘provider of the correct answer’ but s/he should rather introduce or remind students about the tools necessary to cope with the task - to build the solution.

Practice & Difficulties

I have a strong assumption that the majority of teachers including myself normally think about grammar through a set of rules that has to be acquired. We never describe grammar through the ENV, nor do we think about collecting and analysing any kind of bank. These are rules which are deeply rooted in our heads. The reason for this is very simple; throughout our “learning life” we have experienced only rule-based grammar. Even now opening any grammar book we see a list of rules which provide answers to all our WHYs. We are taught to explain, be it a Presentation-Practice-Production or a Communicatively-oriented explanation, a teacher is still expected to provide explanation. Thinking through the ENV, making hypothesis about grammar, collecting banks, and building models is not a part of our experience. Thus, it is only natural that we, teachers, expect a student to come up with an understanding of a ready-made rule and give us the correct answer. Even though, we can be trying to help students build solutions, we will subconsciously want them to come up with the correct rule prescribed by the book.
Thus, in my first year attempts of trying to help students build the solution for the problem I still expected them to come up with the rules. And I was trying to use the ENV to explain the rule. In addition, mistakes were not much welcome and the rule had to be perfect from the very beginning. In other words, I did not focus so much on HOW my learners build the rule and what procedure I should offer them to help them be more efficient but I was too much interested in the final result – perfect rule. So there was a clear mismatch between my aim (change the way learners work on grammar from ‘learning rules’ to ‘building and checking models/rules) and my in-the-classroom expectations (i.e. a perfect rule, understood through the ENV, which should somehow correspond to the list of rules in a book with all the exceptions which might exist).
In addition, I realised that seeing grammar through ENV is not that easy and requires a serious preparation on my behalf.

Possible solution

Since seeing grammar through ENV as well as working with a bank of sentences is not a part of an average teacher’s experience, I strongly believe that before bringing ‘a thinking grammar’ into the classroom a teacher must undergo certain preparation. Building a model should first become a part of a teacher’s experience. The aim of this preparation for the teacher is NOT to develop a perfect rule using ENV model which s/he will make students learn and practice. The aim is to change your way of thinking about grammar and to see the HOW or the process of model-building with the eyes of a learner.
Here is a possible process of the preparation required to help you make ‘building grammar solutions’ a part of your experience.

  1. Choose one ‘topic’ (e.g. speaking about the past), build a model solution through the ENV (answer concept questions), and collect a bank of sentences supporting your rule. Do some exercises on the past and apply your ENV rule. 
  2. Reflect on the process of building a model and build an algorithm for HOW you build the model. 
  3. Think of the procedures for making your students build a model and collect a bank of examples. 

One potential threat that the teacher should keep in mind when undergoing the suggested preparation is that after building a model s/he will simply impose it to students (will be explaining again but already using his/her ENV-based rule). To avoid this threat, I would suggest you should destroy your model once you develop it to prevent yourself from giving it to your learners as a ready-made product. The task is not to make learners copy your model but rather to help them build their own, check it through exercises and adjust the ‘wrong’ parts.
In addition, the teacher should always remember that the first models students build cannot be perfect. However, there are still no right or wrong answers which exist at the stage of ‘building’. But there are rather hypothesis which must be checked in order to proof themselves right or wrong.
Here you can find an example of ENV-based models for the past tenses I tried to build for myself.


Problem situation 1: Teaching Thinking Explicitly 
Problem situation 2: Structuring the Non-Linear Teaching-Learning Process 
Problem situation 4: Avoiding Hunt for Fast-Food Thinking Materials
Problem situation 5: Evaluating Thinking Results



# Alexander Sokol 2012-10-23 15:37
Renata, the process of preparation you are offering to the teachers might seem quite demanding in terms of time. Do you think there could be any alternative to make it less demanding? Is there any chance for the teacher to start seeing grammar in a different way without undergoing all the steps of the process you propose?
# Renata Jonina 2012-12-19 20:29
Maybe this is my 'novice teacher' perspective, but I am afraid that I do not see any easy way of preparing yourself for the inventive thinking education. The teacher can do this 'preparation' in the process of introducing these changes into the classroom. We are learning in the process of doing, so even a hard beforehand preparation will not make you absolutely ready but it will give you a better idea of how to make your lesson full of inventive thinking.

One alternative which, I believe, can work is do the preparation with other teachers who do the same thing. Collaboration will facilitate the process.
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