Robert_Campin_-_Mérode_Altarpiece_(right_wing)_-_WGA14422Yesterday the teachers at OISE Cambridge workshopped the workshop. Or anyway talked about it. We ate falafel sandwiches and David gave a presentation, and people chuntered between mouthfuls about the workshop.

The workshop, for those who do not know, is a one-hour spoken interaction class of mixed level and mixed need (business, general, exam etc.) on various topics of general interest with a focus on pronunciation (sometimes) and interaction (always).

As with everything in life, not everyone likes them – a mix of levels, in particular, and to some extent of ages does not suit what I will call certain learning styles: those individuals for instance, with a ledger-book approach to learning, who expect a certain concrete and quantifiable return on investment at each stage.

Such learners are not common. Most people can see the benefit of negotiating what is in essence an unpredictable social situation, regardless of relative competence – as Alice sagely remarked, in a real business situation you cannot dictate the level of spoken English of your counterparts, just as you cannot dictate their age and experience. Feeling ill-at-ease or puzzled or even relaxed is not always a sign that something is going wrong.

The spirit of a workshop is that you try things out. We derive the word now from I suppose the theatrical use of the word, where workshopping is a way of thinking about (I think the buzzword here is ‘interrogating’) a piece for performance, perhaps altering it as you go along. It is a form of play, where rules are not set before engagement begins, but emerge as the engagement (intellectual, social, etc.) goes along. In business and in particular in the creative industries workshopping is a form of meeting where ideas are worked up collectively, and freely.

But even in its original meaning – a place where craftsmen produce things – the word connotes practices which are valuable for language learners. A workshop is distinct from a production line. There will be waste and inefficiency, wrong-turnings and error. But the freer atmosphere, the lack of restraint, and in particular the community spirit associated with, for example, medieval workshops, where the basis of learning is not the written word or some theoretical abstract but the presence of grades of authority within one corporate body (the guild, for example), is an admirable model for the successful classroom per se, and the successful Spoken Interaction Workshop in particular.

However, I might need to workshop those ideas, and in particular that last sentence, before I’m happy with them.


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