Competency before Creativity

I have dedicated any computer time this week to formatting and finally publishing my Sistema Solar unit, but I keep being distracted with conversations that I just have to share with you!!

One of my [many] great takeaways from Terry Waltz’s fantastic manual TPRS with Chinese Characteristics is the idea that it is important to do TPRS® “by the book” until you have achieved a certain level of competence with the basic skills needed to make input comprehensible to your students. Circling, for example, has gotten a bad rep and become somewhat “uncool”, and you will hear many teachers say “Oh, I don’t circle, circling is boring, circling disengages students, circling is ineffective, I don’t do it”. There is truth to the statement that circling as it is taught is boring: it’s redundant and predictable and, yes, can cause students to tune you out. It is also true that asking a series of questions about the same statement is an incredibly effective and engaging way to provide your students with huge quantities of comprehensible input and numerous repetitions of the target structures. Finally, it is true that asking questions in that way is unnatural and difficult. How do we reconcile those three truths? Circling by the book is boring; asking a series of questions is unnatural yet effective.

You learn to circle by the books and then you circle creatively. If I had not spent hours practicing circling, with my circling template and poster in front of me, I would not now be able to circle effortlessly and unpredictably.

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My husband and I were once again discussing one of the core texts for his real estate business, The Millionaire Real Estate Agent (2004) by Gary Keller with Dave Jenks and Jay Papasan. Matt is an incredibly creative guy–way more creative than I am!–and his creativity and innovation has gotten him far in his business. And it has led him to brush aside some of the proven models that have worked for hundreds of successful real estate business owners. He has built a successful business in a short time, and now he realizes that he needs to implement those proven models so that he can reach greater levels of success. Once he has successfully implemented those models, he can inject his creativity and reach the highest possible level of success. The authors of the book describe this principle in the overview of the book:

“The trick to getting the most out of our creativity is always to start with a set of proven foundational models for success. Once we find success with our initial models, we can then allow for creative thinking. But only after we’ve followed the models do we allow ourselves to tweak, innovate, refine, and fiddle until the models work to the level of our expectations…The reality about using models is that if you begin with creativity and then try to add a model, or if you try to add creativity to a model you haven’t fully implemented, you risk rendering the model completely ineffective. Many people don’t fully realize this. More than likely, they will try to use creativity as a shortcut or as a way to cover up for their lack of properly or fully implementing the model.” Jenks, Keller, & Papasan, The Millionaire Real Estate Agent p.37

They illustrate this with two triangles: the base of each triangle is models and the tip is creativity. One triangle is balancing on the tip (creativity) and is therefore unstable. The other triangle is resting on the solid base of models with a tip of creativity on top, and there it will stand, stable, forever.

Can you relate? Have you tried TPRS® after reading some blog posts or attending a short training, and you try it for a week and then you try to mix in MovieTalk and play Mafia and use Bryce’s La Persona Especial and do Kindergarten Day…and…and you feel like a wreck and have mixed results at best?

If you are just finding out about TPRS® and TCI (Teaching with Comprehensible Input) and feeling overwhelmed with all of the possibilities that are out there, STOP. The most important thing that you need to do right now is to do ONE thing–learn the basics. Buy Fluency through TPR Storytelling, buy TPRS with Chinese Characteristics (or download the Kindle version free), and read them. Read them again. Connect with trained teachers in your area. Get them to coach you as you focus on one skill at a time. With painstaking attention to the model for each skill, practice until it becomes second nature. THEN get creative and personalize the model for your personality and your situation.

My dad often shares a story about Teddy Roosevelt. According to my dad, who may or may not remember the story correctly, Teddy Roosevelt would always take a potential hire out to eat. If the subject seasoned their dish with salt or pepper prior to tasting it, Roosevelt would not hire them.

How can you know if something needs salt or pepper if you haven’t tasted it? Do you really think that you know better than the chef even without knowing the recipe or how it turned out?

Before you can season your comprehensible input, you need to taste TPRS® as the chef serves it: TPRS® by the book and all the skills that it involves. If you are new to this whole TPRS/CI thing and trying to figure out what you need to do before school starts this fall, this is it: learn the models!

If you need to practice circling, check out these Circle Up! cards from Terry Waltz. I recently purchased a set and am confident that they would be a very helpful tool for many teachers that are trying to develop their basic TPRS® skills!

6 comments

  1. Thank you! Thank you! Thank you! I am new to the whole TPRS/CI thing. But the more I read about it, the more I’m hooked. I just finishing ordered Fluency through TPR Storytelling. I am also going to connect with other TPRS/ TCI teachers in my area.

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  2. Martina you nailed it! The most important skill for teachers is to explore their dramatic side. We need to make it believable, interesting, alive. It is not only ‘what’ we ask, it is ‘how’ we ask. And by the way, I am a ‘circlist’, a complete believer in the magic of creative repetition. Have a great summer!
    Piedad

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  3. I enjoyed the article, Martina. We should return regularly to the basics (the models). Larry Bird was arguably the best passing and shooting forward in the history of the National Basketball Association. He achieved that by honing the basics, then he added creativity. A right hander, he practiced dribbling with his left hand until he was equally good with both hands. When he was in high school, he was out most of one season with a broken ankle. At the state championship, his coach put him in late in the game, and he was fouled. Bird cooly sank both of his free throws and put his team ahead, even though he hadn’t played basketball for months. What he had done was go to the gym on crutches and practice shooting 500 free throws – every day. When we have practiced the basics so much that they are automatic, then we have the cognitive resources to be creative. Of course, teaching is about so much moe than this, but this is an important aspect of teaching.

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  4. You nailed it! We should first trust the experts that painstakingly developed, experimented with, and honed these practices to best fortify practices and student language acquisition. Each type of question, each layer, serves a purpose and re-frames the content, requiring deeper thinking as you spiral up through the levels, and while it is awesome to get to a point where these are “second-hand nature” and part of our natural repertoire of teaching skills, it is wonderful that there are also so many dedicated professionals that have developed many tools to support us while we build our skills. The redesigning, mixing and matching, and experimentation are definitely still worthwhile, but if a teacher is overwhelmed, their students probably are, too, hindering the acquisition process.

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