The first teacherless task I ever came across was in the first edition of Headway Upper Intermediate. Students were given the scenario of a murder mystery and each given a card with a different piece of information. They had to work together to solve the mystery, without any teacher intervention, obviously using only English.
The activity always went brilliantly and produced a lot of language. It was, of course, a task-based lesson, devised before TBL became a mainstream idea. Later, thanks to Simon Marshall, a long time colleague and friend of Mario Rinvolucri, I discovered that the teacherless task was something Mario was writing about in the late seventies. So, once again, there’s no such thing as a new idea.
What defines a teacherless task, however, is that it is always a problem-solving exercise where the students have to work together in order to solve it.
In Teacherless Tasks (sadly out of print), Rinvolucri specifies three different types of these tasks:
- The students are given a logic puzzle in which the sentences describing the situation are divided up between them. They need to memorise their piece of information, then put the information together in order to solve the puzzle.
- The students are each given a sentence from more than one short anecdote. They need to memorise their sentence then find the others who have the same anecdote as them before finally putting the sentences in order. They then need to prepare to tell the story fluently before being put into new pairs or small groups to share their stories.
- The class is split in two. One half has the scenario of a typical lateral thinking logic puzzle. For example, Romeo and Juliet are found dead on the floor, amidst a small puddle of water and some broken glass. What happened? The other half of the class has a clue each. For example, Romeo and Juliet are quite small. The questioners ask those with clues any questions they like and anyone whose clue helps can answer the question. (Incidentally, if you don’t know this puzzle, the answer is that Romeo and Juliet are goldfish and the cat knocked over their bowl)
I included a teacherless task like this in Premium B1, together with an exercise on ‘managing’ a conversation. See below if you want to try it out. There are j-pegs from the Students’ Book and Teachers’ Book.
The teacherless task can really help to develop interaction between the students in the following ways:
- Each person only has a small part of the information, so everyone has to work together to solve the problem.
- Every piece of information is essential, so everyone has to join in.
- Fitting the information together is a complex process, so the students have to listen to each other much more carefully than they might usually do.
- If students cannot understand each other they are forced to ask for clarification rather than relying on the teacher to ‘interpret’.
- It is highly motivating, providing a genuine reason to communicate.
- You often find that students who have previously been quiet come to the fore, as this task requires different skills, such as logical thinking.
- Solving the puzzle brings a sense of achievement and encourages greater group cohesion- it’s a kind of team building exercise!
The focus is primarily on communication. However, you can start by looking at the kind of interactional language they might need, as in the example from Premium above. You can also note down any errors and carry out some feedback at the end- making sure that you do focus on their achievements as well.