O is for Ownership

30 10 2011

Can you own an idea?

In the lastest issue of Voices, the IATEFL newsletter, in a page of teaching ideas, there appears the following activity:

Holiday photos

1.Teacher borrows a notepad from a  student and draws 2 big rectangles.

2. Teacher imagines these are family photos and describes the people and the event.

3. Students draw 2 big rectangles on their notepad page.

4. They do step 2 with a partner or small group.

5. Report back to group about their partners’ photos.

(Gobel, 2011, p. 11)

Nice activity. Except that, apart from one or two small details (only one rectangle, not two, and the fact that the teacher doesn’t describe the ‘photo’ so much as invites questions about it), this is my idea. I happen to know it’s my idea because, unusually, it came to me in a dream. (I swear!)  I’ve never written it up, but I’ve often done it in Dogme-style workshops.

So what? No one owns an idea. Moreover, there’s such a thing as synchronicity, when several people think of the same good idea at the same time. Maybe that’s what happened.  So I’m not losing sleep about losing ownership of my idea. But it has got me thinking.

Several years back I was at the other end of a more serious breach of ‘intellectual ownership’. In a methodology book I wrote, I used a term that had recently been coined and popularised by an American academic of considerable repute. Not only did I use the term, I used it in the context of describing a view of linguistics that this writer herself had recently developed and was busily promoting. I felt it was right, therefore, to acknowledge her influence by putting her name at the head of the list of the people I wished to thank.

Imagine my surprise, however, when – having received a complimentary copy – the writer in question emailed me to express her (barely concealed) anger that I had not credited her sufficiently, particularly with regard to the term she had coined.  My response – that my book, not being an academic text, was deliberately thin on referencing – didn’t wash. “We are nothing if not our ideas, Scott,” she wrote. After a hastily convened conference-call with my series editor and publisher, the aggrieved academic was somewhat mollified by the promise that – in the next edition – the wrong would be righted (a promise that was fulfilled, I might add).

“We are nothing if not our ideas”. At the time I thought this was somewhat pious, pretentious even, or just plain sad.   Having since spent time on the fringes of the US academic community, I now understand better where she was coming from.  There is a very different professional culture operating there than, say, in Britain or Europe. It is both more competitive and more proprietorial. Ideas matter.

But for how long?   On yet another occasion, I was taken to task by a reviewer of another of my books for not acknowledging the fact that one of the practice activities in that book had been invented by (the late) Donn Byrne, way back in the 1970s. I honestly didn’t know.

But be reasonable: how long does an idea have to be around before it enters the popular domain?  Does anyone have a patent out on Alibis, for example, or on dictogloss? Who owns running dictations? At what point can you safely stop referencing Stephen Krashen when you talk about comprehensible input, or Jerome Bruner when you talk about scaffolding?

Nevertheless, ideas do matter – some ideas, at least. I’m not going to lose sleep – as I say – about the holiday photos activity. But I did tick off a fellow blogger, a few months back, when he mentioned ‘teaching unplugged’ without attribution. And this – from a post on the Dogme discussion list last week – caused a brief but sharp spasm of wounded pride: “The founders, the producers, actually don’t “own” this story [i.e. Dogme], this story is time-old: it belongs to life and language learning itself”.

So much for one’s precious ideas.

Reference:

Gobel. G. 2011. ‘Practical Teaching Ideas’. Voices, 223. Pewsey: IATEFL. p. 11.

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80 responses

30 10 2011
Hanieh

Wish there was a way to stop this ownership in TEFL especially when it comes to ideas. What’s the point in naming some activities/ideas after people, aren’t we going toward the same direction in TEFL/TESOL? so why bother this much!
I love this part: ‘ I happen to know it’s my idea because, unusually, it came to me in a dream. (I swear!)’
Thanks Scott, I enjoyed reading this post really!

30 10 2011
Adam

I blame the guy who wrote the alphabet song; he basically created every idea ever.

Seriously though, I don’t know why you should feel wounded pride about dogme; as far as I’m aware it’s always been comparable to the most ancient of teaching methods, namely apprenticeship. Wasn’t it supposed to be a *return* to a less ordered, book-led universe, rather than something new?

As far as anyone owning the idea of drawing two big rectangles (on some kind of front-of-class board, I presume), I don’t think you’re going to get much sympathy from anyone for having that stolen. I’m sure a caveman did something similar 100,000 years ago and has remained uncredited ever since.

Equally, I don’t think you should be taken to task for having done something that in some way is similar to a book that you haven’t read that was written decades ago (which they in turned had probably unwittingly *copied* from someone decades before them).

When it comes to someone whose name rhymes with Dario Minvolucri taking an activity that a mate of mine prepared in one of his workshops and then using that actual physical document in one of his books without any indication that it was someone else’s*, that’s a thorny issue.

*True story. I can put you in touch with the person that this happened to.

30 10 2011
Scott Thornbury

Thanks for the comment, Adam. Just to clarify – the ‘invisible photo’ idea (to give it a more accurate name) is not simply ‘drawing two rectangles’ (which sounds like the first step in a describe-and-draw activity). Rather, the teacher shows the (initially puzzled) students a blank sheet of paper and tells them that it’s a photo – slightly overexposed! – taken last weekend, or whenever, and invites them to ask questions about it. Nothing is actually drawn. Now, maybe cavemen did this too each other in order to passthe time 100,000 years ago, but I’ve never seen it in a book, not even one by your mate Dario!

30 10 2011
Adam

Your idea is much better. I wish the person who had taken it had described it more carefully ;-)

A good idea is a good idea, but it’s highly unlikely, given the number of people over the course of history who have educated other people within a classroom setting, that any of us in the early 21st Century are coming up with anything brand new, even if – perhaps people should bear this in mind – we use the latest technological gimmicks to do it.

For the record, I wrote about using Phil Collins to uncover grammar* on my blog last Friday, so can everyone be careful to credit me from now on?

*The cheque** for using ‘uncover grammar’ in that sentence is in the post :-)

**I can’t remember if this is how you spell the word. I mention this only as it is interesting to note that my computer thinks it is incorrect, yet has no alternative spelling to offer. Times are a changin': my computer doesn’t know what a cheque is.

4 11 2011
Zach Dallman

Hi scott

I think I may have used one of your ideas as well in a twitter post. Sorry! Twitter doesn’t leave much room for citation in 140 characters:)

@tblessons

30 10 2011
DaveDodgson

An interesting post Scott.

I recently received by some people who were putting together a book of activities for the young learner classroom asking for contributions. I was initially interested but was put off by the bolded paragraph saying ‘full credit must be given in the event of the idea being reproduced or adapted from another source’. 99% of my ideas are not original and of those 99%, I can probably only accurately credit 10% of them!

I think the most important thing when presenting such ideas is not to present them as ‘this is MY idea’ or ‘this is something I thought of’ – as you said and as Adam also states above, people can have the same ideas without ever knowing that another person has already thought of it. This happened to me not so long ago when I was preparing a lesson to introduce the reader my class is using this semester. I had a great idea of assigning each student a character card and having them do a ‘find someone who…’ style activity with information about the story. It was only after I shared ‘my’ idea with a colleague that I realised exactly the same thing was suggested in the teacher’s book!

31 10 2011
Scott Thornbury

Thanks Dave – as a series editor for a teachers’ resource book series, I know the dilemma first-hand – as to how insistent to be on originality and – if not – how much attribution to give in the case of second-hand ideas. The fact is – as many have said on this thread – that very few teaching ideas are 100% original. At the same time, it’s not always easy to trace them to their source. However, it behoves us, I think, to make the effort – not least because it can be very interesting research in its own right. Did you know, for example, that Harold Palmer was writing about dictogloss in the 1930s, although it was known as ‘dictocomp’ then?

30 10 2011
Alex

Ideas are important and if we wish to see the free circulation of ideas then acknowledging sources is essential. If we contribute, in some way, to the general fund of knowledge and ideas then some kind of recognition, attribution or acknowledgement is key if we want ideas to be made publicly and freely. If acknowledgement is lacking or ideas are misappropriated what would be the incentive for anyone to share? It is less about ‘ownership’ for me than a simple courtesy to the person who initiated the idea and/or recognition that this idea isn’t mine. It touches on issues of honesty and politeness.
Alex

31 10 2011
Scott Thornbury

Thanks for the comment, Alex. I wonder if you feel – as I do – that the growth of Internet-mediated professional networking has increased the problem exponentially, in that ‘the free circulation of ideas’ has become a ‘free-for-all’? Certainly, the pirating of educational materials, including my own books, has become virtually impossible to police (virtually!).

31 10 2011
Daniel Shiro

I totally agree with Alex on the ‘courtesy’ idea. We are always using ideas, concepts, jargon and terminology proposed not only by Scott but also by Scrivener, Harmer, Ur and Lewis (to name a few) and we rarely give them credit for the effort they put into finding the ideas, developing them, publishing, discussing and etc. Therefore, whenever I use their books as reference to my training sessions or workshops, I try, as much as possible, to mention the source as it may motivate participants on looking for their books. It’s, I believe a matter of courstesy and acknowledging these authors’ hard work! Keep on having great dreams Scott!

31 10 2011
Alex

I sometimes feel it engenders a sense of thoughtlessness: if it’s ‘out there’ then all obligations to be rigorous tend to go, just grab it and use it. Mainly though, the seriousness of unacknowledged borrowing (inadvertently or otherwise) depends on context. Although not clear cut, the publishing of an idea as one’s own not only potentially promises some recognition from colleagues it also carries a responsibility to be honest. I don’t know how we can get around that one. If you put ideas out in the public domain for all to do as they wish with, the least you can expect is some recognition. Certainly if people disagree with you they seem to have fewer difficulties tracking you down :-)
It would seem very odd to tell students in a class exactly where you found a task or activity and who thought of it (but why not I suppose??) but, by analogy, retelling a good joke is not the same as a comedian going round the circuit stealing other comedians’ jokes to then tell as her own. All about context and intention…
Alex

30 10 2011
Friederike Klippel

It’s a funny world. In academia you may lose your PhD in Germany if you are caught plagiarising other people’s publications, yet, in teaching, any idea may be snapped up and presented as one’s own. Ever since “Keep Talking” appeared in 1984 (I know, it’s ancient), I have been both pleased when teachers used and modified its suggestions and irritated when fellow academics just integrated my ideas into their own books without even a mention in the bibliography. Was it Oscar Wilde who said: the greatest compliment is imitation? Perhaps we should feel happy that our ideas live on, Scott!

30 10 2011
Scott Thornbury

Thanks for the comment, Friederike (and great to have the perspective of a ‘real’ ideas person!).

I checked the Wilde quote, out of curiosity (and, in the context of a discussion of ownership, perhaps we should get it right!). According to some Google sources what Wilde actually said was “Imitation is the most sincere form of flattery”. But this is not corroborated by any ‘serious’ Wilde source, and the nearest there is is a quote attributed to one Charles Caleb Colton (“(1780–1832) …a British author, clergyman, and art collector” Wikipedia) which goes “Imitation is the sincerest of flattery” (Lacon, Vol 1, 1820).

So, so much for ownership!

30 10 2011
andrewpickles

Perhaps a more appropriate Oscar Wilde story is the one where he is reported to have exclaimed “I wish I’d said that” to which Whistler (on one of the rare occasions when his mother was not in tow) is supposed to have replied “You will Oscar, you will”. Accrediting ideas is as much about the first person to articulate or record the idea not necessarily the inventor of the idea if such a thing is possible, genesis is a hard concept to tackle, after all the picture idea (nice, by the way I shall nick that for next weeks lessons and will almost certainly acknowledge the source ;-)) comes from other ideas such as using pictures, describing families, invention, imaginative activities and so on, where does the activity really come from? No idea…

30 10 2011
Rob

Originality is just judicious plagiarism – Mark Twain (I think)

30 10 2011
Declan Cooley

“Keep Talking” is a real classic and was many a teacher’s lifeline since publication – time for a second edition ?

I’m all for recycling old ideas and retreading them and passing on the flame as it were (with credit when known because people can then explore the sources); however, I think it’s possible be complacent about how well ideas are circulated and current in the TEFL world – at a workshop recently, it was a bit shocking to see that when “running dictation” was mentioned (without credit) and the crowd polled on who knew it, there were many shaking heads. (How could so many teachers not know a very basic activity variation ?) It’s that same kind of surprised feeling you get when you are talking to a younger person, make a cultural reference from an earlier era that you might think would be universal, and then notice a blank look of non-recognition.

As far as giving credit is concerned, “all credit where credit is due” (is there an originator of that phrase ?); I occasionally credit “find someone who” to Gertrude Moskowitz but sometimes this referencing can feel like (a) name dropping for no good reason (b) pedantic (c) a distraction. What’s more, as Mr. Cardoso alludes to below “Where do ideas come from?” – it is occasionally hard to know how far to go back – a trivial example is the “horseshoe” arrangement of seating – is this something that started in encounter groups and AA or do we go back to Knights of the round table or perhaps early man sitting round a fire ?

30 10 2011
Wes

I feel a bit conflicted about this one. On the one hand, I feel that people ought to be acknowledged and remunerated for their ideas. Your ideas about dogme, for instance, reflect many years of education (which you must have invested in out of your own pocket), professional training, hours and hours tussling with academic texts, as well as the time you took to actually develop and set down your views. That’s no mean feat and I think we would all agree that you, and others who have invested similar amounts of energy, deserve to be credited for this.

On the other hand, I feel an egalitarian impulse towards education and instinctively rebel at the notion that ideas ought to be heavily limited and controlled or set at premium rates. (Perhaps I feel this way because I come from the still very much class based England, where access to top, private education remains – largely – the preserve of the monied and the privileged at birth).

I am, at the same time, fully aware of the contradictory and incompatible nature of these two views – hence, the conflict I feel. Certainly, I don’t work for nothing – in fact, you might say that my salary is given to me precisely on account of my accumulated knowledge and experience. The reality is what it is.

Only, teaching – and learning – would become pretty miserable if we had to credit and pay for every single task or approach we used in class; “Remember kids, today’s dictogloss lesson comes courtesy of … “.

31 10 2011
Scott Thornbury

Fair point, Wes – I feel somewhat conflicted too, and I agree (with Declan above) that constant crediting may seem pedantic, or even boastful, to some people. But, at the same time, I tend to agree with Alex, above, that it is common courtesy to credit ideas, and, moreover, it is professionally dishonest to imply that an idea is your own when it clearly isn’t. And it’s counterproductive – once your constituency gets wind of the fact that ‘your’ idea was originally Mario Rinvolucri’s, you’ll lose your professional credibility.

31 10 2011
Alex

I can imagine that I might come across as a pedant and pious :-)
Last week, Scott posted on teacher autonomy. I replied and as part of the reply I wanted to talk about dimensions of teacher autonomy. As I was writing one part of my response I used and expanded a little on Richard Smith’s work. His work has been instrumental in my understanding of some aspects of teacher autonomy. The fact that one of my points partly belonged to Richard made no difference to the point I was trying to make. However, I did state that it originally came from him (I should have gone further and provided the reference) … The next post was by Richard. I don’t think he would have appreciated any lack of acknowledgement. These things have a habit of biting you in the bum if you’re not careful…

30 10 2011
steph

Hi Scott – the majority of workshops I do depend rather heavily on your books and ideas. I take them – digest them and then express them in my own words. But I always mention that the inspiration came from you – and more often than not bring along a copy of whatever book it relates most to.

There is something else too – as teacher trainers/presenters what I think often happens is we start emulating people we have found inspirational. Not copying, emulating – kind of doing it our way but with a flavour of this, that and the other person.

I think if we consciously use what we’ve read in our own books or workshops then it’s only right to acknowledge our source of inspiration.

But in terms of emulation – or ideas that may have formed due to receiving several moments of inspiration, ideas and having read about several things from different people – it’s more difficult.

I’d be rather flattered if a teacher used my idea or emulated me :)

And we are definitely much more than our ideas :)

31 10 2011
Scott Thornbury

Yes, great, point Steph – about ‘emulating’ – as opposed to imitating, copying, impersonating etc. I feel a bit put out if I think someone is simply copying me, but I’m really chuffed if someone out there might be emulating me!!

30 10 2011
Willy C Cardoso

Where do ideas come from?

For a good while now, it’s been argued in an academic fashion that they don’t come from inside your head in the first place. They arise in the intersubjective plane and then become internalized (should I put in this bracket: Vygotsky, Luria, Leont’ev, Werstch and the whole SCT gang??). I can agree with this if I think ideas come from some sort of consciousness. Anyway, although ideas do come from inside one’s head eventually, they were only there because firstly this person engaged in some sort of dialogue with stuff outside their minds. One of my favorite Bakhtin’s thoughts is “the word is half someone else’s.”

I think you know what I’m trying to say? half-say.

Since Dogme proposes co-construction of knowledge, do you think all knowledge is co-constructed? If so, whose knowledge is it once it becomes information?

(thought-provoking discussion here, Scott. Wish I had more time to mull it over)

30 10 2011
Dennis Newson

Scott and list,

When Shakespeare wrote “All the world’s a stage..” he left out one age: the age of anecdote. I’m in that age -anecdotal or dotage? – so allow me to share this story believing that personal stories can reflect and refract and, possibly add a new facet of meaning to an original statement..

A friend of mine is a brilliant guitarist and composer. This ia a true story and this is Peter:

http://youtu.be/gVhKo-Ymll

He tells a lovely story.

At some stage in his composing life he felt the urge to write a piece that was Irish in character – Irish folk. He worked away at it and eventually he was finished. He was quite pleased. He played it at a few concerts on tour and it always went down very well. Then, somewhere or other, at the end of the evening, someone came up to him and said:: “Peter. That Irish tune of yours, it is actually a traditional Irish melody called so-and-so.”

And it was!

Peter must have heard it, absorbed it, completely forgotten that he had heard it and, unwittingly, recreated it.

He still plays it, and nobody minds.

Shakespeare covered that one:

“If there be nothing new, but that which is
Hath been before, how are our brains beguiled,
Which, labouring for invention, bear amiss
The second burden of of a former child.”

Sonnet 59:

Dennis

31 10 2011
Scott Thornbury

Hehe, Willy, I knew Bakhtin’s name would come up sooner or later! And I kind of knew it would be you! ;-)

Yes, you’re right about Dogme and co-construciton – the whole history of the dogme movement (if that’s what you can call it) has been one of collaborative dialogue. If you look at the website, the quote from Beckett sums it up:

Clov: What is there to keep me here?
Hamm: The dialogue.

At the same time, the site advises that “This is an open source site. This means you can freely copy, adapt and distribute material from this site so long as you explicitly mention the source of the material, attribute the original writer(s), and advise the group moderator accordingly”.

I have no way of knowing whether these ‘rules’ have been respected – certainly, in all the time I have been moderating the site, no one has asked permission to re-publish any of the material. That doesn’t mean anything though.

30 10 2011
phil

Another great post on a otherwise dull Sunday.Thanks for cheering it up.

I’ve had the dream ideas too ranging from teaching to music and even cooking recipes. I’ll admit that I am always influenced by blogs like this one and the yahoo group and they send me off in new directions. I suppose you could say that what I end up with is directly attributed to the original idea but if you trace these original ideas back they are products of others and … But when someone really develops something and it becomes more substantial and useful then who are we to criticise him for copyrighting it. In fact, that whole legal area is a minefield and unless you are the first then it can be hard to prove later on. Sadly, there are many examples of ideas getting nicked and exploited and the original author losing out.

So, when does ‘influencing’ become copying is a tough one in any field. Speaking of that, my daughter just invented egg muesli but I’m sure someone else thought of it already.

30 10 2011
T Bestwick

Nice Sunday morning reading, Scott.
I think part of the problem with ownership of ideas is that it’s often hard to know whether your own ideas are truly original. How can I remember every resource book I’ve read? Perhaps the fabulous activity I “created” to practise the present perfect actually came from a book I read five years ago and it’s been lying dormant in my head for all those years. Equally, certain people and their activities stick in my head from conferences, but I couldn’t necessarily tell you their name.
I think as you and other people have said, we should move away from automatically saying, “This is my idea” towards a much more open attitude of sharing our ideas with as many people as possible for the benefit of our students and our own professional development.
Some people may present a workshop at a conference without a single “original” idea – but I’m an optimist, and I believe that they are the teachers who care about sharing good practices; yes, you could argue that good practice includes referencing your ideas, but going back to my first point – would you be able to remember who wrote every resource book you’ve read, or who said what at every workshop you’ve ever attended?

30 10 2011
Victoria Boobyer

Thanks again for an interesting post Scott,

I fear for the future of sharing ideas if we all get defensive though. The new #eltpics blog, ( http://takeaphotoand.wordpress.com ) in which people share their ideas for using the CC images in teaching, could flop if potential contributors live in fear that an idea they honestly believe to be their own had already been ‘done’ by someone in public before.

As a footnote, I wonder if… in about 1993 (when Nirvana recorded their MTV Unplugged album, for example) some VSO teachers in Ethiopia or Sudan commented that they were ‘teaching unplugged’?

Victoria

30 10 2011
Adam

I’ve read reports of teachers in such African nations around that time who didn’t have the luxury of any resources whatsoever and who adopted an ‘unplugged’ approach out of necessity. Stupid buggers… Why didn’t they write this down, then the unplugged / dogme world could be theirs? Hang on a minute… some of them did. Perhaps these inspirational teachers served as, well, ‘inspiration’ for the unplugged movement?

31 10 2011
Scott Thornbury

As a footnote, I wonder if… in about 1993 (when Nirvana recorded their MTV Unplugged album, for example) some VSO teachers in Ethiopia or Sudan commented that they were ‘teaching unplugged’?

Thanks for the comment, Victoria. Out of curiosity I searched the 155 billion word Google Books Corpus of American English (1810-2009) and found not a single occurence of ‘teaching unplugged’! That doesn’t mean, of course, that a teacher in Ethiopia might not have used it! But they certainly didn’t publish a book about it – in the US, at least ;-)

30 10 2011
kalinagoenglish

Back in the day, when I roamed the world with a backpack, I used to get all wrapped up in late-late night conversations about something the folks around me called “The universal consciousness” – a state that our “Higher Selves” tapped into… It was based on some experiment, something to do with monkeys learning new technologies despite being on different islands or something…

Nowadays, I’m no longer a NewHippieNewAger. Nowadays I am not so sure about all these things that tantalized my brain.. but I do remain an agnostic, not willing to take on the religion of atheism, due to the, frankly, still unexplainable nature of the world…

I still think, whoever it was that came up with that concept of a space not within our physical mind and bodies was on to something, I don’t know how or why it works but I do think that not all ideas are just copies of other people’s ideas… the whole “came to me in a dream” is something that happens and it happens to different people at different times.

I will tell you about an idea I had when I was 18…

When I was 18 I invented, hand-on-heart removable car decoration. The idea being that one could become bored with having a blue car or a black car or a pink car and instead of that there should be some kind of gigantic stickers – like flowers if you were a girl – that you could stick on to your car but which could be removed when you wanted some other decoration.

People could even advertise companies with these. I was quite convinced that I would create these decorations and go on to to become a millionaire. I spent months (seriously) in the design until the small group of people who knew about my wild idea (my family) convinced me that there was no way that this was a good idea and that no one would ever buy these.

Somewhere between 18 and 20 years later, I was walking in Germany and saw my first decorated car. I stood in front of it ABSOLUTELY flabbergasted.

How on earth, had my concept and design been stolen, no one knew about it! Least of all in Germany! Of course, these are now everywhere today and in the UK – right outside my door right now is a black cab advertising Ann Summers, in orange!

My sister, incidentally, who has a similar mind, invented the digital photo album at least 10 years before they hit the shelves. She didn’t act on that one either. (Inventing things is something we do in my family… alongwith not following through).

The only rationale I can possibly have to give regarding how cars now carry decoration is that it was not only my idea… that either it was many people’s ideas or that it went out into the Universe when I didn’t act on it, that it floated about lonely until it found someone else who would do something about it….

Not sure if that helps.
Not sure if that adds anything to the story here.

Sorry about the dogme comment, I thought I was tapping into something biologically intrinsic about humanity’s ability to learn other languages.

30 10 2011
TEFLWorldWiki (@TEFLWorldWiki)

What an interesting post, thanks for that. We’ve got so used to people ripping off our articles it’s almost become a joke now; it’s obvious plagiarism of course in that sense, but your article got me thinking about the content of our articles a bit more and the way we’ve seen some stuff changed almost enough that we are wondering if it’s become a new article all together.

In other words, how much does an idea have to change before it becomes a new idea? Let’s say I have an idea about tattooing English words onto a student’s forearm to help them remember those words. Someone else comes along and changes it (for the better!) and gets their students to use a pen to write unknown words on the back of their hands to remember them. Is it a new idea or simply a variation on my idea?

Or have we both ripped off the idea of using post-it notes to write new words on and stick them round the house?

Hmmm. My personal feeling is that ideas are never original but simply adaptations or amalgamations of previous ideas and should be blasted out into the public domain. Sure, citation is good, but anger is going a bit far!

30 10 2011
unpluggedreflections

Hi Scott,
Really interesting post. It makes me think about teaching practice preparation for the trainee teachers I work with. As we have to help them put together the ideas for lessons throughout the course, gradually removing the support we give them until they are (hopefully) able to prepare the lessons themselves, ideas are what we are there for. The ideas I give are not “credited” because (as Dave says above) I would probably only be able to credit a small minority of them anyway. Is this wrong of me then? Am I supposed to back-up all of the ideas I give out with a reference to the source??! It would not only make my life impossible, it would also show the trainees that this world of teaching is all about being worried that someone might rap your knuckles for not properly acknowledging them. Maybe that’s no bad thing, actually. It would spur them on to be more original and come up with their own ideas, maybe one day starting to blog about them, or tweet them. But could it also work in the opposite direction, making them scared to try anything “new” in case it’s not actually new?! (I am exaggerating, I know.)
Sharing ideas is one thing that makes this world of teaching so great. I think
The Celta I work on is unplugged, meaning that from the start the trainees are using their own ideas, at least as far as the content goes, because they are telling their own stories, using their own opinions etc… This initial ownership is something that make an effort to keep as the course progresses, and the amount of creativity that they are capable of when designing their lessons is amazing. The initial bud of the idea may have come from me or my colleagues (or published material), but the trainees make it their own. And, when I am sitting watching them using this idea in class, it’s wonderful. These are people who don’t even know who “Dario” is, they just want to try things out.
So, what I am saying (in a rather long-winded fashion) is – let’s not get too possessive. Credit where credit’s due, yes. But risking losing the openness and positive sharing that currently occurs by becoming obsessed by ownership, no thanks.
Jem

30 10 2011
Scott Thornbury

Thanks Jem .. and thanks everyone else who has commented on what has only been a few hours’ worth of comments … but many more than I can keep up with!). One thing that your comment suggests, and which underlies a lot of the arguments in other comments, is that there is a qualitative difference between ‘ideas-as-activity-types’ and ‘ideas-as-well-ideas’. That is to say, an idea like ‘post-it notes to recall vocabuary items’ really is in the public domain and – whoever might have thought of it originally – it has ‘escaped’ its progenitors. But that’s OK, because not a lot was at stake (such as someone’s professional reputation or a lorry-load of royalties). My ‘invisible photo’ activity belongs to this class of ideas. (But it’s nice when someone does take time to acknowledge the source even if this isn’t strictly necessary).

On the other hand, an idea like the Input Hypothesis or The Lexical Approach, however derivative they might now seem to have been in retrospect, really were Big Ideas in their time (and ideas, not just activity-types), and deserve to be acknowledged as such – chapter and verse.

30 10 2011
Alex

Reading these comments one can only agree that acknowledging is often impractical. However, presenting and publishing ideas which are not your own or not acknowledged as such is of a different order than using these ideas in the classroom without listing all the credits (although this is possibly a greyer area than I admit). There is a strong duty, especially when publishing, to make sure that references are made appropriately.
I wouldn’t want to second guess Scott, but I would be a little put out to find my idea presented under someone else’s name, however innocently.

30 10 2011
Stephanie Ashford

This topic reminds me of a wedding reception I once attended where the groom publicly accused the father-of-the-bride of plagiarism. “You’ve thieved my bloody speech!” is how he put it. And, yes, he even shook his fist.

It turned out that both had unwittingly referred to the same book of wedding speech templates, choosing identical phrases for the vote of thanks (praising the organisers, caterers, flower arrangers, etc.). Still, one wonders who is “thieving” from whom. Given the ritualised and cliché-ridden nature of wedding speeches, can anyone claim ownership?

Still, the topic of wedding speeches offers great potential for ELT… but I guess someone else has written about that already!

30 10 2011
Rob

In my view, ideas come from what Plato called the Idea(l)s or Forms; Jung ‘expanded on’ Plato’s idea of Ideas with what Jung called ‘archetypes.’ The word ‘archetype’, like ‘dream’, ‘myth’, and even ‘synchronicity’ have been corrupted in the public domain, but that happens. From this perspective, it’s obvious that we’ll have ideas simultaneously and that no one can own an idea since we share a collective consciousness. Look at all the patterns and parallels in creation stories, etc.

The issue you’ve raised, Scott, is how we’ve come to commodify ideas. Of course certain communities, academia being one of them, where ideas are at a premium, will have a stricter sense of who thought of what. But what really matters is who first gets credit – from a substantially official body – for an idea.

At Film School, my Screenwriting professor told us that once we’d written something good, or even fair, we should mail it to ourselves and not break the seal of the envelope. This poor man’s (sic) copyright was, he assured us, official enough to use as court evidence.

And Karenne, Yes! I’ve written a good number of the songs I hear, the movies I see, and so much more. Again, ideas come and go, only some get their name tacked on.

Rob

30 10 2011
Nienke Smit (@smitnienke)

Thank you very much for your thought-provoking posts. I’ve been reading this blog for a while now and really enjoy your take on a wide range of ELT topics.

When reading this post, a Dutch book I’m currently reading immediately sprung to mind. It’s called “Vergeetboek” [translation: The Miracle of Forgetting] (2010) by the Dutch professor of psychology Douwe Draaisma. (http://www.douwedraaisma.nl/english/index_en.html) “The Miracle of Forgetting” is popular non-fiction about the history of psychology.

The sixth chapter’s title of this book roughly translates as “Your colleague has a brilliant idea: yours” and in this chapter Draaisma explains the phenomenon cryptomnesia. The literal meaning of this word is “hidden memory” and according to Draaisma it is sometimes falsely used as a synonym for “unconscious plagiarism”. He says “unconscious plagiarism” can be a result of cryptomnesia. He also writes that by far the most powerful factor in stimulating cryptomnesia is asking participants [in a workshop for instance (my suggestion)] to improve ideas proposed by the speaker. Draaisma’s source for this claim is an article by L.-J Stark & T.J.Perfect, (2007)

Draaisma’s explains that cryptomnesia (in case of the colleague who stole your idea) has to do with two types of memory: the autobiographical memory (stores experiences, context among other things) and the semantic memory. He says that sometimes facts merge with other information in the semantic memory, but the context (including the person who had the idea) is forgotten. The colleague uses his autobiographical memory to retrieve the suggested idea, but does not recall the person who “owned” it in the first place, because that information was stored and consequently lost in the semantic memory (which apparently is not very good at remembering context) and apparently not in the autobiographical memory. According to Draaisma cryptomnesia is not the result of a failing memory, but a phenomenon caused by a discrepancy between different memory processes.

Don’t know if I’m making sense here, I tried to recap Draaisma’s Dutch in English. Maybe it’s a little off topic, but at least my memory instantly made a link between your post and Draaisma’s book, which is why I wanted to post this.

I’m not a psychologist, but a teacher educator from Groningen, the Netherlands. As a matter of fact, I mention your name and books often to my students. They all know your name. :-) Thank you for being a great source of inspiration.

References:
– Draaisma, D. (2010). Vergeetboek [The Miracle of Forgetting] Groningen, Historische Uitgeverij.
– L.-J Stark & T.J.Perfect, “Whose idea was that? Source monitoring for idea ownership following elaboration”, Memory, 15 (2007), 7, 776-783.

31 10 2011
Scott Thornbury

That is fascinating, Nienke – and totally plausible. Not only do I have colleagues who I KNOW have presented ideas or activities of mine as if they were theirs, and firmly believed that to be the case, but I suspect I may well have done the same myself. I know for a fact that some of my best teaching anecdotes – which i claim happened to me – were often second-hand – although in this case the point of telling them as if they had happened to me personally gives them more immediacy in a talk or presentation. But I can quite imagine how easily it would be to eventually forget their provenance altogether.

Cryptomnesia – I’ve learnt a new word!

31 10 2011
keith

Not strictly on the subject of Scott’s post but seeing this I’d like to recommend to non-Dutch readers Draaisma’s book “Why life speeds up as you get older” in English translation, an exploration of our autobiographical memories, and for an academic book, beautifully written: http://www.cambridge.org/gb/knowledge/isbn/item1163761/?site_locale=en_GB

30 10 2011
Anthony Gaughan

Speaking as someone who hijacked and warped a coinage of yours (and Luke’s, wasn’t it?) to title a talk and blog of mine that has helped me connect with a huge number of incredibly stimulating people and their ideas over the last few years, I approach commenting on this one with due respect and caution!

It’s interesting to see your shift in position in the light of your progress from classroom teacher (focus on practical effectiveness over origins) to trainer and presenter (focus on dissemination and therefore some source-location clarity necessary for the audience) to the academic arena (with its conventions demanding respect and conveying status within the field).

Regarding the commodification of ideas and copyright, an interesting comparison may be the field of fashion, where they have solved the problem by disposing of it altogether. Here’s a TED Talk on the topic: http://www.ted.com/talks/johanna_blakley_lessons_from_fashion_s_free_culture.html

The issue of credit where it’s due is one thing; the issue of royalties and other benefits (direct or indirect) is quite another, as someone above has commented, and one which is exacerbated by the co-constructed nature of Web 2.0 (taking blogs as an example).

You’ll be familiar with the stink caused by the sale of the Huffington Post to AOL and the perceived breach of social contract between the founder and the contributing bloggers – http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Huffington_Post#Criticism ), for example.

The question is, on a very base, filthy lucre level, this: how do you square the circle of engaging in a discourse which informs ideas which can then not unequivocally be attributed to any one person when cash may change hands at some point based on those ideas? Of course, this was always the reality, but now it seems a sharper issue than ever.

So Uncopyright bloggers like Leo Babauta over at Zen Habits (http://zenhabits.net/open-source-blogging-feel-free-to-steal-my-content/ ) are an interesting case -clearly taking as much a leaf out of Karl Lagerfeld’s book as from Lao Tse!

30 10 2011
Alex Case

I’m annoyed this post doesn’t mention my earlier piece on the topic:

http://www.tefl.net/alexcase/tefl/tefl-trademark-cases/

More seriously, my problem with attributions is that I would have to end almost all my articles with “This article would not exist if it were not for Grammar Games by Mario Rinvolucri”. Maybe I should change my middle name to that by deed poll so it appears automatically.

31 10 2011
Scott Thornbury

Haha, thanks Alex. Sorry I didn’t reference your blog post – your light-hearted take on the subject is the perfect anecdote to my somewhat whiney one!

31 10 2011
James Quartley

I think ownership can be a tricky one and the necessity for accreditation domain specific. In academia, it is a requirement to reference everything, although I’m sure that in many circumstances this is a kind of ‘badge of honour’ demonstrating the levels of masochistic research one has endured, than being about avoiding the charge of plagiarism. It also builds a provenance for theories that stand on each other’s shoulders or accept pre-existing assumptions as a raison d’être.

I guess, as a few here have commented, a measure of how ‘pissy’ someone gets about not being properly acknowledged might be how much blood, sweat and tears were shed in the process of creating the ‘original’ work. Or whether it is a money earner for them or if it is the only money earner for them. If you enjoyed synchronicity or even know you had the original idea, but were beaten to publication by another, then there is probably very little you could do save take quiet satisfaction of your provenance as reward, even if that is a purely solitary act. In domains where it is expected, accreditation becomes a necessity. Also, where your reputation is at risk.

In the circumstances, Scott, you did the right thing. However, one can hardly know the ownership of every prior idea. Although not knowing, in some domains, could be indefensible or damage ones credibility as a ‘specialist’ or ‘respected’ source in a particular discipline.

31 10 2011
Lorna

Hi Scott,

This topic reminded me of something you wrote earlier (in the post on N is for Neoliberalism):

‘Even now EFL still has something of the feel of a ‘frontier’ culture about it – largely unregulated, somewhat disreputable, and inherently unstable – but where rich pickings might be had, simply by staking out a little bit of (intellectual) property, in the form of, say, a coursebook, a website, a game or – nowadays – an app.’

Staying with this metaphor, perhaps one could include ‘claim-jumping’.

31 10 2011
Scott Thornbury

Thanks Lorna – yes, it’s the wild west all right – see my previous comment to Alex, about the way that the internet has enabled pirating to carry on more or less unchecked.

31 10 2011
Alex Case

Thinking about it further has made me think of another couple of reasons for attributions to make me feel even guiltier:
– Many people might only come across the ideas of Scott Thornbury, Mario Rinvolucri etc secondhand, and if they weren’t told that was what they were getting, they might have missed a chance to motivate them to explore that person’s ideas further
– Knowing the names of the important people in the field is an important part of knowing your field, becoming part of the community of practitioners and being able to take part in discussions (as I believe the Cambridge Delta syllabus says about learning jargon), and missing attributions might have meant at least some missed that chance

31 10 2011
Scott Thornbury

“Knowing the names of the important people in the field is an important part of knowing your field…”

Yes, this is a really good point Alex – and one I think that (the other) Alex would agree with. Thanks for that.

31 10 2011
Simon Thomas

Thanks, Scott, for instigating this interesting discussion! My 3 cents:

cent #1: I agree that it’s a matter of common courtesy to acknowledge a source, when you know where it comes from (or even, when you know where you first saw it, which is likely to be a lot more accurate); certainly, I always try to do this on my site when I write lesson ideas. I was quite surprised by your first poster’s comment about Dario; I remember writing to (his cousin?), Mario Rinvolucri, about using an idea from his Humanising Your Coursebook in a lesson idea I wanted to publish online – he said this would be fine, as long as I acknowledged him as author, and advised this would always be best practice!

cent#2: where would we be if all our teaching ideas had to be our own, and ours alone? It annoys me when people copy my ideas without attribution, but certainly not when they adapt or expand on them, or just mention them someplace else (in fact, when they link back to my website I’m even delighted about it!) – I imagine that you must feel the same, as it means your ideas are being used and reflected upon by language teachers and so on. Also, as many other repliers (and you) have written, and with the possible exception of the fantastic Mr Klippel, most of our ideas must be either inspired by, adapted from, or (by chance) the same as those of others, even just because we are all humans, and most of us here are language teachers operating in some of only a small range of working environments.

cent #3: It is imperative that no-one should be able to copyright ideas, else they will not be able to spread; just as you should always acknowledge your sources when you can, so you should always feel free to share a good idea, lest it be lost.

31 10 2011
Friederike Klippel

Being referred to as the “fantastic Mr Klippel” has made my day! I feel like a character out of a Roald Dahl book, which is a nice feeling for a humble female teacher educator at a German university…. ;-))

31 10 2011
Scott Thornbury

Haha… Friederike … I had edited that gender issue, but since you took it in good stride, I restored the original reading! S.

1 11 2011
Simon Thomas

Um… thanks… :-)

1 11 2011
Simon Thomas

Yes, sorry about the gender issue! Thank you for “Keep Talking”, though – it’s fabulously useful… hmm, still a bit embarrassed about that… :-)

31 10 2011
Simon Thomas

PS I didn’t mean to imply that Friederike Klippel isn’t a human in what I wrote above :-)

1 11 2011
Simon Thomas

Whoops! Well, SHE is fantastic. I still use plenty of ideas from Keep Talking (don’t think I’ve saved myself, sadly…)

1 11 2011
Friederike Klippel

Well, Simon, foreign first names are tough, I admit. You’re forgiven. Friederike

1 11 2011
Simon Thomas

Thank you very much!

1 11 2011
Anthony Gaughan

“To aim at originality would be an impertinence: at most, this essay can be only an original arrangement of ideas which did not belong to me before and which must become the property of whoever can use them.”
Eliot, T.S. (1939) The Idea of a Christian Society, London, Faber & Faber

Eliot was one who played fast and loose with attribution – I used to think this was sloppiness, arrogance or theft. Not so sure now – perhaps he had a more acute understanding of the problem of ideas.

I say this while agreeing fully with the positions that you take in the post and many of the points made by Alex Case and others here about the need for straightforward courtesy and transparency. That said, comments about synchronicity and the issue of the function of memory, plus the whole issue of commodification and ownership has been giving me sleepless nights (I’m a light sleeper) – so sorry to stick my oar in again…

Scott, I really wonder what you think: what makes an idea “original” and in what way does originality entail “ownership”? Does synthesis or popularisation of other’s ideas have the same status as having “original” ideas (however defined) and does this therefore also entail ownership? You classified Micheal Lewis as a “great popularist” and mediator of ideas once (Thornbury 1998); so does Lewis actually have a claim of ownership over the idea that he synthesised and popularised (the Lexical Approach)?

I really don’t know the answers to these questions, and I don’t think they have been addressed so far (please correct me if I’m wrong but there are a huge number of comments!) – but I do know that my uncertainty about them is ironic to say the least in light of the fact that I have a notice on my blog requesting that my (note the possessive pronoun) content doesn’t get recycled elsewhere without permission or acknowledgement!

Thanks for a really provocative post.

Reference
Thornbury, S. (1998) The Lexical Approach: a journey without maps?, Modern Language Teacher Vol 7 No. 4

2 11 2011
Scott Thornbury

…so does Lewis actually have a claim of ownership over the idea that he synthesised and popularised (the Lexical Approach)?

Stephen Krashen is on record as saying something to the effect that he’s never had an original idea, he’s simply given original names to old ideas. While this was deliberately flippant, there’s an element of truth there – and applies both to Michael Lewis and – dare I say it – myself. It’s been an ongoing leit-motif of the dogme list (and a frequent criticism from those not ‘on the list’) that the ony thing original about dogme is its name (and even that was co-opted from the filmmaking collective).

At the same time, the act of naming is more than just an act of naming, but perhaps less than an act of claiming – if you take my meaning. When Krashen ‘named’ the affective filter he was ‘promoting’ (in two senses of the word) the concept of affect – giving it a more elevated status in the scheme of things, and thrusting it into the foreground as a theoretical construct. But he wasn’t necessarily making a claim for something entirely original and therefore ‘ownable’. Likewise, Lewis and the ‘lexical approach’. This was, partly, my argument with the applied linguist whose ‘property’ I had inadvertently ‘stolen’. As I say, it didn’t wash, since, in this case, she really was claiming ownership, by virtue of originality – not just of the name, but of the concept.

2 11 2011
Friederike Klippel

When you look at the long history of language teaching and language learning (even if you don’t consider the 25 centuries that Louis Kelly’s book encompassed) you discover that there are very few really NEW ideas under the sun. However, in each era teachers and researchers (in the past they may have been called thinkers) market the salient ideas in particular ways and by memorable names, e.g. just look at the English textbooks of the 18th century. Neither the task-based approach nor CLIL nor TPR were really invented in the late 20th century but were practised as concepts hundreds of years earlier. But ideas disappear and when someone stumbles across them after they have been dormant for a while and popularizes them under a new name, then – voila – “progress”. The historian smiles to herself…..

2 11 2011
Rob

Friederike and I have both used the ol’ ‘nothing new under the sun’ line unbeknownst to me – really. Will Qoheleth (the speaker in the Book of Ecclesiastes) sue? Of course not, he got that from…

But you’re right about ELT, Friederike, and just look at the rest of the scientific community:http://tinyurl.com/3gsosvt

Rob

2 11 2011
Anthony Gaughan

Can I just indulge in a “FanBoy” moment and say thank you, Friederike, for writing Keep Talking – an absolute classic.

2 11 2011
Rob

Nothing new under sun, not even ego and competitiveness? I say that knowing full well I’d feel put out if I had the impression someone had lifted an idea off of my work – but then, perhaps they have.

“Hey, Dr, Fairclough, about that paper I sent you…”

Is there an ELT mafia who takes care o’ deez things? :-)

Rob

2 11 2011
Anthony Gaughan

Thanks for that. I know this is taking this off-topic, as it were, but as teachers talk a lot about learners taking ownership of new language (i.e. personalising it and thereby increasing its availability for internalisation) I wonder if ownership is a healthy or appropriate metaphor for the process after all?

After all, as Pawley, Syder, Willis, Lewis COBUILD et al have proven, language is almost never original in the sense that the linguist to whom you refer felt their concept mapped onto that new coinage was original, so this would discount it as a valid object of ownership, wouldn’t it? Granted, this is arguably using ownership in two different sense, but I’m still interested in what you reckon.

3 11 2011
Scott Thornbury

Interesting question, Anthony. In an attempt to address it I’ve just been going through my (fairly extensive) library on SLA, methodology, humanism, lexical approach, etc, to try and find references to ‘ownership’ with regard to language learning – a notion that, like you, I’m very familiar with – as in ‘the learner needs to take ownership of the language’. But nothing. Finally, in a book on whole language learning (Cazden 1992) an index entry for ‘ownership’ directed me to ‘language, appropriation of’, and the reference was to – wait for it – Bakhtin, who in fact talks about ‘expropriation’ rather than ‘appropriation':

Language is not a neutral medium that passes freely and easily into the private property of the speaker’s intentions; it is populated — overpopulated — with the intentions of others. Expropriating it, forcing it to submit to one’s own intentions and accents, is a difficult and complicated process (1981, p. 294)

The juxtaposiiton of ownership/ appropriation/ expropriation reminds us that ‘appropriation’ is a central metaphor in Vygotsky’s argument that language is at first other-regulated and then becomes self-regulated.

But the term ‘ownership’ – who owns it? ;-)

Ref: Cazden, C. 1992. Whole Language Plus. Columbia University: Teachers College Press.

3 11 2011
Scott Thornbury

As a footnote to the notion of ‘learning as appropriation’, the principle of word ownership underscores Sylvia Ashton-Warner’s ‘organic reading’ method. In Teacher (1963) she writes:

First words must mean something for a child.
First words must have intense meaning for a child. They must be part of his being…

They must be made out of the stuff of the child itself. I reach a hand into the mind of the child, bring out a handful of the stuff I find there, and use that as our first working material…

The technique that Ashton-Warner developed, of writing the children’s self-selected words on cards which they then ‘owned’, is a wonderful instance of how appropriation is physical and embodied.

6 11 2011
Rob

Apparently the person who created the World Wide Web has something in common with Krashen and Lewis. The Web just happened? http://www.dolectures.com/lectures/how-the-world-wide-web-just-happened/

2 11 2011
Viviane CS (@vivicsg)

I completely agree with the idea of ‘promoting a concept to a more elevated status’! I don’t see why we can’t ‘revisit’ old theories and perhaps ‘recycle’ them! We all seek improvement and great old insights could use some rescuing! We only have creative minds to thank!

4 11 2011
Luan

Shakespeare grabbed ideas which had been circulating around Europe for centuries and he borrowed heavily from his contemporaries. People had a more open source understanding of intellectual property in those days. This began to change after the Monopolies Act of 1625 (the world’s first patent law).

But the greater point is that Shakespeare made these ideas into something better. That’s the essence of creativity: combining the old with the new. Almost no idea is truly original – just a variation or improvement on something that has gone before. Evolution.

I might add that I have a blog called TEFL Ideas and those ideas are my own (even if they appear under my pen name elsewhere) while some activities are adapted from what are now essentially anonymous ‘classics’ that are well known to most experienced tesol teachers.

‘It is not once nor twice but times without number that the same ideas make their appearance in the world.’ ~ Aristotle

5 11 2011
Rupert Nicholson

The Holiday Photos Activity reminds me of The Emperor’s New Clothes. But while the latter is a fiction sustained by vanity and deference to authority, no doubt the class activity is imagination sustained by fun! To further the idea, it seems we live by convenient fictions, ‘working models’, contradictions in terms: shall we compare the term ‘intellectual property’ to strike action, peacekeeping force, virtual reality, and Western civilisation?

It’s just evolution that most of us at the lower end of the “Second Language Acquisition” food chain, i.e. teachers slogging through our timetables, are notoriously unscrupulous when it comes to begging, borrowing and stealing ideas. We can’t get enough “good ideas to try out and see if they’ll work”, and that’s why we follow the Thornburys and Klippels of this world who bridge the gap between the ivory tower of academic theory and the sober reality of the classroom. And that’s why we buy their books!

What’s especially important, I feel, is having a healthy critical analysis, like with this blog. In historical terms, it’s baffling to think how long it took to get across the message “Sorry, Skinner et al, but the audiolingual method just ain’t working” with learners wired up like battery hens all the while. Nowadays we’re grappling with e-learning.

On the subject of ‘teaching unplugged’, isn’t the phrase derived from MTV? With all due respect, the ‘ticking off’ sounds like “Oi, I nicked that first!”, but I suppose the people on the discussion list said so, and the criticism was accepted.

Thanks for keeping your ideas flowing, Scott and everyone!

5 11 2011
Lyle Aitken

Well it does seem a bit of a fuss over nothing, I think, now that my Nov-Dec copy of Voices has finally arrived. I don’t see anywhere on page 11 where Greg Gobel claims that any of the practical teaching ideas are his own, and that he thought of them first. As far as I can see, he’s just passing a few tips on to fellow teachers. Does he deserve such public castigation?

6 11 2011
Bill Harris

Hope it’s not too late to post MY two pennyworth of thoughts arising from all the correspondence on ownership last week. Working on a CELTA in Hanoi seems to put me in a different time frame , never mind time zone.

I’m not sure if the issue with Teaching Unplugged is the name and who invented it or the idea and where it began . As has been pointed out, ‘ unplugged ‘ was coined by MTV decades ago but, more importantly, surely this is what we were doing back in the seventies when all we had was Kernel Lessons , some tippex and a lot of creativity. As you may remember from one of your early ‘Teaching Unplugged’ talks , Scott, I had used the term ‘ Organic Teaching ‘ to describe spontaneous, learner- driven lessons years earlier and even did a talk at IATEFL 1998 on the same theme. But then – as you pointed out – the term was already in circulation with reference to primary school teaching in NZ I believe , even if I had come up with the title in conversation with Jim Scrivener and not a dream! I still think MY name for it has more meaning than ‘unplugged’ or dogme – though it lacks the rock n’roll sexiness of the former. Anyway, I’m not claiming ownership to either name or concept but , as has been said already, it’s hard to be truly original these days in ELT.

I checked out Grammar Games this week and , as I thought, Mario and Paul actually credit the source of the teaching ideas they describe … so there!

Finally, as a wandering CELTA trainer, I often come across my handouts which have crossed from Hastings to Budapest to Zurich and beyond but with no accreditation. I guess it IS a form of flattery but it would be nice to get some recognition for being the originator of the material. These days I stick a copyright on them but that’s pretty meaningless. Maybe I should change my name. How does Scrivener sound?

6 11 2011
Scott Thornbury

Hi Bill, nice to hear from you. Never too late!

Yes, ‘organic teaching’ or what Jim (Mr Scrivener to you) calls ‘jungle path’ lessons, have been around much longer than I or you have. Re-branding this kind of teaching as dogme has driven some people almost crazy. (And some crazy people even crazier). I think in fact Jim feels that way about his ARC model – having named and described it, he has ever since been button-holed by folk at conferences and in the supermarket saying “Hey I thought of that!”.

As I’ve always said, there’s nothing really original about dogme, but the simple act of naming it gave it a legitimacy that a lot of teachers clearly welcomed.

6 11 2011
Almagro

Yesterday aftertoon I saw “The Help”. The Big Easy, the Civil Rights movement about to explode, stories of black maids taking care of white toddlers… The protagonist insists on making a neglected 3-year-old chubby gal repeat after her: “you is kind, you is smart, you is important.” Orality over language as a fabrication of modernity.
Enjoying research and terminology as I do, I have to confess that those words reverberate as powerfully as ownership, inculcation, or operationalize ever did…

7 11 2011
Keith Aisthorpe

HI

I found the idea about ideas interesting. It is extremely difficult to claim ideas of our own. For example I use “battleships” in the classroom to practice minimal pairs. I didn’t get this idea from any book or teacher, but I came up with it on my own. Maybe, somebody else uses it. How did they come about it? Can two ideas not be born independently yet at a similar time?

Rupert Sheldrake, biologist and author, describes a morphic field or collective consciousness for all living things. So, for example, lab rats can be taught how to solve a puzzle and other lab rats that have not come into contact with the “educated rats” can solve the puzzle without being taught. Surely, then there is a Teacher morphic field that we tap into.

Some ideas need to be protected, such as in the pharmaceutical industry because of the vast sums of money that is involved. I think in our profession you need more than an idea to use battleships to become rich. Or maybe not Pron Battleships is born.

20 11 2011
Laura Soracco

Entering almost philosophical waters here Scott, very interesting and thought-provoking. Is it possible for us to take full ownership of our teaching ideas? I had never thought about this as it pertains to teaching, but the thought has crossed my mind when I see a movie that reminds me of another story or I listen to an artist that sounds a lot like another one.

The point I’m trying to make here is that teaching shares a lot of common elements with other forms of art or creative processes. Can we say that it as all already been invented, said and done? I’ve heard this before, but honestly I think it’s our ability to give a different spin to old ideas, dig them and adapt them to new contexts what makes creative work fresh and pertinent, even if not 100% original.

Or wait. Could it be that the only original idea is the one that successfully incorporates previous ones? If that’s the case and you all agree -I want credit. ;)

21 11 2011
Greg Gobel

Scott, I’m glad to see you’ve also come up with ‘my idea’! And thanks for citing it! Wink, nudge. Certainly synchronicity in this case. For you it was in a dream, for me I can honestly say that in 1997 there was a day when I had not a plan nor a clue and but 6 month’s teaching experience, yet there I sat staring blankly at a blank piece of paper wondering what to do in class that day. I’d just received a letter from home which had some photos in it and they were sitting there on the desk. I thought, I’ll tell the students about these photos. Then I thought, it would be great if they had photos, too; but, can’t count on that. Then I realised I didn’t need my photos either, just draw some boxes, and then they can draw some boxes and all of sudden we’ve got 12 imaginary photos in the classroom (5 students in that class plus me). And since then it’s been amazing the number of activities that one can think of with just a blank piece of paper. Originally my column that you reference was going to be just that: 13 ways to use a blank piece of paper. I thought the editor will think I’ve gone mad and best that she doesn’t think that; and some people are still scared of the number 13! So, instead I just put in the three I use most and one of them turns out to be synchronous with yours – which frankly verifies to me that it’s been a good idea all these years! Then several years later when I started doing cert teacher training one of the other tutors got out his imaginary photos one day and I thought, ‘Why that little $#@$#@d has stolen my idea.’ Now, come to think of it having read this blog post on ownership, I reckon he probably stole your idea, not mine! Or, even picked it up from someone who saw someone else use it or even further down the line, to the point where nobody really knows where it came from anymore.

In that column, there are many other ideas that I know are not mine originally but damned if I know where they came from or even when and where I first heard about them (eg, drinking session in a Prague pub, informal chat with a colleague over a cup of tea, peer observation, long lost article) – just plain old classic tefl-y teaching ideas that have spun around so much they just need to keep spinning. That said, there’s nothing I get more pleasure out of when writing my column than having a chat with one of my colleagues in the staffroom and hearing about one of their ideas and then asking them if I can include their idea in a column and naming them by thanking them for the idea or even giving them a shared column authorship role. And let’s not forget training sessions, ie, mentioning in sessions where an idea came from such as ‘this is a coaching tip I got from a session I saw Adrian Underhill give.’ I think it’s extremely important for trainers to acknowledge where their ideas are coming from. In fact, one of my favourite training sessions to give is one I like to call ‘Stolen Ideas from Observations’ where I’ll check with the teachers who I’ve observed that I can present some of their ideas in a staff training session giving credit where credit is due with the goal of sharing as many good ideas as possible. ‘So, when I was watching Wilf’s lesson, he had this speaking activity I’d like to show you – the kids loved it!’

Curiously, does anyone know who came up with the idea of having students work in pairs? Who owns that one? He or she was a genius! ;-)

23 11 2011
Scott Thornbury

Thanks, Greg, for clarifying the origin of that idea – and of the ideas in your column. It does indeed seem to be a case of synchronicity, and proof, if it were needed, that (as many commentators on this thread have argued) there is nothing new under the sun! And/or: that a really good idea will have been variously and diversly ‘authored’.

Thanks, too, for provding the pre-text for this whole discussion on ownership, which has generated postings that have plumbed depths our funny little activity could never have anticipated!

23 11 2011
Anthony Gaughan

On the topic of pairwork and ownership of ideas, an anecdote: last week our trainee teachers were working together on developing task ideas for reading and speaking skills development  based on a factual text.    
 
I was then supposed to set up the Skills Assignment, which would require the teachers to do the same kind of thing but with a different text.  It dawned on me that a) this new text was totally unnecessary and b) it would be a waste of their ideas and work so far to simply drop it here.
 
So I asked them if instead we could design an alternative assignment on the fly (clearly I had a rough framework in mind that I knew would fulfill requirements).  They agreed. So we thrashed one out on the board. 
 
When we had finished, I asked if there were any questions. 
“Yeah. We developed these ideas with a partner. How can we use them in the assignment and avoid plagiarism?”
“Well, what is plagiarism?”, I asked.
“Presenting someone else’s work as your own by not acknowledging the source” came the reply.    
“So how do you avoid that?”, I asked. There was a moment of silent thought.
“By acknowledging the source?”, came the tentative (and probably incredulous) reply.
“Bingo”, says I.
 
So yesterday the assignments were submitted, each with a grateful and explicit acknowledgement of the benefits of collaboration and the exchange of ideas.  I say this because their assignments, while bearing similarities with the work of their partner’s, all also bear clear marks of individuality.  They stamped their identity on the ideas they presented, even if they were not the unique originator of those ideas.

I like to think that, as well as making one more small simplification to our course, we also perhaps established a positive and appreciative attitude towards collaboration and giving credit where it is due!

23 11 2011
Greg Gobel

anthony, that’s a really nice story; and one of those wonderfully accidental ‘ah-hah’ lightbulb moments! it reminds me of something we do where i work. as part of the INSET, i organise the time so that the teaching staff also has hours devoted to doing collaborative action research projects. at the end they present their questions, investigations, findings and activity ideas to their teaching staff peers. they wind up verbally citing each other throughout such as, ‘i got this idea from so-and-so’, ‘so-and-so told me to try X and it really helped’, ‘so-and-so said i should read such-and-such a book and that gave me this activity that i’ll share with you now.’ it’s great to see that sort of collaboration, idea-recognition, and willingness to share, too.

24 11 2011
steph

Hi Anthony – I gave an input on integrated skills today and set up our Skills work assignment. I acknowledged your idea and then went ahead and did the same thing using the texts we give them for the assignment – they really liked it and it generated so many really good ideas – again all up on the board and all very relevant to the task at hand.

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