Should I remove my TPS tattoo?

If you are like me, the three letters “TPS” means two very important things. First, it can mean “TPS Reports” which Wikipedia tells me stands for, “Testing Procedure Specification Reports.” I don’t know what that really means. Mmkay, this clip from the movie “Office Space” shows me that it is very important to include the new cover sheet on all TPS reports. Based on the movie, TPS reports in my mind have taken on the meaning of some sort of mindless task we must perform as a condition of our employment.

Tps_report (1)

Don’t forget to use the new cover sheet.

The other TPS  is something I have given even more thought to and is more likely to be found on an ELT blog. This TPS stands for “Think-Pair-Share” and it is a technique I have found to be very useful in class. Instead of just asking questions to the whole room and expecting students to confidently share their answers I generally like to give students some time to think about the answer individually (THINK) and then talk with a partner (PAIR) and then open things up to the whole class (SHARE). This can be modified for a few different rounds of sharing that need not be the whole class but could be different or larger groups. This is a very simple technique, but I think it can be extremely helpful. I have been a believer in this TPS for a few years now and these three simple letters guide my thinking a lot in terms of planning and teaching.

You  know that sinking feeling when you as a teacher ask a question to the group and nobody answers and then you feel compelled to fill the silence and keep talking instead of students? I think TPS is a good way to prevent this because students have already had a chance to think about it and then even talk about it in the relatively safe situation of talking to one partner. I think TPS can go a long way to prevent those face-threatening situations where students feel put on the spot. Long live TPS!

TPS-logo-D0C788D81C-seeklogo.com

My TPS tattoo.
(Liberated from: http://www.seeklogo.com/tps-logo-141490.html)

I have long thought two of the most useful techniques for new teachers to master would be jigsawing and TPS. With these two done well, I think teachers can cover a lot of ground and can cover up a lot of potential problems. In fact, in  I had moments were I thought introducing and practicing these two would make for a good workshop for beginning teachers.

Lately, I have been wondering just how effective this TPS stuff is for my students. In one specific class they have all told me that they want to be able to speak English more quickly and without hesitation or mumbling and struggling to get started. This desire matches with my thoughts and observations.. They are quite strong at English but it often takes them some time to warm up. They can take some nice long turns and can share complicated thoughts freely and well. The challenges tend to come when they are put on the spot and need to answer a question immediately. They are great when they have time to gather their thoughts. This is probably not atypical. I can’t help but wonder if my devotion to TPS has served them as well as I would have hoped. I am not really looking for suggestions on activities to try, to be honest. I fully realize there are plenty of ways to add a bit of rush or  useful tension. I am mostly just wondering if too much TPS can be a bad thing. I am worried that by continually giving thinking time it has become a sort of crutch that works in class but isn’t helpful when this time simply isn’t available.

Moments when I am at the front floundering and hoping someone will bail me out by answering a question are extremely rare. As are moments when students give less than thoughtful and reasonable answers. Students generally seem comfortable discussing in pairs and then groups with confidence and without much nervousness. I am trying to think of the benefits of TPS beyond these aspects. I can see how repeating similar answers would help students become more comfortable but I am not sure how much this would carry over to another time when the students feel the need to answer quickly. I suppose my question is if by making things easy and smooth for me and my students I have made it too easy for them. And if by making things less stressful for the students I have robbed them of the chance to experience said stress in a safe and supportive environment. I am not quite ready to get the tattoo removed quite yet but it is something I have been thinking about.

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17 comments

  1. Tom Randolph @tomtesol

    Nah — just sounds like social practice to me. Remembering that far more of your students are interacting during the P… I would bet this outweighs the value of the all-but-1 who are not interacting when you call directly on the 1 who freezes. They’re all getting loads and loads of quality opportunities to try out language. That said, by definition TPSes don’t give them practice being put on the spot, but why bother cutting back on TPS to put one and only one student at a time on the spot? Why not build in some of those on-the-spotting cooperative learning activities you allude to instead?

    • mikecorea

      So keep the tattoo then? Thanks. 🙂
      I think your point about more cooperative on the spot stuff is the way forward. And as you might have guessed, I wasn’t really considering totally trading TPS for lots of on the spot teacher to student 1 on 1 whilst everyone else watches time.
      That said, a few weeks ago I did a sudden move of putting Ss on the spot by asking them questions like, “If you were an animal what animal would you be????” in an impatient tone. Students smiled and laughed and seemed to know by now that it was not really super high stakes.

      The thing that I have been thinking about all day (after hitting publish on the post a bit earlier than I might have liked)is how the sense of discomfort that can come from being on the spot can sort of be lessened over time with lots of chances to be on smaller spots over time and by positive group dynamics. Thanks for reading and commenting, Tom!

      • tomtesol

        And then the flip side of my initial comment. Just wrapped up a great semester with a great group who’d come a long way in volunteering and not freezing on the spot… but still on he last day there were one or two moments when I’d throw a genuine, soft, free lowball ? out and you could see the dialogic responses almost fly out of mouths only to be caught at the last moment… uncomfortable silence in which I wanted to say “oh come on, guys…” but instead I just nominated one of the almost volunteers… sigh. Classroom cultural expectations are so learned…

      • mikecorea

        “Classroom cultural expectations are so learned.”
        Great point! Assuming we want things to be different there must be things we can do throughout to scream “THIS IS DIFFERENT” but moments like what you describe can still be common no matter what teachers do. 🙂

  2. Laura Adele

    I’m a fan of TPS, but you bring up a good point. Giving an opinion without having a structured environment to process your thoughts is more like every day conversation and definitely more challenging. It seems to me like we’d have to try to replicate the way a conversation normally takes place. I’m wondering if impromptu speeches help or role-plays (on simple topics) without much previous preparation. What do you think?

    • mikecorea

      Hey Laura,
      Thanks for reading! I think more impromptu stuff is in order for the students I described.
      Also in terms of role plays, perhaps an emphasis on imrpovisation would be helpful, instead of giving “too much” time to prepare.

      I guess my real question was if giving the time in class and performing well in class has a spillover effect for the next time when such preparation is not available. I suspect it does but I also worry that not enough practice under “real” conditions might be harmful.
      Thanks for the thoughts!

  3. Bob Knowles (@BobK99)

    For me – a tech writer for three times as long as my teaching career – TPS means ‘Text Processing System [or maybe “Software”]’ – the software that came with the Imterleaf(TM) hardware. I could never work out why the software had to have a special name. If I drive a Toyota Yaris, it has an engine. That’s detail enough for me!

  4. geoffjordan

    Hi Mike,

    You wonder if TPS is if making things too easy for your students and thus robbing them of the need to practice communicating under stress.

    First, you’re not suggesting that TPS is the only way that communicative activities are structured. However much we might plan our lessons and give students the chance to practice in “less-threatening” small groups, there are quite enough occasions when quick responses are required.and when an individual has to share his/her thoughts with the whole class.

    Second, I think you’ll agree that most research in education and in SLA suggests that a supportive and non-threatening (classroom) environment help learning. In my opinion TPS is a “good thing”.

    Just BTW, where is your tattoo? .

    • mikecorea

      Hi Geoff,

      Thanks for the comments. Very helpful!

      I’d agree that a supportive and non-threatening environment is surely a good thing. I guess my idea at the moment is that now that a supportive environment seems to have been achieved and since there seems to be a lot of trust it might be worth trying out some more “stressful” ideas in order to push things ahead in terms of the quicker responses.

      My TPS tattoo is right next to my “reflective practice” one, which is to say, completely fictional. 🙂

  5. Manpal

    I feel I have had a lot of success with using TPS in my classes, but I can see the point about it not preparing students for real-life interactions where people don’t have the luxury of think time and responses are required to be more immediate. What about the idea of using TPS more during the early part of course to help build students’ confidence, and then slowly moving towards more cold calling (calling on students directly) after a few weeks/months?

    • mikecorea

      Thanks for commenting.
      I think we are on the same page with this. I think I have a bit of confidence and rapport “to burn” at this stage in the course…Looks like some more “cold calling” type activities in the next few weeks then.

  6. Rose Bard

    “that they want to be able to speak English more quickly and without hesitation or mumbling and struggling to get started.”

    I’ve been thinking about this since I read your post and as I use also a sort of TPS and variations, especially in my conversation class, I wonder that the feeling of speaking without hesitation or mumbling and struggling to get started first has to do with the fact that we all know that is not a natural conversation, it is just about practicing the language which makes it feels disconnected and unnatural. I’ve seen few Ss come to class with an amazing easiness and others struggling. It is normal to have chats in my class, where they share almost about anything and if it gets interesting the conversation spreads to the whole room. The ones who are not afraid to take part in those are the ones who develop their speaking skills so quickly and are self-concious. As someone who learned Arabic in Egypt in 5 months, enough to get by. Tried out German classes and were never able to respond to the teacher as fast as my classmate who was a german descendants. Who spent couple of years without teaching and using English and that had lost fluency and had to brush it up again by talking non-stop to get back in class. Well, you will not improve your fluency if you don’t take full responsability for it, go out there ( or like me) talk to yourself if you have to until you feel confident enough to open your mouth again ( I can tell you a sad story that could have made me give up talking English all together). We can provide different opportunities for learners to develop their language skills, but the main work has to be done by the individual itself. Even though I am very supportive and do my very best, as I must because I get paid for that, I constantly remind them that they are the ones doing the work. I just mediate the process. Having said “all” that, there are ways and ways for one to improve and many variables why one doesn’t.

    Ps: I’m not sure if anything I said made sense. So, I apologize in advance for trying to take part in this dialogue. One of the reasons I blog and comment (btw that is why my comments are sort of long) is because I want to improve my communication skills related to ELL/ELT. I’m a believer that you improve by doing it. 😉

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