Human beings are creatures of habit. Language learners are no exception.
To keep your teacher talking time to a minimum and give your students the maximum speaking practice, you will want to make plentiful use of pair and group work in the classroom. In keeping with the ‘human-creature-habit’ assertion, you will more than likely find that your students plonk themselves down in exactly the same seat week after week, surrounded by their close colleagues/classroom buddies and peering nervously at the less-knowns across the table.
Although not interfering with your students seating choice may be the most comfortable course of action, there are many benefits to mixing things up.
Why change things?
For starters, it can get boring for your learners to work with the same people every class, so swapping everyone around is a great way to keep things fresh. Taking your students out of their comfort zones can be beneficial for their linguistic development too, as people share their strengths and weaknesses.
Varying student interactions can be essential when you have a mixed level class. You may choose to pair stronger and weaker students, or keep similar levels together depending on the activity and lesson focus. Finally, you may be faced with the simple fact that some students don’t get on, or that you have one especially awkward person in your class. Changing pairs in this case is essential for creating a positive learning environment.
Selling the idea to your students
Let’s get this categorically stated – you will encounter resistance from some of your business students. Whilst general English learners expect to be moved around, business people generally prefer to sit with their close colleagues and the people they feel more secure with. Why this is the case can be debated, although it’s probably down to a fear of losing face and making mistakes with colleagues that they don’t know so well. It can be even more problematic when you have different grades in the same class – nobody wants to have an error-strewn conversation with the boss or the HR manager in charge of their next annual evaluation. These are valid concerns of course, but the language benefits outweigh these risks and you will probably find that the majority of your students react positively to working with others.
Explaining the benefits of pair work to students is a good idea, detailing the focus on speaking fluency and the positive influence of working with a partner.
You can try to organise your classroom once everyone has arrived and sat down, explaining the benefits of mixed pairs to get student buy-in. Depending on your learners, it may be better to pair your students off before they sit down and have a chance to get comfortable.
(Fun) ways of swapping pairs
Of course the most straightforward and controlled method of organising pairs is to pick your students as they come into the room – “Michael work with Christian” and so on. If you are willing to leave things to chance, you can ask students to sort themselves according to height, birthday, star sign, place of birth (alphabetically) or any other factor.
You might also want to make pair swapping into a mini-classroom activity. You could ask your students to mingle and find a partner with the same interests, hobbies or work experience. Take things a step further and revise a recent language point. For example, if you have covered past simple recently, ask your learners to find a partner who did 3 of the same activities as them on the previous weekend.
On the more outlandish side, why not organise a paper aeroplane competition? This might not the best choice for your class of investment bankers, but works well with a general English/fun loving business class. Make paper aeroplanes, throw them and pair 1st-last, 2nd-2nd last and so on.