Do You Provide Content For Students or Draw It From Them?


Can your students wear their expressions on their sleeves?

Teachers & students all over the world today are reconstructing the reality of content, course books and learning environments. 

1) Content is no longer “content” as we once knew it.

2) Creative teachers now see content as something organic, alive and ever-changing.

3) This organic content, rather than being environmentally unfriendly, is teeming with health and extremely brain-friendly.

I’m talking about socially-constructed knowledge as opposed to paper-led facts.

I’m talking about emergent intelligence & linguistic awareness as opposed to expense, bored scribbles and static scripts.

I’m talking about emotional/social intelligence, self-expression and the story of language.

I’m talking about everyday interaction as opposed to gluts of paper blocking the flow of humanistic linguistics.


Yet, enough from me.

Today I’m featuring Peter Lahiff whom I met at the Digital Conference in Dublin 2014. Peter presented on ” the practicalities of paperless classrooms”.

Peter is one of the pioneers of the ELT Ireland initiative, led by Dr. Lou McLoughlin, and I’m delighted to host his work & initiatives here. One thing I love about my work as a blogger or webinar presenter is bringing ideas, faces and places to a wider global audience.

There is much talk about paperless classrooms in the blogosphere.

But when does talk cross over into experience?

Let’s ask Peter Lahiff:

Paper, environments and creativity:




1) When, where and why did you start experimenting with paperless classrooms?

This is an idea I have been evolving since I began managing junior summer programmes more than ten years ago. I felt from the start that it was not a mark of a good course to see teachers going into classes with a sheaf of assorted photocopies. and in order to avoid this I relied at first on class sets of course books. I came to the conclusion, however, that this did not suit the kind of courses we were running. Summer courses need to feel less like school and nothing feels as much like school as a course book. I began by going through the books and writing up the activities as lessons which could be done without bringing in the book or a relying on a photocopy. The teachers were sceptical to begin with, but the response from students was good and because the teachers didn’t have to devise the activities themselves they gradually warmed to the idea.

2) What are the practical advantages of having a paperless classroom?

This approach means that the teacher’s preparation is directed towards the planning of activities rather than the selection of materials with the obvious practical advantage of not having a queue at the photocopier every morning before class. It also means that students what students have done in class is not represented by a fistful of crumpled photocopies

3) What are the pedagogical reasons for running a paperless classroom?

The advantage is primarily that it switches the focus of the course from providing content for the students to drawing the content from them. Classes became primarily about the students talking about their experiences and interests.

4) What went right and what went wrong?

I got some feedback from teachers that it was sometimes hard to get these lessons going. They felt the need for some visual materials to spark discussion, or to help activate student knowledge. This was a challenge as the solution being proposed by the teachers I was working with was that they would be able to photocopy this material. I felt that that would soon lead to the inclusion of a few exercises sheets and the gradual decay of the paperless approach. Luckily we were able to take advantage of the data-projectors which had been installed in most classrooms by then and provide a choice of visual material which could be displayed that way. This is in turn led to experiments with online storage which made it possible to share the materials will all the teachers using Dropbox and Google Drive.

5) What was the most fundamental insight you gained?

Consistency of approach is the most powerful tool in education. No one activity, no matter how engaging, will lead to learning. It is the consistent implementation of an approach in all classes and by all teachers that makes a progamme successful.

Here is Peter’s powerpoint presentation about paperless classrooms:

Peter also appeared as a presenter on our Build Your Teaching Business Online Course


Here’s the link to his presentation:

A Case Study in conceiving,promoting, organising and onlining

I highly recommend that you follow the #ELTChinwag on Twitter organised by ELT Ireland, where Peter is an active organiser and networker.

ELT Ireland also has an upcoming conference this month on the theme of destination education:



I think that what we can all learn from Peter’s paperless initiative is that we can start with simple, focused ideas. Implement the plan across whole-school policy, and then be mindful of what works and what doesn’t work.

My favourite insight from Peter’s interview became the title of this article:

“The advantage is primarily that it switches the focus of the course from providing content for the students to drawing the content from them. Classes became primarily about the students talking about their experiences and interests.”

Peter Lahiff

Special thanks to Peter for taking time to answer my questions.

Peter Lahiff, Academic Director of Future Learning and ELT Ireland Events Coordinator:



Peter Lahiff is an experienced teacher trainer, course designer and academic manager who has worked in ELT for 15 years. He is Academic Director of Future Learning Ireland, where he works on developing and implementing innovative technology enhanced summer language courses for young learners. Peter is also activities coordinator with ELT Ireland, a network that promotes learning, development and best practice in English Language Teaching. He has developed and organises their ELTed events; a series of talks on education and development given by teachers for teachers.


For related thoughts on content, linguistic emergence, simplicity, & student-led content creation, you can dwell upon and explore the following quotes and resources:

1) David Deubelbeiss

“We really are now into designing learning experiences, navigating learners through learning experiences.

I also support the notion that given technology as it is today, when possible and doable, students should design their own learning experiences, they should be driving the bus. We just set the objectives.

Further, narrative really should be used more to provide overall structure to the learning journey/experience. It’s really important and I wish all curriculum developers to think more about how to enable story to be the core part of student learning. It’s hardwired in us and we need to harness this basic cognitive force.”

David Deubelbeiss

Here are some related thoughts by David on video as opposed to printed content.

10 Reasons Video Rulz And The Book Cools

Textbook talk Using SCC

2) Scott Thornbury and Luke Meddings

“The sheer amount of published material available threatens to stifle the opportunities for conversation that are so important for language development.By reducing the amount of material that is brought into the classroom, the teacher frees the learning space for the kind of interactive, talk-mediated learning opportunities that are so crucial for language development”.

(Thornbury,S, Meddings,L, Teaching Unplugged 2009)

3) My previous thoughts on content.

We can also use tools and technology for a blank canvas approach.

Here’s a quote from one of my previous articles on content and environments.

“I’m referring to the kinds of tools that give you a blank canvas to create. The kinds of tools that are easy to use. The kinds of tools that feed insights into your creation by virtue of their clever layouts and features. Laterally enhanced design forces new strains of creativity to emerge that you wouldn’t otherwise access. The kinds of tools that bring us back to ourselves by drawing upon our natural creative instincts. These kinds of tools turn normality on its head for you and then you create new lessons or content in these intuitive or should we say counter-intuitive spaces.The results are content, ideas and products that will surprise you and your students.”

My related articles:

What do your favorite web tools say about you?

How can we design great learning experiences?

How do we create compelling elearning design for learners?

Sylvia Guinan

is an online English teacher, writer and blogger who facilitates professional development online. She uses brain-friendly techniques to help students and teachers around the world. She designs educational materials, develops courses, writes resource papers and publishes ebooks. Her work is the result of much research into the psychology of learning, as well as hands-on experience with multi-media technology.

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