Can you imagine employees singing a song about their CEO?  ER’s soldiers had one for him.  Can you imagine a coach avoiding the use of the name of his arch-rival for fear it might undermine morale?  The British issued a memo to that effect for ER.  Can you ever imagine Republicans liking the Democrat candidate more than their own??  So it was with the British 8th Army and ER!

Rommel 4ER * – aka ‘the Desert Fox’ – was the most brilliant tactician of WW II.  His exploits were simply unbelievable!  Yet I can sense you are already wondering ‘What could all this possibly have to do with teaching??’  Much more than would appear at first sight.  Read on.

Leading by Example:  ER was one of those Generals who would never ask his soldiers to do something he was not prepared to do himself.  At the critical moment during the crossing of the river Meuse in the French campaign he joined his engineers struggling to construct a bridge under heavy enemy fire – ‘I thought I’d give you a hand’ he said.  His troops were the first to cross the river in the breakthrough which decided the battle for France (Deighton 1993).

In class:  Who are your ‘troops’?  They are your students of course!  Whenever you ask them to do something, (e.g. write a paragraph, make a short speech or take part in a role play) make a point of doing it with them.  Not only will they benefit from a good ‘model’, they also stand to gain by looking at how you do it, but above all they will be motivated to try harder because you will be seen to be sharing the difficulties with them (Dornyei 2001).

Leading from the Front:  One of the maxims of Blitzkrieg (‘lightning war’) was that the commander should be as close to the action as possible in order to be able to make a personal appraisal of the situation, the difficulties his troops are facing and to be able to respond quickly to changing circumstances in the battlefield (Hart 2002).  ER certainly followed that principle thus achieving spectacular successes against much superior forces which were however commanded by people far from the scene of action.

In class:  Careful planning, materials preparation and clear instructions are necessary – but not enough.  Remember: ‘No battle plan survives contact with the enemy!’ (Chabris & Simons 2010) When you give your ss something to do, don’t just sit behind your desk; circulate among the groups, listen in on what the ss are saying.  Maybe they have misunderstood your instructions; maybe they require voc support.  A timely intervention can ‘save’ an activity, but even if this proves unnecessary, the boost to the ss’ morale your close presence will give is invaluable!  (Nunan & Lamb 1996)

Seeking out Opportunities:  Sometimes ER would set off with his fast-moving units without any clear-cut ‘plan’ for a ‘reconnaissance in force’ – ostensibly just to scout out the enemy positions.  The orders were: ‘Just take 3 days’ provisions and follow me’.  Very often he only had a sketchy idea of the dispositions of the enemy forces, but he trusted in his amazing ability to exploit ‘openings’ in the enemy defences he didn’t even know existed!  Many a time these ‘exploratory’ sallies turned into ferocious attacks as soon as an opportunity presented itself (Young 2006).

In class:  Planning is good, but too much planning can actually constrain you.  Here is another model: Why not start a lesson with a few options in mind and move from one to the other depending on how the students respond?  Better still, why not initiate some general discussion, letting the students determine its drift?  You can be ready to either organise a mini-input session on the basis of their linguistic difficulties or just let the discussion continue freely and give them linguistic feedback afterwards. (Murphey 1991)

Rommel 3Probing the Defences:  Contrary to the British who would often make a plan of attack and then repeatedly bash themselves against strongly defended positions, ER preferred ‘probing attacks’ (Collier 2003).  If the enemy resisted stubbornly he would give up and try somewhere else.  In this way he conserved his strength and through a process of ‘trial and error’ he would often come across a poorly defended sector where a breakthrough was almost effortless.

In class:  Who is the ‘enemy’?  In a sense it’s your students once again!  Unlike what Educational Psychologists often assume, front-line teachers know that in most cases we come up against what Cialdini would call ‘psychological reactance’ (Cialdini 2001).  Perhaps as a reaction against the school reality, students’ default mode is often to resist what we are trying to do.  So – do not flog a dead horse!  If you see that an activity is not working, just drop it and try something else! (Lewis & Hill 1992)

Exploiting a Breakthrough:  ER was a firm believer in the principle ‘do not give the fugitives any respite’.  Having achieved a breakthrough he would then relentlessly pursue the enemy for hundreds of miles because he knew that although winning a battle is the ‘difficult’ part, it’s the exploitation of the victory which leads to the greatest gains in terms of both men and material. (Deighton 2007)

In class:  You try this, you try that and suddenly something appears to work!  Suddenly an activity actually takes off and the students seem really involved!  You have achieved what Psychologists call ‘flow’ (Csikszentmihalyi 1997). Then what do we do?  Amazingly, very often we stop and we go back to our ‘plan’!!  So here is the idea: Scrap your plan and carry on!  The same applies to a series of lessons: if you find your ss like songs for instance, just give them more of what they like!  Never mind questions of ‘balance’ – the chances are that sheer exposure will make up for all the things which they are not doing in class!

Taking risks:  In the battle of Gazala, ER took the bulk of his forces behind enemy lines.  Unfortunately, because of poor intelligence he had underestimated the enemy’s forces and he found his forces seriously outnumbered with his back against a minefield and his supply-line overextended.  That should have been the end of the Desert Fox.  Only it was not.  Thanks to his masterful exploitation of his enemies’ mistakes he not only defeated them, but taking advantage of their disarray he rushed on to storm Tobruk, capturing huge quantities of supplies and 35,000 prisoners! (Mitcham 2007)

In class:  Playing it safe is a sure recipe for boredom.  So take a chance – try out something different, something ‘risky’.  Try that ‘noisy’ game; give your students controversial material to argue about; let them take over the lesson for once; take them outside the classroom; share some of your secrets with them…  Think of inspirational teachers like Mr Keating in ‘Dead Poets Society’ or Miss Brodie in that wonderful book by Muriel Spark – would they be so effective if they always ‘played by the book’?

From the frontIgnoring orders:  Time and again, ER ignored general principles, directives and even specific orders.  Upon arriving in Africa his instructions were to wage a strictly defensive war.  As if… 10 days after he had arrived, and without even waiting for his units to reach full strength he launched a fierce attack and chased the British out of Cyrenaica.  So shocked were even the Germans by his audacity that the Chief-of-Staff General Halder declared ER had gone ‘stark raving mad’!  (Collier 2003).

In class:  Never mind the syllabus; it is often there because  a) inexperienced teachers need some guidance initially but mostly b) because people higher up need to feel that things progress ‘according to a plan’ with students learning the L2 ‘a bit at a time’.  In fact, language learning is a lot more ‘holistic’ than that – and a lot more chaotic!  So look at your class and think of your students:  What do they need?  What would be likely to motivate them?  Trust yourself – you are the teacher; you ‘know’! (Nunan & Lamb 1996)

Last Words – the role of Reputation: Such was the awe that ER inspired in the British that officers were ordered not to mention his name often for fear this would undermine the morale of their troops!! (Young 2006)  Which brings me to the role of reputation:  Your reputation precedes you.  Psychology says that expectations often act as self-fulfilling prophecies (Ariely 2008).  If your ss expect to learn a lot from you, chances are they will!  If an ex-student of yours tells a new one ‘Oh – you got Mary! You’re gonna have a great time’ – that’s it!  That student is already on your side – you have won!  🙂

* I have to confess at this point that Rommel is my hero – which only goes to show that some men never outgrow certain stages! 🙂  Naturally, I mean this only in the sense that I admire his tactical skills and dedication to his profession.  Though he was one of the most ‘decent’ soldiers of WW II, respected by friend and foe alike and he did conspire against Hitler in the end, there is no escaping the fact that he was a general in the service of the most evil regime of the 20th Century…


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