A thought experiment: Imagine you are a post-graduate student. This is the first session of the first day of your Masters’ course. So the Professor walks in and says ‘OK guys, listen up! This course isn’t like the others; by the time you get your Masters, you will have all but finished your Thesis and you’ll be ready for your PhD! From now on in any communication between us I want you to refer to yourselves as ‘Doctoral Candidate + your name’! I am sure this would have got your attention… 🙂 From time to time we hear about exceptional teachers – teachers like Mr Keating in ‘The Dead Poets’ Society’ or Miss Brodie… Such teachers do exist and this is a story about one of them…
Case Study – C. Jones’ story: Crystal Jones was a primary school teacher with a difference. She was ambitious! Upon taking command of her class of 1st graders she set them a target: ‘By the end of the year, you are going to be 3rd graders!!’ She duly informed her charges that they were no ordinary pupils, but ‘scholars’ – and she taught them what that meant. Not only that, she also encouraged them to use the title when talking to each other. When someone happened to visit the class and asked why the pupils addressed each other in this way, the whole class responded in chorus that ‘A scholar is someone who lives to learn and who is good at it!’ – so clearly such a title was appropriate for them… 🙂 The ‘scholars’ were encouraged to share with their family what they had learned at school.
When spring came, tests showed that the class had reached the level required for 2nd grade, so Jones threw a graduation party. From that point on, the students were to think of themselves as ‘2nd graders’ and the kids enjoyed immensely referring to themselves as such for the rest of the year. By June, Jones had reached her objective: in terms of scholastic achievement, 90% of her class were at 3rd grade level or higher! (Heath & Heath 2011)
Applications in the field of ELT: Crystal Jones is one of those amazing teachers that make an impression on you; she is the sort of teacher you will talk to your spouse about – the sort of teacher we all aspire to be. So what can we learn from her approach?
Framing: Is going to school a drag or a treat? We know that most of our learners would answer it is the former – yet the way Jones ‘framed’ the whole experience to them made it very different! We are told that kids even felt sorry (!!) for their classmates when they missed a lesson for some reason! (Heath & Heath 2011) Now it is true that in most of our teaching situations these attitudes have almost fossilized, but there are so many other things which are nevertheless new (cf a brilliant ‘framing’ experiment in Ariely 2008 – p. 40); perhaps a project or a drama activity or the opportunity for students to teach their classmates! If we ‘sell’ the new experience to them as something they should be pleased for, then we have almost won the battle for their hearts and minds!
Meaningful goals: If Jones had told her pupils that by the end of the year they would have covered say ‘fractions’ and ‘decimals’ that would have meant nothing to them. Instead, she chose a goal that would resonate with little kids: ‘I’m going to be a 3rd grader!! WOW! Just like my sister – and she is a year older than I am! I’m going to be bigger, smarter, cooler!’ Knowing that something is ‘beneficial’ in some abstract way, cuts little ice with busy adults and even less with younger learners. To motivate them we have to look at what they want! That could mean showing business people a video and telling them that in, say, 6 months’ time they will be able to socialize as smoothly as the characters in it; it could also mean showing our teenage learners an effective ‘chatting up scene’ in the L2 and telling them that they could be just as successful by the end of the year… 🙂
Labelling: It is incredible how often labels act as self-fulfilling prophecies! (Aronson 1999) We have all heard horror stories about teachers who labeled students as ‘stupid’ or ‘lazy’ (and ended up exacerbating whatever problem already existed!) but the same is true of positive labeling! Notice how Jones insisted that her pupils call each other ‘scholar’ and how they would explain the word at every opportunity! Each of these occasions reinforced this perception they had of themselves! Labelling does not need to apply to the whole class; you may give different labels to different students depending on the direction you want them to move in (… ‘Kate is so helpful’ – ‘Mark is so organised’…) Spreading (positive) rumours about a person I have also found to be extremely effective, as is asking students to justify the label! (‘You are such a perfectionist! Are your parents like that too?’ 🙂 ) Incredibly, even if you tell them later you did it deliberately, the ‘label’ is still effective!! (Sutherland 1992)
Active revision: It is one thing to study something, but it is quite another to be able to explain it to someone else. One of the big problems with our learners is that (if they revise at all!) they revise passively (Oxford in Richards & Renandya 2002). If they had to explain to someone how a particular tense works for example, not only would they have to recall what they did in class, they would have to sequence everything in a coherent way (and they would spot any gaps in their knowledge in the process!) Peer teaching practices are excellent in this respect, yet how often do we use this idea in class? As an added bonus, every time such a thing happens, the learner breaks away from the stereotype of the bored learner who cannot be bothered with school. Instead, the learner casts him/herself in a new role – perhaps that of the teacher (or the ‘scholar’!)
Milestones: It is very useful for students to have a ‘destination postcard’ (Heath & Heath 2011) – ‘This is our ultimate objective – this is where we want to go!’ However, this destination may be distant. Research shows that when it comes to motivating people, it is short-term goals that work best (Baumeister & Tierney 2012). The younger the learners, the nearer these short-term goals should be (cf the 2nd grade benchmark!) And if milestones are still far away, we need to look for ‘inch-pebbles’!! (Heath & Heath 2011) Reaching these intermediate targets gives students an invaluable sense of progress – ‘Yes, I am getting there!’. For instance, if our students want to get to B2 level, we can give them an A2 and a B1 test to take themselves so they can see that they are in fact getting better. Similarly, graded readers are excellent as students can see that they have moved from Level 1 to Level 3.
Celebrating Success: Notice how when the children did reach the intermediary goal (2nd grade) there was a graduation ceremony (the party!). The lesson is unambiguous: ‘Take time to celebrate success’ (Dornyei 2001). Once again this ‘frames’ the experience as important. OK, so the pupils knew that reaching 2nd grade level was significant – but just how significant? The greater the celebration, the higher the boost to the learner’s confidence! Notice how proud the children were to call themselves ‘2nd graders’ afterwards! This is something we rarely do, but we should. Little presents to the kids (with a dedication congratulating them and labeling them as successful learners!) can be invaluable. Involving the parents for some unexpected treat at home is another idea; it can kill many birds with the same stone (for one thing, the parents will know that you employ psychological weapons too!)
The role of Confidence: There is yet another element which is not immediately apparent from the story – capital C Confidence! (cf Dutton 2010) I am prepared to bet good money that Jones’ manner conveyed both her conviction in the way she taught and her belief that the goal was ultimately attainable. And research shows that self-assurance works! Confident speakers may not know more than more diffident ones, but they get believed more! (Levine 2006) Think back to Miss Brodie… Could you walk into a classroom and say ‘I’m in the business of putting old heads on young shoulders and all my students are ‘Le crème de la crème’! Give me a child at an impressionable age and they are mine for life!!’ Wow! Not everyone can pull this off… 🙂
Ariely, D. “Predictably Irrational” HarperCollins 2008
Aronson, E. “The Social Animal” Worth – Freeman, 1999
Baumeister, R. & Tierney, J. “Willpower” Allen Lane 2012
Dornyei, Z. “Motivational Strategies in the Language Classroom” Cambridge 2001
Dutton, K. “Flipnosis” Random House 2010
Heath, C. & Heath, D. “Switch” Random House 2011
Levine, R. “The Power of Persuasion” Oneworld 2006
Richards, J. & Renandya, W. “Methodology in Language Teaching” Cambridge 2002
Sutherland, S. “Irrationality” Constable and Company 1992