“You can see what it’s like, can’t you?”

Down and Out: ‘What should I write about?’ a budding young writer named George Orwell once asked. ‘Write about what you know’ came the reply. But Orwell wanted to write about poverty. And he did not know much about it. So he thought he would find out. He became a tramp in London and later lived a hand-to-mouth existence in Paris. The descriptions in his book ‘Down and Out in Paris and London’ are so vivid the book is hard to read at times… Since then others have tried a similar approach – exploring things ‘from the inside’ *. Now for some of us the poor may inhabit a different universe, as perhaps we do not happen to know any of them ourselves; yet there are other people close to us about whose life we know very little. Take people in wheelchairs for instance. What does it feel like to be one of them? In this amazing ad, everyone appears to be having fun, but what happens when the game is over?


The wheelchair experience:  When I first saw this commercial I was immediately struck by the similarities it has with a study conducted by Clore & Jeffrey in 1972. In it, a group of students were asked to imagine that as a result of an accident they had lost the use of their legs and were confined to a wheelchair. For one hour, they had to follow a pre-deterimined route, which involved the participants having to negotiate lifts, doors and ramps. Each of these students was followed by another one whose task was to observe everything the former did and every difficulty s/he faced. The idea behind the study was to see whether this one-hour experiment would make a difference in the attitude of these two groups towards people with disability and related issues, such as whether it would be advisable to spend money on making it easier for such people to get about.

Once the whole thing was over, each student was interviewed separately. The results were most interesting: compared to a control group, the ‘observers’ showed a marked increase in their sensitivity towards the difficulties people in wheelchairs face. Yet, the increase among those students who had had the ‘hands on’ experience was higher still! But would this change persist over time? The researchers looked into that too. Four months later, they interviewed the students again over the telephone. Hidden among the many questions they asked them were ones designed to measure just that. Amazingly, among the people who had actually used the wheelchair themselves the attitudinal change had remained the same! (So – hats off to those who came up with this Guiness ad…).

Applications in the field of ELT: The moral of this study is quite obvious: experience beats simple observation – hands down (watching a chef on TV effortlessly conjuring up a chocolate soufflé is one thing; doing the same thing yourself is quite another!). A less obvious point here is that the increased awareness experience confers appears to be long-lasting. Naturally, this has a number of implications for EL teachers:

Activities: Time and again I have been in practical workshops where the participants are reluctant to actually try out the activities themselves (‘Yes, yes, we can see how this task works…’); then there are instances where the presenter refrains from asking colleagues to do things for fear that s/he may be seen to be talking down to them. I must say I find such attitudes more than a little puzzling. As I see it, the best way to understand an activity is to experience it as though you were the learner (Nunan & Lamb 1996). If I had to choose between workshops and lectures, my vote would go to the former any day!

Technology: While on the subject of workshops, here is another amazing discovery from the field of Psychology: if something is hard to imagine, people tend to assume it will not happen! (Kenrick et al [eds] 2012 – p. 43). This seems completely irrational, but it seems that there is a ‘spill over’ effect at work; our brain translates the difficulty in processing something into decreased likelihood of it actually taking place! I have often see this in talks on technology; the expert starts talking excitedly about their favourite Web 2.0 tool and then three minutes later the eyes of the audience just glaze over. They cannot see themselves using this kind of innovative technology and their brain simply rejects it. I firmly believe that ‘hands on’ experience (workshops!) would greatly increase uptake.

Wheelchair 6 Peer observation:  How do we know what our lessons are really like? We think we do, but of course we are too busy teaching to consider what things must seem like from the point of view of the students. Solutions to this include reflective practices such as keeping a journal or recording our lessons and then going through them with the help of certain observational tools (e.g. Wajnryb 1993). Yet that still leaves one problem – ‘The Curse of Knowledge’ (Heath & Heath 2008). The thing is that, naturally, we know both what we had intended to teach and what we meant every time we said something. But would things be just as clear for others? It seems much better to have a colleague occasionally observe us – as a learner. Their feedback is likely to be invaluable (see for instance Edge 1992).

The learner’s perspective: It has been argued by many that one of the best ways for us to grow as professionals is to start looking at things from the learner’s perspective. The easiest way to do this, is to become learner ourselves. Using our imagination is not quite the same; having to actually deal with the difficulties learners face and experiment with the techniques and strategies we keep telling our students to use can help us appreciate their problems and frustrations and see what actually works in practice. Some people have taken this idea further, arguing that it does not really matter what it is that you are trying to learn; what makes the difference is finding yourself in the learner’s position – even if what you may be learning is chess or dancing or sailing (e.g. Claypole 2010, p. 56).

The teacher’s perspective 1 [The learner]: Conversely, it can potentially be even more beneficial if learners adopt the role of the teacher (Dornyei 2001). A number of researchers have stressed the benefits this might have for students on the cognitive domain – it seems that different neural circuits are involved and so retention of information is better (e.g. Lieberman 2013 [to watch a short clip on this just click here]). Yet what people often fail to notice is that placing the student in the role of the teacher makes the former more aware of the challenges involved in the role. In the same way that becoming a learner can make a teacher more empathic, taking on the role of the teacher can help students become more mature.

The teacher’s perspective 2 [The DOS]: Following the same logic, just as a teacher may forget what it is like to be a learner, a DOS may gradually come to lose touch with the day-to-day challenges a teacher faces. In my view, much of the friction between the management and the teachers in large schools arises because the DOS is so focused on his/her new duties that s/he often fails to see things from the front-line teacher’s perspective (a dimension often neglected in otherwise excellent books – e.g. Impey & Underhill 1994). This gap is often easier to spot in the case of some academics who do not actually teach the language themselves (and in some cases, they never have). Regardless of how sound their research might be, one often has the feeling that when it comes to teaching implications, some of their suggestions would never work in real life. The moral here is that no matter how good an idea / practice looks on paper, a dry run is indispensable.

Wheelchair 4

Back to wheelchairs:  Having discussed the advantages of experience over observation, I would like to go back to people in wheelchairs for a moment. What is life like for them? Things we hardly give a second thought to can become a huge challenge for them. How do you get on a bus without help? How do you go up the stairs to get inside a building? How do you even get across the street where there are no special ramps? Well, now we can find out more. And our students can too. The Disabled Access Friendly is a campaign launched by people in the ELT world. Their site ** (which recently won a prestigious ELTON award) boasts an impressive array of ready-made materials for all levels which can both help improve our students’ English and sensitise them to the problems people with mobility problems face every day. So – please visit the site and try out some of the materials. And if you get the chance, give yourself a ride on that wheelchair…

[An earlier version of this article was published in the magazine ‘Modern English Teacher’ (Vol 22 – July 2013)]

*   A striking example is that of Norah Vincent, a lesbian journalist who spent a year dressed as a man to get an insider’s view of the male world.

** To visit the DAF site, just click here.



Clore, G. L. & Jeffrey, K. M. (1972) ‘Emotional role playing, attitude change and attraction towards a disabled person’ Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 23, 105-11

Claypole, M. ‘Controversies in ELT’ LinguaBooks 2010

Dornyei, Z. “Motivational Strategies in the Language Classroom” Cambridge 2001

Edge, J. “Cooperative Development” Longman 1992

Heath, C. & Heath, D. “Made to Stick” Random House 2008

Impey, G. & Underhill, N. “The ELT Manager’s Handbook” Heinemann 1994

Kenrick, D., Goldstein, N. & Braver, S. “Six Degrees of Social Influence” Oxford 2012

Lieberman, M. “Social” Oxford 2013

Nunan, D. & Lamb, C. “The Self-Directed Teacher” Cambridge University Press 1996

Orwell, G. “Down and Out in Paris and London” Penguin Classics 2001

Vincent, N. “Self-made Man: My Year Disguised as a Man” Atlantic Books 2006

Wajnryb, R. “Classroom Observation Tasks” Cambridge University Press 1993