10 Questions – 10 (frank) Answers

1)   What is the topic of your presentation?

“Psychology and ELT: How to Make your Students Happy”.

2)  What motivated you to submit a proposal to the Tesol Greece Convention?

Many people will answer it’s because ‘They feel the urge to share what they have read / discovered / tried out’. But how valid is this answer? When it comes to our motives Timothy Wilson reminds us that we are ‘Strangers to Ourselves’. R. Kurzban goes further: the conscious part of the brain, he says, is not the ‘Oval Office’; instead it is that of the Press Secretary – its role is to put a positive spin on everything we do.

A more honest answer might be ‘The desire to further my career’. [NB: If you are a man, you also have an additional motivation – and this helps explain why, proportionally, male speakers outnumber their female colleagues. Yes, there is one thing that we, men, do better than women – and it is NOT giving presentations ( 🙂 just click here) ]

Q and A 3

3)   How is your presentation connected to the Convention’s theme “Teaching to New Heights”?

Well, as I’m sure you know, very few people prepare something specifically with a Convention theme in mind. What normally happens is that someone has been working on something and they have some material ready. Then the organizing committee obligingly selects a theme which is broad enough for people to be able to find some kind of a connection between it and their field of interest.

What I believe is the connection between my presentation and this year’s theme is this: what is going to elevate our teaching to ‘New Heights’ is our giving students an additional reason to come to our classes – apart from learning the language. This can be having fun (e.g. YouTube ‘Comedy for ELT’), socialising (e.g. humanistic activities), learning something interesting (e.g. CLIL) or just leaving the lesson feeling happier!

4)   Who is Nick Michelioudakis? What is the single characteristic that you want most people to know about you?

If people want to learn things about me, they can find stuff on the net (and it’s always unwise to encourage men to talk about themselves… 🙂 ). Still, since you ask me about a single characteristic, I will answer using the words of my good friend Anne Leventeris, who once told me “The thing about you is – you cannot do fluff” ( = simply socialise / talk without saying anything).

5)   What is the core message of your presentation and how will that be communicated to your audience?

Teaching should be about more than just language. So far, most of our efforts in the ELT world have focused on finding ways to help students learn as well as possible, in as short time as possible and with as little effort as possible. I think there are three problems here: a) There are still many things we don’t know about how languages are learned and what works best for different students. This is why people so often come up with ‘The Magic Bullet’ – the ‘Killer Method’ – only to be proven wrong a few years later. Examples abound.  b) The law of diminishing returns kicks in beyond a certain point. You go on learning stuff and improving the effectiveness of your teaching, but then you reach a point where you need to put in an enormous amount of work for only marginal improvement. This is when you need to look elsewhere if you want to go on developing.  c) Language (and language teaching) should be a means to an end. Practicing piano scales is just a necessary step so you can play songs / waltzes / fugues etc. Learning English should be a way of helping people make new friends / accessing a new culture and its literature / pursuing happiness perhaps! Why not start in the classroom?

6)   What motivates YOU as an educator/professional?

New insights. Here is one: If you and I are both into chess, chances are we are going to like each other. But if I hate Brad Pitt for splitting up with Jennifer Aniston some years back (you can tell how up to date I am with Hollywood gossip… 🙂 ) and you feel the same as well, chances are we are going to like each other even more! It seems that bonding through negativity is even stronger! (Wiseman 2010 – p. 177).

7)   Tell us about a Golden moment, a time when you thought you reached “Great Heights” in your career so far.

‘The best is always yet to come’ (Bob Dylan). When you reach an important goal, you feel great of course, but then you habituate. You get used to things. This is nature’s way of making you try harder – and one of the most important reasons why, all too often, we are not as happy as we feel we ought to be. Here is a most important discovery: ‘Nature does not want you to be happy; it wants you to be successful!’

8)   What will the main issue/challenge in the field of ELT be in the coming years?

Technology.  It is already changing the way we do things. There is no choice really; ‘Ducunt volentem fata, nolentem trahunt’ (Seneca) – ‘The fates lead the willing and drag those who resist’ [‘omnia dicta fortiora si dicta Latina…’  🙂 ]

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9)   What do you love/enjoy most about what you do?

Sharing stories. Stories are direct, concrete and they convey the intended message far more effectively than principles or figures. More importantly – we are wired for this medium! (Boyd 2010). There is a company called ‘Nordstrom’ which prides itself on the quality of service it offers. When it trains its sales staff (they are all called ‘Nordies’), it does so by means of stories about exceptional employees who had lived up to the company ideal by providing services ‘beyond the call of duty’. There are stories about Nordies who…

…ironed a shirt for a customer who needed it for an interview that same afternoon;

…happily gift-wrapped objects that a customer had bought in a rival company store!

…refunded money for a set of tire chains. Nothing special here, you might say, except that Nordstrom does not sell tire chains!!  🙂 (stories given in Heath & Heath 2008 – p. 73).

So here is an idea for ELT: why not collect together some stories about random exceptional deeds performed by teachers all over the world?  Their inspirational value would be enormous!

10)   What is your biggest fear about the years ahead?

Can I mention two? Thank you. Here they are:

10 a) Visibility often trumps quality (see the notion of ‘Cognitive Fluency’ – Kenrick et al. 2012 – ch. 4). This is the idea: while surfing the social media, we constantly come across certain faces or names and they become familiar. Our brain then performs two logical ‘leaps’; first of all, it equates ‘familiarity’ with ‘popularity’. Naturally, this does not follow necessarily; Scott Thornbury’s face/name may come up again and again because he is an authority in the field. Other people may just be spammers. Our brain has great difficulty remembering the source of memories (Shcacter 2007 – Ch. 4).

The brain then performs another ‘leap’; it jumps from ‘popularity’ to ‘quality’ (‘If people share this post left, right and centre, the writer must be good’). Of course, most people only skim through posts (when they actually do look at them) and very often we share things for other reasons, most notably loyalty/reciprocation (‘Well, she shared mine, so…’). The net result is that people who self-promote and people who are good at ‘grooming’ lots of others (in the chimp sense of the word) end up with thousands of followers on Twitter and then they can be seen on panel discussions sitting next to people like Jeremy Harmer (which of course provides post-hoc confirmation of the connection the brain had originally made…) If you start comparing the quality of the work of the various panelists however, the picture that emerges is very puzzling indeed….

Q and A 1

10b) Favouritism undermines meritocracy.

In other words, people tend to favour and promote their friends. There are 3 factors at play here:

i)         Availability (see Kahneman 2011 – ch. 12): the people who do the Conference circuit / give webinars / write books etc. are a small group. After a while they get to know / recognize each other. When they are asked (and this happens very often) who they would recommend as future speaker for instance, the first names that spring to mind are people they know.

ii)       Reciprocity: People have a strong tendency to reciprocate favours – even if they did not ask for them or they do not like the other party (Cialdini 2001 – ch. 2). If someone invites me to give a 3-day seminar in their country, it is very hard for me afterwards to refuse to publish an article of theirs in the Journal I edit – even if I do not think it is up to par.

iii)      Machiavellianism: Coalition formation has always been the way for humans to get ahead (see Maestripieri 2012 – ch. 3 & 4). ‘You scratch my back, I scratch yours’ – you publish my article, I’ll nominate you for the X award, etc. etc. Naturally, most of this happens unconsciously; we find all kinds of ways to rationalize our behaviour (‘She really is exceptional, despite her age’). This happens everywhere – it would be strange if  the ELT world were an exception.


Boyd, B. “On the Origin of Stories” Harvard University Press 2010

Cialdini, R. “Influence – Science and Practice”, Allyn & Bacon 2001

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

Kahneman, D. “Thinking, Fast and Slow” Allen Lane 2011

Kenrick, Goldstein & Braver “Six Degrees of Social Influence” Oxford 2012

Kurzban, R. “Why Everyone (Else) Is a Hypocrite” Princenton University Press 2012

Maestripieri, D. “Games Primates Play” Basic Books 2012

Schacter, D. “How the Mind Forgets and Remembers” Souvenir Press 2001

Wilson, T. “Strangers to Ourselves” Belknap Harvard 2002

Wiseman, R. “59 Seconds” Pan Books 2010