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An annotated lesson: This made-up story is meant to be an exercise. A chance for you to test yourself. Just read through it and try to see whether you agree with the teacher’s decisions / practices. There are at least 14 interesting points in this short narrative. Can you spot them? If you agree with what John did, can you say why? If you think he has made a mistake, why do you think so? What should he have done instead? [NB: This is not meant to be a model lesson nor is John a model teacher; rather it is a collection of interesting moments from a lesson which help illustrate some good and some not so good practices relating to Classroom Management and Student Motivation].


John’s story: John walked confidently into the classroom. He was feeling great. He was really looking forward to this lesson. As soon as he went in he noticed that Peter was absent. ‘Where is Peter?’ he asked his friend Mark. ‘Oh, he’s just sent me a message’ said Mark ‘He is on his way’. ‘I really like Peter’ said John ‘He is always so cheerful – he brightens up the classroom.’

Then John turned to the class. ‘Hello everybody’, he said. ‘OK – as you have seen, I have written on the board what we are going to do today. Now – have you all got your H/W? Great. I’m so glad you are not like last year’s C2 group… I’m telling you – it was a good day when half of them did anything….’

‘OK – as I recall, you had to write an ad for an imaginary product. Hope you came up with some funny ideas… Right – what are you doing there mate? (John turned to Paul who was busily messaging someone – Paul put it away) OK you collect your friends’ H/W and put everything on my desk – now!’ John said smilingly. Paul stood to attention and saluted ‘Yes, sir!’ he said with a grin and promptly did so.

‘Right’ said John ‘we are going to work on a mini presentation, because it’s one of the best ways to develop your speaking skills. OK – I want you to work in groups. Group A – Group B – Group C’. (John showed the students which group each of them belonged to). ‘Group A: Imagine someone asks you for advice on how they can practice their Listening skills on their own. Make a note of as many strategies as you can; Group B: do the same thing for Reading skills; Group C: do the same thing for Speaking skills. Off you go’.

SecretsJohn went around monitoring the groups as they worked, helping with language as necessary. At some point he noticed that Mary in Group B was chatting to her friend Kate in the L1, so he moved closer to their table. On the way he noticed that Mark in Group A was trying to get the others to divide up the work. ‘Well done Mark’ he commented. ‘You have great organizational skills’. Mark smiled.

The people in Group C seemed to have finished their list and they were already rehearsing. ‘Wow!’ John said looking at their list ‘who came up with all these points?’ ‘Jane’ said her friend Helen. ‘Jane, you are one of the brightest students I’ve ever had! Well done!’ Jane beamed.

‘OK’ he said. ‘ This is the idea. We’ll take turns. One member from each group will stand up and give some tips to the rest of the class. You have to give as many tips as you can and explain why these ideas are good. Time limit: 2 min. Members of the other groups – you have to make notes of the main points’. John checked his instructions and then gave them a demonstration.

‘OK’ John said ‘Who would like to start? What about you Paul?’ John knew Paul was a little shy. He patted him on the shoulder ‘I know you can do it’ he said.

When they had finished, John told the class: ‘OK – so today we have looked at different strategies which people can use to improve their English. What would you like to do as H/W?’ The class came up with lots of ideas – they eventually settled on a mini presentation with ideas for Writing Skills development. ‘OK’ he said. ‘Make a note of this. Now – how long is the presentation going to be? By when will you have finished it? Do you think you should write it down or work from notes? What if there are words  / phrases you don’t know? Please make notes now’.

‘OK – John said. That’s it for today. Don’t forget you are sitting a mock test on Friday. But I’m sure you are all going to do very well. Well, at least I hope you are going to do better than Greg – a guy from last year’s group. “I don’t think I deserved zero on this test!” He once told me; “I agree” I said “but that’s the lowest mark I could give you!” ’ The students laughed and left – they knew John had made this up; he always liked to end the lesson with a little joke….

Comments: There are a number of interesting points in this story. Some are obvious, some are less so and some are counterintuitive. All of them are research-based:

‘…he brightens up the classroom.’…: Positive gossiping is a great idea for getting people to like you. Peter is certainly going to hear about this and research shows that we feel closer to people who like us. Not only that, but through ‘spontaneous trait transference’ people tend to associate with us the positive qualities we attribute to others! (Wiseman 2010 – p. 57).

‘…I have written on the board.’…: According to Willingham (2009 – p. 65) most items in Teacher Evaluation Forms are redundant. There are essentially two dimensions: i) how likeable the teacher is and  ii) how organized the lesson is. By putting up the main ideas on the board, John has shown students that he knows what he is doing and has given them a sense of purpose.

‘…it was a good day … did anything’…: This is a blunder though. Numerous studies have shown that our actions are influenced more by what others (esp our peers) do and much less by what we should do. By saying such a thing, essentially John is telling the class that it is standard practice not to do H/W. He has just shot himself in the foot! (Levitt & Dubner 2014 – p. 116).

‘…what are you doing there mate?’…: Ooops another mistake; one of omission this time. John is trying to establish camaraderie by being informal (a good idea) but he fails to use the student’s name. Research shows that using people’s first names is Messaging 2astonishingly effective in attracting their attention and inducing compliance (Martin, Goldstein & Cialdini 2014 – pp. 34-35).

‘…put everything on my desk’…: A missed opportunity. The task sounds great – surely students have come up with some creative ideas. Why not put them up on the wall for all to see? Ariely and others have discovered that when we work on something and other people do not get to see it, this is seriously demotivating (Ariely 2010 – pp. 63-74). Never mind what Maslow says about ‘self actualisation’; we want our work to be appreciated. (Watch this clip).

‘…because … speaking skills’…: It sounds funny, but when asking people to do something (provided it is a minor thing), using the word ‘because’ makes the request appear purposeful and greatly increases compliance. People simply assume that you have a reason for saying such a thing – even if the reason you give is a silly one (‘I need to use the Xerox machine because I need to make some copies’). ‘Because’ works like magic! (Levine 2006, p. 149).

‘…someone asks you for advice … on their own’…: This is pure ju-jitsu. Incredibly, studies have shown that when arguing in favour or against something, we tend to be influenced by what we ourselves say – even if someone has asked us to do so! (Sommers 2013 – p. 157). Never mind language practice in class; John is hoping that by arguing in favour of these strategies, the students will come to adopt them themselves!

Approach…so he moved closer to their table…: Mere physical proximity is a very powerful tool for maintaining discipline in class. Simply moving closer to the source of (anticipated) disturbance is often enough to deal with any misbehaviours. This was clearly demonstrated in the classic ‘obedience to authority’ study by Milgram. When the researcher was close to the ‘teacher’ compliance rates were much higher (Wren 1999 – p. 7).

…‘You have great organizational skills’…: This is very good practice. The idea is to catch your students doing something good, praise them and give them a positive personality label (‘You are so considerate / helpful / organised etc.’). People are vain creatures. When someone gives us such a label we like it and then we try to live up to it. The label acts like a self-fulfilling prophecy! (Abelson, Frey & Gregg 2004 – p. 169).

‘…one of the brightest students I’ve ever had…’: But this is a mistake – and a very common one too. Dweck has carried out numerous studies which demonstrate that praising intelligence leads to a ‘fixed mindset’ (‘You are either intelligent or not – so there is no point trying’). Instead, we should focus on praising effort and try to encourage a ‘growth mindset’ (Dweck 2007 – Watch this clip).

… He patted him on the shoulder…: This detail is easy to miss and yet touching is extremely potent. Psychologist N. Gueguen has conducted a great many experiments which show that lightly touching someone on the upper arm greatly increases compliance (Yeung 2011 – pp. 68-69). Not only that – as Dunbar notes, touching also generates positive feelings at a subconscious level (Dunbar 2010 – p. 63).

‘…What would you like to do as H/W?’ …: The idea here is to get students to come up with the suggestion that the teacher would like to make. Actually, it is not that difficult; in this case for instance, the H/W follows naturally from the course of the lesson. What is important is that we tend to value ideas a lot more when we feel we have come up with them ourselves (Ariely 2010 – ch. 4. Watch this clip).

‘…how long is this going to be? [etc] …’: Excellent. Setting goals is great, but there Planningis no guarantee people are going to follow through. Scientists have discovered however that adding details to intentions helps enormously (Duhigg 2012 – p. 143). Getting people to think about how they are going to implement their plans makes the latter more salient in their minds and ‘smooths the path’ by making them aware of obstacles which might have caused them to give up.

… to end the lesson with a little joke …: This is extremely important. Some fascinating studies by D. Kahneman (2011 – ch. 35) have shown that when evaluating a past event, we do not work out some kind of ‘average rating’; instead our memory retrieves two salient points: ‘peak’ moments (good or bad) and how the experience ended. Rather than ‘fading out’, John chooses to end his lesson with a bang. And it is this that will colour the students’ memory of the whole experience. (Watch this clip).

The takeaways – 14 Tips:

Here are the 14 takeaways. But wait – before reading them, can you recall at least 8? How would you phrase the tips in your own words? [Reflection helps with retention – enormously! (Brown, Roediger & McDaniel, 2014 – p. 59)]

Positive gossiping: Say nice things about your students behind their back. Their classmates are bound to tell them and they will like you more.

A sense of purpose: Show students that you have prepared for your lesson and you know what you are doing. They will respect you more and they will learn more.

Social proof: Do not advertise undesirable behaviour (e.g. ‘People are always turning up late’). You are encouraging your students to do the same thing.

First names: Learn and use your students’ first names. We know it is important, but it is even more important than we think.

Making H/W public: Make students’ H/W public (esp if it is something creative). They will work harder and it is hugely motivating.

The magic word: …is not ‘please’ – it’s ‘because’! Use it often; i) your rationale may not be obvious and ii) the use of ‘because’ increases compliance rates.

PresentationSelf-persuasion: Get students to argue in favour of desirable behaviours. They may think this is just practice, but in fact they will be influencing themselves!

Proximity: When you sense there is (or there might be) discipline problems in class, just move closer to the source of the trouble. It can be very effective.

Labelling: Catch your students doing something good and then label them positively. The label often acts as a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Fixed mindsets: Avoid praising students for being intelligent. It leads to a ‘fixed mindset’ and it stops students from trying to get better.

Touching: Touch your students lightly. It can make them more amenable. (NB: I said touch them – not frisk them!)

The NIH bias: (NIH = ‘Not Invented Here’) If you want people to do something, get them to come up with the idea themselves.

Goal-setting: Get students to set goals for themselves and then get them to plan when, where and how they will accomplish them.

The peak-end effect: Make sure there is at least one memorable point during the lesson and if possible end on a high note. Do not just ‘fade out’.

DessertLast words: I hope you found this exercise interesting. The idea is that the challenge plus the fact that these principles are woven together into a story will make all these points more memorable. Alas, I cannot take any credit for the idea; I pinched it (I’m sorry – I ‘creatively assimilated’ it) from Chabris & Simons 2010 – p. 229. I would be very interested in feedback as this is the first article of this kind I have written. Whatever you do, remember the last point. Save something nice for the end. It’s like dessert. Speaking of desserts, here is mine (just click here).



Abelson, R., Frey, K. & Gregg, A. (2004) Experiments With People. Mahwah NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates

Ariely, D. ( 2010) The Upside of Irrationality. London HarperCollins

Brown, P., Roediger, H., McDaniel, M. (2014) Make it Stick: The Science of Successful Learning. Cambridge Massachusetts. Belknap Harvard

Chabris, C. & Simons, D. (2010) The Invisible Gorilla. London: Harper Collins

Duhigg, C. (2012) The Power of Habit. London: Random House Books

Dunbar, R. (2010) How Many Friends does One Person Need? London: Faber & Faber 2010

Dweck, C. (2007) Mindset: The New Psychology of Success. New York: Ballantine Books

Kahneman, D. (2011) Thinking, Fast and Slow. London: Allen Lane

Levine, R. (2006) The Power of Persuasion. Oxford: Oneworld

Levitt, S. & Dubner, S. (2014) Think Like a Freak.  London: Allen Lane

Martin, S., Goldstein, N., & Cialdini, R. (2014) The Small Big. London: Profile Books

Sommers, S. (2013) Situations Matter. New York NY: Riverhead Books

Yeung, R. (2011) i is for Influence. London: Macmillan

Willingham, D. (2009) Why Don’t Students Like School?.  San Francisco, CA. Jossey-Bass

Wiseman, R. (2010) 59 Seconds. London: Pan Books

Wren, K. (1999) Social Influences. London: Routledge