Another annotated lesson: This made-up story is again meant to be an exercise (to see the previous one, just click here). The idea is that you read through it and try to see whether you agree with the teacher’s decisions / practices. There are at least 10 interesting points in this short narrative. Can you spot them? If you agree with what Alex 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 Alex 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].

Alex’s story: Alex felt really happy working in this school. Everything was neat and tidy, the boards were always clean, the equipment was always in working order and there were all kinds of posters on the wall – some with interesting or funny quotes, tidy-schoolothers containing useful language. When Alex walked into the classroom the class were busy chatting to each other as usual. He looked around and coughed so the students would notice he was there.

‘Thank you, sir!’ piped up little Andrew as Alex walked into the classroom. Alex smiled and winked at him. Last time he had surreptitiously slipped a little ‘Happy Birthday’ card between the pages of Andrew’s book. ‘Hey! Did you get your IELTS results, Mark?’ Alex asked. ‘Yes, sir’ said Mark ‘Amazingly I got a 7.5! I never expected such a high mark!’. ‘Well, of course you did well’ said Alex ‘Don’t forget, we had prepared thoroughly – esp for Task 1 which was your weak point. Well done’.

Alex turned to Peter ‘Hey Peter! Don’t forget you’ve promised to show me how to use Moviemaker after the lesson’ he said. ‘I mean – what’s the point of having teenage students if they don’t teach you all this new-fangled technology stuff?’  Peter smiled. ‘Right-o sir!’ he said. ‘Are we going to do another crossword like we did yesterday?’ he asked. ‘Of course we are’ said Alex. ‘I know you love them…’

‘OK – before that however, we are going to read a text about some amazing animals. This lesson has been voted by former students as the second most interesting ever! OK – listen to these statements and with the person next to you try to complete them in a plausible way’ Alex read aloud: ‘1. There is a snake that can ………; 2. There is a plant that can eat ………; 3. There is a lizard that defends itself by ….……’.  *

The class discussed the statements in pairs and wrote down what they thought was the right answer. Then Alex gave them the text so they could check their predictions. ‘Amazing, or what?’ asked Alex. ‘OK – as homework, I would like you to search the net and next time you come I want each of you to give a mini presentation on a really special animal’.

‘OK – can someone give us a demo? Just a mini-monologue on one of the animals you’ve just read about. About 30-40 seconds. Paul – what about you? I know you like presentations’. ‘I don’t know’ said Paul sounding uncertain ‘I haven’t practiced it…’ ‘Oh, monologuecome on’ said Alex ‘It’s not a test; ok – just stand here at the front. I’ll help you if there are any words you don’t know…’

‘All right’ said Alex, when Paul had finished. ‘Thank you Paul. It wasn’t bad considering it was the first time…. OK everyone. Remember: next time you can talk about whichever animal you want to, but I want you to practice. In fact, I would like you to record yourselves before the next lesson. You can use Vocaroo – just Google it – it’s dead easy to use; you click on the red button and record your voice. Then you can send me the link of the recording by e-mail’.

The bell rang. ‘OK – class dismissed. Before you go however, I want all pieces of paper in the waste-paper basket and the desks all lined up exactly as you found them when you came in’ said Alex. The class started tidying up ‘Sir, sir – you promised you would tell us a joke!’ said Mark. ‘Did I? Oh, all right then….’ said Alex. ‘Have I told you the one with the castaway? Well, there was this guy and he was on a flight to New York. And when they started showing the film on the plane, he had seen it on TV and he was so disgusted, he got up and walked out. Now – as soon as he lands in the water….’

[* Answers: 1. There is a snake that can fly; 2. There is a plant that can eat mice; 3. There is a lizard that defends itself by squirting blood! ]

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:

‘…Everything was neat and tidy,….’…: The physical environment we operate in has a huge impact on the way we behave. Countless studies have shown that people tend to be well-behaved in an orderly environment, cheat more in dim places and be less productive in an untidy room. By changing the physical environment we can send happy-birthday-2the right (implicit) messages to our students: ‘This is a place of work’ (Martin, Goldstein & Cialdini 2014 – p. 28).

‘…a little ‘Happy Birthday’ card….’…: Very good. Little touches like that signal to students that the teacher sees them as individuals – not just as learners or members of a group and students appreciate that (see also Watkinson 2013 – p. 160). You might say ‘OK – isn’t this a cheap trick just to increase our popularity?’ Actually no, because it also impacts on students’ performance, but there is another reason too – acting like this changes you in the long run (see the last point).

‘…we had prepared thoroughly….’…: A slip. Our brain has the tendency to mull over things it cannot explain. Once it finds a reasonable / plausible explanation, it just files away the experience. This is good – if the experience is bad. It helps us achieve ‘closure’ and move on. But when the experience is a happy one, why stop thinking about it? ‘Explaining’ can mean ‘explaining away’. It is good for bad things – and vice versa (Wilson 2011 – p. 60).

‘…Don’t forget you’ve promised….’…: This is called ‘the Franklin Principle’. We assume that the more we do for others, the more they will like us; this is not wrong, but there is a much better way – getting them to do things for us! It’s pure Cognitive Dissonance: ‘Either i) this is a great guy and I’m doing the right thing helping him or ii) I am stupid’. What do you think our brain would rather believe?:-) (click here for a short video on this – see also Lieberman 2013 – p. 266).

‘…This lesson has been voted….’…: Excellent! It is very important to ‘sell’ what we are going to do to our students. How can we do that? Well, we can explain the rationale behind a task etc., but research has shown there is another, more persuasive way: telling students that other students like it. The ‘others like it, ergo it is good’ is one of the most powerful heuristic our lazy brain uses. Why not exploit it? (Berger 2016 – chapter 1).

‘…The class discussed the statements….’…: Very good! All too often, when we have something interesting to share with our class we just go right ahead. But wait! Why not tease them a little first? Studies have shown that interest and motivation soar when we make students curious about what is coming next. Getting them to predict content can be as effective as it is simple. And this also works with mundane material! (Heath & Heath 2008 – p. 80) Watch this clip.

‘…Amazing, or what?….’…: Brilliant! Methodology aside, content does matter – a lot! According to Berger (2013 – ch.. 1) when we come across something interesting – funny – weird etc., we tend to share it as it translates into ‘social currency’ (it makes us look good). Students will go home and chances are they will share this with their friends – and they will look up information on other bizarre animals on the web, which means additional exposure to the L2!.

‘…Paul – what about you? ….’…: This is a mistake though. Studies have shown that being watched by others can stimulate us to great efforts and we can perform very well provided that the task is easy or we have rehearsed it really well. Conversely, if the task is hard or we have not practiced it, feeling others watching us can cause us to fumble and perform poorly, which may in turn undermine our confidence (Ariely 2010 – p. 44).

‘…it’s dead easy to use’…: Another mistake – and a common one too. Just because we know how to do something does not mean others do too. Such misjudgments happen all the time – esp when we are giving instructions or explaining something (Heath & Heath 2008 – p. 80). It is very hard to put ourselves into the learners’

shoes, but we should try. We need to explain demonstrate and then check understanding. Watch this amazing clip (click here).

‘…Before you go however,….’…: Excellent. This is a little thing, which can easily become a routine. But in helping keep the class tidy, the students are also sending a message – to themselves. It is Cognitive Dissonance again: ‘Why am I doing this? Nobody is forcing me. If I am doing this, it must be because the class / the course / learning English is important’. The way we act, gradually changes the way we think about things (see Cialdini 2201 – pp. 63-71).

The takeaways – 10 Tips:

Here are the 10 takeaways. Once again though – before reading them, see whether you can recall some of them. What are the principles? How would you have phrased them as tips for a colleague?

presentSurroundings matter: Make sure the learning environment sends the right message to the students (‘We take learning seriously and we expect you to learn’).

‘You are special!’: Try to make your students feel special; little things such as remembering special days or their interests can go a long way.

Explaining away: If a student has had a setback, find a plausible innocuous explanation so that they stop thinking about it. But if it is something positive, do not explain it away.

The Franklin principle: Get students to do things for you (and help you with class work etc). Cognitive dissonance means they will like you more.

Social proof: Telling students that their peers like something / do something regularly is far more effective than trying to persuade your class to do it. Use Social Proof!

Tease – then tell: Instead of directly giving students information, engage their curiosity by means of Qs / incomplete sentences / guessing games. Motivation will soar.

Social currency: Use interesting materials – things that your students will want to share with others (e.g. urprising facts, witty quotes, jokes, interesting clips etc.).spotlight

The spotlight effect: Performing in public can energise people, and boost their confidence and motivation – but for this to happen they need to be well prepared for the task.

The curse of knowledge: Do not assume that people have understood what you said or what they have to do. Check understanding and instructions.

Actions into beliefs: Get students to do ‘the right thing’; we assume that beliefs lead to actions but very often it is the other way round.

Last words: Alex is of course a fictional person, but if he existed I would advise him to go home and write a few things about the lesson in his diary. What went well? What difficulties were there? What could have been done better? What opportunities were missed? Of course, when something is fresh in our minds, we think we will easily remember it, but of course this is not the case. The faintest pencil can beat the best memory any day. Even Alex forgot he had promised his class a joke. But I didn’t; it was on my notes. Here it is. Enjoy! 🙂 ).



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

Berger, J. (2013) Contagious. London: Simon & Schuster

Berger, J. (2016) Invisible Influence. London: Simon & Schuster

Cialdini, R. (2001) Influence – Science and Practice. Massachusetts, Allyn & Bacon

Epley, N. (2014) Mindwise. London: Allen Lane

Heath, C. & Heath, D. (2008) Made to Stick. London: Random House

Lieberman, M. (2013) Social. Oxford, Oxford University Press

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

Watkinson, M. (2013) The Ten Principles Behind Great Customer Experiences. London: Financial Times Publishing

Wilson, T. (2011) Redirect. London: Penguin Books