An annotated lesson: This made-up story is again meant to be an exercise. 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 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].

[This is the third post on the topic; to see the first one, click here. To read the second one, click here].

John’s story: John walked leisurely towards his classroom. He was early. He glanced into the staffroom and there was Agnes, the DOS. ‘Is anything wrong?’ he asked her. ‘You don’t look your usual happy self…’ ‘It’s Mark’ Agnes replied. ‘He just called in sick and had 3 hours to teach later today….’ ‘Hang on; I know his schedule – that’s 17:00man-woman-work to 20:00, right? I could stand in for him’ said John. ‘Oh, John’ said Agnes ‘You are an angel!’. ‘That’s what colleagues are for’ replied John smiling.

‘Hi everyone’ John boomed as he walked in. Everyone smiled and said ‘Hi’ – they liked John. ‘Wow Mary!’ John exclaimed ‘Nice tan!’ Mary smiled coyly. ‘And Paul – you’ve been working out, haven’t you? Well done! You look fit and you’ve lost weight too!’ Paul flexed his muscles striking a body-builder pose. Everyone laughed.

‘Excuse me sir’ said Catherine. ‘There was something I wanted to ask you about. Now that I’ve got my B2 certificate, do you think I should take the C1 exam as well, or should I skip it and go straight for the C2 test?’ ‘Well’ John said ‘There is no point in taking the C1, is there? Since you are going to take the C2 exam, why bother?’ ‘OK – thank you sir’ Catherine replied.

‘OK everyone!’ said John. ‘If you remember, for today you had to prepare to give a 60-sec mini presentation each. You have to describe to the class one learning strategy you use to improve your English and try to persuade us that it is effective. At the end, we will all vote secretly on which two were the most effective. As I have promised, the winner will get this amazing reader (John held up a book) OK – who would like to go first?’ [ …. ]

‘Right’ said John after everyone had finished. ‘Some great ideas there – well done. Now as homework, I would like you to do two things: I would like you to read an article of mine on ‘5 Effective ELT Strategies’. That’s based on a presentation I gave some time ago. I want you to read it and I want each of you to write a commentstudent-typing-a-response  about which of these strategies you think might work best for you’. John looked at Helen and Rose and winked at them; they winked back. John had given them two model answers and they had already posted them there.

‘But you know’ John continued ‘learning English is not just about conscious study. Your English improves every day – without you realising it. Think about the clips you watch on YouTube or the songs you listen to. Now, with the person next to you, I want you to make a list of 5 such ways in which your English gets better daily’. [ …. ]

‘OK – lots of good points here…. Now – another thing I wanted us to do today, was to have a debate. You know how the government are thinking about lowering the voting age to 17? Well, here is the idea – why not make it 15? In pairs, I would like you to debate this. But first – make notes of the arguments you are going to use. OK – you have 3 min to prepare’. [ …. ]

‘Good. I feel this has been a very productive lesson. Well done everyone. Now if you remember, last time we said that it is a good idea if we think back to the lesson later and try to recall what we did and evaluate what went well and what didn’t and whether there is one or more mental notes we need to make. So what I would like you to do when you get home is to make an entry into your journal. A short paragraph of 8-10 lines should be ok’.

The bell rang. ‘OK – class dismissed’ John said ‘but not before you have tidied up first!’ ‘Aren’t you forgetting something, sir?’ Catherine asked. ‘You said earlier that if we did well, you were going to teach us some essential ‘Survival English’ phrases in case we ever found ourselves in the US’.  ‘Ah, yes’ John said. ‘Watch this….’ *

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:

‘…I could stand in for him….’…: A very good idea. When we do things for others, they are bound to reciprocate in the future and this mutual assistance helps build stronger relationships between people. It is actually better if we do not wait to be asked and we offer to help of our own accord. And it goes without saying that help should be offered unconditionally. People will reciprocate in their own time (Cialdini 2001 – ch. 2).

‘…Wow Mary! – Nice tan!….’…: A mountain of research has shown that we like people who pay us compliments – even if we do not actually believe these to be true. Genuine compliments is one of the best and fastest ways to get closer to someone and make them feel good (Yeung 2011 – pp. 177-179). A good compliment means that at the very least you care enough about someone to have noticed something about them.

‘…There is no point … is there? ….’…: A mistake in my opinion. I am not saying that students should necessarily sit every exam there is, but it is important that they have a sense of progress; this acts as a reward. These rewards have to be frequent and piecemeal rather than rare and large As teachers, we need to make sure they can see they are getting closer to their objective. It is crucial for motivation (Levine 2006 – pp. 116-118).

‘…You have to describe one learning strategy ….’…: Excellent! Research has shown that there is a big difference between studying something for yourself and studying something so you can explain it to others; in the latter case, we activate different parts of our brain and as a result knowledge sinks in deeper! (Lieberman 2013 – p. 289) Do not take my word for it; just watch this fantastic short clip with Professor M. Lieberman (click here).

‘…the winner will get this amazing reader….’…: A big mistake. Numerous studies have shown that contingent rewards (‘Do this and you’ll get that’) are actually demotivating in the long run. Essentially, students start thinking (subconsciously) ‘If I have to be bribed to do this, then it is clearly not such an enjoyable activity’ (Pink 2010 – p. 8). On the other hand there is nothing wrong with offering a ‘surprise reward’ (‘Wow! This is an excellent story! Here is a sticker’).

 ‘…I would like you to read an article of mine….’…: This may look like showing off, but anything that sends students the message ‘Your teacher knows what s/he is doing’ can help enormously in increasing compliance and minimising discipline problems (Cialdini 2001 – ch. 6). Clearly, if students can see that the teacher writes articles for other colleagues or is a regular presenter in conferences they will trust him/her more. Hiding your credentials out of a sense of modesty is counterproductive.

‘…John had given them two model answers….’…: This is brilliant! There are many times when people want to do things, but they just do not want to be the first (e.g. asking Qs at a Conference, volunteering for an activity, or contributing ideas in an online forum). In such cases you need 1-2 people to act as catalysts by demonstrating the desired behaviour (you may need to recruit them in advance). The results can be amazing! (Ross & Nisbett 2011 – p. 223). Watch this clip. Then watch it again (from Ferrrier 2014 – p. 143).

‘…Think about the clips you watch on YouTube….’…: Another excellent idea! Apparently, simply making people aware of what they normally do can help them change the way they see themselves and hence their behaviour (Heath & Heath 2011 – p. 125). The idea is that telling people about the massive exposure they get to English these days, may well encourage them to seek this exposure and do this more deliberately and hence more effectively.

‘…I would like you to debate this….’…: A very interesting moment. Some colleagues are averse to debates preferring instead consensus-building activities. Research however shows that debates can be extremely effective at stimulating interest (Heath & Heath 2008 – p. 85). The reason seems to be arousal; heightened arousal feels good (which is why we go on rollercoaster rides). This excitement generated by debates, games etc. can spill over to the lesson and increase motivation (see Lewis 2013 – p. 27).

 ‘…a short paragraph should be ok….’…: A slip. While the idea of getting students to reflect is great, this is apparently the first or second time they will be doing this. A paragraph may be too much. When you want to change people, it makes sense to start small (Wiseman 2012 – pp 187-189). Once they get into the habit of doing something, they start seeing themselves in a different light (‘Oh! I’m a reflective learner!’). Then they can go on to write more.

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?

Reciprocity: Do little things for other people. What you do has to be unconditional and it is best if you offer to help yourself. Reciprocity strengthens our bonds with others.

Compliments: Pay people genuine compliments. Compliments oil the wheels of social interaction and lead to closer relationships.

The gain factor: Make sure that students can see the progress they are making. People need ‘milestones’. Regularly. Forget milestones – make that ‘inch-pebbles’ (Heath & Heath 2011 – p. 136).

Peer teaching: Get students to teach each other things;  i) they learn even more themselves and  ii) they come to see themselves in a different light.

Rewards: Avoid using contingent rewards as an incentive. They often undermine intrinsic motivation. (That said, it is ok to give the occasional ‘surprise’ prize).

Authority: Make sure your students know how good you are (qualifications, testimonials of expertise etc.). They are more likely to be disciplined and they will learn more.

Modelling: Sometimes you need someone to model the desired behaviour to ‘get the ball rolling’. Get students, colleagues or friends to provide this model.

The placebo effect: Make students aware of how much exposure they get to English through their daily activities; this can make them think of themselves as ‘active learner’.

Arousal: Use high-arousal activities (e.g. debates, competitions etc.) in class. They both motivate students and their excitement often spills over to the content.

Starting small: To get people to do something new, start small. Once they have taken the first small step, this will change the way they perceive themselves and they will do more.

Last words: I know I have said that before, but I will say it again: it is incredible how much better language teachers we can become by learning from looking for ideas beyond ELT. Many colleagues think that to improve as EL teachers, they need to learn more about the language, or linguistics, or methodology; I think this is only true up to a point. Once we can do our job competently enough, we need to look elsewhere. To paraphrase Howard Schultz (founder and CEO of Starbucks) “We are not in the Language business teaching people; we are in the People business teaching language” – that is quite a shift in focus.

[ * I know you are dying to watch that clip on ‘Survival English’. Here it is… 🙂 ]


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

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

Ferrier, A. (2014) The Advertising Effect. South Melbourne, Oxford University Press.

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

Heath, C. & Heath, D. (2011) Switch. London: Random House.

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

Lewis, D. (2013) The Brain Sell. London: Nicholas Brealey Publishing.

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

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

Pink, D. (2010) Drive. Edinburgh, Canongate Books.

Ross, L. & Nisbett, R. (2011) The Person and the Situation. London: Pinter & Martin.

Wiseman, R. (2012). Rip it up. London: Macmillan.

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