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‘A moment can be worth a thousand minutes’

A hotel with a difference:  Imagine you are in LA and you are looking for somewhere to stay. Naturally, you turn to TripAdvisor and it is there that the ‘Magic Castle’ hotel catches your eye. It is not even a proper hotel – it is a building that was converted into one. The rooms are nothing to write home about, the facilities are fine but nothing really special. And yet… this hotel has the second highest rating based on thousands and thousands of reviews! What could its secret be? Well, I do not want to spoil it for you. I would rather let the great Dan Heath describe the place to you. Just watch this clip – then ask yourself this question: ‘Could I use a similar approach to motivate my students?’ Could it be that Rory Sutherland was on to something when he talked about ‘the centrality of peripheral elements’? (Sutherland 2011 – p. 31)

How can I make my lessons memorable?:  Could we learn something from the ‘Magic Castle’ – something that could help us improve our lessons? Heath and Heath argue that in most experiences (educational ones included) we are far too preoccupied with making sure things run smoothly – that no problems occur. This is fine, but nothing to post something on Facebook about. Instead they claim, we should make an effort to include ‘peak moments’ in these experiences. The justification for this lies in the way memory works.

Look at the first picture. Imagine the curve shows the course of a lesson. What we tend to think is that our memory keeps a record of everything and when we want to evaluate it, we work out the average of each point. Research by Kahnemann however shows that this is not so. What happens is that our brain compresses the memory, keeping just some of the points. In recalling the event, the brain is disproportionally influenced by ‘peak’ moments (good or bad) and by the way the experience ends. This is called the ‘Peak – End Principle’. (See Kahneman 2011 – ch. 35: ‘Two Selves’; To watch a short clip about these studies, just click here).

So what does all this mean for our lesson? In a few words, if you want students to rave about your lessons, make sure you incorporate some ‘peak moments’ in your lessons. How can we do this?

[NB: This post is based on a plenary talk I gave in Athens in March 2018. To go through / download the slides just click below].

Four Principles – Four Activities: Heath and Heath (on whose excellent book ‘The Power of Moments’ [Heath & Heath 2017] this whole article is based) single out four elements which can lead to great, memorable moments: Elevation – Pride – Insight – Connection. In what follows I describe each one briefly and I outline one activity for each of them that we can use with our students.

Peak Moments I – Elevation:  Some moments simply stand out from the others (think about fireworks or the moment the rollercoaster plunges down). ‘Elevation’ does not have to be something which is mentally uplifting; anything that rises above the drab and mundane can come into this category. Think about a gift with a dedication; or a little child’s drawing with your name on it; or simply watching a funny stand-up comedy clip. In the words of Heath and Heath: ‘Experiences which rise above the everyday. Times to be savoured. Moments that make us feel engaged, joyful, amazed, motivated. They are peaks’. Very often these are moments we might want to share.

How can I use this in class?: Anything that can break the monotony of the usual EL class can create such a moment. A mingling activity; a competition; singing along to a song; puzzles (think: ‘MindTrap’!); using jokes in class; a funny clip (see ‘Comedy for ELT’ on YouTube) or even an activity which presents students with an unusual challenge – like the one below (on the importance of incongruity for attracting attention, see Dutton 2010 – p. 234).

Activity 1: AQBL [To download a word document with all the activities, just click on this link].

Peak Moments II – Pride:  These moments are special because of something we have done – moments that capture us at our best. Think back to when you won a race for instance, or you created something beautiful or you gave a memorable performance. Alternatively, such moments can also be ones where others recognize our contribution – special award ceremonies, graduation ceremonies, the moment when we receive a certificate or even a simple ‘Thank You’ note from one of our students for helping him/her do well at a test. Once again, these are moments that we might want to share with others.

How can I use this in class?: Any activity where you ask students to create something themselves (rather than simply manipulate language) can potentially be a source of pride for them (see ‘The IKEA Effect’ in Ariely 2010 – ch 3). Projects fall into this category, as do mini presentations, the acting out of sketches, creative writing and activities like the one below.

Activity 2: A New Kind of Animal [To download a word document with all the activities, just click on this link].

Peak Moments III – Insight:  There are moments which capture our thoughts; moments when a realization hits us – when we experience an ‘A-ha!’ moment and we come to understand something that had puzzled us before, or we become aware of something new (why this should be rewarding is explained in Leslie’s excellent book ‘Curious’ – Leslie 2014). Such moments rewrite our understanding of the world. Frequently, they are the result of actual experiences, but very often they are things that we read – poems, stories, epigrams or anecdotes which move us or change the way we see things. The effect is stronger when there is an element of incongruity, when such texts are phrased in a strange way which highlights a hidden layer of meaning.

How can I use this in class?: Thanks to technology such material can be found everywhere today. TED talks, short videos on YouTube (e.g. ‘List 25’), mini sagas, surprising facts that students can research and present are all things we can use. I particularly like the ‘Stories of Mr Keuner’ by Brecht, but I have also found that using quotes is great too (see below).

Activity 3: Quotes [To download a word document with all the activities, just click on this link].

Peak Moments I – Connection:  These are moments which are special because they create some kind of a special bond between ourselves and others. Moments when we feel we belong, when we feel a strengthening of the bond with people we care about, such as celebrations, surprise parties or special outings. However, these can also be moments when we bring people closer to us by disclosing something about ourselves (hopes – dreams – fears – experiences) or moments when we discover that we share things in common with others. Anything that might facilitate this bonding, such as collaborating with someone or simply chatting about personal matters can foster this feeling of connection. (for more ideas on the importance of bonding and ways of getting people to connect, see the excellent Brafman & Brafman 2011).

How can I use this in class?: Any ‘humanistic’ activity fits the bill here though discovering similarities is obviously better. According to Brafman and Brafman (ibid pp 36-46), the more personal/intimate the information we disclose to others, the stronger the bond we forge with them. This can be a little sensitive, so simple ‘show and tell’ activities are perhaps best – like the one below.

Activity 4: Mobile Photos [To download a word document with all the activities, just click on this link].

One Last Activity:  This is a true story. Imagine you are on board a plane. At some point the voice of a flight attendant is heard on the intercom: ‘Ladies and gentlemen, we have a newlywed couple with us today…John and Leslie – raise your hands!’ And then he goes on to say something else…Once again I do not want to spoil this for you. Just watch this 1-min clip. Now think: Could we not use this activity in class? What about if a student is leaving? Or if a new student is joining the class? What if it is a special occasion for someone – or for the school? The possibilities are endless…. But how can we come up with such activities? Well, to paraphrase H. Schultz it pays to remember that ‘We are not in the language business teaching people; we are in the people business teaching languages’.



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

Brafman, O. & Brafman, R. (2011) Click. New York: Virgin Books

Dutton, K. (2010) Flipnosis: The Art of Split-second Persuasion. London: Random House

Heath, C. & Heath, D. (2017) The Power of Moments. London: Bantam Press

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

Leslie, I. (2014) Curious. London, Quercus Publishing

Sutherland, R. (2011) The Wiki Man. London: It’s Nice That and Ogilvy Group