Advertising – Creativity – Motivation

An ad with a twist:  Here is a task for you (and your students). This is an ordinary car advertisement. What are the features that make the car stand out according to the speaker? (Just click to watch the video below). OK – now confess: you did not expect the ending, did you? The casual viewer will just smile to him/herself and watch something else. But I would like to argue here that there is much more to this ad than meets the eye. What does this phenomenon (‘Change Blindness’) have to do with the car? Did the advertisers use this device simply to intrigue us? I do not think so. Read on.

‘The Strike and the Hit’:  In his fantastic book ‘Great Customer Experiences’ M. Watkinson mentions an interesting distinction made by the great samurai and duelist Miyamoto Musashi. Musashi said that when you aim a blow at someone and you injure them, this is a ‘strike’; but if you injure them by accident during the duel, this is a ‘hit’. Watkinson claims that this distinction is also relevant when looking at many big companies: the products they design are the result of a long process or research and purposeful development and they are often very good (a ‘strike’); however, when it comes to the customer experience, most companies do not deliberately set out to deliver something good, so when they do, that is a ‘hit’ (as in ‘hit and miss’ – Watkinson 2013, p. xi)

Creativity - Advertising - Motivation

Musashi and ELT: I believe something similar is true in the field of ELT: when it comes to designing lessons or coaching our students about the best way to study, we are good. This is our domain and we know what we are doing (a ‘strike’). When it comes to using Psychology in class however, it is a different matter. Experienced teachers do have an intuitive ‘sense’ of what might work best on many occasions, but I believe that even they would have some difficulty articulating the principles on which their practice is based. If something goes well, it is a ‘hit’. And I believe that with less experienced teachers, the ‘misses’ may well outnumber the ‘hits’. So this is the idea: why not learn from the experts? Why not see what advertising can teach us?

5 Ads – 5 Principles. In what follows I am going to look at 5 advertisements / campaigns and try to isolate the one key principle which I believe the advertisers exploited in order to achieve the effect they desired. In each case I will also recommend a specific activity which shows how we can make use of the same principle in the classroom.

Key Element Number 1 – Social Currency: So what about that Skoda commercial? In his great book ‘Contagious’, (2013) J. Berger looks at the elements which make something ‘go viral’. His studies have identified 6 such key traits and one of these is what he calls ‘Social Currency’. This is the quality of things to make us look good. For instance, when we share an interesting piece of gossip, this makes us look good as it suggests we have some ‘inside knowledge’. When we share a good joke with our friends, this may make them to want to hang out with us. It is the same with interesting or counterintuitive pieces of knowledge When we tell people that there are snakes which fly or carnivorous plants which can actually eat mice or small lizards that reflects well on us, so we do it. This is also the reason why people will often exaggerate certain elements about their experiences and why things tend to ‘grow in the telling’ (this often happens subconsciously and Berger quotes research in which this phenomenon has been tested in the lab [Berger 2013, p. 41]).

How can we use this element in class? The answer here is simple: we can give students interesting material to read/watch – stuff they would be interested in even if they were not in class. For instance, when I give my student a text about ‘pupil dilation’ (Pease & Pease 2004, p. 166) I don’t have to motivate them to read it; as soon as they hear that this is a fool-proof way of telling whether someone finds them attractive, my problem is how to get them to stop reading! In the same way, many of my students have made a note of the link of the Skoda car ad in order to share it with their friends. To exploit this principle in class, we can use a simple info-gap activity; it’s the content that makes the difference (to see an example, just click here).

Key Element Number 2 – Sociality: Imagine this is your first day at college. You feel a little awkward and lonely in this new environment. Would it not be great if somehow you could find an excuse to strike up a conversation and make new friends? (Click to watch the ad campaign).

This brilliant idea makes use of our need for social connection. M. Lieberman has conducted some fascinating studies on this and he discovered that we are hard-wired to crave sociality. In fact, this is so important for us that when our brains do nothing a special area is activated which just happens to be the one that processes social relationships (Lieberman has called this the ‘default network’ – Lieberman 2013 – p. 16). When doing nothing else, nature wants us to think about our relationship with others. The reason for this is that we are a species of social primates and social exclusion would have meant certain death in our ancestral environment. Our ancestors are the ones who played their ‘social cards’ right, which is why even today we obsess about the minor tiffs we may have with our friends and we can get paranoid if we feel our colleagues are giving us the cold shoulder.

How can we use this element in class? The implication here is clear: any activity which gets students working together is likely to motivate them, help them learn better and make them happier too. ‘Humanistic’ activities which require students to work in pairs or groups are particularly good. For instance, we could ask students to write the name of a famous person on a post-it note and stick it on the forehead of their partner. The latter then has to ask up to 20 Yes/No questions to discover their identity (e.g. ‘Am I alive?’ / ‘Am I male?’ etc.) We can even take this activity a step further by asking our students to point out any similarities or differences between themselves and the celebrity they have just identified (e.g. ‘Napoleon was very ambitious and so am I’ or ‘Marilyn Monroe was very attractive to members of the opposite sex about 50 years ago and this was also the case with me’ 🙂 ).

Key Element Number 3 – Identity: In this fantastic campaign, faced with market indifference, Rom (the traditional Romanian chocolate-maker) came up with a very clever trick… (Click to watch the video).

What the Rom people played upon in this campaign was people’s sense of national identity. This tendency of humans to identify with a group and want to belong to something larger rather themselves appears to be innate. In his great book ‘The Righteous Mind’ Moral Psychologist J. Haidt claims that we have evolved to have certain moral predispositions – the ones that would help us survive and reproduce. According to him, our moral make up is 90% chimp and 10% bee (Haidt 2012 – Ch. 10). We are mostly chimps, obsessed with status and getting ahead; but there is a part of us that has evolved to be altruistic – a ‘hivish’ part. Under the right circumstances, that part takes over and the group becomes more important than ourselves. Haidt argues that we can make use of these tendencies to get people to work together and to increase their motivation. A good example of this is the way students were divided up into ‘Houses’ at Hogwarts in Rowlings’ Harry Potter books. Notice that Ron and Harry for instance did not feel any particular animosity towards the other students – they just felt proud of belonging to their own particular House.

How can we use this element in class? Our ‘hivish’ tendencies can be dangerous – it is this feature of ours that sometimes lead to nationalism and xenophobia. However, in the Rom campaign there were no hard feelings against other groups – just pride in being Romanian. I believe this is something we can exploit in nationally / culturally uniform groups. The recipe is simple: we find something on the internet which is favourable towards the group’s identity. (OK – here is the interesting bit… 🙂 ) We then change the text so that it says exactly the opposite! Next we show the altered text to our students and we ask them for a response – perhaps by contributing a comment to a blog. The students usually do not mind that and their comments are often angry. Once they have finished, we then show them the real text. The students are usually so elated, they are prepared to write yet more comments – this time to praise the writer! Here is an example of such an activity (click here).

Key Element Number 4 – Emotion: In this ad, a number of children come up with the second part of a 2nd Conditional ‘If Clause’. But what is the 1st part? (click below to watch the ad).

The ad is very moving as it is meant to be, and the reason is that it plays on our emotions. In his excellent booklet ‘Emotion’ (2001) D. Evans explains how evolution has given us two distinct ways of processing reality: one fast, one slow. To adapt to a changing environment we use reason (‘OK – what do I do here?’). Reason is slow – we weigh up the facts to come up to a (hopefully sound) decision. For the important things in life however, nature has given us emotions. Emotions are immediate, powerful and beyond our control. If you were to see a lion a few meters ahead, nature did not design me to stop and think, but rather to scramble up the nearest tree – pronto! Because emotions deal with the important things in life (attraction, fear, anger, jealousy) our brain ‘tags’ emotional experiences (‘Remember this!’). For this reason, emotionally-laden experiences are far more memorable than ordinary ones, and this is something that advertisers exploit again and again.

How can we use this element in class? As Evans says (2001 – p. 63) one of the most powerful technologies that we have come up with for altering our emotional states is music. It follows then that one of the easiest ways to make activities memorable is to use music / songs in class. The following activity is both easy to use and extremely effective. Students listen to short clips taken from silent movie soundtracks and make very brief notes of the kind of images that come to their mind (click here to listen to the clips). Then they can simply share what they have imagined with the person next to them (the differences are often quite interesting). Alternatively, students could write a short paragraph describing the images that the music triggers in their mind; the teacher can collect these pieces of writing and put them up on the wall. The students could walk around and try to guess who wrote what.

Key Element Number 5 – Incongruity: In this ad, an employee thinks that using FedEx is costly, but his colleagues soon put him right. It turns out that he is wrong in other things as well… 🙂 (click below to watch the ad).

Why do we find this ad amusing? The answer is of course the incongruity of some of the things Ned seems to believe. In investigating the factors which can contribute to ‘instant persuasion’ K. Dutton (2010 – p. 215) came up with an interesting acronym: SPICE. Incongruity is the 3rd key factor. The reason it is so potent according to Dutton is that in order not to be drowned in the ‘noise’ of external stimuli, our brains operate for the most part in ‘autopilot’ – it screens out most things (remember the Skoda ad?), yet it remains alert and it instantly focuses our attention on something if it stands out in some way (in the ancestral environment, this could have been a potential threat – or an opportunity). Incongruity makes use of this mechanism. Having attracted our attention with these paradoxical statements, the advertisers then follow up with the slogan which now ‘registers’.

How can we use this element in class? Well, one implication is clearly that we can utilize incongruity to help our students ‘refocus’ if we notice that their eyes are beginning to glaze over. But the reason I chose this ad is that there is something else which is special about it. The dialogue framework could have been used to promote any idea – not just a courier service. This I believe is perfect for encouraging student creativity. We can give them a ‘framework’ and let them come up with ideas of their own. This is a key insight: supplying our students with a framework may actually boost their creativity rather than allowing them complete freedom – in the latter case, the decisions to be made are so many that the mind is exhausted before it comes to the creative part of the exercise (Heath & Heath 2008, p. 22). To see an example of how we could do this in class, click here.

Last words: Archeologists believe that the wheel was invented only once and then it spread around the world; however I believe it has been invented multiple times – in ELT. The reason is that our field is mostly insular; we tend to look for insights within our domain. But why not open up to other influences? Advertising has a great deal to teach us. Consider the following quote: “Creativity without strategy is called ‘Art’. Creativity with strategy is called ‘Advertising’.” (Jef. Richards) Great! If this is true, then we are all advertisers. Now – let us see what we can learn from our colleagues….

PS – Read this:  I could not possibly finish without mentioning the best book on the subject, namely Ferrier’s excellent ‘The Advertising Effect’ (Oxford 2014). Ferrier, a trained Psychologist, looks at how advertising makes use of our evolved psychological traits to influence us and get us to change – not necessarily in a bad way. 🙂 The book presents a carefully selected list of ingredients for motivating people and it is packed full of actual case studies. Strongly recommended.



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

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

Evans, D. (2001) Emotion: A Very Short Introduction. New York: Oxford University Press

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

Haidt, J. (2012) The Righteous Mind. London: Allen Lane

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

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

Pease, A. & Pease, B. (2004) The Definitive Book of Body Language. London: Orion

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


Identity and Change

‘Don’t Mess with Texas!’

The problem: The year: 1986. The place: Texas. Texas had a problem. The problem was litter. Litter was everywhere. It was not for lack of funds; the state was spending around $ 25 m a year on cleanup and that figure kept rising by an astonishing 15% per year. It was not for lack of effort; the authorities had tried all the standard approaches. There were signs which read ‘Please don’t litter’ and trash cans emblazoned with the pun ‘Please pitch in’. Nothing worked. It was clear that what was needed was somebody who would try a totally different approach – someone who would employ lateral thinking. Fortunately, such a person did exist and fortunately for Texas, they employed him. His name was Dan Syrek.

The ‘Don’t Mess with Texas’ Campaign: One of the reasons why previous attempts had failed was that what works in one occasion may not work in another. For instance, some of the environmental campaigns in the past had focused on people’s love for cuddly little animals such as owls (slogan: ‘Give a Hoot; don’t Pollute!’ [click here to watch]) or on people’s feelings of guilt (e.g. the famous ‘crying Indian’ ad [see video above]). But these approaches assume that people do care a little in the first place. What if they don’t?

The target audience: When Syrek and co started working on the problem, they quickly identified the main culprit. Not all sections of the population littered equally; by far the main offenders were male / macho / 18-35 pick-up driving guys whose main interests were sports and country music. Syrek even carried a picture of such a stereotypical yob with him – they called him ‘Bubba’. You can immediately see why the crying Indian cut no ice with such a person and as for the cuddly owls… 🙂

Carrots and sticks: What would we do if we were faced with such a problem? I think instinctively most of us would reach for the carrots and the sticks! But you cannot offer rewards to people for refraining from an action and in this case the sticks would perhaps backfire. One of the main distinguishing features of ‘Bubba’ was that he was anti-authority. Threatening him with fines or other sanctions would likely trigger a desire in him to break the rules even more (cf the notion of ‘Psychological Reactance’ – Cialdini 2001).

The Idea – ‘Texanness’: Instead of threatening these young men, Syrek and his team chose instead to take them on board! One of the most noticeable things about Bubba was that he was Texan and proud of it! So that was the idea: they took this element and latched something on to it – essentially ‘Texans do not litter cause they love their state!’ A whole series of commercials were created for the campaign. They all shared a number of features: a) They were direct (Bubba is not that sophisticated…) b) They used celebrities – but not just any celebrities; they were all people who were recognizably Texan.  c) They stressed two elements: ‘Texans don’t litter’ and ‘Texans care about whether others do’. d) They were clearly ‘macho’.

The Campaign: In one of the ads, two huge Dallas Cowboys players are seen collecting litter by the side of the road. One of them turns to the other and says ‘I’ve got a message for the guy who threw this out of the window’ – the camera shows us a beer can – ‘Only I kinda need to see him to deliver it…’ and he crushes the can with his fist – wow! 🙂  [click here to watch] In another ad, a baseball pitcher famous for his split-fingered fastball picks up some litter and hurls into a rubbish bin which blows up spectacularly – amazing! 🙂  [see below].

The Results: The success of the campaign was startling! Within months almost 3 out of 4 people could recall the message. A year later, littering had declined by almost 30%. Within 5 years, visible littering had dropped by a staggering 72% and an emergency fund of $ 1m which had been earmarked to enforce litter laws with punitive measures was scrapped as unnecessary…(Case Study described in Heath & Heath 2008 – pp 195-199)

Applications in the field of ELT:  While this Case Study does not offer us immediately transferrable lessons, there are many key principles we have clear implications for classroom management:

Emotion trumps reason: Notice that the campaign did not try to persuade people with arguments or statistics. The notion that to change people you need to persuade them is very common – and very wrong. In fact, in most cases people know what is ‘right’ (e.g. smoking, drinking etc.). What is needed to sway them is an emotional appeal. In a famous study, people were approached and asked for donations on behalf of a charity; half of them were given statistical info about the extent of famine in Africa – the other half were given a story about Rokia, a poor 7-year-old African girl. People in the second condition gave 76% more (Yeung 2011).

Know thy ‘enemy’: One of the reasons the campaign was so successful was that it was not addressed to all and sundry. It is amazing how clear Syrek was about the person he wanted to reach: male – young – anti-authority. In this way he was able to ‘tailor’ the message to the recipient. Similarly, we cannot adopt an ‘one-size-fits-all’ approach when teaching our students. To be able to motivate them we need a careful needs analysis particularly in ESP (e.g. Robinson 1991 – Ch 2) and Teaching 1-to-1 (e.g. Osborne 2005, Ch 3). But even this is not enough; to see what really makes our students tick we need to get close to them and interact with them ourselves!

Focus on identity: Haidt (2012) points out that we all have a ‘hivish’ tendency; a tendency – indeed a need – to belong to something larger than ourselves (the ‘hive’). Stimulated by this feeling, people can be astonishingly altruistic and – more to the point – they can change very quickly! The ‘hive’ can be almost anything; it can be one’s nation, one’s place of origin (Texas!), a football club (‘Barcelona’!) or one’s school house (‘Gryffindor’!). The last example is a very interesting one; if one can harness this the results can be spectacular!

Remodel that identity: What the campaign essentially did was to ‘tag’ an extra feature to the ‘Texan identity’. There is no reason why Texans should care about the environment, but the ads managed to create that link by using role models (in this case athletes and folk singers) who shared this identity (Texan celebrities). Tim Murphey (2012) talks of NPRM (Near-Peer Role Models) and their potential in shaping student behaviour. By getting older (and perhaps successful) students to give mini talks in our classes or even just showing them examples of successful projects they have been involved in, we can go a long way towards motivating our learners.

Don’t destroy your message: It is vital to note that one thing Syrek and his team avoided was saying that the root cause of the problem was that everyone was littering. Saying something like ‘The reason why we are here today is that nobody bothers to be environmentally-conscious’ would have been a blunder; in fact it would be telling every Bubba in Texas – ‘Everyone is doing it – why should you be any different?’ (Godstein, Martin & Cialdini 2007) Telling students ‘I hope you are not like the other group who never look at their books until their teacher tells them to the next day’ encourages them to do just that.

Avoid dissonance: Notice that Syrek’s team did not bother to address the apparent clash between their message (‘Texans obviously would not pollute Texas!’) and Bubba’s previous behaviour. They simply ignored the latter! Subconsciously, the campaign worked like this: ‘Do you love Texas?’ – ‘Yes, I do!’ – ‘So help us keep it clean!’ (It goes without saying that you would not dream of polluting yourself!) According to Fine (2005) our vain brain routinely ‘rewrites’ our memories so Bubba conveniently forgot what his previous practices were!! It is often the same with unruly students; if you give them an ‘assistant Teacher’ role, you may find that they take to it with gusto, conveniently forgetting what their behaviour was only a few days previously!

George the pastor: OK – here is a final ad from the campaign: George Foreman was a boxer – and not just any boxer; he was one of the all-time greats. A world champion, he lost to legendary Muhammad Ali but he made a comeback 20 years later and won the title again at the age of 45! What is not so well known about him is that he was also an ordained Baptist minister. In this amazing commercial from the same campaign he is seen preaching, telling the congregation what to do ‘if your brother does so-and-so’. Then suddenly he says ‘But if he ever, ever messes with Texas…’ (the choir stop in puzzlement) ‘…pray for him brother; pray for him!’ 🙂  Excellent!!

[This article first appeared in the NL of the IATEFL ‘Global Issues’ SIG].


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

Fine, C. “A Mind of its Own”  Icon Books 2005

Goldstein, N., Martin, S. & Cialdini, R. “Yes! 50 secrets from the science of persuasion”  Profile Books 2007

Haidt, J. “The Righteous Mind” Allen Lane 2012

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

Murphey, T. “Teaching in Pursuit of WoW!” Abax 2012

Osborne, P. “Teaching English One-toOne” Modern English Publishing 2005

Robinson, P. “ESP Today” Prentice Hall 1991

Yeung, R. “i is for Influence” Macmillan 2012

Psychology and ELT – ‘The Uncollection’

‘Take a note – any note!’

 Church in trouble:  ‘Ask not what thy God can do for you; ask what thou canst do for thy God’. But surely God doesn’t need our help? Well, perhaps not, but his vicars on Earth sometimes do. Such was the situation Reverend Steel found himself in. St John’s was a Victorian-era church and badly in need of maintenance. Reverend Steel had tried everything – charity appeals, fundraisers, the lot. Yet he was still far from having collected the funds he needed. And the bills kept mounting. Things sure looked gloomy. And then he had an inspiration. Yes, that was it! The answer was in the Bible – Matthew, Chapter 24:14-30. The parable of the talents! If that didn’t do it, nothing would. In any case, it was worth a try…

CS Uncollection 5 Hard times call for extraordinary measures:  It was an ordinary November Sunday in Kirkheaton.  The weather was bracing, the sky was overcast and the faithful had gathered for Sunday mass. As everyone knows, it is the custom that at some point during such services a collection box or a collection tray is passed around and the congregation are asked to make a contribution – bills after all need to be paid. Only that particular Sunday in November 2012 things were different.

The plate was indeed passed around as it had always been. Only this time there would be no contributions. This time the church was giving money away! The tray was full of crisp, £ 10 notes. Not quite believing their ears, the people present heard their priest actually encouraging them to take a note each! Tentatively, hesitantly and looking around to check that they had not misunderstood anything, the people did as they were bid.

Then from the pulpit, Reverend Steel reminded his flock of the parable of the talents.  And he told them all about the man who was going on a journey and who called his servants and ‘entrusted to them his property’. And how when he came back he asked them what they had done with it. So Reverent Steel urged his parishioners to do as the servants had done. They were to go away, use this money in any way they saw fit, and then perhaps in the future they could bring back what money they had made…

…So how did it go? Six months after that memorable event, a BBC crew who had covered the original story, went back to see what had happened. To say they were stunned would be putting it mildly. After their initial shock, the congregation had risen to the occasion. A parishioner had used the money to make some cakes and then held a cake sale; some children had used the money to buy seeds which they had planted and then sold the produce at a profit; others had bought things on e-bay and then re-sold them at a higher price. The result of all these efforts was that Reverend Steel was left with twenty times the original sum he had given away! His initial investment of £ 550 had yielded £ 10,000! Brilliant! 🙂  (The story appears in Martin, Goldstein & Cialdini 2014 – pp. 158-163) 1

CS Uncollection 4

Applications in the field of ELT:  So what can we learn from Reverend Steel? There are three important principles here:

Reciprocity: The Moral: ‘If you do something for others, they feel duty bound to return the favour’. This is hardly surprising, but there are two things which are less clearly understood: a) the urge to reciprocate is so strong, that we do this even if we do not particularly like the other person and  b) people often return the favour with interest – ‘you scratch my back, I’ll give you a body massage!’ (Regan 1971) And people like you more. So, if you want your students (or your teachers, if you are a DOS) to do things for you, make sure you do something for them first! NB: For the mechanism to be triggered, what you offer has to be offered without any strings attached; ‘Take the money now – it’s yours. In the future, IF you want…’

Incongruity: Can you imagine the effect that ‘the uncollection’ had on the congregation? I am sure people were completely dumbfounded! Incongruity (jolting people by violating their expectations) is seriously underused – perhaps because we think of it as a cheap trick. But it is much more than that. Dutton considers it one of the 5 key elements in instant persuasion 2 (Dutton 2010 – p. 215). Incongruity helps people notice things; when they notice things, they remember them better; the message that follows a surprising event / statement is more likely to be persuasive; and as an additional bonus, people are more likely to share the experience with their friends – so your message travels further (Berger 2014 – p. 42). The Moral: ‘To make things memorable and improve your standing with your students / staff, surprise them!’

Personal investment: The most devilish part in Reverent Steel’s otherwise laudable ploy was this phrase: ‘use it in any way you see fit’. Notice he did not say ‘return it’. The idea is that people had to do something with this money – something for the church. So you can imagine people going ‘Hmmm… What can one do with £ 10?’ But this is just the thing; the moment you start thinking about it you have moved from being a passive supporter to being an active one. The moment you make those cakes to sell, you have changed your self-perception and this is likely to go far beyond a mere £ 10 and extend far into the future. 3 The Moral: ‘If you want your students / staff to change and become more active, get them to do / invest / sacrifice something’ 4.

CS Uncollection 6

Final words:  Real life is unfolding all around us. And it is full of lessons. It pays to go around with open eyes and ears so you make a mental note whenever you come across something interesting. The hard bit of course is applying those lessons. Sometimes however the ideas are directly transferrable. Take the ‘uncollection’ for instance. Why can’t we do the same at the next TESOL Greece Convention? Instead of selling raffle tickets to people, they could get some AND receive a € 10 note for each of them!  Then they could spend the next few weeks thinking how they could raise money for TESOL Greece! Yes – the more I think about the idea, the more I like it. I think I’ll have 5 of these tickets myself! 🙂

If you are interested in reading more about the story, just click here

2 The 5 key elements are: Simplicity (Keep it simple); Perceived self-interest (What’s in it for me?); Incogruity (Wow! What’s going on here?!); Confidence (If I say so – that’s it!); Empathy (I know how you are feeling…) = SPICE! (Dutton 2010 – p. 215).

Perhaps the best known study on this is the one where some people innocently agreed to put up a 3″ x 3″ sticker on their window which read ‘Drive Carefully’. A few weeks later, a staggering 76% of them agreed to put up a huge, ugly sign with the same message on their lawn! (Freedman et al. 1966)

4  The mechanism is that of Cognitive Dissonance (Festinger 1957). Subconsciously, our brain thinks: ‘Oh, I have just spent 5 hours trying to find something to buy and re-sell on e-bay so that I can give the money to the church. Either I am stupid, or I really do care about this old building. (Which of the two explanations do you think our brain will go for?)


Berger, J. “Contagious” Simon & Schuster 2013

Dutton, K. “Flipnosis” Random House 2010

Festinger, L. (1957). “A Theory of Cognitive Dissonance”. California: Stanford University Press.

Freedman J. L. & Fraser S. C. (1966) ‘Compliance without pressure: the foot-in-the-door technique’ Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 4, 195-203

Martin, S., Goldstein, N., & Cialdini, R. “The Small Big”  Profile Books 2014

Regan, R. T. (1971). “Effects of a favor and liking on compliance”. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology 7: 627–639

Communication: Creativity and Lateral Thinking

CS Troy Library: ‘Burn the Books!’

Endangered Species: Once upon a time there was a little library. It was full of books and people loved it. Children spent many a happy hour browsing for little gems among its shelves. Alas, as often happens in fairy tales, things changed and the local authorities found themselves in dire financial straits. If the library was to be saved, the people would have to agree to a 0.7% rise in local taxes. August the 2nd was scheduled as the voting day. The fate of the little library hang in the balance…

An uphill struggle: Things looked bleak. As soon as the date was announced, the ‘Tea Party’ movement, a vociferous and well-funded group, started campaigning in favour of a ‘No’ vote to the proposed tax rise. These people were well organised and it was soon evident that the focus had shifted from whether the library should be saved to something very different – whether one was for or against taxes. The answer to this is of course a no-brainer…

The campaign: Faced with imminent disaster, the supporters of the ‘Yes’ movement realised that a normal campaign would be doomed. It was time for something different. Something drastic. Something spectacular. Could lateral thinking be the answer? Then one of them had a brainwave: ‘Why not go to the opposite extreme? Never mind the library – let us burn those books!’ (I won’t spoil it for you – just watch the video [Case Study mentioned in Ferrier 2013 – p. 101]).

The lessons: So what are the lessons to be gleaned from this amazing case? To me, there are at least 3 things worth noting:

  • Framing: How an issue is framed can often determine what stand people take (Freedman 2013 – ch 27). It is all about playing to your strengths. Attention is a commodity in short supply and if your cause is right it is vital not to allow people to be distracted by irrelevant issues (e.g. Immigration scare-mongering as opposed to who is responsible for the plight of the economy).
  • Emotion: Arousing emotions is a great motivator. Anger is particularly potent (in Berger’s words ‘Make them mad – not sad!’ [Berger 2013 – p. 117]). In this respect the ‘book burning’ idea was a stroke of genius as it clearly evokes images of Nazis burning books in Hitler’s evil regime. It was this visceral anger that motivated people to act – by posting comments, raising the issue in public forums etc.
  • Incongruity: To cut down on processing effort, our brain does not notice everything. It normally operates on autopilot, until something strikes it as strange, weird or out of place. Then it switches to high alert and things start to register properly. Here, the element of incongruity was used twice; first with the ‘Book Burning Party’ and then once again when the whole story came out. Amazing! Moral: to attract attention, break a pattern! (Heath & Heath 2008 – p. 64)

The role of the media: Notice that a key component of the success of this (counter-) campaign was the media. The whole thing went viral and when the true identity of the ‘whackos’ was revealed, this led to a second wave of media coverage. Why was it so successful? The campaign ticks three items in Berger’s list of virality ingredients: ‘Public’ (it was very visible); ‘Triggers’ (whenever people saw books or a fireplace they were reminded of it) and ‘Emotion’. In Berger’s words – ‘When we care, we share’ (ibid – ch 3).


Berger, J. (2013) Contagious. London: Simon & Schuster.
Ferrier, A. (2014) The Advertising Effect. South Melbourne, Oxford University Press.
Freedman, L. (2013) Strategy. New York, Oxford University Press.
Heath, C. & Heath, D. (2008) Made to Stick. London: Random House.

‘Gamification: Hotel 626’


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Learning from the experts:  How do you frighten the life out of teenagers? Here is a recipe: you take the demon child from ‘The Exorcist’, the scary corridor shots from ‘The Shining’ and a number of killer psychopaths from ‘Scream’, you mix them all together and, hey presto, you have got ‘Hotel 626’! Why would you want to scare teenagers senseless? Why, to sell stuff of course! Amazingly, ‘Hotel 626’ – an interactive video game – was designed for promotional purposes! But it is nothing like the infomercials we watch on TV. While the ingredients are familiar, the cooking method employed and the spices used simply blew my mind away! No wonder it won the most prestigious marketing award, the Cyber Lion, in 2009. As I mostly teach teenagers I can just imagine them glued to the screen, hearts pounding, totally absorbed – totally focused and I ask myself: ‘Can we not design equally effective materials?’ To get an idea of what the game is like, just watch the short clip below.

‘Hotel 626’ – The Game:  You need to check into the hotel. Significantly, the game asks for permission to use your webcam and your mobile phone number – as well as access to your Facebook friends. Then the action starts and you wake up inside the hotel of your worst nightmares. The lighting is dim and ominous creaks suggest that staying put is not an option. You can hear your shallow breath and your heart pounding. Your task is ‘simple’ – you have to stay alive and get out.  To do this you run down the corridors blindly searching for an exit. While looking around you find yourself in the room of a serial killer – and find your own picture among his would-be victims! Then you get a phone call – on your real mobile phone! A creepy voice gives you some instructions. There are a number of things you have to do and you have to make sure you do them right, or else…

You need to take a picture of a dangerous psychopath and lull a demon baby to sleep (creepy doesn’t even begin to describe it!). At some point you find yourself in a small room with a maniac wielding a chainsaw. You barricade yourself inside a closet but it’s only a matter of time before he gets you. All is not lost however – you can send a message to your friends and ask them to help you. If they agree, they need to scream into their microphones and hit as many keys on their keyboard as they can in order to distract him – in the confusion, you might just escape. In another twist of the plot, players find themselves presented with a dilemma: they see two pictures of real Facebook friends of theirs and they have to choose who is going to live and who is not long for this world… If you manage to avoid being devoured or hacked to pieces you eventually get to a door. The door is locked. If only you could find a way to open it… (Game description in Lewis 2013 – p. 214)

Applications in the field of ELT:  This game proved to be hugely addictive with teenagers. As Tom Chatfield says, the power of video games to motivate and transfix players is awesome 1 (TED talk – 0:30). So, what can we learn from this? What are the key elements that we can perhaps transfer to our teaching?

Tailoring: To make the game more attractive, the designers have ‘tailored’ it to teenagers’ preferences and lifestyle. Notice the genre (horror!), the medium (a computer on-line game) and the use of the social media. If we are teaching teenagers and we want them to read, it might make sense for us to give them stories like ‘The Baskerville Hound’ (Doyle) or ‘The Black Cat’ (Poe) rather than ‘A Tale of Two Cities’ (Dickens). Computer-based adventures (e.g. ‘Cluefinders’ – see below) are more likely to appeal to them than board games. And of course, if we can incorporate the use of the social media in classroom work, students are more likely to be motivated as it is in our interests to break down the distinction between ‘classroom’ (boring) and real life (exciting). 2

The importance of story lines: It is one thing for people to have to solve problems, it’s quite another if these problems are embedded in a story-line and are part of an overall objective. Hotel 626 does have this of course, which is why it is so gripping, but the principle can be used in an educational context as well. One of the best applications of this principle I have seen is the ‘Cluefinders’ series produced by The Learning Company. Each adventure follows a group of children as they collect clues in order to solve a mystery, recover a lost treasure or save someone. Intended for American children, these games use a variety of tasks to teach 7 to 10-year-olds elements of Geography, Arithmetic, Reading Skills and Vocabulary.  As all the interactions are in English, I have used these with my students and they loved them! 3

Hotel 626 aInteractivity: By ‘interactivity’ I do not simply mean that the subject does something but that the action changes as a result of what they do. Having control over what happens is a huge motivator (Gilbert 2006 – p. 21). In RPGs like Hotel 626 it’s the player who decides what happens next. Alas, most of what happens in class is far from interactive. Even if the students do things, it is usually the coursebook or the teacher who decides how things will unfold. A notable exception is the ‘Survivor’ game which I came across in a resource book (Anderson 2004 – p. 54). Students have to survive on a desert island and they have to take decisions at different stages. Depending on what they decide they move to different locations where they are confronted with a new problem. It is essentially very similar to a ‘Cluefinders’ adventure only it does not employ technology. Despite that it has proved enormously popular with my students.

The social element: According to Lieberman (2013) the number one priority for humans is to establish and maintain strong bonds with their social group. This is even more so with teenagers. Given this fact, it is amazing that in the field of Education the ‘social’ element is often considered to be the enemy of learning (Lieberman – RSA talk [18:05] – click here). Advertisers and game designers are of course miles ahead. In WoW for instance, people get to go on missions with their friends (Gottschall 2012 – Chapter 9) while in the hugely successful ‘Farmville’, you have to water your crops at regular intervals, or they will die. How can you do that when for whatever reason you are busy? Why, you rely on your friends of course. You text them and ask them to water them for you! (McRaney 2013 – p. 225). Notice how cleverly this is done in ‘Hotel 626’ – remember how you can save yourself from that maniac? (See also Chatfield’s TED talk – 12:25).

Hotel 626 bPersonalisation: The other noteworthy element about ‘Hotel 626’ is how it has been made to feel real by incorporating elements from your everyday life. Notice little details like the pictures of yourself you see in the maniac’s lair, the appearance of your Facebook friends in the game and the brilliant touch of the phonecall you get on your actual mobile phone! As Fine (2005) points out, we cannot help ourselves; as human beings we are the centre of our universe and everything that has to do with ourselves is far more likely to motivate us than most elements which simply have to do with the outside reality or other people. It follows then that any learning activity which involves personalization, whether it is relating adjectives of personality to our relatives and friends or giving a talk about our actual hobbies or making a Brainshark slide presentation with the pictures of our last holiday is likely to increase motivation.

Arousal: A final noteworthy point is that of arousal. Notice how in the game the player is always in a state of high alertness. Make no mistake – this is one of the main reasons behind the attraction of games like WoW or even blitz chess! There are two reasons why one might consider using high-arousal activities in class. The first one is that high arousal often means you remember things better (see below!). So, activities like wall-dictation for instance, where students have to run back and forth, or high-intensity time-pressure competitive games like ‘Just a Minute’ can pay great dividends in terms of information retention. But there is another reason as well; high arousal activities (e.g. riding a roller-coaster) involve the secretion of chemicals that make us feel good. Incredibly, this has a spill-over effect (Saloway, Yale Courses, Lecture 9) 4. To put it simply, your students may come to like English lessons, partly because they feel good after such an activity!

What was being advertised?:  You will never guess… Never in a million years. The answer is:… Doritos chips! Incredibly, neither the logo nor the product itself appear during the entire game. Except in the last scene that is, when players come to a dead end. There is only one way out, but the door is locked. As demons, madmen etc are hot on the player’s heels they have to think of something – fast! For the opening mechanism to be activated, the frantic teenager has to hold a code or marker up to a webcam. Fortunately that code is printed on a bag of Doritos chips which happens to be lying around… Under such circumstances, it’s hardly surprising that the brand name is indelibly etched on the player’s memory! Did the idea work? Well, when the game was first launched, 2 million bags of the target flavours were sold within 3 weeks…

1 Tom Chatfield’s short TED talk offers very interesting lessons for Educators – and the lessons do not just have to do with video games. Notice how ‘Hotel 626’ makes use of points 4 (Instant Feedback), 5 (Uncertainty) and 7 (Other People). To watch the talk, just click here.

2 Tailoring goes far beyond the classroom. During the first gulf war, the US troops suffered a disproportionate number of eye injuries from shrapnel etc. When the army looked into it, they discovered soldiers hated wearing their goggles because they thought they were ugly. Solution: they designed cooler goggles (Hallinan 2009 – p. 214)

3 To get an idea of what the tasks look like, just click here. You can see a number of tasks at 15:31, 18:30, 1:04:30, 1:14:55 etc.

4 For the phenomenon of misattribution, see Salovery P., Yale Courses: Introduction to Psychology (PSYC 110). Lecture 9 – 43:55. To watch the talk, just click here.

[This article first appeared in the IATEFL ‘Learning Technologies’ SIG NL]



Anderson, J. “Teamwork” Delta Publishing 2004

Chatfield, T. “7 Ways Video Games Engage the Brain” TED Talk, YouTube 2010.

Fine, C. “A Mind of its Own”  Icon Books 2005

Gilbert, D. “Stumbling on Happiness” Harper Perennial 2007

Gottschall, J. “The Storytelling Animal” Houghton Mifflin 2012

Hallinan, J. “Why We Make Mistakes” Broadway 2009

Hotel 626 trailer: “Psychology and ELT – Technology and Motivation” YouTube 2014

Lewis, D. “The Brain Sell” Nicholas Brealey Publishing 2013

Lieberman, M. “Social” Oxford 2013

Lieberman, M. “Making Social a Superpower in the Classroom” RSA Talks, YouTube 2013

McRaney, D. “You can Beat your Brain” Oneworld 2013

Saloway, P. Yale Courses “Introduction to Psychology” Lecture 9, YouTube 2008

Psychology and ELT – Story-Generating Activities

‘Getting learners to do what comes naturally to them’

Geometric Thriller: Look at the screen below. What do you see inside the frame? Well, clearly, there is an open box and three geometric shapes: a large triangle, a smaller one and a small circle. What happens however if these shapes start moving about? Will you still see them as small, 2D objects moving about on a screen? If so, you are a rare person indeed! But do not take my word for it; just click on play and watch the 90 second film for yourself. Chances are, what you are going to see is a story – perhaps like this one 1. In the original study (Heider & Simmel 1944) what 33 out of the 34 subjects saw was a true thriller! But how does this happen?

Gazzaniga’s Experiments: In a series of fascinating experiments, Michael Gazzaniga discovered ‘the interpreter’ – a neural circuit which helps to organise a person’s experience into a meaningful whole. Gazzaniga worked with split-brain patients. These people had undergone operations which had severed the corpus callosum which links the two brain hemispheres. Researchers had pictures briefly flashed in front of either the left or the right eye (this information is conveyed to the right or left hemisphere respectively).

Stories 4In one case, the patient was shown a chicken claw (L hemisphere) and was asked to pick a picture with his R hand. He chose that of a chicken. When asked why, he correctly pointed out the link between the claw and the bird. Then he was shown a snowy scene (R hemisphere) and once again was asked to pick a picture. He picked that of a shovel. When asked why however, his R brain could not reply, because the verbal functions are mostly located in the other hemisphere! Here comes the interesting bit: the L hemisphere (which controls language) had no idea why the subject had picked the shovel, but it made up an explanation nevertheless on the basis of the information it had!! The patient said ‘Well… you need a shovel to clean out the chicken coop!’ Amazing!!

Time and again the researchers got the same results; when they flashed a card which read ‘Walk’ to the R hemisphere, the patient got up and started walking. When asked why, he did not know of course but ‘the interpreter’ in the L hemisphere made up a reason just the same – ‘I’m going to get a Coke!’ (studies described in McRaney 2012, p. 19).

Implications for ELT: So here is the idea: it appears that this ‘interpreter’ – the module which ‘connects the dots’ into a coherent whole is part of the ‘standard equipment’ of the human brain. Not only that; because such an ability was so useful to us, nature has fitted us with a reward mechanism, so we get a neuro-chemical reward every time we manage to do so (Ramachandran & Hirstein 1999). It follows therefore that activities which use a range of stimuli to encourage learners to come up with stories should be both pleasurable and ones which come naturally to them. Here are six examples:

Warm-up activities 1: Many of the texts we give our students to read are in fact stories. To get our students interested and prepare them for reading by activating their mental schemata we can select a few key words and get the students in pairs to come up with their own version of what happened. That will provide them with the motivation to read the text in order to see how accurate their predictions were. This is a very versatile activity and requires very little preparation.

Warm-up activities 2: This is a more sophisticated version of the above, particularly suitable for listening texts. Using simple editing tools (e.g. ‘Audacity’), we can cut some sentences from the text and get students to listen to them in random order (alternatively we can just type them up and give them to the students). Then they have to work together to sequence them and once again speculate about what might have happened in the story (e.g. Vince 1992, p. 44).

Ambiguous stories: In this activity, students are given a set of pictures, where the sequence is not obvious. Students have to decide on a plausible order and write up the story. They can then read their story aloud and their partner / their classmates can arrange the pictures in the right order as the story unfolds. Alternatively each student can come up with his/her own version and compare it with that of their classmates (Ur 1988, p. 219).

Creative story writing 1: In this fantastic activity, students are given ideas for the beginning and the end of a story (e.g. Beginning: ‘A hiking holiday’ – ending: ‘A first prize’) and many words / phrases in-between some of which are connected together in a grid. Students can  choose different ‘routes’ (e.g. ‘A hiking holiday’ – ‘an accident’ – ‘a wedding’ – ‘something found’ etc. etc. … – ‘a first prize’) and in the end they can again compare their version to that of their classmates (Grellet, 1996, p. 120)

Stories 9aCreative story writing 2: This is a more interactive version of the above. Students are told they are going to write fairy tales. They work in pairs. Each student is given a picture of an object (e.g. a ring). They have to write 2-3 sentences and try to include the object somehow. Then they swap stories with the person next to them. Their partner has to continue the story while including a new object. After 2-3 sentences the process is repeated, until in the end students are given some time to finish off the story any way they like.

Sounds into story: Although this idea is an old one, it still has great novelty value as it is very different from all the others. Students listen to a sequence of sounds (e.g. an engine starting, a cat meowing, a window smashing, etc.) They then have to try to figure out what happened and write down the story (if you want to try this with your class, just click here). There are many variations of this idea (e.g. Maley & Duff 1975) and nowadays of course sound effects are readily downloadable, which means that teachers can easily create their own sequences.

From Thrillers to Romance: OK – here is something else you can use with your students  (‘Watch this ad, then write the story!’) As Berger (2013 – p. 115) explains, Google wanted to show people how easy it is to use their engine to find just about everything. So in this beautiful ad we follow a young American who travels to Paris in order to study. Upon getting there, he looks for a café nearby… and then his whole life changes. The ad is short, sweet and hugely popular (7.5 m hits and counting!). Like a treasure hunt, the carefully selected clues lead the viewer to effortlessly reconstruct what happened. The ad cost next to nothing and yet it was voted best Super Bowl commercial for 2010.  That speaks volumes about the power of stories….

1 “The small triangle and the small circle (the couple) enter the screen together and the big triangle (the villain) storms out of his house. The big triangle violently butts the little guy (small triangle) out of the way and herds the protesting heroine (small circle) back into his house. The big triangle then chases the circle back and forth trying to work her into a corner. The scene reeks of sexual menace…” (Gottschall 2012 – p. 106)


Berger, J. “Contagious” Simon & Schuster 2013

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

Gottschall, J. “The Storytelling Animal” Houghton Mifflin 2012

Grellet, F. “Writing for Advanced Learners of English” Cambridge 1996

Heider, F. & Simmel, M. “An Experimental Study of Apparent Behaviour” American Journal of Psychology 57 (1944): 243-259

Maley, A. & Duff A. “Sounds Interesting” Cambridge 1975

McRaney, D. “You are not so Smart” Oneworld 2012

Ramachandran and Hirstein ‘The Science of Art: A Neurological Theory of Aesthetic Experience’ Journal of Consciousness Studies 1999

Ur, P. “Grammar Practice Activities” Cambridge 1988

Vince, M. “Highlight Intermediate” Heinemann 1992

Happiness and ELT

Following numerous requests by colleagues (well, ok, 1.5 messages if you must know…) I eventually decided to indulge in this shameless act of self-promotion… 🙂 The aim of this talk was to present some findings from the field of Positive Psychology as well as 4 practical activities that we can use in class to make our students happier. Now I know what you are thinking: ‘No way am I going to watch a talk lasting 45 min!’. Quite. Feel free to ignore it. The important bit is a 2 min section: 8:27 – 10:38. I was completely blown away by this idea the first time I encountered it in Nettle (‘Happiness’ – Oxford 2006, p. 14).

Psychology and ELT – Arousal

‘What’s wrong with being ‘high’?’

‘I think I’m in love’:  You cross your bridges when you come to them. That makes sense. But now imagine that having crossed one of these bridges, you are accosted by a pretty girl who would like to ask you some questions for a research project. Assuming for a moment that you are of the male persuasion and you happen to like girls, this sounds like a good thing. It gets even better, when at the end of the questionnaire she gives you her telephone number (!) and tells you that if you would like to learn more about the study you can call her any time (jackpot!). Well, do you call her? And does it matter what kind of a bridge you have just crossed? Just watch the video…

A spillover effect:  The Capillano shaky bridge experiment (Dutton & Aron 1974) is one of the most famous in Social Psychology. The idea is this: the physiological effects of a number of emotions are actually very similar – they trigger a heightened state of arousal. Our bodies get ready for action, but what kind of action? Fighting? Fleeing? Flirting? We assume that we know, because we assume it was this knowledge that led to the arousal in the first place (‘Ooops! A lion! I’d better start feeling afraid!’). Yet Psychologists argue that emotions are generated in the part of the brain which is beyond our consciousness (the ‘Adaptive Unconscious’ – Wilson 2002, ch. 2). So what happens instead is that we feel this arousal and (not being aware of what has caused it) we look around trying to detect the source (‘I feel aroused – Why? Ooops! A lion – it must be that I am afraid!’). Now you might say this has little to do with teaching, but what about the following studies?

Jogging and sharing: Subjects were invited in the lab to take part in a couple of studies. Half of them were asked to sit down and relax; the other half however were instructed to jog on the spot for 60 seconds. They were somewhat taken aback of course, but they complied. All subjects were then asked to take part in a seemingly unrelated study. Researchers told them they were interested to see what kind of things people shared. So they were each given a recent article to read and told that if they found it interesting, they could e-mail it to a friend. The results were stunning: a staggering 75% of the people who had jogged chose to share the article – twice as many as the ones who had not! (Berger 2013 – p. 121) We can see the same spillover effect in action; people attributed their arousal to the article. ‘I feel excited, ergo this article must be interesting’. And if you care, you share.

Arousal 4

Consensus vs conflict: In a fascinating study, researchers asked the teachers of some fifth and sixth graders to get them to interact on a topic. In one case the task design guided students to achieve consensus, while in another it was such that it encouraged disagreement. The results were revealing: in the former case students were far less interested – the studied less, participated less and were less likely to seek additional information. Not so in the latter case though! The most startling difference was observed when the teachers showed a film related to the topic – during recess. Under normal conditions, students have very clear priorities: recess comes first! Surprisingly, about 18% of the consensus group chose to miss their break to watch the film, but the figure for the other group rose to an astonishing 45! (Lowry & Johnson 1981).

Applications in the field of ELT:  In view of all the above, I think it makes great sense to use high arousal activities in our lessons. Not only are they enjoyable in their own right, our students may well find the content more interesting and our lessons more exciting. In addition, such activities actually do lead to better learning. Williams & Burden (1997 – p. 127) list a number of features of such tasks (concentration – purposefulness – immediate feedback – a loss of sense of time etc.) which signal a state of ‘flow’, which has been shown to be highly conducive to learning.

So – how can we do that? There are three factors which usually lead to high arousal in the classroom: physical movement, competition and time pressure.  Here are some excellent activities which exploit these elements (the ones employing technology are marked with a T).

Debates: As the last study suggests, debates are excellent for getting people involved – far more so than consensus activities. The reason is partly that once we have expressed a view in public our ego is at stake and we hate it if someone tries to shoot down our arguments (see Tavris & Aronson 2008). The funny thing is that this happens even if people choose sides at random and it is clear they do not necessarily subscribe to the views they defend! Penny Ur (1991 – pp. 105-108) gives a number of ideas for the classroom. If students cannot come up with arguments, they can go to ‘idebate’ for help [click here]. For younger students, Daley & Dahlie 2002 is a good resource.

Quizlet – Space Race [T]: Quizlet is a fantastic tool! Based on the traditional idea of flashcards (e.g. with a word on one side and a translation / synonym / definition on the other) it has taken the idea a lot further. Once you have generated your card set, there is an activity called ‘Space Race’ where the words fly across the screen one at a time; the student’s task is to type up what is on the other side of the card (e.g. the definition or synonym etc.) This simple game is truly addictive! [For a simple tutorial on how to use Quizlet just click here].

Speed-reading – Cueprompter [T]: Cueprompter is one of my favourite sites for improving reading speed. It is extremely simple to use. You select your text. You do your pre-R activities. You give the students the Qs they will have to answer.  Then you paste the text into the box provided on the site and you click on ‘Play’. Students start reading, but as they read, the top lines start disappearing, so they have to read faster! As you can adjust the speed, this is simply perfect for reading comprehension – and it is extremely arousing, believe you me! [For a simple tutorial on how to use Cueprompter just click here].

Wall Dictation: Students (and not only young learners) love this one! You choose your dictation text (you can actually use different ones, with the same number of words). You divide your class into pairs.  One of the students (the ‘Writer’) does the writing, the other (the ‘Runner’) has to tell him/her what to write. You paste copies of the text(s) on the front wall of the classroom. On your signal, the Runners run to the front of the class and try to memorise as much of the text as they can; then they run back and dictate it to their partner. Then they run to the front for more. The pair to finish first wins. Excellent!

Screaming Definitions: Another hugely popular vocabulary revision activity. You divide up the class into two teams – one on the left and one on the right. One student from each team comes to the front of the classroom and turns around to face their teammates. The teacher writes a word on the board. The members of each team have to call out definitions, synonyms, or they use examples to help their teammate guess the word. The first one to do so wins a point for their group. With lots of people shouting simultaneously, arousal levels soar! 🙂

One Question Behind: This is a brilliant activity for practicing Q-forms. Students work in pairs; they bombard each other with questions, for a certain amount of time – say 1 minute. The student who gives the replies answers not the question s/he is being asked, but the one before it! (E.g. Q1: ‘What’s your name?’ A1: xxx / Q2: ‘Where do you live?’ A2: ‘John Smith’ / Q3: ‘What is your phone number?’ A3: ‘Athens, Greece’ etc.) The person who answers the most Qs ‘correctly’ is the winner. Answering the previous Q while trying to remember the last one is quite challenging and lots of fun!

Final words: Arousal is a very important ingredient in effective lessons and one which I feel has been underused, partly because of fear that it might lead to rowdiness and partly through a conviction that a slower, more reflective mode leads to deeper learning (e.g. ‘Suggestopedia’ – Richards 2001, Ch. 8). In my experience however, high arousal activities can be both effective and enjoyable. Just keep in mind that shaky bridge and make sure your students do not fall in love with you. 🙂 But chances are they will be too focused on the activities. Take that last one for instance. I am sure the most perceptive among you have noticed that it bears some resemblance to a classic sketch by the Two Ronnies. Indeed it does. Here it is.  🙂


Dutton, D. G. and Aron, A. P. (1974). “Some evidence for heightened sexual attraction under conditions of high anxiety”. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 30, pp. 510–517.

Berger, J. “Contagious” Simon & Schuster 2013.

Daley, P. & Dahlie, M. “For & Against!” Scholastic 2002.

Lowry, N. & Johnson, D. (1981) “Effects of Controversy on Epistemic Curiosity, Achievement and Attitudes” The Journal of Social Psychology – Volume 115, Issue 1 (pp 31-43).

Richards, J. “Approaches and Methods in Language Teaching” Cambridge University Press 2001.

Tavris, C. & Aronson, E. “Mistakes were Made (But not by Me)” Pinter and Martin 2008.

Ur, P. “Discussions that Work” Cambridge University Press 1991.

Williams, M. & Burden, R. “Psychology for Language Teachers” Cambridge University Press 1997.

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

TESOL Greece: 2015 Convention: Questions and Answers

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…’  🙂 ]

Q and A 2

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

Psychology and ELT – Tweaking Activities

‘If They Can Do It – So Can We!’

Here is your task: You are an advertiser and you have been asked to re-launch a product (Shreddies – a square-shaped breakfast cereal) for a particular market. Please bear in mind that a) the product has been around for donkey’s years and everyone knows it b) you have not changed the product in any way! Quite a tall order, right? In fact, Hunter Sommerville, the guy who was charged with designing the box, was at his wit’s end – if ever there was a ‘mission impossible’ this was it! And then an idea struck him – perhaps if he rotated the picture by 45 degrees?!?

Tweaking 3 New Diamond Shreddies!!:  The creative team had been racking their brains all day but to no avail. In desperation they turned to Sommerville: ‘Any suggestions?’ So he told them. According to his account there was a momentary silence; then everybody burst out laughing!  (Leslie 2011) The idea was so preposterous, it might just work! They designed their whole campaign around it! ‘New Shreddies’ – ‘now in a delicious diamond shape!!’ 🙂 In a parody of ‘real-life’ interviews, they had some people come to the studio and taste the ‘old’ and ‘new’ Shreddies – that is exactly the same product with a different orientation! 🙂 – who naturally declared that the new ones were ‘crunchier’ with one of them proclaiming they produced ‘a 3D effect’!  Bizarre or not, the acid test in advertising is simple: ‘Does it work?’ In this case it did. Sales soared!! [You simply must watch this; here is the video].

Why did it work so well?:  I think the reason why this commercial was so successful is because the claim it appears to be making (that a Shreddie will taste differently if you tilt it by 45 degrees!) is so ridiculous that it momentarily deactivates what Kahneman calls ‘System 2’ – our apparatus for conscious, deliberate thought (Kahneman 2011). Apparently, our default mechanism is to initially believe everything we hear! (Chabris & Simons 2010) Immediately afterwards, the defence/disbelief mechanism kicks in (‘Hang on, what is this??) In this case however, while System 2 is preoccupied with these bizarre claims, the script writer slips in a couple of messages ‘it is more interesting’ / ‘it is crunchier’ etc. The advertisers will get you yet!  🙂 *

Applications in the field of ELT:  What can all this mean for us in ELT? Here is the basic idea: Repetition leads to boredom – and attention flags quickly with boring tasks (Medina 2008). Alas, in many teaching situations we are compelled to use a certain suite of activities, either because of face validity (they look the same as the ones in the exam) or because the coursebook / syllabus / DOS says so. Yet this does not mean we cannot ‘tweak’ them a little! Remember: the smallest change can make a difference!  If advertisers can do it, so can we! I have chosen to give three examples here, though of course the possibilities are endless. [NB: Whereas the change in the Shreddies cereals was cosmetic, the changes in these activities do create ‘educational added value’ as you will see!]

Listening – ‘You Bet!’:  In many exam-oriented tasks a L or R text is followed by M/C Qs which are in the right order. The simplest way to transform this activity is to get students in pairs to read each Q and predict which is the right answer (say B). Depending on how certain they are, they can bet from 1 to 10 points on it (e.g. 6 points on B). If the answer is indeed B, they double their points (6 x 2) while if it is not, they lose them. The winner is the pair with the most points at the end. To make it even more motivating, it is best if you get the students to look at the Qs one by one and then you get the students to listen to (or read) the text bit-by-bit. Then the process can be repeated for the next Q. Quite apart from the motivational value of this game and the fact that it requires no preparation, it also encourages students to look at the Qs carefully and make predictions – a crucial exam-prep skill!

Tweaking 2Dictation – ‘Grammar Up!’:  Some people feel that dictation is, well… just dictation and there is little we can do about it. Not so. This is dictation, but with a difference!  Students listen to a ‘bare bones’ form of the text – the text with some words as well as some grammatical morphemes missing. Once they have taken down every word, students work in pairs to ‘reconstruct’ the original text as it should have been (E.g. “Sun – rise – east – set  – west” in all probability is “The Sun rises in the east and sets in the west”). They then compare their version with that of a teacher. What I love about this activity is that it is so much more active for the learners than standard dictation. Students really have to invest in this task and in the process they have to make choices about Grammar for instance (‘Should it be Past Simple or Present Perfect?’) but they also have to think about collocation and colligation. [Idea found in Thornbury 2001]. **

Reading – ‘Hidden Message’:  Having given our students a text to skim for gist or scan for specific info, we may want them to look at it in greater detail. How can we do this? A fantastic way is to ‘hide a message’ inside the text which the students then have to find! Essentially, this is an adaptation of the former FCE UoE Part 4 task, where students had to spot the ‘extra’ words – only here the words actually form a message! There are two features I love about this activity: a) You can adjust the level of difficulty by choosing where to place the new words and b) the message can be ‘tailor-made’ for each class! (E.g. ‘Research has shown that varying guys activities can be a useful switch way of increasing off students’ motivation; variety prevents your boredom and leads to better cell phones results in the long run’) [I have to thank my good friend Michael Robbs for sharing this activity with me some years back!] **

Tweaking 4Vocabulary – ‘Funny Definitions Bingo’:  [Adapted from Watcyn – Jones 1993] All students know how to play ‘Bingo’. Each student is given a different set of words. The teacher calls out words at random from her list (which includes all the words she has given to students). The latter cross out the words they hear. The first one to cross out all his/her words calls out ‘Bingo’ and is the winner. This is fine for lower levels. At higher levels, it is too easy, so the teacher can try variations such as calling out an antonym of the word or a definition. However, we can give this old activity a new twist by providing funny definitions instead! (e.g. ‘A banker provided by nature’ [ = father! ] or ‘Future tense of marriage’ [ = divorce! ] 🙂 ) [NB: The definitions should not be too difficult or the activity slows down too much. A quick pace is a crucial element in games! (Lee 1979)] **

Last words – What is Art? The human brain is wired to reject monotony.  Experts agree that variety is the key to motivation (e.g. Dornyei 2001). Yet partly as a result of a heavy workload, partly because of the uniformity of coursebooks, we often switch to autopilot and find ourselves using an ever-diminishing repertoire of techniques in our lessons. We must fight this at all costs. And it helps if we think of ourselves as artists. To (half-)quote Paul Klee: ‘Art is making what is familiar – strange!’ Brilliant!

* This was demonstrated in a fascinating study: a door-to-door salesman went around selling packs of X-mas cards. In the control condition he would say for instance ‘They cost £ 1.25 each – it’s a bargain!’ but in the experimental one this was changed to ‘They are only 125 p each – it’s a bargain!’ While the prospective buyer was trying to figure out why the price was mentioned in pence rather than pounds, the other bit about it being ‘a bargain’ slipped past the ‘defenses’ unnoticed! Sales doubled! Brilliant!!   (Goldstein, Marticn & Cialdini 2007)

** To try out these activities with your students, click here to get a sample handout.


Chabris, C. & Simons, D. “The Invisible Gorilla” Harper Collins 2010.

Dornyei, Z. “Motivational Strategies in the Language Classroom” Cambridge 2001.

Goldstein, N., Martin, S. & Cialdini, R. “Yes! 50 secrets from the science of persuasion”  Profile Books 2007.

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

Lee, W. R. “Language Teaching Games & Contests” Oxford 1979.

Leslie, I. “Born Liars” Quercus 2011.

Medina, J. “Brain Rules” Pear Press 2008.

Sutherland, R. “Life Lessons from an Ad Man” YouTube.

Thornbury, S. “Uncovering Grammar” Macmillan Heinemann 2001.

Watcyn – Jones, P. “Vocabulary Games and Activities” Penguin Books 1993.

Managing Young Learners

How do you deal with a difficult student?

Never mind how full the glass is:  Picture a student who is unpunctual, unresponsive, undisciplined and generally uncooperative; he is also antisocial …. (and it is usually a ‘he’!) Every teacher’s nightmare! What do you do? How do you deal with him? Admonitions do not work and threats might backfire… It is said that the difference between optimists and pessimists is that the latter see the glass as half-empty, while the former as half-full. But maybe what we see when looking at the glass is irrelevant; perhaps what we should be doing is ask ourselves something else: never mind how much water is in there, the question is ‘How did it get there?’ Before you carry on reading here is Dan Heath arguing in favour of a different approach.

Case Study – Bobby’s story:  When Bobby appeared in front of the school counselor John Murphy, the latter knew he had a difficult case to deal with… Bobby was as problematic a 9th grader as they come… He hated school, he almost always showed up late, he was disruptive both inside and outside the classroom and naturally he was a regular visitor at the Principal’s office… His home life was a mess too… He had been in a number of foster families and he had been sent to a number of special facilities for children with behavioural problems.

Murphy had no power over Bobby; he could use neither carrots nor sticks – and he would only be able to see him for a few hours over a period of three months. Things looked desperate… Incredibly however, three months later, Bobby had changed beyond recognition! He was still not a model student, but he was far from being the ‘menace’ he used to be. What had happened?

Murphy knew that the one thing he did not have was the time for a full-scale investigation into the (probably multi-faceted) root causes of Bobby’s problems. So he started by asking him ‘Is there any teacher you don’t have a problem with?’ Bobby’s answer was he seemed to be getting along well with Ms Smith. When Murphy asked him why he replied vaguely that she was ‘nicer’. Yet this was not what Murphy wanted – he probed further…

After a while it transpired that there were a number of things about Ms Smith’s approach which seemed to work with Bobby: a) she greeted him when he entered the class, b) she gave him easier work to do (Bobby had some learning disability) and c) whenever she asked the class to do something, she checked to make sure that Bobby had understood what he was supposed to do.

CS Bobby - free 2So Murphy at last had something he could work with. He issued clear instructions to the other teachers: ‘Remember to a) greet Bobby, b) assign him easier work and c) check to see that he knows what he has to do!’ But that was not all – how would Murphy know that his approach had succeeded? He specified three criteria in advance: a) whether Bobby turned up on time, b) whether he completed work in class and c) whether he had to be disciplined.

Three months later, the figures spoke for themselves: he was much more punctual, his performance in class was rated as acceptable in 4 or 5 out of the 6 class periods per day (previously the figure had been 1 or 2) and the Principal must have missed him, since Bobby’s visits to his office dropped by a staggering 80%!! (Heath & Heath 2011)

Applications in the field of ELT:  So what can we learn from this case study? Are there any principles which may have wider applicability? I think there are – 5 of them:

Solution-Focused Therapy: Sometimes there is no point in looking at the ‘why’ of things because we do not have the time or because we would not be able to change things anyway. It might make more sense to see what works and try to clone success! (for more on SFBT see de Shazer et al 2007) I once knew of a student who played up because he craved attention, yet one of his teachers did not have a problem – in group work he always gave him the role of ‘leader’ or ‘coordinator’ of the team!

Clear Instructions: Getting people to change is often not easy, especially when they have lots on their plate or they follow long-established habits. To get them to move in a different direction, it helps if you give them clear, behavioural instructions (Baumeister & Tierney 2012). Something like ‘pay particular attention to Bobby’ would not have done – it is too vague. ‘Move Bobby to the front of the class’ on the other hand is specific.

Acceptance: Little things make a lot of difference. One thing is for certain – where we want people to cooperate (as in a classroom situation) coercive measures hardly ever work – they trigger ‘psychological reactance’ (Cialdini 2001). It helps enormously if students feel we are on their side. Acceptance is a key element (cf Rogers 2013). Greeting people signals acceptance, as does friendly eye-contact and an open body language. The other teachers’ attitude was negative because they saw Bobby as a source of trouble; unsurprisingly, he picked up on that and this triggered a vicious circle.

Individual attention: Our job is to try to create the right conditions for ss to learn. If we ignore a particular s because s/he needs special attention they may learn little (which is bad) or they may disrupt the class (which is worse) (see Dornyei & Murphey 2003). This means that a) we need to spot such cases early; b) it is a good idea to seek expert help for guidance/tips; c) it is vital that we know at least some things about, say, Dyslexia or ADHD and that we have some basic techniques up our sleeve; we may not be able to perform an operation, but we should be able to provide first aid!

061026-N-5271J-014Measurable criteria:  How do we know that a particular course of action has been successful? The human brain is vain and we may manage to persuade ourselves that we have solved a problem when in fact we have swept it under the carpet. For instance, a teacher might have found a way to keep Bobby quiet but without his learning anything. Murphy however did specify his ‘success criteria’ in advance so he could justly claim that his intervention had been a success.

The importance of being pro-active:  One last thing: very often we avoid dealing with a particular situation because we lack the time to form ‘a clear picture’ or ‘the perfect plan’. Yet all too often this time is a luxury we can ill afford. Instead, taking action creates its own dynamic (Murphey 2012). Doing things not only provides us with useful feedback about what is effective and what is not, but more importantly it creates hope – hope for the students who can see that we have not given up on them, and hope for the teachers who feel that this new approach might just work! The amazing thing is – it often does! 🙂


Baumeister, R. & Tierney, J. “Willpower” Allen Lane 2012

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

De Shazer, S. Dolan, Y., Korman, H. Trepper, T., McCollum, E. & Kim Berg I. (2007) “More than Miracles: The State of the Art of Solution-Focused Brief Therapy” NY Haworth Press.

Dornyei, Z. & Murphey, T. “Group Dynamics in the Language Classroom”  Cambridge 2003

Heath, C. & Heath, D. “Switch” Random House 2011

Murphey, T. “Teaching in Pursuit of WoW!” Abax 2012

Rogers, C. “Significant Aspects of Client-centred Therapy” CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform 2013

Communication 1 – Maximising Effectiveness

‘How can we communicate effectively?’

Communication 101 – Mission Statements:  “The single biggest problem in communication is the illusion that it has taken place” said G. B. Shaw the Great – and he was on to something… Communication should be simple. You have something to say – go ahead and say it! Yet time and again we find that our message can be ineffective, clunky and sometimes even incomprehensible. Take mission statements for instance; do you know your company’s mission statement? If you do, is it clear? Is it effective? Is it inspiring? Watch the amazing Dan Heath talking about the two criteria any good mission statement should meet.

OK – so now you know: it has to be concrete and it has to give a reason.  In what follows we take a look at four ways of making the way we communicate more persuasive. We will be focusing on how we ‘pitch’ what we have to offer to prospective customers, but the ideas discussed here are more generally applicable.

Over to you: Before moving on, let us stay with Dan Heath for a while. Chances are you do not know your company’s Mission Statement… Well, here is your chance to draft one yourself in the light of Dan Heath’s advice…

The Serious Side of Subjects: Naturally, you do not read all the e-mails you get, do you? But what is it that might make you open one e-mail but not another? Researchers have looked into this (Wainer, Dabbish & Kraut 2011) – in one study by asking participants to go through their e-mails using the ‘think-aloud method’. It turns out that subject lines are very important. Apparently, the best among them have to do with one of two factors: a) Utility – ‘Does this have something to do with me?’ (e.g. ‘Win a scholarship for the next IATEFL Conference’) or b) Curiosity – ‘What’s this?’ (e.g. ‘The one Web tool to rule them all!’) As Pink (2013) points out, research shows that these two do not mix well, so a successful subject line would have to use one or the other of the two approaches. A third key factor is Specificity. The more specific the subject is, the better. So a line like ‘Feedback and its importance’ is too ‘wooly’ compared to ‘Five top Feedback tips’.

Over to you: Imagine you want to send an e-mail to prospective customers/clients about one of the products/services of your company. How would you phrase the subject line in light of the above?

Terrific Tweets: All you Tweeters – take heed! Researchers set up a site (‘Who Gives a Tweet?’!!) and asked Twitter users to evaluate other people’s tweets (Andre, Bernstein & Luther 2012).. Their findings were fascinating; first of all, about 65% of all tweets were rated from neutral to bad (read: ‘not worth reading’; hardly surprising really, if Facebook posts are anything to go by!) Buy it was the specific findings which were the most interesting: Worst tweets: Complaints (‘Flight delayed’) / Me Now (‘Just woke up’) / Presence Maintenance (‘Hi all!’). But what about the best ones? a) Tweets asking followers to respond (‘What is the one trait a good teacher should have?’) / b) Info and links (‘Check out this amazing article!’) / c) Self-promotion tweets (provided they offer some useful info! – e.g. ‘Here is my latest clip on YouTube in the “Comedy for ELT” series’!)

Over to you: Pink says the best tweets are 120 characters long (so that others can re-tweet them). Think about your company. Can you create a 120-character tweet informing potential customers/clients about a new product/service your company has launched?


Pitching with Pixar:  Pixar is a huge success story in the field of animation entertainment. If your 13 feature films have grossed $ 7.6 bn, that means that you are doing something really well! And what Pixar does well is…tell stories! Stories have enormous persuasion potential (Heath & Heath 2008), which is hardly surprising since some researchers believe we are pre-wired for the story format (Gottschall 2012). So, let us see how Pixar does it. According to Emma Coats, a former Pixar employee, all Pixar films can be reduced to the same basic model: “Once upon a time …………….. Every day, ……………..  One day, ……………… Because of that,  …………….. Because of that, …………….. Until finally ……………..” (Pixar Touch Blog – May 2011). Yet this format is not only useful to film animators; we can use exactly the same template to tell people about what we have to offer!

Over to you: Think about your company – can you create a ‘story’ explaining how things can change for your customers/clients as a result of using your company’s products/services?

A Reason to Rhyme:  Look at these statements: ‘Life is mostly strife’ and ‘Life is mostly struggle’. Aren’t they virtually identical? And what about these two: ‘Caution and measure will win you treasure’ as opposed to ‘Caution and measure will win you riches’? Well, the message in each pair may be the same but there is in fact a difference. When subjects were asked to rate such statements on how accurately they depicted human behaviour, the rhyming statements got much higher marks!! This is yet another manifestation of the power of a phenomenon known as ‘fluency’ (= ‘ease of processing’). What we have here is a spill-over effect; amazingly, the ease with which we can say/process something makes us think that it is more accurate/truthful! (Mc Glone, & Tofighbakhsh 2000).

Over to you: Think about your company – can you create a rhyme which describes what it does or what is special about its products or services?

Last words – Don’t do this: What is wrong with this statement? “We are leveraging our assets and establishing strategic alliances to create a robust knowledge centre…(etc., etc.) – apparently this means: ‘We are consultants’! Time and again people try to impress their audience/readers by means of jargon, convoluted structures and over-elaborate language. The idea is that the writer/speaker will come across as knowledgeable and authoritative and his/her message will consequently seen as more persuasive. Research however shows that this often backfires; the processing difficulty spills over to the content which is perceived as less convincing! (Goldstein, Martin & Cialdini 2007) Here is one of my favourite examples – from an Art Gallery Programme: “…Each mirror imaginatively propels its viewer forward into the seemingly infinite progression of possible reproductions that the artist’s practice engenders, whilst simultaneously pulling them backwards in a quest for the ‘original’ source of referent that underlines Levine’s oeuvre’.” No comments… 🙂

[NB 1: For a printable version of this article (with Teacher’s notes and sample responses at the end) just click here].

[NB 2: This article was first published in the IATEFL BESIG Newsletter].


Andre, P. Bernstein, M & Luther, K. “Who Gives a Tweet? Evaluating Microblog Content Value” paper presented at the 2012 ACM Conference on Computer Supported Co-operative Work (February 2012)

Goldstein, N., Martin, S. & Cialdini, R. “Yes! 50 secrets from the science of persuasion”  Profile Books 2007

Gottschall, J. “The Storytelling Animal” Houghton Mifflin 2012

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

Mc Glone, M. & Tofighbakhsh J. “Birds of a Feather Flock Conjointly (?): Rhyme as Reason in Aphorisms” Psychologcial Science 11, no 5 (September 2000) pp 424-428

Pink, D. “To Sell is Human” Canongate 2013

“Pixar Story Rules (One Version)” Pixar Touch Blog (May 2011)

Wainer, J. Dabbish, L. & Kraut, R. “Should I Open this Email? Inbox-Level Cues, Curiosity and Attention to Email” Proceedings of the 2011 Annual Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems (May 2011)

Observation vs Experience

“You can see what it’s like, can’t you?”

Down and Out: ‘What should I write about?’ a budding young writer named George Orwell once asked. ‘Write about what you know’ came the reply. But Orwell wanted to write about poverty. And he did not know much about it. So he thought he would find out. He became a tramp in London and later lived a hand-to-mouth existence in Paris. The descriptions in his book ‘Down and Out in Paris and London’ are so vivid the book is hard to read at times… Since then others have tried a similar approach – exploring things ‘from the inside’ *. Now for some of us the poor may inhabit a different universe, as perhaps we do not happen to know any of them ourselves; yet there are other people close to us about whose life we know very little. Take people in wheelchairs for instance. What does it feel like to be one of them? In this amazing ad, everyone appears to be having fun, but what happens when the game is over?


The wheelchair experience:  When I first saw this commercial I was immediately struck by the similarities it has with a study conducted by Clore & Jeffrey in 1972. In it, a group of students were asked to imagine that as a result of an accident they had lost the use of their legs and were confined to a wheelchair. For one hour, they had to follow a pre-deterimined route, which involved the participants having to negotiate lifts, doors and ramps. Each of these students was followed by another one whose task was to observe everything the former did and every difficulty s/he faced. The idea behind the study was to see whether this one-hour experiment would make a difference in the attitude of these two groups towards people with disability and related issues, such as whether it would be advisable to spend money on making it easier for such people to get about.

Once the whole thing was over, each student was interviewed separately. The results were most interesting: compared to a control group, the ‘observers’ showed a marked increase in their sensitivity towards the difficulties people in wheelchairs face. Yet, the increase among those students who had had the ‘hands on’ experience was higher still! But would this change persist over time? The researchers looked into that too. Four months later, they interviewed the students again over the telephone. Hidden among the many questions they asked them were ones designed to measure just that. Amazingly, among the people who had actually used the wheelchair themselves the attitudinal change had remained the same! (So – hats off to those who came up with this Guiness ad…).

Applications in the field of ELT: The moral of this study is quite obvious: experience beats simple observation – hands down (watching a chef on TV effortlessly conjuring up a chocolate soufflé is one thing; doing the same thing yourself is quite another!). A less obvious point here is that the increased awareness experience confers appears to be long-lasting. Naturally, this has a number of implications for EL teachers:

Activities: Time and again I have been in practical workshops where the participants are reluctant to actually try out the activities themselves (‘Yes, yes, we can see how this task works…’); then there are instances where the presenter refrains from asking colleagues to do things for fear that s/he may be seen to be talking down to them. I must say I find such attitudes more than a little puzzling. As I see it, the best way to understand an activity is to experience it as though you were the learner (Nunan & Lamb 1996). If I had to choose between workshops and lectures, my vote would go to the former any day!

Technology: While on the subject of workshops, here is another amazing discovery from the field of Psychology: if something is hard to imagine, people tend to assume it will not happen! (Kenrick et al [eds] 2012 – p. 43). This seems completely irrational, but it seems that there is a ‘spill over’ effect at work; our brain translates the difficulty in processing something into decreased likelihood of it actually taking place! I have often see this in talks on technology; the expert starts talking excitedly about their favourite Web 2.0 tool and then three minutes later the eyes of the audience just glaze over. They cannot see themselves using this kind of innovative technology and their brain simply rejects it. I firmly believe that ‘hands on’ experience (workshops!) would greatly increase uptake.

Wheelchair 6 Peer observation:  How do we know what our lessons are really like? We think we do, but of course we are too busy teaching to consider what things must seem like from the point of view of the students. Solutions to this include reflective practices such as keeping a journal or recording our lessons and then going through them with the help of certain observational tools (e.g. Wajnryb 1993). Yet that still leaves one problem – ‘The Curse of Knowledge’ (Heath & Heath 2008). The thing is that, naturally, we know both what we had intended to teach and what we meant every time we said something. But would things be just as clear for others? It seems much better to have a colleague occasionally observe us – as a learner. Their feedback is likely to be invaluable (see for instance Edge 1992).

The learner’s perspective: It has been argued by many that one of the best ways for us to grow as professionals is to start looking at things from the learner’s perspective. The easiest way to do this, is to become learner ourselves. Using our imagination is not quite the same; having to actually deal with the difficulties learners face and experiment with the techniques and strategies we keep telling our students to use can help us appreciate their problems and frustrations and see what actually works in practice. Some people have taken this idea further, arguing that it does not really matter what it is that you are trying to learn; what makes the difference is finding yourself in the learner’s position – even if what you may be learning is chess or dancing or sailing (e.g. Claypole 2010, p. 56).

The teacher’s perspective 1 [The learner]: Conversely, it can potentially be even more beneficial if learners adopt the role of the teacher (Dornyei 2001). A number of researchers have stressed the benefits this might have for students on the cognitive domain – it seems that different neural circuits are involved and so retention of information is better (e.g. Lieberman 2013 [to watch a short clip on this just click here]). Yet what people often fail to notice is that placing the student in the role of the teacher makes the former more aware of the challenges involved in the role. In the same way that becoming a learner can make a teacher more empathic, taking on the role of the teacher can help students become more mature.

The teacher’s perspective 2 [The DOS]: Following the same logic, just as a teacher may forget what it is like to be a learner, a DOS may gradually come to lose touch with the day-to-day challenges a teacher faces. In my view, much of the friction between the management and the teachers in large schools arises because the DOS is so focused on his/her new duties that s/he often fails to see things from the front-line teacher’s perspective (a dimension often neglected in otherwise excellent books – e.g. Impey & Underhill 1994). This gap is often easier to spot in the case of some academics who do not actually teach the language themselves (and in some cases, they never have). Regardless of how sound their research might be, one often has the feeling that when it comes to teaching implications, some of their suggestions would never work in real life. The moral here is that no matter how good an idea / practice looks on paper, a dry run is indispensable.

Wheelchair 4

Back to wheelchairs:  Having discussed the advantages of experience over observation, I would like to go back to people in wheelchairs for a moment. What is life like for them? Things we hardly give a second thought to can become a huge challenge for them. How do you get on a bus without help? How do you go up the stairs to get inside a building? How do you even get across the street where there are no special ramps? Well, now we can find out more. And our students can too. The Disabled Access Friendly is a campaign launched by people in the ELT world. Their site ** (which recently won a prestigious ELTON award) boasts an impressive array of ready-made materials for all levels which can both help improve our students’ English and sensitise them to the problems people with mobility problems face every day. So – please visit the site and try out some of the materials. And if you get the chance, give yourself a ride on that wheelchair…

[An earlier version of this article was published in the magazine ‘Modern English Teacher’ (Vol 22 – July 2013)]

*   A striking example is that of Norah Vincent, a lesbian journalist who spent a year dressed as a man to get an insider’s view of the male world.

** To visit the DAF site, just click here.



Clore, G. L. & Jeffrey, K. M. (1972) ‘Emotional role playing, attitude change and attraction towards a disabled person’ Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 23, 105-11

Claypole, M. ‘Controversies in ELT’ LinguaBooks 2010

Dornyei, Z. “Motivational Strategies in the Language Classroom” Cambridge 2001

Edge, J. “Cooperative Development” Longman 1992

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

Impey, G. & Underhill, N. “The ELT Manager’s Handbook” Heinemann 1994

Kenrick, D., Goldstein, N. & Braver, S. “Six Degrees of Social Influence” Oxford 2012

Lieberman, M. “Social” Oxford 2013

Nunan, D. & Lamb, C. “The Self-Directed Teacher” Cambridge University Press 1996

Orwell, G. “Down and Out in Paris and London” Penguin Classics 2001

Vincent, N. “Self-made Man: My Year Disguised as a Man” Atlantic Books 2006

Wajnryb, R. “Classroom Observation Tasks” Cambridge University Press 1993

Morality: Born Good?

This has to be the best ‘value for time’ video clip I have watched over the past few years. Only about 13 min long, it is packed full of useful insights – all based on research conducted in ‘The Baby Lab’ by psychologists Paul Bloom and Karen Wynn. [To find out more about these things, you may want to read Bloom’s excellent book ‘Just Babies].

Reading is one thing but seeing is believing, so get yourselves a nice cup of coffee and sit back to marvel at the ingenious ways Developmental Psychologists have thought up in order to discover what goes on inside babies’ brains.

The first big discovery is that when it comes to the chapter on morality, the human ‘tabula’ is far from ‘rasa’. Here is what the studies suggest:

  • [2:14 – 3:52]: Babies prefer ‘good’ puppets over ‘mean’ ones (ok – no surprises here) but…
  • [4:30 – 5:30]: …babies want to see bad/selfish puppets punished (!) and in this case they prefer the mean puppets who punishes them!

As Paul Bloom says [6:22] there seems to be a ‘Universal moral core that all humans share’. So – it looks like babies are little angels, right? (Albeit somewhat strict and unforgiving perhaps…) But there is another side to them as well. Read on.

  • [6:48 – 7:28]: Babies prefer puppets who have the same preferences as they do (ok – again, this is what one might have predicted) but…
  • [7:28 – 9:13]: …it’s not just that; incredibly, babies want to see puppets with different preferences punished!!! (Wow!! Babies are born bigots!!)

There is more to come. You would expect toddlers to always prefer two to one (e.g. two toys over one toy, two sweets over one sweet), right? Wrong!

  • [10:31 – 11:23]: It seems toddlers (at the age of 3) are quite happy to accept less for themselves, provided they get more than another child!! So one-upmanship is not something taught to us by society; we seem to have a predisposition for it. But then something interesting happens…
  • [11:23 – 11:49]: …Society takes a hand; by the age of 8 kids start to prefer a fair deal and by the age of 10 if they have to choose between an option like ‘2 for me and 2 for another kid’ or ‘2 for me and 3 for the other one’ they choose the latter! In the words of the hostess ‘chalk one up to society’.

Yet lest we get carried away, Bloom [12:10 – 12:39] hastens to point out that innate predispositions do not just disappear as a result of socialization; it is not the case that society wipes the ‘rasa’ clean and then writes something else there. Instead, ‘when we are under stress’ or ‘life is difficult’ it is extremely easy to revert to our ‘default predispositions’. [So now we know why in times of crisis the rubbish that Golden Dawn peddles will always be an easier sell than, say, the internationalism advocated by Communists].

So there we have it. The tendencies we are born with are both good (pro-social) and bad (with predispositions towards one-upmanship and an ‘us vs them’ mentality). If we want a better world, we have to nurture the former and combat the latter (as Bloom says ‘If you want to eradicate racism, you want to know to what extent babies are little biggots’ [9:36]). There is no point denying the negative aspects of our nature just because it would be better if they did not exist.

‘A thousand anachronisms dance down the strands of our DNA from a hidebound tribal past… If we resent being bound by these ropes, the best hope is to seize them out like snakes, by the throat, look them in the eye and own up to their venom.’  (Barbara Kingsolver)

How do you Motivate Young Learners?

A thought experiment:  Imagine you are a post-graduate student. This is the first session of the first day of your Masters’ course. So the Professor walks in and says ‘OK guys, listen up! This course isn’t like the others; by the time you get your Masters, you will have all but finished your Thesis and you’ll be ready for your PhD! From now on in any communication between us I want you to refer to yourselves as ‘Doctoral Candidate + your name’! I am sure this would have got your attention… 🙂  From time to time we hear about exceptional teachers – teachers like Mr Keating in ‘The Dead Poets’ Society’ or Miss Brodie… Such teachers do exist and this is a story about one of them…

CS Jones 2Case Study – C. Jones’ story:  Crystal Jones was a primary school teacher with a difference. She was ambitious! Upon taking command of her class of 1st graders she set them a target: ‘By the end of the year, you are going to be 3rd graders!!’ She duly informed her charges that they were no ordinary pupils, but ‘scholars’ – and she taught them what that meant. Not only that, she also encouraged them to use the title when talking to each other. When someone happened to visit the class and asked why the pupils addressed each other in this way, the whole class responded in chorus that ‘A scholar is someone who lives to learn and who is good at it!’ – so clearly such a title was appropriate for them… 🙂 The ‘scholars’ were encouraged to share with their family what they had learned at school.

When spring came, tests showed that the class had reached the level required for 2nd grade, so Jones threw a graduation party. From that point on, the students were to think of themselves as ‘2nd graders’ and the kids enjoyed immensely referring to themselves as such for the rest of the year. By June, Jones had reached her objective: in terms of scholastic achievement, 90% of her class were at 3rd grade level or higher! (Heath & Heath 2011)

Applications in the field of ELT:  Crystal Jones is one of those amazing teachers that make an impression on you; she is the sort of teacher you will talk to your spouse about – the sort of teacher we all aspire to be. So what can we learn from her approach?

Framing: Is going to school a drag or a treat? We know that most of our learners would answer it is the former – yet the way Jones ‘framed’ the whole experience to them made it very different! We are told that kids even felt sorry (!!) for their classmates when they missed a lesson for some reason! (Heath & Heath 2011) Now it is true that in most of our teaching situations these attitudes have almost fossilized, but there are so many other things which are nevertheless new (cf a brilliant ‘framing’ experiment in Ariely 2008 – p. 40); perhaps a project or a drama activity or the opportunity for students to teach their classmates! If we ‘sell’ the new experience to them as something they should be pleased for, then we have almost won the battle for their hearts and minds!

Meaningful goals: If Jones had told her pupils that by the end of the year they would have covered say ‘fractions’ and ‘decimals’ that would have meant nothing to them. Instead, she chose a goal that would resonate with little kids: ‘I’m going to be a 3rd grader!! WOW! Just like my sister – and she is a year older than I am! I’m going to be bigger, smarter, cooler!’ Knowing that something is ‘beneficial’ in some abstract way, cuts little ice with busy adults and even less with younger learners. To motivate them we have to look at what they want! That could mean showing business people a video and telling them that in, say, 6 months’ time they will be able to socialize as smoothly as the characters in it; it could also mean showing our teenage learners an effective ‘chatting up scene’ in the L2 and telling them that they could be just as successful by the end of the year… 🙂

Labelling: It is incredible how often labels act as self-fulfilling prophecies! (Aronson 1999) We have all heard horror stories about teachers who labeled students as ‘stupid’ or ‘lazy’ (and ended up exacerbating whatever problem already existed!) but the same is true of positive labeling! Notice how Jones insisted that her pupils call each other ‘scholar’ and how they would explain the word at every opportunity! Each of these occasions reinforced this perception they had of themselves! Labelling does not need to apply to the whole class; you may give different labels to different students depending on the direction you want them to move in (… ‘Kate is so helpful’ – ‘Mark is so organised’…) Spreading (positive) rumours about a person I have also found to be extremely effective, as is asking students to justify the label! (‘You are such a perfectionist! Are your parents like that too?’ 🙂 ) Incredibly, even if you tell them later you did it deliberately, the ‘label’ is still effective!! (Sutherland 1992)

CS Jones 3Active revision: It is one thing to study something, but it is quite another to be able to explain it to someone else. One of the big problems with our learners is that (if they revise at all!) they revise passively (Oxford in Richards & Renandya 2002). If they had to explain to someone how a particular tense works for example, not only would they have to recall what they did in class, they would have to sequence everything in a coherent way (and they would spot any gaps in their knowledge in the process!) Peer teaching practices are excellent in this respect, yet how often do we use this idea in class? As an added bonus, every time such a thing happens, the learner breaks away from the stereotype of the bored learner who cannot be bothered with school. Instead, the learner casts him/herself in a new role – perhaps that of the teacher (or the ‘scholar’!)

Milestones: It is very useful for students to have a ‘destination postcard’ (Heath & Heath 2011) – ‘This is our ultimate objective – this is where we want to go!’ However, this destination may be distant. Research shows that when it comes to motivating people, it is short-term goals that work best (Baumeister & Tierney 2012). The younger the learners, the nearer these short-term goals should be (cf the 2nd grade benchmark!) And if milestones are still far away, we need to look for ‘inch-pebbles’!! (Heath & Heath 2011) Reaching these intermediate targets gives students an invaluable sense of progress – ‘Yes, I am getting there!’. For instance, if our students want to get to B2 level, we can give them an A2 and a B1 test to take themselves so they can see that they are in fact getting better. Similarly, graded readers are excellent as students can see that they have moved from Level 1 to Level 3.

Celebrating Success: Notice how when the children did reach the intermediary goal (2nd grade) there was a graduation ceremony (the party!). The lesson is unambiguous: ‘Take time to celebrate success’ (Dornyei 2001). Once again this ‘frames’ the experience as important. OK, so the pupils knew that reaching 2nd grade level was significant – but just how significant? The greater the celebration, the higher the boost to the learner’s confidence! Notice how proud the children were to call themselves ‘2nd graders’ afterwards! This is something we rarely do, but we should. Little presents to the kids (with a dedication congratulating them and labeling them as successful learners!) can be invaluable. Involving the parents for some unexpected treat at home is another idea; it can kill many birds with the same stone (for one thing, the parents will know that you employ psychological weapons too!)


The role of Confidence:  There is yet another element which is not immediately apparent from the story – capital C Confidence! (cf Dutton 2010) I am prepared to bet good money that Jones’ manner conveyed both her conviction in the way she taught and her belief that the goal was ultimately attainable. And research shows that self-assurance works! Confident speakers may not know more than more diffident ones, but they get believed more! (Levine 2006) Think back to Miss Brodie… Could you walk into a classroom and say ‘I’m in the business of putting old heads on young shoulders and all my students are ‘Le crème de la crème’! Give me a child at an impressionable age and they are mine for life!!’ Wow! Not everyone can pull this off… 🙂


Ariely, D. “Predictably Irrational” HarperCollins 2008

Aronson, E. “The Social Animal”  Worth – Freeman, 1999

Baumeister, R. & Tierney, J. “Willpower” Allen Lane 2012

Dornyei, Z. “Motivational Strategies in the Language Classroom” Cambridge 2001

Dutton, K. “Flipnosis” Random House 2010

Heath, C. & Heath, D. “Switch” Random House 2011

Levine, R. “The Power of Persuasion” Oneworld 2006

Richards, J. & Renandya, W. “Methodology in Language Teaching” Cambridge 2002

Sutherland, S. “Irrationality” Constable and Company 1992

The Forer Effect

‘Let me tell you who you really are’

Three Men in a Boat:  Has this ever happened to you? You find yourself waiting outside the doctor’s surgery and you are idly browsing through the magazines there when you come across an ad for a new medicine or medical exam. You go through the symptoms and all of a sudden it dawns on you – you have them all! OK – this is from the opening page of ‘3 Men in a Boat’, where the main character describes how he discovered he was suffering from practically every known disease (except housemaid’s knee). It is meant to be funny, but the reason we tend to smile is that we recognize the grain of truth in all this; we tend to relate everything to ourselves. And if this is true when we read some general symptoms, it is even more true when we read something about ourselves – especially if it happens to be positive. Astrologers of course know all about this – just watch this short clip…


The Forer Effect:  In 1948, psychologist R. Forer actually did an experiment resembling the one in the video. He gave his students a personality test and then an analysis – ostensibly on the basis of their responses. The analysis contained such items as ‘You have a great need for other people to like and admire you’ or ‘You have a great deal of unused capacity which you have not turned to your advantage’ or ‘At times you are extroverted, affable, sociable, while at other times you are introverted, wary, reserved’. Does anything strike you about these statements? That’s right – they are true of everybody. Notice also the element of flattery in the second and the use of the key phrase ‘at times’ in the third – you simply cannot go wrong!  If they sound like the kind of stuff one might expect to find in astrology charts, that’s because they are – Forer had lifted them verbatim from an astrology book. When asked to rate how closely the description matched their character, the students gave it 4.26 out of 5! No surprises there… (Forer 1948).

There are three main reasons why this phenomenon is so powerful:

i) We are extremely self-focused. As Fine (2005) points out, the human brain is vain. We tend to relate everything that is happening to ourselves. No wonder then that when told that we are ‘kind’ for instance, we tend to think of incidents which confirm this without pausing to think whether it could equally well apply to others.

ii) We are programmed to try to find connections. Even where none exist (Ramachandran 2012 – p. 228) . Thus when we are informed that we are ‘creative’, we might for instance connect this with our ability to try out different approaches at work (which some might label as ‘resourcefulness’) rather than to our non-existent artistic propensities.

iii) We focus on ‘hits’ and ignore the ‘misses’. If told that we like ‘being with friends and having a good time’ we are likely to remember the two occasions when we went to parties and did enjoy ourselves and forget that these were the only occasions within the past decade (Gilbert 2007).

Applications in the field of ELT:   Given these all-too-human tendencies, it should be extremely easy to get people talking about themselves and others. As teachers, we can make use of this fact in order to help our learners develop their reading and speaking skills and (very importantly) help them learn all sorts of words and expressions related to personality. I have found the following activities extremely popular with my learners:

A walk in the woods: This is an amazing activity. Students listen to some instructions (see the clip below). They are then asked to make brief notes of what the scene is like and to describe various items. This is supposed to reveal something about their ‘inner self’. Then they listen to someone providing an analysis of the personality of someone who has completed this task (same clip – after 2:45). Then the students, working in pairs, analyse each other’s personality on the basis of what they heard earlier and discuss how accurate this is. Variations of this activity can easily be found on the web (e.g. here).

Graphology: Graphology is supposed to be able to deduce things about our personality on the basis of our handwriting. This task is simplicity itself. Students work in pairs. You ask each of them to write a short paragraph on a white sheet of paper (without lines). They then pass it to their partner. Once the writing is done, you give each student some short paragraphs which explain what certain elements of our handwriting reveal about us (e.g. ‘Size: large letters show seriousness and generosity’ or ‘Slant: if your writing slopes upwards it means you are ambitious and optimistic’). Students then take it in turns to interpret each other’s handwriting on the basis of the information they have got. Once again this is something one can easily find on the web (e.g. here).

Doodling: This is a similar activity, the only difference being that instead of asking someone to write something, this time they are asked to just make some doodles. The ‘expert’ then looks at these doodles and tells the other person what certain elements might mean (e.g. ‘flowers and animals might mean you are in love’ or ‘confused lines mean that you lack self-control’). Again, there are lots of such examples on the web (e.g. here) but the best version for me was one used by Gillian Porter Ladousse (1983 – pp 63-65) as students are given specific little boxes to doodle in, so the whole thing is less open-ended. The extra benefit here of course is that students love to doodle/draw!

Astrology RUAstrology: Astrology of course is the most easily used springboard. For one thing, no additional input is necessary as most people have some idea of what the most representative traits of their zodiac sign are (e.g. ‘Leo: Magnanimous, generous and dominant’ [If your class know little about such things, they can find brief descriptions here]). Students can simply take turns talking to each other about how well these traits reflect their own personality (e.g. ‘I would not say I am bossy, but I can be assertive if I have to’). One can then follow this up with a more serious discussion about how valid these descriptions are – perhaps by making use of the first clip with the Astrologer and the Psychologist. [NB: To round off the lesson one can use the brilliantly funny clip ‘Madam Zodiac’ (link here; for a handout click here)].

A word of warning:  McRaney (2012 – p. 122) relates a fascinating anecdote about the Psychologist Ray Hayman. The latter had started out as a magician and then moved on to mentalism. His specialty was ‘cold reading’ where you start off with vague generalities about the person opposite you and then depending on how they respond you fine-tune your statements so that by the end it looks like you could read them like a book, when in fact it is they who (inadvertently) provide you with all the information. So successful was Hayman and so enthusiastic was the response he got that he actually came to believe he genuinely had a gift! It was at this point that another mentalist came to his rescue. ‘Try telling them the exact opposite of what you intended to tell them’ he advised Hayman. So Hayman did and amazingly, his ‘victims’ were just as stunned by his perspicacity as they had been before! Hayman switched to science… 🙂


Fine, C. “A Mind of its Own”  Icon Books 2005

Forer, B.R. (1949). “The fallacy of personal validation: A classroom demonstration of gullibility”. Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology (American Psychological Association) 44 (1): 118–123

Gilbert, D. “Stumbling on Happiness” Harper Perennial 2007

Ladousse, G. P. “Speaking Personally” Cambridge University Press 1983

McRaney, D. “You are not so Smart” Oneworld 2012

Personality – A walk in the woods:

Personality – Astrology:

Personality – Doodling:

Personality – Graphology:

Ramachandran, V. S. “The Tell-Tale Brain” Windmill 2012

Getting People to make the ‘Right’ Choice

Sheer Magic: ‘Pick a card – any card! It’s the Queen of Hearts, right?’  When given a choice, we are of course free to select whichever option we want, yet it often happens that somehow the conjurer knows in advance which one this is going to be! How do they do it? Through trial and error, salesmen, advertisers and politicians over the centuries have discovered ways of making sure we pick the right card – the one they want us to. During the past few decades Psychology has painstakingly uncovered some of the mechanisms that people who are in the business of persuading others have long known and exploited. So how do you give people a choice yet at the same time ‘nudge’ them in the ‘right’ direction? Here are some ways (not that we would ever use them…)

Consistency: Study after study has shown that people feel the need to be consistent, and that they use what they have done (or said) in the past as a heuristic about what to do in a given situation. To see how this can be manipulated, just watch this fantastic demonstration by the great Sir Humphrey Appleby:

This is called the ‘Four Walls Technique’ (Levine 2006 – p. 164). You ask the other person a series of rhetorical questions (usually four) before presenting them with a choice. Typically, by that stage they have no option but to say ‘Yes’ or lose face by appearing inconsistent. So, say a student is not certain about whether they would like to attend this optional summer course your school is offering: ‘Do you think English is important today?’  ‘Would you agree that we need to make the most of our time?’ etc… (Not that you would ever do such a thing…).

Perceptual Contrast: Faced with options A and B, you are more likely to choose B if you are given some information about it, after receiving less information about A. For instance, if you spent 1 min talking about coursebook A and then 5 min about coursebook B, chances are your client will go for B. It seems that because people feel they are more knowledgeable about B, that somehow gives them greater confident in their choice. Now here is the bizarre thing: this works even if A is completely unrelated to B! (Tormala & Petty 2007). So, instead of talking about coursebook A, you could spend that first minute talking about a coffee-maker before plunging into your spiel about the coursebook!! OK – now you know what to do if you want a student to go for course B (Not that you would ever do such a thing…).

Cognitive Dissonance: To get students to choose option B, first get them to reject option A somehow! In a fantastic study, researchers offered students 2 M&Ms (say, red and green – though they alternated the colours to avoid any bias). Say a particular student chose the red one. Immediately afterwards they presented the same student with the green one and a blue one. Which one did s/he choose? That’s right – students overwhelmingly chose the one they hadn’t rejected initially; that is the blue one! Because they had rejected the green one initially, somehow the students had constructed a justification in their mind (e.g. ‘It won’t taste good’) and incredibly, this influenced their choice the second time round! (Paul Bloom – YT: Lecture 16, 29:00) So if you would like a student to take Exam B rather than Exam A, just get them to compare Exam A with a clearly better exam C initially (Not that you would ever do such a thing…).

Getting the girls to pick you: Professor Dan Ariely  has uncovered another amazing technique (Ariely 2008 – pp. 11-15). Given options A and B, people are far more likely to choose B if we also introduce a third one, which is very similar to B but clearly inferior (option ‘minus B’). The idea is that because B is clearly better than –B, this superiority ‘spills over’ to A as well! He tested this with actual and computer-morphed faces (see below). In Condition A, most people thought A was better-looking, but in condition B, they thought B was hotter. So now you know… If you are going to a party and your arch-rival is going to be there, you just need to bring along someone who looks like you, but is clearly uglier. Not that you would ever do such a thing… 🙂

Ariely - The Decoy 2


Ariely, D. “Predictably Irrational” HarperCollins 2008.

Bloom, P. “Introduction to Psychology” Yale Courses, You Tube 2008.

Levine, R. “The Power of Persuasion” Oneworld 2006.

Tormala, Z. I. and Petty, R. E. (2007) “Contextual Contrast and Perceived Knowledge: Exploring the Implications for Persuasion” Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 43: 17-30.

‘Classroom Fox!’ – Erwin Rommel and ELT

Can you imagine employees singing a song about their CEO?  ER’s soldiers had one for him.  Can you imagine a coach avoiding the use of the name of his arch-rival for fear it might undermine morale?  The British issued a memo to that effect for ER.  Can you ever imagine Republicans liking the Democrat candidate more than their own??  So it was with the British 8th Army and ER!

Rommel 4ER * – aka ‘the Desert Fox’ – was the most brilliant tactician of WW II.  His exploits were simply unbelievable!  Yet I can sense you are already wondering ‘What could all this possibly have to do with teaching??’  Much more than would appear at first sight.  Read on.

Leading by Example:  ER was one of those Generals who would never ask his soldiers to do something he was not prepared to do himself.  At the critical moment during the crossing of the river Meuse in the French campaign he joined his engineers struggling to construct a bridge under heavy enemy fire – ‘I thought I’d give you a hand’ he said.  His troops were the first to cross the river in the breakthrough which decided the battle for France (Deighton 1993).

In class:  Who are your ‘troops’?  They are your students of course!  Whenever you ask them to do something, (e.g. write a paragraph, make a short speech or take part in a role play) make a point of doing it with them.  Not only will they benefit from a good ‘model’, they also stand to gain by looking at how you do it, but above all they will be motivated to try harder because you will be seen to be sharing the difficulties with them (Dornyei 2001).

Leading from the Front:  One of the maxims of Blitzkrieg (‘lightning war’) was that the commander should be as close to the action as possible in order to be able to make a personal appraisal of the situation, the difficulties his troops are facing and to be able to respond quickly to changing circumstances in the battlefield (Hart 2002).  ER certainly followed that principle thus achieving spectacular successes against much superior forces which were however commanded by people far from the scene of action.

In class:  Careful planning, materials preparation and clear instructions are necessary – but not enough.  Remember: ‘No battle plan survives contact with the enemy!’ (Chabris & Simons 2010) When you give your ss something to do, don’t just sit behind your desk; circulate among the groups, listen in on what the ss are saying.  Maybe they have misunderstood your instructions; maybe they require voc support.  A timely intervention can ‘save’ an activity, but even if this proves unnecessary, the boost to the ss’ morale your close presence will give is invaluable!  (Nunan & Lamb 1996)

Seeking out Opportunities:  Sometimes ER would set off with his fast-moving units without any clear-cut ‘plan’ for a ‘reconnaissance in force’ – ostensibly just to scout out the enemy positions.  The orders were: ‘Just take 3 days’ provisions and follow me’.  Very often he only had a sketchy idea of the dispositions of the enemy forces, but he trusted in his amazing ability to exploit ‘openings’ in the enemy defences he didn’t even know existed!  Many a time these ‘exploratory’ sallies turned into ferocious attacks as soon as an opportunity presented itself (Young 2006).

In class:  Planning is good, but too much planning can actually constrain you.  Here is another model: Why not start a lesson with a few options in mind and move from one to the other depending on how the students respond?  Better still, why not initiate some general discussion, letting the students determine its drift?  You can be ready to either organise a mini-input session on the basis of their linguistic difficulties or just let the discussion continue freely and give them linguistic feedback afterwards. (Murphey 1991)

Rommel 3Probing the Defences:  Contrary to the British who would often make a plan of attack and then repeatedly bash themselves against strongly defended positions, ER preferred ‘probing attacks’ (Collier 2003).  If the enemy resisted stubbornly he would give up and try somewhere else.  In this way he conserved his strength and through a process of ‘trial and error’ he would often come across a poorly defended sector where a breakthrough was almost effortless.

In class:  Who is the ‘enemy’?  In a sense it’s your students once again!  Unlike what Educational Psychologists often assume, front-line teachers know that in most cases we come up against what Cialdini would call ‘psychological reactance’ (Cialdini 2001).  Perhaps as a reaction against the school reality, students’ default mode is often to resist what we are trying to do.  So – do not flog a dead horse!  If you see that an activity is not working, just drop it and try something else! (Lewis & Hill 1992)

Exploiting a Breakthrough:  ER was a firm believer in the principle ‘do not give the fugitives any respite’.  Having achieved a breakthrough he would then relentlessly pursue the enemy for hundreds of miles because he knew that although winning a battle is the ‘difficult’ part, it’s the exploitation of the victory which leads to the greatest gains in terms of both men and material. (Deighton 2007)

In class:  You try this, you try that and suddenly something appears to work!  Suddenly an activity actually takes off and the students seem really involved!  You have achieved what Psychologists call ‘flow’ (Csikszentmihalyi 1997). Then what do we do?  Amazingly, very often we stop and we go back to our ‘plan’!!  So here is the idea: Scrap your plan and carry on!  The same applies to a series of lessons: if you find your ss like songs for instance, just give them more of what they like!  Never mind questions of ‘balance’ – the chances are that sheer exposure will make up for all the things which they are not doing in class!

Taking risks:  In the battle of Gazala, ER took the bulk of his forces behind enemy lines.  Unfortunately, because of poor intelligence he had underestimated the enemy’s forces and he found his forces seriously outnumbered with his back against a minefield and his supply-line overextended.  That should have been the end of the Desert Fox.  Only it was not.  Thanks to his masterful exploitation of his enemies’ mistakes he not only defeated them, but taking advantage of their disarray he rushed on to storm Tobruk, capturing huge quantities of supplies and 35,000 prisoners! (Mitcham 2007)

In class:  Playing it safe is a sure recipe for boredom.  So take a chance – try out something different, something ‘risky’.  Try that ‘noisy’ game; give your students controversial material to argue about; let them take over the lesson for once; take them outside the classroom; share some of your secrets with them…  Think of inspirational teachers like Mr Keating in ‘Dead Poets Society’ or Miss Brodie in that wonderful book by Muriel Spark – would they be so effective if they always ‘played by the book’?

From the frontIgnoring orders:  Time and again, ER ignored general principles, directives and even specific orders.  Upon arriving in Africa his instructions were to wage a strictly defensive war.  As if… 10 days after he had arrived, and without even waiting for his units to reach full strength he launched a fierce attack and chased the British out of Cyrenaica.  So shocked were even the Germans by his audacity that the Chief-of-Staff General Halder declared ER had gone ‘stark raving mad’!  (Collier 2003).

In class:  Never mind the syllabus; it is often there because  a) inexperienced teachers need some guidance initially but mostly b) because people higher up need to feel that things progress ‘according to a plan’ with students learning the L2 ‘a bit at a time’.  In fact, language learning is a lot more ‘holistic’ than that – and a lot more chaotic!  So look at your class and think of your students:  What do they need?  What would be likely to motivate them?  Trust yourself – you are the teacher; you ‘know’! (Nunan & Lamb 1996)

Last Words – the role of Reputation: Such was the awe that ER inspired in the British that officers were ordered not to mention his name often for fear this would undermine the morale of their troops!! (Young 2006)  Which brings me to the role of reputation:  Your reputation precedes you.  Psychology says that expectations often act as self-fulfilling prophecies (Ariely 2008).  If your ss expect to learn a lot from you, chances are they will!  If an ex-student of yours tells a new one ‘Oh – you got Mary! You’re gonna have a great time’ – that’s it!  That student is already on your side – you have won!  🙂

* I have to confess at this point that Rommel is my hero – which only goes to show that some men never outgrow certain stages! 🙂  Naturally, I mean this only in the sense that I admire his tactical skills and dedication to his profession.  Though he was one of the most ‘decent’ soldiers of WW II, respected by friend and foe alike and he did conspire against Hitler in the end, there is no escaping the fact that he was a general in the service of the most evil regime of the 20th Century…


Ariely, D. “Predictably Irrational” HarperCollins 2008

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

Chabris, C. & Simons, D. “The Invisible Gorilla” Harper Collins 2010

Csikszentmihalyi, M. “Finding Flow” Basic Books 1997

Collier, P. “WW II: Mediterranean 1940-45, v. 4” Osprey 2003

Deighton, L. “Blitzkrieg” Pimlico 1993

Deighton, L. “Blood, Tears and Folly” Vintage 2007

Dornyei, Z. “Motivational Strategies in the Language Classroom” C.U.P. 2001

Haidt, J. “The Happiness Hypothesis” Arrow Books 2006

Hart, B. H. Lidell “History of the Second World War” Putnam 1970

Hart, B. H. Lidell “The German Generals Talk” Perennial 2002

Lewis, M. & Hill, J. “Practical Techniques for Language Teaching” LTP 1992

Mitcham, S. “Rommel’s Desert War” Stackpole Books 2007

Murphey, T. “Teaching One-to-One” Longman 1991

Nunan, D. & Lamb, C. “The Self-Directed Teacher” Cambridge 1996

Young, D. “Rommel: The Desert Fox” Natraj Publishers 2006

Israelis, Palestinians and the Quest for Peace


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Watch this fantastic short clip by the great (Israeli) Daniel Kahneman to see what insights Psychology can offer into the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians.

Looking at the issue from the point of view of Israel, Professor Kahneman says that peace is difficult – very difficult. Here is why:

Power imbalance [1:07]: A power imbalance makes the powerful look down on the powerless (indeed, according to N. Epley (Epley 2014, Ch. 3), it often leads us to dehumanize our powerless adversaries), they are less empathetic, prone to contempt and they have a sense of entitlement. Israel is by far the more powerful party.
Habituation [2:53]: We very easily ‘habituate’ to a certain state of affairs – thinking that it is going to last forever. Israel enjoys a number of privileges it would have to give up in order to attain peace. It is very hard to do that.
Loss aversion [4:45]: Losses (esp certain and immediate losses) loom larger than benefits (esp uncertain, future benefits). If Israel struck a deal now, it would have to give up a number of things (not least territory it has occupied, not to mention the settlements) and hope that this might translate into peace and good-neighbourliness in the future.
The right to self-defence [6:20]: Whenever there is a conflict, we perceive ourselves as the injured party, simply responding to aggression, insults etc. It is never the other way round. Not once has any of the two sides admitted that they were the initiators.
Disproportional retaliation: Another great Jew (E. Aronson) quotes research showing that it is all but impossible to restrain our tendency for excessive retaliation (Tavris & Aronson 2007 – p. 192). Time and again, our brain magnifies the other party’s offences and our own deeds seem insignificant by comparison.
Attribution [7:38]: We act in the way we act because of the circumstances; the other side however acts the way they do because of their nature – because they cannot help it (e.g. ‘Because they are anti-semites’ etc. – Palestinians also perceive Israelis as racists). This is such a common phenomenon, there is a special term for it: the Fundamental Attribution Error.
Mistrust [8:05]: Psychologically, we don’t mind so much if we miss an opportunity (e.g. to achieve peace). We do mind an awful lot however if we choose to trust the other party, we take a step towards reconciliation (e.g. by dismantling a settlement or releasing prisoners) and then we feel that this is turned against us (instead of appreciated).
So – what is to be done? Professor Kahneman says there is little hope in trusting that there will be a gradual change of attitudes among the Israeli people (or the Palestinians come to that). What is needed here is leadership – someone who will help steer the nation in the direction of peace. Will the Israelis manage this? The best answer perhaps is a Hebrew word from the Old Testament: ‘timshel’ ( = thou mayest).



Epley, N. “Mindwise” Allen Lane 2014

Tavris, C. & Aronson, E. “Mistakes were Made (But not by Me)” Pinter and Martin 2008

The Optimism Bias: Confidence and Overconfidence

Look at this graph. I have to say, when I first saw it, it completely blew my mind. OK, I had read about these things before, but the elegance and conciseness of the diagram is amazing!

Leslie - Confidence Optimism

There are 4 key elements worth noting: a) the way we see the future is NOT realistic – on average, we assume things will pan out better than they will  b) people who see reality as it is, are classified as clinically depressed!  c) on average, men’s perception of the future is substantially more optimistic than that of women;  d) (some) leaders are even more extreme cases – they are borderline ‘delusional’!

a) This is one of the 3 key ‘positive illusions’ *. On average, we tend to think that things are likely to improve in the future. It seems that there is an evolutionary explanation behind this. If you are (slightly over-) confident, you try harder and you take chances because you believe you are going to be successful – it seems that ‘optimists’ out-reproduced ‘realists’ in the past.

b) It may be that the Eeyores of this world are actually the realists! But, you may say, now that we know this, aren’t we going to become depressed as well? Fortunately, the answer is ‘No’. It seems that the ‘rose-tinted’ spectacles with which we gaze at the future are riveted in place and cannot be removed; think of the Muller – Lyer optical illusion: does the fact that you know the lines are of equal length help you see them differently?

c) Study after study has shown that men tend to take greater risks than women – clearly, overconfidence has a lot to do with it. That is why men are over-represented in extreme sports and in high-risk jobs (e.g. stockbrokers). This also explains why women (on average) tend to prefer the security that state jobs offer. (It does NOT explain why they still get less money than men for the same work…) Again, Evolutionary Psychology seems to provide a good account of why this should be so. According to R. Baumeister, historically, men have been under greater selection pressures than women. To put it another way, compared to women, fewer men were proportionally a lot more reproductively successful. So, to succeed, a man had to take greater risks and to have an (often unjustified) faith in himself (Baumeister 2010 – p. )

d) As Leslie points out (2011 – p. 222) leaders seem to possess this trait to an even higher degree. This makes sense of course; presumably a leader has the self-confidence to put himself through the grueling process which is the political ‘cursus’ (‘climbing the greasy pole’) in the first place and, to become a leader, they have to have some successes under their belt, which may also go to their head. This could potentially be dangerous; it seems that confidence is like wine; in moderation it can be good, but in excess it can lead to disaster – and in the case of leaders, they may drag whole nations along (see the extreme end of the graph…)

* The other two are that we think we have more control over reality than we actually do, and that (of course) we are ‘better than average’ in just about everything! 🙂 (Sarot 2012).