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.

References

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! 🙂

References

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

‘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?

Pixar

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].

References

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.

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References

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… 🙂

References

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… 🙂

References

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: http://www.allthetests.com/quiz26/quiz/1264264524/True-Seasons-Personality-Test

Personality – Astrology: http://www.the12houses.com/2008/09/20/the-12-zodiac-signs-short-version/

Personality – Doodling: http://www.dailymail.co.uk/femail/article-2036328/What-doodles-really-say-Arrows-ambition-flowers-family.html

Personality – Graphology: http://www.dailymail.co.uk/sciencetech/article-2380858/What-does-handwriting-say-Study-finds-5-000-personality-traits-linked-write.html

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

References:

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…

References

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).

 

References

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).

What Men are Best at…

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Have you ever seen a girl do a wheelie?  If you do, please let me know… 🙂 Although this question may seem unrelated to this article, this is far from being the case.  The connection first struck me while I was looking at the list of speakers at the TESOL 2009 Convention – it occurred to me that in a female-dominated field, the male speakers were rather numerous – in fact the ratio was almost 50 – 50%.  And when it came to the Plenary Speakers, the ratio was 3:2 – 3 men to 2 women that is!!  So here is the answer to the original question:  Men are far better than women at showing off!  And chances are, they will always be! 🙂 Here is Professor Alice Roberts before we return to ELT:

What do the figures show?  As everyone knows, in the field of ELT men [M] are an endangered species and TESOL Greece membership reflects this.  Apparently 85% of our members are women [W] while only 15% are M.  When it comes to speakers however, things are not like that at all; over the past few years the speaker ratio at TESOL Greece Conventions was roughly 50 – 50% while for the plenary speakers the figures were 52% M to 48% W.  Information I got from TESOL Macedonia – Thrace paints a slightly different picture: during the past 15 years there have been 35 W Plenary Speakers compared to 69 M!  Whatever the case, it is obvious that there is a huge discrepancy between the ratio of members and speakers.  And the question is – ‘Why’?

Why does this happen? [1]:  Ask anyone who has been inculcated with the central belief of the Standard Social Sciences Model (Crawford & Krebs 2008) that any observable difference between M and W is attributable to the environment, and they will come up with an impressive array of plausible-sounding answers: W are held back by the demands of their second ‘career’ at home / there is a ‘glass ceiling’ even in ELT / W are socialised to be less ambitious than M etc. No doubt there is an element of truth in all of these – particularly the first one.  However I believe this is only a small part of the answer (for a brilliant and most informative book on the subject see Browne 2002).

Why does this happen? [2]:  So let us now turn to the real reason: M are programmed by evolution to show off.  In the vast majority of higher life forms (e.g. reptiles, birds and mammals), the female is the investing sex when it comes to reproduction and W are no exception.  Because of this, it is the males who display (e.g. peacocks, bower birds etc.) and the females who choose (Forsyth 2001).  So, the males need to stand out.  What is more, in very many species the few successful males mate with most of the females (ibid.) while the fate of the others is genetic oblivion – hence the need to stand out becomes even more imperative!

Men Excel 6

The animal world:  Do males display in the animal world?  Of course they do!  And I am not just talking about mating displays aimed directly at females like the spectacular ones by some birds of paradise; male animals display in more subtle ways too.  Male chimpanzees hunt monkeys, but they tend to do so even more when fertile females are present! (Miller 2001) Zahavi (1997) has discovered that among Arabian babblers (a species of bird) males actually fight each other for the right to do guard duty for the community!  This task is highly ‘altruistic’ since it means both that they cannot feed and that they are more at risk from predators – but of course it also results in higher status and therefore more ‘girls’!  M too are far more likely to perform ‘heroic deeds’ for others and not because they are great altruists! (Winston 2002)

Men, Women and ELT [1]:  Let us go back to the ‘Why?’ in our initial ‘mini-research’.  Is it that M in ELT and better than W?  Of course not * – if anything it is the other way round! (Pinker 2002) But the motivation is different.  When a W decides to give a talk, it may be because she thinks it will promote her career, or because she is excited about something and wants to share her ideas and enthusiasm with other colleagues.  With M it is all this plus something much more important; every female in the audience is a potential mate!  The M may be unaware of this factor, but it is there all the same.  And this is reflected in their delivery too.  Compare the straightforward, sensible style of someone like, say, Olha Madylus with the brilliant flamboyance of someone like Cliff Parry!

Men Excel 8

Men, Women and ELT [2]:  Nor is this male desire to stand out manifest only in the relative number of speakers.  Men constantly seek positions of high status in all fields (Vugt & Ahuja 2010) and ELT is no exception**:  Consider this:  out of 41 State School Advisors 10 are M!  And what about the private sector?  15 out of the 41 local PALSO Associations are headed by M!  The ratios are 25% and 36% respectively.  You want further proof?  Go to your bookcase.  Take out any Teacher’s Handbook you want.  Now look at the ‘Other Titles’ list and count the names of the authors.  I did this for two books published in 2009.  Here are the results: OUP: 24 M vs 20 W – CUP: 34 M vs 12 W.  I rest my case…

Other examples:  Everyday instances of M showing off abound.  Take language for instance:  Who tells the most jokes in groups? – M do!  Who were the greater orators in the past – and who are the greatest rappers of today? – M naturally!  (Miller 2001).  It is no accident that verbal ability is the feature most strongly predictive of leadership potential (Vugt & Ahuja 2010).  And what do M talk about? – themselves of course!  (65% of the time while for W the figure is 42% – Dunbar 2004).  Interestingly, M also tend to talk about more intellectual topics – when W are present! (ibid. – any resemblance to chimps is purely coincidental! 🙂 )

Men Excel 7

By now you must have figured out why it is boys who do wheelies and not girls…  Here is the reason in a nutshell: M show off to W because evolution has designed the former to be aggressive sexual advertisers, while the latter comparison shoppers! (Barash 2001).  This is also the reason why M talk and talk and talk – preferably in public!  And if some of them do not even know what they are talking about, this only goes to show that ‘the reach of their display often exceeds their grasp’! (Miller 2001) [ Hmmm… I’m not quite sure I like this last bit… I think I’d better stop here…. 🙂 ]

But we think we are – and not just in language either!  73% of American M but only 57% of W think they are better than average in terms of intelligence (Chabris & Simons 2010).

** For an amazing debate as to  why M are over-represented at the highest levels in academia (and other fields) you simply must watch Pinker vs Spelke (just click here).

References

Barash, D. & Lipton, J.E. “The Myth of Monogamy” Freeman 2001

Browne, K. “Biology at Work” Rutgers University Press 2002

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

Crawford, C. & Krebs, D. [eds.] “Foundations of Evolutionary Psychology” Lawrence Erlbaum Associates 2008

Dunbar, R. “Grooming, Gossip and the Evolution of Language” Faber & Faber 2004

Forsyth, A. “A Natural History of Sex” Firefly 2001

Miller, G. “The Mating Mind” Vintage 2001

Pinker vs Spelke 2005 [www.edge.org]

Pinker, S. “The Blank Slate” Penguin 2002

Vugt, M. & Ahuja, A. “Selected” Profile Books 2010

Winston, R. “Human Instinct”  Bantam Books 2002

Zahavi, A. & Zahavi, A. “The Handicap Principle” Oxford 1997

Teaching Grammar – Questions

Why Questions?: One of the problems with teaching Grammar is that all too often the only thing we do in class is simply language manipulation activities.  Students do not get the chance to actually use the new language forms in any meaningful way.  Yet another problem is that we tend to focus on one structure at a time, whereas in real life we very rarely encounter, say, the Third Conditional or the Passive Voice in isolation.  On top of that, and more importantly perhaps, students very rarely get to practice asking questions (Qs) as in most exam situations they find themselves being questioned – or rather interrogated! The following activities should improve the situation somewhat…

The Yes-No Game: This is one of my favourite games! The idea is very simple: students work in pairs. One of them bombards their partner with questions (most of them of the ‘Yes/No’ type, but they also throw in some ‘Wh- Qs’ as well). The other person has to reply immediately, but they cannot say ‘Yes’ or ‘No’. If they do so, they lose. The whole process lasts one minute. For the students to get a taste of the game, it is best if they get a demonstration first – so just play the clip below:

Questions – Questions: [See the ‘Sample Materials’ file at the bottom of the post] The initial appeal of this activity is the challenge to find the Qs hidden as they are in the ‘paragraph’.  Having identified them, students then have to match them to the answers below.  This is a necessary step as they then have to ask each other these Qs by looking at the answers alone – which means they have to construct the Qs themselves!  An added bonus is that these are personal Qs, which means this is an excellent ice-breaker for the beginning of the year. [Adapted from Kay & Jones 2000 – p. 1C]

Questions_1Spot the Differences: [See the ‘Sample Materials’ file at the bottom of the post] This is an information-gap activity. Here students have to spot the differences between two near-identical tests by asking Qs (they cannot look at each other’s text).  Once again students have to formulate these Qs themselves (e.g. ‘When was A. Scott born?’ [see sample materials below]).  By varying the text we can focus on a different GR point – e.g. in this text it is the Q form of Past Tenses.  The fact that all the Qs relate to the same thing (in this case the life history of A. Scott) lends coherence to the whole activity. [Adapted from Watcyn-Jones 1995 – p. 90]

Questions_2Ask the Right Question:  [See the ‘Sample Materials’ file at the bottom of the post] Students simply love this game – perhaps because it reverses the normal course of things, as normally we start with the Q in order to get an answer!  Again, this is an information-gap activity. The idea is this: student A has a set of words/expressions. They have to ask Qs in such a way as to elicit these specific items (e.g. A: [has the word ‘tennis’] ‘Which sport is Federer great at?’ [see sample materials below]). The more such words/phrases they get their partner to come up with in a certain amount of time (say 1 min) the more points they score.  The diverse nature of the words / expressions means that students are forced to come up with a great range of different Q types and its brisk pace ensures high student involvement. [Adapted from Watcyn-Jones 1995 – p. 70]

Questions_3Last Words: These activities can be used independently or as one complete lesson.  Notice that all four of them are actually ‘Tasks’ in the sense that the object is not language manipulation; the students’ aim is ‘extra-linguistic’ (e.g. to spot the differences or to score more points than their partner). This has huge motivational value. Setting this aside however, I believe an additional benefit is the psychological one – helping students feel more comfortable about asking Qs, especially since research shows that this is something non-native speakers are reluctant to do in NS – NNS interactions.  But perhaps the greatest benefit is to make students realise that the word ‘Grammar’ need not be a synonym of the word ‘boredom’! 🙂

[To see some sample materials, just click here].

References:

Kay, S. & Jones, V. “Inside Out – Resource Pack [Intermediate]” Macmillan 2000.
Watcyn-Jones, P. “Grammar Games and Activities for Teachers” Penguin Books 1995.

The False Consensus Effect

Do you think a woman’s place is in the home? Do you think gay marriage is an offence against both nature and God? Do you think all immigrants should be deported pronto? Whatever it is we happen to believe – however silly – we are of course convinced we are right. Not only that however; it turns out we also think most other share our views!

Professor Nicholas Epley carries out the same fascinating study every year with his MBA students. He gives them a list of ‘Ethically Questionable Practices’ (see table below) and asks them to say whether they think they are morally ok or not. Most people think they are not. But there is a twist in the study; students are also asked to estimate what percentage of people share their views. Most people who think these practices are unacceptable believe (correctly) that most others share their views. But here is where it gets interesting: the others, the students who are actually in the minority, also believe that most people agree with them! Look at the last column in the table; while only 6% of students think it is ok to pirate software from work and install it on your home PC, these people actually think that most others (56%) share their view! Epley concludes that our natural tendency is to assume others interpret the world as we do [Epley, N. “Mindwise” – Allen Lane 2014, p. 101].

Epley - False Consensus

[You can see why this may be a problem here on FB for instance. Say you are the moderator of a particular FB page and you have come to the conclusion that a particular policy is the best for the group. Of course you could ask what other people think about it, but why go to all that trouble? Clearly most people can see that your decision is the best… 🙂  After all, if people object they are free to express their views later. But here is the thing: in most cases, they won’t. This is where another phenomenon (‘Pluralistic Ignorance’) kicks in. Most people may actually disagree with your decision, but they think along the lines of ‘Well, perhaps most others agree with the moderators… After all, nobody has said anything…’  And so it goes… The combination of these two factors can help explain an awful lot about how minorities often come to dominate the public debate – and why, very often, there simply isn’t any public debate at all…]

Are Women Less Competitive than Men?

The study design was amazing: subjects (both M and W) were invited to the lab. They worked individually. The instructions were simple – ‘You just sit in front of a computer and you solve mazes’. Subjects were divided into two groups; one was paid $1 for every maze they solved, but with the other group the deal was different; the task was the same, but there was a competitive incentive. You had to compete with another participant. If you solved, say, 10 mazes and they solved 15, they got proportionally more money (e.g. they got $20 and you only got $5). The Q was this: would M in the competitive situation solve more mazes than M in the non-competitive one? And what about W?

No answers yet… 🙂  The researchers then posed another interesting Q: let us say that M perform better in the competitive condition. Is this because of ‘nature’ or ‘nurture’? To find out they ran similar studies * in one of the most patriarchal cultures of the world (the Masai in Africa) and in one of the very few cultures (the Khasi in India) which is in some ways female-dominated. The Khasi society is matrilinear and inheritance flows through mothers to the younger daughters. Would the results turn out to be different?  They were. You can see them in the chart below.

Here is the researchers’ conclusion: ‘Our study suggests that given the right culture, women are as competitively inclined as men, and even more so in many situations. Competitiveness, then, is not only set by evolutionary forces that dictate that men are naturally more so inclined than women. The average woman will compete more than the average man if the right cultural incentives are in place’. [Gneezy, U. & List, J. “The Why Axis” Random House 2013 – pp. 52-53]

 Men - Women and Competitiveness

( * The task used in Africa and India was a different one [throwing tennis balls into a bucket from a distance of 3m, but this is not relevant; what is important is the difference in performance in the two experimental conditions).

From Action to Attitude

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Why do we do what we do? Well, a number of answers spring to mind ‘Because it is the right thing to do’ or ‘Because we like it’ or ‘Because we have to’. All these explanations are reasonable of course, but what if there is another one? What if the reason we do something is that we just happened to do it at some point in the past?!?

Imagine this scenario: you are walking down the street, you are a bit tired, you are in a bit of a hurry – you are also badly in need of caffeine. Normally you have coffee at ‘Dunkin’ Donuts’, but this is a few blocks away and you happen to walk past this place you have never been to before – ‘Starbucks’… I will let the great Ariely continue the story…

This simple observation is one of the most profound discoveries in the field of Social Psychology: Our brain is lazy; we don’t want to seriously sit down and think about each and everything we do every day. Instead, we rely on heuristics. One of the most potent heuristics is this: ‘What did I do last time?’ Never mind that last time I was in a hurry and ‘Dunkin’ Donuts’ happened to be away; we don’t remember these things – instead we remember what we did. And then what do we do? We ‘line up behind ourselves’ and do the same thing!

Not only that; according to Psychologist Daryl Bem, we also change our beliefs and attitudes so that they are consistent with our new behaviour pattern! ‘For many things, our attitudes come from actions, that led to observations, that led to explanations, that led to beliefs’ (McRaney 2013 – p. 60). Common sense says the chain of causation is: ‘I like films = I go to the cinema’;  Bem says: ‘I go to the cinema = I must like films!’

This of course has huge implications for us: if we can get our students to act in certain ways (e.g. be responsible, punctual, participate actively, behave in a pro-social way) initially, chances are they are going to carry on acting in the same manner and they are going to adjust their self-perception accordingly!

Consider the following study which is a classic in its simplicity: Psychologist Jack Brehm asked a number of children to rate how much they liked a long list of vegetables. He then told them that he wanted to see whether they might think differently after they had eaten them. So he asked them to eat, say, broccoli three times a week for the next few weeks. Each child was served with the particular vegetable which they had listed as the one they hated the most. A month later, Brehm again asked the same children to rate the items on the original list. Sure enough, the ‘despised’ veggies had moved up in the students’ preferences! Cognitive dissonance theory allows us to reconstruct what might have gone on inside the children’s head ‘Here I am, regularly eating this stuff – without being forced. Either I am a fool, or it’s not actually so bad’. Which of the two options would be the more appealing to them?

In fact, there are countless studies which show we all tend to act consistently across time – regardless of how carefully we considered our original action was (e.g. Ariely 2010 – Ch. 10). So here is the Moral: ‘If social psychology has taught us anything is that not only do we think ourselves into a way of acting, but also we act ourselves into a way of thinking’ (D. Myers) Brilliant!

References

Ariely, D. “The Upside of Irrationality” HarperCollins 2010.

Brehm, J. W. (1960) “Attitudinal Consequences of Commitment to Unpleasant Behaviour”  Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology, 60, 370-383.

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

Why Online Communication May Lead to Problems

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‘Banu Akrod (aged 23) delivered the best Plenary of the Convention’. That’s a straightforward remark, isn’t it? But wait – do I really mean it, or am I being sarcastic? Of course when I write something I know what my intention is, but what about the recipients of the message?

In a fascinating study, Professor Nicholas Epley et al asked some volunteers to write two sentences about some ordinary topics, such as food, cars, dating etc. One of them had to be sincere and the other one sarcastic. The subjects were then asked to convey these messages to another one of the participants. In some cases they were to do this over the phone and in another by e-mail. Would the recipients ‘get’ the right message? Does it make a difference which medium is used?

Crucially, the senders were asked to predict whether they thought their message would be properly understood. The recipients were also asked to predict in how many of the cases they would correctly gauge the sender’s intention.

The results can be seen in the graph below. Regardless of the medium, the senders were optimistic: they thought recipients would understand their intended meaning in about 80% of the cases. Recipients were even more optimistic – they thought they would ‘get it’ in 9 cases out of 10. Of course, they were both wrong…

The first thing which can immediately be seen from the graph is an ‘optimism bias’ – expectations exceeded the actual results in all cases. But whereas the senders were quite close in figuring out how many would understand what they really meant when this was conveyed over the phone (73.1%) they were very wrong when it came to online communication. The recipients got it right a little more than 56% of the time – that’s little better than chance! The difference between 56% and 78% is huge (and that between 56% and 89% is huger still! 🙂 )

The Moral: Prosodic features convey a wealth of information which is lost when you put something in writing. The likelihood of misunderstandings in online communication is very, very high. [Epley, N. “Mindwise” – Allen Lane 2014, p. 108].

Epley - Online Communication[Look at any thread on FB where there is a divergence of opinion. Very often what starts as a polite disagreement quickly escalates into a proper punch-up (the well-known phenomenon of ‘flaming’). Epley’s findings can go a long way towards explaining why this happens, as does the fact that our brain has a built-in ‘negativity bias’. Not only do we focus excessively on negative incidents and slights, we tend to ‘overperceive’ them and remember them more.]

The Effects of Expectations

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“So it is (if you think so…)”

Fancy a pint? How would you like a glass of beer? It’s tasty, well-chilled, refreshing and, perhaps more importantly – free! (To quote Plato – ‘If you have to pay for your pleasure, then what kind of pleasure is that?’) In addition, you are also going to be given a choice! You can choose between beer A or beer B. Beer B, the ‘MIT brew’, is special and it contains a secret ingredient! You can taste them both and make your choice. Now think: would it make any difference if you knew in advance that this secret ingredient was in fact a drop of balsamic vinegar? Over to Professor Ariely now – just watch the video…

So what is the moral? Here it is: ‘Expectations Colour Experience’. How we perceive something depends on what we expect it to be like. And this doesn’t just have to do with food and drink…

How do we perceive people? Imagine you are a university student. You are waiting for the first session of ‘Introductory Economics 70’ to begin. Then somebody comes in and says that something has happened to the professor who normally teaches the course, so a stand-in instructor will deliver the lecture. The only thing is that, because the department would like some feedback, the students will be asked to fill in an evaluation form afterwards. By way of introduction, each student is given a slip of paper with some information about this lecturer. Naturally (as this was in fact a Psychology experiment – although students did not know it) there were two versions of this short bio. Here they are. Can you spot the difference?

A: “Mr Long is a graduate student in the Department of Economics and Social Science here at MIT. He has had three semesters of teaching experience in psychology at another college. This is his first semester teaching Ec 70. He is 26 years old, a veteran, and married. People who know him consider him to be a very warm person, industrious, critical, practical and determined”.

B: “Mr Long is a graduate student in the Department of Economics and Social Science here at MIT. He has had three semesters of teaching experience in psychology at another college. This is his first semester teaching Ec 70. He is 26 years old, a veteran, and married. People who know him consider him to be a rather cold person, industrious, critical, practical and determined”.

That’s right. The only difference is two words: ‘very warm’ as opposed to ‘rather cold’. Would that tiny detail make a difference? Of course it did. Students who had received bio A were much more positive in their evaluations later; they described the lecturer as ‘considerate’, ‘popular’ and ‘humorous’; it was as if the other students had seen a different person! They described him as ‘unsociable’, ‘irritable’ and ‘self-centred’. So much for independent thinking… 🙂  But that wasn’t all; this prejudice also affected the students’ level of participation. Among the former students two-thirds participated actively; among the latter, only one third made any contribution during the session! Apparently, two little words lost in a longish paragraph can nevertheless have a huge impact… Here is Professor Bloom explaining why this happens along with the very interesting concept of ‘Confirmation Bias’:

Expectations and ELT: So what does all this mean for teaching and ELT? It is clear then that as Professor Ariely says, very often what we expect to get is what we actually get. That means that we have a great tool at our disposal – we can influence students’ experiences before they happen! Here are four simple tips:

‘Sell’ your activities to your students: ‘And now, we are going to play an amazing game – this is one of my absolute favourites!’

Do NOT predispose your students negatively: ‘OK, I know most of you are not going to like this, but we have to do it because…’

Get your DOS or somebody else to ‘sell’ you to your new class: ‘OK guys, I am very proud to introduce you to Nick. Nick has …’ Do not do it yourself; research shows that it is far more persuasive if done by somebody else (have you noticed what happens before any speaker takes the podium in any great event? – see also: Goldstein, Martin & Cialdini 2007 – p. 81).

‘Sell’ your students to the next teacher: You may have the best intentions when you say ‘OK, Mary is a bit of a problem; she is weak and disruptive’ but in fact, this acts as a self-fulfilling prophecy (Rosenthal & Jacobson 1968). Instead, you can stress her positive points.

How about another drink? Expectations are extremely potent. In an unbelievable field experiment, students in a bar were given blue and red badges to wear on their wrists. Then they were given memory, reflexes and balance tests. Of course they did well as they were all sober. Towards the end of the evening, things were different however – people could remember less, their reflexes were slower and their sense of balance impaired. It was the same for both groups. The only thing is – unbeknownst to them, the blue group had been drinking non-alcoholic drinks throughout the evening! Yet they were just as ‘drunk’ as the others… 🙂 (Wiseman 2010 – p. 199).

 

 

References

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

Lee, L., Frederick, S. & Ariely, D. (2006) “Try it, You’ll Like It: The Influence of Expectations, Consumption and Revelation on Preferences for Beer” Psychological Science 17(12):1054-8.

Kelley, H. H. (1950) “The Warm-Cold Variable in First Impressions of Persons” Journal of Personality, 18, 431-439.

Rosenthal, R.; Jacobson, L. 1968. Pygmalion in the classroom. New York: Holt, Rinehart & Winston.

Wiseman, R. “59 Seconds” Pan Books 2010

How to Turn a Man into a Picasso

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Well said J. L. Lewis!: In ‘Chantilly Lace’ J. L. Lewis sings ‘There ain’t nothing in the world like a big-eyed girl  / to make me act so funny make me spend my money / Make me feel real loose like a long necked goose / Like a girl oh baby that’s what I like’! J. L. Lewis could not have put it better if he had been an Evolutionary Psychologist! He was spot-on about the effects of Women [W] on Men [M] – more of that in another article. What he failed to point out however is that apart from all the other effects, the presence of ‘a big-eyed girl’ may well release the artist in a guy…

‘The Science of Lust’:  What happens in this experiment is very revealing: One by one, a group of guys are led into a waiting room where they are kept waiting for some time and then taken to another room where they asked to express themselves on a canvas. Then the same thing happens with a second group, only this time there is a difference. As each man is led to the waiting room, he is introduced to Kate, a young, sexy girl in a figure-hugging top and hot pants… (Kate may or may not be a ‘big-eyed’ girl… I never seem to be able to focus on her eyes… 🙂 ) Kate flirts with him a little and only then is the man taken to the room and asked to paint. A picture is worth a thousand words – a video, even more:

The results: …So the question is this: Does ‘romantic priming’ make any difference to the quality of the work the M produce? The answer is a resounding ‘YES’! An art expert is called in to assess it and the work of the two groups is displayed in two rows. Even an ignoramus such as myself can easily see that the work of the second group is far more exciting. Obviously the ‘excitement’ the M felt after their short session with Kate was channeled into their creations!

Another experiment: Here is another one: Professor Kenrick (Kenrick 2011) got together two groups of M. The M of the first group were ‘romantically primed’ by looking at pictures of highly attractive girls, choosing one and imagining what a first date with her would be like. The men of the second (control) group were asked to imagine walking down a street and looking at the windows. Both groups were then asked to write a paragraph about an abstract painting or a picture of two friends chatting together at a café. The paragraphs were then shown to a third group of people who rated them independently for such traits as ‘creativity’ / ‘originality’ etc. He then repeated the process with two groups of W – again, there was the control group and the one where the girls were ‘primed’ with pictures of handsome guys.

 The results: So – would there be a difference? Once again, the M outdid themselves after imagining a date with the likes of Megan Fox or Beyonce Knowles. In a different study it was found that such M also scored highly in standard creativity tests. But what about W? No! Fantasising about a date with Antonio Banderas or Brad Pitt obviously failed to bring out the artist in them… (ibid.)

So what can we make of all this?: Natural Selection goes for sensible designs and has a sense of proportion. The adaptations we have in order to survive are practical, no-nonsense ones. And then you get the peacock’s tail – there is no way such a thing aids survival. It is clearly meant to impress the peahens! Whenever one sees ‘extravagance’ and ‘waste’ in nature, the culprit is almost certainly Sexual Selection (Miller 2001). It is all about the struggle of males (in 95% of the cases) to impress females. Creativity is a good case in point – the amount of effort, dedication and energy that people are willing to invest in order to give an outlet to their artistic urges defies all calculation!

But why should it be so? Well, it is the W’s preferences which determine what trait M will develop! And studies have shown that creativity and originality are highly valued by the fair sex (Buss 2009). Not only that; research has also shown that during their fertile days W’s preferences shift – they prefer better-looking guys, dominant guys AND guys who are more creative! (Thornhill & Gangestad 2008). Another study focusing on traits W find attractive found that during the luteal (infertile) phase of the month 40% of W asked found ‘wealth’ appealing, while only 8% went for creativity; on their fertile days however, this preference was reversed! (5% and 30% respectively! (Miller, G. ‘Sex, Mutations & Marketing’ YouTube) There is no doubt about it; W find artistically-inclined M sexy…

The Godfather connection: Now if creativity is connected to mating effort, then we would expect it to decline with the years. And this is exactly what we find! Kanazawa looked at the lives of 280 top scientists and found that 68% of them made their greatest contributions before their mid-30s! Not only that, but there was a clear decline in the originality of their output once they had got married! (Fisher 2004) As Kurzban points out (2012) different modules in our brain kick in at different stages in our lives. Having children reconfigures our brain (Brizendine 2010) and we switch from mating to parental mode. What is truly astonishing is that the male creativity curve coincides almost exactly with the male criminality curve!! (Miller & Kanazawa 2008) According to this view, they both represent different ways males employ to acquire resources and/or status… in order to impress W! Once they have settled down, the tendency towards both criminality and creativity fades…

What about Women? We saw earlier that the prospect of dating Johnny Depp does not create in W an irresistible urge to try their hand at sonnet-writing. Yet it does have an effect on them. Remember what we said earlier? The two sexes have co-evolved and like good business people both M and W are prepared to offer their would-be significant other what the latter wants. Now this would normally mean that romantically-primed W would change physically to look more like Kate – alas that is a little too difficult. But there is something that M want in a long-term partner, that W can offer: kindness. In the same programme Vlad Griskevicius conducts another experiment where after flirting with a handsome guy, W become exceptionally helpful to strangers – even though the M is no longer present! Here is what happened:

 Now you know…: So if you ever need to send male creativity soaring, you know what to do… Imagine for instance you are a teacher, you have an all-boy class and you would like them to enter the ‘Creative Essay’ competition; no problem! Just invite that sexy teaching assistant from the other building to join you in your next lesson… that should do the trick… In a more professional context, say you are working for an advertising agency and you again have an all-male team… All you need to do is hire some pretty girls for the promo clip… (mind you, judging by the output of advertising agencies, I think they already know this!!  🙂 )

References:

Brizendine, L. “The Male Brain” Bantam Books 2010

Buss, D. “Evolutionary Psychology – The New Science of the Mind”  Pearson 2009

Fisher, H. “Why We Love”  Holt 2004

Griskevicius, V. “The Science of Lust” YouTube

Kenrick, D. “Sex, Murder and the Meaning of Life” Basic Books 2011

Miller, A. & Kanazawa, S. “Why Beautiful People Have More Daughters”  Pedigree 2008

Miller, G. “The Mating Mind” Vintage 2001

Miller, G. “Sex, Mutations & Marketing” YouTube

Thornhill, R. & Gangestad, S. “The Evolutionary Biology of Human Female Sexuality”  Oxford 2008

‘The Small Big’

(by S. Martin, N. Goldstein & R. Cialdini)

The Small BigHow do you help a busker make eight times as much as he normally would? Piece of cake – just get someone to drop a couple of coins in the hat as soon as the train doors open at the metro station! It’s called ‘Social Proof’ and it’s invisible! When people were asked later, nobody mentioned the ‘generous stranger’ (p. 15)…

In this amazing book, the writers focus on small things that can make a BIG difference. The contents list 53 chapters – each between 4 and 6 pages long. Each one looks at one or more studies and then considers the implications. The emphasis is on those little elements that make us tick. Social proof is one of them. Remember the busker? Instead of telling our students to do something, perhaps we could get a student to ‘model’ the desired behaviour.

The findings are often startling. For instance – how do you reduce no-shows for doctors’ appointments in hospitals by 57%? Easy – peasy: just send people a reminder sms with their first name in it! (p. 35) First names = attention = compliance! So what about us? Do we always use our students’ first names? Even when providing written feedback?

Another question: is it better to give people more or less choice? If you think the right answer is (a), think again! It is true that to get people to agree to do something offering them options is a good idea, but if you want them to actually complete a task they have agreed to do, then the opposite is the case! The big Q is this: ‘Is my problem getting buy-in or follow-through? Excellent! (p. 215)

Now here is a question for you: How many people would you have to ask to fill out a questionnaire before five of them agree? * It is incredible how much we underestimate people’s willingness to help! (p. 165) So – what about ELT? Do we encourage students to ask us for support? What about asking each other? And what about colleagues – how comfortable are we asking each other for help? (Honestly!)

OK – I have saved the best for last. Imagine you are in church. The sermon is over and the customary collection box is being passed around. Only this is an ‘uncollection’! You are actually encouraged to take money!! Then the priest says ‘Our expenses are huge. Please take some money, use it any way you want, and if you wish, you might give some of your earnings back to the church in the future’. Within six months, Reverend Steel got his money back twentyfold!! (p. 163) Q: Could we not do the same at the next IATEFL Convention?  🙂

[ * A: Amazingly, only about 10!]