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10 Commandments for motivating language learners: #9 Create a pleasant, relaxed atmosphere in the classroom

Blonde woman smiling in college classContinuing the 10 Commandments for motivating language learners series, Tim Ward, a freelance teacher trainer in Bulgaria, takes a closer look at number nine of the 10 Commandments: Create a pleasant, relaxed atmosphere in the classroom.

This is the latest of the blogs dealing with the vexed matter of motivation. A recap: I’ve been musing on the 10 Commandments of Motivation as categorised by two top Hungarians, Zoltan Dornyei and Kata Czizer, and wondering what their practical ramifications might be. In some senses, I’ve left the most interesting two till last. One is the imperative to create a pleasant relaxed atmosphere in the classroom. This is about the physical properties of the classroom, by the way, and not so much about the human relationships inside it – though one way of looking at it is to think about how the classroom atmosphere can facilitate good relationships and an atmosphere conducive to learning.

I’m loath to provide any recipes here as so much depends on the context you’re working in and, for example, the physical condition of a classroom in a state university in my part of post-communist Europe is very different from the state-of-the-art hi-tech private schools students might be in. But atmospheres can always be better and there is a framework to think about them provided by the senses. Why? Well, we know enough from research to have, to say the least, strong suspicions that brains do not thrive in environments with a narrow range of stimuli. In plainer English, poorly kept classrooms inhibit learning. I should say here I’m relying on one of my favourite books on this area – it’s Using Brainpower in the Classroom: 5 Steps to Accelerate Learning by Steve Garnett, and it says some hugely useful things about the classroom environment.

One place to start is with the display. I’m a great believer in displaying students’ work, even that of adults (as long as of course that it’s not kept on the wall too long). It’s not just about self-esteem, though seeing your work displayed is likely to increase that. There are also important learning points here. Writing should always be for an audience, and displaying writing gives any bit of work a wider audience than just the teacher. The posters that come with English File can be enormously useful too. If they are legible from anywhere in the room and positioned at eye-level, long term recall of their learning points can be as high as 75%. If we replace these learning displays frequently, then obviously more knowledge can be learnt, almost passively, in this way.

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