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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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10 Commandments for motivating language learners: #2 Develop a good relationship with the learners

Teacher talking with her studentsContinuing the 10 Commandments for motivating language learners series, Tim Ward, a freelance teacher trainer in Bulgaria, takes a closer look at the second of the 10 Commandments: Develop a good relationship with the learners.

Let’s begin with a story about stubborn donkeys, carrots, and sticks. There are, the proverb says, two ways of encouraging donkeys to move. One is to dangle a carrot at the front end of the beast and the second to apply a stick at the other end. Which is more effective depends on the nature of the particular animal.

What’s this got to do with teaching English? Well, where I live there are still a lot of people who think about motivation in schools in much the same terms, as a concept that depends on external rewards and punishments. And in some ways that seems common sense – what else is going to work?

Luckily, this isn’t necessarily true. Look at this quote on Goal Contents Theory a quick Google search found:

Extrinsic goals such as financial success, appearance, and popularity/fame have been specifically contrasted with intrinsic goals such as community, close relationships, and personal growth, with the former more likely associated with lower wellness and greater ill-being. (http://www.psych.rochester.edu/SDT/theory.php)

Or, to put this another way, the soft skills involved in teaching can be much more powerful than the rewards students can see waiting at the end of their course. Relationships matter.

There are probably as many ways of having a good relationship with your students as there are good teachers in the world, but here are some things which you’d usually expect to see.

First up, listening.  The Scots have a saying:  Listen twice before you speak once. That seems to me pretty good advice for teachers, both in terms of dealing with any problems that crop up in class and when listening to students’ English – we should listen first for what our students are actually saying before listening for mistakes. And when we’re monitoring it’s a good way of entering into a dialogue (I’m looking at New English File Intermediate 4C, where students are talking in pairs about matters like ‘a teacher at school you used to hate, a singer you used to listen to a lot and who you still like, a friend you used to have but who you’ve lost touch with’ and so on). These are personal things and if we can listen and share them, that’s great. Showing an interest in learners as human beings is what it’s about here.

Of course there are many reasons to listen. Another is provided by one more great source of proverbs, anon: A good listener is a silent flatterer. Flattery makes us feel good, and properly listening (paying complete attention, maintaining eye contact, thinking about the message as well as the language) will foster self-respect and respect for the classroom.

Linked to this are a number of other features of good relationships. Showing sympathy for problems is important, of course, though how you go about showing that depends on who you are. And how far you might want to take relationships outside class is a personal matter, too. Some teachers I know will email their students (I’m old fashioned: they may even be befriending on Facebook, for all I know), while some wouldn’t dream of it. But even if the extra-classroom relationship is just a casual word in the corridor, then it’s a positive step.

And jokes, they’re apparently a good thing, too!

How do you develop relationships with your students?

Remind yourself of the 10 Commandments for motivating language learners and look out for future posts by Tim exploring the remaining Commandments.

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10 Commandments for motivating language learners: #5 Promote learner autonomy

Asian girl sitting on the floor readingContinuing the 10 Commandments for motivating language learners series, Tim Ward, a freelance teacher trainer in Bulgaria, takes a closer look at number five of the 10 Commandments: Promote learner autonomy.

Thanks for the replies to the last couple of blogs, all in response to comments on two of the Ten Commandments for motivation. This time round, I want to turn my attention to just one, but it’s one of the areas that’s received lots of attention in the last few years: Dornyei and Czizer’s version reads: Promote learner autonomy.

Now, in general terms everyone’s agreed that learner autonomy is a good thing but the specifics of how to encourage it are a bit harder to pin down, not least because there are so many different levels at which autonomy works. So it’s with a degree of trepidation that I start this blog.

Best to begin softly: what is learner autonomy?

Easy enough – a workable definition is that it’s the readiness and ability to take charge of one’s own learning inside and outside the classroom. In ascending order of difficulty, the next questions go why? and how? So, why is it a good thing that learners take care of their own learning? (Bear in mind, by the way, that these are all discussions we can and maybe should be having with our students.)

There is a whole raft of answers from the more to the less obvious. Students only spend part of their time and a fraction of their lives in the classroom with us, the teacher, so learning skills they can use outside and in later life is doubly valuable – a point the Common European Framework is very strong on making. More than that, autonomous students will probably learn with more enjoyment, do better in exams, set their own targets, be more fun to teach, and so on…

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10 Commandments for motivating language learners: #10 Present the tasks properly

Female teacher holding out her left armFollowing on from his first post, 10 Commandments for motivating language learners, Tim Ward, a freelance teacher trainer in Bulgaria, takes a closer look at the last of the 10 Commandments: Present the tasks properly.

Another of Dornyei’s and Czizer’s motivational Commandments is one I wouldn’t have come up with myself. It reads: Present the tasks properly.

Mmm. I absolutely know how not to present tasks properly – for a clear set of instructions of what not to do I need only think back to my younger days in the job (far enough away now in time and place for the thought not to be too embarrassing). This list includes being unfocused, unclear, repeating myself, not explaining everything the students need to do or know and generally waffling unforgivably (all sins I’m sure I still commit often but not on such a regular basis. I hope).

That’s a lot of negatives.

We can put things more positively: we should be clear, we should make sure the students know which language they will need to do the task, and the reason for doing it. So, I suppose, we can give answers to all the wh- questions. What are students doing and using, which language, how long will it go on for, why are they doing it, and who are they doing it with. That may be a beginning to explaining things better. But I wonder what it looks like on the ground…

Here’s an exercise taken at random from New English File Upper-Intermediate. It reads:

e  In pairs or small groups, discuss the questions:

1  What do you think are the strengths of your nationality?

2  What are the weaknesses?

In what way would you say you are typical?

(Aficionados won’t need telling that it’s part of a larger lesson on national stereotypes, p. 20.)

Looking at my own advice, I guess I would present the task something like this. ‘OK guys, it’s time to have a talk about these things. Take a look at the instructions. Any questions? … No, OK. I think this is a useful thing to do because it gives you a chance to use some of the new words and ideas we’ve been working with. I think about five minutes is enough in your buzz groups. At the end I want you to be able to report back on one of your colleagues.’

Would you do the same or different?

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10 Commandments for motivating language learners: #1 Set a personal example with your own behaviour

Smartly dressed young woman smilingFollowing on from his first post, 10 Commandments for motivating language learners, Tim Ward, a freelance teacher trainer in Bulgaria, takes a closer look at the first of the 10 Commandments: Set a personal example with your own behaviour.

There were lots of responses to the last blog on motivating language learners. Thanks for all that – establishing a dialogue is such an important part of our professional lives.

It was really interesting to hear from learners like Bethanyx – more from the learners’ perspective is always welcome!  Many of the posts anticipate things I’ll come back to in later weeks (Paul Bishop saying that learners need to know the benefits of what they’re studying, Bindu writing about helping students think ‘out of the box’ and many more).

An interesting comment from Marluce in Rio to the effect that teacher efforts are all very well, ‘but (there is always a “but”) course books need to be used completely in my school, and we feel sometimes overloaded’. Agreed! Two thoughts.  One is that course books should always be the servant not the master; the other is that some course books are better than others, and it’s important to look for ones which are right for the students.

Generally the response goes some way to confirming what I’m thinking, that there’s a widespread perception – internationally, even intercontinentally – that our job is getting harder, or at least we have to find more ways of getting through to students. It’s a perception that may even be true…

Which leads me on to the theme of this post. I finished last time by outlining the 10 commandments of motivation as described by the Hungarian researchers Zoltan Dornyei and Kata Czizer. These were what they called ‘macrostrategies’, meaning I suppose that they are kind of general rules. The task I want to move on to now is to try to put some flesh on the bones, to see how we can actually put these macrostrategies into practice (which I suppose means coming up with some microstrategies, though a large part of me prefers the term ‘specific ideas’).

Take the first commandment of motivation which says ‘Set a personal example with your own behaviour’.

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