How to distract your students into paying attention

Great post from Speakeasy at the Wall Street Journal:

“It’s the oldest trick in the book: If you have a boring task, make it seem like fun. Maybe others will pitch in. You might even start enjoying yourself. Remember Tom Sawyer living it up while whitewashing the picket fence? The best teachers I encountered while researching “Now You See It: How the Brain Science of Attention Will Transform the Way We Live, Work, and Learn” captivated their students’ attention by providing interactive and collaborative challenges with clear rewards. We can adapt some of their tactics.”

Go to How to Distract Your Kid Into Paying Attention

 

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Benchmarking to a Moscow band

Sometimes you can take some aspect of a business and compare your business to that. The two businesses may be quite different but there may be some function of the business that can be compared. I do this, too.

In Moscow I had some friends who had a band. They were going to perform and invited me to a big concert. Many bands were going to perform. My friends looked good and sang and played well. I was impressed. After they finished, this straggly young guy got on the stage and I thought he was going to sweep it but he had no broom. I was surprised when he walked over to the microphone and called to the control booth to start the music. Then he began singing. His voice was not remarkable, it was suitable. But somehow he reached out and grabbed our hearts and minds and had us all clapping our hands and dancing in our seats. It was all in Russian and I didn’t understand a single word but he was the star of the show. I was thrilled!

How I use it:

Technical perfection is not the important thing. We can maybe look good and teach well and appeal to our students’ intellect. But I think a great teacher can reach out and grab hearts and minds. I think great teachers can distract students from all their distractions and capture students so completely that they fall under the spell of the lesson. That Russian singer is my benchmark for teaching. I am seldom successful at hitting this mark but I think even hitting halfway is beneficial to my students. Along with his spirit and enthusiasm that so moved me, I noticed how he got us clapping by showing us to clap. When we joined him in clapping we were no longer passive observers but we were active. From this I learned it is important to get my students’ bodies involved in the class. Make them get up and change partners, get up and join others to form a group, and they will be more active. I don’t let them pairwork with the person sitting next to them because their attitude and spirit will be too passive. My first task is to activate my students’ hearts and minds. If they are activated, they can learn anything. If they are not activated, they can learn nothing.

Engineering an experience!

Call the New York Hilton Hotel and get this information...
Can we engineer an English-learning experience so impressive and even so intensive that we need to remind students to breathe?

A teacher asked me to address the question about what the teacher should do in the classroom. If extensive comprehensible input is doing the heavy lifting of language learning, if the teacher does not need to teach, drill and test students on he/she pronouns of gender grammar, what should the teacher do in the classroom?

Over the years I have mixed together the things I have learned from dozens of TEFL books (many written by Jack Richards and David Nunan, both of whom I interviewed when they came to China) with things I have learned from late-night TV comedians like David Letterman, psychologist and Nobel laureate Daniel Kahneman, best-selling business book author Joseph Pine, Chinese military strategist Sun Tzu and psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi.

Much of this was driven by problems I was having in my teaching. During my teaching career I have received so many complaints about my teaching that it is almost embarrassing. One adult student told me that I was the “worst teacher” he had ever had. Although I have received much in the way of praise for being the “best teacher” many of my students have ever had, I treasure the complaints. I sincerely believe any accurate criticism is worth more than 100 praises and anything really good about my teaching skills came as a result of such complaints.

This set me on a quest to really understand the dynamics of learning, the psychology of managing student motivation and classroom management.

Now what I am doing in my classroom is engineering experiences. By this I mean to create some degree of mental and emotional experience mediated by English.

One simple example of this I have already described. You know how English coursebooks always have some dialog for students to imitate in order to book a hotel room? To create a better experience, many teachers ask students to sit back-to-back. I think this is very good and causes students to focus their listening more and even their speaking to be more understandable. It is a rather odd thing to do in the classroom and its uniqueness also wakes students up from the boring routine of sitting facing the teacher.

But can we do better than that?

How about booking a real room in a real hotel with a real phone call to a real American? And what hotel? I had once shown the movie, “Regarding Henry”, to my students. When it came time for us to have a lesson about how to book a hotel room, rather than do some boring unrealistic coursebook dialog, we called the Ritz Hotel which was featured in the movie. My students were actually calling a real hotel that they saw in a movie. (We also ate a box of “Ritz Crackers” which were also featured in the movie.)

The students were excited and nervous about the idea. All of them were not going to make the call. We’d choose a student. But I let the tension fill the room and hang there, permeating my students’ minds as every student thought it might be him or her doing the calling. As I played back recordings of students from other classes making these calls (which are completely different than any kind of coursebook sample) my students desperately clung to every word in anticipation and some degree of fear that in a couple minutes it might be them talking to a hotel clerk on the other side of the world. Eyes were widened. Hearts were pounding.

For my “volunteer” I always choose one of my most outgoing self-confident students, sometimes the class clown. His English may not be the best but he is least likely to have a heart attack and die in the classroom due to the excitement and stress. Sometimes I tell them that I will choose another student to make the call after him. This keeps them on edge.

All the other students breathe a sigh of relief that they “missed the bullet” this time, but now they are intensely interested in how this phone call is going to go. After all, they might be next. Again they cling to every word to listen to the negotiation of meaning between the clerk and the student. I record the call and play it back so we can talk about what happened. The mp3 is available so students can review it further if they want.

Contrast the intensity of such an experience with the relative boredom of repeating a coursebook phone call dialog. I’m sure that you have done more exciting things with your students and that you have many more ideas. Please share them with us.

I think we can quit apologizing to our students for the boring coursebook and “think outside the book” or make the book exciting. Some teachers dodge their responsibility of providing students with engaged learning saying they have to “follow the book”, that they and the students are destined to some kind of Dante-ish classroom experience, like it or not.

Don’t you think we can do better?

Notes:

Do not book a room unless you are going to use it. But you can call for information about rooms and facilities. Although it may be afternoon in my classroom and late night in New York, these hotels have 24-hour staff to manage inquiries. To develop skills in understanding different English accents we have called hotels in Switzerland, India and the Philippines. With today’s calling cards these long distance phone calls are quite cheap. I set the phone on speaker mode and put a microphone next to it so the class can hear. Calls to USA 800 numbers can also be made for free by using Skype.

Why publishers do such a lousy job

[Note: This is the message that was banned by TESL-L editors. They did not want you to see it.]

Do you know why publishers keep pumping out boring useless business English courebooks? Do you know why you have to keep apologizing to the students for the boring lessons? Do you know why you struggle to motivate your students to keep at their lessons? Do you know why so much of the English you teach is not exactly the English your students need?

It is my fault. I will take responsibility.

But it is also your fault. You must take responsibility, too.

Let’s look at the publishers’ mission.

Do publishers want to introduce the latest most effective training methodologies to the classrooms? Do publishers endeavor to prepare our students to be properly skilled in English for their life and work? Do they want to help businesses be able to have employees that are highly skilled and ready for the challenges of the 21st century?

We never really thought about those questions before, have we? But it seems like the answers should all be “Yes!”

Surprisingly, the answers are all “No!”

So what is the publishers’ mission?

Make money.

That’s it! That’s all! It’s very simple!

They don’t love you. They don’t love your students. You do but they don’t. They are not trying to raise the standard of English in today’s businesses or society.

They just want to make money.

What? Did you think they were a charity? Did you think they are Greenpeace or something? Did you think they are some sort of linguistic Red Cross? Gandhi or Mother Teresa?

They are a business. They are interested in three things: Sales, sales and sales.

We can’t blame them for that. They cannot do anything else but try to produce whatever will sell best. That’s it!

Sure, they put some unit in the book that shows someone using Email instead of sending a telex or fax. (Oh, God, using those old books was so embarrassing.) Maybe they are really fancy and show someone using Twitter. Oh, wow, how cute. These things interest and amaze our students for the first two lessons. By the time our students get to the third lesson they are beginning to realize that it is the same old boring stuff in new clothes.

And that is why it is my fault and your fault that publishers are doing such a lousy job and producing such boring business English materials. Their mission is to sell, sell, sell.

And you and I buy, buy, buy.

Of course, we buy and complain to our students. We buy and then tell our students, “Sorry, I know it is boring but it will help your English.” “Sorry, I know it is boring and you are going to forget half of this stuff after you take the exam or after you get the job but that is the way it is. There is nothing I can do.”

Do you want better materials? Do you want something that will excite your students? Do you want your class to let out a collective groan when the bell rings and class is over because they want the class to go on and on and on it was so engaging and interesting? Do you want your students to stop asking you to show them a movie instead of the boring coursebook?

Let’s demand that publishers start producing materials that excite and amaze our students. Let’s demand they make materials that turn English lessons into our students’ favorite subject. Let’s demand that they help us make our English lessons the highlight of our students’ day.

When I teach my college class on Monday, I tell all of my students at the beginning of every lesson, “Hey, it’s Monday! It’s Uncle Dave Day! It’s your favorite day of the week!!!” They moan and groan with smiles on their faces.

I suppose Uncle Dave Day is not their favorite day of the week. I don’t know if they like my classes at all. I get feedback that they do like the classes but you never know for sure.

But wouldn’t it be great if publishers gave us the tools to make our lessons not only interesting but fascinating? Not only informative but unforgettable?

Publishers want to know what we want. After all, they just want to sell, sell, sell. Let’s tell them what we want to buy.

Contact their local office and their head office. Contact their reps. Tell your director and tell other teachers.

Can they do better? We think they can. Let’s tell them.

Engineering an Experience! – Think outside the book…way outside!

What are we going to do with our time if we don’t teach grammar? Blow our students’ minds!

Have you ever seen a three-way orgy in an Ikea store? I have. You can too! Ikea 3-way

 

Scene from "Ikea Heights"
This crazy filmmaker thought it would be great fun to secretly film a melodrama in an Ikea store. With price tags hanging in front of their faces and customers walking behind, they act out living and dying in a fictitious neighborhood called “Ikea Heights”. What an out-of-the-box crazy idea.

 

If I have a small group, maybe 6-7 students, I will always take them to Ikea at some point during our training.

For us “experience engineers”, perhaps you are one, part of “engineering the experience” is not just to engineer a lesson but to engineer the overall training experience. Some lessons are in the classroom. Some lessons are out…way out! We want to not only have interesting and exciting lessons but also surprising experiences. We want our students to associate English learning to something thoroughly enjoyable, stimulating, amazing — not boring.

To this end we often not only “think outside of the box” but we “teach outside of the classroom”. There’s many things we can do along this line.

You know the boring lesson in English coursebooks where they read some dialog to order the food? Teachers who are “experience engineers” will do crazy things like having lunch together with their students at a buffet restaurant…with a twist. Instead of every student going to get their own food from the buffet counter, the teacher, or even one or two students, will act as “waiters” and take orders from the other students who act as “customers”. The “customers” sit at their tables while the “waiters” take the orders and serve the food. Students take turns waitering so everyone gets a chance. Perhaps the teacher or a student will visit the buffet the day before to make a “menu” that the others will use to order from but this is not necessary. (BTW, if asked, the manager will probably offer a discount for the group.) Wow, a lesson you can eat!

My student, a manager in an American company, trying out the Ikea experience

Ikea is a unique kind of store. They are “experience engineers”, too. They create these realistic rooms or even tiny apartments so you can feel the life of living in an Ikea home. Show your students the “Ikea Heights” film before you go. (Write me if you would like subtitles.) At the store you can act out your own mini-scenarios or role plays. (Orgy scene NOT recommended.)

There are a lot of interesting business strategies employed at Ikea. My English students who are managers love it when I point these things out. Ikea herds customers through a path like a rat maze. They station a cafeteria exactly halfway through the store so that customers will have no excuse to leave before they finish their shopping. They have a very cheap hot dog and ice cream available at the end of the shopping experience to provide a favorable “peak/end” experience.[1] There are lots of business concepts to unravel there.

There is a wealth of business talk to engage your students in discussing marketing, sales, promotion, staffing (few staff), ideas from things like Paco Underhill’s “Why We Buy?” and Joseph Pine’s “Experience Economy” and business questions like “This frying pan costs only $1. Now why would a big store like Ikea sell a frying pan below cost?”

That’s not to mention all the discussion of preferences and even games: “What do you like more? This sofa or that sofa? Why?” “Now John, choose a chair you like but don’t tell us. Jane, guess what chair John prefers and tell us why.”

How about simulations? “Jane, you go ahead to the bed department. You are going to be a salesperson. Think of what advantages different beds have and when we come you should try to interest us in buying one of those beds. Give us a good sales pitch!”

Let’s quit complaining about the dull English coursebooks. They’re hopeless. Let’s go outside and turn the world into our coursebook. Let’s quit apologizing to the students for the boring books and take the responsibility and the challenge of being like other teachers who are “experience engineers”, creating lessons that you can see, feel, hear and even taste, lessons that are interesting, engaging and even surprising! Can’t we make experiences so mind-blowing that our students will want to grab their phones and text their buddies about the crazy English lesson they are having, that they will have to tell their parents or spouse about the crazy things they did today?

Don’t you think we can do better? I think we can.

(You “experience engineers” out there, share with us your lessons and ideas!)

Notes and references:

[1] Nobel winner Kahneman’s Peak End Rule not only applies to some of the things Ikea does but to what our lessons should be like:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Peak-end_rule

http://tinyurl.com/4okbks5

Engineering an Experience! The coursebook

There are many reasons we cannot meet our students “on location” outside the classroom, as movie people say. Due to large class size or other restrictions, we are often confined to the classroom.

Much of the coursebook is tedious but there are ways to spice things up. I already explained how we change the routine boring role play of booking a hotel room into an actual phone call to a five-star hotel in New York. That really gets students stirred up, scared to death, tuned in and awake.[1]

Every time we have to teach from the book, we look for some exercise that we can really activate. One book had an exercise on speaking about charts and graphs from a survey. The survey was about types of cars people liked and there was some information about some rather old cars and unknown in our country but there were some good examples of language for discussing a survey and preferences.

To activate it, we skipped the car stuff and we asked the students to make their own survey. Work together with a partner. Choose a topic. Make a list of questions. Go around the room and survey at least ten other students. The room became full of activity. Everyone was talking. Everyone was smiling. They were completely engaged. Afterward they compiled the results of their surveys and prepared presentations with charts and graphs to explain their findings to the class. They did surveys on popular mobile phones, sports shoes, music stars, fast food restaurants.

One unit was very passively talking about environmental problems. To activate it students worked in pairs to choose one problem and decide on a solution. They prepared posters on a normal A4 size paper. They then took positions around the room something like at a trade fair or exhibition and tried to attract other classmates acting as “visitors” or “passersby” to ask for their support and a donation. These “visitor” classmates had an imaginary $100 to give out to the causes that appealed to them the most. Students looked to the coursebook for language to help them present their causes. The classroom was lively and the English speaking was at a roar level.

Activate any pairwork or groupwork activity in a coursebook by having the students work together with people they are not sitting with. Students always sit with their “buddies” but are often very passive with these friends. Get students out of their seats and working together with others that they are not so passive with. Make sure the boys don’t always bunch up.

Try to flip the topic on its head to grab the students’ minds and not let go. One teacher was going to explain how to do a résumé. We suggested he have the students also make a basic résumé and practice applying for a job from other students who act as employers but with a catch. They should make the résumé as a superhero; ie: Spiderman, Batman, Superman, etc. There was tremendous interest in the activity. The basic English is the same whether you are Superman or John Doe but the interest was tremendous and the students highly activated.

The class does not need to consist of only exercises that are so engaging. If you have just one exercise like this each class the students will then be much more alert with active minds and even ready to tackle something more routine or normally boring.

[1] When we call New York, we don’t book a room but we do ask for information working from a list of predetermined questions. For example, what kind of restaurants does the hotel have, what is the price of a room, do they provide airport pick-up, is there a beauty salon, can we bring our little Pekinese Shou-Shou?

>Multitasking to avoid boredom – Student need for engaging input

>One teacher wrote:

“I often have the TV on in the background when I’m writing or marking papers or working on my website. I’m not really paying attention to it (the TV), but more and more words seem to seep through. I believe it is helpful. Students to whom I have mentioned it, though, seem skeptical. (Of course they are! It doesn’t fit within that very small box called Chinese English teaching pedagogy!)”

Is this what Chinese middle-school students do to us as well? Often, we talk about our problems keeping students’ attention. I have employed various strategies to deal with this, treating it as a problem.

I noticed that often the students who seemed to not be paying attention often still had the correct answers. I’m coming to believe, in our high tech society, that students are capable of multitasking. They require lots of input and if there is not a high enough load of input from the teacher then the student will achieve his mental bandwidth capabilities by finding other sources of input.