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


“Text messages help smokers quit” – Can they motivate students?

I have always been interested in research into habit changing efforts that could possibly be instrumental in helping my students. This has led me into studying techniques related to fitness coaching, distance coaching, research into using SMS to remind people to take their meds, using SMS for weight loss, phone calling to coach people quitting drug habits and to support wellness programs, etc. Here is some late news on the same topic. To what Continue reading ““Text messages help smokers quit” – Can they motivate students?”

Are we sure we know why we teach what we teach?

A recent article in the New York Times:

“MEMPHIS — Jack London was the subject in Daterrius Hamilton’s online English 3 course. In a high school classroom packed with computers, he read a brief biography of London with single-paragraph excerpts from the author’s works. But the curriculum did not require him, as it had generations of English students, to wade through a tattered copy of “Call of the Wild” or “To Build a Fire.”

“Mr. Hamilton, who had failed English 3 in a conventional Continue reading “Are we sure we know why we teach what we teach?”

Yeah, but…? Finding, asking and answering the important questions about teaching

When Professor Michael McCarthy visited here recently to promote his new Cambridge University Press course book, Touchstone, he gave us a presentation on his spoken corpus research.

It was interesting to learn about but almost completely useless for teaching purposes. I used to go to these conferences and take notes. Now I go to these conferences and write questions. As I listen to them, I’m thinking, “Yeah, but what about this?” “Yeah, but how do you account for that.”

I had no notes but I did have ten questions ready for Professor McCarthy when he got to the end of his presentation. Then the organizers announced they were only going to take a couple questions and only one per teacher. I had one question.

Course books authors always believe in the power of their course books to teach students. So let’s question that.

“Professor McCarthy, thank you for visiting us and your presentation. I can’t say I know so much about teaching but I’ve been doing some research. In January I gave a speaking test to 400 Chinese students who have studied English for nine years. I asked them a question. ‘Tell me about your mother and father.’  In China we have no pronoun of gender when speaking, no ‘he’ or ‘she’. Students have to learn this English grammar which is perhaps the easiest grammar rule to teach. What percentage of the students do you think made a mistake calling Mom a ‘he’ and Dad a ‘she’?”

With many years of experience and study into spoken English corpus, he didn’t want to offer any guesses, saying, “Umm, well, ah, you did the research. Tell us.”

“Seventy-two percent of students, after nine years of English study, made a mistake with ‘he’ and ‘she’,” I told him.

So what did the course book author say to that? Two wrong things and one right thing. He said,

1. This was a fossilized error that the students were making.

Yeah, but… something is fossilized when you don’t learn it correctly or learn it wrong. But no student learns “he” and “she” incorrectly. It is the easiest grammar to learn.

2. We should reteach “he” and “she” every six months.

Yeah, but… something that is so simple to teach and can be taught in one minute and everyone knows the grammar rule, how is teaching it every six months going to help.

3. Students need more input, read more English and listen to more English, more English input.

Yeah, but… you know, you don’t need a course book for that!

Questioning assumptions about teaching to the test

So often teachers complain about the fact that they must teach so much out of the book so that the students can pass some test. But then in the next breath the teachers complain that the students forget much of what the teachers had to teach and the students had to learn. Then teachers and students say that is how things are and we cannot do anything about it.

But I am suggesting that it is not a fact that teachers and students have to do such a thing.

I am suggesting that teachers may be making assumptions about tests, for example the CET and the
BEC tests, that may be incorrect assumptions. Namely I am suggesting that what is taught in the books may not be what is tested in the tests.

Let’s take these two tests as examples. Although they are two different tests, what I am suggesting is that if we did an analysis of actual CET and BEC test questions that we may not find those test answers in the CET and BEC books.

I feel that all of us as teachers may be holding too many assumptions about our craft These assumptions may be hindering and even harming us and our students causing us to waste time, waste energy, waste teaching and learning
capacity and even waste money.

The implications are tremendous. If you consider the hundreds of millions who take these tests, took these tests or will take these tests, and what could have otherwise been done with this time, energy, capacity and money, it is our responsibility as professionals to be sure about these things.

I suggest that we reexamine all of our assumptions about these kinds of tests and the assumptions that we hold about them.

Perhaps you are right. Perhaps I am wrong. But I suggest that it is a worthwhile effort to ask these questions. This is what I am currently doing with the CET Chinese English Test.

Benchmarking to Kahneman’s Peak End Rule

He won a Nobel Prize for his ideas about how a person remembers two things best during a holiday trip or similar experience; the most striking event, be it good or bad, and the end event.[1]

How I use it: Contrary to the impression I try very hard to give you, my classes are not always breathtaking. In fact, they are very often boring. I hate boring classes and do all that I can to make them interesting but we can’t win every time. But from Kahneman I learned to make at least one part of the class and the end very interesting or even exciting.

I may do this with a game, a short film clip that we use for a speaking exercise or a pairwork/groupwork activity that is highly interactive with other pairs or groups (not just sit at your desk). It has to be something that actually makes students forget they are sitting in an English classroom having an English lesson and to really feel they are trying to “sell a holiday package to the moon” or “apply for a job as Spiderman”, etc.

Since I learned the Peak End Rule, at the end of every single class I do three things, (1) try to end with something very active, (2) sum up what we did and learned during the lesson and (3) very important: ask the students if it helped their English and get them to reply to that question. It is something like this: “OK everybody, we’re out of time now! So what did we do today? We learned about making phone calls. We learned ten new words. And we practiced making phone calls and we actually called a hotel in New York! Wasn’t that interesting?! Have you ever called New York before? Haha! OK, did I help your English today?” “YES!” “OK, I’m happy I helped your English! That’s all for today! See you next week!”

Before, many students would leave the class without a firm picture in their mind of what happened. If someone asked them they might say, “Oh, we played a game but I don’t know if we learned anything.” So now I make sure that they leave my classroom with a clear label of what happened, a clear feeling of accomplishment. One, I learned such-and-such. Two, it helped my English. Personally, I know it helped their English. But it’s important to make sure
they know it and say it, too.

Nobel winner Kahneman’s Peak End Rule:

Action research: Mom and Dad and grammar

Spot quiz. Ready? What percentage of students, after nine years of English training, can use the correct pronouns in a few sentences about their mother and father?

Write down your answer.

Pencils down. Thank you!

If grammar teaching works, why does it take years for students to follow the simplest rule with accuracy?

Don’t try this at home! Try it in your classroom!

Without any reminder of the rules, ask your students to talk to you about their mother and their father and see how they do. The grammar rule on pronouns of gender cannot be simpler. Mom = she. Dad = he. We’re not talking about complex grammar rules. This rule takes less than a minute to teach and if you teach it and then test it, all of your students will pass the test.

They “learned” it. Why do they get it so wrong?

In December 2010 and January 2011, I gave an oral speaking test to 120 Chinese college students. As part of the test, I often ask the students to speak of a family relative. As part of the test this time I asked two questions about parents:

1. Tell me about your mother.

2. Tell me about your father.

Each student answered the request with about 3-4 sentences for each parent.

In the first sentence they always used “my mother” or “my father” but in the following sentences they used the pronoun of gender.

The students also filled out a form so I could learn how much English training they have had. They have almost all had the same amount of training, about nine years. Let me remind you, Chinese teachers are not shy about teaching grammar. Grammar is hammered into the students. Often the English instruction is given in Chinese. Extensive reading or other forms of extensive input is not promoted making this a more ideal situation to test the effectiveness of grammar teaching.

Considering nine years of training plus the simplicity of the grammar rule of gender, our students should be 100% accurate in usage. So how did they do?

Out of 112 students tested so far, 80 have called Mom a “he” and/or Dad a “she” one or more times during this test.

The question was: What percentage of students, after nine years of English training, can use the correct pronouns in a few sentences about their mother and father?

Answer: After nine years of English training, only 28%.

Some languages like French or Spanish have pronouns of gender. It is possible that it is easier for French and Spanish students of English to use “he” and “she” correctly but this could be more a matter of language transference than language acquisition.

If after 9 years of English training only 28% of the students can use “he” and “she” correctly, we must doubt the ability of learning grammar rules to lead to grammar acquisition and accurate grammar use.