• ELT Action


Why Psychology?: Look at the objects you use every day. They are designed with humans in mind. The glass is the right size so you can hold it easily, the chair is the right shape so you can sit on it comfortably. However, this is not the case with experiences - including learning experiences (watch this clip: https://bit.ly/2XZ1TSd). Most teaching is boring because while the methodology explains facts effectively, it was designed with the material in mind without taking into account what might motivate the student. We need to change this. What follows are four discoveries from the field of psychology along with some ideas for how we can make lessons interesting.

SOCIAL CURRENCY: People are motivated by material that is interesting, weird, and which they can share with others. The reason for this is that sharing such stuff makes us look good. In short, people like sharing such things because they like showing off!

Teaching Implications: Any material of this kind is likely to motivate our learners. Here are some examples: i) Weird facts about history, people, the animal world, etc.; ii) strange and interesting experiments; iii) magic tricks; iv) jokes and/or funny or improbable stories; v) motivational quotes. It is not just content that can have this effect - an unusual activity (such as ‘Running Dictation’ for instance) is also likely to have such an effect.

CURIOSITY: We all know that curiosity leads to motivation. But how can we make our learners curious? Professor G. Lowenstein has come up with the "Gap Theory’: curiosity is created when people are made aware that there is a gap between what they know and what is out there. For instance, simply asking people ‘What do I have in my bag?’ creates such a gap. To increase engagement, we can also get students to ‘invest’ by making guesses - in this case, we could have them guess the contents of the bag (‘A pencil?’ - ‘A book?’).

Teaching Implications: Whenever we have a listening or reading text, we can get some pieces of information from the text and show them to the students. Now they know some things about it - but not everything. For instance, we can tell them the text is about a robbery. We can then show them some words that appear in the text: ‘van’ - ‘policeman’ - ‘money’. This creates the ‘gap’. Afterward, we can ask students to link this information somehow - this is the ‘investment’ part. Now students will want to see if their prediction was right.

THE INCOMPLETE: Researchers have discovered that we have a need for ‘Cognitive Closure’ (this is known as the "Zeigarnik effect’. We hate it when we do not have the full picture’ about something. This is why soap operas always end on a cliffhanger (‘Is she going to find out?’ - ‘Are they going to shoot him?’). Anything left unfinished causes our brain to stay engaged.

Teaching Implications: Activities that we start in class are more likely to be completed by our learners than activities that we have not started at all. We can also use this idea with reading or listening texts or dialogues. We simply pause the reading or listening after a while and ask them ‘What comes next?’. Another great application is to give students a story without the ending and ask them to supply one. Once they have done this, we can then go on and show them what the original ending was like.

THE UNEXPECTED: Most of the time our brain runs on auto-pilot. It is the same with lessons. We have certain scripts in our brains about how things are going to unfold, what the teacher is going to say, what things we are going to do. Whenever our expectations are violated, our brain wakes up in order to deal with the ‘emergency’. As teachers, we naturally want to wake our students up from time to time.

Teaching Implications: To use this element (otherwise known as ‘incongruity’) the thing to do is to think about what our students expect and then do something that goes against these expectations. This could be anything from, say, wearing a hat, to reversing the order of activities, to asking students to play the role of the teacher, to playing a game they have never played before (e.g. ‘Balderdash’) or even to doing an activity in a totally different way (e.g. having them talk to each other back-to-back).

How important is motivation? Speaking about advertising, the great Rory Sutherland once said: 'In the same way that you wouldn't trust a doctor with no knowledge of physiology or an engineer ignorant of physics, my experience over the last dozen or so years suggests that it's foolhardy to work with an advertiser who knows nothing of behavioral science'. How right he was! But this is also true of other fields too. Imagine you are the manager of a large school: however much a teacher knows about linguistics and methodology, would you seriously want to employ her if she does not know how motivation works? If she doesn’t know what makes people tick?

Nick Michelioudakis.

Nick (B. Econ., Dip. RSA, MSc [TEFL]) has been active in ELT for many years as a teacher, examiner, presenter and teacher trainer.

  • To see more of my work, you can visit my blog: www.michelioudakis.org

  • You may also like my YouTube channel: ‘Comedy for ELT’.

For more information, feel free to contact me: nickmi@ath.forthnet.gr

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