Part 2. Build knowledge

This is the second part of a three-post series on how the Science of Learning can be used to inform your practice as a teacher or a learner. If you’ve missed the first blog post about ENGAGE, click here and check it out before you read this. Also, sign up for my Nat Geo Learning webinar here.

Remember that cycle I showed you on my last post? It was based on the material I received in my Cognitive Neuroscience and Classroom Practice class and meant for you to think about the general three steps that make learning more likely to happen. The reason why the arrows are dual is simple: every step of the way feeds off of each other and contributes to each other. But if you were engaged while reading the other blog post and looking at the image below, I believe it’s safe to assume that ENGAGE is the first step of our sequence. Think of it this way: before we can start building a house, we need to get the workers to be able and willing to do it, right?


Now allow me to use some of the strategies I want you to try out on your own students in your own classes. That’s why the analogy of construction serves us well. Picture a group of people building a school. You’ve already gotten their attention, they know what they’re supposed to do, they’re paid, rested and well-fed. Time to start working. All the materials they need are right in front of them. They have their safety gear, yellow helmets on, gloves, boots, the works! Let’s get down to it then. First things first. But, what is the very first thing to do again? Maybe I should give you some specifics before.

The school will be a 4-floor building. It’ll have a sports center, a cafeteria, a playground, a computer lab, a library, offices for the director and coordinators, a teachers room, a storage room, a kitchen, bathrooms. Erm, am I forgetting anything? Oh yeah, and classrooms! Many of them. A parking lot as well. I suppose you get the picture. Where should the construction start? What needs to be built first? Give yourself a couple of seconds and try to answer that.

If you chose any of the places I mentioned before, you skipped a fundamental part of the building process. You can’t start building anything if you don’t have a FOUNDATION. And you can’t build from the roof down either. These two seemingly obvious remarks bring us to two not always obvious concepts that need to be well developed in the classroom: PRIOR KNOWLEDGE and SCAFFOLDING.  The first assumes that for a new knowledge to be learned, it must be built on a foundation. Piaget called it schema in 1926. If you teach math, you know students who don’t know multiplication can’t begin to learn how to calculate percentages. You see, first, you need to learn multiples, then division, finally percentages. SCAFFOLDING, Vygotsky’s contribution to education, on the other hand, means gradually increasing knowledge by using the “platforms” to build up. These platforms are often provided by us, the teachers. We set them up so that the students can gradually climb them and achieve their potential.

Both PRIOR KNOWLEDGE and SCAFFOLDING are essential to make sure learning is happening in a more effective way. But there’s something else we need to keep in mind. Imagine our workers have built the foundation, started working their way up on the main school building and are finally moving on to the very last floor. You can see them going up, climbing the scaffolds to reach the top floor, carrying the main piece of material they need: bricks. The thing is, how many bricks can they carry? All at once, maybe? Should they carry bricks, plaster for the wall, glass for the windows, paint and the like on just one go? They can’t, can they? Too heavy and too much stuff at once. For the process to be effective, they need to carry only what they’ll need up there with them depending on the stage of the construction. The same happens to our students when they try to put too many things in their working memory. It’s like a bucket or a bag. The more bricks you put in it, the heavier it gets and the more complicated it is to get it to the top. To avoid this MEMORY OVERLOAD, we need to make sure we keep the unnecessary stuff (irrelevant information, distractions) at a minimum and give clear instructions, just what they need.

See what I did? I used an analogy to try and tackle all of those items. I gave the example of a construction because I’m pretty sure you’ve seen a construction site before. That means I was activating your PRIOR KNOWLEDGE. After setting the foundation for this new knowledge, I tried to explain things step-by-step, provide lots of mental images and ask questions to make sure SCAFFOLDING was happening. By eliminating wordy explanations, too many definitions, and using a familiar situation (construction), I’ve also taken some of the MEMORY LOAD off your mind. At least that’s what I hope. Now if I were teaching you this in a lecture, workshop or class, I’d be doing something else that definitely helps. I’d be gesticulating, using my arms, hands, and whole body, to be honest, especially when using the words FOUNDATION (hands waving low near the ground) or SCAFFOLDING (hands going up one on top of the other), etc. This would tap into everyone’s MIRROR NEURONS SYSTEM. You see, when we watch someone doing something, the neurons that would activate if we were doing that something actually do activate just by watching. It helps us learn through observation.

Isn’t our brain incredible? I think it’s fascinating.

Your sense of curiosity may have you thinking right now: what exactly is PRIOR KNOWLEDGE or SCHEMA, or what does SCAFFOLDING really mean? Maybe you’re thinking about how our WORKING MEMORY actually works or what the heck the MIRROR NEURONS do. I promise I’ll write a blog post with all these definitions very soon. You can also do a little research about them, but, for now, I hope this suffices:

SCAFFOLDING = Platform, support
WORKING MEMORY = Bucket/ bag of bricks
MIRROR NEURONS = Observe others building and imitate them (even if just in your head)

All of those are nothing but steps to building a school or, in our case, knowledge. If we overlook any of those steps, we may never actually build anything or just build it on top of very weak foundations and doom the whole thing to collapse. To help you build knowledge with your students (or yourself) more effectively, think about the questions below:

1- Do all my students know what is necessary before I teach this? Do they have a foundation for this new knowledge? (PRIOR KNOWLEDGE)
2 – If they do, did I make sure I ACTIVATED their PRIOR KNOWLEDGE? Did I set the scenario, ask questions, made sure they were thinking about it? (PRIOR KNOWLEDGE)
3 – Did I provide enough support (schemes, vocabulary, tables, images) so that they could use it as PLATFORMS to climb? (SCAFFOLDING)
4 – Did I give them just the information they needed, breaking things down into bits, so that they could avoid too much information? Did I give them time and the tools to process that information? Did I use analogies to simplify this information?(WORKING MEMORY)
5 – Did I make gestures when I explained the concepts? Did I use my body to convey my message? (MIRROR NEURONS)

If you reflect on these questions and think of ways you can implement that in your class, I’m sure you’ll be helping a lot of students. Going back to our math example, what do you think works best:

1. Teacher enters the classroom and says they’re gonna work with percentages that day. The first thing the teacher does is write on the board “50%” and say:” this symbol means that 50 is being divided by 100. That means that it’s…” Someone shouts: “0.5”. The teacher says: “Well done”. Then the teacher writes new examples on the board: 30%, 40%, 90%. The same student shouts again: “0.3”. Another student, very clever, notices the process and says: “0.4”. The teacher is happy and says: “Well done, everyone! Now let’s do the activities on page 10”. Most students can do it. A few days after, the teacher applies a test and more than half of the class passes. A job well done, she thinks. But have they really learned what percentages mean and how they work? Another test, this one with problems such as: “3 girls in every 4” or “2 out of 6 men”. Most of them fail.
2. Teacher enters the classroom and says the same thing and writes “50%” on the board. She asks if anyone knows what that is. Nobody answers. She then says that it means that 50 is being divided by 100. She asks everyone to try to make that division in their notebooks. She sees that some students are struggling. She approaches them and sees their problem is that they don’t remember how to divide. She implies that their real problem is with multiplication. She helps them through the problem and asks for volunteers to make divisions on the board. Everyone watches and try themselves in their notebooks. She says: “Here’s a good explanation on how we can multiply and divide”. She assigns that as homework and welcomes everyone to do it, but it’s actually optional. They do it, she checks, some students are still struggling. She decides to use more practical examples. She uses a paper circle as a pie chart and asks students to use a ruler and draw a line cutting it in half vertically and horizontally. They repeat the process and end up having 8 slices. She asks them to cut up the slices and demonstrates that if they remove 4 slices out of the pie chart, they’ll have 4 slices left and that is 4 divided by 8 which equals 50%.

See the difference? In which situation do you think the students were learning better? If she applied a test in situation 2, would you say students would have a better chance at scoring a higher grade? This is actually a simple example. Can you think of an example when you made assumptions and leaps that led to a lack of understanding? Can you maybe fix them now with what we’ve built together? I’d love to know. Leave a comment here.

The only problem is that building a school is much more than just building a school. It keeps changing and we need to add and remove things all the time. Sometimes it just needs some painting or renovation. Sometimes it needs to be demolished because the foundation is weak and we need to rebuild it. Keep that in mind and happy teaching!

Don’t forget to check out my lesson plan here and the Science of Learning – Engage, Build, Consolidate website

Part 1. Engage your Student

Hello, everyone! I’m excited to write my second blog post of the year and I hope you make good use of it. This will be the first part of a trilogy, so stay tuned for more in the coming weeks.

Not sure I have mentioned this enough and, if I’m getting annoying, it’s just to show how excited I am! I’m a student of MSc Psychology of Education at the University of Bristol and I’m taking a unit called Cognitive Neuroscience and Classroom Practice whose main objective is to reflect on what the Science of Learning can inform us about learning and make us think of ways to implement strategies based on this science in the classroom to impact students’ learning. In our previous classes, we discussed how three elements need to be taken into account when planning a lesson:


You can find more about this framework developed by my professor Paul Howard-Jones and collaborators on this link

The cycle above probably makes sense to you, especially if you’re a teacher. First, we need engagement to make sure students are actively involved in the task. Secondly, we need to build the knowledge we want them to acquire and that has to do with practice and memory. Finally, we want to make sure that knowledge stays in our students’ long-term memory and that it can be accessed at will in the future. This requires rehearsal, application, and sleep.

Today we’ll focus on ENGAGE. The two first definitions for ENGAGE on Google are:

1. to occupy or attract (someone's interest or attention).
2. to participate or become involved in.

Both definitions mention ideas like ATTRACT, INTEREST, ATTENTION, PARTICIPATION, and INVOLVEMENT. However simple these words might seem, one might ask: how can we make sure students are actively involved and truly paying attention to what they are supposed to learn? I, for one, can tell you that many times I thought my students were engaged because they were looking at me and nodding or asking questions. On the other hand, I’ve also felt many times that students who never asked questions were not really engaged. Nevertheless, I was surprised to find out later in the course that sometimes those who didn’t seem engaged got the best grades and those who did had lower grades. Of course, they could’ve studied hard outside the classroom or even have learned the content I was teaching before, but my point here is: it’s not simple to assess engagement and we might be fooled. Nonetheless, the more engaged, the more likely to learn.

Luckily, we have an effective weapon (not so secret, I’m afraid) that I’ll share with you in a moment. Look at the two situations below and think which one would be more engaging. Consider a basic level for adults:

1. Students come to class to learn food vocabulary. This lesson is all about fruits and vegetable. The teacher uses a poster on the wall to present the items (e.g. apple, banana, pineapple, strawberry, melon, carrot, tomato, lettuce, onion, kale). Students look at the poster and fill in the gaps in a sheet of paper or their book with these words, which are next to their respective pictures. As soon as they finish, they check in pairs and do a word puzzle individually with the same words. The teacher corrects and plays a video of a man shopping at a local fruit market. Students need to watch and write down the prices of every item they have learned. They practice a dialogue in pairs to reinforce the vocabulary.

2. Same scenario, same vocabulary. This time, the teacher uses realia in the classroom and places some of the fruits and vegetables in different baskets around the classroom. The back of the classroom has three desks with stickers with the names of these words. The teacher says that the students need to look at the poster for no longer than 1 minute, go to the baskets in groups, find the fruits and vegetables designated to their group and place them on the sticker on the desk. They will be timed and the first group to finish will be rewarded. Then, after removing the stickers, the groups will have to go to the other tables and label every item using post-its. Finally, the teacher changes groups and ask them to pretend they’re shopping for fruits and vegetables. They’ll receive fake money and a price tag for each item. They must work together both as shoppers and salespersons and buy whatever they can with the money that was given to them.

OK, OK, OK! I confess these are two extreme examples and it’s certainly easy to spot which one is probably more engaging. But why is that? Well, some very important elements were included in situation 2 and they fall under the term we learned in class: APPROACH RESPONSE. The first one was NOVELTY. When the students arrived in the classroom, they probably had no idea they’d have to stand up and walk around looking for fruits and vegetables in baskets. This made them CURIOUS and CURIOSITY increases ENGAGEMENT. Then there was COMPETITION. Using games where something is at stake, points, winning, anything, is quite engaging. Finally, there was a REWARD and CHOICE. When students know they will get a reward if they win, their reward center in the brain releases dopamine in an interesting way: 1) first because of the expectation; 2) secondly because of the reward itself. When we offer rewards every class, students get a dopamine spike just for the expectation, not for the reward itself as they already knew they’d get something. When they don’t know if the class will have a reward, they get the dopamine spike only for the reward itself. And CHOICE in itself is also rewarding because it boosts our sense of autonomy.

I realize it might be difficult to use ideas like situation 2 in every class. However, if we learn the principles of ENGAGE and apply to our lesson planning, we’ll be using the not-so-secret weapon I mentioned and chances are that everyone will be more engaged. To summarize what you should think about when you want to ENGAGE the learner, and add some more tips, here’s a checklist you can ask yourself before every class:

1- Is the learning environment welcoming to mistakes?  Have I told my students that all of them have what it takes to learn what I’m going to teach? (BRAIN PLASTICITY, ANXIETY and FEARFULNESS REDUCTION)

2 – Will my students be curious about the content? (APPROACH RESPONSE)

3 – Will my students be given choice in the tasks? (APPROACH RESPONSE)

4 – Will I praise their effort and accomplishments? (APPROACH RESPONSE)

5 – Will they get a reward? (APPROACH RESPONSE)

Now, perhaps the most interesting news about this: PRAISE and TOKENS work as REWARDS. There’s research showing that you don’t need to offer your students something that might cost you a lot of money or that might be difficult to get. Their reward system response to PRAISE and let’s say a pen or a sticker will be quite similar.

This short-term reward strategy, which releases dopamine, the neurotransmitter of motivation, works wonders to make sure ENGAGEMENT is happening in your lesson.

If you need ideas for games, check out my blog posts here, here, here, and here.

You can also take a look at this lesson plan I created based on some of the ideas discussed here

A reward you might consider giving yourself is joining my National Geographic Learning Webinar. Check out this link


Howard-Jones, P. A., & Jay, T. (2016). Reward, learning and games. Current Opinion in Behavioral Sciences, 10, 65-72. doi:

Nieuwenhuis, S., Heslenfeld, D. J., von Geusau, N. J. A., Mars, R. B., Holroyd, C. B., & Yeung, N. (2005). Activity in human reward-sensitive brain areas is strongly context dependent. Neuroimage, 25(4), 1302-1309.

High or Low-tech? A collaboration with Stephan Hughes on how to teach it and (or not) tech it

Striking a balance between extensive and minimal use of technology in the language learning classroom is paramount to learner progress and sense of achievement.

Jaqui Murraw”s thirteen reasons for using technology in the classroom aside (, I advocate for a moment of less tech and more human in our day to day teaching practice. Here are my five reasons:

  • Concepts like Blended learning and the flipped classroom favor a combination of high technological tools and low or almost no use of technology in classroom
  • Students can explore the tech they are already familiar with outside the classroom, replacing the traditional homework assignments
  • Striking a balance between a tech immersed and tech sparse physical learning environment allows us to work on what Joe Ruhl refers to as the other two C”s: Choice and Caring. The latter is key to what we know as Rapport.
  • Integrating technology in the classroom via Puentedura’s SAMR model does not mean using the latest apps or software but rather focusing on giving students a chance to redefine how they learn.
  • We are social beings, so we have always found a way to do things with or without tech (life before the internet). It’s the what not the how or where.

In short, blending high and low tech means avoiding putting the responsibility of teaching in the hands of the tools. We often fall into the trap of thinking that if we use the latest apps and softwares, students will learn. What we need to bear in mind always that we still have to teach and check that learning is taking place.

If you can’t teach it, don’t tech it

Stephan Hughes

To complement what Stephan has laid out I’d like to offer a couple of examples of how to create high- and low-tech activities with the same Intended Learning Outcome. We invite you to reflect on which would have the most impact on your students’ learning.

Activity 1 – Teaching Directions Race
High-tech Low-tech
Option 1 Option 1
1. Students access Google Maps on their phones or tablets; 1. Rearrange the desks in the classroom to form streets;
2. Ask them to open the map of a city they don’t know; 2. Make sure you add some right and left turns;
3. Tell them to use Google Street View; 3. Place an item in the back of the classroom and tell students they need to get there;
4. Select a final destination and tell them; 4. Blindfold them and have their peers give them directions;
5. Give directions and monitor; 5. The first to arrive at their destination and grab the item wins;
6. The first to arrive wins the race;
Option 2 Option 2
1. Use Google Cardboard (augmented reality); 1. Take students outside the classroom;
2. Preselect a final destination with a visible sign to help students identify it; 2. Use the hallways and spaces of the school as the streets and places in a cityPreselect a final destination;
3. Give them directions and monitor; 3. Preselect a final destination;
4. The first to arrive wins the race; 4. Blindfold them and have their peers give them directions;
5. The first to arrive at their destination wins;
Activity 2 – Writing Concise and Short Opinions
High-tech Low-tech
Option 1 Option 1
1. Have a Twitter account and make sure your students follow you; 1. Write a sentence or question on the board or a sheet of paper that you can tape to the wall;
2. Alternatively, you could have a WhatsApp group; 2. Have your students write their opinions on post-its and place it under the phrase;
3. Discuss a topic in class and have your students make short written comments to express 3. Have the other students read each other’s opinion and respond using the post-its;
Option 2 Option 2
1. Create a Padlet account and include your students as moderators; 1. Cut paper cards and give 5 to each student;
2. Add a sentence or question that requires discussion on your dashboard; 2. Write a sentence or question on the board to generate some discussion;
3. Have students include their comments and even pictures to support their opinion; 3. Give them time to write their opinion in the card;
4. As a moderator, make sure everyone is participating and keep it civilized; 4. Ask them to make a paper ball with the card they’ve written;
5. Ask them to stand up and play some music;
6. Have them do a paper ball war, throwing the paper balls at each other till the music. stops. When it stops, they must pick up the ball next to them and read the comments
Activity 3 – Interview 
High-tech Low-tech
Option 1 Option 1
1. Use WhatsApp, Skype or Google Hangouts; 1. Arrange for a friend who speaks English, preferably a foreigner, to visit your class;
2. Call someone, preferably in a different country. You can use your own cell phone for example; 2. Ask your friend to bring some objects related to his/her life;
3. Have your students ask spontaneous questions about this person; 3. Have your students interview your friend and take notes. Remind them to try to figure out what the objects represent;
4. Tell them to take notes and write a composition about this person’s life; 4. Tell them to write a composition about your friend’s life;
Option 2 Option 2
1. Pair up your students and have them sit as far away as possible from their pairs; 1. Divide your students in trios or groups of 4;
2. Using WhatsApp, tell your students to exchange audio messages with their pairs; 2. Give each group a clipboard and a sheet of paper;
3. Tell them they need to take notes in order to write a composition; 3. Ask them to go around the school and interview one person in the staff;
4. If this person cannot speak English, tell one student in the group to be the translator;
5. Remind them to take notes so that they can write a composition about the person;
Activity 4 – Game Design for a Review Class
High-tech Low-tech
Option 1 Option 1
1. Have students access on their phones or tablets and explore some projects; 1. Bring different types of materials to class (colored paper, cardstock, post-its, rulers, cardboard, scissors, tapes, glue, etc);
2. Let them watch a tutorial on the website or on YouTube; 2. Ask your students to create puzzles, board games, crosswords, memory games, etc. Remind them to use their book as a reference; Here’s a video I prepared to help you.
3. Divide them into groups of 4 and have them start creating games to revise each the content for their test; 3. Let them play each other’s games at the end;
4. Have them play each other’s games at the end;
Option 2 Option 2
1. Have your students create a Kahoot account on their cell phones or tablets; 1. Bring different games to the classroom (checkerboards, plastic bowling, pick-up sticks, dominoes, Jenga, card games, etc);
2. Ask them to create a quiz to revise the content of their test; 2. Tell your students they need to come up with a way to play these games using the content they have to revise for the test;
3. Have them play answer each other’s quiz at the end; 3. Allow them to form groups and work with different games;
4. Let them explain how they used it to the whole group;

These examples are just a few considering how much we can do with little to no tech resources at all. If we focus on the task, and not the tech, we will be able to provide our students with a meaningful experience that will most certainly be relevant, memorable and make learning more effective. Two examples worth reading about are the Montessori, and Waldorf schools.

My final tips:

  • Using technology for the sake of simply using technology may not be too effective. Instead of having an Interactive Whiteboard in the classroom, which is often used exactly as a regular whiteboard, why not create spaces with double desks, bean bags, and counters to promote collaborative work?
  • Sometimes the only tech you need is an app you can download on your cell phone. One example is Plickers. Ana Carolina Cardoso changed our lives (mine and Stephan’s) a couple of weeks ago with this incredible app.
  • The human factor is the best tech. I believe that connecting my students with real people around the world beats any game or virtual reality activity they might run across.
  • Be ready to teach unplugged and offline. Preparing an amazing lesson that totally relies on having electricity and an internet connection will limit your practice.
  • A stone, a coin, a shoebox, and a stuffed elephant (check out Mr. Trunk’s story) can transform your lesson if you use your creativity and your student’s imagination.

Want to share an activity you did with your groups using high, low, or no tech at all? Please do!

Let your students do the hard work! Game design, brain activity, and learning

If we could measure brain activity through the fumes each brain releases into the atmosphere when it’s working, which of the following activities do you think are more costly:

  1. Watching TV
  2. Watching a lecture
  3. Sleeping

Well, assuming brains work like cars and release gases (that’s true only of our digestive system), we’d probably see a lot of smoke coming out of our ears when we’re sleeping. As it turns out, watching TV or attending a lecture don’t really pollute the environment that much with CO2 (Cerebral Octane, hahaha). Jokes apart, what can we infer from that? First, sleeping is very important for our brains and it is when we sleep that they “do the cleaning” and strengthen connections. Secondly, despite what has been propagated around about flatlining brains in lectures and becoming zombies when sitting in front of the TV, these two activities do not require the same amount of energy one might consider ideal to promote effective learning. Check out this article from

The big question is:

What can we do as teachers to make sure our students’ brain activity is peaking and promoting effective learning?


The simple, yet paradoxal, answer is: get out of the way! Let them do the hard work. Think of it as driving school. You’re the driving instructor and your students have never driven in their lives. You can teach them the theory as much as you want. You can use textbooks, animations, videos, etc. But I can guarantee it would be much more effective if you’d just put them inside a car and guided them through the initial steps. Once they have that “driving framework” in their heads, just sit beside them and enjoy the ride. Don’t forget to make sure they don’t cause any accidents too.

Now, a more elaborate answer would be: use active learning methods. Read my last blog post about Socrates to find out what I mean. An excellent way of doing that, especially if you’re still uncomfortable with the idea of letting your students “drive the car”, is to allow them to “drive” during your revision lessons. If you’re like me, and I hope you are, you have revision lessons before the test. There are probably tens of different ways you can revise the content, but I’ll show you how using games made my students more aware of what they knew and what they still had to work on. And the cool thing is that they created their own games and played against each other.

Here’s what we did:

  1. I brought lots of materials they could use to make games. Colored A4 paper, paper clips, glue, a paper dice, cardstock, scissors, tape, colored markers, clipboards, rulers, etc.
  2. I told them to do some active recall before they started designing their games. I asked them to think for a few minutes, without checking their books, what the content of their test was.
  3. I asked them to check their books or any other source of information to help them remember the grammar structures and vocabulary they needed to know for their test.
  4. I told them to sit in groups and talk throughout the whole game-designing process and ask for help from their peers in case they had questions.
  5. I let them use their creativity and make whatever game they wanted.
  6. I asked them to set the rules for the games they had created, explain them to their classmates and play against each other. Then they had to play each other’s games as well.

We had a fun class with lots of engagement and I was quite impressed by the quality of their games. All types of puzzles, including crosswords, and word searches, as well as memory games, board games, and also card games were the most popular. At the end of the class I found out one of my students was a pro board gamer and even sold special types of dice. I had to buy them!

The outcome of this lesson was strikingly positive. Once our students possess the basic framework (like the driving framework I mentioned before), they can be let free, or at least freer, to revise, research, learn, and produce. That means we’ll be waiting and guiding on the side to make sure things run smoothly. And the biggest problem is that perhaps we don’t feel too comfortable about that, do we? It’s kinda like hiring a personal trainer to teach you how to use the equipment at the gym at the beginning and then letting them go because now you can do it on your own. What will remain unanswered is: will getting rid of the personal trainer affect how motivated and assiduous you are at the gym? Well, that’s a topic for a future post on motivation.

I’d love to get some feedback here. Have you ever tried letting your students create things and use them in class like this? Did you feel it promoted more effective learning? What was your role in the class? How did you feel?

For me, I can honestly say that if anyone had entered my classroom during that revision lesson, they would’ve had trouble seeing anything because of the huge cloud formed by all the fumes  coming out of my students’ brain.


6 fun games that promote Autonomy, Choice, and Engagement – my ACE concept

WhatsApp Image 2017-08-18 at 7.52.18 AM

Much has been discussed about ways of tapping into the 21st-century skills in the classroom. Sure we want our students to think critically and creatively, to communicate and to collaborate on different levels throughout the course. But it goes beyond that, don’t you agree? I couldn’t stop thinking about it after a brilliant talk given by Alberto Costa at the Braz-Tesol SIG Symposium in July. His session had quite a catchy and intriguing title: 21st Century Skills for Language Teachers – moving beyond the Four Cs. You can read a little about his and other’s sessions here. To make things short, he said that teachers are very likely to be more like project managers in the future. That means that we’ll need to be digital literates and offer our students resources for them to work on projects.

With that in mind, I came up with the ACE concept. I asked myself: What works best when people are working on projects? What are the characteristics that facilitate project building? As a result of this brainstorming experience (that probably took me 3 weeks), three words popped up in my brain: CHOICE, AUTONOMY, and ENGAGEMENT. They occurred to me in that order but, as you already know, I had to create an acronym to make it easier for you to grasp the concept. After all, I’m all about neuroscience. You can find my entries here. Remember my MAD concept? I could’ve stuck with CAE, the Cambridge certificate, but it didn’t ring the bell with the tone I wanted. I could’ve gone with ECA, which actually means something not that nice in Portuguese. ACE was the obvious choice.

Projects need autonomous and engaged people who make good choices. And by doing so they are able to achieve greatness. The teacher? As Alberto mentioned, the only thing we have to do is make sure our students stay on task and guide them when needed. A great way to do that is by creating (or copying) games. Games are fun, demand communication, collaboration and competition, require critical and creative thinking and, if you have more than one game, promote the ACE concept. The best part: different teams can be working on different skills with different games at different times. All you need to do is set up different working stations in the classroom. That’s exactly what I did. Allow me to explain what kinds of games I used:

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Mr. Trunk enjoyed the games

#1 Board Game 1 – Objective: to get to FINISH by rolling the dice and answering correctly the questions in the spaces. I adapted a template I got online and inserted the content I wanted my students to work with.

Examples: My CEFR-A1 group had a board game with ADVERBS OF FREQUENCY. My A2 group: HOW MANY vs HOW MUCH. My B1 group played a board game with QUESTION TAGS. My B2 group played a board game with different uses of LIKE.

PS: They used Mexican (Peso) and American (Dollar) coins to play. They really loved to see and touch a Mexican peso!

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#2 Board Game 2 – Element of choice here. They could choose which one to play. A1: PREPOSITIONS OF TIME; A2: THERE IS vs THERE ARE;

#3 Matching Cards Game – Objective: to randomly get two cards from two different decks, match them and make a sentence with the two words. To add some challenge, I asked them to roll the dice and to use the result as the number of words they’d need to form the sentence or the time that the action occurred.

Examples: My A1 group was dealing with ROUTINE, TIME, and FREQUENCY. They had to get a card with a PRONOUN or NAME (HE, I, Mr. Johnson, etc.) and a card with an action (GO, GET UP, FINISH SCHOOL, HAVE BREAKFAST, etc.). They had to roll the dices and use the result as the time: HE GETS UP AT 8:00. My B2 group had to get a card with a type of vacation (SPA RESORT, SAFARI, CRUISE, etc.) and another with an adjective (RELAXING, EXPENSIVE, EXCITING, etc.) The result they got from rolling the dices was the number of words their sentence had to contain. They had 1 minute to come up with the sentence.

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Julia, Camilla, Lorenzo, and Heitor, my lovely students, and Mr. Trunk!

#4 Post-it Memory Game – Objective: to find the matching words or expressions and make sentences with them. I used 10 post-its to cover the words I had written in pencil.

Examples: My A1 group had to match the ADVERBS OF FREQUENCY. My B2 had to match the following: DRUNK ON SENSATIONS, ROARING OF THE WATER, TO SLEEP THE SLEEP OF THE DEAD, QUIETNESS FELL ON US, TO CATCH ONE’S EYE. I asked them to use the dices to get a number to form a sentence as well.

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# 5 Dominoes with TIME EXPRESSIONS and PREPOSITIONS OF TIME – Objective: to match the end of the dominoes with their corresponding pair.

Example: My A1 group had some dominoes with CHRISTMAS – AT or MY BIRTHDAY – IN and so on. They had to play dominoes matching the correct parts.

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Ana Beatriz plays dominoes agains Nicole. They are CEFR-A1

#6 Computer game – Objective: to follow the instructions and beat your opponent (as in every other game!)

Examples: My A1 group played these two cool games about PREPOSITIONS OF TIME on the British Council for Kids page. My A2 group played these about COUNTABLE and UNCOUNTABLE NOUNS.

What I learned:

1. I enjoyed making the dice, the memory games, and the cards. It was super fun! Mental Note: Next time, get your students to make the dice, André!

2. Collaboration went through the roof! Everyone became a supervisor, facilitator, and moderator. They wanted to win but, above all, they wanted to win right. A lot of fair play going on. They helped each other comply with the rules.

3. Autonomy gave them a sense of achievement. I wrote most of the instructions for the games and only modeled when they were confused (mainly lower levels). They felt that they were really learning and having fun at the same time. And I didn’t explain the new content. They had 10 minutes to figure out by themselves and 7 to ask me questions about it. I didn’t underestimate them and they appreciated my attitude. Most of them got the content really fast. Some got it later when playing the games. Respect their timing and be there to help them.

4. Teacher Talking Time (TTT) went so down under it almost fell on New Zealand. I spoke when spoken to. I helped when they needed me. They not only talked about the game, but they started doing what regular people do when they play games: THEY HAD CONVERSATIONS!

5. Being able to choose which game to play first made a difference. Students are tired of being told what to do and having just one way to go. Choice is huge in learning. If you don’t believe me, take this inspiring TED Talk as reference:

6. I can definitely use this format to work with Project-Based Learning (PBL). This weekend I intend to plan what each of my groups will work with throughout the semester (based on the choices they gave me in these two first weeks) and I’ll do something very similar next week to get them to start working on their projects.

Here’s a video with my explanation of the games:

Here’s a link to a folder with some of the games:

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Júlia and Diego writing sentences with Question Tags. They’re CEFR-B1

Do you think you can do something similar in your classes? Any suggestions or comments? Well, I realize many of us still have this mindset that not speaking, explaining the content, and getting students to do endless lists of activities isn’t teaching. Rather than teaching like that, why don’t we facilitate their own learning? Remember what Alberto taught me. Be more like a project manager! That means letting them do a lot of the work on their own and collaborating with peers without us telling them to do it. I’m sure that if you practice this new mindset, you’ll eventually ACE it! Got it? 🙂

And, even though I agree with my good friend Alberto Costa when he says we need to become digital literates, I also believe we can master the craft of making paper dice, board games and whatever we can think of. To quote another teacher (and new friend) who inspires me:

That’s technology at its best!! Computers and the Internet, despite being very helpful, are not the only solutions available… I myself love the old and effective slip of paper. Way to go!

OPREA, HENRICK. Facebook Comment. 2017

Looking forward to getting your comments!

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See HAPPINESS written on the wall? That’s what we were feeling!

5 activities to get your students to speak more in class

My students are playing Battleship with countable and uncountable nouns

Are you struggling to make your students use the language in the classroom? If the answer is yes, then I can tell you that we’ve all been there. Maybe not for every group or in every class, but I dare say that you’ve gotten frustrated once or twice (or a thousand times) because of a lesson that was supposed to be very communicative and it simply wasn’t.

Now, we must address two issues before we even think about getting our students to talk:

  1. Is every lesson supposed to be communicative?
  2. Can all your groups communicate in L2 for long periods?

If you agree that we should always strive to get our Teacher Talking Time (TTT) reduced and, in turn, increase our Students Talking Time (STT), you should say yes to question 1. We must indeed make every lesson communicative as long as we save time for individualized work, brain breaks, work in pairs, trios or larger groups and so on. Think of it as a company. Sometimes we have to liaise with other departments to get things done. Sometimes we need to sit on our butts in front of a computer to do some work on our own. And quite often the two happen on the same day.

As for question 2, and I couldn’t stress this point more, the answer should be a big resounding NO. No, not all groups can communicate at all times. CEFR-A1 and A2 groups have limited communication skills. They oral competency can pose as an impediment to communication depending on the context. But does that mean they need to be quiet if they can’t communicate in L2? Not at all! Especially kids. If kids are talking in L1 and bonding and having fun, would you have the guts to shout: “No talking in L1, just L2!”? I hope you realize that’s bad for everyone. We know now (actually, we’ve known it for some time now) that using L1 to learn L2 is not only effective but also highly recommended. Ever heard of translanguaging? Check out François Grosjean’s and Ofelia García’s takes on it here.

In language classes (and in all classes, for that matter), students should be talking as Edutopia brilliantly put it. That’s how we learn best, by collaborating and, thus, exchanging information with peers. Remember my last neuroscience post? It is through schemata (prior knowledge) that we are able to build new knowledge. And being able to actively explain something to someone is the best way for you to refer to that knowledge you already have.


So here are 5 quick tips to get students talking more:
1) Use games where one student holds part of the information and the others have to get that information by asking questions. Two good examples are Battleship and Who Am I? Battleship is a great game to assist in this case. Get them to draw a table with A, B, C, D, E (horizontally) and 1, 2, 3, 4, 5 (vertically). Ask them to get 10 items of whatever they are learning and place them randomly inside the “cells”. For them to “destroy” each other’s ships (the 10 items), they must locate the words/sentences and ask questions. When they locate something, they can ask 3 questions to guess it.

TEAM A: Is there anything in B3?
TEAM B: Is there anything in C4

Now they can ask 3 questions.

TEAM B: Is it countable? Does it start with letter C? Do we eat it?

If they find out, they “destroy” it. If they don’t, they can either move on to a different “cell” or keep asking questions. Just 3 at a time.

Who Am I? or the Name Game is the one played in Inglorious Basterds (I’m a huge fan!)

2) Work with projects. Ask your students to work together on a poster, a blog or anything else that encourages them to use L2. They will have to work on the target-language. No escape!

3) Have international guests in your class. You don’t need to actually invite a foreigner to physically be in your classroom (that would be cool, though). You can simply connect them through Skype, WhatsApp or Facetime. Your students will realize that they need to use L2 more often to be able to have international conversations.

4) Use ClassDojo or an adapted Swear Jar (I call mine English Jar) to award 1 or 2 points for effort in using L2. Don’t take points off when they use L1, instead, use positive reinforcement and award the use of L2.

5) Don’t take L1 for an answer. When you know your students can produce something in L2 but insist on using L1, well, insist back. I play with them saying I can’t speak that language.

I hope you like my tips and I’d like to make a fairly important point here:

Don’t stigmatize L1 in the classroom. As a matter of fact, you should use it to your advantage. With that in mind, I end this entry with a provoking thought/question:

A student asks you the meaning of a word that is really hard to explain (a vegetable, an animal or a technical concept, for instance). You have no picture of it, no internet access and you decide to try explaining it with different examples. After 5 minutes your student (and the whole class) still doesn’t get it. Would it be such a horrible thing to just write the word in L1 on the board? Please answer considering the following:

a) time spent

b) regard for student’s need to know (curiosity)

c) feeling that assigning it to homework might send a negative message

d) certainty of the clarity of the concept

That’s all folks! Hope to get your comments.