Metacognition and Learning: What can the Renaissance teach us about how to learn best?

The narrative

It was a terribly cold day in April 2019 and I was incredibly frustrated at my failed attempt to drive for the very first time in the UK. About 10 minutes after I had picked up the car and started driving, I had a minor accident that knocked my left wind mirror off in a very stupid way. To defend myself, I was just getting used to driving on the left side of the road and a big white van was parked on the sidewalk. Since my brain was only getting adjusted to this rather challenging cognitive task, I couldn’t really tell how close I was when it happened. That van shouldn’t really be there.

I put the past behind me and enjoyed the rest of my journey to Liverpool where not only was I going to visit the city of one of my favorite bands, but I was also attending the IATEFL conference for the first time too. Right at the entrance, I bumped into the wonderful Vinnie Nobre, a reference in ELT and one of the founders of Troika, an educational consultancy based in São Paulo. I congratulated him for the enormous success and after talking and watching a few sessions together, he invited me to teach a course at Troika when I returned from my master’s course. I was certainly thrilled, no doubt, and I really wanted to offer a course that would help teachers reflect on their practice.

From coming back to Brazil to getting in touch with Troika and working out the details of the course, considering it all happened in the middle of the pandemic, it took around a year for me to actually teach it. But all the process helped me fine-tune my idea and create possibly one of the most interesting courses I’ve ever taught in my life.

I chose a topic I had been studying for a while and that I felt would make a difference: metacognition. This is the poster Troika designed for my course and I have to admit I simply loved it. They gave me, perhaps unintentionally, the perfect narrative for the course. That narrative was the Renaissance.

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Troika’s poster of my course

I was inspired by the works of Titian, Michelangelo, Botticelli, Rafael, Michelino and, especially, Da Vinci to create the slides of my course, which made reference to the cultural revival expressed through the art and science represented in the Vitruvian Man and in the perfection of Leonardo’s sketches.

The Renaissance was about questioning the status quo and learning about how things worked, particularly the human body, in order to create the most perfect depictions of the human figure on canvas, paper, stone or marble. It was about observation, questioning, and experimentation of different techniques and paradigms.


You might be wondering what the Renaissance has to do with the idea of metacognition. Before we can establish their relationship, let’s understand the term metacognition, which will require us to first think about the word cognition. According to the Free Online Dicitionary:

the mental process of knowledge, including aspects such as awareness, perception, reasoning and judgment

what becomes known through perception, reasoning or intuition; knowledge

Free Online Dictionary

A more technical definition is offered by the American Psychological Association:

Attention, use of language, memory, perception, problem solving, creativity and thinking

American Psychological Association

If we think about our language classes at school, we might remember that the prefix meta comes from the Greek and it means beyond or transcending and it’s usually employed to give us the idea of the category within the category. That means that metalanguage is the language of language and metadata means the data about data. In that case, metacognition means the cognition of or about cognition. Since cognition is the object of study for many researchers concerned with our thought processes and how we learn, metacognition has been popularly referred to as thinking about thinking or learning how to learn.

Going back in time a few decades, we find out that the term metacognition was coined and popularized by American psychologist John Flavell. In his 1976 work, he describes metacognition as:

knowledge about one’s own COGNITIVE PROCESSES. Ability to CONTROL, ORGANIZE, MONITOR, ADAPT and REFLECT on one’s own thoughts

John Flavell (1976)

Notice the keywords. Metacognition involves not just learning things but questioning whether the way we learn is the best or most appropriate and regulating how we study. Its main question is:

Is there a more effective way to learn this?

In order to answer that question, Flavell discusses three categories of metacognition

  1. Metacognitive Knowledge
  2. Metacognitive Experiences
  3. Metacognitive Control Strategies

The first one refers to the knowledge people have about themselves and others as well as tasks and strategies. Let’s say someone wants to learn how to play the violin. If they have metacognitive knowledge, they’re aware that people who learn how to play the violin need to have access to the instrument, an adequate place to study (a quiet studio for instance), the ability to read sheet music, a varied routine of exercises with lots of repetition and so on. The learner must also understand how people can learn music and how to play an instrument, that is, some basic universal principles of learning that particular skill, which is quite different from learning something like History. A metacognitive learner should also know how their teacher works and what they expect and, mainly, what works best for themselves. Perhaps they can only practice the violin at night when it’s quiet or maybe they consider themselves an early bird and prefer to do it in the morning.

Brown (1978, 1987); Flavell (1976, 1979)

The second and the third one fall under the category of metacognitive regulation (see image above). They’re about knowing which strategies work best and how to use them to achieve the desired result. That means that only possessing the knowledge of how to play the violin will not make anyone learn it if they are unable to plan their study, engage with the activities and stay on task, and assess whether it is working or not. A metacognitive learner is able to make the necessary adjustments to the process in order to reach the desired outcome. Let’s say our violin student realizes that they can’t practice at night because they’re disturbing their neighbors. They’ll have to either find another time or another place to practice because they understand its importance. They might even make the room where they practice soundproof or purchase an electric violin with an amplifier so that they can hear themselves play through headphones. A metacognitive learner develops regulation mechanisms to make sure they accomplish the tasks they are supposed to and evaluate what needs to be changed.

Metacognitive Cycle (Ambrose et al. 2010)

Ambrose et al. (2010) offer an insightful framework to help us become more metacognitive. In this metacognitive cycle, the first step is to evaluate the task at hand. What many learners do quite often when writing an essay or working on a project for instance is making assumptions and jumping to conclusions. They sometimes don’t read or understand the instructions and overdo the task or don’t do enough. Evaluating the task and what is asked is paramount if they want to be successful. The next step is to conduct a fair assessment of one’s strengths and weaknesses. Students who cannot successfully assess that, can over- or underestimate their abilities and not plan enough time to accomplish the task.

Then comes the approach stage. Different tasks require different approaches and depending on how much time learners have, they might waste too much of it on ineffective or even useless strategies or simply not allocate enough of it to get things done. Students may often just skip this planning stage and go straight to the task without really understanding how they accomplish it the best way they can. Moreover, it’s important to keep track of the most suited strategies according to the task and make sure it all becomes part of the learning routine. Simply thinking about these strategies and not applying them won’t generate positive outcomes.

The final stage is perhaps the most important for metacognitive learners. It’s the stage of reflection and it allows learners to evaluate whether all the other stages were done properly and what worked and what didn’t. Reflecting on the learning process can be quite painful but it can tell us a lot about what might not be working and what would take to change things. Here are some questions that might help:

  1. Was my plan adequate/realistic?
  2. Did I allocate enough time to accomplish the task?
  3. Was I committed/focused when I did the task?
  4. Did I have access to the right materials/resources?
  5. Did I seek help when I didn’t know what to do?
  6. Did I make the proper adjustments when things didn’t work out?

The question then is:

Does being a metacognitive learner pay off?

The research suggests that it does. As a matter of fact, a paper by Zulkiply (2009) summarizes many of the findings of other studies and states that:

recent research has revealed the significance of metacognitive awareness in learning. For instance, learners who score high on measures of metacognition are more strategic, more likely to use problem-solving heuristics, better at predicting their test scores, and generally outperform learners who score low on metacognitive measures. Metacognition has been shown to predict learning performance. Learners who are metacognitively aware know what to do when they don’t know what to do; that is, they have strategies for finding out or figuring out what they need to do. More importantly, research has demonstrated the value of metacognition in predicting academic achievement. For example, greater metacognitive ability has been linked to grade point average, math achievement, and reading skill. In addition to this, studies explicitly show that metacognitive skills play an important role in effective learning that leads to academic success, and that academically achieving students are better on metacognitive measures

Zulkiply (2009)

Da Vinci: a man ahead of his time

When I think of all the things Leonardo Da Vinci created, it simply makes me admire his vision even more. He was undoubtedly a man ahead of his time. And to think that many of his sketches of the human body are still used in medical schools today for their incredible degree of precision. Da Vinci used to go to underground morgues to study human anatomy. Can you imagine what a terrible hobby that was? Spending hours in the dark surrounded by putrid and stinky corpses lit by candles while he drew the most perfect lines. It sure wasn’t easy but his curiosity kept him going.

Human anatomy, by Leonardo Da Vinci (1509-1510) "At a time in history when  few people had methodical… | Human anatomy drawing, Anatomy sketches,  Anatomy for artists
Da Vinci’s sketches of the human body. Retrieved from pinterest

Da Vinci was certainly the epitome of mastery and talent and is revered until today for his incredible contribution. I think he is the perfect illustration (no pun intended) of a metacognitive learner. He not only drew beautiful sketches and painted amazing canvases, but he also designed machines and ingenious devices that were way ahead of his time. A good example is his obsession with flying and how his early 15th-century designs of flying machines are remarkably similar to modern gliders and helicopters (which were invented more than 400 years later).

Leonardo da Vinci - Drawing | Da vinci sketches, Da vinci inventions, Leonardo  da vinci
Da Vinci’s flying machines. Retrieved from pinterest

Naturally, we can say that other Renaissance artists were experimenting on different things, trying new techniques and thinking outside the box. Michelangelo was definitely quite metacognitive when he had to come up with a plan to paint the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. Can you imagine how daunting the task was? Michelangelo not only pulled it off magnificently but he also created one of the most fascinating and beautiful works of art the world will ever see. But Da Vinci’s legacy and record really deserve special attention. They give us a glimpse of what this man did and how he thought. He was a questioner, a problem solver and a scientist at heart.

His most famous painting also gives us the perfect illustration of what metacognitive should not be about: procrastination. It is said that Da Vinci spent around 12 years to paint the lips of probably the most enigmatic smiles in the art history: The Mona Lisa. It might have been so because of procrastination or Leonardo’s obsession with getting the smile just right or even a hand paralysis he suffered from. Be it as it may, this interesting mystery gives us some insight into how some things might take a lot longer than what we might expect.

My car accident and Final Thoughts

Da Vinci’s designs and schemes did not have as great an impact on the society he lived in because they were exclusive then and forgotten for a long time. His inventions could have created unimaginable technological advances in his time. The idea of joining science and arts to create amazing work and to rethink the status quo is evident in Da Vinci’s work. His curiosity and obsession to try different things and really think outside the box, analyzing not only the object of his art but mainly how he created his art are more than enough proof of his metacognitive personality.

I wonder now if I was any metacognitive when I picked up the car to drive to Liverpool. The answer is probably no but I did try something new. I certainly watched videos of people telling their experience of driving on the other side of the road. I imagined myself doing it a couple of times before I got the car. I wrote down a few things to make sure I wouldn’t forget them. I definitely drove around a few times to get more confidence while performing the task. But none of those things prevented me from having a minor accident. I hadn’t anticipated that a large van could be parked on the sidewalk for maintenance and the rest is history. Perhaps, if I had thought of that variable and had practiced a little more before driving around 3 hours from Bristol to Liverpool, I would have done better.

In Liverpool, before attending IATEFL’s first day of sessions, as a big Beatles fan, I decided to visit the Cavern Club where the four lads used to play. They were also a metacognitive bunch, weren’t they? Their musical legacy is so rich and innovative that they’re actually a great example of metacognition. The Beatles spent quite a lot of years recording in studio some of the most unusual sounds anyone had listened to because they constantly asked themselves if there were better or more effective ways to accomplish what they wanted. And look at what they gifted the world with!

If you are a teacher working with different subject areas or teaching English in a bilingual context, get inspired by the amazing artists of the Renaissance like Da Vinci, musicians such as The Beatles, or other incredible people who were not afraid to question things. People who understood the object of their work so well that they were able to create new paradigms and invent new techniques. We don’t have to be as brilliant as they were, but it will certainly be good enough for us to learn how learn more effectively.

Around a couple of months after my minor accident, my wife, her sister, and our nephew came to visit me in the UK. We rented a car to drive from London to Rochester, then Brighton, Salisbury, Bristol, Cardiff and back to Bristol. I certainly learned my lesson as I didn’t cause any accidents that time. The irony, though, is that someone hit our back bumper on the way to Stonehenge although I was driving quite comfortably and confidently. I can tell you one thing: it was certainly not my fault.

The lesson here I suppose is that even though metacognition can help you achieve your learning goals and improve your performance, you still can’t control all the variables. After all, accidents do happen.

But the most important lesson I want to leave you all with is the following: being metacognitive requires us to understand a little bit about cognition and how we learn so that we can base our strategies on research and make better informed decisions about which strategies might work more effectively. If we don’t do that, we might cause minor accidents along the way like the one I had. My bias of many years driving on the right side of the road made me misjudge the distance I was driving from the sidewalk. After that mistake, I realized I had to compensate for my bias and really monitor what I was doing. My accident made me more metacognitive and it may have prevented another accident.


Ambrose, S. A., Bridges, M. W., DiPietro, M., Lovett, M. C., & Norman, M. K. (2010). How learning works: Seven research-based principles for smart teaching. John Wiley & Sons.

Brown, A.L. (1978). Knowing when, where and how to remember: A problem of metacognition. In R. Glaser (Ed.), Advances in instructional psychology ,Vol.1 (pp. 77-165). Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum

Brown, A. L. (1987). Metacognition, executive control, self-regulation, and other more mysterious mechanisms. In F. E. Weinert & R. H. Kluwe (Eds.), Metacognition, motivation, and understanding (pp. 65-116). Hillsdale, New Jersey: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates

Flavell, J. H. (1979). Metacognition and cognitive monitoring: A new area of cognitive-developmental inquiry. American Psychologist, 34, 906 – 911

Roediger, H. L. I., & Karpicke, J. D. (2006). Test-enhanced learning: Taking memory tests improves long-term retention. Psychological Science, 17, 249–255.

Weinstein, Y., Madan, C. R., & Sumeracki, M. A. (2018). Teaching the science of learning. Cognitive Research: Principles and Implications, 3(1), 2.

Zulkiply, N. (2009). Metacognition and its relationship with students’ academic performance. The International Journal of Learning15(11), 97-106.

Wax On, Wax Off: Karate Kid’s Lesson About Drilling

How many of you have quite unpretentiously browsed through your favorite streaming service provider looking for something and found a series worth binge-watching? How many of you spent hours and hours watching every single episode of a three-season TV series simply because it made you feel good or nostalgic?

Yes, that was me some weeks ago. The reason why I did was Netflix’ new series Cobra Kai, a spin-off of the popular Karate Kid saga. Back in the day, growing up in the late 80s and 90s, Karate Kid meant a lot to us because it told the story of Daniel LaRusso, a poor kid who got beaten up by other kids led by Johnny Lawrence until he was saved from the bullies by the maintenance guy who happened to be a war hero, Japanese Karate fighter from Okinawa, the legendary Nariyoshi Miyagi. Mr. Miyagi became Daniel’s karate master (or sensei) and taught him the essence of this martial art.

All Daniel-san wanted from his sensei was to learn karate to be able to fight those bullies. Instead of teaching him karate per se, Mr. Miyagi gives Daniel a bunch os chores that make it look like he’s actually exploring the poor boy. Daniel needs to sand the wooden floor, paint Mr. Miyagi’s house, varnish the fence, and, perhaps the most iconic of all, wax his entire collection of cars, including the yellow 1947 Ford Super Deluxe. It’s great to realize that Cobra Kai capitalized on Daniel’s passion for cars and made him a successful car dealership owner in the series.

Image result for wax on wax off gif

One of my favorites scenes in the first movie is when Daniel-san gets irritated and frustrated with Mr. Miyagi’s endless chores. They were both standing in what would later become the Miyagi-Do Karate dojo run by Daniel himself in Cobra Kai. Daniel doesn’t understand why he needs to wax, paint, sand and how that is going to help him with karate. Mr. Miyagi then asks him to show Wax On/Wax Off. You can see the realization in Daniel’s eyes as soon as he sees that all of that work was supposed to create what many refer to as “muscle memory” and sharpen his reflexes. He’s able to block his sensei’s punches and kicks with the movements he learned from all those chores.

History repeats itself. Daniel LaRusso teaches Johnny Lawrence’s son Robby the same way Mr. Miyagi taught him

There are many lessons to be learned from Karate Kid and how Daniel became proficient in the martial art through drilling. Repetition is key when we want to make sure things become more automatic and, thus, require less conscious effort. The so-called “muscle memory” can be developed through a series of intentional repetitions in order to master whatever we are attempting to learn. We do have to be careful, though. First, we shouldn’t call it “muscle memory”. Memories are created in our brain’s cortex and not inside our muscles. Secondly, the type of repetition, duration, and goal are essential for us to develop the skills we want.

I’m sorry, Mr. Miyagi, but you should’ve told Daniel-san why he was doing all those chores from the start


I understand Mr. Miyagi was testing Daniel’s discipline and developing patience (which are definitely important competencies), but he may have done so because of sense of honor and rigid hierarchy. After all, in many Asian cultures (I’d even include our own), blindly following a master’s will and not questioning them is a sign of respect. We’ve tried that in education and I’d say it doesn’t work quite well. It’s best to share our intentions with our students and let them know the importance of practice, particularly drilling.

Why does drilling work?

Put simply, we can say that repetition of tasks make them require less activation of frontal areas of the brain where we can find the working memory system. The first time you try to drive, for instance, requires you to consciously think about your every move in a logical and sequential way. In your head, you’re going like:

“OK, first I need to adjust the mirrors and my seat. Now I need to insert the key in the keyhole and start the car. But don’t forget to make sure the car is in neutral. Next I have to shift to first gear and smoothly release the clutch pedal… and make sure I’m wearing the seat belt.

There are many other steps there, naturally. But just imagine how incredibly ineffective drivers we would be if we had to consciously go through all these steps every time we drive. We wouldn’t be able to have a conversation with someone in the car, listen to music and actually pay attention, or even have a call with our boss on the way to work. That’s why our brains create schemata of these things by turning them into habits and sending them backwards in the cortex, specifically to the parietal lobe. You can read about habit formation here.

By making these things more automatic, we free our working memory to do other stuff. Imagine for a second what would happen to Daniel if he hadn’t internalized all those movements by the time he had his famous fight against Johnny at the All Valley Karate Tournament. What if he had to consciously think of his every move while all those fighters were throwing punches at him? Well, let’s just say he wouldn’t have gotten that far and we wouldn’t have seen the famous crane kick that secured his trophy

Image result for crane kick gif
Daniel-san wins the tournament with the iconic crane kick

Drilling in the English classroom

If you think about our English classes, there are many types of drilling activities we can use. The idea is to reinforce grammar structures or even vocabulary by repeating them in different ways. This is certainly something inherited by us from a more behavioristic approach, particulary the audio lingual method. The main examples of drills are:

Teacher: Johnny lost the tournament

Students: Johnny lost the tournament

Repetition Drill

Teacher: Daniel is a karate fighter (car salesman)

Students: Daniel is a car salesman

Substitution Drill

Teacher: I have karate lessons (Robby)

Students: Robby has karate lessons

Teacher: He fights against the bullies (past)

Students: He fought against the bullies

Transformation Drill

Teacher: Does Samantha study with Miguel?

Students: Yes, she does

Teacher: Does Robby live with Johnny?

Students: No, he doesn’t

Question and Answer Drill

We can combine these drills with images instead of words, Total Physical Response – TPR (such as miming the vocabulary or using thumbs up to indicate an affirmative sentence/ thumbs down for a negative one) or even use the board to turn them into a game-like activity (disappearing drills, for instance, show the full sentence with a gap on the first slide and then some words disappear on the next slide and so on).

When and how often should we drill?

This is the million-dollar question. I see the value of drilling certain chunks in the classroom, especially for more basic levels, but I definitely don’t think the entire lesson should be like this as the audio lingual method normally proposes. The idea of “Drill to Kill” might be one of the underlying principles of elite sports and athletic competitions but not in the classroom when we think about effective and long-term learning. The whole “work while they sleep, study while they party” philosophy has been doing more damage than good the way I see it. We need to take care of our mental health and practicing to exhaustion is not the way to do so.

What then? Instead of going for overkill, I’d say we need to try to follow the idea of spaced repetition and retrieval practice. That means that drilling the same grammar structure for an entire hour in a lesson is normally less effective than drilling it a couple of times in that lesson, doing something else, trying to retrieve it and moving on to apply it in a different context plus getting some sleep and revisiting it with a certain frequency (drilling it again in a different lesson).

A typical audio lingual lesson will introduce the vocabulary and have the students drill (repetition drill), then it will require some substitution drills. It will probably move on to the grammar chunk and have students repeat. Then it will maybe focus on substitution and transformation drills (or even question and answer drills). At the end, there might be a dialogue/role-play activitiy with the chunk and the vocabulary. Students go home, do their homework and come back to class for the whole thing to start again, except that it’s new vocabulary and grammar structures.

Instead, here’s a suggestion:

  1. Present vocabulary and/or grammar structure
  2. Drill
  3. Brain Break – have students stop focusing on the topic
  4. Retrieval practice – allow them a minute to try to retrieve what they have been learning
  5. Vary output – have students make a schematic (graphic organizers) or record an explanation or model of the structure on their phones
  6. Application – have students use chunk in a role play or different production activity
  7. Drill again – drilling at the beginning and at the end may result in better memorization (check out primacy and recency effect)
  8. Assign homework – to be done the next day so they can sleep and add some spacing before retrieval
  9. Quiz – quiz their prior knowledge on the vocabulary/structure in the next lesson
  10. Spaced repetition – schedule two more lessons a couple of days apart to revisit that structure

Final thoughts

Drilling is definitely important if we want to be able to do things more unconciously, that is, on autopilot. Internalizing chunks helps us become more proficient users of an additional language and frees up our limited working memory for new learning. But I suppose there are better ways than simply and mindlessly repeating things to exhaustion. If we look at some principles of the Science of Learning, we’ll realize that we can more often work smart instead of hard.

Another lesson I want to leave you all with is that changing something that has been hardwired in the brain can be quite challenging. Look at Johnny and Daniel’s relationship. After all those years they still basically hate each other and their way of life is sort of reflected on the type of karate they were taught. Cobra Kai’s fierce and cruel sensei John Kreese taught those kids back in the 80’s to:

Strike first

Strike hard

Have no mercy

Cobra Kai’s motto

Mr. Miyagi taught Daniel-san a rather different lesson:

Rule #1: Karate is for defense only

Rule #2: First learn rule number 1

Miyagi-do’s philosophy

Drilling in an inappropriate way from the start, based on certain convictions may impact our students’ learning curve and beliefs about their learning capabilities for good. Drilling is but a small part of the learning cosmos when we’re going after positive outcomes. Know when and how to do it and be open to new possibilities. Even Johnny and Daniel are starting to come around to what their relationship can actually be like and what is the meaning of karate. I’m looking forward to the next season of Cobra Kai and I hope you are too. I’m sure there will be many wax on, wax off scenes as more and more students join the dojo

Science of Learning Resources to help you with Lesson Planning

If you’ve been following me long enough, you’ve probably realized that I talk quite a lot about the Science of Learning (SoL). I believe teachers and students all over the world can benefit greatly from understanding basic principles of how our mind and brain learn. That’s what SoL does. It looks at research and evidence from the cognitive sciences (neuroscience and psychology) and what implications they might have for teachers teaching in the classroom, for students learning from their teachers or even on their own. SoL can be an amazing tool for anyone looking to plan and deliver more effective lessons.

The purpose of this blog post is to put together some of the resources I’ve created or that inspired me so that you can learn more about the SoL and try to implement a few principles into your teaching practice. You can also try to use them as a student yourself.

The links to some videos and articles are below. Hope they are useful!

We start speaking at around 9:30
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Six Science of Learning Strategies and How to Use them with Popular Online Tools

Adapted from Troika and ConnectEd Blog

In recent years the area of ​​education has tried to combine some elements of cognitive sciences, such as psychology and neuroscience, with classroom practice. Several postgraduate courses, conferences, workshops as well as other events are now part of Continuous Professional Development (CPD) programs and they’re likely to take into account topics associated with Neuroeducation, Science of Learning (SoL) and the science of the Mind, Brain and Education (MBE). The main objective of this science is to study teaching strategies based on scientific evidence in order to promote what should or should not work best when we want more positive learning outcomes . What can this science tell us and what are some online tools teachers can use to implement more effective teaching strategies in this time of remote teaching?

This text aims to briefly describe six strategies discussed in the recent article by Yana Weinstein, Christopher R. Madan & Megan A. Sumeracki (2018), as well as link them to commonly used online tools. However, before we go any further, it is useful for us to reflect on the concept of Metacognition. Metacognition refers to knowledge about cognition, which relates to words such as thinking, perception, reasoning, intuition, attention, memory and also both lower and higher order thinking skills (see Bloom’s Taxonomy). In other words, metacognition is about learning to learn, or thinking about thinking (Pintrich, 2002). Therefore, we could say that Metacognition is the substance of MBE and SoL. Now if you want to watch a cool webinar about this topic in English, here you go:

If you want a long talk about the subject in Portuguese, you can watch Raquel Oliveira’s interview with me on her channel:

Let’s get down to business, shall we?


For declarative memory to be consolidated in the brain, we need to sleep. Recently learned information is stored in the hippocampus and temporarily reproduced in the brain during sleep to create more representations and lasting memories (Maquet et al.2000). Reviewing content only once after class or doing homework on the same day can be a waste of cognitive resources as it would be more beneficial to revisit it the next day after sleeping and in future review sessions with some spacing between them (Henderson, Weighall, Brown, & Gaskell, 2012; Seehagen, Konrad, Herbert, & Schneider, 2015). You can read more about spaced repetition here.

Suggested online tool (s): Google Classroom and Trello

The idea is to create a repetition schedule. As a great Learning Management System ( LMS), Google Classroom allows you to schedule not only the due dates for activities, but also the dates for posting announcements and exercises. Trello is brilliant for project management. You can create different boards and add as many columns as you want (an example would be TO DO, DOING, and DONE columns). It helps everyone keep track of the things they need to do and when they should have them done.


The evidence suggests that interleaving is better than cramming (Kornell & Bjork, 2008). Switching between tasks or topics when studying can be a wonderful way to improve learning (Rohrer & Taylor, 2007). Our brain is not programmed for monotony. Changes to the environment, resource and, especially, the content / topic can be welcome. Instead of studying the same grammatical structure until exhaustion before moving on to the next one, study it for a while, take a brain break and start the next one. Use the pomodoro technique technique to help you. Read about it here.

Suggested online tool (s): TomatoTimers and Google Classroom

Use the TomatoTimers (website or app). Study 25 minutes of subject or structure A, pause for 5 min and then do another 25 minutes of studying subject or structure B. After two pomodoros (focused study for 25 minutes), take a 15-minute break (long pause). Another tip is to schedule Google Classroom topics in an interleaved way.


Forgetting is essential to learning. If you think that just because the student had a lesson, they learned, think again. Quick question: How much of the test content can you remember a week after taking the test? How about two weeks later? One month later? A semester later? If we can’t remember something, does that mean we’ve learned? Probably not. We need to make a recurring effort to retrieve the content we are learning. The repeated retrieval of items from our memory increases declarative memory consolidation and improves students’ long-term learning (Karpicke, 2012; Dunlosky et al., 2013). So, instead of immediately giving students the answer to a question you’ve just asked, let them search the brain for the answer. Don’t mind the silence, this effort will help them.

Suggested online tool (s): Quizlet, Kahoot, and Mentimeter

Quizlet allows you to create flashcards, that is, cards that contain a question on the front and the answer on the back. It is fun and highly effective to test yourself with flashcards. Kahoot is definitely an all-time favorite as it helps you create interactive quizzes that allow your students to use their mobiles to answer. You can do the same with Mentimeter and also create polls and word clouds. All of these tools help your students retrieve content and you can even use them periodically, based on the spaced repetition strategy.


We need to use verbal and non-verbal processing to better consolidate and retrieve information from our memory. This means that it is better to listen to and to look at something than just one or the other (Paivio, 1991). In a lesson that does not use visual aids, it is likely that students’ working memory will fill up more quickly and that consolidation will be less effective. However, with images and sounds creating larger neural networks in the brain, it is easier to remember the content exposed.

Suggested online tool (s): Zoom or Google Meet

Use videoconferencing platforms. They offer the possibility of sharing sound, video and, in particular, your screen, which can contain relevant pictures about the content you are teaching.


The Elaborative Coding Theory (Karpicke & Smith, 2012) states that, for better memorization and retrieval, information needs to be encoded in a number of different ways, not just one. Rather than showing the formula of Present Perfect and drilling it, the ideal is to have visual examples to show students, such as photos of experiences and trips, as well as ask students to think of other situations in which this structure can be used. They can create podcasts, videos, layouts, organization charts, slides and whatever they want. Inquiry-based teaching (such as Project-Based Learning) and the Socratic Method are great sources of ideas on how to use elaboration.

Suggested online tool (s): Padlet, MindMeister, and Vocaroo

Padlet is excellent for sharing different types of files in an interesting visual way on a screen. Students can place images, videos, text, audio and create editable notebooks for everyone in the group. MindMeister is used to create mind maps with the possibility of attaching files. It’s a great way to make your notes more visually appealing. Vocaroo is quite easy to use and practical as it allows students to record their voices and generate a link of their recording. These tools can help your students ask more questions about the content their learning and think more critically.


Miller (1956), Sweller (1988) and Cowan (2001) suggest the idea of ​​Cognitive Overload, which means that our brains do not have unlimited capacity to store information and the number of chunks that we can keep in the working memory at the same time varies between 2 to 9. This means that we need to give practical examples instead of just explaining the theory, especially when we are teaching children, who are unable to understand very abstract concepts. By eliminating jargon-filled explanations or difficult words, abstract definitions and complex concepts, as well as using familiar situations and analogy, we can help students better understand and memorize.

Suggested online tool (s): Canva and Powtoon

Canva is great for creating and editing posters, pamphlets, guides, portfolios and posts for social media. You can use it to improve the design of your slides and include incredible analogies. If you want a slightly bigger challenge, use the Powtoon animation editor. It helps bring situations and narratives to life with animated characters, effects and soundtrack.

These are just a few tools that can help make this remote teaching period more effective. With the new reality of remote learning for children, we need to rethink our practice and find alternative ways to help them learn better. However, I must also say that we need to be careful with buzzwords such as METACOGNITION or NEUROEDUCATION. There aren’t any magical solutions or fixed recipes. One of the steps of metacognition is to assess whether the chosen strategies are working well or not. And I can’t stress enough how much we need to bear this in mind. Some things may work better for some students and other things may work better for other students. Each brain is unique and we need to treat our students as unique individuals.

To pay my respects to a brilliant educator who’s left this world too soon, remember that:

We have to go from what is essentially an industrial model of education, a manufacturing model, which is based on linearity and conformity and batching people. We have to move to a model that is based more on principles of agriculture. We have to recognize that human flourishing is not a mechanical process; it’s an organic process. And you cannot predict the outcome of human development. All you can do, like a farmer, is create the conditions under which they will begin to flourish.”

Sir Ken Robinson

Having said that, I do believe that tayloring our practice according to how the brain and the mind work will most likely have a positive impact on our students’ learning outcomes. So my suggestion is: try these ideas, learn more about SoL and metacognition, and keep testing things based on scientific evidence and experience.

Let me know how it goes!


Cowan N. (2001) The magical number 4 in short-term memory: A reconsideration of mental storage capacity. Behavioral and Brain Sciences. 24:87–185

Dunlosky, J., Rawson, K. A., Marsh, E. J., Nathan, M. J., & Willingham, D. T. (2013). Improving students’ learning with effective learning techniques: Promising directions from cognitive and educational psychology. Psychological Science in the Public Interest, 14, 4-58

Flavell,  John H. (1985). Cognitive development. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall.

Henderson, L. M., Weighall, A. R., Brown, H., & Gaskell, M. G. (2012). Consolidation of vocabulary is associated with sleep in children. Developmental Science, 15, 674–687

Karpicke, J. D. (2012). Retrieval-based learning: Active retrieval promotes meaningful learning. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 21(3), 157-163

Karpicke, J. D. & Smith, M. A. (2012). Separate mnemonic effects of retrieval practice and elaborative encoding. Journal of Memory and Language. 67 (1): 17–29

Kornell N., Bjork R. A. (2008). Learning concepts and categories: is spacing the “enemy of induction”? Psychol. Sci. 19 585–592 10.1111/j.1467-9280.2008.02127.x

Maquet, P., Laureys, S., Peigneux, P., Fuchs, S., Petiau, C., Phillips, C., . . . Cleeremans, A. (2000). Experience-dependent changes in cerebral activation during human rem sleep. Nature Neuroscience, 3(8), 831-6.

Miller, G. A. (1956). The magical number seven, plus or minus two: Some limits on our capacity for processing information. Psychological Review. 63 (2): 81–97

Paivio, A. (1991). Dual coding theory: Retrospect and current status. Canadian Journal of Psychology/Revue canadienne de psychologie, 45(3), 255

Pintrich, Paul R. (2002). The Role of metacognitive knowledge in learning, teaching, and assessingTheory into Practice, 41(4). 219-225.

Rohrer, D., & Taylor, K. (2007). The shuffling of mathematics problems improves learning. Instructional Science, 35, 481–498.

Seehagen, S., Konrad, C., Herbert, J. S., & Schneider, S. (2015). Timely sleep facilitates declarative memory consolidation in infants. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, 112, 1625–1629

Sweller, J. (1988), Cognitive Load During Problem Solving: Effects on Learning. Cognitive Science, 12: 257–285

Weinstein, Y., Madan, C.R. & Sumeracki, M.A (2018). Teaching the science of learning. Cogn. Research 3, 2 

50 Zero Preparation Games: A guide by Christopher Walker you need to get right away!

Christopher and I met because of social media and a bit of luck. One of us liked a post or wrote left one another a comment and the next thing I knew I realised we were going to attend three ELT conferences in three different countries together. Christopher is one of those people you can chat with for hours and learn things you hadn’t even wondered about before. His book 50 Zero Preparation Games gives you a very small glimpse of what he is like: practical, interesting, funny and incredibly intelligent. In the book you can find easy-to-use games that really require almost no preparation at all. A real lifesaver for teachers who keep getting busier and busier these days.

The book is divided into three sections according to the main skill developed through the games (drawing, writing, and speaking) but it puts a lot of emphasis on communication. Each game comes with an example and a page with the procedure, the suggested target language and, my favourite part, the expansion potential for teachers to go beyond. The absolute highlights for me are Christopher’s brilliant notes on how to give feedback at the beginning, and his bonus section with more games at the end.

This is certainly a must-have book!

If you’re an Excited Nerd Gaining Lexical Intensity Studying Hard (ENGLISH) looking for a reliable source of activities that will spark your students’ curiosity and get them engaged while learning, 50 Zero Preparation Games is for you.

The only thing I’m afraid you won’t get from this book is a real face-to-face chat with the incredible Christopher Walker. Well, maybe you will someday. I do hope so. Our last moment together before I came back home was at a Vietnamese restaurant in Budapest. To honour that memory I suppose this Vietnamese proverb will do for now:

đồng thanh tương ứng đồng khí tương cầu

It means that people who are similar will often become friends. I’m happy I found a friend like Christopher and I hope his work can make you realise you should also be his friend.

Click here to order his book and check out his website here

You can also right click on the images below and save them to check out some samples of his book.

5 Reasons Why You Should Flip Your English Classroom

Take a few seconds to think about your daily routine at work. If you’re a teacher, you probably go to your school, get into the teachers’ room where you might keep the materials you’re going to use in class, get the books and worksheets you need, go to the classroom and start to teach. Now imagine a doctor’s routine. She goes to the hospital to treat patients in an office or the emergency room or even perform surgery in the operation room. A lawyer studies the case, goes to his client, then goes to court to face the trial.

What do these professionals have in common? They go to work to apply the knowledge they have acquired. They prepare themselves before, often at home or in an office, and get to work to use the information they already have to perform something. Planning a lesson, preparing for surgery or studying a case for court are done before the real action takes place.

That’s pretty much the same principle of a Flipped Classroom. Instead of learning concepts (new vocabulary or grammar structures for example) in the classroom, students are exposed to them at home and use the classroom time to apply their knowledge. Well, not just apply, but we’ll discuss this later. Let’s stick to some definitions first.

Based on conversations with peers, videos I’ve watched, and websites I’ve read, the simplest definition of the flipped classroom approach is well shown in the image below. Students do the classwork at home and the homework in class. They are exposed to the content before the lesson and practice it during the lesson in more active ways. They can also check understanding and do some extension after the lesson.

It’s worth mentioning that Jon Bergmann and Aaron Sams, creators of this concept, have a lot of resources about flipped learning. Don’t forget to check out Jon Bergmann’s website here.

Look at the image below and reflect on the process.

It does seem like something worth trying, doesn’t it? The big question is:

Is this approach better than the traditional one?

To answer that, here are 5 reasons why you should give it a try:

  1. Autonomy
  2. Personalization/Differentiation
  3. Self-efficacy
  4. Higher Order Thinking Skills (HOTS)
  5. Problem/Project-based learning

Autonomy because students are given voice and choice outside the classroom when you set up the activities they are supposed to do before the lesson. I mean, sure they’ll have to choose from a predetermined list of things, but you can also encourage them to do their own research and find a video or blog with the content they need to start learning before the lesson.

Personalization/ differentiation because during the lesson you’ll have different activities for students to apply their knowledge. You can use games, arts, a text, a video, an experiment, the sky is the limit.

Self-efficacy because you’ll be helping your students become more responsible for their own learning and they’ll have to organize their time to study the materials before the lesson and accomplish the goals you help them set for themselves.

Higher order thinking skills because not only will students apply the knowledge the were exposed to at home, but also use that knowledge in more demanding ways such as evaluating, analyzing and creating with it (Bloom’s Taxonomy).

And finally, problem or project-based learning because students will be allowed to exchange information with their peers to accomplish something that is more related to real life and, thus, more relevant to them.

Ok, this may sound too abstract in your head and I should have started with a concrete example. So here you can find two.

Example 1. Past forms – Past Perfect vs Past Simple

Before the lesson, students are supposed to watch videos and/or read their books or a website on different past forms. The lesson objective is to introduce Past Perfect and contrast it with Past Simple. You have set up a Google Classroom group to communicate with your students and posted 3 videos and 2 links to reliable websites with this content. You’ve also posted a message encouraging students to find their own research sources.

When the students get to the classroom, you use the first 5-10min to help them activate the prior knowledge, that is, access what they were meant to study at home. You can do a quiz or get them to sit in groups and tell each other which resources they used to learn about Past Forms and compare what they know.

You’ve prepared the classroom with different activities for them to try out during the entire lesson. They can make posters about historical figures and what they had done before a certain date, or they can interview their peers on what they had done before going to school and record a video using their phones, or they can work on a short horror or fiction story together.

While all the students are working, you can go around the classroom and sit with them to ask questions about what they’re doing and elicit the target-language from them. That will allow you to give them more personalized attention and feedback. You can also encourage students to exchange groups to check what others are doing and have them present or share what they worked on at the end of the lesson.

Example 2. Connectors and Opinions

The out-of-class stage is the same as the previous example. During the lesson, you can start with activating their prior knowledge again and have them break into groups. In their groups, they can write an opinion blog post using a computer, or a news piece about a recent event or even a talk show with guests discussing some interesting issue. They’ll have to use connectors of contrast, sequence and addition, for instance, as well as expressions to give their opinion, agree and disagree.

Interesting approach, don’t you think? It allows students to spend most of the class time using the content rather than acquiring it and it gives them the opportunity to prepare as much as they want at home. They’ll do things their own way in their own pace. For this to work well, there are some things to consider, though:

  1. Students need to have access to the materials outside the classroom. A good idea is to use technology. Select the platform you like the most (Google Classroom, Edmodo, Moodle, Canvas, Facebook, WhatsApp, your ELT book online platform). If you don’t have access to the internet, you can use handouts, worksheets, the students’ own books, magazines, some sort of audio recorder. Just be creative!
  2. There needs to be accountability. You need to hold your students responsible for studying the materials beforehand. You can work with some sort of reward system, like positive reinforcement, and give them points for accessing the materials or using the beginning of the lesson to check if they really did it. Peer pressure and accountability may do the trick.
  3. But, to be fair, some students will still not study the materials and you need to allow them to do it at the beginning of the lesson. You can have a computer, tablet or phone (handout or worksheet) in a corner where students can go to and do whatever they can in 5 minutes or have other students help by explaining what they studied at home. If this behavior persists, you may think of ways to address this by talking to your students and making them realize that not engaging with the materials is not the way to go.

If you’re still not convinced you should give it a try, think of how education will change in the next couple of years. Authors from different areas seem to agree that there will be a major shift from teaching content exclusively to teaching competencies and one way we’ll be able to do that is by turning our classrooms into labs. Students will come and go to practice the content they started learning at home and will not only apply, analyze, evaluate, and create with it, but also practice collaboration, leadership, self-regulation, strategic planning, communicating clearly, setting and sticking to goals, empathy, tolerance and more.

I say give it a shot and, even if it fails the first time you do it, try again. It doesn’t have to be every lesson. Just step out of your comfort zone and see the magic happen. Then you can come here and leave a comment about your experience.

Have a great week!

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

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!

English ID 3, Unit 3: A Lesson Plan with Authentic Materials about traveling and cities

Hello, everyone!

Hope you’re having a great Monday so far. As I know nobody really likes Monday and some of you might be using Richmond’s English ID 3, here’s the link to a lesson I prepared for my teenage group. All the instructions are in the SPEAKER’S NOTES section below every slide.

Click here to access the slides.

Do you think we have some room to use authentic materials now and then or do you always stick to the book? Here’s the link to my blog post on the MAD principle – MAINTAIN – ALTER – DISCARD

The idea was to combine the instructions in the book with authentic materials. That’s why I chose to use “Where the Heck is Matt?” for this lesson.

Hope you can use it!

Here’s a video explanation of this lesson

You might also want to check out my planning for American English File 2nd Edition. Click here to check it out

PS: even if you’re not using English ID you can give it a try. I’ve included the vocabulary you’ll need to work with the students.

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

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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!