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.
I attended for the very first time the amazing InnovateELT conference in Barcelona. I was honored to speak for 30 minutes about the Mind, Brain, and Education science to a full house in room 10 at Oxford TEFL, the incredibly charming venue with a lovely garden, wonderful people, great talks, and craft beer (yes, this part is important).
The name of the conference is quite catchy, I admit. InnovateELT caught my attention since the first time I heard about it. Innovation is something we never stop chasing, isn’t it? It seems to me that innovation is still and may always be l’ordre du jour. Digging a little bit about the meaning of this word, innovation, made me think about why we want to go after it. A quick look in most dictionaries will tell us that innovation is about new ways, methods of doing things or new ideas, products. It’s all about the word NEW.
New ways of doing things or thinking about things were definitely present at the InnovateELT conference. I myself proposed to integrate the news of cognitive neuroscience, and cognitive psychology with the tradition of pedagogy to teach our students in more “brain-friendly” ways. Many of the presenters discussed new ways to do things we’ve been doing for a long time. The whole conference was about new ways to teach, metacognitive teaching, native-speakerism, storytelling, videomaking, etc.
Then it struck me.
I noticed that I could read most of the signs written in Catalan everywhere in the lovely city of Barcelona. I remember thinking how weird it was to understand that language that I had almost no contact with except for Netflix series Merlí. Merlí was a rebellious philosophy teacher who provoked his students to think harder about things. He was a nonconformist. The series was shot in Barcelona and they used the Escola Mare de Déu de Montesserat as one of the shooting locations.
I instantly fell in love with the series because it made me realize that what is new is still quite old. You see, Merlí is the embodiment of Socrates, a man who challenged paradigms, who proposed different things, who urged for innovation, one might say. Socrates’ methods, as described in my blog post, asked students to get to the bottom of things, to question their own assertions. Isn’t that the foundation of innovation?
The funniest thing is that, the way I see it, the innovation we want might not be a new idea at all. Sure, it might be a new way of doing something but it might as well keep its core, its original source so vividly that it’s hardly anything that new. That explains why I understood the signs in the subway:
Atenció – Attention – Attention – Atenção
Tren – Train – Train – Trem
Plataforma – Plateforme – Platform – Plataforma
They are new ways of writing Latin or Greek.
INOVACIÓ – INNOVATION – INNOVATION – INOVAÇÃO
Inovació. Not that hard to understand when you know a little French, lots of English, and even more Portuguese. It’s really the same thing being written slightly differently. In every conference I attend or present at, the same ideas are repeated again and again but slightly differently. It made me come to a realization. Do you want to know what the biggest innovation in the classroom is? To me, it is still what Socrates taught us more than two thousand years ago: it’s us, the teachers. But not just that. It’s our relationship with our students and what we can make of it.
If you had 10 thousand dollars to invest in your school, what would you do? Buy iPads, computers, interactive whiteboards, a 3D printer? Those are all great things, but what really makes the difference according to the Education Endowment Foundation and John Hattie’s comprehensive research put together in his Visible Learning book is the teacher. And great teachers respond to students’ needs. Maybe, a wiser decision would be to put most of that money into teacher training, into CPD.
The next time you think about making a positive impact on your school or classroom, why don’t you try this:
invest in your teacher;
attend conferences and learn new ideas;
embrace the old critical pedagogy;
use technology as an ally, not as the main player;
welcome mistakes and promote creativity;
Innovating is a process. It requires a lot of looking back rather than looking forward. I think Scott Thornbury’s talk about Innovation and his question if it would be the death of us explained well what I feel about the future. No matter what technology we create, be it simultaneous translating earpods, robot teachers, holograms, virtual reality, many of the things that are already here, innovation, no matter how it is spelled, is rooted in human creativity.
As long as we have inventive people making decisions and being allowed to make mistakes, we’ll be able to innovate and make progress. Bet on the human resources and conquer the world. That’s what I say, anyway.
Speaking of CPD, why don’t you give one of my online courses a try? Click on the button below for me to send you more information about them. I promise you won’t regret.
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:
Higher Order Thinking Skills (HOTS)
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:
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!
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.
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.
It seems that the word of the day in education conferences is the overly repeated term NEUROMYTH. I’m not saying that’s a bad thing at all. As a matter of fact, I’m benefitting from all this fuzz since this is one of my favorite topics, something I’ve studied for a couple of years, and quite possibly the main reason why my speaking proposals have been accepted in four international conferences this year (Spain, Montenegro, Romania, and Hungary)
The first conference was InnovateELT in Barcelona (read my account of it here). It was superb and my session was so appealing, apparently, that I had a full house. I remember joking about it with some of the participants who complimented me on the session. I said:
The topic is interesting in its own right. It could’ve been anyone else presenting
I do believe that. Anything with the terms NEURO, BRAIN, SCIENCE, MYTH, is quite catchy and calls a lot of attention. We’ve actually discussed that in my Cognitive Neuroscience and Classroom Practice unit at the University of Bristol where I study MSc Psychology of Education. My professor Paul Howard-Jones, a big reference in the area, even said:
Neuroscience is sexy
Indeed it is and the idea of offering quick fixes or way-too-simple solutions is also very sexy and potentially misguided, even dangerous. But that’s what many authors and scholars in the field of neuroscience or psychology have been proposing.
Father, I have sinned. I confess
I myself have believed in these quick fixes for some time and wrote about them on this blog at the beginning of my ignorance. I suppose I could go back and edit some of the posts to seem a little less deterministic or fatalistic, but I like the fact that this will become a record of my educational journey and my reflections as I grow older. I’ll just leave things as they are and write about what I know that I don’t know now. You can still check out the tips of my early posts and find a lot of useful stuff here.
So, I suppose this introduction is only to say that cognitive neuroscience and psychology are still making important discoveries. That’s what makes this journey so exciting. There will always be something to explore, discover and reflect on. Nevertheless, I can say that many of the things the field has already discovered can help us reflect on how learning occurs more or less effectively. I believe in that so much that my dissertation is digging a little deeper on this topic.
Which things have scientists discovered that we can use? How does knowing those things apply in the classroom? Do they offer straightforward strategies that can guarantee a more successful learning experience?
Possibly. And this is the first step: to reflect on how useful the contributions of neuroscience and psychology might be and how they link with educational practices. That’s why I believe in the power of Mind, Brain, and Education (MBE). You see, according to Tracey Tokuhama-Espinosa, when MBE puts together cognitive neuroscience, cognitive psychology, and education (pedagogy) and looks at their contributions as being equals, on the same level, it creates a new and relevant field that can draw from these realms and potentially narrow the gap between scientific theory and educational practice. The element of transdisciplinarity adds a challenge but also more accountability.
Tokuhama-Espinosa also says that far too many neuromyths are still quite present in educational settings and perhaps that’s the mission of MBE, to debunk them. Simply said, neuromyths are false statements about the brain and how it works. However, knowing some (or even many) of the neuromyths per se doesn’t immediately translate into knowledge that can be applied in the classroom to make lessons more conducive to learning. Take the following for instance:
“No, Samuel Norman, we do not use just 10 or 15% of our brain capacities. In fact, we use most of our brain most of the time, even when we are sleeping. A simple task such as drinking coffee will require many areas of your brain to activate synchronously.”
Knowing this may sound great, but how does it translate into something useful for the teachers to apply and/or reflect on? Maybe knowing this will stop teachers from buying the idea that we might use certain techniques to boost brain capacity or something like that. But, to be quite honest, it would probably not affect teachers’ everyday decisions in the classroom.
That’s why I invite you to reflect with me on the possible benefits of using this science and will write two more blog posts with 10 neuromyths and their implications in the classroom. I will describe them, discuss their origins and tell you what they might mean for the teacher and the student in the classroom.
This is my mission on this planet. That’s why I’ve been sending out proposals to speak about this, I’ve been writing blog posts about this, I’ve been pursuing the proper qualifications on this topic and why I’ve created my new online course. I want to share what I’ve learned and give you something to reflect on.
It is essential to remember that what I’m proposing is not a recipe for successful teaching, though. There are so many variables to consider that we can’t say “Do this and everyone will learn”. The authors who have written about this say that we need to be careful with such bold claims. Rather, if we look at it as just a framework that may help us think about how we teach and how our students learn, I think the potential is huge.
If you got this far, you might want to consider signing up for my asynchronous Neuroscience and Learning Course. I try my best to show you some of the principles of learning through the perspective of MBE and help you reflect on what this knowledge might mean in the classroom.
I’d love to have you as one of my students and add you to the legion of teachers around the world fighting against potentially harmful neuromyths.
Stay tuned for part 2 of this series. I’ll discuss learning styles, fixed intelligence, and arts.
Dekker, S., Lee, N., Howard-Jones, P., & Jolles, J. (2012). Neuromyths in education: Prevalence and predictors of misconceptions among teachers. Frontiers in Psychology,3, 429-429. doi:10.3389/fpsyg.2012.00429
Howard-Jones, P. (2018). Evolution of the Learning Brain: Or how you got to be so smart. Taylor & Francis Group
Tokuhama-Espinosa, T. (2014). Making classrooms better: 50 practical applications of mind, brain, and education science. First Edition. New York: W.W Norton & Company.
The first time I heard about Brené Brown was probably around 2 years ago back in Brazil. As I’ve mentioned before, I’m a big TED Talks fan and have literally watched over 100 of them. They do deliver a powerful message in just a few minutes. Brené’s talk wasn’t any different. In fact, it was so inspiring that millions of people watched and loved it. Nevertheless, the bad and the ugly also came to the surface. Before I share why and what, let’s take a look at the message of her presentation and what it provoked in me.
Brené Brown is a researcher at the University of Houston Texas but, above all, she’s a storyteller. Her stories were about courage and connection. As a social work researcher, she wanted to investigate how wholehearted people were made. To make things clearer, her intention was to find what made people connect, love, be happy with their lives and be courageous, live to the fullest. After years working with and interviewing people, collecting data, she came to a rather controversial conclusion. People who had a better sense of belonging and who felt more fulfilled about their lives were also the ones willing to be seen for who they are. They embraced their vulnerability. They embraced their imperfection.
Vulnerability is at the heart of courage
Paraphrasing Brené Brown
She certainly didn’t like her findings. As many of us would agree, feeling vulnerable is not comfortable at all. In fact, we do almost anything to avoid feeling like that. Most of us believe that vulnerability makes us weak. But for Brené, after years struggling with her findings, vulnerability is what makes us strong, what makes us truly connect and understand. Without vulnerability, there would be no empathy. But vulnerability brings shame and, be honest, how many of us want to feel shame?
Someone once said that the magic happens outside our comfort zones and I’d like to share something I’ve never shared with anyone. Many people would look at me and think I’m a very confident guy. They could not be further from the truth. I am incredibly insecure. It may not show that much when I’m delivering a lecture, teaching, or writing. Or even when I’m having a conversation about the topics that I love. But I am. Oh gosh, am I… I don’t feel comfortable in my skin. I don’t like the way I look, my body, many of my attitudes, how I deal with money, routine, family and, particularly, my relationship with wife sometimes. Also, I’m pretty convinced I have a mild type of ADHD, the inattentive sort. I have so much to improve about myself. But here’s the thing:
And I’m proud of where I got. Don’t get me wrong. My concern is that I rarely open up about these things because, like Brené before, I don’t want to feel vulnerable.
In vulnerability lies opportunity
Not sure who said that, maybe it was me 🙂
Indeed it does. Being prepared to do something challenging and new, knowing that you might feel ashamed, afraid, and possibly fail, kind of frees you, doesn’t it? It’s scary but also liberating.
Here’s another story for y’all. I felt incredibly sad yesterday after talking to my mom on the phone. She had been crying because this is the first time she celebrates (not really) her birthday without my dad who passed away in January (read his story here). I felt lonely for a moment but didn’t let myself think too much about it. I started scrolling down on Facebook to find something else to distract me. I came across an interview with Sir Ian McKellen about his role as Sir Anthony Hopkins’ character’s dresser in the acclaimed The Dresser. It was funny. I was instantly drawn to Anthony Hopkins’ recommended interviews because I truly admire him and he reminds me so much of my dad (physically, especially as Odin in Thor. I just wanted to rewatch him talk about his story.
You bet your ass I am. Well, that’s being human
Sir Anthony Hopkins, Interview with Larry King
That was his answer to people being surprised to know that this incredible actor is still insecure. Not only is he an award-winning actor with brilliant performances but he is also a very talented painter and, even more impressively, a composer. As a matter of fact, Anthony Hopkins composed a beautiful waltz called And the Waltz Goes On some 50 years ago and only heard it played live by an Orchestra when the Dutch maestro and violinist, André Rieu, played it for him in Vienna (watch it here, it’s superb!). Watching it made me cry and think about all of this for an instant. How vulnerable we are and how stupidly hard we try not to look like we are.
I suppose what I’m trying to say is that I’m glad my mom didn’t try to hide what she was feeling when I called her. I’m glad that I’ve been more able to connect with people and try to be true to myself in the last months. I’m glad that I have a wonderful wife who loves me (and I love her very much!) and has supported and invested in me, in our relationship showing that despite all my insecurities, I’m worthy of love and connection too. I’m glad that I’m stepping out of my comfort zone and working on a project that I’m in love with (my online courses which you can check out here). And I’m really glad that people I admire and the participants of my courses are giving me feedback and allowing me to think about the things I can change.
Being vulnerable means that you can be yourself and that will be enough. You don’t need to always be awesome, amazing, phenomenal. You can simply be yourself.
My final message here is: Step out of this feeling of security and strength and allow yourself to be vulnerable. Find your courage within your vulnerability. Cry, be honest with your feelings as much as possible, be truly seen and don’t be afraid to fail because at oftentimes, life goes on and you learn from whatever happens.
Remember the bad and the ugly I brought up at the beginning? In Brené Brown’s lovely Netflix special, she shares with us what the reactions to her TED Talk were. Some were just awful. Many people made fun of her weight and couldn’t see why she was talking about worthiness if she wasn’t worthy. Others said she was the right person to talk about imperfection and that we should only look at her to see why. Some people called her bad names, said something about her being a bad mom and wife, someone even said she was what’s wrong with the world today and that she should be killed. She said that this was exactly the situation she had feared her whole life, this criticism. But it was also what made her stumble across Theodore Roosevelt’s incredible speech, while she was avoiding reading the comments like I avoided thinking about my dad’s death
It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.
Sir Anthony Hopkins’ interviews and lovely video in Vienna were my Ted Roosevelt’s speech. If you relate to this and want to make real change, to make life worthy, dare greatly.
I think this was an excuse to put everything out of my chest. But it was also a way for me to thank all the amazing teachers who took part in my online courses and gave me feedback to improve what I believe to be my most current way to dare greatly. You are stars! For being live with me on the weekends or watching the recordings, for doing the readings and sending me the mini-projects, for asking me questions I hadn’t thought of before. But, above all, you’re starts because even though you have good jobs and you have too much on your hands, very little time left, you took the time to leave your comfort zone, become students again and do professional development with me to learn more.
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
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.
This last Saturday I attended the BRAZ-TESOL Goiânia/Brasília Joint Event. It was held at the school I work for, CCBEU-GO, in the lovely Jd. América neighborhood in Goiânia. It was a warm morning (as pretty much all the mornings here) and one could hardly see a single cloud in the sky. The event was wonderful and brought together many great ELT speakers and professionals with provoking talks and workshops based on this edition’s theme: Looking Back to Move Forward. Even though I’m just one person and really wished to attend multiple sessions at the same time, here’s what I can share with you.
Arrival and Opening
Registration started at 9 am. It was organized at CCBEU’s main hall in two different areas: the reception, and by the entrance of our library and MakerSpace. When I arrived at 9:20 am, there were a lot of people trying to find their way around the tables that were set up by the publishers to showcase their materials. Cambridge, Oxford, MacMillan, Pearson, Richmond were there along with my beloved National Geographic Learning, represented by my buddy, Érico Lobo. It was great to see so many teachers, especially the ones I hadn’t met in such a long time and, naturally, to network with amazing professionals.
After registering and drinking whatever amount of coffee we could get our hands on (mainly the folks who came on a charter bus from Brasília and had to wake up at 4, 4:30 am), we moved our way downstairs to the auditorium, bumped into old friends and colleagues and got acquainted with a few too. I met the funny Lorenza who asked if I could help her come down the stairs. You see, she’s 5 foot 8 (according to her own account) and was wearing high heels. I saw and talked to Paulo Granato who happens to be a very nice person and sat beside my buddy, Antônio Moraes, who was going to present two sessions. Edmilson Chagas, Márcia Lima, and Isabela Villas Boas opened the event. Isabela talked about Goiás’ and Brasília’s BRAZ-TESOL chapters history together, how they were once united and then grew too much which caused them to get a divorce (she did use the term “expanded”, though). I kept looking around to find familiar faces and realized it was a full house.
Valéria França’s Plenary
The incredible and experient Valéria França delighted us with her journey into her academic, professional, and personal self (or should I use “selves”?). I was quite surprised to realize she once wanted to be a dentist. It was only when she was in her late teens that she realized she should become a teacher because one of her own teachers said she had a way with children and organizing activities. The highlight of her talk to me was when she read a poem in an English book that described perfectly what classes were like many decades ago. Students had to copy the words from the board and learn how to spell them. Words completely unrelated to their realities such as SEPULCHRE and they didn’t even have to learn their meanings.
She went on and mentioned one of Jeremy Harmer’s The Practice of English Language Teaching essential skills to deliver a successful lesson: finding the right spot on the cassette. Her talk moved from class observation reflections to how teaching changed in the 80’s when Vygotsky’s theory came along and finally to her personal self represented by a very cute picture of her as a baby touching the feet of a statue of a child at some park in Finland, coincidentally, a country that has been making history in education. So has Valéria França, and I was privileged to watch her present for the second time.
My session about Ancient Greek Philosophy
In the midst of all that clapping when Valéria finished her great talk, I started running to make it in time for my session. Of course, I had tested and prepared everything before! But still… One can never be too careful. And to make matters worse, I had taped envelopes with texts under some desks and was afraid the glue wasn’t going to hold that long. Unfortunately, I was right, but I dare say none of my attendees noticed :).
I had a full classroom and couldn’t have been any happier. Isabela Villas Boas, Edmilson Chagas, and Juliana Maria were there! What an honor! Many other participants I had the pleasure to meet and enjoy their company were also present. My session began with a journey in the history of education and how Socrates knew what he was doing more than two millennia ago. If you’re interested in the topic, you can read the discussion in full in my previous blog post here. The best part was taking some photos with Mr. Trunk and showing the video I had put together with some pictures I got from wonderful teachers around the world and their answers to:
What’s Education For?
Lunch Break and Afternoon Sessions
Antônio and I were craving for a burger. We went to Goiânia Shopping Center where, in a unique situation or cosmic singularity (like a perfect storm), there were hundreds of high school students and English teachers eating in the same place. It took us a while to get our orders and find a place to sit. The universe, still playing with me, put me right beside one of my first students in Goiânia, Naly. She had just returned from a one-year exchange experience in Australia and shouted (in Portuguese) shocked:
“This guy used to be my teacher!”
I quickly changed the language to English (that’s what I do when I meet my students :)) and her friend thought it was really weird that we were talking in English in the food court. She really embraced the Aussie culture and talking to her reminded me of my dear friend Claire Venables.
We came back, looked for more coffee (there wasn’t any :() and talked to some more people. We found coffee, drank a cup and stopped shivering a little and went on to our elected sessions.
I decided to watch Lorenza’s (Lolla) session on how to make one-to-one classes more dynamic. It was definitely an informative session. Lolla’s funny remarks and charisma made that one hour even more productive. She showed us the kits she uses with her private students with markers, games, post-its and much more, the importance of changing seats even in 1:1 classes, and how she drills sentences and vocabulary by looking in the eye of her students and looking away to make them more confident. Her most precious tip was to negotiate with students and allow them time to do the activities, not being afraid of a little “comfortable” silence in the class. You can follow Lolla on Instagram @winner_idiomas to get her precious tips.
My last session was with Helena Galvão and Paola Hanna on brain-friendly activities to promote learning. Did anyone mention “brain”? Well, you probably know that’s what gets me up in the morning (to be honest, I don’t think anyone would get up if it weren’t for the brain). The two presenters asked us to write the parts of our brains in a transparency and the processes controlled by each part. I was able to locate the parts and learned a lot about some processes. Then they shared with us how they let their students make their own games, slips of paper and dictation activities instead of preparing everything for them. Being actively engaged in the learning process and a part of its construction is probably the best tool we can use to help our learners learn more effectively. At the end, they shared some games and asked us what we can do with them in class. If you love neuroscience like I do, here are some of my blog posts about this topic.
FUN FACT: Lolla recorded a short video on her Instagram shocked because I took a stuffed elephant out of my bag. She didn’t know who Mr. Trunk was :(. Now she does 🙂
Vinnie Nobre’s Plenary
Vinnie Nobre has been an inspiration to me for at least 8 years. I’ll never forget watching one of his talks when I worked at Cultura Inglesa Santo Amaro. I had high expectations when he was announced as one of the plenary speakers in Goiânia. And he didn’t let me down, or any of us, to be honest.
Vinnie delivered a thought-provoking presentation inviting us to analyze how much innovation there actually is in ELT, and education. He carefully selected quotes from business gurus and innovation tycoons and compared their definitions to what the British Council had elected as the 10 innovations that had changed our profession. Every slide was a punch to our guts, because a slap to our faces would have meant looking away for a few seconds, which, quite frankly, no one was doing. I mean that in a good way, naturally. Vinnie showed us that what many schools, managers, directors, and teachers regard as innovation in the classroom (and out of it) are merely enhanced forms of doing the same that has been done in more than a century. Thanks for sharing your knowledge and experience with us, Vinnie. Vinnie has a YouTube channel and has recently founded an educational startup named Troika.
Antônio, Mr. Trunk and I took a selfie with him!
And that’s it. Another amazing event with wonderful professionals, inspirational sessions, and some beer. No, not during the event, silly. (although that does sound like a good idea) There was a Happy Hour after we wrapped up. A great line-up of drinkers and ELT professionals.
I’d like to thank each and every single person who has ever read my blog and helped me spread some insights out there. I truly wish you success in any endeavor you choose to pursue. After all, success is pretty much all we discuss during and after this festive and fattening period, isn’t it? Some might say we talk about love, friendship, happiness, change and the like, but aren’t these things closely related to success? If you have love, friendship, work satisfaction, that means you’re happy, which means, in turn, that you have success. By the way, here’s a blog post with a lesson plan about success.
Now let me ask you something. Are you one of those people who make the (in)famous New Year resolutions? Do you promise to make yourself very happy, like Ross did back in 1999? The problem is: after a couple of weeks everything is pretty much forgotten. Those promises (to lose weight, to get a new job, to travel more, to work on something you really love) fade away before Valentine’s Day. I am certainly a victim of these failures. I have promised myself I would change things that really mattered and never did really act on them to make real change. What is the problem? Can we not change? Do we not have what it takes? Answer me this:
Do you believe you are a certain way and you cannot change the “essence” of who you are and that your intelligence is practically immutable?
Do you think you can substantially improve yourself, make yourself “more intelligent” and work on your social skills and personality?
If you agree more with question 1, chances are you’re a person with a more Fixed Mindset. If number 2 seems more like what you would answer, you’re probably a person with a more Growth Mindset. Having a more Fixed Mindset, according to Dr. Carol Dweck in her book Mindset: The New Psychology of Successmeans you think talent and the so-called inborn traits, such as intelligence, social and other academic skills are the key factors that will determine how successful you are. However, if you have a more Growth Mindset, you understand the importance of challenge and making mistakes, always looking at effort and commitment as the base of everything you do.
You see, a more Fixed Mindset individual tends to stay in their comfort zone doing the things they know they’re good at to be praised by their peers and feel awesome. They avoid challenge and effort as, in their mind, those things mean they’re not so intelligent. They are also more likely to cheat if they get a bad result or grade the next time they try. Now a person with a Growth Mindset focuses on the process and knows that what gets them where they want to be is the effort and dedication. They like being challenged and want to learn from their mistakes.
Dr. Dweck tested several students and interviewed/analyzed the lives of CEOs, sports coaches, parents, and teachers. She came to a conclusion that may change the way you look at things: people with a more Growth Mindset are more successful. And the best news I can possibly give you this year is that you can practice and change your mindset. There is hope after all! So, I’m going to list a couple of conclusions or tips I got from her book and inspire you to make new resolutions or keep the ones you made going:
1- You can make yourself “more intelligent” by making the effort and practicing. If you’re struggling with something, work harder, try different strategies, ask for help. It might not be easy (it usually isn’t), but it’s possible;
2- That student that may seem hopeless in your classroom can change their mindset. Tell them about Carol Dweck’s conclusions, praise their effort for really trying more than the outcome. But don’t do it as a consolation prize. Give them good feedback and set high standards from the start. Hold them accountable and help them along the way;
3- Learn to identify when your Fixed Mindset persona kicks in. Learn the cues, the triggers and talk your Fixed Mindset persona out of their fixed mindset ideas. It might be the force of habit and your autopilot that need change. It is possible to step out of it, reflect, and regulate your emotions and actions. Again, it’s not so simple, it takes time and practice, but it’s definitely doable. You can read my blog post on the Neuropsychology of (Mis)behavior here
4- Keep in mind that many goals are long-term. Avoid getting too frustrated to the point that you’ll simply give up. Watch Dr. Dweck’s TED Talk below about the Power of Yet. Remind yourself you’re not there yet, but you can still get there if you try harder, stay on it, get help, change your strategies and learn what you need to be able to accomplish it;
5- Start small and celebrate your small victories every day. If you told yourself you were going to do something and you stuck with it until it was done for the day, tell yourself: “I made it!”. Reward yourself monthly if you can go through with the things you planned;
The truth is, folks: shifting from one year to the next does not open a magical portal that will change things automatically. December 31st and January 1st are only dates 24 hours apart and when you look at the Cosmos, they mean virtually nothing. Just another spin around the axis. It is you who needs to change your attitude if you want different things to happen. You might not be able to, but you can try. After all:
Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result
I can’t stress this enough, but I’m not saying you can change your mindset so easily. You’ll definitely still have a fixed mindset for many things or situations in your life. I don’t think there are magical solutions and being positive all the time about things, believing you can always accomplish what you need, can cause another problem: Toxic Positivity. Check out my session on this here.
Carol Dweck herself has talked about how the oversimplification of her research has been causing problems:
False growth mindset is saying you have growth mindset when you don’t really have it or you don’t really understand [what it is]. It’s also false in the sense that nobody has a growth mindset in everything all the time. Everyone is a mixture of fixed and growth mindsets. You could have a predominant growth mindset in an area but there can still be things that trigger you into a fixed mindset trait. Something really challenging and outside your comfort zone can trigger it, or, if you encounter someone who is much better than you at something you pride yourself on, you can think “Oh, that person has ability, not me.” So I think we all, students and adults, have to look for our fixed-mindset triggers and understand when we are falling into that mindset.
I think a lot of what happened [with false growth mindset among educators] is that instead of taking this long and difficult journey, where you work on understanding your triggers, working with them, and over time being able to stay in a growth mindset more and more, many educators just said, “Oh yeah, I have a growth mindset” because either they know it’s the right mindset to have or they understood it in a way that made it seem easy.
What I’m proposing is for you to look at yourself and your students with different eyes and help them and yourself place more value on effort and not giving up before you really try. Equip yourself with what is necessary to accomplish what you need. In case you really can’t, recognize that failure is part of being human and learn how to deal with it. Like the great philosopher Mick Jagger said on many occasions
You can’t always get what you want
But if you try sometime you find
You get what you need
The Rolling Stones
If don’t give it a shot, you won’t know what you can get and how far you can actually go.
Alberto Costa, a professional I admire, once wrote a comment about my blog entry describing the Braz-Tesol SIG Symposium. He said that I “had a way with words”. I was really flattered to read that but somehow I now struggle to find the words to describe the fantastic experience I had on Saturday. Perhaps it’s Rio’s atmosphere, great weather and incredible landscapes that numbed my senses a tiny bit. Or it is simply because I was part of the first face-to-face BrELT event and it meant so many things that it is indeed difficult to put it in words. Even though I struggle, I’ll do my best to share with you what I saw, heard, felt and, of course, can remember.
To begin with, you should probably know what BrELT means. It stands for Brazil’s English Language Teachers and it is an online community devoted to Professional Development. Its main channel is Facebook, but you can find it on Instagram, WordPress, and Twitter. BrELT hosts online chats, webinars, interviews. blog posts, and anything that can assist with teachers’ CPD. All of it exclusively online, except for this fantastic event in Rio.
The event was held at Escola Nova da Gávea , a beautiful school in a rather charming and bohemian district of our “Cidade Maravilhosa”. The entrance hall was filled with publishers’ stands and their materials, long tables right in the center, and our much needed shot of caffeine up for grabs. When I got there, Bárbara Furtado welcomed me and soon asked about Mr. Trunk, who was taking a nap inside my bag. Later, Andrea Câmara, Vinícius Tavares, Natália Affonso, and Márcia Reis were kind enough to ask him to take a photo with them. Mr. Trunk was quite happy. We decided to take many photos! Nina Loback, Bruno Andrade, Thiago Veigga, Nicolle Albornoz, Claire Venables and Jamie Keddie couldn’t escape.
The first session was delivered by Bruno Andrade who said BrELT had been a beacon of hope for him when looking for CPD and hearing this from one of his bosses:
“Bruno, my dear, your English is enough to work here”.
Bruno took it so seriously that just a few years later he actually wrote his Master’s thesis on how BrELT contributed to teachers’ CPD. Among his findings, reflective teaching, new knowledge, motivation, different perspectives were some of the terms he stressed. Two things I’ll take from his lovely introduction: 1) BrELT has truly helped both those who started as Bruno himself, eager to do CPD and without hope of getting it from their own schools, and those who are experienced teachers; 2) Bruno’s wonderful ear-to-ear smile to be there presenting about one of his passions.
Next came the amazing Jamie Keddie and his inspiring plenary. Speaking of grinning from ear to ear, that’s exactly how I spent the better part of the next hour: either smiling or laughing uncontrollably. I actually told Jamie: “My cheek muscles hurt” when I approached him with Mr. Trunk. It all started with a frog. The poor frog tried to catch a dragonfly and failed miserably. It jumped and got nowhere near the smart insect. Then we moved to a panda bear and its little baby. According to Jamie, the panda “got a fright” from its screaming – quite unexpectedly – little one. Most of us used “got scared” or simply “scared” to describe the scene. The refined ones added “the hell out of” or “the bejesus out of” or even went with “spooked”. But Jamie chose “got a fright”. We found out later that his family had influenced his word choice. What really matters is what Jamie discussed and how we can make the best of his great ideas.
Jamie is an incredible storyteller who takes advantage of what YouTube has to offer to help his students build stories around the videos. The narratives that each person chooses after watching a 30-second clip of an animal doing apparently nothing (like the frog, and the panda) are nothing short of wonderful. They vary greatly and tell us how differently we can interpret the world. If you would like to know more about Jamie’s inspirational tips to storytelling (or 4pm videotelling, as he calls it), check out his website here. My takeaways: 1) Jamie is indeed a great storyteller who can keep you on your toes till the very end; 2) Almost any video can be used in the classroom to give students autonomy and spark a little creativity; 3) Jamie said: “BrELT is one of the best things to come out from Facebook”. You’re right, Jamie.
We had a quick coffee break and got another shot of caffeine. Then we had to move quite fast to find where we were supposed to be. I decided to go to Marcela Cintra’s “Observe to Blossom” session. Marcela Cintra is a professional I’ve admired since my time at Cultura Inglesa in São Paulo. I hope she knows that. She started by asking us what type of observations there were and gave us precious tips on how to blossom from sitting in our peers’ classes or even from getting pointers from peers who watched us or simply watching ourselves teaching (the feared filmed observations). Planning is key and setting an observation goal is paramount to make sure there is something clear that can be assessed and become the feedback target. A quote that summarizes it well was:
“Doctors have to sit and observe surgeries and we have to sit and observe lessons”.
Indeed, Marcela! I loved when she said that we were above doctors because we have to operate on many “patients” at the same time.
Two things I will keep: 1) Observing is a great way to learn techniques from our peers; 2) Blossoming does happen when you observe or get observed. After all, it was by observing Marcela herself, and some other references to me, and what she has conquered that I have gotten this far in my own career. Thanks for setting the wonderful example, Marcela.
Another coffee break. Sugar and caffeine. The sweet aroma of books coming from the shelves and tables. Faces I had only seen as profile photos on Facebook and Instagram. Exciting!
The last part of this energizing morning had three presenters: Giselle da Silva. Eduardo Mazzeu, and Nicolle Suazo Albornoz, who came all the way from Chile.
Giselle shared her incredible experience with Project-Based Learning in a public school in Espírito Santo. Even though she had only 20 minutes to share, her enthusiasm was palpable while she talked about how her students got to speak more by making and playing board games. Guess Who and Go Fish are excellent tools to make your lessons more communicative
Eduardo’s great tips on how to make listening activities more meaningful and pleasant reverberated in every teacher’s mind in that classroom. Not only did he give us interesting statistics about how we communicate (we hear between 20,000 and 30,000 words a day, we spend about 55% of our time engaged in listening, and only 7% of our communication is conveyed in the form of words) but he also suggested some cool resources: Lyrics Training and Lingo Rank. He also mentioned the importance of joining discussion groups. WhatsApp is a great tool for that.
Nicolle showed us the very interesting scenario of mentoring in Chile. She pointed out aspects such as lack of linkage between universities and schools, lack of mentoring courses, unclear roles of mentors, and the communication between supervisors and mentors as areas that need improvement. She made clear that mentors should be professionals mentees look up to and her message to those mentors who are unsure of what they need to be was spot on:
“You need to be the mentor that you needed when you were being mentored”
Nicolle Suazo Albornoz
Her insights on Chile’s situation made me reflect on our reality in Brazil.
After this great CPD morning, off to lunch we went. I still have more about the afternoon sessions. Stay tuned for more! You can’t miss the next post about part II.
So far I can only say it was fantastic to witnesses this event come true. I hope I was able to convey my message (or at least 7% of it) with these words.