Technologically and linguistically adventurous EFL teacher, trainer, writer and manager

This post is for the talks I attended at IATEFL Glasgow 2017 which don’t fit neatly into any of the other categories I’ve chosen this year.

Connecting minds: language learner and teacher psychologies (Sarah Mercer)

Sarah’s plenary discussed the importance of ‘psychologically wise’ teachers, who both understand the psychology of their students, and look after their own mental health. You can watch the whole plenary yourself, or read my summary below.

There’s also an interview with Sarah recorded after her plenary.

Sarah started off by telling us that psychology is not just motivation, cognition, or the abstracted, internal mind. It’s about emotion. We can have the best resources and technology in the world, but they can’t replace humans. She showed us a video of Mr. White, a teacher in the States who has created a personalised handshake with each one of his students. I really like this quote from him:

I feel like every student needs a little bit of joy in their lives. Every student.

Psychology is about the heart and soul of teaching, and psychologically wise teachers can make a huge difference to the lives of their learners. They develop positive relationships, focus on positivity and growth, and nurture their own professional well-being. Hattie’s (2009) meta-analysis lists teacher-student relationships in position 11 of 138 of importance of factors affecting learning. Rita Heyworth points out in her TED talk that kids don’t learn from people they don’t like. Language teaching is inherently social, and requires collaboration, communication, and socio-cultural competence. Psychology is a key part of what we do, but we rarely focus on it explicitly in training or our own practice.

Sarah Mercer and Christina Gkonou published a 2017 British Council Research Paper entitled Understanding emotional and social intelligence among English language teachers. I haven’t read it yet, but will, having had it recommended by the people I was sitting with during the plenary. Another book that was recommended was Better Conversations [affiliate link] by Jim Knight.

Covey (2004) talks about the emotional bank account. Positive actions in a relationship are like deposits and negative ones are withdrawals. How can you make deposits in your emotional bank account?

  1. Work on mutual trust and respect.
  2. Be empathetic.
  3. Be responsive to learner individuality (names, micro conversations). Communication is key.

Remember that learners are much more worried about speaking in front of their peers than the teacher. Do they know the names of everyone else in the group? Proactive discipline: if you build good relationships with students, you need less reactive discipline. You don’t earn trust just by being a teacher, you need to deserve it.

Sarah also talked about Carol Dweck’s Fixed and Growth Mindset theory. Research shows that you can shift your mindset, but it requires training and support. This connects back to James Egerton’s talk at the Torun Teacher Training Day last month. You may not ever be perfect at something, but everyone can improve on where they are now if they have time, motivation and opportunities.

Whether you think you can or you think you can’t, you’re right. – Henry Ford

Mindsets are domain-specific: you might have a fixed mindset about speaking or pronunciation, but a growth one about your ability to write in a foreign language.  Lots of teacher trainees believe that they can develop their methodological knowledge, but not their interpersonal skills (Mercer’s study, my experience too!). Neuroplasticity supports the idea of a growth mindset. As teachers, we have to own up to mistakes, and show our own growth mindset. We should also think whether we talk about language learning as an ability or talent (fixed mindset), or as a process (growth mindset). Make sure you praise the process and effort, and give *informative* positive praise that is deserved, not empty words. The mindset alone is not enough though. We need to develop learning strategies and support our students.

If we build on weaknesses only, we become average. If we build on strengths too, we become A+ – From Average to A+ [affiliate link] by Alex Linley (2008)

It’s important to recognise our strengths, both as learners and teachers. How often have you ever sat back and really reflected on what you’re good at? Sarah asked us to share two or three things we’re good at as teachers with our neighbours. We need to consider building positive emotions in the classroom explicitly. Positive emotions help us to learn more!

Most importantly, we need to look after our own mental well-being.

You can't pour from an empty cup. Take care of yourself first.

Our psychology as teachers is mirrored in our students through mirror neurons – if we’re happy, they’re more likely to be happy too. Holmes and Rogers, 2012 talk about the burnout cascade and the virtuous cycle of psychology and motivation – it can be a vicious or a virtuous circle, depending on where you start. This MUST start from us: we must start creating the positivity in our classroom. Happy people have more energy, better motivation, are more creative, are more productive, and are healthier. The very first thing a teacher should do in the classroom is smile.

When we talk about CPD it’s important not to add too many ‘shoulds’ – a lot of frameworks don’t include wellbeing, meaning teachers may not end up prioritising it. I’ve been trying to drastically reduce the amount of times I use the word ‘should’ – every time I do, I ask myself ‘Who said?’ It’s taken off a lot of the pressure I’ve previously felt. In her 1990 book Stress Management for Teachers, Sandra Mills breaks down health into physical condition (rest, diet, exercise), mental condition and emotional condition.

Self-compassion means knowing when enough is enough, when perfectionism isn’t appropriate, when to use positive self-talk. Don’t overstretch yourselves, learn to say no and set boundaries to protect yourself as a teacher. Professional well-being is not an indulgence, it’s a necessity. As Sarah said:

Pyschology matters. Relationships matter. Positivity matters. YOU matter!

Blog posts following Sarah’s plenary:

Aligning parents’ and caregivers’ objectives with young learner programs (Shay Coyne)

Shay noticed that she was only doing needs analysis for adult groups, not for young learners. She made a Survey Monkey questionnaire in Spanish to send to caregivers. They wanted a communicative focus, moving from receptive listening towards speaking, a broadening of their future prospects, more study than fun (see below for activities for each of these three areas), and they wanted English only. Shay challenges the last point, as most of the world is now bilingual, and we should bring the students’ two languages together. Students have opportunities for huge amounts of contact with English outside the classroom. By accepting the students’ own language, we’re modelling tolerance and diversity and establishing a collaborative, equal relationship between the mother tongue and English.

Caregivers want to be involved. They may have had bad experiences of language learning themselves before. Caregivers form a key part of the child’s life, so we need to keep them involved: parents as partners. Home and school are not two separate bubbles for children, they’re all one big learning experience: it helps you to be more collaborative between home and school.  They give a different perspective to tests and assessments, and can, for example, explain why a child has suddenly started to behave badly. This kind of partnership also improves social skills and behaviour of the child, as it provides a model for how to collaborate. Finally, it leads to better education outcomes. The child becomes more well-rounded and can navigate a multilingual, multicultural environment more easily. On another note, if caregivers are involved, children’s test scores will improve too.

Parents can be involved through governance (like textbook selection), meetings, volunteering for activities in the classroom. Caregivers can be invited for open days. We can train parents and caregivers to be able to form realistic goals, and retrain misconceptions like English only. Teachers should be trained with strategies for how to deal with caregivers, such as how to positively deliver messages, and how to deal with any potential conflict. Communication should also be two-way, both to and from the school. We should make sure that there is variation in how you interact with caregivers, and give them the option to decide how they want to be contacted.

To develop communication skills, why not try an English/Australian/Scottish corner in your classroom, use role plays for developing empathy, and discuss learning to bridge the gap between home and school.

To help students broaden their future prospects, work on projects, try out ‘genius hour‘ so children can do whatever they want for that hour (practises research and time management), work on videos (through e.g. Skype which they may have to use for job interviews in the future), try out My Language Passport from p98 of Teaching Children How to Learn [affiliate link] to acknowledge different languages.

To work on language, use songs, choose topics of interest, choose practical tasks that encourage experimentation with language and try Knowing your class p71 of Teaching Children How to Learn [affiliate link] so you can learn more about your students to make things more relevant to them.

Shay would like us all to foster caregiver involvement in education. Maybe we could create a framework for involving them. There is a potential negative reaction initially, but research shows that it’s worth it and quality improves because caregivers are involved.

Shay recommended the following books for further research [all affiliate links]:

  1. The Primary English Teacher’s Guide by Jean Brewster, Gail Ellis, and Denis Girard
  2. Teaching Children How to Learn by Gail Ellis and Nayr Ibrahim
  3. How Children Learn by Linda Pound
  4. Teaching Young Learners English by Joan Kang Shin and JoAnn (Jodi) Crandall
  5. Introducing English as an Additional Language to Young Children by Kay Crosse

She has also written a related article for the IH Journal about bringing parental objectives into YL lessons.

Teaching grammar for all the right reasons (Danny Norrington-Davies)

We try to contain the language with rules but the language keeps running away. – Andrea Bossato

Danny encourages his students to explore reasons for grammatical/linguistic choices, not rules, moving from examples to reasons. Why start with reasons, not rules?

  • Language existed before rules!
  • We can explore how meaning is created.
  • Students can make genuine discoveries about language by thinking about reasons.
  • We can see how different forms interact and we don’t just need examples that fit the rules.
  • We can explore similarities not exceptions, and give learners some ownership of the language.
  • We can use this approach to exploit any text or any communicative task, and avoid ‘sometimes’ rules. Pedagogic rules are often qualified with words like ‘usually’, and we write them as if they’re true, but they’re not.
  • We can avoid artificial simplification and rules that are not true.
  • Students can put reasons into their own words, rather than being given rules that aren’t always true.
  • Although it’s hard for students to create rules, it’s worth it, as they start to understand why language is really used, not just learn rules by rote (he got this as feedback from one of his students).

There’s nothing wrong with language; the problem lies with the rules we’ve created as shortcuts. Diane Larsen-Freeman emphasises that reasons underline rules.

Research shows that a lot of early learning is lexical, not grammatical, which is why it works well for functional language. He’s also used this approach successfully with modals. The lowest level he’s used it with himself is pre-intermediate, though he’s also seen it being used with elementary.

For example, to focus on relative clauses, give students a text with them and rewritten without them. Ask them to compare the two and say why the writer used them in the original text. Maybe to get students to actually use relative clauses, we should just keep making them notice them instead of doing exercises – Danny has found this has really helped his students.

Danny has recently published a book along the same lines: From Rules to Reasons [affiliate link]

Tweets from other sessions

Lindsay Clandfield and Jill Hadfield talked about activities you could use to promote interaction between participants on online courses. They were promoting a new book they’ve written called Interaction Online [affiliate link]. You can watch a recording of the full talk.

Lorraine Kennedy presented about the effectiveness of feedback. The session was recorded.

A useful poster:

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