I am utterly bewildered and overwhelmed. I am struggling my way around the book exhibition at an ELT conference. What a bombardment of books! ‘How do teachers even begin to choose?’ I ask myself.
A few years ago I had a break from ELT and had some catching up to do. As I read through the ELT journals I am struck by the multitude of exciting ideas on offer and the wealth of ‘good practice’ available. And I ask myself that same question again: How do we teachers even begin to make choices about what to do in the classroom?
Well perhaps we don’t. It’s true that most of us like to know about recent theories and to keep informed and up-to-date, yet we don’t always actually want to put the ideas into practice. There can be many reasons for this, but often the reason is quite simple: knowing about and doing are different and we’re quite happy carrying on doing more or less what we’re used to, doing mostly what is familiar and safe.
But there’s no doubt that if we do want to implement new ways of teaching, then too many choices can lead to complete paralysis – and perhaps a slight feeling of inadequacy in the face of so much brilliance!
One area where the abundance of choice is evident is the different learning styles methodologies: how teachers need to take account of their learners’ preferences in taking in and processing information, in interacting with other people and so on. Many authors, including myself, have written about multiple intelligences, brain-friendly teaching, NLP (Neuro-Linguistic Programming), and many more. All of these articles contribute to our knowledge of how our brain works and how people learn, and in doing so; potentially make teaching and learning richer, more effective, more rewarding … and infinitely more complex.
Teachers already have lots of balls to juggle in the classroom: accuracy and fluency; the four skills; grammar, pronunciation and vocabulary; the course book and supplementary materials; maintaining motivation with the
demands of a syllabus and exams; mixed-ability classes; group needs and individual needs; discipline issues and learners who behave disruptively (and possibly even bosses, colleagues or parents who behave disruptively too!). In addition to all of this, we might or might not wonder from time to time whether we should be using a lexical syllabus or task-based learning, as we search desperately for the class CD and worry about how on earth we are going to get little Sam to the dentist on time.
So are there any solutions? And if so, what are they?
Well, I don’t know that there are necessarily ‘solutions’ so much as other possible ways of thinking about things.
If you can begin to think differently about something, you inevitably begin to feel differently about it and are also able to do something different in relation to it.
This is the NLP ‘Mercedes’ Model. It says that if you change any one of the three elements, then the other two will also change because, as part of the same system, they are all interconnected.
Here are some ways of thinking that might be useful in helping you feel different and do something else.
1.Recognise just how much you are already doing.
Not just in terms of juggling all the things – and more – mentioned above, but notice as well how your classroom methodology already reflects many of the suggestions of different learning style theories. For example, when I first came across the NLP theory of sensory preferences, about fifteen years ago, and became aware of the importance of teaching in a multi-sensory way (i.e. making sure that learners receive a variety of input through different channels: visual, auditory and kinaesthetic), I realized I was doing that anyway. And, like many other teachers and trainers, I had been doing it for years – for other reasons. The new framework was not superfluous, however. What it did was validate my classroom and training practice and reassured me that I was doing some good stuff. It added a new rationale and dimension to what I was doing, encouraging me to be more creative and take more risks in trying things out.
2.Observe points of overlap.
Ideas recur in the different theories, so begin by putting those ideas into practice. If I come across an idea just once, I may or may not take any notice of it, but if I encounter it (or something very similar) several times coming from completely different sources, then it begins to have more credibility for me. I am certainly not an expert in all the different learning theories but I have noticed one or two patterns that seem to crop up more frequently than others, and often enough to make me want to take action.
One of these is the distinction that Howard Gardner makes in his Multiple Intelligences between intrapersonal and interpersonal intelligence. The first might be over-simply defined as good rapport skills coupled with a real need for, and enjoyment of, other people’s company. The second is an enhanced ability for self-awareness and a need and pleasure in being alone. Well, these two intelligences together pretty much make up what Daniel Goleman calls Emotional Intelligence and they are also quite close to the Extrovert/Introvert dimensions in the MBTI (Myers Briggs Type Indicator) which are to do with whether we tend to get our energy from other people or within ourselves. In addition, intrapersonal and interpersonal tie in with several of the NLP metaprograms, most closely with our preferred style of working: co-operative (as an equal part of a team), proximity (as a leader of others) or independent (alone) and also with the proactive (go for it) /reactive (think about it) program.
The intrapersonal/interpersonal distinction has implications for how we set up activities in class. We’ve become good over the years at organising learners into groups and pairs to collaborate on tasks, but now we find that some learners really value their privacy and space. I have personally experienced this need for a certain amount of ‘independence’ as a learner for years (“Oh no, please don’t ask me to ‘share’ with my neighbour again!”) but I always thought that everybody else must be quite happy. Apparently not.
Once you realize how important it is to ensure adequate provision for learners to reflect and work on their own as well as with each other, it isn’t difficult to re-adjust. One thing you can easily do is give learners ‘alone thinking time’ before any interactive task: “Before you begin to discuss this in your group, take two minutes to think about it on your own. Write notes if you want to.”
A second recurring theme in many of these theories is K: K for kinaesthetic in the NLP sensory preferences theory, B-K for bodily-kinaesthetic in multiple intelligences and K for kinesiology in educational kinesiology, more commonly known as Brain Gym. This also links in with movement as being an essential ingredient of brain-friendly teaching (see Mark Fletcher’s article in Issue 1) and with all the philosophies, ancient and modern (and including current stress management theory), that tell us that mind and body are connected and part of the same system.
‘Yes, we know all that.’ I hear you cry. And are you actually applying that knowledge in the classroom? There are certainly lots of good reasons not to: K activities can be noisy, chaotic, time-consuming, hard to find space for, perceived as childish, dismissed as trivial and so on. There are, however, many more good reasons to use them judiciously as part of your approach, not just at primary and secondary, but also at tertiary level. The overriding reason is that movement helps learners learn much better. Not just those groups of learners with a K or B-K preference, but all learners.
This doesn’t mean you have to get learners leaping about with every single activity, but it could mean, if you’re not already doing so, that you make sure you balance fairly static activities with more physical ones like role-plays, mingles, running dictations and so on. It could also mean that you ‘punctuate’ sedentary periods with opportunities to stand up and stretch, walk around or do exercises or brain gym. In order to get students to cooperate happily, it helps to tell them why (at any age) and also to ask them what benefits they notice themselves.
3. Aim long-term.
Think about what is ultimately important in order to begin thinking short-term. To do this is to put into practice Stephen Covey’s second and third habits for highly effective people: “Begin with the end in mind” and “Put first things first”. Sometimes we’re so busy day to day that it’s hard to see the wood for the trees. Step back and ask yourself where you’re heading with a particular class. What is your overall aim in teaching them? What is their overall aim in learning? If you haven’t done this before, writing things down can often help clarify your thoughts. Once you’re clear about the long-term big picture, it becomes easier to select what is most useful to you in the short-term in order to move in the right direction. Which, out of all the frameworks and ideas you’re presented with, are the ones which are going to be the most helpful in achieving what you want in your teaching?
(These kinds of questions are, of course, hugely useful when applied to your own personal life – if you ever have a moment to sit down and reflect on them!)
4. Do It Yourself.
Use the ideas first and foremost on yourself. Remember two things. The first thing is that none of these learning theories are absolute truths. They are possible models or ways of thinking which can be useful. The second thing is that these theories are talking about preferences rather than hard and fast categories fixed for all time. Their aim is not to pigeon-hole people, put us in boxes and label us, but to serve us as an evolutionary guide. Their chief usefulness is, in my opinion, to give us important conscious insights about how we tend to behave unconsciously, and enable us to make changes if we wish to. All of the theories provide us with a profile of our own strengths and, by implication, our weaknesses. With this, we are not just able to play to our strengths more confidently, but we can also work on our weak areas. By doing so, we become more flexible and enrich our experience. And once we have used any theory in our own personal development in this way, we are in a far better position to apply it to the classroom.
In conclusion, don’t despair about the wealth of ideas and advice out there. Be bold, turn it to your advantage. I was driving with my son, Max, and he asked me about the article I was writing. I gave him the gist and he said “That’s Multi-Option Inertia. MOI.” “Really?” I exclaimed, “Is that a well-known thing, then?” “No,” he laughed. “I just made it up.” But he got me wondering what an alternative to MOI might be. And suddenly, there it was in right front of me. The ROAD!
Recognise just how much you are already doing.
Observe points of overlap.
Do it yourself.
Covey, Stephen The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People Simon + Schuster 1992
Keirsey, David and Bates, Marilyn, Please Understand Me, Prometheus Nemesis 1978
Revell, Jane and Norman, Susan In Your Hands Saffire Press 1997
Rose Charvet, Shelle, Words That Change Minds, Kendall/Hunt 1997
Rose, Colin and Nicholl, Malcolm J. Accelerated Learning for the 21st Century Dell 1997
Appendix : NLP in a Nutshell
Neuro-Linguistic Programming’s rather cumbersome name does provide a clear description of its principal components.
Neuro to do with the nervous system and the way in which we externally experience and internally represent the world.
Linguistic to do with how the language we use influences our internal communication with ourselves as well as our external communication with other people; it is also to do with how language both reflects and shapes experience, and how we can use words to change experience.
Programming to do with our ability to change unhelpful habits and limiting beliefs and replace them with more effective behaviour and supportive beliefs (like programming a computer)
The co-developers of NLP in the 1970s, Richard Bandler and John Grinder wanted to discover ‘the difference that makes the difference’ between mere mortals and people who excel in various fields. They studied therapists such as the family therapist Virginia Satir, the Gestalt therapist Fritz Perls, and the hypnotherapist Dr Milton Erickson among others who ere achieving remarkable – seemingly miraculous – success with their clients. They discovered that these people were (unconsciously) using very similar patterns in terms of how they related to their clients, the language they used, they beliefs they held and so on. These observations were developed into NLP: a core of basic beliefs and a series of techniques for altering the way people represent their experience in order to make changes in their lives.
Bandler and Grinder were not alone. Students and co-workers, such as Leslie Cameron-Bandler, Judith DeLozier, Robert Dilts, Steve Andreas, Connirae Andreas, David Gordon and others, have all added their own observations and techniques and enriched the approach. NLP has relevance far beyond the field of psychotherapy where it originated. Its central ideas are now being incorporated into many approaches to communication and change: personal development, management, sales and marketing and … education.
NLP techniques can be extremely powerful. They are based on thought and behaviour patterns that successful people adopt most of the time and that most of us adopt some of the time. However, there is a big difference between reading about techniques and practising them, and we recommend that people follow a recognised course of instruction in NLP. If you want to try out some of the techniques, try them out on yourself first. If you experiment with other people, please make sure it is with their knowledge and consent.
NLP is sometimes accused of being manipulative. It is a tool. Like a knife. Like a knife, it can be used for good or bad. It’s up to you how you use it. You can cut bread with it or you can stab someone with it. NLP practitioners we know are busy slicing bread rather than people, and are doing a tremendous amount of good! NLP is designed to give people choices and help them achieve their goals and potential.
Jane Revell is a well-known teacher, trainer and course book writer with over 30 years experience in ELT. She is also an NLP Master Practitioner and Trainer, a Myers Briggs assessor, co-author of ‘In Your Hands’ and’ Handing Over’ and author of Success over Stress, ‘Target Trinity!’, ‘Teaching Techniques for Effective Communication’ and a new book on passing exams just published in Brazil. Jane runs workshops all over the world and teaches English and runs NLP summer courses at her home in Brittany.
(approx. 2,600 words)
Note: ‘Too Many Balls ?!’ is adapted from an article by Jane published in English Teaching Professional and ‘NLP in a NutShell’ was first written with Susan Norman