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The Uni-Files

A candid look at EFL life and lessons from a university teacher's perspective.

September 26, 2011

It's self-improvement time (with unexpected input from Malcolm Gladwell)

The conversation went something like this:
"I'm bored with teaching English. I can't understand why anyone would want to take it up as a career"
"Well how many times and ways can you teach the letter 'A'?".

This exchange was recalled to me recently by a teacher who has made a career of teaching English and enjoys his work. His response to the "How many times..." question?
"A thousand. And it's never the same".

I think he's right. Every time I lead a lesson the dynamics are different. The lesson always shifts and fluctuates, depending on the atmosphere. Rather than playing in a wedding band doing the same cover tunes for the 1000th time I feel more like a jazz musician, playing a recognizable piece but adding spots of improvisation each time, embellishing with dabs of colour applied according to my intuitions, how the audience is reacting, and what the other players are doing. Shifting dynamics- always in a state of flux. It keep me sane. It keeps me energized.

Is teacher boredom a methodological matter?
I also think there's a problem with the implied methodology of the "How many times can you teach 'A' speaker. He/she seems to think that you 'teach' a letter-- individually. Something like, "This is an 'A'. Can you say 'A'? You write it like this. 'A'." A more knowledgeable teacher would of course fit 'A' into a phonic or phonetic system that has wider, more transferable application. Or they wouldn't explicitly 'teach' it at all but rather allow young learners to absorb it naturally by placing the (supposedly) new item in a meaningful, wider context. And, frankly speaking, most teachers would probably realize that all but the very youngest Japanese children know the alphabet anyway and wouldn't be introducing individual letters as if they were mysteries that have to be transacted to learners like the abbreviations of compounds on a chemical chart.

Maybe the teacher who thinks that teaching 'A' is a legitimate, but boring, routine should get out and see what other teachers and practitioners are doing-- how they handle the same type of material-- and still manage to feel inspired. More on that in a moment.

While I understand the likelihood of getting bored with the hamster-wheel routine of teaching English at some point I still think that the perpetually bored are more often than not boring themselves. Now, even people with supposedly glamorous, thrilling jobs can get an emotional wheel caught in the mud but classroom inspiration won't come from waiting for your students to change or expecting 'the system' to suddenly do an about-face. Rather, it comes from how you approach your office in life. Attempts to widen your perspective, gain new skills, and apply them, can make a enormous difference. And this is the perfect season to do so.

Getting re-energized (and free advertising for the upcoming ETJ Expos)
One way to give a positive zap to your teaching doldrums is to attend, or even better actively participate in, a teaching conference. I recommend that readers check out the numerous ETJ Expos held all over Japan, starting very soon in Tokyo. The sheer variety of practical and theoretical insights, teaching tips, and in-depth discussions these provide should have the effect of refilling your pedagogical gas tank. I've been teaching in Japan for twenty years and can be pretty jaded but I invariably come back from these expos (which require only a nominal fee to attend) with something of interest that I can add to my repertoire.

For example--
Among the more interesting, and forward-looking, EFL researchers in Japan are Curtis Kelly and Robert Murphy, both of whom have been involved in cutting edge research regarding how the brain processes and maximizes language learning. If you think that language-teacher conferences are either one-off lesson recipes or dense dissertations on linguistic esoterica- think again. Their stuff is both intellectually stimulating and has clear practical applications-- the kind that just might help you maintain your sanity in the classroom. Lord knows how many times something I've gleaned from attending an expo, meeting or conference has made a real difference in mine.

"That one person in the audience who has never seen me play"
There are two other inspirations that allow me to keep my energy in the classroom. One I'll relate to you from the world of hockey. Some readers may know that I used to be an amateur scout for a pro hockey team. This often involved me interviewing players that we were interested in selecting in the amateur entry draft. I remember asking one particular player, who was well known for giving a huge effort every game, every shift, how he kept up his energy and enthusiasm over the long 72-game season. His answer:

"I'm always conscious that each night that there's somebody in the crowd who has never seen me play before and that they'll be making a judgment about how good of a player I am based upon what they see that night. They paid money to see me play and I want to make an impression upon so that they come away thinking 'That number 19 was pretty good. He was worth coming out to see'". I thought this was a great answer.

I try to apply the same motivation to my own classes. I get new students every semester and I know they are judging me as a teacher. If I don't feel they are going away from each lesson thinking, "Hey! That was worth my while!" then I'm just not satisfied-- and I have to make adjustments. I don't feel comfortable otherwise.

Wisdom from Malcolm Gladwell
The other form of self-improvement or inspiration comes from reading on a wider range of topics and then applying what I've read to my classroom situation or teaching technique. Malcolm Gladwell is a perfect, middle-brow, example. Gladwell's books are best-sellers for a good reason. He always manages to extract some surprising or contrarian point from an offbeat theme and applies it to something deeper about the real world, yet always making it both relevant and accesible to the reader. He frequently makes reference to research, skilfully rendering this research understandable to the layman which-- although research in the Humanities can be fraught with infelicities-- serves to stimulate the active reader.

In his compendium "What the Dog Saw" (read in those rare moments while my 2-year old daughter was taking naps during a recent trip to Bali) one section in particular struck me as being relevant to English teaching in Japan.

Choking vs. Panicking
This was a chapter (The Art of Failure, p. 324-344) outlining the difference between choking and panicking using examples from professional tennis, golf, and an airplane crash. Choking, Gladwell argues (with his usual research-based support) is a case in which the agent, under pressure, reverts to a mechanical mode of action or behaviour where he/she becomes overly conscious of every move and thus can't function with the fluidity of someone who normally has intuitions, skills or an ingrained sense about what to do. Panicking, on the other hand, refers to cases where people stop thinking due to what is called perception narrowing under pressure. Experienced people may choke under pressure, the inexperienced are more likely to panic.

Most readers will be aware of the tendency for many Japanese learners of English to either choke or panic when having to produce or perform under pressure in English. "I went to Canada but I couldn't say more than a few words. I just forgot what to say," might be a typical refrain-- from somebody who has studied English for eight years and is even proficient on standardized tests. But understanding the difference between the two is crucial.

Some of my students are chokers. They have a reasonably good command of the flow of English, the holistic side. It has worn itself into their cerebral fabric. They 'know' the language but, when under pressure, tend to revert to an earlier mechanical stage which causes them to re-think every lexical, grammatical and social nuance of the language, effectively paralyzing them in speech. Choking, Gladwell say, is about thinking too much.

Others, with far fewer ingrained English skills simply lose all perception and panic, grasping wildly at any English expression which might race through their minds. Panicking is about thinking too little. Panicking is often a product of too little experience, such that when any plus-alpha factors appear, the fragile control system easily breaks down.

Addressing panic involves little more than gaining experience, buckling down, applying diligence. It is what Gladwell calls 'a conventional failure'. But choking is 'a paradoxical failure'. Gladwell uses a research-based example (one from Claude Steele at Stanford Univ. and one from Julian Garcia at Tufts Univ.) utilizing stereotypes and expected performance to illustrate the difference.

Negative stereotypes and choking
This research indicates that when people believe a negative stereotype about them is about to be confirmed they perform poorly-- unwittingly confirming the expected stereotype. The samples are of black and white students in academics (in Steele's research) and sports (Garcia). Black students, unconsciously clinging to the stereotype that they can't perform as well as whites on academic tests, don't panic-- they tend to choke, that is, they tend to second-guess, to over analyze mechanics, not using the intuitions that they have in the first place. The reverse was noted in the sports study where white athletes performed vertical leaps more poorly under the instruction of black instructors-- apparently because they were somehow conscious of the 'white men can't jump' stereotype, and hence over-analyzed the mechanics when test measured by a black instructor. They choked. (note that the negative stereotype was not something imposed by the instructor but was activated by the students themselves-- interesting).

How does this connect to my students? Many Japanese students likely choke when speaking English because of an underlying awareness of the stereotype that 'Japanese people can't speak English'. They have the intuitions and the skills to engage others in the language but under pressure they become too conscious of the stereotype, which speaks to them as they try to perform. They revert to mechanics and lose a sense of flow. They think too much. They choke.

The question derived from all this provides the type of stimulation that makes my teaching job interesting: How can we remove or limit the effect of the negative stereotype such that it doesn't adversely affect performance. Any ideas?

Oh... and look for more from Malcolm Gladwell on this blog in the near future.

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I am an ESL teacher coming to Japan.
I have been teaching ESL at the college level in Asia for six years. I love my job and it's never the same.
I am considering coming to Kyoto.
I would welcome an email from you at the address above.
Thanks for your article.

Great stuff. I'll definitely confirm the idea that going to teaching conferences is uplifting and inspiring. Networking with other teachers and sharing ideas really sheds light on all of the exciting aspects of teaching that make it a fantastic career choice.

The idea of choking vs. panicking is also very insightful. Choking can also easily be misinterpreted as the student not having a clue, so it's helpful to realize that the student may just not be able to put things together at the moment although they do have the knowledge and skill within them.

I remember a trial one-on-one lesson in Japanese I took in which I think can be classified as choking. I could usually handle the particular language fine, but for some reason the situation created by the teacher made me feel rather uncomfortable and pressured. I needed a break or a shift into something easier for a moment, but I didn't get it and ended up being rather unhappy about the trial. I didn't sign up.

Perhaps in situations like these, teachers make students feel like they're being tested or that they are athletes with the game on the line. I know I've done it as a teacher. But is that degree of pressure really necessary for communication classes?

Hi Mike,
Thank you for the many excellent and interesting Uni-files posts. I have just happened upon them and am enjoying reading through the many topics that you have explored. This article gave me a chance to contribute to your discussion, as memory (and neuro-education, in general) is something that I am interested in.

In your posting, you give examples of choking from two different domains: athletics and speaking (especially, non-planned speaking). You also mention that the cause of the choking stems from ‘over-analyzing’ what one is doing. This is true, but the way the ‘over-analyzing’ affects the outcomes (i.e. choking) differs; therefore, how to reduce the odds of encountering this problem is also different.

With something that has been very practiced such as a sports skill or a well rehearsed recitation the memory of how to perform the action has moved from the conscious mind (where it was when it was initially being learned) to the unconscious mind. This type of memory is called procedural memory. Actions performed from procedural memory are very coordinated and smooth relative to those consciously attended to. In your jumping example, the over-analysis of jumping moved the skill from procedural memory and back into working memory thus inhibiting the jumper’s performance. A second aspect of that example was the interesting fact that stereotypes can cause someone to be hyper-vigilant of their performance and thereby kick the working memory into gear and set themselves up for a lackluster showing. This means that there are two ‘ingredients’ to the ‘failure’ and, should one be removed, the poor outcome ought not occur. One approach to solving this is to speed up the performance, thus removing the chance to dwell on the negative thoughts. Another approach is to get the working memory to focus on something else (a song or the old standby from the Brady Bunch of a room full of people in their underwear). Each of these approaches limits the engagement of the working memory. A third way is through addressing the affective impact of the stereotype. Affirming the person’s ability and openly dispelling the stereotype before it can set things awry.

When dealing with test taking or things that are not routinized in procedural memory, the approach is different. At these times people use working memory (traditionally- and incorrectly- known as short-term memory), to think quickly and to draw information from ‘long term’ declarative memory. Like the RAM in your computer, working memory is limited in its capacity and can get bogged down if it is trying to deal with too much at one time. Therefore, it seems obvious that one logical solution to the problem is to reduce the load on working memory in order to ‘free up’ some horsepower for thinking. Siam Beilock from the University of Chicago published a paper about a year ago in which she described an experiment to do this very thing. She had students who were about to sit a high-stakes exam write about the thoughts and worries that they had at that time. This simple task was able to ‘download’ or ‘offload’ enough mental baggage to enable the students to do significantly better than their peers in the control group.

Another problem that language students often encounter is that much of the English that they learn adheres to the grammatical norms of written English (or more accurately, planned language); whereas, the grammar of spoken English is different. The grammar of the spoken mode (or unplanned form) uses a variety of tactics to lighten the cognitive load (e.g. fronting, ellipses, right/left-dislocation, cleft sentences, noun-light / verb heavy, etc.). It is difficult for language learners (or anyone for that matter) to just speak planned speech. I think that, as teachers, if we spent a little more time demonstrating these working memory liberating styles of language we could go a ways toward helping students stand up and talk without needing to pause and plan the next thing they want to say.

Finally, thanks again for the great articles and I hope to see your presentation this weekend.


Hi Jason. Thanks for the very informative comment. The categories and descriptions you gave were very helpful in fleashing this idea out-- especially the notion that the consciousness and usage of speech grammar can play a part in activating the right type of memory, which is something I've argued in the past too.

Please make yourself known to me at Okayama this weekend-- I'm looking forward to the gig.

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