The art of seduction: Why connection should come before everything else

Some more wise words from André Hedlund (Edcrocks) this week. I am becoming more and more fascinated by the science of learning and how this should influence our approach to teaching (and life in general). If you too are interested in learning more – from the horse’s mouth, no less, André will be offering a webinar next month entitled – The Brain & How to Help our Learners Learn (Metacognitive Strategies according to the Science of Learning) (Link here for more info and to sign up)

What really drives people to do anything? On a molecular level, we could say it’s a very important neuromodulator, which has become quite popular not only in the scientific literature but also on TV, blogs and in magazine pieces: our beloved dopamine. The effects it has on the brain are nothing short of extraordinary. Dopamine is released when we have a sense of anticipation of something rewarding, not so much when we experience the reward itself. How does this knowledge change what I must prioritize as a teacher in the classroom? That’s exactly what I intend to discuss in my second blog post for ELT.Training.

Imagine you see an attractive person at a pub in London. You’re single and the person has made eye contact. You look back at the person and realize you’re incredibly attracted to them. What is happening in your brain is quite amazing. An incredible cocktail of neurotransmitters such as serotonin, oxytocin, and dopamine is being released from your neurons into the synapses and being captured by other neurons. The entire process just makes you feel wonderfully well. Those who have engaged in the art of seduction know exactly what I’m talking about. But what does that have to do with your students in the classroom?

Well, let’s start with what makes people engage in the first place. When you sense a dangerous or unwanted situation, something that might make you uncomfortable, your body releases something that causes the bad type of stress. It’s called cortisol. Cortisol plays a role in memory formation, especially remembering things to avoid, but long-term cortisol release has a bunch of effects that actually impact learning negatively. You feel tense and you can’t use your prefrontal cortex, the hub in your brain where sophisticated thinking and reasoning take place. What does that all mean? It basically means that we want more dopamine and just the right amount of cortisol to get people engaged.

The oversimplification above is just to give you some grounds for what I propose next. Very much like the seduction that went on at the pub I mentioned before, we need to seduce our students. Now, please don’t get me wrong here. What I mean is that we need to seduce their brains and make them want to engage with us in class. This is so important that I believe it should be the top priority of every lesson. If you think about it, not seducing your students’ brains will likely generate disinterested students who’ll have a hard time paying attention. Reduced attention leads to reduced memory consolidation. Or even worse. Students who feel intimidated, uncomfortable or something else because they have no emotional connection with the teacher will have a hard time accessing their sophisticated thinking, reasoning and, consequently, learning skills.

What’s something that you can do then? I’d like to list a couple of very simple, yet quite effective, suggestions that you can work on to seduce your students’ brains:

1-    Show them who you are

I always take time, particularly in the very first lesson, to connect with my students. They are curious about what makes their teacher cool and interesting. A very easy way to do that is to start the lesson with a True or False about yourself. Make sure you mention the silly and amazing things you’ve done in your life

2-    Find out who your students are

This takes time but you need to establish this connection with them. I have specific activities for them to tell the class a little bit about themselves and I always take the opportunity to talk to them individually and ask questions about things they like or do. I also encourage them to share their passions and have them prepare presentations on their hobbies.

3-    Show enthusiasm

How many times have I been to a conference or classroom observation where the teacher was extremely knowledgeable and the topic was interesting but they looked like they didn’t want to be there or spoke in such a monotonous way? I lost the count. One of the things that gets us engaged straight away is passion. And passion creates enthusiasm. If you look excited to be there, you’ll be activating their mirror neuron system and that helps students get and keep engaged. Read a little more about it here.

4-    Have a classroom mascot, like my Mr. Trunk

I decided to buy a stuffed elephant to connect with my students and instill a sense of responsibility in them. It may sound silly, but it has worked wonders! Mr. Trunk, the name we gave him, has traveled with my students in Brazil and the world. The best part is that my students took him on vacation or for the weekend and integrated him into their routine. They had to bring back photos and tell us what they had done with Mr. Trunk. I found out so many interesting things I wouldn’t have because of this silly activity. You can read about his story here

5-    Be kind and understanding

Someone once told me that what we can see from someone’s life is just the tip of the iceberg. We don’t know what is going on in their homes, their other classes, with their parents, siblings, friends etc. Assuming that students might be behaving badly because that’s who they are may be incorrect. Being kind conveys an important message: “I’m here if you need to share something and I might be able to help”. With their defense system down, it’s easier to connect.

6-    Be firm and keep your promises

One of the things adults keep doing to kids is break their promises. This creates unstable relationships and mistrust. Students need to learn how to regulate their behavior and that required support. They want a role model, someone they look up to and you can be that person. If you promise a reward, do it. If you promise a punishment, do it too.

7-    Take their needs and interests into consideration

Students are humans and they get tired. Give them a break, show you care about them. They love technology and would love to use their mobiles to show you something. Set moments to do it in class. Some of them might have a particular taste in music, let them show it to the rest of the class.

8-    Keep them curious

Our brain is programmed to be drawn to novelty. It’s so strong that it’s basically inevitable. I realize that we’re busy planning lessons and that we can run out of ideas many times, but the key to long-term engagement is to constantly bring something interesting, new, different to class. Have a puzzle or a mystery that will be revealed at the end of the lesson. Answer questions that are unrelated to the content of the lesson just to kill their curiosity.I could go on and on with more tips, but I think you get the point. But if the point isn’t clear enough, here’s what you need to do from now on: In the wise words of Immordino-Yang and António Damásio, “we feel, therefore we learn”. Live by that motto and remember that your students need that dopamine rush to want to do things, to be engaged. If you become irresistible in the classroom, chances are you’ll seduce their brains and make your lessons much more memorable. That comes before any memorization technique, study strategy or student-centered activity you can think of, trust me. Give it a try and let me know. You can also read something on my blog about that might help here.

The Mind, Brain, and Education Science and ELT

Another guest post – thank you to the wonderful André Hedlund for sharing his thoughts on the relationships between neuroscience and language learning and for debunking some all-too-prevalent neuromyths.

I grew up thinking that if I wanted to learn another language and become proficient, I’d have to start at a very young age. And to be fair I did. Not because of what I wanted, of course. My parents pushed me and I believe I must’ve been 6 or 7 when I had my first English class. My dad was fluent, like most Swedes, but my mom wasn’t. She only knew it was important for me to start early. Paradoxically, Swedish was not important at all, at least in my parents’ minds. Even worse, if I tried to learn it while learning English and if my dad insisted on only talking in Swedish to me at home, that meant that I wouldn’t learn any language well, including Portuguese, my mother tongue, and that was a horrible thing to consider.

The story above illustrates what the average population thinks about language learning. When I say average here I’m actually including educated people too. It’s just something we hear from teachers, “specialists”, pedagogues, other parents. Now I’m sitting in a café in possibly one of the most multilingual countries in Europe,  Switzerland, and the sad part of this story is that I could be at least as good as my cousin who’s in her early twenties, has been raised in a multilingual home and is fluent in Portuguese, French, Italian, German, and English. My aunt, her mom, is Brazilian and didn’t know any better. She only wanted to make sure her daughter grew up with a Brazilian sense of identity and could talk to her family when she traveled to Brazil. Her dad just spoke the language that was the most natural to him: Swiss German. The others she learned at school.

My Swedish would be thriving if it were not for this false claim about how our brains work when it comes to language learning, a neuromyth as commonly referred to. Neuromyths about language acquisition and learning, and basically everything else, are widespread. “Kids are going to get confused if the foreign language is predominant at home”, “You’re too old to learn a second language”, “That new school has created a revolutionary method that makes you fluent in six months”, “I don’t have the talent to learn languages”, “Native-speaker teachers are way better”. Many of these ideas could be debunked if we just stopped and looked at what research says about language learning. 

Speaking of research, the great news is that we now have an exciting new science that looks at the contributions of neuroscience, psychology, and education, summarizes them into practical concepts and allows educators, teachers, parents, school owners, and policymakers to inform their decisions on sound scientific evidence. It is called the science of Mind, Brain, and Education (MBE). Tokuhama-Espinosa (2014) stresses the fact that MBE is a transdisciplinary approach that does not prioritize any one parent field (neuroscience, psychology, or education) over the others. That is important because many of the neuromyths stated above came to existence because of claims based only on neuroscience or only on psychology as I describe ahead.

One of the common neuromyths is that it is impossible, or at least nearly impossible, to learn a second language after the so-called critical period. Many authors have contributed to this notion, particularly Penfield (1959), Lenneberg (1967), and Krashen (1973), influenced by studies in animal models in the 50s and 60s about other functions and critical periods (see Hubel & Wiesel, 1959) which seemed to be confirmed with the case of feral children and L1, such as Genie (Curtiss, 1977). Nevertheless, when language is considered in its entirety, not only phonologically, with an obsessive focus on near-native accent, we could easily say that research shows that anyone can learn a second language to proficiency after the so-called critical period or periods. That’s the thing, different authors propose different critical periods for different aspects of language (see Kuhl et al. 2014; Hartshorne et al. 2018). But we now have plenty of evidence to support the idea that the brain is highly plastic and that we can learn at any age (Tokuhama-Espinosa, 2014). Science supports the notion that what really matters is how far you go and not how early you started (Abutalebi, 2008; Andrews et al 2013).

We also know that children and adults benefit from bilingualism (and multilingualism) (Marian & Shook, 2012). Some of the cognitive gains are improved learning, better reasoning and mathematical skills, improved school performance, and protection against neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s and dementia (delaying the early symptoms by 5 years!).

Research on how long it takes to learn English as a second or foreign language varies greatly but it does not differ significantly from the recommended amount of hours by the Common Europen Framework of Reference (CEFR). Hakuta et al. (2000) studied foreign kids in two districts in California and it took them 3 to 5 years to be orally proficient and 4 to 7 to be academically proficient in English. A technical report by Pearson (click here) suggests that fast learners will enter the B2 level after 760 hours of study, which is more than what CEFR suggests ( around 500-600 hours). 

Whichever the reference when we’re discussing second language learning, we can safely assume that learning a language from scratch in 6 months would require something like 100 hours a month (around 5 hours a day from Monday to Friday) and assume that students can handle the enormous amount of information they’d be exposed to, allowing their brains to consolidate memory, which requires time and space. It may as well be possible, but not quite likely, particularly in an English as a Foreign Language context where students are only exposed to L2 in class. That’s why we need to be highly suspicious of methods that promise such incredible outcomes. Nevertheless, as I said, it could be possible. In fact, I could talk about memorization techniques used by memory athletes and go on about this, but I’ll save that for a future post because it’s not the reality for most of us.

Finally, the research we have available on how effective native-speaker teachers are and how they are viewed by students suggests that both native and non-native teachers can be equally effective and preferred by the students, which means that what really matters is teaching qualification and effort to cater to students’ needs (Mossu, 2006; Mullock, 2010; Chun, 2014; Wang & Jenkins, 2016).

All these discoveries came from serious research and they have real implications in ELT. The wrong, or partially wrong, ideas being spread for ages may contribute to stigmatization, exclusion, reduced motivation, capitalization on methods that actually do not work and the like. That’s where MBE is handy: to fight against neuromyths and inform everyone about how we actually learn. Let’s just say that if my mom and dad had known about these things that MBE is trying to promote back in the day when I was growing up, I’d have learned Swedish and probably be quite fluent nowadays. Who knows, I might even have gotten better grades at school because of the cognitive gains. Well, I suppose we’ll never know now and I’ll have to keep talking to my half-siblings in English.

My final message to those of you who are in education, ELT or any area that involves learning: learn about MBE and help debunk some of the neuromyths. Start from Tracey Tokuhama-Espinosa’s wonderful book Making classrooms better: 50 practical applications of mind, brain, and education science. That’s a great starting point. If we all learn more about how the brain actually works and follow the new developments of neuroscience, particularly how they can be applied in educational settings, everyone wins. 

Andrews, E., Frigau, L., Voyvodic-Casabo, C., Voyvodic, J., & Wright, J. (2013). Multilingualism and fMRI: Longitudinal Study of Second Language Acquisition. Brain sciences, 3(2), 849-76. doi:10.3390/brainsci3020849

Abutalebi J (2008) Neural aspects of second language representation and language control. Acta Psychol 128: 466–478.

Chun, S. Y. (2014). EFL learners’ beliefs about native and non-native English-speaking teachers: perceived strengths, weaknesses, and preferences. Journal of Multilingual and Multicultural Development, 35(6), 563–579. https://doi.org/10.1080/01434632.2014.889141

Curtiss, S. (1977). Genie: A psycholinguistic study of a modern-day “wild child”. New York: Academic Press

Hakuta, K., Butler, Y. G., & Witt, D. (2000). How Long Does It Take English Learners To Attain Proficiency?.

Hartshorne, Tenenbaum, & Pinker. (2018). A critical period for second language acquisition:Evidence from 2/3 million English speakers. Cognition, 177, 263-277.

Hubel, D., & Wiesel, T. (1959). Receptive fields of single neurones in the cat’s striate cortex. The Journal of Physiology, 148, 574-91.

Krashen, S. (1973). Lateralization, language learning, and the critical period. Language Learning, 23, 63–74.

Kuhl PK, Ramírez RR, Bosseler A, Lin JF, Imada T. (2014). Infants’ brain activity in response to speech. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences Aug 2014, 111 (31) 11238-11245; DOI: 10.1073/pnas.1410963111

Lenneberg, E. H. (1967). The biological foundations of language. Hospital Practice, 2(12), 59-67.