You’ll probably wonder what an experiment involving a bucket of ice has to do with teaching ESL but bear with me.
In The Power of Moments by Heath & Heath, the authors discuss an interesting psychological experiment in which participants were subjected to two different versions of an unpleasant experience.
The first trial had subjects submerge a hand in 57-degree (14°C) water for 60 seconds.
The second trial had participants submerge the other hand in 57-degree water for 60 seconds yet they then kept their hand underwater for an additional 30 seconds, during which time the temperature raised to 59 degrees (15°C).
Next, participants were asked “Would you rather repeat the first trial or the second?” Amazingly, two-thirds of the participants chose to re-do the second trial, even though they were exposed to uncomfortably cold temperatures for a longer time. Researchers concluded that participants chose the second, longer trial because they preferred the memory of that second trial or disliked it less. In other words, people judge an experience by how the event ends. Psychologists refer to this as the “peak-end rule.”
This can also explain why 2-week vacations are not necessarily remembered more fondly as 1-week ones. What seems to matter is how they end.
Similarly, negative endings can leave us with a bad impression about what had been a pleasurable experience up until then. A common example is a breakup of a relationship as we clearly recall the painful final interaction.
How this applies to teaching ESL.
(This posting includes a POWERPOINT presentation and HANDOUTS which you are welcome to use with your students.)*
“I wish I had more chances to practice my English outside of class.”
“How can I meet some native-English speakers?”
“I went to a party last weekend. There were about 20 people there, but nobody seemed to want to talk to me. I just kind of stood in the corner looking at my cell phone. Why didn’t anyone talk to me?”
“I sat next to someone, and I wanted to talk to him, but I was afraid that I would be bothering him, or he wouldn’t say anything. What do you think?”
I’ve been asked these types of questions frequently by my students. Naturally, some of them were low-level students with little confidence in their skills, but surprisingly, often more fluent ones also asked me for advice.
For students from some cultures, starting a conversation with someone they don’t know might be a new concept to them. (See Best Subject for an ESL Integrated-Skills Class (Part 2 of 4: Reading aspect) )
Exercises for starting-a-conversation skills Continue reading
One day a teaching intern asked me for some advice about a listening-skills class that she was struggling with. Her internship was for three-month, and she had been assigned to our ESL program. The lesson in the textbook for the class didn’t seem to address a skill that the students needed, but she had an idea for an exercise. However, she didn’t know if she should spend an hour or two or more developing a more relevant activity. Then she added this: “The professor in my TESL Methods class told us that we shouldn’t spend time writing exercises during our internship unless we know that we’ll be able to use them in the future.”
It made me want to cry.
The most obvious reason why this advice is so wrong is that none of us in the field of Teaching ESL can know when an exercise will come in handy in the future. But, besides that, there are more paramount reasons for teachers to write exercises.
One problem for ESL teachers is that we can become complacent and start to take shortcuts. One day, part way through my career, I realized that this was happening to me.
I was teaching a TESL methods course to American university students who wanted to teach ESL. During one class, a student asked me what to do if some students aren’t doing the assignments or not doing them seriously. I told them that the most important motivator is to always introduce an assignment with an explanation of its purpose is and how this assignment will help them in the short- or long-term future. WAIT! I suddenly realized that I had become lax in doing that in my own ESL classes.
For a dozen years, I had had the good fortune of teaching at colleges in Asia. For the most part, the students there were diligent about doing whatever I assigned without question. I soon fell in the habit of just tell them what the assignment was when I introduced it.
For example, in a Writing class, I might say, “We are going to do some practice with dramatic introductions. Look at pages 17-19. There are eight introductions. Two of them are dramatic. After you read each, you will identify which are dramatic.”
Or for a grammar exercise, I might say, “We are going to practice the most common places to use commas in sentence. Look at page 194. Let’s do the first exercise together.”
Or for a conversation activity, I would say, “Today, you will work with a partner and give directions to each other to find places on a map.”
Explaining the big picture purpose of an exercise: how it will help them in future.