Why Students Don't Like Language Class (With Dave Weller)

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We discuss what we can apply to the language classroom from Daniel Willingham’s book “Why Don't Students Like School?”, with friend of the podcast (and fellow Daniel Willingham fan), Dave Weller.

Why Students Don’t Like Language Class (With Dave Weller) - Transcription


Tracy Yu:  Welcome back to our podcast, everybody. We've got our favorite guest. Can you guess who he is?

Dave Weller:  Hurrah!

Tracy:  [laughs] Let's welcome Dave Weller. Hey, Dave.

Dave:  Hi.

Ross Thorburn:  What are we talking about today?

Dave:  I think we decided to do something almost akin to a book review on Daniel Willingham's book on cognitive psychology and neuroscience, "Why Students Don't Like School."

Ross:  We're going to try and apply what we read and what we remembered. We're going to go further outside taxonomy...

Dave:  Oh, no.


Ross:  ...and try and apply it to language teaching.

Dave:  The book is about neuroscientific principles. The blurb is, "A cognitive scientist answers questions about how the mind works and what it means for the classroom." He's picked nine very robust findings from the field of psychology. Now, I hope you've done your homework, and you've read the book as I have.

Ross:  I think it says a lot about us. Dave, for this, read the book twice. I read it once. Tracy read it...

Tracy:  The last 10 minutes.


Dave:  All it means is Tracy is a very fast reader.

Ross:  [laughs]

Dave:  What we decided when we set ourselves this challenge was that it'd be really interesting to take a book that was designed with general education in mind and see how well we could transfer the principles across to language teaching.

Ross:  Absolutely. We often comment that there's not enough taken from general education and applied to the field of language learning.

Dave:  Hopefully is we'll find out that a lot of the principles can equally apply in the language classroom as in normal classrooms.

Ross:  Great.

Dave:  Ross, one of the things I liked from his introduction was talking about why teachers are naturally skeptical of theory. There is a big gap between theory and practice. Even mental processes aren't isolated in the classroom, whereas they are in research.

A classic example he uses is that about drilling. In the lab where you isolate drilling and see the effect that it has on learning is wonderful. [laughs] The more you drill, the more you repeat, the more you learn.

However, any teacher that steps into a classroom knows if you drill your learners for an hour straight, the drop in motivation is not going to make up for the effectiveness of that technique in learning. This is why that he's taken a very teacher‑centered view of research and only picked principles he thinks can be used effectively in the classroom.

Ross:  Whatever you do read in a book, you're passing it through your own filter of what you think is going to be personally useful for you. A lot is going to get filtered out. How about for this podcast, we pick out some of the main principles?

He's got nine cognitive principles. They relate to things that happen in the classroom. How about we pick some of the most interesting ones? We can talk about how we feel language teachers might be able to apply those in their classes. Should we get started?

Tracy:  Yeah.

Dave:  With this one, the principle of that people are naturally curious, but they aren't naturally good thinkers. For me, when I read this, what struck me was how similar it is to the zone of proximal development, scaffolding, Lev Vygotsky idea.

He talks about oftentimes we think about what the answers are that we want our students to get. If we're trying to say, "What's the answer to this grammar question? There's a word that means this. What's the word?" We should be trying to engage them with the questions and leading them to the answer.

Ross:  He says, "It's the question that peaks people's interest. Being told the answer, it doesn't do anything for you." Have you seen "The Prestige" before?

Dave:  I've downloaded it. You asked me that the other night, but I haven't watched it yet.

Ross:  In The Prestige, they talk about this. As a magician, if you do a magic trick, people are amazed by it. As soon as you show them how to do the trick, people are completely unimpressed by it.

Dave:  Maybe, that's one of the reasons that task‑based learning or test‑teach‑test lessons can work well, is because you put this question at the beginning. You put the hardest part first, putting students into a position where it is difficult for them. It gets them to think about it.

It's the question that's interesting. Then it leads to the answer later on, whereas something like PBP, which we know gets a lot of bad press, doesn't put the question at the beginning.

Tracy:  That's something related to the teacher's role in the classroom. They're not just to spoon‑feeding the students. They have to make sure what kind of questions they can ask the students. They facilitate the learning.

You don't want to mix the prompting questions which scaffold student learning with guessing what's in my mind.

Dave:  Totally agree. Yes, it's a good example from real life, Tracy. One of the things to be careful with this one though is to be careful the questions you pose aren't too hard as well as grading your language, grading your instructions.

If you ask students a question and it's very specific, there's only one possible right answer, it's really difficult. They're beginner students, A1 level maybe, and you ask them, "So the past perfect continuous, when would you use this?" They immediately look up and go, "I don't know. There's no way I can know," and they immediately check out.

Daniel Willingham says, "Respect students' cognitive limits. Don't overload them with information. Don't make the instructions or grade your language too much," is how I would interpret that for TEFL. Also, "Make sure the questions you ask them are within their ability to answer."

Ross:  How about we move on to another principle, then? My personal favorite, and probably yours as well, Dave, is, "Memory is the residue of thoughts."

Dave:  No, I hate that one. Leave that one out.


Tracy:  Can you guys explain this a little bit?

Dave:  Yeah. From "Memory is a Residue of Thought," I think what Daniel Willingham is saying is that students remember what they think about. In your class, if they're thinking about your flashy warm‑up where you jumped up and down and screamed around like a monkey, then they're going to remember, "Hey, teacher screamed like a monkey today. That was really funny."

That's what they'll tell their parents. Whereas if they do a task where they have to figure something out and talk to their friend about the best way to negotiate with somebody or the best way to get to the train station, and they're using English to do that, then that's what they'll remember.

One of my biggest takeaways from the book is that he suggests that to review your lesson plan in terms of what the students will think about. Every task you have, every activity, every stage, put yourself in your learners' shoes, and imagine what they're going to think about as they're completing that.

My suggestion on top of that would be, "Do the same thing for the language use." Look at your lesson plan, or imagine it. Think about it from your learner's point of view. What language would you use to complete that task?

Ross:  Something else I found interesting, it was a quote from him. He said, "Fold practice into more advanced skills," which got me thinking. The way I would apply that to the language classroom is when your students advance a little bit...

Say they've moved up from present simple, and now they're doing past simple, just a cliched example. Instead of practicing just that skill of past simple, make sure they get a chance to use prior practice.

Make sure they get a chance to use the skills and recycle a language from previous classes. When they're practicing past simple, they're also integrating present simple and the other things and the other vocabulary that they have learned.

You don't just focus only on the target language for that particular lesson, but you bring in the other language that you used previously. I find a lot of teachers don't do that. They're so focused on the target language for that one lesson, they forget the previous lessons.

Ross:  That might be one of the reasons why extensive reading works so well, is because all of the forms and grammar that you might have learned previously are all going to be recycled in natural stories.

That's maybe why also genuine tasks where you don't prescribe the language for the students to use in some sort of prior practice can also be beneficial because students will get to bring in language that they've used from previous lessons.

For teachers, if you're using a great textbook that automatically recycles or has in it recycled language from previous units, that's great. Even if you don't, you can just pause in lessons and say, "What is there from previous lessons that we've learned that you could also use in this task or in this activity that could help you," and think about that when you're planning as well.

Before we finish, I wanted to talk about the very last chapter of the book which is about helping teachers improve. He makes this nice distinction between experience and practicing. Teaching, like any other complex skill, must be practiced to be improved.

It reminds me, I think the same author Rubinstein, the pianist, says something like, "I play the piano for nine hours a day, but I only practice for one." There's a nice difference there between what you're actually doing and then when you're making a deliberate effort to get better.

One of the things is that teachers are very busy. It's very easy for all of your classes to just go by in a whirlwind, but if you can find the occasional class or the occasional thing to work on for an hour a week, in the long term, that can improve your teaching.

Dave:  Actually, he suggests a good method, which I'm very eager to adopt. To find another teacher he wants to improve, he says, "Perhaps watch a video of another teacher teach and comment together jointly on that so you gain each other's kind of levels and things you talk about."

After you've done that almost bonding experience, then film yourself and swap it with the other person so then they comment on yours. Of course, be nice.

Ross:  A couple of other points on that. He says, "When you video yourself, spend time observing. Don't start by critiquing."

Dave:  I remember the first time I videoed myself or saw myself teaching. I was amazed at how many unconscious habits I had. I presented myself entirely differently than the way I thought I did. It's almost like watching a stranger teach.

It was that difference in my expectation. The image I had in my head of myself teaching was clearly very different to that. You can only see that if you have that visceral experience, when you see yourself teach.

Ross:  The purpose of watching your partner teach is to help them reflect on their practice. Often, when people do peer observations, it's so easy to just say, "Oh, you did this wrong. You need to change this. This didn't work," but the purpose of it isn't to just throw out a few quick fixes. It's to get the person to engage in their own teaching and reflect.

Tracy:  Sometimes, I don't blame the teachers. Their experience is like that because they have been criticized from day one. Even if they did something nicely, still their trainer or their manager will just pick the area that they didn't do very well.

Also, for a positive reinforcement, people are more likely to change their behavior if you tell them what they did really well. Then they could keep working on it rather than just starting from the negative aspects, and then you didn't do it very well.

I don't blame the teacher sometimes because that's what they were told. That's how they train. That's how they experience. That requires the trainers to understand how to balance it and how you demonstrate this to your teachers from day one.

Dave:  Totally correct. I think you've hit the nail on the head there, Trace, by saying what would change the behavior of the teacher, because they can't. You need to take the tack if the teaching is very directed feedback and that will work, then do that.

If they're unconfident, nervous, anxious, you need to tell them what they've been doing right as well. Don't change everything. Keep what good they have been doing and then tweak a little bit.

Ross:  If you've been convinced at all by the last 14 minutes that this book would be useful, it's by Daniel T. Willingham. It's called Why Students Don't Like School. It's subtitled "A cognitive scientist answers questions about how the mind works and what it means to the classroom." I highly recommend it.

Also, since we're on the topic of books and you're about to plan a lesson, I highly recommend...


Tracy:  Wow, good. Nice segue.

Ross:  ..."Lesson Planning for Language Teachers ‑‑ Evidence‑Based Techniques for Busy Teachers" by...

Tracy:  By Dave Weller. Congratulations, Dave.

Dave:  Thank you.

Tracy:  Hope you guys enjoyed the podcast. See you next time.