While it’s been a long time since I read Yvonne Bender’s book “The power of positive teaching,” I do know all about the benefits of positive feedback and motivation – at least, intellectually. Of course, there’s nothing like being in a class that isn’t going well to bring their practical use sharply back into focus.
I started a morning lesson recently with a young international group of learners who came to class tired from their evening activity from the day before. I was keen to get to a big collaborative speaking activity, but beforehand I needed to get them interested in the topic. I found myself saying things like “You are so sleepy today!” and “We need to get started, come on”, as I grouped and regrouped them through a warm-up and an “engage task”. Still, the language wasn’t coming and the class was becoming so sullen that I could see I might have a rebellion – a flat refusal to work – on my hands.
A change of course
Suddenly the penny dropped. My being pushy (and, honestly, slightly negative) as I demanded them to speak wasn’t helping things. The students needed to feel good about themselves. They needed a sense of achievement – and I needed to find something to praise them for. Swiftly, I changed tack. “You are good at writing aren’t you? Let’s do a writing”, I chirped. I quickly selected a substitution table from the course book: the exercise was little more than a simple vocabulary sorting with a little spelling, but pens and books appeared and the class lapped it up. Nice neat tables were drawn by quiet students eager to achieve.
I noticed how they were really into setting things out nicely in their workbooks and so used this to continue the positive feeling in class. Before they had finished I put up a neat brainstorm structure on the board with only a couple of words on.I elicited what it was: “Is it like a mindmap?” offered a lad from Cuba. Great – more engagement! I asked for another sample word from the class, then moved them into threes to copy my structure and make it their own. More nouns came – which I could praise! – and colors were added to distinguish categories. It was beautiful work.
Utilizing students’ strengths
Paper somehow seemed to represent safety and structure for this class, so as the lesson progressed I kept the students in touch with it. They drew, aided by their phones for inspiration, then described what they had drawn. All the time I was providing gentle praise, noting good work, and pointing out the best ideas for others to hear.My own mood must have visibly changed. “You are really… err motivated!” commented a German student as I responded to his progress. Well, I always was – but this was a more positive motivation; working with their strengths and learning preferences. By the end of the class I was really pleased with the work they had put in, and I could see the group were too as they completed their learning diaries with what they had gained from the lesson.
A better class – for everyone
But what had I gained? Well, I relearned an important lesson: No matter how long you’ve been teaching, read your class. Of course, you need to be able to push your students at times, but always work from a position of strength – their strength. This way you won’t get frustrated at what isn’t happening. This may mean changing up the way you present an activity, giving feedback differently, adapting your plan on the go (“Reflection in action”, as Schön calls it), or being flexible enough to allow scaffolding (a table, board work to copy, use of paper, or phones) when it’s needed. Learn from what works for your students and show them how well they are doing – and you’ll all have a much more pleasant day.
Suggestions for further reading:
- Yvonne Bender: The power of positive teaching 35 Successful Strategies for Active and Enthusiastic Classroom Participation, Nomad
- Tony Buzan & Barry Buzan: The Mind Map Book: Unlock Your Creativity, Boost Your Memory, Change Your Life, BBC Books
- Zoltan Dornyei: Motivation and Motivating in the Foreign Language Classroom
- Annie Gravells: http://www.anngravells.com/information/learning-preferences
- Donald A. Schon: The Reflective Practitioner: How professionals think in action, Basic Books