Beyond ELT: How Can We Revitalize Teaching?

How Can We Revitalize Teaching

Beyond ELT: How Can We Revitalize  Teaching?

I can use that: I was reading about a fascinating study the other day: a day before the US elections, researcher A. Greenwald asked a number of people whether they would vote and if so, why. Predictably, most of the people replied they would. Yet the simple fact that they had been asked this question made a huge difference – 86.7% of them did end up voting as opposed to 61.5% in a control group. So, let me see now: If I were to ask my students…


The law of diminishing returns: If you are an old timer in ELT, I am sure you know what I mean. When you were a novice teacher every new article was a revelation; every presentation was an eye-opener. Yet after working for so many years these moments of awe are few and far between. Why? The answer is simple and it is called ‘The Law of Diminishing Returns’. Knowledge in any particular field follows a curve; initially yields are high – with little investment of time and effort one derives great benefits. However, beyond a certain point this ceases to be the case; we have to work harder and we gain progressively less. This is when it is time to look beyond ELT. Here is the great Rory Sutherland putting this idea in a nutshell:


Learn from the experts: Naturally, people in the business world have long realized the potential of importing new ideas and fresh perspectives from other fields.* Here are two examples:

  • Larry Huston (vice-chair and lead creative director of Procter & Gamble) has made it a regular practice to expose his team to at least one idea from a field outside the world of business in the belief that this is bound to lead to novel approaches and original insights. OK – now think about the last time you attended an ELT event; how many of the speakers came from other fields?
  • The J. Walter Thompson advertising agency deliberately employs people with degrees in such diverse fields as molecular biology or French Literature for its internal consulting group. The resulting wealth of ideas generated has doubled the agency’s billings in less than 3 years following the formation of the group. Now what about ELT publications? How many of the articles there come from experts outside the ELT world?


Who can we learn from?: I believe Rory Sutherland has got it right. The ‘sweet spot’ lies at the intersection of Technology, Psychology and (in our case) Education. Technology has already changed the way we do things and the rate of change is likely to increase in the near future. Yet in my view it is Psychology which holds the greatest promise for us teachers. Unlike principles from the world of ELT that tend to be context-specific, lessons from the various sub-disciplines of Psychology have much wider applicability. Here are some examples:

  • Body Language: Random people in the street were stopped by research assistants and were asked to take part in a market survey. About 40% of them agreed. The study was then repeated with different subjects. This time the figure rose to 70%! Why? The answer is that when asking them, the assistants touched them lightly on the upper arm. Moral: Touching people – ever so lightly – greatly increases compliance.
  • Management: In 1987, the managers of Brasilata launched a scheme under which each employee was labeled an ‘inventor’ (!); they were given an ‘innovation contract’ to sign and they were asked to come up with ideas about how the company could improve its effectiveness. The results were astonishing! In 2008 alone, 134,846 ideas were submitted! Productivity soared! Moral: Actively involving teachers (and students) in how things are done can pay huge dividends.
  • Marketing: When cake mixtures first appeared on supermarket shelves, they were a flop. Marketers simply could not figure out why. The cakes tasted good and they were incredibly easy to prepare… But then it turned out that this was precisely the problem! Here is Dan Ariely explaining how ‘The Egg Theory’ solved this problem. Moral: Students are far more motivated if they can claim ownership of the ‘final product’ (story, sketch, poster etc.).

  • Behavioural Economics: In an amazing study, dishes were presented to diners either embellished with flowery modifiers (‘succulent’ – ‘juicy’ – ‘tender’ etc.) or without them. Incredibly, not only was demand higher for the former, but they were also rated as tastier despite the fact that they were in fact identical to the others! Moral: The way we ‘sell’ an activity to the students can increase both motivation and the task’s perceived value.
  • Social Psychology: In a study set in a school, the students in one class were instructed about the importance of keeping the classroom tidy. In another, teachers simply labelled students as children who did not litter (‘Anderssen’s Litter-Conscious Class’). Two weeks later, all kids were given a puzzle in a small, disposable plastic container. Researchers wanted to see how many of these would end up on the floor. Results: 70% in the former class compared to 15% in the latter! Moral: Propaganda does not work, but labelling does!


Last words: One of the many great ideas in Tim Murphey’s excellent ‘Teaching in Pursuit of Wow!’ is that the good teacher is always a teacher. Even when she is out of the classroom, the good teacher keeps her eyes open for facts, stories, images or insights which can inform her teaching. Yet I think there are teachers who are better still. Teachers who deliberately venture out of the narrow confines of our field to actively hunt these ideas down. And now we know where to look.


* To my amazement I recently discovered that there are actually people in our field who are beginning to take this idea seriously. Here are two titles: ‘Language Teaching Insights from Other Fields’ (Vol I [click here] and Vol II [click here]).


  1. Ariely, D. “The Upside of Irrationality” HarperCollins 2010
  2. Barden, P. “Decoded” Wiley 2013
  3. Goldstein, N., Martin, S. & Cialdini, R. “Yes! 50 secrets from the science of persuasion” Profile Books 2007
  4. Heath, C. & Heath, D. “Switch” Random House 2011
  5. Wilson, T. “Redirect” Penguin Books 2011
  6. Yeung, R. “i is for Influence” Macmillan 2011
  7. Zaltman, G. “How Customers Think” Harvard Business School Press 2003
  8. YouTube: ‘Psychology and ELT – Beyond ELT’: (Rory Sutherland)
  9. YouTube: ‘Psychology and ELT – The Egg Theory: (Dan Ariely)


  • There are many interesting ideas raised in this piece but the one that I wish to comment on is the core one, to do with bringing in “outside influences”. There is I believe another reason why outside influences are powerful and that is because it may prompt us to consider the proposition that there may be ideas outside of what is our regular EAL practice that may be valuable.

    What holds us back, and that is true in every profession, is that we become too wedded to what are “conventional” ideas and practices. One example of that is the idea that the teacher is the found of all knowledge in the classroom. So when a question is asked, the teacher answers. This is standard practice, not questioned by most. Most, teachers and students, just take it for granted.

    What would happen if the teacher did not answer? What would the effect be if the teacher provided situations and questions whereby the student/s could work out the answer for themselves? Are there instances where the teacher must provide? When is it not necessary for them to provide? These questions are rarely considered I would suggest.

    Revitalizing our profession would happen if we were prepared to look outside of our field as well as outside of our practices. To do that we would need to slacken our grip on what we think and do, ready to embrace and consider what we notice, see and hear, untainted by our habits and prejudices.

  • Thank you for the comment Andrew. There are a number of points here and naturally I have to agree with the main one – namely that we tend to form habits in the way we function as teachers and that it would be a good idea to move beyond them, or at least experiment with other ways of doing things.
    I don’t know whether we can actually ever leave our habits and prejudices behind, but it pays to know that we are all have them and this is where external help comes in.
    Willingham makes this point in Chapter 9 of his excellent book ‘Why don’t students like school?’ – the one on Professional Development. On p. 192 he says essentially what you have said here: that teachers initially get better through the experience they acquire, but then, after about 5 years, the learning curve gets flat as people become set in their ways (perhaps as a result of having adopted the ‘conventional ideas and practices’ that you refer to).
    Willingham says that in order for us to overcome this, we need feedback. We need to look at our teaching, either by recording our lessons and observing ourselves afterwards or by having someone else do that.
    Personally I would favour the latter approach (peer observation). I think that while we can be aware at one level that we do have certain biases and that it might be best if we shook off certain habits, there is also the tendency that we all have to try to justify our practices and rationalize our decisions…

  • I can see we are on the same page Nick. I have avoided flat lining 🙂 by exposing myself to different language teaching styles ( as a learner) and seeing how I react to them, and then working at and studying the ways that appealed to me. Remaining open and “working on my self” outside of teaching has complimented this process. Divorcing one’s own inner health from one’s teaching skills is not a recipe for progress.

    The issue I have seen with peer observation is that it takes considerable sensitivity and skills to make observations about another of the type that encourages them to experiment and reflect rather than to defend and withdraw into themselves.

    Bottom line really is that you need to not only remain open to new ideas and practices but actually to seek them out until you find something that can nourish you for a time. I say time advisedly, as the nourishment will, like anything, only last for a period of time.

    • Yes, we certainly are (on the same page, that is… 🙂 ) This idea of self-development which also informs one’s teaching certainly appeals to me… I also agree about the need for sensitivity which you mention re peer teaching. Julian Edge offers an interesting model in ‘Cooperative Development’ where the role of the colleague is to observe but not comment at all; rather their task is to ask questions in order to help one discover their own implicit rationale – their hidden assumptions / beliefs etc. which lead them to teach the way they do (that prevents defensiveness because there is nothing to defend against).
      I also agree with your last point. We certainly need to seek out new ways of doing things and to do this we need to start questioning what we are currently doing – as you suggested in your first comment. That brings to mind something interesting from ‘Mistakes were Made (but not by Me!)’ by Tavris and Aronson (a book which has had a profound impact on me). These two psychologists point out that this is sometimes hard to do because of our default defensiveness; so what they recommend is that we start fighting this by acknowledging mistakes we have made. In this way we cast ourselves in the role of the expert teacher who is so confident in their skills / knowledge / expertise / commitment to their work that they can afford to admit to mistakes without actually losing face! (A role which our vain brain has no problem embracing, naturally!)
      So – this is something I would like to see: instead of the ‘10 fabulous ideas from a wonderful lesson I have just given’ kind of post, I would like to see us teachers sharing more of the blunders we make… (I hope the editors make a note of this… 🙂 )
      Anyway – apologies for going on at such length…

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