You Need a Mess of Help to Stand Alone (status update)

Well, the Summer was busy and the start of the Autumn was quite busy too. I was supposed to be revising a paper to get it published but what happened was that I revised it and still didn’t get it published because it is the account of unsystematic mess.

I went to the busiest conference I’ve been to so far (New Sounds 2019) and met lots of phonology and phonetics people. I presented and didn’t mess up, so it was relieving because I felt a bit like a fish out of water. Or Aquaman’s weakling brother.

There was the usual stress over student questionnaires, which is unreasonable because I know that much of the feedback is positive or neutral but my brain focuses and cycles through the negative stuff as my own cinema of the damned. I am just about over it now (thanks to slightly out of sync workplaces), and wish I could find a way to just move on from this.

Other than that, I had my first overnight trip with students which was quite fun, even if I wouldn’t choose those activities myself. Directly after that, I had the start of the semester, so I had to remember what I planned at the start of the summer (and what I planned to change).

Anyway, here is some stuff that is working for me:

LMS as document repository so I don’t spend hours a week photocopying.

Adapted Cornell notes, for myself, and also for my (intermediate and up) listening students, which will likely be written up soon as a blog post.

Bullet Journaling for myself (still) for daily agenda and log and ultrashort lesson plans which is exactly as you imagine.

Performative Teaching


I’ve spent time agonizing over my own teaching. What went wrong, what went OK, what went disastrously? I’ve mulled over a concept in my head that I call performative teaching, and I am  going to use it in this post.

One important thing to note is that I mean something entirely different to the definition in Naidu (2017), where it is described as:

“[Teacher and student] could co-enact in in quasi-theatrical fashion, any question or answer that might arise in class… Such a method invited the participation of students beyond merely listening and taking down notes. It also notionally and visibly shrank the class.” (Naidu, 2017: p. 462)

Instead I see it as a performance of teaching without the consideration of learning taking place. It may happen in classes where the teacher has planned activities for learners but a significant proportion of the learners do not engage with it. This lack of engagement may be due to amotivation (Ryan & Deci, 2017), an absence of motivation because of a lack of perceived ability to take part in or succeed at the activity or else a failure to see utility in the activity. Obviously this is far from ideal, but what is a teacher to do?

One option is to panic and teach anything, and this is what I mean by performative teaching. It is the teacher performing the art of teaching, but the art of teaching is much like the art of live music or theatre; the ‘audience’ or community of learners may be engaged in alternative activities at the same time, such as texting, having side conversations among others. Yet the show goes on. However, without students paying attention to what is being taught can the teacher even begin to imagine that anything is being learnt?

Of course the other option is to stop the ‘performance’. If the planned activity is not appropriate, or felt to be as such, if it is forced then not much is going to happen except for a bit of resentment and perhaps even some foreign language classroom anxiety (Horwitz et al, 1986). “Because complex and non-spontaneous mental operations are required in order to communicate at all, any performance in the L2 is likely to challenge an individual’s self-concept as a competent communicator and lead to reticence, self-consciousness, fear, or even panic.” (Horwitz et al, 1986: p. 128) Therefore, it would probably be best to not have the whole class and the teacher in a state of anxiety or panic. A brief acknowledgement that things are not quite going according to plan is fine because we are all human, after all. Think about what could be done.

If your classroom culture is one where there is an expectation of student-teacher exchange of opinions, you might even get students co-creating an activity with (or without) you. You don’t even need to ditch the plan that didn’t work because maybe it’s something that would work better on another day. If not, perhaps you have a particular activity that you use as an assessment task that you could instead use for formative assessment (see where students are at and what they should work toward next). It might also help you to see what students might not have felt ready for in the ditched activity.

However, as a devil’s advocate here, let’s imagine that you’ve kept going along in your state of panic with an activity that nobody is into. If you’re like me and you have a task followed by (or in tandem with) a focus on form (Long, 2014) you have either not much to focus on or way too much to focus on due to limited output. If you teach forms – grammar, vocabulary, functional language – first (and I know some people are mandated to) and that’s gone OK but the following activity has gone awry, you could pay lip service to it and think of a different situation with the same language use, or even a few sensible questions with the language point and turn it back on the learners. Maybe this works better, maybe it doesn’t. Can you try to see why and how this happened, though. Sometimes people go into a classroom unprepared for learning and it isn’t the end of the world and isn’t always the teacher’s fault. As a teacher, maybe it’s worth learning from the experience, because if you have to be dripping in nervous sweat and having a painful pit of anxiety in your stomach, you should get some benefit from it.



Horwitz, E. K., Horwitz, M. B. & Cope, J. (1986), Foreign Language Classroom Anxiety. The Modern Language Journal, 70: 125-132. doi:10.1111/j.1540-4781.1986.tb05256.x

Long, M. H. (2014) Second Language Acquisition & Task-Based Language Teaching. Wiley.

Naidu, M. (2014). Engaged Pedagogy and Performative Teaching: Examples from Teaching Practice. International Journal of Educational Sciences, 6(3), 459–468. doi:10.1080/09751122.2014.118901

Ryan, R. M., & Deci, E. L. (2017). Self-determination theory: Basic psychological needs in motivation, development, and wellness. Guilford Publications.

Manipulation or Motivation?

I will probably flesh this out in a few weeks with more references and make it longer so if this interests you, maybe bookmark this.

Motivation and Anxiety

Today, Zoltán Dörnyei presented at the TESOL conference in Chicago and he presented about engagement. Now, engagement is one of those words that everyone knows the meaning of but when asked to define it they define it differently than the next person. I don’t know how Prof. Dörnyei operationalises engagement so I am not going to put words in his mouth. What I am going to do is situate his talk in a wider context regarding affective factors in language teaching.
Motivation and engagement are positive words. They signify positive affect toward an act, and when used to talk about teaching and learning, they are used to support the idea that being on task and wanting to be on task is good. It’s an obvious good thing because in our minds, being on task means that language gets acquired.
Consequently, foreign language anxiety, as put forward by Elaine Horizont and her colleagues (1986) is the extreme negative effect of using and learning a foreign language. Obviously engagement and motivation are good and anxiety is bad. However, what we do to foster increased motivation and engagement and lower anxiety are not just commonsense, value-neutral acts.

A Dilemma

I have some great colleagues dotted around the various places I work at. At one, there is a colleague – let’s call him Bob, because I don’t know how comfortable he would be with me sharing this conversation and actually attributing it to him. Bob was at a conference when an attendee or presenter talked about “tricking” his students into being motivated to participate in tasks or activities. Bob was aghast. Bob thinks that this is manipulation. Manipulation is not usually considered good. Manipulation to be motivated is bad, then. But being motivated is good, so how does one reconcile this?
We are human and therefore we all have the right to make our own decisions. Students sign up for classes* and therefore are motivated enough to attend lessons, and another reason to sign up may be to have accountability for language learning behaviour like doing homework, reading, listening to podcasts, etc. Nobody signs up for classes to be subjected to manipulation. Yet this is what we do if we are trying to exercise control of other people, however noble our intentions.
So, what is our solution here? People will make irrational choices. In language teaching, what is often comfortable is not always the same as what is supported by evidence from research. People like this because they have a fixed idea of what ‘studying’ and therefore, learning looks like, because they may be equated to one another due to the near synonymy. Do we manipulate our students into our way of doing things? I’d say this is too patrician and also reduces the opportunity to foster learner autonomy.
If students are not given information to base their learning choices upon, and the teacher simply dictates what happens, they will either go along with things or they will reject the teaching through disengagement or non-attendance. If teachers trick students into participation, no choice is occurring, thus limiting the opportunity to decide upon participation, and reducing the likelihood of voluntary participation in future activities. It doesn’t matter how engaged the students may be; the fact is that there was no choice and if students feel lied to or manipulated then trust in the teacher (or even, in extreme cases, all teachers) is reduced. However, if we explain why we plan the activities we include in lessons, students can hear our rationale and if they don’t agree they can either voice an opinion or choose to participate or do neither. We can inform students about more fruitful ways to study than they may be used to. Therefore, when trust is established, then information is reliable and taken on board and acted upon.


*At least the adult ones do, and I include university students in this even though they may have been strongarmed into deciding to go to university and they could always drop out by choice.


HORWITZ, E. K., HORWITZ, M. B. and COPE, J. (1986), Foreign Language Classroom Anxiety. The Modern Language Journal, 70: 125-132. doi:10.1111/j.1540-4781.1986.tb05256.x