It's so easy in today's teaching environment to get caught in what i'll call the cupcake syndrome.

Cupcakes, or fairy cakes as they are sometimes called, are very wonderfully decorated small cakes, usually baked from a plain sponge mix. The actual cake is usually dry, since they are baked in small paper cups or small muffin pans, and so the value lies in the icing. And as we all know, that is just sugar with no real nutritional value.

In teaching the emphasis these days, especially in the ESL class, is on the icing - capturing attention, keeping attention and making it seem easy to learn English. You've seen the ads - speak easily and quickly in a couple of weeks; seven secrets to speaking English; etc.

In actual fact you need to practice, practice, practice until you almost feel sick of the language, and then practice some more. What's more, you have to accustom your tongue and lips to the new sounds you need to make. You need to accustom your ear to the new sounds. You need to read out loud every day, even though in the beginning you'll sound like a stutterer.

Anything else is just a way to reduce the tediousness of this. No I know that there are those out there who will trumpet the virtues of the TPR method, or the silent method, or the task based instructions, but once you break them down, they are the icing on a dry cake unless they include the practice component.

I'm not saying it is impossible to learn a language in a couple of weeks, but then you need to dedicate every waking moment to it, and again, practice, practice, practice.

Can we as teachers somehow prepare our students for the initial hard work? Because if they do the first stage, something happens, and all of a sudden the language becomes easy!

Kotesol Seoul
 Kotesol's Seoul Chapter kindly accepted my presentation about team teaching, and I had a wonderful time on the 27th of March 2010 with the people who decided to attend.

One of the things about presenting is the feedback - often you do get immediate feedback about how well things went and how much people enjoyed it, but this morning I stumbled across a blog - Foreign/er - where the writer was one of the attendees and I could read his feedback at my leisure.

He did a great job summarising the main points I tried to get across, and  I was very flattered that he thought he would apply the principles in his job. Thanks a lot!

For those of you who were not there, here are the main points:

Team teaching depends on attitude - being flexible, available to talk, prepared to share and support your fellow teacher, monitor what happens in class and build a rapport.

Here are the techniques you can put into practice in your own classroom:

Active listening
This is simple – pay attention to what your students say and what your co-teachers say. Make sure you are on the same page. Do not daydream, do not get distracted and certainly don’t flag in terms of energy.
Show people you are listening by responding to them with facial expressions and body language, and show your interest by acknowledging every input.
Handing off
Means handing over smoothly from one teacher to the other.
Formally: Say something to indicate that you are handing over, ask the other person to take the next part, instruct the students to follow the other person’s instructions.
Informally: Gestures such as a nod, a slight bow, moving away from the centre, handing over the chalk or boardmarker, making eye contact.
Joint monitoring
This happens when the students are busy with an exercise and both teachers move around the room, helping, encouraging and answering questions, while being aware of each other so that if a question arises that needs support, they can be called over quickly and easily.
Supportive monitoring
While one teacher explains or presents, the other monitors both the students and their co-teacher. During this, the supporting teacher can draw back wandering attention, keep students on task and make sure the class stays under control without interrupting the flow of the presentation.

Puzzles and games - analogy for learning
 Following on my ARC theory, as I was busy playing one of my favourite solitaire puzzles today, I suddenly realized how apt an analogy it is for the whole learning process.

When I first started playing this version of solitaire, I lost maybe twice as many games as I won. It is the Two Towers version, and, theoretically at least, every game is actually winnable. However, even though I had read the instructions, it was only when I began to play the game that they made sense. And even then, there were times that I could see no possible solution.

These days it's quite different, and one thing I've discovered after playing almost 2000 games is that a dead end usually happens when I'm not paying attention. And, if such occurs, the game has a handy 'take the move back' function, where you can go back to the start and try again. Being able to do this, and having seen where the problem was ( e.g. a red 2 was trapped under a pile of spades with not enough empty spaces to move them into), it is easy enough to find an alternative route.

Most games I play almost on automatic, seeing the pattern at a glance and quickly moving the cards so that I can get ace, two etc. squared away into their correct places.

Just like this, the repetition, with mistakes that we can then correct, of any activity brings us to the consolidation stage - the auto-pilot phase if you will, where driving the car, riding the bike, or speaking a second or third language just happens!

Instant solutions
 There are some techniques that seem to offer an instant and permanent solution to classroom problems, and you can find many of them at various sites.

They all promise enthusiastic, satisfied learners in a class that is all about study and having fun with the subject. Exactly what you want for yourself and your students. right?

However, what I have learnt can best be said by paraphrasing an old proverb:

'You can engage and stimulate some of the pupils all of the time, all of the pupils some of the time, but not all of the pupils all of the time.'

This is not meant to discourage you from trying all the techniques on offer out there, but to inject a note of reality - what works today will not always work tomorrow. That is why a teacher needs an arsenal of techniques, ideas and stratagems, and needs to exhibit patience, above all else.

Patience with students who reject your beautifully crafted lesson about G-Dragon, patience with fellow teachers who insist on teaching their way and above all, patience with yourself.

From a number of surveys of students and what they think a good teacher is, I want to offer you these three things to keep in mind:

1. Students want a teacher who knows their subject - and that doesn't mean having all the answers, but sometimes searching with them for the right answer.

2. Students want teachers who are consistent and fair -  if you punish talking in class today, you have to do it tomorrow as well.

3. Students want teachers who care about them - really caring does not mean indulging their whims, but keeping them to a standard, encouraging them to achieve the best they can and being proud of even small accomplishments on their part.

Above all, have fun. A teacher who has fun creates a class that is fun. Fun is not silly, fun is enjoying what you do, being engaged by it and deriving pleasure from the tasks.

So, go have fun with all the ideas out there!

 What study methods worked for you?

What helped you study?

Remembering that all study is essentially repetition, repetition, repetition until the memory is entrenched, here are some suggestions:

Summarise and rewrite.

Make mindmaps.

Read, then read again, then read one more time, and then, read again!

Read out loud.

Make it into a rhyme or the lyric of your favourite song.

Make a poster to advertise it.

Teach it to someone else!

 A while ago Chuck Sandy and Curtis Kelly asked the question: If cultural differences lead to something in the classroom you don't agree with, when should you step in, if at all?

As you can imagine, a wide spectrum of responses was generated, and my immediate reaction was one of caution.

Caution as to what you are reacting to.

For instance, not so long ago it was quite acceptable, in fact, it was encouraged, for older boys to beat younger ones at English Public Schools. In South Africa, most universities are only now instituting measures to stop hazing as part of initiation ceremonies. The examples are numerous, but, if you are confronted by corporal punishment in the classroom, and you don't agree with it, but it does form a part of the culture, what do you do?

Similarly, if the culture demands certain religious practices as part of the classroom environment, what do you do when you don't believe or believe differently?

I believe in reacting to abuse - and it is easy to see when there is abuse taking place rather than the corporal punishment mentioned above, since that is always wrong. I also react to abuse among the students (bullying) and to practices that foster xenophobia, racism and other forms of hatred.

However, I also tend to react by trying to reason, and to promote gradual change. Revolutions are great, but the thing to remember about them is that they tend to return to the status quo as the revolve. Slow, steady and gradual growth is what we should aim for, if we do feel called upon to change minds and hearts.

The ARC of learning
Shwon below, with some discussion following, is my model for the learning process - how we go from ignorance about a subject to knowledge of the subject. It needs more research before being finalised, so this is the first draft of the idea and my musings about it.

 Model for learning – the arc from ignorance to knowledge










Attention to explanation






Role Player

Problem / hindrance

Responsibility and enabling action

Attention to explanation


Assuming that everyone is paying attention, demanding attention by disciplinary measures, pitching explanation at the wrong level

Strategies to capture initial attention, stressing importance of attention to the process of learning, being aware of student’s prior knowledge


Boredom, lack of interest, incomprehension, fear, disruption by external factors (distraction), negative emotional response to content or cultural implications of subject

Concentration, generating interest, asking questions, ignoring distractions, addressing concerns and asking for re-assurance



Waste of time, outdated pedagogy, doing the student’s task during those times when repetition is taking place.

Understanding the power of drill exercises, innovative methods to enhance these, memory training exercises and games


Disinterest, lack of participation, wanting instant results, disruptive behaviour

Active participation, concentration in spite of boredom, understanding the process



Knows the subject, has mastered shortcuts and strategies for integrating knowledge, lacks patience with slower understanding

Check for consolidation on the part of the students, test gaps and constantly view subject as new, stress the importance of taking risks and making mistakes in order to learn.


Fear of failure, incomprehension, impatience

Realise that experience is the best learning tool, and only comes when you make mistakes and does not indicate failure.



For too long now it has been thought that teachers should capture attention rather than pupils having to pay attention. This reduces the teacher to the status of entertainer rather than educator. It is time that students once again learn their place in the system – that of supplicant at the altar of knowledge. And for that, the price they pay is their attention. In other words, attention should not be captured, but paid.


Similarly, much of the current pedagological thinking about how to harness the power of the three learning styles, or multiple intelligences, or whatever jargon you prefer to use to say that people learn by seeing, hearing and doing, rests on the teacher ‘presenting’ the material, rather than the student working with the material. Even when using so-called task based material, both the teacher and the student feel that it is fine to do the task once, then move on to the next task, and too often, in a pressured curriculum, the teacher does the task for the student by giving them the answers, rather than allowing them to struggle until they have attempted the whole task, even if there was failure on their part.


The biggest enemy of the learning arc is impatience and fear of failure, both on the part of the teacher and of the pupil.


The second biggest enemy is the lack of curiosity, exacerbated when educators decide what it is that students should learn, rather than finding out what they want to learn. Added to that is the fact that the natural curiosity of children gets thwarted almost daily – parents don’t have enough time or knowledge to answer questions, teachers have a curriculum to complete etc.


The value of education
 As a teacher, I am passionate about education.

As an individual, I am passionate about knowledge, and do all I can to enrich my personal databank by reading magazines, books, news on the Internet and in journals and newspapers, and watching informative and entertaining programs and movies that make you think.

In the light of the above, then, let me make this rather controversial statement: formal education in the mold we know presently is not for everyone.

Let me explain a little exactly what I mean.

I fully and absolutely support the idea that the opportunity to receive the best education possible should be available to all.

Please note that I said opportunity. I firmly believe that given the present emphasis on academic achievement in our education system, some will grasp that opportunity and go on to become, like me, hungry for more knowledge, workers with that knowledge and creative members of society.

However, what of the student who is not academically minded? Who is possibly a great sculptor, or painter, or bricklayer, or mechanic, or actor, get the idea. The jobs that we look down on but which are essential to our modern society are often not served by the current school and university/college system.

And yet, there these kids sit - bored, rebellious, classified as 'slow' or 'underachievers' and taking up time and energy that could be better spent on those who will excel in academe. Why? Because we do not deign to teach the non-academic subjects!

Of course we need, especially in today's world, literate members of society. So, everyone, whether they like it or not, needs to be taught to read, write and figure out sums. Beyond that, wouldn't it be great it we had a teacher who was passionate about bricklaying teaching it to students who love it? Just as we can then have teachers passionate about language teaching it to students who love it.

Think about it before you decry it as utopian - is it really that unattainable?

Translation in second language learning
 Speaking as a bilingual person, with Afrikaans as my mother tongue and English as my second language, I acknowledge that having a teacher translating a word or a concept is not only useful to the learner, but, at times, crucial.

However, there is a very real danger associated with this, and that is that the translations become a crutch, and one of the necessary elements for language learning is lost - that of striving to understand what is being said. 

To illustrate what I mean, think of watching a foreign language film without subtitles. Of course the finer points of dialogue are lost as you strain to make sense of phonemes that sound familiar but are put together in strange ways, or phonemes that are totally unfamiliar. Yet, I would venture, if someone asked you what the movie was about, you'd be able to give some of the storyline, purely by having watched the characters in certain settings, portraying certain emotions, and, if you watched the movie again and again, certain words would start to emerge.

If, however, you watched the same movie with subtitles, you would understand the story much better and could even follow the subtleties of the plot, yet, if someone then asked you to identify a word that may have been used a lot, you would not be able to. In fact, it would seem as if the characters had spoken English, or Korean, or Afrikaans since that would be the language you 'heard' as you watched.

Having everything translated for you simply allows your brain to repeat (and for the effect of repetition, see the previous post) the language you do know, rather than the one you are trying to learn.

Having to do the translation yourself, however, is something different, as here you start connecting concepts with each other, now adding a label to a familiar idea. Thus, for me, when I think of tree, I have several words associated with it - boom, baum, namu, tree. Especially when you are teaching yourself another language, translation is a useful tool, but even here there comes a time when you need to strive with the language, trying to make sense of it so that suddenly you have that moment of hearing 'baum' and not thinking 'tree' but seeing the thing itself, the mental picture associated with all these words.

So, teachers, once your students have a vocabulary sufficient to allow them to attempt to deduce the meaning of unfamiliar words from the context of the sentence, you do them a disservice by continuing to translate any but the most abstract concepts for them. It keeps them dependent on their first language, and unable to really 'hear' the second language they need to learn.

The role of the teacher
 Since all learning depends on repetition, one of the most crucial roles of the teacher is to make such repetition less tedious.

What do I mean by that?

Well, it is a fact that anything we learn remains in our brains as a neural path - a specific sequence of neurons firing electrical charges and attaching to other neurons. It is also a fact that the more a thought or action is repeated, the more entrenched (stronger and bigger) that path becomes, until whatever it is we are learning is so ingrained that we do not consciously think of it any more.

For instance - driving a car. The first time it seems impossible to co-ordinate the use of gas, clutch and brake pedal with gear shifts and steering, yet, if we persist, and practice, very soon we are driving along nonchalantly, some of us even going so far as to use only one hand while talking on a cellphone with the other! BTW - please don't do this!

This is true of anything we learn. By dint of repetition it sticks (!) in the mind.

But, repeating the same thing again and again is boring. It actually works against itself, by numbing the brain. The image of rows and rows of children chorusing 'two times three is six' while the teacher marches up and down the rows is the very epitome of 'bad' teaching these days. You could actually 'switch off' your brain and merely sit there mouthing along and she would not know the difference, until testing time. The students who can still do mental arithmetic after being trained like that are those that made the effort to read it (visual), hear it (audio) and say and write it (kineasthetic) many times over.

So, in today's classroom, what can you as a teacher do?

First of all you need to explain to your students how repetition will help them achieve their goal of mastering the subject being studied. Unless they understand this, they will not be impressed by drills and games designed to encourage repetition.

Secondly - try and incorporate an element of fun into the process. Games such as 'I went to market and I bought an egg, a groundnut, a toffee..' where a long list of items need to be repeated by each player help to some extent. Puzzles such as wordsearch, using the spelling words. Making up mnemonics such as 'every good boy deserves fruit' to remember the notes on a stave is great, since the student can be creative with their own mnemonic.

Lastly, do not skip of the hard work aspect to this. Just as you have to put in the hours in the gym to sculpt a good, fit body, so you have to put in the hours to sculpt a brain. Once students accept that hard work is part and parcel of the process, a lot of your classroom battles will be a thing of the past. And in order to do this, it helps if you are a student yourself, and can serve as an example to them.


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