One of the tougher variables to account for when seeking out the best avenues to learning is motivation.

Motivation is talked about everywhere. Conference abstracts promise new ways of motivating students. Publishers sell their textbooks with new and improved tasks or culturally relevant material. Teaching offices are filled with lamentations regards the lack of motivation in the classroom along with plenty of prescriptive advice from colleagues.

Students need to be, at least partially, intrinsically motivated to successfully learn languages.

This post will argue, however, that motivation alone will not do the trick. Motivation, like a delicate flower, will bloom and wither away or be crushed without the appropriate care (or input). I myself have attempted to learn a number of languages and had all sorts of intrinsic motivation to do so. Each time ended with a whimper and frustration.

In my own failed attempt to learn language, I often lacked direction, which (by the way) is where a good teacher comes in really handy. Who knew?

I also lacked any way of interpreting the contextual nuances of the language I was attempting to learn. As any teacher knows all too well, Google translate is not yet meet the standards of the Babel Fish that helped Arthur Dent navigate the galaxy with his trusty towel.

As Google translate proves, understanding the nuts and bolts of a language (vocabulary and grammar) does not bring forth useful or often even understandable communication.

Considering that linguistic knowledge alone is insufficient, what is a teacher to do? To begin, it is critical to understand grammar as more than mere form. Diane Larsen-Freeman has a very useful article titled ‘Teaching Grammar’ in which she describes how linguistic grammar can be taught via a three dimensional understanding of grammar as: form, meaning and use.  Rather than merely focusing students on grammatical form, Larsen-Freeman advises that students be exposed to the meaning and social contexts in which different grammatical elements are utilized.

This idea of a semiotic understanding of language was developed by Michael Halliday’s. Halliday’s systemic functional linguistic (SFL) model of language sees language as a system. By seeing language as ‘a meaning-making system through which we interactively shape and interpret our world and ourselves’, (Derewianka & Jones, 2012) the systemic functional model demands far more of learners than merely becoming acquainted with the pieces of a language.

Context is critical. In order to understand linguistic context an interlocutor needs to understand the channel of communication (mode), who is involved and how that affects linguistic choice (tenor), and what is happening in the interaction and how the external environment may be playing into it (field) ((Derewianka & Jones, 2012). Considering the fact that mode, tenor and field are constantly shifting in the real world, how might a language learner possibly begin to account for the seemingly infinite variables that may affect their choices?

I believe that this complexity is exactly what feeds learner motivation. Teachers need to help learners lean into the challenge. Learners need an appropriate guide that can help dissect and analyze linguistic encounters. By not shying away from the complexity and assisting my learners in disassembling the language they encounter, I have found engagement in the language learning process far easier to cultivate and maintain.

Engagement = Motivation * Context 2


In an ESL world, finding meaningful interactions and experiences for students is a bit easier. The EFL world, however, is a far different story. EFL students learn English as an abstract concept. Teachers, parents, school administrators and governments impose English on them. Often this occurs without students ever really understanding why they are learning the language. The amount of times I have been forced to ask some variant of “Why do you want to learn English” and heard the canned response (almost verbatim – across two continents and multiple age groups) “because English is a global language that I need to blah blah blah” is depressing.

If students don’t know why they are learning, how will they maintain whatever motivation they have? If learners are working with decontextualized and meaningless linguistic knowledge how can they be expected to engage and succeed in the difficult and complex process of language learning?

One of the most difficult tasks (especially) for a native speaking English teacher in the EFL world who does not speak the learners L1) is communicating effectively and gathering enough input from the learners to know how to connect their language learning with their lives outside the classroom. If I do not know the how or why or what about the English speaking world my students are interested in, how can I expect them to stay engaged with such a process as mentally taxing as language learning?

In an excellent interview titled “How Teachers Can See Students’ Identities as Learning Strengths“, Dr. Christopher Emdim talks about his idea of ‘reality pedagogy’. He states that, “the fundamental principle of co-teaching in reality pedagogy is that the neoindigenous student is the expert on the best way to deliver information to others who are part of their culture.” Reading this, I couldn’t help but be reminded of my friend Alex Grevett (who has a wonderful blog that can be found here) and his 2012 presentation entitled “Make Your Students the Experts“. In other words, hand over the classroom to the learners and let them use the language being worked with to explain and/or discuss matters of personal interest to them and their lives.

Mind Map 2.0

Another way of working with meaningfulness and context is to think about content. What will the learners need the language for in their immediate and daily lives? What are their goals and interests that might lead to motivating them to learn now for the future?

The picture to the left is the result of a conceptualization exercise I did prior to beginning a course. I took what I knew (generally) about the students I had worked with at my school in the past. I then envisaged a window. I pictured myself as one of my students. How might they see the English world.

Home became a metaphor for the comfort students feel in their own language and culture. The window to the ‘English World’ outside became a passage through which they had to navigate the multiple stakeholder demands of their education, as well as an indicator of the skills they would need to successfully immigrate to ‘the English World’ on the other side of the window.

The ‘English World’ included everything I knew that interested my former students about the English World outside. At the moment, I teach only male students, so football and cars are always dominant and popular themes. Twitter is a large and ever present influence in their daily lives. As is TV and movies, travel, future employment, family obligations, etc.

By completing this exercise I had a platform from which I could draw meaningful content. I also had a good idea of how much more I wanted/needed to know about my students!

Knowing what pupils are interested in is critical to making the language presented to students meaningful, thus providing a reason to be motivated to learn it. Further, being aware of the contextual scenarios students will or might encounter provides the necessary information to help pupils develop pragmatic understanding (i.e. what are the appropriate [or less-than-appropriate] linguistic choices available to them when confronted with such scenarios).

When students are provided with content that is meaningful and the contextual understanding necessary to make informed choices, their engagement with their learning is usually more sustainable.





the provisional nature of the self

“A pair of wings, a different respiratory system, which enabled us to travel through space, would in no way help us, for if we visited Mars or Venus while keeping the same senses, they would clothe everything that we saw in the same aspect as the things of Earth. The only true voyage of discovery, the only real rejuvenating experience, would be not to visit strange lands, but to possess other eyes, to see the universe through the eyes of another, of a hundred others, to see the hundred universes that each of them sees, that each of them is” (Proust, 1933).

My perception of the reality of I is both self-driven and socially constructed through contextualized life experience. Being at least partially socially constructed, my perception of I cannot ascertain aspects of self that are hidden from me – hidden both in the perceptions of others and in the void of the unknown that is hidden both to myself and to others.

The Johari Window

Being inherently subjective, self-reflections cannot serve to illuminate this gap: they are ‘clothed’ in the same senses that drove my initial perceptions.

Further frustrating this search for who I really am is the temporal nature of the I, which constitutes a dynamism and complexity in continual flux. So being, the finish line in the pursuit of our ‘true’ selves is perpetually out-of-reach, a thought that can lead one to see the endeavour as fruitless. I would argue though, that it is the search itself that provides the reasoning for continuance.

In conducting the search for my ‘true’ self I must seek to gain some insight into the universes of those in which my socially constructed self coalesces. Partially seeing myself through others eyes helps to correct for the subjectivity bias’ of my own perceptions.

Accessing bits and pieces of the ‘Blind Self’ sheds light on the perceptive universes of the other, and brings in to sharper focus the reality of the ‘open self’. Through this parallaxic research comes greater understanding of who I provisionally was, at some point in time and within a defined context. It also brings greater understanding of the other present at that time.

As a teacher, greater awareness of self leads to a more informed decision making process as the perpetual search consistently raises up, questions, and challenges the values, beliefs, and experiential understandings that guide my thinking.

As an EFL teacher, this greater awareness serves to come some way in alleviating potential misperceptions and misunderstandings of the resident culture and society that partially define the students I teach. In undergoing the struggle to find my own ‘true’ self I consequently discover aspects of the universes of others, which helps define the questions a teacher poses in order to make better decisions.

Considering the provisional and complex nature of a single individuals understanding of self, a teacher may be best advised to “focus on wholes, relationships, open systems, and environments…seeking out patterns and phenomena that emerge from the multi-dimensional and dynamic interactions of the classroom” (Cochran Smith 2014).

Through the prism of complexity theories, a teacher can begin to take stock of the complex whole of the classroom, which is more than the sum of its constituent parts. Reflecting on the patterns and phenomena that become evident through the use of complexity theories helps guide a teacher’s decision-making; creating a more defined path to greater learning opportunities for one’s students.

Effective teaching, I posit, is best achieved through the relentless pursuit of the answer to the question, who am I? Armed with a perpetually updated sense of who I am allows a teacher ‘see’ with greater effect, helping to illuminate the patterns and phenomena of the complex system of the classroom – the key source data on which we rely.


Cochran-Smith, M., Ell, F., Grudnoff, L., Ludlow, L., Haigh, M., & Hill, M. (2014). When complexity theory meets critical realism: a platform for research on initial teacher education. Teacher Education Quarterly, 41(1), 105.

Pippin, R. (2005). The persistence of subjectivity. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

Proust, M. (1993). The Guermantes way. New York: Modern Library.


Over the years there has been one or two S.M.A.R.T. goals that I have repeatedly failed to meet. Observing others and being observed in the classroom is high on that list.

Classroom observation has always been on my lists of “should-do’s” and “I know it’s important buts”. I have got other things to take care of. And of the times I have been observed, nothing much special has come of it. The experiences have been inconsistent and peripheral to what I do.

In my first encounter with observation, my class was taken to a special room for the occasion. A panel of the school’s teachers sat in the back while I did my thing. This highly rewarding enterprise saw me receive papers from each of the teachers with a numerical score and some comments. The lowest score was a 93 and it came from the vice-principal. His comment, “you should get the students to speak more”. And so ended my first observation, six weeks into my teaching career.

Since then there have been sporadic times when people have ‘popped into class’ to watch for 20 or 30 minutes. I receive notes on what they thought went well and what might be improved. It has all been quite useful in setting my mind to the fact that observation is not a waste of time, but also not something that really deserves the effort.

That line of thinking has come to an abrupt end recently. This semester I am participating in my MAT-ESOL teaching practicum. It involves a number of cycles in which:

1) I develop a lesson plan and have a detailed discussion of it with my advisor.

2) I teach the lesson in front of a critical friend (with attendant pre and post meetings).

3) I write up an analysis of the lesson.

4) I finish with another in-depth meeting with my advisor.

These cycles have really pushed me to open up the dynamic interactions that regularly occur in my classroom. Meetings with advisor and critical friend have served as both a source of enlightenment and a jolt of encouragement.

The effects of all this have not just been to improve my practice, but to open up previously unseen paths of thought that have gotten me thinking about the art of teaching in wholly new ways.

What I have found most surprising is that the after effects of these cyclical observations leave their imprint on me and my classes for days and weeks after the cycle of observation has completed. The mental combustion that the robust, frank and supportive discussions brings about has led to a real and very noticeable increase in my ability to better understand the Thou-It and I-It relationships of my classroom, in real time. This in turn has been a major boon to the corresponding I-Thou relationships.

The cycles of observation have acted as real catalysts for self-produced solutions to my own uniquely observed conundrums of the classroom.

Now I see how observation, when done well, can be such a massive asset to a teachers growth. And as before, being observed and observing will be a S.M.A.R.T. goal. However, in deference to achievable (the A in SMART) I will aim to be observed twice a semester. For all the good observation does, if done well, it is quite an additional amount of work.



formative assessment


It is with great pleasure that I host my first ever guest post. The following blog post is courtesy of my dear friend, Manuel Alex Solano. Alex is a fellow student in the MAT-ESOL program at Marlboro College Graduate School. He has been teaching English as a Second Language in Costa Rica for the past seven years. Two of those years have been spent as a teacher trainer. Alex has a BA in TESOL as well as a number of teaching certificates from SIT, including: workshop design, adult learning theory, compassionate communication, and most recently formative assessment.

OK! let’s talk assessment…


Throughout life we constantly face moments in which we evaluate situations, things, or people. This also makes us objects of critical observation or examination. When this happens, when people are being evaluated or judged, there is a sense of unfairness that makes us ask ourselves questions such as; Does she/he know who I am? Or has she/he even taken her/his time to understand why I did that? This idea of something not being fair appears especially when the results of the examinations are perceived as negative.

In the classroom some situations are similar. Students evaluate their peers and teachers on different aspects while teachers do the same with students, but most times only to test their abilities, knowledge, and even memory. Many times students think they are not being evaluated fairly and sometimes they might be right.

What do most institutions want to see by the end of the courses? Of course they want to see grades. It could be letters or numbers but it has to be a tool that “shows” that learners are either ready to pass a course or to graduate. Institutions want something to magically turn learning into figures, something more concrete. Is that possible? How can teachers represent in numbers how much a student has learned? Are we informing our students about their progress when we give them grades? Are we treating students fairly? Do final tests always show students’ progress?

There is a tool we can use to assess students’ learning and to provide them with a clear picture of their progress. It is known as formative assessment. This tool might be the key to answer some of our questions, but what is formative assessment? What is actually useful or beneficial about it?

We use the general term assessment to refer to all those activities undertaken by teachers—and by their students in assessing themselves—that provide information to be used as feedback to modify teaching and learning activities. Such assessment becomes formative assessment when the evidence is actually used to adapt the teaching to meet student needs.

Black, P. & William, D. 1998. Inside the black Box: Raising standards through classroom assessment, King’s College, London

Formative assessment refers to a variety of techniques or methods teachers use to observe students’ progress/learning and identify needs. The purpose of this is to gather as much feedback as possible to make any kind of adjustment needed in order to better opportunities for students to acquire knowledge, or for them to learn within a more holistic experience. It is important to remember that tools such as self-assessment and peer-assessment could also be part of formative assessment. This will also inform students of their own development.

There are some important characteristics we should keep in mind when designing formative assessment tools. Two of them are validity and reliability. Validity we understand as the extent in which an assessment tool measures what it says it is measuring. In other words, the tool must be designed in the same format we teach and addressing the same material that we cover with our students in class. In this case, reliability may be defined/understood as how much we can trust that the results would be similar if the tool was used at a different time or place. In other words, no factor other than knowledge affects the results of the given tool.

For assessment tools we have quizzes, presentations, charts, tests, and others. Basically we can make any kind of tool formative, as long as we do not use it for grading and as long as we use it to inform our students and our selves of where students are, where we all want them to get, and where students arrive. It is not about the final results but about the progress students make. With this we can keep our institutions’ rules but we can bend the way we get to those only for our students’ learning benefits.

So, wouldn’t it be great to take our time, gather information, observe and compare results to use those as feedback to improve relationships with people? If the answer is no, at least as teachers we should follow these principles to focus more on students’ growth and less on numbers or letters. The fact that a student is not ready to go to the next level it, does not mean she/he has not improved. Therefore, it is in our hands to gather information and make students participants of this progress to witness learning and development. By doing so we are letting everybody know how much we care and we are also promoting autonomy so that students become more responsible for their own learning.

assumption hunting

A snapshot of my current thoughts and feelings surrounding reflective practice.


Seeking out and identifying the assumptions I have, the underlying biases that define my personal understandings, is a step in my reflective practice that I have only recently begun to explicitly explore. It is challenging. Discovering the unconscious biases that define the perspective through which I view the classroom, and the world, is not an easy web to untangle.

How does one seek out assumptions that are unconscious? This is a question with no easy answer, no definitive result. Hunting assumptions is a process, one in which I’m aiming to make a recurring objective in my critical reflective practice. If I take for granted that I am constantly learning, growing and experiencing the world around me; I must also take for granted that the assumptions that guide my beliefs and practices in the classroom are also ever changing.

Assumptions are not, in of themselves, bad things. Assumptions help to guide my decision making as a teacher. As Brookfield states, “informed actions…are based on assumptions that have been carefully and critically investigated.” If I accept this, the objective is not to eliminate assumptions from my teaching practice, but to better understand and analyze those assumptions through a process of reflective investigation. Such inquiry better places me to assess whether or not my assumptions have a concrete base on which to stand.

Open mindedness is a prerequisite to a successful investigation of these unconscious biases. Without an acceptance to consider all possibilities the very assumptions I seek will blind me from finding them. It is important to remember that “[open-mindedness] is not a blind acceptance of all ideas without intelligent critique. Rather it means a willingness to entertain different perspectives, coupled with an acceptance of the ‘possibility of error even in the beliefs that are dearest to us” (Rodgers). It is easy to observe benefits in being open minded, far harder is finding the strength to walk the walk, to remain open to all possibilities, even those that poke the emotive, soft center of my inner self.

Building a safe space, creating a judgement free zone, is a requirement for both individual and group reflection. However, even with such a space created, the onus of open-mindedness falls upon myself alone. It is a state of being that requires presence and a continual willingness to examine my thoughts, feelings and needs. It is a demand of reflective practice that has at times scared me. I have found that fear has caused a reflexive defensiveness that inhibits my ability to successfully discover the assumptions hidden within my practice.

Accepting ‘the possibility of error’ with myself is a challenge. Doing so in a group brings with it challenges on a greater scale. Understanding that “[reflection] is incomplete if not done in the company of others”(Dewey) is one thing. Finding the motivation and strength for open-minded critical reflective inquiry within a group can only be found within myself.

By remembering that, “no action a teacher takes can ever be experienced as universally and uniformly positive” (Brookfield) I try to preempt my fear of analyzing beliefs that guide my decisions. I try to remind myself that reflecting on my teaching leads not to a final judgement, good or bad, but rather to a greater awareness of why I make the decisions I do. It is this raised awareness, this greater understanding of the inner terrain that defines my world, in which I was formerly blind or ignorant of, that maintains my integrative motivation regards reflective practice.

Reflective practice also provides an enormous boost to the enjoyment and satisfaction I have in my job. Having peers and colleagues on which to rely, on whom I can count on not to judge, but to assist me in seeing the different perspectives that are necessary to accurately hunt down the assumptions that guide me, is invaluable.

Hunting assumptions requires much, but the benefit I have derived from doing so has been many times greater. I am looking forward to continuing this hunt and developing a greater awareness of myself and my teaching practice.


Some questions for all you readers out there

What do you think of when you hear the words “reflective practice”? How do you maintain the motivation to develop and grow as a teacher? What challenges have you faced in doing so?

Brookfield, Stephen. “The Getting of Wisdom: What Critically Reflective Teaching is and Why It’s Important”
Dewey, John. “How We Think”.
Rodgers, Carol. “The Role of Descriptive Inquiry in Building Presence and Civic Capacity”.

feedback for the sake of feedback

I know feedback is important. One method I employ to garner feedback is to give my students a couple written questions every day.

I then take the responses and read them. I comment on them. Or I ask questions. Often times I request more specific information.

I take great pride in collecting feedback and reviewing it assiduously. I believe all this effort helps to show students my interest in their learning. It also provides a line of communication that may prove more accessible to students. It makes me a more effective teacher (at least that is what I tell myself when I look in the mirror).

All well and good. But what is it all for?

In my previous post I discussed losing my focus. I managed to lose it even while eliciting daily feedback in a number of ways. How, you might ask, did this happen.

Asking for feedback, collecting it, talking about it is all for not if we don’t bloody listen to it.

While in class today I heard a number of students tell me (for the umpteenth time) they have a hard time with taking notes. Something finally clicked. They had been giving me feedback for days requesting specific help with taking notes on what they are listening to.

Instead of listening, I carried on doing what, in my mind, was needed. Somehow I allowed their requests to enter my brain space but not sink into my thoughts on how to guide their learning. I allowed the demands of a static curriculum to guide me, not the needs of my students. I was aware of what my students needed, but it was a superficial awareness. The dots between the feedback and planning didn’t connect.

There are all kinds of interpretations we can infer from this reflection on my teaching. Your guess is as good as mine at the moment (more self reflection certainly called for).

Feedback is meant to help us adjust, to be flexible to the ever changing contexts of the classroom. Feedback is meant to help us meet the needs of individuals and classes as a whole.

It doesn’t do any good to elicit feedback if we aren’t actually going to be present to our students needs and plan our lessons accordingly.




trying to do everything…

…and getting nothing done. Or, to be more precise, failing to satisfactorily facilitate learning.

Over the past week and two days I have begun teaching again. It is the first time back in a classroom since the end of January. I am in a new country. I am already on my second apartment (which both have different voltage standards = huge headache) since my arrival. I have taken over a class, in the middle of an 8 week term, from a teacher who left due to a lack of…well he wasn’t a good fit shall we say.

Basically, I have been tasked with completing a term worth of work in half the time. This is hard enough in the best of times, but when I am still learning myriad admin duties …whilst trying to settle in professionally and personally … and help students with developing classroom/learning skills outside of the remit for the course.. the situation calls to mind one word, cluster….difficulty.

And yet I have been working my tail off to manage it all; perhaps from naivety, perhaps from hubris.

While I was reflecting on this clusterdifficulty today I realized that I had allowed the immensity of the task to consume me like quicksand. I realized I had lost my focus.

Somewhere in the mess of life I stopped facilitating learning. Instead my focus turned to keeping the juggling act going at all costs.

We teachers manage an immense amount on our proverbial plates. I know that I have often taken pride in how much I can handle on mine. There is, however, a limit to our abilities to manage.

I know now that when I try to do too much it is my learners who suffer.

Reflection, feedback and experience all helped pull me out of the quicksand. And you know what, I’m not upset with myself for losing focus. Believe you me, this is a major surprise to myself most of all. Usually the self flagellation takes at least 24 hours to work itself out of my system. I put this success down to presence. Daily practice with being present has provided a monumental shift with how I interact with the world. But most importantly it has provided the most wonderful gift, true self compassion. Words yet fail me in attempting to explain this. But I am sure I will find them, most likely in a future blog post.

And so ends this rambly blog entry. Here’s to avoiding the quicksand and finding the self compassion to truly be kind with ourselves.