A webinar review : Herbert Puchta – Motivating Teens through activating their brain’s own reward

Today I watched Puchta’s webinar on the Cambridge English teacher site, if you aren’t already a member of this excellent organisation the I would advise you to join it, they have courses, webinars and advice from experts in various fields including Nicky Hockley and Penny Ur.

As always, I learnt best by telling someone else about it afterwards, so here is what I learnt today:

Motivation is probably the single most important psychological factor in learning, especially for teens.

Puchta described various psychological experiments that I was familiar with from previous studying, including Glucksberg’s famous incentive experiment involving a candle, a box of drawing pins and a box of matches.

These various experiments show that while external incentives are effective for mechanical skills, the opposite is the case for cognitive skills.

This basically means that carrots and sticks work with dogs, dolphins and pigeons, but they don’t work with language learning. Students need to reward themselves and in this their brain’s emotional system plays an essential role.

Positive emotional experiences produce dopamine (pleasure), adrenalin (excitement) and seratonin (calm) in the brain. Negative experiences ignite the “fight or flight” reflexes in the amygdala area of the brain.

Language learning is cognitively challenging, this means success will set off the brain’s reward systems, while failing to communicate in a foreign language will lead to frustration and set off the negative emotional system.

Fortunately we can influence intrinsic motivation and Puchta went on to explain 4 key principles to do just this:

1. Understanding– this is necessary for survival, and leads to a feeling of satisfaction.

2. Relevant content – It is important to choose topics relevant to students’ lives.

3. Give students a sense of control

4. Action/movement – it is important to set achievable goals and for students to feel they are moving towards these objectives.

Practical Implications of these principles:

This doesn’t mean teachers should never praise students, everyone needs recognition and rewards are a useful first step towards self motivation. However not all praise or forms of rewards are useful.

1. Use positive feedback rather than praise

Explain what was good and why, be specific “I liked it when you used adjectives such as…” I also think it is important to praise work and effort, rather than just the finished version and always make a point of shouting out to students who work hard. Puchta referred to Dornyei’s suggestion to thank students for their participation and to celebrate their efforts – any excuse for a class party wins my vote!

2. Help students become aware of their learning progress

Puchta mentions Jim Scrivener’s suggestion (from his excellent book Classroom management) to make achievements visual using wall displays, checklists, posters etc.

3. Engage Students in goal-orientated action and give them the opportunity for anticipated movement.

I agree that it is important to share lesson’s goals with students, I do this by writing up the day’s objectives on the board and referring back to them during the class to keep students on track (it also lets them know how long to go until the next break!)

4. Help students feel they have ownership 

When answering questions at the end of the webinar Puchta came back to this point,  problems can occur in the teen classroom because the teacher is boss, and students resent their lack of power. This doesn’t mean letting them do what they like, but when possible let them choose – “do you want to do the reading comp or the listening first?” In my classes I always offer the choice of the day for the test or to hand in an essay, it makes no difference to me if it is Monday or Tuesday for example, and it means I only rarely have a student asking to change the date – after all, it was their decision.

5. Use Relevant content

Obviously students work better with topics they see as interesting or important, recently we’ve been looking at how to give directions on the London tube, one student asked if it was the real map we were using, he was very motivated to find that it was and that I could tell him which stop he needed for the London Eye and Mme Taussaud’s.

6. Challenge them, but not too much

As previously mentioned failure is frustrating, success is rewarding in itself.

7. Use incentives in a light-hearted way

This part caught my attention as I give each student who gets 20/20 a sweet, at first some sneer, but don’t worry, they are quick to reclaim their prize when they get 20! However Puchta suggests giving rewards after good work as a surprise, rather than before, to avoid  ineffective if…then… extrinsic motivation.

I found this webinar informative and interesting, it’s always reassuring to hear you’ve been doing something right in class, while at the same time learning more about background theory and practical uses for it.

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About fabenglishteacher

I've been teaching English for a few years now and this blog is part of my never-ending quest to make learning English more fun, and easier for my students.
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