Monday, 8 September 2014

It's Monday! Flee for your lives!

Actually, Monday's nearly over, so never mind.....

The last post was all about capturing that Friday feeling, but a long-term reader of this blog* suggested that it might be an idea to have a companion piece that would, as it were, book-end the week.
So here it is.

I got thinking about why we get the Monday Dreads: what is it exactly that makes people look askance at the beginning of the working week? I think we'd largely agree that it is the prospect of returning to work that does it: the prospect of the next five days appears to be an interminable grey trudge, with the bright lights of Next Weekend blinking cheerily away in the distance. So, it is all associated with the return to a routine, a set programme of events that offers little in the way of stimulation or reward - or at least, instantaneous reward and stimulation.

However, without a degree of order, routine and control in our lives, we get nothing at all done, and this ultimately is even more dissatisfying. In order to enjoy the Fridays, we've got to endure the Mondays. What we need for a balanced system is both order and disruption.

Just going back a few centuries to demonstrate what a smartarse I am, I'll point out that the medieval Feast of Fools, or even the Roman Calends of January were one of the ways of doing just this: the miserable trudge of existence was leavened by having days of festival, where the traditional social order was inverted and conventions mocked. Zooming up to the early Industrial Revolution, many workers, having come straight from the farms and fields to the city, would attempt to uphold the tradition of Saint Monday, which was basically an excuse for another day off and added booze.

So why am I speaking about this subject here? Well, simply because I think we can apply this same thinking to language learning. As Jeremy Harmer, I believe, pointed out not too long ago, most language learning is just bloody hard slog. You have to learn your irregular verbs, practise your third-person -s in the present simple, get your head around phrasal verbs and so on. There is no magical panacea that will turn you into a fluent speaker of any language overnight. You've got to stick at it, and that can be a long trudge.

No wonder language learners can get a case of the Monday Dreads. And no wonder that language learning can be so demotivating, especially when you have someone who seems to get stuck at lower-intermediate level, or, to use my working week analogy, at about 12:46 on Wednesday afternoon.

I suggest that we need little 'disruptions' to break up the monotony.

It's well known that novelty is great for learning. What people tend to forget is that novelty rapidly becomes humdrum. You might remember the first time your teacher said, 'let's have the lesson outside today!', but not the second time; If you've ever seen a Prezi presentation, you'll know that the first time you see it, it's really a 'wow!' moment. By the third time you've seen one, however, it's more of a 'meh' moment, if not one of downright hostility. This effect is known as hedonic adaptation, or the hedonic treadmill, which is just as the name suggests: we are remarkably good at turning the special or the unique into the mundane and tedious. In language learning, this is not necessarily a bad thing: if a learner is producing the routine features of language accurately without thinking about it, then they have converted something that was once novel into something everyday. However, novelty tends to work only a few times at best, and any efficacy it has is relatively limited.

So what about these 'disruptions'? What I'd have in mind is something that either a) disrupts the routine of the class or b) disrupts the way the learner looks at what he or she is learning. In other words, it's a way to get the class looking at the situation from a different perspective, then bring them back into the routine and see what difference it makes, if any. It can also be a way of developing good language routines.

Here's an (old and easy) example: if you're teaching past continuous, get a colleague to interrupt the lesson fairly early on. After about 15 minutes, ask the students 'OK, what was xxx wearing? What was he doing?' etc.
Another one: give students a card at the beginning of the lesson. The card has an instruction on it that they must not show to anyone else - for example, 'You must use the word 'well' at the beginning of everything you say'.
It might be to get the learner to do their classwork or  homework in an unexpected way, or pushes their linguistic comfort zone.
And yes, I know that some of you out there might be tutting and saying 'but that's what I do anyway - it's called teaching!', but then again, the point of disrupting is that it highlights what we might consider the mundane and force us to reappraise it, which is what I hope I've managed to do here. One of the problems that long-term TEFLers get, just like any worker, is that we perhaps don't disrupt our own work patterns enough.
So, just for a change, do something disruptive in class next lesson and see what happens.

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